Thursday, 29 April 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed seven minutes and on which Senators may share time, by agreement of the House; No. 2, Inland Fisheries Bill 2009 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 but not before 1.30 p.m.; No. 3, statements on TETRA, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 and conclude within 70 minutes, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed seven minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, on which Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, and with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments.
Senator Paudie Coffey: As Members look across Europe this morning, the fragile state of the economies of many countries within the European Union is evident. The economy of Greece is almost a basket case, while Spain and Portugal have had their ratings downgraded and Ireland is next.
Senator Paudie Coffey: For many months Members have been discussing how countries are bailing out banks. Ireland is among them, as has been proved by the millions and billions being pumped into its banks. The time is almost approaching when the question will be raised as to who will bail out countries. Members must ask themselves fundamental questions regarding European stability and that of the euro. I ask the Leader to make provision for a debate on the subject because not only our economy but the entire European economy is in a serious state.
I note that the Minister for Finance is now open to considering the possibility of winding down Anglo Irish Bank. This has come like a bolt from the blue because he has continually dismissed this option in the past year while pumping millions of taxpayers’ money into the bank to keep it alive. He has been pumping taxpayers’ money into what essentially is a zombie bank. Consequently, it is now surprising to learn that he is willing to consider winding it down. However, Members on this side of the House would welcome doing so because this has been the Fine Gael position for some time.
Yesterday evening I watched with interest some American politicians on television as they hauled banking leaders before a committee and made them answer questions under oath on their roles and responsibilities in the banking crisis in that country. Is it not a great shame that something similar cannot be done here under oath in Parliament to have proper accountability and transparency regarding banking and Government decisions? This possibility must be examined because, when one considers the millions thrown at tribunals, it would save money. The full potential of Ireland’s parliamentary system is not being exploited. This issue must be examined.
The most sad and devastating news of all concerns the possibility of a further 800 redundancies at Quinn Insurance Limited. While this is devastating news for the families and workers concerned, it is news that has been shared in other regions on foot of the closure of SR Technics, Dell and Waterford Crystal, as well as the thousands of other small companies in which there have been redundancies. More than 435,000 people are unemployed, which constitutes a rate of 13.5%. This does not take into account the 52,000 people on the waiting list to receive social welfare assistance or those already attending FÁS training courses. Yesterday I called for a debate on youth unemployment, but it must now be broadened to consider the entire subject of redundancies and unemployment because no plan or structure to tackle it appears evident. I, therefore, table an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that Members discuss the issues of unemployment and redundancies as a matter of urgency.
Senator Joe O’Toole: In recent days the levels of anger, resentment and outrage at the Government have been evident at various conferences. Members are aware that public sector or construction workers who are out of work or the Quinn Group workers who face job losses are not those who can be held responsible for the mess the country is in. There is a responsibility on Members, including those on the Government side of the House, to tell the people that to get out of this mess, it may be necessary to do things that appear to be supportive of the Government without intending to so do. I refer to the Croke Park agreement as one of them. As I stated, those voting on it are not the ones who created this mess and they should not be blamed to pay the price, any more than the other groups I mentioned. Once again, the responsibility falls on those at the bottom of the line and it appears as though this is the hard strategic choice facing us. Members must send a message to the people that their own self-interest, as well as the national interest, probably points in the direction of supporting the Croke Park agreement, however much they may wish to have a go at the Government. Responsibility also falls on the Government side to tell the people there will be a chance for those who wish to give the Government a bloody nose to do so at the next election. While that will be the time to deal with that desire, as of now we must deal with and face other issues.
I raise this point because a debate is required on the subject to express a view that will find at least some recognition among the aforementioned groups, namely, the unemployed, public sector workers and those facing difficult times such as the Quinn Group employees, etc. It is that a job faces us at this stage and that strategic decisions must be taken that may not be attractive but which may not be the worst decisions before us. In that regard, I seek a debate specifically on the Croke Park agreement but in the context of the wider issues hitting workers within the economy. For instance, people may say what they wish, but the absence of a trade union to fight, argue and negotiate for the Quinn Group workers is a sad state of affairs. I ask some of my trade union colleagues whether any of them would be prepared to step into the breach and take up the cudgels on their behalf and work for them. Even though they were not in trade unions, they deserve support and help at this time.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I call for a debate on prison conditions in the light of the forced resignation this week of the former governor of the Dóchas Centre and in the context of the opening today of the Prison Officers Association conference. On the resignation of the governor of the Dóchas Centre, I do not agree with her apparent equation of lesbianism with bullying and depression. She was quoted in the newspaper as having said this, which was unfortunate. However, she raised some serious points about the chronic overcrowding in the Dóchas Centre and the significant worsening of conditions there as a result. She also raised serious issues about the culture within the Irish Prison Service and her concerns were dismissed out of hand on radio this week in far too dismissive and arrogant a way by the director general of the service. I do not believe he responded adequately and note the Prison Officers Association has described the service as having a “we know best” culture. However, it is clear that it does not know best, given the high rates of recidivism, that it is evident that prison is not working and that conditions are deteriorating. Consequently, I ask the Leader for a debate on prison conditions as a matter of urgency.
