Tuesday, 24 March 2009
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 8, motion re referral to joint committee of proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund Regulations 2009, and No. 12, pre-budget statements.
It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that No. 8 shall be decided without debate; and the proceedings on No. 12 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 7 p.m. tomorrow and the following arrangements shall apply: the statements of a Minister or Minister of State and of the main spokespersons for the Fine Gael Party, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, who shall be called upon in that order, shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case, the statement of each other Member called upon shall not exceed ten minutes in each case, Members may share time and a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed 20 minutes.
Private Members' business shall be No. 49, motion re Oireachtas reform.
The Deputy will have to raise this on the Order of Business. Only one spokesperson can contribute on behalf of each party. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 8 agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 12 agreed? Agreed.
In respect of the budget to be brought in on 7 April, is it intended that the Government will make available to Opposition parties for their consideration the matters that have been discussed by Government and those sent to it by every Department and an bord snip nua? How, in the name of high heaven, is anybody on the Opposition benches expected to make any contribution of validity when we are not even being given the facts the Government is considering and will eventually decide on before 7 April? It is only appropriate that this should apply. Will the Taoiseach respond to the queries of Opposition parties to deal with that matter?
The Minister and Department of Finance have been available to Opposition parties that have any requirement to have proposals costed. There has been unprecedented access to information and briefing in advance of this budget. At the start of the month, officials of the Department, at the request of the Minister, gave Opposition spokespeople a thorough briefing of the broad budgetary parameters. The Minister has also made the Department available to the Opposition for confidential costings of proposals. I do not know the extent to which parties have taken up that facility because it is confidential, but this kind of facility has never been offered to an Opposition outside of election time.
Deputies Burton and Gilmore have sought information on the numbers on which the budget will be based. The Cabinet is deliberating on those and will make its judgment based on advice about their economic impact in the coming days. It is for Government to come to an informed decision on these matters and to announce them at budget time. It is my understanding that officials continue to be available to the Opposition for further briefings, subject to the requirement to maintain Cabinet confidentiality.
It is the responsibility of the Government to draw up the budget but we have done everything possible to ensure the Opposition has the information it requires to make constructive suggestions and constructive criticism. There is a pre-budget debate in the House today and tomorrow and the Government is open to considering all constructive proposals to get us through this economic crisis.
Government Members will not say anything during the debate because they cannot. I do not want to know now the Cabinet's decisions but I would like to know the range of options being considered. Opposition parties are expected to make contributions about this budget, which the Government parties have been forced to bring in because of their mismanagement of the economy——
——and we still have no idea of what has been presented by the Departments of Social and Family Affairs, Arts, Sport and Tourism or Transport and so on, nor do we have any evidence of what has been presented by Mr. McCarthy's an bord snip nua. If we obtain all that information, at least the Opposition parties, for what it is worth, could say, "I think these are valid suggestions", irrespective of what the Government chooses from the list.
It is pretty clear from the Taoiseach's reply to Deputy Kenny that the Government's offer to make information available to the Opposition parties is not genuine. This is not a genuine involvement of the Opposition in the budgetary decision process. The Taoiseach said that the Government will make decisions and announce them on budget day. That is business as usual, the Government presenting it to us as a fait accompli. The Opposition parties are not genuinely involved in the exercise. The information available to us is no more than we would be able to get by the use of good parliamentary questions. This exercise of opening the doors to the Opposition, mar dhea, is a political smokescreen while the Government goes on with the job of making decisions.
No. When I mentioned that we were bringing in a supplementary budget I said that the presentation of a revised Estimate in March would not apply since we were preparing for a supplementary budget in April. Revised Estimate volumes will arise out of that process rather than coming separately in March. The commitment to provide the revised Estimates volume in March was based on the fact that we had completed the budgetary process at the end of last year.
I do not accept Deputy Gilmore's characterisation of the preparedness of the Minister, and the Department, to be as co-operative as possible, consistent with his being able to discharge his duty to bring forward a budget as he is constitutionally required to do. The Department's facilities and resources, and the Minister, are continually available to assist spokespersons so that we can have——
——as informed a discussion on this matter as possible. Just as the Opposition has a job to do so does the Government, within a specific time. It was never suggested that the Opposition was to write the budget any more than that the Government should close its mind to any Opposition proposals. That is the basis for a pre-budget debate which might be of assistance if people are prepared to take it on board in that light. I am sure contributions will be made in the next two days which could well be helpful. I hope that will be the case. We cannot interchange our respective responsibilities.
Will the horse and greyhound racing fund come back to the House and will we have an opportunity to discuss it? Large sums of money are being lost to the industry as a result of the growth in Internet betting. That is why I would like it to be debated here. What steps will be taken to deal with this loss? I agree with the sentiments of the motion but I seek an increase in the revenue and clarification for those who seem to think that money provided for horse and greyhound racing is a grant. It is not a grant and does not affect other grants. It is a levy imposed on bookmakers, as it should be. Where and when will we take money from Internet betting which is growing considerably at the expense of the off-course bookmakers?
It is for the Whips to arrange a debate on this or any other matter. I understand that the matter will return to the House on 9 April. It is for the Whips to decide in the aftermath of the budget, whether that will be in the context of the budget debate or separately.
