Leaders' Questions

I congratulate all the newly appointed Ministers of State and extend my sympathies to those who did not make it as there are quite a number of them.

Two weeks ago, around 26 organisations working in the disability and caring sector lost funding under the scheme to support national organisations, SSNO, that funds community and voluntary organisations. This has been a devastating blow. All 11 organisations in the Neurological Alliance of Ireland lost their funding, for example, and the total lost across all 26 organisations is €1.2 million. These organisations support people enduring very rare conditions, such as those inherited genetically and so on. The Irish Deaf Society had to close its deaf advocacy services and the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association closed its front-line visitor programme. Chronic Pain Ireland faces closure in less than 12 months, MS Ireland will lose its information, advocacy and research officer, the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland will not be able to put in place early intervention services for people with dementia and the Huntington's Disease Association of Ireland has been forced to end direct front-line services, such as counselling, equipment and carer meetings, due to loss of core funding. The Huntington's Disease Association of Ireland received €22,000 per year through this scheme but the Government has cut this. Huntington's Disease is a rare, degenerative condition and this is an appalling act by the Taoiseach and the Government. Muscular Dystrophy Ireland's front-line facilities manager post cannot now be filled and the Irish Heart Foundation's stroke action community support programme will be severely curtailed.

In The Irish Times today Fintan O'Toole's column described this action by the Government as simply crass stupidity. It is difficult to disagree with him. Many other organisations that help volunteers to help people with rare conditions have been affected. When elected as leader of the Labour Party, the Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, said we govern perhaps too much with the head and not enough with the heart. This decision reveals to me that this Government governs with neither the head nor the heart. Will the Taoiseach intervene to ensure €1.2 million, at least, is restored to the organisations concerned? They have suffered too much already and there is no justification for this.

Deputy Martin is aware there is a formal appeals process open to any organisation that experiences a cut in funding. The Government, across all Departments, takes the disability sector very seriously and currently provides almost €5 billion to disability services across different sectors. Some €1.4 billion of this is provided for health and personal social services through the Health Service Executive's national service plan for 2014. Particular residential services are provided for 9,000 people by 60 agencies in 1,200 different locations and these range from small to large community group homes that support independent living. Day services are provided by 80 organisations to 22,000 people living with intellectual, physical or sensory challenges or autism at 850 different locations around the country. There are now 6,000 people with intellectual or physical disabilities availing of respite residential support and some 3.7 million hours of home support are provided by personal assistants.

Other services provided under the disability services programme include respite, early childhood family support, community-based medical, nursing and therapy services and rehabilitative training aids and appliances. Most disability services are now provided by the voluntary sector. As I said in last week's statement of Government priorities, the Tánaiste and I have committed to implementing the report of the value for money and policy review of the disability services programme. This will revolutionise how the State interacts with people with disabilities and will mean a whole new model of personalised, community-based service providing greater choice for people with disabilities. This means the disability service will be restructured by linking budgets to activity, quality and outcomes for service users. These are important developments in difficult financial circumstances and they indicate the Government's commitment to improving quality of life for people with disabilities and to allocating resources based on personal needs. We are adamant that public services for people with disabilities must be as effective and responsive as possible.

A formal independent appeals process is open to any organisation that has seen a reduction in funding and I suggest this is the route to follow.

I do not know what planet the Taoiseach inhabits. I am talking about a figure in the region of €1 million and the figure relating to the Huntington's Disease Association of Ireland is €22,000 per year. The Taoiseach should forget the appeals process and sort this out.

This would not have happened if there was a national disability strategy as such a strategy is meant to allow for cross-cutting decision making. According to the former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, gave this matter careful assessment before announcing the grants. Money has been taken from these organisations. The Neurological Alliance of Ireland is only receiving €60,000 per year and will have to cease operations by the end of the year as a result of this decision.

The total available is €5 billion.

