Leaders' Questions

There have been many pre-election promises made in recent days. The Minister for Health has been at it again in outlining his vision of the health services in the years ahead. I suppose this is to camouflage the fact that the pre-election promises of 2011 have not been fully honoured. The vast majority of them have been shredded and totally ignored.

The Minister for Health made a speech recently to Chartered Accountants Ireland in which he effectively outlined the end of the public health services as we know them. He said he is strongly of the view that the hospital groups or trusts, if one likes to call them that, should have authority and freedom to make collective agreements, manage their own assets and payroll and negotiate independent contracts to recruit managers and specialists outside of the constraints of public sector rules in the way semi-State bodies now do. He added, to make things worse, that where these trusts or hospitals consistently underperform in clinical outcomes, patient experience and financial management, it should be open to the provider to transfer management of the hospital for a period to private providers by means of a concession or management contract.

There is a strong attachment to the public health service in this country, although it is under-resourced, underfunded and facing major challenges in trying to provide basic levels of service. That is primarily down to lack of resourcing. Week in and week out, we have seen illustrations of that in our accident and emergency departments across the country. There are consistent increases in outpatient and inpatient waiting lists. Nevertheless, it is important that the Tánaiste, coming towards the end of this Government, outlines whether Labour is in cahoots with the Thatcherite policies of the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, when it comes to privatisation of large tracts or our public health services. Is the Tánaiste in agreement with the concept of farming out our public health services to private management companies, establishing something like an Irish Water, to be managed by an accountancy firm that will not take into account the social need aspects of our public health services? Will the Tánaiste today assuage the concerns out there that our public health services could be handed over to private management companies in the years ahead if Fine Gael and Labour are returned to office?

I understand the speech by the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, was an address to Chartered Accountants Ireland. I suppose that if he was talking to accountants, he may well have addressed the issue of accountants' roles in the various elements of the health services.

What does that mean?

The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, was very clearly giving a personal view. I think he indicated that and these were his wide-ranging thoughts on how the health services might develop as he saw it. He has done that and it is one of the things that people find very attractive about the Minister, as he engaged in very broad-ranging discussions on his views. He did that before the last election-----

It must be a bummer sharing a constituency with him.

-----and I presume he is doing it now before this election in speaking to a variety of areas. The Deputy asked if I agree with what he has to say. I welcome the fact that he is speaking broadly, setting out his own views and giving great thought to them. It does not mean that anybody has to particularly agree with any or all of his views. It is a free country with free speech. In that context, I welcome debate about the future of the health service.

The Tánaiste is looking for his transfers.

The Labour Party view on the health service is rooted in the concept of an organised, efficient, effective and caring health service, delivered for the most part through the public health service. As the Deputy is aware, it has been delivered for centuries in this country by not-for-profit institutions, many of them religious in origin, which have provided care and health services to generations of Irish people. That is where our vision of the health service is rooted.

We inherited the Deputy's party's vision of the health services in the form of the Health Service Executive. It is fair to say that when Fianna Fáil were in government, around 2004, it ran away from the responsibility of holding the Department of Health and the senior Ministry it involved. From there on, Fianna Fáil allocated that portfolio to its then partners in government.

It is the same as what Labour has done with Fine Gael.

They certainly had a very strong view of the role of the private sector in the health services.

Does Fine Gael not?

In its budget submission this year, Fianna Fáil referenced the accident and emergency department crisis but in its pre-budget statement, I did not see it proposing the allocation of additional funding that this Government has provided. We are all involved in a debate and I would not exclude the Deputy's party from being involved with it.

Is it all our fault?

Fianna Fáil has a particular history with regard to the HSE and what it was trying to achieve in health services. We have a health service in this country that comes with a very strong public service ethic. It is really important that we maintain that to the highest degree. We also inherited a sector of the health service that is not-for-profit, with much of it originating with religious organisations and bodies in this country. I see the core of the health service essentially being provided through dedicated public service that puts patients first.

As we recover, we have the problem of allocating sufficient resources to meet all the demands of a growing population and health service demands. Every country in the world, and particularly western Europe, faces that challenge. It is a challenge that the Labour Party in the last budget, together with our Fine Gael partners in government, has sought to address by allocating very significant additional resources to health services in Ireland.

