Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Questions (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 111, 112, 113)

Gerry Adams

Question:

3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will provide an update on his process of social dialogue. [47414/12]

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Gerry Adams

Question:

4. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the groups he has met as part of his process of social dialogue. [49776/12]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the progress there has been on his plan to abolish the National Economic and Social Development Office and place the National Economic and Social Council on a statutory basis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [50873/12]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met the social partners recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52234/12]

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Gerry Adams

Question:

7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach his plans regarding the future of the National Economic and Social Council. [52243/12]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

111. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on any recent or planned meeting with social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55523/12]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

112. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on any recent or planned social dialogue with civil society groups; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55524/12]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

113. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will provide a list of the groups he plans to meet as part of his commitment to social dialogue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55525/12]

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Oral answers (98 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 7, inclusive, and 111 to 113, inclusive, together.

As I have stated previously, although the Government does not intend to return to the rigid social partnership structures of the past we do recognise the contribution that social dialogue can make to maximising common understanding across all sectors of society, as we respond to the many challenges facing the country. As part of this process, the Government continues to have regular interaction with representatives of all sectors of society. This interaction and exchange takes place primarily with the Ministers and Departments who have the functional responsibility in the relevant area.

In addition, I meet with many relevant groups during the course of my work. For example, since I last replied to this question on 10 July, I met the Irish Exporters Association on 18 July; the director general of IBEC and the general secretary of ICTU on 20 July; and the Small Firms Association on 6 September when I launched its national small business awards 2013. I attended the IBEC annual dinner on 13 September and met representatives of the IFA at the Irish Embassy in Paris on Friday 28 September. I also had a short meeting with an IFA delegation on the margins of the European Council last month and I met with the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association on 29 November. On 11 October, along with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I met the implementation body under the Croke Park agreement, which includes representatives of the public service trade unions. In addition, I met the EuroCommerce Board on 28 September and I will meet the General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation on 18 December.

Multilateral engagement between sectors and the Government also takes place through the National Economic and Social Council, which comes within the remit of my Department. The council has an extensive work programme and continues to provide a valuable forum for dialogue on the economic, social and environmental challenges facing the country.

Last July the Government agreed to the recommendations of a review of the National Economic and Social Council and the National Economic and Social Development Office, undertaken by my Department. It was agreed to dissolve the NESDO but to retain the NESC as the statutory body. The review also recommended a number of measures to streamline and improve the operation of the NESC and achieve further efficiencies, in addition to the 60% reduction in the grant-in-aid funding since 2008. Work to implement the outcome of the review, including development of the necessary legislation, is under way in my Department.

The public service unions have agreed to engage in initial discussions with the Government in respect of its proposals for an extension to the Croke Park agreement. It would be useful to obtain some notion of the current position with regard to these discussions. Are the Taoiseach and his Department involved in them? If not, are they kept up to date on progress? The Taoiseach will be aware of the clear view articulated by Jack O'Connor, general president of SIPTU and a member of the Labour Party - this is a view I share - that the budget targets low and middle-income families. Will this make it more difficult to reach agreement with the unions? It is interesting that the budget for health for 2013 contains estimates in respect of €450 million in pay-related savings. The Department of Health has also suggested that some 3,500 jobs be cut from the health service. Have these staffing reductions been discussed with the unions? Will they not involve further cuts to front-line staff? Given that there is an excess of pay and pensions at the very top of the public sector, including among politicians, what process is being pursued in respect of this matter? It would be useful if the Taoiseach provided an update on these matters.

The Taoiseach uttered a few sentences with regard to the review of the NESC. If I understood what he said correctly, this review has already begun. Perhaps he might elaborate further on the position in this regard, particularly as I tabled a specific question on the matter.

As the Deputy is aware, the NESC reports directly to the Department of the Taoiseach in respect of the efficient development of the economy and the achievement of social justice. It also provides a forum for engagement between the Government and the social partners in respect of economic, social and environmental issues. The NESC also has responsibility in respect of sustainable development following the dissolution of Comhar. As already stated, the review carried out in respect of the NESDO and the NESC revealed that the latter continues to provide that forum and that is why it still has an important role to play. The changes that will be made will be of assistance in this regard.

