Leaders’ Questions

The Government lost another man overboard today.

It is always a point of discussion when a member of Parliament decides for his or her own reasons to resign. It is one fewer vote and one fewer voice.

James McDaid has been an advocate for a general election for some time. We now have the unprecedented, bizarre, even GUBU-esque, situation where the number of vacant seats exceeds the Government's working majority. It is bad for democracy, is anti-democratic and smacks of cowardice on the Government's part when those in the constituencies with vacancies are not allowed their mandate or the people a national verdict on the Government. The Taoiseach continues to brazen it out when he knows he does not have a valid authority to govern. The people no longer believe the Government and neither do those outside the country. The Taoiseach's credibility has crumbled, the Government's integrity shattered. The 7.42% interest rate demanded by the bond markets this evening means the Government's proposed budgetary plan is already dead in the water because the international markets see no credibility in the projections for the economy's growth.

The only credible action that will restore people's faith in politics is if the Government goes to them to test its mandate for whatever budgetary proposal it wants to make. In view of the continuing instability both at home and abroad, I challenge the Taoiseach and the Government to stand up and be counted. Is the Taoiseach prepared to put his budgetary plan to the people?

He will next Monday.

Given recent events, one would have expected some measure of responsibility from the Leader of the Opposition, who aspires to the office of the Taoiseach——

That is a good one coming from the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach is one to speak about responsibility.

——not to characterise the country's prospects as he just did.

Data from the October tax returns will be available today at 4.30 p.m. which will confirm our tax take and budgetary plans are on track and expenditure is under control. The urgency to bring forward a four-year economic plan and a budget that will front-load the necessary adjustments of €15 billion is in the national interest. The Government will not abdicate its responsibility in this respect and will look, where it is possible, to obtain responsible support.

As was stated by the Ceann Comhairle at the opening of today's proceedings, Dr. Jim McDaid has tendered his resignation as a Member of this House. I wish him well. He has been a friend and colleague for many years. The Ceann Comhairle echoed what he stated first in September 2009 since when he has had an opinion on those issues. However, this Government's intention is to do its job at this time, and to use this House as a means by which we will put forward our budgetary policies.

I ask the Deputy to desist from suggesting that my authority is any different from that of any other Taoiseach, including the one under which he served. The authority of a Taoiseach is decided by the majority support of this House.

The difference between having an election and not having one is the mandate, the authority from the people by a ballot on the plan to rescue this country from the financial crisis the Taoiseach and his Government have led it into. As one of the Ministers told after the Farmleigh episode, "If you are on antibiotics for 13 years, you do become immune to a lot of things". That comment came from the Taoiseach's own ranks.

The country is unable to borrow money now. The Government cannot go back to the bond markets because the interest rates are too high and we are paying too much money to deal with this. The reason is that the international markets have no faith, credibility or belief in the strategy the Government is adopting. It is depicted by the first line of the Government's amendment to the Fine Gael Private Members' motion, which is down for discussion this evening. The motion refers to the lack of impetus in dealing with serious crime and activities at a high level in banking institutions here, for which nobody has been punished.

The Deputy should put a question.

The amendment, recognising the sudden onset and serious nature of the worst global financial crisis in more than 75 years, commends the Government for the rapid and effective response it has made to reform the structures of financial regulation, support the banks, restore confidence, protect consumers and establish a basis for a sustainable banking sector in the future. That is just how far out of touch the Government really is. It does not matter to a carer for an Alzheimer's patient what condition the subordinated bond investors are in.

The Deputy should ask a question, please.

It is the lack of front line services, as evidenced by the Government's gross incompetence, that has led to this.

The Taoiseach mentioned Deputy McDaid, whom I commend for his courage. In his letter to the Taoiseach, he said he believed that neither the ECB, the European Commission, the IMF nor the international bond markets have confidence in the Government. Dr. McDaid said that he is a citizen first and a Fianna Fáil member afterwards. However, the reverse applies in the case of the Government because it is the party first and the country second. The Taoiseach is now being threatened by the absent Greens also.

In my time in this House I cannot recall a situation where the Government of the day had more unfilled vacancies than its working majority. The people are not being allowed to have their say.

Could we have a question, please?

Irrespective of the people's decision, the only way to restore some sense of confidence, belief and integrity is to have a mandate from the people for a Government to rescue our country. The Taoiseach has led us to this crisis and is now afraid and lacking in courage to put his plan to the people.

The Deputy is way over time.

The Taoiseach should put his plan to the people and let them give their judgment and mandate. That is the only thing that will restore some sense of credibility, belief and integrity given the situation in which we now find ourselves. Is the Taoiseach prepared, as head of Government, to put his case to the people and let us sort it out? If that responsibility is given to this party we will gladly lead as we have done in the past.

It would be fine if, in the present, we could perhaps have some leadership from the Opposition. In terms of our excess expenditure over income at the end of October, the reduction in the Exchequer requirement is €14.4 billion. It was €22.7 billion for the same period last year. Through its policies therefore the Government is in the process of closing the gap that needs to be closed between what we are spending and what revenues are coming in.

A Deputy

They are closing the country.

As a result of the budgetary policies we are implementing this year, which were strenuously opposed by Deputy Kenny and his party last year, we are seeing our revenues coming in on profile. So far from the Deputy's continual depiction of this economy as not being in a position to recover, the stabilisation we are seeing at the moment——

As the Taoiseach well knows, I actually defended him and the country in the United States and Europe in recent weeks.

