Tuesday, 21 June 2022
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
We have a full Visitors Gallery. I hope I am allowed a bit of local favouritism to say céad míle fáilte to the páistí from Gaelscoil Bharra. I am sure the Taoiseach will say hello to them also. They were asking me earlier who is my biggest rival and I said I would have to say Micheál Martin. They kind of cheered that on. Cuirim fáilte roimh na paistí agus roimh gach duine eile.
It is important that the Taoiseach would hear the voices and experiences of people who are struggling to get by. For example, the woman who says: "My husband is 70. He is still working. He can't stop at the moment because if he stops, we know it will be very difficult for us just to live." Or the mother who says: "I have started to cut back on my food shop. The price of everything has gone up. Everything. The kind of things that we cannot do without. Or another mother who says: "I now go to a food bank. It is embarrassing, but if I don't go, we'll go hungry. I am there every Tuesday and every Thursday and it is packed to the rafters."
These are the words of thousands of people who took to the streets on Saturday afternoon because they are pushed now to the brink by an ever-worsening cost-of-living crisis. Despite the hardship that they face, they see a Government refusing to take action that will make a difference. Households are now caught in the eye of a perfect storm of soaring prices. They are ripped off by extortionate rents and mortgage repayments. They are ripped off by big energy bills. They are ripped off at the pumps for petrol and diesel. They are ripped off by sharp increases in the cost of groceries. People face unbearable pressure. They all said one thing, with one voice, on Saturday. They said they are at breaking point. They cannot wait until October for the budget and then wait again until January for measures or relief to kick in. People are suffering now. They are being pushed to the edge now and they need the Government to act now, today.
An emergency budget is needed because people face a disaster as they struggle to afford the basics. There are mothers who cannot afford a new pair of shoes for their child, parents who are struggling to put breakfast on the table and elderly people who are choosing between heating and eating. The Taoiseach is asking these people who are in dire straits to wait. That is just not right.
At Saturday's protest in Cork, Ms Catríona Twomey who runs Cork Penny Dinners - she is a great lady and the Taoiseach knows her well - said, "...we fed over 500 people today ... I can get through everything else but when children are hungry and their parents are crying, [well] that gets [to] me." That is the Ireland of 2022. How on earth can anyone in the Government look these families in the eye and tell them it has done enough? What these people live through daily tells us explicitly that enough has not been done. The response from the Government has been slow and has lacked urgency. We all know international factors are at play and we accept the Government cannot do everything but it can do more. Without emergency support, families will face a very difficult back-to-school period and a brutal winter as energy costs continue to rise. Tá an costas maireachtála imithe ó smacht. Tá teaghlaigh i mbaol faoi láthair. Caithfidh an Rialtas aghaidh a thabhairt ar scála na géarchéime seo. Teastaíonn cáinaisnéis uainn sa Dáil láithreach.
The Cabinet met this morning. We were told the cost-of-living crisis was high on the agenda. I hope there was a realisation at that meeting that households cannot wait another six months and the Government cannot pack up for the summer and leave workers and families in the lurch. The Government must now respond with urgency and introduce an emergency budget.
I join in the welcome to members of Gaelscoil Bharra chuig Tithe an Oireachtais. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh siad taitneamh as a lá anseo.
There is no question the war on Ukraine has very significantly exacerbated what was an emerging inflationary cycle coming from the pandemic, the fact that economies rebounded so quickly from the pandemic and the resulting supply and demand issues. That has created significant pressures on families and households. The Government responded and has done so quickly, more quickly than other countries across Europe. In particular, the Government introduced very significant measures in hiking up the fuel allowance to more than €1,139, which is a 55% increase in the free fuel allowance alone. We reduced the excise duty on petrol, diesel and green diesel and we also reduced VAT from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity. We gave €200 to every single household throughout the country. We cut the annual public service obligation levy from €52 to minus €75. We launched the national retrofitting scheme. We also put a cap on school transport fees for families. We cut public transport fares by 20%, with an additional 50% cut in fares for young people. We lowered the threshold for the drug payment scheme to €80 per month, which benefits more than 70,000 families. We brought forward a working family payment budget increase. We abolished the €80 inpatient hospital charge for children and so on. We brought in specific schemes for the haulage, tillage and hospitality sectors.