The Tánaiste's party ran away from all its obligations.

It promised to protect those who most needed support from the State-----

Labour's way or Frankfurt's way.

-----and, in every budget it supported in this Parliament for the past five years, it brought forward a tax on the most vulnerable in this society. The idea that the Tánaiste can stand here and say-----

You crashed the economy.

-----we were running away from health is simply a farce.

You destroyed the economy.


The Labour Party and the Tánaiste were directly responsible.


Deputy Kelleher has the floor.

You destroyed homes and banks.

Did you sleep last night, Ray?

The Tánaiste is directly responsible for the thousands of people who are in emergency accommodation on a continual basis because of her reluctance to address the rent supplement and the need for an increase.


Take responsibility.

They said it would be €6 billion to recapitalise the banks.

Getting back to my original question.


Deputies, please. Deputy Kelleher has the floor now.

Sorry, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Getting back to my original question about the privatisation of the public health service, the Minister for Health was speaking to Chartered Accountants Ireland. The fact one is speaking to chartered accountants does not mean one should tell them something they would be interested in, because I would be very concerned if we were handing the running of the health services over to the KPMGs of this world.

You handed it over to Mary Harney.

The bottom line is that it is a public health service-----


-----and I would like to know whether the Tánaiste is committed to retaining a public health service.

You were the creator of the HSE.

In other words, it is retained in the ownership of the public and it is run for the public.


The Tánaiste can say it was just a speech that was being put forward at Chartered Accountants Ireland, but the bottom line is that the Minister, Deputy Varadkar-----

Here he comes. I thought the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, had a day off.

Here is the man himself.

The Minister did outline his vision of the health services in the years ahead and he has also outlined the fact, along with Fine Gael and the Labour Party, that the two parties will put themselves as an outgoing Government before the electorate.

Keep Fianna Fáil out again, forever. Keep you lot from wrecking the country.

Fianna Fáil has no credibility. Sit down.

We would like to know whether the Tánaiste supports the concept of privatisation of our public health services. I know the Tánaiste has praised the Minister for Health and obviously he is a constituency colleague-----


-----but leaving that aside, she needs to accept that there is huge concern out there because our public health system is under-funded, under-resourced-----

Whose fault is that?

It is continually starved of the resources it needs to provide basic services. That has been highlighted time and again.


Is the Tánaiste now saying that she is supportive of the concept of handing the management of hospitals over to private companies and undermining the public health services?

I forgot to say earlier, in the context of this Government, I want to congratulate in particular the people in Deputy Kelleher's constituency on the announcement by Apple yesterday of 1,000 extra jobs in the constituency-----

What has that to do with the health service?

I suppose the Tánaiste is going to take the credit for that.


-----in Hollyhill. I know the Ministers of State, Deputies Kathleen Lynch and Dara Murphy, will be very pleased about that.

I hope they are good apples. No rotten apples.


It is a pity the Government was not as interested in the Web Summit


In the same way that Deputy Kelleher probably has a very positive relationship at local level with those Ministers of State from this Government-----

Apples and oranges.

I am sure he does welcome the Apple announcement. It is a great announcement for the northside of Cork.

It has nothing to do with hospitals.

Deputy Kelleher threw out a general-----

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away from Leo.


About the Tánaiste's Department.

----- about the Government.

Can we have order, please?

The Government is doing what it promised to do, which is to restore the economy-----

It promised something totally different.

-----and get people back to work. That is the number one job of the Government.

It never promised privatisation of the health service.

By the way, this year in the HSE we are employing, overall, about an extra 4,000 people-----

One would not have thought that in Kilkenny yesterday.

One still cannot get a bed in Beaumont.

-----which is the first significant recruitment that has happened. My vision of the health service and the Labour Party's vision of the health service is of-----

Go on, tell us.

-----a publicly funded, well-run health service.

Publicly delivered as well.


Bearing in mind, as well-----

-----the long not-for-profit voluntary health service tradition that also exists in this country.

You are on the privatisation board.

I do not know whether Fianna Fáil wants to see the back of that, but the Labour Party does not want to see the back of the huge contribution of the voluntary sector-----

The Government is shafting them at every turn.

