Thursday, 26 March 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re procedures for negotiation and conclusion of bilateral agreements in civil law and Council decisions stepping up cross-border co-operation between Iceland and Norway, to be referred to committee without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion re Council framework decision on supervision measures, to be referred to committee without debate at the conclusion of No. 1; and No. 3, pre-budget statements, to commence at the conclusion of No. 2, with spokespersons having 15 minutes to speak, other Senators having ten minutes, on which Senators may share time by agreement of the House, and the Minister to be called upon ten minutes from the end of debate for concluding comments and questions from spokespersons or leaders.
This House made its views very clear when we discussed the national strike a few days ago. We welcome the decision not to proceed with the strike. Clearly, we are entering a critical phase in the discussions about the budget and the economy with regard to the type of decisions that must be taken. The Fine Gael view on this budget and the decisions involved has been clear. We have said that economic policy must focus on reform of structures. It is not enough simply to make decisions on income and taxation. There must be reforms. The HSE is a classic example; the health service will bankrupt the country if it continues as it is and without the reforms that are necessary to implement strategy in that area. This applies across other areas as well.
We have also emphasised value for money and fairness. The reason the Government has run into trouble is that its approaches have not been seen by the public to be fair and comprehensive. Protecting the vulnerable is clearly important. The Government must not go for easy targets. The critical issue, however, is job creation, protecting jobs and ensuring that people can move to training and education when they become unemployed. There must also be job retention programmes. I met somebody recently who had lost their job in the construction industry. They were anxious to get into training to become expert on computers so they could work on-site in the insulation area. They were told that in one area there was a waiting list of 132 people while in another area nearby there were 144 on the waiting list. The person has been waiting three months to hear further from FÁS. We must tackle that type of situation. We cannot allow people to drift into long-term unemployment.
Those are some of the criteria Fine Gael will be seeking in the forthcoming budget. It is particularly important that there is no pandering to vested interests and that the social partnership discussions do what is right for the country. We must ensure the right decisions are made and that we do not pass on extraordinary levels of debt to our children. In that regard, will the Leader convey the latest Government thinking on borrowing levels? A range of amounts has been mentioned. This has serious implications in terms of where cutbacks will be made. Members would welcome any information the Leader can bring to the debate today on that issue.
I also wish to raise the Government's response to the satirical portraits of the Taoiseach. It is over the top for the gardaí to go to the "Ray D'Arcy Show" studio seeking the e-mails from the producer. Freedom of the press is critical at a time such as this. It is easy to attack institutions at present, and they all need reform, including this House. Let us not waste the crisis, as President Obama's adviser said. Let us go for reform. However, protecting democracy and freedom of the press from over-the-top reactions is particularly important. Whatever one feels about the merits or demerits of the portraits, we must be careful. What will happen next? When people telephone or e-mail Joe Duffy on "Liveline", will somebody be sent in to see where those e-mails originated if somebody is critical of the Government? We must be very careful about such Government interference, regardless of the merits of the issue under discussion.
To follow up on the last point made by the Senator, a number of us have said that the first victim of recession tends to be democracy, and the first post-democracy victim tends to be a free press and freedom of expression. One can see this running through society at present. We must be aware of and watch these themes.
Yesterday, there was general cheering about the fact that the nominee of the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, to chair the Dublin Docklands Development Authority board had resigned. I wish to revisit that issue. Is there not something ironic about the fact that somebody who uses legislation which we put together and passed and who did not break any law but used the law that we had produced finds himself in a position where he must resign? I know what I disliked about what he did but one must also consider his expertise, energy and availability. We had this guy employed for between €10,000 and €15,000 per year, which is what he would probably earn in a day in his other working life. It is a case of cutting off our nose to spite our face. We should revisit this matter. Having made our point about what he did, how we dislike it and how the law must be changed to ensure it does not happen again, we should acknowledge some of the blame and ask him to reconsider his decision to resign. That might not be a popular view but if we are discussing taking practical decisions to sort out the economy, we can hardly do it without people of that ability.
There was a wave of euphoria yesterday about the strike next week being called off. People must look at where the strike decision originated. People talk about the social partnership in the good times, but they have short memories. Social partnership was born in the worst of times, in 1987, and that is why it can work again. People ask whether it has a way forward. They should look across the water at what is happening in France at present, where workers are holding heads of industry to ransom to get their own way, there have been three general strikes in a year and the industry and employers group has said that under no circumstances will it allow the Government to introduce legislation to put a cap on salaries. That is the downside of no social partnership and of making advances without support. We must keep these matters in mind as we proceed.
