I assume the Taoiseach will be taking Leaders' Questions?
Will the Tánaiste be taking them?
Tá an Taoiseach ag teacht.
The Minister, Deputy Ross, is not quite there yet, a Cheann Comhairle.
It will not be long.
Dream on, baby.
Taoiseach, we are ready to get the ball rolling. An chéad cheist is from Deputy Micheál Martin.
Over the weekend it was revealed by Tony Connelly of RTÉ that Revenue has undertaken comprehensive and substantive work on the implications of Brexit on the future trading relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom. It was basically stated that there would be an enormous physical and economic impact on our country and on trade and that the impact on the customs infrastructure would be very significant indeed. There are 91,000 companies in this country that trade with the UK and that need to know this kind of thing: the bread and butter of what Brexit could look like. The people working at the coal face in Revenue have been doing this very commendable work indeed. Enormous paperwork will ensue and there will be enormous implications for human resources, physical space requirements and storage facilities for import and export. The Revenue report also makes some very strong points, including the very obvious one that once negotiations have been completed the UK will become a third country for customs purposes and the associated formalities will become unavoidable. While this will affect all member states, the effect will be more profound in Ireland as the only EU country with a land border with the UK. The report states that it would be particularly naive to believe that a new and extremely unique arrangement can be negotiated and applied to the EU-UK land frontier.
This report has, in essence, been buried by the Taoiseach and the Government. Fianna Fáil's Brexit spokesman, Deputy Donnelly, our finance spokesman, Deputy Michael McGrath, and Deputy Browne have each tabled numerous Parliamentary Questions regarding Revenue's work in this area. What kind of work has been undertaken? Have specific reports been published? On 11 September Deputy Donnelly asked the Minister for Finance "if his Department has conducted an assessment of the additional number of customs officials that may be required in the event of the UK leaving the customs union; and if will make a statement on the matter." Deputy Browne and Deputy Burton asked similar questions. There was no reference in the reply to these questions to any internal work undertaken by Revenue or to a report of this kind and magnitude. The Taoiseach's predecessor said that he would share this kind of information with party leaders and with the Oireachtas. I see no logic or rationale as to why this report was suppressed. Failing to share this with the Oireachtas and with the general public shows bad faith on the part of the Taoiseach and the Government. I see no rationale as to why it was buried in the manner that it was, other than the fact that it might be the kind of story and the kind of negativity that the Taoiseach did not want to get out. The Revenue report gives the harsh reality of what Brexit could be like and would have been of value to everybody if we could have got it in time. Why, after so many Parliamentary Questions, did the Government stonewall on this particular issue?
I read the report last week, or possibly on Monday, and I certainly did not suppress it. The report is from 2015 and was carried out before the referendum even happened. Much has changed since then, not least the commitment from the Government of the United Kingdom that there will no physical infrastructure on the Border, and the negotiating guidelines that we have agreed from the European Union. I can assure Deputy Martin that I did not suppress this report; I did not even know that it existed until last week or early this week. I have since read it and have no difficulty with it being published. There is nothing in it that should be of any surprise to anyone. It is a desktop analysis carried out by the Revenue Commissioners as to what may happen in the event of a hard Brexit, there being a hard border, Britain leaving the customs unions and Ireland being left unable to negotiate with Britain either a unique arrangement for Northern Ireland or a customs union partnership which would essentially replicate the customs union. What the report says should not surprise anyone. If no customs union partnership is agreed with the United Kingdom, if there are no special arrangements for Northern Ireland and if we end up with the hard Brexit that we are all working to avoid then this would produce exactly these results. It would result in enormous cost and enormous bureaucracy for business, along with customs posts, border guards, truck stops and all of the various things that we are working so hard to avoid. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Nobody should be shocked at this. We have been talking about the consequences of a hard Brexit for years now. I have been to the border between the USA and Canada to see exactly what a hard border would mean. It has been our objective all along to prevent this happening and we have been very resistant to any defeatism from anyone, including the Opposition and its suggestion that a hard border is inevitable and that we should start preparing for it. It is one thing to carry out a desktop analysis as to what may happen in a certain scenario - this has been happening and I have told the Deputy this. It is a totally different thing for people to start preparing for a border that we are going to oppose tooth and nail.
First, this report has been updated six times. We know about it because of the work of Tony Connelly of RTÉ and not because of the Taoiseach or the Minister for Finance. Deputy Donnelly has asked the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, 19 parliamentary questions on issues relating to this. Is the Taoiseach seriously suggesting that he and the Minister for Finance knew nothing about it? On 11 September last, the Minister responded to a question tabled by Deputy Donnelly by saying he had been "informed by Revenue that at this juncture it is not possible to assess what additional resources would be required if the UK left the customs union". Is the Taoiseach seriously telling me that this response was transparent and truthful? We now know from the Revenue report that the implications of such a move would be deadly serious. Does the Taoiseach agree that the 91,000 Irish companies trading with the UK need to know about this kind of stuff? Does he agree that the general public, the small and medium-sized enterprises and the British traders need to know about it? They do need to know about this.
