Wednesday, 29 April 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2009, formerly the Social Welfare Bill 2009; No. 1a, motion for earlier signature; and No. 28, Private Members' motion No. 36 regarding proposals to establish a national asset management agency, NAMA.
The Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2009 will be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time by agreement of the House; Second Stage to conclude not later than 2.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with Committee and Remaining Stages to commence at 3.15 p.m., to adjourn at 5 p.m., if not previously concluded, and to resume at 7 p.m. if not previously concluded. No. 1a, motion for earlier signature, will be taken at the conclusion of Committee and Remaining Stages of No. 1. No. 28, Private Members' motion No. 36 regarding a proposal to establish a national assets management agency, NAMA, will be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m. The business of the House shall be interrupted between 2.30 p.m. and 3.15 p.m.
In the context of how the business of the House is organised, taking all Stages of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill is unacceptable. The Second Stage debate should take place and Members should then be given an opportunity to consider the important issues contemplated in the Bill, particularly in light of the report published by the ESRI this morning, before tabling amendments.
I spoke yesterday about the need for a Government strategy to increase our competitiveness and for a debate on job protection, job creation and retraining. In light of the ESRI report that was published this morning, we need a debate because the implications of the current situation are very serious for every man, woman and child in the country.
The appalling mismanagement by the current Taoiseach when he was Minister for Finance has left no room for a stimulus package so the Government is trying to tax its way out of the recession, offering little scope to employers, as the ESRI report states. Our jobless figure will reach 500,000 by the end of next year, affecting every family in the country, with 300,000 jobs being lost before the end of next year. The rate of unemployment will average 17%, with living standards falling by 15% in comparison to 2007. Economic output will shrink by 10% this year and an additional €1.3 billion of tax receipts will be lost this year.
We must face up to the fact that national mismanagement has put us in a position where we have no flexibility. There has been no apology from the Taoiseach. He presided over this as Minister for Finance and is now presiding over it as Taoiseach. The people are looking for a plan that will offer some hope, a plan for training and education and that must be communicated. Where is the plan to help the thousands of people signing on the dole? It must come from the Government. What will happen to those claiming social welfare? We must give them some hope and reach out with a proper training programme that is designed to match the future needs of the economy. Proper training must be put in place to give people hope. We should be debating these issues today.
I fully support the points made by Senator Fitzgerald. We asked the Leader for a debate on the economy and the issues in the IMF report last week, and he agreed to find time for it. The Government did not accept the report, which is fair enough, but we should hear all the arguments. A week later we have not discussed it.
We now have an ESRI report, which is absolutely shocking. It predicts dole queues growing to 18%, the worst we have ever experienced, and we are being denied the opportunity to discuss it. It is extraordinary that it has taken Private Members' time from Fine Gael to get an opportunity to discuss NAMA. It is as if the Government is trying to censor debate in the Houses. These issues are all over the radio and the newspapers and they are confronting people in their workplaces. They are discussed at trade union meetings, management meetings and business meetings. Everyone is focusing on them except us. I suggest that, if Ministers do not want to face questioning on these issues, the Government send in their newly appointed economist from University College Galway so he can explain what is going on. I would like to hear a Government viewpoint and the opportunity to ask a few questions.
We are denying the reality of what is happening at a time when there is little or no confidence in the political system and the political classes are held in their lowest ever level of public regard. We should be seen to be grappling with the issues of concern to ordinary people who are looking at their mortgage payments and keeping their jobs and facing the prospect of living on the dole.
I appeal to the Leader to give us an opportunity to discuss this matter. I understood the other leaders had agreed to take the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill all day today so I did not object to it, but I certainly agree the Bill is too big to take in one day and there is no reason that it cannot be concluded tomorrow. The time for Committee and Remaining Stages should be put aside and we should have a debate on the economy this evening. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that there be a discussion on the economy to encompass the IMF report, the ESRI report and related matters.