I was called upon to go into court in the past few days to help a constituent whose house was being repossessed. It emerged in the course of the hearing that the individual was granted a loan of 200% of his entitlement——
The financial services (miscellaneous provisions) Bill was intended "to transfer Ministerial responsibility for building societies from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government," who does nothing about the issue anyway, "to the Minister for Finance and to provide for various other miscellaneous amendments to financial services law". Would it be possible to introduce that legislation as a matter of some urgency before people are penalised to the extent of repossession?
The Deputy has raised an issue of individual concern to his constituent and concerning the general impact of such measures. It has been agreed in the recapitalisation facilities for the two main banks that there is a need to extend the Irish Banking Federation's voluntary code of conduct to a statutory code to cover all lenders, not simply those who are members of the federation, so that those who have a predilection for heading quickly to the courts for repossession would be subject to the same code and guidelines. That is the best way to deal generally with this issue.
The Taoiseach no doubt met Senator George Mitchell during his visit to the United States and the White House last week. The George Mitchell Scholarship Fund Act 1998 (Amendment) Bill is No. 49 in section C of the Government legislation programme. We are beginning to become seriously financially embarrassed in respect of the fund which was established in 1998. The credibility of the goodwill of the Irish people is at risk unless we put our money where our mouth has so often been. When will the legislation be published?
The first anniversary of the passage of Second Stage of the Student Support Bill is coming up. It is still on Committee Stage and we await the amendments from the Department of Education and Science. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Education and Science to communicate with the Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science, the semi-detached support for the Government, Deputy Gogarty, to bring this matter forward? Unless it is brought forward we will miss another year of the administration of student grants because it will be another six to nine months before it is operational.
The heads of the Bill for the George Mitchell scholarship fund are being worked on and should be brought to the House this year. I will have to check with the Minister on the status of the proposed amendments to the Student Support Bill.
What progress has been made in discussions between the European Commission and the Government on the drafting of the legal guarantees the Taoiseach secured at the December summit on a proposed second referendum on the Lisbon treaty? In addition, will the Taoiseach indicate when he intends to involve the Opposition on these matters?
As the Deputy outlined, the procedure entails dealing with the legal services division in both the Commission and the Council, but primarily the latter. It involves the Presidency checking with other member states regarding the proposed contents of these guarantees and obtaining from them their views on giving support to the guarantees. That process is ongoing and it must harden up, as it were. We might then see that the drafting proposals or the conversations now taking place will result in a text that will have broad, indeed unanimous, support. That is what is required by the December Council conclusions. We can then interact with Opposition parties as to our position. It is a work in progress.
With regard to the upcoming budget on 7 April and the introduction of a finance Bill to give effect to the measures contained therein, can the Taoiseach indicate at this point if the Government has decided to follow this with a social welfare Bill? Have there been serious deliberations on that prospect? Is the Taoiseach prepared to discuss such a proposition with the Opposition in advance of any such interference with supports for people in the very lowest dependency brackets in society?
One of the objectives of the Government's deliberations at present is to protect as far as possible and to the greatest extent the weakest in society as we try to stabilise the public finances and move them towards balance in the coming years. I point out that during better times this Government's record in respect of social welfare increases is a very good one, comparing most favourably with that of any preceding Administration. Consistently, social welfare entitlements ran well in excess of consumer price index and cost of living increases. That was quite rightly the case as we sought to implement the national anti-poverty strategy which brought basic payments well up to the percentage of average wages, as was required under that strategy. Indeed, that objective was exceeded with regard to pensions, child benefit and the introduction of a number of supports which have had a major effect in reducing to historically low levels the levels of consistent poverty in this country, despite the recent very difficult times we have experienced.
The record of social welfare support was based very much on the philosophy of those Governments, namely, to ensure that the improved resources generated during the good times provided for those most vulnerable. That is evidenced by the fact that we now have a social welfare and social support system that costs taxpayers in the region of €21 billion now against revenues that are in the €30 billions rather than the €40 billions or €50 billions as envisaged. That is an indication of the considerable resources that were quite rightly applied to this area in recent times.
We must now adapt to a new situation. The question of sustainability is as, or more, important for those on limited incomes as it is for those who are in a position through their productive life to obtain remuneration well in excess of social welfare entitlements. The question of sustainabilitly is as important for those categories as it is for others. It behoves us all to make sure we try to address that issue. The room for manoeuvre is clearly very limited.
The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, stated that he intends to bring proposals to Government over the next number of weeks concerning new means of funding higher education for the future. Can the Taoiseach give us a guarantee that when this matter is considered by Cabinet we might have a debate in the House? A variety of views have been expressed——
It is a matter for the Whips. I am sure the Deputy can deal with it through parliamentary questions and other mechanisms and that he can obtain from the Minister an expression of his views on these matters. I point out that the Government has yet to consider any detailed proposals. Policy initiatives in this area are as relevant as they were in respect of the response I gave to Deputy Ó Caoláin, however elongated it may have seemed to him. They concernwhat is sustainable in the circumstances in which we find ourselves and how we can make sure to fund third and fourth-level education adequately in this country, given what our competitors are doing and how they sustain world-class facilities. We must make sure we have an adequate finance mechanism for this as elsewhere.