Is the Deputy not aware that we are talking about it every week?
The Taoiseach should stop saying disingenuously that this is no surprise.
This is fake outrage.
The reality is-----
This is nonsense.
The Minister told Deputy Donnelly that he would share this kind of information with him and with other representatives, but he did not do that in this instance.
We spoke about it yesterday.
I think I know the reason this was not done. The problem is that this report buries the political rhetoric we have heard from the Taoiseach and his colleagues for the last 12 months.
How? It does not.
Everything we have heard about a seamless or frictionless border has been buried by this report.
The Deputy is trying to create a problem that is not there.
It seems to me that certain people just did not want it out there. That is a problem.
This is all we have been talking about.
As far as I am concerned, the Government acted in bad faith.
The Deputy is trying to create a story where there is none.
It deliberately withheld information from the Dáil. Parliamentary questions that were asked were not properly and comprehensively answered as they should have been.
This report has been referred to dozens of times.
Maybe a few of the Minister's colleagues went to some Jesuitical colleges because the replies to which I refer were very Jesuitical indeed. I suggest such an approach was taken for a reason.
I have not seen six versions of any report. I have only seen one report.
It has been updated six times.
As I have said, I have no difficulty with it being published. The first time I saw it was a few days ago. To answer the Deputy's question, it does not say how many customs officials may be needed. It mentions a range of between 100% and 800%. These things are not necessarily calculable.
Could the Minister not have said what was in it?
I have to say I am a little disturbed by this level of outrage.
It is fake.
It does not seem genuine.
Before and since the referendum, everyone has known exactly what would be meant by the consequences of a hard border on our island, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
We do not know that.
I have never spoken about invisible, frictionless or telepathic borders.
We have spoken about none.
I have always said that is not achievable. I have always said that there are no technical or information technology-based solutions to this. I have always said that the only solution to this problem is a political one.
The political solution is that we continue to have a free trade agreement with the UK and-----
People need and deserve to know.
-----as I said in my speech in Belfast, the UK stays in the customs union. In the absence of such an arrangement, there should be a long transition period, as I also said in Belfast, or there should be a unique arrangement for Northern Ireland. I have always said that the solution to this problem is a political one, rather than a technical one. I am very confused by the position of Fianna Fáil, the republican party.
Is Fianna Fáil arguing that we should start training up border guards and getting dogs ready?
Would you stop?
Should we start checking out sites for border posts and truck stops?
This is more spin.
Is this what Fianna Fáil, the republican party, is actually advocating?
The Government should publish the report.
Of course we are doing desktop studies into what may happen under the many different scenarios that could arise from Brexit. We are not going to do what Fianna Fáil seems to be suggesting, which is-----
-----start preparing for something we are trying to prevent. We are not going to be hiring and training dogs. We are not going to be hiring customs officials. We are not going to be scoping out the Border for sites for truck stops.
The Government should publish the data.
Regardless of Fianna Fáil's demands that we should make such preparations, we will not do that.
Its position is very strange.
On a point of order-----
There is no provision for a point of order on Leaders' Questions. I call Deputy Adams.
I am making a basic point about parliamentary questions.
No. There is no point of order on Leaders' Questions.
Can I make a point to the Taoiseach-----
No, you cannot.
All we want is for the Taoiseach to publish the report.
Sorry, Deputy, resume your seat.
That is all we want.
Deputy Martin, you are being disorderly.
We just want reports to be published and questions to be answered. It is very simple. The Government should not be hiding the truth from the public.
One hundred years on, it is great to hear these two parties talking about the Border.
What is seldom is wonderful.
Gerry is back.
Yesterday, Fine Gael, the Minister for Finance and Fianna Fáil launched another budget that is lacking in vision and is devoid of ambition. This lack of vision is most clearly seen in the failure to tackle the crisis in our health service. The Taoiseach has hailed the health budget as the largest in the history of the State. He will know that the health service needs at least €691 million just to stand still. The Minister for Finance announced €685 million for health yesterday. That represents a net loss - a cut in effect - in anyone's language. The Government and its Fianna Fáil partners have chosen to leave our health service short of the money it needs to survive, never mind to improve. Approximately 680,000 citizens are already on hospital waiting lists. Almost 66,000 people spent time on trolleys in the first eight months of this year. That includes 2,216 people last week.
I am particularly drawn to the hard reality that citizens with disabilities, or their carers, will get little comfort from yesterday's budget. Have they no place in the Taoiseach's republic of opportunity? There is no commitment to increase personal assistance hours or respite care services. There is no funding for neuro-rehabilitation teams or transitional services. There is no mention of any new employment supports for citizens with disabilities. The Government has announced some modest benefits, including a €5 increase in disability allowance, which will not come into effect until March 2018.
