Grading the Government – three years on, how has it performed?

Alternative assessment of Labour and Fine Gael’s Programme for Government

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore present their progress report at a press conference at Government Buildings this afternoon. Photograph: RTE.ie

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore present their progress report at a press conference at Government Buildings this afternoon. Photograph: RTE.ie

Tue, Mar 4, 2014, 13:22

A little like the Iraqi elections during Saddam Hussein’s reign with an 100 per cent turnout and 100 per cent voter approval, the Coalition has become adept at publishing scorecards on its performance in office in which it awards itself gold stars and all kinds of ‘gaiscaí­’ without even showing the slightest blush of modesty.

It is not that the Government has not achieved. It has had some signal success, not least with the exit of the Troika, the deal on the promissory note and the steady improvement in employment figures.

But there are well over 200 targets on the Programme for Government and quite a few of the aims have veered off course, or have been abandoned completely.

Not that you would know it when Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore stand up and give their yearly assessment on how the Programme for Government is progressing. You have to look very very hard (and sometimes in other documents) to find the goals that did not quite make the grade or which were quietly dropped.

From the Government’s perspective, the media strategy harks back to the Pravda headlines during the Soviet era. Then they cheered up the comrades with news that tractor production in Minsk and Volgograd had reached record outputs for the 15th year running. And when you checked every other factory and collective farm through the USSR, astonishingly they too were achieving record output too, for the 15th year running.

As a counterpoint to this, here is our alternative assessment of how the Programme for Government has performed in the first three years of the Coalitions’ term.

A lot done.....

GOAL: We will seek a reduced interest rate [on the Troika loan of €67.5bn]. OUTCOME: An early failure. And a complete one at that. Merkel and Sarkozy said no. Then Greek loan was restructured with lower interest rate, Ireland benefitted as a programme country. A lucky break.

GOAL: We will avoid further downgrades to our sovereign credit ratings by increasing capital spend into banks. OUTCOME: The banks were recapitalised very early in the new Government term. Credit ratings have fallen significantly since 2011. Success.

GOAL: We will remain committed to a smaller banking system. OUTCOME: Two pillar banks created.

GOAL: We will replace emergency lending to our banks. OUTCOME: In February 2013, promissory note was replaced by a longer-term solution. A big success though may not add up to sum of parts in long term.

GOAL: Jobs Fund. OUTCOME: Originally was going to be a jobs budget but was then modified to a ‘fund’. Promised within 100 days and announced within 100 days. Cuts in VAT, a lowering of PRSI, a reverse in the cut to the minimum wage. Its budget is €2 billion over four years, partly funded by a controversial raid on private pension funds. Promised 13,000 jobs and an additional 15,000 places in training. A study on the VAT reductions in tourism which cost €150m per annum showed 6,200 additional jobs in the sector but couldn’t say if any or all were attributable to jobs fund. Reduction in VAT has been shown to have benefitted tourism and was retained in the October 2013 budget. Generally, the Government has turned a corner on jobs creating 61,000 places in the past year.

GOAL: New graduate, apprentice, intern, and education schemes with 60,000 new places that weren’t available before. OUTCOME: Many new schemes but some of them directly replace old schemes (JobsPlus announced last summer being a case in point). There is a range of schemes including Momentum; and Springboard. Some have been more successful than others. Well over 20,000 internships have been taken up in the Jobsbridge scheme. On the other hand, less than 100 people have taken places on the Gateway training scheme — the Government had hoped the uptake would be over 1,500 through local authorities. Success depends on how it is counted (and there are many ways) but the goal of 60,000 new places might be attained.

GOAL: We will replace FÁS with a new National Employment and Entitlement Service, and replace by a single delivery unit in Social Protection including one stop shops. OUTCOME: Has happened. The Intreo one-stop shops have been a big success for the Government. By the end of 2013, 43 Intreo offices had opened offering a range of employment services and advice as well as welfare payments. Plans to expand the network in 2014.