I second that proposed amendment. My colleagues are absolutely right about the need for a debate on these issues. Senator O'Toole, when he was speculating about whether the problem is that the Government is trying to censor debate, may be right, but it is more likely that the Government does not know what it would say if such a debate took place. It manifestly has no plan and no basis for hope. That is the problem. It could outline that there will be pain, which we all know must be bourne, but it could also present the possible gains. That should be a part of the role of politics and leadership. People need to take pain for the reasons referred to by Senator Fitzgerald because of economic mismanagement and there is also the international context, but there must be hope that there will be gain in the future.
The Government appears incapable or paralysed in some way. It has been unable to articulate any sense of hope for the future. It is riven with division and paralysed in terms of policy or offering leadership. That is why there has been no debate in this House. I do not expect we will have such a debate. We have been calling for it for months and I expect some response from the Leader but I doubt we will get the sort of debate we are seeking. I am beginning to think we are wasting our breath in calling for that sort of debate.
In terms of the standing of politicians, which Senator O'Toole mentioned, we have discussed on many occasions the bureaucratic monster that is the HSE, its inaccessibility and lack of democratic accountability. It has instituted a programme of public relations, the principle purpose of which is for it to contact "opinion formers", celebrity bainisteoirí and other mouthy individuals with whom it intends to discuss problems in the health services so it can get feedback. When was the last time Senators were contacted by the HSE to give feedback? When was Senator MacSharry asked about cancer services in the north west?
I heard a HSE communications expert talking about feedback this morning. People are telling us what is happening. An intensive care nurse told me last week that they cannot get the basic equipment to do their jobs and there is a shortage of staff. We could not make this up. This unit in the HSE is engaging in an extraordinary exercise where it contacts these celebrities to give them its spin but it completely lacks democratic accountability in the health service. I get e-mails from it every week, as do other people, but they are spin. I have a question for the HSE about this project: how will it improve health services in this State?
This House does not lack opportunities to discuss the economy. I accept what other Senators have said about the need to have regular and constant structured debate on the economy. I would be willing to debate recent reports and to put such debates in the necessary context. The global situation is obviously an overriding factor in the economic situation in which Ireland and other countries find themselves. The German economy, for example, has retracted by 6%, while unemployment in Spain reached 4 million in the past week. This is not something unique to Ireland. When we have such a debate there will be a responsibility on all Members of the House to have the proper context in mind and not to seize on every report that reflects their own prejudices or magnify every negative comment.
To get ourselves out of the current economic situation we must collectively find measures that will create a more sustainable economy. The danger in having debates is not about censorship but about having honest debates. When we acknowledge our current situation we must admit the internal factors that have brought us to this point but we must also accept that the way out of it ultimately depends on an international recovery and particularly on recovery in the countries that are our main trading partners. We can snipe as much as we wish but we must put in place the measures that will control public expenditure and build up the economy's capacity and capability. When we have debates of that nature, we will be more honest with the Irish people.
I support the calls for a debate on the economy. I understand Senator Boyle's frustrations and why he wishes to blame the global markets. However, it is not the Opposition that is making these statements but the ESRI, an independent organisation. It said in its report that Ireland will experience the sharpest fall in economic growth of any industrialised country since the Great Depression. That is the reality. Ireland is more exposed than any other industrialised economy due to the failed policies of Government for the past 20 years. The Green Party might not have been in government in that time but it is now and it is about time Senator Boyle realised that. The Senator spoke about honesty. Let us hear it from the Government and hear it apologise for what has happened over the past 20 years. Then we can work out a way forward so Ireland will be best placed to benefit from the upturn when it happens.
