Wednesday, 7 October 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill 2009 — Second Stage (resumed), to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 2 p.m., if not previously concluded, on which spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for seven, on which Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, and the Minister shall be called upon not later than 1.50 p.m. for concluding comments; No. 2, Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 but not earlier than 2 p.m. and adjourn not later than 5 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for 20 minutes and all other Senators for 12, on which Senators may share time, by agreement of the House; and No. 28, Private Members' motion No. 35 re national transport regulator, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m.
Recent disclosures of excesses at FÁS and yesterday's events involving the Ceann Comhairle and ministerial expenses can only be described as a line in the sand as to how the Oireachtas and Ministers should do their business and how hard earned public money should be spent. The issue of reform must be on the agenda. The Ceann Comhairle has reached the correct decision to resign. He is the third highest officeholder in the Oireachtas and his position was untenable. Fine Gael believes he should step down today rather than wait for a week and we need to get on with the serious business of dealing with the challenges facing the country. It is important that the Ceann Comhairle's position is not seen in isolation. It is symptomatic of the culture of waste and lavishness of the years of the Celtic tiger.
I spoke yesterday about the new FÁS legislation. While we need to see signs of reform we cannot see it in that legislation. Will the Leader invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment into the House to explain how we will get value for money from FÁS, why she will not have a more open process for the appointments to its board, and why she will not use an Oireachtas committee to consider the appointees rather than rely on ministerial decision? This is the wrong approach. If the Government were serious about reform it would take a different approach. This is just one example of an opportunity for reform which has not been taken.
We are asking members of the public to tighten their belts. Yesterday Senator Alex White asked a very reasonable question about the Government's approach to the McCarthy report and the taxation report. We have not seen leadership in respect of the hard decisions that must be taken. The workers in Aer Lingus who are about to lose their jobs will get no golden handshake or deferred resignation. There were scenes of great distress at Intel among the employees who were told yesterday they were losing their jobs. I said we need a debate on job protection, job creation and support for employers. I call again for the Tánaiste to come to the House for a serious debate on those unemployment queues and the proactive decisions the Government needs to make to help those on those queues which are increasing daily.
I wish to raise a point of order which is no way a challenge to the Cathaoirleach's ruling on the incident that occurred on the Order of Business yesterday. There is some confusion which I can understand from all points of view. I do not think that Senator Harris's initial contribution contravened the laws of the House. Will the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, consider this? The convention was that if somebody outside the House was attacked it was unfair because he or she could not defend him or herself and it would be correct to intervene. We often congratulate people outside the House, which we might not like but which we accept. There is, however, a rarely used constitutional entitlement to privilege in these Houses to name somebody or something outside the House in a way that would not be appropriate outside the Chamber. I do not wish to challenge the Cathaoirleach and I do not seek an immediate response but it would be helpful for the CPP to discuss and clarify this issue because there is genuine confusion about it.
In the course of his second intervention Senator Harris, whom I have known for 30 years, in defending one public servant managed to have a go at another one in this House. I have watched the Clerk of this House operate over the years and know that she has done so without fear or favour to any group although sometimes to our irritation. She is an extraordinary resource and has our full confidence.
I do not blame the Cathaoirleach in any way but the initial issue needs to be sorted out because the uncertainty has grown over the years. Afterwards yesterday people discussing the matter wondered what exactly is the position. We need to discuss this matter.
Taking up the issue raised by Senator Fitzgerald, we need to have a broad discussion on the economy. We need to hear another view on the tax reform group and the McCarthy report, issues which we have not discussed. We must discuss how we deal with this society. It is not just an economy, it is a society of people. We must achieve a balance between getting the economy right and treating all the people fairly. We need to recognise that people cannot be steamrolled. I resent and reject the media question about whether the Government has the bottle. It is very easy to have the bottle to steamroll over people who cannot articulate their points of view, do not have a voice or solid representation. It is not a question of bottle but fairness and equity and considering the issue from all points of view. It would be very helpful to have a general debate covering the tax reform report, the McCarthy report and related matters so that people can say how they see the economy going.
The Government cannot afford to do business sitting in an ivory tower in Merrion Street talking down to people without getting its hands dirty. It needs to get down and dirty or else we can rent the space outside the Kildare Street gate from now until Christmas because there will be some group out there every week and that will grow and grow. We need to head that off at the pass.
In regard to Senator O'Toole's point about yesterday's Order of Business, we can take this matter up at the CPP. It is a well-established precedent of both Houses that references to people outside the House, including public officials, are not permitted. The Chair has always ruled that persons outside the House should not be referred to by name or in any way that would make them identifiable. Even where a Senator wishes to pay tribute to a person outside the House, or an official, there may be other Members who wish to express a contrary view.
In brief, there are two issues on which those rulings are based. Contributions made in the House have absolute privilege and it is the responsibility of each Member and the Chair to ensure there is no abuse of this privilege. Members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable as he or she is defenceless against accusations made under privilege of this House.
I will not dwell on the issue now because it is more appropriate to the committee. I sit on that committee and will make my views clear there. It is absurd to suggest that a Member of the Parliament, duly elected to this House, cannot comment on persons outside. The whole country is talking about particular individuals and it is nonsensical to suggest that this the only place in which there can be no reference to them. It beggars belief.