The NESC has provided successive Governments with excellent research and analysis on economic and social issues of significant national importance. In 2011, the Government requested the NESC's secretariat to produce independent analysis of policy options in regard to Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions in the period 2013 to 2020 and to develop a long-term socioeconomic vision to sustain a transition to a low carbon future by 2050. Obviously, it is impossible to have detail about the latter at this point. The first part of the NESC's work in this regard was completed in June and the second will hopefully be completed in the not too distant future. In 2012 the NESC published several important studies on the topic of maintaining quality and standards in some of our more important public services. Clearly, it is vital that the highest standards will apply and will be translated into real effect.

Will the NESC continue to function as an important entity? Yes, it will. The Government accepted the key finding of the review to the effect that the NESC still has a valuable role to play. Work is being undertaken in respect of legislation in this regard at present. I asked the NESC to focus in its work programme on the more immediate and shorter-term issues, to publish more frequent and shorter reports and to reflect the varying views of its members. Sustainable development is being integrated into the work of the NESC and this will hopefully be of assistance in the context of expanding the expertise and knowledge available to assist in the process of economic recovery.

The objective of the changes arising from the review carried out in respect of the NESC is hopefully to assist it in having flexibility in fulfilling its key role. The review highlighted rigidities relating to the structures of the NESC which should be addressed. As the legislation is prepared, I hope these matters will be dealt with and will be the subject of discussion in the House. As the Deputy is aware, the NESC is funded by a grant-in-aid from the Department of the Taoiseach. The allocation for 2013 will be €2.17 million, which represents a 60% reduction since 2008 and a 20% reduction since 2010. The 2013 allocation includes provision in respect of five members of staff who are on secondment to the Departments of the Taoiseach and Finance.

The Deputy referred to the Croke Park agreement. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform was mandated by the Government to meet the trade unions in order to discuss the evolution of the agreement, the current version of which concludes in 2014. The Minister has set out what he expects to achieve from the discussions into which he has entered. The second annual report relating to the Croke Park agreement was published in June and it shows that the agreement continues to make an important contribution to our economic recovery. It contains a number of important things. Some €900 million in sustainable pay and non-pay savings were successfully delivered in the second year of the agreement. Under the agreement's redeployment provisions, thousands of staff are being moved within and across sectors to areas where they are most needed. This process has proven to be very successful. The implementation body noted that the pace and ambition of the change needs to be systemic to address fully the challenges that lie ahead.

Is the Government committed to the Croke Park agreement? It is clear that the savings to be obtained under the agreement must be accelerated and enhanced. They must also be discussed in considerable detail. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has invited those who represent the members of the public service to discussions on a new agenda for improvements in productivity, the work of public servants and reductions in the cost of the delivery of public services in quite a number of areas. That invitation was issued in light of the Government's determination to meet the challenge posed by the fiscal consolidation required in the period 2013 to 2015 in order to reduce the deficit to below 3% of GDP by 2015. This is an enormous challenge but it also reflects a shared ambition to build on the substantial contribution made by public servants to Ireland's ongoing economic recovery. The scale of work committed to by so many public servants in recent months has been outstanding. Many of them worked very late into the night in a range of Departments as they prepared the Estimates relating to the budget and dealt with other matters relating to the difficult economic circumstances in which we find ourselves.

I wish to provide some examples of the reforms that have taken place. The establishment of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which is dedicated to reducing public expenditure to more sustainable levels while carrying out reforms to and improving our public services, represents a major shift in the way we approach the delivery of public services. The legislation relating to whistleblowers is being progressed. In addition, significant initiatives have been undertaken in respect of shared services and the redeployment of staff. The programme in this regard is extensive and implementing it has presented different challenges.

Significant sick leave reforms have been introduced in the public service. A new Government economic and evaluation service has been established. Greater transparency is available through freedom of information legislation. Deputy Martin has often raised this matter. The top level appointments committee, TLAC, has been reformed. This year and last year, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and I met with the Croke Park implementation body following the publication of its progress reports. The purpose of those meetings was to assess the extent of reform carried out. We want the reform programme to be implemented in full and in an accelerated fashion. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is currently in discussions with the trade union movement. These talks will be extensive and significant, dealing as they do with what can be achieved with regard to public sector costs and the costs of public services. These matters are important factors to aid growth in the economy.

