Friday, 7 May 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004, Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business until 3 p.m., with the contributions of Members not to exceed 15 minutes. There will be a sos between 1 p.m. and 1.30 p.m.
The proposed Order of Business is agreed.
Does the Government intend to introduce legislation to support whistleblowers, such as those who come forward with information about malpractice in corporate Ireland and other areas of Irish life? I refer in particular to yesterday's revelations about the manner in which AIB has systematically ripped off many of its customers in foreign exchange dealings. It is believed that customers have lost over €14 million as a result. It is important that the Government should introduce legislation to protect people who come forward with such information. If the bank is unable to identify the customers it diddled, I suggest it should hand over part, if not all, of the €14 million to the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board, which can put it to some other use. The bank should answer certain questions. Why were internal and external auditors unable to highlight the glitch in the system for a considerable number of years? Many questions about this case have yet to be answered. The Government should make a statement about whistleblowers. I am aware that a Private Members' Bill on the issue was introduced some years ago.
The Bill, proposed by Deputy Rabbitte, was not opposed on Second Stage. I ask the Government to introduce legislation to protect whistleblowers.
I am sure I speak for all Senators when I say I am grateful that progress has been made in the case of Mr. Tom Sweeney, who decided yesterday to end his hunger strike. It was a good result. I congratulate those who took part in negotiations behind the scenes. A difficult problem has been solved. Mr. Sweeney should be allowed to continue his life in private without being the subject of the full glare of publicity. I welcome the development, as I am sure do all Senators.
I support Senator Hayes's comments about AIB. I do not think it is acceptable to describe what happened as an error or a mistake. It seems to have been known to those at a certain level within the bank for a considerable period of time and is one of a catalogue of accidents in which AIB has been involved. I refer to the scandal in the United States in which large sums of money were lost and the insurance collapse which led to the Irish taxpayer having to bail out the bank. Questions have to be asked about the bank and the confidence people can have in it.
When I listened to the news on RTE this morning, I was disturbed to hear about the case of a gentleman who telephoned the station to relate the details of what happened when he transferred large sums of sterling to Irish currency. He asked on several occasions what rate he would be given, but he was not told and he was defrauded of £1,500. I was disturbed when the man spoke of having asked for the tape of his telephone conversation with the bank. He was given the tape immediately and was able to listen to his conversation. I wonder how many people with accounts with the main banking groups are aware that their telephone conversations with their bank managers are recorded. I was not aware that it is the case. Is it a standard, uniform practice?
I have raised on a number of occasions the fact that I am aware, as is Amnesty International, of a consistent practice by the US Government, through its Central Intelligence Agency, of exporting prisoners to Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan for the purposes of interrogation under torture in the presence of CIA operatives. I can give the Leader the names of the prisoners in question and other details. I would like the Minister to ask the US ambassador to explain why such practices are continuing, especially as President Bush claims to be unaware of what is happening. I heard someone say on the radio this morning that "this is not the American way", to which I would reply "yes, it is". It is not true to say that it involves just a rogue group of people. Torture is a covert practice of the US Government and it is time for this knowledge to be forced into the open.
Will the Leader let me know when the report on Seanad reform will be discussed? I am glad the report proposes to maintain the link with local government by retaining the indirectly elected vote by councillors. Although the report mentions the Seanad's function in respect of EU affairs, I note that it does not refer to a similar role in respect of local government affairs. It is important that the Seanad should have a role in discussing local government matters. Senator Norris mentioned yesterday that people are worried about the reduction in the power of councillors in respect of speed limits. He said that we were trying to protect our interests. We are not councillors any more, however, as the dual mandate has been abolished. We do not have seats on local authorities. The matter was not raised out of self-interest.
The problem with local government is that it does not have enough power because power is too centralised. It is greatly frustrating for public representatives and those they represent. I agree with the Minister for Transport that speed limits should be reviewed. The speed limit on the N4 at Lucan is just 40 mph for the safety of drivers coming from Lucan, who come off small roads on to the N4, as well as those driving along the N4. The council must have regard for people's safety.
