Recent Developments in Eurozone and European Council – Statements

16th December 2011

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and for her regular communications with us. She has been here before and, as a regular tweeter, her tweets have been keeping us informed, even during the European Council. She shows great initiative. I also wish to note the signing of the accession treaty with Croatia. It is a long time coming for the people of Croatia and is highly significant. I wish it had more coverage and debate. I also welcome the initiative on the blue flag for primary schools but I am sure we will hear more about that next year.

Looking at last week’s Council meeting, David Cameron told the British House of Commons he went to Brussels with only one intention, to defend British interests. That made me think about our common interests. Where were Europe’s interests and where were our European objectives, the drive to find solutions to overcome this crisis? Last week’s Council talks and decisions in the national debates that followed have revealed a number of fears that appear to be underpinning the approach of certain member states to EU governance. What are we actually afraid of losing by saving Europe?

The decision announced over the weekend did not represent any big surprise. Most of the measures were talked about or leaked or were consistent with events at European level, notably the so-called “European semester” based on enhanced Articles 121 and 148 of the treaty and many of the steps that have been implemented already, a number below the radar. It is very consistent with the German Government’s demands, expressed as early as May last year in a speech by Chancellor Merkel. The German Administration has kept its view consistently ever since, and the decision at the weekend is just the formalisation of this proposal. Some commentators call this deal a “super-Maastricht”. It is about monitoring countries more closely, enforcing fiscal consolidation more pre-emptively rather than waiting for a country to be in serious trouble before acting, and providing more credible enforcement mechanisms.

The idea of a “monetary Schengen” was actually proposed for the first time in 1995 by Stark, then Secretary of State, to complement the Maastricht treaty for the countries joining the euro. This is a provision of the Lisbon treaty, which took almost a decade to come about. It allows a group of countries to make advances on European integration. This is a provision that has provided the legal basis for the Schengen agreement, signed in 1985 between five of the ten members of the European Economic Community. The Schengen agreement now includes 25 countries and has been included in the European treaty. Another option would be to go for an intergovernmental agreement, a weak form of internal treaty. This would be another way to avoid the full change of the treaty that requires the approval of the 27 member states of the EU.

I welcome the news that the President of the European Council, Mr. Herman Van Rompuy, plans to hold a summit at the end of January, although he says it is to discuss the text of an intergovernmental treaty designed to boost economic growth in the eurozone. I note, however, the Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic and Hungary said as soon as yesterday that they would not join any treaty that includes tax harmonisation, a stance we would endorse. The Prime Ministers of Denmark and Sweden have said they must consult with their national parliaments. We are still in a period of flux when we hoped to be settled. I will wait to see the wording of the compact before I make any decision about the need for referendum. This House will have a role in scrutinising the wording, because this House has a role in scrutiny.

I want to note during this debate that a huge challenge for the EU today is the lack of confidence felt by its citizens, not just the markets. Restored consumer and investor confidence are essential for private and public-sector demand. To promote growth, Europe must break free of the austerity-growth deadlock. Job creation policies, especially for young people, must be the top political priority. Growth will only return if competitiveness and innovation can improve. SMEs and entrepreneurship, as well as social entrepreneurship and social innovation, for me, are the key drivers for a sustainable Europe.

Earlier this week the European Economic and Social Committee, of which I was a member for 12 years, held a conference on entrepreneurship. I was interested that in its findings; it called for the active support of the EU’s 20 million SMEs and for entrepreneurship in general. Its report said fewer than 10% of the 20 million businesses currently exploit the potential of the EU market. I wonder what the figure is for Ireland; we could perhaps exploit the market more. The president of the employer’s group in the European Economic and Social Committee, Mr. Henri Malosse, noted that with an extra 10% growth in the SME sector’s exploitation of this market, growth for the EU would increase by 1%.

I am disappointed there is not greater clarity. I will await the details of the compact but I am encouraged to see the active role Ireland is playing at an EU level. The Seanad has a role to play in scrutiny and in supporting Ireland’s role in the EU.

Order of Business, 16 December 2011

16th December 2011

This is obviously a day of unity in the Seanad and I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments expressed by Senators Cummins, Mooney and Bacik. On 20 May last, I received an unexpected telephone call. When watching the proceedings of the Seanad last year, I could never have imagined that I would be in this Chamber with my colleagues today. I thank everyone for assisting newer Members and for making them so welcome. Even though I have had differences of opinion with colleagues, they have still taken the time to inform me how I might navigate the system. I appreciate the way in which we have been able to work together on many issues.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for keeping me on track. The Leader, Senator Cummins, has been a source of wisdom and has assisted me in finding my way in my new role.