The bottom line is more than €2.4 billion has already been spent on cost-of-living measures. We are asking nobody to wait six months. We are saying we cannot chase inflation every month. The World Bank is warning of the risk of stagflation, which is the kind of thing we experienced in the 1970s. Whereas 1970s' stagflation was caused by the initial oil price shock, it was the second and third rounds of inflation that drove it on for the next ten years. I do not want that to happen in Ireland over the next ten years. The wider economy in Ireland is still growing. We need to protect our economic growth as long as we possibly can. We need to protect all those people who are in jobs - the 2.5 million people who are working. We cannot take risks with the economy or with inflation.
That idea of protecting the jobs in the economy is something to which the Deputy should give more attention. If we had followed Sinn Féin's advice from the outset, I think we would be in an even greater inflationary cycle. The ESRI report is a good reminder of that in terms of the importance of targeting and not just making wholesale cuts across the board, which Sinn Féin has advocated time and time again as it would damage the economy. I do not think that it gets the enterprise side of the economy or wants to get it. In my view, we have to watch that side of it and we have to avoid stagflation in itself.
We have taken action and we are going to take more action to alleviate pressures on people and households. I am worried about the winter period because we have seen what Putin did this week in reducing gas supplies to Germany and other European customers. That is going to have an impact on our energy situation. He is leveraging it in particular to create maximum pressure for the winter period. We have to allocate our resources in the optimal way, which in my view is to protect people right throughout the winter period and beyond the winter. That is the big objective that we should share, namely-----
First things first. I am not asking the Taoiseach to chase inflation. I am asking him to recognise the reality that people are struggling now, in June, and that people will continue to struggle through the summer months, not to mention the winter ahead of them. The Taoiseach says that we need to protect our economy, and we do, but above all else we need to protect our people. Above all else we cannot take risks with our people, risks that have children hungry and parents crying. That is the reality. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach is asking people to wait.
With all sincerity and not in a spirit of political rivalry, I appeal to the Taoiseach to change that position. Families are suffering now and they desperately need targeted and thoughtful measures to give them breathing space now. The Taoiseach stated that the Government was not asking families to wait. If he is insisting that the October budget will be the moment when relief is delivered, then he is asking people to wait. That is wrong. It is not real and is totally unfair. What measures will the Government introduce with all due haste now, not in October?
Sinn Féin has been asking us to chase inflation from the beginning. That has been a consistent theme that it has been articulating since the beginning of the year. By the way, protecting the economy is protecting our people. Protecting jobs is protecting our people. We should not underestimate the economic recovery that has happened, which gives us some buffer - not a total one - for protecting people against what was predicted coming out of Covid. No one predicted that we would be at 2.5 million people working in the immediate aftermath of Covid-19. People thought that would take until 2024 to happen. Thankfully, the economy has rebounded much faster, but inflation is a huge pressure on people and it is largely driven by the energy strategy of Putin. He wants to sow discord across the West. He wants to create maximum pressure on western democracies through his energy policies, through his food policies - preventing grain from getting into Europe - and through migration pressures by terrorising people out of Ukraine. We cannot allow him to win the strategic battle that he is waging on us. When I said-----
I have never claimed that people on this side of the House have a monopoly on empathy and I am sure that the Taoiseach is getting the same kind of queries from people struggling to cope with the cost of living crisis at his constituency office as I am getting at mine in Kildare. It is for this reason that I am struggling to understand why the Government is refusing to alleviate the pressure on people. For weeks, all we have got from the Government has been platitudes, but tea and sympathy will not pay people's bills.
Yesterday, the Government did something extraordinary when it ruled out any measures being introduced before the budget in October and the Taoiseach said that: "can give relief to people in terms of the pressures that they are currently facing."
