On 25 February the people had their opportunity to speak and their verdict was clear. They voted overwhelming for change and reform. The new Government has been formed to deliver on that change and reform. To respond directly to Senator O'Toole, we are in a hurry to implement change.
The Government comprises parties which between them obtained in excess of 55% of the popular vote. This provides a clear, strong mandate with which to provide stable government for the next five years. That strong mandate is important because we are living through an economic and social crisis with few parallels in our history. Unemployment and emigration have re-emerged as a scourge on families and communities across the country. The latest statistics show that the rate of unemployment has increased to 14.7% and more than half of those unemployed have been out of work for more than one year. Thousands of young people are leaving Ireland in search of work abroad, reminding us all of the dark days of the past and my youth.
The public finances have been completely undermined, leaving a huge and unsustainable gap between levels of expenditure and taxation. Regulatory failures and irresponsible behaviour in financial institutions have led to the collapse of the banking system.
The State's own credit worthiness has been seriously damaged by the financial difficulties affecting the banks and financial institutions and the approach to these difficulties of the previous Government. We have been forced to accept financial assistance from the IMF and the European Union and our capacity to manage our own financial affairs has been substantially diminished. These events have badly damaged our reputation as a country in the European Union and across the world.
Reflecting the scale of the crisis confronting the country, the people voted for change: not just new faces in government but a new approach to politics. They have given Fine Gael and the Labour Party an overwhelming mandate to implement that change.
Based on this strong mandate, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have agreed on a programme for national recovery, the subject matter of this discussion. The programme is a realistic yet ambitious response to the crisis facing the country. It recognises that a difficult road lies ahead of us but shows a willingness to confront the challenge head on.
At its core, the programme for Government is about restoring confidence in the country at home and abroad. We need to rebuild Ireland's international reputation. We took the first steps during the successful St. Patrick's Day visits last week. The decision of President Obama to visit Ireland in May is a further welcome vote of confidence in the country. We will use the occasion of his visit and that of Queen Elizabeth to send a new positive message about Ireland around the world. We will continue this process through a sustained campaign to restore confidence in the country as a place in which to invest or to visit as a tourist.
A key and central goal of the programme is to offer hope, in particular to young people. Our goal is to persuade our best and brightest young people to stay in Ireland and participate in the process of renewal we badly require. Above all, the programme places an immediate focus on jobs. Within 100 days, we will introduce a jobs budget to help keep our young people at home, building the future of their own country. We will cut the lower rate of VAT and will halve the lower rate of employers' PRSI. We will create 15,000 new places in training, work experience and education for people who have lost their jobs. Through NewERA, we will revitalise our national infrastructure networks and support new jobs.
We will introduce measures to increase our competitiveness on international markets. We will set up a strategic investment bank and new mechanisms to deliver credit to small businesses which are currently experiencing so much difficulty. We will prioritise our relationships with new and emerging countries, including China, India, Brazil and Russia, which are increasingly important for investment and trade. We will reduce costs for business and help SMEs to grow and create jobs. We will put a new focus on innovation and commercialising research. We will attract leading venture capital companies to locate in Ireland, supporting new start-up companies and jobs. We will implement ambitious job creation strategies in each sector — agrifood, tourism, international financial services, digital industries, green enterprise, international education and many others.
In the programme for Government, we commit to solving the fiscal crisis and honouring our sovereign debts. We will take the necessary but painful decisions in the years ahead to close the gap between tax revenue and expenditure. This deficit exists independent of the banking sector and must be closed if we are to return to the markets at the end of the EU-IMF programme and regain our economic independence. However, we will reduce the gap in a way which seeks to minimise the impact on the most vulnerable. We will also retain a taxation system which incentivises enterprise and work. The programme also commits to establishing an independent fiscal advisory council, a new institution which will ensure the budgetary mistakes of the past decade are never repeated.
We also need to limit additional taxpayer commitments to the banking sector to levels consistent with Ireland returning to the bond markets at the end of the current EU-IMF programme of support and ensure the difficulties with which we are confronted do not render economic recovery impossible. We must not lose sight of the fact that the EU-IMF programme incorporates within it growth projections for our economy on which achievement of the programme's objectives are dependent. We must ensure the programme to which the previous Government committed and the approach taken to our banking crisis is not allowed to become this State's 21st century version of the Treaty of Versailles. While acknowledging and thanking our European partners for the crucial and necessary assistance provided to us, it is right that it be acknowledged that it is not only in our interests but those of Europe generally that the arrangements made facilitate a return in the State to real domestic economic growth. They must not act as an insurmountable barrier for years to come to substantial jobs creation and force tens of thousands more of our people to emigrate in search of work.