Media coverage of the House proceedings was raised on yesterday's Order of Business. Today's proceedings will not be covered in "Oireachtas Report" tonight because it is Friday and the Seanad is the only House sitting. This portrays the Seanad as being of lesser importance. I think highly of the work of "Oireachtas Report" but, in the context of Seanad reform, it needs to take a higher view of our work.
I support the calls by Senator Brian Hayes with regard to Allied Irish Banks. It is disturbing that the overcharging of customers was known at departmental level some two years ago. What action was taken, if any, to correct this must be made known. Those who were cut short must be refunded. If we want to have a credible view of our banking system, serious action must be taken as this happens all too frequently. I am also alarmed by the taping of telephone calls. When a company is advertising the number of its bank, does it inform customers that all calls to it are recorded? Is it specific calls or all of them?
I have so far refrained from commenting on the photographs coming out from Iraq. As someone who took a particular position on the war in Iraq, it is particularly disturbing. The picture in today's The Irish Times of a prisoner on a leash pushed me over the edge. In such military operations, those who will carry the blame for this will become victims in a way. Ultimate responsibility for this does not lie with them but with those working at higher levels. It is not acceptable that the US will scapegoat a handful of soldiers who may have been carrying out direct orders and not justifying them.
For a country that spoke of support of the efforts in Iraq, Ireland is best placed as a friend of the US. The Minister for Foreign Affairs should seek a meeting with the US ambassador and voice our concerns with what is happening in Iraq. If the US cannot listen to states that have supported it in principle, there is no hope of having a responsible war on terrorism.
Huge damage has been done to people's trust in the banking system by AIB's rip off on foreign exchange transactions, credit card and export dealings. A figure of €14 million is floating around but it could be considerably higher. It is important there is a debate on this issue and that legislation is introduced.
The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, will make an announcement on lottery funding and the sports capital programme grants for 2004 today. I have heard from reliable sources that there was much shenanigans and cronyism last night with press releases on the announcement for local election candidates.
I compliment the Cathaoirleach on the way he handled the case of Mr. Tom Sweeney. He was very helpful in how he approached this humanitarian issue. I am grateful for the latitude given to me to raise the issue on the Order of Business on two mornings. There has been a wonderful outcome. I give my compliments to all concerned, including the four Deputies from the Dublin South West constituency, Deputies O'Connor, Conor Lenihan, Rabbitte and Crowe, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the Taoiseach's office. The Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, was tremendous in the humanitarian and pastoral manner with which he approached the matter. It bodes well for his archbishopric. Senator Brian Hayes commented that my intervention was unhelpful. I suggest he ring Mr. Tom Sweeney and confirm whether my intervention was unhelpful.
I am not sure if it would help to have a debate on the charges that AIB made illegally. However, no prosecutions can be taken through the Consumer Credit Act. That is one of the disgraceful omissions in this particular saga and there is need for legislation in this area. It is ridiculous that although the law has been broken, no prosecutions can be taken. I suggest the House press for powers to be given to the IFSRA to prosecute the individual bankers involved. The House must consider taking measures where it can, such as increasing the bank levy on those banks that have offended. I am sure some banks are not guilty of malpractices. However, from the evidence of the DIRT scandal, it seems all were at it. We cannot sit back helplessly when consumers are ripped off. Though there will be no prosecutions, the bank levies and penalties can be increased and powers of prosecution can be given to the regulatory authorities. There have been enormous increases in bank executives' salaries. It is only fair to point out that these salaries are puffed up by illegal profits——
——not just from foreign exchange transactions but also from places such as the Isle of Man. These people are operating in a world that is outside the law. The banks are outlaws in the corporate world and we must recognise this and regulate the area properly.
