Leaders’ Questions

Attacking a €7 increase in welfare payments in 2009 the Tánaiste said it was the meanest possible increase and if it were the Titanic it would be women and children last.

No, last. What an apt description of the 2012 budget. There are very many inequitable decisions in the budget and I want to focus on two. By decreasing the fuel allowance, which is means tested, and is only paid——

One topic at a time, please.

——to lower income households the Government has created a situation where retired bankers and other high-end pensioners saw no change in their welfare payments while all low-income households were affected. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, thinks it is great fun.

I think it is hilarious.

It is better than "Green Tea".

Deputy Ó Cuív, please. We cannot go through the whole budget. This is Leaders' Questions.

Hitting the weak at the expense of the rich does not seem to me to be fun.

What about the Galway tent?

Why are the rich being protected at the expense of the poor?

A lot of the budget is focused against women and I will give one example. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has pencilled in a saving of €45 million in a full year through a change in the rules of eligibility for the State pension. Based on her figures, this could affect over 50,000 people, 90% of whom are women, from September 2012. Put simply, anyone who during a normal working life took time out to rear children or care for elderly relatives will see their pension entitlements decrease by €30 per week——

——just because they reach pension age after 1 September 2012. What does this say for the meas the Labour Party has for mná na hÉireann? Why are we penalising women who contributed so much to our society?

We are over time.

I ask the Tánaiste to explain to the House why women were targeted in so many ways by the Minister, Deputy Burton, in the budget.

That is very rich coming from Deputy Ó Cuív, since his party proposed €300 million extra in cuts and €190 million extra in cuts in the social welfare budget than were actually implemented by this Government. We are in very difficult times and everybody understands that. This Government succeeded in bringing in a budget that does not increase tax on working people and does not, contrary to what Deputy Ó Cuív implies, cut basic social welfare rates or protect the rich at the expense of the poor.

No measures are targeted at women. Any of the reforms proposed in the budget, such as those pertaining to pensions, apply to men and women. There are no specific measures in respect of pensions which apply to women. In respect of the changes which are proposed with regard to eligibility for pensions, namely the number of qualifying contributions which are required, they can be made up by looking at the contributions of either partner where a couple is married.

The budget and measures contained in it are balanced. The Government has made clear that where some measures have had unforeseen consequences it has been prepared to look at them on their merits and make adjustments where necessary.

Does a cut in the rate of the contributory old age pension not constitute a cut in rates? The Tánaiste said the measure applies to men and women equally which is totally disingenuous. Everybody knows that the proportion of women who start work, leave it for a period, and then return to work is much higher than men. The cut does not involve the total number of contributions. The Tánaiste is showing an abysmal lack of knowledge of the social welfare system. If a person started working at 55 years of age and worked for ten years until the age of 65——

Could we have a supplementary question?

——he or she will get a full contributory pension. However, under the arrangements of the Minister, Deputy Burton, if one works from the age of 25 to 35, leaves work from the age of 35 to 55, and then works from the age of 55 to 65 one will lose €29.80 in pension entitlements.

A question, please.

It is not a question of the number of contributions, rather it is a question of the averaging of those contributions over one's working life.

Thank you. We are over time.

I suggest that the Tánaiste read the social welfare code before he starts making ill-informed statements.

Thank you. We are over time, Deputy. We are not making statements.

He said the budget is not anti-women. What about child benefit and one parent payment allowances?

Deputy, I do not think you heard me. We are over time. It is Leaders' Questions. I do not want statements. Put the question.

Normally one does not have to inform a Minister about policy.

Not at Leaders' Questions, thank you very much. If you want to give him private lessons afterwards that is your business.

I will send the Tánaiste a list of all the cuts the Government has made that focus specifically on women. Why did the Minister focus on targeted cuts against women, children and those with disabilities in the budget?

The Deputy is inaccurate. The budget does not target women; that is simply untrue.

What about the lone parent's allowance and child benefit?

He is making an unfounded political charge.

A Deputy

Men are parents too.

There have been no cuts in the basic rates of social welfare payments, including pensions. The rates of pensions are the same after this budget as they were before it. It is the first time in more than three years that we have not had cuts in social welfare rates. The Government of which Deputy Ó Cuív was a member introduced cut after cut in basic social welfare rates. Let us understand this very simply and clearly — there have been no cuts in basic social welfare rates.

