Wednesday, 18 February 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, Legal Services (Ombudsman) Bill 2008 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, with spokespersons having ten minutes and all other Senators seven minutes and on which Senators may share time by agreement of the House; No. 2, Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and to conclude not later than 4 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 3, statements on the Middle East, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2, but not earlier than 4 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m., if not previously concluded, with Senators having seven minutes each; and No. 26, motion 33, Private Members’ motion re national insulation programme, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7 p.m.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I extend the sympathy of the Fine Gael Party to the family of the late Senator Michael Howard. We will have an opportunity to speak in detail about him and pay tribute to him at a later date.
I wish to repeat a question I asked yesterday about the current banking crisis. Who in the Government knew what about the series of events that unfolded in Anglo Irish Bank and when did they know it? I am concerned about the drip-feed of information from the Government about what Ministers knew and when they knew it. We discovered yesterday that the Taoiseach knew last March, when he was the Minister for Finance, that shares in Anglo Irish Bank were changing hands. The drip-feed of information into the House is damaging Ireland’s international reputation and the Irish economy.
A number of questions arise on foot of the information we have most recently received. The Taoiseach says he does not know the identity of the ten people who have been bailed out, in effect, to the tune of €300 million. Yesterday, I spoke about the anger of the public about the existence of a golden circle. I assume the Taoiseach was telling the truth yesterday when he informed the other House that he does not know the identity of the people in question. Given that so much taxpayers’ money is involved, why does he not know who they are?
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: If he does not know, he should know. Perhaps he does know but will not come clean. It is a worrying scenario, especially as the taxpayer has to pick up a tab of €300 million as a consequence of the nationalisation of the bank. Information about this deal was not given to the Stock Exchange. The markets did not know about the deal. It cannot be anything other than damaging.
I appeal to the Government to deal with this issue of political accountability and openness. If the information we need is not put on the table at some point, this will drag on for many months. Senators on this side of the House want the international credibility of the Irish economy to be restored. That is especially critical for job creation. Yesterday’s announcement that 300 jobs are to be lost at Intel is an indication of how rapidly the situation is changing. We were told a few weeks ago that there would not be any job losses at Intel.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is shocking that 300 families are to be confronted with unemployment. There needs to be a renewed focus on training that links in with the opportunities that will arise in the market. This is really important. The other day, I met a constituent who used to be an electrician. He told me he has done two training courses with FÁS, but the courses did not include any link with potential jobs or with industry. If FÁS is to continue to get money from the Government, it should give a commitment to provide relevant training and to help people who are unemployed to have a chance of getting back into the real economy. That is critical if people are to have some hope. Something has to be done to stop the crumbling of this country’s economic reputation. At this stage, the Government has to come clean on what it knows. I refer in particular to what the Taoiseach knows from his time as Minister for Finance.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I agree with many of the points made by Senator Fitzgerald. As I said yesterday, I am totally frustrated because I do not understand the Government’s strategy. The Government seems reluctant to do a fair deal with the social partners that could be accepted by the general population, even though it has an opportunity to do so. That possibility has been clearly rejected by the Government in the legislation that has been published this morning. The Bill in question will affect the rich and the poor. I do not know where the Government is going strategically.
When one considers how governments govern, one can choose to examine the tactics they employ. I do not understand why the Government has decided to put itself behind the 8-ball in protecting ten people who owe such a huge sum of money. If any large company is owed money by ten people, its proprietor is entitled and required to know who they are. I do not believe a legal impediment is preventing the Taoiseach from finding out the names of the people in this instance. Regardless of whether he should issue the names publicly, he has said he does not have the names. I do not know of anything that would legally prevent him from getting those names. Perhaps difficulties would arise if he wished to tell the public who these characters are. I am dealing with the issue. He has said he does not know who they are. That is wrong and unacceptable. I believe he should know. I also believe he should make the names known to the public. We should all hear who these people are.
I ask the Cathaoirleach and the Leader to use their good offices to deal with a completely different matter. This House has had many long discussions on the Good Friday Agreement and other Northern Ireland issues. This country has a long history of people who have moved from the world of the gun to the political world. I refer to Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, for example. The US Government is seeking the extradition of Seán Garland, who had a significant involvement in the drawing up of the Good Friday Agreement. He has rejected violence. He organised the first ceasefire. Many of us defended the Government’s position that the Good Friday Agreement should not apply to certain people, including those who killed Jerry McCabe in Adare. We had to bite our tongues when some of those people walked free. It seems ridiculous that the outgoing US Administration — I refer in particular to George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice — sought the extradition of Mr. Garland not on a charge like murder but on a trumped up charge of possibly having some involvement in the North Korean counterfeiting of American dollars. Mr. Garland, who is 74 years of age, is suffering from cancer and diabetes. He has moved down the road to the political world. I ask the Irish ambassador in Washington to contact the incoming US Administration, especially the new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to demand that the request to extradite Seán Garland be dropped at this time.