In the programme for Government, we set out strategies which we are pursuing to secure a solution that is perceived as affordable by both the international markets and the Irish public. We need to restructure and restore confidence in our banking system without further damaging the credibility of the Exchequer. We also need to restore Ireland's standing as a respected and influential member of the European Union. This work has already begun.
The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have already been heavily engaged with our European partners making Ireland's case in a rational way while standing up for our vital and legitimate interests.
We will continue to work with our partners to improve Ireland's situation, including in seeking to improve the terms on which it receives loans from the European Financial Stability Facility, and to secure support to bring the crisis in the banking sector to a close. As negotiations are continuing, including at the European Council later this week, it would not be appropriate for me to enter into detail here. However, I reassure the House that the Government will not compromise on our 12.5% corporation tax rate. As the programme for Government makes clear, this is a core element of our economic strategy. The Government has a strong and fresh mandate from the people for the negotiating strategy we are pursuing and I am confident it will be possible to deliver an outcome which will work for Ireland and our EU partners.
We also need to improve the depth and quality of our engagement with the European Union. It is important, therefore, that the Oireachtas plays its full part in overseeing the enactment of EU law. That is why the programme for Government contains a set of measures to overhaul how European business is dealt with. All committees will be expected to play a role in scrutinising EU law as an integral part of their business. In addition, all Ministers will be obliged to appear before their respective committees, or the committee on European affairs, prior to travelling to Council meetings where decisions are made. These and other measures in the programme will improve the transparency of Ireland's interaction with decision-making at EU level.
The public service must also modernise, adapt to new financial circumstances and deliver better services with fewer resources. The programme for Government commits to the most ambitious programme of reform since the foundation of the State. We will make the public service smaller and more efficient by significantly reducing employee numbers and reforming the way it works. We will give front-line staff the power to make more decisions. We will bring new skills and rigour to policy-making across all Departments, with greater scrutiny and analysis of decisions. The culture of secrecy will be replaced by more openness and transparency. The Freedom of Information Act will be restored to what it was before and a whistleblowers Bill will be introduced.
We will increase delegation of responsibility for budgets and improve accountability for results across the public service, with clear consequences for success and failure. We will put resources into the hands of citizens to acquire services tailored to better suit their needs. We are undertaking a comprehensive spending review to examine all areas of public spending and develop multi-annual budget plans.
A more effective, leaner and high performing public service is in the interests of citizens and public servants alike. This will mean empowering the Civil Service and spelling out with clarity the legal responsibility between Ministers and their civil servants. We will bring new energy to achieve the full potential of the Croke Park agreement to deliver on these ambitious reforms. There is an appetite for change within the public service which will help to ensure improved service delivery and organisational efficiency are achieved. The difficult economic circumstances we face are, in fact, an opportunity to streamline the public service and strengthen its performance.
Let me make it clear that real and radical public service reform is one of the main priorities of the Government. We will deliver this reform for the citizen by reducing waste, more effective financial scrutiny, more open government and more empowered public servants with a focus on end results. The credibility of this reform agenda also requires politicians to take the lead. Reform must start with politics. Such reform is essential to restore trust in politics and government. It is essential for other reasons too — in order that the resolution of the fiscal crisis is seen to be carried out as far as possible in a way that will protect the most vulnerable in our society, while enhancing our competitiveness and delivering value for money. Our commitment starts with ourselves. Members of the Government have already reduced their own pay and reformed the system of transport for Ministers. We will make sure that political expenses are vouched for and remove severance payments for Ministers. No political pensions will be paid to sitting Deputies. In the future no retired politician will receive a political pension until the national retirement age.
We have committed to putting the issue of the abolition of the Seanad before the people for their decision in a referendum. Ultimately, this will be an issue for them to decide on, but its inclusion in the programme reflects a number of factors. It is an important demonstration that the political system is delivering efficiencies and savings at a time when every other part of Irish society is being asked to make sacrifices. It also reflects a global move towards having single chamber parliaments and follows the action taken by a number of other countries which have abolished their second Houses.
I emphasise that it does not reflect on the individual contributions of current or past Members of the Seanad. It is an important, symbolic and practical reform.
