Leaders' Questions

Some time ago the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, announced he would effect a transformation of the system of allowances in the public sector. He stated he wanted to achieve savings of €75 million this year and €150 million next year. There is no question this was one of the big ideas of the new Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. If one analyses any of the commentators this morning, yesterday the Minister had to announce a humiliating climbdown, cave-in and huge retreat from his opening position. At the time, the headlines were quite significant with regard to the transformation that was about to happen. He was adamant he would achieve a fairly modest target of €75 million, which was less than 5% as it was €75 million out of €1.5 billion. In the end the Minister was in a position to make only one change in allowances. One allowance out of 1,100 was changed.

One was abolished.

One out of 1,100. This is an extraordinary outcome of very lengthy examination from a new, up and coming Department meant to cut a swathe through relics of the past. Let us be honest, some of these allowances are relics and belong to a different era. How did the Minister get into this scenario, leading people up the hill and back down again? Will the Taoiseach outline the reasoning and rationale behind the Minister's endeavours? These allowances include bus allowances of €4.40 where car parking spaces are provided, and many other examples exist. We cannot target new entrants forever. We cannot believe that new entrants must be targeted for all savings. This will create its own problems down the line. What is the rationale for the Minister's about turn on this?

The Croke Park agreement has been in situ for some time and has delivered in the sense of industrial peace and a significant reduction in the numbers working in the public sector and its cost. The Government has set itself on a path to meet the budgetary targets we must meet while minimising the need for cutbacks to front-line public services. The Government must meet its budgetary targets in a way which minimises cuts to front-line public services. This means we must achieve the maximum possible savings which do not impact on services as a consequence.

Last week I instructed every Minister to respond to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and me in respect of their best assessment of the maximum that can be squeezed from the Croke Park agreement, which we would like to see implemented in full in accelerated fashion. This analysis by each Minister will be returned to me this week. When I and the Minister, Deputy Howlin, assess this, I intend to convene a meeting of the Croke Park agreement implementation body and present the outcome to managers and unions. Yesterday's Government decision and announcement by the Minister, Deputy Howlin, that the indicative target of €75 million, which he was honest enough to state, would not be met is a first step to dealing with the question of the maximum that can be squeezed from the Croke Park agreement. The other side of this equation is the impact on front-line public services, and Deputy Martin is well aware of the difficulties in this regard.

All other issues are to be dealt with as this part of Ministers' assessment and the consideration of the outcome by the unions and the management of the implementation body. I intend to call this meeting when the instruction given last week at Cabinet is before us. The announcement yesterday by the Minister, Deputy Howlin, was in respect of new entrants. He pointed out that while one allowance was abolished, 180 categories are to be changed and 200 others are to be reviewed.

I am trying to be constructive but that was a fairly pathetic response to the situation. A letter was sent last week. What have Ministers been doing for months on the Croke Park agreement?

Looking for tickets for the all-Ireland final.

I am sure Deputy Martin is well able to handle himself. He does not need any help.

Everyone was of the view that people were endeavouring to achieve and realise as many savings as possible over the past 18 months. To state that a letter of instruction was issued last week is a rather pathetic response. My point is that yesterday's announcement with regard to squeezing more out of the Croke Park agreement was about approximately €3 million out of €1.5 billion. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council's report which the Taoiseach more or less dismissed in his initial comments paints a very difficult picture for everyone in society and Government in terms of the challenges, specifically concerns about growth rates and their impact on deficit reduction, concerns about our capacity to effect the deficit targets we wish to reach and concerns about rising unemployment. These are serious issues.

Could we have Deputy Martin's supplementary question please?

The Taoiseach spoke about front-line services. These are being cut. This is about social solidarity. We are speaking about some relics and outdated allowances while at the same time home help allowances are being cut.

Put in place by you.

Hundreds and thousands of hours are being cut and across the board services for people with disabilities, as we found out only a month ago, are being cut savagely.

Bertie was throwing them around like confetti.

There is a need-----

Can we have the question please? We are over time.

-----particularly in the context of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council report, to invoke clause 1.28 of the Croke Park agreement-----

It is a bit rich to criticise the Croke Park agreement when you presided over it.

Will the usual suspects please stay quiet?

