Leaders' Questions

In yesterday's Irish Independent, there was the revelation of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, proposing that there would be a special 30% tax rate for Irish graduates abroad who would be returning to Ireland. Her spokesman has essentially confirmed as much in his comments this morning in response to the story. It beggars belief that such a proposal could be put forward by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation given the discriminatory nature of the proposal itself. In essence, anybody who stayed with it in Ireland, committed to a house, mortgage, is a graduate and stayed the pace here will be paying up to a 50% marginal rate of tax on salaries of more than €33,500, whereas somebody coming back will only be paying an effective rate of 30%. Obviously, the Government could not restrict that solely to Irish graduates. Presumably, it would apply to European graduates. That would mean that Europeans would be on a 30% tax rate at the same IT desk or place of employment as the person who graduated, worked and stayed in Ireland, who would be on about 50%.

Can the Taoiseach confirm that the proposal is not going to proceed? It makes absolutely no sense. It is very discriminatory. It refers to anyone earning more than €75,000.

Clearly, construction workers and others on similar earnings need not apply. The proposal is discriminatory in that respect also. Does the Taoiseach accept that such a measure would be discriminatory and unfair and will he confirm that it will not be realised in the forthcoming budget?

As one graduate said to me yesterday, people on the Government side and other sources have been questioning calls for investment in education and child care. This type of investment is the most effective way of dealing with medium and long-term issues with a skilled workforce. We need to invest in these areas rather than having resources spent in such a discriminatory manner, with dubious outcomes in terms of the objective. In other words, it would make far greater sense to allocate resources to third level education to prevent the decline in world rankings that is occurring and to give additional supports to child care providers and the child care sector, which is labouring under great strain. Many graduates in the child care sector earn close to the minimum wage and are in dire straits. This is a question of priorities and the Minister needs to sort out our priorities in that regard.

The matter the Deputy raises, were it to be dealt with, would be one in respect of a budgetary position and no decisions have been made in-----

The question Deputy Michéal Martin raises is one that would be dealt with as part of the budget and financial implications. I confirm that no decisions have been made about any of these matters. We want to present a budget that is as fair as possible. More than 2 million are working, which is the highest number since about 2009. That is important and while the economy is improving, it still has a long way to go. In terms of fairness, it is important that we introduced paternity leave, which has been applicable since September, and a second free preschool year is in operation for everybody. Emigrants are coming home and it is important therefore that we deal with the supply of housing and provide people with opportunities to secure good housing at affordable prices.

People have correctly raised the question of the difference in financial treatment for Garda recruits, young nurses, teachers and so on. These matters are all being ironed out and many proposals are being made in the context of the budget. I confirm that the figures have not changed, with approximately €1 billion available, which will be split two to one between public services and taxation issues. No decisions have been made by Cabinet.

Emigrants are returning from America, Australia and other countries because they see opportunities. What we want to do is continue to have the country recognised as an attractive location for investment. We are number one in the world for skilled labour and we have climbed nine places in terms of competitiveness. We still have a long way to go in providing educational facilities to give everybody the best opportunity. The Deputy raised this issue yesterday and obviously it has implications further down the line at second level and in primary school.

The Deputy raised the issue of different rates of taxation applying. This issue had not been considered by Cabinet. Every Minister and Department puts forward a view. Specialists with very specific skills have returned to Ireland over the years and this has always been important for particular kinds of industry. The Deputy raised a budgetary matter and I can confirm that no decisions have been made by Cabinet or presented by Ministers at this stage.

In fairness to the Taoiseach, he has developed a skill, well-honed over the years, for answering questions that he has not been asked. It is accepted that the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, has made this proposal. Nobody, including the Taoiseach, is denying that and the Minister's spokesperson essentially confirmed it this morning. The question is whether the Taoiseach believes such a proposal is fair. Does he not accept that it is discriminatory in respect of people who graduated here and work here?

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, is nodding. Can he enlighten the House on something?

There is considerable anger that such an out of touch proposal could get to the stage where a Minister announces it to all intents and purposes, believes it to be a fantastic idea and does not think through its legality or discriminatory nature.

Many Irish graduates are asking who came up with this bananas idea and are making the point that anyone who stayed in Ireland would effectively be punished by such a proposal – they would effectively be punished because they hung around.

Thank you, Deputy.

Does the Taoiseach accept that such a proposal as I have described is unfair and discriminatory to Irish graduates here in Ireland – yes or no?

Yes, I do. If somebody comes back from London to work in-----

That is the end of poor Mary then.

We can sit down so.

Maybe Boxer is in the key position to take over. If he is not careful, he could be the Minister before the night is out.

