Thursday, 20 November 2008
Order of Business
I am glad the Leader heard the bells ringing this morning following the mishap with them yesterday. I hope he will have a good relationship with those bells over the next few weeks. There are varying views on whether the bells were heard all over the House. Some Members heard them while others did not. It was very strange but I understand they are working effectively now.
I call for a debate on the changes to the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission and the abolition of the Combat Poverty Agency, a topic that has been raised by Senators on both sides of the House in recent weeks.
It is appropriate, at a time when there is ever more pressure on families, individuals and those who are marginalised in our society, that we have this debate and ask the Minister to explain his thinking behind the changes to these organisations. The IHRC, an internationally recognised body, was established to protect human rights. Yesterday the media reported on the case of the woman who was to be deported to Nigeria with her two daughters who are at risk of female genital mutilation. It is important that we have strong independent bodies. The Combat Poverty Agency has been abolished.
In conjunction with that, I would like a debate on equality, which some people think is passé. However, it is not passé. As we approach the 90th anniversary of women being given the right to vote on 14 December, that would be an appropriate date for the House to debate this issue and to examine why politics remains so resistant to women's participation in society. It is the last bastion in this regard. We have 87% representation by men in the Dáil and 80% in the Seanad, although this Seanad has the highest representation of women ever, at 20%. That increase in representation is welcome. It would be appropriate that that debate coincided with the anniversary in December.
Families heard this morning that their health insurance will cost them a couple of hundred euro more a year. This must be tallied with the changes in the budget. Families are losing out badly, the details of which will be outlined later in the Finance Bill. Stealth taxes include the increase in third level registration and school transport fees. I attended a meeting in Lucan last night which outlined that schools were recently told the money that had been made available for a pilot project to provide school buses had been withdrawn, thus adding to the chaos around schools every day. The pilot school transport scheme is also affected. We need to have the promised debate on the economy and the Finance Bill as soon as possible. Perhaps the Leader will inform us today when that will happen.
I remind the Leader that we still await a debate on the economy. We discussed nothing but the economy in the Members' bar yesterday. During half time in the match last night, we talked about the economy. The newspapers are reporting on the economy and the Taoiseach made an announcement yesterday about the economy. It is being discussed everywhere except in this House.
The Government is losing opportunities to give some semblance of confidence to people, which needs to be done through discussion and information. The Taoiseach said yesterday Irish banks were adequately capitalised, which is an important statement. That view was not widely shared in this House or within the Leader's party and the media do not accept it. The Taoiseach has received the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the banks and it would be interesting if he or the Minister for Finance would come to the House and explain how he sees that proceeding.
I refer to an example of the difficulties being experienced. One of the green shoots that we might see in the economy would be if the housing market were to start moving again. This raises the question of how many houses remain unsold throughout the country. The fact that we cannot obtain information in reply to that question undermines the credibility of Government commentators and economists. We have learned enough over the past year or two to forget about what economists have to say because they do not know. They are decent people but let them go off and do what they do academically.
Tom Parlon of the Construction Industry Federation says there are 50,000 unsold houses while the Institute of Property Auctioneers and Valuers states that the number is closer to 250,000, five times the difference. Its members are in the business of buying and selling and one imagines they should know. Meanwhile the CSO states there are 260,000 empty houses nationwide, of which 50,000 are apartments and 50,000 are holiday homes. These apparently are different from unsold houses. However, having done the maths, the CSO figures mean there are 160,000 unsold houses. Homebond is the only body to trump Tom Parlon. That company has allowed 250,000 poorly insulated houses to be built in Dublin since 1998. Its representatives trumped Tom Parlon by saying there are only 38,000 unsold houses. However, they share the same address as Mr. Parlon as they are tenants in the CIF building. Where are we going? That is just one example and I could give more.
The Leader recently raised the issue of small businesses trying to upgrade.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his tolerance. Banks are putting more pressure on small businesses to pay their overdrafts by reducing such facilities. The overdraft facilities for many small businesses is less than the period of the banks' Christmas holidays. How will that impact on business and the flow of the economy? They are only two issues but I could raise ten more. It is time we were given clear answers and a clear understanding of where we are going on this.