I support Senator Coffey’s call for a debate today on the issues of unemployment and redundancies in the light of the serious news today that it is likely there will be many redundancies at Quinn Insurance Limited. While one certainly hopes there will not be any job losses there, unfortunately, this looks increasingly likely. Members may have heard the radio report this morning on Waterford Crystal and the enormously difficult impact job losses there have had on the people of Waterford. While Members do not wish to see something similar happening in Cavan or elsewhere, this has already happened in Limerick with Dell, in Dublin with SR Technics and so on. Consequently, a debate is required as a matter of urgency. I, therefore, second the amendment proposed by Senator Coffey.
Senator Dan Boyle: This House would be well served by an early debate on what is happening in Greece and the risks posed by the current situation there. However, this issue must be put in context. There was a news report today that President Obama had telephoned Chancellor Angela Merkel to ask for quick and decisive action to be taken. Obviously, there is international concern that this situation could bring us back from the progress achieved nationally and internationally. It is important that Members understand this context. That said, this time last year, they were discussing Ireland’s relationship with international bond markets when our Government bonds were selling at a rate below that of Greek bonds. One must, therefore, acknowledge that some of the actions the Government has taken have been correct and put Ireland in a better position than other countries which are in similar difficulties.
As for the calls for a debate on unemployment, I would like Members to have a debate on enterprise. While walking into Leinster House today, I met a young businessman from Cork who was carrying two boxes of biscuits he had put into a van at 6 a.m. to deliver to Kilkenny Design. He told me that in the course of the last two months his business was improving. Two or three people are involved in the business which offers high-end quality products. One must identify such examples where things are happening, even though logic dictates otherwise. Such persons should be supported and encouraged, as doing so will provide many of the answers needed to solve the more serious problem of long-term unemployment. I ask Members to agree that, when such a debate takes place, this is how it should be focused. It should be structured on enterprise, rather than the continuing high levels of unemployment, about which the Opposition parties appear to wish to talk.
Senator Ciaran Cannon: In particular, it will levy this tax on the farming sector. In the way this tax has been conceived, those of us who put diesel in our cars will experience approximately a 4.4% increase or farmers who put diesel in their tractors will experience a 8.7% increase in their costs. On the day when the ESRI tells us our carbon emissions are reducing because of the recession, one wonders if the aim of this tax is to depress economic activity in this country further to ensure we have the consequent reduction in carbon emissions.
The Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, said during a radio programme yesterday evening that his assessment and reasoning behind the carbon tax was to effect behavioural change. I would support a carbon tax that sets out to do that but farmers do not have the option of behavioural change when it comes to a carbon tax. They have no other option but to start their tractors in the morning and tend to their animals, stock and land. What do the people proposing this tax expect farmers to do? Should they go back to using a horse and cart? There is no option available to farmers. In particular, there is no option available to agricultural contractors. In the Taoiseach’s constituency this week, two agricultural contractors have had their machinery repossessed by the banks that we effectively own.
If the Government worked with the farming sector, which is a very environmentally aware sector, it could effect that kind of behavioural change over a period of time by perhaps encouraging them to grow crops that would result in them using biodiesel in their tractors but instead of working with the farming sector it will impose this tax which will have no effect other than further depressing farm incomes, which the CSO has told us dropped by 30% last year.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I call on the Leader to use his good offices to contact the Minister for Finance to ask him, while respecting the independence of Mr. Elderfield and his office, to ask the regulator to speed up the process of assessing the figures that have been put before him by the joint administrators of Quinn Insurance Limited in order to re-open the UK market to Quinn Insurance. Some 55% of Quinn Insurance business is UK-based — in Britain and Northern Ireland. Some 95% of the workforce of Quinn Insurance linked to that business is based in this country. It is a matter of the gravest urgency that the regulator stops the drip feed of a bit now and a bit again. He needs to knuckle down to it and make his decision based on the figures the joint administrators have put before him, which show that 90% of the insurance the company was writing in the UK was profitable. That is a fact.
It was unfair of the regulator to handcuff the administrators whose job is to put, by way of legislation, Quinn Insurance back on a sound financial footing. How in the name of God can one put a business back on a sound financial footing when the regulator has taken away its ability to write 55% of its business? That does not make sense.
I call on the Leader to use his good offices to put at ease the minds of not only the 800 employees of Quinn Insurance who are reported in today’s newspapers to be in danger of losing their jobs over the next 12 months but to put at ease the minds of its 2,800 employees and their families by asking the Minister to request the regulator to stop the drip feed and let the company write the profitable end of its UK business with immediate effect.
Senator Shane Ross: I am sure the House is aware the Minister for Finance got high praise in the Lex column of the Financial Times this morning. It is very encouraging when it comes from a quarter which is as influential and as independent as that. It is not the first time that he has been applauded for his conduct of the economy of this country and we should acknowledge that. I notice that Senators Coffey and Boyle asked that the Minister come into the House to debate the issue of Greece because this issue is fundamentally difficult for Ireland. I have noticed, as everyone would have, that the question at the moment appears to be whether Germany will bail out Greece, but the question also ought to be if Ireland will bail out Greece. There is something odd and peculiar about the fact that we are being asked to pay €600 million to bail out Greece in the next few weeks and, apparently, we are willing to do so. We have a bigger deficit than Greece. Will we next be asked to bail out Portugal and after that to bail out Spain, although not necessarily in that order? I would like to know what role we are playing in these negotiations or is it just Germany that is being asked to do this? We cannot afford to keep bailing out other nations in Europe. That is the reality of it. From where will this money come? I do not know from where the €600 million will come.
