1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet sub Committee on Economic Recovery and Jobs will next meet [41260/12]
Vol. 781 No. 1
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet sub Committee on Economic Recovery and Jobs will next meet [41260/12]
2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will outline the role his Department has in the Economic Management Council. [41288/12]
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met the Cabinet sub Committee on Health recently. [41262/12]
4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet Committee on Public Services has met recently. [41264/12]
5. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach the number of Cabinet sub Committee meetings that he has attended recently. [43030/12]
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet Committee on Health has met recently. [44104/12]
7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when he last met with the Cabinet sub-Committee on Health. [44452/12]
8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach how often the Cabinet sub-Committee on Health meets. [44453/12]
9. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if the Economic Management Council has any plans to meet with the banks. [44454/12]
10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he or his officials from his Department have attended a Cabinet Committee on Climate Change. [44457/12]
11. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the number of occasions on which the Cabinet sub-Committee on Mortgage Arrears has met since its establishment; the dates of those meetings; and when it is next scheduled to meet. [47312/12]
12. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet sub Committee on Mortgage Arrears is next scheduled to meet. [47409/12]
A Cheann Comhairle, I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 12, inclusive, together.
Yesterday I chaired meetings of the Cabinet committees on European affairs, economic recovery and jobs, climate change and the green economy, mortgage arrears and Irish and the Gaeltacht.
The last meeting of the Cabinet committee on economic infrastructure was held on 25 October and the committee on social policy last met on 1 October. The Cabinet committee on public service reform last met on 11 October. The Cabinet committee on health last met on 1 October and this was the sixth time it has met this year. It is scheduled to meet every two months but can meet more often as required. The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and jobs is expected to meet again in December. The Cabinet committee on mortgage arrears has met on eight occasions since its establishment in March 2012. It met on 14 March, 3 April, 24 April, 15 May, 5 June, 25 June, 19 July and 5 November. No date has been scheduled as yet for the next meeting. The Cabinet committee on climate change and the green economy has met on four occasions. In 2011, it met on 30 June and 20 December and in 2012 on 2 May and most recently yesterday, 5 November. I have chaired all four meetings and on each occasion have been accompanied by a senior official from my Department.
The Economic Management Council has met 32 times so far this year, most recently on 24 October and the next meeting is scheduled for tomorrow, 7 November. The Government has been working closely with the Irish banks to ensure that the banking sector supports economic recovery. As part of this ongoing process the members of the Economic Management Council last met the banks on 26 June. I expect that members of the council will meet the banks again later in the year.
The Economic Management Council has been established with the status of a Cabinet committee and has four members. They are the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform.
A second Secretary General has been appointed in my Department whose responsibilities include managing support for the council and who reports to the Tánaiste on matters relating to the council. Additional support for the council is provided from within the existing resources of my Department, working in close conjunction with staff from the Departments of Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Foreign Affairs and Trade. Advisers to each of the members of the council attend meetings on a regular basis in line with precedent.
The council's role is to manage the Government's programme in respect of economic planning and budgetary matters; the economic recovery programme, including the representation of Ireland internationally in negotiations with the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund troika; the integration of the work of Government Departments and agencies in these matters; and the co-ordination of banking policy.
I thank the Taoiseach for that response. One is impressed at the number of sub-committees the Taoiseach has established. What interaction takes place between those sub-committees? One suspects there is a degree of overlap between the operation of the Economic Management Council, the sub-committee on economic recovery and jobs and the sub-committee on mortgage arrears.
The Taoiseach previously indicated to the House that the Economic Management Council was seriously addressing the issue of mortgage arrears, yet we recently heard from Ms Fiona Muldoon of the Central Bank that the performance of the Irish banking sector is far from ideal or satisfactory. Ms Muldoon, strangely, described the Irish banks as acting like teenagers.
Does the Taoiseach share the concern of this side of the House that far too little is being done about the personal debt and mortgage problem? Some 23% of mortgage holders are either in arrears or have had their mortgages restructured following consultations with the banks. About 167,000 Irish families or individuals are affected.
One lauds the work done by the Minister for Justice and Equality on the Personal Insolvency Bill, but I suspect the Taoiseach would agree that the Bill on its own is not enough to solve the major problems that confront Irish mortgage holders and that the Government, through these committees, needs to be far more active in bringing forward solutions for mortgage holders, whether in Mayo, Dublin West, Kildare or wherever, and in offering some solution to families that are inordinately hard pressed by personal debt.
