Thursday, 9 October 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the money, advice and budgeting service, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., with spokespersons having ten minutes, all other Senators seven minutes, and on which Senators may share time by agreement of the House, and the Minister to be called upon ten minutes from the end of the debate for concluding comments.
For the past week on this side of the House we have been talking about protecting the taxpayers' interest in any guarantee scheme we give to the banks. The taxpayers' interests can be served at the moment if the interest rate cut is passed on to customers. We heard the Consumer Association and other people say this morning that this should happen. If that were to happen it would certainly give some hope to hard-pressed families in the current climate. I hope in the coming days when the Minister for Finance holds discussions with the banks on the regulations and the scheme to be laid before us he will bear that strongly in mind. Given the increases they have suffered that would make a difference to many families. It was unprecedented yesterday for China to agree with the worldwide move to try to bring stability to the market. It would be good to see taxpayers and the hard-pressed people who are paying high mortgages benefit from that.
I wish to raise two other topics this morning because, while we are discussing the banks and the serious financial situation affecting everyone, obviously life goes on. I am very concerned to see that in Letterkenny General Hospital three babies contracted MRSA. We have very high rates of MRSA in this country and it raises the most serious concerns that vulnerable babies are now at risk of contracting MRSA in public hospitals. People are already very concerned about going to hospital and now babies are getting this infection. Very often the cause is that basic hygiene is not observed. We should have another debate in the House because people all around the country are concerned. They are concerned about the elderly contracting MRSA when they have to go to hospital. They are concerned also about their loved ones who have routine operations and are at risk of infection. That is a major issue in the health service and I would like the Leader to organise a debate on the matter in the House.
The report of the Environmental Protection Agency published yesterday contained very disturbing information about our failure to meet environmental targets. I would like the report to be discussed in the House to see what action the Government can take to deal with this disturbing information. One in three Irish rivers is now polluted. In the most favourable scenario, Ireland's greenhouse gases would exceed the proposed reduction target for 2020 by 7 million tonnes. It is an excellent report that should be debated.
It is very interesting to note where we find ourselves with the decisions of central banks around the world to reduce interest rates. The ordinary people of this country are discussing the point raised by Senator Fitzgerald, namely, whether the banks will pass on the benefit of the interest rate cut. It would be interesting to contextualise the debate in terms of the comments made over the years in this House about giving more power to regulators and allowing the regulators to regulate. The fact is we as a Legislature have never given adequate powers to regulators. Any time the subject comes up we talk about "State interference", "big government", "the nanny state" and say "let the market perform" etc.
We could have given the Financial Regulator the power to insist that the banks pass on the reduction in interest rates. That could involve only one phone call from the Minister for Finance to the regulator. I raise the matter in the context of my comments last week in the House. We need to revisit such issues as directors' compliance statements and the need to give regulators the proper authority to regulate for the common good. We must not be afraid to examine and address this matter. We must acknowledge that the system has not worked to date and move on. Before making speeches saying that the banks should pass on the interest rate reduction, we should look into our souls and say that we did not give the authority to the regulator to do that. If we had done so, we would not be having this discussion. The matter would be delivered with one phone call this morning. It is as simple as one line or paragraph of legislation.
I previously raised the question of the future of the rescue service and Coast Guard stations at Malin and Valentia Island, as have other Senators, including Senator Coghlan. The Leader, to his credit, responded very positively on both occasions. We waited to see what developments took place. We now face an extraordinary and possibly unprecedented situation which needs to be sorted out. No one is taking responsibility for moving in the direction of closing down the stations at Malin and Valentia Island. We hear from one side that this was a political decision and from the other that it was not.