The ESRI also points out that competitiveness is the key to the economy's recovery. Ireland must become competitive again across all sectors if it is to be in the best position when the recovery begins. Unfortunately, businesses and families throughout the country are losing hope at a rapid rate. Unemployment is expected to reach 17%. That figure is even higher than the rates in the 1980s, when many people of my generation had to emigrate. The Government has failed the people and when it realises that, apologises and moves on, we will start to make strides into real recovery. What we need from the Government are words of hope, leadership and a way back to basics whereby indigenous industries can again export from this country. Yes, it is good to get foreign direct investment but that is drying up at a rapid rate. The way forward is to invest in indigenous industries, to create employment in communities and to support businesses. Until we can debate those issues in this House and in every other forum in the country, people will not have hope.
An old hobbyhorse of mine is the fisheries sector. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on fisheries, particularly as a review of the Common Fisheries Policy is imminent and in view of an emerging report which shows the vulnerability of Ireland's fishing stocks. There is no reason that Commissioner Borg could not be invited to the Seanad to debate this. It would add to the Seanad's credibility. Before the referendum on the Lisbon treaty, a prominent EU official was invited to the House to advise Members on the salient features of the EU. Now is the time for action on the fisheries issue. Ireland should demand a 100 miles exclusive limit, at least, for Irish trawlers. A total of 80% of the fish caught in Irish waters is caught by non-Irish vessels, while Ireland's fishing fleet is half the size it was ten years ago.
When I hear about conservation of stocks and consider the over-policing of Irish vessels, I believe we are being penny wise and pound foolish. The industry is at a critical point. Jobs can be created in the fishing industry as well as in the seafood and fish farming sectors. This country imports much of its fish from places such as Korea, South America and other unusual countries while it is hanging its own fishermen out to dry. I feel very strongly about this issue. Europe is reviewing the Common Fisheries Policy and in that review Ireland must get tough and demand an exclusive 100 mile limit. I ask the Leader to give serious consideration to inviting Commissioner Borg to the Seanad. If European Commissioners could visit the Seanad once every three or four months to address the House on issues that are pertinent and relevant to Ireland, it would increase the value of this House.
I seek a debate on the funding of the Garda Síochána. I do not make this call as a result of the newspaper report this morning about €1,000 being spent to change three light bulbs - stories like that will come and go - I am far more concerned about the proposed expenditure in this year's Estimates. Expenditure on maintenance of Garda vehicles is projected to be reduced by 40% while expenditure on maintenance of Garda stations and premises is projected to decrease by 70%. If these savings are efficient, I welcome them. However, I am more concerned that these cuts are another example of the Government skimping on expenditure and that in the long run we will end up with stations that are not running properly and cars that are out of service. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on whether this is efficiency or just the Government once again failing to provide sufficient funding for the Garda Síochána.
I join other Senators in asking the Leader to arrange a debate on the economy so we can discuss a number of issues, including the most recent ESRI report which I agree is shocking. However, in the seven years I have been a Member of the House I do not recall there being as many debates on the economy or on economic issues as in recent months. It is important we are having so many debates given the very serious crisis at present but if one is following the financial markets and financial matters, there are probably about two reports per day, either national or international, that affect the situation. We should accumulate them and debate them fully. Thankfully, as a result of changes to the Order of Business, if more serious issues arise, we have an opportunity to raise them each day.
Much is happening. I look forward to the debate on the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, this evening. It is important that all Members have an opportunity to discuss it. I have read the amendments proposed by the Labour Party and the proposal from Fine Gael. There are good measures in them, as there are in the proposal for NAMA. I believe that, in principle, it is the template which will begin to lead the world economy through the toxic debt issue.
As Senator Boyle said, many challenges face the world. There was an over-dependency in this country on tax revenues from the property business. We know that and, if it helps, I am sorry about it. Do not forget, however, that when we were spending those resources on public services, which I agree we can no longer afford to provide, the Opposition was calling for increased expenditure on other issues. Senator Hannigan calls for appropriate expenditure on the Garda. I want more money to spend on everything, not least my constituency in the north west, but that is not possible any more. We must live in the real world. The international situation is far different. Even the revered IMF revised its position in its most recent forecast compared to its January outlook. The ground is continually moving and we must move with it and be honest with ourselves.
