Leaders' Questions

There is a long way to go before we have a decision as to whether or not Irish Water will be classified as an independent, commercially viable semi-State company. The raison d'être for the establishment of Irish Water was that it would function as a commercial semi-State company along the lines of ESB and, in that way, be taken off the Government's balance sheet. EUROSTAT has not yet made a decision on this issue and the Central Statistics Office has not yet completed its consideration of the matter before forwarding that consideration to EUROSTAT.

It has emerged in recent weeks that €399 million from the motor taxation account is being given as a subvention to Irish Water this year. Moreover, the Department has confirmed this will continue year on year into the medium term. In addition, taxpayers are being asked to pick up the rates bill for Irish Water of €59 million, another direct subvention and possibly a state aid issue. On top of that, the cost of the public private partnership projects involving wastewater treatment plants that have not yet been transferred to Irish Water because of delays in the Department cost taxpayers €47 million last year and will cost them at least the same again this year. All of this amounts to an annual subvention of more than €600 million to Irish Water this and every year. These issues must all be classified.

The timescale to pass the EUROSTAT test was this month after which, on the assumption that Irish Water would pass the test of being an independent, stand-alone, commercial semi-State body, home owners were to begin receiving bills in April. In view of the confirmation I received from the Taoiseach in writing this week that it will be at least June before any such decision is made, will the Government agree to defer the issuing of water charges bills until there is clarity and certainty as to whether Irish Water is adjudged an arm of government or an independent, semi-State company? Assurances from the Tánaiste that she is confident the company will pass the test are of no use. EUROSTAT is the only body that can make that decision and the Government cannot presume to know more than EUROSTAT does before the latter has even examined the files. Until such time as EUROSTAT makes its decision, will the Government ensure people do not receive water bills from an entity whose right to exist is not yet determined?

As an experienced Member of the Dáil, Deputy Fleming will know that on a whole range of issues, Ireland supplies information via the Central Statistics Office, which is absolutely independent, to EUROSTAT, which is also absolutely assured of its independence under European regulations. Some years ago, when Greece got into some difficulty in regard to budgetary information and so on, the fault was deemed to lie, to a degree, in the absence of an absolutely independent service in that country such as the CSO in Ireland and EUROSTAT on a European level.

Yesterday, as on the first Wednesday of every month, the unemployment figures, including the standard rate of unemployment, are issued. Even though I would see those figures on a weekly basis within Departments, they only become public statistics at such time as they are published, at about 11 a.m. or 11.30 a.m. on the first Wednesday of every month. When we saw yesterday a figure of 10.1% for the live register, that showed the CSO and, ultimately, EUROSTAT operating as they should, with independence. I do not know why Fianna Fáil Members seem to feel nervous about or critical of the independence of these institutions. The latter are crucial to how we function in terms of our statistics and the same applies at European level.

This does not at all change what is happening in regard to Irish Water. We have a situation where very deficient water and sewerage services were provided by 34 separate local authorities across the country. In the wake of the long debate we have had, almost everybody now agrees that the way this service was organised was not fit for purpose. It led to very significant leakages and households being placed on boil water notices. It led to a failure to provide our largest city, Dublin, and its surrounding areas with an adequate supply of water, as was the case in many other parts of the country.

When the statistics and data in respect of Irish Water are sent to the European Union, it is done via the CSO and EUROSTAT, because they are independent bodies. That is the essence of the exercise. I am not sure whether Deputy Fleming is contesting their independence. The fact that the timelines may be shorter or longer is entirely a matter for those independent bodies, not a matter for the Government. The Deputy should welcome and endorse their independence.

Is the Tánaiste seeking to undermine the letter the Taoiseach issued to the Select Sub-committee on the Department of the Taoiseach this week, in which he said the CSO is working to finalise its report "in the next two to three weeks", after which that assessment will be provided to EUROSTAT? In other words, there is no delay on the part of EUROSTAT; the delay is with the CSO, which is under the remit of the Department of the Taoiseach. That is why I questioned the Taoiseach about it. The information has not yet gone from his Department to EUROSTAT. The Taoiseach went on to say that the CSO has been advised that a final response from EUROSTAT will be likely to take at least two months.