I am quoting back to the Taoiseach what I took from a quote. People are worried about how they will heat their homes, pay their rents or mortgages and put food on the table. Four months feels like a lifetime. All the indications are that this will worsen and we all know that. A number of kites on childcare, taxation and social welfare increases have been flown but how can people get relief from something when they do not know what will come in the budget? Increasingly, we are hearing people talking about already being in debt. We know that energy bills will soar by up to €2,000 this year while fuel costs will skyrocket by an additional €1,500. We know there is a staggering 30% of people in fuel poverty who are spending more than 10% of their income on energy. We also know that people on low to middle incomes are the ones suffering most and that core social welfare rates, like pensions, were only increased by €5 over the last three years. Those people cannot hang on and they are not surviving at the moment.
The promise is that more than €5 will be provided in this year's budget. We proposed an emergency budget. We think there should be a €10 increase in core social welfare rates, €300 should be put back into the pockets of those earning up to €50,000 with a refundable tax credit and a €100 million hardship fund should be created. There is no doubt that targeted measures such as a double social welfare payment is the kind of thing that could make a sizable difference. We would not mind sitting for an extra week in this House if a mini or emergency budget was brought in. Is it intended to do anything at all before the budget? Is the Government intending to extend the excise changes that are due to expire on 31 August into October?
The excise duty measures have been extended to budget day already. We fully accept the pressures that are on people. Since October we have brought in €2.4 billion worth of measures that, in many respects, are targeted at healthcare, education, fuel and transport costs, including reducing prices in public transport. Deputy McDonald also called for an emergency budget but I am not sure that Deputies are really talking about an emergency budget; they are just talking about an emergency expenditure programme if we are honest. A budget has pluses and minuses and it has revenue generation. I will not go into the detail of that but it seems to me that every month since this crisis - which is a serious crisis and I can understand why - people want €1 billion to be spent every month. No sooner had we announced the last €1 billion and a bit than the demand was for more the following month. I have no doubt that if something was announced next week, before a month was out Deputies and parties would be looking for another package. That is the nature of it.
We all agree that the people are under enormous pressure because of what is happening globally and within Europe. The Deputy was right when she said it could get worse and it will get worse. That is why we need to make sure that what we do is well thought through, does not add unnecessarily to inflation or the inflationary cycle, and is targeted and I agree that it should be targeted. The ESRI report is useful in that respect. It should also be sustainable over a longer period of time. It should not be the case that as soon as we do the budget, we have to do something the following month and the following month again if we can avoid that.
We need to create stability and to underpin our jobs and the other positive sides of Irish productivity and manufacturing that are evident at the moment. Much of that depends on the global situation, which we are worried about. Markets in other parts of Europe are under pressure. We see that from reports and predictions coming in. The biggest fear is prolonged stagflation. One of the biggest barriers against poverty is getting a job. Thankfully in this country, because of the way we managed the economy for the last two years and supported jobs and enterprises through the pandemic, we enabled many of them to come back much more quickly than might have been anticipated and to survive, with the result that we have record levels of employment. That is a strength going into the end of the year. We have revenue coming in also but towards the tail end of the year, there is much uncertainty. Because of that, we need to be cautious and make sure we get it right. The Deputy should be in no doubt that we want to alleviate the pressures and to do it in a comprehensive way that will affect average people in a good way for a sustained period.
It would be perfectly possible, for example, to introduce a windfall tax on energy companies. A sizable amount of additional tax is being taken in because of inflation in terms of energy and the inflationary impact on goods and services. The Taoiseach talks about expenditure but there is a sizable additional income coming in to the Government as well.
The Taoiseach talks about Putin and discontent but discontent will be sown by not responding well domestically. He must be delighted with the kind of discontent he is sowing outside of the appalling situation in Ukraine. It is important that we do not allow him to do that. That is why it is important that we do not allow this kind of political vacuum to happen. These measures are needed at this point because people are saying they are not managing now. It is not just in the constituency office; people stop me in the street. I am sure the Taoiseach is getting that as well. People are really worried. Those of us who remember inflation rates of 20% or more include many pensioners who are terrified of the winter.
I do not disagree with much of what the Deputy is saying. People are terrified of the winter and we want to make sure we have a comprehensive package that protects people throughout the winter. Throughout and beyond the winter, we want to protect people as best we can. We have to do it while taking on board a range of issues.
Right now, we have to settle our expenditure levels in every Department. Why? Because we need to protect education, health, housing and social protection. Those Departments have measures that are important in terms of cost of living. We have to do this in a proper evidence-based way, rather than just saying here is a billion in July and here is a billion in August. That will not work and will not be optimal or effective for people on the ground.
