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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Oct 2013

Vol. 818 No. 2

Older Citizens: Motion (Resumed) [Private Members]

The following motion was moved by Deputy Billy Kelleher on Tuesday, 22 October 2013:
"That Dáil Éireann:
agrees that Irish society should protect the rights of older citizens and solidarity between the generations;
accepts that services for older people should be protected to allow them to live independently and with dignity;
agrees that older people are more anxious now about services being removed from them which will lead to isolation and illness;
concurs that older people do not want to be pressurised about means tests and application forms for health care services;
agrees that the elderly should not be used as just economic statistics; and
calls for:
— all public services to be maintained for older citizens in a fair and progressive manner; and
— the Government to reaffirm Ireland’s agreement to the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing while working towards a new UN Convention on the Rights of Older People.”

Deputies Flanagan, Boyd Barrett, Daly, Wallace and Pringle are sharing time and have two minutes each.

I never thought I would come in here and say that I was going to sound like the Taoiseach, or Deputy Enda Kenny as he was known before the last election. However, I am coming in here to support the elderly. Unlike our Taoiseach, I would be supporting the elderly if I was in the Government as well, but unfortunately he is not doing so. If the Taoiseach thinks it is no big deal to take the telephone allowance off the elderly, he obviously does not know exactly what they use the telephone for. I have had several people contact me about losing this allowance, because it means their pendant alarm will not work anymore. It was a big enough struggle for people even with those pendant alarms, given that the Government closed down their local Garda station and they do not feel that secure as it is, but it is a really low blow to take away their telephone. Some people will say that they can use mobile phones or some other form of technology, but the reality is that many elderly people find it very daunting to use a mobile phone. This means that the Government has cut them off. As far as I can remember, that is not what Deputy Enda Kenny was promising.

I notice that Vincent Browne played the clip twice last night of the Taoiseach making that wonderful promise. I think it should be played on a loop on a stand-alone channel so that people can tune in to see what they bought into at the last election.

I move amendment No. 1:

In the final paragraph after “UN Convention on the Rights of Older People” to insert the


“ — the reversal of previous budget cuts to the household benefits package and fuel allowance; and

— the restoration of the full entitlement to the medical card for all pensioners over 65 and for the Government to deal with income inequality through progressive taxation on higher incomes, not by attacking universal health benefits; and

further calls on the Government to safeguard the free travel pass into the future.”

It is nothing short of obnoxious to cut away at the entitlement of our senior citizens to proper medical services. It is appalling in the extreme to take away their telephone allowance. Symbolically as well as practically it is disgusting to take away the bereavement grant, and to remove the subsidies for those who feel forced to take out private health insurance, which will now make it unaffordable and throw those people back into the public health system, from which the Government intends to take €1 billion and which will not be able to cope with the pressures it will face in the coming year. These cuts mean misery, suffering, cruelty, anxiety and, in some cases, may even lead to unnecessary deaths of people. That is the reality and it is all the more appalling that it could be done by a Minister and several members of his Government who railed against precisely these measures when they were attempted by the last Fianna Fáil Government. How can the Minister look people straight in the face after saying the things he said in 2008? How can the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach do so, and then do what they are now doing to our pensioners and vulnerable citizens?

This is appalling and I ask the Minister to pull back from the brink. It is not fair. I appeal to the pensioners to get out on the streets again because it seems it is the only way to stop this cruelty that the Government is trying to inflict on them.

There is no doubt that we have had a huge amount of discussion about this issue in recent days, and we are bound to have much more. However, none of it rings true to people outside, because everybody knows that those moving the motion tonight were the same people who did exactly the same as this Government when they were the Government. When the Government Members were in opposition, they did the same thing. For many Members in here, it is all a big joke and a charade. They get up here and they huff and puff, and then life goes on. The real message is that life does not go on for the people who are suffering from the consequences of the decisions that are being made here.

Let us park all the waffle and the rhetoric and look at the actions that have been taken. In presenting this budget, the Government has made a choice to put on the shoulders of the elderly direct cuts equating to about €100 million. That amount of money is nothing. The Government has exceeded the budget that the troika asked it to cut. If the Government had levied a paltry 1% wealth tax on incomes of over €1 million, it would have had five times that amount of money. If the Government had insisted on the actual rate of corporation tax - one of the lowest in Europe - being the effective rate, it could have raised an extra €2.5 billion. The Government could have presented a budget that would have given elderly citizens a decent retirement and medical and health security, but it has chosen not to do so, even though the figures are there to back up such a budget.

Not only will the cuts be devastating, but a number of them are sneaky. Telephone lines will be cut at a time when people need to ring their grandchildren who have been exiled to Australia. Under any normal situation, a couple is dealt with as two single people for the purposes of measuring medical card income limits, but they can no longer do that so the Government hits even more people. The bottom line is that the Government has alternatives and we are here to say it is about time the Government took these alternatives and that we support the grey army in its crusade to secure them.

Social Justice Ireland lists the cuts over the last six years that have adversely affected older people. These include cuts to public services, such as home help and community nursing units, reductions in the fuel allowance, abolition of the Christmas bonus, increases in prescription charges, and reductions in the household benefit package. Budget 2014 has now abolished the telephone allowance, has increased prescription charges and has abolished the bereavement grant. Mairead Hayes of the Irish Senior Citizens' Parliament said that the people who need care and need to be enabled and assisted to care for themselves and others were on the receiving end of the toughest measures in budget 2014. Here is one women's story:

My name is Ellen. I was born in a tenement room in Summerhill in Dublin, in 1939. I went to school and grew up and I got a job. I paid all my rates and taxes and I put a few bob by for the future. All of a sudden, the future is here. I am 74 years old. I am on the State pension, but the prices have gone through the roof. I cannot afford to live on them. My savings are almost gone. I am slowly being driven into poverty.

There is something seriously wrong with a society that does not value and respect the people who have lived out the majority of their lives. There is little doubt but that how we care for them and relate to them as older people says a lot about who we are.

I support Deputy Boyd Barrett's amendment to this Private Members' motion. I take this opportunity to congratulate the thousands of senior citizens who came to Molesworth Street and Kildare Street yesterday to have their say on these mean spirited cuts that are taking place following this budget. Unfortunately, this Government will be immune to their voices but it is important that they were here to have their say.

The motion tonight quotes from the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, to which Ireland signed up in 2002. Article 14 of that plan states the following:

We recognize the need to achieve progressively the full realization of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. We reaffirm that the attainment of the highest possible level of health is a most important worldwide social goal, the realization of which requires action of many other social and economic sectors in addition to the health sector. We commit ourselves to providing older persons with universal and equal access to health care and services, including physical and mental health services, and we recognize that the growing needs of an ageing population require additional policies, in particular care and treatment, the promotion of healthy lifestyles and supportive environments. We shall promote independence, accessibility and the empowerment of older persons to participate fully in all aspects of society.

The previous Government ignored the Madrid plan and this Government is ignoring it as well. How can Government Ministers look elderly people in the face and tell them they value them and their contribution to Irish society, when this political agreement, to which Ireland signed up as sovereign nation, is torn up and thrown in their faces?

I call Deputy Jerry Buttimer, who is sharing time with the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, and Deputies Joe O'Reilly, Ann Phelan, Jack Wall and Derek Nolan.

I very much welcome the debate and wish to address the motion and the amendment. In doing so, we should show not just by our words but also by our deeds the respect we have for our seniors. Irrespective of party politics, we all strive to keep our senior citizens within the community. I hope the Minister, in his contribution, will state that there is a need to address the concerns and confusion that exist. In particular there is a tsunami of worry and fear about medical cards which must be addressed. I very much welcome that, on the Minister's direction, the HSE will have a communications strategy that should give comfort to many people who will not lose their medical cards. Some 93% of people will still have access to medical and GP-visit cards.

