Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4)

Gerry Adams

Question:

1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social policy last met. [44835/14]

View answer

Micheál Martin

Question:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social policy last met. [46771/14]

View answer

Joe Higgins

Question:

3. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach when a meeting of the Cabinet committee on social policy was last held. [3363/15]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social policy last met. [5533/15]

View answer

Oral answers (59 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

Deputy Higgins sends his apologies. He will not be present for these questions.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on social policy and public service reform last met on 23 February.

Baineann an fochoiste Rialtais maidir le beartas sóisialta le go leor rudaí. Ní féidir liom é a rá go cinnte, ach sílim go gcuireann sé isteach ar shaol achan duine. Ba mhaith liom labhairt faoi chuid acu go háirithe agus ceisteanna a chur ar an Taoiseach. Tá mé ag caint faoin mobility allowance scheme. The Government closed that scheme and brought an end to the motorised transport grant in February 2013. This had an impact on 5,000 citizens and their families. The Ombudsman had advised that the scheme and the grant were both in breach of the Equal Status Act and the Disability Act as a result of the fact that some citizens, namely, those over 66 years of age, were excluded from them. Instead of changing social policy and the relevant legislation in order to ensure that all affected citizens would be eligible for the scheme and the grant, the Government closed both, thereby actively discriminating against disabled citizens. I remind the Taoiseach that this occurred in February 2013. The then Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, described the Government's decision as a bolt out of the blue and stated that it had given no indication that it intended to scrap the scheme or the grant. At the time in question, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, and his Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, informed an Oireachtas committee that a review group would be established to examine the scheme and the grant and bring them into line with the law.

I mí Feabhra 2013, dúirt an Taoiseach leis an Dáil nach raibh aon rogha ag an Rialtas ach deireadh a chur leis an deontas do dhaoine nua ar an scéim. Dúirt sé go mbeadh an Rialtas ag obair ar scéim nua a bhunú don chéad cheithre mhí eile. Anois, tá dhá bhliain ann in áit an cheithre mhí sin. What is the reason for the delay in respect of this matter? Two years have passed but the Taoiseach originally promised that the position would be resolved in four months. At the time to which I refer, the then Minister for Health-----

I apologise for interrupting but the Deputy is stretching the parameters of the original question quite a bit. The latter relates to when the Cabinet committee on social policy last met. The questions he is now posing relate to a totally separate matter.

Will the Ceann Comhairle advise me on how to proceed?

The Deputy should table a parliamentary question containing exactly the words he is using now. I cannot allow a general debate on when the Cabinet committee on social policy last met.

That is fair enough. The Ceann Comhairle will appreciate, however, that there are hundreds of citizens who are being disadvantaged-----

I appreciate that but-----

-----and the Government stated two years ago that it would resolve this problem in four months. What conclusions have been reached and what decisions have been taken in respect of this issue? When I previously asked the Taoiseach about this matter I was informed that it would be addressed by means of the health (transport support) Bill. That legislation was supposed to be produced a long time ago but it has not yet been published. It is included on the Government's list of proposed legislation but there is no date provided in respect of its publication. The Dáil can sit through the night in order to resolve issues relating to bankers but drags its feet when it comes to legislation for the disabled. I have raised this issue on a consistent basis with the Taoiseach and I am seeking to discover whether the Cabinet committee on social policy has given any consideration to speeding up the process relating to the health (transport support) Bill. Does the Taoiseach have any idea when that Bill will be published?

I already answered the question the Deputy originally tabled. One could ask 1,000 questions in respect of issues of detail and that which he has now posed obviously relates to a serious matter for those affected. The scheme involved was ended for good reason and those who were in receipt of payments continue to be paid. I understand it is expected that a replacement scheme to deal with those who are currently in receipt of payment and those who may be placed in that particular category will be forthcoming. A great deal of work has been done on this matter but it will be after the summer before the new scheme emerges. However, I may be wrong in that regard because I do not have the relevant information in my possession. I will request an update from the Minister and then communicate further with the Deputy in respect of this matter. This is a complex issue and it was necessary to end the scheme because people were being excluded from it. I will advise the House and Deputy Adams further on this matter when I receive an update in respect of it.

