Tuesday, 10 November 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, the National Asset Management Agency Bill 2009 - Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and adjourn not later than 2 a.m., if not previously concluded. The business of the House shall be interrupted between 1.30 p.m. and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and 7.30 p.m.
It is ironic to receive the letter from you this morning, a Chathaoirligh, stating that Fine Gael's proposed home owner support amendment to the National Asset Management Agency legislation is ruled out of order when the headline in the newspapers is that 1,000 people are in trouble with their mortgages and only half of those individuals are receiving support from the State. I seek an urgent debate on this issue given that we are precluded from debating it during the debate on the NAMA legislation. It shows the crisis that exists for people with mortgages.
Another issue that affects other groups of people is equally important, the concern that the cost of VHI premia could increase by 20% before the end of this year. This requires an urgent debate with the Minister, Deputy Mary Harney. Government policy and its failure to control costs has caused VHI premia to increase by 40% this year. The people who most need their VHI are the elderly, because access to public hospitals is getting harder. Many of them have been paying their premia for many years but they can no longer afford them due to the huge increases over the last couple of years. I seek an urgent debate with the Minister on this issue.
There should also be a debate on health promotion and screening for diseases. According to an article I read recently, nine out of ten individuals who turn up in emergency departments with heart attacks do not survive. That is a poor survival rate from heart attacks. We must constantly promote screening for disease and health promotion.
It is interesting to hear the songs from offstage on the issue of how the Government is approaching the budget. It was also interesting to hear the Minister for Social and Family Affairs talk about a three tier approach to certain aspects of social welfare on the same day we are told the EU is considering giving Ireland a fourth year to get its finances below the 3% budget deficit. As I have mentioned many times over the past couple of weeks, we have examined various approaches to this matter. The trade union social partnership approach suggests a six year term and increased taxation. The Government says that will not bring in enough money and that it does not want additional taxation. At the same time Mr. Garret FitzGerald has explained that our taxation system for the highly paid is the lowest in Europe. That is an important point because the main argument against a higher level of taxation for very wealthy people is that such people would leave the country. They have nowhere to go. Ireland has the lowest taxation for those income earners in Europe.
Why do I put these arguments together? There is solution staring us in the face. I am watching this from the outside and do not have any inside information. However, it seems clear the Government could consider a three tier approach to taxation. It could also consider a four year as opposed to a three year term, always acknowledging that the €4 billion must still be delivered next year. The pain is front loaded. If the Government says that such an adjustment to the taxation system will still not bring in the amount of money required, at least it knows that all partners are agreed that €5 billion must be delivered. We are now looking at solutions. Basically, the Taoiseach should put all the parties in a room, lock the door behind them and tell them he will let them out when they can bring out a banker's order for €5 billion signed off by all of them with which everybody is happy. Nobody will be completely happy, but it is getting closer to the possibility of a solution. There are ways of making it happen and there are ways of approaching this budget whereby everybody will feel they have had some input into it and must live with it.
Last week the Labour Party tabled a motion in the Dáil calling for additional help for distressed home owners in view of the thousands of families throughout the country who are having difficulty paying their mortgages. Indeed, today's newspapers report that more than 1,000 families every month are seeking help from the Government. In some months there are 2,000 families seeking help. At present, interest rates are very low. Imagine what will happen next year if interest rates increase, as is planned.
The Labour Party motion was voted down but I am glad to read today that the Irish Banking Federation has issued a statement of intent regarding how it will deal with people who get into difficulty. Its basic message is that if people go to their bankers at the earliest opportunity, the bank will seek to put a solution in place that will work for both the homeowner and the bank, and if the homeowners keep to their side of the agreement, the bank will not take any legal action and will review the situation every six months. This is a very welcome development. The clear message must be conveyed to people that if they get into economic difficulties, there are agencies that can help. They can call to their local money advice and budgeting service, MABS, office and go to the bank. They must confront the problem head-on and, hopefully, arrive at a solution to survive their current economic difficulties.
Every Sunday the Venezuelan President, Mr. Hugo Chavez, gives a weekly address on television to the nation. Last Sunday, he announced he is sending troops to the border with Colombia and told his people to prepare for war. This follows an agreement between Colombia and the United States which will allow the US military access to seven bases in Colombia. It is a very serious development and the Colombian Government intends to raise the matter with the UN Security Council. Will the Leader request our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, to apply pressure at both European and UN level to ensure relations between Colombia and Venezuela do not deteriorate further?