I welcome No. 15, a Bill proposed by Senators Coghlan, Cummins and Fitzgerald to allow regulation of credit institutions such as building societies, particularly the one run by Mr. Fingleton, to ensure we can at least examine and regulate what is happening in that area. People are unaware that it is not being done at present. This is welcome legislation and I compliment the Senators on bringing it forward and ask the Government to support it.
The next two weeks will be a critical time for the future of our country. In London next week a meeting of the G20 nations will be held to discuss a stimulus package for the world economy. After that, the Government will introduce its mini-budget. All Members of the House wish both events well and hope for successful outcomes for both. In advance of both, however, it is important that we do not forget our commitments and responsibilities regarding the developing world. Yesterday, a development aid seminar was held, which was organised by Deputy Chris Andrews and attended by many Senators. It was clear from the contributions at the seminar that there is a desire to ensure we live up to our responsibilities. Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, spoke this morning about the need to live up to our responsibilities. I ask Government Senators to speak to the Ministers and ensure that they limit cuts in the overseas development budget. It is clear that we will emerge from this crisis and when we do, we must be able to look at the developing world and know that we did everything we could to make the people's lives easier.
Already this week, after months and months of bad news, there has been some positive news on the economic front. One example is the decision of the United States to auction toxic assets. That is welcome and we have seen the stimulus it has caused in the market as a result. We should consider something similar in this country. The decision by the European Commission to allow this country to go over the 3% limit on budget deficits for the next four years is also welcome, as are the comments quoted in this morning's newspapers that we might go past the 9.5% budget deficit forecast for this year. Mr. David Begg of ICTU said that if we do this, it might be the key to reaching a new partnership deal. It is important to note that Ireland still has a historically low level of debt. Senator Hanafin mentioned this yesterday. As he pointed out, 20 years ago Ireland's national debt was 130% of GNP. At the end of this year it will be only approximately 55%. Italy's debt level is at 100%, while the levels of France, Britain and the United States are also high.
No. There is room to increase Government debt. Other countries are doing it. We are living in extraordinary times and it is clear that this can help us out of the current financial catastrophe.
However, while it is all very well to consider increasing debt, we must send a clear message to the world markets that we are also considering reform in other areas. I ask the Leader to impress on the Minister that action must be taken on executives in banks who are not falling on their swords. They must do that to ensure the world believes we are tackling this economic crisis.
I seek a debate on the national debt. In 1997 we tried to spend our way into utopia and that failed miserably. We should put on record that while our national debt is low at this time, the debt of the people, the ordinary men and women in the street, is at an unprecedentedly high level. It was never that high in the 1980s. When one adds the national debt to the debt of the people one will find that our overall debt as a country is the same as it was in the 1980s.
We are planning on borrowing at least another €20 billion a year. We are also planning on supporting the banks to the tune of at least another €20 billion a year. Let us be realistic about where we are putting ourselves.
Yesterday the United States Treasury could not sell United Kingdom bonds at auction. We could find ourselves in a similar situation next year. I would not like to be the person trying to stand over another agreement on which we will have to row back because we have over-extended ourselves a second time.
That leads me to what I would like to see happen, which is for the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to talk about paying people extra to take up positions in the Health Service Executive. Five years ago when the HSE was established and all the positions were advertised no one from the private sector was taken on because the then acting chairman felt it was possible to find suitable people for the positions from within the former health boards. What has changed so dramatically in five years, that he wants to pay a dramatic increase in wages to attract people from the private sector? If that happens, I would like to know how many of those positions will be filled by people from the private sector. That is more of the scandalous waste of public resources and the disconnect from the current financial reality. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House because we are losing the run of ourselves in this country?
I join others in welcoming the news yesterday that the strike scheduled for Monday has been called off. That is something we all welcome. However, now our thoughts turn to what will be in the mini-budget on 7 April and what level of engagement the Government will have with the trade unions and the other social partners. It is vital that there is real engagement and information is forthcoming. We are seeing again today reports of different figures in terms of what the deficit is likely to be and what levels will be attempted to be made up in the budget.
There is a great deal of uncertainty and that is contributing to the lack of public confidence and consumer confidence that is bringing our economy into this downward spiral. We need to see information being provided, not just to the social partners but to the Oireachtas. We also need to see fairness and some degree of certainty as to what lies ahead in this mini-budget. The ICTU's ten-point social solidarity plan provides at least some sort of blueprint for the way forward. I hope there is real engagement on that.
I echo the calls made yesterday for the Leader to arrange a debate on the reintroduction of third level fees. It seems from reports in today's newspapers that their reintroduction is imminent but, again, there is a lack of certainty about what exactly is being proposed by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. There has been a great deal of talk about why millionaires' children should get free university education. That is such an old debate. The same argument held true for second level education. Until the Minister, Donogh O'Malley, introduced free secondary education, it was seen as a privilege. In the same way in recent days I have heard people talk about university and college education as a privilege. It is not; it should be a right. It was a very important principle when we introduced free fees, the concept of State provision of university education based on the idea of third level education as a right not a privilege. The same argument applies.
