Prospect of school cuts worries parents

Mick Wallace has been listening to constituents' fears about the future of education for their children

A major cause for concern for many parents in Wexford has been the planned cuts to primary education. With a view to that, we organised a meeting in Ferrycarrig on Monday 9 May and invited parents to air their grievances and also explore the prospect of a united protest to highlight the unfairness of the cuts which will affect all children in the relevant schools, and sadly the most vulnerable in particular. Concerns range from the loss of Resource Teachers for Travellers, Learning Support Teachers, Language Support Teachers, and SNAs, as well as the anger regarding the introduction of a €200 bus charge for children within two miles of the school. It amounts to a lot of discontent, a lot of children and a lot of unfairness. Is our new coalition government likely to prove better at looking after the interests of big business rather than those of the citizens, just like the last government?

I got an opportunity to challenge Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Richard Bruton on whether he will vote for the adoption of an International Labour Organisation Convention on domestic workers’ rights.

I said: “I am sure the Minister is probably aware that one third of domestic workers in Ireland earn less than the minimum wage at present. It is reckoned that 40% of them have no contracts. Unfortunately, many of the domestic workers in Ireland are migrant workers and their immigration status is very often used against them. Domestic workers do not have the rights of ordinary workers at present. With a view to being fair, their rights are worth campaigning for. The Government should be pushing very strongly in this regard.”

The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, was discussing the need for more facilities, lack of funding to deliver them and the possibility of making good use of some NAMA assets. I said:

“I agree with much of what the Minister has said about NAMA. Being involved in the industry myself, I am convinced most of the stuff with which NAMA is liable to flood the market will be sold at a good deal less than its real value. In the case of as much of the property as possible, whether for sports, cultural or residential purposes, the more that remains in State hands, the better for the country. Does the Minister agree that in many cases not only will there be arts and cultural benefits, but there will be a better return for the taxpayer as well given that much of what will be sold off will be bought by foreign investors at a knock-down price?”

The much anticipated Jobs Initiative was presented to the House with much fanfare and though it was a minimal measure, at least it will act as a stimulus to the hotel and restaurant industry which has been really struggling. Having restaurants and wine bars myself, I am well aware of the benefits to this sector. It is hardly rocket science that investing money in the economy has the effect of stimulating things in contrast to the government’s much favoured austerity measures which have the effect of draining the system of any life left in it. Unfortunately the government’s decision to raid pensions to pay for the Jobs Initiative is not something I could agree with. Though many people with large pensions can well afford the levy, there are many who can ill afford to have their vital hard-earned savings for old age raided in this manner. Tapping into the wealth of profitable companies and the richest members of our society would make for a far more equitable arrangement. On the day I said:

“I welcome Deputy Peter Mathews’ sentiments on the European Union. I hope matters turn out as he described, as it would be wonderful if the European Union saw sense and started to treat us fairly.

Too often Members on this side of the House are accused of being negative about everything. I like to believe we honestly say what we feel. If what we tell the coalition is sometimes negative, that is unfortunate. I agree that the jobs initiative contains some good provisions. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, was honest when he stated it was a modest measure and a start. It is a small monetary investment in the economy, a principle in which I believe. The philosophy of John Maynard Keynes took the world out of recession in the 1930s and is preferable to Milton Friedman’s, of which we have seen too much in the past 30 years.

It would be great if we had more money to invest in this fashion. For example, we are to repair 800 km of roadway. The Minister without Portfolio, Deputy Brendan Howlin, mentioned how bad the roads seemed to be during the election campaign in County Wexford, an issue about which I also know. The roads are atrocious, but I did not promise anyone that I would fix them. As Deputies can imagine, 800 km is not much. In County Wexford alone there are 3,200 km of non-national roads. While fixing 800 km nationwide is a start, I hope there will be more of this work. Likewise, the money to be spent on school infrastructure is welcome, not only for the kids in leaky prefabs but also for a small section of the construction industry which is labour intensive. I know from experience that construction workers are inclined to spend money. They will stimulate the economy if we can find them enough work.

