Leaders' Questions

The Greek debt crisis is very serious, not just for the Greek people but for the entire eurozone and European Union. People need to approach the crisis from very credible perspectives. In that context, I refer to remarks the Taoiseach made during the week on the situation, and in particular the manner in which he entered the fray, hectoring and lecturing and offering advice to the Greek Government, and in the process telling very big untruths. The Taoiseach said, "We did not increase income tax. We did not increase VAT. We did not increase PRSI". Most people found that statement and those remarks incredible. The economist, Seamus Coffey, summed it up succinctly when he said in speaking of the Taoiseach, "He is clearly wrong. Everything he said we did not do; we did do". In budget 2012 the standard rate of VAT was increased from 21% to 23%. That is a fact. The PRSI weekly allowance was abolished and the minimum PRSI contribution from the self-employed was significantly increased. Many additional charges and taxes, 45 in total, were introduced by the Government. I have a list of them with me. I do not know whether the Taoiseach was saying to Mr. Tsipras that if he pretends there are no tax increases, he will be fine and everything will be all right.

I say that knowing there are no easy solutions to a debt crisis. Hard decisions must be made. Very difficult decisions were made in this country, not least by a government of which I was a member. I equally accept that the Greek Government is behaving irresponsibly and playing Russian roulette with its own people. I do not approve of how the Greek Government is approaching the situation. Ultimately, the Syriza-Sinn Féin approach of saying to hell with everybody does not work. It creates a lot of stress, uncertainty and, ultimately, more misery for Greek citizens. However, the Taoiseach also loses all credibility when he does not tell the truth. His voice around the table loses credibility very quickly-----

Paddy wants to know.

-----with the public not just here but in Greece when he says such things as he said during the week. If he wants to advise people towards a saner and more stable approach the first point of departure is to tell them the truth and not to tell them things that are fiction or an invention or whatever else. Does the Taoiseach regret his comments? Will he withdraw them and will he acknowledge that he was wrong in what he said?

There is no bailout.

There is no bailout.

The IMF is not in town.

I am pleased to learn there is some movement today from the Greek authorities in respect of the difficulties in which the Greek people find themselves at the moment.

It is not the first time Deputy Martin has accused me of telling untruths in here. I happened to be at three European Council meetings where Prime Minister Tsipras spoke to the assembled leaders of both the eurozone and the European Union and in each case he made it clear that Greece did not want to default, that it would not default, that Greece wanted to remain a member of the eurozone, and that Greece wanted to do the things that are necessary to get its economy and its country back on an even track. At the special meeting of the eurozone on the Monday he repeated many of those objectives. He said clearly that the Greek Government accepted the objectives and principles set down by the institutions in so far as the path forward was concerned. He made the point that he was able to achieve social consent. He made a particular point about the tourism industry at all of those meetings in terms of how important and fundamental it was and is to the Greek economy. He also made a point about the number of islands off the mainland, the distances involved and the difficulties in so far as VAT is concerned, with particular reference to the tourism and hospitality sector. My comments in respect of VAT, PRSI and income tax were in that context, that our programme was not anti-growth or against the opportunity to create jobs and employment.

Deputy Martin said he himself was a member of a government that went about this business. That Government came to the House and said the programme negotiated with the troika was irreversible, unchangeable and could not be changed in any fact or area. That is the legacy he left. Those things were not acceptable to this Government and we set about negotiating alternatives with the troika.

The Taoiseach will not be able to change the facts after the event, as he is attempting to do.

I would be the first to say that the alternatives that were presented were by no means easy but those that were suggested and accepted were on the basis of being pro-growth, being competitive, and not increasing the tax burden and allowing for jobs to be created.

The first thing we had to do was deal with and reverse the situation Fianna Fáil had left of €750 million in tax increases over three years. A member of Deputy Martin’s Government said those increases were irreversible and could not be changed.

Now, the Taoiseach is saying he did not change it.

The measures Fianna Fáil put in place would have a disproportionate impact on the middle to low income families. As promised, the Government has not increased income tax, and has begun to unravel Fianna Fáil’s universal social charge, USC, and other huge income tax hikes.

We reversed the cut to the minimum wage, which Fianna Fáil imposed on the lowest of the low paid and which it said was unchangeable.

What about the home tax?

We cut the VAT rate for the tourism sector and abolished the air travel tax, which helped to stabilise the industry and create 30,000 jobs. These changes were made by the Government. We cut the lower rate of employers' PRSI by half for three years to encourage job creation and we kept our promise not to increase the standard rate of employers' PRSI.

The Government doubled it.

We also secured lower interest rates on our programme loans, as did others. We replaced the onerous Anglo Irish Bank promissory note.

IBRC and all that. They handed it to Denis O'Brien.