I would also like to raise the issue of the Government health levy announced by the Minister for Health and Children yesterday. This is another form of indirect taxation and another attack on hard-working, hard-pressed families who have been screwed by the budget in a number of different aspects. It gives a lie to the Progressive Democrats myth that we have a low tax economy. It is another attack on those who are feeling the pinch of the downturn in the economic fortunes of the country. The levy represents an average increase of 25% for an average family of two adults and two children. The Minister stated she "hopes the cost would not be passed on to consumers". If this was not so serious, it would be funny. That is like saying she should go to Knock and pray for it. Unless there are legislative proposals to ensure this cost is not passed on, it will be.
This reflects the issue of the banks and the reduction in the ECB rate. The Minister for Finance said he hopes the banks will pass on the reduction to mortgage holders, but the Government should ensure they will do so. It should also ensure the levy is not passed on to hard-working families. No one argued this issue should not have been examined because intervention was needed to ensure elderly people with health cover were not penalised. However, a balance should have been struck. More information will need to be gleaned when the detailed legislation is published and this will lead to more awkward questions.
Those affected by the levy are paying huge mortgages and have experienced huge increases in repayments in recent times. They purchased houses that were over-priced in the first instance. Their children are attending third level institutions and they are facing the possibility of the Minister for Education and Science reintroducing third level fees. That issue is very dear to the hearts of those on this side of the House and, I am sure, others also. The abolition of third level fees was a policy initiative of the rainbow Government, of which we are very proud. We abolished third level fees to ensure those from less well-off backgrounds would have the opportunity to attend university. There is an ideology among some members of the Government, first mooted by the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who was bailed out by the then Tánaiste, Deputy Mary Harney, of re-introducing third level fees. When the Government cannot do that, it does it by stealth by raising university registration fees, thus reintroducing fees by the back door.
These families to which I referred have to deal also with the increased health levy and a 1% income levy. Their jobs were safe until the previous general election but they are looking to 2009 with no degree of certainty in that regard, given the downturn in the construction industry which has affected many of these families in that they do not now have job security. These people also pay PRSI. The original spirit behind PRSI was to cover education, social welfare benefits and health. A family paying VHI premia will see them rise by 25% on top of paying PRSI and the 1% income levy. When will it stop for families like this? When will we see any form of Government action which will help these people out of their economic difficulties rather than push them in further?
I agree with Senator Frances Fitzgerald that the decision by the Government to reduce funding to the Equality Authority by 43% is a disgrace, as is its decision effectively to dismantle the Combat Poverty Agency. Is it a coincidence that these organisations, the public watchdogs which were critical of the Government's policies, are the targets of its cuts?
I asked the Leader recently to arrange a debate on foster caring. Foster carers provide a tremendous service to children unfortunate enough to suffer many ills that do not befall most children. Foster carers, through their generosity of spirit, provide good, safe and welcome homes for such children. It is always foster carers who stand into the breach for unfortunate families. There has been a call for more people to offer themselves as foster carers. A debate in the House would facilitate that call. Will the Leader, in tandem with our spokesperson Senator Mary White, arrange such a debate at the earliest possible opportunity?
The amount of freight carried by rail is minimal. There is a need for more freight to be carried by rail. The Irish Exporters Association has claimed that up to 10% of all freight could be carried by rail if there were a willingness on the part of CIE to do so. I have raised the matter before in the House. CIE has no interest in carrying freight by rail.
When I worked in Waterford Port, five to six freight trains came into the port every night with up to 150 containers. Nowadays, practically none goes into the port. It is because CIE is uncompetitive and has no interest in carrying freight. I thought it would have been the Green Party's policy, as well as every other party's, to take freight off the roads. I call for a debate on transport, in particular rail transport. There is no willingness on the part of the Government or CIE to introduce the sensible policy of taking container freight off our roads and putting it on rail.
I support Senator O'Toole's call for a debate on the economy and the serious issues which have arisen. We need to instil some semblance of confidence in the people that what we are going through is a cyclical — admittedly severe — global recession. It is unique to have a recession affect nearly every country in the world. However, we need to guard against what happened in Japan in the 1990s. Its economy had deflation and the authorities there tried to nurse the economy through a burst property bubble. As a consequence, the Japanese economy ended up static for nearly ten years.