I refer to the nature of the Government's dialogue with the social partners and also with outside groups and bodies. The four members of Government who form the economic management council have not got a grip on the key economic targets or even the budgetary process. I outlined this argument in my reply to the Budget Statement last week. Part of the problem is that the council appears to dismiss the role of outside bodies in challenging the statements made by Ministers. For example, there has been no challenge to the notion of a macro need to cut the deficit, but everyone outside the Government believes it should be done in a fairer way. The ESRI commented on last year's budget as being the most regressive and unfair of the past five budgets. This year's budget, in my view, is also very unfair. It is difficult to believe that any Government could come up with such an unfair budget if its members had been actively engaging with groups outside of the political sphere. If they had spoken to the many health organisations, groups representing patients and stakeholders in the health system, they would have realised the current chaos in the governance of the health system and the significant impact on front-line services of decisions taken by the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly.

The Taoiseach referred in his reply to the reform programme and the freedom of information legislation. I spoke to nurses last week who told me that they can no longer speak up on behalf of patients. They are witnessing patients being put at risk. They have told me they will be penalised if they speak out - that the HSE has imposed a gagging order on them and they are not allowed to speak out. I met nurses at an INO function for nurses and midwives. They are extremely frustrated and angry about the situation and about their inability to say it as it is. All the talk about whistleblower legislation means nothing to people at the front line.

The same applies to the freedom of information provisions. The only reason I have raised the issue of freedom of information in the House is that it is the only avenue remaining to the Opposition to get information about Government decisions. The problem is that the information is provided three or four months too late because Ministers - including the Taoiseach - will not provide information on key budgetary decisions. It took us months last year to access information on the pension fund and to find out that the Minister for Social Protection had deep reservations and misgivings about the levy on pensions. That information was stifled and was not released.

The Taoiseach's new approach to dialogue is not working. I refer to examples in the areas of health and education. In my view, last year's cuts to DEIS schools and to the disability allowance would not have happened if he had been having meaningful discussions with stakeholders in education. School principals had to raise the issue with Deputies, with the result that the Minister apologised and reversed the cuts to DEIS schools. The Taoiseach should talk to groups and listen to the people at the front line who help the weakest in society and who seem to be bearing the brunt of this. The same applies to the Croke Park agreement. The bottom line is that services come first and highly paid individuals second. That seems to be the sequence, as things are turning out. I am not advocating a return to social partnership; I advocate a more realistic engagement with representatives of those at the front line. It would serve the Government well to do this. It would enable it to avoid imposing the current unfair taxes and cuts which, in the main, affect middle- and low-income groups rather than higher-income groups and the wealthy.

I will give an example from the education sector. The colleges of further education suffered a sneaky and underhand cut in the budget with the raising of the pupil-teacher ratio from 17 to 19. This sector has been central to the provision of pathways in education which enable people to gain a qualification so that they can move on to third level.

I suggest the Deputy ask a question.

That budget measure could have the effect of wiping out courses in colleges of further education. If the Government - and, particularly, the economic management council - had engaged in proper structured dialogue with stakeholders in the first instance, these kinds of cut might have been avoided. The students in this case are vulnerable and need more protection than most.

The Taoiseach's current dialogue with groups external to the Government is not working. The Government is becoming progressively out of touch with the reality of people's lives.

I do not accept that view. Ministers, Ministers of State and chairpersons of the relevant Oireachtas committees have open access to groups, organisations and individuals from all over the country. We are all aware of the range of challenges faced by people, be it negative equity, unemployment, emigration, disillusionment or any of the sensitive areas covered by the Department of Social Protection. We have listened to people with regard to employment and the expansion of small and medium enterprises. The Government has offered assistance. The package for small and medium enterprises was developed as a result of discussions with those on the front line in which we listened to their proposals. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, listened to people and as a result he established the microfinance agency. This is how the partial loan credit guarantee scheme was initiated. That is why we continue to engage with the lending institutions so that they will meet the lending targets. The imposition of further taxes on jobs and employment will restrict the economy and reduce consumer confidence. We know this as a result of engaging with and listening to people.

