Tuesday, 24 September 2013
Dáil Éireann Debate
[The Taoiseach: ] Clearly the biggest debt that most families face is mortgage debt and the Government has resolved to help families that are struggling through a range of actions that are now in place and we expect them to be delivered on. These matters have been the focus of Government and will again be the focus of what we have to do in preparing the budget for 2014 as a stepping stone to emerging from the bailout, to send out that signal further enhanced, if one likes, by the outlook upgrade by the ratings agency, Moody's, last week which had a direct impact on bond yield spreads. People may not realise these matters impact on the country. As its reputation as a location for investment improves, it impacts on the jobs situation, which is the ultimate goal, being the biggest catalyst to restoring the health of the economy. In that sense as the Minister, Deputy Noonan, pointed out in terms of the budget for this year, these matters are of concern to Government and hopefully can be reflected in the fairest way possible.
Deputy Seamus Healy: In case the Taoiseach did not understand the question, I will ask it again. Will the Government reverse the cuts to the energy units and the free-fuel scheme that have been made by the Government since 2011? What I have heard suggests the Government has lost touch with reality completely. I am sure the Taoiseach is aware of very important research directed by Professor Goodman of the Dublin Institute of Technology, peer reviewed, publicly funded and launched by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte. That research has shocking findings. It found, for instance, that there was an excess of winter-----
Deputy Seamus Healy: There are 1,281 excess winter deaths and the majority of those deaths arise from cold-related conditions, such as respiratory illnesses. Crucially that research found that this death rate is among the highest in Europe and even higher than in Scandinavian countries which are much colder in winter than is Ireland. These are absolutely shocking findings that were researched and peer reviewed, and launched by a Minister.
Deputy Seamus Healy: In view of those findings, will the Government now reverse the cuts to the fuel allowance, particularly its duration which was cut by six weeks? Will it reverse the cuts to the energy units of the household benefits package implemented by this Government?
The Taoiseach: We have a general policy of attempting to make homes more comfortable, warmer and better insulated. Some time ago the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, announced the allocation of €50 million for that purpose.
I do not accept the Deputy's assertion that we have lost touch with reality. Very much on the contrary, we engage with people on a very regular basis about the situation in which they find themselves. It is not a situation of their making, but it is a situation that arose because of how our country was allowed to drift. We need to correct that drift and that is what we are doing.
I cannot give a direct answer to the Deputy's question about the reversal of changes in the free-fuel scheme or energy units in the household benefits package. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, referred to this in the energy area. The question the Deputy asked is a matter of budgetary policy and I will not answer it now. As the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, pointed out, the Government needs to be cognisant of the difficulties and hardship that many people experience. While we have a difficult job to do in presenting a budget for 2014, we intend to do that in the fairest way possible and to show in so far as can be done a degree of flexibility where it can be applied. However, I cannot answer any individual question about the budget. That is a matter for collective decision by the Cabinet over the coming weeks.
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if officials from his Department are working on the Seanad referendum campaign and if so the number of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39047/13]
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if officials in his Department who work in the Government information service are monitoring and rebutting comments made in the media on the Seanad Éireann referendum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39496/13]
The legislation to abolish the Seanad has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas and is now before the people. They will make their decision on 4 October. As my Department has responsibility within Government for constitutional matters, the legislation on Seanad abolition was prepared by my Department. My Department set up a small unit to deal with the proposal to abolish the Seanad. This unit was initially staffed on a part-time basis. It now consists of two full-time staff - an assistant principal and a clerical officer - within my Department's protocol and general division. Other members of staff are available to assist on a part-time basis as required.
The officials in my Department provide appropriate support to me, as the member of the Government who brought forward the legislation. The legislation was, of course, drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, in conjunction with my Department and approved by the Attorney General before it was submitted to the Government. While the workload involved was significant during the period of preparation of the legislation and during the passage of the legislation through both Houses of the Oireachtas, it has diminished very significantly since the referendum campaign itself commenced.
The bulk of the documentation in my Department, therefore, relates to the preparation of the legislation and the Oireachtas debates. The officials in my Department operate in accordance with the law relating to referendums and in accordance with relevant court judgments. Once the polling date was set, an instruction issued to all relevant staff setting out the implications of the McKenna judgment and the restrictions that apply to the Civil Service during a referendum campaign.
As the Government is not conducting an information campaign, the amount of work required by officials in my Department is greatly reduced by comparison with previous referendums. In fact, reflecting that position, one of the staff members is currently on annual leave.
As Deputies are aware, the provision of public information is a matter for the Referendum Commission. My Department has put in place arrangements for funding the commission with respect to the Seanad referendum. The total funding allocated is €1.8 million. A further allocation has been provided by the Department of Justice and Equality in respect of the court of appeal referendum. The funding provided to the commission by the Government has enabled it to run a very comprehensive public information campaign.
My officials circulate articles in the daily print media within the Department and provide information relating to the proposed constitutional amendment, as required. They also compile a factual bulletin every few days briefly summarising recent developments in the referendum campaign and containing a short summary of the main proposals in the referendum Bill. The Government information services, as with press offices in all Departments, provides a series of services to Government, including a media monitoring service which is a basic function of any efficiently run Government press operation.
If the proposal to abolish the Seanad is approved by the people, I envisage that the staff currently assigned to the protocol and general division to deal with the legislation will remain in place to work on the implementation of the people's decision and associated Dáil reform measures.
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