Last week we were talking about Anglo Irish Bank bailing out Quinn Insurance. This is all pie in the sky stuff if it continues. We need to know what is the Government’s thinking on that and what the Minister and his officials are doing in these negotiations, which are going on now, or are we just bystanders? Will we just write the cheque? Every penny that we would pay to bail out Greece would be borrowed from somewhere else. Are we willing for future generations of this country to bail out Greece, Portugal, Spain and everybody else on what may well be, particularly in the Greek case, a hopeless cause? It would be useful if the Minister came into this House and told us what we are doing in this respect and if he did so immediately. This is urgent. We should debate urgent matters in this House. The Minister should do that immediately and tell us what is happening in these talks and what role, if any, Ireland will play beyond writing a cheque with borrowed money.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: I participated in the official launch of a small pottery business in Cork last Saturday. There was a great buzz in the place, a great positive approach, and a determination on the part of that business that it together with other businesses in the craft sector would be consolidated and would achieve their full potential. A long way from Cork in Shanghai in China, the World Expo is getting under way. Almost 300 countries are participating in it. Ireland will have a major pavilion at it and several million people will pass though it during the six months of the expo, which President Mary McAleese will visit on 17 June.
I grouped those two issues together because the building up of employment will depend to a great extent on indigenous industries, including tourism, and we are also promoting products that are exclusive to this country on the world market.
I ask the Leader to consider setting aside not a few hours but two days in the next few weeks for a debate on this area in this Chamber and to invite to it four of the senior Ministers directly connected with training and employment. Such a debate would present an opportunity in a formal and structured way to examine the multifaceted and complex nature of rebuilding the employment structure of this country. Similar to a house of cards, the recession came in on top of us and the structure was crippled. We will have to rebuild the economy and create meaningful employment for the large numbers unemployed in a step by step way. For that reason, a coherent approach must be taken to such a debate. If the Leader were to make this possible, this Chamber could be central to a resuscitation of the employment in this country. I hope the Leader will give consideration to this request.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I have called each morning on the Order of Business this week for an urgent debate on what is happening regarding Greece and the eurozone. That was supported yesterday by Senator Twomey. Senators Coffey and Ross made the same points today. Less than a year ago, commentators talked about the PIGS group of economies, which was an awful phrase. Those economies were Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. As Senator Coffey pointed out, Greece has had its bonds reduced to junk value. Over the past two days, the credit ratings of Portugal and Spain have been downgraded. It is imperative we have a debate on what our Government is doing to ensure our economic security is preserved in this environment.
I support what Senator O’Toole said on the Croke Park deal. Our party believes more could be done on the reform agenda. Last Thursday, our party leader said the pay element of that deal should be supported. It is in the national interest that the Croke Park deal is agreed. People should keep in mind that their self-interest could well be served by that because of the staggering economic events that have taken place over recent days and the effect they could have on our economy.
I conclude on the point Senator Coffey made about Anglo Irish Bank. On 30 March, the Minister for Finance said the sums required to rescue the bank are enormous but the costs of winding it down are even greater. He said winding down the bank is not and was never a viable option and that as Minister for Finance, he could not countenance such a course of action. Yesterday, the Minister gave the clearest indication yet that he is countenancing that course of action when he said that an orderly wind down of Anglo Irish Bank must be examined. He went on to say there was a possibility that the exposure to the taxpayer could be further reduced by carving out of the loan book a good bank from which further profit could be made.
That is Fine Gael policy and what it has been saying for the past number of months. The Minister for Finance should come to this House and explain why he is a making the U-turn of all U-turns. What has been said to him by the Department of Finance or the European Commission for him to indicate that this is being reconsidered? That is what he said in the Dáil yesterday.
Senator Ivor Callely: I listened with interest to the comments on the eurozone. I empathise with the anxiety and fear outlined by Senator Ross, in particular. Certain debts are written off on occasion. There is a need for a special focus on the eurozone and to look at the viability of write-downs, write-offs or whatever may be necessary in that regard. It has happened in many other countries and perhaps it should be considered.
Will the Leader contact the Minister for Finance to see what special arrangements have been put in place to accommodate small and medium enterprises and sole traders who, in this very difficult and turbulent economic and financial environment, are getting demands in regard to their tax liabilities? What arrangements have been put in place to provide a viable period of time in which they may pay their tax liabilities? I am talking about people who are in a position to pay their tax liabilities but who need a little breathing space given the pressures on them. Will the Leader raise this matter with the Minister for Finance? The Leader is very much aware of the pressures and difficulties and I want to ensure sole traders and small and medium enterprises are accommodated to enable them to survive because they are in survival mode.
I raise two issues in regard to transport, the first of which concerns traffic management and IT traffic information. We should have more display panels around this city to inform motorists of road traffic conditions. The second issue is real-time passenger information. We have heard about it for a long time and I would like to see real-time passenger information for bus users. A bus commuter should be able to go to the bus stop and see when the next bus will arrive.
Senator David Norris: Yesterday, some of my colleagues joined me in the calls I have consistently made for the past six to eight months for some kind of questioning of the international ratings agencies. I congratulate “Morning Ireland” on catching up. It has started to raise this issue a mere six to eight months later. I am happy to provide ideas to the media. It is a very serious issue. These ratings agencies have deliberately, systematically, corruptly and dishonestly rated things like the toxic bundles. They were wrong about Iceland and Ireland and we are still allowing them to get away with it. Sometimes they are right, although almost by accident. Most of the time they are wrong, whether through stupidity or dishonesty, and they are never challenged. Even if they are right, they are just as dangerous because of the method they use to release this information and its timing. They have done this in Greece, with the help of Goldman Sachs, and they are now targeting Spain. Ireland will be next.
