Wednesday, 17 December 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the first sitting of Dáil Éireann, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Motor Vehicles (Duties and Licences) (No. 2) Bill 2008 — All Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1, to adjourn not later than 5 p.m. and to resume at the conclusion of No. 28, if not previously concluded, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed seven minutes, and Senators may share time; and No. 28, motion 30 re foster care services, to be taken not earlier than 5 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7 p.m. The business of the House will be interrupted between 1.30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Yesterday, a number of Senators expressed complete frustration, annoyance and concern at the lack of democratic accountability and debate in the House on the issues facing the country and the reluctance of the Government to engage in consultation while, at the same time, saying it is time for everyone to do their patriotic duty. The House is not being consulted on the issues of the day and I refer to three areas in particular.
Yesterday, the HSE's national service plan for 2009 was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It outlined cuts worth €500 million but the HSE stated last night that the plan is dated and it will have to provide for an additional €400 million in cuts. Front-line staff will pay the price for the €900 million worth of cutbacks in health services. The Minister for Health and Children referred yesterday to an excess of accident and emergency departments and the need to reduce their number. We may have an excess of junior Ministers but we do not have an excess of doctors in accident and emergency departments.
These departments are full of people on trolleys waiting to be looked after and this is documented every day. All of us who have attended an accident and emergency department over the past few months know the staff are incredibly hard pressed. Who will pay the price? There is no democratic accountability. The HSE is a bloated bureaucracy out of control with huge ongoing expenses but front-line services are being cut. I do not recall any Minister referring to €900 million worth of cutbacks during debates in the House. An out of date report was laid before us yesterday. It is disgraceful that there is such a lack of democratic accountability, discussion and serious consultation with the Opposition regarding how the economic crisis facing the country will be addressed and managed. Asking for co-operation in the context of such an approach is ridiculous.
A number of Senators commented yesterday on the Taoiseach seeking support from the social partners for some plan, the details of which are not clear to anyone. There was again no consultation with this House on the detail of the plan. Will the Leader outline when the plan, if it exists, will be put before the House? I am not sure people believe there is a plan, given that the information changes almost daily.
A few days ago, the Government announced a capitalisation plan for the banks. Yesterday, representatives of the banks appeared before a joint committee and gave a completely different story. Where is Government accountability? When will Ministers come before the House and detail how they intend to deal with the economic crisis?
Senator Fitzgerald raised crucial points, including the need to engage on issues, a matter I raised on the Order of Business yesterday. The Seanad has refused to become topical because the Leader has failed to arrange debates on issues such as education when requested to do so.
While I concur with the point made about the lack of discussion and engagement with this House, this should not be interpreted by Senators, as some did yesterday, as being in some way in favour of excluding the social partners. Senator Fitzgerald made a good point when she noted that while it is fine for the Minister to meet the social partners, he should also come before the House. That is the real issue. To those who argue this is the end of social partnership, I say there has never been a greater need for the Government to engage with civic society.
Social partnership is the only forum where Government can engage with all sides — labour, business, the farming community and the community pillar, which includes the unemployed and various voluntary bodies. There is no more vital place in which the Government can engage and demand and secure support. This will only work, however, if engagement also takes place at political level.
On two occasions in recent months Senator MacSharry raised the need for the House to track and monitor developments in social partnership. A committee of the House should engage with the social partners to ensure the House monitors and is informed of all developments in social partnership. Never has this been more important. Irrespective of the issue, whether the Lisbon treaty or the economy, the time has come for the Government to meet and engage with all levels of civic society, and it can only do this effectively if it brings with it the political tier, particularly the non-government side.
A crucial issue must be addressed and I appeal to the Leader to make this clear to the Government. There is no point in whinging about not making progress on the Lisbon treaty or not being understood on the economy if Ministers do not come before the House to mix with us and have the type of engagement it has in other places.
I take issue with the comments made by the Minister of Health and Children yesterday on the three accident and emergency units for children in the Dublin region. The Minister stated these units have an average of only 20 admissions per night. It can take six people up to six hours to stabilise one child. Accident and emergency unit needs should not be measured by numbers but by dependency levels. Children can go from well to dead in six hours. The number of people attending an accident and emergency unit is not connected to the need to have professional staff doing their job correctly.
