Leaders' Questions

The Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality will be before the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality this afternoon answering questions. However, when accepting the invitation, the Secretary General wrote to the committee on 13 May to say that while he would answer most of the questions, he is not in a position to answer any questions about the mysterious set of circumstances leading to the departure of the former Commissioner, Martin Callinan, following a meeting between the Taoiseach, the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, the Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach, Mr. Martin Fraser, and the Secretary General at the Department of Justice and Equality, Mr. Brian Purcell, on 24 March. This refusal to tell the full story to the committee is worrying and bizarre. We hear a lot about strengthening the role of committees and giving them the capacity to get answers to questions quickly in the public interest, yet we are now hearing about an attempt essentially to gag the committee. The Taoiseach could be helpful because there is nothing to stop him giving the full truth to the House and providing a full statement outlining all the circumstances leading to the forced resignation of the Commissioner. The Taoiseach could make a full statement to the House about the meeting between the Taoiseach, the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, and the two Secretaries General on Monday evening before Mr. Purcell was dispatched to the Commissioner's house. The Taoiseach can tell us what instructions he gave to the Secretary General and what he was told to say to the Commissioner. Why was it indicated that the Commissioner would not survive the Cabinet meeting the following morning? It is the first time in 35 years that a Garda Commissioner has been forced to step down. It is a serious issue of public interest and nothing is stopping the Taoiseach from telling us, the public and this House the circumstances of the meeting and the instructions given to Mr. Purcell as he went to the home of the Garda Commissioner to indicate that perhaps he should consider his position.

I thank Deputy Martin for his question. I congratulate him and all the other people elected over the weekend from different parties and none.

This is a serious matter and I have already said on the record that my requirement as Taoiseach was to deal with the issue.

When the information, which I had never had before, was brought to my attention, it was of such serious importance that I felt it right and proper that the Garda Commissioner of the day be informed of my concern and my anxiety because I would have to inform my Cabinet colleagues the following morning about the information brought to my attention. My requirement was that the former Garda Commissioner be made aware of my concerns and my anxiety arising from the information I was given. I have already said that on the record of the Dáil.

The following day, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality met and considered the matter and wrote a letter requiring a commission of investigation to deal with the matter, with one of the terms of reference of the commission of investigation being the events leading to the retirement of the former Garda Commissioner. The Government and I received that letter and acted on it. Within two weeks, the Government had set out terms of reference, including the specific requirement of the Oireachtas committee, and had appointed a sole chairman to conduct the business of the commission of investigation. Deputy Martin wants to change that and have a political discussion about the issue.

We want answers.

What about the banking inquiry?

I have already said on the public record that my sole concern was that the then Commissioner should be informed of my anxiety and concern because of the information brought to my attention on Sunday and Monday. Following the receipt of a formal request from the Oireachtas committee, the Government responded by setting up a commission of investigation and inserting into the terms of reference the specific request by the Oireachtas committee to deal with the matter of the retirement of the former Garda Commissioner.

So the Taoiseach can kick it down the road, as he kicked the Commissioner.

That is the position and there is nothing mysterious about it. It arises from a very serious matter and when the matter was brought to my attention, I felt it incumbent upon me, as the person who sits in this seat, to know that the Garda Commissioner was apprised of my concerns and anxieties. I was going to have to inform my Cabinet colleagues the following morning of the information I had received. Deputy Martin would have done the same.

The matter that came to the attention of the Taoiseach and caused him such great anxiety was brought to the attention of the Department and the Minister some weeks earlier by the Commissioner. That does not stack up. It is bizarre. Is the Taoiseach saying that all Mr. Purcell was told was to go to the Commissioner and tell him that the Taoiseach was filled with anxiety, and not to say any more?

A bit of soda water.

We are now being led to believe that he said nothing else. He did not tell him he would not survive the Cabinet meeting or that he was going to be sacked; he just told him that the Taoiseach was filled with anxiety.

Rennie's, and brandy and ginger.