I know the social welfare code very well.

A Deputy

You could have fooled us.

The Deputy is trying to conflate the number of contributions required and to make a case on that basis. The contribution rate for pensions is €260.

I am talking about the average.

That is the equivalent of five years' work——

——which can be made up, in the case of married persons, from the contribution rates of either party.

That is incorrect.

(Interruptions).

The Deputy should stop making assertions that are untrue. Basic social welfare rates have not been cut in this budget.

Less money is a cut.

The cuts the Deputy implemented amounted to €190 million more than those implemented by this Government.

(Interruptions).

If this is not having an effect, how is the Minister for Social Protection making a saving of €44 million?

Deputy Ó Cuív should not be getting himself upset, it is Christmas. I ask him to resume his seat. I have called Deputy Mary Lou McDonald.

Give him another run at it, a Cheann Comhairle.

(Interruptions).

I call Deputy McDonald. Can you hear me, Deputy?

I could not hear the Ceann Comhairle.

It is difficult, I know that.

I have raised this matter with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and it was also raised with the Taoiseach yesterday. I hope it will be a case of third time lucky today. The Tánaiste claims wrongly that the budget was balanced, that it does not have negative consequences for women and children, in particular, and that the pupil-teacher ratio is left untouched. However, when one drills down into the detail of this nasty budget, one discovers that 428 teaching posts, in the most disadvantaged schools in the most disadvantaged communities across the State, are to be cut.

I understand the Minister, Deputy Quinn, has explained this away with the rationale that he does not have a magic wand. The Tánaiste has said that where measures have unforeseen consequences, the Government has shown willingness to reconsider them. This vicious cut has foreseen, predictable consequences for children living in the inner city of Dublin, in Cork, Inishowen, Limerick, Waterford — places the Tánaiste knows full well have suffered the consequences of intergenerational poverty, unemployment and a plague of drug misuse.

Does the Deputy have a question?

I ask the Tánaiste, on the basis of his position in Government, but particularly as leader of the Labour Party, to tell the Dáil that he will have this cut reversed. I ask him, as leader of a party which I understood was wedded to a notion of equality, as leader of a party which has elected representatives in many of the constituencies and communities that will be devastated by this cut, to tell the Dail that he will reconsider this measure, not by offering alleviation measures but by actually reversing the cut.

To correct Deputy McDonald, the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools has not been increased.

(Interruptions).

Will Deputies wait to hear the Tánaiste's reply?

He is misleading the Dáil.

It is remarkable that the best the Opposition can do in attacking the budget is to make things up.

(Interruptions).

How can you say that with a straight face?

The pupil-teacher ratio has not been changed in the budget. What the Deputy is referring to is a situation of legacy posts in a number of schools. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, is very well aware that some schools will be particularly impacted by the withdrawal of legacy disadvantaged posts. For that reason, he met with a group of school principals on Tuesday in order to hear their concerns directly about the impact of this measure on their schools. He has confirmed that a number of posts will be made available for alleviation measures for the schools most affected by the changes set out in the budget announcement.

The Minister has undertaken, as part of the existing alleviation measures, to ensure that DEIS band one junior schools will be placed on a staffing schedule based on an average of one teacher for 20 pupils. This will enable them to continue to have smaller class sizes for the youngest children starting school. Thirty-two schools that have legacy posts which provide for one teacher for every 15 pupils in junior classes only will now have a staffing schedule that operates on the basis of an average of one teacher per 18 junior pupils. The special position of DEIS schools will also be recognised in an adjustment to the general allocation model which is used to allocate learning and language support teaching posts to schools.

All schools will be notified in January 2012, three months earlier than normal, of their staffing entitlements under the new arrangement, including any alleviation measures that may apply. This will allow schools to plan for the school year beginning in September next year. The removal of the legacy posts, which will be managed as sensitively as possible given current constraints, means the resources available for DEIS schools can be spread evenly so that all children in these schools are treated equally and equitably. The Government's protection of disadvantaged schools is underlined by the maintenance of €13 million in enhanced funding for DEIS schools and €2 million in school book funding for those schools. All of these areas have been protected from reductions in expenditure for 2012. In addition, €26 million is being provided for the home-school community liaison scheme.