Let the international community stand together. I call for an international commission of inquiry into the origin, background and practices of all the ratings agencies and the establishment of a truly independent agency under the United Nations so that the matter can be settled. I issue a challenge to The Irish Times which does wonderful work. Sometimes it takes up little ideas and develops them. Let it unleash Fintan O’Toole or some other writer to do a report for the people to establish where these people come from and what they are up to. In regard to the Anglo Irish Bank situation, it is a vindication of the views of Peter Mathews and I repeat my call that he should appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service.
I call for a debate on Chad where the situation is very serious. We have a large number of troops there who are at the point of being precipitately withdrawn. If they are withdrawn, 500,000 men, women and children will be left defenceless in the face of marauding armed groups, the Janjaweed, bandits and so on.
I wish to end on a positive note. I am sure the Cathaoirleach and all my colleagues have noticed the fantastic and beautiful display of flowers at the entrance to Leinster House. The Office of Public Works should be publicly congratulated on them as well as on the work it does in other parks such as St. Stephen’s Green and Merrion Square.
Senator Mark Dearey: I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on nuclear power. “The Frontline” on RTE on Monday night did an assessment of the best options for Ireland in terms of its energy future. It was very interesting and rigorous. However, I detected an underlying subtext that it was time for Ireland to grow up and go nuclear. I challenge the notion that the maturity of a nation can be judged on whether it has nuclear power stations.
Only 31 countries have nuclear power and there are approximately 430 nuclear power stations around the world. Some 57% of all nuclear power is produced by only three countries, namely, France, Japan and the United States. The last one is the main producer of nuclear power. It is not the case that we need to join the rest of the world. Only a small minority of countries have nuclear power.
Is nuclear power strategically clever for Ireland? That is a question on which we all need to focus because this debate will gather momentum in the months and years ahead. We need to think of it in terms of our positions in our constituencies. Would any Member be willing to host a nuclear power station in his or her constituency or area? If one supports nuclear power, one must be able to say that one would not mind a nuclear power station in his or her area because it cannot be foisted on anybody else. Would anyone be willing to host the deep repository required to store nuclear fuel for thousands of years after its lifecycle is over? Would anyone be willing to establish a nuclear installations inspectorate and five or six other quangos, given that we are trying to get rid of many of them, because nuclear power requires much regulation and administration and a vast array of agencies to ensure some modicum of safety in terms its operation?
Senator Mark Dearey: I am outlining the issues a debate should contain. I call for an urgent debate to allow all parties to engage honestly on this issue which is problematic in the extreme. Strategically, it is not in Ireland’s interests to go down the nuclear road.
Senator Nicky McFadden: On Tuesday people in Longford, Westmeath and south Roscommon who were sick or in pain were turned away from Mullingar Regional Hospital and Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe. A general practitioner rang for an ambulance for a lady patient at 11 a.m. and at 2 p.m. it had still not appeared. When the GP rang ambulance control, the reason given was that no beds or trolleys were available in either hospital. On the two occasions that I raised this issue on the Adjournment the Minister for Health and Children had the audacity to inform me she could not obtain answers to my questions owing to industrial action. I am raging with anger on behalf of the people I represent in Longford-Westmeath and south Roscommon. Who will look after them when beds and even trolleys are not available? I raised this issue with the Leader yesterday and do so again today because there is no point asking the Minister to come before the House if she cannot obtain answers. Who is in charge of the country?
Senator Paschal Mooney: I concur with all the points made by my friend and colleague, Senator Wilson, on the Quinn Group. The Financial Regulator has a public duty to make a decision on the issue immediately because the administrators of Quinn Insurance intend to meet the company’s staff tomorrow. One can throw around figures for the numbers unemployed like snuff at a wake, but, as Senators on all sides will testify, when one looks in the eye a person who has lost or is about to lose his or her job, one sees more than a cipher or number. As Senator Wilson stated, the individuals affected are also breadwinners who put food on the family table. I hope the Financial Regulator will make a decision on the matter immediately.
Yesterday, when he appeared before the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, made some telling points which, unfortunately, were not widely reported. I ask the Leader to debate the view expressed by me and others in recent years, particularly following the second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, that this Chamber, more than any other forum, should be used to scrutinise European Union directives. This would be an admirable role for the Seanad, as it would be ideally suited for the purpose and has vast expertise available to it on all sides. It would also raise public awareness of precisely what legislation was being discussed in the European Union.
I was astonished by Mr. McDowell’s statement that during his time in the Cabinet a directive arrived from the European Union on which Ireland had not been consulted. While the Union stated it had consulted widely on the document, it did not consult Ireland. This is an example of the dangers associated with the plethora of legislative proposals emerging from the Union on a rolling basis. Given its structure, the other House is not in a position to scrutinise these proposals, whereas the Seanad would be ideally suited for the purpose. I ask the Leader to give serious consideration to calling in the relevant Minister to have a debate on my proposal.
