Leaders' Questions

As we reach the end of this session, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party I express our sincere thanks to the staff of the House for their dedication and commitment throughout the session. It has been a particularly challenging time for them and their families. They deserve our good wishes as they attempt to have some time off from here. To the members of the media who have endured our antiquated and outdated method of doing business in the past session and to the rest of the members of the press gallery, I express our good wishes as they head for their summer break. I thank the Ceann Comhairle sincerely on behalf of our party for the way he has co-operated and worked with us in our effort to do our business.

Has Deputy Dooley his bucket and spade?

It is interesting that the Taoiseach has announced that he has seen the light and that the Government will create jobs.

A three-point plan. It was a five-point plan.

We are told there will be a new focus on jobs, but we have heard this many times in the past two and a half years and there has been little by way of real effort or exercise-----

Some 2,000 per month.

-----in bringing it to fruition.

Those are the Minister's expenses.

The Taoiseach told the Irish Independent today that the Government plans to create 75,000 jobs by taking people off the dole. I am all for giving people hope, but not on the back of false promises. It would seem that, instead of job creation, people must realise that work actually pays. The Taoiseach has come up with an interesting concept there. There is more than a hint of a belief that people are choosing to stay on social protection instead of working or seeking work.

Whatever that contention might have held during the Celtic tiger era or better times, I see no indication that jobs are being left vacant or that people are failing to take up employment because they find life easier on social welfare. Maybe the Labour and Fine Gael parties have some interesting insights and will allude to them.

More insights than Fianna Fáil anyway.

The Government's Action Plan for Jobs was announced 18 months ago and has been re-announced quite a few times since. It was due to create 100,000 jobs by 2016. How credible is the commitment given in the Government's previous promises on job creation that, unfortunately, have not come to fruition? How credible can today's announcement be when the Government has not achieved its targets? NewERA, a Fine Gael document from some time ago, was due to create 100,000 jobs. Where has that gone? To the best of my knowledge, the only job created by NewERA is the role for the Minister of State from County Louth. There is quite a bit to go.

This announcement is even more extraordinary, given the fact that Fianna Fáil's call, which was made more than one and a half years ago, for measures to improve employment, including the use of the National Pensions Reserve Fund, NPRF, was ignored until the country was back in recession.

This is ridiculous.

(Interruptions).

I thank Deputy Dooley, but we are over time.

He is losing the House.

(Interruptions).

By closing down the Seanad, more jobs will be gone.

Given the chorus from the Labour Party, it is clearly upset by the facts being placed before it.

The Deputy should put his question.

If that party's Members gave me an opportunity to make my points to the Tánaiste, I would not need to disrupt them.

Send in the next one. Deputy Dooley has failed again.

Deputy Dooley is over time. That is unfortunate for him.

(Interruptions).

The economy is bouncing along the bottom despite the Minister for Finance's claim that it was about to take off like a rocket. How does the Government intend to take people off of social protection and create 75,000 jobs?

I join Deputy Dooley in expressing thanks to the Ceann Comhairle, the staff of the House and everyone who works here, including the media, for what has been a long and productive session since Easter.

I am glad that Deputy Dooley has raised the issue of employment with me. In the three years before the general election after which this Government was formed, 250,000 jobs were lost in the economy under Fianna Fáil's watch.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

That is some record.

This amounted to 80,000 jobs per year in a three-year period.

This situation is turning. Jobs in the private sector are being created at a rate of approximately 2,000 per month. The number of people in employment has increased for the first time since 2008. The number of people on the live register is declining, but a great deal more needs to be done.

Getting people back to work is the cornerstone of the economy's recovery. It is the primary focus of this Government. We all know the kinds of target that have dominated political and economic discussion in this country in recent years. Those targets must be met in terms of the troika and so on.

We are about to exit the programme. As a country, we need to set ourselves a new target, that being, full employment. We must create employment for people who lost jobs during the recession, for young people who are leaving school and college and cannot find work and for people who have needed to emigrate and would like the opportunity to return.

For this reason, we have adopted a range of measures to address the employment crisis. This is why we are having a special meeting of the Cabinet today on the jobs crisis.

That is why the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, introduced the Pathways to Work scheme. In addition, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, introduced a stimulus package last year. We also decided to establish a strategic investment fund to provide funding that will stimulate growth in our economy. In addition, we got agreement at European level on the youth guarantee and provided funding for it to address the problem of youth unemployment.

Every single day, the Government is working on initiatives to get people back to work, as well as promoting economic growth, increased investment so that jobs are created, and increased confidence in our domestic economy. No one has ever argued that it would be easy or that there would be a single, silver bullet solution to unemployment. A range of measures are joined up across Government through Action Plan for Jobs. Every Department and State agency is working in a co-ordinated manner to promote the one thing that unemployed people need most, which is increased employment opportunities. Every Member of this House should support the Government's efforts in that regard.

