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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 Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne Zoom on Thomas Byrne] I understand that, from last November until June this year, when the new Government got settled in, almost nothing was done in respect of junior certificate reform or talking to the ASTI to resolve its issues. It was left blowing in the wind and children are left to suffer when this happens. The Department needs to go beyond ticking boxes but it did not even tick the box in this case. It allocated €10.5 million but ignored the elephant in the room, which was the fact that it was not being taught to half of our students, with all the consequences that entailed for them. It is simply not good enough.

Fianna Fáil is disappointed with some of the items in the education budget. The Minister spoke about an extra €485 million for education, but only approximately €130 million is actually new money, the rest being for demographic change and to provide new teachers for the increased number of children in our schools. We welcome progress on the postgraduate grant, on guidance counselling and on third level but there has been no reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio this year. In line with the confidence and supply agreement we have with Government, this will have to be addressed. It is a condition of Fianna Fáil's willingness to abstain on budget votes and to allow the Government to remain in office so the Minister will have to look at it for next year. He should forget about the action plan and ticking boxes and look instead at the overall vision and practical measures to help schools. The pupil-teacher ratio is one we have identified as a priority but capitation is also in this category. If capitation was properly dealt with we would take a huge amount of pressure from schools, principals, boards of management, parents' councils and children themselves. Rather than putting out reports, many of which have been shown in this budget to be meaningless by the complete change of direction on third level, the Minister should concentrate on those issues which will have a real impact on the lives of our pupils at primary level, such as the guidance offered to students and funding for third level which will result in more teachers. These are practical items which we have been pushing and the Minister needs to draw up a shortlist of those that will work. It is a short list but it will make a difference.

We are getting lot of criticism from Sinn Féin but I do not really want to talk about them. Deputy Pearse Doherty mentioned Fianna Fáil 30 times in his speech in the Dáil the other day. Our Members' ears are burning and if one did a word count of the speech one would find that Fianna Fáil was right at the centre of Sinn Féin thinking. However, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael are not at the centre of our thinking, nor should they be. The people of Ireland are at the centre of our thinking, as are the policies that will make change happen for them. It is not about party political nonsense or playacting or putting motions down that mean nothing but trying to get results. At times it is difficult to get results but at least we are trying and we can show that we are getting results. We can show that guidance counselling is back in education and that postgraduate grants for the poorest in society are back. We can show that the effort and noise Fianna Fáil made on third-level funding has been listened to and has had an impact in the form of more teachers in that sector next year. Fianna Fáil is about delivering for the people and about keeping the promise we made to the electorate and this is exactly what we have done. In an age when there is huge cynicism about politicians, keeping one's promise is something we feel is deeply important.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy The next speakers are the Government Ministers, Deputies Simon Harris, Catherine Byrne, Helen McEntee, Finian McGrath and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy. They will speak for 20 minutes and be followed by Fianna Fáil Deputies Billy Kelleher, Niamh Smyth and Aindrias Moynihan for 20 minutes. Is the Minister sharing time?

Minister for Health (Deputy Simon Harris): Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris Yes, I will speak for eight minutes. I agree with one point made by Deputy Byrne, namely, the one on the centre holding. There are many people on the extreme of Irish politics who would not have thought that we could have delivered a budget and who did not do anything to contribute to that process.

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on the budget and the 2017 health Estimates. This is my first year as Minister for Health to address the House on this important matter. I am particularly pleased to be in a position to talk about a budget that will place the health service on a more sustainable financial footing and allow the Health Service Executive to set realistic and achievable targets for service areas in the year ahead.

I believe the message of the people at the last election was very clear - they wanted to see the gains of a recovering economy invested in the services people depend on and I believe this budget demonstrates that the Government has listened to that message. This year, 2016, is the first in many years that the health Vote has come in on budget. This is a direct result of the Government providing an additional €500 million funding to the health Vote last July to improve the base funding of health and to break the cycle of Supplementary Estimates that had developed in recent years.

The improving economy has enabled the health service to achieve much-needed budget increases in each of the past two years. The fact that it has come in on budget means we can use the funding we have received in this year's budget for services and service development, rather than to fill some black hole or overrun. The additional funding provided during the course of 2016 gave me, as Minister for Health, the opportunity to address some immediate issues facing colleagues, such as investment in a winter initiative to manage overcrowding in emergency departments, in addition to meeting commitments in A Programme for a Partnership Government.

I am pleased to announce that once again the Government is asking the Oireachtas to allocate additional Exchequer funding for the health sector for 2017. The gross current budget for the health sector for 2017 is €14.152 billion. This is equivalent to an increase of €457 million on the 2016 allocation of €13.695 billion voted through the year. The provision for 2017 represents a 7.4% increase on the original voted budget for 2016, and a 3.5% increase on the final projected 2016 outturn. The health Vote for 2017 has increased by 9.4% over the 2015 outturn position, recognising the Government's commitment to providing a health service that seeks to improve the health and well-being of the people.

The additional funding secured will continue to ease the pressure on the health service to provide the optimum level of safe services for patients within the budgetary limits. However, there are still real fiscal challenges facing the health service. Health care demands continue to rise due to our growing and ageing population, an increasing incidence of chronic conditions and advances in medical technologies and treatments. Accordingly, we must continue to focus on effective financial management, cost containment and cost avoidance.

I am pleased to confirm that there will be no increase to prescription charges, the monthly DPS threshold or income thresholds for eligibility for medical or GP visit cards. Funding for fair deal will be maintained at an appropriate level to meet demand and keep waiting times at a maximum of four weeks. I believe this shows the Government's continuing commitment to stabilising the direct cost of health services for citizens. I am grateful to my ministerial colleagues, Deputies Noonan and Donohoe, for their support and understanding in dealing with the challenges faced by the health sector.

The level of health services to be provided within the available funding will be set out in the HSE's 2017 national service plan, which is currently being prepared by the executive. However, I will outline some of the issues which will be more extensively covered in the service plan. My ministerial colleagues, Deputies McGrath, McEntee, Corcoran Kennedy and Byrne, will be setting out information related to their own areas of responsibility so I will not do so here.

Under this budget, an additional €15 million will be allocated to the national treatment purchase fund, NTPF, to deliver a waiting list initiative in 2017 specifically directed towards providing treatment for our longest-waiting patients, because this is vital. This brings the funding available to the NTPF to €20 million in 2017, rising to €50 million in 2018, a total of €70 million illustrating this Government's commitment to improving waiting times for patients. In August, the HSE developed a waiting list action plan focused on reducing the numbers of longest-waiting patients. Throughout 2017, my Department will continue to work with the HSE on reducing waiting times through driving efficiencies and process improvements, with a particular focus on adherence to chronological scheduling and validating waiting lists. The NTPF is up and running now but this is not an excuse for the rest of our system to do everything it can possibly do to improve waiting times.

I am delighted that the €40 million allocated as part of the additional €500 million voted in July has been provided on a recurring basis for the winter initiative. This is important because winter happens every year. This funding is crucial in enabling winter-preparedness measures across our health service and in reducing overcrowding pressures in our hospitals.

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