Thursday, 23 October 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No.1, statements on health promotion priorities, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, to conclude not later than 2 p.m., spokespersons to have ten minutes, all other Senators to have seven minutes, on which Senators may share time, and the Minister to be called upon ten minutes before the end of the debate for concluding comments and to take questions from spokespersons or leaders.
Yesterday, we saw people power at the gates of Leinster House, when tens of thousands of elderly people came to protest at the budget, as well as thousands of young people who also felt threatened by the decisions in the budget. The budget is unravelling and has become, as Deputy Enda Kenny has said, a discussion document. I am concerned about the figures contained in the budget, especially the projections for economic growth and consumer spending as well the savings arising from changes to the medical card scheme. Many questions arise and I have heard the Minister for Health and Children quote many different figures for the actual savings. I do not have confidence in the figures that have been put forward by the Government.
This was a very rushed budget, containing a bucket of indiscriminate measures, and we are seeing the effects of that now. It seems very likely that we will have another budget very soon to correct the figures in the current budget. It is a very worrying time indeed and it is very difficult to have confidence that this Government can manage the current difficult situation. There is no doubt that it is at a time like this that one sees the values of Government coming through. The only guiding principle the Government has had for the past ten years is a taxation principle. We saw in the decisions made this week that no guiding principle existed with regard to children and the elderly and no values came through in the budget. When will the social welfare Bill be discussed in the House? This side of the House has many questions on it.
Will the Leader and Senator Boyle clarify the Government's position on incineration? The Green Party has stated it is against incineration. A new waste policy will be introduced and an important hearing will take place next week with regard to a large incinerator planned for Rathcoole. An EU directive states people who oppose such a development should have the resources to ensure an even playing field at a hearing. This will not happen and it does not happen in this country. Will the Leader investigate whether the principles contained in the EU directive can be applied to hearings in Ireland?
For the past two or three days I have called for a debate on the topic being discussed by the entire country, which brought tens of thousands of people to the gates of Leinster House yesterday, aspects of which were voted on in the Dáil last night and which we refuse to acknowledge exists. What has happened has brought a great deal about these matters to the fore.
The Leader knows me long enough to know I try to get a disinterested view on issues. When I hear Members on the other side of the House making speeches about the bad manners of those aged over 70, I wait for further elaboration. If such views are expressed it must be asked how the elderly came to take this action. We do not hear views expressed on that aspect, which indicates a lack of balance.
People seem to be in denial. Last night, I heard Ministers and Members of the Government in the other House apologise and it was healthy to hear it. It would be good to hear something similar in this House. I do not necessarily call for apologies but I would like to hear from my colleagues on the other side of the House that they have a clear understanding of what happened.
I would like to discuss aspects of the budget which we have not discussed in this House. We saw the people outside the gate yesterday. We need to examine the implications of the budget for education and agriculture and we should do so before these become issues which must be discussed due to the action taken by forces outside these Houses. I propose that in addition to the matter we will discuss today, we will also discuss the issue of the implications of the budget for education and agriculture and I propose an amendment to the Order of Business in this regard.
These issues have caused hurt and anger. It is not about the increase in class sizes or the lack of implementation of education measures for persons with special educational needs or the removal of special needs assistance. It is about the fact that people were working on a promise, commitments were given and expectations were raised. Now parents, management and teachers are devastated and pupils, who are the focus of it all, will suffer for all of this.
We need to discuss these matters. There is a better way of doing it. Nobody is arguing about the state of the economy or the need to raise more money; we are arguing about the how. We need a discussion to allow people on the other side of the House to go on the record and make clear points. The most recent recorded comments during last week's proceedings by people on the Leader's side of the House are that it was a great budget. They should be afforded the opportunity to ameliorate and modify their position.