With 450 acute beds closed in the health service, it is proposed to close a further 650 beds in 2009, of which 70 are located in the Dublin and mid-Leinster region. This means 580 beds will be closed in the rest of the State. I ask the Leader to request that the Minister outline the number and location of bed closures.
The Government claims to be interested in regional development. Has this interest been extended to public service investment? It is subsidising private care for private patients in public hospitals. Savings of €100 million could be made if private patients had to pay the full economic cost of their care in public hospitals. Approximately €100 million has been spent on the National Treatment Purchase Fund at a time when hundreds of health care workers have been thrown on to the dole. It does not make sense to continue cutting front-line services. The Minister must discuss with all stakeholders where economies can be achieved without affecting front-line services. The best organisations to deal with this issue in the long term are the unions.
Consultants are set to benefit to the tune of €200 million while €10 million was considered too much to protect young people from cervical cancer. This is not an anomaly, it is an embarrassment which demonstrates how the policies of vested interests triumph over best practice in preventive health care. Front-line health services must be reprioritised carefully. If we choose to disadvantage those who are on trolleys or cut vital services, people will die. We cannot have that on our hands.
I ask the Leader to plan to have a Minister of a different Department before the House to be questioned by Senators every week. This would enable Senators to have a dialogue with a Minister with responsibility for a different area each week and to discuss the development of policies. The House should have a role in this area. While joint committees serve a great purpose, they are not a House of the Oireachtas. As a separate House, the Seanad should have an input into various policy issues. I would like the Opposition to put forward ideas and try to assist the Government at this particularly difficult time.
Senator Buttimer is the lost leader of Fine Gael.
The housing sector is in a critical position. A large number of surplus houses are available and small developers will go out of business next year unless action is taken. At the same time, the State pays more than €300 million per annum in rent subsidies. The Government could purchase as many houses as possible at the lowest possible rate, which would be a knock-down price. If some of the surplus houses are not used in the next six months, quality will deteriorate to the point that they will be demolished. As the Cathaoirleach is aware, one must keep a house heated or it will deteriorate.
I suggest there should be a sale of the century to enable local authority tenants to purchase their homes, as occurred in the mid-1980s when we were under pressure. We should sell local authority housing at knock-down prices because people want to own their home. An offer should be made to tenants to buy their homes and the money from sales should be diverted into building more local authority housing or to purchase surplus houses. This would be an opportunity. I hope it will be possible to have a Minister from a different Department before the House each week in the coming months to discuss relevant issues.
I concur with Senators Fitzgerald and O'Toole. Something is seriously amiss about the way in which the House is being left in the lurch by the Government and the lack of details and debate on the many important issues to which Senators referred. We heard a great deal about banks yesterday and they are still very much in the news today. This is one of the most important issues facing us because the only reason we want to save the banks is to save the economy. Senators are aware that lay-offs and redundancies are taking place every day. While we have had a big, bold headline about the €10 billion co-fund, the fund is still not in place and we do not have any details about how it is to be utilised.
In the first instance, the Government should move with the shareholder but it is at cross-purposes with the banks. It is waiting for the banks to tell it which two of the six institutions are most vulnerable to be merged or taken over. The banks will not do so. It is also waiting for the banks to agree that the officials who received bonuses in the past five years on false pretences will fall on their swords. They will not do so. The Government needs to get real with the banks about the bail-out or the economy will continue to be starved of cash and the businesses for which Senators have such great sympathy will not be able to get the lines of credit and working capital they require to continue. The banks are prepared to make money available——
The Leader knows the situation as he is a businessman. Banks will lend a hundred if they are given a hundred as security. What about the working capital required for a long-running business which wants to keep going? That is the problem. The Government must get real with the banks. It is no good to let them off for another few weeks to think about it and come back. They will not give the Government that kind of detail.
We must not forget the shareholder, the widow, the widower and people who have invested in the banks for years. Has the Government discussed the rights issue with them? We need to get answers to these questions.
I have just realised that the legislation on party pills will not be introduced in this term. With the advent of the Christmas season it is linked to the health debate on prevention being better than cure. I call on the Leader to ask the relevant Minister if this matter can be addressed by regulation that can fast-track the European demand for us to ban these pills by March.
I also ask that we continue the debate on the abuse of alcohol early in the new year. Last Sunday, the national broadcaster had a very interesting programme which demonstrated that people did not realise what they were consuming until it was put in front of them in glasses. We are coming into a season when there will be more use and abuse of alcohol, and I do not say I will not partake of it myself. We need to return to the issue.