I share the outrage expressed by Senator Minihan, a former captain in the Irish Army who brings his valuable insight into the manner in which military orders are transmitted. I agree with him fully that the grunts, as they are called, should not be the only people who are brought to account, although I look forward to the day that Lynndie England, who was pictured with her thumbs up and her fingers pointing, comes to trial. I ask the Leader, in light of the outrage that continues to unfold in our daily newspapers, to consider asking the Minister for Foreign Affairs, despite his busy schedule, to come to the House for an urgent debate on Iraq next week. Government time should be given for a debate so that this House can reflect the national outrage. As Senator Minihan said, the USA is our friend. I have been the most pro-American of Senators, but I am on record as saying I am totally opposed to unilateralism. We have now seen the results of that. I do not have any conscience about the matter.
Does the Leader agree that the uncovering of the AIB affair was an example of excellent investigative journalism? This is yet another reason we should continue to nourish and protect public service broadcasting, which is under threat throughout Europe from commercial private interests. Charlie Bird and the news team in RTE served the public interest in the best possible way by exposing this fraud.
I join my colleagues in condemning AIB. Its offer of an apology to its customers rings hollow. The banks cannot lose in such situations. As a business person, I was overcharged by a certain bank many years ago and I was relieved to get my money back after seven years. I did not intend to prosecute — I was simply relieved to get something back. I find it unbelievable that the bank will not face prosecution for overcharging. As a small retailer — Senator Quinn will agree with me on this — I know that if my scales are out of order or there is a problem with weights and measures I will be prosecuted. The legislation is there to deal with such matters. I agree with other Senators that legislation is urgently required.
This Government indirectly gave the banks the green light to carry out these activities by giving them a clean bill of health and not prosecuting in the matter of offshore accounts. Once again the banks and financial institutions were allowed to do whatever they wanted. I agree that the banks are outlaws. The only difference between the board of directors of AIB and Dick Turpin is that Dick Turpin wore a mask.
Once again I ask for a debate on Iraq, particularly in the area of American policy. I support what Senators Norris, Minihan and Mooney said. When one hears a man such as Senator Minihan, who has served in our Defence Forces with distinction, make such comments one must listen. Ireland is a friend of the USA, but a friend can hear the truth from another friend. We need to make clear how shocked and disgusted we are by these incidents of torture. This was only to be expected after what happened at Guantanamo Bay, where people were systematically tortured by a state.
In the matter of the AIB scandal, I hope none of the people at managerial level ever runs for public office, because they could have a difficult time.
Yesterday the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform announced that he intended to introduce electronic tagging for offenders. This is a matter I raised in the House seven or eight years ago and I am delighted to see that action has been taken on it. Governments in the past have not always made use of available technology to solve problems. Legislation will be required and I ask the Leader to urge the Minister to introduce this legislation soon. He does not need to introduce legislation to build many more prisons. This is a system which will dispense with the need to put some people in prison.
I raise this because the speed at which we get things done——
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. There was an item in today's newspaper about a judge in County Kildare who was upset over the number of cases that were being adjourned, saying she could not put in a day's work. During Private Members' business some six months ago I mentioned the problem of the shortage of judges in the High Court and the people who turn up for court cases and are turned away day after day, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. The Minister said he supported the move and intended to have something done about it. I hope it will not take seven years to do so. I urge the Leader to encourage the Minister to take action in this area so we can see some results immediately.
I also congratulate the investigative journalists who exposed what was going on in AIB, although we must remember that one man's investigative journalism is another man's invasion of privacy. There is a delicate balance to be struck. There are hundreds of people, of whom I might be one, who went into the bank and obtained a bank draft and will never be able to prove they were overcharged. It is wrong that the bank should be allowed to retain the profits it made through this. I strongly support the proposal of Senator Brian Hayes that it should be made to donate an amount to the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board or some charitable organisation.