It was an unreal and unpleasant situation. Yesterday morning, I heard the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, pronounce on the radio that the Government's changes to the scheme for those aged over 70 was being warmly welcomed throughout the country. What we witnessed outside Leinster House would give lie to that.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the Morris tribunal report? The report expressed a catalogue of corruption and abuses perpetrated by a small number of gardaí in a way which was unprecedented in our history. As was stated by my colleague, Deputy Brendan Howlin, Irish citizens had their basic rights crushed to a degree that is scarcely believable. One family in particular suffered years of harassment and abuse with devastating and ongoing consequences for each of them. This House should debate the contents of the report. The Garda Ombudsman is now in place, which I welcome. We must debate the other steps we need to take to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.
I call for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come before the House to take this debate. If he does so, I hope he will not repeat the scurrilous allegations that he and another colleague made against my colleague, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and Mr. Jim Higgins, a member of Fine Gael and a former Member of the Dáil. For a while yesterday, it seemed the Minister was more interested in grasping any opportunity he could find to launch a gratuitous attack on a respected member of the Dáil who did no more than carry out his duty as a public representative than dealing with the contents of the report itself. In a week when the word "apology" is on the lips of every Government representative perhaps the Minister would use the opportunity to apologise.
Will the Leader organise a debate with the Minister for Health and Children so she can answer serious questions that have arisen over the past couple of weeks? I want the Minister to confirm the number of beds in the public health system which will close. The HSE stated it will save €40 million per month in October, November and December. My colleagues in the nursing sector inform me that there has been a significant increase in the number of people on trolleys by comparison with this time last year. Are accident and emergency departments a cheaper way of dealing with patients than admitting them to hospital beds?
I also want the Minister to answer how many of the recommendations of the report undertaken by Ms Justice Maureen Harding Clark on maternity services at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda have been implemented and how long it will be before all of the recommendations are implemented. How many front-line posts, such as nurses, midwives, allied health professionals and ward support staff have been left vacant since 4 December 2007 when the HSE, in breach of the national partnership agreement Towards 2016 as determined by the Labour Court, introduced the staffing restrictions? How does the Minister intend to address the severe shortage of midwives in all of the major maternity hospitals and units throughout the country?
Will the Leader arrange a debate for next week on the concept of universality? When Charles J. Haughey was the Minister for Finance and Jack Lynch was Taoiseach we introduced the concept. Fianna Fáil Governments introduced free fuel, electricity, television licences, gas and travel. At the time, Dr. T. K. Whitaker begged the Minister for Finance not to introduce the concept because we could not afford it. I checked with both people involved and it is fact. We were able to afford the measure introduced in 2001 and in my opinion we can afford it in 2008 but that is another day's work.
Apart from that, we are where we are and during a debate we can discuss and expound on the concept. No Fine Gael led Government ever introduced universality for anything. Yesterday, I was embarrassed to see the leader of the Fine Gael Party stand on a platform and expound this issue. It is our policy.
I want to raise the serious issue of the closure of Connolly barracks in Longford. On "Morning Ireland" this morning a distraught wife of one of the soldiers, who is to be transferred to Athlone, explained how it would affect her home and family in Longford. While I warmly welcome people coming to Athlone, it is a terrible indictment on the Government that it will remove 180 people from the Longford economy. Last month, Century Homes went out of business in Longford. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Defence to the House to debate the imminent closure of army barracks around the country and what it will mean for the affected communities?
The Army's chief of staff is visiting Longford today but he has been sent to placate the people. I find it despicable that he is sent to do the dirty work for the Government, closing down the barracks in Longford. As it is in his constituency, will the Leader appeal to the Minister to put off the closure of the barracks? We went through difficult times from the 1960s to the 1980s and managed to hold on to these barracks. The last attempt to close the barracks was in 1991. Will the Leader request the Minister for Defence to attend the House for a debate on this matter and ask him not to close the barracks?
I, too, call on the Minister for Health and Children to attend the House to discuss the 5% bracket who will not be eligible for the medical card. There are so many rumours and false information circulating that the entire population is confused. No one can hear anything because once people begin to make statements, they are shouted down. The public cannot understand what is happening. I would welcome a proper debate and not these awful interruptions that we are getting constantly. I find it disgusting that I cannot even make a straightforward statement without being interrupted.
It does not do any of us any good. The public is getting fed up with all of us in here the way we are behaving.