It is hard to believe that, when serving as a Minister, Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher, would have set about closing the station at Malin, in his county. This is not something that politicians rush to do. In his defence, there is no evidence that he did this. It was stated to a committee of the House and it has been inferred otherwise, that this was a decision of a Minister of the Government. We are entitled to know the position. Before arguing about the madness of the decision in the first place, about which I have previously spoken, let us decide who makes the decision. Is it Government policy to close down, or to allow to fade away, the Coast Guard stations at Malin and Valentia Island? I do not wish to hear that we are not doing anything at the moment. Are these stations keeping the same level of authority, influence and importance as they have at present? It is a simple question for the appropriate Minister, and we can proceed from there when we will know where we must fight.
We welcome yesterday's decision to lower interest rates worldwide. For the average borrower this makes a difference of approximately €100 per month, if one has a tracker mortgage. However, for those on a variable mortgage the situation is different. In such cases it is up to the banks and financial institutions to decide whether to pass the reduction on, as my colleague, Senator O'Toole, said. Some banks have said they will pass it on, however the three biggest mortgage lenders in the country have so far failed to do so. They say they will review the situation. This is not good enough and is exactly the type of carry on that we worried about last week. I heard a spokesperson from the Financial Regulator on the radio this morning and I do not believe, even if it had the power, that it has the bottle to ensure these changes are passed on. It is important we give a clear message to the Minister for Finance that he must examine the situation and, if possible, put some clauses in the scheme to ensure these financial institutions are obliged to pass on any savings. Otherwise it is a windfall profit for them and represents excess charges.
Last week we debated the Housing Bill 2008 in the House. The Labour Party made the point that the debate failed to include the topic of homelessness. This morning the Simon Community produced what I believe is a very sensible idea for tackling the problem of homelessness in Dublin, namely, to buy up apartments that are currently empty. Estimates suggest up to 10,000 apartments built during the boom lie unoccupied in the current climate. Many of these are one-bedroom apartments and are precisely the type of property we need to tackle homelessness. Will the Leader impress upon the relevant Minister that the Government can tackle the homeless problem in Dublin by buying these apartments, meeting its target in the national development plan in the process and help to kick-start the Dublin housing market?
I congratulate two of our universities in achieving ranking among the top 108 universities in the world. Many in the House will have attained too many points to go to Trinity College, but it deserves particular congratulations for achieving a place in the top 50. This illustrates what can be achieved by investing money in education. Let us ensure this investment is maintained not only at third level but across all the sectors of education. Will the Leader impress upon the Minister for Education and Science the need to ensure that the level of money invested in education is maintained and, if possible, increased in next weeks budget?
We should demand that the banks pass on the 0.5% reduction in interest rates, which is especially welcome for hard pressed house owners. This will also help to reduce inflation. The Minister of Finance must intervene and say that the banks must reduce interest rates when the European Central Bank has done so. That is vital, because the householder has been hard pressed over the past year as interest rates have increased on a regular basis, sometimes every month, whether by a quarter per cent, a half per cent, or whatever. The situation now is that the price of oil is falling, interest rates are moving in the right direction and inflation is reducing. When the unions make up their minds on accepting the national wage agreement——
This is one method of ensuring we do. The Minister now has an opportunity to deal with this matter.
I remind people that small and medium businesses must have credit available to them. Interest rates affect small and medium businesses more than larger businesses. They are the backbone of the economy and, whether we like it, there are approximately 1 million people employed by small businesses. We must ensure the climate is right for these people to continue to keep their staff.
We are trying to keep jobs in place at present. There is an opportunity now to support our banking system. I believe in a strong banking system. We will not work our way out of economic problems without a strong banking system. It is vital that the Leader impresses upon the Minister for Finance the importance of delivering on this issue.
I note a draft of the bank guarantee scheme has been sent to Brussels for approval. It is curious that it has been sent to Brussels for approval before it comes to the Oireachtas. I appreciate this matter was debated in the other Chamber yesterday. However, in last week's debate, Fine Gael pointed out some issues in the scheme and the legislation, concerning State aid rules, which were taken on board by the Government. Were this draft scheme put to the Oireachtas for scrutiny there may have been further improvements.