Senator Alan Kelly: If our former colleague, Conor Cruise O’Brien, were still alive, he would justly say we are entering a second GUBU era. The current banking crisis is rolling on and on. People in banking circles are constantly telling us lies, in effect. It has to end now, in the interests of this House, the Oireachtas as a whole and the Government. If that does not happen, we might as well close the doors and give up. It cannot continue. As politicians, we have lost credibility, just as the markets have. In the current climate, who will invest in this country’s banks? Internationally, it would be seen as a form of madness to do so. The Labour Party opposed the bank bail-out and the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank. We were right to do so. A month after the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank, we found out that the bank had received a loan of €7 billion from the Irish Life & Permanent group. We have now discovered that €300 million was made available to ten individuals, who cannot be named, as part of a “can’t lose” bet. Why can they not be named? I do not believe the legal advice that they cannot be named. Of course they can be named. We need to know who they are. There has to be transparency if we are to be able to look the public in the eye. It is absolutely ridiculous to suggest they cannot be named.
The Financial Regulator has stated that it believed initially this was all above board. However, it changed its mind when new information on these matters emerged. The information in question related especially to the manner in which loans were provided to fund some of the unwinding of the Quinn transactions. In effect, the staff of the regulator are saying they were told lies. To say that new information emerged is a coded way of saying that the original information was false. The regulator now has to investigate the lies it was told. An investigation is required under the Companies Acts because the market was not treated fairly. Those who engaged in such downright thievery need to be subject to the full justice of the law. It is as simple as that. If we, as public representatives, are not seen to be providing the legislation to do that, we might as well close the doors and go home. It is as simple as that.
Senator Alan Kelly: I am coming to that. A number of questions arise and they have been stated already. This Government must come out and state what it knew, when it knew it and how it was dealing with this issue. Were any members of the Cabinet aware of the €300 million that was being put into the bank? When were they aware of it and under what circumstances? If we do not have that information the public will continue to be cynical.
There is an excellent report in today’s Irish Examiner about accident and emergency services throughout the country. Last year, 16,000 people were waiting over 12 hours for accident and emergency treatment. If anyone here can read those figures and say the Health Service Executive is moving in the right direction in terms of its strategies for the centralisation of services, particularly the closing of regional and smaller hospitals, they must be losing their mind. The figures are scandalous.
Also, the HSE cannot explain the reason it does not have a strategy for the future of the ambulance services. In Thurles recently, an 87 year old woman was waiting three and a half hours for an ambulance. That is ridiculous. We are not going forward in this area. We are going backwards and the sooner the Minister holds up her hand and says, first, that we cannot fund the changes she is proposing and, second, they are not right, the better.
Senator David Norris: We get a backlog every day. These are matters that are supposed to be immediately and directly relevant but they may have lost their relevance. It is a failure of the system and I appeal to the Cathaoirleach to address it.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Sadly, as we have been hearing, there is no end to the revelations regarding badly behaving bankers. Yesterday evening we had another resignation of a chairman of one of the six covered institutions. Another has stoutly refused to resign and Members on all sides of the House agree there are several whose positions seem to be untenable. Sadly, the Government, which should have moral authority, apart from the legal back-up, appears to be helpless to stop this drip feed. We all believe it would be better in the national interest if it all came out now to get it over with, which would give us some hope of moving on.
I ask the Leader to outline the proposals regarding restructuring. We know about the bank guarantee, which we believe will have to be extended beyond 2010. We know about the recapitalisation. We are awaiting the legislation but what about the restructuring we were promised, particularly regarding Anglo Irish Bank, Irish Nationwide Building Society and Irish Life & Permanent now that we know of so much wrongdoing which has drip fed into the public domain?
I call for an apology to the public from the bankers. AIB has gone some way towards that with its advertisement recognising the commitment of taxpayers towards the recapitalisation and promising to work harder. That is a good first step but I would like the bankers to apologise, as they did in Britain to the Treasury Committee when they were grilled by MPs. They apologised for their part in the financial crisis that is affecting us all.
The regulatory authorities have failed to act decisively. It is as though they are happy for them to be dealt with piecemeal and for people to disappear so that we can forget about them but if they need new powers, which they have not said, they should tell us now and let us get on with it.
