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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 16 Oct 2013

Vol. 817 No. 2

Leaders' Questions

There is no doubt that yesterday's budget places a disproportionate burden on older people in our society and targets them in a savage way. It seems the cuts were designed to target older people when they are most vulnerable, when they are sick, bereaved or living alone. In 2008 the Taoiseach made a statement in this House on how the Government should behave towards older people. He said it should not "use the elderly as a tool or weapon, reducing them to economic statistics." I quote:

Elderly people do not want to be pressurised about means tests and application forms or have to worry about their property, their savings, what they have in the bank, whether a man from Government will call to their home or if they will lose their right to the medical card. They do not want that. They are anxious about what might happen to themselves and their families.

Yesterday's budget sums up everything the Taoiseach said older people did not want from a Government. It includes the unacceptable abolition of the telephone allowance, the definite withdrawal of 35,000 medical cards from people over 70 and the wider witch hunt of another approximately 100,000 medical cards that will be taken from people. It has already started. The letters withdrawing medical cards from people are being issued so savings can take effect from January. Anyone listening to Joe Duffy's "Liveline" during the week would have heard those letters read out.

The five-fold increase in prescription charges over the last two years will hit older people significantly. The doubling of property tax will hit older people. The reduction of tax relief on health insurance and the abolition of the bereavement grant are all targeted at older people. Added up it represents a very savage attack and targeting of older people in our community. Why, in this particular budget, did the Taoiseach single out older people for particular targeting and discriminatory treatment? What did the older people of Ireland ever do to the Taoiseach to deserve such treatment? Will the Taoiseach commit to reversing these cuts, particularly the abolition of the telephone allowance and the definite withdrawal of 35,000 medical cards from the over-70s?

The budget for 2014 is the first and critical step that will allow this country to exit the bailout programme into which Fianna Fáil led us. It is designed to get this country back to work, which is the central mandate given to this Government of Fine Gael and the Labour Party. Yesterday's budget contains a series of measures to deal with that. Deputy Martin mentioned a number of issues that affect older people. Budget 2014 has extended the principle of previous budgets of protecting and supporting the elderly in a great number of ways.

The Government has a funny way of doing it.

For example, the State pensions, carers schemes, free travel and free television licences have not been touched. Because we recognise that fuel is a major issue for the elderly the fuel allowance has not been changed and excise duty on fuel has been left untouched. The tax treatment of the elderly remains unchanged. There is no change in the net income for pensioners as a result of this budget.

That is not true.

The property tax.

Those aged 65 and older will continue to be treated more favourably under the Irish income tax code than all other taxpayers. This favourable treatment of pensioners has been protected by the budget. The question of the bereavement grant was raised. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, dealt with that very adequately yesterday. The allowances to support our elderly continue and are untouched despite the decision on the bereavement grant. The average cost of a funeral is between €3,000 and €5,000 around the country and up to €10,000 in Dublin.

Deputy Martin is well aware of the position on medical cards. When a card is issued to an applicant that card is issued for three or four years and there is an onus and duty on the recipient of the card to notify the HSE of any change in his or her circumstances. It rarely applies. In an analysis last year of 1.2 million cards 22 were returned voluntarily. There has been no change in the eligibility criteria for medical cards.

A pensioner who receives the old age pension, contributory or non-contributory, or has the changed limits here, is fully entitled to a medical card and will get it in accordance with those criteria.

Of the 1.8 million cards issued, more than ever before, people are paying for these cards. Some people have died, some cards are redundant because people's incomes have changed and they have moved up, some people are migrant workers who have returned to their own countries and others are not eligible for one reason or another. There is a need for the HSE to communicate to pensioners in particular that when they receive a review notice there is no point in not dealing with it because anybody who meets these criteria will get their medical card. Doctors who are in receipt of payment for the general medical services, GMS, medical card lists, find that significant numbers of these cases may no longer be eligible for cards for the reasons I mentioned so it is important to check those accurately and see how many cards are still viable. There has been no change in the criteria or eligibility.

What about the over-70s?

There has not been. Everybody who is entitled to a medical card under those criteria receives one. We should not send scare messages to pensioners that all these medical cards are being taken away. Some 1.8 million medical cards have been issued. When the new eligibility limits and the threshold limits for GP cards are issued 97% of people over 70 years of age will have access either to medical cards or free GP cards.

Older people who might be watching this morning will find the Taoiseach's response incredible because he has managed to say black is white. He just said there is no change in the eligibility threshold. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton announced that reduced income thresholds for the over-70s medical cards are €900 for a couple and €500 for a single person.

I acknowledge that.