The main reason I rose, however, was to associate myself with those who deplored what is going on in Iraq, as demonstrated by the photographs we have seen in the newspapers. These photographs might play the same role as the iconic photograph of the little burning girl in Vietnam which changed public opinion about the Vietnam war in the USA. The US President will be in this country meeting representatives of the EU. We hold the Presidency of the Union and I urge the Leader to ask the Taoiseach to use that occasion, as Taoiseach of this country and representative of the Presidency, to express our abhorrence of what is going on and how counterproductive it is in terms of world politics.
I share the concerns of Senator Minihan, who raised the issue of the chain of command in Iraq. Further questions now need to be asked. What is happening in Guantanamo Bay? Did the Americans request that its allies in the Gulf, which do not have very good human rights records, take some of the prisoners, and for what purpose? From how high up in the American Administration came the request to obtain information from prisoners at any cost?
The American term for consistently overcharging is racketeering, which is a criminal offence. Perhaps people who work in the banks are not pressurised to overcharge consistently; they may overcharge only by a small amount. It may be only 60 cent, or 70 cent, but over many thousands of transactions it becomes impossible to repay. I suggest that we introduce legislation on racketeering, to which Senator Ross alluded, and remove the pressure on employees to consistently carry out what in effect are illegal acts. We might also look at how people in sales areas are pressured into reaching targets and selling products that might not suit people. The UK has looked at this area. Regarding the more important area of recompense, it would be impossible, and hugely expensive, to attempt to return individual tiny amounts. I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that a lump sum should be given to charity to compensate for what has happened.
Senator Brian Hayes suggested the Government should support whistleblowers. As he said, the Whistleblowers Protection Bill 1999 was a Private Members' Bill which was accepted by the Government at the time. After the last election it was retained on the Government's legislative programme. Some drafting work has been done with a view to progressing the legislation, but it is not currently on a priority list. The purpose of the Bill is to provide protection from civil liability for employees who report certain people in their company. It would be a good idea for the Seanad to ask the Government today to progress that legislation. As Senator Brian Hayes said, AIB should now donate from the extra funds it has received a specified sum of money to the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board. While Senator Hayes and Senator Norris were talking, it struck me that a Private Members' Bill introduced in the Seanad would be very effective. It could be brief and might well win all-party approval. We should consider that move.
Senator Norris raised an issue of great importance. If one contacts a bank about minor transactions, are all conversations with one's local friendly bank official taped? This matter did not appear to surprise anyone else but me. If such conversations are taped, that is an invasion of privacy.
It seems that these conversations could be replayed on the national airwaves. That is most amazing. We need to know if client conversations are taped and we must follow up the matter.
Senator Norris also spoke about the CIA. I will inform Senators later about the efforts being made to organise a debate on Iraq and the difficulties in doing so.
Senator Tuffy raised the issue of the report on Seanad reform. We would like the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, to attend this House for the Seanad reform debate because he is the chairman of the implementation committee. It is difficult to organise this debate too because the various Ministers are greatly involved with European affairs.
Senator Tuffy spoke of the duties of councillors and about the speed limit at Lucan, a bone of contention among many people. The Senator noted that the lower speed limit was introduced for the safety of local residents and motorists emerging from side roads.
Regarding RTE and the "Oireachtas Report" programme, I suggest, along with the Cathaoirleach, that we ask the Seanad members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business to encourage as a priority the screening of the programme on Friday. This House often sits on a Friday and we must ask why proceedings in both Houses are not covered in the way they are on other nights. Is there any Senator present who sits on that committee?
Senator Minihan agreed with me and with Senator Norris about the issue of banks taping telephone calls. We might often have conversations with bank officials which should not be taped. One might not even recall what one said.
Senator Norris raised the issue of the photographs of torture in Iraq and the scapegoating of junior personnel involved. I agree with Senator Maurice Hayes that we should ask the Taoiseach to voice his concern in this area when he meets President Bush. It is not a matter of President Bush issuing orders. It is the attitude and the crudity of the senior administrators in the US Government which has given rise to this situation.
The soldiers thought they could get away with torture because the top brass did not care.