The VAT and PRSI measures will be welcomed by the hotel and restaurant industries, in particular. I have the good fortune to run five wine bars-restaurants and these measures will make a sizable difference to us in managing our businesses. Our industry has been struggling with difficulties. I employ more than 50 people and these measures will help me to stop shedding jobs. Whether they will create more is difficult to say. More people must spend money in our restaurants, but they cannot do so because they have none. If the banks start lending again, it will be a significant step in the right direction. Since September 2008 we have believed we can throw money at the banks and that they will eventually start lending with it, but the Government must play an active role in ensuring they are open for business. This would make a significant difference. I am surprised and disappointed, therefore, that the strategic investment bank has not been mentioned in the jobs initiative. Perhaps the Government is bringing it on stream, as something of that nature would be of considerable help.

The most disappointing element of the programme is the picking on pension schemes to come up with money. It does not grow on trees and must come from somewhere, but it is unfortunate that many of the people who made sacrifices during the years to save for pensions are to be treated unfairly. As Deputy Shane Ross stated yesterday, it is as if we are robbing them for their savings. It is not right. The Government might ask where we would get the money from if we did not take it from such schemes. As Deputy John Halligan pointed out yesterday, foreign companies operating in Ireland are making annual profits of €32 billion. While we do not want to frighten them away, since we appreciate how much work they provide and how important they are to the country, large global companies must make a fair contribution to our society, given how well they are doing out of it. It would be terrible to see Ireland go to the wall in order that these companies could keep their large profits. It would be great if the Government sought money from that source.”

There was a lively debate on housing with Minister Willie Penrose whose approach to entertaining diverse opinions on the subject was exemplary. It was probably the nearest the Dáil Chamber came to functioning as a proper parliament since I arrived here. Some of the issues I raised:

“Will the Minister of State consider examining the manner in which PPPs are appointed and their structure? The structure is flawed and there is good reason the estates that were not developed were held by the same builder-developer. The manner in which the selection process works has major problems. Most builders could not possibly get on the list. Only a handful of builders in Ireland could tick all the boxes and I question the way the council is operating it.

I ask the Minister to seriously consider how work is assessed and controlled and the quality of workmanship.

This may apply to private or social housing. There is no proper control of workmanship. In the private sector, engineers and architects sign off on the work but the builder-developer pays the architect and engineer so they have no choice but to go along with him.

We did away with the clerk of works years ago. Fianna Fáil got rid of them when it suited the party and its friends and we need to introduce a system for controlling workmanship.”

There were a few meetings thrown into the mix, apart from the Education Cuts gathering at the Wexford Youths complex, I had a very good meeting with Martin Collins and Ronnie Faye of Pavee Point, representing the Travelling community, I met the members of ‘Turn Off the Red Light’ who were eager to present different arguments on the issue of how best to deal with prostitution, I joined the ladies of the Dáil in a ‘Buy My Dress’ fundraiser for down syndrome, met top economist Michael Taft to pick his brains on the problems of the bailout, spoke to adult learners and staff at VTOS New Ross – a very impressive set up where I listened to some Traveller girls who could speak better on their feet than many people in the Dáil chamber – and before the Youths/Cork City game I was at Taghmon Football Club presenting medals to boys and girls aged 8 to 14 – a wonderful community effort by all concerned.

On Saturday night I managed to get to Bunclody where the local club were launching their latest draw which has been a great success for many years – driven by the indomitable Tony Halpin. Sunday was a day to read, write, and cook followed by Monday morning when I left Dublin at six in the morning to go to the primary school protest march in Horsewood, only to hear that it was cancelled due to the weather when I was 20 minutes away. All the while, I had a receiver from ACC Bank, lurking like a shadow over my subconscious, three and a half years of pressure from that financial institution coming to a head. More of that next week.