It is approximately five months since these questions were originally tabled. It would be useful, therefore, if the Taoiseach could indicate the number of occasions on which the Cabinet committee on social policy met during the past 12 months and when it last met prior to the tabling of these questions. Questions to the Taoiseach only take place once a week now as a result of a decision made by the Government when it came to office. Communities in Dublin and provincial towns throughout the country are faced with the brutal impact of a growing drugs problem. This is one of the many instances where the Government has ignored a problem until it has become a crisis. There is no question that this is now a crisis in many parts of the country. Irrespective of whatever else the Cabinet committee on social policy is doing, it seems to have ignored issues relating to the abuse of drugs in certain communities and to the lack of co-ordination and accountability in terms of providing the relevant services.

One of the key developments in this area in the past was the appointment of a Minister of State who sat at the Cabinet table and who had responsibility for bringing the Departments of Justice and Equality, Health, Education and Skills and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs together in a co-ordinated way in order that they might deal with the drugs issue through the drugs task forces, the RAPID programme, etc. This had an impact and the relevant Minister of State also had responsibility for developing the national drugs strategy and matters of that nature. Why did the Taoiseach not appoint such a Minister of State in the past four years and why has he not afforded this issue priority? Will he indicate whether the Cabinet committee on social policy will be meeting shortly in order to give this matter urgent consideration?

Another key point which springs from my original question relates to the fact that two years ago the Government took the decision to stop producing social impact figures when publishing the budget. In the preceding ten to 15 years, figures relating to the potential social impact of budgetary measures were provided when the budget was published. The objective in this regard was to facilitate transparency in respect of the social impact of the budget. It appears that two years ago the Government ended the practice of supplying the figures to which I refer in a bid to cover up what most objective people and institutions outside this House would agree have been deeply unfair and regressive budgets. The number of children living in poverty is damning and should not be tolerated.

Will the Cabinet committee on social policy meet in advance of the announcement of the spring statement in order to ensure that social impact figures are published? In the context of the spring statement, it seems that for the first time in our history the full might of the public and civil service will be used to draft a political manifesto. The latter will have no status other than as a document designed to win or buy an election. In a typically immodest piece in The Irish Times, the Taoiseach indicated that he will, by means of the spring statement, be setting out a programme for the next five years. Will he provide an assurance that he will supply full information on income distribution as part of the spring statement? Will he also provide the basic information required in order to assess the social impact of what is going to be proposed? After all, the purpose of the Cabinet committee on social policy is to assess that impact. I sat on a Cabinet committee which dealt with social inclusion and which frequently deliberated on issues relating to the proofing of Cabinet decisions.

The Cabinet committee on social policy met three times in 2011, four times in 2012, seven times in 2013 and four times in the first half of 2014. It was then merged with the Cabinet committee on public service reform in September of last year. A further six meetings have taken place since then, four in the second half of 2014 and two so far this year. The latter were held on 26 January and 23 February, respectively.

I am giving consideration to the question of appointing a Minister to deal with drugs but not the appointment of a new Minister. We have already set the number of Ministers. The Minister for Health chairs the oversight forum on drugs which monitors implementation and progress and works to address difficulties that may arise. The Department of Health is preparing a national drugs strategy for the period after 2016 and this process will involve consultations with all sectors and persons involved.

With regard to the figures for the social impact, in the process of preparing the budget to be announced in October we will issue the spring statement by the end of April. That statement will address the general environment of business and taxation, including the environment into which the country will move for the coming period, and set out our views covering several years. Towards the summer there will be engagement with the various sectors of Irish society on the generality of the budget and the submissions made. We will then announce the budget in October.

The European Commission has confirmed that the Irish economy is the fastest growing in the European Union. That is to be welcomed, but the challenge for the Government and the people is to see the effect filter down to every family and person who are asking me why, if we are proceeding at this rate, they are not seeing it. Our challenge is to make this happen. The more people who are working, the better the contribution to each locality and individual.

In regard to the social impact, the first thing the Government did was to reverse the cut in the minimum wage, which affected 300,000 people. This had a social impact in its own way. We have established the low pay commission which has begun its work by holding a range of meetings. I expect it to report to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, and the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Gerald Nash, by July and the Government will respond to it in October. We will take into account the impact on employers if the Government makes a decision in that regard. I have also pointed out that owing to the last budget there are now 480,000 people who are exempt from the universal social charge. With the approval of the Minister for Finance and the Government, we hope to bring that figure to 500,000 this year. I am not going to predict the decision of the Cabinet in respect of the budget, but as the figures are analysed in the coming months, it is the Government's intention to reduce the burden of taxation on people. This has had an impact for several years, particularly for those on incomes of between €30,000 and €70,000.