The Tánaiste accused me of making things up. I wonder whether, when the principals came to meet his colleague, the latter equally told them that they were making things up when they set out in graphic detail, I am sure, the consequences of moving a pupil-teacher ratio of 15:1 to one of 22:1 as was then envisaged. Even the response the Tánaiste has just given indicates that teaching posts will be lost and that children who rely, in the first instance at primary school level, on direct intervention and small class size to have a chance, not just in educational terms but in social and life terms, will be compromised by his Government.

Question, please.

The Tánaiste says these are legacy posts. I ask him not to come in here and insult the intelligence of the Dáil or the intelligence of the general public with that type of connivance. What will his legacy to the education of these children be?

Will the Deputy put a question?

I find it deeply ironic that the Labour Party in government seeks to sabotage the work done by a previous Minister for Education of that party. I have to say, Eamon Gilmore, you are some piece of work to talk about equality.

(Interruptions).

A Deputy

You are not bad yourself, Mary.

We normally address Members as either Minister or Deputy.

It is a perverse logic articulated by the Tánaiste today that we must have an equality in deprivation.

The Deputy is over time. This is Leaders' Questions.

There is a reason that these particular schools were allocated a preferential pupil-teacher ratio.

The Deputy may not have heard me; she is over time.

All of the documentation reflects the fact that this size of class is working for children who need a greater level of support.

Deputy, will you please put your question?

How can the Tánaiste, with any honour — how can he, as leader of the Labour Party, with any honour — say to the children of Sheriff Street, East Wall, or the Inishowen peninsula——

The Deputy must put her question. We are not making statements. Does the Deputy hear me?

——that these are legacy matters? That is some legacy for the Tánaiste.

I do not know what the supplementary question is.

The Tánaiste knows full well.

(Interruptions).

I think Deputy McDonald is either hard of hearing or is simply heedless.

A Deputy

We have the answer now.

It is all a great laugh. Cuts in disadvantaged areas are all great fun.

It is fair enough of Deputy McDonald to raise the issue in the House——

I thank the Tánaiste.

——of the pupil-teacher ratio and the allocation of teachers in disadvantaged schools. However, it is a bit nonsensical that when I give an answer and explain what is being done, she then comes back at me with the same rant she would have given as if I had not given the answer in the first place.

What the Tánaiste is proposing is inadequate——

I ask the Deputy to please listen.

There is an important quality in the work we do as public representatives and that is to have an ability and a capacity to listen. In this case that is a capacity that the Government and, in particular, the Minister for Education and Skills, exercised. When the issue of the way in which the reduction in teacher numbers in disadvantaged schools was going to have an impact was raised with him, he met directly with the principals of the schools and he heard directly from them what the impact would be in their individual schools and he asked for that to be set out in greater detail. In response, he has made it clear, as I have said, not that the pupil-teacher ratio in schools will be 22:1, as Deputy McDonald has asserted; he has made it clear that he will ensure that the DEIS band one junior schools will be placed on a staffing schedule based on an average of one teacher per 20 pupils. He has made it clear that in the case of the 32 schools where there are legacy posts for less than that at the moment, that measures will be taken to ensure the pupil-teacher ratio will be less than that. He has made it clear that the special position of DEIS schools will be recognised in the adjustments of the general allocation model which is the method used in his Department to allocate teachers to schools, to reflect the disadvantaged nature of some schools. In order to avoid practical problems, he intends that the allocations will be made in January 2012 which is much earlier than is usually the case so that any difficulties identified in individual schools as regards the allocation of teachers, there will be plenty of time before these come into effect in September.

Neither I nor the Labour Party need any lecture from Deputy McDonald about the protection of pupils and the protection of the pupil-teacher ratio, either generally in the primary education sector or particularly in the area of disadvantaged schools——

The position of pupils in disadvantaged schools, their special needs and requirements, the additional resources required in disadvantaged schools——

What about small schools? What about the two, three and four-teacher schools?

This is Leaders' Questions, Deputy.

——will continue to be recognised by this Government, will be addressed by the Minister for Education and Skills and we will listen. I assure the Deputy that on this matter, the Minister for Education and Skills will pay far more attention to the reasoned cases which are made to him by the principals——

What about the two, three and four-teacher schools?

The Deputy should please be quiet.