The Tánaiste's indignation is welcome. If I were to go back over the record of the Dáil when the Tánaiste was on the Opposition benches, I am sure it was the same script he repeated every week. The only difference now is that the Tánaiste has been on the Government benches for the past two and a half years. The record, unfortunately-----

You broke it and we are fixing it.

I need no history lesson from you, so keep to yourself for a minute and work out where you are going on your holidays.

I need no history lesson about what happened. The Tánaiste will be aware that there was an election in the meantime. The Government was elected on the basis of job creation commitments made by Labour and Fine Gael. The fact of the matter is, however, that the jobs are not there.

More people are working.

The Tánaiste has given interesting employment figures that seem to gloss over the facts. If one teases through them, one will find that many full-time jobs have become part-time ones. Labour activation has come into play with people being taken off the live register numbers and, in addition, people have emigrated. Therefore, what the Tánaiste believes to be an increase of 2,000 jobs per week is a farce when one teases it out.

The Deputy should put a supplementary question.

The Tánaiste has announced the same thing three or four times. He has achieved nothing else in the meantime other than job announcements.

A question please, Deputy.

There is a big difference between job announcements and those jobs coming to fruition. I know all about it. I come from a county that has often been subject to hundreds or thousands of job announcements over time, but they never came to fruition, so we will go back to the basic question.

No, the Deputy will not go back. He is going nowhere. He is supposed to ask a supplementary question, but is now three minutes over his time.

I have two simple follow-up questions. How does the Tánaiste intend to demonstrate that work can actually pay?

It is simple, all right.

The Taoiseach has said he will demonstrate that work can pay. Second, how will the Tánaiste engage differently with the unemployed to convince them to find a job in an environment where the Government has failed to create employment? One only has to look-----

Will the Deputy please resume his seat?

That is an awful insult to people who are out of work.

Employers are unable to get the appropriate level of finance from the financial institutions to create jobs. They are only getting a trickle. One need only speak to the small and medium enterprises to appreciate that.

When I ask the Deputy to stop, he should please stop and not totally ignore the Chair. The Deputy is way over time. I have been very fair to him.

Deputy Dooley does need a history lesson. Fianna Fáil wrecked this country's economy.

And left the dregs.

In the three years before the people rightly booted it out of office, they presided over the loss of 250,000 jobs in this economy.

We are witnessing history repeating itself with this Government's carry on.

No government in this country - and to my knowledge no government in modern times in Europe or any other developed country - has ever presided over such a loss of employment in its own economy. It was a disgraceful record, and our job has been to turn that around.

A Deputy

You are not doing it.

A Deputy

Clark Kent himself.

We are turning it around. For the first time since 2008, the number of people at work has increased. In 2012, the IDA had its best year in ten years. Enterprise Ireland has had a record year for exports. All of that is sustaining, supporting and building jobs in this country.

A Deputy

The Tánaiste is spending more time on the Government jet.

Frankly, I find the Deputy's attitude to unemployed people patronising and unacceptable.

They are being left on social welfare by the Government.

People who are out of work know very well that they would be better off in work, earning a living, which is what they want to do. That is what they expect the Government to work on to help create the jobs they need.

Unlike Deputy Dooley's Government, this Government is not satisfied to leave unemployed people sitting idle and unable to develop the skills to improve their opportunities for getting back to work. That is why we have introduced the Pathways to Work scheme which will enable people to identify what they need to be re-employed. In that way they can equip themselves better to take up employment opportunities when they become available. The world of work is changing, which is why we have reformed the education and training system.

A Deputy

They are closing schools.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, is undertaking that reform through the establishment of SOLAS. The development of education and training means the introduction of JobBridge and a range of other measures to assist unemployed people either to get education, training, work or work experience - whatever it takes to get them back into the workforce. There are two parts to the equation. One is to do what is necessary to generate jobs and the other is to equip unemployed people so that they will be in a position to take up those employment opportunities when they become available.

I wish everyone well as they go off for their summer break. Coincidentally, as we rise for the summer recess, today is the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela, who is also known as Madiba. I am sure the Tánaiste will join me and others here in sending best wishes, on behalf of the Irish people, to him and his family on this occasion.

By the time we return in September, many students will have started their third level college courses. We are all too well aware of the debacle surrounding the SUSI grant application system last year. Thousands of applications were delayed, rejected in error or, in some cases, lost. I know of one young student whose grant, believe it or not, only came through this week. That student has been waiting for the grant since before Christmas. As the Tánaiste knows, students will not be entitled to graduate from their courses if their fees remain outstanding - not to mention the hardship caused to many students by the delay or denial of grants. This morning, the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, confirmed that students may complain to her if they are unhappy with their treatment by SUSI.