The Taoiseach is in possession.

The Deputy does far more harm in public than anything he can do in private.

I have defended the Taoiseach and this country abroad, in the United States and other places.

(Interruptions).

A Deputy

The Taoiseach has done a great deal of harm in recent years in this country.

I listened in silence to the Deputy's meanderings.

It would be better if the Taoiseach was silent.

This Government is pursuing the policies that are necessary to deal with the issues of the day, including how the country will recover. That is what is happening and it has been strenuously opposed by the Deputy's party at all times.

Who wrote this stuff?

His continual depiction of this economy as being incapable of recovery or not in fact being stabilised, is a mantra that does nothing to give confidence at home or abroad. I ask the Deputy to reflect on some of what he said in his first intervention here, which does nothing to help this country at this time either.

I pointed out that there was not any kind of stimulus in our economy.

I call Deputy Eamon Gilmore.

Those are the words of a desperate Taoiseach.

We will not support the Taoiseach.

We will not back the Taoiseach in Opposition, although that is what he wants.

I join the Taoiseach and Deputy Kenny in wishing Dr. Jim McDaid well in his retirement.

On yesterday's statement by the Minister for Health and Children in which she announced a voluntary redundancy scheme in the Health Service Executive, from that announcement, it would appear that it is intended to have a scheme for about 4,000 HSE staff. This voluntary redundancy scheme has been a while in coming. As far back as November 2004, the then chairman of the interim HSE, Mr. Kevin Kelly, told us that there was too much bureaucracy in the system. On 17 October 2007, the Minister herself told the Dáil that there was scope for a voluntary redundancy programme and that she intended to discuss it with the new health forum. In his statement on 8 July 2008, the Minister for Finance told us that his Department and the Department of Health and Children were drawing up proposals for a targeted scheme to reduce surplus staff in the HSE. On 27 September 2008, the then chief executive of the HSE told us that 1,000 backroom jobs would go over the following 12 months. In his budget speech on 14 October 2008, the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said that discussions were under way on the development of a redundancy scheme for the HSE. On 25 November 2008, the Minister for Health and Children said she hoped the redundancies would commence in 2009.

Having spent three to four years discussing this matter, the Minister announced the scheme yesterday and has given the staff two weeks to reply. The date set for the receipt of applications is 19 November. The date by which the redundancies are to take effect is 30 December. Given that the scheme took three to four years to emerge from the Government, does the Taoiseach think it is realistic to get 4,000 redundancies on a voluntary basis in the HSE, with applications in by 19 November and all done and dusted by 30 December?

As the Deputy knows, there was already a wider incentivised scheme for early retirement which was taken up by some. However, it was clearly not as successful as the scheme that is now being suggested. The latter scheme is arising at a time when the Government is seeking to protect front line services to the greatest possible extent. Therefore we have an obligation to reduce the cost of delivering those services. We are bringing forward the voluntary early retirement and redundancy scheme for that purpose for administrative and management grades and, where replacements are not required, for support staff as well. It has been long mooted that there would be a scheme in place and available and there had been an earlier one. We wish to proceed on the basis that the Government is providing moneys for this particular scheme during the course of 2010 to effect savings from 2011 on, as has been outlined. It is a voluntary scheme and it is for people to consider in their own time in the coming few weeks. I understand there were 900 expressions of interest overnight.

The issue here is not whether there should be voluntary redundancy scheme. Indeed, this is something the Labour Party has been advocating since the publication of our document on the reform of the HSE as far back as May 2008. The issue is that having delayed until now to bring forward the scheme, is it practical to have it carried out in this short timeframe? Some 4,000 staff in any organisation represents quite a large number. Presumably even if there are 4,000 applications received by 19 November, there will be a process of identifying whether those staff or the posts are surplus to requirements and can be released. There may well be a process of selection if more than envisaged subscribe to the scheme. Then there is the process of redeployment of staff because presumably one may have a situation where someone in one particular area might volunteer for redundancy and that job must be filled by someone else.

A question please, Deputy.

Quite a process must be followed under the Croke Park agreement, including consulting and making arrangements for re-deployment and so on. Are these dates, 19 November and 30 December, absolute or is it intended that if practical difficulties area encountered in the scheme, the dates will be extended?

The terms outlined yesterday require the applications to be made by 17 November, as has been said, and for people to leave the service on 31 December in order that the moneys provided in this financial year can be disbursed on that basis. Of course this is a challenging issue for management and employee representatives to deliver but it must be done in the context of the availability of funds during the current financial year. That this is coming is not a surprise; it has been mooted for some time at these grades and I am sure contingency plans can be put in place. I accept that it is a challenging timescale but it is one we must meet. I believe with the spirit of the Croke Park agreement, the facilitation of re-deployment and the fact that these grades have been identified as having some surplus capacity, it should be possible to do this without any major disruption of services.

As we have seen with the medical card scheme, the centralisation of services has provided change. In the past under the old structure, there had been administrative staff throughout the various health boards but we now have one third of that number with the ability to provide a centralised service.

Some 16 weeks is the current waiting time to get a medical card.

As the Deputy is aware, the fact is there were delays in these matters regarding inspection and directors of community care adjudicating on certain matters. A whole range of people has been involved in the adjudication of eligibility for medical cards. It is indisputable that centralisation has helped to bring about a situation whereby fewer people are required for the administration of the scheme. Similarly, there are obvious opportunities here that can be taken up quickly. Although it cannot be anything to go on by 17 November, the initial response has been quite positive in this respect.