I fully concur with Senator Ross. An official of the OECD stated yesterday that the unfolding Greek tragedy was like the Ebola virus. This was the only term the official used to describe the problem in Greece. Senators who are not aware of the Ebola virus should look it up on Google — it is insidious, widespread and moves fast. It is vital, therefore, that the House debate developments in Greece and how that country’s economic position affects Ireland.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Senator Coffey made an interesting point on Anglo Irish Bank and the apparent willingness of the Minister for Finance to countenance a more rapid, orderly wind-down. What is the least expensive option for the taxpayer? How did the European Commission differ from the Government in respect of the proposals of the latter on Anglo Irish Bank? This is a key question. Will a good bank emerge from the rump of Anglo Irish Bank? We need to have answers, or at least clarification, on these matters quickly and in the interests of transparency.
The European Commission has also curtailed the powers of the National Asset Management Agency. We do not yet have the full details of what took place. Does it mean the Government will sponsor an amendment to the legislation on NAMA approved by both Houses and signed into law by the President? We need to know what its intentions are in this respect. Sadly, stories are continuing to emerge about conflicts of interest vis-à-vis NAMA progressing its work. We must guard against such conflicts of interest. The House needs to discuss these matters as a matter of urgency.
Is it possible to combine a debate on these issues with a discussion of the Financial Regulator’s proposals on the governance of banks and the fitness, competence and probity of their directors? In the light of recent developments, I have no doubt the Government will have to appoint further public interest directors to the banks.
Senator John Ellis: I concur with Senator Wilson in his comments on Quinn Insurance. The Financial Regulator is removing the lifeblood from the company. His actions have not been in the interests of Quinn Insurance and its employees. When we met the administrators recently, they made it clear that their hands were tied by the regulator’s failure to allow the company to write business it had been writing profitably in the United Kingdom. This decision was wrong.
Senator John Ellis: Quinn Insurance has taken business from some of the major global insurance companies and allowed people to continue in business. The knock-on effect of developments in the company will not only be the loss of 800 jobs. Companies which were unable to obtain competitive quotes from companies other than Quinn Insurance will be next in line. The number of jobs lost as a result will not be 800 but at least 10,000. While that is a frightening prospect, the figure could quickly rise to that level.
Rather than paying social welfare to such a large number of people, it would be preferable to provide a State guarantee for Quinn Insurance until such time as the company is in a position to provide a guarantee from its own resources. The Government should consider providing a guarantee for the administrators in the public interest. If this were done, it could help to save many jobs across Ireland and the United Kingdom where Quinn Insurance has provided bonds for builders who could not obtain them elsewhere, except at exorbitant rates, as well as public liability and other cover. If the company goes, the knock-on effect will be much worse than the loss of the 800 jobs directly threatened this morning. I put the figure at not less than 10,000.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Like Senator Coffey, I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Finance to come before the House to explain his gargantuan U-turn on Anglo Irish Bank. It is a pity he was not open to persuasion or other points of view on the bank, as he could have saved taxpayers billions of euro.
We must restore public trust in politicians and accountability among practitioners of politics, in particular, Ministers. I am confident the “Prime Time” programme tonight will, once again, expose the largesse of the Fianna Fáil Party in government. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the future of politics and how we, its practitioners, can make politics more relevant and interact and become more at one with those we represent.
I also ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the Croke Park deal, the most important industrial relations agreement to have been negotiated for a generation. On the one hand, there is a sense of self-interest on the part of public sector workers while, on the other, there is a balance to be struck with the national interest. As someone who has been a proud advocate of public sector workers, I hope they will accept the deal and that they will understand their own self-interest will be served in acting in support of the national interest. We need to have a debate in the House not only on the Croke Park deal, but also on the issue of social partnership. We have not seen social partnership under the Government.
Senator John Hanafin: I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on ways by which we can improve the position on employment. In the 1980s we had many allowances and schemes that provided for tax reliefs for those who invested in job creation. I raise this issue in the light of the good news yesterday from Davy which stated there had been growth in the economy in the first quarter of the year. That is very positive, but it was also stated it would take six months for the unemployment rate to peak, something we could deal with straightaway.
I share Senator O’Toole’s view that the Quinn Group workers need representation. In this life one gets that for which one negotiates. Even though they are not trade union members, I hope a union will step in and assist them in their hour of need.
I support Senator Mooney’s proposal. As a member of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, I can see no better forum than the Seanad to deal with European scrutiny issues. We are elected by a broad panel. We also have the university panels and the 11 Senators nominated by the Taoiseach. The panels represent all areas of interest in the community, which gives us the right to represent the Oireachtas in this crucially important area.
Senator Paul Bradford: I support the call made by Senator Buttimer and other colleagues that we have a debate on the Croke Park deal. I find it extraordinary that certain politicians present the view that there should be no discussion or political direction. As representatives of the people, we in this House must express our views and debate the deal. There is a view that clarification of certain matters is required. At the end of the day, the Government is the employer. We are presenting this package to public sector workers and if clarification is required, questions are to be asked and answered, it is most appropriate that a debate take place in the Houses.
I support Senator Ó Murchú in calling for a robust debate on economic matters. There are five days in the parliamentary week and enough hours in each day to have the senior economic Ministers come before us to debate the political and economic options available.
