Tuesday, 18 November 2008
Order of Business
Before I announce the Order of Business, I propose to take tributes to the late Séamus Brennan before No. 1, with three minutes for leaders and constituency colleagues. The Order of Business is No. 1, motion on the conduct of defence of legal proceedings on behalf of named Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; and No. 2, statements on agriculture, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and to conclude not later than 7 p.m., with spokespersons having ten minutes and all other Senators, seven minutes, 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 and to take questions from spokespersons or leaders.
In recent weeks I have asked again and again in this House where is the Government's plan for this country, our economy and public services. I return to this because there is a crisis of leadership in the country, a lack of confidence in the Government and a need for a coherent plan on all fronts, including crime, the economy and the health services. There is a lack of coherence in what is coming from the Government. We see the farmers protest with thousands of people on the streets. We see older people taking to the streets. Teachers, students and parents are holding huge meetings around the country. A hospital unit in Navan has closed due to a lack of funds. Many arbitrary cutbacks are made here and there. We were promised a further debate in this House on the economy.
Yesterday the Small Firms Association said it was extremely concerned at the threat to jobs. Those businesses see that before Christmas they will lose jobs. Many are unsure whether they can continue during the Christmas period and after it. They are seriously concerned about the lack of credit. It is very clear that the banks are not lending. What is the Government's plan for the banks? It is another example of the Government sowing confusing. Shareholders are not investing but are withdrawing because of this vacuum. In the interests of citizens, families and maintaining employment, we need clear Government action and capitalisation in the banks. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the economy as soon as possible. We were promised such a debate some weeks ago. It is high time we had it.
I ask the Leader to get back to the House on the medical card issue. We were told that a new means test form would be sent out to elderly people. Is any further information available in that regard? Many people are concerned that they may lose their medical cards. There is huge concern about the implications of the recent changes for individuals and families. I ask the Leader to get back to the House with information on when these letters will be sent out. What will be contained in them? What detail will be sought in the new means test forms that will be sent to thousands of people throughout the country?
I am also disappointed that we are not addressing certain issues. Three weeks ago, the Leader gave me a commitment that he would arrange a debate on education. He said it would be done without a problem. It has not happened, however. During the same week, he assured us that the House would discuss the economy at least once a month. Such debates are not taking place. The discussions in question are crucial. I could name a few more issues that need to be considered. The Leader and I have spoken privately about the current difficulties in the economy. An opportunity needs to be provided for us to put our opinions on the record.
We need to reach an understanding of where are going with regard to the banks. Senators stayed here all night to support the Government's initial response to the crisis. The House is surely entitled to discuss the effectiveness of this country's approach, and the next step that will be taken, with a member of the Government. We need to understand some issues which are not in the public domain. I am not sure that capitalisation is the answer. At the beginning of this period, the Financial Regulator said that the Irish banks were capitalised to the same extent as the rest of Europe, or more so. That has proven to be the case. Governments throughout Europe have decided to increase the level of capitalisation from 6% or 7% to 8% or 9%. Billions of euro will be needed to do that. The banks decided not to pay out dividends — to hold back money — for that reason.
I would like to get some answers on this issue. I may be wrong about it. We do not have enough information to make a call on it. I do not want to recapitalise the banks if they intend to hold those moneys in store to sort out their own problems, before carrying on as they were before. I would like two things to happen. We should require this country's banks to use the money they can draw down from the European Central Bank to fund properly risk-assessed small businesses and other entrepreneurial initiatives within the State. The banks are choking development, in effect. They are choking business at a time when money is available at EU level to be drawn down. I do not think that is good enough.
I am afraid that the recapitalisation of the banks would amount to no more than putting money into a safe in the ground, regardless of the level of equity we might get in response. It would never come out of that safe. I do not think that is how we should proceed. If money is made available to the banks from the Irish Government, rather than from Europe, for the specific purpose of oiling the economy, we should require the banks to engage in responsible and properly authorised lending. That is what needs to be done. I would like a debate on the matter to take place in the House.
Many people in this country who have safe jobs and secure incomes are not spending their money. That is happening because Fianna Fáil is talking down the economy, which is what it accused my colleagues on this side of the House of doing over the past two years. People are afraid to spend a shilling. The Government needs to get its act together by encouraging people to spend money if they have it. Two things are happening at the same time. First, more and more people are becoming unemployed, as Senator Buttimer said last week. Second, people who are in safe employment and have assured incomes, such as the Members of the Oireachtas, are not spending money. We need to ensure that people do not walk away from doing the things they would have done previously.
