Leaders' Questions

As the House should be aware, nine years ago Aer Lingus was transformed from a crisis-ridden airline on the verge of collapse into a vibrant, reformed, modernised, healthy, independent carrier with investment that flowed from the sale of 75% of the State's share holding. That allowed for the modernisation of the fleet and investment in the company. Since that decision nine years ago, the airline has flourished. Passenger numbers are up, the company is highly profitable and growing and it has a very healthy balance sheet. Aer Lingus is in a strong financial position to weather any potential storm or any perceived risk within the aviation sector.

A decision was made at the time of the sale by the then Government to keep a strategic 25.1% shareholding in the company which had legal and contractual conditions attached to protect the strategic interests of this State. At the end of the day, Aer Lingus is an airline, Ireland is an island and the two are inextricably linked. The company is uniquely Irish and still holds a strong bond with the Irish people. At the time we retained two public interest directors to sit on the board to protect Ireland's interests.

However, later today this House will be voting on a motion to sell the remainder of the State's share holding in Aer Lingus for a consideration of approximately €335 million. The announcement on Tuesday night by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe and the way this debate has been handled shows that the Government is determined to get this decision rammed through the Houses of the Oireachtas as quickly as possible and without any due consideration or appropriate debate. Has the Tánaiste learned anything from the Irish Water debacle? Has it not dawned on her that if the Government allows for debate in this House unexpected events might be avoided and perhaps Members on the Government backbenches or on the Opposition benches might express opinions that would be helpful in the development of policy overall?

The leaking of the Nyras report proves the point I am making. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe indicated yesterday that they had not seen it, were not aware of it, did not know its contents and were not aware of its significance. I have read sections of that report, which is daunting. It outlines the potential for a further €60 million in cuts to the cost base of Aer Lingus by allowing for low pay and by forcing a higher turnover of staff, as is the case with Vueling. It sets out clearly that companies can retain staff for a relatively short period of time because staff will leave if one forces their pay down. That allows for a move away from long-term contracts of employment and all that goes with them. Perhaps the Tánaiste is not aware of the report but I would have thought that she would allow for a broader debate so that she could become aware of the facts and the kind of vision that IAG and Aer Lingus have for the future.

Thank you, Deputy.

The report compares and contrasts the cost base at Aer Lingus with that at EasyJet and Vueling, two well-known and successful budget airlines. Both companies have highly aggressive industrial relations practices and I would have thought that would raise concerns for the Tánaiste. Since this report has been highlighted, there has been a desperate attempt to mollify, appease and console some of her party's backbenchers. We understand there are letters flying between the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Nash, and the CEO of Aer Lingus on an almost hourly basis. An issue is forgotten, a letter is updated and more information is supplied to help to get somebody else through the gap and so forth. I was on a radio programme this morning with a member of the national executive of the Labour Party, the president of SIPTU, Mr. Jack O' Connor who said that he accepted that the vote was gong to go through this evening. However, he added that if the agreements that were outlined in a letter between the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, and the CEO of Aer Lingus are not respected he will prevail upon the Tánaiste and the other Labour Party members of Government to block the deal at a later stage.

Why did he not do that nine years ago?

This is a Second Stage speech.

Where is the question?

Allow the Deputy to ask his question.

Does the Tánaiste expect to be in a position-----

(Interruptions).

Can we have a question please, Deputy?

Can I ask the Tánaiste if the decision taken by the Government on Monday is final? If, as we expect, the vote passes in the House this evening, will that be final? Does the Tánaiste have any additional powers, outside of the Constitution, that will allow her to block decisions that are already taken at Cabinet and in this House? If so, perhaps she will communicate them to the House because the president of SIPTU, a member of the Labour Party national executive, believes that she has.

Thank you, Deputy.

In addition to that-----

The Deputy has been speaking for six minutes.

(Interruptions).

Sorry, Deputy Dooley, you are over time. Please ask your question. You will have another opportunity-----

(Interruptions).

Please conclude now Deputy.

(Interruptions).