Most economists are predicting that 2009 will be a particularly difficult year for all developed countries. Ireland will feel the pain and it will be much more severe than this year. There are serious issues pertaining to unemployment. One factor that will exacerbate these conditions will be a lack of confidence among consumers. Unfortunately, the deflation factor will mean that people holding off on purchasing houses, because they feel prices will fall further, will do the same for all spending. That has significant consequences for employment generally.
We need to instil confidence among consumers. The Government action on the banks has been very good. Most commentators accept capitalisation will be an issue. The timing of this is important. While Britain is getting much credit for its capitalisation programme, there is a feeling it may have done so too soon. While not an expert in the area, there are differing views on bank capitalisation and it is important we get it right. It is certainly important we debate it and instil some confidence in the public.
I agree we should have a debate on the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission. I take a different view, however. Like other Members, I too have been lobbied by people involved in that industry who have made the case for extra funding. No organisation likes to see its funding cut but in this area some organisations, such as Amnesty International, are funded independently of the Exchequer. There is no reason these bodies could not be funded on the same basis. The Oireachtas has a sub-committee on human rights and it is our job to represent all people, including those who are marginalised and disadvantaged. We have a job to do rather than paying boys to do a job for which we are paid.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 17 be taken before No.1. The purpose of this is to seek the leave of the House to have my Bill, Stem-Cell Research (Protection of Human Embryos) Bill 2008, introduced and prepared for debate. The Bill's purpose is to prohibit the creation of human embryos for research, to prohibit all research involving or deriving from the destruction of human embryos and to provide for related matters. It is limited in its scope and does not deal with reproductive matters.
I believe I enjoy the support of the House when I say that it is very important when we debate these issues, I hope on Private Members' business next Wednesday, that we approach them with a deep respect for the views of others, especially those which differ from ours. These are profound matters relating to when life begins and so forth. The word used by my colleague Senator Bacik yesterday, "fetish", and this type of language serves to demonise others. I hope we will not have that tone in the debate and I will certainly not be employing it. I hope to deal with the arguments of others and allay any concerns they have. I will be open for suggestions for amendments. I hope none of us will be demonised for our points of view.
I support Senator Fitzgerald's call for and would welcome a debate on equality. I, too, have been lobbied about funding for the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority. There is great value to the work done by the commission and I would be sorry to see it lose funding. Our debate on equality should be a nuanced one. Areas for abuse can arise in the way equality as a concept gets exploited by groups which seek further particular agendas as if they only reflected the only true interpretation of what equality requires in a given situation. I hope the debate will be generous, champions an authentic notion of equality and is interested in hearing the critique and praise due to people who work to further equality principles in our society.
I join with those who call for a debate on transport. It is entirely practical and proper that in these times we should have maximum flexibility. If the Irish Exporters Association tells us we can become more competitive by having rail transport directly to the ports by night then we should take it on board. We are told that in the first nine months of this year exports increased by 4%. That we could increase our exports in the middle of what is a perfect storm of financial and other matters is extremely positive. However, the fact remains that we are in a recession. We will need flexibility on all sides and this will include rail and ensuring we have competitive exports because this is from where future growth will come.
The United States is discussing deflation. If this happens, it would be the first time in 50 years. With this in mind, the debate on the economy should include FÁS training so we can quickly return people to work. In the 1980s workers' co-operatives were introduced. We may have a recession but I do not believe it will be a never-ending recession. An economic commentator stated on the news that it will go on forever but it will not. It will end and better times will come again. We should be ready and we should look forward and be positive.
During the good times, we allowed things to happen that we could afford. With regard to Combat Poverty and duplication, we do not mean duplication because it implies two, we are discussing triplication and quadruplication. Where one job is being done by five, ten and seven different groups what is the point of subsidising it when we cannot afford it?
I second Senator Mullen's proposal that No. 17 be taken at the commencement of business. I support the call by my colleague Senator O'Toole for an urgent debate on the economic issues facing the Government and the country. Today, the Finance Bill will be published. Let us hope that at least it will lead to robust political debate on the choices facing the Government and the Oireachtas over the next few weeks and months which will be crucial.
Profound economic problems must be faced. The announcement that the budget would be brought forward was made at the beginning of the Government's response. However, since then matters have gone from bad to worse. Taxation, public expenditure, tackling waste and public service reform all need to be debated urgently. The public would demand of us that the economy be the main political item on our agenda from now until Christmas.