The media is full of reports on failures in the health service. The latest news is that a tragedy like that in the case of the late Susie Long could happen again. More than 1,000 people have been on the colonoscopy waiting list for more than six months. More than 250 people have been waiting for more than a year. This is happening even though we were promised that it would not happen again in our health service. The National Treatment Purchase Fund said that services of this type would be provided within three months. Such a contradiction is appalling. Those who have allowed this to arise expect the public to trust them. The savings involved amount to approximately 8% and, therefore, it is difficult to have confidence. Where savings are required, why should anyone believe the correct economies are being identified and how can we be sure the planned economies will be achieved, which is a major worry for anyone who is sick?
People with acquired brain injury are the latest to be targeted because the home liaison nurse's mileage allowance will be discontinued. Approximately 10,000 people will be both worried and disadvantaged by this move and I feel especially for those with serious emotional or behavioural difficulties as a result of their injuries. They will have to find their own way to treatment centres rather than the staff visiting them and the cost of transporting those who have suffered a stroke or who, because of an accident, have serious physical impairments to a centre will increase. While there will be a small saving, I question its benefit.
We should worry about the direction of the health service. I am concerned about nursing home standards as we await the implementation of proper standards. While I broadly welcome the thrust of the Health Information and Quality Authority document, additional inspectors will be needed but when will they be hired? The House should have a proper debate about this.
The newspapers reported today on the scheme the Health Service Executive proposes to cut costs, which includes reducing overtime by 50%, reducing on-call cover and closing wards at the weekend. I call on the executive to make a commitment to health professionals to support them in meeting their statutory obligation with regard to safe practice under the respective codes of professional conduct and it also needs to spell out how it intends to replace the 13,000 nursing and midwifery posts lost in the past 12 months while ensuring quality of care.
I cannot leave this subject without referring to the attack on the dignity of patients undergoing chemotherapy because the latest cutback in this regard involves the withdrawal of funding to patients towards the cost of a hair piece when undergoing treatment. That will seriously affect the psychological outlook of those experiencing the trauma and uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis. The use of a hair piece can have a significant impact by boosting the self-esteem of patients and helping to keep them going during their treatment. Hair pieces cost between €600 and €1,200 and approximately 100 people per year require this aid. The time has come for us to refocus on the effects of cutbacks. It is an absolute tragedy to sit in front of people who are so distraught because their self-esteem has been damaged by the withdrawal of the small amount that goes towards them maintaining their dignity while facing a difficult diagnosis.
On a number of occasions in the past few years, I raised the issue of the future of No. 16 Moore Street, the house where the leaders of the 1916 Rising made their last stand. It represents a significant piece of our history and I am glad Dublin City Council has decided to preserve the house as an historic building and that it will become a heritage site. I do not have all the details but ministerial approval is required and I hope that will be forthcoming. I compliment the young lady who has translated a number of Pearse's writings into the Polish language. She first had to translate them from Irish into English because we do not have an Irish-Polish dictionary yet. However, that is good news, as it also shows interest is increasing among both Irish and non-Irish people in that period of our history and the literature and poetry of the time. Perhaps that will be also reflected in the heritage centre planned for No. 16 Moore Street.
I refer to a speech delivered this day last year. I will read out a few excerpts from it. It states:
It is wonderful to realise that there is a new generation in Ireland which has never faced the hardship of high levels of unemployment, or . . . the bleak depression of forced emigration . . . As a people we will resist reckless economic policies or inappropriate fiscal actions[.]
Of course, I respect that. The person who delivered this speech is, in fact, Deputy Brian Cowen, the current Taoiseach, and it was delivered to the Royal Irish Academy last year. The point is that he stated, "As a nation we cannot progress equity without ongoing public investment in areas such as health and education which impact on our most vulnerable citizens." This is just one year out from the collapse in the economy and the collapse in public finances. To suggest at that time, with the knowledge he had, that there were a few little challenges but everything was essentially hunky dory is very worrying. This is the man who is leading the country and is intent on leading us out of our economic difficulties.