Deputies Martin and Adams and others used to ask, week after week, whether we were going to borrow €3 billion every year to pay the interest on it. We reached an agreement with the IMF to replace expensive loans with cheaper market funding, saving the taxpayer billions of euro over the period of the loans.

The Government introduced water charges and handed Siteserv to Denis O'Brien.

Deputy Dooley, you are not in charge.

The Taoiseach is missing a few things.

The changes we made were often very difficult in other areas, such as spending cuts and the temporary pensions levy. These were not easy decisions for us to make and they were difficult for people. While this was never going to be an easy path, it led us out of the bailout that was foisted on the country in which no changes could be made by Deputy Martin’s party. I am glad our people were able to exit the programme without conditions being attached to it.

No Member may impute deliberate falsehoods to another Member.

The Deputy Timmy Dooley school of economics.

I would not like to see Deputy Kehoe's.

No context was attached to any of this. Sometimes, it pays to say one was wrong.

The Deputy should take his own advice.

Surely the Taoiseach cannot believe it is credible for him to say he did not increase VAT. He increased it from 21% to 23% in his first budget. Could he please acknowledge that it actually happened so that everybody else need not scratch their heads wondering whether it happened or whether it was a figment of their imaginations? The Taoiseach was very clear that it did not happen. Today he is going on with a pretence, a fiction that his comments were made in the context of the Greek Prime Minister's concern about the Greek tourism industry. This is not the context in which the Taoiseach answered my questions.

Getting rid of the PRSI exemption for 1.1 million workers was a tax increase, although the Taoiseach does not want to call it that. The same applies to other things he said did not happen. I have a list of €3.5 million worth of extra charges and taxes. Before the last election, in every budget, the Taoiseach voted against every measure to correct the deficit and to get the macroeconomic position right. Again, he continued with a fiction that there was another way. It was wrong. When he came into government, he and the Tánaiste had to renege on everything they said and break promise after promise.

It is not true.

Sinn Féin said we should tell the troika to go home and forget about the bailout, although it was needed to sustain education and social welfare spending. Although many falsehoods were propagated to the Irish people, what had to be done had to be done.

The Deputy is fighting on two fronts.

The same problem applies to Syriza in Greece.

What is the Deputy's position on Greece?

Syriza made statements on which it could not possibly deliver, and we are in a crisis. I return to a very simple question I asked the Taoiseach. Does he accept that he got it wrong when he said VAT, income tax and PRSI were not increased? Does he accept that those three basic points were wrong?

As I said, I was at the meetings at which the Greek Prime Minister made his case and outlined what his Government intended to do and where it intended to stand. I am glad there is some movement between the authorities and the institutions to work out a problem caused by instability and confusion which is having a great impact on ordinary people all over Greece. I am sure everybody here understands and empathises with the Greek people. In that context, I made the point at the European Council and eurozone meetings that Ireland had been left in an economic swamp by Fianna Fáil, which, when it abandoned ship, said none of it could be changed, that it was irreversible. I have pointed out some of the changes this Government negotiated with the troika and introduced that were pro-growth, pro-competition, pro-jobs and pro-enterprise. There were no income tax increases in the budgets of 2012, 2013 or 2014.

The Taoiseach must be drinking the Greek ouzo.

Some 330,000 people were removed from the USC entirely in 2012. This will rise to 500,000 this year.

What about VAT? Was it increased?

Income tax changes in the 2015 budget benefited 742,000 people and a further 87,000 were removed from the USC.

What about the pension levy?

Every taxpayer who paid tax and-or USC in 2014 will have benefited from the tax changes introduced this year.

Were there VAT increases or not?

During the first 100 days of the Government, in 2011, we introduced a 9% VAT rate for the hospitality sector. Well Deputy Martin may laugh at it.

Of course I am laughing at it. Nobody believes the Taoiseach.

When he saw the hospitality sector going down the tubes, he said it was irreversible. Employment in the accommodation and food sectors increased by 6,200 jobs, or 6%, within a year. According to Fáilte Ireland, 30,000 people are employed in the 9% VAT categories, which apply particularly to the hospitality sector.

Steady now. The Taoiseach is talking up the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring.

I am sorry, Taoiseach, I have to ask you to stop. You are over time.


I do not need any support or jeers from the back benches. I have to apply the rules as fairly as I possibly can.

The Greek crisis is about power and punishment. The Greek Government is upholding the values of solidarity and co-operation claimed by the European movement, and has been punished for it. The Greek Government is standing up for Greece and its citizens, who are being punished by hostile EU institutions, many of them unelected, the IMF and some EU governments, including the Irish Government. The Irish Government has contributed in a real way to the crisis. According to the Financial Times, last Monday the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and the German finance Minister, pressed for emergency financial support for Greek banks to be stopped unless capital controls were imposed.

That is nonsense. It is a lie.

