Leaders’ Questions

I intend raising the issue of the Diocese of Raphoe on the Order of Business.

I have a question regarding the unemployment figures published yesterday. The Tánaiste said on 6 October 2011, "There has been a significant reduction in unemployment. The jobs initiative is working, both in respect of reducing the number of people who are unemployed and creating jobs." Does he accept that yesterday's figures show a year on year increase of 4,500 people on the live register and that his policies are not working? A closer inspection of the figures shows an increase of 9,500 people over 25 years of age and a decrease in those under 25 years of age of nearly 5,000 which is explained by the extraordinary migration of young people in recent months which everybody in the country knows about. This means the real rate of the rise in unemployment far exceeds the headline figure we were given yesterday.

The Government has been in power for nine months. The Tánaiste talks about unemployment and he talked about a jobs budget and all we got was a paltry jobs initiative that was really just an excuse for a raid on pension funds of pensioners to fund and bolster the coffers of the Government.

What about the medical cards for the over-70s?

Does the Tánaiste accept there is an urgent need for action on jobs, that his policies to date have failed? What are his proposals now to deal with this crisis of unemployment?

Yesterday's figures show that unemployment is the single biggest problem this country faces now. The single biggest challenge we have to address is how to get people back to work. This must be the focus for everyone and this is at the centre of every single decision which the Government has made, is making and will make.

Including the VAT increase.

I expect it to be reflected in the statements on the budget which will be made next week.

We have sought ways to deal with this challenge by introducing a jobs initiative in May. As recently as last week, we held a special Cabinet meeting on the whole issue of employment, arising from which a number of measures were announced such as the establishment of funds which will provide for the extension of credit and the availability of credit to small and medium-sized businesses, in particular, and for start-up businesses, in order to generate employment. We convened a global Irish economic forum, the purpose of which was to bring together people from the Irish Diaspora in order to help restore the country's reputation and to attract investment into this country. We have established the strategic investment fund which was a commitment we made prior to the establishment of the Government, the purpose of which is, again, to make money available in order to generate employment. We have established the new economic and recovery authority under which the semi-State agencies will operate because they have a key role in the development of employment and the encouragement of investment. I expect that the Budget Statements next week will reflect the top priority which this Government is giving to getting people back to work and to generating employment.

The Tánaiste is absolutely powerful at the rhetoric and I wish I had his gift.

(Interruptions).

I will give some good examples. On 9 January—

This should be a supplementary question, Deputy.

I am coming to the question. On 9 January 2010, Deputy Gilmore said, "One of the most shocking elements of all of this is the indifference of the Government in the face of such live register figures", when in fact they were considerably better than now. On 30 June 2010, he asked, "When will the Government take seriously the issues of unemployment and getting people back to work?" In opposition, Fine Gael and the Labour Party were great at talking the talk—

Could I have a question, please, Deputy?

I am coming to the question now.

He cannot think of the question.

The Deputy should not worry because I will think of the question.

The Deputy is over time, that is what he should be worrying about.

I am worrying about it. I presume the Ceann Comhairle takes account of every interruption.

No, the Deputy should just keep going.

We had better adjourn until tomorrow in that case.

They would have said anything in their grab for power.

(Interruptions).

The reality is they are doing nothing for job creation; all they are doing is cutting capital expenditure—

Could we have a supplementary question, please, Deputy?

——with deeper cuts in the public service, a VAT hike that will decimate many small retailers—

A Deputy

Ask a decent question.

——and changes in the social welfare code that are anti-enterprise.

(Interruptions).

I ask the Tánaiste if he will think again about these proposals and I ask him to bring in a genuinely pro-jobs budget—

Thanks for the legacy of 400,000 unemployed.

Ye did not stop it.

——next week.

(Interruptions).

We could do without the chorus, please; it is not required at the moment.

