Thursday, 26 February 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, all-party motion on the conflict in the Middle East, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes; and No. 1a Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill 2009 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1, but not before 8 p.m. and to conclude not later than 11 p.m., spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and all other Senators for eight minutes, and Senators may share time by agreement of the House.
I ask the Leader to invite the relevant Minister to the House immediately to address the report in today's media which states that 20 children died in care. I know from my background that these are the most vulnerable children. They also can be the most difficult children to mind when they are in care. The job done by social care workers and assistants looking after these children is incredibly stressful and difficult. The fact that 20 children died while in the care of the State and there is no official way of inquiring into why this happened or what could have been done to prevent it is wrong. Official Ireland is incredibly neglectful of children in care.
I read recently that a Minister neglected to read a report that he commissioned on child abuse and that is a symptom of the neglect by official Ireland of this section of society. I have no doubts about the difficulties in minding these children, but they are very vulnerable and we should have a debate immediately in this House on the issue with the relevant Minister in attendance.
This morning I walked past a picket for the first time in my life as, I am sure, did many Members of this House, even though many of us agree with the concerns of the people who are protesting. This is another issue that will have to be discussed in detail here tonight.
We should continue the debate on the economy. I am not sure how many people in this House feel that we should congratulate Bank of Ireland's decision to take a clone from the board as a successor to Mr. Brian Goggin to resolve the crisis it is in. It should have looked outside Bank of Ireland to choose a new CEO. What we are watching in the banking sector and the economy is like a version of "car crash TV". We are watching things falling around us and there is a sense that nobody is in charge or that the people who are doing something are simply protecting their own interests.
This debate must be moved on quickly. There is an acknowledgement from the public that things are deteriorating faster than we expected, that we probably will have a budget soon after the local elections, that we probably will see an increase in taxation and we will have to see more cuts in the public finances to reduce our level of borrowing in the next couple of years. I do not yet get the sense of urgency required from Government. We should ask the Minister for Finance to come into this House and start talking in real terms about what is happening to the economy. I do not get a sense from the Minister for Finance or the Taoiseach that they are taking on board the concerns about what is happening in the economy. People may agree or disagree with what Mr. David Begg of ICTU is talking about when he puts forward its ten-point plan, but at least it is a plan. I do not get a sense from the Government that it is prepared to discuss the economy in that type of detail.
There is an acceptance that we will have to increase taxes. What taxes we will increase is a matter for us, at the centre of our democracy, to debate. There is a belief that there will be more public cutbacks which should also be debated in this House. Too many people are calling for a so-called "national government". The Opposition is supposed to help out the Government. I do not get the sense that there is anything to talk about.
Our ranks have been depleted this morning. As Senator Twomey said, it gives none of us any pleasure to walk past people picketing as we come in to do our jobs. As I said previously, if we are to deal with the serious challenges we face, then no matter how much sympathy we feel with those who believe the measures taken are disproportionate or unfair in some respects, the answer cannot be to strike. This is a time for solidarity. As I said previously, compensatory gestures may need to be made in the future whereby the injustices in respect of the measures taken, sometimes in great haste and which are perhaps accidental are incidental, will be rectified. However, the answer must be for us all to show leadership by showing solidarity. As I said previously, striking is not the way to go.
As politicians, we must set an example and start a debate so the people realise that nobody will be exempt from the sacrifices which must be made. I have asked previously whether anybody should receive a salary which is part or completely funded from public money of more than €150,000 if the situation is as serious as people say it is. Journalists and presenters in RTE — celebrities — are paid a multiple of €150,000 despite the fact there is no obvious place for them to go. It is not completely in response to the law of the market that they are paid such excessive salaries. Everything must be looked at.
We all resent the fact that in Britain a man who oversaw a massive catastrophe in his bank will now retire on £600,000 or so per year. We need serious, fresh thinking outside the box. Major sacrifices will have to be made disproportionately at the higher level of income. However, that does not justify a single strike in the meantime given the challenges we all face.
A person in authority in the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, speaking at the colloquium held last month in Mexico City, declared that the breakdown of traditional families far from being a crisis was actually a triumph for human rights. This gentleman, Arie Hoekman, denounced the idea that high rates of divorce and out of wedlock births represent a social crisis claiming instead that they represent the triumph of human rights against patriarchy. This is the type of ideology which sets itself up against what is good for the human person for the sake of a political goal. At the same time, a new UK Government report acknowledges the problems associated with the departure from the traditional family model.
At a time of economic challenge, should we not think and work smarter not harder? Should we not try to support the family in a particular way because it is the family which will inculcate the values we need to deal with a time of crisis, values of solidarity, self-denial and so on?