Senator Michael McCarthy: I want to raise two issues. The first is the publication today of the pensions levy legislation, also known as the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill. I appeal to the Leader to call on the Minister for Finance, Deputy Lenihan, to ensure fairness and balance his policy in terms of getting the public finances back under control. The most basic route he could follow is to abandon that legislation, revert to the social partnership talks and have meaningful dialogue with all the social partners so they can find a partnership process to take us out of the current economic difficulties. The pension levy is not the way to go. We are penalising young gardaí, young nurses, young teachers and other people in the public service on lower incomes. As it was put to me last week by somebody working in the HSE, along with his wife, they cannot afford to save €300 a month but will be expected to pay that by virtue of legislation published today. These are good living, hard working, honest people who will have to take decisions to cut back on expenditure that goes towards extra curricular activities for their children. Expecting young, hard working families to make those sacrifices is a huge price to pay for any financial turmoil.
Second, I ask the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, to make a statement on the oil slick off the south coast. We were told initially over the weekend that 300 tonnes of oil were involved but it now appears it is more than 1,000 tonnes. The predictions by the Coast Guard and international maritime experts that the slick could reach the south coast within two weeks are worrying. It is a major concern for coastal communities that depend on the fishing industry and maritime tourism. I ask the Minister to conduct a risk assessment of the oil slick, ensure adequate resources are made available and that there is ministerial co-operation among colleagues to ensure organisations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy, harbour boards, port companies and local authorities are sufficiently equipped and well-informed to deal with this crisis if the need arises.
Senator Nicky McFadden: Yesterday, we had the serious revelation about the continuing strike at our local hospital, Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe. The HSE is trying to downgrade this hospital because it has let the issue go on for so long. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister, Deputy Harney, to intervene. There is extraordinary scaremongering going on on behalf of the HSE. The hospital employs over 700 people and the HSE is talking about closing wards and cancelling surgical procedures. We have no other hospital in the Athlone-south Roscommon area.
Senator Nicky McFadden: Portiuncula Hospital provides a very important service for our area. The HSE’s trite comments on the news last night amounted to scaremongering and I ask the Leader to ensure the HSE intervenes, gets the people back to work and stops this silly carry on because that is all it is. It needs to speak to the people and resolve the issue because it is not a major issue.
I was shocked and horrified by the revelations about FÁS on “Prime Time” last night. The fact that three different social community groups were using the meals on wheels service to claim thousands of euro in funding going back to 2003 causes me to wonder about the way FÁS is being managed and audited. If this is happening in one town in the west, what is FÁS doing in the rest of the country? The Minister must come into the House and be accountable because the buck stops with her. There are young plumbers and electricians who cannot complete their apprenticeships. Funding must be provided to support those young people, not the waste that is going on throughout the country through these community employment schemes that are being badly managed. I ask that the Minister come into this House and be accountable for once and for all.
Senator Terry Leyden: I ask the Leader, Senator Cassidy, to invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, to the House to discuss how an early warning system might be established in co-operation with employers and organisations such as IBEC and ICTU to identify employers who are considering redundancies but who have not yet made a formal or public decision on the matter. The resources of the State could be made available by offering the assistance of the IDA, for example. I believe former senior officials, some of whom are linked to Members of this House and who have tremendous experience, would be available to assist in advising the State on whether it would be worthwhile taking an equity stake in some of those firms to preserve jobs at this critical time. The portfolio of the State is quite clear in respect of investing in the banks. However, there is a great case for investing in SR Technics, formerly a State-owned operation known as Team Aer Lingus. It seems logical to invest in a company of its quality and size located at Dublin Airport, servicing aeroplanes from airlines around the world. It is a great disappointment that a semi-State owned company, Aer Lingus, should transfer its business. This company is vital for the future of the industry and for airlines. We should be involved in a company that has an impeccable record of safety in servicing aeroplanes from Aer Lingus and other international airlines.
Senator Terry Leyden: We should take equity stakes now in companies such as this because some of them will not survive. During very difficult periods in the 1980s we had Fóir Teoranta which invested in companies. There will be pain but in the future there will be gain. Some of those companies, such as Waterford Crystal, Dell, Ericsson and now Intel——
An Cathaoirleach: Please. I ask Senators who refer to members of the Government, or to Members, to give them their proper title. I ask that respect be shown in this House. It is not in keeping with the standards of this House that people should refer to anybody by a surname.