With respect, if I did not have the chorus from the backbenches, I would have fitted within the time-----

Please finish the question.

(Interruptions).

If I could conclude, please-----

Deputy Dooley has had double the time allowed under Standing Orders.

Deputy Stagg does not run the House.

(Interruptions).

Will the Tánaiste alter the Order of Business to allow for a suspension of the vote-----

The Deputy can have an extra 20 minutes.

-----so that all of these reports can be taken to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications where members can have a proper open and frank debate? We can sit next week to do it, in line with original promises made by the Government, so that all of the reports can be considered. We can look at these so-called legal guarantees, the emergence of this "B" share and whether it is all it is made out to be and so on.

(Interruptions).

Why did Fianna Fáil not look for guarantees when it was selling 75%?

I would respectfully suggest-----

That is why we held on to the 25.1%.

With respect, we can have all sorts of banter on the sidelines-----

Ten minutes. The Deputy can have ten minutes.

-----but I am not making political points here. I am making very serious points-----

(Interruptions).

I am asking the Tánaiste, in the best interests of the State, to pause the decision the Government is about to take this evening and allow for an element of consideration by all Members of the House-----

Deputy Durkan should have respect for those workers who will lose their jobs.

The Government controls the aforementioned Oireachtas committee so it will still get its decision through. Can we have a little bit of time to consider the enormity and the consequences of the decision?

Ten minutes. Give them ten minutes.

First, the opportunities for this country arising from the further expansion, growth and development of Aer Lingus, including the promised significant expansion in the number of people employed by the company, are very solid. As Deputy Dooley will be aware, this is particularly important in areas like the mid-west and we expect to see continued strong growth in tourism into Ireland. It is vitally important that we get more aviation capacity into Ireland right now. At the core of the proposal for Aer Lingus is to expand business, have more flights and honour commitments on existing flights and services, not just with regard to Dublin but also to Shannon and Cork airports. All of this provides a strong basis for further growth in employment directly in Aer Lingus, as has been indicated by the chief executive.

The report to which the Deputy referred is an internal report in a company that he just acknowledged his party privatised. It is a private company. It would not be common that Departments or even the Cabinet would get detailed ongoing management reports in private companies. The key issue in that report from the extracts I have seen is that 90% of the business referenced in the report is business that is already contracted by Aer Lingus abroad and not in this country. So it has no impact on or inference for employment in Aer Lingus in Ireland.

As the company has committed, it plans to have significant additional employment next year. Nyras is a consultancy company, as I understand it, engaged by Aer Lingus to carry out a confidential analysis of the airline's cost structure. I listened to Mr. Kavanagh, I think on RTE, this morning. He pointed out that the items that were being examined in the report to which the Deputy referred relate to business of the company that is already provided by providers outside Ireland.

I reiterate that there are no implications in this report other than that the company, Aer Lingus, as the Deputy said himself, must like all companies in the aviation business strive constantly for efficiency. One particular individual who has been forgotten in all this is the consumer and customer of airline services based in Ireland.

They would not want to depend on the Government anyway.

Regarding the staff, Aer Lingus has been recruiting in the recent past.

Why is the Government changing it then?

As I am sure Deputy Dooley is well advised of what is happening in Aer Lingus, he will know that there has been significant recruitment of staff-----

Look at what IAG did to 4,200 workers when it took over Iberia.

-----at the moment and in the recent past. This is an airline that will expand. Moreover, in the discussions with the company - I welcome this - the company has committed to upholding, as it has always done and as the trade unions in Aer Lingus have always done, an absolutely regular and structured interaction between the company and trade unions regarding employee interests, and employment terms and conditions.

What about IMPACT?

In addition, the Dáil will shortly have before it legislation on registered employment agreements. The company, represented by its CEO, has undertaken-----

What did the Government get?

This is a significant and important commitment by the company. It has undertaken to expand the access to registered employment agreements to all those groups of workers in the company, some of whom may not at the moment be covered by registered employment agreements. It has also committed to a policy of no compulsory redundancies.

It committed that to Iberia and there were 4,200 redundancies.

