Leaders' Questions

I will cast the Tánaiste's mind back to November 2012, when the people of this country voted in a referendum to amend the Constitution to provide for children's rights. She will remember from some of the rhetoric and Government spin at the time that children were to be front and centre in all public policy. Unfortunately, the actions of the Government in the meantime can be said to have been slack. It has cut the number of guidance counsellors, child benefit and core welfare benefits to under 25 year olds.

Will the Tánaiste acknowledge today's publication of a report into mental health services? Will she acknowledge some of its startling details about the welfare of children who have been waiting for longer than one year to access mental health services? As we speak, 3,000 vulnerable children are waiting, 400 of whom have been waiting for longer than one year. The report is startling and confirms what we have been telling the Government for some time, namely, it has shattered community mental health services for children. Only 42% of the staff complement that is required to protect the most vulnerable in society were in situ last year.

One third of vulnerable children who access mental health services are being admitted to adult wards. Will the Tánaiste provide a date by which the Government plans to cease this Dickensian action? Will she confirm whether best practice in terms of child welfare is being followed on those wards? The one third of admissions is due to the Government's policy.

This issue boils down to two questions. When will the Government cease the practice of admitting children to adult wards and is the Tánaiste satisfied that best practice in terms of child welfare guidelines is being followed? Before she answers now, I have submitted a parliamentary question on this matter. I want her to assure the people of this country that the children being admitted to adult wards have the comfort of best practice.

I thank the Deputy for raising the question. When he was on this side of the House, he often praised the Government for the priority it had given to children-----

-----in the context of the very difficult situation that was inherited. I can remember him on many occasions commenting on how Fianna Fáil, his current party, had cruelly reduced the supports to families in relation to areas like child benefit.

I remember when the Tánaiste-----

Come on. The Tánaiste can do better than that.

Deputy Keaveney was very eloquent on that.

What happened to the Tánaiste? Tell us what the Government has not cut.

I suppose this is like those post offices that have been closed. There was no basis for that.

Any new baby can be put-----

Deputies, please. The Tánaiste has the floor.

Just to remind Deputy Keaveney in relation to his comment on child benefit-----

We remember the Tánaiste when she was in opposition.

This is a serious issue.

-----I was very happy to increase child benefit by €5 per month in this year's budget.

The Government promised not to cut it in the first place.

It was not as much as we would like-----

Tell us about the respite care grant.

The Government rolled right back on-----

-----but we have promised to do the same again next year. That was just in the context of Deputy Keaveney's opening comments.

Of course all mental health services are incredibly important, both to adults and specifically to children. I think it has been recognised and agreed by all parties in the House that the practice of children ending up in services intended for adults is not appropriate.

Give us a date.

The development of child and adolescent mental health services is a priority, and has been, for my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar.

Just to put it in context again, notwithstanding the severe financial difficulties that the country found itself in at the time of the last election and from 2008, an additional €125 million and some 1,150 posts have been provided for mental health services since 2012. The Deputy will also be aware that there has been an ambitious programme of investment in capital resources and improvements, including the opening of new mental health facilities and the opening at a local level right around the country and that people can see at the moment of large numbers of primary health care services. Central to the provision of the primary health care centres has been the actual provision at a local level of mental health services, including mental health services for children and adolescents. That, of course, is the setting in which we would like to see children and adolescents who experience mental health difficulties receiving the care, the counselling and the other services that their conditions may require. In fact, seeing children hospitalised would be, I think, for most professionals in the field the last resort and only in cases where it was possibly the only way of helping a child or an adolescent in very severe difficulties.

Speaking as the father of three children, the Tánaiste has become a cold-hearted technocrat. Her response was appalling. I simply asked her when the Government would cease the practice of admitting vulnerable children to adult wards. She will be aware of high-profile reports last week of inappropriate relationships between staff and service users. Will the Tánaiste give a date? Nothing else, not waffle. Let us pull the curtain back and examine what is happening on the ground. Please give me and the country the date by which the Government intends to stop the practice of admitting children to adult wards.

Can she guarantee the people present that best practice prevails with respect to child welfare on adult wards? Is she satisfied that there are child protection officers across adult wards where vulnerable children are admitted? Will she just deal with the two questions asked? She should not take a meandering road and talk about some time in the past. She has been in government for five years - deal with it.

The party opposite was represented here, too.