That is a reduction in eligibility which will withdraw medical cards from 35,000 older people. The Taoiseach should not come in and say-----

I accept that.

The Taoiseach did not say that. A moment ago he said the opposite of that. That is why older people watching will be asking what is going on in this place when someone can stand up and say we should not bother with the fine print in the budget because what that says is not happening.

That was the hallmark of yesterday's presentation.

Thank God, the Taoiseach did not touch the fuel allowance because when he did that last year, he reduced the claim period from 32 weeks to 26. He said earlier that the income of older people would not be hit.

A question, please.

That denies reality. The property tax will be doubled and that will hit their income. The medical card changes will also hit people's income. The prescription charge has gone from 50 cent to €2.50. People will have to pay this and it will reduce their income.

May we have a question, please?

The Government promotes the broad big lie that there are no cuts to the headline rates, but if we add everything else up, there is a significant reduction in the take home income of older people. The Government is taking money from them via the back door, as the Taoiseach should acknowledge. When people watch and see reality denied on an ongoing basis, they lose all faith in this House in terms of its credibility.


The same happened last week in the case of discretionary medical cards.

Fianna Fáil took the medical cards from all of them.

The Taoiseach denied last week that discretionary medical cards were being taken from people.

We are over time.

It took a host of letters from Deputies and the message from the Taoiseach's people at the weekend that there was a problem with discretionary medical cards, despite his denial last week. Therefore, people have been hit. Will the Taoiseach consider reversing the abolition of household benefits, which is a direct hit on the income of older people? Will he also reverse the decision to lower the thresholds for medical cards for the over-70s?

Of course, I acknowledge that the budgetary resolutions went through yesterday and that the changes made at the highest level will apply. However, I repeat that the State pension, the carers' schemes, the free travel scheme and the free television licence scheme have not been touched. The fuel allowance has not been changed.

The telephone allowance has.

There is no change in the net income of pensioners as a result of this budget, unlike what Fianna Fáil did when it cut the widow's pension, blind pension and invalidity pension by over €8 a week in budget 2010 for people under 65 years.

Answer the question on this budget. Can the Taoiseach stand over it?

Fianna Fáil also cut the disability allowance across the board by €8 a week, without regard to means testing.

Freagair an cheist.

Fianna Fáil also cut core social welfare rates by €16 per week or 8% in budgets 2010 and 2011 without discussion. At least this Fine Gael-Labour Party Government has maintained core social welfare rates. I remind the Deputy that Fianna Fáil's four year plan which he is now disregarding intended to cut €1.5 billion from social welfare services. Therefore, the Deputy should not come in here the morning after the budget was announced with the opportunistic blather he goes on with all the time.

Answer the question asked.

This is about the Government's budget.

Please, there is no point in shouting each other down.

In respect of medical cards, it is important that we find out the true position on how many medical cards are redundant, how many migrant workers have left the country, how many medical card holders have died-----

That is not the issue in the case of those over 70 years. The issue has to do with the reduction in the thresholds.

The Deputy had his say.

The Deputy never listens. The point is that taxpayers are paying doctors for medical card services in respect of the GMS list. That is normal, as it should be, but the lists should be accurate. The reason for carrying out an analysis is to find out the truth about how many of those whose medical cards are still on the list have died -----

Do the Taoiseach and his colleagues not go to funerals? They know who is dead, do they not?

----- how many migrant workers have gone away, how many medical cards are redundant, how many people have moved and where numbers have increased. The message on medical card applicants is that the eligibility limits apply in the ordinary way for the majority and that they qualify for full medical cards. Those at the top end who lose full medical cards qualify for GP cards.

Medical cards are being taken from people all over the place.

Not as many as were taken in Fianna Fáil's time.


Settle down Deputies.

It is not just older citizens who were targeted in the budget announced yesterday. Young people also took a significant hit and received a clear message from the Government. Since the Taoiseach took office in 2011, some 18,000 fewer young people are working in the economy. Approximately 1,700 people emigrate from the State every week - a shocking statistic - the majority of whom are young and educated who are leaving because they have no prospect of finding decent work here. These young people under 25 years, their mothers, fathers and grandparents and people throughout the State watched yesterday hoping against hope the Government would provide something that would mean they would not be forced to join the lengthening emigration trail at our airports. What did the Government do? It announced a range of brutal measures aimed specifically at the youth of the State, none more startling than the slashing of the jobseeker's allowance for those under 25 years. It has clearly decided that the youth of Ireland will carry the can for the mistakes of the Government and the previous one. Having failed to create an environment in which young people can flourish, the Government now wants rid of them. Emigration is now the official employment policy for young people. A cut of up to one third in the jobseeker's allowance for people under 25 years sends an unmistakable message to young people that the Government regards them as a burden rather than as the future of the country. I question the legality of such a brazen discriminatory measure, but I presume the Government has received legal advice as to its legality. Will the Taoiseach clarify this? Above all, will he come clean and speak out on what is obvious to us all, young people, their families and communities, that just like Fianna Fáil did previously, the Government has chosen a policy of forced emigration for young people?