Was it within its terms of reference for the sub-committee on health to consider the controversial issues of primary care centres or the national children's hospital? We welcome today's decision by the Cabinet to select the St. James's Hospital site. We will be keenly interested to see the background studies that led to this decision. I am sure the Government will be publishing the Dolphin report which will give us an understanding of the reasons behind the choice of that location. We were also interested to learn that the Tánaiste saw fit to get his own advice on that initiative. Was the Tánaiste in a position to bring his personal advice to the sub-committee on health? Was he able to bring his advisers to those meetings to participate in the process?
The European section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been moved to the Taoiseach's own Department. Nevertheless, questions to the Taoiseach on matters relating to Europe are automatically transferred to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. We have yet to see a major policy statement from the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste or the Government on reform of the European Union. Last week, the Taoiseach said, with regard to treaty changes and the budget, that his policy was to wait and see what comes up. When might the House hear a definitive statement on Ireland's vision for the development of the EU budget and reform of the European Union?
Before the Taoiseach replies, I remind the House that questions relating to the activities of individual Cabinet committees are not in order, as the activities of the committees are subject to Cabinet confidentiality. Hence the wording of the questions as to how often the committees have met rather than the content of what was discussed.
The role of the cabinet sub-committee on mortgage arrears was to oversee the effect of implementation, on a cross-departmental basis, of the Government's response to the issue of mortgage arrears; to agree a detailed implementation plan for the recommendations of the interdepartmental report on mortgage arrears, which was published; to ensure appropriate priority was given to the delivery of this implementation plan across Departments and agencies; and to develop any further measures in relation to mortgage arrears required in light of the developments. Outside the sub-committee, we had a number of meetings with the banks where the issue of mortgage distress and arrears was discussed at some length.
Deputy Ó Fearghaíl is aware that the deputy governor of the Central Bank, Mr. Matthew Elderfield, regulates the operation of the banks. He has been clear and forthright in what he has required from them. Deputy Ó Fearghaíl is also aware that I wrote formally to the regulator last year to say that if he required any further legislative authority the Government would consider giving it to him.
The regulator responded that he did not consider it necessary at this time to seek any further powers.
The Government's work is focused on four areas, including resolution strategies by the banks in respect of mortgage arrears and distressed mortgages. This has fluctuated in terms of those who are unable to pay over the 90 days or the 30 days, as the case may be. The complex legislation dealing with the Insolvency Bill starts Report Stage in the House today and, at the same time, there is the development in parallel to the Bill of the insolvency service of Ireland. The new director has already taken up office and has advertised for competent staff from the Department of Justice and Equality. He has the support of the Central Bank regarding the framework or the strategy he must put in place and in regard to responses to advertisements for accountants and legal personnel who will be required to do that. Third, and most importantly, the Government is focused on keeping families in their homes. What better news can a family have in challenged times where one or two might have lost a job or fallen on difficult times that a resolution has been arrived at or agreed in terms of their mortgage position? The banks did not have trained personnel in the last number of years to deal with these individual cases. That matter is now rectified. Banks have trained personnel to sit down with individuals who have a difficulty with their mortgage, be it arrears or a business that is thriving but is being pulled down by having entered the property market. Fourth, comprehensive advice and guidance is being provided by the Minister for Social Protection, along with the Citizens Advice Bureau. A comprehensive mortgage information and advice service available is online which addresses all those key issues and provides necessary support in advising people who have mortgage distress. This is available at www.keepingyourhome.ie. The mortgage arrears information helpline has been available since last July and the independent mortgage arrears advice service was launched by the Minister for Social Protection on 6 September.
Further, the Central Bank, as the regulator of credit institutions, asked all mortgage lenders to prepare and submit to it mortgage arrears resolution strategies and implementation plans. Following the receipt of those plans, the Central Bank commenced an in-depth engagement process with the lenders on their plans. It is not sufficient for banks merely to arrive at a solution by saying it is putting people on interest-only arrangements or kicking matters down the line. That does not deal with the problem and they know that. It is a case of each lender having an effective strategy to deal with each individual circumstance because, as the Deputy knows from his constituency, his county and his business, all these circumstances are different. The fact is that banks now have trained personnel to deal with each individual case, be it restructuring of a small and medium enterprise loan, the case of a business that is being dragged down by property or a residential mortgage in distress or arrears. The banks had to refine their proposals and commit to the Central Bank to build on existing forbearance solutions so they can extend the range of options open for people to sort these things out. There are split mortgages and trade down mortgages, restructuring of mortgage repayments and forbearance. Those have been piloted by the banks. I am not happy it is moving fast enough, although when I speak to some bank personnel they point to several thousand of these mortgage holders having arrived at an agreeable solution with those involved. I am not happy that many of these are merely putting people on interest-only payments for the next six or 12 months. We must arrive at a solution because they are still in the system. From that point of view, the regulator, whom I met yesterday at the Cabinet sub-committee dealing with this, is moving on to the different sectors that apply here and is dealing with the detail being presented to him by the banks that he requires as part of his regulatory responsibility. As I said to him, and repeated again recently, if the regulator needs further legal authority or provision of authority from Government, that will be available to him.