I ask for a debate with the Minister for Education and Science on where we can find the money if we do not reduce the pupil-teacher ratio.
For several weeks I have attempted to highlight the manner in which the Government is using the budget to dismantle all those organisations which speak for the vulnerable and the oppressed, such as Combat Poverty, human rights agencies and the Equality Authority. That is the real danger. The Government has failed to listen to the people. Now the people will not listen to the Government. It has already managed to reverse some aspects of the budget and has, therefore, created a precedent. There are masses of other groups queueing up. It was not just the over 70s who protested outside the gates yesterday; the students also did so.
Yesterday, Senator Joe O'Toole outlined the position in regard to education. I received a waft of e-mails from people today about the impact of these budget cuts on their schools. Senator Terry Leyden said these people are the salt of the earth. Yes, they are but too much salt is bad for the cardiovascular system. If this country breaks down because of a lack of authoritative government giving in to sectoral interests, however valuable they are, and if no one is prepared to take the pain which we must all take, the system will grind to a halt.
Yesterday's scheduled meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs was cancelled. The Office of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal informed the clerk to the committee that the tribunal's chairman — I will not put his name on the record — would be unavailable for the next meeting scheduled for next Wednesday. The clerk was also informed that the chairman was not agreeable to nominating a senior official from his office to attend in his place.
When will the immigration Bill be introduced to the House? I went to a briefing on this Bill which is extraordinarily defective and violates the Constitution. Once more, it will penalise the most vulnerable in society. The gentleman who refused to turn up at the foreign affairs committee meeting was involved in proceedings, partly initiated by a former Member of this House, Michael O'Kennedy, in which it was clear he had given false evidence to a very high court in this land. If this had been allowed to proceed to judgment, he would have been found in contempt. That person has been proposed to continue as chairman of the new tribunal. There is a stink about this which will escape from the corridors of Leinster House. No one will be able to contain the scandal involved in this, yet this man refuses to attend an Oireachtas committee.
When will the immigration Bill be introduced? Is the Government going to stick to the Bill's proposals or will it subject it to scrutiny in order to amend it? Will the Government give us an assurance that the bad policies, represented by this person who refuses to obey the wish of the Oireachtas, are not continued?
The decision to bring forward the budget date was made in the heat of international and national economic uncertainty. It was made on the basis of bringing about greater certainty and confidence in the economy. In doing so, several measures were introduced that were ill-thought out as regards their full consequences. I regret this.
The ongoing debate on the budget, led through public pressure, is healthy for our democracy, something we should all acknowledge. I ask the Leader to include debates on budgetary matters as a regular part of the House's agenda.
We should be honest enough to admit that, despite €2 billion in additional taxation measures and €2 billion in spending cuts, the deficit is still only reduced by €1 billion. The borrowing we are making just to stand still as a country is €12 billion. Much of our additional current expenditure is servicing this additional deficit. In any debate on the budget, I ask Opposition Members to debate not just this budget but the next two and suggest alternative curbs in public expenditure and additional taxation measures.
——just to repeat, the policy of the Government is, in the words of the Minister, that incineration is not the preferred waste disposal option, and that continues to be the case. We await the result of an international review of best waste management practice and I hope that will inform decisions being made in areas like Rathcoole.
I agree with, and point out, some of the areas about which Senator Norris spoke on the amalgamation of agencies. The budget brings about 32 new agencies from a previous list of 56. I regret the loss of independence for the Combat Poverty Agency, but we should acknowledge also some of the good amalgamations that are being suggested and we should debate those in this House. For instance, I refer to the combination of the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority. I, for one, will not regret the passing of the Competition Authority given that organisation's ill-judged contribution to dealing with the medical card issue this week.
To put right one of the points Senator Norris made, my belief is that the full operations of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission are unaffected. The only measure being proposed in the budget is they are sharing a secretariat, and I welcome that.
The budget was brought forward, there were no ideas but it built up expectations that there would be a budget which would deal with and restore order to the public finances and which, we were told, would be fair and balanced but tough. What we got was a budget that was essentially an attack on the young, the old and those on low incomes. As Senator Boyle stated, it was not thought through. On every policy initiative, from the medical cards to the 1% levy, the education cuts to the parking levy, there is no detail. By bringing forward the budget the Government did not allow time for itself to think through its policies.
