Leaders' Questions

The Minister for Finance, following publication of the Mercer report on bankers' pay and so on, requested the banks to reduce the pay of bank workers by between 6% and 10%. The impression given by the Taoiseach and others at the time was that this was designed for the fat cats in the banks, the people earning hundreds of thousands of euro. The executives of Permanent TSB responded to the Minister's diktat by ceasing contributions to the defined benefit pension scheme, essentially winding up the scheme, with devastating losses for ordinary workers. The bank's response was only to target workers in the defined benefit pension scheme and some 70% of the workers will suffer devastating losses as a result of this action. Up until then the company had provided €127 million per annum. It decided to cease paying this €127 million and has withdrawn it from the pension scheme. Workers face a reduction of anything from 50% to 70% in their pensions. Those who expected to receive a pension of €30,000 a year on retirement will now only receive €5,000 a year. That is how devastating the loss will be for them. There is no recognition of length of service or the amount of contributions paid into the scheme to date.

The Government has washed its hands of this issue. When the Minister requested banks to implement a reduction in pay of between 6% and 10% in line with the recommendation made in the Mercer report, he said he would not be prescriptive and has consistently held to that line. It is up to bank executives to do what they wish. I remember the Taoiseach grandstanding here with me and others saying this was all about the fat cats in the banks and that they would have to lead by example. They led by example - they took very few cuts themselves. In this case they will not take any hit on their pensions, but they decided unilaterally to hit the workers via their pensions, with no cuts being made to their pay or anything else. They have done this indiscriminately and unilaterally in an arbitrary manner. They are savaging the pensions of workers in Permanent TSB, which is unfair and wrong. The Taoiseach has the power to change this. I ask him, first, to accept that this is unfair. Second, will he reassure the House that he will ask the Minister for Finance to engage with the executives of the bank to reverse this approach, which represents a very cynical implementation of a Government diktat in terms of overriding a pay reduction instruction to the banks? Those at the bottom of the pile are being hardest hit as a result of this action. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene and reverse it.

I do not know the details of the issue the Deputy has raised. Clearly, we had discussions in the House about the extraordinary levels of pay paid to the chief executives of a number of the banks. A few years ago they were as high as €3 million. When the Government came into office, an upper limit of €500,000 was put on the pay of top bankers and that limit has not been breached.

In regard to the Mercer report, the Minister recommended to the banks that they make a substantial contribution from pay and pensions in the order of 10%. The Government has not yet considered the Mercer report.

In regard to the TSB, this is an internal decision that has been taken by management and it has nothing to do with the Minister for Finance. I understand the matter is before the Labour Court; therefore, it is obviously not appropriate for me to comment without having all of the details before the Labour Court. I take the Deputy's point on the impact of this decision on ordinary workers and those on very ordinary rates of pension, but this is an internal management decision by the TSB which, as I understand it, is before the Labour Court.

The Government has the submission from the banks since the end of April. It is extraordinary and incredible that the Taoiseach says he does not have a clue about this issue and has no detailed knowledge of it, despite the fact that he protested loudly here that the Mercer report would be the be all and end all to get at the fat cats in the banks - the big executives with the big salaries. That was the context. The reality is, however, that it is hitting the workers at the lowest level in terms of their pension entitlements in a discriminatory and targeted manner. There are 1,200 workers involved in this institution. That is the reason they believe there is a disconnect between the official speak of the Government and the talk here and their experience of implementation of the report. The rhetoric means nothing to them when their pensions are being savagely cut as a result of this decision. It is not good enough for the Taoiseach to say this is an internal matter for the banks on this occasion because the Government took a decision to tell the banks to find between 6% and 10% in savings. The Taoiseach cannot wash his hands of the matter and say: "We do not care. It is not our business if the banks follow through on that instruction by hitting pensions that people have paid into for over 25 or 30 years." There are people in an incredible state of anxiety about what this means for them in their personal lives. They cannot believe they received a communication from their union and the bank stating they were sorry about this, but the pension they thought they would be receiving was going to be cut by 70% or more. That is the reality. Workers are coming to tell us this.

I find it incredible that the Taoiseach or the Government seem to be unaware of this. It has been raised in the Dáil by my colleague and other Deputies in the House already in recent weeks. I plead with the Taoiseach to get the Minister for Finance to intervene in this case and not to wash his hands of it or say it is someone else's business.