I join Senators in calling for a debate on assisting families who find themselves defaulting on their mortgages. I also welcome the Irish Banking Federation statement of intent. It assures people who are in difficulty that if they communicate with the bank, a mutually acceptable way can be found for dealing with the problems. However, not every bank is affiliated to the Irish Banking Federation. My information is that while repossessions at this early stage in the economic difficulties, in which we are only feeling ripples of what could effectively be a tsunami in the fullness of time, the institution that is active in seeking repossessions is Start Mortgages which is not, to my knowledge, attached to the IBF. As a result, it might not necessarily intend to follow the code outlined by the IBF. Some type of legislative foundation will be required to ensure the good intentions of the Irish Banking Federation are followed by those not affiliated to it and that people are given the greatest protection possible.
I note the Irish Banking Federation intends to establish an oversight committee to ensure the statement of intent is followed and that representatives of MABS will be included on that committee. Will the Leader make contact with the Irish Banking Federation to see whether it would agree that representatives from this House could sit on that committee, so we could play our part in ensuring families are looked after to the fullest extent possible?
I wish well the ongoing negotiations in Government Buildings, where consideration is being given to difficult cuts in the social welfare budget and various other budgetary preparations as we face the most difficult economic period for many years. Like Senator O'Toole, I welcome the innovative approach being suggested that we might examine tiering child benefit, as opposed to a blanket cut. We must continue to focus on working in partnership to achieve solutions and find the optimum budget for the nation.
The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources indicated yesterday there will be an obligation on retailers of petrol and diesel in the near future to have a minimum of 4% bio-fuels and alternative fuels as part of the fuel mix. This was mentioned previously by the Minister but it is to be enacted into law. The other side of that equation is that it gives us the opportunity to attempt once again, via the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in particular, to put in place a strategy for the production of bio-fuel in this country and the promotion of the various crops and crop systems for a bio-fuel and alternative fuel industry. In many counties, particularly Cork and Carlow where sugar factories previously existed, there is a great tradition of growing the type of crops and plants that would be suitable for the production of bio-fuels and other alternatives. There is a need for a debate, led by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, during which we might discover whether it is possible to take the steps necessary to ensure that a viable bio-fuels industry might be put in place. A debate such as that to which I refer would be welcome and worthwhile, particularly from the point of view of energy production and protecting the environment. It would also be important in the context of assisting the agriculture sector, which is in crisis. We have the opportunity to provide to an alternative system of farming the support which it deserves.
Will the Leader move whatever mountains are necessary in order that we might engage in a full and frank debate on the economic choices and alternatives which the country faces? Will he ensure that, during that debate, we will be in a position to engage with those involved in the various sectors of the economy and opinion formers in respect of policy? Such a debate would be extremely worthwhile and there is a willingness on all sides to examine the choices that should be put before the people. Members must play a part in the overall debate in this regard.
Will the Leader, as a matter of urgency, inquire about the possibility of having the proceedings of the Seanad streamed to the national media? I am conscious the House is well served by Jimmy Walsh in The Irish Times, and "Oireachtas Report" on RTE, but both of these organs are media of record and, unfortunately, the gatekeepers and opinion givers do not have a high opinion of what happens in this Chamber. I have never been afraid of going before the public. I accept the Seanad will evolve when its proceedings are eventually streamed to the public. The proceedings of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont and those of the Scottish, Welsh and English parliaments are all streamed to the media. This House would benefit to a significant degree if its proceedings were streamed in this way, perhaps via TG4 but preferably on RTE One or RTE Two.
I support the call for a debate on energy. There is no doubt there are exciting changes in the offing in the field of energy, particularly in the area of clean technologies. One such technology is shale gas, a natural gas that is produced from shale. What happens is that the rock is fractured by means of the traditional drilling method and the gas from it is then taken from the well head and used. This is a new method of gas production. I have considered the geological make-up of Ireland and it appears we have significant deposits of shale. In that context, it would be of benefit if the House could engage in a debate on energy production, particularly from the point of view of new emerging technologies and clean technologies.
I received the Cathaoirleach's ruling in respect of the matter I proposed to raised on the Adjournment relating to Aer Lingus pensions. I accept that ruling in light of the fact the Cathaoirleach's knowledge of the matter may be incomplete. I wish to ask if he might obtain for me further legal information with regard to whether the Minister has responsibility in this area. I am of the view that a strong case can be made to the effect that he does have such responsibility.