That is why it has fallen flat on its face.
The budget is also based on assumptions of economic growth, tax revenue and expenditure which are faulty. The better course would have been not to have tried to pull this political stroke but to have introduced a budget at the standard time.
It should have been at the standard time so that these issues could have been fully thought through and also that the November Exchequer returns would have been available. Then we would have had a budget that was based on proper assumptions and was properly thought through.
I would ask the Leader, as distinct from the Deputy Leader, whether he would agree that it was a fatal error to try to pull this political stroke and that it is damaging, not just to the Fianna Fáil Party and the other Government parties, but to the proper management of the economy.
Will the Leader consult individuals and political groups in the House to explore what steps we can take to help economic recovery, not just with proposals, policy initiatives or suggestions of such nature, but with our actions? It is important when things are so difficult, and likely to remain difficult for a considerable period, certainly throughout 2009, into 2010 and perhaps into 2011, that no one underestimates the scale of the challenge facing us and the need for us to reposition ourselves. I understand that as a European Union member state, Ireland adheres to EU rules and regulations. However, I would ask the Leader to explore what pragmatic measures we can take to promote and encourage the support of Irish-based products and companies which operate, produce and employ and which pay into and generate revenue for the Irish system. I certainly would promote and support locally based industries. Every little step will help, whether we do it as individuals, collectively or as political groupings. I would ask the Leader to explore what we can do in this regard.
The National Property Services Regulatory Authority is now in existence for the guts of a year. I have been to its offices in Navan. We all welcomed the introduction of that agency but we still await legislation on property management companies. Although we have been promised on numerous occasions that legislation is just around the corner, it is not the case and there are thousands of families who literally are at the mercy of some unscrupulous management companies who can increase their charges at will. We need legislation on this issue and I ask the Leader to find out when exactly we can expect to see such legislation in this House.
I noted Senator Boyle's earlier comments on the medical card fiasco, and his apology. I heard his colleagues in the other place, Deputies Cuffe and Mary Alexandra White, apologise yesterday. I heard Deputy Gogarty of his party state this morning that the Greens were committed to change. Are they committed to changing the policies on education in the budget? Are they committed to changing the policies on incineration? Are they committed to changing the proposal to reduce the income of those aged 16 years with mental and physical health issues? I do not think so because they got what they wanted. They got a few light bulbs, they got a few State bicycles and that is all they will look for. Senator Boyle's party has sold out its voters and itself cheaply.
Given our serious financial position and having assessed our position after the budget, will the Leader consider the great number of eminent persons on both sides of this House who will be important in the future and look at setting up a new committee of this House with teeth that could produce facts and figures and look at what Senator Callely was talking about for the next budget? We can do little about what we have done.
Mistakes were made in the budget. One of things I would like to do this morning is apologise to the elderly of this country because we made a wrong call in that regard. We have now done our best to put it as right as possible.
However, we find a much worst position for next year. As paid Members, taxpayers will not appreciate if we do not produce good working policies for the next budget. We should not go into a budgetary situation next time without having the complete input of everyone in this House. I call on the Leader to set up an all-party committee that would deal with financial matters heading towards the budget. As Senator Callely said, it is terribly important that we get the people currently made redundant from small businesses back to work.
The budget will not expand the economy in any way. In fact, it will probably hold the economy as it is and that is not good enough for the future. We must raise imaginative ideas in this committee that we would set up. Will the Leader look seriously at this because there are Senators on both sides of the House who can make a significant contribution in this regard? The small business sector is suffering. We can make a difference, so we should do this.
It has been admitted that the budgetary arithmetic was seriously out of kilter. In light of the faulty assumptions and the changing figures, which are unfortunately still changing as matters are being rejigged, when does the Leader think there will be corrective measures or will there be an early further budget in the new year?
