Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ar son Teachtaí Shinn Féin, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le gach éinne a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht seo, go háirithe iad siúd atá ag tacú lenár rún. Tá am fós ag na Teachtaí eile dul ar an mbealach ceart agus votáil ar son an rúin. Tá rogha ag an Rialtas — bochtanas do pháistí agus saibhreas don uasal-aicme, nó cothromas agus ceart do gach saoránach. Is é sin an rogha.
I wish to begin by welcoming the new found interest in the economy of the Six Counties on the part of the Fine Gael and Labour parties. I have been a Member of the Dáil for almost 15 years and never — even when the debates on the peace process were at their height — have I heard so many references to the situation north of the Border or such real and genuine concern regarding the plight of ordinary citizens there. The level of concern to which I refer is both amazing and wonderful. Is it that the partitionist voices in Fine Gael and Labour — I do not refer to both parties but rather to voices within each — have experienced a conversion similar to that which befell St. Paul on the road to Damascus? Perhaps it is a conversion on the road to Dungannon. I wish that were the case. Dungannon is the only possibility in this regard as the Government could certainly not undergo a conversion on the road to Derry because it has just vetoed the project relating to the latter into oblivion.
Is it the case that the owners of the voices to which I refer are of the view that they have found a number of convenient sticks with which to beat Sinn Féin? I offer an expression of pardon to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and some of his old comrades when I make that analogy. I am of the view that we all know the answer to my question. It is a simple answer, so let us set matters straight. In this State the Fianna Fáil-Green Government signed away our economic sovereignty and ceded fiscal powers to foreign interests. That surrender of economic sovereignty and fiscal powers is being continued by Fine Gael and Labour. In the North, Sinn Féin is battling to take fiscal powers back from Westminster. We are battling to restore economic sovereignty to the people of this island, North and South.
In the Executive in the North we have worked to defend citizens against the cuts imposed by the Tory Government in London. We have successfully resisted — our record in this regard stands up to scrutiny — the imposition of water charges north of the Border. Hark, the current Government of this State. We also successfully resisted the imposition of prescription charges. Again, hark, the current Government. We have introduced a range of measures to assist the most vulnerable and to try to shield them from Tory cuts. Members should make no mistake: the Tory Government of Britain still controls the purse strings in the North of Ireland and that is why public service workers there and those on the neighbouring island in England, Scotland and Wales took strike action today. Sinn Féin fully supports those workers both in their action and in the context of their demands.
We will take no lectures from Fine Gael and Labour on our record of defending the people we are proud to represent, North and South. In her response to this Sinn Féin motion, the purpose of which is to defend child benefit, the Minister, Deputy Burton, either demonstrated a complete ignorance of where the fiscal powers relating to the North rest or she is just happy to peddle — as do a number of her party colleagues on a continual basis — any and every falsehood regarding Sinn Féin.
I understand that an unscheduled meeting of the Labour Parliamentary Party was held last night. The Minister is reported to have stated at that meeting that she has resisted at Cabinet the proposed cuts to child benefit. I hope she will be successful in her endeavours in that regard, if she is indeed engaged in such endeavours. I wonder what support, if any, she received from her party colleagues at the Cabinet table, namely, the Tánaiste and other Labour Ministers? The details in this regard have yet to be revealed and there are not many days left for the real facts to emerge.
The Tánaiste recently launched a new edition of James Connolly's writings. He might remember Connolly's phrase that the British were experts at "ruling by fooling". Is that not what this coalition Government is all about, namely, ruling by fooling? Where did people last see the slogan "Protect Child Benefit — Vote Labour"? It was printed on posters that were put up by the Labour Party during the general election campaign earlier this year. The Fine Gael-Labour programme for Government states: "We will maintain social welfare rates".
