Thursday, 30 April 2009
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 12a, motion regarding a referral to joint committee of proposed approval by Dáil Éireann for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a European Asylum Support Office; No. 3, Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill 2009 - Second Stage (resumed); No. 21, Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 [Seanad] - Second Stage (resumed); and No. 22, Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2009 - Second Stage (resumed).
It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that No. 12a shall be decided without debate and that the Dáil on its rising today shall adjourn until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 6 May 2009.
On No. 12a, we are not prepared to accept any arrangements for the Order of Business today unless the Minister for Finance makes an arrangement to come into the House and clarify the absolute dog's breakfast that has been made of the withdrawal of mortgage interest relief from about 60,000 home owners. People are facing a weekend where they are not sure what their net mortgage payments are going to be from next month onwards. We are told that this was the most prepared budget in the history of the State and that Cabinet Ministers met no less than ten times to work out the detail of the budget, yet they have left an extraordinary trail of confusion. Tomorrow is May Day and it will be marked in many households by the beginning of the Minister for Finance's draconian regime where people do not know what is happening to them. Tomorrow is also pay day for Mr. Fingleton who is collecting a €27 million bonus, of which one quarter will be tax free.
I rise to support Deputy Burton. We are within hours of the implementation of this change and there is total confusion as to what exactly is happening. We are told that 500,000 people who have continuing entitlement or likely continuing entitlement to the mortgage relief will lose it tomorrow, simply because the Minister and his advisers did not anticipate the impact of the change they announced on 7 April. We were warned months in advance by Ministers and spokespersons for the Revenue that when the income tax code is changed in mid-year, there will be difficulties. The Minister had ample time to anticipate those difficulties and make sure that the sort of fiasco we have today would not happen. This is an indication of failure on the part of Government. We have seen far too often this Minister and his colleagues announce initiatives, then find they cannot implement them. This is just one more in a long series of such failures.
There is no question about the widespread confusion. This was exemplified in this morning's need by "Morning Ireland" to bring back a representative from the Revenue Commissioners in order to make a second attempt at explaining exactly what was going to happen tomorrow. It is important that the Minister for Finance come into the House today to address the issue, to clarify it for Members of the House and the wider public and to afford Members the opportunity to question him so that we can have a complete understanding of what the Government is proposing.
It is a most unfortunate development because those who will suffer most as a result of this measure are those who already have been extensively penalised by this Government's measures in the supplementary budget and in last October's budget. We need clarity on the matter and the opportunity to debate it. Will the Minister confirm to the House that he will accommodate our wishes today?
The decision in principle was made at the time of the budget. I commend RTE for the very responsible coverage it gave this issue this morning and the extensive explanation the Revenue Commissioners gave on the implementation of this measure.
The question of principle is that the Government proposes to restrict the availability of mortgage interest relief to a seven year period. That applies to anybody who has bought a house for the first time, moved up to another House or who has improved their house. It applies in all those circumstances.
The Revenue Commissioners have made it clear that in the implementation of this measure there will be no change for a first-time buyer. For those who have improved their houses or traded up to another house and taken out a mortgage in the last seven years, the interest relief continues to be available. However, the Revenue Commissioners have made it clear that non-first time buyers do not need to do anything at this stage. The Revenue Commissioners will make the necessary administrative arrangements, in liaison with the financial institutions for the relevant deductions. It may take two months for this arrangement to be finalised by the Revenue Commissioners. Deputies will appreciate the enormous volume of work the Revenue Commissioners need to do in the implementation of a measure of this character. The Revenue Commissioners have made it clear that non-first time buyers do not need to do anything at this stage.
They are satisfied that the vast majority of non-first time buyers can be dealt with through their arrangements with the relevant financial institutions. There is a small number of non-first time buyers whom the Revenue may wish to contact and they will make the necessary contact before the position is finalised.
I urge those who are concerned about this matter to refer to the Revenue website where extensive information is available on this matter. The issue of principle has been decided and this is a matter of implementation.
