Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Regional Fisheries Boards (Postponement of Elections) Order 2008, referral to committee, without debate; and No. 2. motion re statements on FÁS. It is proposed that No. 1 will be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business. No. 2 will be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and will conclude not later than 6.30 p.m. Spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for eight minutes, and Senators may share time by agreement of the House. The Minister will be called upon ten minutes from the end of the debate for concluding comments and questions from spokespersons and leaders.
Last Friday the Government launched a new report on public sector reform, which I read. It is almost as if this Fianna Fáil-led Government woke up after ten years and found itself in office, because there is a whole range of recommendations in the report which should have been in place before now. Why have these recommendations not been in place for the past ten years? This question arises when one reads the report, especially the section on monitoring of agencies set up by the Government. The implications have been most clearly apparent in recent days and weeks with FÁS, and we have an opportunity to discuss that agency later today. Where has this report been for the past ten years? Where was the monitoring for the past ten years? I ask the Leader to provide the House with an opportunity to discuss that report. It is essential that reforms take place urgently given what has come to light in the context of FÁS in recent days.
The lack of reform of the public sector and the lack of oversight has undermined our Civil Service. The Government's responsibility has been passed on to other agencies like the HSE. The Fitzgerald report published a number of months ago indicated that people in that organisation were unclear as to their role. All of this has undermined the public sector. It is very clear that the sector needs reform, although that should not mean cutting frontline services. Such reform is outlined in the aforementioned report and should have been happening over the past ten years.
I ask that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs be invited to the House to discuss pensions. Yesterday she rather strangely said, in her response to people's concerns about pensions, that people could rely on the State pension. Now is probably a good time to discuss the regulatory regime for pensions that is currently in place. It is likely that the regime needs to be altered to ensure the survival of a range of pension funds. Many people are very concerned about personal and private sector pensions. The Government must act in this area but the Minister was not very reassuring in what she said yesterday. A debate on the issue in this House would be appropriate in order that we can hear the Government's plans regarding pensions.
I note that the Leader has once again funked having a debate on education this week. It is clear that the Government is seriously embarrassed by the fact that it is the only area where frontline staff are being removed from service provision. Having a debate on the issue would be the honest thing to do so that we can examine the potential impact and hear the arguments from both sides. I will be proposing a change to the Order of Business tomorrow or on other days this week to facilitate such a debate. I appeal to the Minister for Education and Science to participate in a debate in the House and ask the Leader to invite him to do so.
Having been reared, as many others were, on stories of Irish people being abused, misused and exploited abroad, I was never more ashamed to be an Irish citizen than I was last night while watching the "Prime Time Investigates" programme. It showed how newcomers and immigrants to this country were being treated by Irish industry. I never thought I would see anything as bad as people actually being forced to work for nothing. As a trade union official I often dealt with cases of people being poorly paid or working in poor conditions but that programme showed instances of people being forced to work for months on end, on the mere promise of being paid. They never got paid and were kept in slavish conditions. I ask that the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with responsibility for labour affairs, Deputy Billy Kelleher, give his views on the matter, although I am not for one moment blaming him for the situation. It is likely that he would share my views on the matter but he must go on the record on the issue.
The question of the privatisation and capitalisation of the banks is a recurring theme. As I have said every time the issue is brought up, I believe the Government is right not to rush into anything. It was right not to have invested taxpayers' money in the banks. The issue must be discussed seriously. While capitalising the banks may be important it will not guarantee that money will flow to small businesses and others. Capitalising the banks improves the share price. That is all it does. Once the banks get the money in, they use it to improve their own asset base and there is no requirement on them to make more money available for loans. The Government is doing the right thing in not rushing into anything at this stage. Having said that, I would like the Government to explain what it is doing. The Taoiseach or the Minister for Finance should come to the House and say, "This is what the plan is; this is what we are trying to do; here is how we are going to do it; we want everyone to get in behind us; these are our objectives; and this is how we will know when we have won". At the moment, we are just wandering along from one crisis to another. There is no confidence and there will be no improvement in sentiment and no movement in terms of getting a more optimistic view on the economy while we are wondering where the Government is going. It is not enough for the Government to take the right decisions if it is not sharing with us what those decisions are and telling us how we need to get behind them so that we can at least have a national approach. This is something in which the social partners and other groups should be involved. It has been raised on the Government side as well. We need to address these issues rapidly.