Senator Bannon spoke of the lack of trust in banks, and also of national lottery funding. I am sure that the recipients of national lottery funding will be very pleased to get the money coming to them and will move ahead with their projects in sport and other areas.
Senator Leyden spoke of the hunger striker, Mr. Sweeney, and I am glad that matter has been resolved. He noted too that AIB should donate the extra money it received to the People in Need telethon, but those from whom the money was diddled might have much to say about that. The Senator's contribution echoed that of Senator Brian Hayes, who suggested the money should go to the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board. However, the people diddled out of money might prefer to get it back.
Senator Ross went to the nub of the matter, noting that under the Consumer Credit Act, no prosecutions can be taken and nor does the regulatory body have the power of prosecution. A Private Members' motion could be introduced to urge that such power be given to IFRSA, or that it should be able to recommend strongly, to the prosecution authorities, that a prosecution be made. Otherwise the regulatory body is no more than a eunuch, without the power of prosecution when a major financial scandal emerges.
We all know our local bank managers or officials, who are friendly guys and gals, and we do business with them. Nevertheless, the issue is major. AIB said the matter was a "departmental" one, but that was the wrong word because we Senators think of "departmental" as involving the Government. A section within AIB was responsible and was aware of what was going on two years ago, yet it did not report it. I ask those with some legal authority to put forward an amendment to the Bill relating to the regulatory authority in the area in order to give the authority the power of recommendation of prosecution.
Senator Mooney asked that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, attend the House. We have contacted his Department every day for three weeks, and sometimes twice daily. This morning we discovered that, through no fault of the Minister but due to the good work he is doing, he is fully engaged next week. We have also sought the attendance of the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, to debate issues involving Africa and Iraq and so far we have had no reply. The Minister of State is currently in Africa. When he returns next Monday, he will be assisting the Minister, Deputy Cowen.
We have also sought the attendance of the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, who will be away all next week. I am not castigating the Ministers, who have European duties to attend to, but our first calls each morning are to the Department of Foreign Affairs and to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to seek the attendance of Ministers or Ministers of State in the Seanad.
Senator Mooney rightly praised the investigative journalism of Charlie Bird. We all hear his voice at breakfast time and think that something serious is happening. That is true, but he could not have done it if he had not received the telephone call. That goes back to what Senator Brian Hayes said about whistleblowers. However, if a telephone call is made to him he will establish the credentials of the person and will, in turn, make it a national issue. That is the important matter with regard to his qualities.
Senator Feighan raised the issue of AIB and said that as a customer who was done out of money, he was glad to get something back. It is like medical consultants; we will all be reliant on a medical consultant at some stage and, therefore, we tread warily around them. It is the same with the head men and women in the banks. We tread warily around them because we may need extra financial accommodation or whatever, but we should remember that the consumers are important. Joe Bloggs and Mary Bloggs were done out of money by a financial institution and they are entitled to get back that money. Looking at the banks, it brings it back to where we are in terms of representing people.
Senator Lydon raised the same issue and called for a debate. We are entering into a six week period during which it will be almost impossible to get major debates, but we will continue to try.
Senator Quinn raised the issue of electronic tagging and the shortage of judges. Percentage wise in Europe we have, per capita, the lowest apportionment in the judicial system, which is very bad. There is a need for more judges.
Senator Maurice Hayes made the point that there is a thin line between investigative journalism and invasion of privacy. Certainly, taping is an invasion of privacy. He also referred to the Iraq photographs. I expressed the view earlier that when President Bush comes to Ireland at the end of June, the Taoiseach should express the abhorrence of the Irish people at the human rights violations in Iraq.
Senator Hanafin raised the issue of Guantanamo Bay. He also called what the AIB was doing racketeering, in the American meaning of the word.
The mini-debates we had here this morning on two major items, first, the scandal of what has happened in the AIB and the various positive proposals which have come forward and, second, the continuing emphasis on Iraq, are of importance. The question for us is how we can channel those energies which have given rise to those discussions and the way we can make an impact on these issues.