Leaders' Questions

The Tánaiste will be aware of the concerns that have been expressed about the ability of the Health Service Executive to deliver front-line services in 2014, particularly when it is faced with a cut of €666 million, as referred to by the Minister for Health in the budget debate. The figure may even rise above €1 billion, as referred to by the chief executive of the HSE. The recent letters from CEOs have further heightened public concern.

The Government is convinced that patient safety will not be jeopardised because, it claims, the money will follow the patient. I put it to the Tánaiste that the money is not following the patient, particularly when it comes to children with life-limiting conditions. Professor Owen Smith has confirmed that there are delays in giving chemotherapy to children with cancer when they are in hospital. Sadly, there is little support on offer to families who wish to care for their children at home. Funding has not been ring-fenced for home care teams or nursing care on a 24-hour basis. Families are being refused medical cards because they are seen to be over the income limits, when the reality is that they are experiencing serious economic difficulties caring for their sick children around the clock. Why is the Government on the one hand apparently committed to the universality of health care and to introducing something we all welcome - namely, free GP care for children aged under six - while at the same time it is not allowing children with life-limiting conditions to have medical cards? The Government stands indicted for its failure to provide funding for dedicated palliative care of children suffering from life-limiting conditions.

The Government's priority in the area of health is to ensure that patient care is at the top of all considerations. It is unfortunately the case that budgets for the health services have had to be reduced in recent years. As we know, that is because the present Government inherited an incredible mess in the public finances. There is no doubt that this year will also be challenging for the health service, but the Government's priority is protecting front-line services and patient safety. In particular, we want to ensure priority is given to patient safety and care for children. That is something we certainly want to see taking place.

Within that challenging financial environment, we have been progressing the reform of the health services. The reforms are long overdue. They involve changes in the way in which our hospitals are configured to ensure patients get the best care. They also involve a move to universal health care and universal health insurance. In this year's budget we announced the first steps in that direction with the introduction of free GP care for children under five years. I recognise there are continuing challenges and problems in the health services. These have to be addressed and we are working on them. We have made considerable progress despite having less money and fewer staff. We are undertaking the biggest reform of the hospital system in the history of the State, including changing the way in which consultants work and the introduction of universal health insurance. We have reduced waiting lists and numbers of patients on trolleys. Since the middle of 2011 we have established 32 new primary care centres, introduced free GP care for children aged five and under and committed to the construction of the national children's hospital and a new national maternity hospital, for which €200 million was provided in the budget. The number of patients waiting on trolleys has been reduced by 30% since the Government took office. The number of adults waiting more than 12 months for inpatient and day care surgery decreased by 73%. Progress is being made but, in a service which is demand-led and in which the demands are growing all the time, clearly more needs to be done.

I am disappointed with the Tánaiste's response. He spoke about reform and statistics. The reality is that of the 1,400 children nationwide with life-limiting conditions, who are primarily being looked after by the Jack and Jill Foundation, approximately 350 die per annum. We all acknowledge that we are in difficult economic circumstances and perhaps we will have the luxury on another day of discussing how we got into these circumstances. However, the Tánaiste and his Government are currently responsible for dealing with the situation and it is an indictment of them that they are not prioritising the care of children. The care of the aforementioned children has been left to a voluntary organisation. A study at Trinity College Dublin which was commissioned by the Jack and Jill Foundation and run by a man who is over 70 years of age and has dedicated his life to the care of those children has found that it would cost €16,500 to provide palliative care for children at home, whereas providing for them in hospital, where many of them have to stay because the Government is not addressing the problem, is costing nine times more, or approximately €150,000 per annum. That is not good for the Exchequer and it certainly is not good for the children who are affected.

None of us should do anything other than to go to every length to provide medical care for children and to look after them when they are ill. However, it is difficult to listen to lectures about the health service, particularly as it pertains to children, from a party that neglected it so badly in Government. For years it spoke about and looked around the idea of a children's hospital.

Is that still on target?

Where is it now?

During the good times, when money was available, it did not build one.

I was not speaking about a children's hospital. The Tánaiste should answer the question he was asked.

This Government is proceeding with the construction of the children's hospital, which is long overdue.

Deal with the issue of palliative care.

We have provided the funding for it.

What about the Jack and Jill Foundation?

The priority for the Government is to deliver the best quality of care, particularly to children, in every circumstance of medical need. It is challenging at times because of the limitations on resources, but the Government's priority is to provide the best possible care for children when they need it.