I raise this matter because Aer Lingus has applied for a certificate to allow it to develop a new, UK-based airline. The company will then transfer its aircraft into this new venture and when it has done so to a sufficient degree, it will make its staff in Ireland redundant and suggest that they apply for jobs at its new UK operation. This will have the effect of negating these people's pensions and they will be obliged to negotiate in respect of new pensions. The Minister was obliged to sign off on this matter and therefore he has responsibility in respect of it. He is also a significant shareholder in Aer Lingus.
The Government should be concerned with regard to a situation which may duplicate that which obtained - quite disgracefully - in the case of Irish Ferries. In that instance, the services of Irish workers were dispensed with and foreign workers were brought in and paid much lower rates of pay. In addition, SR Technics also engaged in such behaviour. That company was permitted to sell off profitable elements of its business and one of its workers, who was ten weeks short of a full pension and who had been employed by it for 45 years, discovered his pension had been reduced by 50%.
It is an absolute outrage. It appears there is one rule for the rich and another for the vulnerable. I have been issuing warnings about this matter for quite some time.
While I am awaiting the Cathaoirleach's ruling on this matter - I ask that he raise the matter directly with the Minister - would he be kind enough to permit me to ask the Leader if he will make time available for a debate on the airline industry and the piratical behaviour of both major Irish airlines? Ryanair is proposing to impose a charge of €100 on anyone who does not print off his or her boarding card. This is another attack on the vulnerable, namely, the elderly and those who do not have access to computers. How will such individuals travel to meet their relatives over the Christmas period or at any other time? There is a need for a full debate on the behaviour of the airlines and the way in which they are prejudicing the lives, welfare and pension rights of ordinary citizens. If the Cathaoirleach discovers that his hands are bound in respect of this matter - I still ask that he inquire into it further - then the House should have a full debate on it. The ordinary people deserve such a debate.
If we are to prevent social unrest during the remainder of the winter and in the spring and if the Houses of the Oireachtas, specifically the Seanad, are to be seen as being relevant, we must address the two major issues that are impinging on the lives of ordinary people. The first is that relating to home owners who are in distress. We need to engage in a day-long debate on that issue. I ask the Leader to make time available for such a debate, during which we might consider solutions such as changing the code of practice that applies to lending institutions, removing the courts dimension and developing imaginative systems whereby people who are trying to pay their mortgages can do so. Fine Gael's proposal in respect of a NAMA-style equity share being taken in houses owned by people who are in distress is a good one. It and the various other proposals are deserving of consideration.
The second major issue which also requires a day-long debate relates to the 422,000 people who are without jobs. I put it to the Leader that among the solutions he should ensure is considered in any debate which might take place is the possibility of embarking on an extensive school building programme. In light of the reduced cost of contracts, the fact that local community involvement can be encouraged, the existence of standardised building designs, the use of more imaginative approaches etc., it would be possible to build every inexpensive school buildings, for which there is a crying need. A school building programme such as that to which I refer could lead to the creation of jobs and kick-start the construction industry to some degree. There are two glaring examples in the constituency in which I live, namely, Virginia national school and Laragh national school, where new school buildings have been promised for some time but which have not yet been built. The existing buildings are in a ramshackle state at a time when local contractors and construction workers are unemployed.
In the interests of creating further jobs, it would also be possible to develop alternative energy projects involving co-operative wind farms, consider the bio-fuel element and examine the VAT rate which applies. I ask the Leader to make time available for a two-day debate on specific solutions to the unemployment problem. If he does not do so, the Seanad will become completely irrelevant.
Senators O'Toole and O'Reilly have identified two important areas which should be addressed. However, there are other important areas which have also not been addressed. I sat through the entire Second Stage debate on the NAMA legislation yesterday - from 10.30 a.m. until late last night - and I was struck by the sheer quality and value of the contributions made by Members. It was a far superior debate to that which took place in the Lower House. In that context, it is a great pity "Oireachtas Report" did not provide an edited version of the debate. My contribution to the debate was probably the least important. I learned a great deal while listening to the contributions of others.