It would be worthwhile to have a debate on the HSE. As Senator White said - I mentioned this many times previously - I am not entirely happy with an organisation having control of 17% of the country's tax take this year. Unlike semi-State bodies such as Bord Gáis, it does not have a commercial mandate and we must consider revising that situation.
I support Senator O'Donovan's call for a debate on fisheries. A review of the Common Fisheries Policy is under way at present. It would be useful to invite the Commissioner to the House to discuss the serious issues facing our fishing industry. I hope the Leader will be able to accommodate the Senator's call for that debate.
I agree with my colleagues who raised the ESRI report and the startling headline on the airways this morning that Ireland is facing the biggest decline in its economy of any developed country since the 1930s. That is a clear indicator that international factors are at play here, as they are everywhere else in the world, but also that major domestic issues have contributed to the position we are in. The prospect of 17% unemployment in the near future is shocking.
Government Members spoke earlier about the ground shifting quickly. In terms of tax revenues, the supplementary budget three weeks ago is now projected to be out by €1.3 billion. That would indicate the ground is shifting very quickly but in the week before the last election the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, made an impassioned plea for the general public to trust him - "Trust us" was one of the phrases he used - in terms of running the economy. That trust has been misplaced and people are very angry and upset about the abuse of that trust by this Government in the past few years.
Members opposite referred to the fact we have had a number of debates on the economy. Most of the debates we have had on the economy recently were by way of Opposition Private Members' business. There has been a continuous array of debates on the economy from all the groups on this side of the House with regard to Private Members' business.
Strong internal divisions are emerging within the Government-----
I want briefly to add to what has been said about the economy. We have had many reports, and Senator MacSharry is right, but there is a consistency running through those reports and it is not good. We had the Paul Krugman one last week and one from the International Monetary Fund, which the Government has made a rather flimsy effort to rubbish. The message was the same and both of those are independent reports but the ESRI one is even more important because the reality is that the ESRI is not independent. It is Government funded. There was a time when the former Progressive Democrats leader - I do not know if he was leader at the time - Michael McDowell used to say it was the Government's house trained poodle. It must be remembered that it is coming from a position of appointments by the Government and it is under the control of the Government. The credibility of the ESRI, therefore, is something we should not question in any way. It is more powerful because it is coming from that source and its criticisms of the Government, therefore, are more powerful. They are also damning.
I am tired of hearing people in this House and outside it saying that this is a global problem. It is to some extent a global problem but the message coming through all these reports is that it is much worse here.
There is no doubt about it. I do not wish to just take the anti-Government view because that is not my job here but it has been quoted on this side time and again, and already today, that all the figures indicate we are worse off and that Ireland is bottom of the league. We must ask why we are bottom of the league and we will not get any solutions by people getting up in this House and saying the position is bad in Germany and Spain. It is bad in Germany and Spain but it is worse here because the damage is self-inflicted here. It is not time for a blame game. Stale politics have been introduced in this House, and it has been done already, when people just knock the Government, say it did wrong in the past and it ought to apologise. It ought to apologise. It ought to come forward with solutions. It should say we are worse off and set out what it intends to do.
It is incumbent not just on the Government but the Opposition and ourselves to come together, produce solutions and not simply knock what has happened in the past, deplorable as it is, because the position, according to the ESRI, is too serious for that.
I listened with interest to the previous speaker but it is important to say that some of the ESRI reports produced in the past have not always been correct. On many occasions they were far from the mark.
I concur with other speakers who referred to the economic and financial position in Ireland but it is connected to the global position and whatever we do here will not be sufficient in itself. There must be a global response to the global position that pertains. Those are two issues of which we must not lose sight.
-----in the Tánaiste.