Prior to the budget, Sinn Féin proposed a range of progressive measures, including 500 extra hospital beds, 2.1 million extra home help hours, 248,000 extra home care packages, 600 additional front-line staff in disability services and 500,000 additional personal assistance hours. We sent all these proposals to the Minister for Finance and his Government colleagues. They could have made these choices, but they decided not to. This budget was a real opportunity to send a message that the Government is on the side of ordinary citizens. Yesterday, it failed in a very spectacular way to seize that opportunity. It failed the citizens who depend on public services, especially our health services. It failed the homeless and citizens with disabilities and their carers. Last Wednesday, the Taoiseach promised that funding for citizens with disabilities "will have to form part of the budget and the Estimates process". He said he was sure the Government would "find additional funding for disability services next year", but it has not done that. Will the Taoiseach explain why 643,000 people with disabilities and their families have been left behind by the Government and its Fianna Fáil partners?
The amount of additional funding for disability services next year, as announced in yesterday's budget, is €65 million. Approximately €50 million of this will be used to improve and expand existing services and cover additional pay costs etc. The other €15 million will be used for new developments. That is just in the Department of Health. Additional funding is being provided to the Department of Education and Skills to cater for an extra 1,000 special needs assistants next year. They will provide additional educational supports to people with disabilities. In the social protection area, another increase of €5 a week for people with disabilities will kick in from March, as it did this year. The same increase will be given to those who care for them. The exact breakdown of services like additional respite and personal assistance hours will be set out in the service plan in the normal way. Those are the facts of the additional funding for disability that was announced yesterday. Crucially, funding is to be made available for the decision-making service within the Department of Justice and Equality to allow us to proceed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is something the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has fought very hard for.
Deputy Adams started by criticising our decision to increase health spending by €685 million next year. It is the biggest increase in health spending in at least ten years. It is the biggest health budget in the history of the State. If we are asking any questions about that among ourselves, we should be asking why additional resources are not providing better results. The National Treatment Purchase Fund is one of the areas that will see additional investment, which is very welcome. I acknowledge the participation of Fianna Fáil in calling for these additional funds. The increase from approximately €20 million this year to €55 million next year will allow us to do many more high-volume procedures on hips, knees and cataracts etc. I think we will see some real progress in those areas. The Deputy has a big problem in the question he asked. He said at the outset that everyone knows it costs €691 million a year for the health service "just to stand still".
I do not accept that. There is something profoundly wrong with the health service if it would cost that much every year just to stand still. We estimate the cost of maintaining the existing level of service at approximately €400 million, in the region of 3%, which would be the norm internationally. If Sinn Féin and Deputy Adams really believe that it costs €691 million a year for the health service just to stand still, they have a big question to answer. The Deputy may not have read his own documents on Sinn Féin's alternative budget for 2018.
We read them all.
I read Sinn Féin's documents. On page 7 of its document on health, Sinn Féin recommends an increase in health spending of €403.55 million a year.
On top of the-----
Quiet, please, Deputies.
Before that, Sinn Féin recommends a further €100 million in capital spending. In Sinn Féin's alternative-----
It provides an increase.
-----budget strategy, it recommends that we spend €503.55 million extra on health next year-----
-----which it believes is less than is needed to stand still and which is actually less than we are providing. Sinn Féin has been exposed. It wants health cuts.
I am glad to see that the Taoiseach reads our documents but it is a pity that he did not read and pay heed to them before he brought forward his fake budget yesterday.
Sinn Féin's numbers are wrong.
We propose that €400 million extra be spent above requirements for demographic issues, pay issues and so on. Results count. The Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, the Mental Health Reform alliance, the National Association of General Practitioners and all disability rights advocacy groups have criticised this budget severely. The IMO has said that to claim that this is the biggest health budget ever is nothing but spin and fake news. The budget will not even allow us to keep pace with rising health demands and our health crisis will worsen.
Here is the rub, and I do not blame the Taoiseach for this. He does not believe in equality and the budget reflects that position. Where is the fairness for the hundreds and thousands of citizens who are stressed out by worries about money, paying bills and getting and keeping a roof over their heads? Where is the fairness for those who depend on our health services and who live with disabilities, for the poor and for the vulnerable? Will the Taoiseach tell us what they got from his budget?
The Deputy has a big problem because that is just not what his document provides for.
It does. The Taoiseach has not bothered to read it.
If he is saying that €400 million extra on the current side, an additional €100 million on the capital side and another €691 million-----
No, it is plus €691 million.
-----should be spent just to stand still, he is saying that we should increase the total health budget next year by €1.1 billion. That is simply not provided for in the alternative plan-----
-----that Sinn Féin put forward.
The Taoiseach has shown that he cannot even read.
The Taoiseach does not want to hear it.
I am sure we will allow plenty of other people to assess-----
We are talking about the Taoiseach's position.
Will the Taoiseach answer the question?
I call Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett.
So that I am clear, Ceann Comhairle, was that an answer?
That is the answer the Deputy has got. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.
There were no answers.
