Dáil Éireann - Volume 574 - 19 November, 2003

Leaders' Questions.

  Mr. Kenny: I note this morning that the Government has finally decided to move to implementation stage of the Hanly report, one month after its acceptance by Government. Will the Taoiseach explain to the House and to the country what is meant by the implementation phase? What is the strategy on a month by month basis whereby the effects of the implementation will be seen? What moneys are included in next year's Estimates for implementation of the report? Is the sum of €110 million for consultants, referred to in the last paragraph of the report, included in the Estimates for next year?

  The Taoiseach must be aware that the European working time directive and the Hanly report are two separate entities. The Taoiseach now has ten months within which to implement the European working time directive with apparently no moneys included in the Estimates to allow for it. It was reported yesterday that ambulance response exceeds the 20 minutes response required to deal with urgent cases. It is clear that the national infrastructure, be it roads, helicopters or ambulance service, cannot deal with the implications of the Hanly report. Will the Taoiseach state the Government's strategy for the implementation of the report? Will he clarify his qualification of “demographics” and “geographics” in the context of Nenagh and Ennis hospitals? Last night's “Prime Time” programme stated that shutdown faces both of these and other hospitals. Is it true that implementation of the report on the basis of what the Government envisages means that the downgrading of a great number of hospitals will happen but the upgrading of others never will?

  The Taoiseach: I am glad to deal with this matter again. As I have stated repeatedly, any reform procedures announced by the Government regarding the Brennan, Prospectus or Hanly reports do not involve the closure of any hospitals anywhere. The overall health strategy, in particular the Hanly report aspect of it, is a ten-year [1346] plan. It will mean a better outcome for patients, better quality hospital service and a significant increase in the number of consultants available to see patients promptly and treat them with the help of the non-consultant hospital doctors, the junior doctors, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It will require substantial change in the contracts for hospital doctors and that is part of the reform.

  Safer provision of services by non-consultant hospital doctors is required. They will no longer be required to work excessively long hours. They were working 80 and 90 hours a week. The Minister came to a financial arrangement with them to bring the hours down to 75 hours a week and those hours must come down to 48 hours a week in the future. There is a better training system and career structure for junior doctors and an integrated network of acute hospitals which work closely together to meet the needs of patients in the most effective manner possible. This includes local, general and major hospitals in each region.

  Deputy Kenny asked about the implementation of reform. The three plans constitute an overall reform of the health services which has more than one aspect. The two pilot areas in the Hanly report are the Mid-Western Health Board, which covers Ennis and Nenagh, and the east coast area, which covers Loughlinstown hospital and St. Vincent's hospital. Implementation teams will be put in place. They will be chaired by independent chairpersons and will have full consultation with local interests, such as medical, paramedical or community groups.

  Phase two of the Hanly report will examine the remaining parts of the country. The implementation phase is concerned with those two groups which are now convening. That will be part of the overall implementation team for all the reforms. A sum of €10.5 billion is being provided next year and the Minister has already made large provision for the work to be done. I have been repeatedly criticised in the House for the amount of money made available by the Government for pay and improvements in the pay structure. All of these measures constitute an attempt to deal with health reform.

  Deputy Kenny commented on implementation of the reforms. The reduction in working hours of the non-consultant hospital doctors is to happen by 1 August 2004. The Minister for Health and Children has asked the Labour Relations Commission to convene a meeting of management and unions in order to quickly agree a process for dealing with that issue. It is under way. The implementation group comprising management and union representatives will then be established and will work intensively to find an agreement for the implementation of the reduction of working hours, including all the industrial relations elements.

  Mr. Kenny: The Taoiseach deserves a prize for the wooliness of his responses. He did not answer any of the questions I asked him about moneys being provided in next year's Estimates for infra[1347] structure or the implementation phase, as the Taoiseach calls it, of the Hanly report. I agree that the report never said there would be hospital closures but what is happening is the strangulation of hospitals by other means. In this morning's Irish Medical Times there is a report that the College of Anaesthetists will not recognise Clonmel hospital because of its inadequate facilities for training. The same happened in the case of Monaghan General hospital which was not recognised for obstetrical training because of the lack of sufficient resources and facilities.