I note in some areas in the UK bedroom slippers are being given to girls who are inebriated to prevent them breaking their ankles owing to their high heels. A number of strategies have been deployed to keep people who have over-indulged safe. I ask the Leader to address this serious issue, the cost of it to our health service and the need for preventative measures to ensure this aspect of our culture changes.
This Government is both arrogant and frightened, which is a dangerous combination in difficult times. The doubling of the cuts in the health service from €400 billion to €800 billion or €900 billion overnight is a staggering situation. We need to ensure the service provision is not affected and inefficiencies are cut out.
I was aware of a case a year or two ago of a woman who fought valiantly for her son who suffered from a syndrome, the name of which I cannot remember. It was agreed that the service would be provided and the first stage was the appointment of three managers. Immediately after that, there was an embargo on recruitment in the health service. There are three managers who must be paid and no delivery of service for the child. That is the kind of nonsense that is now not tolerable.
I wish to raise another matter. I asked the Leader of the House about a leak of information from the immigration service. He promised he would get the information, but I have not received it and would like to ensure I do.
I must lay the groundwork for my question to the Leader today. While I will not name anyone and did not do so yesterday, officers of State are accountable. I do not mean to pillory any individual but the office is accountable. I will outline the sequence of events. The then head of the Prison Service was involved in a situation where a chaplain was fired because of an alleged release of information required during the course of an inquiry. A complaint was made to the Equality Authority, a significant part of it was upheld and the Department concerned had to pay an award of €40,000. It was found the release had been illegally used and the former head of the Prison Service and now Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is undergoing an inquiry by the Garda Síochána.
I find that astonishing. A Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was jailed and now the Secretary General of the Department is being investigated. The person involved moved jobs, with which there is nothing wrong, and became Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform which has responsibility for the Equality Authority. The authority has now been humiliated and destroyed. It is an interesting sequence of events and we are entitled to some accountability. A background note was issued on Monday from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform which confirmed that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern and the Irish Prison Service were vicariously liable for the unauthorised release of this confidential information.
Will the Leader find out immediately what is meant by the phrase "vicariously liable"? Is it a legal term? Does it have any validity or is it an attempt to evade responsibility? The Secretary General involved is not making any statement at this stage; I believe he should.
It says that a Roman Catholic bishop——
We are told a Roman Catholic bishop, on foot of this illegally distributed information, fired the prison chaplain. He was the quasi-employer of the priest. What is a quasi-employer? Can we have a definition from the Leader of the two terms I mentioned? Can we find out if the Secretary General is now considering his position?
The decision to commemorate the first sitting of Dáil Eireann next month is to be welcomed. I hope it will not be confined to a joint meeting of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is good in itself and will take place in an historic location. It should also be embraced by schools, the media and local communities. It is a reminder of the tenacity of the people and the manner in which we can confront and overcome what seem like insurmountable challenges.
We can also recall the sacrifices of the few for the general good. There is no doubt we have made significant progress and many of the visionaries in those days, if they were with us today, would be delighted to see we have taken our place among the nations of the earth. There is no doubt we face monumental economic challenges. Instead of a cosmetic commemoration, I would like to think we would use it as a rallying point to overcome the difficulties we face.
The old dictum states it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Why not have candles lighting throughout the country, with people rallying and working together. The people who suffer at a time like this are those who cannot help themselves and are the most vulnerable. Those who can help and make sacrifices should do so, but it will not happen unless we provide a rallying focus in the country.
I am worried that we are not grappling with the problem in an idealistic way. We are not demonstrating a commitment to the entire community and seeing how we can all help. Nothing traumatises a person more than waking up one day and being told they no longer have a job.
How must it be for people who realise that they are facing 35 years of mortgage repayments and do not have the wherewithal to do that? What about people who cannot look after the needs of the children in their own home? Surely this is what sovereignty and independence is all about. Can we do something, in addition to that joint meeting, to rally the people of Ireland and the diaspora to see if we can we work together to bring these current difficulties to an end in the shortest time possible?
