Tuesday, 16 December 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re European evidence warrant; No. 2, motion re judgments in absentia, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 3, Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2; and No. 3a, motion re earlier signature, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 3.
There are a number of issues to be raised. I wish to comment on the banking decisions that have been taken, the call from this side of the House for a debate on the Lisbon treaty following the European Council, which is not on this week's agenda, and events in the Equality Authority.
Is it intended to introduce legislation this week on the banking sector? What the public needs from the Government, particularly the Minister for Finance, at present is clarity, detail, accuracy and clear policy on this area, but the information we have been given is general. Many questions arise about the capitalisation of the banks, not least whether it will ensure that businesses and the economy will benefit. Representatives of the banks appeared before the finance committee today and they had a different view on the situation from that of small businesses. The banks' representatives say that credit is not a problem whereas small businesses say it is.
The Minister must come to the House to clarify his intentions. Equally, with regard to the management of the banks following recapitalisation, will the current management continue in place? What price is the Government exacting for this huge amount of money and how will that be dealt with? A series of questions must be asked. I wish to move an amendment to the Order of Business to provide that the House discuss this issue and be brought up to date on the Government's thinking. We need greater clarity on the Government's approach; the one thing people need from the Government is clarity and detail.
The amendment is to ask the Minister for Finance to come to the House to detail and discuss his proposals on bank capitalisation. Many questions arise to which there are no answers at present. Senators have asked repeatedly for detailed information. We do not want announcements continually made elsewhere. I ask for a debate in the House.
I also referred to the European Council. Senators understood the House would be given feedback on the decisions taken at the meeting. Will the Leader indicate if a debate on this issue is planned this week?
I ask that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform come before the House to clarify the future role of the Equality Authority and explain how the authority will do its business in future. The Fine Gael Party will move an amendment to the Order of Business to facilitate a debate on the issue. The chief executive officer of the Equality Authority has resigned and its funding has been reduced by 43%. Last week, Senator Boyle of the Green Party expressed concern about the role of outside influences. I ask the Leader to clarify what outside influences were brought to bear on the Government to take a decision which completely undermines the equality structure, the roots of which are to give people basic rights. It appears the authority's work will be severely compromised. The Minister must come before the House to clarify how it can possibly continue its work in light of the loss of expertise it will experience as a result of a botched decentralisation and a funding cut of 43%.
It appears the CEO of the Equality Authority was willing to work with a reduced budget but this was not considered acceptable. How will the authority's work continue? Will the Minister come before the House to explain precisely what is the position? Will the Leader clarify what is the hidden agenda being referred to in the media and what are the outside influences coming to bear on Government decisions? Who exactly are the people to whom the Green Party is referring? Who influenced the Government's decision on this matter? These are some of the questions we have for the Minister.
Senator Fitzgerald raises a crucial issue. As I stated last week, the Taoiseach travelled around Europe talking about negotiating a deal which had not been discussed in this House or the Other House. That is unacceptable, bad politics and a stupid strategy, as is the fact that banking representatives appeared before the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service this morning without prior discussion of the issue in either House. Questions are being raised about this matter, including, from a Government point of view, by Senator Boyle. This creates a difficulty. If others on the outside — shady influences — are having a bearing on Government decisions, we deserve to know the reason. If the Government wants a consensus approach to be taken to issues such as Europe and the economic crisis, this is not the way to go about it.
I repeat a question asked many times. How will recapitalisation of the banks help the economy? I do not want to be told that greater confidence in the banks helps the economy. While it helps bank share prices and is good for bank directors and shareholders, it does not necessarily benefit businesses and those who depend on them. I want to know what is the direct link between bank recapitalisation and the economy.
If the Government puts €5 billion of public money at risk in supporting the banks, what will it receive in return? While it is good the Government has decided to appoint directors to bank boards, what action is it taking on banking management and policy? Until now, bankers received bonuses and advances on the basis of the amount of business they had written and the amount appropriate for securitisation. I presume the position is changing and risk assessment and other benchmarks will be considered when determining what is successful banking. We need to hear about these matters to learn what changes will be made.