Just deal with the questions on vulnerable children. The Government botched the referendum.

It misspent the money allocated.

There is an opportunity to deal with the substantive question this morning. I ask for a date for when the Government will cease the admission of children to adult wards. Will the Tánaiste guarantee the welfare of children with respect to child protection? That is the key question.

I am not quite sure why the Deputy speaks about a botched referendum on children's rights.

The Government mishandled it. The Tánaiste should deal with the question.

I think I hear undertones of another conversation Fianna Fáil and others are having, but that is a different issue. The children's rights referendum was passed in an open vote by the citizens of the country. The party opposite may have a different view of it, but its members should respect the will of citizens.

Then they should not describe it in that way.

Can the Tánaiste give a date?

As we are four years in government, the Deputy was out by 20% on that point. As I recognise that he is the father of three children and interested in this issue, I will take his questions seriously. We have invested across the board in children and meeting their needs. The committee and groups which have come together on child and adolescent mental welfare issues have acknowledged the progress that has been made on a number of occasions, including in a report.

On its report card the Government gets a B minus.

The Deputy needs to read the report.

The Tánaiste needs to read it. The position is getting progressively worse.

The report recognises the progress made by the Government. I have read the report, whereas the Deputy has possibly only read the cover.

Is the Tánaiste going to give a date?

We will continue, as resources permit, to expand our investment in children and adolescents with mental health difficulties and to make primary care centres which are being rolled out around the country the primary location for dealing with children with mental health problems. The centres will be as close to home as possible and require no more inpatient treatment than is absolutely necessary. The best way to treat a child is to treat the child's family also in order that they can deal with the issues he or she faces. We are investing in an enormous range of additional facilities which are broadening the availability of resources for children. If the Deputy wanted to be honest, he would accept that the people working for organisations in this area have acknowledged it.

If the Tánaiste wanted to be honest, she would answer the question.

On Saturday up to 80,000 people marched through the streets of Dublin.

They came from every constituency with a clear message, "Scrap the water charges or call a general election." What was the Labour Party's response? One of its Ministers of State said it did not matter how many people marched, the Government was not for turning - what arrogance. This week the Government has shown its true colours by threatening hundreds of thousand of families who simply cannot pay the water charge. The Labour Party, it seems, is to become Irish Water's debt collector, sticking its hands into the pockets of families who are struggling to provide for their children or pay their mortgage or rent. The party sends in the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, Portroe's own Paulie Walnuts, to put the squeeze on families with nothing left to give. Is this how the party responds to the will of the people? Is this how it helps cash-strapped families? Is this its way? My questions to the Tánaiste are very simple. Does she support the proposal of the Minister to raid people's wages, social welfare and pension payments? Does she support his proposal to hike council rents and force landlords to retain deposits? Since when is it the role of the Labour Party to be Irish Water's and Fine Gael's bagman?

The Deputy's party leader, Deputy Gerry Adams, could be described as Uncle Junior in "The Sopranos". More than 1 million people have signed up with Irish Water. What is Deputy Mary Lou McDonald saying to them, people who want to see a proper water system in Ireland and an end to the scandal of more than 40 rivers and lakes being polluted by raw sewage?

The Tánaiste needs to change the record.

My priority is the people who want to see safe and healthy water. The people who marched on Saturday have a democratic right to do so, but according to Garda reports, there were between 25,000 and 30,000 in attendance.

That is rubbish.

It is wishful thinking.

It is a sizeable number of people, but does Sinn Féin want to deny the will of the 1 million people who want to see a proper water system in this country?

We want to see a proper water system, paid for by a progressive tax.

Sinn Féin has tricked and tracked on this issue. At one point it was strongly and prominently in favour of a well managed water utility which would supply safe drinking water. As it is on the record of this House, Deputies opposite need not shake their heads. They have been doing a U-turn on this issue so much that at times they must be dizzy. They were going to pay the charge at one point, but then they thought about it and thought perhaps they would not. Perhaps they will, perhaps they will not - we do not know yet.

I will say something else.

The Tánaiste might answer the question. That would be a novel approach.

The Deputy's interest is only in the next general election, but my interest is in the next generation. I want our children and grandchildren to have a clean supply of water for their health, the development of the economy and tourism and agriculture. Only a party in denial such as Sinn Féin, for which the future of the country matters less than its electoral future, would suggest there was no need for a major capital investment programme in the next ten to 20 years to build the water system about which I have spoken.

