Leaders' Questions

One of the most memorable promises given before the Taoiseach came into government was by the now Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, who said the Labour Party, on coming into power, would reverse the charges for third level students. We all remember the iconic photograph of the Minister signing the famous contract outside Trinity College. He then set up SUSI. It would be fair to say no parent will ever call a child Susie again because students throughout the country have failed to get their payment to proceed to third level this year. Many students now find that they will not be able to continue with their courses because of the now infamous organisation that has been established.

They will not call them Ruairí either.

The Minister, Deputy Quinn, recently nailed his colours to the mast in expressing his bias against the sole trader and, in particular, the farming community. He made an unfounded allegation that they could manipulate their incomes so as to obtain grants. Last week, the Minister confirmed that it is his intention to bring proposals to the Government to classify working farms as so-called capital assets for the purpose of calculating eligibility for a third level grants.

If the proposal were to be accepted, it would severely discriminate against the farming community and sole traders. The reality is that most farm families, or most people farming, do not have an income in excess of €20,000, as the Taoiseach knows. Can he allay the fears of his backbenchers by stating he will not accept any proposal that would deviate from the principle of assessing income alone when students are being assessed for eligibility for third level grants, and that he will refuse utterly to go along with the proposal of the Minister on capital assets?

The Deputy referred to promises. I was reared on a diet of somebody belonging to the Deputy's tribe who intended on many occasions to drain the Shannon to sustain the people in the dark years of the economic war, the objective being that the small farmers of the west would see a light when all the water from the Cuilcagh pot would drain away into the Atlantic.

This is a serious issue.

That was a pretty serious promise. It affected Deputy Collins's county also.

I can confirm for Deputy Ó Cuív that the Cabinet has not considered anything like that on which he is speculating. With regard to the backlog that arose in respect of existing facilities for third level students and the payment of their grants, 69,000 applications were received this year, and payments have been made in respect of 88% of these. I believe 5,795 applications are still outstanding as SUSI has been waiting for more than six weeks for the required information.

SUSI is writing to them again this week. Actually, the process is very much ahead of what it was last year under the old system. Of the students who are currently in college and who applied for grants, nearly 6,000 have not sent any of the information that is required, and which is outstanding for six weeks, while 88% are approved. The Cabinet has not considered anything like what the Deputy has speculated.

When I went to school I learned the aimsir fháistineach. I did not say the Minister had brought a proposal to Cabinet but that he intended to do so. Can the Taoiseach reassure the House that when he does introduce such a proposal it will be rejected by the Taoiseach and the Cabinet, and that we will continue to do this in a equitable way, which is to assess families on their incomes? Otherwise, people who have set up companies would have a huge advantage over sole traders, and the vast majority of small businesses and farmers are sole traders. Can the Taoiseach confirm that he will not add to the litany of anti-rural actions taken by this Government, such as the Minister's discriminatory steps against small rural schools and rural transport, the Minister for Justice and Equality's attack on rural Garda stations and so forth, and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport's attack on the local improvement schemes?

They were reinstated last year.

There will be three in Kerry this year.

These and many other schemes were very important to rural communities.

That is the big boast.

Can the Taoiseach utterly confirm that no such proposal will be approved in this calendar year with regard to third level grants?

I am very glad the Deputy is interested in the aimsir fháistineach. He does not expect me to say that I will give approval to a document I have not seen. His own party did that for long enough. We deal in facts and decisions. I will not speculate on anything that a Minister might bring before the Cabinet. We will deal with issues as they arise and as Ministers present their memorandums.

The Deputy speaks about anti-rural bias. The good old days of using a lot of other people's money are gone. We have a very different situation to deal with. We cannot have Ministers driving around Connemara with cheques from the dormant accounts and giving them out for bóthar gainimh, bóthar sléibhte or whatever it was. The Deputy did very well out of that for a good while-----

A Cheann Comhairle, I ask the Taoiseach to withdraw that statement. No funds from dormant accounts were ever paid for any road in this country.

Resume your seat, Deputy. You cannot jump up and down.

The Taoiseach made a totally false allegation, and I ask him to withdraw it.

I withdraw it, if it is not true.

