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Social Partnership (Continued)

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny] Significant sick leave reforms have been introduced in the public service. A new Government economic and evaluation service has been established. Greater transparency is available through freedom of information legislation. Deputy Martin has often raised this matter. The top level appointments committee, TLAC, has been reformed. This year and last year, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and I met with the Croke Park implementation body following the publication of its progress reports. The purpose of those meetings was to assess the extent of reform carried out. We want the reform programme to be implemented in full and in an accelerated fashion. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is currently in discussions with the trade union movement. These talks will be extensive and significant, dealing as they do with what can be achieved with regard to public sector costs and the costs of public services. These matters are important factors to aid growth in the economy.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I refer to the nature of the Government's dialogue with the social partners and also with outside groups and bodies. The four members of Government who form the economic management council have not got a grip on the key economic targets or even the budgetary process. I outlined this argument in my reply to the Budget Statement last week. Part of the problem is that the council appears to dismiss the role of outside bodies in challenging the statements made by Ministers. For example, there has been no challenge to the notion of a macro need to cut the deficit, but everyone outside the Government believes it should be done in a fairer way. The ESRI commented on last year's budget as being the most regressive and unfair of the past five budgets. This year's budget, in my view, is also very unfair. It is difficult to believe that any Government could come up with such an unfair budget if its members had been actively engaging with groups outside of the political sphere. If they had spoken to the many health organisations, groups representing patients and stakeholders in the health system, they would have realised the current chaos in the governance of the health system and the significant impact on front-line services of decisions taken by the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly.

The Taoiseach referred in his reply to the reform programme and the freedom of information legislation. I spoke to nurses last week who told me that they can no longer speak up on behalf of patients. They are witnessing patients being put at risk. They have told me they will be penalised if they speak out - that the HSE has imposed a gagging order on them and they are not allowed to speak out. I met nurses at an INO function for nurses and midwives. They are extremely frustrated and angry about the situation and about their inability to say it as it is. All the talk about whistleblower legislation means nothing to people at the front line.

The same applies to the freedom of information provisions. The only reason I have raised the issue of freedom of information in the House is that it is the only avenue remaining to the Opposition to get information about Government decisions. The problem is that the information is provided three or four months too late because Ministers - including the Taoiseach - will not provide information on key budgetary decisions. It took us months last year to access information on the pension fund and to find out that the Minister for Social Protection had deep reservations and misgivings about the levy on pensions. That information was stifled and was not released.

The Taoiseach's new approach to dialogue is not working. I refer to examples in the areas of health and education. In my view, last year's cuts to DEIS schools and to the disability allowance would not have happened if he had been having meaningful discussions with stakeholders in education. School principals had to raise the issue with Deputies, with the result that the Minister apologised and reversed the cuts to DEIS schools. The Taoiseach should talk to groups and listen to the people at the front line who help the weakest in society and who seem to be bearing the brunt of this. The same applies to the Croke Park agreement. The bottom line is that services come first and highly paid individuals second. That seems to be the sequence, as things are turning out. I am not advocating a return to social partnership; I advocate a more realistic engagement with representatives of those at the front line. It would serve the Government well to do this. It would enable it to avoid imposing the current unfair taxes and cuts which, in the main, affect middle- and low-income groups rather than higher-income groups and the wealthy.

I will give an example from the education sector. The colleges of further education suffered a sneaky and underhand cut in the budget with the raising of the pupil-teacher ratio from 17 to 19. This sector has been central to the provision of pathways in education which enable people to gain a qualification so that they can move on to third level.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett I suggest the Deputy ask a question.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin That budget measure could have the effect of wiping out courses in colleges of further education. If the Government - and, particularly, the economic management council - had engaged in proper structured dialogue with stakeholders in the first instance, these kinds of cut might have been avoided. The students in this case are vulnerable and need more protection than most.

The Taoiseach's current dialogue with groups external to the Government is not working. The Government is becoming progressively out of touch with the reality of people's lives.

The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny I do not accept that view. Ministers, Ministers of State and chairpersons of the relevant Oireachtas committees have open access to groups, organisations and individuals from all over the country. We are all aware of the range of challenges faced by people, be it negative equity, unemployment, emigration, disillusionment or any of the sensitive areas covered by the Department of Social Protection. We have listened to people with regard to employment and the expansion of small and medium enterprises. The Government has offered assistance. The package for small and medium enterprises was developed as a result of discussions with those on the front line in which we listened to their proposals. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, listened to people and as a result he established the microfinance agency. This is how the partial loan credit guarantee scheme was initiated. That is why we continue to engage with the lending institutions so that they will meet the lending targets. The imposition of further taxes on jobs and employment will restrict the economy and reduce consumer confidence. We know this as a result of engaging with and listening to people.

Deputy Martin's point about engaging with groups and organisations is relevant. I remind the Deputy that when his party was in Government we had an endless conveyor belt of money. However, despite social partnership and the listening exercises, and given all the wealth and the available information, his party still cut the disability allowance, the carer's allowance and the carer's benefit.

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