I entirely agree there should be a debate on the issue raised by Senator O'Toole about the banks. However, on its own capitalisation of the banks would not achieve what Senator O'Toole says we need to achieve. There must be conditions associated with capitalisation of the banks by the State if that is what is to occur. Senator O'Toole is right in stating that it cannot be done on its own. The whole point of the argument made by my party and others is that we cannot just dump money in but that we should make it conditional. We should take an equity stake in the banks so that the Government does not just have the type of arms-length, supervisory control that has been canvassed in the context of the guarantee, but part ownership. Ownership would give it control, and then it could get on with achieving the outcomes that Senator O'Toole rightly says need to occur if recapitalisation takes place. The Senator is right in stating that there should be a plan, and it is amazing that we do not yet have one. We have called umpteen times for the kind of discussion that we all feel needs to occur.
I agree with Senator O'Toole in what he said about last night's "Prime Time Investigates" programme. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate in the House involving the Minister with responsibility for labour affairs and possibly the Minister for Transport. One aspect of the programme was that, notwithstanding that the Department of Transport appears to be aware of many breaches of employment law in the road haulage sector, it has never revoked a single haulage licence, which is extraordinary in circumstances in which it knows about these abuses. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister with responsibility for labour affairs to come to the House.
I agree it is not a question of blaming the Minister of State for a particular state of affairs in his area, but there is an issue with regard to where we look for responsibility, including political responsibility. I heard one of the people last night on the programme — I think it was Mr. Quinn, whose issues we will not go into here — make an extraordinary statement in view of his former responsibilities as a spokesperson for the haulage industry. He stated that there is plenty of legislation and there are lots of agencies and quangos so if workers did not understand their rights it was not his fault. This type of hand-washing is also problematic in so far as it applies to Ministers. We need to introduce the legislation we were promised nine months ago, the Employment Law Compliance Bill, which was published last March but which has not been advanced. We need to consider this legislation.
I agree with what Senator Fitzgerald said about the public sector, but it is amazing that some people — I emphasise "some" — a small number of people in the private sector constantly seek to dump everything on the public sector. They say the public sector is a burden we are carrying around. However, if some of those people — I emphasise again that I am talking about a small number of people — in the haulage industry and, as was pointed out on last night's programme, the hospitality industry and among those employing domestic workers spent less time complaining about the public sector and regulations and more time honouring their own responsibilities——
——in terms of paying their workers properly, treating them properly and paying their own tax and PRSI to the State, perhaps then we could talk about slimming down the public sector, because those in the public sector would not need to chase these people to ensure they discharge their basic responsibilities as employers.
I wish to raise something that was brought to my attention in Kerry at the weekend, which I hope the Leader will bring to the attention of the Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Foreign Affairs. It relates to nefarious activities by individuals who are passing themselves off as migration agents "assisting" Irish citizens who wish to move to Australia. Members will be aware that the Australian Government has a target of attracting 200,000 additional workers between now and June 2009. Because of the current economic difficulties, it is becoming quite attractive for young professionals in particular to go to Australia. There is a myriad of documentation and a great deal of red tape associated with that because of visa requirements and so on. These individuals are setting themselves up as so-called Australian migration agents. There are only six such agents licensed by the Australian Government, yet these people are taking advantage of Irish nationals who wish to cut through the red tape.
I have one case involving an Irish nurse who paid in excess of €4,000, had two years of frustration but has still not obtained her Australian visa. No system is in place in this country for licensing such agents, unlike in the UK where it is stringently enforced. I ask the Leader of the House to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister.