The budget announcements made by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, yesterday on the issue of the emergency in housing and homelessness were nothing more than a hoax and a very cynical sleight of hand that involves rehashing commitments on social housing that were made long in advance of the budget and offering absolutely nothing to the thousands of families affected by the homelessness crisis or the 100,000 families rotting on housing lists with no hope of getting council homes. The Minister said that 3,800 new social houses will be provided next year. That was already announced by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, so there was nothing extra or new. A total of 17,000 housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancies were announced. That matter was already dealt with in the Rebuilding Ireland plan published by the previous Minister, Deputy Coveney. There is nothing new a year on as the crisis escalates and the number of people in homelessness services gets worse. Some 8,000 people, including 3,000 children, are homeless now. There is nothing new on a failed plan. Is that acceptable?
I want to let the Taoiseach know that, in the past two weeks, the situation has got worse. The first line of defence is council housing. The Government effectively stopped building that type of housing in 2011. The second line of defence is hubs and emergency accommodation. Both are now full. Families who are homeless are being told by text - they are not even receiving telephone calls - by local authorities that there is no emergency accommodation for them. The last line of defence against homelessness for families has collapsed in the past couple of weeks because all the hotels are full as well. My office spent two days ringing around last week for Kayley, a young mother and student, and her children. Three staff members phoned all the hotels on the approved list for hotel accommodation for those homeless people. There was nothing available. We also have Sinéad, Kayley's friend, another student with children who is in the same situation and there is nothing available for them. There is another of a mum and dad with five children. One is very heavily traumatised and her psychiatrist has expressed great worry about the young baby, two of them are toddlers and three are attending school. They phone around on a day-to-day basis and are thrown out every morning. They do not know if they will have a roof over their heads each day. There is another family with eight children - and one on the way - living in homeless accommodation and they are thrown out at the weekends because the hotels are full. They have to fend for themselves over the weekend with eight children. The defences against homelessness are collapsing and, against that background, the Government offers nothing new except a hoax, pretending to give something new when that something has all already been announced. Does the Taoiseach think that is acceptable in the face of the current housing emergency?
I am not in a position to comment on individual cases without knowing the facts and being able to have them verified. Even if I was able to do that, I would not be able to breach individual confidentiality. If there are individual cases that the Deputy wants to raise, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, would be happy to look into them. Up until now, we have been able to provide emergency accommodation for any family that needs it. That has been done. Thankfully, we do not have any families on our streets. I know that is nothing to be particularly proud of but we have avoided that through the use of emergency accommodation. In addition, there are now fewer people in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation than previously was the case as a result of the development of family hubs in Dublin and elsewhere.
There were a number of new announcements relating to housing yesterday. It was announced, for example, that the vacant site levy will increase to 7%. That is an important measure designed to free up land for development and prevent the hoarding of land. There was also a new announcement on capital gains tax, ending the seven-year rule, thus allowing more land to come into development. There was a new announcement regarding a new housing finance agency that will provide €750 million, a lot of new money, for development finance to builders in order that they might build affordable housing throughout the country. A barrier to building housing is the inability of developers, particularly small builders, to obtain finance. Three new announcements were made yesterday, backed by money, so Deputy Boyd Barrett's argument is, evidently, incorrect.
In the context of the provision of funding in respect of announcements which have already been made, that is the case because funding was provided yesterday in respect of announcements made previously. This money will allow us to increase significantly the number of council houses and apartments being built. In 2015, only about 500 public houses or council houses - whichever term one prefers to use - were built. That number will rise to 2,000 this year. These are houses built directly by councils and approved housing bodies. Next year, because of the additional funding provided - a 50% increase in the capital budget - 3,800 houses will be built. In addition, 1,200 social houses will be brought on stream by renovating voids and through Part V. Some 900 will be acquired and approximately 2,000 will be provided through long-term leasing. This means that 7,900 homes will be added to social housing stock next year, all things going to plan. In addition, and I am pretty sure that this was a new announcement, funding for homelessness bodies and agencies is going up by 18%, from approximately €98 million to €120 million next year, which is a significant increase.
I want to ring the alarm bells for the Taoiseach. People cannot even get into hotels now.
Families cannot get a family hub or emergency accommodation. They cannot even get a hotel now because when they ring the hotels they are told the hotels already have a full complement of Dublin City Council-approved homeless families. Not only has the Government not got them out of hotels - some of them would love a hotel because they have nowhere else to go - they cannot even get a hotel. I just wanted to tell the Taoiseach that this is where we have come to.
As we had already heard about the 3,800 units, there was nothing new in the budget in this regard. Not a single extra social housing unit. This is against a situation where the last line of defence on homelessness has collapsed. It is not going to cut it. As for home building finance Ireland, HBFI, along with the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, it involves more handouts, extraordinarily, for private developers. As the banks we bailed out will not lend to the private developers, we are now going to give cheap money to private developers to build on public land and who will then sell the properties back to the State at inflated prices. What sort of madness is that? The LIHAF is a failure and the Government has allocated more money to it. Private developers are now looking for well in excess of the €300,000 cap, which the Government has lifted. They are going to sell us back at exorbitant prices the land we sold them at a discount. What madness is that?