The only claim to fame of some on the benches opposite is to call the people to arms, to protest and condemn everything else. I hear very little offering of an alternative from some on the benches opposite.

The Deputy supported the protests in 2008.

I was also out there yesterday speaking to people. I met them and understand the frustration they have. I do not live in an ivory tower, I understand the concern people have, and my opening remarks addressed that. All I hear from Deputy Boyd Barrett is utter baloney about living in a utopian world that does not exist. He is from a failed ideology.

It is just what the Minister, Deputy Reilly, promised in 2008.

Our senior citizens are people we should respect and are not just economic statistics. I remind the Fianna Fáil Members opposite of the failed policies they pursued from 1977 to 1981 and also in their last 14 years in government when they bankrupted the country. They threw money at everything. The only cash Mr. Bertie Ahern traded in was to buy votes and we know what happened. Deputy Martin presided over health overruns. Our country was built on a false premise and the victims Fianna Fáil put on the altar of its Celtic tiger was not just our senior citizens but the nation and the citizens of our country.

Fianna Fáil Members should not delude themselves over this motion. I respect and support the premise of the motion. Let us put things in perspective. Under Fianna Fáil and its call to arms, the vulnerable, including angst-ridden elderly citizens, were devoid of services, had their livelihoods destroyed and saw their families forced to emigrate. That was its policy. Deputy Martin might want to airbrush Mr. Brian Cowen and Mr. Bertie Ahern from the history of Ireland, but we cannot do that.

What about the Minister, Deputy Reilly, speaking from the back of a truck outside Roscommon hospital. Is that airbrushed as well?

I hope when Deputy Niall Collins and I grow old -----

What did he say in Monaghan and Roscommon?

He is being provocative.

I know Deputy Niall Collins is uncomfortable because he does not want to hear-----

I am not uncomfortable at all.

Deputy Buttimer has the floor.

Deputy Buttimer is the hypocrite.

If I am, then I would be happy to go and face the people.

Will Deputy Buttimer clarify what the Minister, Deputy Reilly, said in Roscommon?

Regardless of whether Deputy Niall Collins likes it, the reality is that he cannot airbrush what Fianna Fáil did for 14 years and which he supported for the years he was a Member of this House.

That is unfair on Roscommon and Monaghan.

As well as Cork and Wexford.

I hope those of us in the Chamber will be able to grow old and along with many other citizens-----

If they can afford gold-plated health insurance.

One will not be able to give them a decent burial now.

If Deputy Niall Collins wants to go down that line, we can talk about the record of his party. We will have a very good history lesson and the Deputy will not come out of it smiling. Let us not do that, please.

Is that a threat? Go on.

The Deputy has 51 seconds left.

I will conclude on this. I had much more to say.

Is there no extra time for him?

Deputy Buttimer should quote back to us what the Minister said in Roscommon.

Deputy Niall Collins can talk about what he wants to. I know he is ashamed about the record of his party and he should be. If I were him I would not be seen in public. I ask him not to tear the House into a political protest, as he is doing, because I-----

I did not see too many Fine Gael Deputies at the protest yesterday.

----- will be happy to debate the record of the Minister, Deputy Reilly, with him and his party leader. I challenge them to that debate anywhere they want it. Deputy Martin ran away from the Department of Health and Children. His party did not have the courage to take responsibility for that Department and decided to leave Ms Mary Harney there. Deputy Niall Collins should stop now because he knows I am right.

As part of Dáil reform we should bring YouTube into the Chamber.

I will conclude on this.

Please do. I want to call Deputy Buttimer's colleagues.

As a society and a state we must respect our senior citizens.

The House is aware that the Government is pursuing an ambitious programme of reform for our health sector, including in social care and care for older people. We want a health service that is patient-centred, whether that patient is young or old. We want a health service that delivers care as close to home as possible in order that older people will be able to live in their homes where they feel safe and comfortable for as long as possible, rather than going into long-stay nursing homes, regardless of how nice they might be. There is a no substitute for the autonomy people feel in their house.

We want a safe health service, focused on clinical effectiveness, whereby everyone, including older people, receives safe, timely and efficient care and treatment. These reforms have delivered. The numbers of patients waiting on trolleys have been greatly reduced, which benefits everyone, especially older people. Under the previous Government's reign, patients often spent up to four days on a trolley. There are still too many people who have to spend time on trolleys and we are working hard to address that. I thank all the people who work in our health service for the fantastic job they are doing despite dwindling budgets and dwindling staff numbers.

The ones who are left.

I am delivering on hospital groups which will enable care to be delivered closer to home in local communities, which will benefit everyone, especially older people. With the introduction of clinical programmes and the piloting of the model of money following the patient, we are ensuring high quality and safe care in our hospitals for everyone, including older people.

The ongoing reforms in health and social care will ensure older people receive safe, timely and efficient care and treatment at the lowest level of complexity that is safe, timely and efficient as close to home as possible. As a result, there will be fewer hospital admissions with care closer to home provided in local communities. This will result in less travelling for older people. More older people will be able to live in their homes for as long as possible rather than going into long-stay nursing home care.

We also have the frail elderly clinical programme which allows older people, once their medical problem is resolved, to start on a course of rehabilitation immediately resulting in fewer people having to go into long-term care before their time. Older people will not be treated differently in the health service just because they are classified as older people.

Despite the extremely difficult financial situation the country is facing, the Government has worked hard to ensure more than 90% of people aged over 70 continue to have access to free GP care, whether through a medical card or a GP-visit card. Every person over 70 who relies solely on the State pension continues to qualify for a medical card. Indeed many pensioners of this age who also have private income will continue to qualify. Those who do not qualify on means alone but who face significant health costs can still qualify for a medical card under the discretionary arrangements operated by the HSE.

I emphasise that no one who is entitled to medical card coverage will lose their card as a result of the probity measures announced in the budget. Older people have nothing to fear in that regard. I remain committed to ensuring resources are directed to those who need them most. The Government remains committed to providing free GP care to the entire population because this will ensure patients are diagnosed early and treated more effectively in their communities. This is a vital step to dismantling the obscene inequity of a two-tier system though the implementation of the universal insurance scheme. Those over 70 who are no longer entitled to a medical card will still have access to free GP care and the safety net of the drugs payment scheme, meaning they will have to pay no more than €144 per month per household for medicines.

This year, the nursing homes support scheme will support more than 22,000 people, the majority of whom are older people, in meeting the cost of long-term residential care, at a cost of €970 million. I know the great majority of older people want to remain in their homes for as long as possible and to be supported in doing that.

To honour their wishes in 2013 funding of over €390 million was provided for community services for older people. In addition, this year we will provide 10.3 million hours of home help to over 50,000 people. Almost 11,000 home care packages are in place and a further 20,000 people have day care places. However, we always seek to do better for older people and to this end a review of the nursing homes support scheme is currently under way. A key question for the review is how to achieve a better balance between residential care and care in the community in line with the desires of most older people.

As a doctor I know only too well that the onset of Alzheimer's disease or dementia can be a devastating blow to a family. However, it is important to recognise that many people live well and happily for a long time after dementia enters the picture and there is much that can be done to make each personal journey better. To this end I have convened an expert working group to consider how we can provide a better response to people with Alzheimer's disease or dementia and the group will publish its work early next year.

Age should be no barrier to active participation in all dimensions of Irish society. Our positive ageing strategy calls for a shift in how, as a society, we think about growing older. We all have much to learn from the skills and experiences of older people and our strategy is geared to ensuring that older people can continue to make a strong and positive contribution in our society. I daresay no one in the Chamber does not wish to grow old in comfort.