-----to get people around the table and state that saving €3 million out of €1.5 billion is not a realistic outcome for a serious issue. Surely this lack of success or any sense of achievement or realisation of savings is justification in itself for invoking clause 1.28 to convene a serious substantive meeting of everyone to get them around the table on such an issue. Does the Taoiseach intend to do this?

The Taoiseach has one minute to reply.

Under the existing structure of the implementation of the Croke Park agreement, the cost of the public pay bill has been reduced by €2.1 billion and numbers have been reduced by 28,000, so fewer people are doing more work.

The numbers have nothing to do with the Croke Park agreement.

How do you think it delivers?

The public pay bill has been reduced by €2.1 billion and the numbers are down by 28,000, with fewer people doing more work. Last year €1.4 billion was paid in allowances and premiums.

(Interruptions).

Could we have a reply to the question?

I already said to Deputy Martin in reply to his first question that when the best assessment of the Ministers, on government instruction of last week, comes in this week, it is my intention to call a meeting of the Croke Park implementation group, including unions and management, and to present the outcome of that analysis to it.

I am not talking about that kind of meeting but about clause 1.28.

We are interested in implementation of the Croke Park agreement in full and in as accelerated a fashion as possible. That means we must look at all of the best and maximum assessments of what are the maximum savings we can get from the Croke Park agreement to minimise potential cuts in public services. That is the equation. We exceeded our deficit targets this year and last year.

The Taoiseach is lucky the CSO revised them downwards.

The Fiscal Advisory Council is an independent body and it is perfectly entitled to put forward its reports and make its assessments of what should be done. As I said yesterday in reply to questions from other Deputies, that will be the subject of a debate in the House when people can put forward their suggestions and their views as to how we deal with this very challenging position. Does anybody in the House think it is with any degree of pleasure that a Minister would stand up and say he or she is forced because of a particular position to have to reduce a front-line service? That is why it is necessary that we look at the maximum savings we can get from Croke Park and squeeze that to the ultimate degree in order to minimise any potential impact on front-line services. I will do that as soon as I have the assessments of Ministers and will present that outcome to the implementation group.

Yesterday Clare County Council confirmed it is demanding that a student's parents pay the household charge before a student's grant application will be processed. Other councils have said they are preparing to follow suit. Yesterday the Taoiseach seemed to be supporting this action and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, described it as reasonable.

Ba mhaith liom barúil an Taoisigh air seo a chlos. Sílim go bhfuil an t-Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna mícheart. Is í seo an chaoi lena dhéanamh cinnte go bhfuil seansanna ag daoine óga don todhchaí. Seo an t-am chun dóchas a thabhairt do ógánaigh na tíre. Muna gcuirimid iallach air seo, mar pholaiteoirí agus mar shaoránaigh, beidh fadhbanna ann. Caithfidh an Taoiseach a bheith go han-soléir faoi seo

Surely we should be encouraging young people to go on to third level education and that the Minister for Education and Skills should ensure students have access to education, in particular those who need grants because invariably if one needs a grant, it means one is from a lower or middle income family. Does the Taoiseach support this action? Can he be clear about it today? There are even some reports of councils planning to link the payment of grants to the disabled to the payment of the household charge. Are the disabled to be the targets of Government cuts once again?

Has the Taoiseach taken legal advice on this issue and does he support the withholding of public services and public grants from the children of citizens who may not be paying the household charge? Will the Government instruct Clare County Council and others planning similar actions to stop? Will the Taoiseach make it clear that the Government supports the rights of students to the grants to which they are entitled without reference to what their parents may or may not be doing?

I would have assumed that as an elected public representative to this House where he has influence on legislation that Deputy Adams would be encouraging people to pay what is a legal charge. There have been 1,045,000 registrations to date with a compliance rate of more than 65%. As the Deputy is well aware, the household charge and its successor are designed to fund local services provided by local authorities for people in their areas. Section 12 of the Act places the collection of the charge under the responsibility and management of local authorities and it is therefore a matter for each county council or local authority to utilise the provisions in the legislation in the context of identifying any undeclared properties. It is also a matter for local authorities to use their local knowledge and their judgment in what they do about this.

Clare County Council made its own decision here. It took the decision to issue letters in regard to the disbursal of the higher education grant for this year asking applicants to indicate if the household charge had been paid in respect of the relevant household. That was in addition to questions normally asked by councils on a routine basis about the payment of other charges, including the non-principal private residence charge, water rates and commercial rates, as is appropriate and as apply. The household charge question was added in order to facilitate Clare County Council's information gathering about who has actually complied with the requirement to pay the household charge. I understand Clare County Council also felt it appropriate to emphasise that the household charge is funding local services and local facilities for people in County Clare. As the Deputy is aware, it is unfair that one's neighbour can say he or she paid his or her charge but that one did not and one thinks one can get away with it.