The reduction in interest rates by the European Central Bank is linked to the capitalisation of Irish banks and the discussion we have had in recent days. Some days ago I said the banks had certain options for recapitalisation. They can source new funds, reduce or not pay out dividends and can increase margins. The statements made clearly show the banks are endeavouring to recapitalise by increasing their margins at the expense of Irish consumers, mortgage holders and taxpayers.
In the context of the State giving a guarantee to the banks, that is unacceptable. The Minister for Finance should make a statement on that and insist that these increases which, in normal times, would have been automatically passed on to consumers, are passed on.
There is a wonderful photograph of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, in The Irish Times today at the publication of the Environmental Protection Agency report to which Senator Fitzgerald referred. I do not know what he is so happy about because this is a damning report on the state of the environment, from water quality——
——to whatever. The only statement the Minister can make is that it is unacceptable that people do not have clean water. Does the Minister not appreciate that he is responsible and that he must outline measures to tackle problems to do with the environment and water quality and not just complain about the condition of the environment? He is the Minister. He is responsible and we would like to see some action.
I ask the Leader, Senator Cassidy, to invite the Minister for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, to the House to bring us up to date on the strategy for child care in Ireland. There is no doubt we have made great progress in that regard. Our former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, appointed an Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. There is a commitment in Towards 2016 to make available 50,000 new child care places but last weekend in The Irish Times there was a report by Vladimir Spidla, the European Union Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, on availability, costs and Government spending on child care and child care education in the 27 EU countries. The stark findings about Ireland in the report are very serious. It states that Irish parents pay more for child care than most Europeans. The Irish Government spends less on child care and early education than other EU countries.
Nought to five years is the most critical in a human being's life. These figures are very disturbing. We spoke last week about competitiveness and getting our priorities right. How can we compete internationally, socially and economically if we do not provide for high quality child care and the education of children in the nought to five age bracket?
I agree with Senator Mary White. The cost of child care is a subject very close to my own heart as a mother of two children, one of whom is just over two years and the other under two years. I hope she will vote with us the next time I or anyone else on this side of the House calls for a debate on child care.
I was supporting Senator White's call for a debate on child care but I would also like to ask the Leader for a debate on third level education in the context of the report of the great achievements of our universities. I echo Senator Hannigan's comments congratulating our universities on their achievement, in particular Trinity College Dublin on becoming the first Irish university to enter the top 50 third level institutions as ranked by The Times Higher Education Supplement. That is a wonderful and remarkable achievement, given the levels of funding accorded to universities. In the context of next week's budget it is important that we at least retain the level of funding third level institutions get. It is also important that we do not see a return of fees. We must fund our universities as we fund the other levels in our education system directly from central funds. As other speakers on this side of the House have said, the problem is that we have not funded to adequate levels at any level of the education system. The appalling state of our primary school buildings is just one example of that but so too is the shortfall in funding we are experiencing in the third level sector. In next week's budget I hope we see resourcing for third level to enable these sort of rankings to be achieved, not just by Trinity College Dublin but by other universities too, and proper levels of research and teaching being continued in the third level sector.
In the context of the budget, I welcome the comments this morning that the proposed merger of five equality and rights institutions may not now go ahead. I see the deputy Leader indicating that he may have had something to do with this change of heart but before the banking crisis emerged, there were indications that the Equality Authority, the Irish Human Rights Commission and a number of other bodies would be merged. Along with others I asked for a debate on that and called for that not to happen. I am delighted to see the Minister has now indicated it may not happen. Now that we are talking in hundreds of billions of losses, the tiny amount——
I am asking the Leader for clarification as to whether this merger will go ahead. The money that would be saved would be minuscule in the context of the billions about which we are talking. It would be a retrograde step should this merger go ahead. I hope it will not, and I ask the Leader for clarification.