I reiterate my personal commitment to the welfare of older people. It is a commitment that applies throughout the members of my Cabinet and their Departments. We will never regard or treat older people as anything other than people, full and valued members of our society whose efforts and sacrifices have built this nation.

Sadly and wrongly, since the budget we have had a sequence involving scaremongering, alarmism and placing unreasonable fears on our older persons. Unfortunately, tonight's motion and the amendment is another chapter in that sequence. For this reason, I join Deputy Buttimer in welcoming the new communications strategy from the HSE in respect of the allaying of fears.

No better man to allay the fears.

I intend to use my short contribution to put the whole question in context and to bring to the attention of the House what is not at issue. The income threshold for the general practitioner visit card, which is very valuable to people, remains unchanged. That is a fact. The long-term illness card, available to sufferers of diabetes and a range of costly illnesses remains in place. That is a fact too. A total of 35,000 people will be affected, but 93% of over 70s will retain their medical card.

We need to communicate the message properly, but the validation of medical cards is in the public interest, in taxpayers' interests and in the interests of a better service. It is the right thing to do as well. Anyone who for populist reasons seeks to posit the opposite view to the House is sadly lacking as a public representative.

Let us put in context what has not altered for our older people. The core rate of the State pensions remains in place as does free travel, the fuel allowance, the living alone allowance, the free television licence, the electricity and gas allowance and the over 80 years allowance. The carer's rate is preserved and the half-rate carer's rate is preserved. The extra payment for caring is in place as well. In 2014 an investment of €25 million will create 12,500 warmer homes under the better energy scheme. When I referred to 93% just now I was explaining that 93% of over 70s will retain either a GP visit card or a medical card.

The telephone issue has been raised but the Government is set to examine the senior alert scheme. It is important that this happens and I commend the announcement. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that many of the telephone companies are now vying to get into this market. The reality is that services will be available to many people. For example, Eircom has a vulnerable users scheme. This is all many of them use in any event. Under the scheme the first €8 is allowed for an older person to telephone family members if their telephone bill is less than €17.21 in a month. That will apply in many cases. The senior alert scheme will be addressed. Some €200 million is in place for housing adaptation and dealing with housing grants, a real service. The DIRT tax measures do not affect married couples aged 65 years and over with €36,000 of income or individuals with €18,000 of income. The nursing homes support scheme remains in place, as the Minister noted, and there is an aggressive, active and satisfactory primary care development programme in the country. Happily, several primary care centres were opened in my constituency recently by the Minister. These will allow people access to services nearer to home.

Let us consider this holistically and consider all the facts. We were in a situation involving the troika and a bailout. At the moment €1 billion per month more is being spent than taken in. In this context what we have achieved for our older persons should be lauded by the House. Any objective commentary would hold that we deliberating on a minute telephone allowance which will be addressed as far as possible. The fact remains that someone over 70 years with up to €500 in income per week or a couple with €900 per week will still have a medical card, although there are few of these in my constituency. If that is all we are discussing then there is no issue.

Thanks be to God, the Government and the Minister sitting in front of me have every reason to be proud of our extraordinary record for old people. We have got people off the trolleys or the solution is virtually achieved and the emergency ward situation is being addressed. We have achieved for older persons holistically and comprehensively. The motion does not stand up; it is based on a fallacy. The honest and intellectually straight thing to do would be to withdraw it or certainly not put it to a vote.

I acknowledge that we need to protect the most vulnerable in society and I am proud to say Ireland has a good record on this. The record stands up internationally.

That aside, the quality of Private Members' business that we are getting in the House should be questioned. This debate seems to be almost a rerun of the debate that we had last week. As Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan will remember, I prefaced my comments last week by saying that just because a person sits on that side of the House does not mean that he has a monopoly on sympathy, empathy or any of the emotions that they like to portray. What we have on this side of the House is a responsibility and if it had existed on this side of the House when it should have, we might not be in the situation we are in. We need to remind the public about that constantly. It was the fault of Fianna Fáil and this is the reason we are debating these issues tonight and the public should be reminded of that at every turn. I realise those in Fianna Fáil do not like to be reminded of it but we should remind them and it should never be forgotten that this is the reason we are here. There is a collective amnesia among those in Fianna Fáil and they would like to be able to forget that they had any hand, act or part in this episode, but they did.

I wish to address some of the issues raised in the Private Members' motion. I am sure older people do not want to be pressurised about means testing or application forms. This is something no one likes no matter what their age. I have spoken on this issue on more than one occasion. Equally, I have outlined that much of the documentation being sent to constituents is far too complex in format and, as I have said previously, this has a natural tendency to put the fear of God into older people, especially those of advanced years.

Despite this, the fact remains that means testing is the most efficient and effective solution in determining who is eligible. In advance of such testing, I ask that documentation being sent out by the Department should reflect this sentiment and allow for a less formal tone and format to be used.

It must be pointed out that the Government has retained the core rate of State pensions. It has maintained free travel for the elderly, the free television allowance, the living alone allowance and the electricity and gas allowances for those aged over 80, as well as the carer's allowance and half-rate carer's allowance. The medical cards issue is something about which everyone is very passionate, as highlighted by the protests outside Leinster House. I will conclude by noting the elderly must be protected, which is the reason the Labour Party in government has maintained the core rate of State pensions and, as I stated, has protected free travel and fuel and television allowances, as well as electrical and gas allowances. In the straitened circumstances in which the Government finds itself, it is greatly to be commended on this.

I welcome the Private Members' motion because no one in this House disagrees on the protection of senior citizens. In common with many other Members present, I work with various groups in my constituency to ensure senior citizens get every opportunity to enjoy life, to participate in their communities and in all aspects of it, and in which many opportunities are available to them. One can see, through various organisations, the amount of time, effort and dedication volunteers give to senior citizens. What I like most about this is that senior citizens in many places are beginning to realise their potential to give back to the community. In many cases, it is their ability to run all aspects of their associations. Bowls has become a major activity in my home area and there are so many clubs that the county board must run events six nights a week to ensure everyone is able to partake. This is because the senior citizens themselves wish to participate. They wish to give back, to be responsible and in that way to enjoy themselves. Those who may be unable to partake are brought along for the enjoyment and participation. This works across all aspects of the community, be it sport, drama, community activities and so on.

The misinformation in respect of the medical card appears to be the central focus of many of the problems. Even given that focus, however, it is important there should be a review of the medical card system. There have been efforts in this regard, comprising both a targeted and a random review, within the past two years. The targeted review was carried out in 2012 in respect of 40,000 medical card holders who had not accessed medical services for a period of 12 months or more, and approximately 39% of those medical card holders did not respond to the effect that they were resident in the country. Consequently, one can discern immediately that a review is needed. The random review of 2,628 medical and GP-visit cards was carried out in early 2013. Eligibility was confirmed for 73% of the cards while it has not been finalised for another 2%. A total of 4% of the cards were not renewed because of eligibility criteria and 21% of the card holders did not respond to renew their cards. Again, one can discern immediately that there is a need to bring these data up to date, to ascertain our direction on this issue and to assess the costs that must be determined in these times and, in so doing, to ensure the Health Service Executive will be able to evaluate and give value for money in the medical card system.