I do not object to Deputy Micheál Martin's question about basic information being provided.

On the social impact.

That will have an impact socially, or deal with the social impact.

It always used to happen.

That is a discussion for the House to have in the run-in to the budget. I do not see any reason the Minister for Finance would not be able to set out for the House the options he must consider in preparing his budget. The same would apply to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It is something I consider eminently feasible.

I am amazed at the infrequency of meetings of the social policy committee. I would have thought it would be meeting at least on a weekly basis and, frankly, in emergency session when it comes to what, by any standard, is a central matter of special policy, namely, the chronic and daily deteriorating situation in social housing provision. Today representatives from council estates in Dublin, Limerick and Cork complained to the European Commission about the abysmally unhealthy and completely inadequate quality of social housing in council estates in our biggest cities. The Taoiseach has gone out of his way to be the best boy in the European class when it comes to doing what Angela Merkel says, paying back bondholders and doing what the financial markets want him to do, but he is certainly not the best boy in the European class when it comes to the quality of social housing provision in Ireland if the case being pursued by these communities is anything to go by. Should the social policy committee not be meeting to discuss this issue and should the Taoiseach not be ashamed of his Government for its abysmal failure to address the social housing crisis?

There has been a considerable spin put on this issue. Last October the biggest social housing programme in the history of the State was announced. I have since been contacted by my local authority on an almost weekly basis to ask whether there is any additional money for social housing, but there is not one cent. Only 19 council houses will be built in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown next year, even though 1,200 people joined the council's housing list last year, bringing the total to 5,200. In the period since I entered this Dáil, the average waiting time on a council housing list has increased from eight to 15 years. In other words, some people will never get a council house. I am dealing with families who are facing unbelievable situations. One man who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer has been couch surfing for several weeks. He is an emergency case, but he has no idea when he will be housed. Another woman with two children, one of whom has special needs, has been homeless for the past year. She is moving from couch surfing to emergency accommodation which is not guaranteed from one week to the next. She does not even know where she will sleep tomorrow. She is No. 1 on the priority list, but the council cannot even state when she will be given a council house. Someone who is No. 100 or 150 on the list is looking at a wait of seven or eight years before being housed. Despite all of the announcements made last October, not one extra cent has been provided for the budget for social housing provision. That is just in one county. God knows what the situation is like in the rest of the country.

What is the social policy committee discussing, if not the provision of social housing during the greatest social housing crisis in the modern history of the State? Working class communities are going to the European Court of Justice because of the Government's failure to take this issue seriously. What is the committee doing? Is it going to discuss the social housing crisis and are we going to have real policy change when it comes to dealing with the social housing emergency?

The assertion Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett made at the start of his contribution is typical of him. I have no intention of looking for credit or thanks. People who do so in this business follow a fool's philosophy. My job is not about being best boy in class; it is about dealing with the legacy of an unprecedented mess that was left to be sorted out.

I am proud that the Government has worked with people here and that because of the sacrifices made we are in a better place than we were four years ago. I am proud of the fact that 80,000 to 90,000 new jobs have been created and that we have opened up new markets for Irish companies which are thriving and exporting and creating jobs and contributing to economic expansion. I am also hopeful the recently increased economic confidence which is evident will be harnessed in everybody's interests. I accept that some people will say they hear about 5% growth and a 1.3% rate of interest on borrowings and that we have been able to buy out €18 billion loans from the IMF at cheaper rates but that this does not mean anything to them because they do not see the benefits at the end of the week. It was only in the most recent budget that the Government was in a position to start to reduce the burden of taxation, which we hope to be able to continue.

I am not bound to tell the Deputy what the committee discussed, but at its most recent meeting it considered the progress report on public service reform, the new ICT strategy for the public service to make it more efficient and more responsive to people, the extensive plan brought forward by the Government to address homelessness to deal with a range of unprecedented issues, in Dublin in particular, and the issue of domestic, sexual and gender based violence.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has set out clearly the scale of the Government's decision to deal with social housing and people who have become homeless because of an inability to pay rent, rent increases by landlords or the shortage of housing. The figure of €4 billion, for the period to 2020, is part of his direction to local authorities to allocate a percentage of housing to social housing and the homeless. Allocations of moneys will be made to individual local authorities which will set out and commence implementation of their building programmes to provide quality social housing.