I reject Deputy Martin's assertion that the Government is washing its hands of this. This Government set down a limit for the pay of senior bankers. The previous Administration allowed situations whereby wages of up to €3 million were paid in respect of chief executives of banks.

We are not talking about senior bankers.

The pay levels set by the Government have not been breached in any case.

Only for advisers.

For Deputy Martin to say that the Government is washing its hands of this is just not real. The Minister commissioned the Mercer report in order that there would be a requirement to have a substantial pay and pensions contribution from bankers in this regard.

As I understand it, Deputy Martin is asking me to intervene in a situation that is before the Labour Court.

We are not talking about the Labour Court. We are talking about ordinary workers. Will the Taoiseach use plain language and stop this camouflaging?

Deputy Martin is asking me to intervene in a case involving Permanent TSB that is the consequence of an internal management decision and that is before the Labour Court.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Martin is asking the Minister for Finance to intervene in that. The Minister is well aware of what is going on. As Deputy Martin well knows, the Labour Court is part of the machinery of the State for dealing with disputes.

It is the Taoiseach's decision.

This dispute is not a consequence of the Minister's decision.

It is not a dispute.

Sorry, please, Deputy.

Sorry, it is not a dispute. The Taoiseach said to take 6% off and they are doing it through pensions. The Taoiseach should tell the truth.

It is an internal management decision of Permanent TSB. Yesterday Deputy Martin wanted the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to intervene in the planning process. Today, he wants the Minister for Finance to intervene in a Labour Court hearing.

Deputy Martin is the Leader of the Opposition now.

Deputy Byrne is a great representative of the working classes.

It is back to the old ways again.

Deputy Adams, please.

(Interruptions).

Settle down, please. Deputy Adams, please. Thank you.

(Interruptions).

I called Deputy Adams, please. Will you respect the Chair? Thank you.

This State is often described as a republic. My understanding of the term "republic" is a state in which citizens have fundamental rights.

We do not shoot them.

Yet every day we hear of citizens whose rights are being trampled upon. Who by? By the Government. This week the Government's target is the carers and those they look after. The respite care grant has been slashed by one fifth for some 77,000 carers and their loved ones. Cén saghas poblachta atá againn anseo?

The Taoiseach must know that this latest austerity cut will cause real hardship. Beidh bille crua eile le híoc ag na daoine seo, atá ag streachailt leis an saol cheana féin. The citizens, these carers, save the State over €4 billion every year. They have no legal entitlements to a holiday or a day off. Let us think about it. It does not even make economic sense because the Government cuts could force some of these people who are currently cared for at home into residential full-time care, and that would cost the State several times more than the Government is saving. Even at this late stage, will the Government change tack? Does the Taoiseach accept that if we really are a republic then the Government has a responsibility to protect the living standards and welfare of our most vulnerable citizens? Will the Taoiseach reverse this most unfair and unjust cut to the respite care grant?

In respect of services for older people, until 2011 in the republic of which Deputy Adams speaks there was no national approach to the procurement of home care providers to supply indirect services through the home care package scheme. Therefore, different standards and approaches were being taken throughout the country in different locations and this left the HSE vulnerable to challenges of anti-competitive behaviour and inefficient service. Most important, as Deputy Adams is aware, it left people in a vulnerable position because different practices had different standards applied to them throughout the country. In some areas of the country where there was no direct HSE provision for carers or where the HSE direct provision had not been sufficiently used, procuring services from what we call external providers was the only viable option to provide services and supports for older people who chose to remain at or return to their homes.

Some €392 million was allocated in 2013 to provide these services to approximately 100,000 older people. Approximately 20% of the population over 65 years received some element of home care or day support service annually. There is an obvious need to provide high-quality services that are flexible to address the needs of these people such as long-term residential care needs or acute hospitals needs.