I ask the Leader to inquire as to the possibility of removing tobacco from the consumer price index. I ask for that because, first, it is a health issue and, second, tobacco is not an essential item. We had an excellent representation here yesterday from the Irish Cancer Society who requested that €2 be added to the price of a packet of cigarettes, and it gave very sound health reasons for that. The number of people smoking in this country has increased from 27% to 29%, with all the added health risks. If we were to put a figure on it, the cost of smoking on the health service is €1 billion and that must be addressed as a health issue. It should not be included in the consumer price index because it is not an essential item.
Regarding water quality throughout the country, the recent reports in Thurles and Galway have to do with lead pipes rather than lead in the water. Will the Leader agree to ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to make available a means-tested grant to assist people who are not in a position to pay for the piping in their houses to be changed? We need to ensure people receive water of the highest quality. There is no problem with the water going into their homes. It is the lead piping that is causing the health risks.
The banks clearly have a moral, if not a legal, duty to pass yesterday's interest rate cut on to their hard-pressed customers, the country's taxpayers about whom I presume the other House, like this House, is concerned and whom we want to protect. We have given a commitment to introduce a scheme to assist such people but it is not yet in place. The Government has agreed to allow the EU to tweak the proposed scheme. As I said yesterday, the markets are playing hell with the vacuum that is arising from this delay. We are being negligent. I urge the Government to expedite this matter.
Senator O'Toole spoke about the Financial Regulator in this context. I accept that we should not be afraid to revisit this issue if additional powers need to be provided for. I suggest that regulating is a sine qua non of the regulator's role.
I am coming to that. I am concerned about the "Yes, Minister" approach that is being taken in respect of Valentia and Malin Head coastguard stations, to which Senator O'Toole referred. As I understand it, the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the former Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, who was mentioned by Senator O'Toole, had responsibility for this matter, they gave a clear indication that they were prepared to implement the recommendations of the 2003 Deloitte & Touche report. I know that no decision has been taken yet. Is the Government continuing to row back on the indication that was given previously? It seems to me that it is being gradually eroded as a result of pressure from within the Civil Service. That is why I fear that the "Yes, Minister" approach will prevail. Now that certain elections are imminent, no decision is being announced. I suggest that no responsibility is being taken.
I congratulate the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Fachtna Murphy, and his Garda team on their response to a botched robbery near my constituency office in Killester last night. A man in his 20s who was involved in a stabbing incident at the scene died later in hospital, sadly. The Garda Síochána has arrested a man in his 30s. I understand good progress is being made with the investigation. It will be intriguing to learn how events unfolded during the incident. I congratulate the Garda team involved.
I pay tribute to the many Irish missionaries, non-governmental organisations and volunteers who work tirelessly to deliver much-needed services in difficult and dangerous conditions. Can the Leader arrange for Senators to be briefed on general security activity along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and what preventative measures can be taken to combat terrorism and militant operations in the area? I express my solidarity with the Irish Presentation Sisters, who were attacked by Taliban-like militants recently. Their educational facility in Sengota, which is in the Swat district of Pakistan, was destroyed in the incident.
The Leader is aware that I have raised certain issues relating to the Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive in recent times. In particular, I have monitored the dispute that has resulted from the decision of the HSE to cut payments to pharmacists for certain services. It is expected that later today, Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan will release her decision on costs, and her quantification of the liability of the HSE arising from the Hickey's Pharmacy case. Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan has already ruled in favour of Hickey's Pharmacy. She found the HSE and the Department to be breach of contract on existing arrangements. Will the HSE reverse its decision to cut payments to pharmacists, which has been implemented since 1 March last? Will all moneys owed to pharmacists be repaid? Can the Leader arrange for clarification and a statement on the matter from the Department and the HSE?
I accept the Leader did not get a chance to respond yesterday to an issue I had raised on the Order of Business, so I will mention it briefly again today. I asked him to impress on the relevant Minister the need to introduce a national insulation scheme as a matter of urgency. Such a scheme would be useful and would have a number of benefits as part of an overall economic strategy. It would create a number of jobs in the construction sector, it would remove people from the social welfare system and it would make our homes more energy efficient.