As with all institutions, it will continue to seek best value for its customers and efficiency in its operations. All companies are required to do that and I would be a bit surprised if Fianna Fáil objected to that.

I thank the Tánaiste. We are now clear that the Government is putting all its stock on the sale on the basis of growth projections for Aer Lingus. Those growth projections were already there. Aer Lingus's corporate strategy proposed the addition of one wide-bodied aircraft per year for the next five years. So it was going to generate those jobs anyway. Mr. Willie Walsh made it very clear when he came before the committee that there was nothing additional other than being able to utilise the services that were there and it might be able to assist in generating some passengers as they would travel through.

The Tánaiste said she had seen some aspects of the Nyras report. I bring to her attention one aspect of which it appears she was not aware. It sets out that Aer Lingus's crew costs are much higher than Vueling's. Vueling deliberately pays cabin crew low salaries to encourage staff turnover. It states the average turnover is 40% and the ideal tenure is six to 12 months. Vueling is very good at dealing with its extreme seasonality in this way. It continues to do the comparison with Aer Lingus and states that pay structures, particularly for long-service staff, are responsible for part of the pay gap. The report continues to state there needs to be an aggressive approach by the management to reduce the cost base of the company by €60 million.

The report identifies ways in which to achieve the cost savings and it is on the backs of workers. It is not those elements of the business that are subcontracted outside the State. It states that Aer Lingus ground handling costs are higher than those of both easyJet, by 30%, and of Vueling, by 45%, for each turnaround. If the Tánaiste was not aware of this she should have been. It also states that Aer Lingus self-handles at Dublin, Cork and Shannon stations, whereas easyJet and Vueling are outsourced.

I thank the Deputy.

The Tánaiste seems to suggest it only relates to activity outside the State. She must have been drinking the Kool-Aid that was presented on "Morning Ireland" by the chief executive of Aer Lingus where he commented on procurement: "Ah, don't worry about it. It's all stuff outside the State." Ground handling is not a procured service at the three bases in Ireland. I doubt if the people who service aircraft and do the turnaround at Dublin, Shannon and Cork will thank the Tánaiste for believing that is the case. Deputy McNamara certainly believes that it is not.

Put a question, please.

The question is the one the Tánaiste unfortunately failed to answer. Will she stall the vote this evening? Will she allow for an appropriate discussion of all the facts involving all the stakeholders before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications?

A Deputy

Where is Deputy McNamara?

Next week is available to us. There would be no hesitation on the part of Members from any side of the House to come back for a couple of days so that the committee can tease through this. It would also then allow the people ultimately to see what is happening. The Tánaiste might not convince me, but she might convince some of her own backbenchers and some the people outside this House of what she believes to be a good decision. Perhaps they will agree with her.

I thank the Deputy.

However, from what I have seen in this report, it certainly supports the contention that the Government is rushing the decision in this House because it does not want all the facts to be made available. If the Tánaiste is in any doubt as to Aer Lingus's intentions-----

That is a long minute, Chair.

-----as it is currently constituted-----

I thank the Deputy.

-----she should be under no illusions that when IAG becomes the owner, its board of directors and shareholders will only be interested in one thing. It is about reducing those costs to the absolute minimum level possible and increasing the profitability.

I call the Tánaiste.

There is no reference whatsoever to the strategic interest of the State.

I have called the Tánaiste.

Deputy Dooley is speaking on behalf of the party that privatised Aer Lingus and sold it off right around the world with no interest in who actually bought it. He now proposes to make a political football of it, kick the stuffing out of Aer Lingus, and make a joke of the dedication and work of the staff and management.

(Interruptions).

It ill becomes the Deputy to try to make a joke of Aer Lingus.

The ones who are laughing are those sitting behind the Tánaiste.

Fianna Fáil sold it off and Deputy Dooley now comes in here and tries to make a political football of Aer Lingus.

And the Government is finishing it off.

He should be ashamed of himself.

The Nyras report is no joke.

The Tánaiste has the floor.