I call for a debate on the decision of the US Federal Reserve to cut interest rates to a quarter of one point, which is effectively a zero interest rate. What happened last night has changed the world economy. Following America's decision, it is likely that the Bank of England will cut its interest rates to a similar level and that central banks across Asia will do the same. The consequences of that upon our competitiveness as a country are profound. The value of the dollar and sterling will fall, and the competitiveness of our service and export businesses will come under an assault the like of which they have not experienced in recent years.
This morning we spoke about accident and emergency services, school funding, the ability of people to buy homes and so on. All this is predicated on the viability of our economy, which has been based on its ability to be competitive. What happened last night is changing the world so our economy needs to be competitive. Unless we have a single-minded focus on what is required for our country to become competitive, our ability to do all the things we want to do will go out the window. We are beginning to get obsessed with the banks and with holes in public finances, which are easy to understand. The bigger challenge is to confront the massive assault to the competitiveness of our country in reaction to what is happening in the rest of the world.
The spirit to which Senator Ó Murchú referred was characterised by leaders from all political parties 90 years ago. The one quality they all shared was an ability to recognise the state of our country at the time and to act upon it. I have to conclude that such a spirt is lamentably lacking in the Government that is in place at the moment.
I support the call by Senator Donohoe for a debate. I support much of what he said about the global impact of what happened in America last night. I also support much of what Senator Ó Murchú said about job creation, sustaining jobs, the importance of competitiveness, particularly as an island nation, for our export markets and so on. In light of the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves, we should allocate time in the Seanad to deal with the economy as it has been changing rapidly and will continue to do so in 2009. We need a slot to deal with economic matters which we have consistently raised on the floor of the House.
The HSE issued its service plan for 2009 in line with legislation. Will that be the plan adhered to in 2009? I have an interest in the demand-led services for older people, especially the home care packages. It is important that we have clarity on what will be provided in 2009.
While there is much doom and gloom around, it is great that we have some fantastic entrepreneurs who are prepared to invest millions of euro in facilities that we can all enjoy. I refer to Harry Crosbie's revamped Point Theatre, now known as the O2. It had a tremendous opening night last night and I congratulate Harry Crosbie and all those involved in providing such a wonderful facility.
The implications of last night's interest rate cut in the US will be seen worldwide. The reduction in the interest rate on the dollar will probably lead to a reduction by the Bank of England. That will mean the euro will rise again against the pound and the dollar, two currencies on which we depend strongly for our tourism income. We may well see fewer tourists next year from the US and the UK because of the cost of coming here.
An article in The Observer this week claimed that prices in Dublin hotels had risen from €120 last year to €160 just because of the currency fluctuations.
We need to make sure that we tackle this problem. The Leader should arrange for officials from Fáilte Ireland to come in here and tell us what they will do to make sure that the competitiveness of our tourism market is not affected by the currency fluctuations.
I congratulate the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement on its publication of a guide to management companies. It outlines not just owners' rights, but it is also a guide for the agents of management companies and what they should do. It is about time we saw this because management companies are causing heartache for many thousands of property owners in the commuter belt. I received an e-mail yesterday from somebody in Tyrrelstown, outside my area, complaining that there are 2,500 apartments, but nobody knows why they are paying management fees. They are unregulated and fees can be as high as €100 per month. Senator Ó Murchú mentioned the cost of mortgages, yet for many young couples, the cost of management fees must be added to that.
We saw action from the Office of Consumer Affairs earlier this year. We have advice published by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, but we have not seen action by the Government, in spite of promises to the contrary in recent years. I again ask the Minister to do something to regulate management companies.
I ask the Leader for a number of debates on finance and the economy. It is interesting to hear comments that are made in the light of immediate circumstances, without realising their impact. If the competitiveness of the euro declines, the ECB has many options open to it, including reducing rates. We can be certain that the ECB will decrease rates as competitiveness changes. Similarly yesterday the debate raged about recapitalisation of the banks. I was at the finance committee meeting yesterday and officials from the two major banks, which hold 70% of the market here, made it quite clear that they did not need recapitalisation. When they were told that they might need recapitalisation, they made it quite clear that they would only take it on certain terms.
The debate should focus on the reality, which is that we are in severe difficulty, but practical undertakings are being made. I commend SIPTU and Jack O'Connor. In Dublin Airport, workers recently decided to take a 10% pay cut to keep their jobs. That is a very practical and positive application at a time when something like this was needed. We need to see more of this and we need to see measures such as workers co-operatives taking over when jobs are being sent abroad. These jobs could be easily kept here.