Deputy Martin's point about engaging with groups and organisations is relevant. I remind the Deputy that when his party was in Government we had an endless conveyor belt of money. However, despite social partnership and the listening exercises, and given all the wealth and the available information, his party still cut the disability allowance, the carer's allowance and the carer's benefit.

The pension for the blind was cut twice and the Christmas bonus was abolished. That was against the background of the interaction in question and a flood of money that had never been seen before in Ireland.

That is not true.

I am not blaming the Deputy.

We increased the payments dramatically, including the respite grant, when the money was available.

The decisions were taken by the previous Government. It is a case of determining how best to avail of the opportunity to engage with and listen to people. The responsibility of the Government is not just to engage and listen but also to bring forward propositions to act upon.

I have tried to achieve the best impact from the Cabinet sub-committees I chair in order that their members will have timelines in regard to the priorities with which we must deal. The members meet every month, as the case may be; therefore, they are clearly aware that there is a need to deliver and make the necessary decisions. The next meetings of the committees will be on Monday.

The Deputy and I know that circumstances are far from being right in a number of areas. We must and will rectify this. That is why I say to Ministers and public servants directly that we need improved performance in meeting our targets. This requires engagement, listening and action.

In the context of preparing for the EU Presidency and dealing with the economic problems the country faces, a great deal of time is taken up in dealing with the serious challenges that arise. From my interaction with so many groups, I realise it is necessary to have responsibility allocated to various Ministers and Ministers of State. In taking on responsibility, they can report on where the Government can decide to take action. It is always difficult, as the Deputy knows, when drafting a budget, to make decisions that are in the interests of the country generally. I hope the presentation of the budget next year will be very different because of the movement in Europe to have much earlier presentation and engagement with the Houses of the Oireachtas in order that people will see at a much earlier date the layout and have an opportunity to express their views, be they good, bad or reflective. These are important considerations.

I would like to believe that the Freedom of Information Act actually works and that it has been extended to so many areas is in the interests of citizens and public representatives alike. We will never get this 100% right. It is a case of determining the most effective way to interact with organisations, agencies, groups and individuals to obtain their ideas for improving the lot of the country.

With regard to the process of engagement which involves the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, so many businesses are indicating what the Government needs to do. I cannot allow circumstances in which I am forced to impose extra taxes on employment because I am struggling as I am. Until such time as confidence is restored in the indigenous economy – there are signs of this, which I am sure we will all welcome – it is a case of being as free as possible to prosper and develop.

I ask the Taoiseach about his prospects for engagement with outside parties in the context of framing the budget. Is it not the case that, when examining the balance struck in the past two budgets, he has been listening to some groups very seriously and not listening to others? We know from last year that the Clearing House Group, comprising banks and speculators, precisely the sorts of people who caused the crisis, has privileged and institutional access to the Government. The group is chaired by the Department of Finance and comprises Barclays, Bank of Ireland, Citigroup and a range of other financial interests. The budgetary submissions of these bodies are included in the Budget Statement almost word for word and the Taoiseach trenchantly defends their demands. He makes their demands to have no increase in corporation tax and no financial transaction tax red-line issues and fights for them trenchantly. When groups representing the less well-off, the disadvantaged, the disabled and the low-paid make representations to him asking for a different balance to be struck in the budget and taxes on wealth and profit as an alternative to attacking the poor, the less well-off, the disabled and the vulnerable, the voices that always win out with the Government are those of the financial services sector, multinationals and the super-wealthy. Why does he defend so trenchantly the demands the latter make in their budget submissions and ignore the pleas of those representing the least well-off who wish for a different type of budget that focuses on protecting the vulnerable, prioritising investment in job creation and having a tax system that shifts the burden of austerity onto those who can afford it rather than those on the breadline?

I noted the Deputy's comment on engagement with outside bodies. He is incorrect to state the Clearing House Group includes speculators. Perhaps he would like to expand on this when he asks me his next question. I am not sure what speculators he is talking about.