This concerned something the Taoiseach had learned on that day, of which the Commissioner himself had informed his Minister two to three weeks earlier. We are not getting the full story. There is an extraordinary silence on the substantive question, namely, the removal of a Garda Commissioner. It was not for the Taoiseach to take that initiative under the legislation. If the Taoiseach was so minded, he should have informed his Cabinet colleagues in advance of any despatching of a senior public servant to the Garda Commissioner. I would like to know the full circumstances of what transpired at the meeting on the Monday evening between the Taoiseach, the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, and the Secretaries General, Mr. Purcell and Mr. Fraser. Essentially, this is being buried for a long time for political reasons.

We are over time.

Will the Taoiseach give a full statement? The Taoiseach knows the story. He knows what happened and I ask him to tell us what happened fully and without any equivocation.

Paddy wants to know too.

It was not a case of having the former Garda Commissioner told that the Taoiseach was full of anxiety. What was brought to my attention had gone on for 30 years.

We now know about tapes and recordings in Garda stations all over the country and tapes in the case of a woman murdered in west Cork, a case which remains unsolved. If the Deputy wants to make some glib remarks about it, that is his entitlement.

I never mentioned it; I just want the truth.

I was informed of the seriousness of this matter, an issue new to me and the country.

The Taoiseach sacked them all retrospectively.

The Deputy is right; I understand my responsibilities in regard to the Garda Commissioner. I do not have the authority to sack anybody.

No, but the Taoiseach did so.

However, I do have a responsibility.

The Taoiseach overstepped the mark.

I had the responsibility to see to it that the Garda Commissioner of the day was aware of what I had been apprised of and would be made aware of it.

He was; he had written to the Minister three weeks earlier about it.

Please allow the Taoiseach reply. We are over time and I will switch off the microphones.

My request was that the Garda Commissioner be fully apprised of the anxieties and concerns arising from the information that had been given to me.

Just that day.

We have a process here. The Oireachtas committee met to consider the matter and wrote to me and the Government, stating we must have a commission of investigation and that the terms of reference should include this matter. The sole member of the commission of investigation has written to me, as he is entitled to do, asking me to respond to him.

I will comply with his request and give him full and comprehensive responses to his queries.

Why not give that information to the House?

Why can the Taoiseach not give it to us today? Just tell us.

(Interruptions).

This House set up a commission of investigation headed by a Supreme Court judge, but the Deputy wants to make it a political conversation all the time. I have been contacted by the sole member and will respond fully and comprehensively to him.

Stop hiding behind the commission of inquiry.

This House put that process in place. I have already said I was concerned about what I had heard. I needed to tell my Cabinet colleagues the following morning and the Garda Commissioner had a right to be apprised of these concerns and anxieties. That is what I asked the Secretary General to convey.

On Friday the people sent the Taoiseach and his Government a clear message. They clearly rejected the policies of the Government and said it had no mandate to inflict the misery it had been inflicting on families or the damage it had been causing to society. They have now told the Government to end its brutal agenda of relentless austerity, reverse its policy of taking medical cards from sick children, imposing a family home tax, introducing a water tax and making vicious cuts to supports for the most vulnerable citizens. To borrow the Taoiseach's phraseology, Friday saw a real democratic revolution and the Taoiseach and the Government have been given notice to quit. That is the reason the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, has resigned as leader of the Labour Party. What about the Taoiseach? What is his response to the electorate's devastating verdict? Has he got the message? Is he listening to what the people have told him? Will he acknowledge the clearly expressed wishes of the people for a fundamental change of political direction?

I know that the Taoiseach will not resign. That is clear. However, will he renegotiate the programme for Government and when will this happen? What are his plans in respect of the further €2 billion required in cuts in the next budget? Will he persist in moving in this direction. Has he listened to what the people have told him or is he listening instead to his predecessor as Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, Mr. John Bruton, who believes we face another ten or 15 years of cutbacks and brutal austerity budgets?

I was here with former Minister John Bruton and think he made two attempts at introducing a budget, neither of which was passed. I do not agree with his assertion. We are not going to change political direction. We have set targets and objectives which must be achieved. On the scale of the adjustment to be made in the budget for 2015, to be introduced in October, this is one issue we cannot determine now because we have yet to review the scale and state of the national accounts. That will be done later this year. From that point of view, I cannot give the Deputy or anybody else a definite answer until we see the scale of what is involved. I have already said it is a priority for the Government that where flexibility can be shown in the budget, it will be shown to hard-pressed taxpayers.