Senator Fitzgerald raised the issue of the emergency legislation on the guarantee to banks. We need to have that debate which was promised on the economy. It has been stated in this House on a number of occasions that the emergency legislation and the guarantee only resolved one issue — liquidity — but it did not resolve the issue of capitalisation. It is a self-evident fact that if one must provide a guarantee, there must be recapitalisation of the banks before that guarantee can ever be lifted. The markets indicate day in, day out that such action is required. The Government has dithered on it and it only introduced the bank guarantee in a crisis. What the Government is waiting for is another full-blown crisis in the banking sector before it acts or indicates any type of coherent policy.
The Minister for Finance got a great deal of kudos for that bank guarantee scheme which he introduced, albeit in a crisis. However, in a survey in the Financial Times today he ranks bottom of all of the Ministers of Finance in Europe. That is very bad for this Government and for this economy. It does not give us confidence that either the Taoiseach or the Minister for Finance can devise a strategy to take us out of the current economic difficulties. I do not know if the Leader would concur with that assessment.
I note that there is a great deal of business before the House and I will be brief. In my contributions to the Seanad I have concentrated on two matters: reform of the public sector and reform of the criminal justice system. On reform of the public sector, there is a task force report due in which I have no great confidence since it is top heavy with civil servants. Accordingly, it would be hypocritical of me to go on criticising the public service and this need for reform and looking for pay freezes without addressing the matter myself. I was touched by a letter to The Irish Times yesterday from Mr. Molloy who stated that people in the public sector who have permanent pensionable jobs and who have pension schemes which are index linked should take a pay cut. Accordingly, I have told my office to tell the Minister for Finance that he can have 10% of my salary as soon as he wants it. Under section 483 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, he can apply the money to any purpose for or towards the cost of which public moneys are provided. Indeed, if I could earmark it, I would not mind it going to Senator Prendergast's fund for hair pieces for people with cancer who need the image. I might be in need of it myself soon.
As a former trade unionist, I hate doing this. People should be able to keep the money they earn. I do not think anybody understands the seriousness of the economic situation of the country. My colleagues are under no obligation, but I would be a hypocrite, since I am one of the leaders of the charge on the public sector, if I continued to take money while asking others to take a 10% cut.
I echo the calls made for a debate on the economy and the position of the banks. We should have this debate rather than the debate proposed for Private Members' time on Wednesday on tourism. Important though that subject is, the economy should be a more pressing issue of concern for us at present.
I note Senator O'Toole's point that there may be a cycle of fear whereby people are afraid to spend, even where their money and income are secure, because of the threat of recession looming. There is a human element of compassion to that as people do not want to be seen to be spending, or flathúlach in their spending when there is a recession and others around them are losing their jobs. A recession anxiety has gripped the country and it is not only a matter of talking things down. In that context we need a debate on that matter and a chance to put on the record the issues and criticisms which some Members on the other side of the House expressed about public services and the issues and criticisms those on this side of the House expressed about the banks' guarantee. The article in The Irish Times yesterday by a number of leading academic economists outlined for us the problems with the banks' guarantee and the prospect that we will need an investment, a conditional investment, so banks are obliged to lend to small businesses and not sit on the assets they have.
I call for a debate on the pressing issue of female genital mutilation and the need for legislation to prohibit that practice in Ireland. This issue is topical today when an unfortunate decision was made by the High Court to refuse leave to remain in Ireland to a Nigerian woman who applied to stay because she is in fear that her two young daughters will be circumcised if she returns to Nigeria. I took part in a dignified vigil at the weekend in support of this woman and her family. She has many supporters in her local community and throughout Ireland.
In the context of the court's decision, which is about female genital mutilation and the fear of that on return to a country of origin, I call for a debate, as a matter of urgency, on our attitude to female genital mutilation, the need for legislation to prohibit the practice in Ireland and to extend jurisdiction to where it is practised elsewhere and where there is a connection to this country.
I share in the calls for a debate on the economy, with particular emphasis on the banks. Like other Senators, I was happy to stay up all night to put through the emergency legislation to ensure stability in the banking sector. All Irish banks have remained solid and the banks state that they do not need recapitalisation, but, unfortunately, the banks are retrenching very significantly.
In business terms, liquidity is considered to be life blood. Liquidity is being removed from the marketplace by the banks. Under no circumstances do I want to see a situation where, having provided stability for the banks, they increase the number of repossessions. That is particularly poignant at Christmas. They should work with customers and show them the same support that we, on behalf of the people, show them.