Senator Terry Leyden: I make a reasonable point, namely, to invite the Tánaiste to this House in order that we might have a discussion on this matter. When Ericsson announced job losses in Dublin it had not informed the Government in advance of a possible closure or loss of jobs. This is a gravely serious situation. I was formerly in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and I know its workings. This can be done and there is potential for the State to become involved in equity, as it was in the past. People say to me that we have taken equity in the banks, namely, quarter-shares in AIB and Bank of Ireland——
Senator David Norris: I sympathise with the Cathaoirleach’s situation with regard to the Order of Business. I made a suggestion yesterday that received widespread support from both sides of the House, namely, that we should have a special rolling debate on the economy. The Leader replied this was something to be taken up with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I asked my representative on that committee several times to take up this matter. Will the Leader inform the House when the Committee on Procedure and Privileges last met? Has it met since Christmas? Has it met since last autumn? How efficient is it? When will it meet to take up this matter? I wish to have a date put on the record of the House so we may know this matter will be dealt with. That is the channel I was told to approach because there was no point proceeding unless the matter is dealt with in that fashion.
We are discussing the banking crisis again and I do not wish to speak for very long about it. It interests me that the regulator was satisfied in this matter by a response from lawyers who were operating in the interests of Anglo Irish Bank. I would have thought that showed a conflict of interest.
Senator David Norris: It looks now as if the advice given was either wrong or corrupt. I wish to know something about the lawyers in question and their status, about the advice they gave, why they gave it and whether it was good, bad, indifferent, or, indeed, corrupt. We need a real debate on the economy.
Today we hear that Bord Gáis is moving into the provision of electricity. Everybody is delighted because there will be a drop in the charge for electricity. The Leader fought valiantly for this but I do not believe this is necessarily a good idea. In the short or medium term it may be, but why is Bord Gáis doing this? We are told this is competition. What kind of competition is it when the ESB has its hands tied behind its back? When it applies for a reduction it is not allowed have one.
Senator David Norris: The gas board goes in instead. We are attacking the fundamentals on which the wellbeing of this State originated, with people such as Lemass and Whitaker and the establishment of the semi-State bodies, Bord na Móna, Bord Gáis, the ESB and so on. We were always told about competition. Senator Leyden is quite right. We privatised Aer Lingus. What happened? Now we do not service our own airlines. I and others warned about this. Eircom was flogged off to Tony O’Reilly who asset-stripped it and took all the benefit out of it.
Senator David Norris: He did not invest one penny in it and flogged it off to an Australian pension fund. Let us look at competition. I voted against the groceries order. We were told prices would go down but they went up. All was a matter of competition. Let us not bow down before this shibboleth.
I say to the Leader, with the greatest respect, that he is not Tommy Dando. There is no sunny side of this particular street so he should not give us a recital of all the good things that are happening. Let us wait until they happen and let us help them to happen by debating this.
Senator David Norris: We are to have statements on the Middle East. That is not what I requested. I asked for the passage of a motion that was passed unanimously a week ago by all members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. It proposed a war crimes investigation into the situation in Gaza.
I will not press this vote if the Leader will be kind enough to give me an assurance that this will not replace that debate. I was informed that the motion has been sent by that committee as a message to both the Dáil and Seanad. There is no reason we should not pass it. I am trying to strengthen the hand of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I shall call a vote unless I get an undertaking from the Leader that we will have a debate about this specific matter, within a week, if possible. It will waste time but the motion was passed by all parties. Fianna Fáil supported it. The Department has no difficulty with it. I accepted amendments to it. I ask for that assurance. Otherwise I regret I shall waste another ten minutes by calling a vote.
An Cathaoirleach: On a point of clarification, the procedure for submitting motions from committee is that a copy of the motion is sent by the committee to the Leader’s office. It is then printed on the Order Paper in the Leader’s name. This motion was not submitted in that manner but has been included in the Private Members’ motion at Senator Norris’s request.
Senator Ivor Callely: I support my colleague Senator Terry Leyden with regard to SR Technics. I have deep concern about the future of that firm and for its 1,100 employees. There is a future for the company which has a tremendous track record. I spoke to the Tánaiste about this matter. My understanding is that there are a number of issues, one being the cost base. Any effort that relates to exploring joint ventures is worthy and should be pursued.
I ask the Leader to bring to the attention of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the taxi regulator the need for a comprehensive support programme to enhance the taxi industry. Some serious difficulties and issues are undermining the industry and there is an urgent need to put in place necessary and feasible measures to resolve the concerns of the taxi industry.
Yesterday I asked the Leader about the home insulation grant scheme. What is in place other than registration with Sustainable Energy Ireland, SEI, for availing of the scheme? Is there a process in place to administer the scheme? Have staff been allocated? How long will the process take for approval and for work to commence?
