From top: Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and RTÉ Director General Noel Curran yesterday; in the studio with Sean O’Rourke and a tweet from RTÉ asking people to phone in.
You may have heard Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin fielding questions from the public during the traditional post-Budget ‘phone-in’ on RTÉ Radio One’s Today With Seán O’Rourke show yesterday.
Ellen Coyne, of the Ireland edition of the The Times, went behind the scenes.
Ms Coyne writes:
Having been guided into a room full of the national broadcaster’s staff and Department of Finance officials, I perched myself on an available sofa. I didn’t know this area was off-limits for hacks and I didn’t know I wasn’t meant to be there. The Department of Finance staff must have thought I was with RTÉ. RTÉ must have thought I was with the Department of Finance. Nobody asked me to leave and so I stayed.
Then all hell broke loose. One of Mr Noonan’s advisors appeared and bore down on one of the producers of the Today programme with all the charm of an autocrat, he explained that neither the finance minister or the public expenditure minister would so much as breathe on a microphone unless all phone-in questions were made available beforehand.
RTE hesitated diplomatically but were shut down by the official’s insistence.
“No. We’re going to very clear on this, the ministers will not go on air before seeing them first,” he demanded.
A producer relented and handed over the the questions. Pages were passed between departmental staff and frantic calls were made while political responses were hastily crafted.
One civil servant paced the floor, iPhone to his ear, beseeching whoever was listening for the most appropriate response to a homeless mother forced to live in a Dublin hotel for nearly six months with her nine-year-old daughter.
[Later, having been asked to leave the studio]
I was just in time to hear Erica , the homeless woman who had caused so much consternation.
“A fiver on children’s allowance, whoop de doo, what am I supposed to do with that?” she said. How is that supposed to help the situation? We are homeless. That’s €5 I already had, that you took off me a couple of years ago,” she said.
“I understand you were in receipt of lone parents allowance…” Mr Howlin said, presumably referring to his carefully crafted notes.
“No, I work! I work part-time! I don’t get long parents, so stop saying that,” Erica said, deviating outrageously from the script.
…A spokeswoman for RTÉ said [later] nothing untoward had taken place…
RTÉ says ‘yes, minister’ as politicians run the show (Ellen Coyne, Ireland Edition Of The Times)
Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan yesterday morning
A transcript Minister Howlin’s chat with Erica (pay close attention to Mr O’Rourke’s role in the drama).
Sean O’Rourke: “Erica, good morning to you.”
O’Rourke: “Now what is your query to the ministers?”
Erica: “The query is what are they going to do to help the homeless people now, today, the 1,500 children that are in emergency accommodation. What are they going to do for them, today?”
Brendan Howlin: “Morning, Erica.”
Erica: “Not five years, today?”
Howlin: “Well you can’t…”
O’Rourke: “Just, just before, what is your own situation, Erica?”
Erica: “I’m currently homeless, since June. And I’m staying in a particular hotel in Dublin with my nine-year-old daughter. I work part-time and the cuts that Joan [Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton] brought in, in July, dropped my money €60 a week, so we’re currently in a hotel.”
Howlin: “Two issues, first of all, in relation to the whole homelessness issue, I believe that that’s the most significant social issue that we have to face and I made it the feature point of last year’s Budget. You can’t magic up houses immediately and the only solution to homelessness is to have adequate houses for everybody and that’s why, last year, we allocated €2.2billion and the social housing strategy says that we will build 3,100 housing units and that we’ve allocated €3.8billion to do that. We need to get those up and running and, in the meanwhile, to use every means we have, for example, the vacant units that are not, the voids that are not in use, bring those back and we’ll have 1,500 of those this year. To give…”
Erica: “Can I just cut across you there for one second, please. I want to ask you about, do you think that the modular homes is, you know, is an efficient way to go?”
Howlin: “We look at everything in an emergency now, have a look at them, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see them but they’re actually…”
Erica: “Yes I did see them myself, they’re a very, they’re a short-term solution. Personally, personally…”
Howlin: “That’s all they are.”
Erica: “Well, that’s what you say, but you see with the Government at the moment, you say one thing and you kind of do another…”
Howlin: “No we don’t..”
Erica: “…so therefore, yeah, you kind of are..”
Howlin: “No we don’t, now I mean, we want to solve your problem. With a modular home, would you be happy with that until we build a house in the next two years? Would you live in a modular home?”