The facts speak to the contrary.

The programme for Government promised to increase the stock of social housing, but this morning, like every morning, we heard the real human stories of the families who were left to languish on the housing waiting list by this Government and its predecessor. Mothers are struggling to feed their children and pay their bills because they are forced to live in poor-quality and overpriced rental accommodation. The number of people on local authority housing lists continues to rise, with the figure now touching 112,000 families throughout this State. Meanwhile, 3,500 council houses lie idle. In my own city of Cork, almost 8,000 families are on the housing waiting list even though 500 houses lie idle. The number of people depending on rent supplement continues to rise and the cuts to the supplement are forcing increasing numbers into financial hardship and, in some cases, homelessness. Homeless charities report a significant increase in the number of people using their services. The Tánaiste knows that the reason for this is very simple. His Government, like the Fianna Fáil Government that preceded it, is slashing the budget for social housing.

The Tánaiste has no plans to address the housing crisis. Since taking office, the Government has cut funding for social housing by more than half. That is why waiting lists continue to grow. When will the Tánaiste honour the commitment in the programme for Government to start investing in social housing and to address the housing crisis?

Approximately 5,000 additional social housing units will be provided in 2014. This will include new builds, units leased from the not-for-profit sector and general leasing units. We are also on track to secure 500 social housing units from NAMA this year and will deliver 2,000 social housing units through NAMA in the lifetime of the Government. In the recent budget we returned, albeit on a modest scale, to mainstream housing construction. It is an issue on which I hope we will be able to expand as the country's finances improve. The recent budget contained an additional €30 million for social housing construction and refurbishment. Approximately 50% of the additional investment will be dedicated to bringing long-term vacant units back into use in 2014. It is estimated that more than 300 units will benefit from the dedicated fund. In the coming weeks local authorities will be asked to submit specific properties for investment.

There is a problem with vacant housing stock. Some 3% of the local authority housing stock is vacant. This includes the natural turnover at any time when tenancies end and a new tenant is to be appointed. However, a number of local authority dwellings are vacant for an unacceptably long period. These are issues that must be dealt with and I hope local authorities, with the resources provided in the budget, will get to grips with it in order that we do not see the continuing problem of dwellings lying idle for long periods. It is a waste in view of the number of people on housing lists who could use them. It is also a loss of revenue for the local authority concerned and, in many cases, a problem for local communities where boarded-up dwellings constitute an eyesore.

On the basis of the figures provided by the Tánaiste, we are looking at an additional 7,000 units over the lifetime of the Government. As the housing list has 112,000 families, the additional units represent a drop in the ocean. Announcing €15 million here and €15 million there will not compensate for the massive cuts the Government has overseen. Some €233 million was cut from the capital budget for housing and the Tánaiste is talking about a figure of €30 million. It is not good enough and the figures speak for themselves. The Government has abandoned those on social housing lists who are the most vulnerable in society. Will the Tánaiste outline for families awaiting adequate housing on social housing lists the long-term plan of the Government? Announcing €15 million here and €15 million there does not cut it. I am over it, as are the families affected.

I do not know if the Deputy missed it, but the country was broke. It ran out of money at the end of 2010 and the Government has had to restore its finances. We are in the fortunate position of having done so and about to exit the bailout programme. The Government has not abandoned the issue of social housing provision, far from it.

The housing budget was cut by €233 million.

In 2014 some 5,000 additional social housing units will be provided. Additional funding has been provided in the budget to recommence housing construction. It is intended that, as the finances of the country improve, we will improve on this. In addition to the construction of houses, we have committed to the upgrading of the energy efficiency of existing local authority dwellings. Some 25,000 local authority dwellings will be affected by the measure and upgraded under the programme. Of these, some 4,000 have been upgraded in the first four months of the programme. We will continue with that process. We are very much aware of the number of people on housing lists and their housing needs. Now that we have stabilised the country's finances and are moving out of the bailout programme, we have signalled clearly in the budget that social housing provision is an issue we will continue to address.