I stand over every word of what I said on 30 June 2010 and on 9 January 2010. The previous Government was indifferent to the problem of unemployment and was indifferent to the necessity to create jobs in this country. That is the reason we have such a high level of unemployment.

Does he stand over his U-turns?

Does he stand over his pledge to students?

The previous Government was indifferent to the problem of unemployment and the necessity to create jobs. That is the reason we have such a high level of unemployment.

The Government is not doing anything about it.

The difference between the previous Government and this Government is that unemployment is our top priority. Getting people back to work is key to economic recovery.

The Government's policies have been an abject failure.

This is the reason we introduced the jobs initiative.

The Government is putting people out of work.

Deputy Ó Cuív referred to social welfare. We introduced the JobBridge programme and labour activation measures to provide experience for people who cannot secure employment.

There are no new jobs.

Given that Deputy McGrath expects silence when he asks a question, I ask him to be silent when others speak.

The reason we last week announced two new funds for people who are establishing businesses and start-up companies to get access to funding is that unemployment is our top priority. The reason we set down limits on what banks must lend to small and medium sized businesses is to get people back to work.

The Government has not set down limits for unemployment.

We are encouraging investment from abroad and place such an emphasis on restoring the country's reputation in order that employment will be created here. That is also the reason that, contrary to what the Opposition said, we successfully defended the rate of corporation tax to attract investment. Unlike the previous Government in which Deputy Ó Cuív served, this Government will work every day that it serves to get people back to work and secure employment and investment in this country.

Does the Tánaiste have windows in his office? Can he not see what is happening outside?

We have 448,600 people out of work and the Tánaiste states unemployment is the Government's top priority as a policy issue. Heaven help us if this is the Government working to put jobs first. Figures published yesterday show an unemployment rate of 14.5% and a shocking increase in poverty levels. Some 22.5% of people reported that they live in deprivation, which means being unable to afford a warm coat, struggling to heat one's home and so forth. This reality seems to be lost on the Tánaiste's colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, who I do not see in the Chamber. Perhaps he is on a weekend break. In a very brash and unacceptable manner the Minister told the population at large to cheer up and take a vacation, although he may be really telling them to take a hike. Do his comments reflect a disposition among Government members that everything is okay?

Will the Tánaiste tell the almost half a million people who are out of work that he is genuinely different? I hear the same rhetoric we heard previously, and not only from this Government, about lending to small and medium sized businesses increasing. The Tánaiste indicated that employment is the Government's priority, whereas the evidence shows that the misery continues and most of those who are out of work do not see prospects of securing a job. They see the Tánaiste's Administration as a carbon copy of the previous Government.

Will the Deputy ask a question, please?

Does the Tánaiste support the Minister's commentary? If he disagrees with him, will he apologise for the comments the Minister made? Let us also have a real commitment from the Tánaiste that the unemployed and those living in poverty will be front and centre in the Government's proposals in next week's budget.

Tourism is among the responsibilities of the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and I understand that while attending a tourism event yesterday, he made some remarks which were aimed at encouraging domestic tourism. This is what he does; it is part of his job.

Deputy McDonald asked me whether the Government believes everything is okay. We do not believe everything is okay. When we came into office we inherited a country that was broken. Its public finances and banks and the morale of its people are broken and we have a huge problem of unemployment. Large numbers of people are out of work which, in turn, is related to the major problems the Deputy described in respect of people who are living in poverty or at risk of poverty. The Government is determined to deal with this issue. At the centre of doing so must be getting people back into employment and securing jobs and investment. We have been pursuing several strategies to achieve this objective. First, to secure investment we have had to restore the country's reputation and I believe we have made a significant advance in this regard. We have had to communicate to potential investors outside the country who are contemplating investing here that this is a good country in which to invest and we are succeeding in doing so.

Second, we have to get the domestic economy moving again. One of the major problems we have had for some time in the domestic economy has been the difficulty experienced by businesses in accessing finance and capital, in particular people who are starting up a business. The Government is addressing both of these issues.

