Leaders' Questions

We listened carefully yesterday to the Tánaiste's comments on the economy. He said that a new perspective and a lot of honesty were required and that we should rid ourselves of the politics of denial and anger - things the Tánaiste championed on this side of the House, no doubt. Anyway, he continued to outline to the Dáil and to the people that the issues of mortgages and unemployment are being tackled through actions the Government is taking. Despite these actions, unemployment is rising and we heard from the Central Bank last week that the mortgage issue is not being dealt with. If the Tánaiste truly believes these things are being tackled, his speech allowed some major inferences about the politics of denial, and he is far more out of touch than we give him credit for.

We all welcome the fact that the Tánaiste seems to have converted to the politics of honesty rather than the politics of denial and anger. I imagine many of the Tánaiste's colleagues, including Deputies Shortall, Penrose, Broughan and Nulty and even Deputy Naughten, welcome it too. The Tánaiste should know - although he does not give that impression - that people are under ferocious pressure. ESB prices are up, petrol prices are up, gas prices are up and health insurance costs are up. Even those who have jobs are finding it remarkably difficult to make ends meet.

Brass neck is up too.

Businesses do not have access to finance, whether the Tánaiste believes it or not. Despite all the facts about medical cards and carer's allowance and people waiting so long for results, are the European Union and the Tánaiste's counterparts fully aware of what the people are going through? Some Ministers say that Ireland's debt is unsustainable.

We are over time. Thank you.

Does the Tánaiste believe this to be the case or does he believe that being on the cover of Time magazine and accepting awards is more important than telling his counterparts and the EU the real truth about what is happening in the Irish economy?

The real truth is that the people are suffering very badly from the consequences of what Deputy Cowen's party did in government prior to being booted out of office at the beginning of 2011.

That is history.

Deputy Cowen has some neck to come to the House and ask about what the EU thinks or what it is doing. Deputy Cowen's Government tied us hand and foot to an agreement with the EU and the IMF at the end of 2010.

The Tánaiste is in government now. This is not a commentary.

The Government was left with the task of having to unravel that and renegotiate it to get a better deal for the Irish taxpayer and the people, and we are proceeding to do that.

He is Mr. Anger.

We are proceeding at several levels.

This is spin city.

What is the Tánaiste going to do?

First, the terms of the agreement have been the subject of renegotiation by the Government and that process is continuing to get a deal for the Irish taxpayer to lift the burden of bank debt to which Deputy Cowen's Government tied us hand and foot. It tied the State and the Irish taxpayer to the fortunes of the banks in 2008 and repeated and consolidated that in 2010. We must unwind that now and we will do so.

Second, the country must proceed to create jobs and attract investment, which is what we have been doing.

This is a Second Stage speech.

Since the Government was formed we have seen 17,000 additional jobs in the private sector, as against the huge job losses we saw during the previous period.

There are 30,000 fewer at work now.

People are suffering as a consequence of mortgages, negative equity and everything that goes with that. This is the first Government to decide to tackle the issue of mortgages and introduce new legislation on personal insolvency, which is now almost at completion. This will provide the person who has a loan or mortgage with a greater degree of strength when negotiating with the bank.

Deputy Cowen has one minute.

Give him as much time as he likes.

I thank the Tánaiste. Let us be honest about this.

(Interruptions).

Sorry; the Deputy has only one minute and he is entitled to it.

The reality is that the economy is flat. Even the Irish chief executives announced this morning that they cannot predict growth until late 2014. Naturally, we welcome any job announcements, especially the announcement this morning in County Louth, but overall, were those in government to look at the unemployment figures, they would see that they are rising despite the severely high level of emigration. I return to the nub of the question: can the Tánaiste - with a degree of perspective and honesty, as he put it, and in the absence of denial or anger - tell us when, not how, the moral and economic benefit of retrospective capitalisation will accrue to us, the people? As the Taoiseach eventually agreed on Monday, the people effectively saved the euro by virtue of recapitalisation at their expense.

In saying that, the Taoiseach rubbished the commitment the Tánaiste had given to the people, for which he subsequently got a mandate, to the effect that he would burn bondholders. I would say it was almost treasonous to give the people that impression, but I will let the Tánaiste live by that commitment.

The Deputy is over time.