-----and the not-for-profit sector has made to the development of health services in this country.

That is a newfound interest.

Run them out of education, run them out of health.

That is a very important role. I do not know whether Fianna Fáil is saying it is going to shut down all of that, but again I want to say, and I heard Deputy Kelleher refer to chartered accountants-----

Yes. Was the Tánaiste at the Minister's gig?

I have to confess that I am originally a chartered accountant myself and all I can say is that, like lots of other professions, chartered accountants have a wide range of views on different issues. The Minister was speaking-----

What about their role in the banking crisis?

-----and I think it is to be welcomed. He was speaking in a broad way-----


He was not talking about Government policy.


He was talking about his own thoughts and views on how the health service should develop.

This is dragging on for 15 minutes. It is ridiculous.

It would be great if we could hear any views whatsoever from anybody in Fianna Fáil, because since about 2004-----

We are back to the Pat Rabbitte attitude that what one does at election time is to tell them whatever one thinks will get them-----


-----all the party has done is run away.

By the way, as Deputies know, the funding for health has expanded very significantly-----

You did not know until you got the Vote.

-----in the budget for this year and the funding being committed to health has expanded very significantly. Yes, we have serious problems that have to be addressed, and we are addressing those problems by funding them.

I thank the Tánaiste.

Deputy Kelleher is claiming that Fianna Fáil was an equaliser in some way in terms of what happened in this country over the last seven years. Fianna Fáil's form of equalisation is for 300,000 people to lose their jobs and go on social welfare-----

-----so their income falls.

Let us cut the minimum wage.

Fianna Fáil's form of equalisation is that businesses all over the country close down and then people who own those businesses are much worse off-----

Fifteen minutes of Leaders' Questions. This is ridiculous.

Your form of equalisation is to lie your way through an election.

Fianna Fáil's form of equality is to cut the minimum wage for workers in work by €1 an hour.

Has Leaders' Questions been extended?

That is a poor form of equality.


I can take it that the Tánaiste is not going to answer the question.

That is equalisation for Deputy Kelleher.

Deputies, we cannot hear each other now. I call Deputy Mary Lou McDonald.

Across the country, thousands of families are living in fear of losing their homes. These are hard-working families, who bought average family homes and are now being dragged through the courts by their lenders. These are the very same banks that were bailed out by the taxpayer. Last year, 7,100 families had court proceedings lodged against them. Over the past nine months of this year, banks have lodged 4,500 eviction proceedings with the courts. Every month, banks are lodging hundreds of fresh court actions against families in mortgage distress. Hundreds more families are being coerced by the banks into selling their homes rather than facing the horror of court action. Why is this happening? The answer is very simple. In 2013, the Tanaiste's Government passed the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act, the intention of which was to make it easier for banks to evict people from their homes

It has been successful in that endeavour. The figures speak for themselves. Before this Act became law, banks lodged between 50 and 100 court actions every month. After the Act became law, the number exploded to between 500 and 1,000 per month. That is a tenfold increase. The Tánaiste opened the floodgates, then she sat back and, once again, let the banks call the shots. As a result, the number of court-ordered evictions has increased dramatically. There have been 1,088 in the first nine months of this year. That compares with 644 during the same period in 2014 and 240 in the same period in 2013. The pattern is clear. Where is the recovery for the families who face eviction because of the Tánaiste's actions, what will she and her Government do to keep these people in their homes and when will she stand up to the banks and insist that they provide families with sustainable solutions to mortgage distress?

The Government is acutely conscious of the impact of debt on families across the country and we are determined to see that it is resolved. People have to move forward with their lives and I understand the worry and stress that is involved for people when they have big mortgage debt in respect of their homes. In other cases, people who got married bought a house and may have held on to an apartment or previous home as they were advised at the time by the bank broadly to do that. There are many families who have great difficulties with debt and everybody shares an enormous concern that they and their children should be helped as much as possible.

Our priority remains keeping borrowers in their homes whenever this is possible.

In relation to the report in The Irish Times this morning, the significant point to make is that the article points out clearly that there is a small, but welcome, fall in the actions before the courts. In fact, in terms of the detailed information from the courts, 90 to 100 of the cases before the courts are struck out or rescinded on a monthly basis. They are refused, they are withdrawn or they are struck out.