Recently, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government wrote to the county managers about some necessary modifications and variations required in county development plans with regard to the so-called locals only rule. This matter was referred over a year ago to the European Commission because it was alleged that it breached several internal market rules and was blatantly discriminatory. I accept that the correspondence between the Department and the Commission must remain confidential at this stage but if the Minister's letter to the county managers was based on a ruling, we are entitled to know that. I am unable to obtain this information. Could the Leader enlighten the House on the precise position? Is something still outstanding and ongoing or has the matter reached finality?
Senator Hannigan referred to the National Property Services Regulatory Authority Bill. I asked the Leader about the Bill a few days ago but perhaps inadvertently he overlooked replying to my question. Perhaps he would address it this morning. Senator Hannigan pointed out that he has visited the body. I have not. There is a shadow body in existence in Navan, which is good for that town, but it appears to be operating without any legal framework. I doubt that anybody knows what that body is doing. If it is operating without a legal framework, how can that happen? We need an answer in that regard.
In Iceland the IMF has moved in — a commentator said this morning that the economy is imploding due to the debt bubble — while all our banks are stable and secure and our economy is being well managed. We should now consider the realities of the current situation and how this House could deal with them. We should take proactive measures, as Senator Callely said, to promote a buy Irish campaign, within the EU guidelines. This would help to promote and sustain jobs. The Minister could be invited to the House on this issue while Members could adopt the agenda of promoting the buy Irish campaign and examine what we can do to promote jobs for Ireland.
It is interesting to hear the extraordinary division of views on the Government side of the House regarding the budget. It is welcome to hear some Government Senators acknowledge that the budget was ill-advised, but to hear others describe it as successful management of the economy beggars belief, particularly when one considers the tens of thousands of people who demonstrated in the streets yesterday. I support Senator O'Toole's call for a debate on the cutbacks in education in particular and also in agriculture. Everybody in the country is talking about this. Few would suggest that there has been successful management of the education system. Appalling cutbacks are being perpetrated on that system and they will affect the most vulnerable. There will be an undermining of the educational needs of children with special needs, Traveller children and children in disadvantaged schools. It is most unfortunate that after years of the boom these benefits are being cut back.
Yesterday, I was proud to speak at the student demonstration, where 15,000 third level students came out to protest at the signal that there could be a return to third level fees. Again, this proposal would be an enormous encroachment on the principle of universality. I am delighted that a Member on the Government side acknowledged that a debate on universality was necessary. I renew my call on the Leader to arrange a debate on universality and universal provision of social services, such as health and education.
If we accept that education is a right, not a privilege, as the 15,000 students argued yesterday, we must accept that it should be free at the point of access. Of course the rich should pay more but they should do so through a fair and progressive taxation system. Let us have a debate on taxation. I suggested in the House that we should not stop with 2% for people earning over €100,000 per year. Let us debate increasing the rate to 3% for people earning more than €150,000. There are people in this country earning that amount of money and they should be taxed more. I call for a debate on fair taxation, which would allow us to continue with the proud tradition of universal social benefits such as health and education. We should have more universality, particularly in the health system.
Will the Leader clarify his response yesterday regarding the civil partnership Bill? When is it proposed to introduce it? He suggested that it would be in the next session but it was promised before the end of this year. Among many other U-turns, there has been a U-turn on that Bill by the Government.
Recently, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, launched the MPCs, the municipal policing committees. Today I received a welcome letter from Longford County Council which asked me on which of the three policing committees — Granard Town Council, Longford Town Council or Longford County Council — I wished to serve. Initially, it was not proposed to include town councils but following representations from me and the AMAI, Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, to the then Minister, Deputy Willie O'Dea, this point was conceded. I exhort every Member of the House, the Lower House and every elected member of a local authority who will be entitled to serve on those committees to participate. As everybody is aware, most of the crime is committed in towns and cities, and this is an ideal opportunity for Members to play a role in dealing with this by serving on those committees.
I support the call of some of my colleagues for a debate on the budget. Given that the budget is now a rolling maul that is changing every day, it is urgent to debate it in the House. Unlike some of the Members on the Government side, the people heard and understood the budget and were aware of the fact that Fianna Fáil and the Green Party raised income tax and penalised the elderly. They heard that clearly.