By increasing the VAT rate.

Third, we have a serious difficulty of people losing their jobs and young people being unable to get their first job because they do not have experience and are unable to acquire experience because they cannot get a job. To address this difficulty we have introduced the JobBridge and internship initiatives.

Those initiatives were in place before the Government took office.

We continue to work on new labour activation measures to get people work experience in order that they will be able to take up job opportunities.

The Government and every Member of the House recognise that the big problem we must address is getting people back to work. The time of the House would be better spent if Members of the Opposition produced some positive proposals and ideas for achieving this. The Government would certainly consider any such proposals.

I notice the Tánaiste did not distance himself from the Minister's commentary. Irrespective of what his role is in the Government, it is not the Minister's role to add insult to injury to the unemployed and deprived people of this State. I hope the Tánaiste is clear about that.

The Government has only been in power for ten months and has already become arrogant.

The Deputy only needed ten days.

The Tánaiste stated the Government's efforts have focused on rebuilding the State's reputation. What kind of a reputation can a state have when almost half a million of its people are languishing on the unemployment lines? These are not statistics but people and families, yet less than a week before a budget that will be very hard on people we have a senior Government Minister being flippant in his commentary.

The Government took €1 per day off Mr. Ray Burke in its much heralded—

Will the Deputy ask a supplementary question, please?

——fight against high pay and left former taoisigh on massive pensions. Out of the other side of its mouth, it tells people to cheer up, things will not be so bad and we should all take a weekend break. That is completely mad politics.

May we have the Deputy's question, please?

Heaven help us if this heralds what the Government proposes to present to the Dáil and citizens in its budget next week.

The Tánaiste stated the Government's priority is to get people back to work and listed the initiatives it has taken.

The Deputy's time has concluded. She must ask a question.

Its initiatives are not working. What will it do differently? What new initiatives will it bring forward? When will it demonstrate in real terms a seriousness about getting people back to work? The figures do not lie. They reflect the failure of the Government.

The Government will never add insult to the injury that has been experienced in this economy—

The Minister has done it already.

The Tánaiste is doing it now.

——by people who have lost jobs, are having difficulty making mortgage payments and are struggling to meet their financial commitments.

The Minister told unemployed people to take a hike.

The Government is working every day to try to get people back to work. It is a huge problem. As Deputy McDonald said, there are 448,000 people on the live register.

Unemployment is increasing under this Government.

We are talking about people who have lost their jobs and seen their family incomes turned upside down. We are talking about young people who have not yet had an opportunity to get into work. These people are trying to cope with such real problems and difficulties around the kitchen table.

What is the Government doing about them?

I have set out the fact that economic recovery is the Government's priority because it will enable people to return to work. Every action and decision of the Government since it came into office has been taken with that in view.

When the Government cut the capital allowance, it sent a further 8,000 people to the dole queue.

Equally, every decision we will take from now on will be aimed at getting people back into employment.

It does not stack up.

There have been cuts in the North.

We will work at that every day.

Donegal is in the north.

Deputy McDonald has suggested that we are not doing enough. I agree that it will never be enough until we get every one of those 448,000 people back to work.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

That is our objective.

The Government is failing in its job.

It is an individual objective.

It is failing miserably.

It is not about meeting this target or meeting that target. It is about getting people into employment and getting business moving again. It is a huge problem. We inherited an economy that was broken. We are working to fix it. We are having success. We will continue to do what we are doing.

I would like to raise the plight of a cohort of people in this city and this State. We have not heard about them for many months. They are being overlooked because they are ordinary working-class people who do not have the resources to hire expensive lawyers or make large donations to the political establishment. Between 2,000 and 3,000 families and individuals were badly burned when a bills payment company, Home Payments Limited, went into liquidation last August. The Tánaiste may be aware of people with low or medium-sized incomes who made regular payments to this company so they would have funds in readiness to pay their routine utility bills, such as those for gas and electricity, on time. Some families used the company to save for future costs like children's schoolbooks and uniforms, the costs associated with their children going to college, or the cost of medical and dental treatment. At this time of the year, it is worth remembering that many families used Home Payments Limited as a savings bank to budget for Christmas-related expenditure.