State Street is a speculator.

The Clearing House Group is not chaired by the Department of Finance but by the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach for very good reason.

I apologise; it is even closer to the Taoiseach.

This is in order that we can have a very clear understanding of what these employers of thousands say about the state of the economy and Ireland's position on European and eurozone difficulties, etc. It is not a case of trenchantly defending the claims of those who attend meetings of the Clearing House Group but of the Government having had a very clear position for a very long time on the rate of corporation tax and not increasing it beyond 12.5% or reducing it. The tax rate has been steady, stable, transparent and very effective.

The Government has taken the view, although not on account of interaction with a particular group, that while there is stamp duty on financial transactions, it would not favour a financial transaction tax for very good reason. I pointed out previously that the application of a financial transaction tax in Ireland and not in London would place the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin which employs over 30,000 people at a competitive disadvantage. Bearing in mind the incoming Irish Presidency of the European Union and the enhanced majority voting arrangements, we will not restrict the 11 or more countries that wish to participate in a financial transaction tax from so doing, provided we are clear on the detail of what is involved.

I do not accept the Deputy's contention that there has been no interaction with low-paid workers, the less well-off, the disabled, the vulnerable and the isolated and that we do not take into account their very legitimate and sensitive concerns. That is why the vast majority of social protection measures have not been touched. With regard to carers, an additional €20 million has been allocated for the overall group, including carer's benefit, the carer's package and half-rate carer's allowance.

I outlined already to the Deputy the fact that the social protection facilities for pensioners and those in the social protection area remain untouched, despite the fact that some commentators and people who know all the answers before they are ever decided had a very different view.

I also point out to the Deputy that those whom he calls "super-wealthy" are the people who can afford to pay more and they are being hit with a bill of more than €500 million extra. That is a clear demonstration of the Government's recognition that those who can pay more should pay more and will pay more. The engagement of the Government, its agencies and Ministers with all the organisations and groups around the country is work that goes on all the time. I am sure that if the Deputy were to look at the engagement list of Ministers and Ministers of State during the past quarter he would see evidence of that in every town and county in the country, where it is a regular and indeed daily operation. I will be honest and say that not all of that becomes a reality, but the fact of the matter is that voices were raised with regard to lower paid workers, those on the minimum wage and those who were not required to pay the universal social charge. In that sense, there is also a recognition that we need to do something to get people off the unemployment list and into work, that those in lower-paid areas can have an opportunity to do better and that extra jobs can be created. That is why I made no apology for the fact that a central feature of this budget is a focus on the expansion and development of the small and medium enterprises sector. That is one of the central planks of the recovery of the Irish economy and it will be created by those doers, by those people who want to move on-----

We all want to move on.

-----change direction, employ more people and provide jobs for those people to whom the Deputy referred.

I would not hold my breath waiting for any of that to materialise. The reason I asked a specific question about the groups the Taoiseach has met as part of the process of social dialogue was to get a sense of the Government's engagement with civic society and with the voluntary and community sector. If, as the Taoiseach said, his outreach was and is significant, then the cuts in the budget are all the more reprehensible. If his Ministers were meeting these groups, as he said they were, there is absolutely no excuse; he cannot plead ignorance. They are bound to have told him the effects of the cuts in respite care, child benefit, the back-to-school clothing and footwear grant and so on. On the other side of the picture, there appears to be access for the movers and shakers - the elites - to interact with the Government. I make that general response to what the Taoiseach said.

I asked a specific question in my initial response to the Taoiseach's answer. I pointed out that the health budget for 2013 contains estimates of €458 million in pay-related savings and that the Department of Health has proposed the cutting of 3,500 jobs. My specific question was whether these matters had been raised or discussed with the union, to which the Taoiseach responded that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, had set out the requirements. Could the Taoiseach clarify that? Has he said to the trade union movement that in this sector of the public service he wants to implement €450 million of pay-related savings and remove 3,500 jobs? Did he discuss this with the unions, or did the Minister, Deputy Howlin, or someone else discuss with them what impact these cuts, particularly to front-line staff, would have in the delivery of the services they are charged with providing for citizens?

