I am pleased to be here this evening to acknowledge the significant and growing contribution that Network Galway is making to life in this City and County, particularly in the expansion of business and enterprise opportunities.
Here in Galway that contribution is evident right through the commercial, business and academic life of the City and County. There is an energy and creativity evident in Galway that makes it the envy of other cities and towns.
The members of this Network organization are playing a central and a valuable role in that resurgence and expansion. For that, on behalf of the Government, we salute you.
And I would urge all of you here this evening, to continue to grasp with enthusiasm the many opportunities that are now arising as this country enjoys a further wave of Celtic Tiger growth and prosperity. I feel that all of you can use your obvious talents and strong determination to benefit and influence other aspects of Irish life and I will deal with that later.
As a politician who is now serving as a Minister in his 7th Government Department I remain fiercely committed to encouraging enterprise and to bringing about the changes and reforms that I believe are best for this country.
As Minister for Transport in this Government, I set out to make reforms that would speed up the delivery of urgently needed road and rail infrastructure, that would open up and expand the aviation sector, and that would give the users of public transport choice and expanded services.
I am proud of what was achieved:
- Ireland's infrastructure map is being transformed as increased funding of over €1.2 billion a year is poured into completing motorways of world class standard to the North, South and the West.
- The traffic bottlenecks are being eliminated-at Kildare, Monasterevin, Cashel and so on.
- The long awaited transformation to a motorway system is well advanced. For all of us who regularly drive on the Galway-Dublin road this is good news.
- The opening of the 23-mile Kilcock-Kinnegad road scheme next year will deliver a motorway from Dublin to past Mullingar.
- The Loughrea By-pass is being built.
- Work will soon start on bypassing Ballinasloe, and the Galway ring road is nearing tendering stage.
- In aviation, three new and independent airport authorities have replaced the Dublin centered Aer Rianta monopoly. For Shannon and Cork airports this means a new beginning, a fresh start under committed local leadership and with the best interests of the regions they serve at heart. Already at Shannon the fruits of this decision are to be seen as new routes and expanded services are announced. I am confident that Shannon will play an increasingly pivotal role in growing business opportunities throughout the West, and in particular in the Galway region.
- Rail services have also been improved as new engines and carriages replace the old rolling stock. Galway can look forward to services on the hour to and from Dublin.
- I also set in motion a complete reappraisal of the re-opening of the long defunct Western Rail Corridor.
I look forward to bringing whatever experience and expertise I have to my new Department of Social Affairs.
With a budget this year of €12.2 billion it is the biggest spending Department of Government.
For hundreds of thousands of people it is the safety net that keeps them out of the grip of poverty and exploitation that gives pensioners a decent income and that helps carers to continue their valued and valuable work.
Week in, week out the Department of Social Affairs delivers payments to over 970,000 people that, when dependants are taken into account, directly benefits more that 1.5 million men, women and children.
But I want to stress that my Department is not just a mechanism for paying money and buying our way out of the problems of Irish society. I am determined that we must look behind the payments and tackle the underlying problems. The more I delve into the need for change and reform the more I am struck by how vulnerable women continue to be in Irish society.
Lone parents are one example: of lone parents, 84% are women, 16% are men. As you and I know, all sorts of rumours and myths abound about lone parents. It is true that one in every three children now born in the State is born outside marriage. And what has been society's response to this dramatic shift and new trend? We pay an allowance to lone parents only on condition that their partner, most often the father of the child, does not live in the same house or flat. If a lone parent seeks to work, the response is more often than not to reduce or terminate the allowance. Another disturbing aspect is that 50% of lone parents have no education qualifications past primary school. Our system effectively institutionalizes lone parents and curbs attempts at a normal family life, discourages work and restricts the chances to advance educationally.
I feel in the 21st century this is not a fair, a caring or adequate response. I don't have the answers as to what should replace this out of date system, but I am determined to work to find one.
Carers are another example.
Of those in receipt of Carers Allowance, 79% are women, 21% are men. I am determined that carers receive the recognition they so thoroughly deserve. The last Budget went some way towards properly rewarding carers and that emphasis will continue and will be accelerated.
Childcare costs are another issue, costing Irish parents 20% of taxed income compared with 8% for the rest of the
But it is not only women dependent on the welfare system who are vulnerable.
I have spoken a number of times in recent months to highlight the pensions crisis we are facing in this country. The facts are stark and worrying. Only half of those working who require private pension cover have a pension scheme. It is estimated that 50% of these private pensions are totally inadequate. In other words, 75% of the self employed and others either have no pension or have a pension that falls far short of what they will need in retirement.
It is also disappointing that the further West you go the lower the pension cover rate.
Only 45% of adults in the West ( Galway , Mayo and Roscommon) have private pension cover compared to 58% in the Mid-East (Kildare, Meath and Wicklow) and almost 56% in Dublin City and County Region .
For women the pension's situation is particularly serious. Only 46% of women in the Irish workforce have private pensions. In other words well over half of working women have no private pension cover. And for those who do have a pension all indications are that at least half have a pension that is not in any way adequate. What it means is that the majority of working women, based on the present facts, face retiring on a State pension of just over €7,000 a year.
Women are less likely to "top up" their pensions, fewer self-employed women than men have a personal pension. In the agri-sector, female pension cover dips even further. There are many reasons why the pensions crisis can have devastating consequences for women. In general women earn less than men, many have broken career patterns and they are also more likely to work part-time. And on what should be a brighter note, women are living longer than men.
But for many what this means in reality is that all of these factors make women in their later years more vulnerable to poverty. In other words, many will have a longer but poorer retirement. At €179.30 per week, even a full State Contributory pension will hardly keep you in the lifestyle to which most Irish women have rightly grown accustomed.
The Government's introduction of the new flexible, low-cost Personal Retirement Savings Account (PRSA) is making an impact but more urgently needs to be done. I have asked my Department and The Pensions Board to immediately investigate the totally unacceptable situation as regards women and pension cover. I have asked them to respond without delay with urgent proposals to address the issue so that we can take action to head off an impending crisis.
All of you here this evening, and the members of the Network countrywide, are testament to the increasingly vigorous and influential contribution that women are making to Irish society in many areas of business and the professions.
I look forward to that role expanding in the years ahead.
But overall when it comes to equality and fairness in our society, there is still some distance to go. There are more women than men in Ireland 50.3% women compared with 49.6% men. We have a woman as President, a woman as Tanaiste, and many more women in other prominent and influential positions. Yet women still struggle to reach positions that reward their talents.
Of CEO's in the top 100 companies in Ireland , 96% are men, 4% are women. 97% of county/city managers are men, 3% are women. In my own profession, 86% of TD's are men, 14% are women. And yet, if you look at clerical workers in the Civil service, 80% are women, 20% are men.
You have achieved a lot, but a lot more must be done if the inequalities gap between men and women is to close.
Knowing what the members of your Network have achieved in a relatively short time, I would urge you to redouble your efforts to influence Government, business, the professions, education and society in general.
I would also urge you to use your obvious talent, determination and experience to continue to influence Government policy.
There are many areas where I am sure your contribution and voice could make a difference. I'm thinking of policy on small business, taxation, employment, social PRSI, education and the Arts to mention just a few.
It is organizations like Network Galway that can help to demystify Government. The bureaucracy and red tape that stymied Government's in the past is unravelling. Government Departments are evolving and becoming more sophisticated and accommodating.
I would urge all of you to avail of the supports that are available. I would also urge you to continue to work on influencing Government policies wherever you sense a need for change or reform. In the end all of us in this country benefit from the healthy questioning and constant alertness of organization like Network Galway.