I am aware of two medium to large sized businesses where the owners are telling department heads to purchase nothing for January and that only what is in stock is to be sold over Christmas because they do not want to receive bills in January. That was not the reason we stayed up all night, put emphasis on ensuring stability and took the risk for the State. The last thing we want is for the banks to stop lending because then recession becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Good firms need money and they need to be capitalised now.
The question I am constantly asked in Galway is how many of our businesses will make it to Christmas. These are perfectly fine businesses but they need cashflow to survive. We are talking about people's livelihoods. Banks are not supporting these businesses when they need it, even though we bailed out the same banks. Businesses must pay their rates soon and have just paid their rents, which remain high, and their taxes. At the same time, suppliers are curtailing the amount of credit they are willing to provide for businesses.
Why are the banks cutting back? This question must be answered. Is it because they are short of capital for lending? If so, why not recapitalise them? The banks claim such capitalisation is not required, but this is merely a case of management protecting its own interests. It is a sinister development. International best practice suggests that we should recapitalise the banks, fire all senior management, clean out the boards and start afresh.
As someone who is going through the uncertainty to which Senator Prendergast referred, I support her call for the appropriate and adequate funding of certain cancer services.
Will the Leader ask the appropriate Minister — I am not sure whether it is the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government — whether legislation will be considered for the regulation of management companies? These companies oversee the running of the apartment complexes which are largely occupied by young, first-time buyers. There is no regulation of these companies, which seem able to charge whatever fee they wish. I was contacted recently by a young woman who purchased her home in 2006 — in either the good times or the bad times, depending on how one looks at it — when she paid over the odds for an apartment that is now worth €50,000 or €60,000 less. However, her annual management fee has increased from €1,090 in 2007 to €1,800 in 2008. It seems that where apartments in a complex remain unsold, the management companies simply lump those lost fees on to the owners of the occupied apartments. That is very unfair on first-time buyers who are already struggling to pay their mortgages and who now find themselves with annual management fees which are the equivalent or more of a monthly mortgage repayment. Something must be done to introduce regulation in this area.
I join other Members in expressing concern about the state of our financial institutions. We heard today that shares in two major banks, Bank of Ireland and Anglo Irish Bank, are now valued at less than €1. The latter's current valuation of €600 million is only slightly higher than that of Paddy Power. Is it time for the Government to consider taking a stake in some of the banks to ensure that it can direct them to be lenient with home owners who fall behind in their mortgage repayments?
A report in this week's Sunday Observer noted that 39 albinos in Tanzania have been killed in the past year because their corpses are considered to be lucky charms. This is generating much fear among albinos in that country. The organisation representing them is calling for international pressure to be applied to the Tanzanian Government to take action in this regard. Perhaps the Leader will convey our concerns to the excellent ambassador to Tanzania, Ms Anne Barrington, and ask her to do what she can to help the albino community in Tanzania.
I join Senator Kett in expressing concern about the activities of management companies. While "Liveline" comes in for considerable criticism on occasion in this House, yesterday's show did an excellent job of exposing the difficulties experienced by residents in this regard. In some estates in Trim, for example, the lights are being turned off because bills have not been paid. I am aware of estates in Ashbourne where lifts are not being replaced because of financial problems with the management company. It is a year since the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, told this House that we could expect legislation on this matter from his Department and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The reason we have seen nothing since cannot be because we are swamped with legislation in this House. Action must be taken and I ask the Leader to convey our concerns to the Minister.
I agree with some of the comments about the banks. It is now a critical situation for small and medium sized businesses which are being squeezed daily and weekly for finance. They depend on restructuring their businesses at certain times of the year, as has been made clear. There is no question that the marketplace is telling us we have a major problem and that the banks will require capitalisation. However, we should not be too quick to consider recapitalising them until we have the full picture, and we are only now getting that picture because the Government has put people into the banks to examine the books and establish what type of liabilities there are. It is prudent to examine the situation first, and capitalise on the basis of the liabilities of each bank. We are aware there are substantial liabilities with some developers.