Why should millionaires' children go to national schools alongside the children of those on social welfare? It is because there is a principle of social equity and fairness. I would like a debate on that. We need to see social services such as health and education provided free of charge at the point of access and paid for much more fairly through the taxation system. The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has acknowledged——
——that if he targets only the well-off he will not make enough money to fill the gap.
I wish to thank the Cathaoirleach. I addressed a letter to him having asked the Leader's permission to invite the former Green Party Senator from Colombia, Ingrid Betancourt, to address the House now that she has been released from FARC captivity. I thought it would be a very important gesture to have her address this House. It would be a reminder of some very good news from last year and also a reminder of the many hostages who are still held in appalling conditions in Colombia by FARC guerillas. I thank the Cathaoirleach for agreeing to raise the matter at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges next week. I hope for a positive response.
We are at a time of real opportunity if the opportunities are grasped. It is great news that Monday's national strike is called off but now the Taoiseach has a real opportunity on his hands if he grasps it. A proper social partnership model needs to be formulated to include, in addition to the existing social partners who are very important, small and medium enterprises and the multinationals — the wealth-creating and job-creating sectors of this country. Without their revenues we would not be able to pay our public service. Those are the people making the sacrifices at the moment and they are the ones who are losing jobs. I put it to the Leader that he has an important role to bring this message to the Taoiseach, to ask him to include the whole workforce in the talks. If he does that, we may have a sustainable model in the future.
My second point of real opportunity is the fact that the Government has appointed Dr. Alan Ahearne. He is a neighbour of mine. I know him; he is a good man.
——a three to five-year plan for this country. I completely agree with him. That is what is needed. However, I would like to know why he is willing to break the 9.5% borrowing limit. Is it because he has already been put under pressure by the Government?
The Minister for Finance is coming to the House in an hour or two and I would like the Leader to ask him to outline the bones of this plan. As Senator Fitzgerald indicated yesterday, we want answers and information.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Finance to bring the plan to the House?
I have been assessing the performance of Ministers and the least accountable to this House is the Minister for Education and Science. It is appalling how little time he has given to us. Education is now at risk again. We read today that it has been proposed to take €2 billion off the education building programme.
Will the Leader of the House consider having a separate discussion on the difference in tax between the North and the South? For instance, there is approximately €700 million of a haemorrhage going North at the moment. We are told that 49% of all alcohol consumed in the State is bought in the North.
It is my contention that there has been a massive fraud in regard to the use of VAT numbers from the South into the North. There is no control whatsoever. The scam is that one brings a number from the South to a shop in the North and one gets ones supplies. No record is kept. There is a need for a cross-Border agreement that the supplier will verify the legitimacy of the number in terms of the person purchasing the goods.
Customs and Excise and the Revenue Commissioners are turning a blind eye to this trade. I challenge them as to the reason they are not taking control of the excessive purchase of alcohol from the North into the South. Crates of drink – whiskey, vodka and gin – are coming into the South from the North and it is totally against the rules of cross-Border trade. No one is taking any action in this regard. I challenge the Revenue Commissioners and Customs and Excise to do their duty and to ensure a clampdown is introduced because we are haemorrhaging jobs. Some 90,000 people are employed in the drinks industry in Ireland, but the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland expects a 10% loss of jobs due to what is happening in the North. I want to see a clampdown on fraud and a level playing pitch, and if that requires a drastic drop in the rate of VAT, down to 15%, so be it. Something must be done because we are losing jobs. We want an all-Ireland economy, but we must have a fair and level playing pitch.
I share the views of Senators Fitzgerald and O'Toole with regard to the satirical portrait of the Taoiseach. There may be a slight sting attached to it, but the Taoiseach is a man of strong satirical humour. I am very glad he was not consulted about the reporting of this matter to the Garda. There is a very long tradition of political satire. One need only think of Rowlinson, Gillray and Hogarth. The Prince Regent was subject to considerably worse than anything suggested by the portrait of the Taoiseach. I compliment Anne Doyle for keeping a straight face, although there was a twinkle in her eye. The news item gave the people some degree of amusement without causing any great harm. The lack of proportion shown in reporting it to the Garda and the charges — incitement to hatred, indecency and criminal damage for the hammering of one nail into a wall — make the situation farcical.
There are occasions when people are properly outraged. It would have been far better to concentrate on the planned crucifixion as entertainment in a Wexford night club, where somebody representing the figure of Jesus Christ is to be nailed to a cross and whipped by dancers. The owner of the club has said it will be done in a fun and light-hearted way. He said that many young people forget what Easter is about and that this will bring it to their attention. That is preposterous, hypocritical rubbish.