I have respect for the Chair and for his ruling and we will all follow it. We all understand our position here and that we are covered by absolute privilege. We understand the responsibility given to us and we all, generally, observe that. My colleague, Senator Hannigan, said yesterday that he did not think Tony Blair should be made president of the European Union. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that Senator Hannigan cannot refer to Tony Blair. It would be beyond belief. With respect to the Cathaoirleach the ruling has been too generally articulated and must be revisited. I agree that we should protect people who cannot defend themselves, who cannot come in here or do not have a forum, from charges, but the rule that we cannot refer to or comment on people is too wide and will have to be revisited soon.
That should happen because neither I nor my party will agree to such a broad restriction on Members. It is nonsensical. I do not mean that the Chair is nonsensical but such a restriction would be nonsensical. I maintain absolute respect for the Chair and for this forum but that kind of restriction is too onerous.
I did not receive a response from the Leader to a question I put yesterday about the €4 billion in savings that the Government says are required this December. I thought my question yesterday was clear. The Cathaoirleach always tells us to confine ourselves to questions to the Leader. This is the question to the Leader. I know where the €4 billion came from so he should please not tell me that.
In April this year the Government made it clear that €4 billion must be found in savings in December. We can tick that box because we know it. The Government stated also that this figure would be broken down into €2.5 billion in expenditure cuts and €1.5 billion in taxation measures. In August, out of the blue, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said the entirety of the €4 billion must be found in expenditure cuts. My question is simple. When and why was that decided? That is pretty clear.
Yesterday I wanted to say a word of thanks to my colleague, Senator Norris, for his kind words about me on the Order of Business. I am very grateful to him and I look forward to working with him and Senator Ross in representing our constituents in Dublin University. I also wanted to congratulate Senator Norris on his recent acclamation as Gay Icon of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Federation in its first annual awards-----
-----if I may be permitted to do that, as I am speaking about a Member of this House. I echo the words of Senator Alex White in that it does seem absurd in the extreme if we cannot comment on any individual outside the House. Clearly, we do it all the time as a matter of routine and this must continue.
I also welcome the outcome of the Lisbon treaty referendum which I hope will usher in new potential for workers' rights with the implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. I ask the Leader for a debate on the implications of the Lisbon treaty, particularly for workers' rights, and for the improvement of work conditions through implementation of the charter. Not only was the result very welcome for Ireland generally, and for the protection of human rights for all of us, but it was also very welcome in that we saw the defeat of a group that might be described as the armed or paramilitary wing of the Catholic Church, namely, Cóir. Perhaps now that the Catholic Church has disowned Cóir it might better be described as the dissident wing, or "Continuity Catholics". It was very welcome to see that organisation defeated. Its posturing and the manipulation of the truth in its posters backfired on the whole campaign against the Lisbon treaty. I say that, knowing there were very many people who voted "No" for very good and rational reasons whom I do not denigrate in any way. The Cóir campaign was dishonest in the extreme.
Now we are back to real politics with a vengeance. People outside are not only discussing the resignation of the Ceann Comhairle last night - which I believe was a correct decision - but there is an ongoing debate about NAMA. I ask the Leader to give time in this House for us to debate NAMA properly and in an informed manner, with answers to the questions that need to be asked. I refer, in particular, to the question Fintan O'Toole, if I may mention his name, has been asking, namely, why we are spending billions of euro propping up a zombie bank, Anglo Irish Bank. That must be the most burning question because it raises doubt about the Government's plan to implement NAMA. NAMA clearly has many flaws as a whole. Many of us have questioned the very idea of it and have suggested alternatives. However, Anglo Irish Bank is the bank or institution that perhaps exposes most drastically the extraordinary flaws and the extraordinary gamble the Irish taxpayer is being asked to take with NAMA. We need that debate in an informed environment where we will get answers to questions.
It has become accepted wisdom that more than €4 billion must come out of this economy in the upcoming budget or there will be €4 billion in cuts. I would like a debate on these specific issues. Two points must be made clear and this must happen in advance of any such drastic cutbacks. First, it must become clear there is a new system of governance in this country, namely, that value for money and elimination of waste will become an article of faith. In other words, there can be no repetition of the FÁS scenario. This repeats itself all over the place but has not been exposed. I want the Leader to organise a full debate on how we can establish this in the first place.
Second, there must be a clear commitment that the weak and vulnerable people who depend on rural transport and frontline services will not become the scapegoats for the years of waste in this economy. We need to discuss the elimination of waste and this cannot be sorted out on the backs of the weak and the needy. We need a clear commitment on both principles. There must be a full rolling debate in this House, and the backdrop to any set of drastic cuts must be first to establish the elimination of waste - there are many areas to do this - and, second, to establish the rights of the vulnerable. We must establish those principles or there is a danger we will exploit and make victims of the poor and needy in our society. The people outside these gates will not accept anything else.
To pick up a theme of Senator Norris yesterday, we will have a revolutionary situation in the country next spring if we do not get these matters right now.
I join others in welcoming the fact the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will look at the issue of naming people. As possibly the most regular offender, while never wishing to offend the Chair, the Clerk or the Assistant Clerk of the Seanad, it is important we deal with the issue. It is simply impossible not to name certain people in the course of trying to represent the public interest.
Following on from a matter I mentioned last week, I ask the Leader to arrange time, perhaps Private Members' time, between now and the budget to be set aside so we can give our views, under the various ministerial voting areas, on where cuts should be made and from where the €4 billion can best be cut. We will need to do that in a proactive way so that we can have our say. Perhaps if the various group leaders were prepared to put Private Members' time aside to allow for two subjects each week, for example, education or agriculture, we could come forward with actual suggestions. Obviously, none of us want cuts anywhere but on the basis that we must have some then we might focus on those particular areas.