Medical cards also have been awarded on discretionary grounds and I have a concern in this regard, having encountered particular cases in which cards have been withdrawn. I hope these issues can be surmounted through the application of common sense. One point about a person having a discretionary card is the comfort of having it. In many instances, the card is not simply something the person has for the sake of having it. The person in question uses it because of the circumstances in which he or she finds him or herself. Will the Minister for Health ensure the HSE uses an available mechanism to get all the information, to get it correctly and to process it as quickly as possible? There have been too many instances in which an appeal has been made or a review instigated that has necessitated the sending of the file from Dublin to Cork or to Donegal. This lengthens the process, which is not good work and it should not happen like this because it places the family concerned under pressure. In respect of the appeal mechanism, the card should remain valid while the appeal is being heard. I ask the Minister to review this situation and when a card is being reviewed, it should be allowed to remain in place. This would give comfort to the people who were subject to the review because they would know that were they to make a mistake and fail to submit the information the first time, they would be given this chance and would not be obliged to have the entire card reassessed. I will conclude by asking the Minister to do these two things.

I read the Private Members' motion tabled by Fianna Fáil and was quite struck by the language used. The motion "agrees that older people are more anxious now ... concurs that older people do not want to be pressurised about ... application forms" and so on. While I have no doubt these sentiments apply to some older people, the language in the motion is so generic, empty and lacking in depth that it verges on stereotyping. What is worse, it implies that older people, contrary to what I and most Members know to be true, are only concerned about themselves. I consider this to be a shallow and foolish approach by Fianna Fáil.

If Members truly are to discuss issues of concern to older people, the language one must use must refer to them as citizens and members of the wider community of which they are proud stakeholders. It may surprise Fianna Fáil but older people have children about whose livelihoods they care. Older people have grandchildren about whose education they care. Older people have husbands, wives and partners about whose health services they care. Older people have friends and neighbours who lack a job and about whom they worry. Moreover, older people have a real and genuine concern for their country, for which they worked so hard and about which they care so much. While it is true it has not been possible to exclude any single group from the economic disaster Fianna Fáil brought on this country, older people appreciate, and to a greater extent than Fianna Fáil give them credit for, the difficulties and challenges the current Government faces. They understand that as we move through these fiscal adjustments and economic corrections, neither they nor anyone else is immune from the consequences they bring with them, and yet many acknowledge the hard work done to protect the pension, free travel, free television licence, gas and electricity allowances, living alone allowance, carer's allowance and so on. Moreover, they do not take this for granted.

The Fianna Fáil motion implies that older people are a selfish uncomprehending group of people who do not understand the economic reality they, their children and grandchildren are in and that society as a whole faces. Let us desist from the artificial nonsense of carving older people out of the community and segregating them into a disconnected group that is separate from everyone else. It is such thinking that is seriously dangerous to older people's well-being and participation in society.

If there is one issue I had thought ought to have been included in the motion, because it seriously affects older people in particular, it is loneliness. I have taken a particular interest in the issues of loneliness and social isolation among older people and the reason they should have been included is that they affect older people to a greater extent than any other section of society. This is because as they leave work and social isolation occurs, as family members and friends pass away and as mobility issues kick in, loneliness can be a serious problem. In its 2011 report entitled Older People - Experiences and Issues, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul quoted one elderly person as saying there was nothing worse than loneliness. It is the worst form of poverty.

That is the reason it is particularly important to frame our attitude to older people, and older people who are isolated in that sense, by focusing on participation in society. As we consider the supports we offer to older people in the community, is it best that we give them cash or, more importantly in terms of the impact on their health and well-being, should we put in place services that will ensure they can interact with society and be a part of their communities and neighbourhoods? That is the question we should consider as we examine our attitude to older people.

We have a role in Government in this respect but citizens across the country can also participate. It costs nothing to visit an older person. It costs nothing to check in on one's neighbour on one's way home. If we were to get anything out of this economic crisis where it is very difficult to get access to money, we should make a call to action for citizens across this country, be they politicians, ordinary members of the public or family members, to interact and take account of our society, community and our older people who are suffering in certain instances from isolation and a lack of social contact.

The next speaker is Deputy Kitt who has five minutes and is sharing time with Deputy Niall Collins who has six minutes, Deputy McGuinness who has four minutes, Deputy Finian McGrath who has two minutes, Deputy Calleary who has eight minutes and Deputy Smith who has five minutes

I commend Deputy Kelleher on tabling this motion. It presents a welcome opportunity to discuss a very important issue. The motion is about protecting the rights of older citizens and solidarity between the generations. I do not see any sign of solidarity when the Minister is removing a large number of medical cards, estimated to be 35,000, from people who are over the age of 70 years. They are being removed not only from the elderly, but from people who are sick, people on the breadline and people with disabilities as a result of this budget.

The abolition of the telephone allowance in particular is a mean-spirited cut. This cutback will have serious consequences because, as was said, many older people have their personal security alarms and house alarms linked to their landline. If people are forced to give up their landlines, they will be hit in other ways. I raised the issue of alarm systems last year when the telephone allowance was reduced. Some families told me that their elderly relatives were going into nursing homes and when they went to remove the landline, they learned that the alarm was linked to it. A constituent told me recently, following the recent announcement, that it would cost €111 to disconnect a landline because the telephone company claims it is within the contract period even though there was never a written contract, only a verbal agreement. Irrespective of whether a person keeps the landline or gets rid of it, it will involve a cost and the loss of benefit will hurt an elderly person who had that allowance.

I was interested in what Deputy Joe O'Reilly said, namely, that some people were able to get a better telephone package for their landline. I think that is correct but why did the Government not refer to this or did it know what could be purchased as regards these packages? If we are going to help older people to live independently and with dignity, I hope the full telephone allowance will be restored. Isolation in rural Ireland, to which Deputy Nolan referred, is a particular issue in this context as is illness. Medical cards are important when one is coping with an illness. Having a telephone is important when people live in an isolated area. The provision of rural transport is also very important. When I hear talk of a review of the rural transport scheme, I get very worried. I hope that services will be maintained for older citizens in a fair and progressive manner. I hear that point being raised all the time and it was even raised today by the Tuam Active Retirement Association who meet every Wednesday. They met today-----

-----and raised the issues of the increase in prescription charges, the loss of medical cards for the over 70s and the abolition of the telephone allowance. These active retirement groups have been having meetings, their members protested outside the House yesterday and they talked about the difficult situations they find themselves in having worked hard all their lives and made great contributions to society.

Energy costs are also an important factor. Increasing energy costs are putting a good deal of pressure on families and on elderly people who live alone. It is ironic that meetings are currently being held in Galway about increasing restrictions being imposed on turf-cutting. The humble sod of turf is now to the forefront of many people's minds. Turf is the main fuel in many houses, whether it is used for heating or cooking. More areas of bog are being put out of bounds for turf-cutting. The restriction used to apply to special areas of conservation and now it applies to natural heritage areas.

I hope that all these issues, including in particular the budget measures that will impact on health insurance costs, will be examined. Those measures are likely to worsen the position for elderly people. It is estimated that more than 1 million will face a tax hike with this charge. It will not only affect the gold-plated polices. More and more people over 60 years of age are taking up private health insurance. I understand the number of people over the age of 60 with private health insurance rose by 22,000 between 2011 and 2012. I hope that these measures will be resisted and the Government will reverse them and do so as soon as possible.

We discussed the medical card issue in the House a little over two weeks ago and the Minister was present for that debate. On that occasion I gave him the details of a constituent of mine from Caherguillamore in Bruff, County Limerick, and I regret to say that I have not heard from him in that respect in the intervening two weeks. I did not even get an acknowledgment from him that he would look into the case. That lady is suffering from cancer. She is very sick. She is going through three parallel treatments at the moment to try to overcome the challenges that cancer has presented to her. I spoke to her as late as last Saturday in her hospital bed. She was quite sick and she still has not had a determination or an outcome regarding her medical card. That should not happen. I regret that I have to raise her case again tonight on the floor of Dáil Éireann. As I said to the Minister two weeks ago, it is not good enough that any particular case should have to be raised in isolation in this House. I feel strongly about this case. The system is letting down this person. The Department of Health is letting her down. She is being let down by the people who should be looking after her and caring for her. While she is battling cancer, the biggest challenge that life has presented to her to date, she has the worry of whether she will receive her due entitlement to a medical card. I ask the Minister again to make this a matter of priority through his good offices.