The Ryanair budget.

I do not at all accept Deputy Mary Lou McDonald's assertion. I heard her being questioned on this issue this morning and when she was asked what she would do, she gave no answer, other than to continue with Sinn Féin's policy of Sinn Féin promotion. Like everybody else, I regard the young people of this country as its future. The Deputy, however, seems to want to confine them to the dole queues and not give them the opportunity to get off the live register or dole queues and take the opportunity to be trained, mentored, attend further education or find a job or to incentivise them to do this. I do not accept her assertion in this regard.

Clearly, in reforming the social protection system there must be a difference between those who have the motivation and incentive to find a job to better themselves and others. Many opportunities are being provided by a range of Ministries to help young people to improve themselves. I understand the allocation in Northern Ireland is approximately €65 for a young person under 25 years, while it is €144 here. If a young person goes on a training course or participates in a back-to-education scheme or, as a graduate, in the JobBridge scheme, the allocation increases to €160 or over €200, depending on the subsidy involved. Clearly, there are opportunities and incentives for young men and women to get out and avail of these opportunities. It is the challenge for the Government and its agencies to provide them. For example, the jobseeker's allowance for young people under 26 years who participate in a back-to-education course is being increased to €160 a week. This means that in addition to their enhanced career and job prospects as a result of improving their skills and education levels, there is a financial incentive for them to participate in education and training. Budget 2014 has also allocated an additional €14 million to increase the number of places for young people. For example, there will be 1,500 new places on the JobsPlus scheme. The criteria for the scheme will also be amended in order that those under 25 years need only be six months unemployed to be eligible for it. There will also be 1,500 JobBridge places for those under 25 years. A minimum number of 2,000 places are also ring-fenced at a cost of €6 million for people under 25 years who will be out of work in 2014.

These places will be provided under a follow-up to the MOMENTUM programme, which has been very successful in 2013. Next year the Department of Social Protection and the Minister, Deputy Burton, will spend €1.08 billion on work, training, education places and related supports for young people and jobseekers. This is an increase of €85 million on the projected spend this year.

We want to see a real drive to incentivise and motivate young people to take a back-to-education course, a training or mentoring course or one of the schemes in which places have been reserved for young people. We must allow them the opportunity to fulfil their potential and lead them on to the world of work, where their work will be rewarded, instead of letting them languish in a dispirited, disappointed fashion on the dole queues. That is not what the Government is about. The budget is about bailout exit in December and providing jobs and opportunities for young people to work, as the vast majority of them want to do.

I am glad the Taoiseach clarified the fact he recognises that young people want to work, because the rhetoric from the Government has consistently been either to state openly or to insinuate that young people choose social welfare as a lifestyle choice and there is some type of layabout generation.

That is a disgraceful comment.

They are nothing of the sort; they want work. Where are the jobs for them? Where are the jobs for our young people? The disgrace in all of this is that the Government would have the brazen hard neck to lay at the feet of our young people its failure to provide opportunities. The half-baked Mickey Mouse schemes the Government comes up with to massage the live register figures will not cut it. People want real jobs and decent work.

The only thing the budget achieved yesterday was to take €32 million out of the pockets of people under 25 on jobseeker's payments who want work but cannot find it. The Government did not stop at this. It has cut funding to third level education and whacked up the registration fee again. It has taken money from young people on FÁS courses. It has hit apprentices as it insists they must pay a registration fee. The Taoiseach should spare me, please, the waffle and baloney about his concern for our young people. The Government has made it clear to our young people that it is time to pack their bags and leave, because the Government has failed them and will fail them and sees them as a burden. If I am wrong-----

You are wrong.

If, by chance, I am wrong, then I put it to the Taoiseach to prove me wrong and to reverse the cut specifically to jobseeker's payments. Prove I am wrong and make this decision and announce it in the Dáil this morning.

It is a good flow of rhetoric, and I will prove the Deputy wrong. During the three years prior to the Government's election we lost 250,000 jobs, or 7,000 jobs a month. The economic mess left behind by Fianna Fáil over many years has had to be cleared up. We have stabilised it-----

Do not punish young people for Fianna Fáil.