I fully support the idea that we can look after the economy ourselves and make a better job of it. The answer does not involve providing for short-term solutions when we have to hand more appropriate solutions, including further ECB rate cuts. The answer is to ask people to realise the situation and to move forward together in the new paradigm.
I join Senator Ó Murchú in welcoming the decision to organise a joint session of both Houses of the Oireachtas to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first sitting of the First Dáil. It is appropriate that we should convene in such a manner. I would like to raise a number of issues, most of which have already been mentioned.
The HSE placed its service plan for next year before the Oireachtas yesterday. Senator Callely asked whether the plan, which provides for cutbacks of more than €400 million, is already out of date. The media is reporting today that the HSE has confirmed that the document published yesterday is already "dated" — that is the exact term that was used. The HSE expects to have to save a further €400 million in addition to the cutbacks of €400 million that were announced yesterday. That is the official position of the HSE as things stand. It is a rather convenient position for the Government as it allows it to wash its hands of the spending needs of the health service. The Government has farmed out such decisions to the HSE. Before this session ends this week we should have a debate on the financial crisis that our hospitals and medical services will face next year if these cuts of almost €1 billion are made. Such a debate would be particularly important at this time of economic downturn.
We know that many people will seek to avail of the drugs repayment and medical card schemes next year. As Senator Ó Murchú mentioned, increasing numbers of people are finding themselves out of work. In that context, more people will have to rely on the medical card scheme at a time when the Government is talking about taking €1 billion from the health service, which is a slashing of services rather than a cutback. As Senator Fitzgerald said, accident and emergency units seem to be singled out for particular attention. I join Senator Prendergast in asking the Government to list the hospitals in which accident and emergency services will be cut.
As I was unable to be present for yesterday's Order of Business, I am not sure whether the Leader clarified the status of the request for a debate with the Minister for Education and Science. When is the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, likely to come to the House to discuss the cutbacks in the education sector? I refer in particular to the reversals he has announced since the Budget Statement some weeks ago.
I ask the Leader to investigate a matter that was drawn to my attention this morning at a breakfast meeting of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Irish Farmers Association. The Leader also attended the meeting, at which it was claimed that local authorities across the country are currently hiring inspectors to duplicate the farm inspection work of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Is that the position and, if so, why are additional inspectors being hired? Can the Leader shed some light on the issue?
The final point I would like to make relates to the capitalisation of the banks. Representatives of the leading banks, which control approximately 80% of the market in this country, attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service yesterday. I was shocked to hear the officials say that the banks do not need recapitalisation. The Government is proposing a scheme of recapitalisation. We have not had a debate on the scheme and we do not know the detail of it. We should have a detailed discussion as soon as possible, certainly before the House adjourns at the end of the week. We have not really discussed the banks since we passed emergency legislation some months ago.
Senator Donohoe spoke about the decision of the US Federal Reserve to cut that country's lending rate to 0.25%. If there continues to be such a large gap between the US rate and the current ECB rate of 2.5%, it will have serious implications for tourism, as previous speakers said, and for Irish industry as a whole. We should have a discussion on issues such as bank capitalisation and interest rate levels, as a matter of urgency, before we leave for the end of the year. I appreciate that we will consider the Finance Bill and the Appropriation Bill before the end of the week, but the matters to which I refer are not covered in those Bills. We should discuss such subjects this week.
I ask the Leader to support the calls made by Senators on both sides of the House for a debate on the economy. I ask him to confirm that in the new year, he will hold a debate on the economy once a month. We need to discuss economic matters that regularly, at least.