We hear a great deal about €5 billion here or there but in the real world people cannot come to grips with the idea that we can set aside €5 billion to support the banks when we cannot support schools, we are cutting back on accident and emergency services, houses are being repossessed from those who cannot afford to pay their mortgages and companies could, with additional investment, create more jobs. I am not saying whether these things are good or bad. I am saying that is what ordinary people are talking about. We need to make the connection. It is not good enough for us to be seen to be listening to the banks and calling them in, and the banks calling the Taoiseach aside and asking for things, while the rest of the world is going over the edge, as it were. There is something unacceptable about it and it needs to be explained.
We need to ensure there is a solid banking system. The question I ask should not lead to the conclusion that we should not be doing our best to sort out the banking system. Recapitalisation does not necessarily do what is wanted. Ordinary people need a precise explanation on how it will help them in the long term in their world, whether in education, health or business. This is not happening and if we do not have a debate on it, it will not happen. I second the motion on that basis and ask the Leader to think seriously about conceding the point.
Picking up on the frustrations expressed by my colleagues, it seems that these Houses are the last place the people should look to see what is being debated and what are the major decisions of Government. Ministers have come to this House in recent weeks on the request of Members from both sides to present the economic plans or proposals they may have. They have failed lamentably to do that and have come here with speeches instead. As people on this side of the House have noted, they have not included a single proposal. How can the Government attend a meeting with the social partners at 11 o'clock this morning at which the Government presented the bones of an economic plan? One would pinch oneself on what passes for democratic debate and scrutiny in this country because the Government goes to the social partners in the first instance and not the Houses of Parliament.
It is an extraordinary situation and Senator O'Toole is correct regarding the banks. Senator Fitzgerald also raised that issue and I support her proposal. She rightly asked for the Minister to share with the House such decisions he has made on the banks. The problem is worse because other than the decision made at the end of September regarding the guarantee and on which the Government is still dining out, no decisions have been made on the banks.
The Minister appears on television occasionally, looking and sounding decisive but not making a single decision. One could not make this up if one wanted to. The Government is inviting the banks to get back some time in January on what they think should happen on the Government's proposals, such as they are. What are the proposals and decisions made by Government? There is none and that is the problem. Perhaps that is why there is no debate on these issues in the House. The Government has nothing to propose. Members of this House are right to be frustrated about the manner in which they are being treated by the Government on these crucial issues.
When we look for clarity, it is almost as if we are wasting our breath because we are not getting anything. We are getting no proposals, clarity or decisions, except vague references to economic plans and proposals being brought forward in the proverbial new year.
At the risk of sounding as if everything is doom and gloom, I will make one positive point. Will the Leader convey my congratulations to Limerick County Council on a gem reported in this morning's newspapers which I welcome, namely, its decision to assign a budget to commence work on the great southern trail, a cycle route along the route of the old Limerick-Kerry railway line? It is the sort of small initiative that should be taken and supported. This will come forward in 2009. Can the Leader take an initiative, perhaps with other leaders, to organise among Members of the Seanad a cycle trip along this route next summer?
The debate on the economy is ongoing in this House, as is the question of our financial institutions, and I am confident there will be further debates. There is a need for legislation, especially on the National Pension Reserve Fund. I am sure it will come before the House at the earliest opportunity and will again give Members the chance to talk about it.
In announcing the bank guarantee scheme in October, the Minister for Finance was clear that recapitalisation may be possible. That is now even more clear as the Government has announced that a fund will be made available should banks avail of it. However, this should not be taken as a negotiating process. If the State is to get involved in the business of recapitalisation, it must be done on stringent conditions, the first of which is that the money has to be made available for direct lending. We must learn from the mistakes of other jurisdictions, when billions of euro, dollars and sterling were put into other financial institutions with no net effect. I hope that any future debates we have on the issue will outline that. The issue of governance must be also addressed. The people who got us into this mess cannot be trusted to get us out of it. The political system will collectively relay that message when we need to make these decisions.
I have already stated my unhappiness with the decision of the Equality Authority. Some Members are confusing the contribution I made on the absence of human rights recognition in the Charities Bill 2007 with my position on the Equality Authority. I do not believe there are outside influences affecting this, but rather unelected influences within the Government that are having a disproportionate effect. There are personal agendas and biases that are informing policy in this area. The Equality Authority was prepared to take a 33% cut in its budget, and this could still have proceeded as long as the utterly stupid proposal to relocate to Roscrea did not go ahead.