I like to think - I said this to the banks - that they will be taking their programmes on to local radio stations all over the country to explain to people what new lending they have put in place in each county and how many mortgage problems they have sorted out on a monthly basis so the people are informed and do not hide from something that will come at them sooner or later and there is a facing up to the issue. Between the programmes provided by the Government, the plans that are in place and the requirements under the regulator's responsibility at Central Bank level, everyone must sit down together as quickly as possible to arrive at a solution irrespective of what that might mean.
The insolvency agency will become operational on 1 February next year and that means there is now an incentive for the banks to deal with these issues because people in mortgage arrears or distressed businesses will have the opportunity to take a different course through the insolvency agency when it is established. The legislation must still go through Report and Final Stages and there are quite a number of amendments. The position is not as good as I would like it to be, but, out of all of the confusion and lack of clarity, things are now beginning to take shape. When I meet people who have serious problems with their mortgages, it is wonderful to have that pressure relieved and taken off them, that they can keep their homes and solutions have been arrived at. As the Deputy is aware, in a small number of cases, clearly the situation is impossible as far as the financial circumstances of a particular person might be.
I put it to the Taoiseach that the proposals the banks are insisting on with regard to mortgage arrears are to the benefit of the banks at all times and not of the thousands of owner-occupiers who are in difficulty. The Taoiseach said during Leaders' Questions that he would extend the remit of the Cabinet sub-committee on mortgage arrears into a more general approach to the banking sector. Last week, we got a lot of detailed insight from the senior executives of three of the main banks who appeared before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform. AIB reported 34,000 mortgage accounts were subject to forbearance at June 2012. That is the strange language of banking; "forbearance" means mortgages in distress and people in distress trying to meet the payments or unable to meet them because their economic circumstances have changed. The so-called "solution" was that 66% of those owner-occupiers were put on interest only arrangements. That is highly unsatisfactory and merits the attention of the Cabinet sub-committee on mortgage arrears. What sort of perspective is it for an ordinary working person or pensioner who, to hold on to his or her home, a basic human right, is literally shackled to the bank, paying nothing but interest on mortgages that many people were forced to take out to get a roof over their heads or start a family because of the extortionate house prices at the time?
For these people it is an eternal ball and chain of debt.
We need much more radical solutions. The next committee meeting should consider not this painful one-to-one consultation process the banks advised us they engage in, but rather a general write-down of the false value of homes to the real value and a calibration of the monthly mortgage repayments accordingly. At a stroke, that would lift a massive burden of debt from an entire generation of people and free up billions of euro that could then go into the real economy for jobs and services because people could spend in shops and on services which would be a big help in regenerating the crucified domestic economy. Since the Government has followed line by line the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government approach of bailing out the authors of this economic and banking crisis, at huge cost to the people, why will there not be a similar predisposition for the tens of thousands of our people who are in this dreadful situation? Why does the Government keep them in the shackles of these financial institutions which, along with the developers and European speculators, caused the problem in the first instance?
We have a difficulty here. The question the Deputy tabled was to ask the Taoiseach "the number of Cabinet sub-committee meetings that he has attended recently". We are now talking about the whole area of mortgage relief. This is a matter not for Taoiseach's questions but for individual Ministers. I am trying to be as lenient as possible but am getting myself into fierce trouble because one question can go on for 35 or 40 minutes. I will be more strict in future. We are not entitled to discuss what goes on at Cabinet committee meetings because they are subject to Cabinet confidentiality. I understand the Deputies wish to raise important issues, but I ask them to do so by way of a parliamentary question to the appropriate Minister if it is not the Taoiseach. I ask the Taoiseach to do the best he can.
A Cheann Comhairle, you are the boss and-----
No, I am not. I am just adhering to Standing Orders.
I understand that.
I am obliged to point these things out. It is not that I want to be awkward at all.