If somebody has been away in London, New York or America and comes back and is working in the same facility as somebody else, and is paying a different rate of tax simply because they have come back, I would regard that as being unfair and discriminatory, of course. Back in 2010, the Government which Deputy Michéal Martin belonged to abolished the incremental credit for the 36-week clinical placements undertaken by fourth year student nurses. That was discriminatory and unfair, but that was because of economic pressure at the time. We are now trying to adjust that, and the Minister met with them yesterday.

I see all kinds of proposals being put forward now.

It cannot be all kinds of everything.

What we want to do with the limited resources we have, being in a better position, is to do it with a sense of fairness. If we deal with one element of social protection and we do not deal with another, is that discriminatory or is that fair? We do not have the resources to deal with all the claims that are coming in, so what we have to do is try to be as fair as possible with what we have.

The programme for Government states that "people with disabilities should be supported in maximising their potential, by removing barriers which impact on access to services, education, work or health care". That is the rhetoric; the reality is different. In 2011 the Taoiseach said disability supports would not be cut but then Fine Gael and the Labour Party, like Fianna Fáil before them, savagely cut those supports.

In my constituency of Louth-East Meath, the impact of these cuts is evident, particularly for the 5,000 citizens there with an intellectual disability. I have raised the WALK PEER project in the House many times. It enables young people with a disability to access opportunities in mainstream education, training and employment within their communities. WALK PEER was one of 14 disability activation schemes jointly funded by the Department of Social Protection and the European Social Fund. The Government withdrew funding in a move that makes no sense whatsoever. Only one project has survived, the one in Louth, which has only recently been awarded temporary funding until Christmas after lobbying by parents, carers and the young people themselves.

This project undertakes fantastic work in fostering vital links between young citizens and employers, educators and the wider community. The programme is fully in line with the Government strategy as set out in the Disability Act 2004, the national disability strategy 2015-20, the EPSEN Act and the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. WALK PEER would cost €300,000 annually, spread over six Departments. It makes economic sense given there are almost 600,000 people living with a disability in this State, over half of whom are of working age and many of whom want a pathway to employment. WALK PEER provides that pathway.

The comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities has been on a shelf for ten years, with no funding allocated to it. A committee set up a year ago to examine the benefits and future of disability activation schemes so far has not issued a report, which is hardly surprising as it has only met twice.

Budget 2017 will present an opportunity to correct some of the injustices. The question is what steps will the Government take in it to address the urgent need to provide real support for citizens with disabilities and their families and carers.

As the Deputy is aware, that fine Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is dealing with those who suffer the challenges posed by a disability. He sits at the Cabinet table and is doing a fine job. He has a very extensive budget to deal with disability issues which are a real priority. The question of providing additional finances for 2017 is being considered as part of the Estimates process. We no longer have European funding for this area. The Minister of State was allocated a further €31 million this year for respite care and residential services and school leavers. He allocated €100,000 or €150,000 to the WALK PEER group in the early part of the summer. He has met the group and others on a constant basis and is very much in tune with the needs of those who suffer a disability. He is not shy about making his voice heard at the Cabinet on these matters. Everybody, including the Minister of State, supports that priority.

The Taoiseach did not answer the question. Deputy Finian McGrath might be a very fine Minister of State, although there is not much competition for that post.

There is a bit of competition from behind the Deputy's back.

People with disabilities are real people with real potential and it is only fair that they should have the same rights as everyone else. That is how we should evaluate society and the Proclamation of the Republic of 1916 is clear on the matter. It addresses itself to Irish men and Irish women. It does not include the words "except if you have a disability". One of the participants in the WALK PEER project is a young woman who recently gained a place in college and is flourishing. A young man wants to be an usher in Leinster House. He is currently employed part time in the Westcourt Hotel in Drogheda. The manager told us that the entire staff had changed their attitude to people with disabilities as a result. A young woman who was suicidal is now training to be a make-up artist. Her mother told us at a briefing here how she had intervened as her daughter tried to take her own life. She is now a different person. Why does the Government not underpin this work?

I thank the Deputy.

Ní bheidh mé ach nóiméad, a Cheann Comhairle. These citizens and their families have a right to the modest support represented by the €300,000 provided across six Departments. I met the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to discuss the issue yesterday. I wish him well, but in my view, if he cannot obtain funding for this project, he should resign from the Government. This is about fairness. He did not do it a moment ago, but will the Taoiseach commit to the budget showing fairness to citizens with disabilities, their families and carers?

I note that the Deputy said they were "real people". I do not think he expects the Government to deal with virtual people, as it were. He went on to say, rightly, that people with disabilities made their way into mainstream work and contributed to their communities in their lives and careers and the Government recognises this. It is evident every day in every parish and community that people with intellectual and physical challenges make their way, play their part and contribute, as we would expect them to do. They want to be recognised and have every right to be as citizens of the State.

Answer the question.

Sign the convention.