From what we understand of what he said, Deputy Dooley obviously only had an opportunity to look at two pages of a much lengthier report.

I have over 40 pages.

To answer Deputy Dooley's point-----

I will give it to the Tánaiste if she wants it.

A Deputy

Give it to the usher, Timmy.

Am I allowed to answer his point?

That would be a first.

The questions he is asking are answered in the letter from the chief executive of the company, which states: "We have committed to expanding the scope of these registered employment agreements where appropriate to include staff groups not covered by the current agreements."

Who in particular?

So why is IMPACT not happy?

In English, that means that any groups of staff not currently covered-----

That is what they said about Iberia.

------by registered employment agreements-----

That concerns pay and conditions, not jobs.

-----will be covered by those agreements.

They can transfer jobs.

Second, I also commit to the principle that Aer Lingus would not utilise compulsory redundancies and non-direct employment in a scenario where the changes and efficiencies to the business can be achieved.

That is the way all businesses operate. What Deputy Timmy Dooley is putting to us is a fantasy. Aer Lingus has achieved enormous growth and efficiencies. The country is poised-----

When is the Government selling it?

We are not selling Aer Lingus; we are selling a share-----

The Government is giving it away.

We are acquiring an indefinite veto in relation to the slots.

There is no such thing as an indefinite veto, as the Tánaiste knows.

(Interruptions).

We are acquiring and developing a B share in the company-----

It is meaningless.

-----which will give an indefinite veto to the holder, the Minister for Finance, in relation to the slots at Heathrow Airport.

It is utterly meaningless.

The Tánaiste does not even believe it herself.

In an earlier-----

Thank you, Tánaiste.

The Chair gave Deputy Timmy Dooley a lot of time.

I am operating Standing Orders for everybody.

In an earlier discussion on Aer Lingus Deputy Timmy Dooley was concerned about the lack of an intervention when slots were being transferred from Shannon Airport to Belfast airport. The B share will give the Minister for Finance a veto in relation to the slots. That is the reason it is welcomed by people in the mid-west.

It does not. The Tánaiste is misleading the House and she knows it.

Deputy Timmy Dooley has misled the House.

(Interruptions).

The Tánaiste criticised Deputy Timmy Dooley for having sight of two pages of the Nyras report. At least he had sight of two pages of the report-----

One hundred pages.

-----or, perhaps, more, which is more than can be said for the Tánaiste, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Taoiseach. Later today the Government intends to railroad through the House the sale of a strategic State asset, the State's 25% shareholding in Aer Lingus. It wants us to agree to the sale of our interest in what is a profitable company which has cash reserves and other assets, the value of which exceed the proposed sale price. The Tánaiste has acknowledged the current plans of Aer Lingus to expand business and increase the numbers of flights and jobs. She has also acknowledged not only the viability but also the rude good health of Aer Lingus, in which the State has a 25% strategic stake, yet the Government wants to go in with a wrecking ball and subvert the influence the State and the people have in what is a strategic piece of infrastructure.

That Fine Gael advances his approach is no surprise. After all, it desperately wants to have an election slush fund to buy votes with more tax cuts for the wealthy, but for the Labour Party to sign up to this fire sale is truly incredible. When Fianna Fáil sold off 75% of Aer Lingus, the Labour Party vigorously opposed the move.

Labour Party back bench Deputies were once among the staunchest defenders of the State's interest in the airline, but like so many long-standing Labour Party policies, it was quickly dropped once it got into bed with Fine Gael. I have no doubt that the Labour Party would have signed up to the earlier deal forwarded by Mr. Willie Walsh were it not for the opposition of some of its backbenchers who became known as the Aer Lingus 8. It now appears there is only an Aer Lingus 1 in the ranks of the Labour Party.

Deputy Michael McNamara.

What this deal boils down to are vague or, at least, qualified promises of no compulsory redundancies and no out-sourcing, promises which have been qualified by everybody who has spoken about them and flatly denied in the Nyras report which envisages a very clear recipe of redundancies, out-sourcing and damage to terms and conditions of employment. What the deal also envisages is exactly and precisely nothing, nada, for pensioners, particularly deferred pensions whom I am sure the Tánaiste remembers.

