Recovery Labour is driving, has brought Ireland to a better place
Speaking on Motion of Confidence- Check against delivery
A Cheann Comhairle,
I’m pleased to have the opportunity to support the motion that the House has confidence in me as Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection.
I was appointed Minister in 2011.
As one of the Labour team which negotiated the Programme for Government with Fine Gael, I was determined to do everything possible to protect welfare recipients and workers from further pain.
By then, Fianna Fail had cut social welfare benefits in a succession of budgets.
They got rid of the Christmas bonus, slashed jobseeker payments, disability payments, payments to carers and more besides.
So in the Programme for Government negotiations, my colleagues and I insisted there would be no reductions in core welfare payments under our watch.
We also insisted that public servants would be protected as far as possible and that there would be no increase in income tax rates or reduction in tax credits.
Now, five years later, I’m very proud to say that – together with our coalition partners – we have managed to end the worst recession in Ireland in living memory while remaining true to those core commitments.
Core welfare rates have been retained.
And because this Government has driven recovery and returned the public finances to health, I was in a position over the last two Budgets to make a series of targeted welfare increases.
These included the 75% restoration of the Christmas bonus in December, and an increase in the State pension this year.
I was also in position to increase Child Benefit and restore Respite Care Grant in full.
During my time as Minister, I have had to deal with an unprecedented level of unemployment – the toxic inheritance of Fianna Fail’s reckless economic management.
I was clear in my own mind from the start that I wanted the Department to go about its job in a different way.
To move from being a passive provider of benefits to an active and engaged public employment service.
A service that served not just as a safety net when people fell, but as a trampoline to help them return to work, training and education.
To do this, we opened Intreo offices throughout the country where people can get personal assistance in getting back to work.
We introduced and expanded training and work experience schemes, and introduced incentive schemes such as JobsPlus to help employers hire people who had been long-term unemployed.
As a result, unemployment has fallen dramatically in all parts of the country and in all sectors of the economy.
The job is not yet done, but we are well on the way.
In 2011, we were approaching half a million people unemployed.
Now we’re just a few years away from full employment.
In 2011 we were bankrupt – we couldn’t pay to keep the country running and we couldn’t borrow.
Now we have sent the troika home, our borrowing rates are hardly more than 1% and the budget is close to balance.
In 2011, we were in deep recession.
Now we are the fastest growing economy in Europe.
In 2011, the social insurance fund that pays for crucial benefits for workers was in crisis, its deficit peaking at €2.7 billion.
This year, it will be in surplus to the tune of €217 million.
The Fianna Fail-Green government cut the minimum wage.
This Government has increased it twice and put in place a mechanism which will allow for further increases in the future.
The Fianna Fail-Green government imposed USC on all income over €4,000.
This Government has taken half a million people out of the USC net and reduced the rates on low and middle incomes.
The Fianna Fail-Green government savagely cut public servants’ pay in 2009 and 2010.
By contrast, the Haddington Road Agreement reduced pay only for those earning more than €65,000, and we have already started the process of reversing the Fianna Fail cuts.
In short, we are in a much better place than five years ago.
I don’t claim all of the credit for this for the Labour Party or for the Government.
But we have played our part – an important part in what has been a major national achievement.
A national achievement that has seen people give immensely to get this country back on its feet.
Apparently it’s my appointment of David Begg which prompted Deputy Ross to place the original motion of no confidence.
Perhaps I’m not the best person to make this observation, but I will make it nonetheless.
In all my years in this House, I cannot remember a no-confidence motion which was so threadbare, so flimsy, and so insubstantial.
Even Deputy Ross himself accepts that the guidelines on appointments to State boards were fully complied with.
And very few people quibble with David Begg’s suitability for the role – because he is eminently qualified.
Unsurprisingly, Deputy Ross doesn’t see it that way.
I say unsurprisingly because Deputy Ross doesn’t like trade unions and he doesn’t have much time for David Begg.
But even if we accept that, I still find it extraordinary that Deputy Ross and his supporters would use the procedures of this House to pursue what seems nothing more than a personal vendetta against a man who has given decades of service to Irish workers.
We can all recall who Shane Ross championed for senior roles in Irish life.
He championed Sean Fitzpatrick in particular.
But to be fair, Deputy Ross wasn’t alone in singing the praises of Anglo bankers.
In 2006, Fianna Fail appointed another Anglo banker, Tiernan O’Mahoney, as chair of the then Pensions Board.
But at least Deputy Ross is consistent – he was wrong then and he is wrong now.
I selected David Begg because I believe he is the best person for the job.
He has years of experience in working for employees’ rights – including the right to an adequate pension that provides security of income in retirement.
Mr Begg served in the CWU and later in ICTU.
He has also had experience as an employer, as the CEO of a major international NGO – Concern Worldwide.
He sat for many years on numerous boards and, in all of these roles, developed expertise on a range of issues including pensions.
As Minister for Social Protection, I was very grateful for Mr Begg’s help in resolving the pensions issue at Waterford Glass.
The House will recall that Waterford Glass closed at a time when its pension fund was underfunded.
Many workers were in danger of losing much of their life savings.
It is thanks to Mr Begg and others in the trade union movement, and the work of Kieran Mulvey as mediator in the case, that the workers in Waterford Glass secured their incomes into the future.
The House will be aware that I appointed Mr Begg in accordance with the guidelines for appointments to state boards as agreed by the Government.
The regulations provide that a Minister may appoint a chair of a board without asking for the help of PAS in circumstances where an individually is “evidently and objectively highly qualified”.
In the last few days, I have heard suggestions that this provision is a “get-out” clause or some kind of aberration.
It is nothing of the kind.
It is a provision agreed by the Government to provide for exactly the sort of circumstances which apply here.
The chair of a State board must be a person of integrity.
He or she must be someone with expertise and experience in the issues which the board has to deal with.
David Begg is all of these things.
He is a totally trustworthy man – a person of great ability and experience who has given years of public service.
I wanted and expected someone with those qualities as chair of the Pensions Board.
And yes, I confess: I wanted someone who has years of experience of dealing with pensions from the perspective of workers – but who also understands the bigger picture.
I am extremely confident that Mr Begg will work closely with the Pensions Authority and other members of the board to build on the pension reforms made in recent years.
As we seek to improve levels of pension provision, the role of the Authority will be key in the reform and simplification of the pensions landscape, in ensuring schemes operate effectively and in providing a regulatory structure which gives pension savers confidence in the system.
We need to improve awareness of the private and occupational pensions system – both to ensure that those with pensions know exactly how their pensions will work for them, and to increase pensions coverage amongst those who currently have none.
Mr Begg will bring a strong focus on the needs of the consumers, pension scheme members, and pensioners.
Ministers are responsible to the House for their actions, and David Begg’s suitability for this role means I am more than happy to do so in this case.
In addition, the individual concerned must appear before the relevant Dail Committee, and I expect that Mr Begg will do later this month.
I expect him to acquit himself well but members can judge that for themselves.
In concluding, let me say I was also very happy to read the report of the Institute of Directors before Christmas.
It stated that there has been a sea-change in the standard of people being appointed to State boards.
I am particularly happy that the Government has now achieved its target of appointing 40% women to most boards – although I want us to make further progress.
The reforms introduced by this Government are progressive and have already brought about major change – just as the recovery we are driving has brought Ireland to a better place.