In the main I ask that time be set aside to debate a report which I and other non-political people from relevant backgrounds prepared during the summer. The report deals with what we believe to be the imminent problem of home repossessions as the inevitability of interest rate rises comes upon us and the obvious inevitability of further savings adjustments and cutbacks to the public. As we saw yesterday in the ESRI report, 35,000 families are projected to be unable to pay their mortgages next year. I believe that is a conservative figure and that we are faced with an imminent social disaster. On that basis we prepared a report with tangible and informed recommendations and suggestions that could form a legislative basis for improvements that could be implemented to protect families who, temporarily and as a direct result of the economic crisis, will find themselves unable to pay their mortgages. We must differentiate clearly between those who are genuine in such cases and those who, because of wilful neglect, refuse and do not pay. I intend to make that report available to all Members today and ask that we might debate it for an hour or two next week.
There is no doubt, as speakers have noted, there is considerable ongoing concern regarding expenses. In respect of ministerial expenses, it has been alleged in some quarters that there is a lack of uniformity. There is a question of standards involved which is very important for everybody, especially for the office-holders. How does the role of the Departments and the accounting officers interplay, if at all, with the Oireachtas Commission? I understand the commission has presented proposals to the Minister for Finance. I do not wish to go further into it but there are questions here and perhaps inconsistencies. The Leader might wish to comment briefly on the matter.
Regarding FÁS, to which Senator Fitzgerald referred, I cannot accept and do not believe any of us accept that the Minister is refusing, apparently adamantly, to allow any vetting of people to be appointed. If the people to be appointed are worthy, which I am sure is the intention, there is nothing to fear. They should be prepared to come to a joint committee meeting.
I support what Senator O'Toole said with regard to the House being allowed to discuss the McCarthy report and the report of the Commission on Taxation.
When, if at all, will Committee Stage of the Property Services (Regulation) Bill be taken? There is a growing belief that it is the Government's intention to allow the Bill to go by the wayside with this Parliament, when it falls.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the recent OECD report which highlighted the high salaries in the public service. There are also high salaries in the private sector. For the past 12 months I have felt that we must collectively resolve the question of the inflated salaries and wages being paid throughout society. If we try to protect them, as trade unions appear to be doing, the outcome for the economy and for everyone will be so disastrous it does not bear thinking about. When the International Monetary Fund assisted the Latvian Government when it was on the verge of bankruptcy, the IMF imposed a condition that public service salaries should be reduced by 35%. Trade unions, which appear to be gearing up for a period of unrest, could destabilise the economy. No one in the public service or anywhere else will thank the unions when the IMF comes and sees that our salaries are between 30% and 40% higher than those in the rest of Europe and says that unless a correction is made we will not get money from the fund. We could be faced with this within the next 12 months.
Yesterday, comments were made about politicians picking up messages while campaigning for the Lisbon treaty. I heard one clear message while campaigning. It was that people want politicians of all creeds to get together and tackle, in a cohesive way, the serious problems which the country and they as individuals are facing. We owe it to people to do that. We did it for the Lisbon treaty campaign. We need to do it in this instance as well.
I commend Senator MacSharry on his call for a debate on a very difficult social issue which is pending and will increase. We must have some scheme to deal with those who will find themselves unable to meet mortgage repayments on their homes. It behoves us to look at this matter. Senator MacSharry has done a good paper on this issue, which he will circulate. I hope the programme for Government will focus on such major issues as this.
To those who are preoccupied with the headlines of expenses, I say the issue of expenses will be dealt with but I am not sure if they will be happy with how they are dealt with. The country is going down the Swanee, fiscally and economically. Unless we all put our shoulders to the wheel we will live to regret it and we will not be thanked.
In your statement on privilege, a Chathaoirligh, you indicated that you would tolerate no abuses of privilege. That is appropriate. However, as you spoke it seemed to me that you are allowing no use whatever of the privilege. A privilege that cannot be used is meaningless. I have used this privilege. It must be used sparingly and judiciously. I used it, within the term of this Parliament, on the Adjournment and I was successful in righting a serious wrong against a citizen. I propose to use it again when the immigration Bill is brought before the House if the Government persists in the most extraordinary course of naming someone to an office about whom I think the House is entitled to raise doubts. I serve warning that I will do so. It is important we have this freedom.
We should debate the McCarthy report. Mr. McCarthy has taken a scattergun approach. He is like someone who brings a machine gun to a coconut shy. He gets a couple of bull's eyes but the place is wrecked and some personnel are injured. The idea of scrapping the Irish Film Board is insane. It has yielded money and led to the development of an industry. We need to value-for-money test every proposal in the McCarthy report.
Yesterday, I agreed with Senator Fitzgerald who objected to the idea of mere nomination to the board of FÁS. That is not appropriate and does not allow for transparency or accountability, which we need to have in these circumstances. I was astonished to hear Mr. Tom O'Connell of the Central Bank say the economy was bubbling along on the bottom, as if this was satisfactory. People are losing jobs and are under pressure. There are difficulties in Aer Lingus and in other places. Against this background we must be very careful.