In April 2013, on Bloomberg TV, Wilbur Ross, the American vulture capitalist, described Bank of Ireland as his best investment anywhere in the world during the financial crisis. In July 2011 the Government sold State shares in Bank of Ireland to a consortium of north American vulture capitalists for €1.123 billion. The effect of the sale is that the State now owns 15% of Bank of Ireland's shares at a net cost of €4 billion, while these vulture capitalists own 37% at a cost of €1.123 billion. The fire sale of Bank of Ireland shares has handed Wilbur Ross and his wealthy associates a capital gain of €2 billion. No wonder he was celebrating on television. They are onto a sure winner in the future. The value of Bank of Ireland is determined by Government support, including the bailout. Crucially, Government policy designates Bank of Ireland as a pillar bank. The lack of competition in the market, with ACC and Danske Bank recently having left and the future of Ulster Bank up in the air, and guaranteed Government support through pillar status are a shareholder's dream. The pillar banks are now free to rip off customers, small businesses and distressed mortgage holders. In today's Irish Independent Charlie Weston tells us that the introduction of, and increase in, bank fees and charges will take a further €260 a year from families and €270 million out of household finances in the economy. This is the same bank that is sending letters to distressed mortgage holders, giving them the options of voluntary sale, voluntary repossession or eviction. It is absolutely disgraceful. Is the Government not ashamed of its role in allowing the people to be blatantly ripped off by Bank of Ireland, Wilbur Ross and his associates? If Bank of Ireland fails the ECB stress tests next year, will Wilbur Ross and his friends be forced to recapitalise the bank or will the people be forced to do the same as they have done in the past? Does the Tánaiste agree that the only solution that will protect the citizens of the country when recapitalisation is required is nationalisation?

No economy can function without a banking system and banks. When the Government took office at the beginning of 2011, the banks in the country were on the point of collapse. People in this country were taking their money out of the banks and small depositors were crossing the Border to move their money out of Irish banks to put it elsewhere. The Government had to stabilise the banking system in its early stages in office. That is why we moved very quickly at an early stage to the reorganisation of the banking system with pillar banks. The banking system and the country have now stabilised and Bank of Ireland has been able to raise funds and capital on the open markets.

Progress is being made across our banking system. That was a necessary part of the strategy we had to pursue in order to get the country out of the incredible economic hole into which it had been put and which we inherited. As it happens, we are now at the point where we are about to exit the bailout. We are looking at an economy which is growing again, although the growth is modest. We are seeing employment being created in the country at the rate of about 3,000 new jobs per month. We would like to see that accelerated. What we must aim to achieve, now that we have stabilised the banking situation and stabilised what has happened in our public finances, is to drive on to create the jobs, attract the investment, see our economy grow at a faster rate and ensure that the people of this country have jobs, a secure future, a decent income and have decent quality public services. That is our aim and it is what will happen. Stabilising the banking system was necessary and this Government has achieved that. We now have to drive on to get economic growth and jobs and the increased prosperity that will come from a growing economy.

I have some specific questions relating to the sale of the Government's bank shares. Is the Tánaiste satisfied that the sale of these State shares to these vulture capitalists was above board and transparent? Is he satisfied with a situation where a senior public servant involved in the sale process and who continued to deal on behalf of the State with banks, including Bank of Ireland, was enabled to take up a very senior post in Bank of Ireland, that post being chief executive, corporate and treasury, Bank of Ireland Group?

The Deputy cannot make allegations here-----

I am not making any allegations. It is a fact. I ask the Tánaiste if the promised review of this situation has taken place and what has been the outcome of that review. He promised a review.

I am satisfied that the sale of the shares was above board and was transparent. At the period of time involved there was very considerable welcome that the State was able to sell shares in Bank of Ireland. I will not respond to allegations about individuals-----

I did not make any allegations.

The Deputy did make allegations.

What about my second question?

I am answering the question. I am satisfied that the sale of the shares was above board and was transparent. I am also satisfied that the actions taken by the Government to bring stability to our banking system has been one of the foundation stones on which the recovery of this country's economy has been built. I wish it were different; I wish we did not have the crisis in the banking system that we inherited and I am satisfied-----

Is he satisfied with the role of a senior public servant?

I will not respond to allegations the Deputy is making about individuals who are outside of the House. If the Deputy wishes to make an allegation-----


The Deputy should stop that innuendo and side of the mouth allegations about people who are not in the House. If he wants to make an allegation about an individual, he should make the allegation and if he is sure enough, he should make it outside the House.

The Government said there would be a review.

I wish to let it be known to the House that it is a long-standing ruling of the Chair that Members should not comment on or criticise a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable as that person is defenceless against accusations made under privilege of this House. I ask all Members to please note.