As I said to the Deputy, the voluntary sector contributes an enormous unpaid value to the State. This is evident, as the Deputy is well aware, across every town and parish in the country every weekend and every night, when many people voluntarily give of their time and commit to working with young people and various groups throughout the country, receiving nothing in return. Many of them do that because they have been doing it for years and because they are involved in a movement. They express their commitment to public service in that fashion, which is absolutely to be commended. Ministers who have been dealing with this area continually point out the value of volunteerism. Clearly, the old concept of the meitheal, of which the Deputy is well aware, has not gone away and is very strong in Ireland today. It is something we commend and that we want to continue to foster, and if facilities and assistance can be given by Departments and State agencies to make that happen, so much the better.

It is not the case that I only meet the movers and shakers, as the Deputy calls them. I meet members of chambers of commerce around the country and the agricultural sector, which is still the largest carrier of manufacturing jobs throughout the European Union. I am glad to see the extent of research, innovation and investment that is taking place in that sector because that means jobs, employment and circulation of money in local economies, which is to be strongly supported and commended. I meet the American Chamber of Commerce on a reasonably regular basis every few months to monitor what is happening on the world markets with regard to the global products they manufacture here and export. It is important to reflect the issues they see arising in a European context and beyond, because of the number of jobs - more than 100,000 - that are supported by that kind of investment in the country. I know the Deputy does not object to that.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has set out his targets in dealing with the trade unions. When I met the Minister and the implementation group, our view was that we have recognised the contribution the Croke Park agreement has made to industrial peace and stability in the country and the very significant changes in the public service that have been made by agreement and through implementation by public servants. I pointed out previously how many people have had to change rosters, drive to new places of work, deal with changed responsibilities and deliver a greater and more efficient service with fewer facilities and resources than they had in the past. That is to be commended. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, is engaging with the trade union movement to talk about not only what we said to the implementation group - that we want to see the Croke Park agreement implemented in full with more ambitious and accelerated targets - but also the requirement for up to €1 billion in extra savings to be achieved incrementally by 2015, which is a big challenge and will have a particular impact on the Department of Health and a number of other Departments. The Minister is conducting those discussions with the trade union movement and I am sure that when he next takes questions he will be happy to take more detailed questions on the progress of those discussions.

I asked a question on the consultation there had been with social groups to gain a full understanding of the reality of the impact of the cut to the respite grant for people on the ground. Has the Taoiseach met the Carers' Association recently?

Did the Taoiseach meet with the federation of organisations involved in disability for example? We learned in the past week that the Economic Management Council did not even consult with other Ministers on the budget, never mind consulting with the whole range and plethora of outside groups. What we have been told is that the last two Ministers to be told were the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly. Everything was going smoothly until they were consulted and other issues were put on the table such as the cutting of welfare rates across 31 schemes.

The National Economic and Social Council is there to facilitate dialogue. The Government is meant to be putting it on a statutory footing and getting rid of NESDO, the National Economic and Social Development Office. It seems, however, the Taoiseach is not having any proper sense or measure of the impact his Government's decisions are having on a variety of groups across society. That is why, for example, in August representatives of the Centre for Independent Living had to picket overnight outside Government Buildings. We have reached a sorry pass when people with significant physical disabilities who require assistance to live independently had to camp outside Government Buildings to get their point across. It is a sad state of affairs when we have representatives of carers outside Leinster House today complaining about an unnecessary cut to the respite grant. That cut does not have to go ahead as there are plenty of alternatives to find the €26 million involved. All of this speaks of an inadequate structure of dialogue that is not giving the Government any sense of the impact on the ground that these decisions are having. Otherwise, the Government would not have proceeded with these cuts.

It must be remembered the ESRI stated the last budget was the most unfair of the previous five. This budget is perceived as extraordinarily unfair. It taxes low incomes more than higher incomes. It cuts child benefit and, as a result, larger families on low incomes will suffer badly. It hits the jobseeker with a benefit cut after six months. It cuts prescription charges. I met a pensioner last week who told me the Government has hit him for an extra €20 a month with this particular cut. He has prescriptions for seven items and his wife is on other medication. That is the equivalent of a cut in the old age pension when the Taoiseach claims the Government has not cut old age pensions.