If the authority is to have a shared secretariat with the Irish Human Rights Commission, it can operate only when both agencies are in the same location. This is one of the reasons for the resignation of the chief executive of the Equality Authority, and it is a reason for the need to examine how policy is made in this area and how it can be consistent with simple economics. If we are cutting down on Government agencies and on departmental expenditure, we cannot proceed with something that involves the additional use of public expenditure to move public servants from one part of the country to the other.
I am somewhat shocked by what Senator Boyle said in reference to unelected people within this Government having an influence on policy and major decisions. I do not need to point out to Senator Boyle that he is in the Government. The people to whom these unelected officials report are politicians who head up the Government in the first place. It seems the issue is not so much about the excessive influence of officials who report to the Government of which Senator Boyle is a member, but rather the lack of influence of the Green Party to stop or reverse decisions it opposes. It is a terrible precedent for this House to stand up here and assign responsibility for political decisions to officials within Departments, rather than to the Ministers who head up those Departments in the first place.
I will give the Senator the opportunity to correct me, but the person responsible for this is the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and not his officials. The Senator should address his comments to the people with him in the Government, rather than to the people who report to the Minister in the first place.
I support all my colleagues in the call for a debate on the conclusions from the European Council last week. I was lucky enough to play a role in drafting the report that was debated last week. The main conclusion of that report was that the Oireachtas needs to be more relevant and play more of a role in European debates and European policy discussions. There is not a chat show, television programme or political website in the country that has not discussed the decisions made last week in Europe. The following week, no time has been allocated for a discussion on the matter in this House. We should be discussing two significant points. First, we should be given an opportunity to understand the agreements the Government claims to have delivered and ensure that such concessions have been gained in the right areas, as demanded by the Irish people. Second, we should be able to discuss the legal status of those agreements and concessions, which will be of substantial value in the debate that will unfold. Why is such a debate not happening here? Why has time not been provided for such a debate in the schedule for this week? When I raised this point last week, I somewhat angrily asked the Leader if he thought we were all fools because it was clear he did not want to have this discussion in here. I am afraid the reality, which is that he thinks we are all irrelevant to this debate, is somewhat scarier. As bipartisan support will be needed on this issue, discussions should be taking place in this Chamber and elsewhere in the Oireachtas. Yet again, that is not happening.
I am sure the House will be delighted that Senators Quinn and Hanafin and I were present for all three hours of this morning's meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, at which there was an informative debate with representatives of the banking sector. It was interesting to hear the views of those involved in small and medium sized enterprises and banks. It was clear to anyone who attended the meeting that there has been a lack of communication between the banking sector and small and medium sized enterprises. Following today's meeting, there seems to be a clear understanding, particularly on the part of the two largest players in the banking sector, of the need to acknowledge that communication difficulties exist. If Senators speak to their party colleagues who attended the meeting, they will find that the understanding to which I refer is shared on a cross-party basis. The Small Firms Association has suggested that round-table discussions be organised periodically, perhaps through the Irish Banking Federation, to ensure that problems which arise are considered. The morning's meeting of the joint committee was a good and positive one. Perhaps the committee should deal with issues of this nature more frequently. It is clear that there have been misunderstandings on both sides. There is a broad acknowledgement that communication has been poor. Various messages have not been transmitted. The two biggest banking institutions were adamant at this morning's meeting that they are open for business. They want to discuss the various issues with industry representatives. I hope improvements can be made as a result of today's meeting, to which members from all parties and Independent members made a very good contribution.
I was disturbed to read a Sunday newspaper report on the third national infrastructure conference, which was held in Croke Park recently. A senior representative of Goodbody Stockbrokers who addressed the conference suggested that after the roads between the main urban centres are finished — none of the roads in question is north of a line between Dublin and Galway, by the way — all remaining public funds should be invested in attracting foreign direct investment to Dublin. That point of view is disgraceful in the extreme. It is unprofessional for a representative of a body like Goodbody Stockbrokers to make such a remark, especially as such bodies tend to be employed by State agencies to carry out work as professional experts. It is criminal in the extreme to give space within society to such insular views. It is important to have balanced development in this country. Dublin, which is our capital city, Cork, which is our second city, and the other large cities should have infrastructure that is appropriate to their needs. It is not appropriate to neglect the rest of the country, however. I refer in particular to that part of the country north of a line between Dublin and Galway.