Yes. None of us who supports the traditional family will deny that, tragically and outrageously, there have been occasions when the traditional family has let people down. However, what we want to do is to promote what works best most of the time for the sake of the most vulnerable people in our society. We must not be afraid to depart from political correctness and fear of media or of other forces in vindicating that.
The reason I raise this issue is that our overseas aid budget which has been slashed so dramatically and so unacceptably none the less envisages large sums of money going to that very same organisation, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities.
I read in this morning's newspaper that the constitutionality of a section of the Charities Bill has been called into question. The section provides that the sale of mass cards shall be unlawful unless an association with a recognised body — in this case the Catholic Church — can be shown. What happens from now on is a matter for the President and the Council of State but I wish to make it quite clear as someone who proposed an amendment to prevent the sale of bogus mass cards and who was very happy to see the Government come forward with a very specific prescriptive amendment to remedy the mischief currently operating, that it is very much in the spirit of the guarantees in Article 44 of the Constitution on the free protection and practice of religion that we would act to protect people in the community from being defrauded.
People who want to give a mass card to somebody at a time of bereavement or illness are entitled to expect that the offering they make is given to a priest who will say a Mass. That would be of interest to people of faith and people who do not have faith because it is a very sensitive issue. It is a gesture of generosity and it should not be abused by fraudsters. That is the mischief the legislation seeks to remedy. I hope we will be able to deal with that mischief in legislation.
Like Senator Twomey, it gave me no pleasure to walk past the picket by the CPSU this morning. However, I did so in the belief that we were coming into this House to debate the issue. I hope we will have a good, healthy debate this evening, exchange views with those on the other side of the House and then vote on the legislation. That is why we are here.
I refer to the CPSU and the unfairness of the pension levy and the view my party has taken on it. The pension levy is a pay cut or a tax by any other name. The Government is legally prohibited from introducing a tax between budgets. This is the only way it can introduce a pay cut by the back door.
People accept we all need to put our shoulders to the wheel to ensure the public finances are restored to the levels they were at last year and the year before that. We all know the pain needs to be shared and that people from a wide cross-section of society need to come together to do that. However, the social partnership talks are essential to that process. That model, which was quite good and served this country well during the 1980s, was effectively abandoned by the Government. The pension levy was introduced at the last minute and could not possibly have been sold to the unions at 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning. I ask the Leader to use his good offices to ensure the voices of the 3,000 members of the Garda Representative Association who protested yesterday and the thousands of members of the CPSU who are protesting today will be heard at some level in Government.
We are witnessing a seismic realignment of the political landscape. The core Fianna Fáil vote, as evidenced from the recent opinion poll, is being eaten into because of unpopular decisions. That may well be what happens when a government is in power for 12 consecutive years. There may be a level of arrogance which blinds government. The Government should listen to its own people if it will not listen to the Opposition. Grassroots Fianna Fáil people are up in arms over this as is the ordinary, hard-pressed and hardworking family which is struggling to pay a mortgage used to buy a house, the price of which was overinflated because of the property bubble. The Government was warned time and again about the property bubble by political leaders, leaders of the trade union movement and economists but they were not listened to.
I urge that we return to the social partnership model and that the plans to introduce the pension levy be abandoned because of its unfairness. I hope some element of commonsense will prevail. It is not good enough for the Government to say it will tweak elements of the legislation. That is not good enough for the thousands of young gardaí, nurses and teachers, some of whom are being let go because of the announcement by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, two weeks ago to cut €9 million in the special educational needs area. At a time of economic difficulty, it is the most vulnerable who should be most protected, but, unfortunately, the Government has gone after the most vulnerable and that is unforgivable.
The appointment of a successor to Mr. Brian Goggin from the board of the Bank of Ireland, which was announced yesterday, is appalling. It sends out a message that one of its own is now at the helm of that bank. Have we learned anything since last September? Have the banks any idea of how offended people are and how betrayed they feel? What will take place in this House tonight and tomorrow is nothing short of treason — it is treason by any name. It is a pay cut and a levy. However, we still see the same banking practices and the same people being appointed to senior positions, and that is not good enough.
Two weeks ago I raised the issue of the sports capital programme. The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Cullen, is the only Minister in Cabinet who is anti-rural Ireland. He abolished the first-time buyer's grant and increased development charges for one-off rural houses by as much as 400% or 500% and cost people who are building them approximately €10,000. The same Minister, not to mention the fact that he oversaw the e-voting fiasco that cost €50 million, has now decided to abandon the national sports capital programme. Two weeks ago I asked the Leader what would become of the money that will be given to the Department from lotto funding. If the programme does not exist for 2009, what will happen to that funding?
Is it true that the moneys reaped from the pension levy will go to recapitalise and bail out the banks? If that is the case, young gardaí, nurses and teachers will pay for 30 years for the greed of capitalist bankers and developers.