I thank the staff — Deirdre, Jodie and all the team — and the ushers. The staff in the Bills Office have been a source of great help to me, as have the staff throughout Leinster House, and one does not always see that from the outside. On the inside, however, people can have principled differences and the good moments have been when we have worked together. The bad moments have been when we personalised issues but I hope in the new year we can have principled arguments and robust debates of which there have been many highlights in this session in the Seanad. I thank the library and research staff also who could not be more helpful to us all.

There is talk of referendums. In the new year I would like us to talk more of referendums, in particular the children’s rights referendum. Last week, Senator O’Donovan called on the Leader to have a debate on child protection and the Leader will look to do that at the earliest opportunity. I would like us to have that debate in the framework of children’s rights because we often talk only of child protection in terms of cocooning a child but we know that 92.7% of abusers are known to the child and their families. They are either family members or people in authority and therefore we must ensure that children have a voice and that their rights are upheld. I endorse the call made by Senator O’Donovan last week and urge that we give adequate consideration to a debate on a referendum on children’s rights.

I, too, am privileged to be standing here as a Member of this House. I think of those who are homeless and most vulnerable. We must strive harder in the new year to find ways through this crisis. We must give hope and provide a way forward for Ireland. We are in this together and on that note I wish everybody a very happy Christmas. I hope we come back rejuvenated and re-energised so that we can make a difference.

Social Welfare Bill 2011 – Committee Stage and Remaining Stages

15th December 2011

I thank Senator Mooney. I am of the view that the Minister’s presence in the Chamber may be influencing the true gentleman’s approach.

This is one of the two sections to which Senator Zappone and I are opposed. As an Independent Senator, it is difficult to deal with the Social Welfare Bill because one’s heart must be ruled by one’s head. I want to oppose all cuts but I feel I must highlight those relating to child benefit and the lone-parent allowance above the others that are being made. I welcome the Government’s decision not to reduce the basic rate of child benefit of €140 for first and second children. I am, however, greatly concerned regarding the decision to cut the rates for third and subsequent children. I am also concerned about the decision to discontinue the once-off grants relating to multiple births.

My objections in respect of this matter are twofold. First, I am concerned that what is proposed will increase the exposure of larger families to poverty. The loss of €19 per month for a third child and €17 per month for the fourth and subsequent children equates to a total loss of €432 per year for a family with four children. On the face of it, this figure might not appear overly disturbing. However, it represents a loss of financial support for larger families. The effect the cut in child benefit will have on the 23% of families in Ireland with three or more children cannot be viewed in isolation. It must, therefore, be considered in conjunction with the cumulative impact of the raft of other cuts made across budget 2012 that have specifically affected families and, more particularly, already vulnerable families on low incomes that are reliant on social welfare. In this regard I refer to the cut to the one-parent family payment and the fuel allowance and the increase in health and education costs.

Recent CSO statistics indicate that among those whose consistent poverty rate rose from 6.3% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2010 were families with three or more children. These statistics also attest to a widening gap between the haves and the have nots in Irish society. I wish to provide some examples in this regard. In addition to the €432 families comprising two parents and four children will incur as a result of the cut to child benefit, those eligible for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance will lose a further €310. This will lead to a total loss of €472 per year. If these families live in rural areas, they will lose €1,612 per year as a result of the cuts to which I refer and the increases in respect of school transport. A family consisting of a lone parent and two children will lose €537 per year as a result of cuts to the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, the fuel allowance and the increase in the minimum contribution towards rent supplement. As already stated, the cut to child benefit cannot be viewed in isolation.

The State is constitutionally obliged to protect the unit of society that is the family. However, there is genuine and growing concern among the organisations which deal with struggling families that these new cuts will push many over the edge into deprivation, poverty and despair and will further compound the misery for those who have already crossed that threshold. Children are the most vulnerable members of any family unit and any hardship visited upon that unit is most acutely felt by them.

On Second Stage the Minister compared the rate of child benefit in this country to that which is paid in Northern Ireland. I remind her that while the rate of payment in the latter jurisdiction is lower, in order to compensate for this the system which obtains there provides a raft of other child-related benefits for those who qualify. I refer to free school meals and transport, a preferential maternity allowance, a national health services allowance, access to the start strong health scheme and the sure start maternity grant. I could also provide examples from France and Sweden — I do not want to take up the House’s time in doing so — in order to show how other jurisdictions offer additional child-related benefits which compensate for lower baseline rates of payment. When making comparisons, we must ensure that we take all aspects into consideration.