Will the Leader either arrange for representatives of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service to come before the appropriate committee or advise on the level of additional supports and services being given to MABS-----
I ask the Leader to provide time for a rolling debate on the economy. This morning we hear that our standardised unemployment rate rose to 11.4% in April. That figure represents Irish people without a job. Senator Boyle may lament the fact that those of us on this side of the House are critical of what is happening but the reality is that there is no leadership, no plan and no vision. Those of us on this side have offered solutions including A NewERA for the Irish Economy, a response to the budget. We offered the hand of friendship in terms of the budget and it was slapped away by the Government. We must have a real debate on what is called leadership in Government.
I ask the Leader for an urgent debate, and I want him to answer this question when replying to the Order of Business, because we have an extraordinary position where this morning the Health Service Executive is introducing a new communications strategy. The place for communication and for answers is either here, in the Dáil or in the health committee where the elected Members on behalf of the people can ask direct questions of the HSE. If Mr. Connors and his crew want to bring in people to ask why the HSE and the health service is sick, so to speak, he should bring in the ordinary person who is suffering, the family of the late Susie Long and the families of people who have been on trolleys for days and let us have a real debate and real communication.
We should forget this codology about celebrity questions and answers. Who is the HSE codding? That is an example of why this Government has failed the Irish people. It thinks it can bring in Gerald Kean for an hour and a half and have platitudes on the reason the health service is so good. It is not good.
I want the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, to come in here but, more importantly, perhaps it is time we brought Professor Drumm in here and asked him about his policy on communications. It is appalling, at a time when trust and confidence in the health service is at an all-time low, to hear the national director of communications of the HSE on an RTE radio programme this morning and quoted in the newspapers saying these are "opinion formers" and that it is part of its "open mind policy". How dare he insult the ordinary person who is sick and struggling to get access to health care. I want the Minister for Health and Children to come into this House as a matter of urgency. I ask the Leader to reply to that specific request on the Order of Business.
Other speakers mentioned the ESRI report published this morning. Listening to it I was struck by how essential it is that supports would be put in place. Previous speakers mentioned the importance of retraining opportunities, freeing up credit to small and medium businesses and the flexibility of banks towards mortgage holders. Those are essential and they are happening but it is also essential that we put in place supports for people's psychological well-being. Job loss and financial anxiety and worry are directly linked to the onset of depression and substance abuse such as alcohol and drugs, and these are risk indicators. They increase the risk of suicide.
I ask the Leader if it is possible to invite the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, to the Chamber to allow us examine the way limited resources can be specifically targeted at those most in need and how those limited resources in the area of mental health and psychological well-being would reflect the changing times we are now in and offer practical supports to people who, having listened to these reports this morning, may find themselves close to panic.
I support the amendment put forward by Senator O'Toole and seconded by Senator Alex White that we would have a debate on the economy today and, if necessary, defer some of the Stages of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill until tomorrow. That is an important motion that we all should support in light of the very depressing and concerning news of the report from the ESRI. I ask those who say that this is an international problem and it is no worse here to look at what the ESRI is saying. The ESRI is saying Ireland is set for the sharpest fall in economic growth experienced by any industrial country since the great depression. Ireland is worse than anywhere else. I do not know how often we on the Opposition side must say it for the Government to understand that but it is certainly something of which everyone in the country is aware as the reality bites and unemployment rises. We are looking at a return to the 1980s as there are projected unemployment figures of 17%. When I graduated in 1989 it was 18% and we were told by the late Brian Lenihan that this island would be too small for all of us. We are facing a return to those grim economic days of the 1980s.
I also thought we were returning to the 1980s when I saw reports in The Irish Times today that we are to see a return of the crime of blasphemous libel proposed by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The last thing we need is to see blasphemous libel being placed on the Statute Books. I would be very concerned about that. We have seen enough religious domination in this country.