We spoke about the ongoing medical card issue a number of weeks ago. There has been a de facto change in policy. I listened to some speakers on the Government side who talked about communications, scaremongering and misinformation. The facts are out there and we are bringing them into the Chamber. Nobody is making this stuff up. We need a dose of realism and a dose of honesty regarding the medical card issue. There is no point in saying to the people that there is a communications problem and that the Government is fixing it. When I hear that coming from Government, fixing a communications problem means that it is going to spin some other version of events. The fact of the matter is that the Government has determined an amount of savings that it wants to accrue from the medical card budget and it is working back from that. It is making the criteria fit as it works backwards from the bottom line savings figure that it is trying to reach. The Government has not decided what the new criteria will be but working forward from that it will be a case of however many fall out of the system fall out of it. It is working backwards from the figure to try to arrive at a starting point, but that is not a good way to do it.

The people deserve a little bit of honesty. I compliment RTE's "Prime Time" on sticking with this public debate. Why do we have to see middle ranking HSE officials being torn apart in the RTE studios?

Why are the public representatives-----

-----the Ministers and the Minister of State present, not going into RTE and facing the people and telling them why the Government has changed the policy? It is not good enough that the Government sent in a relatively unknown public servant-----

As a former RTE person, the Minister of State should have gone in there.

-----who, when he was pressed on three occasions, finally coughed it out that there has been a change in policy. I ask the Minister of State to take that point on board.

Regarding medical cards for children under five which the Government has announced, that appears to be a robbing Peter to pay Paul exercise. While everybody concurs that giving children under the age of five a medical card is a laudable exercise, it is taking medical cards from older people and sicker people to fund the cards for children under five, and he has not given a start date for that measure. I asked the Taoiseach this morning if it will require legislation to roll out medical cards for children under five and the position with the GP contracts but he was unable to answer that question for me. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would address that issue when replying.

I want to comment on the impact on older people of the removal of the bereavement grant. There has been too much dismissal of that by Government spokespeople - shop around and get a cheaper funeral. Nothing could be more disrespectful to the people of Ireland.

Who said that?

Many people have said it.

It is on the record - shop around and perhaps look on e-tenders, effectively. It is not good enough. Many people know that the bereavement grant goes to the undertaker and that the undertaker does not get paid until the estate of the deceased person goes through probate and is finally signed off. The undertaker is then paid out of the proceeds. The bereavement grant keeps the undertaker off the back of the families while the estate is going through probate. The Government must revisit that.

The Social Welfare Bill was published this morning, as the Minister of State is aware, and there is no mention of the bereavement grant in it. That was raised in the House this morning. It is not good enough to have a situation where people are being forced to go-----

Thank you, Deputy.

-----to community welfare officers to try to extract an exceptional needs payment to pay for a funeral when the Government has also squeezed the exceptional needs payment budget of the community welfare officers. The Government should not tell them that they can go somewhere else where there is a fund of money when it has squeezed that also.

There are two points I want the Minister of State to take on board-----

Deputy, you are over your time. You are taking time from your colleagues. Thank you.

-----namely, the bereavement grant and the medical cards issue, and the individual cases I outlined for the Minister.

There is no doubt that this budget has singled out senior citizens for a range of cuts. Many of these cuts have been hidden in the fine print of this budget. Whether it is a change of regulation or a change of qualification rule, there have been cuts. Deputy Nolan made a suggestion, and I support him in it, that we should visit older people and that people outside of this House should be encouraged to do so also within communities.

I visit older people. To take away from some of the statements that have been made by Ministers and some backbenchers and apply some reality, I will tell the House what I find in their homes. When they apply for grants to the county council to do something minor to make their house reasonably accessible, they cannot get it because there is no money. When the older person in hospital is being discharged, there is no money to refurbish the house. They are stuck in a hospital and they cannot come home to their families. I came across a case where a woman and her disabled daughter have not been able to get accommodation with their other sister simply because there is no money to carry out the refurbishment works.

There is then the case of the medical cards. We have had all the changes with the budget. People are suffering and medical cards are being withdrawn from older people but what happened before the budget? We had what they call a random check. Every Member on the opposite side of the House must know from their clinics that there was nothing random about it. It was a cull of medical cards from the elderly, an attempt to take those cards and not give them back for one reason or another.

The son of a 90 year old woman in my constituency went to the chemist and it was only then that he was told that the medical card had been taken from his mother. Only yesterday, a couple went to the chemist and without any notification their medical card had been taken. That is not a lack of communication. That is complete chaos within the Health Service Executive, HSE. It is a misunderstanding of the problem at the political level because the HSE has a political leadership within the Department of Health, and that political leadership should be showing the way.

I point the Minister to the hospital waiting list. I listened here the other day to a Minister telling us that there were no trolleys in the corridors. The Government must have its head stuck in the sand because there are trolleys in corridors. Again, in my region, all of the cases for senior citizens looking for hip and knee replacements or cataract operations were sent to Cappagh hospital. They were told they would be fast-tracked and prioritised but do the Members opposite know what happened after a few months? All of the files were sent back down to Waterford, and the people were told to rejoin the waiting list but they have been on the waiting list for six years.

Members make the accusation that this was all Fianna Fáil's fault. They are in power since 2011. They got a mandate from the Irish people and they have totally ignored that mandate. The message they are sending out about the past is now being rubbished not by us on this side of the House, but by the general public who are getting fed up listening to that message.

All of the issues that have been addressed by my colleagues here are real issues that the Government will have problems with in terms of the care of the elderly. The prescription charge, the bereavement grant and the DIRT are all sneaky cuts that will make life miserable for older people who are already living in fear-----

Thank you, Deputy.

-----who cannot fill their tank of oil, who will not be heard by the social welfare officer-----

Sorry, Deputy, you are over time. Thank you.

-----and who are being rubbished, and the Members opposite sit there and give us this spin. What nonsense it is.

Why is there no money?

I call Deputy Finian McGrath who has two minutes.

I will tell the Deputy why there is no money. The Deputy sits on the Committee of Public Accounts.

Please. We are short on time here.

He comes in every Thursday and sees the millions of euro being wasted, and it is still being wasted every week by his Government.

I see billions of national debt every week.

That is why there is no money. The Deputy should see how much is being paid to some of the people on State boards-----

Deputy McGuinness, resume your seat.

The Deputy should stop his nonsense.

Burn the bondholders and get your money. That is your plan.

Deputy Finian McGrath now has one minute and 40 seconds.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this important debate on protecting the rights of our senior citizens and expressing and supporting solidarity between the generations. This is a very significant debate, particularly after yesterday's protest outside the Dáil gates. I attended the protest to show my total support for our elderly, our sick and our disabled. Any society and any Government that does not stand by these people does not deserve any support.

I urge the Government and Dáil to support this motion. We need to back our senior citizens to the hilt. They have served this country and made a massive contribution to the State, to their families and to the wider community. I commend the Senior Citizens' Parliament, Age Action Ireland and other groups on taking a stand, and tonight I will be voting for them.

I strongly believe that Irish society should protect the rights of all older citizens and solidarity between the generations. Services for older people should be protected to allow them to live independently and with dignity. Older people are now more anxious about services being removed from them, which will lead to isolation and illness. Older people do not want to be pressurised about means tests and application forms for health services.

I call for public services to be maintained for older citizens in a fair, progressive way and I call on the Government to reaffirm Ireland's agreement to the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.