This is the central mystery and tenet of the Christian religion. It is not only Roman Catholics who are offended, I am offended. It is blasphemous, but there should not be criminal laws for blasphemy. However, one should express the fact that young people are being demeaned for commercial purposes. The Islamic faith regards Jesus Christ as one of the principal prophets, and to mock the crucifixion and the resurrection in that way is revolting.
I agree with Senator O'Toole on Mr. McCaughey's resignation. Large numbers of legal and accounting firms in this country specialise in advising people under the law to do what he did. If a businessman or woman hands over their affairs for advice, they are entitled to take that advice. It was extraordinarily disingenuous of Pat Kenny yesterday, when discussing this with a serious politician, to ask——
——why this had not been addressed in legislation. When told it had been addressed, he said he knew that. If he knew it, why did he ask the idiotic question to which he already knew the answer?
Will the Leader raise again the issue of line rental for telephone services. Our charges are the highest in Europe — I have raised this matter repeatedly. We nationalised ground rents and abolished them in the name of the Republic so why can we not abolish line rentals? Eircom is a company which was asset stripped, picked dry as a herring bone and tossed back into the marketplace by one of our leading capitalists, and now people are demanding the renationalisation, at public expense, of this facility. Charges here are 66% above the average for line rental and, under the guise of capitalism, there has been no investment in broadband whatever.
Senator Norris has stolen an item I intended to raise, namely, the issue of line rental costs. Those costs are a disgrace. A far more serious problem must be discussed in this House regarding the entire telephone system, that is, the lack of investment by Eircom in the network. The system is ready to crash. When Eircom was sold off it was in tip top shape following significant Government investment. However, since then it has been plundered by its various owners over the past ten years
The same situation arises with regard to the mobile telephone network. Frequently one finds the system has crashed. About two weeks ago phones of people in the House went dead. In rural areas of the country calls frequently break down three or four times before one can complete the call. This is occurring more frequently than ever. We need a debate on the telecommunications industry and its future development. We do not want to end up, as in the late 1970s, with a Third World telephone system.
Will the Leader arrange an urgent debate, no later than next week, on the collapsing state of the dairy industry? My party leader, Senator Fitzgerald, spoke about job losses and the need for job creation and protection. It has been the tradition of rural Ireland that thousands of people have been employed, directly or indirectly, in the dairy industry. As we speak, people purchasing milk this morning pay €1.20, €1.30 or €1.40 per litre. However, the primary producer, the farmer, receives only 21 or 22 cent per litre. Unfortunately, it is not possible for the dairy industry and farmers in particular to continue to produce milk at that price. We are already beginning to see people leaving the industry and that is bad not only for economic activity but for rural Ireland and our economy. Will the Leader arrange an urgent debate on this issue? We must examine what the Minister can do domestically and at EU level to prop up this vital component of rural Ireland because the industry is reaching a stage where it is unsustainable.
I share the views of many Senators on how we can move forward. We are in a downturn, but that gives us an opportunity to think about how we can reform our institutions, create jobs and help people return to education. What is coming through from all speakers is that we must have fairness. People spoke about freedom of the press. I have great regard for freedom of the press and I welcome Mr. Drennan to listen to the debate this morning.
Fairness must be part of any presentation of the facts, but that is lacking across the board. Fairness is something we should all be mindful of in the future. I support the point made by Senator Hannigan about overseas aid. I understand it must be cut back due to domestic problems, but I hope that by 2012 we will reach the United Nations target of 0.7% of GNI. I would push for that and I ask the Leader to ensure we endorse that by 2012.
Many issues have been raised this morning that can be raised during our next debate. We have a golden opportunity to air those points, whether third level fees, job creation, training, return to work, reform of institutions, the press or whatever. I welcome the opportunity to listen to what people will have to say during that debate.
It is very clear that cutbacks and extra taxes must be matched by stimulation of the economy. In that context, I ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Education and Science to the House for a debate on the schools building programme. It should be obvious to anybody with the most simplistic knowledge of economics that, given the outrageous cost of prefabricated school buildings, the number of jobseekers and the fact that contracts can now be obtained cheaply and that the money would re-enter the economy immediately, we should have a much more comprehensive schools building programme. This would result in employment, economic stimulation and social capital in the sense that we would have a fine set of buildings in which our children could have a good education, thus creating a good future for the economy and society. This is so obvious. I appeal to the Leader to have a specific debate with the Minister for Education and Science on the schools building programme. Senator Healy Eames is correct in saying the Minister, a former Member of this House, is not in the House enough.