We are on the same panel. The Leader will ensure that we have this debate. It is very important. For years Fianna Fáil complained about the Progressive Democrats in Government and said they were the tail wagging the dog. Now, Fianna Fáil is biting off the Green Party tail. There is nothing in the budget for ordinary people. Senator Boyle should re-read his remarks on the budgets of 2004, 2005 and 2006. He has abandoned his core principles.
Can the Leader invite the Minister for Health and Children to the House today? We have spoken about the relevance of Seanad Éireann. Everybody is talking about cutbacks in the universality of medical card provision. This is the second Chamber of the Oireachtas, yet we cannot debate that fundamental issue. It does us no service. I implore the Leader to invite the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to the House today.
Those of us who can look back on the 1960s will recall the very exciting protests that took place in that decade. There was not a week in which there was not a protest on the streets, generally led by university students. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for what they did at that time. Most of the causes they promoted were not mercenary in that they were not looking for anything for themselves. They were usually providing a voice for somebody else in respect of either a national or international incident.
This spirit of protest has been dulled by affluence and we now live in a time when we think specifically of ourselves. One can use the word "greed" if one wishes; it has been used in this House many times by Members on both sides. What happened yesterday was another robust exercise in democracy and there is no reason we should not welcome it. Legislators have no choice but to listen when such a protest occurs. Let us hope more people express their views also.
We must remind ourselves that we should recognise where we stand economically at present, as we did during the long night on which we discussed the guarantee to the banks. It behoves legislators to strike a balance between principle and pragmatism. Nobody has a monopoly on either. We will be tested and the Government's job is to govern and listen to and take cognisance of the views of members of the wider community.
It is being impressed upon us all the time that we have not yet seen the worst of the circumstances that obtain. If there are more difficult times ahead, we had better prepare and position ourselves for them. This is no longer a domestic issue but a global one, and we will only succeed in serving our people properly and productively if we try to do the best we can with the resources we have. I refer to human, financial and infrastructural resources, and principle and pragmatism all put together.
I do not blame anybody on either side of the House for scoring political points at this time. Doing so is part of democracy. However, if we are to serve the citizen as we should, meet the challenges in the best and strongest way possible and, above all, call on the spirit of the people, as witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s, courageous leadership will be required.
I agree with many of the Senators that we should have a number of strong debates. Our first should be on democracy because the comments of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform yesterday in the Dáil were more akin to those that would be made by some jack-boot Minister in a Nazi country than those of a Minister responsible for justice in a democracy like ours. Many Members on the Government side in both Houses of the Oireachtas are very supportive of the principle of universality but none of them is saying he or she disagrees with its termination or is voting in accordance with his or her views. The only one who has done has left the Government side. To say the Opposition is bussing people up from the country to organise a protest against what the people disagree with is arrogance at its worst.
Senator Leyden is seeking a Tallaght strategy-type approach. There may be merit in it and we should consider it. We could start by sacking the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and replacing him with Deputy Richard Bruton because the latter has been well recognised nationally and internationally for having handled this crisis very well. The Leader of the House should consider this proposal, which I am sure many Members on the Government side will support.
I support Senator Callely's call for the Leader to endeavour to determine, perhaps in conjunction with the leaders of other parties, what initiatives might be brought forward to promote indigenous business and industry. At a time of severe economic difficulty, we must get back to basics. Doing so represented one of the cornerstones of the approach in the past. We should consider what we can do in this regard.
We need to examine a number of our regulatory authorities which have a remit and certain responsibilities but whose endeavours are now very anti-business and adding to some of the difficulties small businesses face. I refer in particular to the National Employment Rights Authority, which I know from experience is approaching restaurants in my constituency and imposing regulations, which we introduced, requiring the payment of double pay on Sundays.
It is against the wishes of the employees and will give rise to job losses. We need our ideology to favour pragmatism at this difficult time.
There is an air of unreality in the comments made in the debate on financial issues in recent weeks. I commend Senator Norris on his insight in stating it is time for authoritative action to be taken, particularly in the face of sectional interests. If we are to promote sectional interests when every Government in the world is implementing extreme measures to meet the unprecedented challenges posed by the financial crisis and if we fail to respond adequately to those challenges, we will consign a generation of young Irish people, who may be well educated, to unemployment and emigration.