As Senator O'Toole stated, on every street corner, in every pub and at every sporting venue, people speak about the economy. People who never previously worried about the economy or offered an opinion on it are deeply concerned. They want to see a response from the Government and political debate. If confidence is to return to the public it must begin with competence at Government level. The Taoiseach and the Minister must put forward the various economic options available to us.
This House must take every possible opportunity to debate the profound economic issues facing us, including job losses and fears of job losses and many other crises on the economic front. Next week should not go by without substantial time being set aside to deal with the issue which, as far as every citizen is concerned, should be the Government's only concern, namely, the economic state of the nation.
I support the calls for debates on equality and the economy. The first of these is a debate on equality and Senator Fitzgerald suggestion that it should be linked to the first vote for women in an electoral contest is as good a peg as any on which to hang it. With regard to spending curbs on State agencies, no one in the House can state any agency should be unaffected. However, obvious concerns are raised with regard to the proposed curbs on the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority. Earlier proposals to merge two agencies would have made this even worse and a proposal to share the secretariat at least is a sensible element to try to keep costs down in both agencies. However, I stated in this House previously, and I will repeat, that the idea of a shared secretariat where one agency is meant to operate in another town is nonsense.
Until this is clarified we need further debate.
With regard to the Combat Poverty Agency and the act in the process of being committed, it is regrettable that a stand-alone independent agency will not be in place. The opportunity to debate this matter in the upcoming Social Welfare Bill will allow as far as possible the body to be formed between the Combat Poverty Agency and the Office for Social Inclusion to have a poverty focus, to operate as independently as possible and to issue independent reports. The House will have an opportunity to discuss these issues.
With regard to a debate on the economy, what I stated yesterday on the Order of Business is particularly true today. To have such a debate, and a debate on the economy should be held regularly in the House, it is important that proper information is available to Members. Today's publication of the Finance Bill will help this process as will the Government's meeting with the chief executives and chairs of all of the financial institutions on foot of the internal PriceWaterhouse Cooper report on the future of banking which has been made available to the Government.
Such a debate should be conducted with a note of realism. We can do only three things to restore public finances. We can tax more, curb public expenditure or borrow more. In many of the contributions I heard today about what is proposed by the Government, I heard it is taxing too much, cutting too much or borrowing too much.
I look forward to the debate because some of contributions I heard suggested that any taxation measure or spending curb is wrong and everything can be solved by borrowing our way out of the problem. If one aspires to Government one must make these decisions and place proposals on the table.
I call for the Minister for Health and Children to come before the House to debate acute care in hospitals. I do so in the belief that she should resign because we, as Oireachtas Members, and public servants in general are being misled by the HSE——
——on acute care and the recommendations that have not been published by the HSE with regard to various hospitals throughout the country. I do so in the knowledge that the final report on acute services in the mid-west was completed on 20 December 2007. Why are we attending meetings, engaging in debates and meeting occasionally with the Health Service Executive only to be told reconfiguration plans are being put in place and changes in hospital services implemented? When I ask about the basis for doing this, I am told the report has not been published. In that case, the report should be published. It is a slight on democracy if it is not going to be. Recommendations are being put in place and reconfiguration of hospitals is taking place. It is happening in Mallow, Nenagh, Tralee and elsewhere throughout the State. The reports are not being published for no other reason than because they are politically sensitive It is as simple as that. The Minister either should ensure the reports are published or pack her bags and resign. It is as simple as that. The HSE must stand over the actions it is taking in regional hospitals throughout the State based on reports that have been concluded and which are being implemented by HSE staff.
It is a question to the Leader in regard to procedures. Every day on the Order of Business, different Members put various proposals to the Leader. Last week I suggested that there be a review of procedures, especially in view of the extraordinary climate in which we operate, with many Members calling for a debate on the economy. We all should give consideration to agreeing a procedure whereby a specified timeframe could be allocated weekly for a debate on a topic agreed upon between the leaders of the parties. Whether it be an issue relating to the economy, the health service or otherwise, the debate should at least be focused. Rather than each Member giving his or her views, we should have an agreement on the manner in which we deal with these types of issues. Will the Leader examine whether some agreement can be reached on procedures for allocating time within our weekly schedule for a topical debate?