No matter what we do, houses will not be built until we have a process in place that will provide money for building and until planning issues have been dealt with and confirmed in order that competent contractors can move in and start building. A contractor must have a line of finance available in order to be able to build. As the Deputy is aware, in previous years when 100% of funding was put up by the bank, profits were made by builders who then moved to the next build. That is not how the system operates now. Contractors must now provide 40% of the funding and will not receive the type of funding that used to apply. The programme is in place to provide for the provision of social and affordable houses, but the issue is how we can make this happen. I respect the case raised by the Deputy of a person who is facing a number of challenges in this regard and feel sure the Deputy has spoken to the local authority about it. The authority concerned has already been allocated money. Therefore, if the person in question is first on the priority list, it is a matter for the director of services in the local authority to tell the Deputy when a house will be provided.

We are now in a situation where the scale of the problem has been identified. We have allocated a serious amount of public moneys for the next few years and the process must now be put in place to ensure housing will be provided for the homeless and those who are made homeless and to ensure quality social housing is provided all over the country. That is a big challenge for the Government, but I hope we can meet it successfully.

We have spent almost 25 minutes on these four questions on when the last meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on social policy took place. There are 118 questions altogether to the Taoiseach and the next four or five deal with a Heads of State meeting that took place last October. I urge Members to get through these questions in order that we can move some way down the list. Otherwise, this debate is out of control. We spend far too much time on a limited number of questions. I, therefore, ask Members for their co-operation. I will allow them to ask a quick supplementary question but ask them not to make speeches in order that we can move on to the next questions.

I will be as quick as I can. The Taoiseach was unable to answer my question. He is right to say many questions could have been asked about this social policy issue. Questions could have been asked about social housing and cuts in respite care services or the numbers of home help hours, etc. However, my question was focused on the fact that in 2013 the Government had closed two schemes because it had been advised they were in breach of the Equal Status Act and the Disability Act. As a result, 5,000 citizens with disabilities have been denied supports. This concerns equality proofing, an issue I have been raising since I became a Member of the House. Why has there not been equality proofing? It is now two years since the schemes were closed, but the Taoiseach does not know when the issue will be resolved for the citizens involved.

In his supplementary reply to me the Taoiseach said the Cabinet sub-committee on social policy had met on 23 February, but he subsequently informed me that the sub-committee had been merged with the Cabinet sub-committee on public service reform. Therefore, the questions predate the merger and the Taoiseach should have spoken about the new merged entity in his response. This is important because it involves a relegation of social policy at Cabinet level. In some respects, it is difficult to reconcile the idea that the Cabinet sub-committee on social policy would be included with the Cabinet sub-committee most responsible for the cuts affecting social policy, namely, the sub-committee dealing with public service reform and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

It is clear that the Government lacks a strong social dimension. That the social policy sub-committee has been merged with that on public service reform and that the Government has ended up mixing ICT strategy in the public service with social policy is a mistake. I suggest housing issues should be dealt with separately. The Minister has, for example, made a hames of the issue of rent allowance, which has caused untold misery for families across the country. A properly functioning Cabinet sub-committee on social policy would have alerted the Government and not allowed that to happen. The impact of the decision on rent allowance has been to shove families into appalling and low standard accommodation. If there was a proper social input at Cabinet level, the cut in the number of career guidance hours in schools would not have happened, nor would we have had the discretionary medical cards debacle. I put it to the Taoiseach that social policy deserves to be deal with by a separate Cabinet sub-committee. Is it correct that the meeting on 23 February was a meeting of the merged committees?

My question was also focused on a particular issue.

May I ask a question?

I will call the Deputy in one minute. He has not submitted a question, but the Deputies who are speaking have.

I am a Member of Parliament.

The Deputy should table a question like everybody else.

The Chair asked for supplementary questions and I have something to offer.

The Taoiseach's response to my question does not give me confidence about the urgency with which the sub-committee is dealing with what is probably the most important issue of social policy facing the country, the provision of social housing. We have an unprecedented crisis in social housing and have now exposed a widespread crisis in the quality of existing social housing which is substandard to the point where it is not safe for the huge numbers of families living in it. Will the sub-committee treat this as an emergency issue? Will it show some urgency and acknowledge that social policy is failing disastrously?

The facts speak for themselves. It is getting worse by the minute and there is no sign whatsoever, notwithstanding grandiose announcements that were made nearly six months ago, and nothing is changing on the ground. I want the Taoiseach to say what he is doing about it and what is this committee doing to push up the priority of what is probably the major social crisis facing this country.