I congratulate Sinn Féin on its success in having members elected around the country. However, I want Deputy Mary Lou McDonald to understand that what I have heard from her party's spokespersons in the last while is that we should have free water, a reversal of the universal social charge, an abolition of the property tax-----

Indigestion tablets.

-----that everything and every service should be free of charge.

That is not right.

However, nobody in Sinn Féin has ever pointed out, despite the fact that it states its programmes were costed-----

The Taoiseach is still not listening.

-----that it has an 82% income tax rate built in. It faces the future with charged emotion, but the next contest will be different in nature.

We are looking forward to it.

It is going to be about whether the people want a government, in this case a Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, that is competent in keeping the affairs of the country in a state of solidarity and stability, with growth in confidence. The evidence is before our eyes - yields have fallen from 15% to 2.6% and we have had a fall in the unemployment lists for 24 consecutive months. That is heading in the right direction. The question for the future will be who do the people want in charge of the nation's economy? Do they want Fianna Fáil which wrecked it and put the problem on the shoulders of every person in the country and the next generation or do they want the Sinn Féin Party which shouts from every crossroads that everything should be free and which has no plan or no notion of who will pay for it?

(Interruptions).

It is not just a case of saying it should be different. If the Government - Fine Gael and the Labour Party - did not make the difficult decisions it had to make, the country would have been consigned to penury for the next generation because of the catastrophic effects of what had been left behind. I will not shirk the responsibility or back away from it. We will achieve the objectives we have set. The scale of the adjustment to be made in the budget to be announced in October is a question we cannot answer now until we see the state of the national accounts and finances.

(Interruptions).

This is not a shouting contest. This is Leaders Questions, when leaders are invited to ask a question and receive a reply, in silence. Deputies should, please, settle down and take their tablets, or else leave the Chamber.

(Interruptions).

I do not know how to break it to the Taoiseach, but he is not regarded as competent. He should have seen this; did he not follow the election results? He is not regarded as competent; neither is he regarded as being fair. He talks about others subjecting people to penury, but that is precisely what he has done. There is no public support for taking discretionary medical cards from very sick children. Does the Taoiseach get it? Has he heard this?

Will the Deputy, please, put a question? This is Leaders' Questions.

It is clear from the Taoiseach's response that there will be no renegotiation of the programme for Government. Did the Labour Party hear this?

Will the Deputy, please, address the Chair, not the Labour Party?

Did the Taoiseach tell the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, this?

(Interruptions).

This is not a time for play-acting. Will the Deputy, please, ask her question?

Has the Taoiseach told the Labour Party this? It seems there will be no change in the scale of the cutbacks envisaged in the next budget. Does the Labour Party know this? It seems that far from listening to the people and hearing the message, there is a frantic effort to rearrange the deckchairs on Titanic, to change the face or voice at the microphone and to continue on regardless. That is not acceptable. If the Taoiseach persists in this way, he has not listened or is not willing to listen. If, by any chance, he is declaring a general election, good for him - bring it on.

It is not so much that the political parties are waiting but that the people are waiting.

I ask the Deputy to put her question or else resume her seat. We are over time.

She should not be over-confident.

There is to be no change to the programme for Government or the scale of the cutbacks. Let me put this question to the Taoiseach.

The Deputy is way over time. I ask her to resume her seat.

Will the Taoiseach at least give back the medical card to Katie Connolly, a young child with Down's syndrome-----

I am sorry, but will the Deputy, please, put her question?

-----and to Alex Boyle, a young disabled child?

No, we are not having this. Will the Deputy, please, respect the Chair?

Will the Taoiseach at least do that if he has heard the voices of the people?

I ask everybody to, please, respect the Chair or, as I have said before, change the rules. Do not ask me to preside over a contest in which there are no rules, according to some.

I thank Deputy Mary Lou McDonald. In my years here I believe I have never passed a personal comment about any Member of the House in respect of his or her ability, competence or fairness. If she wants to proceed along that line, that is her right.

There was something along the lines of being accused of economic treason.

The programme for Government agreed between Fine Gael and the Labour Party has been more than 90% completed. Following the country's exit from the programme, we published a medium-term strategy which set out the path to progress for continued stability, confidence, growth and jobs. At the end of the day it is about investment, growth and jobs. Sinn Féin does not want this because it wants anarchy, if it could have its way. For the future, the Labour Party will follow its own process in finding a successor to the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore. The medium-term economic strategy we set out points the way to the future for the country. Within it we recognise, as we have done for a long time, the problems the country faced given what we had inherited. It has not been easy.