-----and we now create 3,000 jobs a month. This is progress. It is not where we want to be.

Will Deputy McDonald admit this?

The Government cuts social welfare to create jobs. It is a disgrace. Deputy Byrne has sold his principles.

The live register has declined for 15 consecutive months and the unemployment rate has decreased from 15.5% to 13.5%. We are creating jobs for young people. If Deputy McDonald states the JobBridge scheme for young graduates is a Mickey Mouse operation she should go and speak to people from every constituency. Young graduates were confined to the dole queues but because we have reformed the system they have an opportunity to go into the world of work. More than 65% of those who go on a JobBridge scheme find full employment as a consequence. If Deputy McDonald thinks this is a Mickey Mouse operation she should speak to them.


Hear, hear.

How dare she insult their intelligence and motivation? How dare she insult their right to go and have a job? How dare she, with her Sinn Féin antics, want to confine our young people to dole queues in perpetuity - to give them taxpayers' money and confine them to the dole queues?

Another 80,000 are emigrating.

That is the Taoiseach's legacy.

The Taoiseach thinks he is back in school.

What we have done over the past 12 months is to create 34,000 new jobs, many for young people, and I want to increase this.

The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has set out his target for next year of 50,000 new jobs. Many of these will be taken up by young people. We are very proud of them. How dare Deputy McDonald stand up in the House of Parliament and insult our young people and state they are involved in Mickey Mouse schemes------

From a Mickey Mouse Government. Correct, Taoiseach.

-----when clearly they lead on to opportunity and employment, which is what Deputy McDonald should be putting forward? Not one constructive suggestion from her.

From the man who held two jobs for 30 years. He kept a young person out of a teacher's job for about 30 years. He drew his pension and his money.

I ask Deputy Doherty to show respect. He will leave the House if he is not careful.

Find the bodies you buried.

Please stay quiet. Roaring and shouting is getting us nowhere. You are an embarrassment on television.

Tell that to the Taoiseach.

With respect, there is only one group of people who are insulting the motivation of young people, and this is the group of people who are stating that their social protection must be cut to get them to work, because this is the logic being used. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, stated yesterday that he was pleased to announce that there was to be no reduction in the basic social welfare rates for people of working age. He then announced a reduction in the basic social welfare rates for those aged under 26. Are people under 26 not of working age? I am confused. This morning on national radio the Tánaiste added insult to injury by stating that this was not a cut. In doublespeak worthy of George Orwell he explained it was not a cut but that the Government was simply extending lower rates to these people. It is extraordinary stuff.

Aideen Carberry, the national chairperson of Labour Youth, stated that it was fundamentally unfair and that it was the opinion of Labour Youth that the measure would cause people to emigrate. She stated they had watched with a combination of sadness and concern and that the problem with the unemployment crisis in the country was not training but the fact that there are not enough jobs.

Most of our young unemployed are graduates. They are highly educated and take low-paid work to make ends meet. This cut displays a complete misunderstanding of the unemployment challenge faced by our youth and is not just bad economics but also discriminatory. This is an issue of human rights. None of us would, I hope, come in here to state we will cut basic social protections to non-whites, women or Muslims, but this is exactly what the Government has done; it has targeted a group of people based on age.


Hear, hear.

Does the Taoiseach accept that this cut discriminates based on age? Does he accept that this is not how we should do business in this country? Does he accept that these people are equal citizens in our country? Will he ask the Minister, Deputy Burton, to remove this from the social welfare Bill before it comes before the House?


Hear, hear.

Deputy Donnelly is normally very constructive in his comments when he has the opportunity to lead the Technical Group.

He is very constructive today too.

He asked the Taoiseach to reverse the cuts.

He fully understands from the constituency he represents that young people have a right to have a chance to get a job, a career and an opportunity. It seems as if these parties want to confine them to the dole queues for the rest of their lives.

That is what the Government is doing.

Fourteen million euro for the youth guarantee scheme.

Please keep your mouths closed for a few minutes.

The Tánaiste and the Labour Party-----

Not Labour Youth.

-----have been very clear about the position of the Government in wanting to provide opportunities for people to get into the world of work. One must provide an incentive for this. The Minister, Deputy Burton, has pointed out that it is not the way to go that when a young lad or girl leaves secondary school they suddenly end up in the rut of unemployment which ends in a tunnel of despair.

We have to be able to reform the system to give them the opportunity. The Government has ring-fenced money and places in the back-to-education scheme, training and mentoring.

They are graduates.

For the young graduates Deputy McDonald and the chairperson of Labour Youth were talking about, those who are entrepreneurs can start their own businesses under the young entrepreneur scheme and avail of mentoring to start those businesses-----

With what? Their breath?