I wish to raise two brief matters. Can the Leader give the House a date for the introduction of a Civil Partnership Bill? In the previous Lisbon treaty referendum, the misallocation of 3,000 votes was discovered as a result of a random sample of 10%. A citizen in, I think, Donegal asked for an explanation of this from the Minister, the returning officer and the Garda Síochána but has been met by silence. He was concerned because a referendum could be won or lost by a small margin of votes. In this case it was not. The margin was overwhelming. Nevertheless, the position remains. We must be able to have trust in the effectiveness and fairness of the ballot.
I agree with Senator Walsh that the issue of expenses will be addressed. I also note that the press gallery is empty again today. When we talk about expenses it is important to look at what we do to incur those expenses. Too often we do not sell the message about what we are doing. Regarding the Ceann Comhairle, I agreed with the stance taken by Fine Gael at the beginning of the week that natural justice would be allowed and people would be enabled to give their say. I am disappointed that this changed. I am a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and I was looking forward to natural justice and to people giving the other side of the story. When the cloak spreads further, as it undoubtedly will, I hope we will get the same justice from the media in explaining what we do for our expenses.
Some months ago, I raised the issue of the mosquito device. I am a member of the Council of Europe, which has tried to introduce a ban on this device. A draft report on it is ready and I ask that we discuss the device in the House. Many young people are in the Visitors Gallery at present. Many adults do not understand this issue and its importance. Young people came to the council and asked us to do something about it. The mosquito device is a high-powered sonic device designed to stop people under 20 from gathering in public and private places. It discriminates against them and makes them all appear to be bad children who are up to no good. Those over the 20 to 25 age range do not hear the device. If we debate this issue, I ask that all Members be given a set of headphones and exposed to the noise to which young people would be exposed so that we understand the issue. The issue is specific to young people and is discriminatory against them. We are not taking the device seriously because we do not hear it. This is a health and safety issue. It is also a measure of discrimination, against which the Council of Europe battles in every forum.
Money will be wasted through our failure to comply with EU directives. Can the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government give an update on water and sewerage schemes in towns which are in breach of European directives and will incur large costs as a result?
Yesterday, the Economic and Social Research Institute said that 35,000 families face the prospect of not being able to pay their mortgages. We are talking about people's homes. Like Senator MacSharry, I have raised this issue on previous occasions. What is the Government doing? While Nero fiddles here, Rome burns outside. If people lose their homes, the country will fall apart. Of the 35,000 at risk, more than half will be in negative equity if prices continue to fall. This makes a mockery of the proposals in respect of property tax and NAMA, through which we will bail out banks which could be foreclosing on homes. The House must get serious. I, therefore, welcome the prospect of a debate on this issue. For some time I have been working on a proposal to assist people to keep their homes.
Before the weekend, will the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, reconsider his ludicrous proposal of an 80% NAMA tax on lands that have been compulsorily purchased for road projects? Farmers never wanted to give up those lands, yet family farms have been split. How ludicrous and unjust is this? The N6, N17, N18 and outer city bypass projects will decimate Galway's farmers who were given no choice but to have their lands compulsorily purchased for the greater good.
I asked the Leader a question yesterday, but he should excuse me, as I did not hear his answer. Will he ask the Minister for Finance to justify the excessive salaries paid to CEOs in the public service? Packages worth €400,000 to €700,000 are awarded in the ESB, the HSE, Bord Gáis and RTE. Public broadcasters are being paid up to €800,000 a year. Let us get real and take it from the top.
I endorse the points made on expenses by many of my colleagues. The issue should be settled once and for all. I am ashamed by the bad press we receive. It is as if we have all been selected or elected to be corrupt and abuse the system. The way the media are treating us is wrong. I do not care how, but it should no longer be said everything we do is shady. All I want to be is a public servant and to do my job to the best of my ability. I am not in it for the money. Neither I nor my family wants to be tainted in this way, but the message I am picking up from the media is that either I must answer every time I move inside and outside the House or else I am doing this for my benefit alone.
I support the request for a debate on taxation reform and the McCarthy report. I agree with many of the Opposition's points, in that there has been colossal waste. FÁS is an example; its management has worked from the top down. This hierarchical concept of society must change. I am not asking for a reversal to a bottom-up approach, but we should at least have a discussion. Many fine people in FÁS knew nothing about what was occurring at the top. It is a shame that they have been grouped together as if they were all guilty for the way in which the top layer managed its business.
Society is changing and we must discuss how business is done. The vulnerable must be protected. I support Senator MacSharry who cited many examples of vulnerable mortgage holders. My job is to protect the vulnerable in society. I am not interested in society's top layer but its bottom layer.
I ask the Cathaoirleach bear with me. Yesterday we lost a fine servant of the Houses who resigned because of the expenses regime in place. I pay tribute to him for his work and applaud his integrity. To avoid confusion, I am referring to Mr. Tom O'Higgins, chairman of the audit committee, who resigned because he believed the Houses were not doing enough when it came to the transparency of expenses. He wrote to the Commission of the Houses of the Oireachtas about the matter but has been waiting months for a response. At this stage, we cannot afford to delay further. I must disagree with those Senators who claim the process is in train. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, must act now, as we must restore some credibility to the Houses.
I refer to last night's "Prime Time" programme on which a professor of economics at Columbia University, a Nobel prize winner in economics, was interviewed by RTE. I will not name the gentleman in question. He was concerned that NAMA was a criminal issue because taxpayers were being robbed. He suggested that if the Minister did not like the phrase "temporary nationalisation", he could use another term, namely, "pre-privatisation". Would that suit the Minister? Clearly, another expert has come out against NAMA and told us that we are taking the wrong approach. The Government needs to listen and we should debate the issue.