While it is traditional practice that the Dáil does not sit until the Wednesday after a bank holiday, we are in exceptional times when such practices must be re-examined. The Dáil needs to examine very important legislation, not least in respect of our banking system and the Finance Bill. So many issues are pressing on the Government and Oireachtas time that this practice of having an extra day on bank holidays should be removed and the Dáil should be seen to be about its business. That would give some level of confidence to people, whereas such practices are apt to cause scandal in the eyes of many people looking in at what we are doing here. We cannot afford that when confidence is low and needs to be bolstered.
I concur with what Deputy Bruton said. People are reeling under the shock of what the Government has done in the supplementary budget, ordinary families who feel the ordering of Government as we have known it in Ireland has collapsed. We would understand if we heard that the people in Government were to do an away-day on Tuesday, sit down, maybe get a black board and explain the mortgage interest relief and other provisions in the supplementary budget which they have rowed back on since making very loud and confident statements. If they went away and studied that we would all be rather comforted for the sake of the country. If they take Tuesday off, could they at least arrange to come in here for 10.30 a.m. next Wednesday? They could have a study day and we could come in on Wednesday and do a full day's work.
Can the Government explain to an ordinary, hard-pressed family whose tax relief is being withdrawn why Mr. Fingleton is tomorrow getting €27 million, of which one quarter is tax free? He is receiving a tax break of over €5 million.
I agree with Deputy Bruton that this may be presented as tradition, practice or precedent, but we can change it. We can establish new traditions, practices and precedents. There is a whole raft of issues to be addressed. One issue we have not addressed was reflected here this morning. I welcome the fact that a Government backbencher brought forward a request under Standing Order 32 asking the Minister for Health and Children to come into the House and address the issue of a threatened swine vesicular disease pandemic.
I have asked the Taoiseach to have this matter addressed in the House. It is very important, and now that the alert has gone to level 5, one short of a declared pandemic, there is an onus and responsibility on this House properly to address this issue. The Minister should come into the House. She is at a meeting of health Ministers today in Europe. Will she come into the House and report to us next week, and allow for an opportunity-----
With respect, I would like to finish. This is on the Order of Business. I am explaining my objection to the fact that we will not assemble here again until 2.30 p.m. next Wednesday. I would like the opportunity to explain that. We can come up with any number of issues but this is one that requires urgent address in this House. Will the Minister return to the House to deal with it? The Opposition is of one mind on this and we have evidence of it in Government benches this morning. Will the Minister for Finance agree to bring the House back early next week and have the Minister for Health and Children accountable to this House as we face a swine vesicular disease pandemic? This is a very important issue.
Deputies Bruton and Ó Caoláin raised the long standing practice that the House does not sit until the Wednesday after a bank holiday Monday. It has always been the tradition and custom of this House. If it is wished to review that arrangement it can be discussed between the Whips.
As Minister for Finance I have not sanctioned the expense of an interactive white board for Government meetings. On the suggestion that we should meet at 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the commemoration by the State of the 1916 Rising takes place at Arbour Hill on Wednesday morning. As Deputy Ó Caoláin acknowledges, the Minister for Health and Children is at an emergency meeting in Luxembourg to discuss swine vesicular disease and I am sure she will be pleased to advise the House of developments next week.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 62 (Dermot Ahern, Noel Ahern, Barry Andrews, Chris Andrews, Seán Ardagh, Bobby Aylward, Niall Blaney, Áine Brady, Cyprian Brady, Johnny Brady, Thomas Byrne, Dara Calleary, Pat Carey, Margaret Conlon, Seán Connick, John Cregan, Ciarán Cuffe, Martin Cullen, John Curran, Noel Dempsey, Jimmy Devins, Timmy Dooley, Michael Finneran, Michael Fitzpatrick, Seán Fleming, Paul Gogarty, John Gormley, Noel Grealish, Mary Hanafin, Jackie Healy-Rae, Máire Hoctor, Peter Kelly, Brendan Kenneally, Michael Kennedy, Tony Killeen, Séamus Kirk, Michael Kitt, Tom Kitt, Brian Lenihan Jnr, Tom McEllistrim, Mattie McGrath, John Moloney, Michael Moynihan, Michael Mulcahy, M J Nolan, Éamon Ó Cuív, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Darragh O'Brien, Willie O'Dea, Rory O'Hanlon, Mary O'Rourke, Christy O'Sullivan, Peter Power, Seán Power, Dick Roche, Trevor Sargent, Eamon Scanlon, Brendan Smith, Noel Treacy, Mary Wallace, Mary White, Michael Woods)
