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Financial Resolution No. 2: General (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 924 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Barry Cowen: Information on Barry Cowen Zoom on Barry Cowen] This means that the State should provide the framework and stable market to enable people to buy their own homes in keeping with their needs, but we cannot allow that dream transform into a nightmare cycle of highs and lows and booms and busts. We put forward a clear proposal in our manifesto to help first-time buyers to save their deposit. It is a gradual scheme over a number of years that would ensure prices did not increase rapidly while helping ordinary couples to get the money together to buy their first home. In contrast, the Government has gone for a big bang approach. It is an electoral Trojan horse that is using young couple’s legitimate aspirations against them.

The key issue to be addressed is supply. A total of 25,000 units per annum are needed to meet demographic demand. We need to address the cost of construction rather than turbo charge house prices. The VAT rate, finance costs, certification costs and development levies could all be reduced by direct State intervention, but the Government has not chosen to take that route. My colleagues and I are committed to playing a constructive role and will table amendments to the Finance Bill when it is brought forward. I hope the Minister and the Government are willing to engage in meaningful discussions on how we could, at the very least, improve the scheme if it is to proceed. If we do not learn from the past, we are condemned to repeat its mistakes. Let us not go back to back to the future with this proposal. We can do better and an entire generation who are renting and scrimping and saving every spare few bob deserve better, but they will not be served by this scheme.

I mentioned to the Minister a number of weeks ago my concerns about the proposals being reported in the media related to the scheme. I said that at the very least he needed to conduct a regulatory impact assessment and make the findings public. If that has been done, we need to see them quickly, but I have my doubts because every dog on the street will tell us the impact the scheme will have. It will drive price increases, while the Government fails to address the supply issue. The Minister refused to consider a proposal put forward by the Housing Finance Agency under which the State would take equity in homes. In the event of an upturn, this would generate a benefit to the State and if there was a downturn, it would mean that there would be a safety net for purchasers. That would have been an acknowledgement of what happened in the past and learning from it. Instead, we have the big bang approach and populist politics. It is an effort to appease south Dublin Fine Gael voters. No mistake should be made about this. A cap of €400,000 needs to be set in Dublin city where the crisis is greatest and in adjoining counties such as Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. I plead with the Minister not to allow this to happen. The Government is sleepwalking into another crisis and price war. If the limit was set at €400,000, land prices would be fixed and if people wanted to continue hoarding land, the Minister could levy them. At least they would have to cut their cloth to the measure of the building sector which could then provide homes to meet demand. People are struggling as it is to buy homes at a cost of €360,000 or €380,000. That will not be the case after the scheme comes into force and I ask the Minister to reconsider. We will table amendments which we expect him to take seriously. We also expect him to acknowledge that what he has proposed cannot be allowed to happen.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne Zoom on Thomas Byrne I am happy enough as education spokesperson that some of the items for which Fianna Fáil has fought in the past few months have been addressed by the Government. We agreed in a confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael some months ago a number of education policy initiatives which we wanted to have implemented. However, it has been like pulling hen's teeth or like getting blood out of a stone to get the Minister for Education and Skills to realise the importance of the issues we have highlighted.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Helen McEntee is present. The second level mental health strategy mentions the importance of guidance counselling and the service has been allocated €2 million, one of the smallest allocations made in the budget. I had to have meetings, issue press releases and beg and remind the Minister of what had been included in the confidence and supply agreement, while my colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary, had to do the same with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It is extraordinary. There was a similar scenario regarding third level funding. The Minister only published his action plan - an action plan for Action Man - a number of weeks ago and there were only two lines in it about third level funding. To prove his lack of vision for the entire education sector, following the exertion of significant pressure by Fianna Fáil to do the right thing for students and invest in third level, a three-year plan was announced in the budget to fund higher education, which I welcome is so far as it goes. However, the Minister had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing. There was nothing in the action plan, but because of the severe pressure exerted by Fianna Fáil and the third level sector, we have succeeded and he has been forced to address the issue of third level funding. It is a pity that that had to happen because it was the right thing to do. It is important for the country and the initiative is about action, not words. We are glad that we played a role in the making of the €35 million allocation to the third level sector, but the Minister needs to go further and take third level education seriously. His lack of vision is a danger to the education sector.

The Minister and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform also belatedly addressed the issue of the remuneration of newly qualified teachers. They accepted that something would have to be done by starting the process of negotiation. We knew that this would happen because something similar had been done for firefighters, but, again, the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do something. The agreement was inevitable, but instead of arriving at it promptly, it was not finalised until after the summer and, most dangerous of all, following the announcement by the ASTI that it would ballot its members for industrial action. I tried to make the Minister aware that an announcement on newly qualified teachers should be made before the ASTI ballot. Whatever happened between the Departments of Education and Skills and Public Expenditure and Reform, that message was not understood and the announcement was not made until afterwards. There is a protest outside Leinster House, which is unnecessary, because if the Government had done its job in dealing with the issue of newly qualified teachers for whom €10 million has been allocated in the budget, everything could have turned out differently and there might be industrial peace in the education sector among teachers, whom we value greatly, regardless of whatever union they are members. Fundamentally, education is about teachers and pupils. The Minister's lack of vision, therefore, is deeply worrying. Action plans and lists of items to be ticked off are not sufficient. It is not enough to say, "We are publishing this report in quarter 4 and this document in quarter 2." There must be an overall vision of what education means. Education is about providing the best prospects for young people, imparting the best rounded value system to them and informing them about what they need to know about life, how to engage in society and find a job. That overall vision will never be achieved by a box ticking exercise related to administrative tasks within the Department. Unfortunately, officials in the Department seem to be engaged in such an exercise in order that they can say they have completed all of these tasks, while the sector is left to fend for itself in many ways.

The issue of reform of the junior cycle curriculum was raised at the education committee earlier. A sum of €10.5 million has been allocated for the reform programme, while ignoring the fact that half of schools are not delivering the programme. We are at this point because of the lackadaisical attitude towards the end of the previous Government and at the beginning of the current one. According to the Minister, pupils will lose 10% of their marks in the junior certificate examinations if they attend an ASTI school. The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health services can ask her officials and experts to assess what impact this will have on pupils, given the stress they will have to endure this year. It is entirely unacceptable. The reforms have to be undertaken in some schools in December. The ASTI will have to ballot its members again if the decision is to be reversed and time is running out.

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