The Gate Theatre celebrates its 80th anniversary this week. It would be important for this House to convey, through the Leader, our best wishes to that wonderful hallowed institution which has provided high class entertainment and the best of drama for those 80 years, from the works of Oscar Wilde to Harold Pinter to my own neighbour, John B. Keane. This is a wonderful occasion for the theatre and I ask that our best wishes be conveyed to it.
The Green Paper on pensions was published recently. However, in recent days, we heard about the memo leaked to The Sunday Tribune and the worry and concerns of people who are retired or who are about to retire that there may be insufficient funds to meet the liabilities. We all know the public sector pensions are very safe and that is proper order. However, it is so unfair that the people who actually pay the pensions for the public service are the people who are going to be expected to live on €230 a week. It is very cold comfort from the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to say that they can rely on €230 a week when these are the people who have been working all their lives to pay our pensions and those of the Garda Síochána, teachers and all the fat cat public servants who are earning masses of money. We saw one such public servant resign last week. His pension will be intact and he will have no worries.
Like Senator Fitzgerald I ask that the Leader make representations to the Minister on the issue of pensions. There is a proposal that people would be able to extend or postpone drawing down their pensions until the market stabilises and pensions would go up again. This is the best way to deal with it and it would be some reassurance for people who are so worried. It is not good enough for the Taoiseach to have said that the Minister will talk to the pensions industry. This is a very limp reply to the anxiety and worry that exist.
I am saying it concentrated the minds of those in the HSE and the matter has now been resolved and we will have 24-7 cover for the ambulance services of Roscommon County Hospital. That is thanks to having this forum, which the councillors do not have, to raise issues about the HSE and the health services.
I thank the Leader and I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter ten days ago. It is so important to have that type of service.
I ask the Leader of the House to allow a debate on health issues. For example, it would have taken one hour for an ambulance to come to a young lady, a mother of three children, who was haemorrhaging. Fortunately, a neighbour collected her and brought her to Roscommon County Hospital where surgeon Michael Relihan came on duty and saved her life. This is what it means to have a local hospital. The HSE and other policymakers do not realise people's lives will be affected and lost unless these good quality services are provided and maintained. Having surgeons and physicians on duty 24 hours a day is vital. It is the most important service in the country. I want the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, to attend the House so I can explain to her again what would have happened if the hospital had not been on call and Michael Rennan was not there to give emergency surgery on 23 November. I compliment the hospital and staff involved.
If this had not happened the woman in question would have died. The woman, Mrs. H, has asked me to raise this matter in the House. She is quite prepared to go public and explain what occurred in her situation.
I appeal to FBD Insurance to reconsider its decision to close 13 of its offices and lay off 153 staff who now face a dim future. FBD is a wonderful insurance company. I must declare an interest in that I have all my insurance policies with it. It is an Irish company established by the then National Farmers Association. It has provided great employment but is making cutbacks. I request that the company keeps as many staff in place. The closure of 13 offices is a big blow to the economy.
Like other Senators, I was very concerned on reading the Sunday newspapers about the potential deficit in private pension funds. The figure referred to of €30 billion dwarves those for the banks. On Sunday I was at a Christmas party for 150 elderly people in Kells. The sense of concern was evident. Many there were concerned as to what this means to their potential income. As people get older, they need certainty and clarity on this matter. Will the Leader arrange a debate to flush out the issues surrounding private pensions?
I was upset watching last night's "Prime Time Investigates" programme. Many of the issues have been raised already by other Senators. The issue relating to road safety, however, is very concerning particularly if people are driving these great lengths. A Chathaoirligh, could you bear with me for a minute. Someone's mobile telephone is going off.
I was very worried to learn from last night's programme that people were driving such journey lengths on our national roads. There is a clear need for the Garda and the enforcement agencies to take action in this regard. We should not be looking at trucks running into cars at this time of the year. There are real concerns about road safety that need to be tackled.