The ESRI has pointed out that some measures asked for in the House were not ideal or optimal and that we could target more. I am open to suggestions as to the type of measures and so on that Deputies think we should concentrate on. It is important that the budget will set expenditure levels for 12 months, across all Departments. That work is under way but there are pay and tax issues. Then there is the package to alleviate pressures on people as well.
A number of Sundays ago, a gentleman suffered a cardiac event and was resuscitated on the ground outside University Hospital Waterford, UHW. Even if he had been inside UHW, a model 4 hospital in our great Republic, he could not have accessed cardiac care as the cath lab was closed, which it is 129 hours of every week. Sadly, that man passed away two days later in UHW. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. Where is the 24-7 cardiac service the Taoiseach promised the south east?
The Taoiseach extols his Government's capital spending programme and the hundreds of millions spent in Cork delivering a new airport runway, two new €100 million teaching blocks for University College Cork, UCC, the new convention centre and the Dunkettle interchange. Contrast this with how Waterford has been treated. There has been no capital budget approved for the South East Technological University and a review of a land purchase to add to the Waterford campus footprint has now been going on for 14 months. While UCC is granted a new school of medicine, the engineering buildings promised to Waterford Institute of Technology in 2012 have been deferred to 2026 or later. The Taoiseach's Government has starved our airport of regional aviation funding, threatened the retention of our air-sea rescue service and offered nothing to address the 20-year-old problems of the N24 and N25 road networks in the south east. However, it is the obstruction of capital funding for University Hospital Waterford that offers the greatest insight into the denial of 24-7 services for the south east.
I wish to respect the House's long-standing convention of not making charges against persons here under privilege but I need to balance that convention against my responsibility to identify the sharp practice with regard to the capital and clinical resourcing of UHW by the Cork-based South/South West Hospital Group. Lies are being told regarding the present strategic development of capital and clinical resourcing at UHW and those responsible must stop or be stopped. A recent three-year national study on heart attacks allied with three years of blue light patient transfer data makes the case for 24-7 services for the south east clinically unassailable, yet the Government chooses to ignore this information, preferring to jockey and await the further steered reports required to give it the answers it wants to provide it with the political cover it seeks. Such actions reveal an implicit understanding that the private and public patient streams and numbers of students that flow out of the south-east region and sustain the medical and academic privilege of Cork and Dublin must never be threatened or diminished by competition.
The Taoiseach's Government is abandoning his backbenchers in the south east, just as he has abandoned his promise to deliver 24-7 cardiac care to the south-east region. They will have to answer to the electorate. Without political redirection, I predict that the ballot boxes of the south east will bring a heart-stopping arrest to the political careers of many of the Taoiseach's colleagues in government and in his own party, Fianna Fáil.
I will make one key point to the Deputy first of all. He said that we are waiting for clinical reviews to get political cover. Anybody who knows anything about how healthcare has evolved over the past 20 years will know that clinical expertise have been the driver and has occasioned courageous political decisions with regard to modernising healthcare service in this country. Politics likes to ignore the harsh advice that comes from the bodies that set the various standards such as the College of Anaesthesiologists of Ireland, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the authorities on cardiology. It is wrong to suggest it is all politics. No politician wants to close anything in any hospital. I have never come across a politician who willingly says that he or she wants to close a given service. However, the politicians of the parties of successive Governments receive advice as to what is optimal with regard to patient safety in given locations.
I remember when emergency medical technician, EMT, was hardly recognised as a profession in this country. The most important thing for a person who has a heart attack is the first responder, rather than how close the hospital is. Thankfully, we have professionalised the role of EMTs through the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council, PHECC, initiative we undertook more than 20 years ago. That type of modernisation has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of deaths from cardiovascular issues. This country has some of the best survival rates in Europe with regard to cardiovascular issues. We need to have a debate that is balanced and that shows perspective. What we were doing in the past with regard to cardiovascular and cancer healthcare was all wrong. We have changed that over two decades with the result that we are now number one in the European Union league table of lifespans. However, we conveniently ignore all of that when endeavouring to get local political advantage, which I respectfully suggest is what the Deputy is about. He summed it up in his last paragraph when he reduced all of this to politics and said that someone would pay an electoral price for not going wholesale against advice received from cardiologists and clinicians, whether we like that advice or not.