GOAL: We will fast track the substantial reforms needed for our bankruptcy legislation. OUTCOME: Achieved through the Personal Insolvency Bill which reduced the term for discharge of bankruptcy from 12 to three years (or eight year for those whose circumstances improve).

GOAL: We will reform the joint labour committee structures. OUTCOME: A Troika demand. Largely achieved though only after the old system was struck down by the courts.

GOAL: A temporary partial credit guarantee scheme for job-creating firms. OUTCOME: 75 per cent loan guarantee from government. Planned €150m of additional lending per annum. Came into being in late 2012. A very low take-up and was being reviewed by Government.

GOAL: We will construct a €100m microfinance start-up fund. OUTCOME: Funding of over €90m but again low uptake to date. Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton disclosed that only €2.37m funding allotted in 2013 creating 338 jobs..

GOAL: We will abolish the €3 travel tax. OUTCOME: Didn’t happen initially. Was contingent on Ryanair and Aer Lingus reopening routes. Minister for Transport and Tourism Leo Varadkar said they would not play ball. But then in October 2013 Budget it was announced it would be scrapped because of new routes being opened. So tax will become zero rated in April this year. Better late than never.

GOAL: Sale of €2bn in State assets. OUTCOME: All that wrangling with the Troika over using 50 per cent of proceeds for jobs investment rather than debt write-down now moot. Sale of National Lottery and of the Bord Gáis business has netted the Exchequer about €1.5 billion. A partial success although Government pulled back from selling off assets in Coillte, Aer Lingus, and the ESB.

GOAL: Keep the corporate tax at 12.5 per cent. OUTCOME: A sacrosanct policy. Retained.

GOAL: Consider a site valuation tax. OUTCOME: Troika insisted on this. Has become the property tax.

GOAL: We will review the Universal Social Charge. OUTCOME: Took 300,000 lower earners out of net. But there was no wider review, despite the protestation of both parties in opposition.

GOAL: Abolition of the Seanad to be put to referendum. Also referendums on children’s rights, judges’ pay, and a court of civil appeal. OUTCOME: All held. Seanad Referendum held in early October 2013 and lost.

GOAL: Set up a constitutional convention. OUTCOME: Wasn’t set up within promised 12 months but has been a success.

GOAL: Reduce the number of committees. OUTCOME: Reduced them too much and had to rejig and separate transport from environment. Committees cover too much ground.

GOAL: Strengthen Freedom of Information Act; introduce whistleblowers’ legislation. Introduce a statutory register of lobbyists. OUTCOME: Two have been published. Lobbying Bill due for publication before summer. Already a debate — prompted most recently by GSOC and Maurice McCabe controversies — as to whether or not they are sufficiently robust pieces of legislation.

GOAL: Reduce the limits on political donations and ban corporate donations. OUTCOME: Limits reduced but AG advised that corporate donations could not be banned outright. Reduced to €250. Former senator Joe O’Toole has argued that lack of foresight in changing rules. It has rewarded established parties within the tent but would be impossible for any new party to get decent funding to set up properly.

GOAL: Create an investigations, oversight and petitions committee. It would be a “powerful” committee. OUTCOME: Is it powerful? not really. Loss of Abbeylara referendum sheared it of power. However, performed well recently on GSOC controversy under new chair Pádraig Mac Lochlainn. But could go nowhere after holding its second meeting as Government announced its own inquiry.

GOAL: Political funding for political parties will be tied to level of women candidates. OUTCOME: Phil Hogan has introduced quotas for parties with reduction in funding for failure to comply. Successful

GOAL: We will establish a Fiscal Advisory Council. OUTCOME: Established under chairmanship of Prof John McHale. Its advice (mostly tough) has not been adopted though.

GOAL: We will conduct a comprehensive spending review. OUTCOME: Achieved. Three year-spending reviews with ceilings for each Department but no real sanctions for failure to achieve targets as Health and Social Protection have shown.