For four and a half of my six and a half years in this House, I have been calling for a debate on the lack of progress being made with the national spatial strategy. If one listens to the official from Goodbody Stockbrokers I have mentioned, the policy to be followed by the arms of the State and the so-called experts in the financial and consultancy worlds should be the deletion of the national spatial strategy. It is clear that we will not have time for a debate on this matter before Christmas. We should have an opportunity to examine these issues after Christmas, as a matter of the utmost urgency, perhaps as part of a debate on the national spatial strategy. Perhaps we could discuss the HSE under the same heading, as it seems to be intent on following the same path as the representative of Goodbody Stockbrokers I have mentioned. Many of us did not agree with the decision to abolish the health boards in the first instance. The HSE is now intent on recreating the health boards, with the exception of the former North Western Health Board. I am afraid to say the north west continues to suffer the most neglect.
While, on behalf of the many fishermen in this country, I am sure we all wish our colleagues, who are negotiating the fishing quotas in Europe at present, well, it is ridiculous in the extreme and clearly part of our excessive pursuit of political correctness to say that we will put quotas or bans on fishing for pleasure.
I wish to move an amendment to the Order of Business that we take No. 28, motion 31, "That Seanad Éireann condemns utterly the disgraceful action of the Government in destroying the Combat Poverty Agency [which we are doing today by the way] and the Equality Agency and the gutting of the Irish Human Rights Commission and calls on the Government to rescind these decisions." It is a shameful day for the Seanad that Part 5, section 30 of this Bill purports to destroy the Combat Poverty Agency. From those Government benches last week we heard a clear statement that this was not a money-saving exercise and it would actually cost money. Let us not have lies about that. This proposal will cost money to kick the poorest and the weakest elements of our society. It is a complete and utter disgrace. It was done in the week in which we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We followed it up then. We got all mention of human rights removed from the Charities Bill despite the fact that these provisions exist in all the neighbouring jurisdictions, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England.
However, it did not stop there. We attacked the Human Rights Commission and savaged it. We then had a 43% cut in the Equality Authority, absolutely destroying its work as everybody knows, and it was deliberately done. In other words every single element concerned with human rights is being eliminated. The Sunday Independent celebrated human rights week and this matter by ignoring it and instead devoting an entire page to a scurrilous attack on Mary Robinson. Thank God for The Irish Times, which on its front page yesterday gave us a good hint as to what may well have been in Senator Boyle's mind.
I am on the Order of Business and I want to say this, which is very important because it leads to a situation where I believe the Government is in great moral danger. I remind the House and you, Senator Walsh, that it was a Minister for Justice on your side who spent some time in jail for corruption.
I want to help the House because questions have been asked about these influences. The front page of The Irish Times carried an article about the Equality Authority making a complaint to the Garda because of the alleged disclosure of information which is prohibited under the Act. This was disclosure of information that came about during the course of an investigation. A Roman Catholic chaplain in a prison was assaulted. He tried to get a copy of his terms of employment but was denied them. The court directed that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform should make this information available to him, but that was not done. He then alleged discrimination, but he was not found in favour of on that one. However, subsequently when this information was leaked from the Irish Prison Service by a named official, the Equality Authority found it was justified and he was awarded €40,000 in compensation. That amount of money is not awarded unless there is something to it. It was appealed but the appeal was dropped and the €40,000 was paid over.
I have not made the point, but I am going to make it. The point is that the person involved is now the Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The destruction of the Equality Authority, the authority that filed this complaint, is coming from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In these circumstances there are grave questions to be answered by Government.
I would also question the actions of the chairperson of the Equality Authority in issuing such a statement after the chief executive had resigned. I have never seen such an extraordinary act of treachery.
There are grave issues facing our community and society, one of which is safety and security in our own homes. I rise to speak about the tragic murder of a young, beautiful, successful woman on the Hill of Howth yesterday while she resided in her own home. I take the opportunity to offer my sympathies and condolences to the Cawley family, whom I know.
I make the point because I stood here last week to speak about a similar incident in East Wall. It is happening a little too frequently. I therefore ask the Leader to investigate, with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda Commissioner, how we can assist in this area. We have seen a large increase in such horrible tragedies.
I have raised the issue of the economy and the banking sector over a considerable period. I have made known my views and I have also let the House know that I have done some research in this area. I welcome the economic plan on which the Government has been working, which is available.
It is in the early stages. It will be available to us all shortly.