I ask for an answer from the Leader on what is happening with the Adoption Bill and whether we will have it back next week in this House for Report Stage. I received a disturbing report that the processing of inter-country adoptions in Ireland effectively has been frozen because Vietnam has not agreed the draft agreement we were to have signed with it to allow inter-country adoptions continue. I also heard that the processing of adoptions from Russia has been frozen as a result of dissatisfaction of the Russian authorities with the Health Service Executive, HSE, on post-adoption reports. This is of great concern. There are many prospective adoptive parents in Ireland who are very concerned about this. We need the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, back in this House to answer questions on that from the Opposition, to debate the Adoption Bill and to try to resolve this problem for parents in Ireland.
I call on the Leader again to have a debate on the economy at the earliest opportunity and when the Minister returns. No doubt Ireland has experienced the most significant fall in growth in the OECD area, as outlined by the ESRI report. However, Ireland is not the worst performer and that is what has been presented to us today. In fact, the worst performing countries have been those which have gone bust, such as a country that is six months and one letter away from us - Iceland - where the International Monetary Fund, IMF, had to intervene, Estonia, Mexico and Hungary. We have seen much more difficult times in the real world. We have seen debt at 130% of gross domestic product, GDP, interest rates of 20% and 20% unemployment and we got through it all. With a solid faith that what we are doing is right and necessary for the country, I look forward to that debate.
I would welcome a debate on blasphemous libel. Perhaps we could highlight the tyranny of the liberals, in particular Irish liberals who seem to be some of the most intolerant people in the world.
The Leader and his predecessor avoided like the plague in the previous two parliaments the practice of taking all Stages of a Bill in one day. The Leader himself often spoke about it as extremely bad parliamentary practice. All of those who have spoken have laid great stress on the difficult times we are in and the reports we are receiving, especially the ESRI report. It is logical that we should set aside time today to discuss those more serious matters and take the remaining Stages of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill tomorrow. Until we get the banks situation sorted, until we know the level of the right downs and until we have a floor under the bad loan losses, we will not be able to get stuff transferred into the proposed national assets management agency, NAMA.
On the recapitalisation and restructuring, we are hearing nothing of the structuring. The recapitalisation has taken place in one bank, Bank of Ireland. I hope it will happen in the others and the speedier the better. This morning I received an important message from a small businessman who sold a property for €290,000. He agreed the net sale proceeds of €195,000 with his bank, Bank of Ireland, and the bank is ratting on the deal. How are we to keep the economy moving? How are we to keep the wheels of industry and commerce oiled? The man thought he had it agreed. He got a written undertaking. His solicitor gave the usual undertakings. He wants to pay his advisers, accountant, capital gains tax and VAT on rental income, and look what the bank is doing. This messing must stop. As all the other speakers have said, we should debate the more urgent business now and postpone some Stages of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill.
It is my pleasure to let the Members of the Opposition know that at 5.40 p.m. yesterday a motion of mine was before the parliamentary party meeting to the effect that the Minister for Finance put pressure on the banks, particularly the Bank of Ireland and AIB, to loosen up the lending of money to small and medium-sized businesses. In my presentation on the motion I stated that we are looking into a big black abyss unless the Government frees up money to companies to keep their businesses going, to pay their employees and to cover current expenditure. At 7.10 p.m. my colleagues in the parliamentary party-----
Sport is supposed to be good for one's health, physically and mentally. During the course of this meeting I chaired, I drew the group's attention to the below-the-radar suffering of those going through this economic recession. To get the point quickly-----
-----and what was his attitude to alcohol. His replied that if he and his colleagues were drinking, even on celebratory occasions, they would not be able to compete. I was enlightened and inspired that this young man, who is a hero in our country, is giving such great example of winning, to which we in Ireland must get back.