Perhaps those who have been Members for longer can tell me, but I have no recollection of a Member of either House resigning over the excessive spending of taxpayers' money. It is an historic first. We must recognise the considerable and palpable anger of the general public. It is like an open sore. This is not just a question of a senior Member on the Government side resigning over excessive expenses. Rather, there is a sense that the matter goes even wider. We should be seeking the establishment of a commission along the lines of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine expenses across all Departments. When matters move on, there is a sense that yet another Minister will be on the firing line. Many Senators know of a few Ministers who are predisposed to excessive spending of taxpayers' money, be it on haircuts, meals or international flights. Unfortunately-----
Yes. It is like an open sore for the public. We will all get it in the neck, even though many of us have legitimate expenses. The body politic is being destroyed because people are sticking their heads in the sand and not prepared to face up to how the public is thinking. Through the commission or a separate and new Oireachtas committee along the lines of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, we must examine the expenses incurred in all Departments. We must deal with those Ministers who have been spending in recent years as if they own the country or show the public that, while some of the spending may have been excessive, the expenses were genuinely incurred while looking after the affairs of State. Our discussions will not matter unless we do something quickly, as we will lose all public respect when debating the economy, the budget and politics.
As we listened to the radio and read the newspapers this morning, we were all concerned about events at Aer Lingus. According to the airline, it needs to employ fewer staff, is running short of cash and needs to eat into its cash reserves. The similarity between Aer Lingus and the nation is such that the same words could be used. We have a serious problem. Yesterday Senator Alex White asked for a debate on the McCarthy report and the report of the Commission on Taxation. It seems Aer Lingus is the evidence of what is occurring in the State. We are running short of cash and must eat into our cash reserves, as we are losing money every week. We must do something about the matter. Aer Lingus's solution is to employ fewer staff. Given the similarity, the House is the place in which to hold a debate on the issue. We should not wait until the Government makes its decisions.
I was impressed to read that Ireland is ranked the fifth best place to live in the world on a number of different measurements, one of which is length of life. A child born now is likely to live 79.7 years. In Niger and some other countries in the world life expectancy is less than 50 years. We have a great deal to be thankful for here but we have the responsibility of maintaining that standard. We have the responsibility also of helping the Third World but we cannot do that unless we get our economy right and manage to identify the solutions.
I want to make one other point which Senator O'Toole has made in the past. Last Sunday week an election took place in Germany yet our referenda and elections take place on a day when the schools have to be closed. It would be logical for us to decide in future to hold our elections on a Saturday or a Sunday, as is done elsewhere. Keeping the schools open would ensure we achieve democracy as well as education.
I wish to refer briefly to the issue of expenses which has been raised by many Senators. The Ceann Comhairle has resigned because of an inappropriate level of expenditure at taxpayers' expense. I do not wish to go over that ground but in his defence, particularly regarding his ministerial portfolio, he stated in a press release that the provision of the services he enjoyed were arranged in accordance with standard procedures, that the relevant Departments reviewed all of this expenditure, that the accounts of the Departments were audited and that all of the costs incurred were in compliance with Department of Finance guidelines.
We have established that the level of expenditure is inappropriate. Otherwise, presumably, the gentleman in question would not have resigned. I believe those standards and auditing procedures are inappropriate. What is the Minister for Finance doing about that? Are other Ministers incurring inappropriate levels of expenditure in accordance with the same procedure and guidelines? I ask that the Minister for Finance come into this House and explain the current procedures that apply in terms of ministerial expenses and if there has been any change from the time the Ceann Comhairle, Deputy John O'Donoghue, was Minister and incurred those expenses.
I raise an issue which will inform the debate I hope we will have soon on the report of the Commission on Taxation. In 2001, a family based near Cashel, in Tipperary, a mother and her two children, was involved in an horrific traffic accident in which the mother was left with 5% of her sight, her young five year old daughter completely paralysed and her other son badly injured, although thankfully he has recovered in the interim. That family sought to avail of the use of an apparatus called a Lokomat machine of which there is only one in the country located in the NRB facility in Dún Laoghaire. They were not allowed gain access to the machine for any considerable period of time to ensure the appropriate therapy could be given to this young girl who was completely paralysed.
Rather than taking what I would call that neglect lying down, they sought to examine how they could acquire such a machine and set up a properly constituted charity based in the mid-west to try to do that. They liaised with the company in Switzerland that supplies the machine and through fund-raising events raised €300,000 to buy the machine. Not alone have they bought the machine and put it in place but they have made it available to any other family in a similar position who wants to avail of this valuable therapy.
The insensitive approach taken ultimately by the Department of Finance but at first by the Revenue Commissioners to impose a €60,000 VAT bill on that charity is indefensible. I worked at the helm of a charity that cares for special needs children for six years and I always found it galling that we had to pay back a huge amount of the money we raised, and we raised every cent we needed to run our charity through fund-raising events without any support from the Government, to the Government in VAT.
I ask the Leader and his colleagues who hail from southern and western areas to examine this incidence of a very unfair VAT bill being applied to this charity and this family. They are now considering the option of having to raise an additional €60,000 to pay for this machine. They should not be asked to do that. The bill should be waived immediately. Also, I ask the Leader if we can explore the issue of VAT being applied to charities that should not have to pay it and cannot afford to pay it in these stringent times.