A question, please.

The pensioners are to get nothing, but the executives are to enjoy a bonanza, pay-outs of the scale of a bonanza. Riddle me this: how does this tally in any shape or form with what we might understand as the national interest? How will the Government ever convince people that we are in a stronger position without a share in Aer Lingus as opposed to having a strategic 25% share? The Tánaiste has claimed that the B share represents a veto - she used the word "veto" very deliberately - for the Minister for Finance. This is the first time the B share which, according to many, is legally dubious has been described as a veto. Will the Tánaiste set out her rationale for making that assertion?

In regard to Aer Lingus, all of us would agree that the strategic issues concern services for consumers and connectivity to and from the island at reasonable airline prices; jobs and job security and access to and from markets that are important to us in terms of tourism and business investment. Everybody in the House agrees that they are the key issues in terms of the airline's services in Ireland.

Yes, we have them already.

We have two airlines in Ireland. In regard to Aer Lingus, what is important to people in terms of airline services in and out of the country, provided proudly by Aer Lingus as a carrier during the decades, not only is being maintained and secured in this agreement but also advanced. I confidently expect, given, for example, the improvement in sterling and the dollar vis-à-vis the euro, that we will be ready for a further influx of tourists, which means that we will need more capacity for growth in Aer Lingus. Also, the Aer Lingus name and logo which many Irish people, including me, hold dear and the fact that Aer Lingus has its headquarters in Ireland-----

-----means that it will continue as a distinct company as part of the IAG business into the future when, and if, the deal is concluded which obviously is dependent on other shareholders and the decisions they make which will not be known for some time. Assuming that the deal proceeds, it will give Ireland a significant advantage in that it will place it in an even greater spot to attract international investment into the country.

A slush fund to buy the election.

It will also give Irish people travelling to and from the country better services and, in particular, provide staff in Aer Lingus with greater job security-----

-----as per the commitment I have read from the CEO and managing director, Mr. Kavanagh, to a policy which has always been in place in Aer Lingus and which was successfully negotiated between management and unions in the company of no compulsory redundancies and on the extension of registered employment agreements to groups of staff not already covered. The registered employment agreement legislation which will be brought before the House shortly-----

IAG made 4,200 employees in Iberia redundant and will do the same in Aer Lingus.

As has been sought in Ireland for, probably, about 30 years, it will give greater protection to workers. Therefore, workers in Aer Lingus will enjoy greater protection in their employment.

The soundbites brigade is on the other side of the House.

There have been, as referred to by Deputy Timmy Dooley, structured redundancies on a voluntary basis in Aer Lingus on a very extensive scale in the time since Fianna Fáil privatised the company. The share held is significant.

Who told the Tánaiste that?

As I said, the deal offers the State a veto through the B share to block any disposal of the Heathrow Airport slots for an unlimited amount of time.

That is not true. It is a con job.

The articles of association have been changed by a figure of 75%-----

To be realistic, the 25% shareholding does not offer any veto in relation to the Heathrow Airport slots.

It does, with a further 5%.

We heard from Deputy Timmy Dooley how people in Shannon felt when they lost some services to Heathrow Airport to Belfast airport.

That was not covered by Fianna Fáil's 25% so-called "golden share". It will be covered by the "B" share arrangement and Sinn Féin should be aware of that.

Does the Tánaiste recall that we got it back?

What was lost in Shannon will not now be able to be lost, due to the pertinence of the "B" share.

(Interruptions).

Order, please. I call Deputy Mary Lou McDonald.

I do not accept the manner in which the Tánaiste has characterised the "B" share. To say the least, I believe she is over-egging matters. If she was a union official representing or negotiating on behalf of those workers whom she says will have greater protection in this new scenario, she would be fired, and justifiably so.

The Tánaiste is relying entirely on the say-so of the CEO. It seems she is relying entirely on the good wishes, good will and rhetoric in the midst of this political manoeuvre, on the word of others. That is what she is doing. That is not good enough for the Aer Lingus workers, because promises and letters of comfort, as she is probably aware, have a very poor track record in respect of that company.