Likewise, I support the calls for debates on private pension schemes. Many close to retirement are concerned as to what their entitlements will be and I would welcome a debate on the matter.
The call for the debate on education is important to clear up the suggestions in the public on pupil-teacher ratio, substitute teachers and so forth. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, would love to attend the House and have a long discussion on these matters.
I congratulate "Prime Time Investigates" on its excellent broadcast last night. It highlighted what is happening to those being exploited in the workforce. It is important that the public acknowledges this. It is horrific to think of the kind of road traffic accidents that could result because of a haulage service exploiting its drivers and overworking them.
Last week the Sub-committee on Ireland's Future in Europe launched its report on the Lisbon treaty. It is important that the Seanad examines the "No" side to the treaty. There is no better Chamber than the Seanad for discussing this issue and bringing it out in the open. I congratulate the sub-committee on its work and its Chairman on his detailed coverage of each point of view on the treaty. I do not know if it is possible to include it on the agenda before Christmas, but it is important that we keep it on the agenda, now more than ever after the launch of the report last Thursday.
I refer to the schedule for the week and the motion re the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, back from committee, to be taken without debate. We had a discussion on this last Tuesday in respect of a framework decision on terrorism. I pointed out the unsatisfactory nature of introducing a matter concerning EU legislation without debate in this House, referring to a committee and it coming back without debate. This House has no opportunity to discuss, debate or raise any issue about these items of legislation. The framework decision on terrorism, introduced last week, will require change in our legislation. When that legislation is introduced, we will be told that we cannot have a debate on it because we passed the framework decision, the EU directive. It means that in respect of scrutiny of EU legislation, which has been highlighted as an issue in every debate on every treaty and referendum campaign, these Houses are failing to scrutinise EU decision making and to take ownership of the decisions made by our Ministers in Brussels. I am surprised the Leader has included this item without debate. I ask him to desist from introducing these issues without debate and to allow us to deal with EU legislation in this important area of criminal law and combatting crime measures.
Senators Fitzgerald and McFadden raised the matter of pensions. Reference was made to the statement of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, to the effect that if push comes to shove, people can rely on the State pension. This is a most insensitive, cavalier and arrogant statement. The reality is that many people have invested in private pensions or they have had to rely on their employment's investment in private pensions. They have a reasonable expectation of having a pension they can live on. As someone with a number of pensions, as teacher, Deputy and Minister, Deputy Hanafin simply made the statement when people are feeling the pain of the problems that have arisen in the equity markets which have affected the value of pensions. A debate on this issue is important. If that is all the Minister has to offer in terms of providing conditions under which some of the difficulties can be ameliorated, it is very sad.
I refer to one particular insurance company, Equitable Life, in the United Kingdom, which was in the news last week. This would not cost the Government anything. There are 6,500 Irish policyholders with Equitable Life. It has been the subject of a European Parliament report and a parliamentary ombudsman report in the United Kingdom, where there was a call for a fund to compensate Equitable Life policyholders. Given that there are so many Irish Equitable Life policyholders, I ask the Leader if the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Social and Family Affairs could clarify if any representations have been made to the UK Government or the Chancellor of the Exchequer in respect of this compensation fund and whether Irish policyholders would be included in such a package.
I support my colleague Senator Leyden in his call to bring the Minister for Health and Children to the House to discuss the Health Service Executive and waste therein. This is prevalent in my county of Kerry where we have had numerous reports on the Kenmare hospital. Thousands of euro were spent and plans were drawn up more than 33 years ago. Deputy Jackie Healy-Rae got a deal in 1997. He got another deal in 2007 that the hospital would be built and extended.
Deputy Michael Lowry has managed to secure a similar deal for Tipperary North, which has completed, in Borrisokane, phase one of its hospital. Phase two is due for completion in 2013. Yet in Kenmare, Deputy Healy-Rae is not being treated with equity by the Minister for Health and Children and, unfortunately, by the Government.