What guarantee can the Tánaiste give that next year's intake of third level students will not have the same experience? Can the Tánaiste guarantee that the first payment of third level grants will come through by Christmas? Have the recommendations of the independent review of SUSI been fully implemented? Is the Tánaiste satisfied that SUSI has adequate resources in place to process third level grant applications in a timely fashion?

I join Deputy McDonald in expressing, on behalf of the Government, my best wishes on the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela. He is a heroic and iconic figure for us all.

For the coming year, SUSI has introduced changes to make the process much easier for most applicants. Its internal procedures have been developed to respond to the experiences of last year's applicants. No one in this House was satisfied with SUSI's first year of operation, but all the changes to SUSI will serve to improve significantly the service offered to students applying for student grants.

There have been reports in the media of students still awaiting grant payments for the 2012-2013 academic year. Those reports are of serious concern to us all, especially the Minister for Education and Skills.

Of the 70,000 applications for student grants, 99.23% are now fully complete. SUSI is still awaiting some documentation from 18 students, representing 0.02% of all applications, and is in contact with them by telephone, e-mail and post in this regard.

Twelve months later.

Final decisions have been made in respect of a further 500 applicants, representing 0.75% of all applications, but payment has not yet been made. In most cases, this is because SUSI has not received bank account details or students are no longer continuing their courses. The next payment date is 25 July. I appeal to each of these students to ensure they have provided their bank details to SUSI in time for payment to be made on that day.

In terms of the coming year, 22,000 students who were awarded grants last year have already submitted applications to renew their grants for next year and a further 26,000 students have submitted new applications for next year. This will allow SUSI to process applications over the summer months rather than having to wait until September to commence receipt of applications.

An independent review of SUSI was carried out by Accenture in recent months. In line with the recommendations of that review and, in preparation for the 2013-14 academic year, the online applications system and application assessment process have been further developed to deal with the difficulties experienced in year one. A number of new initiatives will also make the application process more efficient this year. Applications for the 2013-14 academic year have been accepted since 20 May this year while those who received grants last year have been able to apply for a renewal of their grant online in recent weeks. A number of changes have been made to the application process, including the collection of bank account details at an earlier stage in the process so that grant payments can be made as soon as applications are approved. More significantly, a direct transfer of data between the Revenue Commissioners, the Central Admissions Office and General Registration Office is now in place. SUSI now has access to appropriate Department of Social Protection social welfare records. This will allow it to significantly reduce the supporting documentation required of applicants.

SUSI is working to improve how it communicates with students. Its website has been completely overhauled to ensure that all information for students is available in one place and an online tracker system is now also available to applicants so that they can monitor the progress of their applications.

The fact that at this stage there are 600 students still experiencing difficulty in terms of their grant applications says it all. This is only a glimpse of the chaos we know reined in this system in the last academic year.

The Tánaiste referred to the provision of documentation. I am sure he is aware that the level of bureaucracy involved in this exercise almost caused parents and students the length and breadth of this country to have nervous breakdowns. While I welcome that there will now be data exchange between the Revenue Commissioners, the Central Admissions Office and the Department of Social Protection, it is hardly revolutionary. We do not exactly live in the dark ages. However, I am glad this will now happen.

I did not get from the Tánaiste's response the type of commitment I was seeking from him on behalf of Government to the students. He said that the independent review recommendations have been implemented. Can he assure students that the chaotic scenario which prevailed in the last academic year will not recur this year and that they will receive this year's payments by Christmas? Will he give that commitment?

On assessment of grants, the Tánaiste will be aware that assessment of eligibility of a student to a grant on the basis of gross income has caused significant problems for many families. My colleagues and I have received a great deal of correspondence on this issue as, I am sure, has the Tánaiste.

The Deputy must conclude. She is over time.

It takes no account of outgoings or a family's debt burden. The Tánaiste referred to assessment criteria. Would it not be fairer to calculate a student's eligibility on the basis of net rather than gross income?

Some 42% of all third level students are in receipt of a grant. Last year, the student grant administration system was transferred from 66 different bodies, including county and city councils and VECs, to one body, namely, SUSI. I have acknowledged, as has the Minister for Education and Skills on a number of occasions, that there were problems with this. What is important is that the lessons learned in that transition process have resulted in changes being made, including an increase of 23 in the number of staff in SUSI involved in the processing of applications. In addition, a review was undertaken by Accenture of the way in which the process operated. As I said earlier, the recommendations made by Accenture are being implemented. Some of those recommendations involve earlier processing of applications and an earlier-----

I know all that. I want to know if students will receive this year's payments by Christmas.

We are way over time.

Students will not experience the type of difficulties they experienced last year. However, as we all know much depends on the quality of applications and so on. As far as the operation of SUSI is concerned, the type of problems experienced last year have been addressed. There has been a significant number of changes made in the operation-----

The Tánaiste cannot guarantee payments will be made by Christmas.