What I am concerned about, as I have said clearly, is that there is a lack of confidence in the economy. We require an impetus, which the economic plan may provide. At the moment there is a paralysis that is causing serious difficulties. We know we are in a recession and that 2009, going into 2010, is going to be a difficult time. We stand up here week in week out and ask for a debate on this or a debate on that. We know there are serious difficulties in the economy and with the financial institutions.
Will the Leader agree with the other leaders of this House — given that we have entered a prolonged period in which there will be recurring issues — to allocate time in the first and second quarters of 2009 for briefings and discussions on matters of importance?
Senator Donohoe mentioned the Lisbon treaty. It is extraordinary that on the Order of Business we have, again, a number of issues concerning European legislation. They came into this House, were referred to committee without debate, came back from committee and now the Leader has them on the Order of Business. Motions on the European evidence warrant and on judgments in absentia are two important pieces of legislation that will not be debated in this House. I repeat what I said before, that the Leader seems determined that this House will not have a role to play in scrutinising EU legislation and being informed about EU legislation. The framework agreement to deal with the issues that have been raised during the Lisbon treaty debate and referendum was a very important decision of the European Council last week. What is to be welcomed is that this is a sign that Europe is prepared to respond on each and every issue that is raised by the Government.
All this time, all we have are the issues. The Government has not put to its colleagues in Europe the way in which those issues can be resolved and the formulation that is required. We still have only a framework agreement. It is regrettable the Taoiseach seems determined to go alone on this. It is the same as in the first Lisbon debate where he played party politics with this issue. There is no effort made to engage the political parties in these Houses nor the political leaders outside.
When the bank guarantee was introduced we raised the issue of recapitalisation as being a prerequisite for the banks to get on a sounder footing and play their role in the economy. It was denied by the Minister for Finance that this was necessary and, slowly but surely, we wait for the crisis to happen. Now the decision has been taken to allocate money from the National Pensions Reserve Fund. What is proposed? The Minister has said to the banks, "Come back to me with your ideas", which is a bit rich at this stage. The banking system has been frozen for the past four months. The Houses of the Oireachtas will be in recess soon and there will be no debate in these Houses in January on these issues. Once again, the Minister is playing for time. Senator Alex White referred to the fact that the Taoiseach will meet the social partners about the economic recovery programme. I suggest he is meeting the social partners for ideas because it does not appear that either the Minister or the Taoiseach have their own ideas as to how we will get out of this economic and banking crisis.
On the issue raised very eloquently by Senator Norris about the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission, we live in hard times and in recessionary times, but we should not forget the basic principles with which we have to comply to ensure that people who are discriminated against or ill treated are given a fair deal. The Equality Authority, the Irish Human Rights Commission and these other bodies which have a vital role to play not only in overseeing these issues but also in implementing our international obligations, whether they be United Nations, Council of Europe or European Commission——
I second Senator Norris's motion to amend the Order of Business. It is about time the Minister came into this House and gave it some straight answers as to the reason for what appears to be a personal, political and vindictive decision to gut these authorities. If they are rendered unviable, they are not able to fulfil their functions and obligations——
It is well known that every generation fights the next war with the weapons of the last. Nothing that I heard today from any Member still measures the extent of the economic crisis, recession and more that is ahead of us. Even the smallest anecdotal encounter with the public will tell one that there are more lay-offs, shorter working times and people being stood down than ever appears in our newspapers.
We do not still measure the extent of this crisis. We should be talking about a national government, war-time measures and states of emergency. No economy in Europe is as exposed as Ireland's. No banking system, except perhaps the American one, is exposed to such levels of toxic debt. No wonder the Stock Exchange, which always measures what is wrong, knew exactly what was wrong with the Irish banks. Recapitalisation at the level of €10 billion will not solve our problems. The problem starts with every consumer, every man, woman and child in the country.
If the banks are capitalised, they may or may not lend it to the people who need it. The Small Firms Association may or may not be correct about the need for capital. Fundamentally, it comes down to every man and woman with an income deciding to spend or not. If they do not decide to spend, this economy will not move. The €10 billion would be far better employed by giving everyone in the country €5,000 to go out and spend. As we can see on Grafton Street, when the sales are on and the prices are right, people will go and spend.