I agree with Senator Mullen on the issue of mass cards. It is important people receiving mass cards are assured they are genuine. I hope the President and the Council of State will ensure the legislation is constitutional and that if it contains an error, that that will be rectified.
Since the days of Punch vilifying the great Daniel O'Connell, the British media has done very little in the way of serving this nation. Today on Sky News the media followed that tradition and reported that today's strike was caused due to worker dissatisfaction with the pension levy and mismanagement in Allied Irish Banks. The reporter compounded the error with regard to the bank by repeating it, when she should of course have referred to mismanagement in Anglo Irish Bank. I spoke to the editor in London who said that the error will be rectified at 11 a.m., but the damage has been done. The Financial Times made the same error yesterday.
We all know that Allied Irish Banks is probably one of the best run banks in the country. It could do better, but it is certainly not Anglo Irish Bank. Media at home and abroad must be careful to be accurate in their reporting. I ask the Leader to ensure that if any Member hears such reports, he or she should ensure they are rectified. This must be done because financial markets react instantaneously to such news. If they believe Allied Irish Banks is mismanaged, they will act accordingly. I ask the Leader to raise this matter with the Taoiseach.
Will the Leader organise a broad debate to sum up the many different discussions and themes in which we have engaged in recent months? I ask him to organise a debate entitled Ireland 2016. We are approaching a historic anniversary and the Leader should provide a forum that will allow Members to articulate the type of country and society we want when we reach that point.
I am convinced our country will get through the difficulties it is facing and that our finest days lie ahead. However, we should take a look at other countries that have got through similar difficulties — for example, Sweden and how it managed its economy and society in the 1990s. One thing Sweden had that we lack was a collective vision regarding what the country would be like at the end of its journey. This meant that people asked to make a sacrifice could see a gain in the future or see how others were making a similar sacrifice.
The Oireachtas could provide an important discipline for generating that vision. We face a future that will involve lower public spending, higher taxation and higher unemployment. If the country is to get through that, it must have a collective vision of a successful future. This Chamber could provide a superb forum that allows all of us to contribute to that.
I will conclude by commenting, like my colleagues, on the tough experience many of us had this morning in walking through the pickets. I believe my role is best served in trying to provide a solution to the issues in here rather than outside. It is great to see so many others make this same point this morning.
I will begin where Senator Donohoe left off. We passed the pickets on our way in here this morning. However, rarely a day passes when we do not pass a picket on our way into the House as there are often pickets on important issues. On the specific issue today, people must realise that, while there is a €2 billion shortfall this year, there is a projected shortfall of many more billion for the coming years. While the issue today is tough to deal with and implement, we must consider the national interest. We are here to do that, even though we too face the pension levy. The issue is as difficult for us as it is for many on the picket lines. It is only through being here working through the issues and trying to support Government at this difficult time internationally that we will find a path to a better future for the country.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment or the Minister for Foreign Affairs, whichever is relevant, to the House to discuss the ongoing threat from the new American Administration, in terms of President Obama's move to try to protect American industries by ensuring that companies do not avail of better tax regimes in other countries? Putting it simply, Ireland has been the recipient of a staggering amount of American investment.
I would like the opportunity to discuss the issue with the relevant Minister so that we ensure we lobby and our voices are heard in America with regard to how important American investment is for us. We should also remind America how important we are for it. It is not a one-way street and it is important we send a strong message that we welcome what we have received and would welcome further investment. We also welcome the opportunity for Ireland to invest in America. We must bring home to the American Administration that it must remain a two-way street and we must lobby confidently and strongly to get that message across, particularly now that legislation is being drafted in America that might threaten our economic situation.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Finance to come to the House? The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Martin Mansergh, has been to the House for various debates and, while he is a man of great ability, he is not the real McCoy. We desperately need the Minister for Finance to come and listen to our opinions on various matters, not just the Bill we will discuss tonight, for which he may be in the House.
Last night when the Fine Gael motion on banking was being debated, the Minister of State was in attendance for all of it and that has been the tendency. It is indicative of the fact we are not being listened to that, while the motion on banking was being debated and promises and aspirations for a new dawn in banking were being made, at that same moment, at 6 p.m. last night, the appointment of the new chief executive of the Bank of Ireland was being announced. This is possibly the most disgraceful appointment in the business world in living memory partly because it was a political, national and commercial imperative that Bank of Ireland did not appoint an insider. It was a devastating blow to those who wished to revive the fortunes and morale of and confidence in the banks when this man was appointed. This is no reflection on him. He is an insider.
Let me state this to the Leader. The appointment was made not by the Minister but by exactly the same cabal of people who made prior appointments in the Bank of Ireland. The chairman was the governor of the Bank of Ireland. The governor rang the Minister to keep him in touch with what was going on and told him that this was the best appointment and they were going to appoint him. This is a terrible blow to those of us who wish to see confidence in banking restored. Mr. Goggin is gone and Mr. Boucher, son of Brian, is appointed.