Will the Leader have the Taoiseach come to the House to discuss his trip to the United States for St. Patrick's Day, which I supported totally? The House has a right to this. The Taoiseach should be asked how he got on with regard to the undocumented Irish. Did he make progress on a bilateral agreement for the undocumented Irish? Did he advance the cause of those people, who are like fugitives in the cities of America and afraid to come home to family events?
Will the Leader assure me in his reply that he will have a very specific debate on the schools building programme and on the undocumented Irish? If he achieves this, he will have done a good day's work. The Leader is trying to make the House more relevant every day and having these debates would make it relevant.
Will the Leader contact the Office of the Press Ombudsman? The regulation of the press is not exactly what we require. We have seen the dangers of insufficient and improper regulation in the banking industry. I am especially cognisant of the fact that some of the British newspapers had a particular agenda in respect of the Lisbon treaty and were very unapologetic about this. If they are not going to be fair and impartial, they should at least register their vested interests. Unfortunately, some newspapers — for example, the Daily Mail — even carry anti-Irish cartoons, which are more reminiscent of Punch magazine in the 1880s than of a modern Ireland. I suppose it is the price we must pay for the losses of €76 million the Daily Mail suffered since it came here. Notwithstanding that, putting up with this from the press is a very high price for us to pay.
It is not fair that our national broadcaster, which is subsidised by the people, would represent the Taoiseach not only in an unfavourable light, which is perfectly fair if it is political, but also in a very personal and crude manner. The assessment criteria are very simple. I would not wish to be portrayed in that manner and I am certain the Taoiseach did not like to be portrayed in the manner he was portrayed by RTE.
Will the Leader contact the British companies that are doing business here, such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer, and ask them, in light of the good business they do here, to continue to ensure they keep business in Ireland, not only by buying Irish products but also by ensuring their very significant short-term lodgments are lodged in euro accounts in Ireland for the benefit of the Irish economy? My asking the Leader to make such contact could be raised in the debate on Seanad reform. It would be very useful if, with the agreement of the House, the Leader had the authority of the House to write occasionally to individuals to ask them to take action in a particular manner on matters of public interest.
I was glad Senator Bradford made his point on Eircom in the debate on the Government's motion last night. There is a connection because there are approximately 12,000 homes and businesses that will not be covered by the national broadband scheme. One difficulty regarding the provision of broadband is the failure of Eircom to maintain exchanges. There is a debate to be had on how Eircom was allowed to go the way it did, which is contributing to the present problem.
I disagree with Fine Gael on the portrait of the Taoiseach. There is a thin line between the legitimate entitlement of people to have a national titter from time to time on something that happens and the abuse of people in politics that veers into coarseness. I disagree with Senator Fitzgerald in that it is far from inappropriate of the Garda to investigate what might be an offence. If we start trying to second guess when the Garda can investigate, we will end up in very unhealthy circumstances in which people will be bullied into not having their rights.
In the case in question, an individual was seeking publicity and so were the media. The comments of the producer of the Today FM show demonstrate that the station feels no contrition regarding the abuse of a public personality. We may talk about cartoons in the Daily Mail but The Irish Times, by publishing the portrait, perpetuates the story. This is the way in which the media can be abusive of people's personal dignity. It is appropriate for the Garda to take whatever action is appropriate. It is not correct that television producers sneakily suggest the Garda's motive is based on the fact that the powers that be want the matter to be investigated. This is getting into the business of second guessing when the Garda should do its job. People end up being abused in this process.
The NUI Galway Dublin Alumni Group held an excellent, stimulating and in many ways very troubling presentation last night on the current economic crisis. The presentation was by Mr. Declan Kelly, executive vice president of FTI, whose brother is a Member of this House.
It is worth noting in the context of the debate we have been having on the proposed day of industrial action and the role of the social partners that Mr. Kelly left his audience in no doubt about the gravity of the circumstances we face. He stressed the need to deal with toxic debt and for regulation, and also the need for people to have self-belief at this very important time. It is very important that we have the unity we have been speaking about in recent days. I would be grateful if the Leader would note those comments and if the House would do so accordingly.
I support Senator Bradford's call for a debate on the dairy industry, which has deteriorated significantly. It is very important to the economy, especially in rural Ireland.
I ask the Leader to draw the attention of the Minister for Finance to the dragged-out process pertaining to VAT repayments for purchases of fixed assets by farmers. I congratulate the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the manner in which he dealt with the newly restructured waste management payments but the problem has been aggravated by the fact that farmers are now waiting six to eight weeks for VAT repayments. Some of the sums involved are very significant. Some of the VAT is at the high rate and some at the low rate. The Limerick office apparently deals with this matter. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Finance to expedite repayments to farmers.