I welcome the robust debate we have been having on the economy. We require much more time to deal with all the issues that have been raised by so many of my colleagues.
I am taken by the call of my colleagues on the other side of the House for more suggestions, ideas and assistance from the Opposition. This represents a dramatic turnaround over the past 15 to 18 months because, in the run-up to the last general election, Fianna Fáil presented itself as the only political party with the magic formula for running the country and keeping the economy in shape. Scorn was poured on all the Opposition parties in the belief that they were bereft of ideas and had incorrect policies. We now know the presentation by Fianna Fáil was very much out of touch.
We need a much more substantial debate on economic issues. Arising from last week's debate, educational interests are rightly up in arms and the elderly are deeply concerned. Farming organisations feel the threat to rural Ireland is very grave. Most of these groups have been represented over the past ten to 15 years in the partnership process. However, many individuals, particularly my colleagues, have made the point that the partnership debate has almost totally excluded Oireachtas Members. Some of those who are now demanding urgent public meetings with the Government to discuss many of the economic issues facing the country have been involved in the partnership process. Perhaps they have been hoodwinked by the Government. We are on the verge of agreeing a new so-called partnership agreement, yet the elderly and those in agriculture and the education sector are facing grave problems. Where is the partnership process now?
We need greater Oireachtas input into economic debate, certainly in the short term, because last week's budget is unravelling by the day. We had statements in the House last week but in the course of the next two to three weeks, the debate in this House must concentrate on economic issues. Our party spokesperson, Deputy Richard Bruton, put forward a substantial document in advance of the budget, Recovery through Reform — A Budget Perspective. That is on the table. The Labour Party presented certain proposals also so there is no shortage of ideas on this side of the House, but it is not our responsibility to have all the answers, and we certainly are not responsible for the financial mess in which the country now finds itself. That is solely as a result of Government action and inaction in the past 12 years.
With your indulgence, a Chathoirligh, I would like to withdraw a word I used during my contribution. You have not asked me to and neither have any of my colleagues, but I used the word "perjury" and that was in anticipation of a hypothetical Supreme Court judgment. The privilege we all have in this House is something very precious. It needs to be used judiciously. I would wish to do so, and I look forward to making strong comments on the analysis of the Bill, but out of a sense of justice and because it was anticipating a hypothetical judgment, I would like to withdraw it.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Prendergast, Ormonde, Boyle, Regan, Callely, Bacik, Coghlan, Hanafin, Buttimer, Ó Murchú, Twomey, Walsh and Bradford raised various matters pertaining to the budget, the economy and the global downturn, which Senator Ó Murchú correctly pointed out to the House.
I wish to inform the House that, following the request made of me in the past two days, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, will be in the Seanad to discuss all matters pertaining to her portfolio on Wednesday, 5 November, after the Order of Business. As Members know, we will continue the debate on the Harbours (Amendment) Bill on Wednesday and on Thursday we will discuss the Morris tribunal report. That is also in response to requests. Senator Prendergast asked me about that this morning, and many Senators on all sides of the House requested it last week. At all times the Leader is a servant of the Seanad and I do my best to have Ministers come to the House to discuss the various topics as soon as possible after the request is made of me on the Order of Business.
Listening to the matters outlined to the House, one would think there was nothing of benefit in the budget, especially in respect of matters pertaining to social welfare. As we all know, the total spend on social welfare this year is €19.6 billion, which will benefit more than 1.5 million people. That is a considerable sum and is an increase of almost €2.6 billion. Improvements in social welfare will cost €515 million in 2009. As I said in the House last week, I welcome the increase of €7 per week for all pensioners and carers aged over 66 years and €13.30 of a weekly increase for pensioner couples.
An extra €30 million has been allocated for the energy package, and I got a great response from senior citizens in my area for the increase in the fuel allowance of €2——
——and the extension of the fuel allowance period by an extra two weeks. The weekly rate is now €20 per week.
