By Michael Smith.
I meet Brian Hayes, Minister of State for the Office of Public Works (OPW) and in the Department of Pubic Expenditure and Reform, (DPER) in Leinster House, up a steeplechase of corridors – you’d think being in charge of the Office of Public Works he’d have arranged to be next to the Taoiseach. He’s friendly, bright eyed, if a little tired-looking after the previous day’s trip to a Portuguese conference: open, bouncy and youthful at 44, if no longer the precocious upward projectile he was for so long. His answers are robust, incisive and informed.
Hayes was born in Dublin. He was educated at Garbally College, Maynooth, in history and sociology and in Trinity where he got an H Dip in Education. Formerly a secondary school teacher, he was a councillor in South Dublin between 1995 and 2003. He resigned from FG for about a year after Dukes as leader refused to back a Workers Party resolution in the Dáil calling for the removal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution which then asserted a territorial claim over the North, and went to a Workers Party Ard Fheis largely because he admired Proinsias de Rossa and was impressed with Eoghan Harris’ post-nationalist assessment. He is a little cagey as to whether he was ever a member. Wikipedia inaccurately says he was in Democratic Left. In all events he came home in the end.
His political philosophy is he says, “Socially Conservative”. He has a “Christian Democratic view”. I ask him if equality is important and how would he balance it with freedom. He says equality of opportunity is fundamental and best advanced through education. He’s a meritocrat and doesn’t subscribe to equality of outcome or income.
He doesn’t regret supporting Richard Bruton’s challenge to Enda Kenny’s leadership. His heroes are Garret FitzGerald, Bill Clinton and Angela Merkel – in that order. I ask him what class he is and he classily shoots back classless. Has he ever met Denis O’Brien? Yes.
I ask him how he would have handled the guarantee and he declares that that is a really good question. I’m worried the Denis O’Brien one wasn’t. He thinks the guarantee was the wrong decision. In the circumstances he can understand why they gave a guarantee. There had to be some guarantee. But taking the decision unilaterally without our European partners was a fundamental error. His colleagues in Brussels were unimpressed. Typically FF thought they’d some new solution when the EU knew it was a fat property bubble. There should have been Richard Bruton’s solution of a good bank/bad bank much earlier on and he says – surprisingly – we could have let Anglo go: it wasn’t of systemic importance. He doesn’t think we could have left out subordinated debt.
I ask him to explain how FG voted on it. Naturally opposition parties support the government in time of national emergency but they didn’t, indeed the government didn’t, have the full information at the time.
Does he think FG provided good opposition to the last government? Yes. He says to read the pre-budget 2010 submission. It proposed banks, reduced child benefit, an increase in VAT from 21% to 23%. Labour attacked this it but it’s now government policy. Fine Gael – unlike Labour for example – opposed Social Partnership and loose benchmarking, and double digit pay increases in public-sector pay. They proposed a new Capital Acquisitions Tax (he means a reduction in Thresholds and a low Capital Gains Tax on the site values of primary residences) – as opposed to a property tax – so they always favoured broadening the tax base. He doesn’t mention that they also proposed reducing stamp duty; nor that 2010 would hardly be taken as the zenith of FG’s bad opposition). I ask him again if they generally provided good opposition. He’s even more hesitant but notes they’d been in opposition for 15 years. It was Fianna Fáil’s mess.
This government’s three most important achievements are exiting the bailout, reducing unemployment and political reform. Three failures are mortgages (up to now), civil-service reform making them more accountable for decisions. As is conventional he’s at a loss for the third.
He thinks the government has ensured austerity is implemented fairly. He’d love to debate this with the left. The top 10% of income earners pay 60% of income tax. The ESRI shows the biggest adjustment has been at the top end. And that’s not even allowing that capital taxes, Dirt etc have been hiked too. And that there’s now a minimum tax (30-35%) which all high earners must pay; and property-based tax reliefs have been ended. The EU shows that of all the bailout countries our adjustment has been achieved most progressively and the OECD says we have the third most progressive taxation system of their members. Admittedly their first few budgets were less progressive than Fianna Fáil’s – indeed I note the EU says they were regressive – but that is because income tax had understandably been milked by the previous government. The coalition had to find other sources since it was committed to job creation and widening the tax net. It also took time to prepare cuts on the expenditure side. Remember in 2008 the tax take went down from €50bn to €36bn. Drastic measures were inevitable. So, would he be in favour of a wealth tax? He kicks for touch: “it depends on what you mean”. He believes the property and water charges are fair and effective. If you’re serious about local government power then it makes sense that central government should no longer be determining how much local authorities levy – and that they should be held accountable by making it transparent how they are deploying the tax. It’s progressive too, since those with bigger properties pay more. And the Revenue are successfully collecting it.
It’s a type of wealth tax.
We’ll see what the budgets are for the water tax but it’s progressive, environmental and modern.
He is not doctrinaire about privatisations – Coillte seems to be off and he doesn’t think Irish Water will be privatised. It’s only where value can be got and money reinvested in creating jobs and where it improves competitiveness that it should be done.
He explains away the failure to get the banks lending to small and medium enterprises on grounds it’s inevitable while the Central Bank will be applying stress tests which look to the reserves they’re retaining – and not lending. There’s a “confidence vortex”. As we get economic and employment growth there’ll be more from the banks. Meanwhile we need to do more non-bank lending. The European Investment Bank for example has been hugely supportive of Grangegorman, Limerick regeneration and the Interconnector. Some German and Asian banks are lending to the SME sector and we need more of them.