  The Taoiseach stated that the second phase of the Hanly report will be implemented after the local elections next year. Bearing in mind the “Prime Time” programme last night dealing with Nenagh and Ennis, does that not mean that for Mullingar, Tullamore, Tralee, Kilkenny, Castlebar, Bantry, Mallow, Monaghan and other hospitals, the implications of the Hanly report will mean closure and downgrading of the accident and emergency departments? The question was asked in the programme whether the Taoiseach would agree with somebody travelling for treatment from Drumcondra to Longford or some point 70 or 80 miles away when the infrastructure is not in place.

  Is it not incredible that the Government is proceeding with this woolly, confused thinking about restructuring the health service when there is no money in the Estimates to implement the recommendations of the Brennan, Prospectus, Hanly or the primary healthcare reports?

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Kenny, your time is concluded and you are over time.

  Mr. Kenny: The Taoiseach said yesterday that demography and geography are as important in this context as they are in the context of the national spatial strategy, which was never debated in the House. No programme should require patients to travel, other than for specialised, super-regional or national services. If the Taoiseach continues down this path of downgrading or removing facilities from the towns I have mentioned and others, he will rue the day politically. This is not the way to go about reform. Unless resources are made available for infrastructure before contemplating such outrageous measures, the Taoiseach will regret it.

  The Taoiseach: I have stated already that €10.5 billion is being spent on health with €500 million in the capital programme.

  Ms O. Mitchell: Less than last year.

  The Taoiseach: Normally I am criticised about county, regional and national hospitals. Now the Opposition has decided, because there is a reform process which we hope will improve the situation in the next ten years—

  Mr. Allen: The Taoiseach should not worry [1348] about the Opposition, he should worry about his own backbenchers and Ministers.

  The Taoiseach: The Opposition wants to protect what we already have.

  Mr. Hogan: What about Deputy Killeen?

  Mr. Durkan: The Taoiseach should tell his own Ministers.

  The Taoiseach: The Government benches are not trying to protect what we already have but to improve it. We want a better service for patients, a consultant-based service that harnesses the contributions of all our hospitals enabling a wider range of appropriate services and procedures to be provided in local hospitals.

  Mr. Kenny: The Taoiseach should tell that to the people of County Monaghan.

  Mr. Allen: The Government has been at it for seven years.

  The Taoiseach: Although the contributions of the Opposition are usually not much good, I would have thought it would be interested in improving the health service, which is what we are trying to do. We have been through the reports of people who had thousands of meetings to see how to improve it.

  Deputy Kenny is right in one respect, no one is going to change anything until the facilities are ready to create a better future. That is why the Government spends so much on health, has put 30,000 extra staff in the area, dedicated an enormous amount of money to the capital programme and will spend €10.5 billion overall. We expect support from the Opposition when we try to improve the health service, something we will continue to do.

  Mr. Crawford: The Opposition has given the Government too much support.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Crawford is not the leader of his party.

  Mr. Rabbitte: The Taoiseach may not get much support from this side of the House but he is getting more from us than from those behind him.

  Yesterday the Taoiseach dismissed the impact of cuts of €58 million in the social welfare allocation that will affect the most defenceless in our society at the same time as he increased the allocation to the horse racing industry to €67 million. I remind the Taoiseach about what happened on 23 May 1997. That day, the leader of the Progressive Democrat Party, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, launched the PD programme where she stated that she would stop the rent allowance to lone parents. On 24 May, the Taoiseach, as leader of Fianna Fáil disabused her of the notion. He said that Fianna Fáil would not [1349] wear the idea in Government and would continue the policies of the rainbow Government to facilitate lone parents into employment.

  Six years later, the Progressive Democrats have achieved their objective, with rent allowance and rent supplement effectively stopped. The new hurdles are insurmountable for most people who cannot get public housing. The transitional half rate social welfare payment and back to education allowance for access to third level education have been effectively stopped for lone parents. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs has a list with 13 other cuts. The Progressive Democrats got their way.

  The purpose of the transitional payment was to facilitate the entry into the workforce of lone parents and the purpose of the back to education allowance was to help them into education and, thence, into work. What has happened? The changes that have been made will keep those people at home or force them into mobile homes in the back garden or on to the streets. Instead of encouraging people to better themselves and raise their families from the poverty line, the Government is, as the president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Mr. John Monaghan, said, encouraging poverty traps by keeping lone parents in circumstances where they cannot get back into the workforce.

  Those are only three of the 16 cuts made by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs under this left of centre Taoiseach. The only centre he is left of is the Punchestown centre, which certainly came from left field in a ready up between the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for Finance.