The Seanad should learn from what took place yesterday and should stop reacting to so-called topical or current debates in the Lower House. There are great structural issues in society in which we could set the agenda. For example, we need a proper debate on public sector reform, against the background of a positive debate on how to make our Civil Service more productive. In all the debates about the public sector, there has been much mistaken attack when people who think they are talking about public sector reform are talking about the Civil Service. The Civil Service is probably the most productive part of the public service. I usually tend to think of the HSE and other parts of the public sector. The public sector needs the kind of targets, enthusiasm and infusion of energy that Senator Leyden spoke about so well yesterday when he called for the Office of Public Works to be integrated into NAMA. That is the kind of progressive thinking we need. We must work out how to get the energy of the public sector directed into the reconstruction of the Irish economy. We need a debate on that.
We also need a debate on the other elephant in the room. Two years ago, I began to raise the issue of public sector reform. That was the elephant in the room then. The elephant in the room for the next couple of years will be private debt and negative equity. We should set the agenda in this area and have set-piece debates on structural rather than topical issues. Topical issues come and go, but if we carry out a full day's debate on the public sector, a well-informed debate like we had yesterday when all Senators had prepared, researched and worked on their contributions, and do the same kind of work on negative equity and private debt as we did yesterday on the subject under discussion, we will not have to ask people to report on it, we will be reported on.
I was delighted to see that the Irish Banking Federation, IBF, is responding to the needs of home owners at risk. Like other Members, I have sought this for some time and met Pat Farrell last August to try to address the issue of the threat of home repossession. Senator Harris has just made an interesting point about structural issues. We have one such serious issue in Ireland in that the top has let the bottom down at many levels. I sense that the people are getting increasingly angry by the day. I feel their fear. Unless the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance intervene, I fear we will see social unrest at budget time.
I refer to some issues that have given rise to this unrest. On the issue of FÁS, for example, we now have almost conclusive proof that there was no legislative basis to pay Rody Molloy the €1.1 million.
However, ordinary people working on community employment schemes in FÁS are being pilloried. The regulator got a handsome handshake and ordinary bank officials on the lower rungs are being pilloried. We saw corruption at the top level of Anglo Irish Bank and Seán Fitzpatrick got away, but ordinary people are not being helped out by the banks.
I am coming to the point. We need a serious debate on how those at the top in all areas have been corrupt. Unless we can address that, we will not prevent social unrest. Will we have that debate? The people are getting increasingly angry and now realise they have power. This will be expressed in the street and I fear violence unless we can address this here and prevent the corruption of the top letting the bottom down. Is it any wonder that Pat Kenny was attacked on his own show. He is a public servant------
I support Senator Harris. More than ever, we need a constructive debate on the reform of the public service. That debate should incorporate top management and how they perform their functions and delegate authority and the various layers within each public service organisation. This debate must incorporate the Garda Síochána, teachers, nurses and how they do their work and examine how their function is incorporated into each day's work. This whole area must be discussed at length. This Chamber should be used for that discussion. Members have often heard me say that society is changing. The public service must also change and so must management. We must ask what is the role of management today. This issue will influence society and the debate should start in this Chamber.
I support the comment of Senator Norris in support of those facing pension cuts in the restructuring of Aer Lingus. What is happening is appalling and we need a debate on the airline industry. I would like to inform Senator Norris that in page three of today's The Irish Times there is a report about a company that is allowing people to print off boarding passes for Ryanair for less than €1, thereby getting around the new €100 charge.
More seriously, I would like to ask the Leader for a broader debate on banking. Last night's debate on NAMA became, essentially, a debate about bank structuring. The Minister responded to the Labour Party argument for temporary nationalisation and also responded to the argument made by Senator Ross for the same thing. It seems that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Senator Ross has embraced socialism. Perhaps he is the missing socialist mentioned by Deputy Bertie Ahern some years ago in the Dáil.
I was delighted the argument about nationalisation was addressed. It is important we have further debate on that issue. Like Senator Hannigan, I welcome the statement made by the Irish Banking Federation today. However, I would like to raise a concern about banking culture where an issue arising is similar to the issue with regard to Aer Lingus. This concerns Ulster Bank which has been engaged in restructuring. As Senators will know, Ulster Bank is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland. It has 135 branches in the Republic and employs 6,000 people on this island. The bank is currently trying to get staff to sign new contracts as part of a restructuring process. The IBOA has rightly raised the danger that this restructuring will fashion workplace culture, where low pay and low pension entitlements become the order of the day, thereby forcing employees to engage in aggressive commission hunting. This is exactly the sort of culture that has led us to the situation we are in today. We need a debate on bank structuring and culture where we can address the difficulty that arises when a company like Ulster Bank seeks to perpetuate the unsustainable and discredited banking model that has caused the collapse of the financial sector.