The Government has spent €500 million.

There is a major capital cost involved in achieving the goal. I do not want to see Sinn Féin ducking and diving, as it has been on the issue of water charges.

It is easy to be populist but it is harder to look after the future of our country and the future of our children and our grandchildren. I support the work of the Minister, Deputy Kelly, in bringing forward a proper plan and structure for water development in this country.

It is not a proper plan.

We as a country should have started this about 30 years ago.

Sure the Tánaiste's party was campaigning against it for the 30 years.

We have 34 separate local authorities. We know already in Dublin that Irish Water by changing-----

So the Tánaiste was wrong for 30 years.

-----the work on the Ringsend treatment system will make a saving for the taxpayer of €70 million to €80 million and produce a better water treatment system for Dublin.

It could have been achieved by the council.

It is a big undertaking-----

It is a big U-turn as well.

-----to set up a new utility.

It is the change in technology that will bring the savings, not Irish Water.

I understand that any payments people have to make can be difficult to make but this year I am happy to say that in regard to people on average industrial earnings we have been able to improve their after-tax income by up to €30 a month and in regard to-----

Which is wiped out with the water charges.

-----people in receipt of social welfare, we have been able to have modest improvements for them and to improve their standard of living. The assessment of the budget shows-----

While the Government was throwing them out of their homes.

-----that this has benefited the average family, including in particular people on social welfare, to an amount of roughly, on average, €6 a week, and that is a very significant achievement-----

-----from where we have come.

Thank you, Tánaiste.

We need the investment in Irish Water-----

You have a shower every day.

-----we need a proper water system and I want to hear Sinn Féin commit to clean water for the whole country, including the Border areas.

Every time this issue arises here and every time the Tánaiste, in particular, gets to her feet to do a tour around the world, in verbal terms, she confirms yet again just how distant she and her colleagues are from the realities of life for so many people on the ground, certainly the people that I represent. The persons to whom she referred are the net beneficiaries of six whole euro and what she is effectively doing is rendering that null and void. She knows that people in receipt of the €6 are struggling so badly that very many of them are in debt, some of them to debt collectors, and they are in really bad circumstances. Is there a part of the collective brain of the Labour Party that just does not get that or that has forgotten that?

We get it all right.

With the greatest of respect to the Tánaiste, and it is all the one to me, but all those families do not appreciate her condescending rhetoric suggesting that somehow they do not understand the value of a clean water supply-----

The Deputy does not.

-----or suggesting, as some of her other colleagues have, that those who cannot pay are nothing more than scroungers. That is quite something coming from the Labour Party-----

People like the Deputy are the scroungers.

----and it is not lost on the people.

Last November, I asked the Tánaiste to confirm whether she was planning to come the heavy with those unable to pay the water charges. She might remember that occasion. She bumbled and blustered and, as usual, she did not answer the question-----

A question, please, Deputy.

-----but even then she knew what the plan was. She knew and she knows today as we speak that despite all her talk about putting money back in people's pockets that her real intention is to take it straight back out again with attachment orders, council rent increases and deposit retention. That is the reality.

When the Tánaiste takes to her feet, in addition to, no doubt, a very elongated exposition of something, could she do me a favour-----

This is an elongated question as well.

-----and answer, in the clearest of terms, that yes, she supports the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, in his enterprise to pickpocket wages, social welfare and pensions?

Can the Tánaiste confirm that is the case, that it is her position and the position of the Labour Party?

Thank you. We are on supplementary questions now.

That was quite a "Wanderly Wagon" trip, was it not?

The Deputy was trying to catch up with the Tánaiste.

I do not know what exactly she had in mind-----

Answer the question put for once.

-----but just let me repeat the facts, and I know facts are often awkward for the Deputy to deal with.

The Deputy just ignores them.

In the budget for this year we had a social welfare package which provided for, first, an increase in child benefit - that is a fact - and I presume the Deputy noticed it-----

Net of the cuts-----

-----second, an increase in the living alone allowance and, third, we reinstated, on a partial basis, the Christmas bonus, all of which were strongly welcomed by the people of Dublin Central. Among the 1 million people who have signed up to Irish Water, there are people who live in every part of the country, including in the Deputy's constituency and my constituency. I am sure that has not escaped her attention. What she is suggesting is that there would be one law for Sinn Féin-----

----and one law for everybody else.