The Tánaiste does not need to tell me about the independence of EUROSTAT. It is an institution I admire and thank God we have it. We need somebody to assess independently what the Government is doing. The Tánaiste dodged the question I asked, so I will repeat it. In view of the fact that no decision has yet been made about the status of Irish Water, will the Government defer the issuing of water charges bills? The Tánaiste did not go there because her party took out an advertisement in newspapers before the last election with a picture of a tap covered by an "X" and promising there would be no water charges. I am trying to assist the Labour Party to implement its pre-election promises not to implement those charges.

If we are getting into remembering history, we all recall the sad occasion - it turned out very sad for the rest of us, in any case - when Fianna Fáil in government assured us the bank guarantee would be the cheapest little guarantee in the world and we would be in and out of it before we noticed. That has to be mentioned if we are talking historic promises. In regard to Irish Water, there is no difficulty if the CSO has to do more work or, indeed, if it requires additional resources. It is the essence of an independent organisation that, in this instance, it does the work to meet whatever are EUROSTAT's requirements.

This is important in respect of the market corporation test and the Government is quite confident that Irish Water will qualify under that test.

Why can the Government not simply wait to find out?

As for the decision, notwithstanding the fact that the funding for the Central Statistics Office comes via the Department of the Taoiseach, it is important that its independence be recognised publicly and acknowledged and I thank the Deputy for doing so. It is up to the CSO to set the parameters within which it carries out this very important work. I have given the example of how it does work for the Department of Social Protection on a monthly basis, but we do not see its figures until it announces them publicly. That is how it is with the CSO and EUROSTAT. The key is to address the needs of a proper functioning water service which will be at an affordable price, result in people coming off boil water notices and savings in dealing with leakages over time. On the capital and engineering programmes, one can already see savings of €70 million in the work that must be done at the Ringsend plant, for instance, on foot of the work Irish Water has commissioned consequent on taking a utility approach and looking at best practice in improving water and wastewater facilities.

The Government will be issuing the bills.

On Monday I attended the local joint policing committee, JPC, meeting at City Hall in Cork city, at which the growing problem of drug addiction and drug-related crime was discussed with the chief superintendent. Attendees heard from the chief superintendent that there had been a recent spike in the number of muggings and robberies, which he attributed in part to the growing problem of drug abuse and drug addiction within Cork city. They heard there were 500 heroin addicts in Cork, whereas ten years ago there were 20. It is estimated that each week there are 12 deaths from drug-related causes, with almost 5,500 deaths from drug overdoses and drug-related causes since records began in 2004. Eight in ten of such deaths were of young men, with more than half having mental health issues. Communities and families are being torn apart by drug addiction and the Government's response since taking office has been less than adequate. It has cut funding to drug task forces by 37%. Community support groups are struggling to deal with the issue and the growing demand placed on them with reduced resources. Moreover, figures obtained yesterday indicate that since 2011, 108 gardaí have been pulled from drug squads nationally. There is in place a national drugs strategy, with 63 actions, while 19 Government agencies and Departments have a direct role and responsibility in implementing it, yet for the first time in 21 years the Government is without a Minister or a Minister of State with specific responsibility for drugs. It is time it took this issue seriously, took responsibility in dealing with it and appointed a specific Minister of State with sole responsibility for drugs. Will the Tánaiste commit to so doing?

The national drugs strategy 2009-16 is cross-cutting in terms of public policy and public service delivery. Significant progress is being made in implementation of the strategy across the key areas of policy, namely, supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research. As I believe the Deputy is aware, the Department of Social Protection has ring-fenced 1,000 places in community employment schemes to ensure people in rehabilitation on foot of having had difficulties with addiction will have opportunities in education, training and, ultimately, getting involved in work. I must note that there has been no reduction in resources from my Department in that respect. We have kept the ring-fenced numbers and there are opportunities for more people, if they so desire, to avail of them. There has been no cut in resources in 2015. For instance, Deputy Leo Varadkar, as Minister for Health, declared a strong interest, on the health side of policy implementation, in being directly involved in the development and implementation of the drugs strategy. An Garda Síochána has targeted intelligence-led operations that have led, as Members are aware, to significant seizures of illicit drugs. For instance, drugs with a value of €41 million were seized in the first half of 2014, which was much higher than the figure for the same period in 2013. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has been spending approximately €51 million on an annual basis on schemes involving young people that help in deterrence and avoiding becoming involved in drugs and substance use. As for improvements in the availability of and access to treatment, at the end of September 2014, 97% of clients over 18 years had access to treatment within one calendar month of assessment.