Two contributions made on the Order of Business this morning have significant potential to find an economic solution to put us on the road to recovery. I refer to the comments made by Senators Joe O'Reilly and Eoghan Harris. We should pay careful attention to what both Senators said. They believe this House could play a distinctive role on specific issues, provided time is allocated to that. Senator O'Reilly referred to those having difficulties repaying their mortgages and the unemployed. We could, for example, have a half or full day's debate on those issues here, without the distraction of having to deal with legislation. One expects to have political cut and thrust when dealing with legislation, but that can be quite distracting and often does not lead to a solution. Perhaps we could all come together in the House and debate the issue of unemployment. We have so many people in the House with vast experience and a track record in this area. We all know who they are. I do not believe any forum in the country has as much expertise at its disposal. This House has a significant and pivotal role to play in this debate.
We should do likewise with regard to the conciliatory statement from the Irish Banking Federation this morning. It is not sufficient just to welcome that statement. We should set aside time here and give Senators the opportunity to discuss it. We will need to nudge it forward. The House has been very alert on the issue of mortgages and has raised the issues of negative equity and fixed rates of interest, which are frightening and have people shackled. I accept fully what Senator Harris said about such debate and doubt we will have to look for media coverage. Instead, the media will queue up to give us coverage. While saying they were the most significant contributions in this whole debate since it started, I believe we shall miss the opportunity if we do not recognise their essence and the potential which they possess.
What does the Leader now understand to be Government policy on appointments to boards and the senior management of the banks? Apart from the legal position, the Minister for Finance has enormous moral authority since both Houses of the Oireachtas approved the bank guarantee scheme, not to mention the partial recapitalisation of the major banks.
Reference was made by Senator Ross yesterday to something that is allegedly being mooted as regards a dual role appointment in one of the major banks. Directors share equal culpability regarding decisions, as we know in company law, to say nothing about the practice of good corporate governance. In light of that I am interested to hear what the Leader has to say on this issue.
The Minister has referred to rationalisation in respect of some of the relatively minor financial institutions, and we have not heard anything about that for quite some time. The Leader might say that we shall be discussing Committee Stage of the NAMA Bill, but that is about the National Asset Management Agency, and I am not sure whether some of these questions could be accommodated within that forum. In any event, we shall know how it goes if that is to the Leader's response. Of course I should not be anticipating what the Leader might say in response.
Like others I very much support what Senators O'Reilly and Harris said. It would be very useful for this House and I urge the Leader to take up their suggestions. Finally, there have been many references to the Irish Banking Federation, IBF, and its announcement as regards a certain relaxation of the rules affecting mortgages and so on for people in default. For the benefit of the House, the chief executive, Mr. Pat Farrell, is appearing this afternoon before the Joint Committee on Economic and Regulatory Affairs at 4 p.m., where we shall have the opportunity to put some questions to him.
Will the Leader facilitate a debate as a matter of urgency on social welfare in light of comments by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, on television this week because there is a growing divide in society and it is being accentuated? I remind the leaders and members of the Government that cuts to social welfare hurt the old, the poor and the handicapped more than any other groups in society. We must do everything not to divide further and create new cleavages, tiers and structures in society that pit people against one another.
I join with other speakers in asking the Minister for Finance to come to the Seanad to speak about the legislative approach he might take as regards protecting home owners in default who might face repossession. I welcome the IBF's decision this morning, but it is the very least it can do. It was the IBF's members who peddled money and bombarded people with requests to borrow. They were handing out money to people ad nauseam. We have 1,000 people per month either looking for or in receipt of help for their home ownership loans and it is important we send a message to all citizens that they have nothing to fear.
This morning in homes across the country there are married couples and single people who are living in terror, and that is the reality. I hope the Leader can facilitate this debate as a matter or urgency.
I have three questions for the Leader. The first picks up on a point that Senator Buttimer made about the statement by the Irish Banking Federation. I acknowledge the statement, but I certainly do not welcome it. Let us be very clear what the people whom this organisation represents have got from the Irish taxpayer. They have got a €54 billion injection into their balance sheets, as we shall debate today. They have a banking guarantee scheme that is worth a multiple of all the income generated in the country every year, so we should not be welcoming statements such as this. We need to show more spirit in dealing with these types of organisations.
This is just the start of what we need to develop as regards a banking system that is capable of dealing with the next earthquake on the way, namely, the amount of household and corporate debt in the country. I believe we are underplaying our hand and not dealing with this well in welcoming what is a statement of intent from an organisation whose members have received unprecedented support from the taxpayer.