GOAL: Reduce the number of public sector employees by between 18,000 and 21,000. OUTCOME: Will be achieved and surpassed. New goal is to have the total numbers reduced to 282,000 by 2015 — from a high of 320,000 in 2008.

GOAL: A Special Delivery Unit will be set up to reduce waiting lists. OUTCOME: Quite expensive but delivered. Waiting lists and trolleys-in-corridor situations seem to be creeping up again lately.

GOAL: An expert group to make recommendations on ECHR judgement in ABC case and on X-case. OUTCOME: Fine Gael was initially in no hurry to implement this target. But the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar changed the facts on the ground. New laws enacted last summer giving effect to judgements. Fine Gael lost seven TDs and senators from its parliamentary party.

GOAL: We will locate the DIT at Grangegorman. OUTCOME: One of the victims when downsized capital programme announced early in the Government term. However, it is now a central part of its Government-side job stimulus programme. Some 3,500 jobs promised on project that will be completed in 2017.

GOAL: We will initiate a forum on patronage and pluralism in education. OUTCOME: Has happened. Local communities were balloted. There have been changes but quite low compared to expectations.

GOAL: We will end the practice of imprisoning people who cannot pay fines and debt. OUTCOME: The Fines Bill, Alan Shatter’s proposals to replace prison terms with attachment orders on wages or the dole, was published in July. Currently at committee stage in Oireachtas. Some 7,500 were imprisoned in 2012 for not paying fines or debts.

GOAL: We will take the necessary steps to create a permanent Civil Court of Appeal. OUTCOME: Referendum held and passed last October. A Court of Appeal Bill is on the A list for publication before Summer.

GOAL: We will maintain social welfare rates. OUTCOME: Basic social welfare rates have been maintained although there were very sharp reductions in jobseekers’ allowance over two budgets.

A lot more to do......

GOAL: We will end further asset transfers to NAMA. OUTCOME: Coalition wanted to get rid of NAMA in 2011. A complete change of tune. All of the former Anglo’s assets transferred into NAMA. A 100 per cent reverse.

GOAL: Extend the scope of bank liability to include unsecured, unguaranteed senior bonds. O UTCOME: The ECB in Frankfurt said no. Full stop. A failure.

GOAL: We will establish a Strategic Investment Bank. OUTCOME: One of the big Labour inclusions, there were plans for an initial €2bn in funding for strategic investments with leveraging from private sector. Has not happened. ‘Strategic Investment Fund’ established instead as part of funding arrangement for New Era. Difficult to explain. Not the game-changer Labour wanted it to be.

GOAL: We will exempt from VAT service companies that export more than 90 per cent of their output. OUTCOME: A clear fail. Government was told it was not in accordance with EU VAT laws and it was quietly dropped.

GOAL: We will end upward only rent reviews. OUTCOME: Failed. Government reversed on this policy claiming there were Constitutional problems.

GOAL: We will examine introducing a single business tax for micro enterprise. OUTCOME: Failed. Expert group concluded that it was not possible to remove some taxes and the proposal was unlikely to be of benefit “in an appreciable way”.

GOAL: We will legislate to ban ‘hello money’ in the retail sector OUTCOME: Another populist promise but little action. Brought into renewed focus by horse meat scandal. Legislation promised as part of the merger of the Competition Authority and the National Consumer Authority. That Bill has yet to be published two years after being promised.

GOAL: We will double funding for home efficiency. After 2013, we will roll out a ‘pay as you save’ scheme for home insulation. OUTCOME: Touted as one of the Government’s major job initiatives. Number of homes being insulated dropped sharply. Dept of Energy has said this is due to mild winters and continuing recession. Opposition has said it is lack of funding and political will. Pay as you Save has vaunting ambition of insulating 1 million homes by 2020. An NESC report in 2013 expressed doubt about it being possible. Government did announce a €60m plus home improvement scheme in Budget, which can include insulation. But the 1 million homes target has been shelved.