Section 7 of the Local Government Act 1983 provides that where a sum is due to a local authority under any enactment and at the same time another sum is due by the authority to a person, the former sum may be set against the latter but I can confirm to the Deputy that no moneys have been withheld by Clare County Council in respect of higher education grants. It is entirely appropriate that as public moneys fund the processing of these applications, the local authority is entitled to find out whether persons have paid the household charge.

I am very disappointed with the Taoiseach's answer. He should have taken the opportunity to clarify the issue. He knows better than I, because he is around longer, that the county councils do not provide the funding for higher education grants. In no way should the child of a household be penalised for what the household may or may not be doing.

I had a very quiet word with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government earlier this morning. He was clearer on the limits of the power of local councils on this issue and on the rights of the students than the Taoiseach has been. It is reprehensible that the instinct of this Government, including its Labour Party component-----

A question, please.

-----is to support these actions which clearly discriminate against lower and middle income students who need grants to get them into further education. All of this is as a result of the mess the Government and the Minister the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, have made of this household charge.

Will the Taoiseach revise his answer and tell us that he will uphold the rights of students to access third level education? Where does one draw the line? Will families be refused child benefit? Will people with disabilities, the elderly and fuel allowances be targeted? Will the Taoiseach take this opportunity to quieten fears and be clear that this Government upholds the rights of citizens?

I can. I listened to some of Deputy Adams's wild and wonderful and weird economic theories as he was debating with Deputy Martin last night. That is what would put the fear of God into people - when they hear the kind of codswallop the Deputy came out with yesterday evening. I do not think the Deputy suffers from amnesia. People in his former constituency were paying €1,400 in charges every year.

I support completely the right of every child to have the opportunity to go to school, college and university. As I said to the Deputy, while the Act of 1983 confers the powers it does on a local authority, that is only in regard to a specific charge that is due by a specific person in a local authority area. The county council in this case cannot be entitled to withhold a partial element of the grant that is due.

Tell that to Clare County Council.

Why do it then?

However, they are entitled to say that Deputy Adams's taxes - I do not know whether he paid the household charge - go in part to fund the persons who process the applications for the third level grants.

Are they wasting money on issuing receipts? Was that in the Croke Park agreement?

The local authority, which has responsibility for the household charge under the Act, is entitled to know, in so far as it can, the numbers who have paid the charge or who have yet to pay it-----

Did they forget to issue a receipt in the first place?

-----because the money goes on facilities and provisions in local authority areas. Clare County Council is not entitled by law to reduce or withhold a portion of the third level grant but as a matter of course it is entitled to as much information about the numbers who have paid the household charge as is required in law.

It has the receipts.

I support - as we all do - the right of young people to attend college in this country but Clare County Council and every other county council should be active in having the percentage of those who have not paid the household charge increased so they can publish what they are going to do with that money in terms of facilities and provisions for the people who live in their areas.

Yesterday the Taoiseach came to the defence of the Minister for Health and listed the so-called improvements the latter has made since taking charge of his Department. I would like to outline some of the achievements that the Taoiseach failed to mention. Front line services are being cut and the closure of essential facilities continues. The elderly, the disabled and the vulnerable are being targeted to bear the brunt of this. Across the country, savage cuts are being targeted at all these groups. Gynaecology wards are being closed and hospitals are instructed to make massive cuts between now and the end of the year. Letterkenny General Hospital has to cut €3.5 million from its budget between now and December. This is the most efficient hospital in the country. Hundreds of thousands of home help hours are being cut. Personal assistance hours for the disabled are being targeted on a case-by-case basis. Community X-ray units are being closed because the embargo means cover cannot be provided.