I ask the Leader to obtain clarity on these matters because the industry is at a standstill. The installers and operators are waiting for clarity. I am fearful this may take weeks. We must have immediate action and I ask the Leader to take the matter up with SEI and with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I am building up to the question and I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to contribute. I wish to raise a fundamental question. Does the Leader agree that the people have lost trust in the Government and are angry at the lack of leadership? I ask the Leader to bring the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, not to the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party room, but to this House because it is high time we had political accountability in this and the other House. Who knows what? Who is in charge? Who has been in charge of the Financial Regulator for the past 12 years? The people are sick and tired of low standards in high places. It is time we put people in jail. That is not populism, it is reality. The Leader should come out to the streets of Cork South-Central with me any day of the week, where people are sick and tired of him and his cronies getting away with everything. That is genuine. The people are tired of Fianna Fáil and its cronyism and cosy cartels, and it should stop.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Leader should show leadership by coming in here and demanding it stops rather than going out on the plinth or on local radio stations and talking out of both sides of his mouth, which he is good at doing.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: There is a golden circle running this country and the Members on the other side may shout in here all they want, but the people have seen through them, and it is about time they did.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I have a final question. I have not spoke on the Order of Business for five days and I thank the Cathaoirleach for letting me in. May we have a debate with the Minister for Health and Children on the appalling accident and emergency waiting times. This morning’s Irish Examiner revealed that on average 43 patients had to wait more than 12 hours every day in 2008. The Minister for Health and Children should come in here to debate the allocation of resources in the Health Service Executive, whose managers were paid bonuses last week. It is not good enough. Let us bring the Minister in and get real answers.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: President Barack Obama ushered in a new era of hope, not just for America but, by extension, for the whole world. He talked about a new regime of diplomacy and one presumes he meant that to replace a regime of aggression. He talked about holding out a hand of friendship to other countries, including Iran, North Korea and so on. One has to consider the legacy the old regime gave us. In terms of the discussion on the economy — this is sometimes missed — the aggression that was part of America’s foreign policy has an echo in the economic crisis we are experiencing. The high expenditure and disruption of normal life and markets is part of the legacy.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: If one examines the position in Gaza, as has been touched on here, and the butchery of the Palestinians, one questions when Israel will be held accountable for its war crimes. Look at Guantanamo Bay and the replacement of the word “torture” with “rendition”. I place the case of Mr. Seán Garland against that background. I acknowledge the separation of powers and I will speak only on the political aspect of that case, which I am entitled to do in this House. Mr. Garland is 74 years old and he suffers from cancer and diabetes. He has been a strong supporter of the peace process on this island. I invite Members to think about that for a moment. In that context, against the background I have given and taking the political aspect of this case, we should speak immediately to the US ambassador and ask him to read President Obama’s inauguration speech in which he talked about a new era of diplomacy. The Garland case is not acceptable, correct or productive. The extradition request was signed by Condoleezza Rice, who was part of the old regime. There is an opportunity to extend the regime of diplomacy, friendship and holding out the hand in this very small case of Mr. Seán Garland. We should respond generously.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I pick up on a point raised by Senators Callely and Leyden on SR Technics. There is a chance we can save jobs in that company and I welcome the fact that the Tánaiste will meet the unions tomorrow. I am also very concerned about the impact it will have not just on people who will lose their jobs but on apprenticeships. Some 15 apprentices who have been training for a number of years are in danger of losing their jobs. The same is true for many apprentices around the country who have a year or two left of their apprenticeships and as companies close, they are left in limbo. We need a debate on what we will do about apprentices nationwide and I ask the Leader to arrange that.
I wish to refer to the visit by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to Cuba on the 50th anniversary of the revolution there. It is also the tenth anniversary of the imprisonment of the Miami Five in Miami.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: These are trade unionists who have been held there for the past ten years. For the first 17 months they were in solitary confinement and visits by their families are being restricted. The Minister is interested in this case. I spoke to his office this morning requesting that while he is in Cuba he visit the families to show solidarity. I ask the Leader to use his offices to impress on the Minister the need to support these families. As Senator Ó Murchú said, we should make the US Government aware of our feelings on this matter and ask it, as called for by Amnesty International, to make visitation rights available to their families.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: I commend the Cathaoirleach, but I sympathise with him some mornings, on running the Order of Business, which is very difficult for him. Maybe it would be better if every speaker had three minutes to make his or her point instead of making Second Stage speeches after the leaders.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: It may help and everybody would get in if we stuck to such a rule. The point I rise to make has already been made briefly by Senator Hannigan. It relates to having a debate with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment on young trainee apprentices who find themselves in an unfortunate situation. There is not a town or village in this country that does not have a young carpenter, plumber, mechanic or whoever in training, some of them almost finished. I am delighted to see the ESB has undertaken to finish the training of some of the young electricians. However, there is a large cohort of trainees with nowhere to go. Their contracts with their employers have ceased because the contractors have no work. It appears to be a no-brainer that FÁS should take them on. They do not want to be on the dole. Can they not go back into FÁS and in some of its big workshops knock down walls, build them up again, hang doors, put on skirting boards and do whatever practical side of the training they would have done in the workforce? They are in limbo at present. If there was work abroad they could not go because they have no papers to say they are trained. It is time the Minister came in to open that debate.