On Sunday, the Minister, Deputy Noonan, got his way when the ECB froze its funding line to Greek banks. Last week, the Taoiseach railed against the idea of debt write-down and debt relief for the Greek people. It was no big surprise, given that he never asked for a debt write-down for the Irish people. However, he has written off hundreds of millions of euro in debt for companies in this State, including write-downs from State-owned and nationalised banks. Greece owes the State €300 million. Denis O'Brien secured that much in debt write-downs from IBRC, a State-owned bank, and the Government thinks it is okay. The Government thinks debt write-downs are okay for some people but not for the people of Greece. Is it not true that Fine Gael and the Labour Party oppose a write-down for Greece because it would expose the Government's failure to demand the same for the people of this state? Will the Government set aside its party political concerns and support the Greek Government's request for more time? It is a simple request. The Taoiseach received a letter from the Greek Prime Minister asking for support, which he refused. I ask him to reconsider and to support the Greek Government's request for more time to negotiate a fair settlement.

Ireland is a part of the eurozone. We are not the central player in this, although clearly we have a deep understanding - more so than most - and an empathy with the people of Greece in respect of what is happening now. Deputy Adams knows better than anyone else in this House how many times over the past endless years that negotiations broke down and people walked away from the table. At the end of the day, it requires people to sit down and work out a solution. That also applies in this case.

When the Greek Prime Minister spoke at the European Council on Thursday and Friday, as distinct from the eurozone, he again made the point that his country and his Government did not want to default.

These are not the words of Deputy Adams. They are the words of Prime Minister Tsipras addressing the European Council.

I want to hear words from the Taoiseach.

He made the point that his country did not want to default, would not default and would move on. The agreement and understanding at that meeting was that the eurozone Ministers who were meeting on the following Saturday would work diligently, as they had throughout the week, to put together an acceptable, fair and workable outcome to this difficulty. Late in the evening, the negotiators on behalf of the Greek Government were withdrawn at the direction of Athens. Following the response from the institutions and other political leaders, I hope the authorities, the Prime Minister and his people will come back to the table to work out an acceptable position. I am glad a new paper has been put on the table by Greece. For our part as a country contributing to the European Union, we contributed €350 million to the first programme for Greece. As we were in a programme on the second occasion, we did not contribute then. There may be a requirement for a further programme at the end of the year, if events get that far, in which case Ireland will probably be expected to contribute. The question arises of what will happen in the referendum because it is the sovereign right of a country to hold a referendum.

Deputy Adams spoke about democracy. I took calls from European leaders, including one who considered that it would not be possible to pass a motion to extend the bailout programme through the leader's parliament because of the number of parties in the parliament in question. That is also democracy. The question of a referendum could have been raised over recent months but it arose at the very end and it remains to be seen what will happen between now and Sunday. I am glad the Greek authorities have tabled a new paper. It will at least be a basis for discussion and negotiation. Ireland, along with our European colleagues, will help in every way we can in dealing with this issue. This country was on the edge just a few years ago and if we applied what has happened in Greece to our situation, one could understand the difficulties and hardship that would have been imposed on people. There is a way out of this, and it starts at the table.

Despite the Taoiseach's protestations, he showed no evidence of sympathy with people in Greece. I am not surprised by his refusal to adopt a more reasonable and compassionate position towards the people of that country. The Greek Government has presented reasonable proposals, and will send a briefing document to anyone who wants it, on growing the economy while protecting pensioners and those on low and middle incomes.

If we had followed Deputy Adams, the lights would have gone out years ago.

The Taoiseach does not favour that approach. He is also opposed to the debt conference and debt write-down which the Greek Government sought. He chose instead to impose austerity on those in this State who were least able to pay for it. Last week he claimed that, in tackling the economic crisis here, his Government did not increase income tax, VAT or PRSI. That is patently not true. The Government raised income and consumption taxes, as well as introducing water charges and a property tax. He opted for forced emigration, with the result that 500,000 of our citizens are scattered across the globe. One third of children live in consistent poverty. The sick and the elderly end up on trolleys instead of hospital beds. Today, 426 citizens are on trolleys. They and the homeless are paying the price for the Taoiseach's austerity policies. It is little wonder he has no empathy. His real concern is a political one. The Greek Government has made it clear it wants to remain in the eurozone. Is it not time for the European Union to make clear its desire to keep Greece in the eurozone by negotiating a solution that does not impose years of economic depression on the Greek people? Will the Taoiseach use this opportunity to make it clear on behalf of Irish citizens that he will endorse and champion such a solution?