I agree with the Deputy that it is a terrible difficulty. It is a scourge for the individuals involved and their families who are affected. I have had the opportunity, particularly in the context of the work of my Department, to visit many community employment schemes around the country, as well as to expand the provision of services in Waterford and Wexford. People tell me constantly that they may have started their substance abuse, be it drinking alcohol or, in many cases, the use of cannabis, when they were as young as 13 years. They found themselves unable to cope with the difficulties around addiction. However, people can be helped to get clean and find a different pathway through rehabilitation. I know that many people have recovered and put their difficulties with addiction long behind them. Many of them are now counsellors to others experiencing difficulties. The Government has committed to significant investment to deal with this issue through the strategy.

From the Tánaiste's response, I am sure she will agree that it is clear that this is a highly complex issue that does not simply pertain to drug addiction, as many other issues are related to it, including mental health. Some of these issues have been discussed previously in the Chamber. It is for that reason, when one considers we have a national drugs strategy with 63 action points and which covers 19 Government agencies and Departments, it is important to have somebody with sole responsibility for dealing with this issue. That is why I am asking whether the Government will commit to appointing a Minister of State with specific responsibility for it. It is all well and good to state the Minister sitting next to the Tánaiste has decided to take a direct role in dealing with it. I am sure he is extremely busy in his capacity as Minister for Health, with many other pressures on him and issues facing him. Therefore, if the Government is serious - I hope the Tánaiste is serious about dealing with the issue - why is it that for the first time for 21 years, there is no Minister of State with specific responsibility for dealing with the drugs problem? Again, I ask the Tánaiste to commit to appointing one.

I agree with the Deputy that it is a highly complex issue. From visiting communities, particularly visiting community employment schemes focused on rehabilitation, education, training and employment possibilities for people who have been involved in substance abuse, I am always shocked by the sheer calibre of the people it affects. They come from all walks of life. They are some of the brightest and creative people one could meet but they end up with this problem. It is horrible for them and for their families.

The Deputy referred to having a Minister of State with responsibility for this area. The Minister of State in my Department, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, spends a significant amount of time, as much as I do, visiting the different groups and organisations dealing with this problem. I know from the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, about the Coolmine therapeutic centre, one of the leading centres in the country and situated in the heart of our respective constituency. That centre advocates a drug-free model of therapy. Again, I know the Deputy would be familiar with the different therapeutic approaches.

This year there are extra detox beds with more earmarked health resources for this area. I will concede it is still a severe problem for society. It is terrible for any family which has to experience a family member becoming for a period almost lost to drugs. From speaking about homelessness before Christmas, we know mental health issues, as well as substance abuse issues, can be heavy contributors to that, unfortunately. Again, the Government has devoted significant additional resources in addressing that. I know for instance that the homeless night café in Dublin city has given significant assistance to this area. Organisations such as Merchants Quay have done enormous work in helping people on the pathway to recovery and to wellness. At the end of the day, that is what we want for people.

Will the Tánaiste give consideration to the appointment of a Minister of State with responsibility for this area?

As I said, this can be kept under review. The Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, as the senior Minister, is taking a dedicated personal interest in it. That is significant and important. I also take a detailed interest as does the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys.

This Sunday, 8 March, is International Women’s Day. Is the Tánaiste in any way embarrassed that, after four years of her Government’s tenure, not only has she not lifted a finger in key areas of women's rights crying out for vindication, but now her austerity policies are causing immense suffering for women on low and middle incomes, especially for women dependent on social welfare payments for which her ministry is directly responsible?

How does the Tánaiste feel that last summer the United Nations, a conservative body, had to call out the Government for its ongoing maintenance of the eighth amendment of the Constitution? It said the abortion ban and the Government’s pathetic Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was a breach of civil and political rights and that women in Ireland were being effectively treated as vessels.

The United Nations particularly mentioned the disgrace of fatal foetal abnormalities. Last month, however, the Tánaiste trooped into this Chamber, along with other Labour Party Deputies, and voted down a Bill that could have dealt with that. Apparently that hypocrisy is acceptable because last weekend at the Labour Party conference, the Tánaiste suddenly decided to promise a referendum on this issue whenever the Labour Party gets into government at some stage in the future. Given that is not likely to happen in any way, shape or form at any time soon, why does she not salvage something out of this Government for the Labour Party and hold a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment along with the other referenda she is planning in the remaining lifetime of the Government?