The Tánaiste's words will be of no comfort either to the Aer Lingus pensioners and deferred pensioners. She should remember this group, because both she and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, met them. She let them down. She made promises to them that she did not keep.

In many instances, those deferred pensioners have seen their pension entitlement slashed by 50%, and more in some cases.

A Deputy

Not the CEO.

That is how well the Government honoured that set of pensioners. Now, under this scheme, these pensioners get nothing. They get nothing, bar, perhaps, the two fingers from the Government.

May we have a question please, Deputy?

The Tánaiste cannot explain away the central contradiction of her position, and I would have thought this issue would have been of more concern to the Labour Party than to its Fine Gael colleagues. She cannot explain away the fact that by selling off the 25% stake, a strategic stake in this asset, the Government weakens the position of government, the State and the people. Given we are an island nation, this is of the utmost significance. We will still be an island in seven years' time, but perhaps that thought did not occur to her.

I am sure the Tánaiste will not concede any of my points, but her party colleague, Deputy McNamara, believes she is wrong. He differs. Of all of the Labour Party, he is the one who has taken a stand and differs from the Tánaiste's analysis.

He is the special one.

Of all of the Labour Party, it seems he is the only one who has remained consistent and true to a view that I also share, that the State must have a holding in Aer Lingus.

Thank you, Deputy. I call the Tánaiste.

The privatisation by this crew was wrong and the Government is simply completing its work. Having ranted and raved, they now complete the work of Fianna Fáil and leave workers, pensioners and the State very vulnerable.

Thank you, Deputy. I must call on the Tánaiste.

On a point of order-----

It is not allowed on Leaders' Questions.

The Tánaiste and the two leaders so far have had 34 minutes on Leaders' Questions. I hope Deputy Tom Fleming will be treated similarly.

That is not a point of order. The Tánaiste to reply.

(Interruptions).

Can we have order, please? I am trying to operate Standing Orders as best I can, but I cannot with interruptions like these.

First, I am delighted to say that the Government is introducing something the trade union movement has sought for more than three decades, namely registered employment agreements. Deputies many scoff at this, but it is important to put into law assurances and frameworks for workers in regard to their terms and conditions of work. If people here who consider themselves left wing want to scoff at the idea of protective legislation that defends the rights of workers-----

(Interruptions).

I think their position is absurd.

Second, there is a strong tradition in Aer Lingus of trade union and management negotiating deals on behalf of workers. This has been the case over a long period, since around the time the company was formed. We will bring legislation before the House in regard to the protection of workers' rights, conditions and terms of employment. An undertaking has been given in negotiation that there will be no compulsory redundancies and that registered employment agreements, which operate on a significant scale in Aer Lingus, will be extended to groups of workers currently not covered by these agreements. The company has undertaken to do this and to register these agreements in accordance with the law. This undertaking has been recognised by various people in the trade union movement as an important achievement on behalf of the workers in Aer Lingus and on behalf of workers generally.

By whom in the trade union movement?

Thank you, Tánaiste.

In regard to the Deputy's second question, and the Chair allowed her extensive time-----

I am doing my best.

In regard to the pension fund, unfortunately, during the previous Government's term, the pension fund was allowed to build up a deficit of approximately €750 million. Fianna Fáil changed pensions legislation in 2009 and this significantly disimproved the position for pensioners and deferred members in various companies, including Aer Lingus.

In the context of the negotiation which was undertaken in regard to saving the pension fund and to rescuing the pensions of the current workers, the retired and deferred workers of Aer Lingus, whom Sinn Féin seems indifferent to, a €60 million package has been agreed specifically for deferred members.

Thank you. I now call Deputy Tom Fleming.

Twenty minutes, now.

I have called Deputy Fleming.