On many occasions in this House I have railed against what I call the notion of silo government where Departments take decisions without any co-ordination or consultation with other Departments and one sector or community invariably gets overly impacted. The evidence is there that this is what has happened on this occasion. The Department of Health decided to go after medical cards. The Department of Finance decided to cut the tax relief on health insurance. The Department of Social Protection decided that the telephone allowance and the bereavement grant were within its sights but it seems that nobody in the three Departments spoke to each other to try to assess if this would impact on one particular group in society or the other. That is what has happened.

If we are to look at the reports on the lead-in to the budget, which I notice have not been denied, the Minister, Deputy Reilly, was the last man to go into the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to present and seek support for his budget. Other Ministers had done it. He was the last man to do so and he presented an unachievable budget to the Minister, Deputy Howlin.

That then forced the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to take control of the Minister for Health's Department and its expenditure. What we now have is a collection of departmental initiatives which are impacting in a very severe way on older people, in particular.

I heard phrases such as "scare-mongering" and "communications problems" used tonight. If there is scare-mongering and if there are communications problems, I invite anyone to come to my office to see the real cases with review letters from the Department of Health which I have dealt with, and not only since the budget. This has been going on all year, that is, the reduction in the number of medical cards and the changing conditions. Even the Minister admitted he was not aware that the qualifying provisions for medical cards had changed, so it is no wonder we are slightly wary about his ability to perform in his own Department. Those on the Government side cannot accuse the Opposition of communications problems and stoking fear when the figure of €133 million is put beside a very vague issue of medical card probity. That is not communications in terms of how one presents a measure. The Government keeps saying many people have gone away and have died but that is not correct. It states 35,000 medical cards will be taken from the over 70s or will be switched to GP cards. That is the figure when one calculates the saving in the budget documents. Either the figure put down as savings is wrong or it is right. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy White, will clarify that.

On budget day the Minister for Finance said the change to tax relief for health insurance policies would only affect gold plated policies, which the Taoiseach repeated on Leaders' Questions this morning. The difficulty is that as people get older or as they develop a medical conditions - many young people are in that situation - their health insurance gets more expensive. It is not gold plated to have basic cancer treatment covered by VHI or Aviva. If one suffers from chronic pain syndrome and must travel to Dublin every six weeks to have one's pain pump filled, which gives one relief and allows one to live one's life, it is not gold plated to have a VHI policy costing €3,000 per year minimum. The Department has not come up with an alternative figure to that suggested by the insurance companies that 70% of policies will be affected. Older people will bear the brunt of that change to tax relief for health insurance.

The big problem with medical cards is the number of people whose cards have been reviewed unbeknown to them. They have medical cards with expiry dates next year but when they go to the doctor, he or she informs them the card has been changed. The doctor can no longer treat them because he or she has been told by the Department the medical card has been discontinued, or will not be renewed, before the patient has been told. It is not the fault of the people in Finglas, who are doing a very good job in difficult circumstances. It is due to a complete lack of centralised policy at the top of the Department and seeing medical cards as an easy fix when it is panicking to get a budget figure. That seems to be what is happening, if we are to believe all the stories from Fine Gael about the Minister's activities in the days before the budget. Unfortunately, the people paying the price are medical card holders and people over 70 who are losing the right to medical cards, bereavement grants and telephone allowances.

I refer to the bereavement grant. The Minister said the exceptional needs payment was still available in the community welfare office but there has been a cut in the overall heading for that payment. The bereavement grant has been abolished but the budget available for exceptional needs has been cut. People are being crucified twice here.

The provision regarding the telephone allowance has not been included in the Social Welfare Bill. Not only is the Government taking it away but the Minister dismissed it as being only a payment for line rental to various telephone companies. It does more than that; it gives people a landline in their homes and in rural areas, in particular, it allows them to have the emergency pendant, which they use for crime and health security. They face losing that because they must pay the full amount to Eircom due to a very measly cut. Since it is not included in the Social Welfare Bill, the Minister of State, Deputy White, might outline the Government's plans in regard to that cut.

Many departmental decisions have come down on the heads of one sector. Older people are paying the price for a way of government which has been practised by every government, so I am not personalising it to any Minister. It is time Departments started to co-ordinate approaches. Given the way this budget was devised, with last minute meetings and last minute rows, it was inevitable somebody would pay the price and it seems to be our older people. As the Government prepares for next year's budget, let us hope there will be more co-ordination so that one sector of society does not bear the brunt of budgetary decisions in the manner older people are in this budget.

I welcome the opportunity to make a short contribution on what is an important debate. I am one of the Members representing counties Cavan and Monaghan, an area commonly referred to as drumlin country. I have a particular concern in regard to the poor or, indeed, non-existent mobile telephone coverage in parts of the two counties. When one travels through that area, calls constantly drop. We have the additional problem in that some of the British telecommunications companies dominate the coverage along the Border.

It is in the context of the removal of the telephone allowance that I raise the following point. The panic buttons and home security alarms are an extremely important support, in particular for elderly persons living on their own. We all know people need a landline to use those facilities. The abolition of the telephone allowance is a deplorable decision which will affect almost 395,000 people, including the old, the disabled and carers. Over the years, practically every home had a landline installed. Older people relied on such a communication link to keep in touch with family and neighbours and with personnel delivering social services, whether from the statutory agencies or voluntary organisations.

This decision means a reduction of €9.50 per month in the Government support for those 395,000 people. That is a reduction in the person's income and means. The additional anxiety that will be caused by the abolition of the telephone allowance will impact most on those persons living in the most isolated communities where, by and large, the poorest mobile telephone coverage exists.

Over the past decade, many people worked hard in local communities to ensure that the vast majority of older persons or persons with a disability obtained the panic buttons and security alarms. Those communities were supported through small, but significant, grant schemes. Recently, I heard one of the advocacy groups ask where now stands the promises in the Government's National Positive Ageing Strategy.

All of us doing constituency work must be very conscious of the considerable and, indeed, justified concern of people in regard to medical cards. We are all aware of individual cases of huge hardship in households where medical cards have not been renewed or where first-time applications have been inexplicably refused. This has been happening for months and the recent budgetary decisions will lead to further hardship for the elderly, the ill and vulnerable people.

Recently, I dealt with the case of a woman aged 96 who, unfortunately, has totally lost her sight. That family had to re-apply for her medical card. It is a very literate family but it created that extra pressure. To its credit, that family has cared for that woman at home and she has never spent a day in a nursing home. Why should a family face that additional unnecessary pressure to get a medical card renewed for a lady of 96 years of age?

The elderly people who contacted me are very concerned and worried about the change in eligibility for these necessary supports, whether medical cards or supports from the Department of Social Protection. Pensioners who worked hard for decades, often in the most difficult circumstances, paid their dues to this State and made a huge contribution to our society. The least they should expect now is to have the necessary support that they can live securely and free from worry about day-to-day living costs.

All of us support and understand their wish and desire to live independently with dignity and without anxiety at this stage of their lives. At no time is a family more vulnerable than at the time when a bereavement occurs. As Deputy Calleary said, the bereavement grant was based on the insurance contribution of the deceased during his or her working life. In many instances, it was extremely important for families in difficult financial circumstances. I was amazed to hear the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, make a comment on the radio to the effect that the grant was eaten up by the undertaker. The people I mix with through my work and the people I meet as I go about my daily business can ill afford the loss of €850 in the event of a bereavement in their families. All of us are familiar with the particular pressures being faced by families.

I welcome the comments made by Deputy Wall, who appealed for common sense to be shown in the administration of the medical card scheme. I know the Minister of State, Deputy White, is a practical man. I hope he can ensure that practical ideas are pursued to ensure people do not continue to have these worries. I remind Deputy Nolan, who mentioned that the word "loneliness" is not mentioned in our motion, that the word "isolation" is included in it. It is particularly important for those of us who represent rural constituencies because we know many people who will feel isolated if these harsh measures are implemented.