The second matter to which I wish to refer is the importance of supporting and encouraging a high birth rate in Ireland. The decision in respect of the once-off payments for multiple births displays a lack of strategic thinking. This is the very time when we need to think outside the box. We need to encourage and support a healthy birth rate in Ireland because this will, in turn, support and sustain economic growth. Ireland is in the enviable position of having the highest birth rate in Europe. In July of this year, it stood at 16.5%. The next highest ranking country is the UK, with a rate of 13%. However, Europe as a whole has an increasingly ageing population. The Oxford Institute for Ageing estimates that within 20 years, Europe’s largest population cohort will comprise those over 65 and that the average age will be 50. An ageing population has significant implications for the labour force, the health service, the education and welfare systems and also in the context of technology and development.

I am of the view that child benefit payments reflect the values of our society. It universally demonstrates that children are cherished and that the Irish public wants to support their well-being. I am not stating that we should provide support through benefit payments. I would be happy if we were to support families through the provision of services. At present, however, we do not provide support in this way. As a result, removing the payment is not acceptable.

There is a collective responsibility in respect of this matter. In an economic context, children are what might be termed “merit good”. In other words, they have value to others beyond their families. As future taxpayers and workers, their contributions will assist in the payment of State pensions. Mr. Frank Field, a British MP, is credited with saying “I may not have children but I need someone to have them if my pension is going to be paid”. The State must send out a signal to the effect that it supports and encourages childbirth. The children of today are essential to our future economic recovery. I, therefore, urge my colleagues to oppose section 8. Cutting child benefit and discontinuing once-off grants in the case of infrequent multiple births is not the way forward.

Order of Business, 8 December 2011

8 December 2011

After examination of the applications by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, three candidates were put forward by the Department, namely, Seán Aylward, Dr. Mary Rogan and Donncha O’Connell.

They are on the public record. The names have been reported in the news.

I will mention no more names. The nominations were considered by the Parliamentary Assembly but the Committee of Ministers, which comprises ambassadors from members states, did not choose the Assembly’s preferred candidate. This obsession with finding positions for former Secretaries General has to stop.

It went to four rounds of voting. Ireland’s reputation was deeply damaged.
I ask the Leader of the House to invite the Minister for Justice and Equality to the House to inform us of the instructions he gave to the Irish ambassador. Did Ireland disregard the decision of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe? This is very unusual. I spoke to many people in the Council of Europe yesterday afternoon about this and was told that normally the first choice goes through on the nod, unless a member state in some way indicates that it wants to contradict that choice. A member state had to intervene. This is deeply distressing for Ireland.

Order of Business, 8 December 2011

It was reported in today’s The Irish Times that the former Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality, Seán Aylward, was appointed to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture. I am flabbergasted by this decision. The committee carries out periodic visits, at any time and without notice, to any place where persons may be deprived of their liberty. Its purpose is to prevent ill-treatment of individuals who are deprived of their liberty in Europe. According to its website, members of the committee are independent and impartial experts from a variety of backgrounds, including lawyers, medical doctors and specialists in prison and police matters. When the Government came into power it made a wise decision to publicly advertise for membership of this committee through the Department of Justice and Equality. The advertisement stated that members of the committee would be chosen from candidates of high moral character who are known for their competence in the field of human rights or professional experience in the areas covered by the convention.

After examination of the applications by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, three candidates were put forward by the Department, namely, Seán Aylward, Dr. Mary Rogan and Donncha O’Connell.

I will mention no more names. The nominations were considered by the Parliamentary Assembly but the Committee of Ministers, which comprises ambassadors from members states, did not choose the Assembly’s preferred candidate. This obsession with finding positions for former Secretaries General has to stop.

Order of Business, 6 December 2011

6th December 2011

All of the talk of Ireland having experienced four years of hardship conjures up a notion that, before that, we had a shared prosperity. That simply is not true. Long before the economic downturn and subsequent slide into full-blown recession, tens of thousands of people lived in hardship, in poverty or at risk of poverty, struggled to raise families and care for elderly and disabled relatives, and hundreds slept rough on our city streets. Whatever way one looks at the measures put forward yesterday by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, they will impact overwhelmingly and disproportionately on those who have always been vulnerable. Following the Minister’s delivery of the proposals in the Dáil yesterday, we were obliged to seek information from different Departments. That is not reform. Reform would involve all of the relevant information being made available at once.