Will the Tánaiste deal in particular with the growing problem of the feminisation of poverty which has accelerated under her Government? Women have been traditionally lower paid and on lower incomes. As Minister for Social Protection, the Tánaiste has swung her axe on women in a shocking way. Her cuts to child benefit broke an election pledge, taking hundreds of euro out of the pockets of women and their families. For some inexplicable reason, however, she has singled out the poorest women and lone parents for particular attack. Her cuts to one-parent social welfare payments are nothing short of Thatcherite and have been condemned by Barnardos and countless other groups.

How many questions, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle?

The truth hurts. This is not talking down the clock like some do opposite.

Does Deputy Finian McGrath agree with the eighth amendment?

I have spoken against it many times.

The Tánaiste's rent allowance cuts are making hundreds of women homeless each week. Last year, on International Women’s Day, she made a speech saying we need more women leaders in all areas of life and that far too few women are in the room when crucial decisions are made. Why, when the Tánaiste is in the room and as the most powerful woman in politics in this country, are these cuts happening to women? She also told women to do one thing every day that scares them. They are doing things every day of which they are terrified thanks to the Tánaiste’s cuts, making their lives a misery as a result.

Does the Deputy have a question?

I know where I will be spending International Women’s Day. I will be at a rally at the Spire organised by the ROSA group, Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity and Real-Productive Health. Where will the Tánaiste be? Two years ago, she spent International Women’s Day with Christine Lagarde, the well-heeled head of the IMF, which has plunged millions of people, especially women, into poverty.

She has great time for women.

Will the Tánaiste agree it is a far cry from the labour movement tradition which started International Women’s Day? It was begun by garment workers in 1909 in the US-----

-----and carried on by German socialists.

Will the Tánaiste celebrate International Women’s Day by calling off her economic war on women?

Question No. 7 now.

Will she hold a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, so badly needed by women?

And now the intermission.

"No". "No". "No".

The women who are my heroes are the women who look after their families-----

Christine Lagarde.

-----and their parents, who go out to work and make a life for themselves, their partners and their children. There is a saying in Swahili that women hold up half of the sky.

What about the single-parent family payments in yesterday's social welfare Bill?

I do not know if Deputy Coppinger has ever had an opportunity to be aware that in terms of women’s responsibilities in this world, the women who every day look after their families, their partners, their children and their elder parents should be all of our heroes. For those of us who are elected to politics as women, it is an enormous privilege to serve. I do hope to see a higher number of women participating in politics. That is part of the development of democratic societies and is to be welcomed, including the Deputy’s own presence in this House.

The Deputy had a parliamentary question on the social welfare system earlier this morning. As I told her then, in the studies carried out by the ESRI and published several months ago, women benefit slightly more from our social welfare system.

That is not correct.

If the Deputy thinks about it, she will realise why. Notwithstanding all the work and contribution that women make, statistically they live longer than men by a couple of years. From the €6.7 billion that will be spent on pensions by the State this year, a slightly greater proportion of that will go to women than to men, particularly for those on a State contributory pension or a non-contributory pension.

I am sure the Deputy would endorse that.

The ESRI study, which I went through in detail this morning although the Deputy quibbled a little, comes from a recognised research institution. The study showed that women do slightly better. Many women are in a household with two adults, a man and a woman, and household income is distributed evenly. The ESRI therefore found that there was no measurable difference between women and men.

Regarding Deputy Coppinger's third point on changes to the lone parent payment, my objective is to help people get into work on either a part-time or a full-time basis. The way to do that and to get a well-paying job is to get access to opportunity in terms of education, training and work experience. We have had a tradition of leaving people welfare-dependent for 18 to 22 years, going back to the early 1970s when the first payments for lone parents were introduced.

Is this a speech?

We are changing the rules to allow people to combine getting a social welfare income or family income support or the new back to work family allowance----

Deputy McGrath should listen, he might learn something.

The Tánaiste should answer the question. Are working women in poverty, yes or no? CSO statistics say they are.