The income must be given to the people who need it — that is every man, woman and child in the country — not to banks or intermediate bodies. It is ridiculous to have the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance meeting the social partners today. The only reason he should be meeting them is to tell them he will not be giving the agreed pay increases because the country has not got the money. The only people who should be made pay up are the construction industry. Their workers are at least entitled to the pay increases in the private sector. We are just dreaming along towards a massive recession. I predict unemployment will hit 500,000. I predict there will be riots like those in Greece. There is a lumpenproletariat, as we see in Limerick and saw in the Love Ulster riots, waiting to jump up on any legitimate protest.
As to what happened to the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, which he endured very bravely, I hope it will allow him to come to the House to tell us what it was like to be a victim of crime. There should be less of this ridiculous nonsense of Senator Norris talking about politically correct quangos that rightly fell. All they ever did was cause trouble, creating minority grievances where they were never before, telling people they are ethnic groups when they are not. They had little enough to bother them, whingeing about Sunday Independent articles, a small bit of gaiety to the nation. It is about time they got a grip on the real world. In the real world, the Irish banking system is exposed to massive levels of toxic debt which will not go away. It cannot be dealt with by a partisan Government with the Opposition shouting and complaining.
I am glad Senator Regan seconded Senator Norris's amendment to the Order of Business because I was going to do so myself. What Senator Boyle raised are serious issues, as were Senator Norris's. After the budget, I asked the Leader if there was any coincidence that the one Government body critical of the Government's policy is being dismantled by the Government. I do not think there was.
According to some reports today, the 2009 Health Service Executive service plan contains proposals to introduce cuts in accident and emergency services in Dublin and Cork. Anyone who knows anything about accident and emergency services will know they are overstretched to say the least. Trolley Watch, a service provided by the Irish Nurses Organisation, reported this morning that 339 people were on hospital trolleys in accident and emergency units throughout the country. This is one particular health area that does not need further cuts because it is overstretched.
Will the Leader ensure the Minister for Health and Children gives a guarantee that there will be no reduction in accident and emergency services? I have argued that the HSE is not politically accountable and masks the responsibility of the Minister of the day. Given that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, is no longer attached to a political party and may not stand in the next general election, what mandate has she in relation to health policy? Where did it come from? Was it debated at her party's national conference? Is it Government policy, by and large? Is there any level of contact between the Minister and the HSE to ensure vital services such as accident and emergency are not further downgraded?
I welcome, however, the Minister's direction to the HSE that colonoscopies should be performed within a month of a general practitioner's referral.
This can be done only if additional resources are put in place.
I want to raise two points, about the Lisbon treaty and the HSE service plan. The latter has been seen by RTE. The renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty was seen exclusively by "Morning Ireland". When will the Government treat these Houses with some level of democratic respect and discuss what is happening in regard to the Lisbon treaty with this House first? To keep saying that we will keep the Commissioner is probably missing the point with regard to the fundamental aspects of workers' rights. In order for the second referendum on the Lisbon treaty to be passed the Government will need the goodwill of other Members and parties in both Houses. There must be reassurances in respect of workers' rights in order for us to support the Lisbon treaty. I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come into the House and discuss the Lisbon treaty with us.
I also ask that any matter regarding the HSE will not be passed on to RTE but will be discussed in this House.
We have had the bail-out scheme and we now have recapitalisation. When will we ensure that the Government will give a guarantee to homeowners that they will not have their houses repossessed for the duration of the current economic difficulty? We have given major assurances and guarantees to banks and we should guarantee to homeowners that their houses will not be taken from them by these banks during the term of the recession. We should also give a guarantee that when, not if, the next reduction in the ECB rate is announced, which I suspect will be in January, it will be passed on to those who do not have tracker mortgages. It is currently left to the discretion of the banks.
I would welcome a debate on the workings of the Equality Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the human rights commission. It is worth putting on record that the Equality Authority was set up in 1997 with a budget of €378,000. In the 11 years since then €47 million of public funds has been spent. The human rights commission was set up in 2001 with a budget of €278,000. Since then, €12 million has been spent on it. We can all raise a hue and cry about various issues but, without pre-empting the debate, it is worth mentioning some brief points. This year the Equality Tribunal's budget increased by 15% in line with the social partnership commitment to get rid of the backlog of work it is doing on cases.
Rent savings of €240,000 would be made by moving the authority to Roscrea. There was a once-off allocation in 2007, the European year of equality, of €320,000 for that year. It rolled on to 2008 but it has been got rid of. This is part of the amount referred to in the swingeing cutbacks. The anti-ageism campaign, which was rubbished in the other House by Deputy Alan Shatter, cost €230,000. He said it was inappropriate and a waste of money. That is more of the money that has been prudently cut back.
