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Leaders’ Questions

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 762 No. 1

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Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I have just learned of the sad passing of Mr. Paul Barry who worked in Leinster House for many years. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, I convey our sympathy and sorrow to Paul’s family. He was an outstanding gentleman who was kind, courteous and represented the best traditions of the Houses. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

The budget the Government introduced hit the lowest income groups hardest. People on domiciliary care and disability payments, the pension entitlements of a large number of women and those in receipt of family income supplement were savagely hit by the budget. Above all, the budget made a targeted, unnecessary and unacceptably harsh attack on lone parents which was initiated, endorsed and announced to the House at the time by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton. Last evening, in debating the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill, the Minister announced that section 4 was to stay. However, while she is not deleting or amending the section, she has attached to it a conditionality that, in essence, suggests the measure will not proceed unless she secures agreement from her Cabinet colleagues, the Ministers for Education and Skills and Children and Youth Affairs, with whom, according to her comments last night, she has not yet engaged on the issue, and, of course, the Minister for Finance. I do not know whether the Minister is a government within a government or a party within a party or whether the Tánaiste has particular difficulties with her. Is it really on that a Minister would introduce legislation on a conditional basis without having secured the agreement of her Cabinet colleagues? Why did she not see at budget time that it was unacceptable [2]to reduce to seven years the age at which lone parent payments would cease and to have seven year olds at home on their own as the Government forced single parents and single women out to work? Why is it only now, after protests and people raising issues, that she has suddenly had a epiphany or revelation that the measure is wrong? She stated last night that she agreed with the proposition that the age of seven years was too young. I put it to the Tánaiste that this is hypocrisy at its worst on the part of the Minister.

Deputy Eric Byrne: Information on Eric J. Byrne Zoom on Eric J. Byrne We will have none of the Deputy’s hypocrisy.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin The Minister’s position is deceptive because it is pretending to make a change without making any. Incidentally, I agree that it is wrong to reduce the age to seven years. If the Minister and her Government colleagues are serious, surely the only honourable and sincere approach would be to withdraw the Bill or, at least, delete section 4 which gives rise to this provision. It is not acceptable for the Government to come before the House with a Bill on which it has not reached clear agreement.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore I join the Deputy in expressing my sympathy and sadness and that of the Government and Labour Party on the death of Mr. Paul Barry who served us so well in the Houses for so many years. Paul was a man who showed great courtesy and offered great assistance to all of us and we are saddened this morning to hear of his passing. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

The budget introduced by the Government protected those on the lowest incomes. For the first time in a number of years, it did not increase income tax on working people. It did not cut the basic rates of social welfare payments, as the Government of which the Deputy was a member had done. It removed more than 300,000 of those on the lowest level of pay to whom that Government had applied the universal social charge from that charge. This was done in addition to the decision to restore the national minimum wage to the level that had pertained before the Government of which the Deputy was a member cut it.

Deputy Finian McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath Zoom on Finian McGrath The question was about seven year old children.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore Deputy Micheál Martin made an assertion that the budget had hit those on the lowest incomes and I am making it very clear that the budget we introduced protected those on the lowest incomes——

Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary That is not what the ESRI stated.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore ——and reversed the cruel measure introduced by the Government led by the Fianna Fáil Party to cut the minimum wage.

The work the Minister for Social Protection is doing is to reform the social welfare system, something that has been long overdue and was neglected during the years, particularly during the good years Deputy Micheál Martin’s party was in government. The changes the Minister is making to the way in which lone parent payments are made go hand in hand with the changes to the way in which child care is provided. Nobody is arguing or would argue that a child of seven years should be left at home alone. That is nonsense. The changes being made on a graduated basis and over a number of years are being made on the basis of changes being made in the delivery of child care services. The Minister reiterated this point in the House last night when she made it clear that when legislation was enacted, its implementation was clearly dependent on the various reforms being joined up.

[3]Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin That is an extraordinary comment by the Tánaiste, avoiding the core point of the question. If he agrees with the Minister, Deputy Burton, who perhaps believes she is Tánaiste in a different way, that the age of seven is too young for anyone to contemplate access to education or adequate child care on the Scandinavian model, why put this into the Bill in the first place? Why make this decision in the budget to reduce the age to seven at all? Is it in or is it out? The Government cannot have it both ways. This is classic Labour Party stuff. A bit of pressure comes on so we pretend to people that we will change but leave it in. Surely the only honourable and sincere approach, if the Tánaiste really believes that the age of seven is too young, is simply to delete section 4 and leave things as they are. That is the only sincere approach and it is a classic example of the Labour Party wrestling with its conscience, but the Labour Party always wins.