GOAL: We will draw up a new National Development Plan for 2012 to 2019. OUTCOME: Never happened

GOAL: We will ensure that tax exiles make a fair contribution to the Exchequer. OUTCOME: A complete failure. Former minister Brian Lenihan’s domicile levy of €200,000 for wealthy individuals still in place but only 10 paid it in 2012. Michael Noonan brought in measures that didn’t allow tax exiles to escape it by revoking citizenship but that has had a minimal impact. Clear from Noonan’s recent replies to parliamentary questions that he is happy with the status quo.

GOAL: 50 per cent increase in Dail sitting days, Dail will sit four days a week, no mid-term breaks. OUTCOME: Part of a package of Dail reforms that have promised more than they delivered. The increase in sitting days has been modest. The total came to 123 in both 2012 and 2013 compared to 101 in 2010 when Brian Cowen was taoiseach. Still a long way short of the 151 needed. Number of weeks where there are Friday sitting days has increased to two a month since start of 2014.

GOAL: We will restrict the use of guillotine motions. OUTCOME: Coalition has proved almost as enthusiastic as the previous government for beheading debates. Reached farcical levels during the debate on the Gaeltacht Bill in July 2012 when all Opposition parties walked out of the Dail in protest.

GOAL: We will organise a committee week every four weeks to replace Dail business. OUTCOME: Never happened

GOAL: We will revamp adjournment debate and rename it as a topical debate. OUTCOME: Moved from end of business to middle of day. Promised an end to the practice of junior ministers reading scrips of a number of departments. Examination by The Irish Times last June showed senior Ministers failed to turn up to answer questions three times out of four, and in 40 per cent of cases, the answers were read from a script by a junior minister from another department. Chief Whip Paul Kehoe described it as “deplorable”. Has improved slightly since.

GOAL: We will open up the Budget process to the full glare of public scrutiny. OUTCOME: Not a chance.

GOAL: We will make substantial cuts to the number of State bodies and companies. OUTCOME: Plan for an ambitious ‘quango cull’ sounded great in opposition but was a silly idea. It has been hugely modified. Only a third of first tranche of 48 were completed by the end-of-2012 target date, although all but one will eventually go ahead. Most of second batch of 46 have been abandoned. Some amalgamations from original 48 have yet to go ahead, including sports bodies; the consumer and competition bodies, as well as the human rights and equality commissions.

GOAL: Universal Health Insurance, which will replace HSE. Preparations will be completed by 2016 to allow the roll-out of UHI in second term. OUTCOME: Very uncertain. The white paper on financing UHI was promised for “early in the Government’s first term”. Has not yet been published but a 86-page draft is ready. The Irish Times reported that the project has essentially been put back by another year so that Department of Health can provide detailed costings, including what each citizen must pay for the yearly premium. At this remove, UHI being in place by 2019 looks very remote.

GOAL: Universal primary care available with free GP consultations. OUTCOME: This is a Labour inclusion and there have been some inroads. There will be free GP care for under sixes. It was announced in the Budget but must await legislation and the outcome of negotiations with GPs. The €400m plus bill for making free GP care available for everybody is very high and puts a major doubt over it being achieved by 2016 as promised.

GOAL: The National Children’s Hospital will be built. OUTCOME: St James’ Hospital now the chose site but will not be built before the end of Government’s term of office as promised.

GOAL: We are committed to ending long-term homelessness by 2016. OUTCOME: Nearly 4,000 are homeless in Dublin alone but Government would quickly need to come up with long-term housing solutions if it is to achieve its lofty goal.

GOAL: We will legislate to establish a Judicial Council. OUTCOME: A means of dealing with judicial misbehaviour has been talked about for 20 years but with little momentum. Bill is on the A list which means it should be published before Summer.

GOAL: We will support the 20 year strategy for the Irish language and deliver on achievable goals. OUTCOME: An abject failure. Irish is very low on Government’s priority list. There have been no major initiatives to promote the language since the Coalition came to power. Impression reinforced by early retirement of An Coimisinéir Teanga out of frustration with Government inaction.

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