We will reduce the number of Deputies after the publication of the results of this year's census. We will establish an electoral commission. We are committed to making the Dáil work more effectively. In light of the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Abbeylara case, we intend to bring a referendum before the people to amend the Constitution to give Dáil committees full powers of investigation. We will provide for fewer but stronger Dáil committees which will be resourced properly. We will extend the parliamentary questions regime to State bodies, requiring them to provide answers to written questions within a specified number of Dáil sitting days. We recognise the special position of bodies with a commercial mandate which operate at arm's length from the Government. We will introduce spending limits for all elections, including presidential elections and constitutional referendums. We will reduce the limits on political donations to political parties and candidates. We will require disclosure of all aggregate sums above €1,500 and €600 in either case. We will introduce the necessary legislative provisions to ban corporate donations to political parties. We will establish a constitutional convention to consider comprehensive constitutional changes, such as reviewing the Dáil electoral system, reducing the presidential term, providing for same-sex marriage, encouraging greater participation of women in public life and, possibly, reducing the voting age.
In respect of my own departmental responsibilities, the programme for Government sets out an ambitious agenda for reforming and modernising our legal, judicial and policing structures. We will free gardaí for front line policing duties by ensuring administrative functions are carried out by civilian staff. We are committed to a sentencing system which provides a safer society at a lower cost to the taxpayer, particularly by switching towards less costly non-custodial options for non-violent and less serious offenders. We made a start in this regard earlier this week when we published the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2011. We will establish a judicial council with lay representation. We will propose a constitutional amendment that would allow the Government to reduce the pay of the Judiciary in line with other public sector reductions. The legal system is an important part of overall economic competitiveness and efficiency. We will establish independent regulation of the legal profession, make legal costs more transparent and review how the State tenders for legal services. I have mentioned a few examples of the reform agenda I will be leading in my Department.
The programme for Government puts equality and fairness at the heart of government. We want a fair society in which people trust the institutions and services of the State, where those services demonstrably work for them. We need to minimise the burden of the fiscal adjustment on the most vulnerable people in society. We are keenly aware of the pressures on our health and social services. We will introduce universal health insurance with equal access to care for everyone, thereby ending the two-tier health system in which people fear not being able to receive the treatment they or their families might need. We will ensure there is universal coverage by paying for those on lower incomes and providing subsidies for those on middle incomes. We will deliver universal primary care which will remove fees for general practitioner care and ensure patients have access to a wider range of health services and professionals in their local communities.
As the fiscal situation is so difficult, we need new approaches to tackling poverty, educational disadvantage and social protection. We know that children remain the group most at risk of poverty in Ireland. More than 90,000 children live in families that cannot afford basic necessities like food or warm clothing. To break this cycle of poverty, the Government will adopt a new area-based approach to child poverty, drawing on best international practice and existing services. The Government is committed to holding the long promised referendum on children's rights and to restructuring our child care services. A new child welfare and protection service is to be established as an executive agency operating under the aegis of the new Department for children. Education is the key to increasing opportunities for future generations of young people. The review of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme will provide a basis for new initiatives to deliver better outcomes for students in disadvantaged areas. We will protect families whose homes are at risk through a combination of new reliefs, existing supports and forbearance measures.
These tremendous challenges will require great determination at a time of scarce resources. We are moving on them straight away. We already have the foundations in place. The new Minister for public expenditure and reform is tasked with ensuring public services are fair, efficient and accessible. For the first time ever, children become the responsibility of a senior Minister. Primary care, the most crucial of the front line health services, is the specific responsibility of a new Minister of State.
The Government will also ensure that the crisis is used as an opportunity for reform in order to forge a country built on fairness and equal citizenship. Our commitment to equality is reflected in specific measures relating to people with disabilities, Travellers and minority ethnic groups. We will bring forward a realistic implementation plan for the national disability strategy, including sectoral plans with achievable timescales and targets. We will ensure that money spent on disability services is clearly set out and audited. Every country should value, respect and protect older people. We will complete and implement the national positive ageing strategy to this end. The programme commits to ensuring that State boards have at least 40% of membership from each gender. Importantly, public funding for political parties will be tied to the level of participation by women as candidates in each party.
The verdict of the people is reflected in the programme for national recovery before the House today. The programme has been agreed by the two largest parties in the Oireachtas, ensuring that we will have strong, stable leadership. We now have a Government with a mandate and willingness to face the hard decisions and offer real leadership at home and abroad. The Government is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge ahead. We have set out a programme that addresses these serious challenges in an honest and fair way. It is a programme to which we are committed and I commend it to the House