Would the Leader facilitate a debate as a matter of urgency on the Ministers and Secretaries Act in light of the revelations of ministerial expenses and the revelations regarding spending by the Ceann Comhairle? Will the Leader indicate who is responsible for signing off on the expense sheet? Will he agree with me, and if he does not will he explain the reason, that Government spending in terms of the expenses of Ministers, Ministers of State and their entourage is excessive and gone beyond the bounds of acceptability? It is extraordinary that a Minister who has a State car can get into a plane and land in Cork, Knock, Galway, Waterford or Dublin where a driver is waiting to collect him or her. They have a plethora of constituency staff. They also have a plethora of advisers who in some cases are paid more than Members of this House. That is extraordinary and it must stop. Would the Leader agree with me on that?
I ask for a debate on the economy. The point I made yesterday is that the most important issue currently is job creation and job retention. As Senator Healy Eames said earlier, what will we do for the people who cannot pay their mortgage or the small and medium enterprise holder who is in trouble? The banks will not give them liquidity. They will not even give them overdrafts.
Three times since I came into this House I have asked the Leader for a debate on the aviation industry. The revelation by Aer Lingus this morning is catastrophic and has far-reaching implications in terms of job and service cuts. We could soon find ourselves the only peripheral island nation without an airline other than Ryanair and if there is no competition in this country, we will in time be forced to pay higher air fares to leave this island.
I fully endorse the comments of Senator Cannon and compliment him for raising the issue. I am familiar with the issue and am close to the fund-raising efforts made in this case. I know the family and they have had a traumatic experience as a result of the accident. One is edified by the fact the family has responded in such a positive manner to the challenges they have faced. When I heard about the case Senator Cannon mentioned I thought it beggared belief that people went out collecting euro to fill a gap the State had not filled in this case. One can only imagine how the family and their supporters must feel at this time. I have spoken to some of the family's supporters and they have made it clear that they now must go out not to collect money to purchase this necessary machine but to pay the VAT bill. I add my voice to the argument that this is a specific case where, out of admiration for this family and what they have done, we should find a way to ensure that, first, they are not held accountable for this VAT bill and, second, to inspire other people who are prepared to come forward and fill gaps which exist. Never was that more important than in a recession. If the message came loud and clear from this House it would be listened to but if it is not listened to we will have missed an opportunity to show, first, how we identify with people who suffer in this way and, second, that we also admire people who respond in such a positive manner when they meet such dreadful challenges in life.
Events have moved quickly in regard to the resignation of the Ceann Comhairle. I suppose it was inevitable when one considers the wave of public anger and also the unreasonable nature of some of the expenditure. I am concerned that the debate was led largely from the outside by the media, with politicians and political party leaders reduced to the role of vying for the job of dealing the fatal blow. The leader of Fine Gael ended up in the role of picador while the leader of the Labour Party got the job of matador. That we could not have had more civilised circumstances, in which the Ceann Comhairle would have stepped aside while an independent person carried out a proper, objective analysis of what had taken place, makes me despair of our political culture. I reiterate what I said yesterday, namely, that we need some distinguished independent person to examine the issue of expenses of Members of the Oireachtas. The person would not just report back to the commission, as was mentioned by Senator Feeney yesterday, but would be trusted to take on the task in respect of Members and Ministers and the particular roles of the Cathaoirleach and Ceann Comhairle, which are special positions. There must be a person responsible for signing off.
A person in a public role is entitled to know what he may spend and what is considered legitimate. The post facto shaming of the Ceann Comhairle not only diminishes him but also the process that is in place. It reflects on how badly we have prepared for such moments and on our failure to put together a proper system in which all could have confidence.
The new regulations that stipulate that foreign nationals on student visas cannot work for more than 15 hours per week is worthy of debate in the House. This stipulation will cause severe hardship to many who have been working here for years, including in catering and finance, and paying tax. For many, it will effectively mean having to leave. This is not becoming of Ireland of the welcomes, and effectively dumping on others is not the way in which we should be responding to the economic crisis.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the role of FÁS? We are in a severe recession again but this is not something of which we do not have experience. Therefore, we are not working in a vacuum. The reality is that many people in difficult times were very happy to take up positions in FÁS and do work for the organisation. Despite this, because of the regulations within the organisation, they were restricted in that very worthwhile and useful work.
Consider the waste that took place in FÁS, namely, the €48 million spent on advertising. One wonders what was being advertised. What kind of publicity and self-promotion was necessary to warrant the spending of €48 million by a State board? In spite of this, we must not throw out the good in FÁS with that which is bad. We must now ensure all the money that is necessary goes directly to the people who can benefit most. We are back in recessionary times and do not want a repeat of the circumstances that obtained on the last occasion, in which people were stopped doing necessary and very worthwhile work. All the money available should be directed towards those who will benefit.
I am delighted Senator Quinn has told us we will live to be 79. Perhaps in my lifetime, therefore, I will see the interest being paid on NAMA.
I subscribe to the calls for a rolling debate on the economy, especially on the fact that the Government is obsessed with trying to get public spending in order. However, there is absolutely no policy on job creation and protection. While we are throwing that into the mix, we must realise it is absolutely appalling to hear, day in, day out, right-wing commentators and representatives from IBEC telling us all about the need of the ordinary worker to take a cut in pay. The public sector worker is being scapegoated by this Government to find an exit strategy out of the recession. The public sector employees have already been hit with an income levy, the health levy and a pension levy. From what we now hear, they are to be hit with a 4.5% salary cut in the upcoming budget.