It is absolutely not true, and the Taoiseach knew it was not true. He knew also that when I was spending money-----

Please, Deputy.

Lots of people from An Spidéal heard that when gluastáin an Aire Stáit arrived it was about the old bóthar gainimh, the bits of tar and chips and all the good news the Deputy had for them from different funds.

Maigh Eo freisin.

The Deputy passed over the hill into Tourmakeady as well. Fair play to him.

I do not accept the Deputy's allegations of anti-rural bias. In fact, when the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, presented the budgets for 2012 and 2013, they included specific measures of assistance for small farmers and those involved in agri-business, and for rural areas in general. The Deputy is aware of, and has regularly spoken about, the difficulties people have in getting planning permission and in meeting the standards that have been laid down, as well as the changes in the demographics and population of many areas. In areas bordering the Deputy's county I am aware of swathes of countryside in which, in the last 30 years, a number of primary schools have closed because of depopulation. There is nobody to attend them and there never will be, because one cannot get planning permission to build. The structure is changing in that regard. The overall focus of the Government is to continue to make decisions which, in as fair a way as possible, allow everybody to make their contribution and to be treated with respect and dignity.

Sular leanfaidh mé ar aghaidh le mo cheist ba mhaith liom mo chomhbhrón a dhéanamh le teaghlach an oifigigh PSNI, Philippa Reynolds, a fuair bás oíche Dé Sathairn seo caite. I express our condolences to the family of the PSNI officer Philippa Reynolds, who was killed last Saturday night when her patrol car was hit by a stolen car. She was going about the business of protecting the community when that occurred.

The McAleese report documented evidence of the abuses and denials of human rights to women in the Magdalen laundries, and confirmed the State's complicity in the detention of these women and girls in a plethora of ways. Before that, the Ryan report detailed issues regarding forced unpaid labour, denial of liberty to women and the significant physical and emotional abuse which took place in the laundries. I was disappointed with the Taoiseach's initial response when an Teachta Mary Lou McDonald invited him to apologise to the Magdalen women, but I very much welcome his meeting yesterday with the survivors and his commitment to them to apologise on behalf of the State during next week's debate on the report. This is a very important step. The Government should consider also making a commitment to ensuring the future well-being of these women. Having met them, the Taoiseach will know that many of them are elderly. This should become a priority for the State. The issue of pensions should be resolved and an effective redress scheme should be put in place.

A number of laundries, including those in Dún Laoghaire, Galway, Stanhope Street and Summerhill in Wexford, were not included in Dr. McAleese's report, nor were the Bethany Homes, to which girls and young women were also sent by the State. The survivors of those institutions also suffered abuse and hardship. In addition to what I hope will be a watershed moment for the victims of the institutions whom the Taoiseach met, will the Government also undertake to investigate these other institutions and propose a solution that meets the survivors' needs?

Ar dtús, chas mé le cuid de na hoifigigh sinsearacha den PSNI ag an deireadh seachtaine agus rinne mé comhbhrón ar son an Rialtais agus ar son mhuintir na tíre as ucht bás Philippa Reynolds, go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a hanam. Bean óg a bhí inti a bhí an-bhríomhar san obair a bhí ar siúl aici. Aontaím leis an Teachta maidir le comhbhrón a dhéanamh lena teaghlach.

I hope every Member has read all 1,015 pages of the McAleese report. When it was published last week, I indicated there would be a proper debate on it next week in the House. That will take place. I read the report and yesterday, with the Tánaiste, I had the privilege of meeting a number of women who were in the Magdalen laundries. I hope before the weekend to carry out a couple of other engagements both here and abroad. This report deserves an understanding of the scale and depth of what happened. As the author of the report pointed out, it is not a simple issue, but is quite complex in respect of the various circumstances and directions through which people arrived at the Magdalen laundries and the difficulties they encountered. Fianna Fáil has tabled a motion on the matter. Having given a clear signal of what we wish to do in this regard, I would have thought a political motion tabled in this way showed scant respect for the author of the report and less respect for the persons it is about.