I appreciate that. In respect of the comments - the speech - made by Deputy Higgins, I told Deputy Ó Fearghaíl that I do not regard it as being acceptable that the solution arrived at in restructuring mortgages in the majority of cases is merely to put them on interest-only payments for a period when the issue will come back again in any event. That is a recurring decimal, as it were, that keeps the pressure on people because they know their circumstances will not improve in the short term and, therefore, the problem still exists. Bearing in mind the Government's plan for available options, there are requirements of the regulator and the Central Bank for banks to respond by sector and to give detailed reports on what is happening in the various sectors in terms of restructuring of business loans, splitting a mortgage and loan between a residence and a business where the business is being sucked down by virtue of the business person having entered the property market, and the capacity to have trade-down mortgages, split mortgages, restructuring of mortgage payments and forbearance. One cannot give a general absolution because somebody must pay for it all and the Deputy has not indicated who that might be.
The banks have been recapitalised at public expense. The Deputy is aware that the Government restructured the sector from six banks to two. They are recapitalised to the highest level. We are pursuing that discussion at European level where the Council made its decision on 29 June. That said, if Mr. and Mrs. Higgins from place X, for example, have a problem in terms of mortgage distress, mortgage arrears or whatever, general absolution will not reach that far. There must be a direct conversation and dialogue between the borrowers and the lender to arrive at a solution. As a solution, it is not good enough to put people's mortgages on interest-only payments interminably. That does not deal with the requirement to repay the capital and the amount drawn down in the first place. We will be far more active in requiring banks to arrive at a solution that is real and will keep a roof over the heads of people in the majority of cases. The planned insolvency agency will offer a different route, and this acts as an incentive for banks to make these decisions in the near to medium term. I hope they do that.
I respect the Ceann Comhairle's wishes about the nature of the questions.
I am somewhat anxious about how I should proceed, but I will-----
You understand the position I am in, I hope.
Yes, absolutely. I do not take issue with what you said.
In raising these issues I understood the point was to try to get information and have some clarity around some of the matters involved. I tabled three questions on different issues: the Cabinet sub-committee on mortgage arrears, the Economic Management Council, and the Cabinet sub-committee on health. These are three major areas of work. As the conversation has taken a certain direction, I will start with the issue of mortgage arrears.
In response to a question from another Teachta, the Taoiseach said he was not satisfied that this was moving fast enough. When he announced the Cabinet sub-committee on mortgage arrears in March, he said more or less the same thing. He said he was frustrated that we had not been able to move as quickly as we wanted to tackle the mortgage crisis. Since then, we have learned that 160,000 families are in mortgage arrears.
I will make a number of suggestions if it is in order to do so. Has the Government - not the sub-committee - considered capping interest rates for those on variable rate mortgages to prevent the banks piling on even more pressure? Will the Taoiseach elaborate on expanding the remit of the Cabinet sub-committee on mortgage arrears, to which he referred?
There is considerable dependency on the part of the Government on the goodwill of the banks. While I was not at the committee meeting, I read the reports of the disdain with which a bank's CEO treated the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform. He refused to answer on this very issue of mortgage arrears. He stonewalled the appropriate Oireachtas authority and he would not even confirm his salary. This is what we are dealing with.
While the Taoiseach might have outlined this in his preliminary answer, does he intend calling in the representatives of the banks again and, if so, when? In earlier references to the Personal Insolvency Bill, the Taoiseach said it would allow the banks to engage. Has he discussed any of this with the banks, and what has their response been thus far?
At the height of the Celtic tiger, Sinn Féin argued that the surplus wealth should be socialised and put into public services, schools, infrastructure and hospitals in a way that would sustain jobs. We were laughed out of it, dismissed and lampooned. There is no problem with socialising the debt, however. There is no problem with expecting ordinary taxpayers, working people, 500,000 unemployed people and the elderly to carry the burden. That is why these issues are so crucial in terms of how we come to tackle them. I would like to get some clarity from the Taoiseach as to whether it is reasonable to impose a cap on variable mortgage interest rates and engage with the banks to ensure they do what they are supposed to be doing now that they are mostly funded and owned by the taxpayer.
The Cabinet sub-committee on mortgage arrears was set up to deal with the issue of mortgage distress being caused to significant numbers of people throughout the country. It is not the case that the Government can direct the banks to do what it would wish. We want the two pillar banks, which were previously dysfunctional and have been downsized, to be able to return to engagement with the markets and thus to commercial banking. The sub-committee on mortgage arrears made a valuable input to the options prepared by Government for dealing with mortgage distress and arrears and to its communication with the regulator in the Central Bank, which expressed the urgency for him to require the banks to submit their plans to him for appropriate regulation and pointed out that should he require further powers of authority we would provide him with them. In terms of my wish to extend the remit of the sub-committee to other areas of banking, a number of major issues will need to be dealt with into the future, and I intend to address these.