I join Senators Fitzgerald, Prendergast and others in calling for a debate on the HSE plan. All Members must be deeply concerned about the HSE's statement that enormous cutbacks of approximately €900 million will be required in the health service next year. We should also be concerned that the Minister for Health and Children has apparently expressed the view that accident and emergency departments are over-staffed. I wonder if the Minister, Deputy Harney, has visited such a unit recently. Those of us who have visited them have a different perspective. It seems that accident and emergency departments are significantly understaffed. As the Minister and the HSE have proposed the closure of a further 600 beds, in addition to the 400 beds that are already out of commission, each of us has to conclude that accident and emergency units will face more pressure and that there will be even less availability of front-line medical services to patients who need them.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the dismantling of the State structures that support equality and anti-discrimination measures. I support the excellent motion that has been tabled in this regard by my colleague, Senator Norris, who made a commotion on the matter yesterday. The motion condemns the Government's decision to close the Combat Poverty Agency and undermine many other agencies, notably the Equality Authority, the Irish Human Rights Commission and the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism. It is sad that these organisations, which have built expertise and developed a body of work over a number of years, are being dismantled so swiftly by the Government. One has to conclude that there is a vicious vendetta against any body that dares to criticise the Government——
——and speak up for the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. We need a debate on this global issue. It seems to be more than a coincidence that the bodies being closed have been critical of various aspects of Government and State action. This House should ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to justify the decision to dismantle these organisations. Why is he putting to waste the expertise and body of work that have been built up? We deserve an answer to that question, especially as the savings in question are relatively small. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the matter with the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern.
I agree with what Senators Hannigan and Donohoe said about the impact on this country's competitiveness of the US interest rate changes that were announced last night. I will not repeat what they said. When I attended the Business and Finance awards last week, Mr. Niall FitzGerald, who won the outstanding achievement award, made the very good point that this country needs to get back to building real and sustainable businesses. Over the past ten years, there has been a fixation with trading rather than the actual building of real businesses. It is something we should bear in mind, particularly from the point of view of competitiveness. We need to encourage our graduates to create wealth by starting businesses in areas like renewable energy and business services. The information technology sector requires significant reinvestment. While many small and medium-sized enterprises are involved in information technology, they choke when it comes to developing into larger businesses that can compete across the water.
I hope the Government can address this real issue when it announces its recovery plan today or tomorrow. If it does not allow small businesses in the areas I have mentioned to develop and create wealth, our economic competitiveness will be in serious trouble. As I said on numerous occasions, this country's broadband capacity needs to be increased to a ridiculous degree. If the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources does not get real on this issue, our competitiveness and our chances of creating jobs and wealth will be in serious trouble.
I agree with the comments of Senators about the democratic deficit in the HSE. I have called for the publication of the teamwork reports, particularly those dealing with the mid-west and the south, on at least four occasions. The reports in question, which deal with real issues in intensive care units, accident and emergency departments and acute beds, have been leaked left, right and centre, but they have not been published even though they were signed off last December.
It appears that the HSE will cut services in a number of regional hospitals and reorientate them towards centres in Limerick, Cork etc., which will have a real impact on rural areas and on towns such as Ennis, Nenagh, Bantry, Mallow and Tralee. These cuts have not been debated. The HSE is putting implementation teams into these areas without having a debate. It is not publicising the reports, yet it is implementing the recommendations. In any democracy that would be an absolute disgrace.
They must be published. The HSE must explain why reports that have been finalised since this time last year — almost on this date last year — have not been published in the intervening year.
A survey of migrant workers, published by the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, found that 53% of migrants working in restaurants are being paid less than the minimum wage. Collectively we should say that is a disgrace. It also tallied with the findings of the National Employment Rights Authority, which has shown that 76% of restaurants and other catering organisations are not adhering to all employment rights. A year ago I said that we should name and shame those institutions, which should not be getting away with this. I cannot understand why the authorities are not prosecuting more of those organisations.
The 90th anniversary of the sitting of the First Dáil is an important occasion that we should embrace. I ask the Leader that Seanad Éireann highlight the event and emphasise the importance of the civic, social and political life of the country to the wider population through the schools and, more important, through community life. It is an occasion of celebration and renewal. I ask the Leader to invite the Taoiseach to the House. It is the patriotic duty of Government to lead, but the Government is not leading. I ask the Members opposite who come in here every day what is their Government saying to the 14,000 people who are three months from losing their mortgage. What do the Members opposite say to the thousands of people who have become unemployed since their parties came into Government? What do they say to the people who today are——
I am asking the question. What do they say to the people who today are living in poverty, which was created by their Government? People come in here every day and talk about national government. Where was the call for national government when it was spending with largesse for the past 11 years and squandering billions of taxpayers' money? Where was the call for unity then?
There was none. I ask the Leader to bring in the Taoiseach who has been missing. He should also bring in the other two fugitives, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Coughlan. They have been missing. They have not come into the House. Children are in crisis in schools and unemployed people are looking for leadership. The Ministers are missing from the House and they should come in.