Against the motion: 51 (James Bannon, Joe Behan, Richard Bruton, Ulick Burke, Joan Burton, Catherine Byrne, Joe Carey, Paul Connaughton, Noel Coonan, Joe Costello, Simon Coveney, Jimmy Deenihan, Andrew Doyle, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Olwyn Enright, Frank Feighan, Charles Flanagan, Terence Flanagan, Brian Hayes, Michael D Higgins, Brendan Howlin, Paul Kehoe, Pádraic McCormack, Dinny McGinley, Finian McGrath, Joe McHugh, Liz McManus, Olivia Mitchell, Arthur Morgan, Denis Naughten, Dan Neville, Michael Noonan, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Kieran O'Donnell, Fergus O'Dowd, Jim O'Keeffe, John O'Mahony, Brian O'Shea, John Perry, Ruairi Quinn, James Reilly, Michael Ring, Tom Sheahan, P J Sheehan, Róisín Shortall, Emmet Stagg, David Stanton, Joanna Tuffy, Mary Upton)
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan; Níl, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg.
I should like to inquire about the national assets management agency, NAMA. We are now seven months on from the introduction of a guarantee and the same boards are in all the banks and the Central Bank. We have the same boards in the Financial Regulator and effectively in the Department of Finance and in the Government. They have hatched this proposal where the taxpayer's neck is being put on the line to deal with the banking crisis. There is an enormous number of questions to be asked and addressed by this House.
The Minister has indicated that he will establish this agency on an interim basis without reference to the House. That is unacceptable and I would ask him whether he will prepare heads of legislation in the coming weeks, as we were told. We were told last week that the entire legislation would be in place before the summer. However, if he is going to produce the heads, will he, in accordance with accepted precedent, present them to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service so that there can be a proper input by the Oireachtas into the shape of the Bill before either the interim board or the system is bedded down? Out of respect to taxpayers and their representatives he should provide for that.
With regard to the forthcoming Finance Bill, the Taoiseach yesterday said the Government had taken €8 billion out of the deficit. He omitted to say that €6 billion of that had come from extra taxes that ordinary families will have to pay. Tomorrow we will have the extraordinary situation whereby a person on €36,000, an average industrial wage, will be paying tax at the rate of 51%.
On the issue of the proposed NAMA, I have asked the Minister before whether he can facilitate a detailed debate in this House about what is being proposed. We are now told that there is to be a shadow NAMA authority and board appointed. There will be no opportunity for scrutiny of this board. The Minister also promised legislation in regard to a Labour Party proposal of a commission to supervise and have oversight of the whole banking and regulatory system in this time of terrible national economic crisis. It is extraordinarily difficult for people in Opposition who have legitimate concerns for the country to get any information or briefing from any of the four principal agencies, the Department of Finance, the Financial Regulator, the Central Bank and the NTMA, so that we are left to follow events through leaks to the newspaper.
I understand, for instance, that the debts are to stay in the banks, in a bad debts division-----
------which subsequently is extraordinarily difficult to ever unwind, particularly on the bureaucratic front. Could the Minister outline his intentions to the House with regard to the various items of legislation on banking and finance that he has promised? What are the dates for these and when will we get sight of them? I agree with the proposal that the finance committee could be used for this purpose.
There are up to seven inquiries under way regarding various disclosures from the guarantee scheme, the Seanie FitzPatrick warehousing of loans-----
Deputy Bruton raised the question about the changes in the Irish banking system and their management. He suggested there had been no change in the banking sector in Ireland, whatever about the Government. The position is that of the 12 chairmen and chief executives of the institutions guaranteed last September, seven of them no longer occupy the positions they held at that time. That is a substantial degree of change in the senior management of the Irish banking system.