Many Members referred to the current condition of the economy. There is no doubt that we are in an economic slump. It is my view that a stimulus package is required as well as a clear fiscal policy. It is true that everybody is talking about the economy. I recently attended the launch of Jean Kinane's new book, E'beth — the Lady, a fabulous book whose sales proceeds will go to the Marie Keating Foundation, which does a tremendous amount work.
A man who became known as "Joe the Plumber" was made famous during the United States presidential election campaign for the views he expressed on the economic policies of one of the candidates. We are all meeting Joe the Plumbers wherever we go, whether at a function or on the street, all of whom are anxious to impart their views on what needs to be done to revive the economy.
There is no doubt that clarity is required in regard to the banking system. There is a general view that €20 billion is available for drawing down from the pension fund. It is my understanding that this money is tied up and that penalties will apply if it is removed from the vehicles in which it is invested. I support colleagues' calls on the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Finance to outline to the House the Government's fiscal and banking policy. We must have clarity in this regard.
I disagree with my colleague, Senator Hanafin, and support the views expressed by others that the Combat Poverty Agency, Equality Authority and Irish Human Rights Commission have done extraordinary work. Although I agree to some extent that the new Oireachtas committee structure is well equipped to deal with such issues, there should nevertheless be a debate on the situation of these bodies.
I join other speakers in asking the Leader to facilitate a debate on the economy. Since the summer, we have witnessed a Government devoid of a plan. Where is the plan? We read in the newspapers this morning that the Taoiseach will convey this plan at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting. Four months since the crisis emerged, the only evidence of a plan is his decision to cancel his staff Christmas party.
The reality is that for many people, the economic bleakness of Christmas will continue into the new year. Unemployment is increasing, retail sales are down and house repossessions are on the rise. We have a banking crisis, with the Taoiseach telling us the banks have sufficient capitalisation while it becomes increasingly clear that those same banks have been telling lies to us all for no one knows how long. We are in crisis. I use the word "lies" deliberately. The representatives of the banks misled the Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service last summer.
The Leader is a businessman and is undoubtedly aware of the difficulties being experienced by small businesses. Will their concerns be taken seriously? We need a Government with a plan. There has been no debate on the economy in this House since the budget. I know Members on the Government side are under pressure and running scared. Ordinary people are also under pressure. We must have a debate as a matter of urgency.
I join many colleagues in calling for a debate on the economy. We are in a serious situation with new issues arising every day. The impact of a possible €500 annual increase in the cost of health insurance for families will inevitably force people into sole reliance on the public health service which is already creaking and groaning, so to speak. It is important that we discuss these issues and we need to know the facts. I was interested to hear this morning's remarks by George Lee that the Department of Finance got the figures wrong. I have made the same point on many occasions over the years in this House. It was pointed out to me by a friend who is a bank manager that it always gets them wrong. The forecasts were inaccurate when revenues were rising and they are inaccurate now when they are falling. In the absence of these types of critical data, how is it possible to plan?
The serious financial situation internationally is not a natural disaster but a man-made development. As such, it should be susceptible to being redirected by intelligent thought. Perhaps we can play some role in this. We need new businesses and an entrepreneurial element. I heard a young man speaking on the radio this morning about his business, which produces wooden computers that are biodegradable and recyclable, last for seven years and can be updated. The name of the company sounded like "I'm a con", so I initially thought it was a joke. However, it sounds like exactly the type of entrepreneurship we need. We discuss the economy every day in this House but only on the Order of Business. There must be a structured debate because this issue is currently forcing everything else off the only part of our business which receives some media coverage, in The Irish Times and on "Oireachtas Report".
I am glad that Senator Fitzgerald raised the question of the Equality Authority, Combat Poverty Agency, the Irish Human Rights Commission and other bodies. It is essential that the leader of the main Opposition party in the House should hammer home this point. Senator Regan has also raised it, as have Labour Party Members and my Independent colleagues, and there is support on the Government side. I have tabled a motion on this issue on the Order Paper and also proposed it yesterday as an Adjournment matter. Unfortunately, although I put on the record figures that would have answered Senator Walsh and produced and issued a script, there was no media coverage of what I said. It does not matter whose voice it is but the issue must be aired in this House. These groups have been selected and specifically targeted because they are fulfilling their statutory function of being critical of the Government. That is the reason they are going. I was astonished to hear Senator Walsh suggest a type of deregulation or privatisation of this area, which would kill off the statutory bodies. Is he not aware the Human Rights Commission is legally established under the Good Friday Agreement?