The Equality Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the human rights commission can easily survive some of these practical cuts. It is a regrettable step that the chief executive resigned. The authority is doing wonderful work. In this day and age, when we hear Senator Harris refer, rightly, to the crisis ahead of us and job losses, this man had a contract for in the region of €160,000 or €170,000, as he admitted on local radio, and he signed the contract on the understanding he would move to Roscrea. We should get the facts before the House. All we have heard today and the last day is a one-sided debate. The Equality Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the human rights commission are doing excellent work and they can and will survive. Some of these cutbacks are practical.
It makes no sense that rental accommodation for the Equality Authority and the human rights commission costs €750,000 when the property market has collapsed. If the move to Roscrea was decided on it should go ahead. If that saves €750,000 on rental accommodation, so be it. Many of the points being raised relate to sensible savings when we look at the facts and consider prudently what must be done.
I second Senator Fitzgerald's call for an amendment to the Order of Business. We have such vagueness and indecisiveness regarding the non-decisions on the serious banking situation that it looks as though the Minister is allowing the banks to find their own solution and offer it to him. He has had them in for tea and biscuits a few times but nothing has happened. He wants their number to reduce from six to two and certainly not more than three.
I accept we do not want the equity houses or venture capitalists to come in. I agree with the approach on co-funding to allow investors, especially shareholders, to participate. This is very important. However, we have had nothing but procrastination and prevarication. The Leader owes it to the House to have the Minister come here. This compares unfavourably with the Leader's decisiveness and the urgency he attached to this House sitting all night to get the guarantee scheme through. However, we have had nothing since. We need detail and the time for this is now. We need it before Christmas.
It is important that we consult the social partners. This is what we have been doing for many years and it has been successful. If we do not consult the social partners on what we are doing and the plan we will put forward, how do we expect to get out of this situation?
It is important that we stimulate the economy for the new year. Small businesses are in a bad situation. If they were offered money in the morning they may not be able to take it because of a lack of business. We must try to instil confidence. I tabled and had passed at a recent parliamentary party meeting a motion with regard to a €9 billion economic stimulus to renovate and bring up to standard 1 million houses, which will have to be done.
The motion was passed and I believe the Taoiseach will bring it forward as part of his plan to meet the Government's green requirements. I hope Senator Boyle and his party will support it. These are positive proposals. Between 25,000 and 30,000 jobs could be created in the industry and it is essential that we deal with it together. I call on the Leader of the House to provide time, perhaps half a day, to discuss proposals that this House would put forward to the Government.
In light of what has come from all sides of the House today, we should have a debate on social partnership and whether it has served its use and is relevant any more. Senator Alex White touched on the fact that the Taoiseach will meet the social partners apparently to reveal an economic plan before he reveals it to elected and appointed Members of the Dáil and Seanad. This leaves us continually as spectators. For Senator Butler to state this has happened for years makes it worse. Senator Butler is correct that it has happened for years. We have been spectators in matters of great national importance for years and all sides have accepted it.
There are people outside this House pulling the strings of power. Less than two weeks ago, the Minister for Finance, in an interview on "Morning Ireland", gave a broad hint that the pay increases due to the public sector under the partnership agreement would not be paid next October. Within 24 hours, the Taoiseach, having been in touch, not with his political colleagues, fellow parliamentarians or members of the Cabinet but with trade unionists, decided to undermine his Minister for Finance. There are people who have greater influence than the Minister for Finance on decisions taken about the economy.
What role do the Seanad and Dáil have in this area? It is a serious matter which we should be able to debate. We should admit that we are fast becoming political eunuchs. I notice the Cathaoirleach is restless. I remind him, however, that he gave significant latitude to other speakers.
If the Cathaoirleach will indulge me, I wish to comment on the request for a debate about the banking sector. I was not at this morning's meeting which Senators Quinn, Hanafin and MacSharry attended. However, I watched every moment of it on the monitor. My abiding impression is that the bank representatives have learned nothing.
They came in with an absolutely prepared script and told lie after lie about what is happening. The small business representatives said they are unable to get money from the banks, while the latter claimed they are doling it out. The two cannot be right.