Senator Eugene Regan: There is a headline in The Irish Times today, “Irish recovery plan provokes harsh criticism from Brussels”, the plan to restore its public finances and come within the 3% limit for Government deficits, which the Government submitted to Brussels. We have the highest public deficit in Europe at present. The Commission says the plan is unclear, underdeveloped and that the “sizeable cumulative fiscal consolidation objective”, which is presumably the language used by the Government, “is neither allocated to the revenue or expenditure side nor supported by measures”. It is a damning criticism because what it is really saying, in rather polite terms, is that the plan is simply wishful thinking by the Government. This comes from an authoritative and independent source, the European Commission. It confirms what Fine Gael has been saying for some time, that the Government has failed to set out a credible, fair and balanced plan for economic recovery.
We can talk about the banks and the importance of the banking sector to the Irish economy as the necessary building block for economic recovery but we also need a credible Government which, when confronted with problems in the banking sector, public finances or otherwise, can produce credible plans to solve those problems. What we have at present is a Government that is bereft of ideas and which, in the case of the Anglo Irish Bank nationalisation, did not disclose to the Houses the basis on which it made its decisions. It withheld information. When the Minister was in this House and when we were agreeing to the nationalisation plan, he did not disclose full information. That means he misled the House. It is important that the Minister return to this House, correct the record and disclose the full information. It is this type of behaviour by the Government which has destroyed its credibility. We have no chance with this Government of getting out of our current economic problems.
Senator Mary M. White: I welcome the statement by the chief executive of Bord Gáis that the company hopes to poach 500,000 consumers from the ESB and provide electricity at 12.5% cheaper rates. I have raised previously the matter of the outrageous costs charged by the ESB. I believe the ESB gets away with murder. There was reference this morning to SR Technics. Not only are the apprentices in trouble, but the staff in SR Technics have world class skills. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment must come to this House urgently to spell out what will be done about reducing costs in Ireland.
Senator Mary M. White: In 2000, costs in Ireland and Germany were at the same level. By 2008, Irish costs were 20% higher than those in Germany. There is no mystery as to why SR Technics cannot continue in business. Sentiment about the Government taking equity in the company is nonsense until all partners in this country, including the social partners and the Government, get our costs in line with other European countries. We will continue to lose jobs until we get our costs right.
We are dominated at present by the news about the banks. It has taken over from everything. We must deal with that but also with the issue of how to bring our costs down to keep people in jobs. In 1986, Connie Doody and I started a business to create employment. I have first-hand experience of unemployment in the late 1980s in this country. In many areas there was actually 40% unemployment. I saw the demeanour of people when they came to us looking for jobs. They had no confidence. They were slouched over and had no self esteem. After a few months with a job they began to walk straight. They were self-confident and able to buy new clothes.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I was impressed by Senator Mary White’s comments. I remember the 1980s. I recall being on the board of a hospital which received letters from the Government asking how many new jobs we could create. That is what got us into trouble — creating jobs that did not earn their way. We are facing a crisis and Senator Regan has referred to it. The criticism from the European Union today, which I warned about yesterday, is that we have an 11% Government deficit when the limit is 3%. It is the highest in Europe. We are in serious danger of losing our economic and financial independence. The problem is that we are talking about other things when we should be seriously focused on what Senator Regan mentioned, a credible plan that will get us out of this situation. Senator O’Toole spoke about this too. Let us not assume that it can be done easily. We must be careful to talk about ensuring our competitiveness, especially at a time when costs are so high.
I will refer to one instance which Senator Norris mentioned. It appears the energy regulator said ten years ago that, as we want more competition, the ESB must increase its prices to encourage more competition.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I do not understand that. Then the ESB was forced to put its network out to tender. Who tendered for it but another State agency, Bord Gáis Éireann? It is now competing with the ESB. I do not understand the logic of stating that we want more competition to bring prices down but to encourage more competition we must put prices up, and then instructing the ESB to increase its prices. The danger is that the regulator is placing more importance on competition than on price.