Similarly, it is important for the Leader to impress on the Minister for Finance the absolute need for the banks to pass on the interest rate cut to this country's hundreds of thousands of mortgage holders. It would be the height of cheek if they were not to do so, especially in light of the manner in which this State guaranteed such institutions last week. We can give the Financial Regulator some powers in this regard if needs be. In the absence of such a system, we need to ensure the Government can lead the charge by reducing the level of arrogance that exists in the banking sector. It should ensure the interest rate reduction is passed on to customers.
We had a good debate last night on a Fine Gael Private Members' motion on educational issues. If the debate had continued for a week, it would not have been difficult to get speakers. I wished to make a good suggestion to the Minister for Education and Science, but by the time I got to speak he had left the Chamber. I thank Senator Boyle for his ecumenical gesture in sharing time with me. The proposal in question involves allowing schools to get mortgages. The State should guarantee mortgages for schools, thereby enabling them to pursue construction projects. A gaelscoil in my constituency is paying €300,000 a year in rent. Surely better value for money could be secured if the State were to guarantee a mortgage for the school in question. When such a scheme was first suggested to the Minister, Deputy Martin, in 1997, he said it was eminently sensible. I urge the Leader to arrange an open-ended debate on education, if there is time, at some stage in the near future. We need to be able to make proposals as we see fit to ensure this country benefits from a better educational infrastructure.
People power must come into play if the 0.5% reduction in interest rates is to be implemented. Mr. Joe Duffy and his colleagues on "Liveline" have been quite active in relation to banking over recent times. I hope they will focus on the 0.5% reduction in interest rates today. I ask the Leader of the House to convey to the banks, the Government and the Minister the belief of this House that the 0.5% reduction in interest rates should be implemented immediately. I think that can be done unanimously. I do not think any Member of the House would dissent. The same message could be sent from the Oireachtas to Mr. Hurley and his colleagues in the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator. Having bankrolled the financial institutions to the tune of €400 billion, I think we have some influence in this regard. Those institutions cannot set the views of this House aside. They cannot ignore the opinions expressed by the Leader of the House. This cut should be implemented forthwith and without delay. It is imperative for hard pressed householders who are facing the increased costs of energy as we approach winter.
The cost of the barrel of oil has dropped, but this has not been passed on at filling stations. The owners are saying that they must wait a long time before the price comes down——
——but as soon as the price of crude goes up, the price at the pumps also increases. The groceries order should be revisited, as its removal has not helped the consumer. The Leader was Chairman of the committee involved at the time and he fought against its removal.
Senator Mary White has played a great role in producing a new document on child care. I regret that people are criticising her approach, as she has worked on these issues and brought them before the House.
The Cathaoirleach is calling for questions and I have one for the Leader. What is happening with the Nursing Homes Support Scheme Bill 2008? We on this side have been seeking information on it for many months. We have had debates on the proper provision for the care of the elderly. The Bill was flagged and it has been published, but we are now getting indications that it may not be taken in the other House until well into the spring. I presume we have a parliamentary mechanism that would allow for the Bill to be republished and taken in this House. We have a duty of care to the elderly in the community. Even though the contents of this Bill will be the cause of much debate, at least it will be the start of a debate. Is it possible to take this Bill in the House before Christmas? The Minister for Health and Children indicated that the Bill was almost ready over 12 months ago. We then heard of parliamentary and legal difficulties. At least it has been published. The publication of the Bill is of no use to tens of thousands of people until such time as it enacted. We have the time in this House before Christmas to deal with the Bill.
A colleague of the deputy Leader believes that this House is almost redundant and that we should all be taking pay cuts. That is a bit rich coming from somebody who has a full Oireachtas salary and chairs an Oireachtas committee as well. As we demonstrated last week, we in this House can do our job very effectively. Could we take charge of this nursing homes Bill and put a scheme in place for the tens of thousands of people who are urgently awaiting it?