The key question for this Parliament to address is social policy and not just social policy but social awareness, social conscience. The hard-hitting concrete items that have been raised by the leaders of the two main Opposition parties and by Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, put flesh and blood on the arid statistics. I remind the Taoiseach that the social impact - those are his words - of 100,000 mortgages under stress, of which 40,000 are under extreme distress, represents in the first instance about 250,000 human beings who are Irish people, of which 100,000 are children. Here we are legislating for and having a referendum on children's protection and there are 100,000 children in households under trauma distress. The teachers, doctors and the GPs can talk about this-----

A question, please.

-----and these children are in addition to the 90,000 on the housing waiting list which represents about 220,000 human beings. These are our fellow citizens. These people are traumatised by stress. It underscores-----

Thank you, Deputy. The Taoiseach to reply.

It underscores the necessity for Deputy Michael McGrath's Bill-----

This is not the time for speeches. Please resume your seat, Deputy.

-----and Deputy Penrose's Bill to take away the veto from the banks.

Please resume your seat, Deputy. This is Question Time.

The banking inquiry tomorrow is a farce. On the Order Paper-----

Resume your seat, Deputy, or else I will have to ask you again to leave the House.

Please give me one minute. That will be twice. Is it exit Tuesday for me every Tuesday?

This is Question Time-----

Yes, and I am asking questions-----

----- and it is not for statements. The Taoiseach to reply to the Deputies who have put questions.

I do not know whether it is worth being a Member of this Parliament-----

Put down your questions like everybody else.

-----when one is not a member of a massive majority Government. Will the Taoiseach give me some of his time to expand a little, please? Otherwise it is a farce.

Sit down, please Deputy.

I normally give Deputy Mathews time in the corridor when I meet him, as he is well aware.

Fired from committees, fired from everything.

In reply to Deputy Martin's question, I have given the dates and the number of meetings that took place. The reason the Cabinet committee on social policy merged with the Cabinet committee on public service reform last September was because it provides a strong cross-departmental co-ordination in a number of areas such as social inclusion, poverty reduction-----

-----service delivery, including having a far greater coherence between the range of Departments dealing with many of-----

That is the Department responsible for cutting medical cards. Medical card probity?

Please, Deputy, we are trying to move on here.

-----those target groups and to support the provision and the implementation of the public service reform agenda which is driven by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. That Cabinet committee has the task of driving the social policy and the public service reform commitments in the programme for Government.

In respect of social policy, the Cabinet committee ensures focus on the fairness objectives and the social policy set out in the Government for National Recovery 2011-2016. It assesses and presents the Government's consideration options or any alternative measures to achieve a better outcome or to address barriers to achieving social policy priorities. It also guides the development and the management of strategies and responses across Departments in the social policy area. It considers the impact of programmes or policy measures on disadvantaged or vulnerable groups, including emerging vulnerable groups, and puts forward different alternatives or new approaches as is necessary. It prioritises service delivery, especially through cross-departmental action so that services and programmes for vulnerable people and groups actually achieve the outcomes set out for them.

On public service reform, the committee supports the development and implementation of the programmes set up by the Minister. It implements the Haddington Road agreement which has resulted in substantial savings and improved productivity. It implements the Civil Service renewal plan which was designed to maximise the performance of the Civil Service while increasing its responsiveness. It progresses the public service reform plan which has seen good progress since 2014.

The social housing strategy to which Deputy Boyd Barrett referred, was published last November. It provides for three things: to provide 35,000 new social housing units over a six-year period at a cost of €3.8 billion, involving about 29,000 jobs in construction-----

There is no sign of them. It is a mirage.

Second, it supports up to 75,000 households through an enhanced private rental sector and third, it sets out a road map to accommodate everyone - 90,000 households on the housing waiting lists - by 2020. The delivery of the strategy is in two phases. The first phase one is a target of 18,000 housing units and 32,000 HAP or RAS units by the end of 2017. The second phase two is a target of 17,000 additional housing units and 43,000 HAP or RAS units by the end of 2020. Deputy Boyd Barrett will note that at least we have identified the scale of the problem and we have put the allocation of money in place to deal with it and we have set out the road map. I advise Deputy Boyd Barrett to go to the chief executive officer of his local authority area-----

They tell us they have no money.

-----and ask them if they have received their allocation from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, in respect of their social housing commitment, when they propose to commence and when they propose to deal with the first priority on the list which is that good lady to whom the Deputy referred.