I apologise, but the new man is son of Brian. He is almost a duplicate or a clone who will implement similar policies and who is deeply imbedded not only in the banking culture but in the Bank of Ireland culture.
It was even more devastating to read The Irish Times this morning and see my view confirmed that the new chief executive oversaw the growth of the bank's Irish development and land bank loans to €7.1 billion. In other words, the man being put in place is the same one who is partly responsible for and who endorsed from the board those toxic loans which have devastated the country and have left the economy in bits. I beg the Leader to bring the Minister for Finance to the House to hear what we have to say about this——
——because he has got an input into this. He has two members on the board. Were they asleep or were they doing his bidding? If they were doing his bidding, the Government might as well give up imposing a new culture on the banks. This is the alarming lesson we have from this appointment. We are going absolutely nowhere if this type of thing continues.
I share the discomfort of other Members with regard to passing the picket this morning of the Civil Public and Services Union. We have a responsibility to be in the House. This is not an all-out strike. I am a member of SIPTU and no instructions were received from other unions not to pass the picket. The staff on duty were aware of this and were very conscious and understanding of our position because we have a responsibility to be and speak in this House.
The Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, could not be here last night because the Bill was going through the other House. He was on duty all day and I appreciate that. Will the Leader organise a discussion on the timely intervention and interesting ideas put forward by the former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, on "Morning Ireland" this morning? He appealed to all parties, particularly his former party, to adopt a more constructive approach on the national finances. It would be worthwhile to have a discussion on the difficulties facing the country and I ask the Leader for such a debate as early as possible and to invite the Minister for Finance.
I was in Dáil Éireann in 1981 when Garret FitzGerald's Minister for Finance, John Bruton, brought forward the most unlikely tax on children's shoes. I hope something more innovative——
It should not be up to one Senator to correct an international medium like Sky. We have Government information services and I hope they are doing their duty in correcting the hysterical and ill-informed commentary on-line from The Irish Times, RTE and this House. The comments made by Members of this House are flashed live around the world——
——and when one makes a statement here on the liquidity of banks one causes problems. There is ill-informed interpretation of what is stated here and everyone should be restrained as far as banking is concerned and we should be united in our approach. We will work this out, as Senator Pascal Donohoe stated in a most constructive manner. I compliment him on the fine article in Phoenix magazine.
We all wish to see matters coming right quickly in the banking sector. What say, if any, did the Government have on the appointment of the new man in the Bank of Ireland? We were given to understand that through the appointment of the public interest directors, of which there are two with others to be appointed, we would have a say in this. The problem is the growth of the wonky loan books they have. Here we have the man who directed the growth of that loan book within that institution being appointed to the top job. I have no doubt he is an excellent banker but what kind of signal are we sending out?
The Financial Regulator has discovered the breach of market abuse regulations at Anglo Irish Bank. Surely this could have been discovered, and perhaps was discovered, by that office prior to now. What did they do and when did they know? This has not been revealed. Here we have the Financial Regulator seeming to arrive at the scene of the crime, breathless so to speak, after all the main players are off the pitch. Is this a ruse or a distraction designed to serve some other purpose?
Will the Leader confirm to the House whether the powers of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement are wide enough to investigate all financial institutions? Specifically, I have in mind building societies because of the concealment that went on with regard to Irish Nationwide and how it provided assistance and temporary cover for massive loans to keep them off audited accounts. The Director of Corporate Enforcement is doing an excellent job and I hope he has enough staff, which was a problem in the past. I have the utmost faith and confidence in the office however I do not think it has the power in law to go near a building society.
I agree with the comments and sentiments of all other Senators with regard to the picket outside the gate. We are in here to do our job honestly and honourably and this is what we are doing. I have total sympathy for them also because the Government could not have meant to hit — I hope it did not and that it will be tweaked — people on salaries as low as some of those people are on.
I passed the picket twice this morning and I felt no discomfort whatsoever because I took the cut. If the rest of the Senators, Deputies and the political class did the same they could stand with some moral authority and posture before the public sector unions.
We, the political class, have no moral authority unless we give leadership. If we find it uncomfortable to pass a civilised picket like that of the Civil Public and Services Union this morning, how will we cope with the much less civilised pickets we will face before this terrible time is over in Ireland? Before Christmas I predicted there would be 500,000 unemployed. I called for a state of emergency, a national Government and national consensus. I repeat all these calls.
I sat in on the debates on the pensions levy in this House and the Dáil yesterday. The debates have an unreal and phony feel; it is like the phony war of 1939 — the Molotov-Ribbentrop plan. The war has not even started. Already the cries are going up that we should not make it worse than it is and that we should think of our international reputation. The mistake we made from the beginning was not telling the truth to the people or stating how bad it is. Nothing frightens the international markets as much as a country lying about its economic condition. What reassures them is an admission that we are in a terrible place and dealing with it.