Let us remain cognisant of what happened in FÁS and of the manner in which bankers behaved, and of the audacity of one banker to appear on national television three weeks ago and target single mothers on the basis of a nasty, vindictive school of thought. The bankers are the people who got us into this recession and they are they ones who should pay most as we try to find our way out of it.
I agree wholeheartedly with the points my colleague Senator O'Toole made consistently in the media, both last year and recently on "The Week in Politics". In the 1980s, when emigration and unemployment rates were very high and when interest rates were running into double figures, we were told we had to engage in social partnership to find our way out of the recession. Very wealthy people in the country were siphoning millions offshore although we did not know this at the time. Let us be aware of this and let it stand to us as a lesson on how to deal with the current financial difficulty. Let us stop scapegoating the public sector worker.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Coghlan, Norris, Ormonde and Hanafin all expressed concern over FÁS. As we all know, the Bill the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment announced yesterday will be before the House very shortly. I welcome the reduction in the membership of the board from 17 to 11. All matters pertaining to FÁS and its role can be discussed without a deadline when discussing any part or section of the Bill. I look forward to Members expressing their great concerns when considering the Bill. I join Senator Hanafin in noting the great work FÁS has done over the years. Never was it more needed for upskilling and retraining than at present. I agree that everything we do should take competitiveness and job creation into account. Fairness and the social implications, which could be overlooked under the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves, must also be kept centre-stage.
Senators O'Toole and Alex White referred to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I look forward to attending the meeting of the committee with the Cathaoirleach. Everything should be done to be helpful to him in the Chair. His impartiality in the House is crucial and I compliment him on what he has done since he took office two and a half years ago. It is also a matter of meeting the concerns of the Members, such that they would not be in any way disadvantaged and would be allowed to discuss the views of the public in respect of our daily run-of-the-mill activities. It is a question of keeping the Seanad relevant and we must consider what we can achieve as Members of the House.
Senator Alex White asked far-reaching questions. He knows, as do all Members, that confidentiality is required by the Minister for Finance in respect of the content of the budget. We know that €4 billion in cuts has been mentioned. In order to know the percentage of this sum that will pertain to taxation or expenditure cuts, we will just have to wait until the budget is announced in December.
Senator Bacik and Norris referred to the implications of the Lisbon treaty for workers rights. I am pleased to inform the House we will have the Minister present to discuss matters pertaining to the Lisbon treaty next Wednesday. All issues can be discussed on that date. If further time is required for debate, I will have no difficulty in allowing for it at a later date.
With regard to the NAMA debate, time can be allowed to discuss at the earliest opportunity all the issues concerning finance and the MacSharry report. Senator MacSharry proposed this morning that, if the leaders of the various groups are agreeable, we could discuss two portfolios each Wednesday night instead of Private Members' business, from now until the first week in December. I have certainly no difficulty in allocating Fianna Fáil's time next week to start the process. I will discuss this with the leaders after the Order of Business. It is a very worthwhile proposal and shows the bona fides of all political parties and groupings in the House in respect of our concerns regarding the forthcoming budget.
I can see how disappointed Senator Norris is by Senator Bacik leaving the Independent benches. I know the great wishes the Senator extended to her yesterday were heartfelt and really meant.
Senator O'Reilly referred to rural transport, which is to be debated in the House this evening. As Members all know, this magnificent service was an initiative of the current Government. Some 151,000 passengers used the facility in 2003 and last year 1.2 million passenger journeys took place. We realise the importance of the initiative, particularly in rural Ireland, and recognise that it is a great facility. An increase in the number of services from 40,000 in 2003 to 140,000 in 2008 shows how it is worthwhile. There has been an increase in funding from €3 million in 2003 to €11 million this year. I look forward to the debate on it this evening.
Senators MacSharry, Walsh, Healy Eames and Buttimer outlined a difficulty to the House regarding home repossessions. I welcome Senator MacSharry's report and I will leave time for the House to discuss it at the earliest opportunity. I will see if it is possible within the next two weeks. It goes to show that when a team is put together by a Member of the House - Senator MacSharry in this case - there can be good work producing fine proposals which can be of assistance to the Government and the Minister for Finance in framing his budget. There are challenges facing our young couples who have a good track record over the past four or five years and have not defaulted on payments.
If one or both members of a couple have had their income diminished because of unemployment, we have a duty, as outlined by Senator MacSharry, to address the matter. We should suspend payments indefinitely - for six months, a year or two years - and have it added to the end of the mortgage period. Young couples should not be crucified, to put a word on it, so they are not able to sleep at night or know where they are going. They fear losing their home and family possessions, for which they may have saved over seven, eight or ten years. We must do everything possible to assist such people in their hour of need. I thank Senator MacSharry for bringing us the paper for our consideration and I will allow time for it to be debated within the next two weeks.
Senator Coghlan spoke about the Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009 and it has been indicated to me that this will be joined with another Bill. I will come back to the House in the morning on this as I have correspondence on it in my office.
I hope not. Senator Walsh raised the OECD report and matters of concern outlined in the House. We must take those into account. I have read the IMF report and we do not want to see proposals on what could happen in that regard. The IMF report is very supportive of many of the policies pursued by the Government currently and everybody should read that document in full as it is the alternative to what is now taking place. Irrespective of who is power, there are challenges facing this country over the next two or three years.