Let the Tánaiste answer the question on when, not how, the people will get what is due to them.

On the back of a lorry in Clara again.

The people will get a deal when we are satisfied we have got the best deal available for the taxpayer. Let me assure the Deputy that we will get the best deal for the taxpayer.

The Tánaiste is obliged to get it.

We are so obliged, financially and politically.

The Tánaiste would not burn a sod of turf.

We are obliged to get it because of the incredible mess and hames the previous Government made of this. It tied the fortunes of the taxpayer to the banks. It gave them a blanket guarantee.

The Tánaiste promised them an open door which he then locked.

It then tied the taxpayer hand and foot to an EU-IMF deal which we have to unwind. We will deal with the mess Fianna Fáil in government created and we will get the best possible deal for the taxpayer.

Deputy Barry Cowen should put that in his pipe and smoke it.

The troika will conclude its review of the so-called bailout programme today and no doubt will give us a collective pat on the back and congratulate the Government on meeting its cutback targets. It thinks the Government is doing a great job because it is keeping it happy, but back at the ranch it is very different for citizens, particularly those who rely on the health service. Sinn Féin has no confidence in the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, who presides over disaster after disaster. I note the Tánaiste seems to have little confidence in him. Only his lack of confidence can explain his decision to keep an eye over the Minister's shoulder in respect of the location of the national children's hospital. That is a wise move on his part.

I suggest the Tánaiste open investigations on a couple of other fronts. For instance, he might have a look to see how people are supposed to manage on home help allocations of 30 minutes a week. He might have a look at the case of Ms Jennifer Banks, a Galway woman, a multiple sclerosis sufferer who cannot get the medication she needs to deal with chronic pain. He might also explain why the Minister continues the illegal operation of the mobility allowance scheme. He might also usefully ask the Minister to explain why he met NAMA on 20 April to discuss the provision of a primary health care centre in Balbriggan. That meeting took place months in advance of his doctoring of the list of primary health care centres to be built.

The Deputy should be very careful using that sort of language - "doctoring".

A Deputy

The Minister is a doctor.

I stand by my use of language.

One does not make allegations.

I have two questions for the Tanaiste. What is he going to do about the mobility allowance scheme and the fact that the State is operating outside the law? Second, what about the meeting the Minister had with NAMA on 20 April? The Minister has made it clear in an answer to parliamentary questions that at that meeting he discussed the issue of a primary health care centre in Balbriggan. We know that the list of centres to be built was subsequently changed and that Balbriggan was included.

There is quite a lot in the question asked by the Deputy and I will deal with the matters in the series they were addressed to me.

On the issue of the national children's hospital, the Government will proceed with the building of the hospital. There has been been talk for as long as I can remember about the building of such a hospital. We are going ahead and will build it. As the Deputy will be aware, An Bord Pleanála struck down the planning application for the original site identified as the location of the hospital and the Government subsequently appointed a group to look at the options available to it. We will be considering the report from that group in the near future. The Taoiseach gave an indicative timeframe in that regard when he addressed the issue in the House during the week. The people need to be assured that the Government will proceed with the building of a national children's hospital and we have identified the source of the funding for it. It will be of enormous benefit to the people, particularly children.

The Ombudsman has made a report on the mobility allowance issue. She has recommended that the upper age limit of 66 years as a condition of the mobility allowance scheme be removed with immediate effect. She has recommended that the HSE reconsider the applications of the four complainants mentioned in the report and that it reconsider the applications received since 1 April 2011 which were refused solely on the basis of the upper age limit. This matter requires further consideration by the Government in order to meet the requirements of the Equal Status Act 2000 and ensure there is no hardship for those in receipt of the mobility allowance. We are seeking further legal advice on the options available to the Government. It is not its wish to withdraw the allowance from those who receive it. It will be seeking legal advice on how we can proceed in a way that is reasonable and sustainable and will not cause undue distress to those in receipt of the allowance. The Ombudsman found in an investigation she conducted that an upper age limit of 66 years for the allowance was not in compliance with the Equal Status Act and recommended that the scheme be reviewed and brought into compliance with the Act. She also raised the issue in her 2011 annual report. The mobility allowance was established in 1979 by way of a departmental circular. There were two further circulars, in 2002 and 2007, but the basic criteria applied remain. A person must be unable to walk or be in such a condition that the exertion required to walk would be dangerous to his or her health. The allowance is payable by the Health Service Executive, subject to a means test, to persons with a severe disability.