That is not true.
It is 7,000 homes.
It is true. Look at Cherrywood.
We sold land to Hines and the average house price sought there is now €500,000.
Please allow the Taoiseach to respond.
First of all, LIHAF is not a failure. It is Government money provided to give sites access and make them developable. I would have thought that - even from Deputy Boyd Barrett's point of view - he would have thought it an essential role of the State to provide public infrastructure to sites for housing. That is what LIHAF does. It connects the roads, brings in the water services and does all the things that are needed to make it possible for people to build on a site-----
For other people to build, for the market.
-----and that is what we continue to do. If I turned around in this House and suggested that public roads and infrastructure should to be provided by private developers, I imagine that Deputy Boyd Barrett would also be against that so it is one of those situations where we just cannot win no matter what we do.
That is nonsense. Public housing is needed.
I gave a few examples of new announcements that were made yesterday in respect of the new housing finance vehicle. That will lend the money to developers to build on commercial terms. This body will have €750 million, it will use the expertise of NAMA, and it will lend the money to builders to build houses and they will then pay it back. We anticipate that it will not only produce new houses, it will also generate a return for the taxpayer.
The Deputy made reference to measures being announced previously and the funding announced in the budget. That is actually a normal course of events. For example, some weeks ago the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, announced that maternity leave would be extended for mothers of children who are born prematurely. This was announced some weeks ago but the money made available to do that was announced in the budget. That is often how it works. Some weeks ago I announced that we would extend our diplomatic footprint and open new embassies around the world. In yesterday's budget money was provided for this measure and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade gave more details on it. This is not something to be shocked or scandalised by. It is often the case that during the course of the year Ministers will make announcements about things they intend to do, and then the funding is provided for in the budget. That is how budgets work.
Families cannot even find a place in a hotel.
There has been much talk about what the Government is going to do, which is conveniently hard to measure, and I want to speak of some things the Government has done. I want to raise the issue of a particular group of pensioners and members of a pension scheme, many of whom are in my constituency and many of whom are in the Taoiseach's constituency. A number of these people are in the Public Gallery today, having taken the day off from their work to be here.
When the Taoiseach was the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, he brought in the State Airports (Shannon Group) Act 2014. As a result of the unique powers given to the trustee by this legislation, the pension scheme of thousands of workers in Aer Lingus, the Dublin Airport Authority and the Shannon Airport Authority was changed dramatically with effect from January 2015. The accrued benefit of active and deferred members has been frozen. It will never increase in the future. Deferred members saw their entitlements plummeting, devastating the expectations of their living standards in their retirement years. I can tell the Taoiseach that these people are not celebrating the €5 pension increase yesterday.
Almost exactly one year ago to the day, when the Taoiseach was the Minister for Social Protection, I brought to his attention the situation of an associated pension scheme, the second Aer Lingus supplementary scheme, involving some of the same people. That scheme was linked to the Irish airlines (general employees) superannuation scheme, IASS, with the discretionary benefits objective to potentially provide for indexation of the IASS, which was closed at the same time. I brought it to the Minister's attention that this fund of €108 million belonging to 2,500 people was sitting there in cash while the trustees took siphons to spend hundreds of thousands of euro on professional fees. That scheme is now being wound up, the Minister is now the Taoiseach and at this stage the people involved urgently need his help.
The pension operated for eight years between 2007 and 2014. Workers paid in 2% of their salary, the company paid in 4% and €34 million was put in to kick-start it. The expectation was always that members of the fund would get back their contributions and any surplus divided on a fair basis. Instead, a method of distribution has been unilaterally decided upon by the trustee. This has caused absolute uproar. I will give some examples. A woman who is 45 years old paid in €10,500. She is being allocated €12,400. A 53 year old man paid in €14,200 and he will get €17,100. A 59 year old woman who paid in €22,800 will get €62,300. A man, who is one year older, who paid in €100 more will get back €23,700 more. This type of allocation method is completely unacceptable to members whose money has been allocated in such an unfair manner, and placed into a pension scheme over which they have been given no option.
My question to the Taoiseach is really quite simple. Will he contact the trustee and the advisers to ask them to listen to the scheme members and to have the funds of the scheme allocated in a fair manner before it is too late?
I thank the Deputy. I do not believe anyone in this House wants to see a situation where people do not receive the pension they had expected. I know that this has happened to a lot of people across the State, and not just in this particular scheme. It has also happened across the private sector where pension schemes have had to reduce the promised benefits because there just was not enough money in the pot.
One of the things we have is the State pension. The State pension is provided by the State and is a guaranteed income floor for everybody. As the Deputy has acknowledged, it has increased again for the third year in a row ahead of the rate of inflation. I accept that it is a small increase but it is the third year in a row that we have had an increase that is greater than the rate of inflation and the rise in the cost of living. I sincerely hope that we can continue to do that in the years ahead.