What is going on is outrageously deceptive. This Cabinet is bringing legislation before the House and is asking every other Member to debate it and agree with it, and the Minister says that she wants us to vote on a section in the Bill but she has not decided on it yet because she has to talk to the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and unless they give her a bankable delivery on a Scandinavian child care model, then she will not go ahead with it. That is incoherent government. It is a bad government process. It is not collective Cabinet responsibility and has nothing to do with how legislation is properly brought before the House. It should be withdrawn.

Will the Tánaiste give a commitment to the House that he will propose the deletion of section 4 of the Bill? If he agrees it is wrong and if the Minister for Social Protection agrees it is wrong, I am sure the Minister for Finance will not object, nor will the Taoiseach bring him into line like he did last Sunday. This is ridiculous behaviour. Can the Tánaiste confirm that this section of the Bill will be deleted?

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore Deputy Martin knows very well it is quite normal practice that when legislation is brought before the House and enacted, there are provisions for the commencement of various sections of that legislation. The proposal in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012 is that for new recipients from May 2012, a one-parent family payment will be made until the youngest child reaches the age of 12, from January 2013 until the age of 10 and from January 2014 until the age of seven. That legislation is being introduced in the context of reform of the social welfare system and of reform——

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin It is an attack on single parents.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore I ask the Deputy to bear with me.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt The Tánaiste, without interruption.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore It is being done in the context of reforming the way in which child care is being delivered. The Minister for Social Protection has made it clear that those measures go hand in hand with those reforms. Clearly, the Minister for Social Protection will be engaging with the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for——

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Has she not engaged already?

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore Of course she has. The Deputy has been long enough in government to know that when legislation is introduced, particularly reforming legislation — perhaps he does not know because he did not do much reforming — provision has to be made for the implementation of those reforms. As the Minister for Social Protection has made clear, the changes in the social welfare system and the changes in the way in which payments are to be made go [4]hand in hand with the changes in the provision of child care. Those changes will be worked out between the Minister for Social Protection, the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Thank you. The next question is from Deputy McDonald.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald The Tánaiste said that nobody would accept that a seven year old child should be left without parental supervision. Indeed, his colleague the Minister for Social Protection has belatedly acknowledged that the age of seven is far too young for cutting off the lone parent payment. Does he share that view? Is he saying quite categorically that seven years is too young? If that is the case, why does this remain in section 4 of the Bill?

Is the Tánaiste now making a commitment to the Dáil and, by extension, to single parents and all parents, that the Government will be delivering a Scandinavian model of child care? When might that happen? Does the Tánaiste agree with the Minister for Social Protection or not? Does he think that seven is too young to leave a child without adequate child care? Is that the position of the Government, or is it simply Deputy Burton yet again being a lone voice?

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore Nobody in this House or in this country would leave a seven year old without care of an adult. Let us get that clear first. This legislation is not about the age at which children should be left on their own. Nobody would leave a child on his or her own at seven years of age and nobody is contemplating that. The legislation is addressing the age at which the lone parent’s allowance is payable. What is proposed is a reform in the social welfare system which will, over a number of years, reduce the age at which the lone parent payment is made. That goes hand in hand with changes in the delivery and provision of child care so that it will be possible to implement those changes over time.

This is about reforming. We have to understand that when we are reforming a system like social welfare or a system like the payment of lone parent’s allowance, these things take time. They cannot be done overnight. They require transitional arrangements to be put in place, as well as work and preparation. In this particular case, the reduction in the age for the payment of the lone parent’s allowance goes hand in hand with the delivery of child care. That is what the Minister for Social Protection has made clear and that is the position of the Government.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald This is not about reform. This is about mean-spirited penny pinching, targeting——

Deputy Robert Dowds: Information on Robert Dowds Zoom on Robert Dowds Rubbish.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald ——not just lone parents, but more importantly targeting the children of lone parents. Less than two years ago, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin objected very strongly when Fianna Fáil reduced the payment of lone parents to the age of 14 in respect of children. The Tánaiste and his party colleagues were very vocal at that time. They understood full well that it was not fair nor was it defensible to make a move like that in the absence of adequate child care. At that time, they understood that children need the care, supervision and guidance of their parent. They understood that lone parents in particular need support as they care for and raise their children. They have really changed their tune now.