On a point of order, during the Order of Business, reference was made to a lady who was asked to be director of a State company, and a derogatory remark was made by Senator Norris in this regard. I am of the view that this breaches the rules of the House.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Boyle, Donohoe, MacSharry, Callely, Regan, Harris, McCarthy, Coghlan, Buttimer and Ross called for an urgent debate on the banking sector to provide clarity and detailed information on the latest developments and to address their various concerns. The Minister for Finance will be in the House on Friday morning for the debate on the Finance (No. 2) Bill. Colleagues will have an opportunity on Second Stage to raise many of those concerns with him. I undertake to allow a day-long debate on the economy in the first or second week after the Christmas recess. I agree with the proposal that we should review the situation every quarter in terms of developments in the economy and how best we can encourage and facilitate the Minister and his Department in this regard.
In regard to the planned second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, I will endeavour to have a debate take place, if at all possible, before Friday. I respect the views of Senator Donohoe, who had the honour of chairing the Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union. He must be congratulated on the tremendous commitment shown by him and his colleagues on the sub-committee and the work they did.
I take on board Senators' views in regard to the Equality Authority. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs will be in the House shortly to take Committee and Remaining Stages of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Colleagues may avail of this opportunity to make known their strong views on this matter. As Senator O'Donovan pointed out, the Government has been extremely generous in its funding of the equality agenda. It was the Fianna Fáil Party which established the authority in 1997 with an initial investment of €378,000. Since then, more than €45 million has been provided to the authority and at least another €30 million to the Equality Tribunal and the human rights commission. A substantial allocation has been made for 2009, notwithstanding the unprecedented economic difficulties we face.
There is no question of the Equality Authority being dismembered. Funding will be allocated for at least 38 staff, which is five fewer than the original staff level. As Senator O'Donovan observed, the budget for the Equality Tribunal will be increased by almost 15% in 2009. The simple fact is that the cost of rental accommodation for the authority in Dublin is €450,000, while the same standard of accommodation can be found in Roscrea for €120,000, which gives a saving of €330,000.
As Senator O'Donovan pointed out, the ageism campaign, which was opposed by Deputy Shatter, cost €230,000. There are major savings to be made. Given our current economic difficulties, all expenditure must be absolutely essential.
We must commend the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the action he has taken in this area. Members should note that an additional €1.5 million has been allocated for the Criminal Assets Bureau. In addition, Garda numbers are increasing by 400, with an additional €18 million set aside for Garda overtime and €21 million for Operation Anvil. These are extremely important allocations in the fight against crime for which Members on all sides have been calling. This puts in perspective the commitment of the Government and the excellent Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Senator Alex White offered his congratulations to Limerick County Council on its decision to assign a budget to commence work on the great southern trail. I agree with him in this regard.
Senator MacSharry called for a debate on the national spatial strategy. This is an excellent proposal and I will certainly allow the necessary time as soon as possible on our return after the Christmas recess. I agree that the north west is the part of the State which seems to be suffering most from cutbacks in investment by the Health Service Executive. I will take into account the Senator's strong views on this matter. The Senator also called for a debate on the fishing industry. We have had that debate already this session and will have another such in the next session.
Senator Norris proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, which was seconded by Senator McCarthy. In this last week of the session, I can only propose for debate on legislation which I am required to propose. Perhaps Senator Norris will put his strongly held views on this matter to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, who will be in the Chamber shortly.
The Senator has been most agreeable, notwithstanding his strong views. However, we must deal this week with the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and the Finance (No. 2) Bill, two of the most important Bills to come before the Houses of Parliament every year. It is an important week in which a large volume of work must be processed by Members.
Senator Callely expressed condolences to the family of the young woman murdered in Howth. I join with him in offering our condolences to her family. It was a terrible murder. I offer our support to the Garda Commissioner and the Garda Síochána on all the good work they are doing in this area at this difficult time.
I offer support also to our colleague and friend, the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, on what must have been an horrific experience yesterday. It is good to see him come out of the experience alive and well and going about his business again. That is as much as we can hope for when these unexpected events take place in our country on what is now, unfortunately, a daily basis.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 19 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Alex White)
Against the motion: 28 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Eoghan Harris, Cecilia Keaveney, Tony Kett, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paschal Donohoe and Eugene Regan; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 20 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Alex White)
Against the motion: 27 (Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Eoghan Harris, Cecilia Keaveney, Tony Kett, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators David Norris and Alex White; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.