I appeal to the Leader to facilitate this debate. It was heartening to hear Senator Callely, as chairman of the Oireachtas sub-committee on human rights, speak out in support of these groups. I would not like the impression to be given that Fianna Fáil was intent on spancelling the voices of the poor. Senator Mullen spoke about a nuanced approach to equality. I am a simple person and there is either equality or there is not, unless one takes the Orwellian line that some people are more equal than others.
I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate as soon as possible on the report of the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, who expressed real concern about the non-implementation of the guidelines, that is, the three-point plan of recognising a situation of abuse, reporting it and responding to it. There is no response. We will walk into a situation similar to that in England with Baby P if we are not careful. A disaster is waiting. We must recognise the situation here and support the groups involved.
These things are taking place within the family. I have warned against making a shibboleth of the family. Families are wonderful when they are good. One of the nasty slogans of the pro-life campaign was that the most dangerous place for a baby to be was in the womb. There are times when it is not so safe within the family so let us understand the family. Even I come from a family; I did not come down the hot tap in the bathroom. Let us look at the family, but let us look at it in a reasonably intelligent and critical fashion.
With all the recessionary talk, it is great to have sport to raise one's spirits. Earlier this week we watched the match in Limerick which helped raise spirits there. Last night, I had the pleasure of attending Croke Park to watch the Ireland v Poland game. I was in the Polish crowd and was a little confused at the start. Given that it was Croke Park, all the red and white flags would lead one to think one was with Cork supporters. The fact that I could not understand the accents added to the impression. It was a fantastic spectacle. There were 75,000 spectators, Irish residents of different nationalities and ages, watching teams made up of 11 residents of Poland and 11 residents of England managed by an Italian.
I doubt one could get a better example of how Ireland has changed. I congratulate the GAA for opening Croke Park to other organisations. However, the Leader should impress on the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism the need to ensure that the GPA is properly looked after. There were rumours from his office yesterday that the Minister might be trying to renege on his previous commitments in that regard.
As has been said repeatedly, we must have a debate on the economy. That debate should incorporate the role of FÁS and how it is briefing itself with regard to upskilling and conducting research on the types of jobs we should plan for in the future. The world of work is going to change drastically. We will have to think about what work is, how it should be done, whether jobs should be from nine to five and whether they should be in a different setting. There are many issues we could discuss in this area. If we are to have an ongoing debate on the economy, it must incorporate those ideas and ideas for the future. We are at a starting point again. The old economy is changing and we must start thinking about where we go from here, the ways people work and the quality of life in the future. It is a bigger issue than simply saying the economy is on a downturn. Of course, we must discuss the banks. I hope we can have a long discussion on the banks and give them as much bad press as we can.
I would welcome a visit by the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to the House. I do not have the answers. Members are saying hospitals are closing or not operating and so forth. The Minister is always willing to come to the House to answer questions and face any challenges put forward in this Chamber. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister, Deputy Harney, to come to the House to answer Members' questions.
There has been a request for a discussion about the amalgamation of the Combat Poverty Agency, the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission. I do not know whether it is a good or a bad idea. However, we should discuss how these organisations work. Perhaps they can still do their job with integration.
I join the call for an urgent and comprehensive debate on the economy. A meeting is planned today between the Taoiseach and the heads of the financial institutions. I appeal to the Leader to ensure the following issues of concern to the public are put on the agenda. The public needs to know that future interest rate reductions will be passed to the consumer immediately, that is, on the next day. The public also needs to know there will be a flexible attitude to people who are having difficulty with their mortgages and that credit facilities will be made available. The public knows that the chief executive officers and mandarins in the banks have caused huge difficulty for this country in terms of their exorbitant salaries and the reckless decisions they made in the financial sphere by allowing millions to be paid for sites without value, sites subject to planning permission and so forth. That waste and profligacy on the part of the banks has come home to roost. The banks must now exert a common-sense approach and demonstrate some compassion for consumers by passing on interest rate cuts and making credit available. The people urgently need to know that this will happen immediately.