The tone of the amendments proposed to this motion, if perhaps not the motion itself, suggests that the Government has been disproportionately unfair to older people. This charge does not stand up to any objective scrutiny. Of course it is possible for speakers to select particular reductions or cutbacks for special criticism. Given the scale of the fiscal correction that has been required in recent years, no group could be entirely insulated from the impact of adjustments. I accept that no group has been so insulated.

This Government recognises that Irish people have made huge sacrifices. However, we are now coming within sight of the point at which we can reclaim our economic sovereignty. This will be critical if we are to put control of Ireland's affairs back into Irish hands and again have the capacity to decide ourselves how our society is shaped. Having said this, we have prioritised the protection of older people as much as possible. I suggest that our record bears that out. In the short time available to me, I would like to mention a few areas in which this protection has applied.

The nursing home support scheme continues to be an extremely generous support for those who need long-term residential care. Even after the changes that were announced last year, the State is continuing to meet by far the greater part of the cost of care in the majority of cases, with nursing home residents making a much smaller contribution. The average weekly contribution by an individual under the scheme is less than €285, while the total weekly cost of care is approximately €1,500 in some nursing homes. In 2013, some 10.3 million hours of home help will be delivered to over 50,000 people, with an additional 10,870 people receiving home care packages. A review of the balance between residential and community care is taking place as we consider how more people might be better supported at home for longer, in line with the wishes expressed by older people themselves.

Even after the changes that were announced recently, well over 90% of those over the age of 70 will continue to hold medical card or GP visit cards. Any single person with an income of up to €26,000, or couple with an income of up to €47,000, will continue to hold a medical card and will therefore be unaffected by the recent change. I wish to confirm a figure in response to Deputy Calleary, who asked for clarification in this respect. Some 35,000 people will move from full medical cards to GP-only cards as a result of the eligibility changes for over 70s that were announced in last week's budget. People over the age of 70 who now qualify for GP visit cards rather than medical cards will continue to be entitled to make use of the drugs payment scheme. People in that age group who have weekly incomes of between €500 and €700 - between €900 and €1,400 in the case of a couple - will pay a maximum of €33.23 on medication each week.

The State pension, free travel, fuel allowance and free television licence schemes have all been protected. The tax treatment of the elderly remains unaltered, with no change in the net income of pensioners as a result of the budget. From a policy perspective, the national carer's strategy, which was published in 2012; the national positive aging strategy, which was published earlier this year; and the forthcoming national dementia strategy, which is currently being drafted, demonstrate our commitment to giving unprecedented priority, and rightly so, to older people in our communities. These commitments will have far-reaching effects into the future.

I would like to respond to one or two issues that have been raised since I joined the debate. Deputy Niall Collins mentioned an individual case that he raised the last time we had a debate of this nature in the Chamber. I do not propose to engage in any discussion on any individual case. During the course of the debate in question, after I gave an account of the manner in which the administration of the system is being affected, I invited colleagues to let me know about any cases that draw into question what I was saying about how the system is operating. The Deputy raised such an issue with me. I regret that I have not come back to him so far in relation to it. I will certainly follow it up after this debate and revert to him.

Decisions in relation to applications for medical cards are not matters for the Minister for Health. I am sure Deputy Niall Collins was not suggesting in his contribution that they were. Such matters are dealt with by the HSE in accordance with the relevant legislation. That is how it will continue. I reject outright the Deputy's suggestion that an effort is being made to make the criteria fit in some way to ensure a certain number of cards are withdrawn. People are either entitled to a card or they are not. There is absolutely no question of the Government or the HSE acting in a way that would ensure a certain target number of cards is taken out of the system every year. If we were to do so, we would be contravening what is provided for in the legislation, which is that people have an entitlement or do not have an entitlement.

Deputy Smith made a reasonable point about the need to be practical and sensible. I am open to anything colleagues might have to say in that respect. I would like to put a rhetorical question to the Deputy in response to what he said about the letters that are sent to people when reviews are taking place. Is he suggesting that cards should be open-ended in terms of their duration? It seems to me that if they were open-ended, that would represent a change in our system. We must have a means of ensuring people continue to be entitled. I do not know of a better way of doing this than writing to them at any given time to check on their circumstances. I am open to suggestions about how that might better be achieved.

I thank the Fianna Fáil Party for allowing me to contribute to this debate. At a time of budgetary cuts, I would like to know why the Government is giving €700 million of borrowed money to people who are not Irish citizens and who are living abroad. If this figure could be halved to €350 million, there would be no need for the proposed €113 million cut that will directly affect 100,000 medical card holders. The telephone rental allowance, which enables people to get telephones that are vitally needed for security purposes, would not need to be abolished and neither would the bereavement grant. This could be done at the stroke of a pen.

The Government has decided to discriminate against Irish people who live in poverty, some of whom voted to elect it. It is deliberately throwing €700 million around the world even though it has no electoral mandate to do so. It must be unduly influenced by the extraordinarily highly paid leaders of the organisations through which much of this money is being pushed. We do not have a properly audited system. Some of the moneys in question are not subject to proper accounting. Charity begins at home. I suggest that a question on this matter should be put to the people when the Government proposes to hold a referendum next year. The Government should ask the electorate to give it a mandate to continue with policies that discriminate against the poor Irish people who elected it.

Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources. Economists are supposed to be trained and have an understanding of the sociological needs of the communities they analyse. I am afraid there must be some very dumb economists advising the Government at present. To be honest, their wisdom is very questionable. The Government's parish pump in Ireland has been bled dry. According to an article in today's Irish Independent, "Greeks are on average almost 40pc poorer than they were in 2008 ... laying bare the impact of a brutal recession and austerity measures the Government may be forced to extend into next year". The plight in this country in the comparable years mirrors what happened in Greece. Our unfortunate citizens who are at the lower rungs of the ladder are suffering. I plead with the Government to review immediately and reverse the draconian decisions that were taken in last week's budget.

I would like to share time with Deputy Kelleher.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I compliment my colleague, Deputy Kelleher, on putting this motion before the House. Like other speakers, I am somewhat bemused by the continuous spin from the Government to the effect that the Irish people's misunderstanding of the effects of these cuts is based on some kind of deficit in its communications strategy.

It is a sign of desperation if the Government has to say that its inability to communicate has confused the people.

In my experience the people are very adept at understanding how they are affected by measures brought forward in this House and through various budgets. They are well able to read between the lines. On this occasion they have found the Government out. I am not talking about the Minister of State personally. He is one of the few who talks straight when dealing with good or bad news. Others around him unfortunately do not. His colleagues, particularly those in Cabinet, have told too many porkies and the people have rightly recognised that the Government has sold them a pup, based on the promises that it made prior to the election and that it continues to inflict pain and unnecessary cuts notwithstanding its continuing to say that it is not doing that. It is shameful. No matter how the Government tries to communicate the removal of the bereavement grant, of the telephone allowance, of discretionary medical cards at the rate of 1,000 a month, of medical cards from elderly, sick people, it will not be able to fool people by somehow suggesting that it will not hurt, affect or disenfranchise them in a way that is disproportionate to others in society whom the Government has not touched because the Minister of State's friends in Fine Gael want to protect particular sectors.