I join with colleagues in welcoming the possibility of a debate on the banks. What we are essentially seeing is the nationalisation of the banking system, and I strongly welcome this. There will be a requirement for a further inflow of public funds, and so the taxpayer should be entitled to equity for that investment. I heard somebody on the radio yesterday saying that we needed a return to the values of public service, and I agree completely. Where did they go? Many of us have been calling for that for a long time. This is a public utility and should be treated as such. We all use the banking system and we cannot live our lives without it. It must be protected by the State and I do not mind the word "nationalisation". In fact, I welcome it.
I thank my colleague, Senator Hannigan, for his generous remarks about Trinity College, while his own university is also in the first 200 colleges. Trinity College has managed to get into the first 50 colleges. These are very significant achievements for both universities, especially if one looks at the top 20. They are almost all from America, although there are a few British universities. The difference is the massive funding that both states put into third level education. I have a slight difference with my colleague, Senator Bacik, as I believe the question of fees is still open. I know this could damage my constituency and that I could lose votes, but I do not care. One must look at these matters in a detached light and I believe that the scarce resources of the State are directed in the most meaningful way towards the most vulnerable people. I am not going to stand against fees until that question has been examined, because we must, as a matter of principle, protect the most vulnerable.
My final point is on the proposed metro. I welcome very much the fact that this continues to be discussed on the transport committee, and I ask the Leader for a full debate on this matter. It started in the House as the framework legislation was passed in here following a vote. It is important to note that the Chairman of the transport committee, Deputy Fahey, said yesterday that it was vitally important that the metro project continue. He was supported by the Fine Gael representative, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, who said that it was an essential piece of infrastructure. Nonetheless, The Irish Times, under the leadership of its former environment correspondent Frank McDonald, has been engaging continuously over the last ten years in an almost ideologically committed campaign against the metro. This is similar to the campaign the Sunday Independent waged against Mary Robinson when she was President, when we would see her in the fashion pages. One would expect to find her in the weather column, because every possible device was used to be critical of her.
It is the same in The Irish Times regarding the metro. This project was delayed 20 years ago, even though it was known to be the best solution, because we hit a rock in finance terms. We cannot afford to do it again, and we need to discuss it openly in the House.
Ar an gcéad dul síos, tá mé ag lorg díospóireacht ón gCeannaire mar gheall ar na giorraithe atá ag cur isteach ar na daoine, go mórmhór sa Roinn Sláinte agus Leanaí. The Minister for Health and Children has once again abdicated responsibility in her provision of care to the people. I am calling on the Leader to facilitate a debate on the health cutbacks that have affected people. Senator Bradford rightly made reference to the Nursing Homes Support Scheme Bill 2008, which is probably one of the most important Bills that we will have before us in this House. It behoves the Leader, and as the representative of the Government in the House, to do what Senator Bradford has requested. We owe a duty of care to our elderly. This Government had neglected that responsibility until now. The Bill could be fast-tracked into this House.
As legislators, we have an obligation to the people who put us here. They are the ordinary people of Ireland who are now being asked to bail out the banks. We have given them a dig-out, and the banks must now pass on the interest rate cut to their customers immediately. For once I agree with Senator Butler. He is correct in saying it is the small holders who are being affected. Small businesses and tenants in shopping centres are doing no business at the moment and they are being forced to pay penal costs in rent. There is an obligation on the Government side to act with us on this side of the House.
It is extraordinary that Senator Leyden castigate us on this side of the House. We are not criticising Senator White at all. We are criticising Government policy, which Senator Leyden has supported for the past 11 years.
Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt dos na daoine a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht ar chóras baincéireachta natíre seo. It was important that the Members of this House, virtually unanimously, came out to say that the banks should pass on the interest rate cuts to consumers. The great mass of the people were fulsome in their support for the guarantees to the banks. There is a necessary quid pro quo now and the consumers of this country need a response from the banks. I urge the Leader of the House to convey to the Minister for Finance the wish of this House that he approach the banking sector to convey that the democratically elected assemblies of this country want this done and that there is a moral and overall imperative on the banks to act.