Senators Norris and Ormonde called for the McCarthy report to be discussed in the House. I have already given a commitment to allow time for this to take place. I will make inquiries about the Civil Partnership Bill and revert to Senator Norris on the matter.
Senator Keaveney outlined issues to the House and everybody knows the commission is in charge of the running of the affairs of the House. Its budget is significant, in the region of €100 million over a period. There are Members of this House on the commission and they are answerable to the public in the same way as Members in the Dáil. Such Members are the best people to be trusted with looking after the affairs of finance. We saw what happened with the health board system, where we had good value for money in the eight boards. We were told there were too many local authority members on the health boards but now we see-----
Senator Keaveney asked for an update on the water and sewerage position and I have no difficulty in leaving time aside for that. Senator Healy Eames outlined her concerns on constituency issues in Galway and I agree with her proposals regarding the putting in place of a salaries ceiling.
Senator Hannigan also mentioned the "Prime Time" programme and I have already given my views on the IMF and NAMA. The Government is on the right road. Senator Twomey also highlighted issues and I again state that the commission looks after the affairs of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Senator Quinn mentioned Aer Lingus and news that almost 670 staff are to be laid off there, which is to be regretted. It shows what is happening in the world of business. We are now approaching the winter schedule and everybody knows the downturn in traffic is plain to see. Retail business in Ireland generally is down 30% or 35% in some places. Aer Lingus will be no different to anybody else in the tourism and leisure industries, as airlines depend on the buoyancy in economies worldwide. I wish everybody in those industries well. Aer Lingus has been the flag carrier of our country and everybody has been very proud of its success through the years. It is a challenging time for the company and running short of cash and moving into reserves is a serious position to be in.
Now we are all going to live to be 80, we know the advantages of looking after ourselves. We have all been told that we are what we eat. Thank God we all have our health and are as good as we are.
Senator Quinn commented on having elections on Saturdays or Sundays. Elections now take place on Fridays and the counts take place on Saturday; years ago elections took place on Wednesdays, then they were moved to Thursdays and now they are on Fridays.
Senators Regan and Mullen expressed their views on expenditure in the House. The Goodbody report carried out a root and branch review of the operations of expenses of Oireachtas Members and everything pertaining to them. That report was carried out independently, thoroughly and professionally. I hope the new Ceann Comhairle and commission will consider it and spare the taxpayer any more money in acting on what needs to be addressed on the matter.
It was always my understanding that if a Minister or Minister of State went abroad, there would be security matters in the jurisdiction they were in. The equivalent here would be the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner. There are places where Members would stay - be they three star or four star hotels - and whatever the security arrangements at airports, in taxis or elsewhere, they would be taken care of by secretaries in Departments and embassies. A very good job was always done in holding the decorum and prestige of the office. We Irish are as good as any other nation or member of the EU and we participate at the same level. We have shown Europe and the world how it is possible to maximise the benefit of being a full member of the European Union. The factors to which I refer should always be borne in mind.
Many Members have travelled to destinations around the world in order to represent the country and its Parliament and committees. They were never involved in making the arrangements for those trips and had no knowledge of the costs involved. There may be some way that, with the assistance of all Members, a new system in this regard might be arrived at. Regardless of when Members are presented with details of the cost of trips on which they have represented their country - this may happen one year or five years later - they are sometimes surprised by what was involved because the money was never deposited with them. No real benefit accrues to Members who are obliged to travel long distances to attend events and represent their country and its Parliament from making these trips.
I am quite familiar with the case to which Senators Cannon and Ó Murchú referred. I congratulate the family involved on its initiative in raising €300,000. The family is in an horrific position. The irony is that if the HSE purchased the apparatus to which Senator Cannon refers, it would not be necessary for VAT to be paid. Surely Professor Drumm should intervene on a once-off basis in this case and, without creating a precedent, accept the €300,000 raised by the family and use it to purchase the necessary equipment. The family has lost so much. I question the charging of €60,000 in VAT. I have no difficulty, if necessary, in going with the two Senators to meet the Minister for Health and Children later this afternoon to discover whether something might be done about this matter.
-----that it is never the wrong time to do the right thing, particularly in the case of this family and many others.
The population of the country has increased by 1 million, most of whom are in the high risk age group. I refer, in particular, to those in the 18 to 35 year age group who returned to Ireland and have been in employment for the past ten years or so. These are the people who are abroad at night attending functions, etc. We all have friends who have sons and daughters awaiting admission to the NRB's facility in Dún Laoghaire. I am aware of a young man in Mullingar who was involved in an accident on New Year's Eve, who is in a coma and who has been awaiting admission to that facility for the past seven months. I hope he will be admitted in the last week in November. There are only three beds available in this marvellous facility. The Government could allocate a small amount of funding to correct the situation and provide immediate assistance for families which have been traumatised and subjected to such a level of distress. Members could also become involved in ensuring this matter is addressed.
Senators Buttimer and McCarthy requested a debate on the economy. I have already provided a commitment in this regard. I was also asked to make time available for a debate on the aviation industry. I am endeavouring to arrange such a debate.
Will the Leader clarify the position on No. 28, Private Members' motion No. 35 re national transport regulator, which is to be taken at the conclusion of the debate on No. 2? What will be the position if the debates concludes prior to 5 p.m.?