That is exactly what the Deputy opposite is saying.

The people who have signed up want to and are willing to pay for investing in a future clean water supply, and we have to finance it, as-----

They have paid.

-----there is not a fairy pot of gold for this country in regard to investment.

That is the Deputy's economic policy.

We have to provide-----

Tax cuts for the rich.

-----a pattern of investment in this country. Deputy McDonald's party is addressing that issue in the North at the moment where it is going to let thousands of civil servants go in order to meet the financial requirements of her party being in government in the North and addressing the financial issues of the North, so we have to address the financial reality. More than 1 million households have signed up to Irish Water.

Have they paid?

Just let me say-----

So the people who are struggling are misleading us, are they? That is not true.

-----that those people at work, for instance, received reductions in the universal social charge, USC, which I think the Deputy supports, so she must have read about that, and reductions in regard to income tax, so, yes as a country we are in recovery. Last year and this year we will have an extra thousand people - some 40,000 people - at work and that will provide more resources to fund the vital services of the country, but for water we need to invest over a long period of time.

It is not happening.

If Deputy McDonald is asking me again-----

I asked about the attachment orders.

-----do I support the work that the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, has done to bring in affordable charges of a net of €60 a year for a single individual and a net of €160 for a family of two adults plus children-----

I know the Tánaiste would say it is only €3 and what is the big deal.

-----and the work he has achieved in reframing-----

Does the Tánaiste support his attachment orders? Answer "Yes" or "No" to that.

The Minister is making it up as he goes along.

-----the charges for Irish Water, yes, I strongly support that.

Thank you, Tánaiste. I call Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, on a point of order-----

There will be repercussions----

There are no points of order on Leaders' Questions.

We went through this drama last November, I hope we do not have to go through it again.

Have a sit-in.

I just wish the Tánaiste-----

Yes, a sit-in.

She can stay here because they have nothing on the agenda anyway.

-----to answer "Yes or "No". Does she support the plan for attachment orders-----

On the Deputy's salary, yes.

-----to wages, social welfare and pensions?

That is not a point of order.

The Deputy can afford it on her salary.

She can afford it.

The Tánaiste might take to her feet and answer that.

The Deputy can pay the costs as well.

And first class trips around the world.

(Interruptions).

You are an absolute disgrace. You are a wimp.

Deputy, please. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan has the floor. I call the Deputy and I would like to have some order. Could we have order please for Deputy O'Sullivan?

We all know the effects of being unemployed and the feelings it creates in people of being worthless, inadequate and of hopelessness and the mental health issues that follow, and we know the effects of that on relationships and on our communities. When jobs are lost, particularly in rural communities, so much more is lost as well. I know the Tánaiste is going to tell me that unemployment figures are going in the right direction and she will tell me about the various programmes and initiatives for people who are unemployed to educate and retrain them in order to get them back into the workforce, and I know some of them are progressing well.

Certain people are not allowed to register on the live register as unemployed and this means they do not have access to various job activation programmes and education and retraining.

The unemployed population is divided into registered unemployed, with all the entitlements that brings, and the unregistered unemployed, who have no legal recognition from the State. They have no real entitlement to job activation and education programmes. The unregistered group comprises two groups, those who are self-employed and the women who opted out of the workforce to rear their families and now want to come back into the workforce. Looking at the material of the advisory committee, I was struck by two quotations. One is that the eligibility criteria for non-income support based training schemes should be modified to allow self-employed people to gain access to such schemes. Recent trends towards greater flexibility and casualisation have resulted in some workers being classified as self-employed whereas they should really be classified as employees. This has led to a minority group in the unemployed population being excluded from registering on the live register. All job activation programmes and measures are not open to all the unemployed. What are those groups entitled to do in order to get back into the workforce? Is there a statutory or constitutional basis for dividing the unemployed into the registered and unregistered?

Every person who is unemployed is someone on the live register and has registered with the Intreo services in my Department. I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for her comments on how much this has improved. What the Deputy is saying is that she would like to see more people being able to avail of the activation services. I do not disagree with that but when we came into office we inherited a situation that people may recall, with an employment rate tipping 15%. It was well over 400,000 and I had a lot of sleepless nights that it would go over 500,000 people because of the mess our friends in Fianna Fáil had left behind. The sheer volume of unemployed people means that the Government decided to give priority to getting those on the live register-----

Over to Australia.