  The Taoiseach: Whatever I said in 1997, people will remember the record of the then leader of Deputy Rabbitte's party who had the only opportunity since the foundation of the State—

  Mr. D. Ahern: Which party?

  The Taoiseach: One of his parties. The smallest average rise in the lowest social welfare rates ever was under the rainbow Government when the Deputy's party gave a weekly increase of €2.74, compared with an average weekly increase of €7 by this Government.

  Mr. Stagg: What has that to do with it? The Taoiseach should answer the question.

  The Taoiseach: I know that upsets the Labour Party, that is why it will not allow me to speak.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Rabbitte took twice the allotted time to make his contribution and he had the courtesy of silence in the House. He is entitled to hear a reply and the Taoiseach is entitled to make his reply without interruption. The Chair will insist on this.

  The Taoiseach: The 2004 Estimates are framed to stay within overall spending guidelines. The [1350] Minister has achieved an increase of €355 million. She has pointed out that across the Estimate for the Department of Social and Family Affairs, reductions of €51 million are possible out of an estimated total spend of €10.65 billion.

  Mr. Stagg: Those are cuts.

  The Taoiseach: That is an increase of €355 million. Deputy Rabbitte stated that the Government is trying to reduce the rent supplements.

  Mr. Stagg: It is trying to end them.

  The Taoiseach: The numbers claiming rent supplements have increased to 60,000 people at a cost of €330 million per year.

  Mr. Allen: That is because of the housing crisis.

  The Taoiseach: Due to the increased demand on certain schemes, improved payments and, most importantly, the need to ensure prudent management of the social welfare budget, a number of schemes have been reviewed and adjusted.

  Mr. Stagg: We have heard that already.

  The Taoiseach: The Minister for Social and Family Affairs will give a detailed account of those areas today. The minimum contribution that all recipients of supplementary rent allowance and mortgage supplements are required to make towards their accommodation will be increased by €1 per week to €13. The supplementary welfare allowance is not payable to those in full-time employment. In future, as the Minister has pointed out, if one of a couple is in full-time employment, both are excluded from claiming for rent or a mortgage.

  Ms Burton: That is a poverty trap.

  Mr. S. Ryan: It will put people on to the streets.

  The Taoiseach: The Minister has outlined other areas where there are small cuts. Payments to lone parents will be replaced in the transitional period by the family income supplement and this will not affect anyone receiving less than €294.

  Ms Burton: The family income supplement has been cut.

  The Taoiseach: The idea that this is hitting people at the lowest rates is not true. I cannot give all the details in two minutes, but the Government will continue to look after those on the lowest social welfare rates. Any changes the Minister makes will move money from the higher levels to the lower levels so that, even with unemployment at 4.4%, at half the European average and far lower than in any other country, we are continuing this year to devote record resources to social welfare, as we have done every year since 1997.

[1351]   Mr. Rabbitte: It is very difficult to deal with someone who denies the facts before him. The Minister said on radio that she made cuts of €58 million because she was required by the Minister for Finance to do so.

  Mary Coughlan: I did not say that.

  Mr. Rabbitte: The Taoiseach is now using words like “review” and “adjustment”. These are not reviews or adjustments. These are real cuts, and the Taoiseach knows that very well. There is no point in talking about the number of people who are now benefiting from rent allowance or rental supplement. The reason is that the social housing provision is entirely inadequate. These are people who cannot qualify for social housing because the houses are not available. The Taoiseach has now done what the leader of the Progressive Democrats tried to get him to do in 1997, and he has made 13 other cuts on top of that.

  Why are the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Children's Rights Alliance and other organisations drawing to the Taoiseach's attention the fact that he is re-encouraging the creation of poverty traps if there have not been real cuts? There have been real cuts not just in terms of the three areas I mentioned but in a range of other areas, including the dietary allowance for people on social welfare, the reduction of 11 weeks for people on unemployment benefit unless they have more than five years' stamps and several other changes. These are real cuts at a time when the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, has increased the allocation for the prize fund at the races.

  The Taoiseach: The Deputy does not want to listen to the facts.

  Mr. S. Ryan: We are listening to the people on the ground.

  The Taoiseach: Will the Deputy be quiet for just a minute?

  Mr. S. Ryan: The Taoiseach has lost touch.

