Deputy Seamus Healy: Christmas can be a lonely and difficult time of the year for the poor and low-income families, for the elderly, for carers and for long-term social welfare recipients. The Christmas bonus made Christmas for many such families and gave them a little bit of comfort. The official State statistics agency, namely, the Central Statistics Office, has found that almost one quarter of the people do not have the money to afford at least two goods and services that generally are considered the norm for society. This quarter of the population is categorised by the CSO as deprived and that figure has doubled over the past five years. The accepted definition of deprivation means that people cannot afford such basics as heating their homes, buying meat, having a warm coat or buying a gift for a grandchild at Christmas time.
Members know the money is there to pay for a Christmas bonus. Not too long ago, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Costello, told Members in this Chamber that this country is the seventh wealthiest country in the world. In addition, the Central Statistics Office has revealed that gross financial assets of the wealthy are back up to boom levels, at €310 billion. Moreover, the Minister, Deputy Noonan, has informed Members that the top 20,000 earners in this country each earns in excess of €430,000 per annum. A minimal asset or wealth tax or a small increased rate of income tax on such very wealthy individuals would cover the cost of the Christmas bonus many times over. Many civil society organisations, including Age Action, Focus Ireland, OPEN, the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, Barnardos, the National Women’s Council, the ICTU president, John Douglas, as well as many more, have called for the restoration of the double social welfare payment at Christmas. In the context of the acknowledged levels of deprivation in Ireland and in the context of such wealth, will the Government show compassion this Christmas and restore the Christmas bonus?
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae: Wonder Woman might bring it back.
The Taoiseach: The abolition of the Christmas bonus was announced in 2009 and to restore it now would cost €261 million.
The Taoiseach: The rationale for the abolition of the Christmas bonus back in 2009 was that it was preferable to cutting social welfare rates across the board. In 2010 and 2011, however, the Government of the day reduced primary personal welfare rates for all persons under 66 years by more than €16 per week. In budget 2014 the Government was able to protect the State pension, the carer’s allowance, the disability allowance and other core weekly payments in addition to child benefit, while still reducing the overall welfare spend as part of the necessary effort to reduce the deficit. It would be grand to think that one could do these things but it is not possible.
I appreciate the difficulties that many people have had and continue to have as a result of the economic recession of recent years. That said, we have gone from a position where the country lost 250,000 jobs in three years to one where 1,200 net jobs are being created every week and there has been a fall in the numbers on the live register over 18 consecutive months. It is heartening to see the trends of confidence. Interest rates have fallen below 4% and even the construction index is rising. We still face significant challenges and it is not easy to make decisions to reduce public debt, but we have one of the highest deficits in Europe. We have targets and objectives to achieve and the people have made great sacrifices, but I think they see the process leading in the first instance to an exit from the bailout and following through to creating more jobs and achieving our target of having a deficit below 3% by 2015. By growing the economy there will be more opportunity for people to get gainful employment and to benefit from the rise in the economy. The Government has committed to not reducing core welfare rates and not increasing income tax because that is a tax on work. These are always difficult balances.
I am sorry to have to say to Deputy Healy that it is not possible to restore payment of the Christmas bonus as it was previously. The cost would amount to €261 million and we do not have that money. Unfortunately, we cannot return to the situation where there was an assumption that everything was available for nothing. Someone has to pay at the end of the day and balance is required. The budget maintained the State pension, the carer’s allowance, the disability allowances, other core weekly payments and child benefit. Despite all the cynics and all those who said we would destroy all the welfare payments, that did not happen.
Deputy Mattie McGrath: It did happen.
The Taoiseach: Considering everything, it has not been possible to restore this year’s Christmas bonus at a cost of €261 million.
Deputy Seamus Healy: That is a mean and shameful reply. However, those are not my words. Those are the words of Deputy Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour Party, when he addressed a question on Leaders’ Questions to a former Taoiseach who had abolished that bonus:
This payment has been made to pensioners every year for 30 years, even in some of the country’s most difficult economic years … for the first time in 30 years pensioners will not get the small bonus which has been paid to them in years past … The Taoiseach’s reply contrasts sharply with his more sympathetic approach to the golden ten yesterday … They get all the comfort from the Government but pensioners, who worked hard to make the country what it was … are told they will not receive the small payment which made Christmas worthwhile for many of them. This is mean and shameful.