The Taoiseach also mentioned so-called savings as if they will make no impact. He stated that €63 million in savings will be made through more focused cash management and quoted travel as one of these savings as if it affects nobody. I would like him to comment on one of these travel cuts. Child and adolescent mental health services in HSE west have stopped travelling out to meet vulnerable young people who depend on the support of these services and are at real risk of self-harm and worse if they cannot access them. In County Donegal, only two clinics will now be run in Donegal town and Letterkenny. The clinics in Dungloe, Killybegs, Buncrana and Ballybofey have all been cancelled. Children and young people have been left without help. In many cases children have to access these services on their own because their parents are the cause of their problems. Does the Taoiseach stand over these cuts? The public has no confidence in his Government, never mind the Minister for Health. Will the Taoiseach tell us what we can expect when he cuts a further €750 million from next year's health budget or will we get another work of fiction in the Estimates?

Deputy Pringle always comes up with the same rant whenever he gets an opportunity to ask a question.

That is outrageous.

What about the Taoiseach's rant in Roscommon?

Say that to the people of County Donegal.

Do Deputies mind?

I will see them on Sunday.

Do not trivialise the issue.

Could we have a reply, please? I do not know whether Members heard me but I called the Taoiseach.

Prior to the summer recess Deputy Pringle stated in the House that it was time that people like him contributed more. He has not paid his household charge. He sits in this House as an elected representative from County Donegal. That €100 would go in part on allowing Donegal's local authority to offer some element of a provision for facilities in that county.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

Are local authorities responsible for health services?

He might start living up to his responsibility as an elected representative. He outlined a series of difficulties and challenges in the health service. These are true. Has the Minister, Deputy Reilly, ever stated in this House that it would be easy?

Has he ever pointed out that it would be simple to turn around a structure that has been-----

(Interruptions).

Do Deputies mind? They had their turn.

-----like a runaway train for so many years, without accountability to the extent we would like? The inefficiencies built in sucked up money year after year with no increase in output, productivity, efficiency or focus on the patient. I am glad that in the past 15 months significant improvements have been made and I commend those people in the front line services who are now doing more work with less after the change at the end of February. I commend all those who have gone to the Labour Relations Commission and have made significant progress regarding consultants and what that means for discharges, extra employment for consultants and new structures and rates. When I see the agenda of what is lined up in front of the Minister in terms of dealing with the question of the national children's hospital, a new national maternity hospital, the future of the small local hospitals to be grouped in clusters-----

They are being closed.

-----the changes that have been brought about in the VHI, the implementation of the special delivery unit, which has had a very beneficial impact on trolleys, waiting times and those who have been waiting for longer than 12 months or nine months for treatment, and in regard to the numbers of children who have been waiting a long time for certain treatments, I admit this is not an easy challenge for him and his two Ministers of State.

If he talked it would be easier.

It cannot and will not happen overnight but he is focused on bringing about a situation whereby the health system in this country is transformed into a single tier system in which the focus is on the patient, the money follows the patient, public taxpayers have accountability for the lines of spending throughout the health system-----

What parallel universe is this?

-----and the obscenity of waste that has obtained for years is eliminated and the money transferred into the facilities and provision of the best treatment for every patient. It cannot happen overnight. The issues to which Deputy Pringle referred are all up for consideration. The Minister and his Ministers of State, on behalf of the programme for Government, have made a significant impact in the right direction in a short time.

Doctors do not agree.

It is ironic on the day the wording for a referendum on children's rights is to be announced that children and vulnerable young people are suffering from these cuts. The Taoiseach's message to them is suck it up because there is going to be more of the same. Does he stand over these cuts which will leave vulnerable young people without access to the mental health services they require? Is that what his Government is saying to them?

No. There are 800 fewer children on waiting lists due to the efforts of the Minister, Deputy Reilly, over the past 15 months.

Answer the question.

You do not want to hear the answer.

Does Deputy Pringle think it reasonable for anybody to stand up to announce his or her philosophy is nothing but cutting public services at the front line? That is why it is necessary we implement the maximum measures we can achieve out of the Croke Park agreement and to achieve the maximum savings so there will be a minimal impact on the potential for reduction in public services. This is not easy. We have all seen the marches around the country, where the centres of excellence for cancer were established and where other issues of major importance in every constituency in the country became effective.

The Taoiseach opposed every one of them, and the Minister, Deputy Reilly, did the same.

The Minister, Deputy Reilly, is transforming the public health system into one that is efficient, accountable and transparent and which puts the patient in focus and allows the money allocated to follow the patient. That change cannot be effected overnight. It is heading in the right direction and significant progress has been made in the past 15 months. There are 800 fewer children on waiting lists now compared to when the Minister was appointed.