What is Sinn Féin asking in the context of its motion? All the motion seeks to do is to require the Government to fulfil its own programme, which was adopted only nine months ago. We are seeking nothing more and nothing less. The two parties that comprise the coalition Government should stand by the commitments which are contained in the programme for Government and on which they signed off. The motion does not propose increases in social welfare rates, although many such increases would undoubtedly be justified. It simply asks the members of Fine Gael and Labour to walk through the lobbies tonight and fulfil their commitments to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
We have heard more than once in this debate statistics that more than 205,000 children, 19% of children in the State, are at risk of poverty. Another 96,000 are already living in consistent poverty, which means they are experiencing material deprivations such as not having a warm waterproof coat or a substantial daily meal.
According to the figures published today by the Central Statistics Office, the deprivation rate in the State has doubled from 11.8% in 2007 to 22.5% in 2010. What is the figure at the end of 2011? People experiencing deprivation under that definition experience such hardships as not having a warm coat, being unable to heat their homes adequately and not being able to buy a present for their family or friends even once in a 12-month period. That is important as we meet here because that is the prospect that awaits one in five of our people as we approach Christmas 2011. These people, and many others, look now with trepidation at the budget in prospect next week, to be introduced over Monday and Tuesday.
Today also saw the release of figures showing a rise in the live register of jobseeker's benefit and allowance claimants to 448,600. There are nearly 450,000 unemployed, many of whom have young children and many of whom are newly jobless and with mortgages to pay, and yet the Government is contemplating cutting child benefit. Many also are experiencing long-term unemployment and generational unemployment, putting them and their children on the margins. For these, a cut to child benefit is almost unthinkable.
It cannot be stressed often enough that child benefit is a vital payment that keeps many families with children from going under. There can be no Deputy in this House, in government or opposition, who does not know that is a fact within his or her own communities and wider constituencies. Child benefit's universal nature helps to ensure that it reaches all who need it. The introduction of a complex and costly means test would achieve nothing and certainly would penalise many.
Those who focus on the fact that the wealthy also receive child benefit need to re-focus on the fact that the wealthy are not adequately taxed. That is something I ask the Labour Party to take on board — the wealthy in this State are not adequately taxed. There are alternatives to the measures signalled in budget 2012. This is shown by the CSO figures released today which demonstrate that the size of the disposable incomes of those at the top relative to incomes of those at the bottom increased further between 2009 and 2010.
The Government wrings its hands before it wields the axe and tells the people that it has no choice. It has choices, as we have demonstrated in this Chamber time and again and in my party's pre-budget submission. The Government has already made the wrong choices — that is the problem. It, the Labour Party included, has chosen to extend the bank bailout. It, the Labour Party included, has chosen to pay the Anglo Irish Bank bondholders. It, the Labour Party included, has chosen not to tax excessive wealth.
My party is willing to acknowledge that this is still a new Government. This is its first budget and it can make new choices next week. There still are critical days when a real difference can be made and real principles can re-emerge and be imposed in this relationship between the Labour Party and Fine Gael. The Government can protect children from poverty by refusing to cut child benefit and by protecting other welfare payments that are vital for low-income families with children.
Iarraim ar Theachtaí Fhine Gael agus an Lucht Oibre a gclár Rialtais fhéin a chur i bhfeidhm. Ní cheart dóibh ualach eile a chur ar phaistí na tíre nó cur le bochtanas in Éirinn arís.
Like my party leader earlier, and other speakers, I appeal directly to the Labour Party because I have no faith in Fine Gael and never had. I only can have hope that the Labour Party will make a difference in this Government. Why else could they possibly be there? I ask Labour Party Members to consider that voting against this Sinn Féin motion and for the Government amendment will be voting against the programme they endorsed when they voted to go into Government earlier this year. Most certainly, they will be voting against the commitments they gave to the people who elected them. Of that, there can be no doubt in each of their minds.
We all have an opportunity tonight to force the Government to pull back from the brink and not to impose further misery on families who are already overburdened. The pain is real. What Deputies are reflecting here is the reality within the communities we are proud to represent. I ask the Labour Party Members, in particular, but I appeal also to those of conscience in Fine Gael who have a sense of social justice, to pull back from the brink. They should pull back from inflicting yet more pain on the most vulnerable in the proposed budget next week. I urge all Deputies to seize this opportunity this evening and to write a new chapter in terms of the relationship between parties in coalition in future.