I ask the Leader to draw to the attention of the Ministers responsible the challenge facing qualified people, not just graduates but others, of the lack of internship. For many years we in Ireland had this tradition of internship where people who were qualified could work in State organisations and learn their skill - I believe the buzzword is upskilling - to the extent that they were qualified to do the job and, with the experience, were able to step into such jobs subsequently. I was not aware that in recent times for various reasons State bodies are saying they do not or cannot do that anymore. One of the reasons given for this is insurance costs and another is that unions object to it. It sounds as though these are excuses.
This is something that will not cost any money but that will provide opportunities, for instance, to economists who have graduated from the universities. There is a lack of economists in the Department of Finance. These are bright young people who could work in the Department of Finance but who for some reason or other are not being given the chance. In other European countries what I suggest takes place continuously. There must be some reason why it is not taking place in Ireland. I ask the Leader to draw to the attention of the various responsible Ministers the opportunities for upskilling in this community.
This matter needs to be addressed immediately. I have never before heard of a bank reneging on a commitment such as that described by Senator Coghlan.
This morning we learned from the ESRI that between now and next year 300,000 more people will be on the live register. I am particularly concerned about the pressures on parents and the fall-out this will cause in education.
University students are about to start their examinations. On the doorsteps, parents have informed me that if fees are returned, an Arts degree will cost approximately €6,000 to €8,000 extra next year. The costs for, say, a dentistry degree would be far more. Ireland is the second most expensive country in the EU, apart from the UK, for university. It costs €10,000 a year for a student to cover living costs.
Yesterday on "Liveline" I heard some schools are charging registration fees of €100. What is the status of that? These are cash-strapped schools. Who will again have to pay but the parent? Up to 2,000 young teachers will graduate this year but will have no jobs. Who again will it fall back on but their parents?
I have one instance of where 137 children for English as a second language will be divided between two teachers. We must think of the effect this will have on the children. Ultimately, it is the parents who are concerned. It is time the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, got their act together and produced a co-ordinated approach to education and its importance to the economy. Can we have a joint debate between these two Ministers?
Like many others, I too woke up to the latest round of depressing news about the economy in the ESRI report. I note Senator John Hanafin's point that we have been here before to a considerable extent. At a time like this, it is inevitable Opposition will oppose and Government will defend.
What is becoming ever clearer is that we are facing a serious test of our national character, a test that is becoming more challenging and difficult. There will be a need for great realism, but also combined with a need for optimism, in tackling these economic problems with the resources at our disposal and our national genius. We need to motivate each other and work on bringing out the best in our society, not the worst. The worst could come out so easily at a time like this. There is a need for unity and persistence in the face of the challenges.
My colleague, Senator Bacik, referred to the proposal to introduce an offence for blasphemous libel. This was one of those occasions where one had to go to the print media to get the detail one needs. I certainly did not hear the detail of the proposal in the broadcast media this morning. To me, the proposal is somewhat reasonable. It is important we recognise freedom of expression is fundamental in our society. However, it must be balanced with respect for other people. It seems to me that the proposal drafted by the Minister requires there would be an intention to cause outrage. There is freedom for people to express their political and religious views, including criticism of other people's religious views, which is vital. It is damaging to society and the public good where that spills over into intent to offend or cause outrage. It is appropriate there might be some recourse to the courts in such circumstances.
Today's ESRI report refers to extraordinary figures of 12% unemployment, gross domestic product falling by 9% and the national debt at more than 55% of gross domestic product. What is most frightening about this is that it does not take into account the cost associated with the creation of NAMA and the taking over of toxic assets from our commercial banks. We will have a debate later today on this but the Government must be forthcoming with regard to the real cost of this operation.
Senator Boyle stated earlier that debate on the economy is a bad thing because people are watching. However, we have had quite a number of debates in the House on the banks. Over a series of a months there was a denial by the Government that recapitalisation was necessary. There is still a denial that nationalisation is necessary at this stage but many, including Dr. Alan Barrett, one of the authors of today's ESRI report, argue one might as well go straight away to nationalisation.