I agree with Senator Daly, the Government has forgotten and neglected the situation in Kenmare. Years ago I raised that matter in this House on the Adjournment and received what I believed was a commitment, but, as everybody knows, nothing has happened since.
Of course. I agree with Senator Fitzgerald's call for a debate on the public sector reform report which has been published. It should be coupled with Senator O'Toole's call regarding education and the need for front-line staff to be protected. Public sector reform must not be about removing the vital people of whom we have insufficient numbers in so many vital areas on the front line, it should be about removing the fat and the overly burdensome administration, much of which is needless, throughout the public service. I support that call for a debate regarding all the people in the wonderful teaching profession who are under threat.
Senator O'Toole is correct, we will have to challenge tomorrow and on succeeding days if we are not allowed to debate that matter.
Senators O'Toole and Alex White made very interesting points on the recapitalisation of the banks. I accept that will not be enough in itself, but it would begin to rebuilt confidence. We want to see Irish-owned and Irish-run institutions. That will give us strong domestic banks that are more capable of and inclined to make proper lending available to Irish businesses, so many of which are being starved, as we know, of working capital.
I always respect the Cathaoirleach's ruling more than most in this House, but we want to keep choice and competition. Will the Government consider some SSIA-type system to allow investors, through Irish-managed investment vehicles, to get involved? I am sure many vehicles are waiting in the wings.
I support the call for a debate on pensions, particularly the funding of many of our pension schemes. It is a most important issue. I disagree with Senator Regan's simplistic approach that in some way the Government should meet the losses accrued in pension funds. One might as easily say this about people who have invested in the stock market. People who have put their life savings into bank shares and others, and who depend on the dividends from those companies, have lost up to 90% of their wealth in the past year. One can argue this, but the State cannot be the rescuer in that situation.
There is a serious issue with defined benefit schemes because where there is underfunding they will breach their statutory requirements. The Minister is correct and I welcome her more flexible approach in view of the current circumstances. I compare that with the public service. We have index-linked pensions and if one has, say, 40 years of service one receives 50% of one's final earnings. There is no funding for that. It is paid for out of current expenditure. It will not be possible to continue that in circumstances where many more pension schemes may move from being defined benefit to defined contribution.
In all the argument that has taken place in the past 24 or 48 hours little mention has been made of the people on defined contribution schemes who are in an equally bad position as those on defined benefit schemes because the pot of money they had accrued for their pensions has been seriously eroded. That is a major issue and one on which I hope we will have a constructive debate.
I concur with those Senators who remarked on the road safety aspects of the "Prime Time Investigates" programme last night. As a former president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, I recall being brought on to a television programme with Pat Kenny more than 20 years ago for a head-to-head debate with the chairman of the Independent Hauliers Association, a body that was illegally hauling at the time. We argued from our side about the lack of enforcement of all the existing legislation, and that argument is continuing to this day. It is all about enforcement.
I recall some time later being in Germany where we spoke to people in the transport industry. I asked about the problems they had with illegal haulage. Even though the person I was speaking to had good English, he obviously did not understand what I was saying and had to get German translation. When he heard the translation he just laughed. The concept of illegal haulage was alien in Germany. They simply did not get away with it because if they were stopped on the roads and they were in breach of the regulations, their vehicle was taken away. That is what we need here. We have too much regulation and too little enforcement. That needs to happen.
Will the Leader ask the Members opposite to stop coming into the House and treating it with disrespect? Day after day, week after week members of the Leader's party in particular come in here and decry Government policy. They should come over to this side of the House and vote against their Government which is letting them down. They should stop coming in here and playing politics with the Irish people. They should come over to this side and vote. I ask the Leader to enforce that because I and the people are getting very tired of it and we are seeing the legacy of it now, with the economy in free-fall.
Senator Daly can talk about Kenmare hospital and Senator Leyden and Senator Ormonde can raise other issues, but they have never once voted against the Government whose policies they support. They should stop talking out of both sides of their mouths.
