Full text of speech by Tánaiste Joan Burton

‘Government setting out how it will avail of opportunity to ensure the recovery improves living standards for every person’

Tánaiste Joan Burton, who is to remain as Minister for Social Protection, has set out her priorities for the remainder of Labour’s term in Government. Image: Oireachtas screengrab.

Tánaiste Joan Burton, who is to remain as Minister for Social Protection, has set out her priorities for the remainder of Labour’s term in Government. Image: Oireachtas screengrab.

Fri, Jul 11, 2014, 14:15

Statement by the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton TD on the nomination of the new Government

Many individuals, families and communities have experienced the worst of times since the economic crisis first struck. But I am optimistic that the best of times are still ahead of us, because a window of opportunity has opened for this country.

And today, this Government is setting out how it will avail of that opportunity to ensure that the recovery improves living standards for every person, every family and every community.

In other words, we will deliver a social recovery to accompany the economic recovery now firmly under way – to ensure that the recovery works for the many and not just the few, and that the burden borne by the people of this country has not been in vain.

This means an unrelenting focus on jobs, increased living standards and affordable homes for our people. I look forward to working with the Taoiseach and our coalition partners to make that social recovery happen.

When this Government took office, the economy was on the brink of collapse and threatened to bring down social cohesion with it. Now it is clear that huge progress has been made on the job of economic repair.

The economy grew by a healthy 2.7 per cent in the first quarter of the year. Unemployment has fallen for 24 months in a row, and is down to its lowest level since 2009. Exports are at an all-time high and Government borrowing is falling rapidly.

In a little over three and a half years, Labour and Fine Gael in Government have restored financial stability, ensured Ireland’s successful exit from the EU-IMF bailout programme and overseen a return to economic growth.

And for that, I want to thank former Tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs and trade Eamon Gilmore for his principled leadership and unyielding resolve to put Ireland on the road to recovery.

I also want to thank former minister for education and dkills Ruairí Quinn and former minister for communications, marine and natural Resources Pat Rabbitte for their immense contributions not alone to this Government’s work, but to public life.

Eamon, Ruairí and Pat have always fought for progressive change in the best interests of our people, and I know that they will continue to do so.

The progress we have made on economic recovery has created the conditions to place an equal emphasis now on social repair.

And I’m confident that, through the statement of priorities we are publishing today, and this Government’s determination to see those priorities achieved, we will successfully deliver a social recovery.

A new deal for working families The social recovery starts with jobs, because secure work is the single best protection against poverty.

So the Government will continue to strengthen the domestic economy, continue to implement policies that fuel growth, and prioritise new jobs for the unemployed through our Pathways to Work strategy.

Helping small and medium businesses to prosper again will be crucial to increasing employment. The Government will establish the Strategic Bank to channel billions of euro in much-needed finance to our SMEs over the next four years, and that in turn will create thousands of new jobs.

But they must be jobs that pay decent wages, where people don’t need to fall back on welfare. One of the first things I did upon becoming Minister for Social Protection was to restore the Minimum Wage to €8.65 an hour.

And today, I am pleased to announce that this Government will establish a Low Pay Commission on a statutory basis as an independent body to make annual recommendations to the Government about the appropriate level of the minimum wage and related matters.

By taking the politics out of low pay, we will ensure that there will be no more attacks on low-paid workers to suit short-term whims.

We will also prioritise the enactment of the Collective Bargaining legislation as approved by Government, to further protect and enhance workers’ rights.

I am delighted that a Cabinet “Super-Junior” Minister with responsibility for SMES, collective bargaining and the Low Pay Commission is being appointed to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to ensure the delivery of these priorities.

However, if we are to raise living standards, then pay and conditions are only part of the solution. Since coming to office, the Government has broadened the tax base and put it on a sustainable foundation – so that there will be no repeat of the collapse in the public finances that occurred when the crisis struck.

That work will gradually allow us to reform income tax for low and middle-income workers, to reduce the amount they pay and allow them to share in the recovery.

This is in keeping with the work the Government has already done to remove 330,000 low-paid workers from the Universal Social Charge net.

Building a social recovery for workers and their families also means building homes for them to live in.

We have moved from a situation of building far too many houses in the wrong areas to building far too few in the right areas, particularly in Dublin.

This is reflected in significant upward house price pressure, and an increase in rents which is having a disproportionate impact on low-income families.

It is imperative that we move urgently to improve the supply of housing for both home purchasers and those renting.

In recent weeks, I made it abundantly clear that a Labour priority in the remainder of this Government’s term would be to deliver a major social and affordable housing programme.

And housing will be the number one priority of the Department of the Environment for the remainder of this Government’s term.

We will set in train a construction programme to triple the number of houses built to 25,000 a year by 2020.

We will also explore creative ways of funding social housing provision, and task Nama to maximise its potential to deliver homes for families. There are currently 80,000 construction workers unemployed, and such a programme would create a virtuous circle – helping them back to work and providing homes for families.

Helping people back to work creates a second virtuous circle – improving the public finances and creating the room for investment in quality public services.

Quality public services are absolutely essential to the task of reducing inequality in society. Because it is through quality public services that every child gets an

education, regardless of income. It’s through quality public services that everyone has access to healthcare, regardless of income. And when people have little or no income, quality public services ensure a strong welfare safety net to protect them.

Our public services will be central to the task of social repair ahead of us. And through restoring our public finances and broadening our tax base, we are well placed to begin a new cycle of investment in our public services.

We will put education up front and central in that new cycle of investment, because this Government cherishes education. We have demonstrated that in the programme of new school buildings and refurbishment delivered in every part of the country.

We have a window of opportunity now to build a social recovery. And by making education central to that social recovery, we can deliver a world of opportunity for our children.

This Government will also embark on a new cycle of political reform to restore trust in our institutions and public life.

My colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, has done superb work in this area, introducing groundbreaking legislation to protect whistleblowers and restore the Freedom of Information Act, among numerous other measures introduced by this Government.

But we can and must go further, and so by the end of this year, we will introduce an independent Garda Authority to restore confidence and accountability in our policing system.

We will also complete a review of the operation of the Judicial Appointments System, to ensure an appointments system that is open, transparent and accountable, and we will enact the Lobbyists Bill.

Next year, we will bring forward legislation to establish an Electoral Commission to ensure best practice and probity in our election processes. We will hold a number of referendums on the recommendations made by the Constitutional Convention to improve our public life.

We will also hold a referendum on marriage equality next spring and I look forward to working with the Taoiseach to win that referendum.

I want to see an all-island recovery, and that means working together, North and South, on investment, jobs and growth to deliver prosperity for our people.

Essential to that task is preserving the peace and ensuring political stability in Northern Ireland.

I fervently hope that dialogue can resume and that violence can be avoided during the parades season.

The Government will continue to work closely with the British Government, the US administration, and the parties in the Executive to break the political deadlock, ensure we preserve the hard-won peace and continue on the road to all-island prosperity.

We will also work with our counterparts in Europe to ensure the EU prioritises the social recovery too by focusing on jobs, investment, growth and equality.

We also have unfinished business on our legacy bank debt. And we will continue to work through diplomatic channels to build international support for measures to reduce that debt.

Today, this Government has set out a very ambitious agenda recognising the opportunity that now exists to build the social recovery, and our commitment to delivering it.

This vital window of opportunity must not be lost, because the people of this country suffered hugely as a result of a crisis they did not cause, endured while this Government implemented the necessary policies to end it, and now must feel the benefits of the recovery in their lives. That is our task, and we will work with head and heart to deliver.