On behalf of the people, I have already written formally to the Prime Minister to express my regret at the fact that the negotiators for the Greek Government were taken away from the negotiating table and to seek their return to resume discussions. I am glad that, following the response from the leaders with whom the Prime Minister corresponded, the Greek authorities have tabled a new paper. At the eurozone leaders' meeting there was no discussion about a debt write-down. There was a direct reference to the question of reprofiling Greece's debt. That could have happened if the authorities and the institutions had put together a deal during their meeting on Saturday, which would then be endorsed and supported by the Greek Government and put through the Dutch, German and Finnish parliaments, as is required. A review of the implementation of that programme, which would continue until October or November, could consider the question of reprofiling Greek debt. As Deputy Adams will be aware, in Ireland's case we reprofiled various elements of our debt, including interest loan reductions, the extension of maturities on loans and the question of dealing with the promissory notes for a longer term and at lower interest rates, an issue the Deputy raised in this House on numerous occasions. When the Deputy suggested that the European Union should be told to go and stuff itself, I assume that he did not take into account the Structural Funds, the Common Agricultural Policy, the European Social Fund and the billions of euro which flowed to this country because of our membership of the European Union and which transformed the country over the past 40 years. Ireland empathises with the people in Greece. Deputy Adams might pretend to be the Greek party in Ireland but his own economics have given the lie to that because they do not stand up.

We are an Irish party in Ireland.

I hope Prime Minister Tsipras and his people return to the negotiating table. This is a matter which can be solved but it will only be solved through negotiations at a political level. The Greek authorities, for their own reasons, withdrew their negotiating team. My request is that they come back to the negotiating table to work out a solution. We will help in every way we can.

On 30 March 2007, Ireland signed but did not ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention has since been ratified by 156 countries but Ireland's ratification remains outstanding. The Government's contention that archaic legislation prevents Ireland from ratifying the most important human rights treaty of the 21st century is an affront to people with disabilities, who have been told to wait by successive Governments.

Even though we have failed to ratify the treaty, we have obligations under it as a result of the overall EU ratification process which has happened in the meantime. Unfortunately, we have blatantly fallen down on these commitments as a result of our EU membership. Furthermore, a commitment was given at the UN Assembly by Ireland's permanent representative by way of a letter dated 13 April 2012. It was part of our successful campaign for election to the UN Council on Human Rights. This increases the need for immediate action on the matter. Not enacting the outstanding legislation allows a loophole that is letting the Government off the hook in dealing with various inadequacies in the provision of necessary services for people with disabilities. In 2012 the Government effectively tried to scrap personal assistants and only reversed the decision when people with disabilities took to the streets. I am asking the Taoiseach to ensure that in the remaining lifetime of the Government he brings forward the required legislation to enable ratification of the disability rights treaty which is urgently required. It is included in the programme for Government under the heading of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill. We have renegued on this commitment by failing to ratify the treaty. It is a race against time to introduce the necessary legislation to ratify it. Will the Taoiseach deal with the issue as a matter of urgency?

It is obviously an issue of considerable importance and great sensitivity for those directly involved. The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill replaced a number of pieces of archaic legislation dating back over 200 years. It is the next step on the road in seeking approval to sign the convention. It is before the House for discussion. We must have it concluded, agreed to and signed as the next steps in the process to approve the convention. There may be a number of related matters because it is an extensive area covering the entire spectrum of disability issues that need to be considered. The reason for the delay was due to the collation of the different pieces of archaic legislation, as well as the production, publication and approval of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill, which deals in the main with a number of related disability issues. As the Bill passes through the House, the Deputy and everybody else will be given an indication as to when it will be possible to ratify the convention.

I hope the Taoiseach will take up this matter with his Ministers in the coming week because time is limited. I also hope he will follow up on what he has said here. It is estimated that there are over 600,000 people in this country with some disability. Since the collapse of the banks in 2008, the problem has been exacerbated in the intervening years, bringing fear, consternation and worry to people with disabilities and their families. The widespread fear among them is increasing by the day. Disability services are being subjected to general austerity programmes, with reductions in services that aim to support them in progressively moving towards independent living, to which they are entitled. The recession has delivered a double blow, as the past eight years have seen unprecedented cuts in supports aimed at enabling people with disabilities to live independently. For instance, there have been cuts to the mobility allowance, the motorised transport grant, medical cards, home help hours and the respite care grant, among many others. In addition, there was an overall reduction in disability housing grant funding for county councils. In the forthcoming budget will the Taoiseach and his Government restore and enhance the aforementioned services and schemes that are fundamental to the quality of life of people with disabilities?

Start with the respite care grant.

I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to contact Deputy Tom Fleming about the next likely steps and the timescales involved concerning the convention when the Bill completes its passage through this House and the Seanad. As regards the Deputy's question on disability services, there have been improvements in a number of areas. It is not always the way we would like to have it, but clearly one cannot provide services if we have an economy that is not functioning. I am glad that Ireland is moving into a much better position than it was in a number of years ago. The question on budget allocations for Departments that deal with people with disabilities is one that will be discussed by individual Ministers with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. They will be signed off on by the Government prior to the budget. The points raised by the Deputy will obviously be taken into account.