I concur with Senator Cannon on the issue of the carbon tax. When I raised the matter last week on the Adjournment, I received a bizarre response from the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that the Government’s estimate of the cost per farming family was only €236 per annum. That view is off the wall. The carbon tax will result in the loss of jobs in rural Ireland and the shutting down of contractors. It penalise farming families further. Countries such as France are reflecting on the concept of carbon taxes and parking it for a while. We should not rush into introducing this penalising imposition on rural Ireland. At a time when almost 500,000 people are unemployed, the only certainty about the carbon tax is that it will result in hundreds and thousands more being added to the dole queues. That is not where we should be heading.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I call for a debate on the issue of environmental health. As we sit here, there is untreated sewage flowing into watercourses. This is still the case, in spite of the increased levels of expenditure by the Government. Unfortunately, sewage still presents a major problem.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I thank Senator Healy Eames for providing that information. It is why I want to have a debate in the House because I want to bring everyone up to speed. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has not yet been in the job for three years——
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: This problem dates back to Victorian times and is absolutely disgraceful. The reality is that the Government has put far more money into tackling it than any of its predecessors. We have seen increases in spending every single year on sewerage treatment facilities. The people are still suffering ill effects owing to the lack of treatment facilities and it is often the local authorities which are responsible but do not act.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: The matter of environmental health is multifaceted. Radon affects many people all over the country. Around 200 people die every year because of it, which is not good enough. New building regulations have been brought forward, as a result of which many new houses have barriers against radon. In spite of this, a report today shows that in a house in Sligo the level of this radioactive gas was 20 times the acceptable level. We need to put much effort into tackling this issue. I do not think a Minister can solve problems dating back one century with the wave of a wand, but we need an urgent debate on the issue in the Seanad. We should not focus on the banks only. The health of the people is a very important issue.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: When speaking about environmental damage, I wonder if Senator Ó Brolcháin is aware of the Government’s policy on illegal timber products. I am grateful to Mr. Frank McDonald of The Irish Times for pointing out today that we have the worst record in Europe in importing illegally logged timber. When I brought up this issue six months ago, I was told the Government was working on it, but I was not given a timescale. We have since imported a further €10 million worth of illegally logged timber. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, a member of the Senator’s party, could change this with the stroke of a pen, yet he refuses to do so. If the Senator is so interested in tackling the issues of environmental damage and deforestation, perhaps he could tell his Minister that, rather than sharing his thoughts with Members of this House.
I agree with Senators Mooney and Wilson who have asked the Financial Regulator to expedite his decision on the Quinn Group. There is no point in telling us in six months that everything is okay and that the group can re-enter the market. It would be far too late at that stage. What worries me is the potential number of people who could be made unemployed in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath and Blanchardstown. People have already been waiting four months in County Meath to have their claims processed.
I do not share Senator Boyle’s view that we should be discussing the issue of unemployment. While it is important to talk about unemployment and pensions, I would prefer to talk about employment creation measures and enterprise, although we cannot forget that people are being made unemployed and need to know their rights. We could do with a debate on how we should deal with people who have just been made unemployed.
Senator Larry Butler: I welcome the quarterly report from Davy that shows we are out of recession and moving in the right direction. We also had international success during the week, following the provision of support for Bank of Ireland. The bank’s placement issue was oversubscribed three times. I congratulate the Minister for Finance for doing a very fine job in restructuring the banking system. I agree with Senator Coghlan’s comments on whether the Minister for Finance is looking at various ways of winding down Anglo Irish Bank, although I was not aware of that. My understanding is that if we do wind Anglo Irish Bank down quickly we will have to put in €70 billion up front. That is the problem, unless we burn our bondholders, which would not go down well internationally when we see the success that the Bank of Ireland has had on the markets. As regards yesterday’s AIB report, even though it was quite glum and sad, there is €3 billion in future lending for small and medium businesses.
Senator Larry Butler: That is an important statement which was made yesterday. We overlook the fact that many good things have happened over the past three months in terms of job creation . Some 150 retailers have said they will employ 1,000 people, which is a huge jobs boost. If we had a multinational company coming in, they would be clapping their hands and saying what a great proposal it is.
Senator Maurice Cummins: As peacekeepers, members of the Irish Army are lauded worldwide for their professionalism. In recent years the Defence Forces have undergone major change and reform, unlike many other areas in the public service. The McCarthy report suggested that Defence Forces’ personnel numbers should be reduced to 10,000. They now stand at 9,800 and, with natural wastage, the figure will fall below 9,500 this year. The Naval Service has been badly hit by the moratorium on recruitment. The Defence Forces have undergone major reform, yet they are being asked to endure the same cuts as many other public service sectors. Because they are on such low wages, many members of the Defence Forces are currently in receipt of the family income supplement. In other words, we are taking from one Department and are asked to give it back to another one. This House needs to debate the role of the Defence Forces as well as the reduction in personnel. The men and women of the Defence Forces have served this country well since the foundation of the State and they deserve our support. They also deserve a debate in this House on their role and how their numbers are being decimated.
On Tuesday during the statements on banking, I asked the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, to produce the figures on Anglo Irish Bank to allow us to make an informed decision on whether it should be wound down. I asked him about the European Commission’s rulings on NAMA, especially concerning vesting bodies and what the Revenue Commissioners can or cannot do. The Minister of State would not and could not answer those questions during the debate. We need clarification on these matters which are of urgent national importance. We must have the figures on the table and Ministers should be able to answer our questions.
Senator Mary M. White: Yesterday the Oireachtas audio-visual room was attended by members of the Older and Bolder organisation, which represents eight groups, including the Older Women’s Network and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. All these non-governmental organisations agree on what is needed to enhance the lives of older people. I have raised the issue many times in this Chamber. I call on the Leader to arrange for the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, to attend the House. She attended yesterday’s meeting in the audio-visual room. She is having public meetings throughout the country to discuss matters of serious concern to older people. I would like to hear what progress is being made in this regard as well as the issues that are being raised at those meetings.