Thank you, Tánaiste.

Have I run out of time?

I would like an answer to the NAMA question.

What about the Minister and NAMA?

If the Tánaiste wishes to finish his point, he may proceed.

I thought the Ceann Comhairle was discontinuing my contribution.

Can we get to the NAMA question, please?

I was only making a gentle intervention.

As I stated, the allowance is designed to help eligible persons-----

We are familiar with the allowance.

The Deputy asked the question.

I am replying to it. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked about the mobility allowance.

The Tánaiste is trying to talk it out.

They are not serious about the issue.

The Tánaiste is running down the clock.

This is what is of interest. There is a report from the Ombudsman and the Government respects the Office of the Ombudsman. It is perfectly reasonable that Deputy Mary Lou McDonald should ask the question here this morning. There are many who want to know in what way we are dealing with the issue and I am explaining the position to the Deputy. It is of interest to the public. Currently, the amount payable is €208.50 per month. There are in excess of 4,500 recipients of the allowance, at a total cost of €12 million. As I stated, the Government is considering the report of the Ombudsman. We must take further legal advice on it and the recommendations made, particularly as they relate to the Equal Status Act.

What about the Minister and NAMA?

What about the Minister? There was a third question.

A Deputy

The Deputy is only allowed to ask one.

The Tánaiste deliberately ran down the clock.

The one question rule applies.

The questions were answered in the order they were asked.

I thought a Deputy was entitled to ask one question only, not five.

We cannot have comprehensive questions being asked all over the place. This is Leaders' Questions.

Is it one question a week?

Let us be reasonable and we will do the best we can. I ask Deputy Mary Lou McDonald to proceed.

This is the Labour Party's custodial democracy.

I have asked reasonable questions.

Questions, yes.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked five questions.

That is too many for the Labour Party. One a week is all it wants.

On the mobility allowance, in 2008 the State acknowledged that it was acting outside the law in having an upper age limit.

Will the Tánaiste tell us if the Government proposes to rectify the situation? There is no question but that the State is acting outside the law. It must bring this scheme within it. I also ask the Tánaiste to answer my question on the meeting between the Minister, Deputy James Reilly, and NAMA in April.

That is a separate issue.

Did the Tánaiste speak to the Minister about this matter? Did he tell the Tánaiste that he had met NAMA?

The Deputy is only entitled to ask one question.

Did the Minister tell the Tánaiste that they had discussed the issue of primary care centres and their locations? Did he tell him that Balbriggan was part and parcel of that discussion? If the Tánaiste knew all of this, did it not set alarm bells ringing? He stood up here and gave a very long, elaborate answer on one issue that I had raised, but he is clearly dodging the issue of NAMA and the Minister. Did he know that the meeting had taken place and if he did not, will he raise the matter with the Minister?

Before the Tánaiste responds, I wish to make a point. I do not like to interrupt Deputies when they are asking questions, but I want to make it clear that in the future they cannot bring in three or four topics when asking questions.

It does not matter because they do not answer questions anyway.

We allow a question to the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste. I ask Deputies to respect this.

I am willing to answer questions raised here, but it is my understanding that during Leaders' Questions, when questions are asked without notice, the rule of the House is that the representative of each party can ask one question. I will be quite happy, if the rules are changed, to answer four or five questions, if necessary. I would have no problem with this.

The Tánaiste makes up the rules as he goes along.

One question a week is enough for the Tánaiste.

I have tried to give a comprehensive answer. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked about the children's hospital and the mobility allowance.

The Tánaiste is going to talk it out again.

Having given Deputy Mary Lou McDonald a comprehensive answer to those questions, she is now saying I did not answer the other one.

The Tánaiste needs to cut the waffle and answer the question.

It is a parliamentary trick.

The Tánaiste is fairly handy himself at parliamentary tricks.

That is fair enough and I recognise it for what it is and call it as it is.

We recognise what the Tánaiste is doing too - he is not answering the question.