On the calling off of the day of action by the unions, we should give proper and due credit to the trade union movement for the manner in which it has approached this. We should support the unions as they have shown leadership and maturity. I was particularly disappointed to note the comments of Senator Healy Eames yesterday. She singled out one particular union, the INTO, and its officer board, of which she was highly critical. I understand the Senator was a member of that union and I am proud to say I was. It is a very responsible organisation that has shown great leadership and maturity in dealing with education matters and social partnership. I, as a member of that union, totally disassociate myself from the remarks of Senator Healy Eames.
I tabled No. 15 on the Order Paper, the Credit Institutions (Financial Support) (Amendment) Bill 2009, with the support of my colleagues because of a blatant legal anomaly that needs to be addressed. As we know, the Director of Corporate Enforcement has power to enter banks incorporated under the Companies Act, but does not have the power, as the law stands, to enter any other financial institutions, such as building societies. Therefore, as we appreciate, he cannot cross-check transfers, dodgy, illegal or otherwise, and we have had numerous recent examples of this. At present, he has no role to play with regard to the Irish Nationwide building society. This is an appropriate measure in the context of the guarantee provided by the State to the covered institutions. I hope the Leader and the Government will see this as a proportionate measure in the public interest which we as legislators in this House and the other House should be seen to serve and protect. I look forward to the support of the Leader which he indicated privately.
This is an outrageous sum of money for any GP to charge. My GP charges €50 and this discrepancy of €45 is between two GPs a mile apart. A similar situation exists in the consultant business. One is charged €180 for a visit to a consultant and all he or she will do is send one for an X-ray. The consultant will charge another €100 or €150 to read the X-ray when one returns. It is time that we had a full debate in the House on how the public is being treated by the medical profession. It is not good enough. This is an opportune time to reduce the prices that medical people charge. It is important to bring the Minister for Health and Children to the House and acquaint her with what is going on at local level and ensure people are not ripped off daily. Will the Leader ensure this happens as promptly as possible? I know he is under pressure but this is an urgent matter. An ordinary person who wants to visit a GP cannot do so because of financial constraints and this is not good enough.
I support Senator Twomey's comments on the fact that people are heavily indebted privately. Many people went astray with regard to indebtedness on credit cards. It is amazing that the banks allowed ordinary people to run up substantial bills which they will never be able to afford to pay. Senator Twomey is right that this is a serious matter. When we address the banking system, credit cards and how people can afford to pay these debts to the banks must be examined.
Yesterday, Senator Hanafin mentioned that for a week, beginning on Saturday, the benefits of organ donation will be highlighted and I want to draw attention to the importance of organ donation. People die because the organs they could have are not readily available. No. 13 on the Order Paper is the Human Body Organs and Human Tissue Bill 2008. The debate on this in the House was adjourned for a very good reason which is that the Minister for Health and Children stated she supported the concept of the Bill, which is presumed consent, but that she wanted to have further discussions before introducing her own Bill to ensure something happens. The Minister is doing so and discussions have taken place. Will the Leader draw the Minister's attention to the fact that people are dying because they do not have the organs they could have?
As individuals we can ensure we carry organ donation cards and remind our constituents and others to do the same. As a State we can pass a Bill which introduces a form of presumed consent. The debate in the House was very well received. It is an interesting topic and generated a huge amount of discussion. Next week we will have further discussions on organ donation. Will the Leader bring to the Minister's attention the need for speed on this issue rather than allowing it to become too relaxed?
I also wish to raise an issue which cropped up three or four years ago which is the national anthem of which we have been so proud for many years. I have always been a great believer in it and I have loved it. I did not see the rugby game last week but I understand we did not play our national anthem in Wales. Given a choice between having our national anthem which, it is fair to say, we all admire so much and having a national anthem that represents the Thirty-two Counties, after the 80 years of having our national anthem perhaps it is time we re-examined the matter with the objective of having a national anthem that represents all 32 counties rather than just ourselves. We have had 80 years of it and it has been very worthwhile. Let us consider the objective of having one national anthem for the entirety of Ireland. It might be worth considering.
I concur with Senators Bradford and O'Sullivan in calling for a debate on the dairy industry. It is going through a difficult period and it is a very important sector.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the regulatory authorities we have? Senators raised the issue of the fixed line cost which is outlandish. I stated at the time it happened that it was done to prevent competitors to Eircom entering the market. The response yesterday from the communications regulator was anaemic to say the least. We have spoken about how ineffective the Financial Regulator was. This is replicated in a number of the regulatory authorities. We need to debate this urgently.