The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, sought funding and has been granted an extra €31 million to deal with the many challenges people with disabilities have to contend with. That happens every day. I am sure he will look at the project to which Deputy Gerry Adams referred. An extra €31 million was allocated by the Government for respite care and residential services and school leavers to deal with these issues.

They were articulated by the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, in very graphic form in much the same way as Deputy Adams talks about people making their way into employment and contributing to their careers and lives. We support that. Despite the shortage of resources, there is a significant amount of money going into meeting the challenges of disabled people, which we will continue.

Over the last couple of years, as the Taoiseach will remember, we started work to restore the Christmas bonus to families in receipt of social welfare payments. As he knows, these payments are incredibly important, particularly at Christmas time, to some of the lowest-income households in the country, for example, a pensioner on €230 per week. It meant having an extra €173 last year to look after Christmas. For a jobseeker on a very modest €188, it made the difference for a Christmas of having an additional €141 in his or her pocket. Earlier this year, the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, announced publicly that he intended to seek Government support for a full payment this year. As the Taoiseach will recall, last year we paid 75%. I assume that it remains the case that the Government intends to make this full payment, but we are now approaching the end of September. It would be helpful for those families and those people planning their future and their Christmas and what they might be able to afford to do if the Taoiseach would confirm that the Christmas bonus will be paid this year. My question is therefore a simple one: will the Government pay the Christmas bonus this year, and if so, will it be a full weekly payment?

I recall one of the first or second budgets we discussed in rooms not too far from here a number of years ago.

A long time ago.

A long time ago.

That was when you were friends.

The question was whether to cut the different rates of social welfare because there was not any money for anything.

We resisted that.

The former Minister and Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, had to contend with all the difficulties of that. Deputy Howlin knows better than most in this House the challenge facing the Minister, in this case, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. While we hear claims from-----

It seems to be a "No".

-----Deputy O'Dea or others for particular payments in the social welfare area-----

-----these are increasing in number every day. All I can say-----

A helpful suggestion.

-----is that no decision has been made about any of these, although I hear them being spoken about. However, as far as I recall, I do not think there was any provision made in the Estimates for 2016 for the full payment of the Christmas bonus, and I think the Deputy was in charge of that Department at the time. This is one among a number of issues that must be considered. We will try to be as fair as possible with the resources that are available to the two Ministers. I thank Deputy Howlin for raising this. I know of its importance to pensioners and senior citizens. Obviously-----

(Interruptions).

-----I cannot confirm what the final decision of Cabinet will be. That will not be evident until the discussions with the different Ministers and their counterparts are concluded.

The Taoiseach is correct. There is never, within the budgetary process, a provision for the Christmas bonus. It has always been, from its inception, paid by way of Supplementary Estimate. That was the way it was paid for last year and that is the way it has been paid for since we restored it. We brought in a Supplementary Estimate, the Taoiseach will recall, and negotiated for €197 million last year. Since then, the Social Insurance Fund has been in surplus. It would be a decent thing to do to signal to people that the Christmas bonus will be provided in order not to have anybody anxious about it now. My concern is that while the Minister for Social Protection has rightly said that a full restoration is a desirable objective that he will pursue, the Minister for Public Expenditure told the budget scrutiny committee last week that there will be no further Supplementary Estimates.

However, he is not going for the leadership; the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is going for the leadership.

This is a real point of anxiety for the most vulnerable people in the country. The Taoiseach can allay that anxiety by telling us there will be a Supplementary Estimate. It has nothing to do with next year's budget and nothing to do with the budgetary process because the payment will be made in this calendar year and accrue on this year's accounts. That is how it works, as the Taoiseach knows. Under the new European rules it is not possible to pay money this year and have it accrue to next year. Therefore, it is accruable to this year's accounting system. I ask the Taoiseach to give the reassurance to the most vulnerable people in the country that the Christmas bonus will be paid in full this year.

The Deputy is aware that it is not possible to have any further Supplementary Estimates. It will cost €200 million.

One can take it in.

Let me repeat that an announcement will be made about all these matters on budget day by the Ministers here in the House.

Over the past four years, I have highlighted the effect the Government's social protection cuts have been having on workers in rural areas, but this has always fallen on deaf ears. Maybe I, like many on this side of the House, have been highlighting the problem from the wrong perspective. We have been concerned about the effects cuts have had on workers and their families as their incomes have been reduced. However, in order to get the Government's attention should we be looking at the corporate welfare issue? The recent Apple tax debacle has shown that corporate welfare is something the Government really cares about.

The only option for many people in rural areas of Donegal is seasonal and short-time work. It means they depend on social welfare to help them to keep their families above the poverty line when no work is available. Crucially - no doubt the Government will understand this - the cuts it has implemented also have a direct impact on ability of employers to have an available workforce when they need them. In the fishing, textile and tourism industries, employers depend on social welfare to keep workers available when there is no work for them.