The programme for Government commits to developing and implementing national standards for home support services because, as Deputy Adams is aware, people generally want to be able to stay in their own homes for as long as possible before it becomes necessary to have them move to a longer-stay institution. There will be, however, a need for primary legislation here and for the introduction of a statutory regulation system that will apply across the board. In the meantime, the standardisation of services, the promotion of access to services and quality and safety are matters of concern to the Minister. This means the procurement framework for home care services national guidelines for the standardised implementation of the home care package system. It also means dealing with the specific issue raised by Deputy Adams about respite care and the extent and range of it. We also need the provision of the new national health guidelines for the home help service which includes elements of respite care such as those Deputy Adams mentioned. These issues are constantly under consideration by the Minister and will be reflected in his budget Estimate for 2014.

For the information of Deputy Adams, there are approximately 10,800 home care packages for 2014, approximately 5,000 new home care packages for clients, more than 10.3 million home help hours and some 50,000 people in receipt of home help hours. There are 21,500 day care places, some 22,000 people funded under the nursing home support scheme and approximately 2,500 new elder abuse referrals, all of which are being considered in the context of these services for this year.

I am disappointed but not surprised by the Taoiseach's answer. The question I put was very direct and straightforward. There was no need for all the fog that the Taoiseach created around it. The fact is that this is the first month when 77,000 citizens who look after loved ones in their homes will feel the effect of a cut which gives them one fifth less than they had up until now. That is the reality. I asked the Taoiseach to reverse that cut because it is unfair and also because it is bad economics. If these people cannot be cared for at home and end up in institutional care it will cost the State even more.

The Taoiseach referred to elderly people. Naturally, some of these people who are cared for, these loved ones, are elderly people, but some are children or young adults who have severe disabilities as well. The Government has no problem protecting big bankers or giving its special advisers way over its set ceiling for pay. Clearly, the Government does not have a problem taking money from people who can least afford it. Will the Taoiseach just answer directly? Will he not consider, even now as the cut kicks in, reversing this? It will cost approximately €26 million. That is what it will cost. I ask the Taoiseach directly to stand up and say: "Yes, we are trying to be a republic, we do look after citizens who need our help and we will restore this cut."

This is the implementation of last year's budget. The decision was to reduce the annual respite care grant by €325 from €1,700 to €1,375 for new and existing recipients. The savings were to be €26.15 million in 2013 and the implementation date is June of this year.

Nobody denies that this has not been an easy budgetary decision to make, but it has been a necessary step as part of our country's economic renewal. While it is difficult to have to implement these decisions-----

Not for the Taoiseach.

-----it is important to bear in mind that the half-rate carer's allowance was maintained. The grant is still considerably higher, even after the reduction, than it was in 2006, before the economic crisis, when the rate was €1,200. The rate has increased from €635 in 2002 to its current level. The number of respite care grant recipients increased from 75,000 in 2010 to over 80,000 last year. Those who give their care, attention, time and love to their loved ones obviously receive significant income supports from the Government. This country's rate is among the highest rates of income support in Europe. The income disregard and the means test for carers is the most generous in the social protection system.

The Government has cut it.

What does Sinn Féin do in the North?

A couple under the age of 66 with a joint annual income of up to €35,400 can qualify for the maximum payment of carer's allowance while such a couple earning €59,000 will qualify for the minimum rate.

The Taoiseach should reverse the cut.

These are high rates.

They are multiples of what is available in the North.

Carers will receive additional supports in the form of free travel.

The Taoiseach should answer the question.

Carers who live with those for whom they care will receive house benefits.

What is the Taoiseach's opinion?

The Government has cut the house benefits.

Is that a "No" from the Taoiseach?

An annual respite care grant is also paid in respect of each person who is cared for.

It has been cut.

Why does the Taoiseach not answer the question?

People who are getting qualifying social welfare payments, and also providing full-time care and attention to another person, can keep their main social welfare payment and get the half-rate carer's allowance as well.

Come on, Taoiseach.

That is a disgrace.

Does the Taoiseach have any opinion?

They can also receive an extra half-rate carer's allowance if they care for more than one person in the same house.

That is disgusting.

Shame on the Taoiseach.

Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Teachta Tom Hayes. I would like to compliment my colleague and thank the Taoiseach for appointing him to the high office of Minister of State. I look forward to working with him.

That has got to hurt.

He will look after Tipperary.

That is from my heart.

The farmers of Tipperary are safe.