With regard to taxation, the position is that-----
With regard to the four budgetary adjustments that have taken place in the last year, the position is that this has had the result of reducing a potential deficit of 15% of our annual wealth to 10.5%. I should tell Deputy Bruton that this is a substantial fiscal achievement and it was secured in relation to expenditure as well as taxation.
I will now turn to the other issues raised. The suggestion the heads of the NAMA Bill should be circulated to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service in advance of the publication of the legislation is an excellent one. I will see whether it can be facilitated. I will communicate further with Deputies Bruton and Burton on that.
Legislation to establish and govern the operation of the national asset management agency will be introduced during the summer legislative session. Initial work on the preparation of the legislation is under way in parallel with preparation for the operation of the agency. I am considering the establishment of the agency on a non-statutory interim basis with a view to undertaking the initial scoping work required. This will include work on the assessment of the human resource requirements and potential recruitment process. I will bring proposals to Government in that regard.
On the question of the Central Bank commission and proposals to reform the regulatory system, I outlined details of this in my Budget Statement and would be happy to facilitate whatever discussion Deputies can agree at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service in that regard. It is important we try to secure all-party agreement on the nature of the regulatory reforms.
Sir Andrew Large has been retained to advise on the recruitment process for a new regulator who will be in place before the reform process takes place. It is important that discussion takes place at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service.
Some months ago the Taoiseach announced legislation on the "Nine o'clock news" in regard to regulating Independent Members, in particular those elected as Independent Members but who subsequently join a party. We were told it was imminent. When will it come before the House?
I support my colleague, Deputy Devins's, request. There should be a debate in the House on this very serious 'flu affecting the world. This country has Fianna Fáil pneumonia but the world has the 'flu. RTE and every radio programme are discussing it. The House should be told what the Government and the Department of Health and Children are doing because old people are worried about their health and I would like a debate on it immediately.
I refer to the public health Bill. I have been told we have a plan in place yet there is only one doctor out of hours in the whole country. There is one doctor per 250,000 people in the UK. We have a plan but like all the other plans in health, we do not have the personnel to carry it out.
My questions are on promised legislation notwithstanding the limited number of Ministers who attend the Order of Business. What is the position in regard to legislation, No. 11 on the list, to give effect to the Government decision to increase to €100,000, with effect from 20 September, the protection for depositors with banks and building societies and to extend it to credit unions? Have the heads of the Bill been agreed? When will it be published?
I refer to another Bill which might encourage participation from all Government parties. The purpose of this Bill, No. 66 on the list, is to transfer ministerial responsibility for building societies from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Minister for Finance, who will be anxious to know about it, and to provide for various other urgent miscellaneous amendments to financial services law. Have the heads of that Bill been agreed? Is it deemed urgent?
The heads of the financial services (deposit guarantee scheme) Bill were approved by Cabinet this week and it will be published in a matter of weeks. The delay in regard to the publication of this legislation was occasioned by the fact the EU decided to draw up a directive in this area and we had to revise the Bill in light of our obligations under the directive.
The draft heads of the financial services (miscellaneous provisions) Bill, which transfers responsibility for building societies from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Minister for Finance, are near completion and it is expected to be published this year.
The Bill proposes to amalgamate the National Gallery of Ireland, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Crawford Gallery and to the merge the National Archives, the Manuscripts Commission and the National Library. However, it is not possible to indicate a publication date at this stage.
There was a report in a newspaper recently that an official from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government said there would be a planning Bill 2009, that there was a need to prevent excessive rezonings or rezonings in poorly located areas because the Government could not resource that anymore and that we need to stop urban sprawl. Our economic crisis has been largely caused by land speculation and excessive rezonings. Will that Bill be passed any time soon?
I have raised questions on this many times and I have always been told the full period extends to the end of September. I want reassurance that the legislation will be introduced and dealt with before we rise for the summer. At the recent Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis, legislation on accountability in referendum campaigns, in respect of funding and the resource requirement, was promised. Will it be introduced and completed before a further referendum?
There is much worry and confusion over the proposed introduction of third level fees. When does the Minister for Finance expect the Student Support Bill to return to the House? Will there be any amendments to that Bill?