Senator Feargal Quinn: We must find a way to solve this. The other matter relating to prices and costs that really worries me is the report today that the cost of private health care will increase dramatically by 25%. I read in this morning’s newspaper that the chief executive officer of the Beacon Medical Group said that our health insurance is too cheap and does not cover the cost of what is being provided. He and others are saying that the cost of private health care will have to increase by 25% at a time when the objective should be to bring costs down. We are told the reason for this is the co-location of hospitals. If that is the reason the cost of health care is increasing, the objective should be the opposite.
I am concerned we are not focusing on the objective. I am impressed by the remarks of Senator Regan. He might have been critical of the Government but we need a credible plan and I do not believe we are focused on that at present.
Senator John Hanafin: I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on energy. The previous two speakers referred to the cost of energy. That cost is costing us jobs. With oil at $37 a barrel and ancillary products such as gas similarly lower in price, there should be a significant reduction in the price of energy. This must happen as quickly as possible because jobs are being lost daily.
There must also be a debate on the banking situation. Unfortunately, the debate in this House has descended to becoming partisan. It is unfortunate because the Government is committed to doing what is necessary to uphold the banking sector and for no other reason but that it affects the economy. It is almost laughable to hear about Fianna Fáil builders, as if there were never any Fine Gael builders, and Fianna Fáil horse owners, as if there was never any——
Senator Joe O’Reilly: Will the Leader invite the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, to the House to discuss a matter of extraordinary seriousness? The fact that the insulation scheme was announced and that there is a delay until the end of March on the beginning of the scheme and on the submission of formal applications is putting a significant burden on the construction industry and has put the entire insulation business on hold. People are putting work on insulation on hold. The suppliers and the construction people are out of work as a result. Nothing will happen for eight or nine weeks in that sector. It is a significant own goal by the Government and by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and something must be done about it immediately. We need an urgent reaction, an acceptance that a mistake was made and a correction of that mistake. It should not be beyond the genius of the respective civil servants and the Minister to put this scheme in place within 48 hours.
In parallel, we should debate providing for comprehensive insulation and refurbishment of schools throughout the country. The elimination of prefabs on those sites, the money being put back into the economy in taxation and the saving on dole payments will have the effect of being cost neutral.
I appreciate the Cathaoirleach’s indulgence. I will finish now. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister to the House immediately to debate this matter and to have him make a statement that will start the construction industry again. It is shocking. I was told yesterday ten people were laid off in one place because of the stoppage on insulation work.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I will not hold up the Order of Business. All the points have been raised. I welcome the call for a debate on energy and the points raised by Senator Quinn on the role of Bord Gáis and ESB. I do not know what their role is anymore and I would welcome a debate on that issue.
We should have an ongoing debate on the economy. Given the nature of what I am hearing and the statements and counter statements being made, I want a freshness introduced so that confidence is brought back. That is all I ask. Let us stop this shouting and roaring. I am not able to take it anymore. It is ugly.
A debate on FÁS must come back onto the agenda. Having viewed a programme last night on the monitoring and transparency of community employment schemes in a certain area, it is necessary that we conduct a root and branch exercise on community employment schemes and also on apprenticeships. I ask FÁS to enter into discussions with the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee and many VECs throughout the country which long ago employed the prime people in educating apprentices in both woodwork and metalwork, which people were fine teachers. What has gone wrong with FÁS given all that is happening currently? We must open up co-ordination and co-operation in that area. I support the calls on the Leader to have those debates in this House as soon as possible.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I second Senator Norris’s amendment to the Order of Business to allow the motion on Gaza to be taken and, if necessary, for the Leader to adopt the motion formally. I understand it should have come from the committee.
An Cathaoirleach: It has not been seconded. I will accept that. Some Members ran over time. On time for speakers, some Senators are annoyed that they are not getting in. What can I do to stop people unless I raise a bit of a row in the House regularly? I do not want to do that.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole, Kelly, Coghlan, Buttimer, Regan and Hanafin expressed serious concerns again — as they do every day, quite correctly — about new revelations concerning banking issues. I understand the leaders of the main Opposition parties and their spokespersons on finance were briefed by the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach last week. The Government may not be in control of some of the revelations that emerge daily and we can only deal with them as they are made known to the people and the Government.
As I informed the House yesterday, it is my intention to start the pensions levy Bill in the House on Wednesday night next at 8 o’clock. If we must sit late into the night and early morning to pass the Bill, I certainly will have no difficulty in allocating whatever time is needed by colleagues. Perhaps in meeting the leaders of the groups next Tuesday we could discuss and agree what is necessary.
Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole, Feeney, Hannigan and Ormonde called for an urgent debate on FÁS, job creation, the challenge facing the country of training apprentices and of preparing for when the downturn in the economy is followed by an uplift in the future. We are told every working person in Ireland must be reskilled or upskilled by 2020. This is an ideal opportunity for FÁS, the Government agency, to meet once again the challenge it met so magnificently in the 1980s when it was called upon to upskill and train people. It is a timely call for this debate to take place in the House. Senator Ormonde is always calling for the up-to-date position on training and FÁS and I have no difficulty in allocating time so that this can happen.
Senators O’Toole and Ó Murchú, two respected and long-standing Senators, made known to the House this morning their views on Seán Garland, a 74 year old man suffering from cancer who has been a peaceful person who played a central role in the Good Friday Agreement. I assure the House that I will pass on the Senators’ urgent request to the Minister immediately after the Order of Business. I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by both Senators about a new beginning under the new US President, Barack Obama, who has uplifted not alone his own country but the people of the world. I hope the stimulus package he signed into being yesterday is the start of the upturn and becomes a ray of hope for everyone experiencing difficulties across the world.
Senators Kelly, Buttimer and Quinn called for an urgent debate with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, on Health Service Executive matters such as the accident and emergency report published yesterday. I certainly have no difficulty with this. The Minister has always been very supportive in coming to the House and engaging in frank exchanges with Senators. I will make that request today.
Senator McCarthy raised the pensions levy and I have explained when that will be taken in the House next week. He also asked that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, conduct a risk assessment of the oil slick off the south coast. I will endeavour to have the Minister brief the House on the up-to-date position, perhaps for one hour, on the threat of this major oil spillage. This is a serious position in which the people of the south find themselves. I certainly agree with Senator McCarthy that this debate should take place. I will contact the Minister today to see whether it is possible for this to take place tomorrow for one hour.
Senator McFadden raised serious concerns regarding Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe, and I must agree with her. As one who was a patient there for six or seven weeks at one time, I can only relay to the House what a magnificent hospital it is. It has been a shining light in our area for the past 50 years. It was a magnificent training hospital under the Medical Missionaries of Mary when that order was running it. I certainly will pass the strong views of my colleague from County Westmeath, Senator McFadden, on to the Minister after the Order of Business.
Senators Leyden, Callely, Hannigan, Feeney, Mary White and Quinn called for the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to come to the House to deal with the fact that, as Senator Leyden, a former Minister of State at that Department, said, the Government should see whether it can acquire equity in some of the companies that are laying off enormous numbers of employees. The loss of 1,100 jobs at Dublin Airport is a serious blow to that area. As I said last week, when former Deputy Charles J. Haughey was Taoiseach in the late 1980s, this was one of the power bases in that area of north County Dublin to rejuvenate the economy at the time.
As Senator Mary White said, the difficulties in most of these cases stems from the high cost of wages and the fact that we have lost our competitiveness. We must apprise the Tánaiste of our views when she comes to the House and give her the benefit of our experience and ideas in assisting her and the Government to meet the challenge. If it is not addressed now, there will be further lay-offs. These are the cold hard facts of life and we must deal with the matter.
Senator Norris also raised the matter of energy costs, which I will deal with later. On his motion, I will look into it immediately after the Order of Business this morning, but in the meantime we have a one-hour debate today to enable colleagues to express their views on the House. I have no difficulty in dealing with an all-party motion if I am given instructions by the Government Chief Whip, to whom I am answerable.
Senators Callely and O’Reilly raised the matter of the new home energy plan in which many thousands of people will participate. I know that four weeks may be a long time for many people, but it is extremely important to get it right. I will pass on the Senators’ views to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, but he can rest assured that the €4,000 as well as the other packages contained in this wonderful energy plan will be a godsend for many people throughout the country.
I wish the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, well on his historic visit to Cuba — Senator Hannigan raised this matter. We congratulate him on being there. We saw him on television last night relaying the up-to-date position to the people of the world on how the young, new dynamic Ireland that the people have admired for a number of years will deal with the challenges that face Ireland as well as all other countries at present.
I welcome the news this morning about Bord Gáis entering the energy electricity market as a supplier, with a guarantee to customers that its prices will be at least 10% lower than those of the ESB for the next three years. This double digit guarantee will remain in place, regardless of any cuts the ESB may introduce. I welcome the Taoiseach’s announcement in Mullingar last Friday that he directed the energy regulator to bring forward a cut in electricity costs of up to 15% within the next month or two. This was a very well attended function, organised by my colleague, Senator Camillus Glynn. The announcement by the Taoiseach is very welcome because if it happens——
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