I would have thought everybody in the Oireachtas, of all parties and none, would have reflected on what was the best thing to do. I hope we can do this in the course of the next few days as we formulate our response to the Dáil debate which will be held next week on the McAleese report. I thank Deputy Gerry Adams for his comments on the meeting we had yesterday.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. We have met Magdalen laundry survivors during the years. As I am advised that Nora Connolly O'Brien, the daughter of James Connolly, raised the issue decades ago, it is not as if it was unknown. There are many issues which need to be dealt with. In a real republic these things should not happen, but they did. It is not the Taoiseach's fault and it did not happen on his watch, but the report was delivered on his watch. He is a decent person. I do not want to sound patronising, but he has a good heart. There is a significant opportunity to acknowledge that what was done was wrong. It is also important in terms of seeking redress, pensions and health care. One cannot happen without the other.

There are other cases. When I came here, I was foolish enough to say to our team that I thought the campaign on symphisiotomy could be won in this term. The barbarity of symphisiotomy, an issue on which Fine Gael and the Labour Party supported the victims while in opposition, has still not been resolved. The Government has a significant opportunity to make amends for what was done by others to the citizens involved. The issue of how people got there and whether they were sent by their parents is irrelevant. Either we believe in equality or we do not. If we do, every person who was a victim of the Magdalen laundry system, however they arrived there, needs the approach advocated by those who advocate on their behalf.

I found the meeting yesterday evening absolutely different in terms of the genuineness of the people concerned, the way they spoke, their stories, their personal accounts of their childhoods and their reflections 50 years on. The Irish Human Rights Commission carried out a report on the symphisiotomy issue four or five years ago. The Magdalen laundries were run by the religious orders. I do not want to say too much more about it, except to say I hope everybody who wants to contribute to next week's debate will do so with an attempt to understand all of the background and what happened and treat the issue with sensitivity and respect. It is probably very difficult to get all of this right. It has happened, but as one woman said to me, "There is a corridor in my mind and I never go into the room at the back because it is there every day; every day." The complexities and sensitivities range over a great deal of emotion and trauma. That is what we have to try to reflect in a Dáil debate. The State, as I said last week, should attempt in the best way it can to bring about a conclusion with a degree of fairness and sensitivity. That is what I hope we can address and I am sure the Deputy will contribute.

After the elation, back-slapping and self-congratulation on the Government benches last week on the promissory note deal or I should perhaps say re-mortgaging of our debt, people are, rightly, asking what the impact of this reconfiguration and restructuring of our debt will be on their lives in the coming years. As the Taoiseach is probably aware, what has been inflicted on the people in the past three years has been nothing short of horrendous. There is poverty in most communities; 250 people are leaving the country every day, and there has been a sharp increase in suicide rates linked with the recession. People see no end to tax increases, cuts in welfare payments and wages. In recent days we have heard many vague statements that the bank deal will boost prospects for growth and job creation and that money saved will be spent on public services. Is it not time that we heard some specifics?

We have been told, for instance, that last week's deal will ease the pressure on the nation's finances, that the hypothetical wolf is no longer knocking on the Government's door. The Taoiseach has said the Government's restructuring of the deficit will mean that approximately €1 billion will be saved every year and that our borrowings will be €20 billion lower. What people want to know is what is planned for these sums of money which will not be leaving the Exchequer. Are there plans to slow down the pace of fiscal adjustment with easier budgets in 2014 and 2015? Will some of the money be put to use to ease the pressure on individual finances such as restoring some welfare benefits or a clawing back on the increase in VAT to 23% which is destroying job creation and spending in the economy? Will the Taoiseach make a commitment to prioritise job creation, given that the latest figures show that 14.5% of people are out of work? These are reasonable questions for people who have suffered a great deal and been led to believe the deal will benefit all the people of the country. Under the last Government, people had high expectations for the Taoiseach that things would change for the better. They expect something back on this occasion. Will they be let down?

The Deputy is a decent man and one of the few who did not suffer from depression because the Government had achieved what it had set out to 18 months ago. I do not know how Deputy Shane Ross is getting on in the meetings around the country with the four mad, wise or angry men - or whatever they are called - or if they are still meeting.

He is getting on well; he is up six points in the polls.

Does he have an audience now?