Erica: “Why would you waste the money on a modular home when you can just put the money into building an actual home?”
Howlin: “We’ve allocated half a billion euros this year to build houses but it takes 18 months to do that. Meanwhile, you need to have accommodation and the modular homes is an emergency option for us. And I think, is it one that you’re, I mean, it’s better than being in a hotel.”
Erica: “The reason I sent the email into Seán this morning was actually regarding vacant properties or void properties in my local area which I have written to the Taoiseach, Dublin City Council and [Environment] Minister [Alan] Kelly himself. I have emailed on numerous occasions asking could they please just take down the boards and I will personally look after everything to do with that property. I’ll put everything in. I just want them to take down the boards.”
Howlin: “That’s a number one priority for us…”
Erica: “But, but, hang on, the answer I’m getting is ‘no, you’re not homeless long enough’. So how long do I have to be homeless? How long does my nine-year-old have to be put through this situation before Dublin City Council or anybody, so long as they decide, ‘ok, now they are homeless long enough.’ How long is it?”
O’Rourke: “Erica, can I ask you just, what is it like for your nine-year-old daughter, in particular, living in a hotel situation?”
Erica: “At the moment, at the moment, my daughter is extremely embarrassed and that’s the word I’d like to use to describe the situation for her. Because she’s nine and she’s of the age where, you know, she doesn’t want anybody knowing. And I’ll give you an example of the little things that the children are thinking about. We had to do a collection of nature stuff for the nature table in school right? And we went down to a particular park in Dublin and we went down to the park and we got loads of stuff and when we got back, my daughter said, ‘Ma have you got a plastic bag, for me to bring them into the school?’. I said, ‘No, sure use one of them bags there, you know, the cotton bags.’ She said to me, ‘Ah no, I just want a plastic bag, there’s one in the wardrobe, will you give us it out?’ So I gave it out to her and she said, ‘Ah I’m not using that.’ I says, ‘Why?’. She says to me, ‘Because everybody will know I’m homeless.’ I says, ‘Why will they know you’re homeless?’ She said, ‘On the side it says, such-and such hotel, laundry bag.’ Now that will tell ya. I would never have thought of that, but my child thought of that.”
O’Rourke: “Right, and back to the Budget, Erica, has it not done anything for you at all? Is that your view?”
Erica: “A fiver, a fiver in children’s allowance, whoop de doo, what am I supposed to do with that fiver?”
Howlin: “You’re on, you’re on lone parents’ allowance I understand”
Erica: “No, I work part-time and I’m not on lone parents’ allowance. I get the back-to-school or the back-to-work dividend now of €29.
Howlin: “Your job seekers’ transitional payment?’
Erica: “No I’m not getting job seekers’ transitional, I get my FIS (family income supplement), so I work part-time, six hours a day, that’s topped up with the FIS…”
Howlin: “How much is the FIS you’re getting?”
Howlin: “€90 yeah.”
Erica: “Yeah and then the €29.80 for two years that Joan gave us, and then the extra €5 that you are now saying that that’s supposed to do, so what am I supposed to do with that extra fiver? What is that supposed to get me?”
Howlin: “Well the idea…”
Erica: “How is that supposed to help the situation?”
Howlin: “You’re working…”
Erica: “We’re homeless..”
O’Rourke: “Ok, just let the minister answer, let’s hear from Minister Howlin.”
Howlin: “I understood from the call that I saw, that you were in receipt of lone parent’s allowance but you’re actually in receipt of job seekers’ allowance.”
Erica: “No, I’m at work, I work, part-time, I don’t get lone parent’s, the lone parent payment is gone, so stop saying lone parent, that’s gone.”
Howlin: “There is a lone, I mean you can work, if you’re working more than 19 hours, you’re getting FIS on top of that, the income disregard we increased yesterday. Obviously, you’re going to get the child benefit increase..”
Erica: “Of five euro that €5 I already had that you took off me a couple of years ago.”
Howlin: “And disregard for FIS had been increased yesterday aswell.”
O’Rourke: “OK, we’re going to move on. Thank you, Erica for that call and that contribution. We want to hear from a pensioner now…”
Listen back to the ‘phone-in’ here (go to 10.25)
UPDATE: RTÉ Responds