There is no heart in this decision and it is appalling. It is indefensible and unjustifiable. Mr. John Dolan of the Disability Federation of Ireland made a speech on this and said that at this rate the federation will not have the basic elements to support people with disabilities by the end of next year. The Government's disability strategy is in shreds. In fact, there has not been a co-ordinated disability strategy for the past three years. Cuts have been made left, right and centre and the respite grant has fallen a great deal so the Taoiseach has a nerve even to mention it in this House. Despite the rhetoric, at the heart of the Government there is no clear, co-ordinated focus on disability and this is evident in the fact that these organisations have lost their paltry funding. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene to sort this out and reallocate the €1 million to the organisations concerned.

Deputy Martin is very strong on rhetoric but his memory has slipped again.

Deputy Martin gave the facts.

Deputy Martin drove the cut of €16.40 per week for people with disabilities. He also represents the party that cut the blind person's allowance, not once but twice, without any consultations. Fianna Fáil cut mobility allowances, carer's allowance, carer's benefit and removed the Christmas bonus from all of these groups. Shame on Fianna Fáil. Deputy Martin has a cheek talking about decisions led by the heart and the head.

Why does the Taoiseach not bring back the Christmas bonus if that is how he feels?

The Taoiseach should stop talking nonsense.

Deputy Martin often stood on the other side of the House, as is his duty, to say Ireland needs an effective response to the spending of public money. There is a disability strategy and, as the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, pointed out, we are now moving to implement the strategy nationally.

The Taoiseach is a hypocrite.

This would not have happened if we had a disability strategy.

Fianna Fáil left the country broke.

This only requires €1 million from a €5 billion budget.

The point is that Pobal carried out an independent assessment of the effectiveness of how public money is spent on these services. There is an appeals process for any group that has had a cut in its allocation. Pobal carried out the assessment to ensure the money is spent most effectively on the people that need the funding. I will not accept the nonsense spoken by Deputy Martin.

The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government said forget about health and disability. Is the Taoiseach saying the Huntington's Disease Association of Ireland did not spend €22,000 properly?

Fine Gael has been in government for three years.

Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis na Teachtaí Dála a fuair Aireacht sóisearach inniu. Go n-éirí an t-ádh leo uilig. Feicfimid an tslí ina mbeidh siad ag dul ar aghaidh ó seo amach.

The State's policies towards women and children are being scrutinised by the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva. Committee members have been made aware of the results of a toxic political culture which existed in the State since its foundation and in which women and children were denied their rights. It is evident in the sorry saga of scandal which includes the Magdalen laundries, Bethany Home, the mother and baby homes, the illegal trafficking of children, child abuse in church and State institutions and the unequal status of women in the Constitution. The committee will hear other examples of dereliction of duty by the State towards its citizens, including members of the Traveller community and prisoners.

A 50-page report by victims of symphysiotomy will show how the State failed to protect more than 1,500 women who endured this barbaric practice and who still suffer physically and psychologically from its consequences decades later. The Government undertook to right this wrong so why did it ignore the call from survivors for the Statute of Limitations to be lifted to allow them the choice of going to court? Why did it produce a redress scheme which denies acknowledgement of the grievous wrong done to these women? Why provide only a minimalist financial package? Why deny the women an independent medical board and the right to advocacy? Yesterday and today the UN committee has asked why the State refuses to accept responsibility for the clear abuse of the rights of Irish women over decades. I put this question to the Taoiseach. Why does the State deny or refuse to accept responsibility for the clear abuse of these women over decades?