I deplore the remarks of Senator Leyden on Mr. John Bruton. What we need is the kind of the steel shown by politicians of both main parties, men like Lemass, John Bruton and Paddy Cooney. It is some of this kind of steel we will need before this period is over.
I deplore and condemn An Garda Síochána for marching the streets of Dublin. The gardaí do not just comprise any group in society but are role models for our people. They have no business being on the streets at a difficult time of incipient civil unrest like this. We politicians, the political class, the gardaí and responsible people in society have an obligation to stand firm and stop posturing. We are not Quakers and cannot be friends to all and enemies to none. Far too many politicians in both Houses are behaving as if they were Quakers. We will have to toughen up and be ready to take the harsh measures, and we will have to lead from the front. We should start taking cuts and index them to the continuing cuts because there will be more in the public and private sectors. It is time we toughened up and took as a role model the Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces, Lieutenant Dermot Earley, who told his men some days ago that they would do their duty in the event of public unrest and public striking. We should do the same.
I would like to move an amendment to the Order of Business such that we can take No. 24, motion No. 33, today in addition to No. 1. It is a call for a rolling debate on the economy. It is perfectly obvious once again that this is principally what we are discussing.
Before I say a few words on the economy, I would like to raise another related matter, that is, the closure of a number of facilities nationally using health and safety and governance issues as a mask to do in those facilities for the most vulnerable people. Senator Twomey rightly stated 20 children died while in the care of the State. Nobody I know of died in an old people's home from neglect or abuse. We raised in the House the matter of the closure of Bethany House. We were given very equivocal answers and there was supposed to be a meeting about it. Some of those affected are effectively being sentenced to death because they will be put into hospital beds, to which they will be confined. We know their lives will be shortened. What is being used as an excuse is flaking paint and the odd dripping trap.
The same is the case with another home that is being closed. Today we read about the closure of Clonturk House for the blind in north Dublin. The closure is being masked as necessary on grounds of health and safety but some of the residents have lived in the home for 60 years. The residents will be disturbed and put out. Behind this there is a property deal. It worries me that health and safety and good governance issues can be used in some instances by people who would not recognise such issues if they came and sat on top of their heads, in order to evict vulnerable people. That is absolutely wrong.
With regard to the economy, where was the Department of Finance? Was it asleep at the wheel? Did nobody predict any of the events that are occurring? I have lunch with a friend of mine who is a bank manager, a nephew of the writer James Joyce. He used to ask regularly how is it that the Department of Finance is getting the figures wrong all the time, including estimates for income, tax and expenditure. Did it not notice what was coming down the tracks? Who are the top people in the Department and what are they doing?
It is insane to be promoting people who are apparently implicated in the colossal failure of a bank. However, this is nothing new. Five years ago, I spoke in this House about the rewards for failure. When people made a complete hames of British companies, they were got rid of but they got £1.5 million as a result. This is happening again and this is why I am calling for a rolling debate on the economy.
Let us not kid ourselves that there will be any great exercise in democracy tonight. Not a single amendment will be accepted and the Bill will be guillotined, as it was in the other House. This is what is wrong: we are tinkering at the edges. I agree with Senator Harris that this is a national emergency and we need to confront it solidly, head on and with a coherent strategy.
That, undoubtedly, involves a budget. We should have one within the next month and we should address the tax issue.
I am blistered with e-mails from people pointing out the anomalies, inequities and injustices that have alienated the people. They are asking for a tax and stating they will pay it if everybody does. The super-rich, in particular, should be targeted, and we in the House should be targeted also because we are comfortable here. There should not be tinkering with legislation that we are not even allowed to amend.
I listened to the interview this morning with respect. The former Taoiseach, Dr. FitzGerald, was a most distinguished politician. He did encounter a few banana skins and presided over a Government that came down because of an unwise tax proposal that was not sold to the people. He had his personal debt expunged by a particular bank and recently retired from a hedge fund. Let us have a debate on hedge funds. I spoke with a friend and financial advisor yesterday at lunchtime and asked him to explain hedge funds. He said the process involved is like putting a bet against a football team, which would actually damage the prospects of that football team. That is a kind of national treason also.
I would be very much in favour of a real debate on the economy. Let us have all the facts. I never heard of the new CEO of the Bank of Ireland until this morning. We are not even allowed to know how much he is getting. That is astonishing to me and provocative to people.
I regret the cutbacks to overseas development aid. They were probably unnecessary because the budget contracts income. We were giving a percentage, which is naturally contracting in any case. I would have been happy to leave it at that. That would have meant that ordinary people would not feel that their money was being splashed around and we would have been giving a proportion that we could afford. The figure should remain as a percentage.