My second point is about the social partnership discussions, as touched on by some of my colleagues. I want to emphasise that I do not want an outcome from those discussions to be a decision in relation to the levels of taxation I pay. I am not represented in the social partnership discussions. The unemployed are not represented in them. I want the Minister for Finance to make the decision about the levels of tax I pay, not Jack O'Connor. For too long we have confused the role of social partnership with the role of Government. It is the job of Government to govern. That is what it is there for.
I conclude by asking the Leader for a debate on the European Commission's statement as reported this morning on the end of the so-called adjustment period for dealing with our national finances. That was a momentous decision and announcement made by the EC. I want the Leader to clarify what was said to the effect that our adjustment period will continue from 2013 to 2014. What does that mean, as regards the levels of change that needs to be made in relation to the national debt? Will he say why that statement was made in the run-up to a budget?
I support Senator Ó Murchú's call for an all-party day or half-day debate on the mortgage situation. Yesterday we had a very fine debate on NAMA. My contribution urged that NAMA was the wrong vehicle for looking after those who are in trouble in relation to their mortgages because this agency's role is aimed at getting the best value possible for the taxpayer. It is a different type of vehicle altogether, so I believe special legislation needs to be introduced and this is the best House in which to initiate it.
On mortgages, the banks have indicated this morning that they are going to take a more compassionate line, and this is as it should be. However, we need to lay down very clear guidelines as to how this would work. We certainly agree with the proposed one-year moratorium and would like banks to be able to take equity within the actual mortgage situation. We need to look at the phenomenon of negative equity, which nobody wants to address. However, it needs to be examined and this is the House in which to do that. There is also the option of rental accommodation to be considered. I heard a man with two children this morning saying that even with two people in his house working only about €450 was coming in. That family cannot afford a mortgage and we must try to keep such people in a house. The Seanad is the forum that might best provide the legislation to fit the problems being encountered as regards mortgages.
I also want to refer to the one-year extension to be given by the European Commission for Ireland to get its structural deficit in order. It has had to adopt measures amounting to €4 billion in each of the three years, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and €3 billion in 2013 and now that is being extended because of the shortfall in tax revenues this year, which have further worsened the position.
I draw a totally different conclusion to Senator O'Toole who referred to this matter earlier. I do not believe it is possible to put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today. It is a cop-out to believe we can prolong this situation before taking action. The budget deficit guidelines from the European Union have been very important for good economic management. It is clear that this and previous Governments since 1997 cannot manage the economy. When we adhered to the Maastricht treaty criteria in the 1990s, we laid the basis for the Celtic tiger but when the European Commission attempted to reprimand Ireland for exceeding budget deficit guidelines while Charlie McCreevy was Minister for Finance, it was told where to go. The lid was taken off expenditure and that was the beginning of the problems we face today. We must pay strict attention to the EU guidelines and follow them, otherwise we will end up in perpetual penury.
Although we have begun our debate on NAMA, we are none the wiser. There is no clarity on valuations, the key issue dealt with in the Bill, or on the burden sharing, a requirement under EU guidelines. When we adopt these measures this week, I will rely on the Europen Commission to see through the charade and fiction of NAMA. The programme outlined in the business plan is not in accordance with EU guidelines. The Commission will find serious flaws in the detail of the plan.
I was shocked by the Minister's forecast of a profit. He said he had told us it was going to break even but deciding that it was better to be positive, he included a projected profit figure.
I support the several calls made for a pre-budget debate, particularly given that the European Commission is prepared to consider allowing us an additional year to adjust our fiscal position. That does not mean, however, that we can avoid an adjustment of €4 billion. Our tax returns indicate a further shortfall of €2 billion this year. We need to have a debate that seems to be ongoing at a meeting in Government Buildings about the balance of that adjustment in respect of public expenditure cuts and taxation measures. I am confident there will be additional taxation measures. There must be. I do not support the suggestions made in some parts of the media that if those on high incomes were taxed too much, they would leave. That sends the wrong message, that those who cannot leave the country must bear a disproportionate share of the burden. We need to have that debate, particularly in the structural terms Senator Harris indicated. I further call on the Leader to follow up on the calls made by several Members to have the social partners present in the Chamber for this debate to help elucidate on how we should deal with these issues in the medium and long term. We know there is a possibility of overcoming the budget deficit by 2014 rather than 2013 and these questions must be raised. Those members of our society and economy who are prominent in addressing these issues should be brought before the House to help in such a debate.