-----back to work. To do so, we turned the Department of Social Protection right around. Previously, the Department paid out income support but it is now running a public employment service where we work with employers in the private and public sector to help people who become unemployed to get jobs. The Deputy's proposal is that we extend it to other groups, such as those who have not been on the live register for a variety of reasons as described, which I accept. The latest figures show that the number on the live register has been falling dramatically this year. We are into the third month of the year and it is now approximately 10%. As we get the number of people on the live register down, I look forward to a situation where we can extend activation opportunities to the people described by Deputy O'Sullivan. I refer particularly to opportunities for people to go back to education and training. I want people to get a well-paid job and that we invest in people's skills so that they get a well-paid job that is likely to last.

In the meantime, they need a few bob.

During my recent visit to the United States over the St. Patrick's Day period to promote Ireland I noticed a huge number of companies from the US interested in using Ireland as a base for employment. Many of the people described by Deputy O'Sullivan who have not been on the live register for one reason or another would be terrific employees for some of these companies but we must reach out to get more education and training opportunities so that the people the Deputy describes can benefit from the enormous increase in jobs. It is a situation I keep under constant review. As the numbers come down, we should be able to make more opportunities available to the people described.

If people are unemployed and not on the live register, the unemployed figures on the live register do not give an accurate picture of the unemployed people in the country. With Springboard, preference is given to the long-term unemployed. Why would an employer take on someone who is not on the live register because that deprives the employer of some of the benefits when taking someone from the live register? Last week, a report from the Nevin Economic Research Institute gave a relatively positive picture of recovery-----

-----but it had serious concerns about the low paid. Some 25% of employees, some 345,000 people in the labour force, earn an hourly wage of less than the living wage threshold of €11.45 and 60% of the low paid are women.

Zero-hour contracts.

The Tánaiste is saying people are coming off the live register but if they are going into employment that does not allow them to live in dignity, it is distorting the picture of the progress made on employment. I am not someone who wants to knock the measures going on but we must be realistic and accurate regarding the overall picture. I hope the Tánaiste will follow through in looking at the groups I mentioned, who are technically self-employed, including young people who cannot get onto the live register, and the women who gave up their careers to rear their families and now want to get back into the workforce.

I agree with many of the points made. When I became the leader of the Labour Party, I prioritised something I did after I became the Minister for Social Protection. In the Social Welfare Bill, I reinstated the €1 cut made in the minimum wage by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.

And took it out of child benefit.

Fianna Fáil decided to cut the minimum wage by €1 an hour. For a woman working in a hotel job on low pay, reinstating the minimum wage was worth €36 or €40 a week.

It did not apply to an employed person.

I met many of them through their trade unions and representative groups. This is a question asked by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. At the time, Deputy Colm Keaveney was a strong supporter of the reinstatement.

The Tánaiste cut the respite care grants.

Deputy Colm Keaveney is the new Haughey.

Can I answer the question asked by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan?

Can we all settle down?

Deputy Timmy Dooley missed the boat.

How is Deputy Ray Butler's driving?

I call the Tánaiste.

The temporary leader of Fianna Fáil is not showing due respect to Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.

The Tánaiste is a temporary Tánaiste.

Restoring the minimum wage, which was cruelly cut by Fianna Fáil by €1 an hour, was the first thing we did.

What did the Tánaiste not cut?

When I became the leader of the Labour Party, I asked my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Gerald Nash, to bring together a low pay commission to deal with the issue of low levels of income. The Minister of State is undertaking, at my request, a study of the kind of conditions described, where people are on a low number of contracted hours. Although they are paid an hourly rate, if a person only receives ten hours a week, it is difficult to have the financial independence and wage levels needed to live a fully independent life and to provide for oneself and one's family.

As a Government, we are working on that. I anticipate the Low Pay Commission's report will be brought before the Cabinet at the end of July and that it will form part of our deliberations with regard to the forthcoming budget, by means of which we hope to make further progress. This year we lessened the impact of the USC and removed 80,000 people from the low pay net.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan referred to people who, for one reason or another, are not registered as being unemployed. As the number of those who are unemployed falls dramatically, it is important that we should seek to increase the number of opportunities on offer to people in terms of upskilling and returning to education in order that they might obtain qualifications. The latter is the route to well-paid employment. I will communicate further with the Deputy on this matter.