The Carers Association, which represents 187,000 carers in this country attended a meeting with Oireachtas Members on 19 May. The main item on the agenda was the national strategy report for carers and the slow progress being made on the report which was first planned and published in 2012. There are some 42 actions recommended in the strategy, but many of them remain untouched. Several Departments are involved in the implementation of the strategy, including the Departments of Social Protection, Health, Justice and Equality, the Environment, etc. Departments across the board are involved.

The report is now entering its third year.

The recent assessment highlighted the slow rate of progress of this plan. It also indicated that it has produced mixed results to date, with some Departments making good progress, others making none and some taking regressive actions.

Some of the issues highlighted included the transition arrangements for carers who are exiting their caring role. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has yet to engage with the strategy in terms of how it treats people leaving the role of carer and supports them in returning to the workforce.

The limit on the number of hours recipients of carer's allowance, carer's benefit and the respite care grant are permitted to engage in training is currently set at 15 hours per week. That must be extended to at least 20 hours.

That limit is preventing many family carers upskilling with a view to returning to the workforce, but there has been no movement on that.

The removal of the bereavement grant shows a lack of awareness of the significant cost on families on the death of their loved ones. The solution offered, namely, asking family carers to apply for an exceptional needs payment at a distressing time in their lives where there is a personal loss and they are vulnerable, shows a lack of understanding of their emotions. That lack of understanding is at odds with the goals of the strategy.

A question, please, Deputy.

I stress the importance of providing affordable options for families to provide care to their loved ones and allow them live in their own homes. A typical example is the housing grant scheme, which is administered by county councils. The mobility aid grant is an essential piece of the jigsaw in allowing people to live in their own homes but funding for that grant has been halved from €79 million in 2011 to just €38 million in 2014. Further changes to the scheme announced in January 2014 will mean that even fewer people are now eligible.

The 19% cut to the respite care grant imposed in the budget of 2014 was regressive. That payment is given to allow family carers take a much needed break from their round the clock caring but in reality it is also used for respite from financial worries and a number of other hidden costs such as medical, electricity and ancillary costs. The failure to reverse the 19% cut in the budget for 2015 was most disappointing.

I ask the Tánaiste and her fellow Ministers to get back to the drawing board, address the matters I have raised and enhance what is needed to be enhanced in the forthcoming budget. Some of these matters could be addressed immediately if the windfall was available.

I thank the Deputy for his remarks on the work carers do. All of us at one stage or another have been carers. It is vitally important work, particularly in some cases where people have lifelong disabilities. I refer to children in particular but also in other cases when people we know and love are coming to the end of their lives or getting through a serious illness.

I am happy to say that I had a lengthy discussion with both the Carers Association and Age Action Ireland yesterday morning in my office. A number of the issues the Deputy touched upon were discussed by myself and the senior officials dealing with these matters in the Department of Social Protection and with representatives and leadership of the Carers Association and of Age Action Ireland.

The Deputy mentioned a number of issues, one of which is something we are very aware of, namely, what happens to somebody who has been a carer but the person they were caring for either no longer requires care or, in many cases, may have passed on. As the Minister I am anxious to begin to put in place a framework that would assist carers in that position. Already, as the Deputy knows, many organisations, not just the Carers Association but also an organisation that is prominent in his county of Kerry, the Alzheimer's Association, provide a good deal of training and information to people who are caring to help them care for themselves. It is important that carers care for themselves.

I said yesterday that I propose to examine the establishment of an after carers package that would allow people who have come out of caring hold on to the carer's allowance for six weeks following which they would be able, as they wish, to begin to access the different schemes and opportunities in education and training available from my Department. I invited the Carers Association representatives to come back to me with specific proposals they might have in that area. For instance, we might consider a number of pilot schemes, which is something in which I have long been interested.

The Deputy also mentioned the issue of the hours spent caring in a week, which was raised yesterday also. I undertook to have my officials examine that because I would be anxious about a situation where somebody is spending a lot of time caring, including in the evening and at night. The Deputy's suggestion is that people would be encouraged to take up more part-time work, but I would like to examine that. It may make sense in particular cases but I would be concerned about somebody taking up a lot of work and then coming home to care for someone who requires a very high level of care because it is a condition of the carer's allowance that people have to undertake care over and above the norm. I would be concerned that people would not over burden themselves because the carer's allowance is meant to provide people with some income support. However, I undertook to examine it and both organisations said they would come back to us. I will await that response.