I support Senator Harris's comments. I came to the House to ask the Leader for a debate on the HSE which has been up and running for the past five or six years. It is time, therefore, to have a full debate on its efficiency, how it still overlaps with local authorities and so forth. The best Seanad was that during the term of office of the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government from 1995 to 1997.
The Government party was in a minority and had to deal with Independent Senators to pass Bills and they extracted a price. This House was held to account and Ministers had to listen to it. One of the problems in this Seanad is that Ministers cannot get out of the House fast enough. They will not listen and whatever is said will not be taken further. Senator Harris holds the balance of power in the House. He can bring about the situation we had between 1995 and 1997.
I support Senators Reilly, Harris and Ó Murchú who asked for time to be allocated to discuss the serious issue of unemployment. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the House for a wide-ranging debate on employment, unemployment and the projects within her remit? That debate would be worthwhile and timely because, as each of us knows, young couples cannot sleep in their beds because one or both have lost their jobs. They have young families and huge mortgages that they may have taken out three to five years ago. I am not sure the announcement by the banks this morning goes far enough. The Minister for Finance must reassure the House and the public that the banks will take a considered view of, or a sympathetic approach to, these young couples, whether by adding to their mortgages or otherwise. Interest should not pile up in the two years that they are short of employment. That is a serious issue among several others in the banking circle. The people in question are losing their jobs because the banks will not give small and medium-sized businesses a little money to keep them going. There are many businesses which do not want to lay people off, as each of us knows firsthand, but they have no alternative. They are laying them off because they cannot survive. The banks are too rigid and are not lending money to these businesses.
I support the calls for a debate on public sector reform, especially Senator Harris's call for structural reform. There is a realisation that this is essential for all of us. It is a shame to see public and private workers arguing with each other on the streets. It is a shame that our society has come to this. The pillars of our society are the health service, the education system, the Civil Service and the justice system. Those on the front line of those services are becoming frustrated because they believe they are not appreciated. They do a good honest day's work and are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry because they see the archaic, multi-layered managerial systems within which they work and within which there is huge waste. It is sad to see this. These pillars are starting to crumble. As a House of Parliament, we are obliged to discuss and debate everything around the issue. In the late 1990s the ESB went from having 14,000 workers to 7,000 by agreement. As a result, it became more efficient and responsive.
I would also like a special debate on the road network and road safety. Local roads are taking a hammering through the lack of Government funding and resources. Local authorities are telling councillors and the people that they do not have the resources to maintain the roads, whether by dealing with a pothole, dyke or drain. That is a sad indictment of the system.
I have often raised the lack of service stations on national primary routes and motorways. Two stations are to be built on the M1 and one on the M4. Others were planned but have been shelved. On the M9, from Dublin to Carlow, approximately 100 miles of motorway will be without any service station or rest stop facility. Articulated truck drivers are obliged to stop for rest periods. Adequate rest stops should be in place on this stretch of motorway as it is a matter of road safety and not just luxury. Will the Leader arrange an urgent debate on this matter? The House would become more relevant if it could bring in the chief executive of the National Roads Authority to answer direct questions from Senators. That would be real accountability and an example of politics working in this country.
I did not hear Senator O'Reilly earlier but I am sure he was as lucid and persuasive as ever. I heard and agree with other colleagues' calls for some means by which this House could involve itself in a deeper, more meaningful and useful level of debate, especially with regard to current economic difficulties.
Not wanting to be the party pooper, however, I must remind the House that we have been asking for this for well over a year. The Leader is in the habit of telling anyone who raises it to talk to their party leaders as if they are resisting these calls behind the scenes. This must be taken on now. We do not need a Minister or Minister of State sitting in the Chamber reading papers for some other commitment he or she has for tonight or tomorrow. We can manage debates without them. However, Standing Orders will probably have to be changed, particularly if we want to bring people in from outside of the House.
We must get on and just do that. Perhaps the best way to deal with it is to have an all-party motion on the procedures of the House which can be disposed of in Private Members' business or elsewhere and let people put their money where their mouths are on this issue.
I was at the ICTU march last Friday and, thankfully, I did not see any fighting or squabbling between public and private sector workers. Instead, I saw a unity of purpose among workers in standing up to the Government's attempts to introduce a fourth pay cut for public sector workers in the forthcoming budget.