The previous speaker raised a good point. I would like the Leader to answer a question I asked yesterday, to which I got no answer. There have been some great contributions here today. Senators Donohoe, Hannigan and others said that we should get relevant and talk about last night's interest rate drop in America. Those contributions will be ignored. We will not be granted a debate on that matter. The point I made yesterday was that much of what happens in the Seanad is regarded by the Government as people letting off hot air and then we are ignored. The point was also addressed by Senators O'Toole and Fitzgerald. It is fine for the Government to talk to the social partners and it is appropriate that it should do so, but where is the centre of power? Who is sovereign in this State? Who pulls the strings?
What was said in the Seanad today was very valuable, but it will be totally and utterly ignored. What was said on the Order of Business will be very beneficial for those people who said it, they will have got some satisfaction out of it, they will have raised the issue, but that will be the end of it, whereas outside this House much is going on which is dictating the pace of affairs in the State. We have a really big problem. We should address with courage the issue of the social partners and other people, to whom Senator Norris also referred, who pull the strings in this State, because it is not us. Whereas it is very useful and satisfying for us to come in and raise these issues, they go no further than 11.30 on a Wednesday morning. That is the end of them.
The social partners are deeply embedded in the institutions of the State. It is not just a matter of them meeting the Taoiseach and telling him what to do, which they do anyway. Let me quote the example that has come up recently. Who is on the board of FÁS? There are four members of social partnership from the one side and four members on the other side, indulged, allowed, ignorant, powerful and paid. They are not answerable or accountable and they are still on the board of FÁS in powerful positions where this House had virtually no input — the Government had some. They are still sitting there and are still unaccountable. That issue needs to be addressed because these social partners, these outsiders, do not just sit on the board of FÁS, they have control over a large number of semi-State agencies into which we as a body have no input whatsoever. It is time for the Leader to address the issue of whether there is any point in people standing up here and talking learnedly, knowledgeably and with authority, as happened today on the interest rate, if we are not going to be listened to by the Government.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Prendergast, Leyden, Coghlan, Donohoe, Callely, Hannigan, John Paul Phelan, Bacik, Kelly and Ross expressed their strong views and concerns regarding the challenges facing the economy. There were very many views on banking. I remind the House that we had an all-day debate on the economy on Friday, 6 December. It was a stimulating debate with the Minister for Finance present for most of it and the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, here for the remainder of it. It was one of the best debates in this House in this session. It is unfair and untrue for Senators to say I am not keeping to my word in keeping the economy centre stage by debating it in the House. We had the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill here all day yesterday, which is the second most important Bill in the year. On Friday, all day, all evening and all night we will have the Finance Bill——
——and maybe into Saturday morning. For Senators to state that we are not placing the economy centre stage and that Members of this House are not being given an opportunity to express their views on the up-to-date challenge, which is unprecedented and global, is unfair and untrue.
Regarding the social partners, Senator Ross, who is a very eminent Member of the House, gives the side we read in the Sunday Independent, which is a must read. However, for me the social partners are the captains of industry and the engine of the economy. They include the farming community, which still plays a central role in the economy. We all saw the difficulties that community faced in the past ten days and how important it is to our economy in terms of exports. We have the employers, IBEC the trade unions and the Government. Central to Ireland's success in the past 20 years has been the role the social partners have played, as Senator O'Toole correctly said. He was also a very important pioneering member of social partnership.
It is a leader not only in our country but also in Europe, and is one of the best airlines in the world. We are fortunate to have it here. I remember, in the 1970s, paying more than €200 for a return ticket to London. Were it not for Ryanair we would still be paying expensive air fares. Aer Lingus is also a wonderful airline.
To return to the issue of the social partners, inaccuracies must be corrected, and I consider it my duty to give balance to the debate that takes place on the Order of Business. This side of the House plays a very responsible role by listening to the Opposition.
It is on my shoulders to provide balance and give credit where credit is due. Going back to 1987, we would not have had the Celtic tiger parts 1 and 2 were it not for the national understanding by the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, and Mr. Mullen of the trade union movement. That was before many of today's Members joined the House. From 1981 to 1987, it was a difficult time to be a Member of this House.
We experienced it all before. However, the difference this time is twofold. Interest rates are at such a low level that the minute the economy starts to take a turn, it will be encouraging and inviting from the investor's point of view. In 1987, there were 1.1 million people working and paying taxes. Now 2 million people are working.