Regarding this year's budget, I am happy to say that the carers would have benefited from the improvement in the Christmas bonus and the people they are caring for, who in many cases are family members, would also have benefited from the Christmas bonus. People being cared for who are disabled and live alone would also have benefited from the first increase in the living alone allowance in a very long time.

The number of carers estimated by the Carers Association is 187,000, which I believe is a conservative figure. At least another 100,000 are indirectly engaged in caring in some capacity or another. That brings the figure up to almost 300,000 people engaged in caring. That is a huge resource that we cannot underestimate, and the cost-benefit savings to the State from that resource are enormous; it is worth millions of euro.

Allied to that is the people in the voluntary sector engaged in running day care centres who play an active role in that regard. That is essential for the provision of care to infirm and disabled people who can live in their own homes, among their families and communities, which is when they are happiest. It prevents them having to seek long-term care in residential homes, for instance. We need to prioritise many of these issues, which have been forgotten. There should be proper funding from the HSE and other Departments for day care centres.

There are not enough home help hours in the quota of hours allowed by the southern region. In my county, Kerry, thousands of letters have been sent to homes stating that home help hours are being drastically reduced in some cases, and it is wrong. I recently received a letter from the Taoiseach and the HSE stating that the same amount is available as in 2014. In response, I raised the matter earlier. It is not adequate or sufficient, given that extra people are coming on the list for home help. Although it is a wonderful service provided by great people, there is no point in providing half an hour in the morning and three quarters of an hour in the evening. The Government is providing smaller cuts of the cake. It needs to enlarge the cake, given that more people are coming on board. The answer I received, that the same funding is available as last year, is not good enough. It is not satisfactory. I ask the Tánaiste to go to the Cabinet, the Minister for Health and the HSE and seriously examine and address the matter.

This is why I, as Minister for Social Protection, place so much significance on the carer's allowance and benefit, which allow significant numbers of people to get an income from the Department of Social Protection in the context of their being carers. Although they are for the most part full-time carers, some time ago we introduced the half-rate carer's allowance so that people who are already in receipt of another social welfare payment can get an additional payment in recognition of the major job that carers do in providing care for people.

The provision of day care services is very important, particularly for families with children who are in need of care. For older people, we have community centres around the country, many of which are significantly assisted by the social programmes of the Department of Social Protection and schemes such as community employment, CE, and Tús. I have had the privilege of going around the country and visiting centres. It is good that whether one is in Kerry or Leitrim, one can get transport and go to many of the very good local centres a couple of times a week, perhaps have lunch, meet one's friends, play cards and have a bit of entertainment, play bingo. All of it is incredibly important to people's quality of life, particularly older people. As the economy recovers and as we have less budgetary pressure, I would like to prioritise carers.

This morning, I met members of the Carers Association at length and I will meet them again shortly, along with all the other care organisations, and we will examine innovations. We are using the community support programme and budget of the Department to help many people who need support and to give the carers a break when people use the services. Shortly, we will pay the respite care grant to carers around the country.

The Minister reduced the respite care grant.

In prioritising the budget, people stressed to me over and over again that the previous Government cut the weekly carer's payment by €16.40. We have not reached the point at which it is possible to fund a full restoration of it.

Will the Minister restore the respite care grant?

We made a start with the Christmas bonus and there is partial restoration this year. We hope, as the economic recovery progresses, to be able to do more.

We live in hope.

Following my discussions, I will examine particularly the social protection areas.

The Tánaiste might use the money from the sale of Aer Lingus.

I take into account the issue of providing home help hours, which is a major worry for families. It is the subject of part of the national carers strategy and an inspection system is being established to ensure that, in so far as possible, the service is of good quality, which it is. My Department is also focusing on helping to train and gain FETAC level qualifications in caring in such services.