Part of the proposed debate on the economy should be about the banks. They are key to ensuring stability in banking services. If we do not have that, there will not be inward investment or support for small and medium businesses, which will lead to a worse recession when we will not have businesses at all. This is what I fear. Nevertheless, we must be careful before recapitalising the banks. We must know what amount of taxpayers' money will be involved. After all, no one will thank us if we do not do our homework first and ensure the taxpayer is getting value for money if an investment is made in the banks. That is how we should proceed.
Will the Leader arrange for a debate on aviation policy? This week, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, hinted that the separation of Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports might not proceed. I have raised this issue in a debate on the Adjournment and through requests to the Leader, but the Minister for Transport has not yet come to the House. It is important that we have this debate.
I join other speakers in seeking a debate on the economy. Unemployment is increasing, the car industry is in trouble, the number of mortgages issued has decreased by 30,000 this year and the banks are perilously close to going bust. The response of the Government is a lack of activity. It is six weeks or more since the banking legislation was before this House but nothing has happened with capitalisation since. We have been misled by some in the banking profession. They have told us untruths and misled small and medium sized enterprises which are trying to stay in business. These enterprises are now being forced into letting their staff go and some are closing owing to liquidity problems and not having access to money. It is time to tell the banking people: "It is time to go; you are the weakest link." Equally, it is time the Leader told the Minister for Finance it is time to go. Let us call a general election and let the people decide. It is time for change and that time is now.
We have established that whatever debate we have on the economy will also include the issue of the banks. I agree with the sentiments expressed in the House about what has been happening. The banks also include the building societies because they have also been bailed out by the Government. We should realise when we talk about recapitalisation, which will undoubtedly happen very shortly because it will be forced on them, that the banks have been deliberately misleading the people about what they must do. I was lucky over the weekend to come across a report prepared at enormous cost for the EBS by its public relations personnel. There are two very dangerous trends running through the report. It is quite clear the building society was advised of the need to get itself bought by someone before it had to tell its members, who are its owners, what was happening. It was suggested to get out of the existing position quickly, because the financial results, which must be produced by the end of the year, would be deeply embarrassing. That represents dishonesty of the most appalling nature. It is in the report in black and white and is not disputable. The second trend running through this brief report, which we must debate, is the absolute desire to protect the reputations of the board and the management. It appears this was all that mattered.
Will the Leader organise a debate on a recent publication from the National Consumer Agency dealing with buying and living in multi-unit development properties in Ireland. I support the comments of Senators Kett and Hannigan in seeking a debate, especially on management charges. I have met with many young people in recent months who have, unfortunately, found themselves made redundant. Such people are living in properties, as Senator Kett pointed out, that are no longer worth the same as their mortgages. They find that management charges have increased, in some cases by 80%. I am familiar with people who have found themselves paying a charge 80% in excess of the charges of previous years. If such people do not pay the charge on time, interest is charged by the management company, which is very unfair. This practice is putting them under significant pressure and deeper and deeper into debt. I support the calls for a debate and perhaps it could be held in the wider context of the contents of the National Consumer Agency publication.
I share the views of Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole and many others regarding the economy and the banking system. The collapse of bank share prices reinforces the need for Government action if we are to oil the wheels of industry and commerce once more. As many Senators have said, matters are simply not progressing. The do nothing or wait-and-see policies of the Government are clearly costing jobs in small industries throughout the country daily.
The markets have decided that recapitalisation of the banks is very urgent. I share the concern of Senator O'Toole that recapitalisation of the banks might simply add to the their cash reserves to enable them to exceed Basel capital requirements, which appears to be a sine qua non for the banks at present. I believe there must be a firm direction built into the preference shareholding, or whatever system the Government chooses. I share the concern of others regarding why the process of recapitalisation is taking so long. The banks now operate a very strict lending policy. Prospective commercial borrowers must produce not only a good business idea, but any loans must be more than amply secure. The banks have more conservative values attached to the security offered than ever before. This is the reason we are at a standstill. Many people are not being paid and people are not allowed any working capital.
I agree with my colleagues who want an urgent debate on the economy. Before I left Athlone this morning, I bought a takeaway coffee from a kiosk. The chap behind the counter told me that he might just last until Christmas, as his takings were down 20%. I was talking to a friend of mine who runs a small factory, and he said it was not just that the banks will not give him credit but also that they will not give it to the people who owe him money, such as the small builders, the small developers and so on. He said that there was no point in the banks giving him money if money is not being circulated. I agree with Senator Hanafin and those who spoke about the banks. We cannot allow them to put money aside so that they will not lose face. We urgently need a debate on the economy, and I call on the Leader to allow it.