Can we have a question, please?

Any pharmacist will tell one that many pensioners are on considerable amounts of medication, yet the Government has substantially increased their burden.

I do not see any strategy emerging from the Government for a broad-based or fair approach to society. The absence of-----

Sorry, Deputy; could you put a question?

-----structured dialogue with the social partners is evident. As I asked in my question, when did the Taoiseach last meet with them? I am conscious the Taoiseach has used up 20 minutes in his replies. The pattern of Taoiseach's Question Time is how long the Taoiseach can filibuster before the rest of us can get in.

Deputy Martin has had good practice of it himself.

I will be a little quicker if Deputy Martin wants.

The Economic Management Council is a very effective method of streamlining positions in this case. We do not want to have endless meetings taking place about different issues.

Fair enough but the Taoiseach had no discussions at all.

The Minister for Social Protection has had detailed meetings and discussions with the organisations and groups who deal with those in receipt of special protection. She can also give detailed accounts of when and where these meetings took place, as well as the issues which arose. Following that, each Minister had a bilateral engagement with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform about the ceilings to be laid out and the issues to be presented in regard to their budget for 2013. It is true that following all these engagements core payments were protected, those on the minimum wage were progressed and those who are in the lowest level of employment were exempted from the universal social charge, USC. There was a real attempt made in the budget to progress the jobs agenda and employment opportunities and, to put it mildly, to focus on small and medium-sized enterprises.

Pharmacists have rung me up to tell me it was about time somebody did something about prescription charges because of the level of over-prescribing that takes place. The Minister for Health and his Department are now focusing on an analysis of general practitioner prescribing. Trends become obvious very quickly, with particular GPs in some areas continuing to prescribe enormous amounts of medication.

That is a separate matter.

While some of this is warranted, there are also trends which should be identified. This is an impact upon the charges and the cap that applies thereof.

I hope that for 2013 the presentation of the budget will be much earlier. In accordance with the European progress being made here-----

I hope we will have a fair budget.

-----we will have a much earlier discussion in the House about overall figures.

Will the Taoiseach give it a miss? We have heard all this for two years and it has got worse.

We had 15 years before that with Deputy Martin.

Deputy Martin should remember we had it from his party for 12 years.

The Deputy comes in here all the time claiming he, of course, could change this.

The Taoiseach should look at the Order Paper for the week and then talk about debate.

This goes back to the Deputy's business of how he signed on for a property tax, he designed it but he does not want it yet as it is not the right time to introduce it.

We did not design it.

This is what the Deputy has been at.

The Taoiseach should not mislead the House.

Please, Deputy.

Deputy Martin signed on for the property tax, he put it into the memorandum of understanding with the troika and suddenly he does not want it. He is now telling me these measures are easy to redesign and restructure. That is not the way. The edifice begins to crumble when one does that, a point Deputy Martin knows well.

The edifice nearly crumbled last Saturday week across there.

Deputy Martin should look at bank politics.

There are difficult decisions to be made. I recognise that, as does everyone else, but they have to be done in the interests of the country.

Yes, but the Taoiseach does not make them.

What about the bank guarantee?

We had 15 years of Deputy Martin and his party in government making no decisions.

That concludes Question Time for today. We now move on to the Order of Business.

Before we move on to the Order of Business, I want to raise a point of order.

Yes, Deputy. What is your point of order?

I want to make a point of order while you are in the Chair, a Cheann Comhairle, and while the Taoiseach is still in the Chamber.

Given his defamatory remarks earlier, I want to repeat my request that the Taoiseach be asked by you, a Cheann Comhairle, to withdraw those remarks.

What remarks are you referring to, Deputy?

I am referring to the remarks he made about Jean McConville and the defamatory allegation that I was in some way involved in that poor woman's death.

Unfortunately, I am not in a position to interpret what the Taoiseach did or did not say. The only thing I can suggest is that if a rule has been broken, then you must give me some time to examine the blacks so that I will know whether a rule has been broken. If so, I will take appropriate action.