One million people on the island of Ireland are aged over 60. It is discriminatory to oblige people to retire at 65. I have total empathy for unemployed people but as we get older, we get smarter, brighter and more experienced. When we are young we think it is frightful to be old, but that is not my experience. Part of my work involves acting as Fianna Fáil’s Seanad spokesperson on older people. Last year, I launched the All Ireland Inspirational Life Award, which is advertised on page six of The Irish Times today. This award aims to highlight older people who are role models for active participation in society. Another award category is for those who enhance the lives of older people. The third category is for organisations, public or private, which are enhancing older people’s lives. Ageism is bigotry. It is totally wrong that free breast screening for women stops at age 64 when women aged over 65 are seven times more likely to get breast cancer and there is no free breast-screening for them.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: It is good news that the Bank of Ireland had a queue of investors this week, but we must remember that it is only because of all the taxpayers’ public money that has been poured in. Half of the €3 billion was raised by swapping preference shares for ordinary shares. That is an important clarification.
Senator Ó Brolcháin seems to speak in a vacuum and forgets that his party is in power. He is right to say it is a disgrace that raw sewage is being pumped into Galway Bay from Spiddal and Clifden. This threat to public health should be addressed by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, who is leader of the Green Party.
We have many problems in this country, but I am particularly worried about the education budget. I do not know if everyone is aware of it but, for the first time in our history, 1 million of our citizens will be attending education from next September. A report in The Irish Times yesterday stated that higher education will cost us €4 billion next year owing to a surge of 55,000 students. It is costing us €2 billion as things stand, but where is the money? The Tánaiste has not attended this House since assuming her new portfolio. As Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan should come to the House promptly and explain where next year’s education budget is coming from. Anglo Irish Bank has received €22 billion of our money, which is three times last year’s education budget. Is the Minister for Finance currently considering winding down Anglo Irish Bank? What will happen to all the public money from taxpayers that has been poured into that bank?
I support Senator Buttimer’s call for a debate on the Croke Park deal. I support efficiencies and reform, but how can we expect public servants to vote for a renegotiation of their permanent contracts without knowing the terms and conditions? I am amazed that such a requirement is being asked of them.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Coffey, O’Toole, Bacik, Boyle, Ross, Donohoe, Callely, Norris, Mooney, Coghlan, Wilson, Ellis, Buttimer, Hanafin, Bradford, Hannigan, Butler, Cummins and Healy Eames all expressed strong views on the banking difficulties being experienced across the EU, including Greece. Just to put the record straight, we had a debate on banking here, attended by the Minister of State, on Tuesday of this week, which demonstrates the House acknowledges the situation. Hopefully it will continue, on a fortnightly basis, to discuss the up to date situation with regard to the challenges facing the Government and the country in the area of banking and financial challenges. I have no difficulty with providing for this to take place fortnightly. Some Senators seem to think we do not act fast enough, but, thankfully, we have a democracy that gives us due process. Senator Norris spoke about ratings. All of these opinions can be expressed in our fortnightly debates when the Minister or Minister of State is in the House.
Colleagues, including Senators Wilson, Mooney, Ellis, Hannigan and myself, who come from the area most affected by the Quinn Insurance situation, have serious concerns about the opportunities available to resolve the situation. We fully support the independence of the regulator, but a month has now passed and a serious situation is arising with regard to the business and businesses being lost. Apart from job concerns, there is an issue with regard to insurance costs. I had the experience this week of receiving a renewal quotation for insurance on my family home, which involved an increase of 80% in the cost. I was chairman of the insurance inquiry, and much as I regret it, it is my considered opinion that increases of from 80% to 150% will happen if Quinn Insurance goes to the wall. It is of crucial importance from the competitiveness point of view that we fully back the Quinn Group.
Senator Donie Cassidy: We call on the regulator, as a matter of urgency, to accede to the requests of Senators to do everything that can be done to resolve the situation. If it is necessary to work all day and night on Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the bank holiday weekend to do that, it must be done and a decision must be taken with regard to allowing Quinn Insurance return to the UK market. If only 10% of the UK market is a problem, why has it taken a month to find this out? We are calling for a solution on behalf of the consumer. We are all aware of how little respect insurance companies had for consumers until the Quinn Group opened in Ireland. The increase of 80% in a premium I saw this week speaks for itself. I will deal with this issue again on the Order of Business next Wednesday and will seek an account of what has been done with regard to the 1.3 million insurance policies the Quinn Group has in the insurance market.
Senator O’Toole and other colleagues called for a debate on the Croke Park agreement, which is aptly named because when the country sought independence and we were on our knees — this is the week of the 94th anniversary of 1916 — the GAA mended and brought the community together in a way that made us proud to be Irish. We were no longer cap in hand to the British and everyone else, as we had been for the previous 800 years. I support colleagues, Senators O’Toole, Bradford and Ó Murchú, who have been here for a long time, in the call for our full support for the Croke Park agreement, in the national interest and leaving all political obligations aside. As Senator O’Toole said, if union members wish to take their anger out on the Government at a future date, the election in two years’ time will give them that opportunity. Let us now get together as Irish men and women, as we did 94 years ago, and put the country first with regard to this national agreement.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on prison conditions. I support that, particularly on the issue of human rights in prisons. I will arrange that debate for the earliest possible time. Senators Cannon and Bradford spoke about the carbon tax. This issue is a huge challenge for Ireland, our farming community, hauliers and those who depend on their use of diesel or petrol for a living. I sympathise with them at this difficult time and hope that in the not too distant future something can be done to help them in their plight and enable them to be competitive.
