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Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions (Continued)

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 991 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin] It is a big step forward in terms of the Government's policy in this area, which is to make life easier for families, to build a society with children and families at the centre and to improve work-life balance. It builds on what we have done in terms of two years of the early childhood care and education programme, paid parental leave, extended unpaid parental leave, paternity benefit and now the new national childcare scheme, which will increase childcare subsidies for tens of thousands of families across Ireland. For the first time, some middle-income families that did not qualify for any subsidies will now qualify. If we have the opportunity to build on that over the next five years, that is exactly what we are going to do.

The Deputy raised an important question on childminding. Notwithstanding the fact that I spent the morning on this issue, I did not have a chance to speak to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs about it. I acknowledge that for many families, this is how they provide for childcare for themselves. It is often an individual in the community who the family knows who takes their child for a few hours-----

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin Grandparents.

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar -----or somebody who looks after a few children in his or her house after school or an au pair. We do not want to over-regulate, undermine or get rid of that system because if we did, it would be a disaster. Tens of thousands of people would find that they did not have any way to look after their children and might have to leave the workplace. This would then make it harder for them to pay the rent or mortgage so we definitely do not want to over-regulate or be too heavy-handed in any reforms we introduce in this area. At the same time, we need to put children first and we cannot ignore the fact that some children are being minded in homes that are not very safe and they could get injured. There are health and safety issues in those houses that are providing informal childcare at the moment.

We must also bear in mind that some people who are childminders have a bad record when it comes to how they deal with children, as we learned to our detriment when it came to foster parents in the past-----

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock They were supposed to be regulated.

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar -----and we need to make sure we do not make those mistakes again. This is a work in progress. We all acknowledge that we need to get the balance right in protecting children but also making sure we do not close down an entire informal sector of childminding that has generally served us well so we will try to get it right.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin I welcome what the Taoiseach said. If it migrates into actual policy in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, it will address some of the real concerns but the concerns are real. People involved in what is regarded as informal childminding are concerned that they will simply be put out of business. Families are concerned that the arrangements they have had for years with wonderful people will no longer be viable, so we need to be very clear about this. I have a particular concern about the proposal in the Government's draft childminding action plan to give a role to what are called "centre-based services". It seems to imply that centres such as crèches and professional preschools could be given a role to co-ordinate childminding. This is causing concern, particularly when we consider some of the difficulties those professional childcare facilities have caused in recent times. Will the Taoiseach undertake to have that discussion with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and open a channel of communication with childminders so that we can all be in a position to assure people that facilities, which are up to standard and provide quality childminding, will not be put at risk by some new bureaucratic and intrusive regime that nobody wants?

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I will do that. I have been very engaged with the Minister in the past couple of days but it has been mainly around making sure the national childcare scheme was successfully launched, which it has, and is working, and issues relating to Tuam. The Deputy knows that yesterday, the Minister published the heads of the Bill that will allow us to carry out excavations, not just at Tuam but potentially at some other sites as well. Because of that, I have not had a chance to speak to the Minister for a few weeks about this issue but I acknowledge that it is important and that it is causing some concern so I will definitely take it up with her during the week.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett The bitter and lasting fruits of the savage austerity that was imposed on working people first by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party and then by Fine Gael and Labour are very plain to see with the brutal housing crisis we face and the shocking situation in the health service but events in France over the past five days where massive demonstrations and strikes are taking place remind us of another bitter and long-lasting consequence of the unjust austerity imposed in this country on working people, namely, the attack on pension rights. It might be of interest to workers in this country that French workers are fighting to protect a pension entitlement age of 62. Some workers in hard physical jobs get their pension at the age of 55. People are on the streets in their millions striking to prevent the pension entitlement age going up to 64.

In this country, we are in a far worse position. In March 2010, the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government made a decision to commence three phases of attacks on pension entitlements. They loaded the gun to attack pension rights and then Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the former Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, pulled the trigger in 2014 to provide that people would not get their pension until the age of 66. As of 2021, workers born after 1955 will not get it until they are aged 67 and, as of 2028, workers will not get it until they are 68. This will mean that workers in this country will be in the worst situation in the OECD in respect of their pension rights and entitlements. They will have to work longer than anybody else to get pensions that, in many cases, have been significantly reduced. Comparisons are, again, worthwhile. In Norway, a person gets a pension at the age of 61; in Sweden, at 62; and in Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and the UK, at 65. However, workers in this country will get it at either 67 or 68. The age is currently 66. Irish workers are the most productive anywhere in the western world, even when one strips out the impact of transfer pricing.

This was all justified in the name of austerity. Austerity is over. We are now one of the richest countries in the world with the fastest growing economy in western Europe. Does the Taoiseach think it is fair that workers in this country should work longer and harder for less or does he think we should take a lead from what French workers are doing and fight to reverse those attacks on the pension rights and entitlements of working people in this country who paid and worked hard for their pensions?

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar This is nothing to do with austerity. Thankfully, in Ireland, austerity has been over for more than three years. As a result of that, unemployment is a third of what it was not too long ago in 2012, incomes are rising, poverty and deprivation are falling and, as we know from the figures from the CSO survey on income and living conditions released the other day, income inequality is at its second lowest since records began. We have delivered on all of those in the past couple of years and secured a position where we are one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe, which I thank the Deputy for acknowledging. I accept the back-handed compliment that our policies have been successful but this is not about austerity. The objective of this policy is to make sure the State pension continues to be adequate and sustainable in the long term. We have one of the highest State pensions in the EU and we want to keep it that way and to keep increasing it over the next couple of years in line with inflation if not with wages. That is what we should aim to do.

We also want to make sure that we will still have a State pension system when people who are now in their forties and fifties retire. The way it works is that people and employers pay PRSI and it all goes into the Social Insurance Fund, out of which comes the State contributory pension. Because the economy is now very strong, the fund is in surplus. However, it is projected to go into deficit because of our ageing population and changes in demographics. If the economy was to slow down or another downturn occurred, it would go into deficit very quickly so we need to act now. When this system was set up in the 1970s, circumstances were very different. The average man lived to approximately 68 years of age while the average woman lived to approximately 72.

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