I concur 100% with everything Senator Butler stated on consultants and the medical profession and the manner in which they take obscene levels of money from the taxpayers, their clients and patients. I have discussed this matter with my constituent colleague and Senator Kelly and I am prepared to sign a motion seeking a reduction in the pay of hospital consultants, which is approximately €250,000, to the level in Britain, which I believe is €160,000 although it has also been suggested that it is €100,000.
People, especially the political editor of the Irish Independent, are focusing on the salaries of politicians. I have no difficulty with people challenging what we receive. However, if this is the case then equally people earning €500,000 to €1 million should be challenged. Recently, I saw a ridiculous article in the Irish Independent complimenting the Minister for Finance for introducing an 8% levy on fees. This reduces the €2,500 being paid to people sitting in the tribunals to €2,300. It would be laughable if our financial situation was not so serious. I have drafted a motion on reducing the legal fees to what the Government decided in September and quite a number of Senators have signed it. However, not one Member of the Opposition has done so. They must consider whether they are in favour of the privileged or the underprivileged.
Can I propose that No. 15, the Credit Institutions (Financial Support) (Amendment) Bill 2009, in the names of Senators Coghlan, Cummins and Fitzgerald be taken before No. 1 today?
I wish to raise an issue with the Leader that I have raised here on many occasions, namely, public private partnerships. These partnerships have been used in water and sewerage schemes, schools and roads. All those public private partnerships are arranged over a 20 to 25 year period with an annual inflation built in to them of around 4%-6%. Now that we are in a deflationary period, what is the situation? I am looking for a debate on public private partnerships. We should have a look at how they are performing, their cost to the taxpayer and to the ratepayer and their efficiency. They are long enough in existence that we can examine them, especially when we are in a deflationary period. Is the year on year inflation in their contracts still taking effect?
Regarding the reform of the Senate, it is awkward that committees are held at the same time as the Order of Business. We need reform on that, but I would like to draw the attention of Members to a meeting we had this week with the Minister for Health and Children and Professor Drumm. I have been lobbying at these quarterly meetings for the vacant positions of suicide prevention officers to be filled. I am pleased to say that Professor Drumm acknowledged that the final three vacancies will be filled.
I asked how much of the €14 billion HSE budget goes to mental health. I asked a few lay people the same question and I got a wide range of answers. A total of €1.1 billion is spent on mental health every year by the HSE, which is a phenomenal amount of money. We have more people in Ireland dying every year from suicide than from road traffic deaths. Can we please finally find out how much is being spent on bringing down the rate of suicide? I was at a fund raising event this morning for one of our councillors, and he told me a businessman died from suicide a couple of weeks ago, having owed a small amount of money.
When I put my name forward for the Senate in 2002, I did not know I would be paid as a Senator. I was very surprised that there was a salary attached to this position. If I am due €2,000 extra for being here for seven years, then I do not want it. I am not here for money. I started my company to create employment, and not to make money.
The match in the Millennium Stadium gave hope for Ireland last week. Nobody had a problem with O'Driscoll and company wrapping a tricolour around their shoulders. When we play in Ireland, we play the national anthem and the other anthem, and when we go abroad, we do not play our anthem.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Hannigan, Twomey, Bacik, Healy Eames, Leyden, Ormonde, O'Reilly, Mullen, O'Sullivan and Butler all expressed their serious concerns on the state of our economy. We are going to have a debate on the pre-budget submissions from this House immediately after the Order of Business.
Senator O'Toole correctly pointed out the value of social partnership, where we are today and that what we have achieved since 1987 has been mainly due to the involvement of the Government and social partners. We have had a surplus over the past ten years, with a deficit only for this year. The arithmetic is very simple. We will take in around €34 billion this year and it will cost €55 billion to run the country. We hope that over the next five years we will get back down to 3%, as has been said by the Taoiseach. Difficult budgets in the past have stood this country in good stead. There will be an extremely difficult budget on 7 April and we will debate it after that, be it on Holy Thursday or Good Friday. We are going to do our work in the interest of future generations and in the interest of our country. Let nobody be under any illusion about the difficulty this budget will present. It is the right thing to do and the eyes of the world are on us.
We have achieved much over the past 22 years, and we will achieve as much in the coming years, but the corrective measures must be put in place. We need to support the Government and the Taoiseach, and support the future generations as Senator Fitzgerald said. We are all on the side of those who are less well off, those who are on the margins, and carers. We want to see fairness and we on the Government side are doing everything we can to stress to our Ministers the difficulties experienced by those on the margins. Everyone should realise that this is the most difficult budget they will have ever seen as a Member of either House.
Senators Burke, McFadden and O'Toole all support the amendment by Senator Coghlan to the Order of Business. I will allow No. 15 to be taken after the Order of Business, with the agreement of the House.