We are over time.

The Fianna Fáil spokesperson ran over time too.

There is an application system for student grants in place. Nobody can guarantee what decision will be made in respect of applications. It may be-----

Can the Tánaiste guarantee that eligible students will receive their grants by Christmas?

The Deputy asked if the recommendations of the review were being implemented.

I asked if students will receive their grant payments by Christmas.

I detailed the changes being made for the Deputy. When that information was not bad enough, she decided to change tack and ask a different question.

No. I want to know if students will receive their grant payments by Christmas.

Grant applications will be processed efficiently by SUSI. We have put in place a much better system for this year. It is the intention that the applications will be processed by Christmas.

Over two weeks ago, a woman called Mary Kerr, who was a symphysiotomy survivor, died. As she was unable to do so, her family were active in fighting for justice for her, a justice she will now never get.

In response to a question yesterday from Deputy Adams on the Magdalen laundries, the Tánaiste made the point that time is not on the side of the Magdalen laundries survivors. Time is not on the side of symphysiotomy survivors either. The Taoiseach told us last week that the reason for the delay in dealing with this issue was that the Minister for Health was considering the final draft of the Walsh report, which report he has had for seven weeks now, so as to ensure the appropriate treatment for the women concerned. There is no appropriate treatment for symphysiotomy. The damage done to these women decades ago cannot be undone. Many of them have had up to 25 operations and some have never left their homes. Husbands lost their wives and children their mothers. This is not a matter of health, it is a matter of justice. Comparisons with the Magdalen laundries are totally inappropriate. What we are talking about in respect of symphysiotomy survivors is personal injuries as a result of gross medical negligence.

The Tánaiste's party colleague, Mr. Fergus Finlay, identified earlier this week that the draft Walsh report was a much criticised document. The report was based on a central flaw that the barbaric practice of symphysiotomy was medically acceptable, which is simply not the case. The idea that the final report will add anything new is highly suspect. In light of this, why are we waiting for the final report? The only conclusion one can draw, and it is one being drawn by many of the survivors, is that far from grappling with the legacy injustice as best it can, the Government appears to be engaged in an attempt to deny access to the courts to the ageing victims of symphysiotomy by long-fingering the issues, while holding out the possibility of redress. In other words, it is coercing the victims into acceptance. I do not make that point in any way lightly.

The House unanimously supported Deputy Ó Caoláin's Bill to lift the statutory bar and allow the women access to the courts. We should have disposed of the legislation by now. Is the Tánaiste aware that two weeks ago the national membership of Survivors of Symphysiotomy, which represents 98% of the victims of the practice, unanimously voted to reject any redress scheme based on a Magdalen type arrangement and urged the Government to negotiate with its executive to achieve a just and fair settlement of its legal actions? Can the Tánaiste, before the House breaks up for the summer, give the women an assurance that the Government will listen to and deliver a solution for them?

Yes, I can give the assurance that the Government will listen and is listening to the symphysiotomy women. This has been an issue of concern to the Government since it was formed and one the Minister for Health has decided to address. It is also an issue that is raised frequently with the Government by Members from all sides of the House. It was raised by a number of members of my parliamentary party at our meeting yesterday. The issue is, therefore, of immediate concern to the Government. The Minister for Health is considering the steps that can be taken on the matter and I understand he will bring proposals to Government in the near future. I give the assurance, before the House rises, that the issue is being addressed seriously by the Government.

There is a difference between listening to and hearing what people are saying. The Government has said much on this issue but its actions indicate that it is embarking on a path that is directly contrary to the wishes of the women involved. The Survivors of Symphysiotomy specifically stated it is not interested in any redress scheme that is based on the idea that symphysiotomy was a medically acceptable practice. The women indicated they want a public acknowledgement by the various defendants - incidentally the individuals in question were practising in private hospitals and, as such, the cost to the State will not be significant - that the operations were negligent and performed without clinical justification or consent. They also want payment of damages to each victim in the range of €250,000 to €450,000. These figures are not being bandied about but are based on a substantial haircut of the amounts the courts have awarded some of the victims who have endured serious damage.

The following question demands a "Yes" or "No" answer. Will the Tánaiste ask the State Claims Agency and Minister for Health to engage with the executive of Survivors of Symphysiotomy, the group that has been mandated to represent the women in question, to reach a just and fair settlement of the women's claim that is not based on a Magdalen type redress scheme?

This Government has a record of dealing sympathetically and with justice in respect of long-standing issues that should have been dealt with over the years. We intend to deal with the symphysiotomy issue in the same way. I do not propose to anticipate what proposals the Minister for Health will bring forward and I do not believe any Deputy would expect me to do so. The Minister will bring forward proposals to be considered by the Government. I assure the Deputy that he is dealing with the issue urgently and sympathetically and is willing to engage with the victims and those who have suffered for some time.