——of the schools than to some kind of a political rant from the Deputy on the floor of the House.

What about the small schools?

The Deputy is not involved in this. He wants to take over from Deputy Ross.

Go back to sleep.

Deputy McGrath, you are preventing your leader from speaking. Please allow your leader to speak.

Noel Davern never carried on like Deputy Mattie McGrath.

He did in the past.

I wish to address a budget-related matter. In the past week we have seen indications that some of the Government's quangos are showing signs of going walkabout. I applaud the Minister for Health's attempts to keep the VHI in check and to attempt to bring down the proposed premium increase of 50%. However, a more dangerous development is arising of which we are unaware as yet because of the budget. On 5 December, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, announced a cut of €21 million in the subsidy to CIE. This was obviously an attempt by the Government to raise money and to increase efficiencies in this quango. On 9 December, four days later, all three companies in CIE were given a price increase in fares. One of those increases which is to come into effect in January, is a 15% increase in the price of fares in Dublin. This was granted by another Government quango, the National Transport Authority, with uncharacteristic speed in four days.

How can a cut of this sort be allowed to be passed on immediately to the consumer? Yesterday, to our shame, this House introduced a property tax of €100 a year. If this fare increase is introduced in January, it will cost those people spending less than €20 a week on their bus fares or other transport fares, more than the property tax. I ask the Tánaiste to instruct the National Transport Authority to reverse this decision and to tell CIE, which is the most wasteful of all Government quangos, to keep its prices the same and to make its company more efficient and reduce the malpractices which have been rife for years.

The issue of fare increases is discussed between CIE and the National Transport Authority. I do not think it is an accurate presentation of the position to say this was done only over a four-day period as this issue is discussed over a longer period of time. I notice that Deputy Ross made no mention of the fact that the Minister of State with responsibility for transport this week announced the introduction of the long-awaited integrated ticket, a process that has been going on for a very long time and which will enable passengers on the different public transport systems in Dublin to use a single ticket across all areas of transport. This will enable commuters and public transport users to reduce the cost of their journeys.

By €50 million.

A commuter using the public transport system on a regular basis will be able to make savings. Deputy Ross is aware that savings have to be made across all Departments and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, is no different. I agree with the Deputy that CIE and its companies have to be managed efficiently and this is what the Government expects of the companies. The issue of the fare increase is a matter which was the subject of discussion between CIE and the National Transport Authority.

I do not accept that the Government can wash its hands of this. The National Transport Authority is an agency with Government appointees on the board. CIE is a semi-State company and also with Government appointees on the board. Both companies are controlled by the Government. They are doing a nice little friendly tick-tack between each other and the Government says it has nothing to do with this 15% fare increase. This is the way the quangos work. God knows, CIE has had problems. How much has the leap system cost? I think it cost more than €40 million to introduce it. This is the company that spent €500,000 on a secret report which it would not even tell the previous Minister about. It is in dire, critical need of reform and there is no reason for giving a 15% increase to a company which is run like this.

Does the Government accept any responsibility for the 15% timebomb which will come up and bite it next month after the property tax has been introduced? It will be a worse problem for the Government than the latter as soon as people realise next month what fares they must pay on the buses.

Reductions are available to those who use the Leap card.

The introduction of the integrated ticket was the subject of discussion for a very long time. Deputy Ross is right that the process lasted far too long and cost far too much. The Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly, managed to have the ticket introduced in a short number of months, which is something the previous Government failed to do for a decade.

It talked about doing it for ten years and spent a huge amount of money on it whereas the Minister of State got it done within a short few months.

He is some man. Up Tipperary.

(Interruptions).

I ask Deputies to be quiet. Santa Claus is coming next week.

The integrated ticket will help public transport users to reduce their transport costs, in particular, those who use public transport on a regular basis, which is the example cited by Deputy Ross.

On the National Transport Authority, the Deputy cannot have it both ways. He cannot argue on one day that the Government should not politically interfere, intervene or micro-manage the work of commercial State companies or individual State agencies and then the next day tell the Government he wants it to direct such agencies.

The Tánaiste said the same thing the entire time he was in opposition.

The setting of fares is a matter between CIE, its companies and the National Transport Authority and not something in which the Government is directly involved.

The Tánaiste is washing his hands of the issue.

We will send the Deputy a Leap card for Christmas.