Regarding the question on the mobility allowance, we have the report from the Ombudsman which is under consideration by the Government. We must obtain legal advice on how to proceed because, obviously, the recommendation made in the report concerns compliance with the terms of the Equal Status Act. We are obtaining that advice. The second report issued by the Ombudsman yesterday will be considered by the Government.

Regarding individual Ministers, who they meet and what is in their diaries, I cannot track, nor do I want to, the diaries of every Minister, who they met-----

The Tánaiste wanted to do it when he was in opposition.

I could not possibly do so.

Therefore, the Tánaiste did not know about the meeting.

The Labour Party Minister of State resigned over this.

I call Deputy Thomas Pringle.

Did the Tánaiste know about the meeting?

I have called Deputy Thomas Pringle.

(Interruptions).

Does the Tánaiste know that it is illegal to lobby NAMA?

Will the Deputy, please, give way to Deputy Thomas Pringle?

Mental illness and suicide are major problems in our society. There are three times more deaths by suicide than on the roads every year. This week Turn the Tide of Suicide launched a campaign for the establishment of a suicide prevention authority. It is time this proposal was given very serious consideration, as up to 700 people take their lives by suicide every year. Over 300,000 people suffer from mental illness, while 75,000 self-harm every year. Surely this represents a crisis of national proportions. The National Office for Suicide Prevention is clearly limited and underfunded. Being part of the HSE, it is not independent and cannot be an advocate for vulnerable persons. The programme for Government contains a commitment to ring-fence €35 million annually for mental illness initiatives, but one must ask where this funding has gone to. Have mental health services expanded or has the money been used to close gaps in the health budget? We have seen the success in recent years of the Road Safety Authority in reducing the number of road deaths, notwithstanding the terrible tragedies in recent days. A suicide prevention authority could achieve similar results. It needs a Government commitment to establish such an authority and ensure it would have an adequate budget to operate effectively. Will the Government give that commitment and start the process of closure for the thousands of families, loved ones and friends who have been bereaved by suicide? Such a commitment could, over time, result in people at risk receiving help and the toll on our society being reduced.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and agree with him on the huge tragedy suicide presents for families, loved ones and friends of those who take their own lives. I also agree that the level of suicide in Ireland is very disturbing. It is something Deputy Dan Neville, in particular, has been highlighting for quite some time. It is also an issue about which the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, is particularly concerned. In that context, the Government decided to allocate a specific budget of €35 million for mental health services in order to address the issue of suicide. However, it is not really a question of putting in place an authority or an office. Suicide is a problem that is not solvable simply by putting in place a State office or body to deal with the issue. Instead, what we must do, through the health service and more widely in society, is address the causes of suicide. We must ensure there are interventions at a personal level for people who are at risk. Sometimes, though, it is not very obvious or clear that someone is suicidal. We have all come across cases of suicide in which the people who took their own lives were the last people we would have expected to do so. Very often we do not know what is going on or what is troubling people in their lives. Suicide is a priority issue for the Minister of State who I am sure would be very happy to discuss in detail with the Deputy the measures she is taking to address it.

I thank the Tánaiste for his answer, but other countries in Europe have established national offices to tackle the issue of suicide with some success in that they have reduced the numbers of deaths by suicide. It is vital that we take the issue seriously and consider establishing a suicide prevention authority. It is clear that the €35 million referred to has not been spent on mental illness initiatives and has not been ring-fenced. I ask the Tánaiste to outline clearly where the money was spent this year. How can we have faith that next year when this money is given to the HSE, it will be used for the purposes intended? That is why it is vitally important we have a suicide prevention authority, with control of its own budget, which could work with determination on this issue. As the Tánaiste has said, a Minister of State from his own party has responsibility in this area. It is time she clearly outlined where the €35 million was spent this year. She must also ensure it is spent appropriately next year. Otherwise, we will be here again next year noting that the money has been used to plug yet another gap in the overall HSE budget.

I will ask the Minister of State to brief the Deputy directly on the measures she is taking to address the issue of suicide and also the way in which the budget for mental health services is being spent. We must ensure any measure we take to deal with the issue of suicide, the level of which I agree is alarmingly high, is effective, whether it be the establishment of a dedicated office or authority or some other method.

The important thing is to ensure that whatever measures are taken are effective. I will ask the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to provide a briefing on the actions she is taking to address this.