At this time of financial constraints we should be looking at imaginative ways of bringing forward socially humane legislation and at the same time try to be as cost neutral as possible. I have been putting it to the Leader over the previous year — the Leader responded positively on a few occasions but there has not yet been an outcome — that were the means test to be removed from the carer's allowance then, in the context of unemployment and bearing in mind the cost of nursing homes and the cost of subvention, the number of people who would take up caring at home, which is much more efficacious for the individual being cared for and make them much happier, would make it a cost effective and cost neutral proposition. The cost of nursing homes and institutional care would go down. This proposal is worthy of examination. I ask the Leader that at least a feasibility study be undertaken and that it be considered as a serious proposition.
The Carers Association of Ireland is asking that only carers be means tested. I would go so far as to say that the means test should be removed. Many people will stay at home because in the current employment context this will be an option. It will allow people to be cared for at home where they are happiest and it will save money to the State. This should be carried out at a minimum on a pilot basis.
I have been putting it to the Leader over the past year and I would commend it to him again that the means test of the non-contributory old age pension should be removed. Only a small number of the population are on the non-contributory old age pension and these are mainly housewives who were put out of work by the marriage bar in the past and subsistence farmers; virtually everyone else has PRSI contributions. The cost of administering the means test is greater than any savings effective in it. The means test is inhumane and it is terrorising old people. I appeal to the Leader again — he responded positively to me before — that some action be taken to effect this change.
I appreciate the Cathaoirleach's indulgence but these are important issues in the context of the times in which we are living. I want to support the call of my colleague, Senator McCarthy, for insulation grants. A grant of €1,000 per house would make it viable to insulate. The cost of insulating an average house is approximately €2,200. This grant could be a national scheme and the outcome would allow for one third saving of energy costs and there would also be a carbon saving which would have an ultimate impact on fines incurred under the Kyoto Protocol. It would be financially viable. I appeal to the Leader to consider this request. We need to think outside the box and to think humanely and with an eye to being cost neutral.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Hannigan, Regan, Coghlan, McCarthy, Leyden, Norris, Buttimer and O'Reilly, expressed their serious concerns about the banking sector. They all welcomed the announcement of the world-wide reduction of 0.5% in the interest rates and I congratulate everyone associated with it. The bona fides of the banks are being put to the test, world wide. I call on all the banks in Ireland to reduce their interest rates by 0.5% from close of business this evening at 5 p.m.
Those of us in the Oireachtas and the people of Ireland have done our bit last week and we are continuing to do it. Our commitment is to a strong banking system in our country. The banks have an obligation and a responsibility. Without putting a tooth in it, we expect them to do this. I congratulate the Halifax and the AIB banks who came out straight away and announced they would reduce their interest rates. This is not a time when the banks can consider making profits in any shape or form; we are concerned with the survival of the economy of our country and they too must play a part. Whatever happened in the past, the Oireachtas came to the rescue last week. As has been said here this morning, the national media have a duty and a responsibility to announce, on an hourly basis, the names of the banks who are not going to implement the reduction. The AIB and the Halifax banks have given the lead and example.
The Minister for Finance is consulting with the European Union. I understand that the foreign banks with substantial and significant business in Ireland are included in the scheme and this is welcome. Yesterday morning I highlighted to the House the significant number of account holders in the Ulster Bank, the ACC bank and National Irish Bank. Other substantial foreign banks are doing huge business here. We want competition in the market place because it keeps the competitive edge going among our hard pressed business people who have been providing employment over many generations.
As Leader of the House and on behalf of Seanad Éireann I echo the unanimous call of Senators that the Financial Regulator and the banks implement the 0.5% interest rate reduction immediately. I call on the national media, who I know will play its part, in the national interest and along with us as parliamentarians, to monitor on an hourly basis and say who in the banking world is not paying their part.