We have a fantastic, well educated, enthusiastic and energetic generation of young people who are prepared to make their contribution. We must stay positive. We are approaching the bottom of the downward cycle — there may be another three months of downturn.
Let us celebrate our achievements: what we have done and how we protected the less well-off in 2001 and 2002. I know that is the priority of the Taoiseach at present. Next Friday, I look forward to hearing the contributions on the Finance Bill of all Senators who make very valid points on the Order of Business every morning regarding the economy. I will liaise with the leaders——
I will liaise with the leaders after the Order of Business this morning in an effort to facilitate the provision of a little extra time for Senators to make their contributions on the economy as well as matters pertaining to Second Stage of the Finance Bill——
——if that is agreeable to the House.
Senators Leyden, Donohoe, Callely, Kelly and Ross highlighted their concerns about the development plan and what may be in it, and mentioned reshaping of the challenge the Government is faced with. I agree with Senator Kelly that the IT sector has an important role to play. However, I disagree with the sentiments expressed about broadband. There has been an increase of 6.7% in broadband provision in Ireland and I welcome that.
——perhaps not as far as we would like, but certainly in a positive direction.
Senator Leyden mentioned a debate on housing and referred to the sale of the century which took place in the 1980s. Those of us who were Members of the House remember it well.
It generated a lot of capital and it also gave responsibility for maintenance to house owners and removed it from local authorities. There were other cost saving exercises that resulted in a win-win situation. I will allow time for discussion of the Senator's proposals early in the new year.
Senator Callely welcomed the opening of the large new O2 arena last night. A total of 27 major concert events will take place there between now and the end of May. It is a major boost to the economy of the city of Dublin and is uplifting for people in general. All these events are very important for young people and for those middle-aged people——
——who go to these concerts and are uplifted. It is a major ambassador for our country and I congratulate everyone concerned.
Senator Hannigan spoke about hotel prices. I am pleased to inform the Senator that not for the last five years have hotel prices been at such a low level.
This is a great credit to the success of the capital allowance programme, because we now have possibly the finest hotels in Europe, with the greatest services compared with previous years. The tourist business used to be an industry that operated for five, six or seven months of the year, but now it is a year-round industry, with conferences, concerts, the attractions of golf, fishing and walking, and all the other wonderful attractions, with the fantastic facilities that Irish hoteliers are now supplying. To put to rest the——
Senator Keaveney spoke about party pills. The party pill Bill will be introduced in the next session. In addition, with regard to the debate on alcohol, I encourage young people and those partaking of alcohol over the Christmas season to respect it for the drug that it is. I would like to see everyone enjoying themselves and having a good time, but we should respect alcohol as it is a drug. With regard to the points made by Senators Norris and Bacik, I apologise to Senator Norris as I understood he had been contacted, but I will correct that after the Order of Business. I gave him my word in that regard.
Senator Norris had some other queries about the Equality Authority. There were 43 employees in the Equality Authority and that number has been reduced by five, or 11%, to 38. A good service will still be given by the excellent——
With regard to the other points raised by Senator Norris, I will get back to the Senator directly this afternoon when I find out what is the position.
Senators Ó Murchú, John Paul Phelan and Buttimer made very valid proposals for celebrating the 90th anniversary of the First Dáil. Senator Ó Murchú suggested that schools, employers and community activists should all become involved in the celebrations of this wonderful 90 years which will be taking place on 20 and 21 January 2009. I look forward to everyone participating in this event such as the national broadcaster. I hope we will have an opportunity to have a debate in the House on its return after the Christmas recess on the subject of the transformation in our country in the 90 years. Senator Ó Murchú also referred to the lighting of the candle and the uplifting of the spirits of our people. I will pass on the Senator's views to the Minister after the Order of Business.
Senator John Paul Phelan asked for a debate on education. I have given my word that we will have such a debate. This week is completely taken up with legislation but the Minister has agreed to come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity when his diary permits. This will be in the first or second week after the Christmas recess. This morning Senator John Paul Phelan and I attended the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business which was meeting the farming community. We will have to inquire into the statement made by Mr. Padraig Walshe, the president of the farming organisation about the local inspectorate for local authorities which has been appointed and which is duplicating the work of the inspectorate of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. This is an area where savings could be made in these hard-pressed times and I will make inquiries on the matter.