Senator Twomey called for a debate on the HSE with the Minister for Health and Children. I have already given an undertaking that this will take place. Senator Bacik and Senator O'Reilly called for a debate on third level fees and education. Senator Healy Eames may not have been correct in her statement, as the building programme this year is €640 million. It is an incredible increase, and I welcome it at this time. Senator Bacik made a proposal for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges about Ingrid Betancourt, a former senator. We can discuss that next week at the committee, under the stewardship of the Cathaoirleach.
Senator Leyden spoke about the VAT differential, which is a very serious situation. Any of us living in the Border counties know about these difficulties. We call on the Garda and Customs and Excise to be vigilant for everybody trying to survive, particularly those family businesses within 100 miles of the Border. I have never seen it as difficult in my life for small family businesses. If monitoring the situation will keep the businesses, then surely this must be a priority.
Senators Norris and Ellis spoke about rentals for telephone lines and the services that are being provided. They are probably not as good as they should be, especially in the mobile phone sector. I will certainly allow time for a debate on this to take place. On behalf of the House, I wish Senator Norris every success in the Dublin Central by-election, as I understand he is close to a decision on whether to stand. As a northsider from North Great George's Street, we will certainly support him to the hilt, after the Government side of course.
Senators Bradford, O'Sullivan and Walsh called for a debate on the Irish dairy industry, due to low rates of income for farmers at the moment. I will certainly allow this as a priority, and I will see if we have to time to bring the Minister before the House in the coming weeks.
Senator O'Reilly asked whether the Taoiseach was coming before the House. He has agreed to do so, but not before the Budget Statement. He is looking forward to addressing the House and has always been a great supporter of Seanad Éireann and continues to be, which is most important. Senators Hanafin, Mullen, O'Toole and Norris made various statements in respect of the Press Ombudsman and the Lisbon treaty. Senator Hanafin referred to the apology from RTE to the Taoiseach and his family in respect of what he has experienced in the past number of days. What has taken place does not enhance anyone. It was seen as a joke, but it is something of a sick joke. The Taoiseach is a public figure but his wife and family are not and everyone should bear that in mind. I acknowledge the great understanding shown by RTE and all responsible broadcasters and journalists and the way they have respected the families of Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas since the foundation of the State.
We do not want to see any other outside nation trying to infiltrate because they want to get into the marketplace. It has been stated that some have lost more than €70 million here. We do not with to see standards falling. I welcome John Drennan, a responsible journalist, to the House. He is a person who attends the Dáil in general but it has been lovely to see him here in the past number of days. I welcome anyone to the Press Gallery who can bring the proceedings of the House to the people and who can let them know of the wonderful work taking place in their interest.
Senator Mullen commented on Tesco and Marks & Spencer and highlighted other areas to the House. I support his call for short-term money to be kept in our country and if that is possible then I support it.
Senator O'Sullivan commented in respect of the slow VAT repayments to farmers, especially in the Munster area. I will certainly pass on his request to the Minister for Finance.
Senators Butler and Walsh made comments in respect of general practitioner fees, consultants' fees and all of these other areas. I realise that the doctor only medical card has been a welcome guest in many cases. Anyone who is sick should not be prevented from seeking the support, advice and assistance of their GP. I am aware this is occurring and it is a dreadful situation, especially for the middle income earner. Such people are the new poor. No one realises how difficult it is for them. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other organisations are a godsend in respect of the help and assistance they are giving at present to middle income earners, who are falling on hard, tough and bad times. It is certainly an area of which we should be very careful and mindful. Senator Walsh also outlined to the House his concerns and I will certainly discuss these with him following the Order of Business.
The Leas-Cathaoirleach, Senator Paddy Burke, commented on public private partnerships. Such views should be stated very strongly by all Senators during the pre-budget statements. Public private partnership are a very significant opportunity for those who have money and who wish to invest to be allowed to invest. This keeps jobs going, because it is all about jobs and competitiveness.
Senator Mary White commented in respect of the difficulties experienced in the Dáil and Seanad because of committee meetings. Perhaps it is time for the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle to discuss this at the joint CPPs. Perhaps we could change to the European system of three week House sittings followed by a one week sitting of committees. This is the only way the matter can be addressed and to make the Dáil, Seanad and committee system meaningful. The attendance of members at all relevant places is of the utmost importance, particularly in the downturn, because of the answerability of those in responsible positions. Such people must be answerable to the Oireachtas because we are guarding the purse on behalf of the taxpayer and we must account for our stewardship. The greater the accountability, the better for society and the better return and value for money for the taxpayer.
Senator Mary White highlighted the support which must be given to mental health at present. It is an area we fully support. Senator Mary White and the former Senator, Deputy Dan Neville, carry out great work in this area.