Senator Fitzgerald referred to the experience of MRSA in Letterkenny, County Donegal. I join with the Senator's request to highlight this issue and I will pass on her strong views to the Minister after the Order of Business. I realise that there has been a substantial decrease in the incidence of MRSA in our hospitals over the past 12 months and this is welcome. However, the work is ongoing and we must keep up the pressure on the HSE to ensure that the infection is completely eliminated if at all possible.
Senator Fitzgerald also asked for a debate on the Environmental Protection Agency report as did Senator Bacik and I will endeavour to have it take place in the coming weeks. Senators O'Toole, Coghlan and many Senators on this side of the House, including Senators Daly and Keaveney, have continuously raised the subject of the Malin and Valentia Island radio stations. There is no doubt about the views of all Senators and I will ascertain the Government's position from the Minister later today to ensure that Valentia Island and Malin radio stations will fulfil their important and responsible role which covers decades. I support all the calls for their retention and for providing them with the available up to date modern technology.
Senator Hannigan called for a debate on homelessness and I have no difficulty with providing time for a debate. He is joined by Senators Norris and Bacik in congratulating the universities who are listed in the top 200 list and Trinity College which is listed in the top 50. I congratulate UCC, UCD and Trinity College. Senators Hannigan, Bacik, McCarthy and Norris called for a debate on third level education and funding for school buildings which I hope will be considered and perhaps included by the Government in the near future.
Senator Mary White, supported by Senator Bacik and many Members such as Senator Buttimer, called on the Minister of State with responsibility for children, to come to the House to discuss the child care strategy and the future of child care. Senator White quoted from statistics on the subject. She had done trojan work in this area. It shows that when a Member of the House rolls up the sleeves, much can be achieved by way of information which is of benefit to both the Department and the Government and to the Members of the House in general. I will have no difficulty in arranging this at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Hanafin outlined his proposal for the Minister and the Government to consider the removal of tobacco from the consumer price index. He also referred to a recent visit by representatives of the Irish Cancer Society. It is alarming that, as the Senator said, smoking is on the increase, from 27% to 29% of the population. It could possibly cost the Health Service Executive €1 billion a year for the treatment of smoking related diseases. I will have no difficulty in arranging for a debate on this matter also.
Senators Hannigan and Hanafin also drew my attention to the lead content in water in certain areas. A survey should be carried out by all local authorities because 50 years ago, most water schemes installed lead piping. Much work can be done in this area.
Senators Bradford, Buttimer and Reilly all made known their views on the Nursing Homes Support Scheme Bill. I am pleased to inform the House that this Bill is being published today.
It is a Dáil Bill but must go through both Houses and I know it will have the support of both sides of this House for a speedy passage when it comes to us.
Senator Reilly made a proposal regarding the means test for the old age non-contributory pension, which I fully support. I wish to inform the House that Fianna Fáil will forfeit its Private Members' time on Wednesday next. I will seek the permission of the House to have an extended three-hour time slot for Private Members' business so that we can have statements on the budget. Senator Reilly's proposal is a good one and can be brought to the Minister's attention. It could also be considered for the Finance Bill which will be published later and it is hoped will be passed by both Houses before the Christmas recess.
Senator Callely outlined the horrific incident that took place near his constituency office in Killester. He congratulated the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Fachtna Murphy, on the matter. I wish to convey the condolences of the House to the family of the man who lost his life, so tragically and so young, in that incident. It is something that should never have happened.
Senator Callely also referred to briefing issues on Pakistan and I wish to convey our good wishes to the Presentation Sisters in that country. I will pass on to the Minister for Health and Children his concerns and inquiry about the pharmacies issue and especially the court case concerning pharmacists that were involved with the HSE. I will revert to the Senator on that at the earliest opportunity.
Senators McCarthy and Reilly inquired about the insulation scheme. My understanding is that it will be included in the budget next week.
Senator Norris expressed his strong support for the continuation of the metro project. Many people wish to see it continue as it would advance the requirements of our capital city in the 21st century. I support the call for its continuation.