At a European level - this relates to the point made earlier by Deputy Ó Fearghail - the European Council, which is made up of the Heads of State and Government of the 27 member countries, made a decision on 29 June requiring that the vicious circle of sovereign and bank debt be broken. This was a major change in direction. At its last meeting, the European Council put flesh on this principle by saying that nothing can be done about this until such time as the legal framework has been put in place. That legal framework is to be in place by 1 January next. The Ministers for Finance of the euro group were then mandated to discuss the conditions, operations, mechanics and modalities of how this will operate. I expect this will become effective during the course of 2013. However, this does not mean that Ireland's particular circumstances, which have been recognised as being special because it was first out of the block and has already recapitalised its banks, cannot be worked on and brought to a conclusion which would reflect the decision of 29 June whereby Ireland's financial position will be reviewed with a view to, as provided for in the wording of the Council decision, improving its debt sustainability. Deputy Adams will be aware that the Minister for Finance is pursuing the issue of the promissory notes through negotiation with the European Central Bank.
I was remiss in not replying fully to Deputy Ó Fearghaíl's question on the health issue. The Dolphin report and all relevant documents in terms of claims for and against location of the hospital will be published. The planning papers dealt with by Mr. Martin and Mr. Clear, who were mandated by the Minister to reflect on the proposal, will also be published. In so far as our vision for Europe is concerned, our aim, through the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, is to restore Ireland to being a respected member of the European Union, one which contributes to its future and prosperity. Ireland contributed cogently at the various meetings of officials and Ministers on the six pack, two pack, compact for jobs and so on, which is reflected in a particular way in the remarks of other leaders and agencies, be it the IMF or otherwise.
There have been seven or eight detailed analyses of Ireland's performance thus far. The people are pragmatic and understand that sometimes hard decisions must be made in the common good. Our vision for Europe is for Ireland to work within the European Union to bring about the Single Market, prosperity under the digital market and to deal with the opportunities for countries to be run properly so that as an exporting nation other economies can buy our goods, which has been reflected in the double digit percentage exports in a number of areas. If every country was in a position to run its own economy well within the Union, its potential would be increased enormously.
It is hoped that during Ireland's Presidency from 1 January next, with 1,500 to 1,600 meetings to be held, Government and all the agencies will work diligently to make progress on the decisions that need to be taken to increase trade prospects with places such as Canada, Japan and the US and to address the potential of the Single Market, digital market, data protection and all other areas wherein there is enormous scope. I hope that provides the Deputy with a flavour of the Government's vision for the Union. There are currently 18.5 million unemployed in the European Union. This position will not improve unless politicians at leadership level make decisions that will impact on it. We hope to play our part in that.
May I ask a couple of brief supplementary questions?
Yes but the Deputy must do so quickly as we have already spent 36 minutes on what are effectively statistical questions.
Notwithstanding what the Taoiseach had to say on the mortgage and personal debt situation, given that we are dealing with a pretty quantifiable number of people in terms of the 167,000 people in mortgage arrears, I believe there is a need for due diligence by the lending agencies in terms of the processing of cases individually. Has a timeframe been decided within which those who with some assistance can be helped with their mortgages and those who will never be able to bear the burden now upon them must be identified?
I thank the Taoiseach for his remarks in regard to the work of the sub-committee on health. I believe I was in order when I asked if the terms of reference of the sub-committee allowed for discussions around issues such as the children's hospital, primary care centres, the withdrawal of discretionary medical cards, including discretionary medical cards for seriously ill children.
That is not a matter relevant to these questions.
I wish the Government well with the Presidency and acknowledge the outstanding work being done by the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, since she took up office in this portfolio. Does the Government intend to publish a statement on Ireland's position in regard to the European Union budget and future reform?
The issues raised by the Deputy have nothing to do with the questions before us. I call Deputy Higgins on a brief supplementary in regard to the questions before us.
I hear the Ceann Comhairle.
I hope so. If not, we will not reach the next question which the Deputy has tabled.
I will be brief.
It is a pointless exercise.
It is not and I will tell the Ceann Comhairle why.
It is a pointless exercise.
The Ceann Comhairle made the point about Cabinet confidentiality and sub-committees.
That is correct.
I accept that. However, the Taoiseach is responsible to the Dáil for the workings of the Cabinet sub-committees. Therefore, it is quite in order that he should report on the general-----
It is not in order that the Taoiseach report what he discusses at Cabinet sub-committees. That is a matter of Cabinet confidentiality.