The Deputy knows well - he has engaged with me and other Members of this House on the matter - that we have put investment into a second cath lab in Waterford. That funding is just in terms of the facility. Recruitment in order to staff the new cath lab is ongoing. As I have informed the Deputy previously, the lab will be available for use in October. A total of 24 whole-time equivalents have been approved by the South/South West Hospital Group to staff the second cath lab.
More broadly, employment in the south east increased by 13.6% year on year which is a really strong performance and the Deputy should acknowledge that. The Government approved more than €120 million through the urban regeneration and development fund for Waterford, and still the Deputy comes in here and says the Government is ignoring and does not care about Waterford. What he says does not stack up.
The Taoiseach said I reduced it to politics; I actually did not. He did when he stood in the grounds of University Hospital Waterford with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and made a commitment to deliver 24-7 cardiac care to the south east. In recent weeks, I presented to the Dáil data from a three-year National Office of Clinical Audit report along with three years of patient ambulance transfer times for University Hospital Waterford that show that the average transfer time for a cardiac patient was three and a quarter hours, which is totally outside any clinical assessment where they can have any benefit of getting into a cath lab.
I was in the room in 2012 with Ambrose McLoughlin and James Reilly when the commitment was given to deliver a second cath lab to University Hospital Waterford. Here we are eight years later and we still do not have delivery on it. Beyond that, the Taoiseach talks about the report that is due out and the clinical evidence. There is no clinical evidence. There is evidence from three-year National Office of Clinical Audit report and we have ambulance data. However, the Government chooses to do nothing about it. In Waterford, the South/South West Hospital Group is running around claiming it is implementing the 24 whole-time equivalents. What has it recruited? It has recruited one porter and one cardiac physiologist. That is what it has recruited so far on the basis of a promise that was given 18 months ago. It is not about delivery and it is not about politics. I am here for the people of the south east and Waterford who I represent. The Taoiseach should represent them and deliver on his promise.
The Deputy knows that is not the case. The existing cath lab has four whole-time equivalent approved consultant posts. An additional intervention cardiologist post was filled on a permanent basis on 1 March.
The Deputy is now upping the ante. When I met him at the commencement of this Dáil, getting that second cath lab in place with staff was a key priority for us all collectively.
I accept there are delays in getting the construction and so on because of Covid and all the rest of it. I cannot go down there and build it myself. However, we have committed the resources to doing it and we have asked the South/South West Hospital Group and the HSE to get on with it as fast as they possibly can - both the physical facility and the resources.
Regarding the broader situation in Waterford, there needs to be balance. The south east is progressing. The Government was very concerned about the economic performance of the south east and wanted to improve on it. The foreign direct investment, FDI, performance in the region has been strong over the past five years, with employment among IDA Ireland clients increasing by 25%. The Deputy knows that PublicRelay, Horizon Therapeutics, Eirgen Pharma, Infosys and Tegus all provide substantial employment. Exchequer funding of €14.3 million to date has been provided for the technological university, which is very good for Waterford and for the south east in general.
The Rural Independent Group's call for a mini-budget was voted down by Government. The Taoiseach said a few minutes ago that the Ukraine war is the issue when it comes to energy costs in this country. He also said that the Government had provided €2.6 billion to counteract that. He never said that the Government took €6 billion in tax on fuel alone in one year. In 2020, it took in €2 billion and now it is taking in €6 billion and is returning €2.6 billion to the people of Ireland. The Government is here to protect the people of the here and now.
It is here to protect the economy, which also protects the people. The Taoiseach has stated that there are 2.5 million people working in this country. There are 2 million vehicles in this country and 99% of them run on fossil fuels. Those vehicles help to run the economy by helping people to go to work and thereby feed their families. The Government's answer in that regard to is to take 49% of the cost of fuel in taxation. That is not protecting the people of this country.