With regard to private sector, occupational or semi-State funds it works quite simply; money is paid in to the fund by the employees, money is paid in to the fund by the employers and when people retire, pensions are paid out of that. Of course, the amount that is paid in to the fund - and depending on how the fund is managed also - has to match the benefits. Many of these funds were set up in the 1970s when projections about life expectancy were very different to what they are now. In the 1970s the average life expectancy was 68 years for a man and for a woman it was a bit older. We have found that with a lot of occupational schemes the amounts paid in by employees and employers were not enough to match the promises made at the time. This has resulted in reduced benefits for many people. It is regrettable but I do not see any way of resolving it because it would not be fair on those people who do not have an occupational pension to be asked to fill that gap. I know that the Deputy is not asking for that.
The Deputy made reference to a second pension fund and I do remember she had raised it with me at the time and that she had spoken to my officials about it. If we can we will help but what can be done is quite limited because we must act within the law. This applies to me and to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty also. The Deputy is aware that the Minister, Deputy Doherty is bringing the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2017 through the House at the moment and that Bill is designed to strengthen the authority of the Pensions Authority when it comes to the wind-up of pension funds to ensure that people are properly treated.
All of the problems the Taoiseach identified at the start of his response really have nothing to do with the issues I raised in this context.
The pot that is there now has money in it to be distributed. The problem is the failure of the Department of Employment and Social Protection to take on the unfettered power of trustees in pension schemes which has resulted in this trustee deciding, against the wishes of the vast majority of the members of that scheme, to allocate, in a completely unfair manner, the moneys into a different pension scheme over which the members have no say. The trustee is the Irish Pensions Trust, which is owned by Mercer, the winding up administrator is Mercer and the scheme actuary is Mercer. The scheme lost €2 million. The funds were sitting there in cash which they bled out of the scheme in the last two years before the winding up. I respect the fact that the Taoiseach cannot intervene, but he can contact the trustee and Mercer and point out that while, legally, they do not have to listen to the members of the scheme because there is no legislation to say so, we are asking them to do so because it is the right and fair thing to do. The method of distribution now is appalling.
I would be happy to arrange for the Deputy, someone from my Department and the Minister for Employment and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, to sit down, go through this and see if there is something we can do. I suspect there is not. The law needs to be changed in this area. Trustees are there to look after the interests of the members and not to look after the interest of the employer or, indeed, the employees. It is the interests of the members of the fund. It is our intention to legislate to give more power to the Pensions Authority in respect of winding up situations like this so that all of the power does not lie with the trustees. It is a change in the law that is required and that is the only thing that will make a difference into the future.
In accordance with the order of the House, we have two further questions. I return to Deputy Micheál Martin.
There was some surprise on the announcement of the budget yesterday at the allocation of €5 million for the new strategic communications unit. It is not an insignificant sum of money when contrasted with for €3 million for DEIS schools and €2.5 million for the Irish language as well as other needy causes I could mention which required some extra allocation. In reply to a parliamentary question which I tabled some time ago, the Taoiseach said that the purpose of the strategic communications unit was, among other things, to make it easier for people to understand what is happening. The homeless children about whom Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke are acutely aware of their status relative to their peers at school. They know what is happening. Families of children who are waiting for scoliosis operations know what is happening. Children awaiting assessment and their families know what is happening. The Government cannot erase these realities of life with a spanking new strategic communications unit.
I have a number of issues with the unit, including its cost and the potential politicisation of the public service. The Taoiseach stated in reply to me here some time ago that he came up with the idea and appointed the head of the unit, an established civil servant, without any public competition. I was told originally that there would be two staff members and that it would be separate from the Government Information Service as a stand-alone unit within the Department of the Taoiseach. We now learn that as it evolves, it will co-ordinate and run the show across the board in terms of the entire edifice of communications from Departments and State agencies. Most people looking at this from a distance see it for what it is, namely, a propaganda unit designed to sell a political message on behalf of the Government. It is not in any shape or form about objective Government strategic communications.
Can the Taoiseach explain why Mr. Concannon was not appointed through the rules governing special advisers which are used in other cases when an established civil servant is being appointed to a role by a member of Government? Can he also explain why his deputy was not appointed through the rules governing special advisers? Can he indicate how this unit will not be politicised when the blurring of the lines has already occurred at its inception? The appointment of the head was a political act by the Taoiseach. While we understand the Taoiseach's obsession with communications, important issues arise here about the politicisation of our Civil Service which must be avoided at all costs. The manner of the establishment of this unit undermines that principle.