  The Taoiseach: Deputy Rabbitte is doing his best; Deputy Ryan should leave him alone. The facts are that €10.65 billion is being spent on social welfare. As the Minister for Social and Family Affairs pointed out, there are small areas where we can tighten up the system and she has loosened up the system in other areas.

  The argument on social housing does not wash. We are spending €1.9 billion on social housing. The recent report on the mid-term review stated that we are at the upper end, in terms of what we are doing in that sector of the market, and we are continuing—

  Mr. Allen: Why are the waiting lists increasing – 52,000?

  The Taoiseach: —to make enormous [1352] resources available for this scheme right across the rent supplement area. An additional 60,000 people require them and we are putting in those resources.

  Mr. Stagg: They are mean, lousy cuts.

  The Taoiseach: The aim is not to have people on rent supplements forever. We are endeavouring to make sure that, in future, claimants of rent supplements will be referred to local authorities for assessment—

  Mr. Stagg: There will not be any. The Taoiseach has abolished the scheme.

  The Taoiseach: —of their housing need in a more systematic manner whereby we can assist those people.

  Mr. Stagg: The scheme cannot work. It has been abolished.

  The Taoiseach: I do not understand why Deputy Stagg, who has now taken on the job of No. 1 heckler in the House—

  Mr. Stagg: Unusually, the Taoiseach is provoking me.

  The Taoiseach: —is trying, single-handedly, to close the racing industry in Kildare and put 25,000 people, mainly from Kildare, out of work. This is a single campaign by a Kildare Deputy to close down the horse business in Kildare, and he is doing that very effectively.

  Mr. Rabbitte: The Taoiseach is ridiculous.

  The Taoiseach: It is extraordinary that a Kildare man wants to put 25,000 people on the dole. Obviously he has no support from the racing industry—

  Mr. Stagg: Magnier does not vote for me anyway.

  The Taoiseach: —but he is totally opposed to employment and he wants to put these people on the dole.

  An Ceann Comhairle: I ask the Taoiseach to give way to Deputy Ó Caoláin.

  The Taoiseach: I cannot understand why Deputy Stagg is so persistent about putting these people in Kildare on the dole.

  (Interruptions).

  Mr. J. Higgins: Deputy Stagg pays his taxes.

  Mr. D. Ahern: When the Deputy's party was on this side of the House it increased the old age pension by €1.50.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Minister, I ask you to [1353] allow Deputy Ó Caoláin to speak without interruption.

  Mr. Ring: I suppose Alex Ferguson needs the money.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Perhaps the Deputies should allow all the Opposition Members speak. Last week in the Dáil, the Government voted down a Sinn Féin Bill that sought to enshrine the right to housing in the Constitution. During the course of that debate, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Noel Ahern, vigorously sought to defend the Government's record on housing and in the course of his contribution, he stated: “The general strategy for realising the overall policy aim is that those who can afford to do so should provide housing for themselves with the aid of available fiscal incentives, and that those unable to do so from their own resources would have access to social housing or [I wish to emphasise this aspect] income support to rent private housing.” Two days later, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, announced changes to the rent supplement scheme which have caused distress to vulnerable people throughout this State. In defending those changes on RTE radio, the Minister stated that rent supplement is “not a housing measure”. Which Minister is right? Is it the Minister for housing, who claims that rent supplement is a housing measure when he needs to defend the Government's scandalous record on housing, or is it the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, who says it is not when she needs to excuse a housing cutback which clearly has affected the most vulnerable and the poorest in our society?

  The Taoiseach: As I have already said, one of the conditions for the receipt of rent supplement is that the tenant must be in need of accommodation and unable to provide it from their own resources. For the most part, health boards decide, without reference to the local authority, whether an applicant for rent supplement is in need of accommodation. The State has set up local housing authorities to decide who should get State support in respect of housing but some people effectively bypass the system by opting to claim the rent supplement directly. That is what happened. As I said previously in reply to Deputy Rabbitte, in future rent supplement claimants will be referred to the local authority for assessment of their housing need. It is an attempt to deal with the matter in a more systematic manner.

  This measure will lead to an increased role for local authorities in this area. In addition, they will consider ways of improving the service for people with long-term housing needs who are currently in discussions with the local authorities. That is the right way to do it. Rent supplements will no longer be paid to people who refuse an offer of local authority accommodation or who leave local authority accommodation without reasonable cause. We cannot have a position where the State [1354] is paying enormously high rents to private landlords in cases where local authority accommodation is available.