I am the Fine Gael spokesperson on social and family affairs. Yesterday, a story about a family shattered the popular misconception that young, unmarried people make up the vast number of lone parents. I highlight the fact that 84% of lone parents work. That is a shocking statistic for the wider public, although I have known it for a long time. Only 2% of lone parents are in their teens, which disproves another misconception. People think lone parents are lazily sitting around waiting for their benefits, but that is not true. More than 60% of lone parents in receipt of welfare also work.
In her response to this survey, the Minister stated that it was about motivating young lone parents and getting them back into work. I do not think it is about motivation at all but about concrete support and practical issues. The Minister is moving towards compulsory welfare payments, and I am really concerned about that. She has not provided proper child care.
How can a lone parent go back to work if there is not proper child care? That is the bottom line. It is not about using aspirational words like "motivation" and so on. She has not incentivised people who are losing their medical card or their back to school allowance if they go back to work.
Can the Leader request the Minister for Transport to come to the House to explain the visa waiver scheme and his discussions with Mr. Michael Chertoff? According to this morning's edition of The Irish Times, he will be required to transmit information about Irish citizens, including fingerprints, information about their religious views, sexual orientation and so on. It did not say that this was confined to members of the criminal class. The sharing of information on the fingerprints of criminals is reasonable and legitimate, but I cannot think why religious views or sexual orientation should be made available to the United States Government, which has a notorious record in maintaining these things privately.
Mr. Ganley of Libertas was before an Oireachtas committee today. I will be very interested to read the transcripts and see if he was probed about associations with the American defence establishment that have been widely suggested in the newspapers. If he was, this might well explain some of his opposition to the Lisbon treaty. It would also confirm me in my view about the increasing militarisation proposed under the treaty. I repeatedly asked in this House about the status of the European armaments group, which was renamed the European Defence Agency and which for the first time is statutorily included in the architecture of the European Union under this treaty, but I failed to get any answer to it. The American arms industry would not welcome the establishment of a concentrated and effective European munitions industry with a strong export potential, which has been envisaged. If this continues in the Lisbon treaty, I will very reluctantly have to campaign against the second referendum.
We have raised the issue of management committees on this side of the House many times and I am glad to see the Government is now coming on board. One of the sinister things that could perhaps be addressed by legislation is that developers can refuse to hand over to a democratically elected tenants' management committee as long as they retain one unsold unit. They regularly do this so that they can hand out contracts to their friends and charge whatever they like. This is something about which we should legitimately be worried.
Although the issue of the banks has been widely discussed, we are due another debate on that. Bank of Ireland shares have collapsed and are below €1, while a year ago they were valued at €18. What about the people who have invested their life savings in this? I was chairman of the board of a number of charitable companies. I received nothing from them but I made very sure that I did not trade recklessly. That is an offence under law. These people clearly traded recklessly but what is happening to them? If we are going to capitalise, will we give them more money and leave them there? I certainly would not be happy handing out money to capitalise people who obviously traded recklessly in the past.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Prendergast. Regan, Harris, Bacik, Hanafin, Healy Eames, Hannigan, Buttimer, Butler, Ross, Coghlan and Norris expressed their views on the economy. There are great concerns about the changing face of the economy on a week by week basis. I had intended to have a debate on the economy the week after the Finance Bill is published on 3 December, but I will review the situation after these calls and similar calls last week to see how an earlier debate may be facilitated. Senator Regan quoted an address the Taoiseach gave some months ago, but the situation is changing weekly rather than monthly or annually. It is unprecedented. Those of us who have been in business long enough know that what is happening is unprecedented. World leaders have never faced such a challenge to the global economy, which affects everyone, as we are witnessing now. I remember the recession in the 1970s and the 1980s. I was involved in the terrible struggle to keep paying staff wages and maintain employment. No one has all the answers, and I want colleagues to exercise their minds on this and perhaps come up with a unified suggestion for the Government.