We published the detail of the cost of the unit in the budget because I wanted to be as transparent about this as much as I could be. We put the cost out there. There will be six staff. The total cost, most of it being for information campaigns, will be €5 million in a full year. It will be cost neutral because it is being fully funded from my Department's existing administrative and information budget. In fact, as the Deputy will know from page 164 of the budget book, my Department is one of the few which is having its budget cut next year. The Department's budget is being reduced from €36.7 million to €35.8 million. Therefore, we are able to do this within the existing budget of the Department - actually reducing the budget of the Department. It is, therefore, as I said, cost neutral. Over time, it will actually save money as we will be able to reduce the number of information campaigns and the level of communications activity of other Departments and of the high number of State agencies, which have their own independent communications functions which they may not need at all.
Some of the information campaigns the unit will run will relate to the budget. The Deputy may not believe it, but there are many people who do not know what they are entitled to and what changes are being made in the budget. An obvious example is the increase in family income supplement, of which I have seen very little mention. Low-income working families who are entitled to the family income supplement will see an increase next year of about €10 per week. People need to know that and to apply for it. That is the kind of thing that will be done. In a couple of weeks time, we will see the restoration of treatment benefit. People who pay PRSI will be able to avail of that benefit when attending the dentist, for example. These are the kinds of campaigns which will be run.
On the Deputy's specific question, Mr. Concannon was not appointed by me. I approached him and asked him if he would be available. He was appointed by the Secretary General of the Department. He is not a special adviser and it is not a political appointment. I cannot hire or fire him. If Deputy Martin becomes Taoiseach in a few weeks or months, he will still be there. So it is not a political appointment and he is not a special adviser, which is why the special adviser procedure was not followed. The same applies to the deputy head of the unit, Ms Andrea Pappin, who is an existing staff member in the Department and who handled other communications previously. She worked on the Action Plan for Jobs and the EU Presidency prior to this. She was transferred by the Secretary General because she is a civil servant and not a political appointee.
Is the Taoiseach saying he contacted Mr. Concannon to ask him if he was available for this job and that, miraculously and without the Taoiseach saying it to him, the Secretary General came to the same conclusion and made the appointment? The Taoiseach is being a bit disingenuous. If he approached a senior civil servant, indicated that he was setting up a particular unit and that the person would be a good head of it, and asked if the person was available to take up the job, it is clear to me that the Taoiseach told the Secretary General to make the appointment. Strictly speaking, the Taoiseach is saying that it was actually the Secretary General who made the formal appointment but the reality is that the Taoiseach made the appointment. We need plain speaking and honesty about this to a far greater extent. The Taoiseach appointed Mr. Concannon, not Mr. Fraser, the Secretary General. He was told to appoint him. He was the Taoiseach's chosen person. Mr. Concannon was chosen to sell a political message and it is a message which has the Taoiseach at the centre, together with the Government and the Fine Gael Party, more than others. I have no doubt that this is the way it is going to transpire. Talking about efficiencies in the fullness of time and savings is all nonsense.
I thank Deputy Martin.
This will grow and develop and it is no longer separate from the GIS. Essentially, it is taking over, strategically, the work of the GIS, which is a very dangerous development. The manner in which the Taoiseach appointed Mr. Concannon leaves a great deal to be desired.
The Deputy is way over time.
Originally, everything was about best international practice but best international practice means one holds a competition to select a person for the head of a unit which is totally divorced from the political realm.
This appointment was not divorced from the political realm. The establishment of this unit did not originate from the civil servants; it originated from the Taoiseach. It was a political idea designed to create a political operation and machine for his benefit and for the Government's benefit.
We are way over time.
The Deputy is welcome to believe what he wants to believe and he can spin this any way he likes. He is doing a lot of spinning in respect of this. I discussed it with the Secretary General obviously before I appointed him - or before I asked if he would be available to be appointed. I certainly discussed it with the Secretary General before I approached him and he was formally appointed by the Secretary General. Bear in mind the role Mr. Concannon had prior to this. He is not somebody with whom we in this House are unfamiliar. He is the person who invented and headed up The Gathering and made The Gathering hugely successful.
The Taoiseach appointed him, did he not?
Deputy Martin, please.
Subsequent to that he was involved in the 1916 commemorations, which were again hugely successful. After that, he was approached to head up Creative Ireland. It is exactly the same thing that would have happened with Creative Ireland and the 2016 commemorations.
It is not the same thing.
Third time lucky.
This was a big Government project. It was something that we wanted to do and somebody in-house was asked to do it.
The Taoiseach hand-picked and appointed the person.
We do not oppose everything announced in yesterday's budget. We argued for some measures, including reduced class size, the increase in the national training fund levy, increased welfare payments and additional gardaí. The Government will have the Labour Party's support for these measures.
However, some of the choices the Government made yesterday were deeply flawed. Using property revenues to reduce income tax seems to be a return to Charlie McCreevy economics and a dangerous direction to head down. As was stated earlier, no public home construction has been provided for in addition to what was announced earlier this year. The new measures to which the Taoiseach referred all relate to the private sector and no affordable housing scheme has been provided for to ensure homes will be affordable for low and middle-income earners. There is no vacant homes tax and, therefore, the housing emergency will worsen.