I join other speakers in paying tribute to the people involved in the "Prime Time Investigates" programme last night. It is an investigative programme which deserves accolades for what it has done. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister with responsibility for labour affairs to the House for a discussion on the deplorable working conditions of many workers. I am sure the Leader will join all of us who condemned the treatment of the workers depicted in the programme last night, in particular regarding the issue of road safety. If that was an Irish diaspora community 30 years ago in London or America, we would be on our feet in outrage. In today's new Ireland, all of us as legislators and public representatives have a duty to condemn outright the treatment of workers, regardless of who they are or from where they come. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister with responsibility for labour affairs to the House for an urgent debate on that issue.
Like Senator Fitzgerald, I ask for a debate on reform of the public service. As a society, we have lampooned public servants unfairly. The Government has treated public servants badly. All it has unveiled is a botched decentralisation programme and wrongly blamed workers in the public service. They deserve to be respected and treated properly and they deserve leadership from Government, which they have not got. That debate is long overdue.
I partially agree with Senator Leyden's comments regarding FBD's unfortunate announcement about the closure of a number of offices around the country. The company provides a service of which I avail, similar to the Senator. It is unfortunate at this time that a company that has done well in recent years is seeking to reduce the number it employs.
I support Senator O'Toole and others who have asked numerous times for a debate on education. The failure of the Minister for Education and Science to appear in the House to deal directly with the budget cutbacks since the Budget Statement is shocking. I asked the Leader about this last week and he said he was not having difficulty inviting Ministers to the House but I wonder whether he is because this is a particularly embarrassing subject for the Government and the Minister for Education and Science has not come into the House. Something must be happening to say he has not appeared. I do not accept it could not have been arranged at some stage, particularly in a week such as this when the House is sitting four days and, for example, business is due to adjourn this evening at 7 p.m. There is time for an education debate later and given there are four Ministers of State in the Department, if the Minister cannot be present for the entire debate, I do not see why he could not be present for part of it at least.
I join with Members who have referred to the announcements and pronouncements of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs about pensions over the weekend. She did not reassure thousands of people who have invested in private pensions and who are facing an uncertain retirement. Her performance to date has not been satisfactory and it would be useful if she attended the House to discuss the issue.
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, will the Leader ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come to the House? I acknowledged he attended recently for a fisheries debate. However, the farm waste management scheme is scheduled to cease at the end of the year and many farmers are in the middle of completing work. If the work is not completed by the end of the year, grants will not be payable and this potentially could have serious consequences for them. The ewe premium being sought by farming organisations for a period is also an issue. Mr. Liam Aylward, MEP, produced a report on this issue for the European Parliament. Last week a protest took place and sheep were left outside the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is a few years since a similar but more famous IFA protest outside the Department but we could usefully have the Minister in to discuss both issues and I would like that to happen between now and the end of the session.
The news relating to the private pension schemes is extraordinarily serious. Many people have worked hard, put in a lifetime of effort and they are looking forward to their pensions. It is their pride and joy and their future. Many people boast about their pension schemes, which are important. If there is a threat to their pensions, this is a very serious matter. I call on the Leader to arrange an urgent debate on the issue, which would be an example of the House responding to a serious national issue. The debate should be a priority no matter how schedules are arranged or how long it would take.
The proposition that people whose pensions are about to mature should put them on hold and wait a few years must be negotiated and the Government must achieve agreement on that with private pension funds. The financial services institutions and the banks are not prepared to take their fair share of the hit in a downturn and too many of their losses are being passed on to hapless and unfortunate consumers. I would like more evidence of them sharing in the recent misfortune. Every insurance company and financial services company should take a disproportionately large hit. I call on the Leader for a debate on this issue and to ensure the Government also insists that the companies take the hit they should take. They have large property portfolios, inordinate wealth and they have paid huge dividends over the years. It is time the financial services sector came clean with the people in order that consumers are not hit anymore. It is unthinkable that the pensions of hard working people in small businesses throughout the country, to some of whom I was talking yesterday, would be at risk. The House has no greater business than an emergency debate on this very serious issue.