Last Saturday, an estimated 40,000 people attended a march in peaceful opposition to the proposed protection of life Bill 2013. They included people of all ages from all sections of society. They included people of all faiths and none. What they had in common was a peaceful determination to highlight the dangerous cultural shift that will inevitably take place if the Bill as it currently stands becomes law. A strongly worded and uncompromising statement emerged from the Irish Catholic bishops' conference yesterday. The bishops said in no uncertain terms that they believe the people of this country are being actively "misled" about the true nature of this Bill. Their statement continued:

The right to life is the most fundamental of all rights; it is the foundation of all other rights. No individual has the right to destroy life and no State has the right to undermine the right to life. Yet the Irish Government is proposing abortion legislation that will fundamentally change the culture of medical practice in Ireland. For the first time legislation will be enacted permitting the deliberate and intentional killing of an unborn child. This represents a radical change. Every citizen, not just people of faith, should be deeply concerned.

Who wrote the Deputy's speech?

They also raised the issue of freedom of conscience and the need for the State to respect the principles of its citizens, including politicians, on the issue of abortion. It is not too late for the Taoiseach to take note of these concerns, which reflect the worries of a significant proportion of our population, including most mental health professionals. It is not too late for him to reverse his decision to deny the members of his own party a free vote on this most contentious of issues. Will he do so? How can he continue to stand over the decision to apply the Whip to this issue and to force through a Bill that is legally flawed, medically unsound and constitutionally unnecessary? As recently as last summer, the Taoiseach's party mounted a campaign to reassure Oireachtas Members that the Government was not planning to introduce abortion. What a farce that has turned out to be.

Thank you, Deputy.

I am nearly finished, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Taoiseach understand why a growing number of people simply do not believe his repeated claim that this Bill is pro-life? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Time, a Cheann Comhairle.

In light of the mass demonstrations against this Bill that we are witnessing, does the Taoiseach accept that he is acting contrary not only to the best medical practice but also to the expressed wishes of the people who gave his party its mandate? They innocently believed he would stick to his pre-election promise not to introduce abortion.

I have made it perfectly clear that Governments are elected to govern in compliance with their constitutional responsibilities. Equally, I have made it clear that the members of the Government parties will not have a free vote on this matter. I remind Deputy McGrath that the Bill has not been published yet. He is talking about a Bill he has not actually seen. Last year, the Government set out the process it intended to undertake in this regard. As this has been a very sensitive and divisive issue in this country for over 30 years, I do not propose to play politics with regard to it. The Government set up an expert group which reported on a number of options. There were hearings before Christmas. The Government approved the heads of a Bill on 30 April last. That Bill was sent to the Oireachtas committee that is chaired by Deputy Buttimer. It held three days of hearings from expert groups, expert witnesses and people who wanted to give their views. Today, the Government is considering the response from the committee and finalising the explanatory memorandum and the Bill itself. The Bill will be published immediately after the Government concludes its work.

It is important for Deputy McGrath to understand that the legislation regarding abortion, or "illegal miscarriages" as they were called in the 1861 Act, has been around for a long time. The law that applies in respect of the approximately 30 terminations that took place in Irish hospitals last year is the same law that continues to apply. The protection of life in pregnancy Bill gives clarity for medical personnel and for women who are involved here. It is a requirement of the Government to govern. This is being done in respect of the X case and in respect of providing legal certainty arising from the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of A, B and C v. Ireland. It is not a case of the Government introducing legislation about abortion. It is a case of the Government providing legal certainty and clarity about a law that has been around for a long time. It has been adjudicated on by the Supreme Court, which found that the people have given pregnant women in this country the constitutional right to have a termination in certain very specific circumstances; that is, where their life is in danger.

This is about women. This is about saving lives. This is about understanding the requirement in the Constitution to give an equal right to the life of the unborn. It is also about ensuring the clinicians and medical personnel involved have a duty and a responsibility to see that everything practicable is done to save the life of the unborn child in cases where there are complex issues with particular pregnancies. The Government is finalising the Bill at the moment. It will be published as soon as the Government has deliberated on it. The legislation will come before the House before being sent back to the committee to be processed in the normal way. I have told Deputy McGrath that I have no wish to play any politics about this. Everybody in the country is entitled to have their opinion. Many people express their opinions in different ways.

I am not playing politics. I am speaking on behalf of people with sincerely held views.