I am extremely glad the UN Population Fund is being supported by the Government. Long may this continue. It is talking sense about population, which is the biggest problem this planet has ever faced. We should have some moral leadership in this regard.
Yesterday morning I was coming to Leinster House via a different route and at a different hour from usual. I was coming through Dún Laoghaire at 9 a.m. and saw a queue along the main street. I asked why it was there at that hour and when I proceeded further I noticed it was a queue for the social welfare office. People in Dún Laoghaire were queuing up for the dole. This really struck home given that they were queuing in an economically well-off area.
As a politician, I am an action woman. I do not just philosophise but get up and do things. I want to talk this morning about action. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment should address urgently the issue of prompt payment to companies. Cash flow and credit are the lifeblood of companies and when the cash flow is cut off from companies, they die and people lose their jobs. I am here as a politician. I was nominated by the Irish Exporters Association because of my co-creation with Connie Doody of a company that now employs 200 people in Navan.
Prompt payment is a huge issue. There is no doubt there is an economic and financial crisis and there are many impacts locally. Behind the headlines hundreds of companies are being deprived of prompt payment by major companies and in many cases by State and semi-State companies. I have received information from ISME that suppliers are waiting on average 68 days to get payment for the goods and services they provide and, in many cases, it is the State and semi-State companies that are at fault. It has never been the case that companies had to wait 68 days for payment. We introduced prompt payment legislation in 1997 and in 2002 the European Union introduced regulations to ensure payments were made within 30 days. Companies, however, are contracting out of the legislation and regulations. I call on the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to introduce legislation to provide for mandatory payment of invoices by all companies, State, semi-State and private, within 30 days. If companies are deprived of cash flow and they are not paid for their services that adds to their day-to-day running costs.
I am a fan of Peter Mandelson in the United Kingdom. He was not too bad as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
——and if I were Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment I would demand that companies, including State and semi-State companies, pay their suppliers on time. According to anecdotal evidence, State companies are re-invoicing companies after approximately 30 or 40 days, which creates another delay. That is a hidden crime.
I believe, however, that Senator Harris's analysis of where we are today has one fundamental flaw. He missed one dimension from the debate, which I will put to the Leader. The people who are outside the gates of Leinster House today, the people who marched last Saturday and those who are agitated all over the country are not agitated or marching because they do not believe there is a problem. They know there is a problem and a need for cutbacks, but what offends them is the lack of fairness.
I formally second the proposition by Senator Norris that we amend Standing Orders to have a rolling debate on the economy every day for an hour. It is not fair that we have not got to the tax exiles or the people with exorbitant salaries and bonuses. It is not fair that we have not got to those with privilege and wealth. If the Government starts with privilege, wealth and those at the top, it would be acceptable. Then we would have the national consensus Senator Harris correctly identified that we need. We cannot have that consensus predicated on unfairness, a lack of philosophy or direction. I put it to the Leader that we should have a rolling debate——
——but that we come up with a fair budget and that we do not introduce a pension levy targeted at the weaker, that disproportionately attacks them. That is where the difficulty lies. We need transparency, fairness and cuts, starting at the top.
That is all right. I listened to the comments of many speakers and it is evident we are still on the blame game. I want to get away from that. Of course we have to blame the banks and the Financial Regulator who misrepresented the solvency of the bank. They have damaged the reputation of this country but let us get away from that. I would welcome an ongoing debate on the economy where the points raised by many speakers could be discussed at length.
I do not know what fairness is anymore. I do not understand the word "fair" because it keeps changing with the mood of whatever new statement comes out. It changes by the day. I do not believe for a minute that the Opposition would call any budget that is introduced fair, because that is in our nature. It will not be fair because the Opposition will want to object to it in some way. Let us get that phoniness out of the way.
I spoke previously about the need for an ongoing debate on societal change — Senator Donohoe referred to the matter again this morning. Society and work are changing. I spoke this morning to a lady who is now working a three-day week. I asked her how she is spending the other two days and she explained that she intends to help a very ill neighbour who lives down the road. What a lovely concept is coming out of this difficulty. Perhaps it is time for us to look at society. No matter what area of life a person is in, he or she has pain and we should work together. That is all I ask. I do not want any more negativity, which is prevalent. We must try to bring hope. Everybody has different concepts of how the future will shape up but let us try to work it out together.
I agree totally that we should have an ongoing discussion on the economy. I agree that there is a need to tease out and have further discussion on many points raised by Senator O'Reilly.
I will not condemn the new appointment to the bank because I know nothing about him.