The Government's cuts have targeted not just workers but also employers. Since 2012 it has cut the length of time during which under-employed workers can get jobseeker's benefit to six and nine months. It has stopped workers getting jobseeker's benefit when they are in short-time work. It has slashed the income disregards and farm assist, and has refused part-time farmers, who earn less than €90 a week from farming, jobseeker's benefit when they are laid off from work. That this has drastically reduced the income of workers who cannot get alternative employment does not seem to concern the Government but perhaps the fact that it affects employers is of concern to it.

In the north west last week IBEC highlighted that employers cannot rely on the availability of workers when they need them because of these cuts. Will this make the Government look again at the cuts it has implemented? Reversing the cuts to the duration of job seeker's benefit, farm assist disregards and increasing the income limit from subsidiary employment would cost around €65 million nationally. This measure would assist employers by helping workers to be able to survive periods when there is no work thus making them available for work when the next fishing or tourism season comes around. The Government has refused to help workers. Perhaps it will help employers in rural areas in the coming budget by reversing these cuts.

The focus of the previous Government and this one is to help workers and employers. We now have over 2 million people at work. We have evolved from having a national action plan for jobs to having eight regional action plans for jobs. They deal with specific areas such as those raised by the Deputy in terms of infrastructure, quality of water, communications, roads, power and so on. Employment is increasing.

We have set up the Low Pay Commission to take a structured and objective look at the minimum wage. The previous Government increased the minimum wage on two occasions and significant numbers of people have been taken out of the tax bracket altogether. The opportunity has been taken to focus on helping employers as well. We adjusted employers' PRSI in granting an increase in the minimum wage.

These are matters for the budget. They will all be reflected upon in the next week to ten days. Issues affecting employers, to make it more attractive and easier to employ people, and for workers will be announced on budget day.

The Taoiseach has missed the point in his answer, which might be deliberate. The issue is not with the minimum wage or employers' PRSI.

The issue is that in many rural areas across the country and not only in Donegal the only work available is seasonal work or part-time work for two or three days a week. As a result of the cuts implemented by Government not only do families not have sufficient income to survive but employers cannot be sure they will have workers available to them when business picks up again because of the seasonal nature of that work. The people about whom I am speaking would love to be working full-time but in rural Ireland there is no full-time work. The Action Plan for Jobs, cuts to employers PRSI and so on will not create full-time work for those workers. What they need is the security of a welfare net to enable them to remain in their communities, live in rural Ireland and be available for work. All these people would take up full-time employment if they could get it but the employers do not provide it because the nature of the business does not allow for it.

As a result of the Government's cuts, people cannot remain in rural Ireland and are therefore not available for work when business picks up again. This is an easy matter to resolve. It is also impacting on employers, which I have been highlighting for a number of years would happen. What we need is a response from the Taoiseach that assists workers and employers. This proposal requires serious consideration.

I disagree with Deputy Pringle. This morning, I opened the Connect16 Ireland conference in the RDS. This involves 800 buyers from all over Ireland and abroad looking at how business can be expanded in the country. The Deputy forgets that the Government reduced VAT for the hospitality sector from 13.5% to 9%. Donegal is a case in point where people have moved from seasonal work to full-time work. I note the comments today of the owner of Sandhouse Hotel to the effect that he knows at least ten students who worked in his hotel and put themselves through university through seasonal employment. The Deputy decries that.

The effort and the impact of Government is focused on creating employment and getting people out of unemployment, out of poverty and into the world of work. Obviously, seasonal workers are entitled to apply for and avail of jobseeker's allowance during the off-season. While it is not a benefit consistently available to them, they are entitled to it. While the Deputy might decry the regional activities of the Action Plan for Jobs, they do make an impact in his area. The Deputy forgets the success of the concept of the Wild Atlantic Way, which is so important in his county. The Deputy may laugh at it-----

I am not laughing.

-----but in terms of seasonal employment in Donegal, it has added greatly to the operation. This morning, I met the operators of Ballyliffin Golf Club, which is a serious contender for the hosting of an Irish Open, which will draw thousands into the area and provide spin-off opportunities for those in that region. As infrastructure improves so too will the attractiveness for investment for employment, both seasonal and full-time.

In regard to the Deputy's statement that his proposal would cost €65 million I reiterate that is a matter for the budget. I remind him that seasonal workers are entitled to apply for jobseeker's allowance.

It would be useful if Members paid close attention to the clock.

Before moving on to the next item, I would like to clarify for Members that the matters that may be raised under the heading, Questions on Proposed Legislation, are as follows: business on the Order Paper; the taking of business which has been promised, including legislation promised either within or outside the Dail; the making of secondary legislation; arrangements for sittings and when Bills or other documents on the Order Paper needed in the House will be circulated. The time allocated in this regard is 15 minutes, with Deputies allocated one minute to ask one question.