A Cheann Comhairle, can I just elaborate on my point, please? I was making a perfectly salient and pertinent point earlier about the Government's budget, particularly its effect on the carer's allowance, child benefit and other matters. Not through bad temper or a slip of the tongue, the Taoiseach made his remarks, which were quite a deliberate and cynical attempt to distract attention from these measures and to exploit the sufferings of people in the North as a means of doing that.

Can I draw your attention, a Cheann Comhairle - he knows this better than me, if I may say so - to Standing Order 59, which states:

(1) A member shall not make an utterance in the nature of being defamatory

The Taoiseach also knows this. It continues:

and where a member makes such an utterance it may be prima facie an abuse of privilege, subject to the provisions of this Standing Order.

(2) (a) If the defamatory nature of the utterance is apparent at the time it was made during the course of proceedings, the Ceann Comhairle shall direct that the utterance be withdrawn without qualification.

I asked you twice, a Cheann Comhairle-----

I ask the Deputy to go on and read the rest of the Standing Order.

I will.

(b) If the member refuses to withdraw the utterance without qualification the Ceann Comhairle shall treat the matter as one of disorder: Provided that the member may claim that the matter be referred to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in which case no further action shall be taken thereon by the Ceann Comhairle at that point.

Hold on a second.

Gabh mo leithscéal. The pertinent point is that it says the Ceann Comhairle shall direct that the utterance be withdrawn without qualification and I asked the Ceann Comhairle to do that. I am here with a mandate.

I know you are here with a mandate. I am here with a mandate as well in the Chair, to be fair. Sorry, Deputy; I ask you to resume your seat for one moment.

I am not standing, a Cheann Comhairle-----

I am here to keep order and if someone is out of order I will correct them, but if you are making an allegation that the Taoiseach made a defamatory remark, I am saying to you that I will examine the record and if I believe a defamatory remark has been made, then I will take appropriate action. That is what I have said and that is the way it is. I am moving on to the Order of Business.

A Cheann Comhairle-----

A Cheann Comhairle-----

I am sorry. That is it. We are not having a debate on this.

I am not going to have a debate. I refer the Ceann Comhairle again to Standing Order 59. It states that if a Member-----

I know about Standing Order 59.

If a Member highlights an issue at the time when the remark is being made, it is in the Ceann Comhairle's gift at that stage.

At the time the request was being made the Ceann Comhairle was shutting down our leader and telling him to sit down and be quiet and whatever.

Deputy, please resume your seat.

He was highlighting that a remark had been made and the Ceann Comhairle was not taking it on board at the time.

Deputy, please resume your seat. There is a procedure to be followed here and I will follow the procedure.

That was following the procedure. If you had allowed the Member to put his point at the time-----

You can question it and raise it at the standing Committee on Procedure and Privileges if you are not happy. I have already told the Deputy in question that I will examine the blacks and if I believe that a defamatory remark has been made I will take appropriate action.

We will accept that but that is after the fact. If the Ceann Comhairle had listened at the time it could have been dealt with at that stage.

Now, please resume your seat and we will get on with the business. I call on the Taoiseach to present the Order of Business. Thank you.

A Cheann Comhairle, can I make another point, please?

No, Deputy, please. It is almost 5.15 p.m. There are other Deputies who have matters to-----

They have not been defamed.

This is from the salient rulings of the Chair to assist the Ceann Comhairle-----

I do not need a lecture about salient rulings.

I am not trying to give the Ceann Comhairle a lecture.

I am making a ruling and I have made a ruling.

I am standing up for myself. It says that when a Member is making a disclaimer against an allegation made against him, he should be given a good hearing.

I do not consider-----

I am giving you a good hearing.

The Taoiseach knows better. Rather than go through this row - I do not want to be fighting with the Ceann Comhairle - the Taoiseach should be a man and withdraw that remark.

I have already made my ruling. I have said if a defamatory remark has been made and if I see that from the blacks then I will take appropriate action. We are moving on to the Order of Business. It is 5.15 p.m.

I had no intention of making defamatory remarks about anyone. My comments were made in the context of the raw emotion that Deputy Adams referred to.

They were not.

Of course Deputy Adams has a legitimate mandate to be here but I made my comments in respect of what he was saying.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.