I am not sure it is particularly responsible of us to talk about the appointment of the chief executive of one of our important banks, especially when we do not know anything about the man. I certainly do not know whether he is the right man for the job, but I have not seen any argument proffered by the other side except that it would be better to have somebody from the outside. I would like to hear of a bank anywhere in the world that is not in financial difficulties or in bad straits. I am not sure that one can source somebody from a bank that is in a healthy state and that made all the right policy decisions to avoid the current global financial crisis. We must be measured in the way we treat this issue because what we say can be taken on board by people outside and that sets a tone that could undermine somebody who may well turn out to be a very good chief executive of the bank. I do not know, but it is up to the people who run the banks to make that decision. We need to get back to that rather than be so judgmental and pretend that we are experts in every field when that is not the case.
Concern has been expressed in different quarters about the people on picket duty outside the gates of Leinster House, but I do not share that concern. I am one of the people who is affected by the levy. I do not like it but I accept that it is necessary. I accept that it is probably insufficient and inadequate to address the extreme fiscal position in this country. My concern is with the people who are unemployed, some of whom may not be paid today or tomorrow because people have chosen to go on strike rather than work. My concerns are also with those people in the private sector who are worried about whether they will have a job next month or in six or 12 months.
I have tabled a motion regarding the legal profession. Not many Opposition Members will stand up and purport to be on the side of the underprivileged and tackle the privileged. A number of my colleagues said they will support the motion and I ask Opposition Senators to do so as well. I told Senator Twomey that I am prepared to sign a motion if he and Senator Kelly will table it regarding the exorbitant consultants' fees and the unsustainable wages they will be paid. It is wrong and it was a bad decision, which needs to be reversed. We all need to get real about this and I am appealing to everyone to do this in a cohesive, cross-party way in order that we send a signal that greed and selfishness in society must stop and that we must move towards supporting each other and towards community trust if we are to solve this problem. That is the solidarity and realism we need and we do not need people in unions on gross, exorbitant salaries who are protecting those salaries rather than the people they purport to represent because this is where they see a vulnerability.
We need to tackle privilege in this country. Does the Leader agree the following words of Fr. Pedro Arrupe would be a fitting sentiment and philosophy for the House to adopt: "Let there be men and women who will bend their energies not to strengthen positions of privilege, but, to the extent possible, reduce privilege in favor of the underprivileged"?
This issue is about fairness and not about public versus private sector workers, as has been stated by Senators McCarthy, Norris and O'Reilly. It is about whether people are paying their fair share and the workers outside Leinster House are representative of the least well-off sectors of our society. It is vital that we take them along with us but we will not do so in the current strife unless they can see an element of transparency and fairness in what everybody is being asked to pay. Pitting public service and private sector workers against each other is not on. We are all aware of job losses and we regret every job loss because of the impact that has on communities. This is all about fairness and marching ahead together to better times.
I compliment Senator Mary White on her suggestion to ensure Departments pay on time. I have a related concern, which I would like the Leader to address. Companies, unfortunately, have had to make redundancy payments. The Government says it will pay its contribution to such payments within eight weeks but officials are miles behind because they are snowed under with requests for tax relief on redundancy claims. This, in turn, makes companies less sure of their finances and more people are being made redundant because of cash flow issues. It is important not only to ensure the Government pays on time for the work done by private sector companies, but also that requests for tax relief on redundancy payments are processed as quickly as possible. Will the Leader bring that to the attention of the Minister for Finance?
I seek the agreement of the House to call the Minister for Finance at 10.50 p.m. to respond to contributions on Second Stage of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill. I forgot to include that in my earlier proposal.
Senators Twomey, Mullen and Norris called on the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to discuss the report in the media that 20 children have died in the care of the State. This is an alarming statistic and I have no difficulty setting time aside for this. I would like to know more about the difficulties organisations representing the blind are experiencing, which was raised by Senator Norris. The National Council for the Blind is my favourite charity and the Taoiseach is very supportive of this organisation. Not having one's sight is one of the greatest difficulties one can experience in life and I would like to do whatever I can in this regard. If a debate is needed to assist this organisation, I will be only too pleased to seek the support of colleagues for it to take place.
Senators Twomey, Mullen, McCarthy, Daly, Donohoe, Keaveney, Leyden, Coghlan, Harris, Norris, Reilly, Ormonde, Walsh and Hannigan expressed their views on the economy and called for a debate on it. Since the House resumed last September, we have had a debate on the economy or banking every week. Last night, we had a debate on banking and tonight we will debate Second Stage of legislation relating to the economy and banking while the remaining Stages will be debated all day tomorrow. I have always sought the support of the Minister for Finance and the Minister of State at the Department of Finance to come to the House in order that Senators can make their views known. In fairness to the Minister, he was in the Dáil, as Senator Leyden said, to take Committee and Remaining Stages of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill all day yesterday and it was impossible for him to be in two places at the one time. The Minister of State attended the House and he listened to all the contributions. He has relayed the views of Members to the Government every time he has attended the House.