B'fhéidir go mbeadh an Ceannaire in ann cuireadh a thabhairt don Aire, an Teachta Éamon Ó Cuív, teacht isteach anseo roimh deireadh na bliana chun stádas na Gaeilge — ní hamháin sa tír seo, ach san Eoraip freisin — a phlé. Mar is eol dúinn go léir, tá reachtaíocht nua ann anois atá thar a bheith ilghabhálach. Tá an-chuid rudaí ansin gur chóir dúinn a phlé. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil cuid dóibh pléite ag coistí an Oireachtais cheana. Ba chóir dúinn nithe den tsórt seo a phlé sa Teach seo go rialta. Tugaim faoi ndeara go bhfuil dea-thoil ann don Ghaeilge sa Teach seo, agus i dTeach Laighean i gcoitinne. Tá mórán daoine ag úsáid na Gaeilge, go mórmhór i gcúrsaí comhrá. Ba mhór an trua é muna mbeadh sé sin aitheanta againn. Ba chóir dúinn chur leis freisin.
Perhaps the Leader will invite the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, to the House. There are many issues on which I wish to hear the Minister's opinion, particularly in regard to the language Act and what success has been achieved and, second, in regard to official working status for the Irish language in the European Union. These are major issues. We were delighted with the progress that was made at first but I believe we should have an ongoing monitoring role of that progress. Perhaps the Leader will be able to accommodate this request before the end of the session.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on equality in health care provision? I note from reports yesterday that the Minister for Health and Children will intervene to ensure that older people will not have to pay massive premiums on foot of the Supreme Court decision on risk equalisation. It would be timely in that context to discuss equality and universality in the provision of health care. Clearly, the most equitable way to provide for health care would be to provide for a universal health insurance system. We should all be concerned about the Government announcement that it will introduce measures to penalise those who take out health insurance late. We need to debate universality of health care provision.
I support Senator Fitzgerald's call for a debate on women's representation in politics, which is another aspect of equality about which we should all be concerned. The percentage of women representatives in the Dáil and Seanad is very low and Ireland ranks very low by international standards in this regard. I am organising an event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the election of the first woman, Countess Constance Markievicz, and the first occasion when women were entitled to vote, which was the 1918 general election held 90 years ago this December. On 9 December I will host an event for former and current women Members of the Oireachtas to celebrate the achievement of women in politics.
Businesses are finding it very difficult to continue. At the very least they require lower interest rates, which help everyone, including those hard pressed with mortgage and business repayments. However, I defend the cautious approach of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance to the banking situation in finding out exactly what the underlying problems are within the banking system, of which there are many not only in this country but worldwide. It is wise to carry out audits and find out the banks' debt problems in respect of property development. Even if the Exchequer had to support the banks, it appears it could buy the banks much cheaper today than they could have done six weeks ago. A cautious approach has been taken, which I believe is correct.
We now have an opportunity I believe we should take it. I say to those who urge faster action to consider events in the economy in Britain, which is very close to us, although it has a different currency, where it has not yet fixed all the problems in its banking system. Recapitalisation will fix certain problems.
I accept the proposed amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 17 be taken before No. 1, proposed by Senator Mullen and seconded by Senator Bradford.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, McCarthy, Hanafin, Bradford, Boyle, Callely, Buttimer, Norris, O'Reilly, Ó Murchú and Butler expressed serious concerns regarding issues pertaining to the banks. They again called for a debate on finance. The Finance Bill 2008 will be published today at 3 p.m. In one way or another we share the many strongly held views expressed on the matter this morning. The best way to describe the matter in a lay person's language is that not in living memory have we seen such a downturn in the global economy. We previously witnessed it in Ireland and in other nations, but not globally. The challenge is to try to get the economies of the world to start to turn the corner. It has been frequently said in the House that when the banks stop lending to each other, credit decreases, and credit is the lifeblood of business, commerce and jobs; it is everything.
A package was considered by the G20 group of nations last week in which the Government played an active part. We are a small economy of 5 million people and we notice the downturn more quickly than most, but we will also, because of our size, be the one nation that will turn the corner quicker than most when the upturn comes. However, we must wait and see. As Senator Butler, who has been a long time in business, noted, while a cautious approach may not be palatable for three or four weeks it will serve us well. I look forward to the Government's initiatives.