A total of €56 million in supports for families with children has been allocated. In particular, the qualified child payment will increase by €2 to €26 per week. Some of us remember what the children's allowance was in the bad times and how difficult it was for our parents to rear us all, but the fact is that from 1997 there has been an increase in children's allowance of 500%. It has been increased five times since 1997. I welcome that and want to introduce some balance in the House this morning in terms of what is being done for the underprivileged——
——both old and young, whom we are all proud to represent here as Members of the Upper House.
It has been said in the House that we will not be debating budgetary or financial issues. We had a debate last Wednesday evening when Fianna Fáil allocated its Private Members' time, and extended it by one hour to allow colleagues express their views on the budget. Both the social welfare Bill and the Finance Bill will be published and debated in the House before Christmas. As I have already outlined, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, will be in the House to debate the issue of health. I will also endeavour to have the Minister for Education and Science in the House, when he returns with the Taoiseach from the trade mission in China, to discuss matters pertaining to education.
On education, an extra €302 million was allocated in the budget to bring the spend on education up to €9.6 billion. Those are the facts. In framing a budget the Government faced a serious difficulty in terms of choices. However, the increase in the Department of Education and Science allocation reflects the Government's commitment to prioritising investment in the sector in very difficult economic circumstances. There has been an increase of €302 million for the Department of Education and Science.
I know it may not be enough, but in these difficult times there is an increase. The capital allocation for next year will amount to €889 million, which is an increase of €79 million or almost 10% on the 2008 outturn.
I will always allow Senators who have major concerns about any topic the opportunity to highlight them on the Order of Business. That is my duty and I am committed to that happening in the coming weeks.
Senator McFadden called for an urgent debate on the closure of Longford Army barracks. That is an issue dear to me because Senator McFadden and I shared the constituency with Senator Glynn and our Dáil colleagues. In our constituency we have been fortunate in having three Army barracks — Athlone, Mullingar and Longford — serving the Defence Forces. It could be said that in terms of the difficulties experienced in Northern Ireland since the foundation of the State, much progress has taken place. Perhaps this is something for the current chief of staff, who is committed to the midlands area and who wore his provincial colours with great distinction and is a GAA all star. In response to Senator McFadden, I will allocate whatever time is deemed necessary for a debate on this issue. I will put that in place after the Order of Business.
Senators O'Toole, Ormonde, Norris and Bacik called for an urgent debate on education. I covered that earlier and will endeavour to have that take place at the earliest possible time. Senator Norris raised the issue of the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill. I will carry out inquiries into that after the Order of Business and come back to the Senator directly.
Senators Hannigan, Coghlan and Walsh expressed their concerns regarding the regulatory authority and legislation due. I will have those inquiries made after the Order of Business.
On the issue Senator Walsh brought to the House, I will arrange an urgent debate on the restaurants issue in the next few weeks. We have heard that issue debated on the radio. It does not make sense. If something that is too draconian has been put into legislation, we must correct it and have the Minister in the House to debate the issue. I assure the House and Senator Walsh that this debate will take place in the next two weeks.
Senators Leyden and Bacik raised the universality issue. I have no difficulty arranging a debate on that matter. Members on this side of the House can reflect with great pride on and take kudos from what has occurred. I am sure all Senators will engage in a vigorous discussion in respect of this issue and I look forward to allocating time for a debate on it.
I welcome Senator Glynn's announcement in respect of municipal policing committees and town councils. The Senator has been a distinguished representative in the House of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland. I support his call that all Members should make themselves available and should be honoured to serve on these committees. I congratulate the Senator on all his hard work and endeavour on behalf of the AMAI in respect of this matter.
I wish to inform Senator Bacik that it is hoped to take the civil partnership Bill early in the next session.
I thank the Leader for giving a commitment to hold a debate on education in the near future. However, he placed his remarks in the context of what was added to capital and current spending in the budget and did not refer to the cutbacks that will occur. That is the denial to which I object and it is for this reason we must have a debate.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 18 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Liam Twomey)
Against the motion: 25 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators David Norris and Joe O'Toole; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.