It is not a pleasure to see working colleagues of ours picketing and I wish everyone well. Every man, woman and child in Ireland looks forward to the day everyone returns to the social partnership table. Colleagues have stated the Government did not give the deliberations long enough. A lengthy period of five weeks was provided but we do not have the luxury of time, which is running out quickly, and that is why legislation is before the House late tonight and all day tomorrow. Many colleagues in public life have outlined the difficulties being experienced, as did a former Taoiseach on radio earlier. He stated it was twice as bad now as the challenge he faced in 1981. One must listen to this man because he was the last leader of Fine Gael to get a mandate from the people 27 years ago. We must listen when a person gets a mandate and I listened attentively to his comments and took them on board.
I look forward to social partnership resuming because it is the cornerstone on which we built the economy and we will rebuild it. As President Barack Obama said, when the depth of the problem is understood, the master plan can be put in place and we are starting to see that happen. I refer to a number of facts because some people may misunderstand that 38% of our working population do not pay income tax and 50% of all income tax is paid by 6.5% of taxpayers. When people say everyone must make a contribution, it is the same for everyone on this occasion. With regard to the various welfare payments provided to those who need them when they become unemployed, fall ill or find themselves in unfortunate circumstances, Ireland has never been found wanting. We are one of the world leaders in looking after the underprivileged and social welfare recipients. We are proud of that and we make no apologies to anyone for it. The problem currently is unprecedented and global and until the economies of America and our nearest neighbour, the UK, become buoyant again, our economy will face a serious challenge for, perhaps, one or two years.
As I said, I look forward to a return to social partnership. From the Government's point of view, it is gratifying to work in the partnership process with Mr. David Begg, who we all admire and who has the admiration and trust of the people. I look forward to taking part in the near future.
Senator Mullen referred to the Charities Bill and the issue of genuine, sincere people who purchase mass cards to take to removals and funerals and to have masses said for their dearly departed friends and relatives. People's trust must be protected by the State. If another amendment must be made, let us re-introduce the Bill and do so.
To paraphrase Jim Reeves, this world is not our home, we are just passing through. As Christians, this is the sentiment behind our belief regarding what will eventually be our home.
There will be a 10% reduction in the amount of overseas aid, but we must borrow 90% of it in total. Given the sincerity and commitment of the people, we have never been found wanting in our provision of overseas aid. However, all of it, more than €600 million, must be borrowed to maintain our commitment to the underprivileged of the world.
Senator McCarthy referred to the sports capital programme. Although it has been temporarily suspended, it has often been of considerable help to every club and parish. I would like to believe that the programme's funds and those of the lotto are being returned to the Exchequer to help the underprivileged and the marginalised.
Senator Donohoe called for a special debate entitled, "Ireland: 2016". As it would be timely, I suggest holding it after St. Patrick's Day, as our ambassadors will have travelled around the world and met their counterparts. Listening to colleagues' opinions, we could determine how to move forward using a five-year or seven-year plan. Hopes for 2016 are still alive in terms of plans to celebrate properly the heroes who gave us our country, our freedom of speech and our predecessors' freedom to achieve.
Senator Keaveney asked for the Tánaiste to attend the House concerning US investment in Ireland. While I addressed much of this matter in my response yesterday, I will reiterate the fact that the manner in which our nation remains attractive competitively is up to us. If we stay competitive, we will hold investment.
If we do not stay competitive, it would be unfair to ask any nation to single us out for support. It is up to the trade union movement, the other social partners, the Government and everyone else concerned to remain competitive.
In response to Senator Ross, I will endeavour to arrange for the attendance of the Minister for Finance during the debate today on the Bill. I have noted Senator Leyden's comments on the former Taoiseach and have made my opinions known.
Senator Norris called for a debate on hedge funds. I would have no difficulty with his raising the matter with the Minister today and all day tomorrow. If a special debate is necessary, I am sure it can be arranged, given our weekly discussions on the economy.
Senators Mary White and Hannigan discussed taking action regarding the cash flow to private companies, especially small companies. The Government must take the lead and State and semi-State companies must pay on invoices within a reasonable time. None of us or our friends is getting paid on the 30-day mark. Rather, people are getting paid after 45 days. If the State does not pay, it is not taking the lead. Never was that lead more necessary than now, as a business' life blood is its cash flow. We all agree that, for the past 12 months, the banks have not been playing their part——
——in ensuring cash flow for existing businesses that have been providing employment. The banks will begin playing their part because we have placed cash at their disposal. I support Senator Mary White's call for the Tánaiste's attendance in the House to discuss cash flow from State and semi-State bodies.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 12 (Paddy Burke, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey)
Against the motion: 20 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Eoghan Harris, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Jim Walsh, Mary White)
Tellers: Tá, Senators David Norris and Joe O'Reilly; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Labhrás Ó Murchú.
Amendment declared lost.