-----and they can get State assistance. If somebody in their mid-20s has been out of work for 15 months, he or she can now start a business and have up to €40,000 in tax-free income based on the two years prior to the setting up of those businesses. It is a case of providing the motivation and the opportunity for people to work.

A case came in to me this morning of a married man with three children who was on €560 and was put on a three-day week. Between his three-day week, his unemployment assistance, housing rent and all the rest of it, he is now on nearly €900. Where is the incentive to work?

We have known that this five years past. Is the Taoiseach only waking up to it?

This country has always beaten adversity by being practical about working our way out of it. This budget is about exiting the bailout caused by the people opposite. I recall the press conference when my predecessor as Taoiseach, Mr. Cowen, and the late lamented Mr. Brian Lenihan walked off the stage and were replaced by the troika-----

Where was the Taoiseach then?

-----and our sovereignty and our economic independence were handed away. This Government of Fine Gael and the Labour Party is focused on retrieving that economic sovereignty. Our young people will have the opportunity in a new country to have work, careers and opportunities.

It will be a new country, all right.

That is what this is about. We ring-fenced money and places so the young people of Wicklow, Dublin and the entire country will have those opportunities for their ambition, talent and creativity to flourish.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I had a young man working for me for free recently. He has a degree and a master's degree and he has now gone to full-time paid employment. Before him, I had another young man working for me who had a degree and two master's degrees. He worked for me free to get experience, and he has now moved on.

What about the leader's allowance?


Order, please.

These people do not need an incentive to work. If what the Taoiseach is saying is that there are other people out there who, based on getting the normal social welfare rate, are refusing to either take up jobs or take up important training, then I refer him to the job activation measures the Minister, Deputy Burton, is bringing in. I would not want someone with a degree and two master's degrees to be told they had to train in landscape gardening because they could not find a job. However, what the Government is already bringing in is a rule that states that if a person refuses a job he or she will get no welfare benefits because he or she is refusing to work. I have no problem with that. I have a problem with targeting people under 26-----

A question, please.

-----for no other reason than that they are under 26, just as I would if the Government had targeted women, people of colour or people of a particular religion. This is an issue of human rights. The Government is not applying it to 30 year olds, 40 year olds or 50 year olds.

A question, please.

My question is this. We have time, based on the new budgetary process, to step back, think, meet and discuss. I ask the Taoiseach to think about this in terms of human rights. I ask him to be aware that job activation measures have already been introduced whereby, if a person is sitting at home-----

Thank you, Deputy.

-----living on the dole and refuses to take a job, that person gets nothing. I would support that. My question to the Taoiseach is this. In the time Dáil Éireann has to tease out all of this in the coming months, will the Taoiseach please take this away and reflect that this is an issue of human rights and it is discriminatory?

I regard the issue of human rights, as referred to, as the right to work and the right to have an opportunity to work. That is what good government should be about. The number on the live register was nearly 500,000 just a short time ago. Because of the reforms and the changes brought about, and because of the labour activation measures-----

That is due to emigration.

-----that has fallen consistently for 15 months and we expect it to go below 400,000 before the end of the year.

How many jobs have the labour activation measures created?

Order, please.

Many of those are young people. I regard every person as having the right to work. I agree with the Deputy that those who decide they do not want to work are in a different situation.

We need to create the jobs for them.

It is true that in the Department of Social Protection different people have been treated differently over the years, from young people through the different categories that apply in society and right up to senior citizens. They are all treated in different ways depending on what category they find themselves in. I believe the changes that are made here are really in the interest of allowing young people to find a whole new opportunity and advantage.

The Taoiseach does not believe that.

I want to see the new Intreo offices that are being rolled out by the Minister, Deputy Burton, where there are group interviews, where mentoring is available from small businesses and where there are people who will say, "I have an opportunity for you. If you do this education course you can be involved in retrofitting, since you worked in construction and you can change direction." This is about giving them the incentive, the opportunity and the motivation to say, "I have a talent. I want to do something different. Here is the opportunity for me."

A Deputy

There are no jobs.

Why is it that, for years, there was never engagement with them? When they signed on they were left to sign on.

No one is arguing with that.

This is different. These are our people. These are the future of our country. They all have a talent and an opportunity, and we want to let that flourish. That is what this is about. The day we exit this bailout will be a different day for Ireland. We will put the shutters up behind us and never let it happen again, like the legacy and the economic mess that fell down on our people-----

There are 32 applicants for every job vacancy. It is a joke.

-----through incompetence, greed and everything else that applied in a culture we never want to go back to.