In its so-called reform, the Government will reduce the eligibility for payment to the age of 12, then to ten and then to the age of seven. Seven year old children are barely out of their infancy and the Tánaiste wants to force their lone parents back into a labour market at a time when there are precious few job opportunities. The Government’s budget did not protect those [5]who were least well off. In fact, it reintroduced poverty traps, put in obstacles to work, particularly for single parents, and well the Tánaiste knows it.

The Minister for Social Protection has said categorically that she now belatedly understands that seven years of age is too young, that seven year old children need their parent, and that the parent of a seven year old child should not be forced back into the labour market. Does the Tánaiste share that view, yes or no?

Deputy Finian McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath Zoom on Finian McGrath Charlie Flanagan is on Twitter already.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte Such tanned indignation.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore The issue is not at what age a child should be left on his or her own. As I have made very clear, there is no question of the Government legislating for children aged seven years to be left on their own.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin There is.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath It is in the Bill.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald In section 4. The Tánaiste should read it.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore I repeat that there is a change — it is being done gradually — to the payment of lone parent’s allowance.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin It is a cut, not a reform.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore It will be coupled with the provision of child care.

Deputy Finian McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath Zoom on Finian McGrath Check out what Charlie Flanagan wrote on Twitter.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath It is a death wish.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore We are talking about the children of lone parents in receipt of loan parent’s allowance who are at work. There is a necessity to provide adequate child care services. The Government is introducing a reform which provides for a graduated reduction in the age at which the loan parent payment is made. It will be combined with the provision of child care.

Deputy Finian McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath Zoom on Finian McGrath It is set out in section 4 of the Bill. Check out what Charlie Flanagan wrote.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett I congratulate lone parent groups, particularly SPARK, on forcing the Minister to back down on the disgraceful proposal to cut lone parent payments once the youngest child reaches the age of seven years, proving once again the effectiveness of protest.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett I wish to raise another issue with the Tánaiste. Will he explain how in 1995, when he produced this leaflet in the Dún Laoghaire constituency, and the mid-1980s, when he supported a boycott of water charges, he argued water charges were just another tax on workers? In the same leaflet he also opposed the introduction of a residential property tax. Will he explain how he is now planning to impose water charges on working people and the least well-off in our society?

[6]Given the shocking fact that 700,000 people in this country are living in poverty, including 200,000 children — this refutes the Tánaiste's claim that he protected the less well-off in the budget — and that almost half of households have a disposable income of less than €100 at the end of the month, will he dissociate himself from the Taoiseach’s comments yesterday when he refused to rule out the possibility that water supplies will be cut off, the most basic necessity for human life, to people who would not be able to pay——

Deputy James Bannon: Information on James Bannon Zoom on James Bannon Does the Deputy have a litter bin for his notes?

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett ——at a time when so many are living in poverty as a result of the austerity being imposed on them?

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter Joe, will you take over from the Deputy who thinks he is on a soap box?

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte What is the question?

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett Is the Government not being entirely dishonest or ignorant——

(Interruptions).

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett This is unbelievable.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Order, please.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett I fully expected it. Is the Government not being——

(Interruptions).

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, we cannot hear the Deputy.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett Will the Leas-Cheann Comhairle quell the mob?

(Interruptions).

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Order, please.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath The Minister should go back to the GRA.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett I will make a few placards for him which he can bring with him when he next comes in for Leaders’ Questions.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter The Deputy was leading them on during the elections.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Minister, please. I ask the Deputy to complete his question.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett Is the Government not being entirely dishonest or ignorant in its assertion that water metering and charges will not lead to the privatisation of water services when the EU treaties which the Labour Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil supported and for which they advocated a “Yes” vote make it absolutely clear — I refer to Articles 106 and 107 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union — that once charges are introduced for a service and it becomes revenue producing, all EU laws on competition and state aid apply to that service——

[7]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt The Deputy is over time.

Deputy Paschal Donohoe: Information on Paschal Donohoe Zoom on Paschal Donohoe What is the question?

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett ——leading inevitably to the deregulation of those markets and the privatisation of services? That is the reality. Once charges are introduced, privatisation follows. It is a requirement of EU law.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Thank you, Deputy.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett Will the Tánaiste be honest with the people that following the introduction of water charges, the Government is planning the privatisation of water services?