I join Senator O’Brien in condemning the proposed change to the disability allowance. It is the provision which stood out most for me from yesterday’s announcement. What is the rationale behind this measure? We are talking about young people with profound and multiple disabilities. They are not going into training schemes or work placements. In regard to the lone parent allowance, I have gone through every line of every document that was provided yesterday, but I cannot find the figures to justify this decision. What arrangements will be put in place for the transitional phase in respect of those who are currently in receipt of the allowance? A huge number of concerned lone parents are wondering what will happen on 1 January. There are no figures in any document produced yesterday from any Department which provide the rationale for this decision. Surely any decision which has such a significant impact on such large numbers of people should at least be an informed decision.

I am equally concerned about what is happening at EU level in advance of Friday’s summit. Serious decisions lie ahead of us, decisions which may ultimately make today’s discussion irrelevant. We must have a debate on what is happening in Europe. We are part of the EU and we must inform that debate.

Budget 2012 – Statements

6th December 2011

When I was speaking earlier this morning, I should have wished a happy St. Nicholas day to my colleagues in the Netherlands, for whom today is gift-giving day. I do not think the same can be said for here. I can understand now what people mean when they say that something was a game of two halves. There are many aspects of the budget about which we can speak positively, and there are some good initiatives, but due to the time constraints I am going to highlight the areas in which I have concerns and which I feel need more considered attention. Also on the subject of the time constraints, we need to consider having a debate in which Senators have an opportunity to make statements, because in this debate, the Minister, whom I greatly admire, took up a quarter of the time Senators had to give their statements.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, said yesterday in the Chamber that we need to ensure the burden of our economic recovery is shared fairly. Sometimes I wonder about this. We talk of Ireland having experienced four years of hardship, which conjures up a notion that before that, everything was all right. Unfortunately, it was not. For many of the groups we are discussing today things were not just fine. The painful process of adjustment that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform spoke about yesterday impacts overwhelmingly and disproportionately on those who are and were already vulnerable. At the same time, there remain significant numbers of Irish citizens who are insulated and largely unscathed by this afternoon’s and yesterday’s announcements.

I understand it is unrealistic to expect that everybody should have the same standard of living, but we should be striving for greater equality of opportunity. The foundation for that must be protection from poverty, hardship and despair. Can the Minister confirm that the VAT increase of 2%, which will absorb 1% of the disposable income of the bottom 10% of earners but only 0.35% of the disposable income of the top 10% of earners, is an example of every effort being made to ensure that the burden of economic recovery is being shared fairly?

The budget was announced in two segments but it is actually split into multiple pieces. We still have a situation where each Minister is producing statements and I am still trying to work through all the details. Reducing the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance has a severe impact on families. The Minister for Education and Skills hinted that he might examine directly off-setting that towards school uniforms or books. I would have liked that announcement to have been made. I also urge caution to my colleagues and the Minister for Social Protection. Yesterday, she compared child benefit rates with those in other countries. If one wishes to compare, one must compare like with like. While child benefit rates in Ireland are high, other countries provide free child care, free school books, free uniforms and free health care, so we should compare like with like.

This morning I raised the issue of the disability allowance for young people. The rationale is that we do not want young people with disabilities to be dependent on an allowance. However, many of these young people have profound and multiple disabilities. They are not going into training schemes or work placements, irrespective of their desire to integrate and participate fully in society. I realise that many people are getting allowances which might be questionable, but I am referring to the people with multiple and profound disabilities. There is no rationale for this and I urge that it be reconsidered. In addition, there is confusion about to whom the cut in disability allowance will apply. Will the Minister of State confirm that nobody currently in receipt of the allowance will have the payment reduced?

On the Order of Business this morning I took the opportunity to raise a number of questions and I am disappointed that I received no answers in the Minister of State’s opening statement today. Lone parents are very fearful at present. I talked to a number of them today. The budget introduces a number of measures which will have a severe impact on parents. There were a number of measures last year and they expected more, but they did not expect the drastic changes to come upon them so quickly. I looked at the figures in an attempt to justify the decisions, because I am trying to consider these decisions and their justifications fairly. I cannot find the rationale for this. We put questions to the Department of Social Protection but there are no figures to justify the decision. Again, there is a lack of clarity about how the cuts are to be implemented and what the transitional arrangements will be.

Budgets are about choices. The Minister can say it is easy for me to make these remarks but the Government decision to keep excise duty on alcohol at the same slashed levels as previous Governments, for example, means it has lost the opportunity to generate €178 million. If it had generated that amount, it would not have been necessary to make the changes to the lone parent, disability and fuel allowances or to student fees.