Will the Leader call on whichever Minister is responsible, possibly the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to regulate debt collectors as a matter of urgency? The Cathaoirleach may have heard of the business that was named yesterday and today on "Liveline". Its job is debt collection on behalf of small, good businesses throughout the country which have been defrauded once by their customers. It appears now, however, they are being defrauded also by their debt collector. It is a serious issue. This company is charging thousands of euro on the promise it will collect and refund in total the fee it has taken in. This is an example of white collar crime. Urgent action is needed from the Minister in charge, who I trust is the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
I join other speakers in calling for the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House. I am fortunate that I am a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Science and I had the pleasure of hearing and speaking to the Minister at the committee two weeks ago. He said something outrageous at the meeting, however, that parents were not at all upset with the education cuts and that it was just the teachers who were. This is an outrageous remark given the number of people who have been coming out on the marches. We certainly do not have 8,000 teachers in Galway and it is parents in the main who have been involved. Last week, there were 150 parents in a school in Oranmore and they were outraged at how the cuts will affect the children. The education cuts are about children. They are not about teachers, although they will lose in terms of posts. Ultimately, those posts will be lost to the children.
I call on the Minister — excuse me, I meant the Leader. I wish I could call him a Minister because then perhaps he could deliver on this matter for us. We need a date for a debate. I must be six weeks looking for a date for the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House. It is time we had a response.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Ormonde and Buttimer called for a debate on the reform of the public service. We have prioritised this and will try to make time available so the debate can take place as a matter of urgency before the Christmas recess. On the point made by one Senator about decentralisation, I understand that 60% of all decentralisation will have taken place by the end of the term of this Government, which means 6,000 staff will have been decentralised at that stage.
Senators Fitzgerald, McFadden, Hannigan, Ormonde, Regan, Coghlan, Walsh, John Paul Phelan and O'Reilly expressed their serious concerns about pensions and that these should be conveyed to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. I urge all Senators with further concerns to make their contribution on the economy when the Minister for Finance is present in the House on Friday. As I informed the House last week, there is an all-day sitting on Friday to discuss matters pertaining to the economy and the finance portfolio. It is an open-ended debate and every Senator will have an opportunity on Friday to speak on the issue of the economy.
The Minister will be in the House at 10.30 a.m. I inform the House that I intend to move the Order of Business for Friday on Thursday morning——
——so the Minister will be present for the submissions of all the spokespersons on this very serious challenge facing our country, the Government and the people in general. I invite every Senator to make a contribution in the House next Friday.
Senators O'Toole, Coghlan, John Paul Phelan and Healy Eames called for a debate on education. I have made a commitment on this matter and it is not fair to suggest otherwise. I was successful in having the debate on agriculture take place, and the Minister for Finance will be in the House to debate the issue of the economy. Any time anything has been asked of me I have done my utmost to facilitate the requests of Members.
As was confirmed on "Questions and Answers" last night, an extra 3% was allocated in the budget for education. Perhaps it is not as much as we want to see but it is an extra 3% funding. As the acting leader of Fine Gael, Senator Buttimer, knows, his party wants to cut the allocation by 3%.
Senators O'Toole, Hannigan, Walsh and Buttimer expressed their serious concerns regarding what last night's "Prime Time Investigates" programme brought to our attention. We are all extremely annoyed, disappointed and shocked by certain parts of the well put together programme. The Road Safety Authority has a serious obligation in this regard, as was pointed out to the House by Senator Walsh who has a great deal of expertise in this area. Why does the Road Safety Authority not include in its next report that tachographs should be introduced which disconnect the ignition from the engine when the driver has driven for a certain period of time? That is simple technology which is available.