The Deputy's question is serious. Why did the State deny its responsibility in respect of Magdalen laundries, Bethany Home and mother and baby homes and why did it not do something about symphysiotomy before this? This is a list of sensitive personal serious issues which have been left lying around in the country for up to 60 or 70 years. They are being dealt with now. I am not quite sure whether the Deputy is proposing in respect of these women who underwent symphysiotomy that they should now be subjected to court appearances in a very aggressive confrontational manner. The State has looked at this, following the reports published, and has put forward a suggestion and proposition to deal with the challenges and difficulties, personal and serious, which the women went through during these symphysiotomy interventions. It is the case of a range of serious social and personal issues left lying around for years which are now being dealt with by the State. It is a matter for the group and individuals which course they wish to pursue. Nobody wants to see long drawn-out controversial, antagonistic or aggressive court hearings about something like this. Here is an opportunity, no more than the avoidance of all these difficulties in court sessions with the Magdalen women, of arriving at a conclusion, recognition of the situation and a recompense of some scale for those women who were subjected to what I have described as barbaric treatment. The Minister for Justice and Equality was in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Committee, of which Ireland is a member, outlining for it the actions which have been taken by the Government to deal with issues which have been swept under the carpet and left lying there for decades.

I thank the Taoiseach, but my question is in the present tense and not the past tense. Why did the Taoiseach ignore the call from survivors for the Statute of Limitations to be lifted? The Taoiseach cannot patronise these women and say he does not want to put them through a long court procedure if this is what they want to do. Why provide only a minimalist financial package? A question asked by the chairperson of the UN Human Rights Committee suggests there may be a question over the legality of the State's plan for redress. The UN Human Rights Committee rapporteur asked whether the scheme is compatible with the State's obligations under international human rights treaties. There is also the huge issue that these symphysiotomy operations were involuntary. This question is also being asked. There is a lack of judicial review and an absence of individual assessment and the fact that those who apply for the redress scheme will have to give up their legal rights. They are told they can have this redress scheme but they must give up their legal rights. What is most important is that while some women may go for the redress scheme, which is their entitlement, the vast majority have stated they do not want it, that they want acknowledgement of their ill-treatment and proper compensation commensurate with the trauma they have suffered. These issues are not being raised just by me. Deputies have raised these issues for some time. Is it not time for the Government to reflect and rethink its approach on this issue? It is time for the Taoiseach to meet the survivors to put together a comprehensive approach which meets the needs of all the victims of symphysiotomy. I know the Minister for Health has met them.

The decision of the Government was based on formal legal advice in respect of the Statute of Limitations being addressed. A €34 million fund has been put together in regard to the women who went through symphysiotomy. It is a choice they are entitled to make, either to avail of the redress scheme or, if they choose, to take a court case.

The Government will not lift the Statute of Limitations.

If a woman decides to choose the redress path and is not happy with the outcome she has the right and opportunity to appeal it if she believes it is appropriate. There is a ex gratia scheme to be administered by the State Claims Agency of €34 million as recognition of the difficulties, challenges and personal trauma these women went through. They have the right to take the case to court if they wish. They have the right to go through the redress scheme if they wish. If they are not happy with the outcome of it, they have every right to have it appealed. In respect of the Statute of Limitations, it is on the basis of formal legal advice. In many of these cases there are no notes available about what happened and it is not known who the doctor was who might have performed the intervention. The women could wait for a long period of between five and ten years before getting a court decision.

That is why the Government needs to tackle it properly.

For a number of weeks there was heightened speculation about Ministers and who would lose his or her job and who would be promoted, with all revealed on Friday. Then we had a similar situation with Ministers of State and all was revealed today. While I wish everybody well in their new role, the question is what difference they will make to the communities and groups in society who are struggling. What are vital are the policies being pursued. Incidentally, I did not notice any mention of drugs, particularly when one takes into account that based on statistics, three times as many deaths occur because of drugs than on the roads.

There is no doubt there has been an unfairness in economic policy. Regardless of budget, austerity or recession, the lives of some people in society do not change one iota, while those in the low and middle income groups suffer disproportionately. We are told we are in recovery, and we have various statistics to show this, but it is not filtering down through society. Economic policy has dominated the political agenda and I suggest this is at the expense of social policy. If social policy is ignored, it contributes to economic inequality. Various think tanks have shown us we have very unacceptable levels of economic inequality. I was struck by a recent newspaper survey which stated the 250 richest people in Ireland are worth €50 billion.