I am well aware that there is a problem in regard to discretionary medical cards.

The Government should sort it out.

We are going to fix that problem.

It has been ongoing for a long time.

There is a problem. The problem is that the process for dealing with the issue is not what I want it to be. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald should believe me - we will deal with it. I have a set of proposals for a Cabinet sub-committee tomorrow.

In respect of cutbacks in the next budget, I have already set out the targets for 2015. Nobody can tell us what the exact state of the national finances will be until later this year. We have already made it perfectly clear that whatever flexibility is available to the Government in the course of preparing for the budget it will be shown to hard-pressed individuals and families. However, we cannot resile from the fact that if the decisions the Fine Gael and Labour Party Government had to make were not made, the country would have been consigned to a generation of absolute poverty.

We have done it for a generation of people. Is the Taoiseach blind?

The Deputy does not like to see 1,000 jobs a week being created and confidence returning to the country because all she wants to do is shout from the outside-----

The Government has deepened the recession.

-----and say: "I don't have responsibility; therefore, water charges should be reversed, USC should be abolished and property tax should be eliminated."

A Deputy

With more than 200,000 children living in poverty, we are at the edge.

When the Sinn Féin finance spokesperson was asked five times the other day if he would propose to reverse the water charge legislation, the answer was in the negative. Therefore, they are fine on the other side of the House-----

What about prom bonds?

-----but woe betide taxpayers and the businesspeople of the country the day Sinn Féin is given responsibility when it will not own up to what it is proposing - an 82% income tax rate and God knows what else to follow.

With the understandable media attention given to the fallout from the election results, the news that employment growth in the economy has dropped significantly has mainly flown under the radar. Employment growth is a key measure of an economy’s health, yet that growth figure fell to just 0.1% during the first quarter of the year, with the creation of just 1,700 jobs in the entire quarter, a long way short of the 1,000 jobs a week that the Government is claiming as its big achievement. The Taoiseach just mentioned it erroneously. The figures compiled by the CSO for the latest quarterly national household survey are worrying for us all and underline just how weak the domestic economy really is. The small and medium-sized enterprise sector has been the poor relation with far too little attention being paid to it. The money being taken from people’s pockets in taxes and charges is directly impacting on small and medium-sized businesses, with employment in sectors such as wholesale and retail down by more than 29% since 2007. To put the matter in context, in the previous quarter the rate of job creation was 16,300, compared to 1,700 in the first quarter of the year. This is a very significant change and it also means that the Government must revise upwards the projected unemployment rate to 12% compared to the predicted rate of 11.8%. That is before we count the underemployed or those not counted because they are not entitled to a welfare payment and the 80,000 participating in schemes. Of the 258,100 officially unemployed, 60.5% are considered to be long-term unemployed, a reduction of just 3% since early 2012, which is a major concern.

A question, please.

Has the Government identified the causes of the slowdown in job creation and, if so, what are they? How will this reduction in jobs growth impact on the budget allocations for the vital Departments of Social Protection and Health which are already in the early stages of planning for the budget? Does this mean that the Government will demand something we should have received already, which is a debt write-down?

I thank the Deputy for her comments. It would be unfair to take the figures for one quarter as a guide for the year. In the past 12 months 61,000 new jobs were confirmed as having been created through the private sector. The growth rate for the year is expected to be 1.7% or 1.8%. I admit that the figures for the last quarter were not as strong as for previous quarters. However, we have had eight consecutive quarters, 24 consecutive months, with a fall in the numbers on the live register, which is pointing in the right direction.

The Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, signed the contract for the section of motorway from Gort to Tuam. I know that one of the major contractors is bringing back some 40 Irish engineers from Australia to work on these projects. The Government's stimulus package for school project bundles, Grangegorman and other infrastructure developments is important. There is also the employment aspect of Irish Water in terms of the installation of meters and infrastructure. These all represent opportunities to grow from where we are, having lost 300,000 jobs in the three years prior to 2011.

