Thursday, 13 January 2011
State Asset Privatisation
The reason I asked for a debate on this matter is because of the real threat that exists at present to State companies. We are still awaiting the report of the McCarthy group on State assets. However, judging from the tenor of an bord snip nua's report, it is highly likely that the McCarthy group will recommend the selling of State companies across a range of areas. I am very concerned about the influence of various Departments on the report.
The McCarthy group was established in July before the IMF and European Union intervened here, yet it and the intervention are linked. Every state in which the IMF has intervened has been forced to carry out a fire sale of state assets. In reply to one of my questions yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, stated the IMF was briefed on the work of the McCarthy group. It clearly has an interest in the matter. The Minister also informed me that a review of State companies – he referred specifically to electricity and gas – would be conducted as part of the IMF-EU programme. He further added that "the Government will consult with the Commission on the results of this assessment with a view to setting appropriate targets for the possible privatisation of state-owned assets". In another reply, the Minister stated: "it would be negligent not to examine all reasonable ways in the public interest to reduce the State's indebtedness, including through the sale of certain State assets." Privatisation is clearly part of the agenda along with an austerity programme involving cuts.
In my opinion and that of many who have examined the experience of other countries who have come under the effective control of the IMF, such a sell-off would be a disaster. An example of such a disaster is evident in what occurred after the sugar industry was privatised. Hundreds of jobs were destroyed to facilitate property speculation by the new owner, Greencore. If the same occurs in respect of An Post, Bord Gáis, Coillte or the ESB, we can multiply that devastation many times over.
We know from the experience of countries such as Russia that a sell-off of state assets does not lead to some wonderful free market. What happened in Russia was that those with access to power were able to use their political influence to take over the former state companies, including Russia's oil, gas and mineral companies. In Ireland there are people with such ties who have already positioned themselves for a sell-off. For example, the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, is the chairman of a company that has expressed an interest in buying the forestry lands under Coillte's control. This amounts to 7% of the Irish landmass. Professor Colm McCarthy's an bord snip nua report recommended that the privatisation of Coillte be considered. If he recommends such a sale again and the Government of the time follows it, some people are well poised to move on it.
A reply to a question I asked about the an bord snip nua recommendations on Coillte was interesting, in that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stated that, as a shareholder, he agreed with Coillte being subject to the current review of State assets. On the basis of the previous McCarthy report, we can expect a recommendation on the sale of Coillte's assets. We can see where this is heading. A part of the State's elite destroyed the economy. The political elite brought in the International Monetary Fund. A combination of the two are now preparing to cash in on the mess by selling off and buying up State assets. It is a matter of real concern about which people need to be aware.
People also need to be aware that parties which agreed to administer the IMF-EU bailout will have no choice but to go along with that agenda, a central part of which is privatisation. People need to know the Government's intention and the roadmap it is setting out for the next Government. Are we pursuing a line of privatising State assets and selling them to speculators and others who intend to capitalise on the sweat and blood of those who created those State's assets? Will the situation resemble that of the sugar beet industry, whereby Greencore and many shareholders, such as Mr. Liam Carroll, were able to make a killing from the sweat and blood of generations of people, particularly in rural Ireland? This should be a concern for anyone with a moral conscience about the country's future.
Martin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy has raised an issue arising from the memorandum of understanding on the financial assistance programme for Ireland recently agreed between the Government and the IMF and the EU Commission in liaison with the ECB. The memorandum provides inter alia that, building on the report of the McCarthy group on State assets, an independent assessment of Ireland's electricity and gas sectors will be carried out before the end of 2011 with a view to enhancing their efficiency. The Government will then consult with the Commission on the results of this assessment with a view to setting appropriate targets for the possible privatisation of State-owned assets.
The House has had a number of opportunities to discuss the provisions of the financial assistance programme during the month of December and was twice provided with the documents outlining the terms of the programme during that month. The first time was on 1 December when the memorandum was provided in the context of a lengthy discussion about the national recovery plan and the financial assistance programme. On 14 December a document, entitled "EU-IMF Programme of Financial Support for Ireland", was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. This document incorporated the memorandum on economic and fiscal policy, the memorandum of understanding on specific economic policy conditionality and the technical memorandum of understanding. It was provided in the context of a Dáil motion on 15 December which approved the terms of the programme.
The terms of the memorandum of understanding do not represent a commitment to privatise State assets. They are an agreement on the Government's behalf to examine the policy issues involved and to discuss them with the Commission. Given the current financial condition of the State, it would be negligent not to examine all reasonable ways in the public interest to reduce the State's indebtedness, including through the sale of certain assets. It is not sustainable for the State to continue borrowing at current levels and efforts to return the deficit to more manageable levels and put the public finances on a more sustainable footing must continue during the coming years. Given the scale of the adjustment required, all avenues for reducing expenditure and raising additional revenues must be explored.
It was in this context that the Minister for Finance established the review group on State assets and liabilities in July 2010 to advise him on how these assets can be better deployed or disposed of to support growth and contribute to national investment priorities. The group is chaired by Professor Colm McCarthy. The other members are Mr. Donal McNally, Second Secretary at the Department of Finance, and Professor Alan Matthews of Trinity College, Dublin. The Government gave the group the following terms of reference: to consider the potential for asset disposals in the public sector, including commercial State bodies, in view of the indebtedness of the State; to draw up a list of possible asset disposals; to assess how the use and disposition of such assets can best help restore growth and contribute to national investment priorities; and to review where appropriate relevant investment and financing plans, commercial practices and regulatory requirements affecting the use of such assets in the national interest.
The group's attention has been focused primarily on the commercial State bodies, but it has also examined the intangible assets under State control to determine whether they are efficiently allocated and priced at an economic rate. All commercial State bodies and Departments were invited to make formal submissions to the group and the group advertised generally for submissions from interested parties. More than 45 submissions were received. Since September, the review group has engaged with almost all commercial State bodies. It is finalising its report, which the Minister for Finance will receive in due course.
The Government acknowledges the important role that State agencies have played in the economic development of this country through the provision of key infrastructure such as energy and transport and the commercialisation of agriculture and resource-based industries. The overwhelming public need is to restore the fiscal balance and economic growth as quickly as possible. In the current economic and fiscal environment, it is therefore crucial to review the contribution that the State agencies might make in this regard.