That is the point I am making. The Taoiseach has a responsibility to report to the Dáil on the role of the sub-committees. In this regard, it is legitimate to ask about general policy points that should be-----
The Deputy may think so but it is not. I will have a note drawn up and circulated to those who are interested in this issue. We will then know exactly where we all stand. That includes, with respect to the Taoiseach who has to reply to questions, the type of replies given. Despite having spent 29 minutes on these questions, which relate to when sub-committees last met and how often they meet, we have ended up discussing policy on mortgage arrears.
I am asking about the role which the Cabinet sub-committee could play in regard to these crucial issues.
Questions to the Taoiseach will become meaningless if all we can do is ask how many times the committee met and when he says five times we say it should have met six times. It makes a nonsense of it and it is similar with regard to other matters.
Unless a general approach to the huge crisis of owner-occupiers in grave difficulties is implemented there will be no relief for the thousands who are in difficulties. As the Taoiseach knows, mortgages of 40 years were taken out. People could have been ten years into such mortgages when the crash happened. Are they now to have ten years of paying interest only and then go on the treadmill for another 30 or 40 years of repayments? This is an impossibility. This is why the committee must discuss radical measures. It may go against the ethos and workings of capitalism but we are speaking about our people. The banks and financial institutions should be at the behest of the interests of society and not the other way around.
To answer Deputy Ó Fearghaíl, the banks now know the circumstances which apply in the vast majority of cases where mortgages were taken out. However, what Deputy Higgins said is not true because one cannot apply generality to all of these cases. There are individual circumstances and they must be dealt with individually. I came across a case recently where a person with a very good job died. The couple had built an enormous house and it will not be possible to meet repayments on it because the big salary is gone. In other cases small businesses or enterprises were running very well but during the course of the Celtic tiger the owner may have become involved in purchasing a property in Spain or another country and now finds it is dragging down the business. This is a very different circumstance to the previous case. Banks now know the scale in each sector of what must be done. They tell us they have trained their personnel to speak with these people and work out solutions. I would like to see far more comprehensive solutions than putting people on interest-only payments for a while. I hope this can apply.
With regard to the Cabinet sub-committee on health, the overseeing role of the sub-committee allows for issues to be discussed, such as how to deal with the backlog of 58,000 medical cards which built up; the process and progress made on dealing with the drugs companies to reach a deal worth more than €400 million over three years; the legislation prepared on risk equalisation; the €125 million secured from the private health insurers for beds in public hospitals; the development of chronic disease management programmes; the provision of the vaccination programme for girls against the human papilloma virus, HPV, in sixth year in secondary school with 48,000 children vaccinated to date; and the commencement of legislation to eliminate restrictions on GPs wishing to obtain contracts to treat public patients under the general medical services scheme. All of these issues are of concern to people every day and can be discussed by the Cabinet sub-committee on health. Without infringing confidentiality, the issues of the day can be raised there. The sub-committee can focus in a very timely way on issues which might in the normal course of events drag on for a very long time. I find that instead of meeting once a quarter or twice a year as they used to, when one requires Cabinet sub-committees to meet more often one gets results. The sub-committees have the potential to focus on an issue, release the pressure, make a decision and move on. The decision made by the Government today on the paediatric hospital threaded its way through information provided to the Cabinet sub-committee.
13. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the plans he has to review the progress made with the implementation of the Programme for Government. [41492/12]
14. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach the steps he will take to review the progress of the implementation of the Programme for Government. [44570/12]
15. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach his plans to publish a progress report on the implementation of the Programme for Government. [47410/12]
16. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of his staff that are allocated to the Programme for Government Office in his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48016/12]
I propose to take together Questions Nos. 13 to 16, inclusive.
Last March, the Tánaiste and I launched the Programme for Government Annual Progress Report 2012 which set out the Government’s work and achievements in its first year in office. It is my intention to publish a second progress report next March, which will review progress made by Government during its second year.
Earlier this year all Departments published their strategy statements for the period 2011 to 2014. These demonstrate that every Department is clear on which commitments it has responsibility for and is fully focused on working towards delivering them in turn.
The programme for Government office established in my Department is fully engaged with all Departments in monitoring progress on all the commitments contained in the programme. The office comprises three staff together with an intern from the JobBridge programme.