If Deputy McDonald or anybody else is aware of a family who have these kind of difficulties, or an individual who has these difficulties, the most important advice we can give is that they would engage with their lenders. Where they go to court, the courts deal with the cases in a thoughtful and careful manner. In fact, there has been detailed research carried out by commentators, such as Mr. Seamus Coffey, Mr. Karl Deeter and Mr. Brendan Burgess, who have written a series of important articles over the past period of time setting out in detail what is likely to happen to borrowers who go into the court process. There are other studies and statistics showing this as well. If borrowers engage with their lenders and if it does end up before the courts, the courts are routinely granting significant periods of adjournment in order to give more time for the parties to reach an agreement and where parties are committing to pay within the context of their means, the courts are allowing those arrangements. It is clear from the court cases to date that in a situation of last resort where it is not possible to reach an agreement or, as has been reported in the articles to which I refer, where many borrowers do not show up in court at all, as a consequence, notwithstanding that the courts are delaying those cases and adjourning them, notwithstanding the fact that the courts are offering time and space for the two parties to mediate and reach an agreement, there are still many borrowers who are not engaging at all. That is a point of difficulty. Thankfully, in the figures this morning, notwithstanding that they are far higher than anybody here would want to see, we are now in a situation where, according to the article, "The number of bills lodged fell by 30 per cent". It is traumatic for anybody to end up in court in relation to their family home. It is only when we see that figure down to little or nothing that we will be satisfied. That is what the article and the statistics show, as do the statistics from the Courts Service. As I say, I note the articles written by respected independent commentators at frequent intervals in the media.

I hope the Tánaiste is not trying to shift the blame and suggest that it is non-engagement by families that is causing this difficulty. I set out clearly for her the consequences of the legislation, the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2013, that she championed and brought through this House. The figures demonstrate the consequences of those actions.

The Tánaiste is engaging in a dangerous form of wishful thinking if she believes that this problem has been contained or if she believes that it will miraculously disappear. That is not the case. When one talks to those in the field who deal daily with families in mortgage distress, they say that we are merely seeing the beginning of the high point of this crisis. That is the reality.

The banks I asked the Tánaiste about regard, for instance, voluntary surrender or eviction - the euphemism is "repossession" - as sustainable solutions for families in mortgage distress. In what framework could anybody understand voluntary surrender or eviction to be sustainable solutions for any family? We are faced already with a chronic housing and homelessness crisis right across the State.

The Tánaiste offered in her response simply tea and sympathy for these families - even that was fairly lukewarm. She is not offering solutions. I put it to her, because this is the bottom line for tens of thousands of families across the State, that it is about debt write-down.

Hear, hear. Mr. Alan Dukes said it the other night on the television.

It is about writing off large portions of unsustainable mortgage debt.

If the banks continue blatantly and brazenly to refuse to go down that line, we will see not only thousands more court actions lodged-----

-----but a tsunami disaster for families across the State and many other families evicted and rendered homeless. Aside from the tea and sympathy, will the Tánaiste tell me when she will put the reins on the banks?

When will the Tánaiste intervene? When will she ensure that these families have some form of recovery and some form of certainty in the form of a roof over their heads?

First, to go back to the three independent experts who are writing articles regularly and following the details of what happens in different courts around the country, the title of a recent article was, "Inside the property repossession courts, where only one in five borrowers turn up". If Deputy McDonald is interested in a solution for borrowers that helps them away from the dreadful worry and stress of being in debt, the worst that can happen is that borrowers deny that there is a problem. I am saying only one in five borrowers shows up in the court. What are we doing to help borrowers?

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, on a point of order-----

There are no points of order during Leaders' Questions.

I am sitting beside the Minister of State in the Department of Social Protection, who - many of the Deputies here will be familiar with this at local level in their constituencies - on 1 October last, with the Money Advice and Budgeting Service funded by my Department, initiated a mentoring system so that anyone who goes to court can have assistance in the court.

Just a second-----

A question which would be reasonable, if Deputy McDonald put it, is could we move that process to an earlier point.

The big boys and girls get write-downs.