The Government set out 18 months ago a very clear strategy for its intention to restructure and re-engineer the promissory notes in order that the State would not have to borrow €3.1 billion every March and repay it based on these notes at high interest rates and continue to do so until 2023 and beyond to an amount of €48 billion in all. The whole Government was involved in the connections needed to build an understanding at European level, including the Minister and officials of the Department of Finance, the Governor and officials of the Central Bank and everybody else. I am glad that happened. It is a relief that markets are now looking at Ireland and seeing that we will need €20 billion less than was factored in in the next ten years, which makes the country even more attractive as a location for investment. That will be the big impact. Standard & Poor's has changed Ireland's rating slightly even since this happened. A great deal of interest has been expressed from the United States of America in the decision and the signal it sends. The consequence is that it will have an impact on our rate of growth, tax position and deficit and lead to jobs and stability.

That is where the real focus is. It is not acceptable to have an unemployment rate of 14.6%, more than 400,000 on the live register. It is a challenge of unprecedented proportions. Added to that are the numbers who have left, who have emigrated or who had no sense of hope here. The restructuring and re-engineering of the promissory notes is a major economic relief. It will impact on the budget deficit and on our growth rate and tax position. The €1 billion saved will bring us €1 billion nearer to getting our deficit down to 3% by 2015. We are only six weeks into the new year and I do not want to speculate in any way on the situation for next year's budget. The Government's emphasis is on jobs, growth and freeing up access to credit. Semi-State bodies, banks and other lending institutions will now have greater leverage to access credit themselves to pump into the economy, either through lending or investment which will have an impact on jobs. Hopefully some of that can filter down to the Deputy's constituency which has had a difficult time in recent years.

The definitive question that focused most people's minds, whether they were economists, politicians or ordinary everyday people was how we were going to effect an exit from the austerity that affected everybody. It was felt that if some deal was done on the promissory notes, whether through reconstruction or whatever, irrespective of whether some people agreed with it - I happen to believe that passing on the debt is not a good idea - within the two and a half years left to the Government, some specifics would be put in place to boost people's mental energy levels. They are depressed and downtrodden because of what has happened through greed and avarice in our society. People cannot wait three months, six months or a year to hear good news if any good news will come out of this at all. We need to hear it now. Those on the Government benches said that if we could get a reconstruction or reconfiguration of the deal on promissory notes the benefits would be passed on to the Irish people. People need to be told this over a short period.

Show us the money.

The debate on the promissory notes takes place later today. The removal of the notes which will be exchanged for long-term Government bonds has an average maturity of 34 or 35 years instead of the seven to eight years' average maturity on what was there. The reduction in the State's general deficit of approximately €1 billion which is 0.6% of GDP per annum will bring us €1 billion closer to getting down to the 3% by 2015. The requirement now is for €20 billion less of borrowing over the next decade which is important.

I agree with Deputy Halligan that it would be lovely to have good news every day. I can certainly confirm for the Deputy that in respect of the difficulties the south east has faced for quite some time, potential investors have laid significant emphasis on the area. Some like the place, some do not. The Deputy says that three weeks or three months is too long to wait. If he waits an hour and a half he might hear an interesting announcement about that part of the world.

Deputy Halligan can get the newsletter out.

Deputy Finian McGrath should sit up. We cannot hear him.

The real test and challenge to us all is to get into the business of creating the confidence and the investment climate in which jobs can be created.

Deputy Finian McGrath should know that it is a game of two halves.

The improved perception of the country from outside means that banks, semi-State companies and lenders can have greater access to, and flexibility in getting, credit. I note the comments of the Governor of the Central Bank in respect of the focus now. We are dealing with investment opportunities through the Cabinet sub-committee. We would like to think that in the Finance Bill coming before the House this week there will be further opportunities opened up for job creation and investment. This affects everybody. National morale lifts as a consequence. I agree that it would be lovely to have a magic wand to deal with this but unfortunately in politics and reality one has to take a very different course. I am happy that after 18 months of very tough, persistent discussion and negotiation the European Central Bank unanimously approved the deal in respect of Ireland. That is a help. We still have a very long way to go and believe me there is no room for complacency nor will there be.