The job he’s most enjoyed was as education spokesman. He’s an enthusiast for Ruairí Quinn, “a great Minister”, in Education. We’ve spent the last ten years introducing a primary curriculum which is all about group learning, group work, getting kids to lead learning themselves. Then they go into a post-primary setting which is obsessed with exams. The really successful economies are those that allow kids to lead learning, as in Scandinavia. He accepts it’s the opposite of what they’re doing in Britain which is a sort of back to basics. I mention that more often it is stated that teachers should lead learning. He volunteers that he reckons he’s the only MEP candidate in Dublin who favours student loans at third level for tuition fees – and it’s Fine Gael policy.
On health Minister Reilly (Hayes has never met anyone so committed) will deliver Universal Health Insurance and there will be free GP care for all before the end of this government. On abortion he’s proud that, led by the Taoiseach, they’ve resolved the X case and he was always in favour of legislating for it. He regrets some people left his party over it. I suggest it’s time to move from reacting to trying to pre-empt predictable tragedies but he doesn’t see any further change in the legislation during this Dáil, and he’s proud anyway.
On planning he felt the spatial strategy which Phil Hogan interred was “one for everyone in the audience” and Hayes prefers the 1970s Buchanan approach of focusing on a more limited number of growth centres. And he points out any strategy needs to be linked to a funding and capital strategy. Of course Charlie McCreevy and Tom Parlon (in Hayes’ OPW) had implemented a decentralisation capital strategy that often actually contradicted the spatial strategy. Hayes is tellingly excited about getting PPPs back into funding regional development.
I wonder if Commissioner Garda Commissioner Callinan’s position is tenable since he described – subsequently vindicated – whistleblowers’ behaviour as “disgusting” and their allegations as “extraordinary”. He supports him but feels the approach must now be to deal with their allegations and get legislation on whistleblowers. Minister Shatter has dealt with it “very well”. He’d love to see internationalisation of both the management and the oversight of the force, mind you.
As to Frank Flannery, I suggest he has behaved corruptly in chairing a body while being paid to lobby it. Hayes’ department is working on “robust” lobbying legislation for everyone. He’s not aware of the full allegations against Flannery yet, which is convenient, but Flannery does need to go before the PAC.
His own three biggest achievements in government are procurement reform which will save half a billion euro over the next three years; radical change introducing private funding and community involvement in management of heritage buildings and national monuments in the care of the OPW (for example you can now have a civil ceremony in 20 of them); and reducing the amount spent leasing buildings by government from €138 million to €98 million in three years. I note that the OPW has widely implemented deep cuts. Its staff have reduced from an authorised number of 2,208 in 2008 to 1,620 in 2014 – about 25% over a six-year period. Much more dramatically and undesirably its total capital budget across all sub heads is €80m, down from €400m in 2008.
He considers the division of Finance from DPER has worked really well, allowing a dynamic that links expenditure to reform. Human resources and payroll are being done centrally for example. Public pay and pensions are down from €20bn four years ago to €16.5bn now. And they’ve “got rid” of 35,000 people, “It’s an amazing, unprecedented achievement”. He thinks pay for senior civil servants is ok now too “because they’re all whacked on pay for 50% too”. His own experience of civil servants has been good to mixed. “A lot of good people but too many people obsessed by policy not implementation”. A third of top-level appointments now are from the private sector. Like Ruairí Quinn he deems Brendan Howlin a “terrific” minister. Of course he seems genuinely impressed by Michael Noonan too.
Almost €370m has been invested from 1995 to date in flood risk management measures which have protected 10,500 properties.
This Government has committed €45m per annum for flood risk management and mitigation measures for the period 2012 –16. Around €100m has been spent in 2012 and 2013, with the use of other savings achieved on the OPW Vote. €45m in capital expenditure has again been allocated in 2014.
Hayes recently announces availability of up to €19.6m for coastal protection and flood defence works in counties affected by recent severe storms. He puts down a lot of the problems to poor planning – building on flood planes etc. They’re mapping the whole country for its history of and propensity to flooding. It’ll produce 300 hotspots. I note that all this worthy reactiveness is never accompanied by any references in his speechifying to climate change which underpins most of the problem. But he just talks of how we’re going to deal with it not stop it. He has apparently accepted we are destined for runaway climate change. Is he concerned that the government isn’t prioritising emissions reductions which have gone up for the first time in four years and that the verdict on his government from history will be unkind? Yes because I think that would be unfair. Our priority had be to improve the reputation of the country, to get the Troika out””. They’ll be judged on the fact the rate on government bonds is down in the sale that’s going ahead that very day. “Climate change is an issue for this generation”. I say I don’t see much passion for the issue and he says Phil Hogan has provided for ‘green procurement’. They’ve imposed a carbon tax. You have to look at it in terms of what his department is responsible for. For the first time in the interview he’s not on top of it.
As to heritage, about which he seems passionate, I ask if he’d consider giving the isolated Irish Heritage Trust or An Taisce the same tax statuses as they given in Britain to the National Trust, so that wealthy people can leave property to the Trusts in lieu of selling them to meet tax demands. He clearly hasn’t thought about it but says he will and is open to it. He’s impressed with volunteerism in heritage management and has physically handed over 22 Heritage properties from the OPW to communities.
As to the EU, he’s an integrationist rather than a federalist. We need it financially to make the Eurozone work.
He’s never voted against any of the EU Treaties.
As an MEP he wants to do in Europe what he’s doing here which is making sure the people in the European are fluent on the economic issues that face the country including the attempt to get retrospective support for our pillar banks. He’s the only candidate who’s attended ECOFIN meetings. He’s also like to work on applying the German approach to youth unemployment centring on a two-pronged academic/vocational educational divide. They have only 8% and ours is – largely due to better training. He’ll serve the full five years. Word of honour. He doesn’t want to be in politics for all of his life. He says he hasn’t really thought about it. Four or five years is enough for any individual to be in government.