I wonder what contribution they have been making to our recovery when so many of them have become non-resident for the purpose of tax avoidance and others have found other methods in order to avoid paying those taxes. We know the social consequences of that economic policy, including emigration, the housing crisis, homelessness and what is happening in our communities as pointed out recently by Br. Kevin Crowley from the Capuchin day centre. We have communities and groups that are struggling as we approach the budget season. What are the values that will determine the decisions to be made at budget time?

I thank the Deputy for her question. She will have noted the comments made, particularly by the Tánaiste in recent days, in respect of social repair, the necessity for social housing and the necessity to restructure many of the systems to reflect the difficulties people have had arising from the economic collapse a number of years ago. It is because of social welfare transfers - social welfare payments - the at-risk-of-poverty level has been reduced by 61%. The structure of how social welfare payments have been made is of direct assistance to the local economies because it is spent in those economies.

This morning the Government gave authorisation to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to proceed to draft heads of a Bill in respect of approved housing authorities with particular reference to social housing, which is an issue of pressure in this city and other areas. Given the scale of the economic collapse a number of years ago, clearly the priority had to be to rectify our public finances and get our house in order, and for that reason to have our deficit below 3% by 2015, which target will be achieved.

The sacrifices of the people in recent years have benefitted our country's standing in terms of improvement of our economic performance. We now need to spread that benefit through the different regions of the country. That is why housing and social repair in many of these vulnerable communities is of such importance. All of these are set out in the economic strategy statement approved by the Government last week. It is our intention to implement those targets and objectives to the benefit of people all over the country. It is not a case of focusing on particular areas where there is a problem now and just dealing with that. It is clear that the sacrifices people made need to be reflected in the benefit for the people and that is where we need to be.

The statement of economic strategy reflects very strongly the issues of social repair and how we intend to deal with social deprivation in the time ahead. It is a balance between continuing to get the economy on a growth pattern while at the same time being able to reflect that in dealing with socially vulnerable areas as outlined by the Tánaiste on a number of occasions.

Listening to the Taoiseach's answer, we see the disconnect between the theory on the one part and the reality on the other. We know about sacrifices, but those sacrifices have been disproportionate. There are people in this country who have not made one sacrifice because they have been protected by the economic policy. There is no doubt that the cuts have undermined people's rights - rights to a decent living, housing, education and health. Certain vulnerable groups are being affected disproportionately, including women, children, the elderly and the disabled. The Convention on the Constitution has recognised the need for a referendum on economic, social and cultural rights.

One of the reasons budget cuts are not fairer all around is that we do not have a democratic participation of all sectors in the budget process meaning that the principles of social justice and human sympathy are missing. We need to give a sense of dignity through those policies to those groups that are vulnerable. There are two ways to do that. One is the equality proofing of budgets - the social-impact analysis of budgets. The other is to listen in a meaningful way to the social actors who are directly involved with communities and groups that are struggling and not just pay them lip service.

Last week the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection met all the social groups in Dublin Castle over a period of five or six hours and engaged directly with each of them to hear at first hand their views of what might be able to be reflected in October's budget. There are now 70,000 more people working than previously. For 24 months we have had a continuous drop in the live register of unemployed people. The previous Government decided to reduce the minimum wage from €8.65 to €7.65. When elected to government and following the negotiations with the troika that was reversed. Some 330,000 people were taken out of the requirement to pay the universal social charge. There were socially advantageous decisions for vulnerable groups. Now, as the economy begins to improve, we need to do more of that and reflect it in the best way we can.

I have also pointed out that in the statement of economic strategy for the period ahead, the Government intends to set up a commission dealing with low pay so that there will be proper transparency and discussion about that. Attention will also be given to the very high rate of tax of 52% that is paid by middle and low-income workers in order to restructure that over a number of budgets. These will all be advantages to various people and will go some distance to bring about that necessary social repair.