The Road Safety Authority has done an excellent job in recent years and I worked closely with it on insurance reform when I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business. I call on it to introduce a short report, as a matter of urgency, to inform the Government that this is what it proposes. Last night we saw on our television screens someone having to drive for 100 hours almost continuously. That is suicide in this occupation. I used to drive 60,000 miles a year. This is a serious difficulty and it is a menace to those who use our roads within the law.
Senators O'Toole, Alex White and Coghlan pointed out matters pertaining to the banks and the challenge that faces the country. Last Friday, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, asked the institutions covered by the Government's guarantee scheme to consider the contributions they can make to the economy through appropriate credit initiatives with regard to small and medium-sized businesses and otherwise and to come back to him on this matter within the next ten working days.
I applaud the Minister on his stance on this issue. As I pointed out to the House last week, and Senator O'Toole expressed the same view, the ICC Bank and the ACC Bank were there to assist the 800,000 people, or 40% of our workforce, employed by small and medium-sized businesses and small family businesses. The Government agency banks no longer exist and any struggling business, small or large, presenting itself to banks is finding it difficult to obtain the facilities necessary to continue in business in these globally difficult times.
This is a reasonable request and anyone providing employment in the country can see a ray of hope from this statement by the Minister last Friday to his colleagues with whom he is working closely in the banking world. I look forward to seeing whether this can be addressed in a meaningful way. The regulator should be obliged to monitor the situation on a bimonthly basis to ensure the banks are operating according to the letter of the law. The maintenance of jobs will be of paramount importance in the next year or 18 months. It is vital in this regard that small businesses are supported by the banks.
Senator O'Sullivan asked me to convey to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Foreign Affairs the activities of persons in his county and elsewhere in southern parts of the State who are posing as Australian agents and providing misinformation to young men and women who wish to emigrate to that country. I am happy to convey the Senator's concerns. Senator O'Sullivan also asked the House to join him in offering congratulations to Michael Colgan and everybody else associated with the Gate Theatre on the occasion of its 80th anniversary. Neighbours of mine, the late Edward Longford and Mrs. Longford, used to organise street collections in Mullingar in the 1950s to keep the theatre open. Those of us who are old enough will remember how difficult it was in this country at that time.
Senators Leyden and Daly complimented FBD Insurance on its efforts to support people in paying their insurance premia and so on. The Senators expressed alarm at the prospect of the possible closure of 13 offices. I join in their call to the company to reconsider its decision in this regard.
Senator Ormonde called for a debate on the Lisbon treaty with reference to the findings of the Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union, which operated under the excellent chairmanship of Senator Donohoe. Members of the sub-committee attended meetings on three days every week for the past four weeks. I will certainly endeavour to have time set aside for that debate.
Senator Regan expressed concern about motions being put before the House without debate. I suggest that the Senator outline any such concerns to his party leader in the House in advance of our weekly Tuesday meeting. I will consider any request made to me to allow debate on any particular issue. In order to ensure this is done in a uniform manner, I suggest that Senators ask their party or group leader to raise the issue in question at the weekly meeting.
Senator Buttimer expressed strong views of a personal nature. I am reliably informed that he comes from a strong Fianna Fáil background.
Senator Phelan called for a debate on agriculture. We had such a debate only two weeks ago, on which occasion I noted the comments of all Members. I will convey Senator Phelan's strong views to the Minister. However, we will be obliged to deal with one or two Bills every day between now and 19 December when the House will go into recess for Christmas.
I have been given an indication by the party leaders of the numbers of Senators who wish to speak on each day on each particular issue. I allocate the time for each item of business accordingly, in agreement with the party leaders. It is a consensus arrangement, and I am a consensus leader. This may not always have been the case in the past, but it is so in my case.
Senator Healy Eames called for a debate on the need to regulate the activities of debt collectors. I strongly urge the Senator to raise this issue during Friday's debate when she will have an opportunity to ascertain the views of the Minister for Finance.