  Mr. S. Ryan: There is none available.

  The Taoiseach: We are spending almost €1.9 billion on social and affordable housing and we cannot have a situation where we just have a benchmark of resources where private landlords can increase the rent in areas to the level of the threshold for rent supplements. That cannot continue. It is giving an incentive to landlords to increase the rent which the State will have to pay. That is what happens. I see it every day in my own constituency and in other areas of the country also.

  Ms Burton: Will the Taoiseach provide gardaí in these areas—

  The Taoiseach: I would say to Deputy Ó Caoláin that for the past 16 years we have delivered the highest level of local authority completions, with output from all social and affordable measures enabling the needs of some 12,700 households to be met. It is expected that the needs of approximately 13,000 households will be met this year and that will be maintained next year. We are also maintaining strong social housing programmes to meet the needs of those not in a position to meet their own housing need. That was stated last week by the Minister of State responsible. Also, a number of these issues will be touched on later today by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Taoiseach has not answered the question as to which of his two Ministers is correct, having given conflicting information within a three day period. However, dealing with the issue of the changes in the rent supplement criteria, is it not a reckless and callous cut that takes no account of the hardship and indeed the danger that many families, and particularly young children, will be placed in as a result? Is it not the case that the Government has failed to take into account the damaging effects on ordinary people – people trying to leave abusive homes, single parents trying to cope with the challenges of parenthood alone and those who are trying to find a way out of overcrowded accommodation where, generationally, multiples of families are living under the one roof, sometimes one, two and three distinguishable family units? That comes on top of the imposition of the ceiling of €107 per week for rent supplement. That does not take into account the real cost of private rented sector accommodation anywhere on this island.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy's time has concluded.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: It is difficult to find [1355] rented accommodation for less than €107 per week anywhere in this jurisdiction. The rent supplement scheme is not being abused by those in receipt of the payment, but by those who subsequently benefit from it, who do not face any restrictions and who, as landlords, continue to exploit the most vulnerable and the poorest in our society.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy's time has concluded.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Government stands indicted on this matter.

  The Taoiseach: I do not know what the Deputy is talking about.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: That is the right answer because the Taoiseach does not know what ordinary people are facing.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Taoiseach is entitled to be given the courtesy to reply without interruption.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The people are entitled to honesty.

  An Ceann Comhairle: I will have to ask the Deputy to leave the House if he does not cease interrupting.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I will join all the others on the streets.

  Mr. D. Ahern: There is a crowd and the Deputy must follow them.

  The Taoiseach: As I have already stated, approximately 60,000 additional people are claiming rent supplement. The Deputy rattled off figures, but they do not reflect reality.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: They are the reality.

  The Taoiseach: People can claim up to €1,200 for a family in need. It is an extremely caring system. I deal with such cases every weekend, as do many other Members in the House. It is extremely flexible. The Department of Social and Family Affairs is the most caring Department in the world in terms of looking at individual cases, making assessments and showing flexibility. What the Deputy said is not true. It is not the way the system works and it is not the factual position.

  Mr. Rabbitte: The Department can only implement the rules.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Allow the Taoiseach to reply without interruption.

  Mr. D. Ahern: The Deputy knows it loves discretion.

[1356]   Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: That would not be said to other Opposition speakers if they made such an accusation.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Ó Caoláin, allow the Taoiseach to reply.

  The Taoiseach: The Deputy does not want to listen.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Your minute has concluded.

  The Taoiseach: My time is up, but I want to make one point. The only point the Deputy is making which is factual is that the present system gives landlords an opportunity to fix the rent at an increased rate and represents an incentive to charge high rents.

  Mr. S. Ryan: The Taoiseach should deal with his friends and supporters.

  The Taoiseach: If there was not a rent subsidy, such high rents would not be charged by private landlords. The State keeps rents at such a level because of the subsidies.

  Mr. Rabbitte: Why does the Government not cap the rent?

  Mary Coughlan: We did last year. The Deputy can read the blacks.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Allow the Taoiseach to conclude.

  The Taoiseach: There are private apartments which cost between €400,000 and €500,000 and we are paying full rent subsidy. That is what is happening, not what Deputy Ó Caoláin said. What he said is factually incorrect.

  (Interruptions).