It is robbing the people of this country. The Government's figures are now coming out and showing that is the case. By delaying the budget until October, the Government will take another €2 billion in tax on fuel alone. That is only with regard to fuel. What about coal and all the other energies we must pay for? What about everything? What about the clothes on our backs? The Government is taking taxes like they have never been taken before. The Government was given a toolbox by the EU in November but it has done nothing. On 6 April, the EU allowed member states to reduce the VAT rate to 5%. The Government has done nothing.
Why does the Government not take a leaf out of Malta's book? Diesel in Malta costs €1.21 per litre today and petrol costs €1.36. We are paying €2.15 per litre for petrol and our Government takes 49% of that in tax. Why do we not go back to 2020 and put in place the cap for which I asked? Last year I asked the Government to cap taxes. That would have given 40 cent per litre back to every motorist in the country. As the Taoiseach said, 2 million people in this country have vehicles and 2.5 million people are working.
The Deputy said the Government takes taxes but we do not take them. The Government provides services to the people of Ireland through raising revenue and spending it. We need a tax base to fund education, housing, health, childcare services and child protection services and the development of transport infrastructure. We need revenue to do those things. Every stable democracy needs a stable revenue base.
Across the European Union, a broad VAT directive sets out the bands for the various VAT rates that can be deployed and so forth. We have to work within those parameters and we willingly signed up to that. It places limits on how far VAT can be reduced as we adhere to the rates on which we entered into agreement. We have reduced VAT on gas and electricity. We have also reduced excise in the amount of €2.4 million as a result of measures we have taken.
I understand that Malta has one of the highest levels of borrowing of the EU 27. It stood at 11% of GDP in 2021. We also have debt levels. The idea that €6 billion of tax revenue can be eliminated in simply not a runner. It cannot be done anyway, but it is not a runner if the proposal is thought through. The Deputy looks at this issue through a one-dimensional lens. He has not looked at the other side of the matter, namely, the allocation of that funding. For example, €4 billion per year has been allocated for the building of social and affordable housing and for cost-rental accommodation. There must be a revenue base to allow for that and, thankfully, we have a diverse revenue base. The more important point is that in the context of the next budget, we will be in a position to do things that can alleviate the pressure on people, families and, in particular, children. We have already allocated substantial resources since the most recent budget to alleviate those pressures across the board. I have gone through the list of measures we have taken in respect of transport costs and so on. There have also been schemes for hauliers, tillage and hospitality.
The Taoiseach has 20 seconds on the clock. He could not even fill out what he had to say back but he managed to use extra time talking back to everyone else. That means he does not have a clue what he is talking about. I will tell him what he can waste his minute on.
The Taoiseach talked about protecting the building industry. At the moment, we have a building crisis. What is causing the building crisis? It is all to do with fossil fuels, transport costs and all energy into insulation and oil-based products. We have a building crisis. People are no longer building. Check it out. Building is now slowing down. We have a housing crisis and building slows down. Sums of €144,000 are being given to developers for apartments. That is what the Government is giving - €144,000. We have people now that are stopping building. We have builders who are saying it is no longer affordable to build houses for their people. The Government could do it. The Taoiseach said the Government put €4 billion into housing. That is €4 billion for the people, and we have to make them live here now. The Taoiseach mentioned Malta. Malta has taken the position of protecting its people, even if it has a higher debt. At least they are protected for the here and now. Who will protect the Taoiseach in the future?
First, there were approximately 33,000 housing commencements from April to April. There are clearly challenges facing housing because of commodity prices going up and inflation generally. The Ukraine war-----
The point I am making to Deputy O'Donoghue is that the Ukraine war does matter, has mattered, and is the driving factor in all of this. It could get worse in terms of energy. It could get worse because of the Russian strategy to stop the flow of gas to Germany and other major customers. That will have an impact.
Thankfully, we are not as dependent on Russian gas and oil for our energy supplies. More generally, if there is a contraction in supply globally, it will affect everybody at the end of the day in terms of pricing and so on. I must put it to Deputy O'Donoghue that the next budget will be about expenditure, tax and a package of measures to alleviate the pressures on people.
Parallel with that we have a public service pay process in place. Every extra per cent of that context is a substantial proportion of expenditure also. There are significant issues across the board that have to be met. I think I lost 20 seconds in the first round or rather, I did not avail of them.