The programme for Government 2011-2016 is a five year plan. The pace of delivery will vary for each commitment. Many commitments have already been delivered in full and there are others where substantial work is under way. Some will take longer and will be implemented over the lifetime of the Government. While there remains much to be done, I am satisfied that good progress is being made and there will be much to report on next March.
I welcome the fact that a progress report will be made in March. However, if we take stock here, we have dealt with mortgage distress and education but the two big issues affecting people are health and jobs. The Taoiseach promised universal health insurance with equal access to care for all. A White Paper was to be published in the Government's first term. An implementation group was established in February but there does not seem to have been much progress since then. We still do not have legislation for free GP care for those with a long-term illness. A particularly sensitive and urgent issue, given the news about suicide, is the fact that the Government promised to ring-fence €35 million for mental health and 414 new posts but the money was not ring-fenced and the 414 posts have not been delivered. The Taoiseach also promised additional funding for the elderly and to provide more home care packages and residential places. Instead 1 million home health hours have been sliced and 900 beds in public nursing homes are being closed. I could go on but I am conscious of the time restraints.
The programme for Government rightly identified jobs as one of the major challenges facing the Government. Earlier the Taoiseach spoke about us being praised for the progress we have made, but 500,000 people are unemployed. The first annual review last March trumpeted progress made in the jobs crisis such as the establishment of NewERA and the strategic investment fund, but after 18 months in office the Government still has not introduced legislation to put NewERA, whatever its merits or demerits, on a statutory footing. A year after the strategic investment fund was announced we still do not have legislation to give effect to it. Despite what Sinn Féin has constantly said, the Government has not brought forward a stimulus package. We have nowhere near the 60,000 additional education and training places promised in the programme for Government.
In the progress report will the Taoiseach bring forward a specific focused report on health? Do the commitments in the programme for Government on jobs still stand? When will legislation be brought forward on NewERA and the strategic investment fund? When will the 60,000 promised education and training places be delivered?
This is a five-year programme and we are just over 18 months into the lifetime of the Government.
Does the Taoiseach agree that when he reviews the progress made on the implementation of the programme for Government, he will have to acknowledge that, unfortunately, any job strategy he envisaged has been a spectacular failure? What is his view on the fact that there are 33,000 fewer jobs now than at the end of last year, some 87,000 have emigrated in the past 12 months, the highest figure since the 1800s, and the unemployment rate is 15.1% according to EUROSTAT? Does the Taoiseach agree, therefore, that a very serious review is needed and that it should conclude that the policies of bailout and austerity must be jettisoned in favour of a different and completely radical policy of public investment to lead to job creation? Can the Taoiseach not see that continuing with the policies of the previous Government represents a disastrous failure for our people? It is not a question of reading out a list of algebraic details on what has been done but a question of the lives and quality of life of the people and the future for young people. On these grounds, a complete change of policy is called for. Does the Taoiseach not realise this?
I do not accept that at all. In the past 12 months, more than 17,000 jobs have been created in the private sector. While a live register figure of more than 430,000, including those working part-time, is much too high, the Deputy will acknowledge that there has been a change in the order of 12,500 every month on the live register since the beginning of the year. This demonstrates the movement within the labour market. Unfortunately, the people in question are replaced by others, which is not satisfactory. The Government introduced a levy to allow for a reduction in VAT in the hospitality sector, resulting in the creation of 7,000 jobs there. Many hoteliers have informed me that they have had the best year for many years because they have changed their programmes and have produced real opportunities for customers to avail of bargains. Our approach is the reason we managed to have the troika's memorandum of understanding changed to exempt 330,000 from the requirement to pay the universal social charge. It is why almost 10,000 jobs have been created under the JobBridge scheme, which is one of the best of its kind in Europe. It is driven by the private sector, working together with the Department of Social Protection. We introduced the partial loan credit guarantee scheme for small and medium-sized enterprises and the microfinance agency for very small operators, and we pay the PRSI for employers who take on a person who is on the dole. Our approach makes it easier for employers to take on staff for short-term work - at Christmas, for example - without those staff losing their existing benefits or medical cards. One can return seamlessly to availing of social protection when the short-term contract has expired.
We continue to work with the relevant agencies on drafting legislation for NewERA. The potential to sell some State assets is being assessed with a view to having sustainable employment. In dealing with social protection fraud, we expect that, by the end of next year, 600,000 biometric cards will have been produced to end the perception that every person who is, unfortunately, in receipt of social protection is engaged in some sort of scam. The majority of people I know who are on social protection want to work. The Government must emphasise this in order to cut out the red tape and administration and make it easier for employers to take on new employees. The new Intreo service, which I had the privilege of launching with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, in Sligo recently, means those on social protection will not just be treated as statistics drawing money. They will have an opportunity to contribute and follow a career and lifestyle. They will have an opportunity to change direction and get a job.