The issue just raised by Deputy Martin, which is the allocation of €5 million for the Taoiseach's new strategic communications unit, seems likely to only fund more of the Facebook and Twitter-type advertisements with political messaging that we witnessed from his Department yesterday along with some odd videos of the Minister for Finance arriving at each of his appointments.
Arguably, however, the abandonment of Sláintecare is the worst decision the Government made. Only five months ago, there was cross-party support for the Sláintecare report, including from the Taoiseach's party. Yesterday, it abandoned that cross-party agreement, the only substantial decision that has been made by this do-nothing Dáil. The Government utterly disregarded the funding plans for Sláintecare, which were provided by the all-party committee. At Fianna Fáil's urging, the Government prioritised investment in the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF. The fund can provide short-term results for individuals but focusing investment on the private sector in this manner deprives us of the ability to begin genuinely building our publicly-funded health service. The amount allocated to expand primary care is risible. Sláintecare envisaged free GP care being rolled out to all by 2022 with an additional 500,000 people getting this support each year, including in 2018. It envisaged a substantial increase in primary care diagnostics, counselling and psychology in primary care, as well as universal access to a range of other primary care services. The mere €25 million the Government allocated will do nothing for this. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether the Government has decided to ignore the Sláintecare recommendations?
I reassure Deputy O'Sullivan that we are certainly not ignoring Sláintecare. We very much support as a Government the principles behind it but it requires a bit of work. It requires proper costings for a start. We do not accept the costings in the report and they need to be done. The Labour Party seems to have accepted an obvious one in its alternative budget, which is the cost of abolishing all hospital charges at only €25 million. No one in this House believes that all hospital charges could be abolished for €25 million. The Labour Party in its document has accepted that costing hook, line and sinker. We think we need to do some proper costings first before we make decisions. However, the Deputy will see some real measures in this budget that show form and that show our commitment to begin to implement the principles of Sláintecare in the years ahead. For example, there is the reduction in the drug payment scheme threshold by €10, thereby reducing the cost of medication for families that do not have a medical card from €144 to €134 a month. There is also a reduction in the prescription charge. Having reduced it for the over-70s last year, we will reduce it for the under-70s in the year ahead. There will also be additional investment in primary care. As indicated by the Minister for Health, funding is being put in place to establish a health reform programme office to draw up the road map and plan to implement Sláintecare. It is a good report and I support its basic principles, as does the Government. It will be discussed in more detail at our special Cabinet meeting in Cork on Friday but it is, at best, a plan for a plan. It needs a great deal more work before it can be turned into a roadmap for health reform. That is the kind of work the Minister, Deputy Harris, is now undertaking.
That is a disappointing response considering that the Taoiseach's party signed up to Sláintecare and that included signing up to the costings. The principle is not much good to those who are waiting for access to health care. In our alternative budget, we costed the various elements that were supposed to be introduced in 2018. The Government's allocation of €25 million for primary care and just setting up an office will do nothing to implement Sláintecare. The Taoiseach outlined figures earlier in the context of additional money for health. When they are broken down, €125 million relates to announcements in the previous budget, €60 million relates to the public sector pay deal, while the speculated overspend for this year is €300 million, which the Taoiseach has indicated will be a charge on the Department. When they are taken into account, the additional money available to health for new measures is only €165 million. This does not indicate meaningful progress with regard to Sláintecare and it must be particularly disappointing for all those who sat on the committee and signed up to the report. Is it the Government's policy to ignore that ten-year vision, given the first year of that ten-year vision is next year? The Taoiseach said there will be a special Cabinet meeting. When does the Government intend to seriously get about implementing the Sláintecare report?
It is absolutely not our policy to ignore it; our policy is to develop a road map to implement it. The Minister for Health has been tasked with doing that and we will discuss it in more detail at the special Cabinet meeting on Friday. I have asked him to develop a roadmap to do exactly that before the end of the year. However, it requires development, which needs to be built on. I had the privilege of meeting the academics and others from Trinity College who were involved in drawing this up and at the meeting, they admitted to me that were one to implement the first year in full as they proposed, the cost would be an additional €1.3 billion. I said to them and I meant it - and everyone in the House knows this full well - that €1.3 billion in the first year would not be affordable. It would not be possible to implement the plan as they proposed it because we would not be able to find that level of money in year one. Pages 34 and 36 of the Labour Party's alternative budget outline the details for implementing Sláintecare. The total the party provides is €626.9 million.
It is much more than what the Government has provided.
It is approximately one third of the cost proposed in the Sláintecare report. I could just as easily accuse the party of abandoning two thirds of the report but I will not do that. It is a good report. The Government accepts the principles behind it but it is not, on its own, a roadmap to reform our health service and to provide the universal health care that we want to be provided for this country in the next ten years. It needs proper costings and it needs to be "legalled" as well. There are issues in the report in respect of breaching of people's contracts that require legal advice. It can be built on into a deliverable roadmap and that is what we want to do.