----which will give any lone parent going back to work an extra €30 per week per child. As the studies in respect of this year's budget show, we have also increased child benefit for every child by €5 a month. I am happy to say that as Tánaiste, I have prioritised getting people back to work because when people get some work, part time or full time, their at risk of poverty rate falls by well over 60%. The best way out of poverty is getting a job, an education and opportunities in life and I have never made a secret of the fact that this is at the heart of the Labour Party's policies.

What about fatal foetal abnormalities?

Thank you, Tánaiste. Supplementary questions and replies are of one minute's duration.

The ESRI report the Tánaiste quotes did not refer to social welfare cuts at all.

Yes it did.

It was not a study of them and did not actually conclude that there was no impact on women. In fact, it concluded that there was an impact on women who were in a relationship. The study to which I would like to refer the Tánaiste - and I am sure she is not contradicting it as it is well known - is by the National Women's Council. It concluded that equality had been cast aside during the crisis; lone parents, the low paid and the poor were special targets for raising cash to recapitalise the banks; mother-headed households were more likely to be in debt for gas, electricity and rent; and women were more likely to be paying for the crisis. I will not go into it, the Tánaiste knows it well.

I would like the Tánaiste to go back to the two specific issues I raised, of lone parents and the 8th amendment, which she studiously did not mention at all. Regarding lone parents, this is the second promise to women the Tánaiste has broken. On posters before the election, she promised that she would not cut child benefit. She cut it - she took €10 and gave back €5. She promised last July that she would not proceed with these cuts to lone parents unless Scandinavian style child care was in place. There is no Scandinavian style child care. I am sure a lot of women would like to go out to work, be it part-time or full-time, but for lone parents it is even more difficult. The Tánaiste is turning seven year olds into latchkey kids. How are parents meant to be able to find somewhere from 1.30 p.m., when seven year olds get off school, until 6 o'clock? They would want to be earning a whopping income like the Tánaiste's to do that.

I am on a worker's wage and the Deputy is not. Regarding the eight amendment, can the Tánaiste please respond to me? In the past, people would have expected that the Labour Party, at least on social issues if nothing else, would garner something from a coalition of popular government.

Why will the Tánaiste not hold a referendum this year and not at some stage in the future? We all know the Labour Party will not be in the next Government so it is a useless promise. Do it now and give women the rights they deserve.

The only way to remove the eighth amendment is to vote on it. That is the only way.

Deputy Coppinger will not be in the next Government anyway, that is for sure.

The Labour Party used to say it would not be in a right-wing Government either.

Deputy Higgins does not believe in government.

Deputy Higgins should pay his bin tax.

Order please, I have called the Tánaiste.

The Labour Party conference this weekend was very successful and worthwhile. It is a pity Deputy Coppinger was not there but maybe she was outside. In terms of our platform for the next election, the delegates agreed that we would be seeking to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution.

Why does the Tánaiste not do it now?

I can only go on the legal advice that we get, which is that constitutional change is required to deal with the very distressing issue of fatal foetal abnormality. When we go to the people we will ask them to endorse a proposal that the Labour Party seek a referendum on the eighth amendment.

Deputy Coppinger asked me earlier where I would be on International Women's Day. I will be in Maynooth university with organisations like Trócaire, celebrating the achievements of women in developing countries in building economic independence and small, medium and large businesses for themselves and their families.

Deputy Coppinger can protest that. She should take the iPhone out of her boot now.

Deputy Coppinger's colleagues might be interested to know that I also hope to celebrate with An Cosán, a marvellous organisation based in Tallaght providing education for the community. Last year when I met Madame Lagarde, the head of the IMF - Deputy Coppinger may object to this - I brought women with me who are involved in business in areas like carers, associations, education----

The Tánaiste cut their grant

She cut the carer's allowance and the respite grant.

---and some of the leading women doctors working in this country. Going back to my comment about the women who are my heroes, the person who probably spoke best was the woman who, along with several others, had spent their lives working as carers, caring for individuals from their families and communities---

The Tánaiste is after cutting grants to carers.

Christine Lagarde spent a lot of time with women telling their stories of what it is like to be a woman in modern Ireland. It is important that women share their stories so I hope this International Women's Day that women in Ireland will get the same opportunities. Certainly at the events I am going to I hope to be able to celebrate with women who are successful and committed to this country, their children and families.