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Healy, please put your supplementary question.
Deputy Seamus Healy: I want to ask Deputy Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party how they can stand over not restoring the Christmas bonus in these circumstances.
An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy is not asking Deputy Gilmore at the moment. He must ask the Taoiseach a supplementary question.
Deputy Seamus Healy: I am referring to how wealthy people were comforted by the previous Government. We know that during the course of this Government since Deputy Gilmore and the Taoiseach came to power—–
An Ceann Comhairle: Please put your supplementary question, Deputy Healy.
Deputy Seamus Healy: —–we know from the Sunday Independent 300 rich list that they have increased their wealth by €9 billion since 2011.
An Ceann Comhairle: Please put your supplementary question, Deputy Healy.
Deputy Seamus Healy: That is €9,000 million. A very small tax, wealth assets or income tax, on these very wealthy individuals would cover—–
An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy is not listening to me. Please put your supplementary question.
Deputy Seamus Healy: I have a question.
An Ceann Comhairle: You are way over time.
Deputy Seamus Healy: With all respect, the first question took 15 minutes.
An Ceann Comhairle: With all respect, please put your supplementary question.
Deputy Seamus Healy: As I said, a very small tax—–
Deputy Paul Kehoe: Did the Deputy vote for it? Does he remember that?
Deputy Seamus Healy: —–on these very wealthy individuals would cover this Christmas bonus—–
Deputy Mattie McGrath: The same as Deputy Brian Hayes, the Minister of State.
An Ceann Comhairle: Stay quiet, please.
Deputy Seamus Healy: —–numerous times over.
Deputy Seamus Healy: In the context of the obscene wealth—–
Deputy Mattie McGrath: The Ceann Comhairle is not protecting the Members.
Deputy Seamus Healy: —–of those 300 richest people in this country—–
An Ceann Comhairle: Please, Deputy Healy. Put your supplementary question.
Deputy Seamus Healy: —–will the Taoiseach reconsider his decision not to pay the Christmas bonus and at least give some little comfort to people who are deprived this Christmas?
Deputy Finian McGrath: Do not be a Scrooge.
An Ceann Comhairle: I call the Taoiseach to reply and I ask if he would please stick to one minute. I am getting totally frustrated here. We are now about 12 or 13 minutes over the allocated time. Members either want me to chair this or they do not want me to chair it but do not give me time limits which nobody is prepared to stick to. I do not like interrupting speakers consistently but Members will have to change these time limits if they are not prepared to stick to them, and it is not on.
Deputy Mattie McGrath: The Ceann Comhairle should talk to the Government Whip.
An Ceann Comhairle: I am not referring to you, Taoiseach.
The Taoiseach: It is not possible to restore the Christmas bonus as Deputy Healy suggests because it would cost €261 million. The entire social welfare system is being reformed.
Deputy Seamus Healy: It is being destroyed every day of the week.
The Taoiseach: Instead of passive payments, the change will demonstrate that work will pay and activation measures are being put in place. When the Christmas bonus was abolished in 2009 it was followed in 2010 by reductions in all those areas of social welfare. This Government is committed to not reducing core rates, and in budget 2014 it was possible to protect those.
Deputy Patrick Nulty: The budget cut core rates.
The Taoiseach: It would be lovely from a political point of view to say we can pay for this.
Deputy Seamus Healy: There are buckets of money. This is a very wealthy country.
The Taoiseach: The money is not there.
The Taoiseach: The system is that those who earn most pay the most. The Government restored the minimum wage, removed 330,000 people from liability to the universal social charge, and maintained core rates in all the areas I mentioned, including carer’s allowance, the State pension, disability allowance and child benefit, which is very beneficial for families with children.
Deputy Seamus Healy: Child benefit was cut in the last two budgets. Another promise broken by the Labour Party.