Could we move that process back without having to go to court at all? The answer is "Yes"-----

Write-off and write-down.

-----if we can get the borrowers who, for a variety of reasons, including enormous worry and stress about debt, will not do so-----

-----to engage with the lender. One cannot get a settlement for those involved unless one can get both lender and borrower to sit down together and work it out.

The banks made this mess and the Government's inquiry does not reveal it.

In working it out, deals are being made between banks and borrowers that are giving people a variety of arrangements-----

A Deputy

The banks can dictate.

-----which will allow them to hold their family home and which will ease the burden of debt.

The Tánaiste should get real.

For anyone who is experiencing difficulties with debt-----

The banks are not offering solutions.

No more interruptions, please.

-----I plead with them either to go to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, to go to their local banks or whoever loaned them the money and seek to arrive at an agreement where they can have a negotiated settlement of the debt-----

Agreements with guns to the head.

-----and they can then stay in their own home.

Keeping people in their homes has been the cornerstone of the Government's policy from day one.

What about the eviction Bill?

The Tánaiste should stop before she makes it worse.

Happily, significant numbers of cases are being settled, and the Courts Service has been extremely caring towards most of the families coming before the courts and is acutely sensitive to the stress and worry families are under.

What happened to debt write-downs for mortgages?

Hundreds of thousands of mortgage holders are paying their mortgages, and as we recover and more people return to work, more people are reaching settlements with their lenders.

Has the Tánaiste read the book Waiting for the Sheriff?

I return to a subject we have previously discussed, namely, community employment, CE, schemes. We know the value of the CE schemes and the difference they make. The system should be there to suit the individual participant and the community where it is based. However, it is not the case. Some CE schemes are struggling due to several issues.

The Department assessment is based solely on eligibility, not on suitability. People who are destined to fail are being put on CE schemes. It is also delaying the completion process of the particular course, given that people are joining schemes for which they are not ready. Insurance costs for CE have rocketed from €50 to €150 per participant. This increase must be met out of existing budgets which are already very stretched and which also include material and programme grants.

CE is being measured as a labour activation programme, which it is. However, it is much more than that, and the measurements are not taking it into account, for example, progression routes and the services CE schemes are providing.

People aged 18 to 21 who are unemployed and not in education or training cannot avail of CE schemes. They are a strong target group which should be joining CE schemes to avail of education and training. The double payment is gone, and there is a need to incentivise lone parents to join CE schemes, particularly those that offer training in child care. As well as earning a FETAC level 5 qualification for themselves, participants boost their own parenting skills and personal development. The €20 extra is not enough. It does not cover the travel costs for some participants. It is costing them more. These are people in receipt of basic social welfare payments. There are communities which depend on the services provided by CE, especially child care. If there is a problem with CE, there will be a problem with the child care service. If child care services go from communities of great need, it will be very costly in the long run.

CE has also been positive in terms of integration of new communities and Traveller communities. Although the system should be facilitating the participants and communities, it is not keeping up with the reality. The rules are very stringent. CE works when there is flexibility, particularly flexibility in those areas of great need. The Minister has met representatives of CE schemes and had very frank and open discussions with them. There is a need to meet again and resolve the issues which prevent CE schemes from continuing and doing the work they can do.

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate what she said regarding the importance of the services that CE schemes deliver throughout the country. There are more than 1,000 CE schemes and more than 22,000 people participate in schemes. They make an enormous contribution to their local communities and provide a range of services, including helping with services for older and retired people, after-school clubs and sporting organisations, especially the GAA and soccer clubs, to maintain local sport services and a range of local community services.

I am aware there have been issues with rising insurance costs across the board. My Department is very aware of it and is working on it. When the CE schemes came under the Department of Social Protection, some of the schemes were paying very high insurance rates. The Department negotiated deals to reduce the cost of insurance. There have been demands for increased insurance charges and we are working to address them. I will come back to the Deputy about it. I am waiting for a number of officials to finalise some improvements in it.

Participants in CE schemes will see a small increase in the allowance of €2.50 per week from 1 January. Participants in receipt of a fuel allowance will also receive an increase in their fuel allowance of €2.50 per week from 1 January.