The Finance Bill 2008 will be published today. Second Stage will be taken in the Dáil next Tuesday and Wednesday, to conclude on Wednesday night. Committee Stage will be taken the following week in the Dáil, with Report and Final Stages to conclude the following week, at 5 p. m. on Thursday, 17 December. That is the timeframe for the Finance Bill 2008 in the Dáil. The Social Welfare Bill 2008 is proceeding at present and it will be before this House also. I say this because I am trying to work out a timeframe. There will be legislation every day from now until the Christmas recess. Therefore, I wish to discuss with the party leaders in the House at the next meeting how we can facilitate before Christmas the very urgent debates called for on education, finance and other serious matters, such as an update on the Health Service Executive. That will be the first item on the agenda for the meeting of party leaders next Tuesday and we will try to find a way to progress the requests made by many colleagues this morning. That applies also to the requests regarding debates on the Equality Authority, the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Combat Poverty Agency. It applies also to the requests for debates on school transport and other issues highlighted this morning.
Seanad Éireann has a 20% representation of women, which is the highest of any western parliament. We look forward to more ladies participating. In my constituency of Longford-Westmeath during the general election of 2002 there were seven candidates, including three men and four very excellent ladies.
There is an opportunity to succeed if one stays at it long enough. However, being in public life means being available 100 hours per week and that is a very difficult occupation. The minimum commitment to public life is 100 hours per week, including working on Sundays and, in my area, Christmas Day. It is a pleasure and an honour to serve, but that is the commitment required. That is the reason it is so difficult to break through. I encourage the introduction of any possible measures to increase participation by ladies in public life.
Countess Constance Markievicz had a significant part to play in getting the franchise for women in 1918, as the Deputy Leader remarked. We had to wait until the arrival of the former Minister, Máire Geoghegan Quinn, who was the next woman in Cabinet. That is how difficult it was for ladies, whereas now it is the norm. There are two ladies in Cabinet and there is a lady Tánaiste. Matters are progressing and women are becoming more prominent and giving example to others. It sends the message that we encourage ladies to be involved as much as is humanly possible.
Senators McCarthy and Bacik spoke on the Government levy that was announced yesterday. I hope it will be received in the spirit in which the Government, particularly the Minister for Health and Children, made the announcement. Age Action Ireland welcomed this and stated that the Government's intervention is timely and will ensure many of the 600,000 people over the age of 50 with private health insurance will be able to afford to keep the cover. That is the spirit in which it was proposed and implemented. I have no difficulty with debating this in the House in future.
Senator Glynn again called for a debate on foster carers. I am pleased to inform the House, with permission of the Fianna Fáil Party, that we will take this in party's next slot for Private Members' business. We only have one more slot before Christmas, which shows how tight it will be to get debates other than those on legislation to take place.
Senator Cummins made a common-sense proposal when he called for a debate on the carriage of freight to assist Irish exporters. He also mentioned the port of his native city of Waterford and called for the rail transport division of CIE to seize the opportunity if it arises. There is no reason such an opportunity should not exist, and we will have no difficulty facilitating a debate on that. I can also agree to the call by Senator Norris for a debate on the report of the Ombudsman for Children.
Senator Hanafin and others made strong proposals to avail of the downturn by focusing on job creation. The future is in training. About €4.3 billion will be spent by FÁS on retraining people between now and 2020, as 60% of today's workforce will have to be upskilled by that date. I look forward to this debate, and I know that many colleagues want to make a contribution. FÁS rallied to the cause magnificently in the 1980s, and we look forward to its participation in the challenges faced by those who are unfortunate enough to be losing their jobs at the moment. They will be able to avail of this upskilling and retraining immediately.
Senator Ó Murchú called for a debate on the Irish language, and I have no difficulty in leaving time aside for this. I welcome the students of Coláiste Treasa from Kanturk to the Visitors Gallery who are here for the conclusion of the Order of Business.
I remarked that I was going to discuss the matter with the Senator's leader next Tuesday to see if we have time to accommodate the urgent requests made to me by all Senators this morning. I included Senator McCarthy's comments in that. There are serious requests being made to me every morning. It is a matter of getting time to facilitate those requests. I was going to propose to party leaders that we would consider an all-day debate on Friday, 5 December on many of these issues. I am a consensus leader and I communicate, consult and negotiate all the time with everyone in authority to facilitate the diaries of Members.