In times of previous economic downturn, farmers had resort to the ACC, which was a Government-backed bank, while the manufacturing sector and small family businesses had recourse to the ICC, but those institutions are no longer there. People who were struggling could discuss their problems with a bank and it gave them a break because it was Government-backed. On this occasion, however, that does not arise. The difficulty now is that the Government must protect small firms, including family businesses, those who employ approximately 150,000 people. Those people are very concerned about the challenges they will have to face in the next 18 months. That being the case, legislators must ensure that some provision is made in the banks' guarantee to replace the good work previously done by the ACC and the ICC. I can certainly say, addressing the Upper House as Leader, that I know dozens and dozens of friends who would not be in employment or would not be giving employment today in a huge way, particularly in the midlands where I am from, were it not for the assistance of those two Government-backed banks in the 1970s and 1980s. I will do anything I can to assist colleagues in regard to having this debate take place. I want to help in every way possible in order that we, as Members of the Upper House, play our part.
Senator Fitzgerald asked the up-to-date position regarding medical cards and I will come back to the House tomorrow morning with that information. Senator O'Toole has on numerous occasions requested a debate on education. I am endeavouring to have this debate take place but, as colleagues know, legislation, which has priority, is being dealt with all day tomorrow and all day Thursday. I know how seriously colleagues take legislation when it is offered to the House and I look forward to their participation over the next two days. I have taken on board the strong views expressed in the House last week with regard to legislation getting preference over statements and other debates.
Senator Prendergast outlined something really important to the House, namely, the unfortunate plight of the late Susie Long. Going home from the House one afternoon I heard a re-run on the radio on what poor Susie Long had said and experienced over the seven or eight months she had waited to get into hospital. Had she been diagnosed with cancer in time, she might be alive today. Surely it would be the wish of every Member of this House, under your stewardship, a Chathoirleach, that we would learn from the advice and example of the late Susie Long and do whatever we can in order that this can be addressed.
It is unacceptable that someone is told he or she has cancer but cannot be taken into hospital for three or four months. If there is a priority to be given to expenditure, surely it must be given to those who are suffering the dreaded plague of cancer. We should make it one of our principal fights and priorities, as Members of the 23rd Seanad, to seek to do all we possibly can to ensure cancer is made one of the top priorities of the HSE. No one should be told he or she has cancer and must stay at home for three months. That is not acceptable. I will certainly have the Minister to the House to discuss this issue. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, has been very co-operative with the House since she was appointed to her portfolio in the current Government.
Reference was made to penny-pinching cutbacks and the need for self esteem and respect for the unfortunate people who were suffering from the treatment of cancer. I will certainly have this addressed and will speak to the Minister personally about it.
Senator Ó Murchú welcomed the decision of the city council that No. 16 Moore Street would be preserved. The building was closely associated with the leaders of 1916. I join with Senator Ó Murchú in welcoming the decision and we look forward to anything that can be done to enhance the property. I congratulate the city manager, councillors and the Lord Mayor for this decision.
Senator Harris referred to the task force on the reform of the public service, which he is making one of his priorities. My understanding is that this report will be published about 26 November. I also commend the Senator with regard to taking a reduction of 10% in his salary as his commitment to the plight of the economy at present.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on female genital mutilation, which I can certainly allow to take place. Senators Kett, Hannigan, Feeney and Norris called for an update on the regulation of apartments and management charges. I understand from the Deputy Leader, Senator Dan Boyle, that legislation is coming forward and will be in the House in the very near future. I join the Senators in their call in that regard. I heard on the radio that 180,000 apartments are now available or are being rented here. That means that in excess of 250,000 people live in apartments.
Senator Hannigan expressed his views on the unfortunate 39 albinos who were killed in Tanzania. I will pass on the Senator's views to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Senator Buttimer asked the up-to-date position on the intention of the Government regarding aviation, particularly in respect of the three airports in Cork, Shannon and Dublin. I made a commitment to have a debate on that.
Senator McFadden called for support for lone parents, working lone parents and lone parents in their teens. I support the Senator's call and will do anything I possibly can to have a debate on that issue.
Senator Norris called on the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, to come into the House and explain the United States-Ireland agreement that has been successfully concluded. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, on what he has done for the Irish who travel to the US in terms of customs clearance. We all remember the bad old days when we would arrive in New York or some other destination in the US after a long flight and would have to stand for three or three and a half hours while waiting for customs clearance, and there was no air conditioning in those days. I congratulate the Minister. I will pass on Senator Norris's strong views on the other issues he raised.