While I appreciate these are small amounts, it has been the first significant improvement. As well as emphasising improvements for older and retired people over 66, I have made a point of ensuring all participants in any schemes will receive an increase in their total social welfare payments from 1 January.

I raised very specific issues and they need very specific answers. I draw the Minister's attention to an issue that is common to CE schemes and the designated places for people in rehabilitation. It is the role of the CE supervisor in areas of great need. These supervisors are seeing people who are presenting with much more complex needs than in the past, who have barely enough to live on and who are in receipt of the basic social welfare payment. They are dealing with women and families who are coming from homeless and emergency accommodation. Some are coming to CE with care plans. They are working with the children of those in addiction, who have more and greater needs. They are seeing women who are hungry, and CE schemes are providing breakfast and lunch out of their materials and programmes budgets. They are seeing increasing levels of poverty.

The role of the CE supervisor is much more demanding. It is much more than an administrative role. Discussions are taking place in the national drug rehabilitation implementation committee, NDRIC, between the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Health. NDRIC sees CE as part of a point of rehabilitation in community care for some of the participants. However, it is not being supported in the way NDRIC sees it should be. The supervisors are case managing and key working, and they need more training in those areas, not in payroll or administration, in which they are already proficient. Some of the supervisors I met are being innovative and some of the schemes have devised new programmes. For example the Seasamhact Abaltacht Obair Leann, SAOL, Project has initiated Reduce the Use. They are also involved in restorative practice. Another amazing programme is the capacitor programme, which we could consider rolling out into many youth projects.

CE programmes could do with better staff ratios and more rehab places, yet despite all the barriers and difficulties they are doing amazing work in these areas of great need. However, given the stringency of the rules and regulations, the system is not keeping up with the reality of the people and communities who are in great need of CE. I ask the Tánaiste to examine the role of the supervisor.

The Deputy refers to particular schemes that are involved with the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Health. After I became Minister, I provided for 1,000 ring-fenced places in schemes which cater for and assist people who are in rehabilitation from drugs. These places continue to exist. Over recent years as demand for such services has spread out more widely throughout the country, we have initiated further schemes or parts of schemes in places such as Waterford and Wexford to help people there who have issues.

People who go into rehabilitation need to be able to progress themselves by getting back into education or employment or by getting the kind of experience that is provided through the community employment scheme. We have maintained all of that intact. As a result of the discussions that have taken place with the relevant groups, some of which have not involved the Department of Social Protection, a broad framework agreement on the next steps has almost been completed. I am aware that the Departments of Health and Justice and Equality and, in particular, the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, are strongly committed to this. I anticipate that we will be able to announce that agreement in the not too distant future. We have continued to fund community employment in this way. I assure the Deputy that we will continue to do so because it is an important pathway to sustained recovery for many people who have experienced drugs and addiction issues.

I would like to respond to the Deputy's earlier point about how people are selected for community employment courses. I suggest that if she has some specific examples, I will take them back to the Department. We have opened community employment up to younger people and we are also opening it up to older people. As people get back to work in Ireland and as this country starts to work back to full employment, two groups of people may continue to have the difficulties they have at present. In the first case, which relates to younger people under the age of 25, we are building up apprenticeships and First Steps programmes to help them to identify career plans. In the second case, which relates to older people who may have lost their jobs or taken early retirement deals, we are conscious that such people would be delighted to be involved in and contribute to their local communities through community employment. We should avail of the experience, wisdom and community caring that older people so often provide in a community employment context.

They cannot get places.

In addition, community employment is one of the avenues that can be used to give opportunities to younger people. We have opened up Tús to self-referral. Some 20% of Tús placements can now be made by people applying and putting themselves forward. Like the community employment scheme, Tús has proved to be very popular throughout the country. As we have been saying about community employment, Tús does some very valuable work. If the Deputy knows people who might like to be involved in community employment but have not got one of their choices, she should remind them to look at the Tús openings that may be available in their local areas. We are providing for self-referral. Tús has done an enormous volume of work in towns, villages and areas right around the country. Those involved have worked on simple things like tidy towns, which are so important for neighbourhoods. They have done very valuable work in the community. For example, they have worked with older people on home repairs that may be required. If the Deputy sends any specific details to me, I will be happy to go through them in detail.

There go another few icebergs.