If the Deputy rejoins Fianna Fáil, he can have a free vote.

(Interruptions).

The Deputies can laugh if they like. I can tell them that this is no laughing matter. The right of the unborn is a basic human right. It is the most fundamental right of all.

What about the woman?

I am not sure if the Taoiseach really believes we have to legislate on foot of the X case. Perhaps he is trying to convince himself that we do. I am not sure.

Who wrote that for the Deputy?

Either way, the Labour Party has certainly succeeded in moulding the Taoiseach in its image. That is a sad day for this country.

Who wrote that for the Deputy?

I reiterate that contrary to what the Taoiseach has insisted, in fact there is no legally compelling reason for us to legislate in this manner.

Where did the Deputy get the script?

Would you please allow the Deputy one minute to ask a question?

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.

Would you please put your supplementary question?

I am trying to. I would like to refer to what Dr. Maria Cahill of the faculty of law at UCC said before the recent Oireachtas hearings.

Can we have a copy of the Deputy's speech?

The Deputy can circulate it with the Lucan Gazette.

I sat through those hearings.

Tommy Morris will circulate it for him.

What the Bill asks us to do, as legislators, is to set aside entirely the medical knowledge we have and to legislate instead in defiance of science, and explicitly to contradict the best medical practice in the absence of legal justification for legislation. I hope the Taoiseach read the transcripts. I know he had not time to attend the hearings as he has been all over Europe and elsewhere, but it is very important that the listens to this advice.

Thank you, Deputy.

I put it to the Taoiseach that, for all his warm assurances, we can have absolutely no confidence that the State will act in the best interests of the unborn child-----

-----especially when the State has a litany of historical failures already existing regarding the lives of unborn children.

Like saving the mother.

From start to finish, this so-called debate has been a sham and a charade.

Finally, we saw the Minister for Health last night on "Prime Time"-----

A question, please.

I am finished. We saw him last night. My question is this. Will the Taoiseach listen to the people? Will he give a free vote? Will he not go to the country, ask the people for their opinion and allow the ultimate democracy?

The Deputy should circulate his script.

First, the Government takes its legal advice from the Attorney General, who is the legal adviser to the Government in a formal sense. That is where the Government takes its advice from.

It is a form of words.

Second, the Government is required to legislate for the X case. The Government does not have a requirement to legislate arising from the A, B and C case but it does have a requirement to provide legal clarity from that.

That is what Government will do. I want Deputy McGrath to understand that on two occasions in the past the people were consulted. The people are the masters here, and they confirmed-----

Why not give them the chance again? Third time lucky.

They confirmed and re-endorsed the constitutional rights of women in this country to have a termination of a pregnancy in specific circumstances. Those specific circumstances are where there is a threat to the life of the mother. The termination of a pregnancy running to full term, as the Deputy is well aware, can mean the birth of the child. Obviously, once the foetus becomes viable-----

The Minister, Deputy Reilly, could not answer as to what happens then.

-----the termination of a pregnancy will mean the birth of that child and the saving of both lives - the mother and the child.

I want the Deputy to understand that this is a sensitive issue. I am now being branded by personnel around the country as being a murderer, and that I am going to have on my soul the death of 20 million babies. I am getting medals, scapulars, plastic foetuses, letters written in blood, telephone calls all over the system-----

We are all getting those.

That is correct.

-----and it is not confined to me.

I want to say this clearly. Everybody in this country is entitled to have their say. I saw the response from the meeting at the weekend. I do not agree with many of the statements that have been made - I do not agree with them. My job, as Taoiseach, is to lead the Government in governing for the people of our country.

What about his campaign promise?

That is forgotten about.

Would the Deputies please be quiet?

That is not confined to any sector of the people - it is for all of the people.

Deputies

Hear, hear. Well said.

Therefore, I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach. I am a Taoiseach for all of the people - that is my job, while I have it. I am proud to lead the Government in governing for all our people - all our people - irrespective of the sector of society that they come from.

Especially the women.

That is my duty; that is my responsibility. The Government that I am proud to lead will act strictly in accordance with our constitutional responsibilities and inside the law. What we are doing here is a requirement to provide certainty and clarity for medical personnel and for women who are involved. As I said before, this is about saving lives, not ending them.

Deputies

Hear, hear.