The medium-term strategy that I mentioned points out that we want to create 100,000 net new jobs by 2016 and have all those jobs lost restored by 2020. That is why the Government has introduced a particular strategy for the construction sector. We need to introduce new planning legislation to give effect to elements of it. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, announced in the €100 million allocation for social housing the elements to deal with homelessness, including the refitting of 2,700 units that have been empty and boarded up for some time. These are all opportunities not only to provide a social response but also employment.

The line of investment into the country is very strong. The focus this year is on the construction sector, services and retail. There is a big Government emphasis on credit for small business and access by small business to opportunities to expand and increase employment. That is why all of the local enterprise offices have been opened within each local authority area, with specific information, assistance and expertise for entrepreneurs. That is why there is a major drive to ensure young people in secondary school and college have an understanding of how easy it is to form a company and create opportunities to engage in business.

Legislation relating to financial assistance from the German state bank, KfW, which was offered last year, is currently going through. This will form part of the strategic investment programme, the level of funding available under which will rise to €4 billion. Most of this is for small businesses and it will be allocated under specific conditions. This is an area which is extremely important in the context of the economy and the creation of jobs into the future. As such, it is a central focus of the Government.

In the context of forthcoming Cabinet meetings, the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, will respond in respect of how that construction strategy is being followed through. It is a major primer in terms of employment numbers and in the context of levels of expenditure and confidence throughout the economy. The signs are in many locations throughout the country that this strategy is moving us very strongly in the right direction. I admit that there are still too many people who are unemployed and that difficulties remain in respect of access to credit, a matter with which we are dealing. We must leverage more in the context of what we know we can obtain. The construction, services and retail sectors are the focus of Government this year. We are aware that matters have been very sensitive in the case of retail and that a sufficient contribution has not been made in the case of construction.

I accept the point that there was substantial job growth during the previous four quarters. However, the reversal in the first quarter of this year is a really serious cause for concern. The CSO figures for last year come with a major health warning, particularly when one considers the number of construction workers - in the region of 20,000 - who redesignated themselves as farmers. Many of the jobs referred to in the figures for last year are representative of a statistical anomaly. They are not real jobs, and this must be factored in. It is vital that we obtain a true picture with regard to what is happening.

The Taoiseach is quite right when he states that the construction sector is significant. In addition, a huge number of people are long-term unemployed at a time when we are having a major housing crisis. One thing we could do in this regard would be to leverage the massive funds available from the European Investment Bank. Dr. Michelle Norris informed the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht that in the region of €500 million is available for social housing and that we have not leveraged this.

Five hundred million.

Will the Government consider partnering with some of the housing charities or other agencies that could operate at arm's length from local authorities in order to access the funds to which I refer? In this way we could alleviate one of the major crises of our time - namely, the housing crisis - and reduce the number of people who are long-term unemployed. Does the Taoiseach accept that in doing as I suggest it would be possible to create real jobs, obtain eventual savings by reducing the level of social protection payments and housing supports and address the key issue that is the housing crisis?

That is a valid contribution. Last year there was a big shift from part-time to full-time work. It is true that during the boom years, as they were called, many people involved in farming took second jobs - of whatever kind - in the construction sector. Obviously, 100,000 people who are currently on the live register were, in one way or another, involved in that sector. The Dáil engaged in a debate on the housing sector, the pressure that is evident in certain locations and the various categories involved. Everything that was said during that debate is contemplated in the construction strategy developed by the Government and will be followed through.

It is true that the European Investment Bank has a great deal of money to invest. It is also true that the chief executive and certain officials from the bank visited the country on a number of occasions. The bank is investing heavily now and it wants to invest even more. The difficulty for us has been that in the past we did not put forward projects of sufficient scale. For example, the section of motorway from Gort to Tuam to which I refer is being funded in part by the European Investment Bank. The bank is very interested in investing and the Government is responding in a range of ways in seeking to leverage more money from it for various infrastructure and employment projects throughout the country. I can provide the Deputy with details of those projects if she so wishes. Four hundred new jobs were announced yesterday. In fact, a continuous stream of jobs is coming through. What we want to do this year is to drive local economies. This is because we are aware that so much more can be done at that level. It is why we are focusing on construction, services and retail. I will be happy to supply the Deputy with up-to-date information on the level of progress being made. I thank her for her comments.