If the Government is concerned about communications it might be worthwhile having a chat with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton. She is quite adept at communicating. She communicates very well. She is still the darling of the media. One almost gets unnecessary information if one brushes past her in the corridor. She is so adept at protecting her own image she suggests that all these things are being foisted upon her, she is doing her best and she is not really reducing any of the rates, while all the while inflicting significant cuts on certain sectors within the social welfare budget. She continues to peddle what I believe to be an untruth, that there have been no cuts to social welfare rates. The word "rates" is added on. Yet there have been very serious cuts in social welfare that impact heavily on certain sectors. Swingeing cuts affect some of the most vulnerable people.

I read through some material last night in preparation for today's debate. On 22 November 2005, when the Minister for Social Protection was an opposition spokesperson she said of the then Government's Book of Estimates that it was as worthy of credibility as an Al Capone declaration of innocence. I would say that her declaration that social welfare rates have not been cut is just as worthy of credibility as an Al Capone declaration of innocence. She might reflect on that when she spins her next story against whomever she chooses. Needless to say, the Minister of State's party leader was adept at criticising and spinning in a particular way when he was in opposition. On 20 January 2009 at the commemoration of the ninetieth anniversary of the first Dáil, he said:

[C]an we say that we have lived up to the objective that "the first duty of the Government of the Republic is to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children"? Can the elderly patient lying on a hospital trolley, or the pensioners defending their medical cards and their pension rights feel that "the nation’s aged and infirm shall not be regarded as a burden, but rather entitled to the nation’s gratitude and consideration"?

I wonder do the aged and infirm tonight believe that they are entitled to the nation's gratitude and consideration as a result of the Government's budget or do they feel that they are a burden on society? Those with whom I have conversed over the past week believe that they are a burden on society. The continual betrayal of that important sector of our society is shameful and not worthy of the comments coming from the Government side.

The Tánaiste could not help himself when he was then the leader of the Labour Party in opposition. On 15 October 2008 he had another rush of blood to the head when he said that "If the economy were the Titanic, it would be women and children last while the bankers got the first and most comfortable lifeboat". Over that period he threatened to lock up bankers, as did the present Minister for Justice and Equality and Minister for Defence, Deputy Alan Shatter, and others. The Tánaiste was going to do it his way rather than Frankfurt's way. All of that was going to happen. It seems to me on this occasion that following his input into the budget young mothers, young unemployed people, senior citizens, the sick and now those with life-threatening illnesses are left to last and the lifeboats are reserved for those whom Fine Gael believes it must protect, the wealthy and those in a position to pay. This budget continues to inflict a regressive approach, based on our taxation system, to benefit those who have most and disenfranchise to the greatest extent those who have least.

I was surprised yesterday when I received an information card from the Department of Finance that describes the consolidated effect of the eight or nine budgets that have taken place over the period of correction since 2008, which set out to suggest that whatever number of billions of euro had been taken out of the economy, it was most progressive in its impact. The Minister of State will be aware that the actions taken by his Government in the last two budgets were adjudged by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, to have been the most regressive in comparison with the measures taken heretofore. This budget will be seen to continue that trend.

I take on board what we must accept about our period in office but at least when cuts and adjustments had to be made, those who could pay the most were hit the hardest. That is not just my point it is also that of the ESRI. The Government continues to take a regressive approach. It surprises me that Labour Party backbenchers and Ministers continue to come in here and defend that in a naked way, as if to suggest that decisions are difficult. We know that tough decisions have to be taken but they must be taken in a fair and equitable way and the actions of the Labour Party have been well shy of that.

Age Action Ireland and the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament are vehemently opposed to these proposals and I do not understand why we cannot show solidarity with them. The Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly could not understand why Age Action Ireland and the Senior Citizens Parliament could not be addressed in such a way as to resolve the issues. He has shown blatant disregard for the promises that he made to them prior to the election.

I welcome the contributions from Deputies on all sides of the House. We do not claim to have a monopoly on empathy on this side of the House nor do we claim to have a monopoly on understanding but this was an important motion to put down to give people the opportunity to express genuine views. There is an underlying narrative from Deputies on all sides. We are more direct on this side but among the Minister of State's colleagues on the Government side there is a major problem with the budget and the targeting of this cohort of elderly people. There is no point in dressing it up in any way. The figures and statistics are there. More important is that the budget's impact on people's lives is there for everybody to see. Now we have the vista of these cuts having a major impact on older people who want to live independently, without fear and not in isolation.

On a couple of occasions, the Minister of State has pointed out that 35,000 people will move from a full medical card to a GP only card. What I find fascinating about the debate is that in 2008 when universality was changed again and a guideline of €700 per week was introduced it was regarded as bad, terrible, but now he tries to tell us that €500 per week is good. We have to live in the real world. There has been a consistent undermining of eligibility for medical cards. We see case after case of people in their eighties - Deputy Smith gave the example of a person of 90 years of age - who are randomly selected for a review. We are dealing with public money so of course we must live within guidelines but the idea that a person's income and health is going to change dramatically when they are 93 or 94 years of age simply beggars belief. If the Government does target them for a review it should at least do so in a systematic way that does not put the fear of God in older people when they get letters asking for further information.

We asked this at committee. It is randomly selected by a computer. Perhaps the Minister of State should turn off the computer, have a look at the files and ask why on earth one would send out a letter to a person aged 88 who is blind and incontinent and depends on support from family to live. The person is asked whether their circumstances have changed and is told the authorities want further information. This also involved a constituent of Deputy Smith aged 96. This is what is happening.

We tabled these motions not just to highlight some of the hypocrisy of what was said and what is being done in the context of budgets but also to highlight genuine concerns of many citizens who are feeling the impact not only of the cuts but also of the weight of the State in intimidating them with unnecessary letters. When a person is 96 years of age, is it not time for the State to leave that person alone? When the Minister of State is talking about understanding and communications, I urge him at least to put a bit of heart and understanding into the fact these people have given this country great service and are entitled to live with dignity and without any further oppression in the context of forms or, as the Taoiseach said, the Government man calling. The Government man is calling. He is calling every day but not only is he calling to the house, he is taking money directly out of their pockets in the context of this budget.

What about my question to Deputy Smith?

We are short of time.

That is the issue at stake here.

Should it be open-ended?

When a person is 96 years of age, I would say that the Government should put a full stop after that file and let that person live with dignity. We have consistently highlighted the fact that difficult choices must be made. In fairness, any cursory look at the budgets brought forward in recent years by the Fine Gael-Labour Government, and it is a Fine Gael-led Government where all the policies are Fine Gael-led, will show that fairness and progression have gone out the window. The living standards of those on lower incomes have been undermined. There is to be no increase in taxation. Those with higher incomes have not made the contribution they could make, yet we are taking the telephone allowance and the bereavement grant from people. It is time to change priorities and that is why this motion calls for the Government to support older people in the context of policies. I know the Government is supporting it but let us be honest. I would like to put much more into that other than that Standing Orders did not allow it. I commend the motion but I also ask the Government to review its policies regarding older people.

Amendment put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 44; Níl, 79.

  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Browne, John.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Collins, Joan.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Daly, Clare.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Stephen S.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Flanagan, Luke 'Ming'.
  • Fleming, Sean.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Halligan, John.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Keaveney, Colm.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McConalogue, Charlie.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Nulty, Patrick.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Troy, Robert.
  • Wallace, Mick.


  • Bannon, James.
  • Barry, Tom.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Collins, Áine.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Ferris, Anne.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lyons, John.
  • McEntee, Helen.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McLoughlin, Tony.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Maloney, Eamonn.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Dara.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Perry, John.
  • Phelan, Ann.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Sherlock, Sean.
  • Spring, Arthur.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Wall, Jack.
  • Walsh, Brian.
  • White, Alex.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Richard Boyd Barrett and John Halligan; Níl, Deputies Joe Carey and Emmet Stagg.
Amendment declared lost.
Motion agreed to.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 24 October 2013.