The families and individuals who have been badly burned by the collapse of this company have lost hundreds or thousands of euro — up to €10,000, in some cases. Such a loss would not be noticed by former Ministers who receive pensions of €150,000 a year, or serving bankers who are paid €500,000 a year. It is an absolute fortune for an ordinary family, however, as it represents a huge saving and sacrifice. Ordinary people have been burned because this company scandalously succumbed to the siren call of the property market and speculated in it. They will lose much of what they had on deposit because the company is in liquidation. I have been told by the liquidator that there will not be a settlement until well into next year, if at all. Even though it was not required to do so, four weeks ago the Government gave €700 million to speculators in Anglo Irish Bank to make good their bad debts. With three weeks to go to Christmas, will the Government establish an emergency compensation fund for the victims of this company? The Tánaiste is aware that the State has quite rightly compensated the victims of floods and storms, etc., in the past. This collapse of this company is as much of a blow to these individuals and families as a storm or a flood. Will the Government establish an emergency fund now to ensure these people do not suffer unduly this Christmas?

I appreciate that advance notice of the issue to be raised is not given on Leaders' Questions. If I had received advance notice of this issue, I would have prepared a response on it. My sympathies are with the families and individuals who have been burned in this escapade. If Deputy Higgins gives me details of the cases he has raised, I will arrange to have the issue examined by my Government colleagues and give the Deputy a full response thereafter.

I thank the Tánaiste. It is not surprising that this matter is not to the forefront of his consciousness because—

Get out of here.

Grow up, Joe.

The Tánaiste was fairly good at indignation when he was in opposition.

Deputy Higgins should ask a supplementary question.

The Tánaiste should tell his backbenchers to maintain their silence until they hear what I have to say in full.

What a saintly figure the Deputy is.

As I was saying, it is not surprising that this matter is not to the forefront of the Tánaiste's consciousness because it has not featured since last August.

I suppose the Deputy is the only person who cares about these people.

My point is that poor people and ordinary working people in these circumstances are not the subject of the same consideration as the very wealthy do when they take a dive.

The Deputy has a monopoly on concern.

Many people were aware of this matter when it was big news for a few days last August. Details of the plight of these families and individuals are easily available. The Tánaiste does not need to know the individual details of each case to give the House an assurance, as a matter of principle, that these people will be assisted before matters are reconciled when the liquidation comes to its conclusion. Many of the people in these circumstances are now depending on assistance provided by the State. I ask the Tánaiste to assure them, and people in general who depend on State assistance, that he will honour the Labour Party's pledge not to cut child benefit in the budget.

That is a separate issue.

The Government pledged that social welfare payments would be maintained. I would also like to know whether the €500 increase in the college registration charge that was imposed by Fianna Fáil will be reduced or reversed, as promised by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, who is sitting beside the Tánaiste. That would be of assistance to those who saved to meet the cost of sending their children to college.

I will not be tempted into responding to the second matter that was referred to by the Deputy, which is unrelated to the main issue he raised.

I will not talk about next week's budget.

The Government has been talking about it for the last three weeks.

If I were to comply with the request made by Deputy Higgins, would he come in here next week to support the budget? On the matter that was initially raised, I assure the House that the Government will deal sympathetically with families that find themselves in financial difficulties. That is the policy and the approach of this Government. To be honest, Deputy Higgins could have raised this issue since last August and given us an opportunity to consider it. We will consider it. If the Deputy gives us the details that are available to him — the information on which he based his questions — we will look at them.

My colleagues in Government who have differing responsibilities in this area will examine the matter on its merits and with the sympathy we approach issues where people are in financial difficulties. I am conscious of the time of year and the implications of this for the families concerned.