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte Just because the Deputy has a double barrelled name does not give him the right to ask two questions.

(Interruptions).

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt We must have order for the speaker.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett used the word “dissociate”. There is something from which he could dissociate himself — he has not yet done so — that is, the violent scenes in Galway last weekend.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath Inside or outside?

Deputy James Bannon: Information on James Bannon Zoom on James Bannon Joe, does he have weapons under the desk?

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore People have a right to protest.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin The Tánaiste was good at it himself at one time.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore In fairness, the vast majority of those who were in Galway last week protested peacefully, but there was a minority who did not do so and Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett has yet to dissociate himself from their violent activity.

Deputy Robert Dowds: Information on Robert Dowds Zoom on Robert Dowds He was stirring them up.

Deputy Dessie Ellis: Information on Dessie Ellis Zoom on Dessie Ellis The Tánaiste is labouring the subject.

  11 o’clock

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett might take the opportunity to do so now. I can answer his question very directly. The decision the Government has made on the future of the water supply will not result in the privatisation of services. That is because the decision we have made is to establish a public State company, a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann, to be the water utility. We have to examine the supply and delivery of water into the future. One of the problems is that we have not faced up to them until it is too late or the last minute. We already know we have a problem. We saw this in one of our cities within the past two years when for a period of three or four months people were not able to drink the water because it was contaminated. We also know there are issues, for example, in the supply of water to the capital city. There are questions about the adequacy of the water supply to the greater Dublin area which will have to be addressed. Therefore, we have to make provision to ensure that there will be an adequate supply of water delivered to households and businesses in the next 20 years or more. We also have to make provision to ensure the water will be clean, that we will not see a repeat of what happened in Galway with [8]the outbreak of cryptosporidium or what is happening in the south of England where there is already a shortage of water. This means we have to make prudent provision for investment in the water supply over that period. To address this — we have to do it on a national basis — the decision the Government has made is to establish a State company which will be a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann over the course of the next two to two and half years. The company will work with the energy regulator to work out a way to provide for metering and charging. On the contrary, it will not, as the Deputy has alleged, result in the privatisation of water services. The thinking behind the decision is to ensure our water supply remains in public hands within a public utility established as a subsidiary of a State company.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt I will take a supplementary question from Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett I agree entirely with the Tánaiste that the real issue is the decrepit nature of our water infrastructure and the need to repair and rehabilitate it, but unless water meters have developed new capacities that I do not fully understand——

Deputy Paschal Donohoe: Information on Paschal Donohoe Zoom on Paschal Donohoe Not for the first time.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett ——how will the installation of water meters result in the decontamination or rehabilitation of the decrepit waterpipe infrastructure? Water meters do not have that effect. They have one effect only, that is, to allow the Government to charge for the provision of water.

Why is the Government going to waste a year and a half installing water meters instead of putting thousands of people to work on rehabilitating the water infrastructure?

I would like to correct the Tánaiste on privatisation. Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that: “Services of a general economic interest, or having the character of a revenue producing monopoly [which is what the new semi-State will be] shall be subject to the rules contained in the treaties, in particular to the rules on competition.” It is as clear as day.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch: Information on Ciaran Lynch Zoom on Ciaran Lynch There will be reinvestment, not profit.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett Private companies will be able to take the Government to court if it does not allow for open, private competition in the area of water services if it becomes a revenue producing service. The only way to prevent the privatisation of water is not to charge for it and to fund the rehabilitation of our public services through progressive taxation on wealth and income.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore Deputy Boyd Barrett is wrong in several respects. One of the main purposes of a metering system for water is conservation.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae: Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae That would not be necessary if the leaks were fixed.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore There is a considerable degree of over-usage of water. We are all guilty of that. We turn on the tap without thinking about the effort and cost that goes into the delivery of water.

Deputy Finian McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath Zoom on Finian McGrath Fix the leaks.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin The Tánaiste knows a lot about taps going on and off.

[9]Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte Fianna Fáil was the party that could not switch off the tap.

The Tánaiste: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore Water metering provides for water conservation. There is no point trying to find a big, bad wolf where none exists. The Government decision was taken on the basis of water remaining in public hands. That is the Government’s position and the legislation to establish the water utility company will be framed in that way. A State company under Bord Gáis is being set up. Water is not going to be privatised. There is no question of that.


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