There is a point that overall adversarial debate on the economy can be a bad thing. What have the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and the Government, however, done to endeavour to secure a bipartisan approach on the economy, the banks or the state of the public finances? No joint Oireachtas committee has been asked to look into these matters. No finance committee has been established to examine them. There has been no reaching out to the Opposition to have a formula or expert opinion brought in to adopt a consensual approach.
No Member on this side of the House has been adverse to such an approach. The Fine Gael spokesperson on finance has frequently requested such. Consensus is possible and important. However, the Taoiseach has said on numerous occasions that the Opposition talks while the Government makes the big decisions, as if it were the brightest pupil in the class.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Mary White, Boyle, Coffey, MacSharry, John Paul Phelan, Ross, Callely, Corrigan, Bacik, Hanafin, Coghlan, Healy Eames, Mullen and Regan gave their opinions on the ESRI's serious report published this morning. We must certainly allow time for this to be debated. All day today and all night tonight, possibly very late tonight, we have the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill in the House. In Private Members' time we will be discussing the new proposal for NAMA. All these matters pertain to the finances of the State.
I was reared and listened to the budgets in the hard 1950s. Most commentators would have said the Minister for Finance was the most important person in the Government. As far as my generation was concerned the most important person was the social welfare Minister. I look forward to the presence of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Mary Hanafin, in the House today. She has been a great supporter of this House. When she was Minister for Education and Science, she always supported her Bills here.
Senators Alex White, MacSharry and Buttimer called for an up-to-date debate with the Minister for Health and Children on the Health Service Executive. They also raised the point of feedback to directors of services and politicians not being consulted. I certainly regret if this is the case. The real representatives of the people are the politicians and public representatives. We will seek clarification from the Minister. I have already requested a debate on the various other health matters raised in the House over the past several weeks.
Senators O'Donovan and John Paul Phelan called for a debate on fisheries. This is timely with the EU reviewing the Common Fisheries Policy. After the Order of Business, I will discuss with the Cathaoirleach and party leaders the proposal made by the Fianna Fáil deputy leader, Senator O'Donovan, on inviting the Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs to the House. Perhaps it is something we can take to the next meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I have felt for a long time that there is huge opportunity for employment and exports in the fishing industry. It is an indigenous industry and the suggestion by Senator O'Donovan of a 100 mile exclusive limit for Irish fishing trawlers seems very realistic and timely. I assure the House that I will have the longest possible debate, as required of me by Members, and this will take place at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Hannigan called for a debate on the funding of the Garda Síochána, which I will be only too pleased to arrange considering the good work the Garda is doing, particularly in regard to drug trafficking. There will be an all-day debate in the House tomorrow on gangland crime, to which Senator Hannigan referred. I look forward to the contribution of many Senators on this issue.
Senators Hanafin, Bacik and Mullen called for a debate on blasphemous libel. I understand this matter came from the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution. I have no difficulty in passing on the views of colleagues to the Minister.
Senator Callely highlighted the funding of the services provided by MABS, and I will pass on his views to the Minister. Senators Corrigan and Mary White called for the Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney, to come to the House to discuss the resources that can be made available under his portfolio for the people who are most at risk and under serious pressure and stress in the context of the economic difficulties they are experiencing. It is a timely call and I will ensure this debate takes place.
Senator Bacik referred to the Adoption Bill, on which I understand progress is being made. The Minister will update us further on this in the very near future and, while I do not have the timeframe for the Bill at present, I understand progress is being made with regard to Russia and Korea.
Senator Quinn raised the issue of internship and upskilling. The Senator brought a serious matter to our attention. I will have inquiries made and will be in touch with the Minister's office later today regarding what has been highlighted in the House.
Senator Healy Eames called for the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House for a debate. I have no difficulty in making this request at the earliest opportunity.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 19 (Ivana Bacik, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Ciarán Cannon, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey)
Against the motion: 26 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Peter Callanan, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ivana Bacik and Joe O'Toole; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.