Senator Ross mentioned the support expressed for the Minister for Finance in the Financial Times this morning. I wish to be associated with the good wishes expressed by Senator Ross to the Minister, who is doing everything he can in the national interest. Senator Butler highlighted for the House the report this week which indicates there has been an increase in the retail trade, a 2% increase in exports, a 30% increase in the car industry, 1,000 new jobs announced by 150 retailers, 500 new jobs announced in March-April, growth of 1% predicted in the Bank of Ireland quarterly report and a reduction of 12,400 in the live register. This is all happening currently. We will also see investment of €122 million in 14 schools, creating 4,400 new jobs. We call on the two major banks to release the €3 billion committed under the Government guarantee scheme and the instructions of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to SMEs, in particular, so credit can flow, people can get back to work and to create new jobs.
Senators Ó Murchú and Bradford mentioned the World Expo which takes place in Shanghai over the next six months. It is a novel call to seek to bring to the House the four Ministers responsible for job creation, rebuilding the economy and giving an opportunity to the SME sector, in particular, to allow job creation take place. I will endeavour to arrange this and will get back to the House when I have an up to date position on this proposal.
Senator Callely called for the Revenue Commissioners to relax their processes under the current difficult circumstances, particularly for those in the SME sector who have contributed as many as 880,000 jobs over the past number of years and who continue to do this right now. Some 75% of those 880,000 jobs are in family run businesses. The Revenue must provide them with extra time and understand the shortage of credit from the financial institutions. They must try and ensure the cash available is allowed to be put to best use by those who are giving employment. Extended credit should be allowed to SMEs with a very good track record in paying their PRSI, PAYE, income tax and VAT down through the years. I speak only about those with a very good track record, because they are the backbone on which we will rebuild our economy. The Senator also called for bus travel times to be advertised and adhered to. It is easy to provide for this now because of the bus corridors.
Senators Norris and Cummins called for a debate on the Army. I join Senator Cummins in paying tribute to the Army. In Westmeath, we are fortunate to have the Defence Forces in Athlone and Mullingar. They are the backbone of our economy and of everything happening in these towns. It is with great pleasure that I accede to the request for a debate on the achievements of the Defence Forces and on what we can do to help and assist them in the future. Senator Dearey called for a debate on nuclear power and I have no difficulty with that.
Senator McFadden raised the issue of Mullingar and Portiuncula hospitals. I will pass her views on to the Minister. Some 777 people are employed in Mullingar hospital right now and in the past two years the Minister has spent €22 million on refurbishing and togging out the shelled-out building, €5 million on level O and provided 281 extra car parking spaces. It was the most efficient hospital in Ireland last year, with an extra €2 million——
Senator Donie Cassidy: I again put on the record my congratulations to the administrator and staff at the Longford-Westmeath regional hospital, Mullingar on being the most efficient hospital in the country last year. It has got a second acknowledgement for its standards of hygiene. It is a shining example of what we expect from a HSE hospital.
Based on the Fianna Fáil proposal for reform of the Seanad, Senators Mooney and Hanafin asked that the scrutiny of all the European Union measures should take place here. I will discuss this at the next Committee on Procedure and Privileges meeting under your stewardship, a Chathaoirligh, to see how we might accede to this. As I said when I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business and have often said here on the Order of Business, items were coming in by the half stone in old weight terms. It is enormous. We had two consultants at the time. I need to ascertain what back-up facilities the Government will give to the Seanad if we are to take on this responsibility. I am grateful for the remarks of the former Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, in the committee yesterday. It is a role and challenge the Seanad should take on. However, it is enormous. It could possibly take one full day in each week’s sittings to process. When I was Chairman of the committee, I was told approximately 45% of the measures came to the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business. I will discuss the matter with the Cathaoirleach and the Leaders of the groups. We will take it to the Committee on Procedure Privileges to see how we might proceed with the proposal, which is a very good one.
Senator Ó Brolcháin called for a debate on environmental health issues. Senator Hannigan spoke about timber issues. This is very timely and we can have a debate on this. Senator Ó Brolcháin outlined the issue with radon gas in Sligo. I believe this matter could possibly be taken in Private Members’ time as a significant amount of legislation needs to be processed by the House before the summer recess. If we are to have a special debate with the four Ministers present over a period of a day or a day and a half, that will all eat into the diary of work we have planned to take between now and July.
Senator Mary White spoke about active aged people. The Senator is doing great work on behalf of those who are the most experienced in the country and whom we should be supporting. It is great to see the new awards led by Senator Mary White, which are mentioned in today’s edition of The Irish Times. We are very proud to have her as a Member of the House and are very proud of what she is doing in many areas. I agree with her on breast cancer screening. Why should it stop at 64 if there is a high risk? I will take the matter up with the Minister.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Harris, Eoghan.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|Norris, David.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Regan, Eugene.|
|Ross, Shane.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carroll, James.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Dearey, Mark.||Ellis, John.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Mooney, Paschal.||Ó Brolcháin, Niall.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Francis.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Last Updated: 15/12/2010 11:31:27||Page of 10|