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Social Welfare Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 2

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  6 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Michael Colreavy: Information on Michael Colreavy Zoom on Michael Colreavy] The Government is saying, "Go work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year because you are doing it for a loved one." I urge the Government, if it has an ounce of humanity, to reverse the particularly obnoxious cut to the respite care grant.

Deputy Michael McCarthy: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy We are living in an absolutely unprecedented, difficult economic time. This is the second budget of five and there is not a Deputy in the House who wants to see the measures being spoken about widely being voted on this evening. We would all much prefer if that were not the case. To contextualise, the clean-up operation in this country, in economic terms, is akin to dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist aeroplane hitting the Sellafield plant. The clean-up operation is toxic, ugly, unpleasant and painful, but it is absolutely essential. The economy has been destroyed. I will deal later with the ideology behind the destruction of the economy, but, unfortunately, I cannot stop at that statement. I must extend it and say Irish society has been destroyed. We have to reconstruct it, from the foundation right up to the roof, literally brick by brick. Nobody was under any illusion during the general election campaign of 2011 about the scale of the task ahead of the new Administration. What is required, in the most difficult time in the history of the State, is strong leadership and difficult decisions. The most difficult decisions politicians will make, particularly those who lead the Government - the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Cabinet Ministers - are made under enormous pressure.

  There have been some arrows pointing in the right direction. I am not going to repeat mantras such as "we have turned the corner" because when they were said on previous occasions, they turned out to be false. However, there is a wind of change blowing and we need to bring the people with us. That requires responsibility and maturity from all parties in the House. The budget is not about the next general election, it is about the next generation. Frankly, if that means I will be evicted from Dáil Éireann by the people of Cork South West, so be it because bringing the country back to where it was will require difficult and unpopular decisions. I do not, for one moment, doubt the sincerity of Deputy Brian Stanley who I know has an admiration for James Connolly, nor do I doubt the sincerity of the sentiments expressed by his party colleagues. I take them to be genuine, but let us not for one second stand back from the difficult decisions to be made and the hardship that will be caused by them in order to get the country working again.

  We are in a period of fiscal retrenchment which is absolutely regrettable. Right-wing ideology and chasing the capitalist Celtic tiger began the unravelling of traditional Irish society. The fallout from that attack is nuclear - I mean no disrespect to those who have been affected by nuclear fallout - and we should not underestimate the scale of the task facing the Administration. It is estimated, based on data from 2011, that the Irish banking crisis ranks as one of the most expensive in an advanced economy since the 1970s. I am not going to rehash the arguments on the blanket guarantee, who voted for it and who did not. It was a decision made by all parties and none in this House and Seanad Éireann, of which I was a Member at the time. The full extent of the crisis was not clear at that stage and, clearly, the advice available to the Government of the day was not accurate. My party took a decision which, had it backfired, would have had horrendous consequences for us as a political party, but we made our decision based on the advice available to us and in the best interests of the country.

  The move to the right in the country was absolutely regrettable. We had the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil which introduced a series of tax breaks. We must remind ourselves that Governments do not and never did own people; rather people elect Governments. I ran in three general elections before I became a Deputy. We must cast our minds back to the electoral cycle that is linked with the economic cycle of the country. Bertie Ahern won the elections in 1997, 2002 and 2007. When it came to elections, he was the Messiah and after each one, Opposition Deputies would sit on the Opposition benches, scratching their heads and wondering where it had all gone wrong. It is so easy to answer that question now. We must remember that a mandate was never given to those Governments to plunge us into the crisis we are in.

  I argue strongly that the founding father of the modern welfare state was a former Member of this House, a former leader of the Labour Party and a great politician, the late Frank Cluskey. He was Parliamentary Secretary to Mr. Brendan Corish who was Minister for Health and Social Welfare from 1973 to 1977. In his wisdom and foresight, he created the Combat Poverty Agency, an agency which was so shamefully dismantled by Fianna Fáil when in government. He initiated what was known as the unmarried mother's allowance at the time in response to a letter written by a young single mother who was living in Dublin, having had to leave her home area because of the social stigma attached to those who gave birth outside marriage. She found herself living in a city with a young baby and nothing on which to live. She was literally left to her own devices. The visionary individual who wrote to The Irish Times inspired a political process, begun in the Labour Party's rooms in Leinster House by the late Frank Cluskey. He initiated the scheme to provide support for that woman and her child to prevent them from starving. Resources were scarce at the time and he did not have enormous sums at his disposal, but he initiated a range of other schemes, including pension schemes, deserted wives' allowance, the prisoner's spouse allowance and so forth. These schemes were initiated for those who had no money and I argue, some might say flippantly, that the people concerned would have starved without them. That is the legacy of the Labour Party in the State and nobody should underestimate the lengths to which we will go to get us out of the economic morass in which we find ourselves.

  That any Government could abolish the Combat Poverty Agency speaks volumes and illustrates its thinking about those who are less well off in Irish society. The previous Government also abolished the Christmas bonus. Perhaps €200 is not a lot of money to those who followed the capitalist Celtic tiger and made an enormous profit from it and who, in turn, collapsed the banking system and plunged the public finances into their current state, but it was a hell of a lot of money to widows, pensioners, the unemployed and carers. It was the equivalent of a 5% reduction in basic rates of social welfare. I could repeat the argument that the Government has maintained basic rates, but I accept that this is of little solace to those who have seen the respite care grant reduced to €1,375. However, I argue that if my party was not in government and Deputy Joan Burton who as Minister of State in the then Department of Social Welfare launched a national poverty strategy in the early 1990s was not at the Cabinet table, we would see reductions in basic rates of 10% or more. Frankly, we will not take lectures from the former governing party on social welfare Bills because they reduced the blind pension by €5, which was callous. It was not an economic decision.

  This not a time for amateurs and the country cannot take a gamble with what the alternatives might be. If the budgetary discussions had not worked out - there was a possibility that they would not - we would be facing a general election in Christmas week. What would we have then? The likelihood is that we would have either a Fine Gael minority Government, supported by right-wing Independent Members; a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael Government; or even a Sinn Féin-Fianna Fáil-Independent Members Government.

Deputy Martin Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris Zoom on Martin Ferris No way.

Deputy Michael McCarthy: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy We would be plunging the country into a political crisis as bad as the one in Greece, which is the line some Members opposite argued for when the crisis began. We would then have parties in government which did not take the time to go to the Department of Finance to have their proposals costed. It would be bringing amateurs into a very serious, high stakes game and it is high stakes for the citizens of the Republic of Ireland, not for anybody else.

The restoration of the minimum wage in the last budget was indicative of what left-wing politicians do when in government, as is exempting 330,000 lower paid workers from the universal social charge.

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