Austerity is failing the domestic economy.
It is a question of providing education for employment, not just education for education's sake.
I do not accept the Deputy's argument at all. On the contrary, the entire focus of the Government has been to shift away from the type of picture he paints.
I welcome the Taoiseach's promise to publish a review in March. I hope it will be deserving of classification in the non-fiction category of our bookshelves. The Government rightly gave a strong commitment in the programme for Government in the area of education, including a commitment to protect and enhance the educational experience of children. In the aftermath of that declaration, the Taoiseach cannot deny that there have been several occasions of considerable disappointment in this regard. The first was when the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, broke his written pledge to third level students in regard to fees. On the next occasion, funding to schools under the Delivering Equality of Opportunities in Schools, DEIS, programme was brought into question. Special needs assistants then found themselves coming under challenge and, in addition, the guidance counsel system across the country was at least undermined if not in fact decimated. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is very conscious of the critical role guidance counsellors play in our schools, particularly in light of the tragic deaths in recent weeks of very young teenagers as a result of cyberbullying. There was never a greater need for funding to be concentrated in this area.
Another issue of concern in the area of education relates to the processing of third level grant applications, with students throughout the country arriving at politicians' constituency clinics to report delays. We wish the new Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, service well. I am sure it will work effectively in the future but, in the meantime, 48,000 of the 66,000 students who applied for a grant are still awaiting a decision. In accordance with the commitments given in the programme for Government, does the Taoiseach envisage additional resources being allocated to the processing system as a matter of urgency? Students should not have to wait until the end of this year to receive their grant. Some will be forced to drop out of third level education, where we all want them to remain, because the funding that is so essential to them is not forthcoming.
The Taoiseach indicated that some of the commitments in the programme for Government will not be dealt with until the end of what he described as the Government's "first term". That was interesting, fair play to him. While it might be fair enough in normal times to put some issues back over the four or five-year term of a Government, these are not normal times. There are priorities to deal with, some of which I have itemised. I asked the Taoiseach if he will bring forward a progress report on the health sector. It is the one sector that affects every single family in this State.
I endorse the Taoiseach's call for people to vote "Yes" in the referendum on children. I have, however, two concerns arising from my own experience of canvassing on the issue. It is clear that some people will vote "No" because they justifiably do not have any trust in the way the State is treating and has treated children. While I acknowledge that reality, I applaud the work of the Minister in seeking to change it.
The Deputy is straying from the questions we are discussing.
The other concern is that some people will vote "No" because they want to give the Government a black eye. I take this opportunity to appeal to those voters not to do so.
On the Deputy's last point, I thank all the Members of the House, with the exception of one, for their support for the referendum on children.
Who is the Member who does not support it?
This is a separate matter from any difficulties we might have in terms of political views on the economy or anything else. I recently met a young woman in Blanchardstown who spoke with courage and passion about the defilement of her body, mind and soul by her swimming coach. Her courage and strength was so far-reaching that nobody who heard her, irrespective of their political views and how we in this House might differ, could vote against a referendum that provides protection and a recognition of responsibility and rights for children. I hope people will get out and vote, having taken the opportunity to reflect on the information given to them by the independent referendum commission and all of the political parties and Members - all but one of them, I understand - who support the referendum proposal.
Come on, Taoiseach, who is this person?
The amendment will insert a specific article in Bunreacht na hÉireann setting out a new standard for this country whereby children will be both seen and heard and where their rights and their protection will be vindicated by the State. However, neither I, Deputy Adams nor the Minister can make that change to the Constitution. It is the people's Constitution and I hope they take that decision strongly on Saturday.
In the area of health, the programme for Government, from items 321 down to 410, sets out a range of issues that must be dealt with. The Department of Health, which is now under the leadership of the Minister, Deputy James Reilly, and the Ministers of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch and Alex White, was a jungle for many years, with no clarity as to where the whole process was headed. We are now, at least, getting clarity in a number of areas-----
Not in regard to primary care centres.
-----which will, in turn, lead to great change for the benefit of the people of this island, old and young, as we move towards introducing universal health insurance. I recognise that health is an issue which causes great difficulties, in any country, for Ministers. We hope to do the very best we can, working with everybody and in the interests of everybody, before the progress report in March, which will include a special section on health.
Will the Taoiseach name the person who opposes the referendum?
I heard a comment about it, but I cannot say for sure.