There are many organisations preparing pre-budget submissions and I want to raise that of Social Justice Ireland. It proposed the abolition of Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM, a highly unfair suggestion. Social Justice Ireland looks out for the poor yet there are poor people living in coastal communities who depend on marine activity and BIM to promote Irish seafood as an international quality brand. Abolishing BIM would affect rural coastal communities and the least well-off in them.
I support Senator Harris's call for specialised debates on the recession. There is a wide range of expertise in the House with Members coming from many varied backgrounds. The Seanad has a unique opportunity to show the lead in how it can respond to this through debates on marine activity, sport and the many other specialisms Members have. I agree with Senator Alex White that we do not need a Minister to sit down in the Chamber, take a few notes, leave and be replaced by a Minister of State, simply paying lip-service to the debates in the House. Those who argue for the abolition of this House would be glad to see the status quo remain. I believe, instead, the House must be radical and show the lead.
Senators Twomey, O'Toole, Hannigan, MacSharry, O'Reilly, Healy Eames, Coghlan, Buttimer, Donohoe, Butler and McCarthy welcomed this morning's pledge by Pat Farrell, a former Member, and the Irish Banking Federation to allow six to 12 months' grace to allow people tackle their mortgage arrears. The House has called for such a common sense approach many times. The House can encourage every single mortgage holder who is finding it difficult to make their repayments to contact their broker or lender immediately to make their case. It will give them peace of mind which in these difficult items is essential.
It is important people are given a chance, especially when through no fault of their own they have lost employment but had been making repayments on the button every month. I have no difficulty with the House debating this. I have already committed the House to an all-day pre-budget debate. As soon as the NAMA legislation is concluded in both Houses, we will endeavour to have this debate take place during which all these issues can be raised and we can assist Ministers with the difficult, and in some cases unprecedented, challenges they face.
Senator Twomey called for debates on VHI premium charges and the challenges facing the Department of Health and Children. I have no difficulty in setting time aside for such debates. I have already spoken to the Minister for Health and Children about finding dates in her diary to attend the House. While she is out of the country this week, I hope to have these debates in the next two weeks.
I welcome the European Commission's announcement that it will extend by one year the Government's deadline to restore the deficit target. However, as Senator Boyle said, this does not change the challenges with tax revenues facing the Government. The economic challenges are even more difficult than we first thought four months ago. All Members will agree that if we do not take control of our destiny, unfortunately someone else might. I have no difficulty in having time left aside for a debate on this.
A tiered child benefit system is being considered by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We certainly want to encourage Ministers to have a tiered system to make savings. On the other hand, it must be understood that women in particular need child benefit and as much of it as is available. They also have to be helped during these tough difficult times.
I will pass Senator Hannigan's views on Venezuela and Colombia to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Senators Bacik, Coghlan and Regan called for a debate on banking. As Members know, NAMA will be debated in the House today and tomorrow. I have no difficulty in having a debate on banking as I have already committed this to the House for any particular week but so long as it is needed. We are all reviewing the changing times weekly.
Senators Bradford and Hanafin called for a debate on bio-fuels and the challenges facing the consumer with the high costs of energy. I agree with the Senators on the opportunities that could present themselves in alternative farming. I have no difficulty in having time left aside for such a debate.
Senators O'Toole, MacSharry, Donohoe, Regan and Boyle called for a debate with representatives of the five pillars of the social partnership process in the House. I will discuss this with the Cathaoirleach after the Order of Business.
Senator Hanafin called for the affairs of the Seanad to be streamlined in the national media by having live television coverage of the proceedings. I have supported this call many times and it is a matter the Committee on Procedure and Privileges can discuss with the Joint Administration Committee to make it a reality.
Senators Bacik and Norris called for a debate on the challenges facing Aer Lingus and the aviation industry. Senator Norris raised the issue of an Aer Lingus worker, ten weeks short of a full pension and who had been employed by it for 45 years, discovering his pension had been reduced by 50%. That is an alarming example of a lack of common sense and someone sticking rigidly to an agenda. If that worker made contributions for ten weeks, he should receive his full pension, which is crucial to someone who has served for 45 years. I fully support Senator Norris on that issue and will pass on his strong views, which I support, to the Minister for Transport following the Order of Business.
Senators O'Reilly, Ó Murchú and O'Brien called for a debate on unemployment, job creation and asked if the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment would come to the House for it. Senator O'Brien outlined forcefully the current position throughout the country. I will have no difficulty in making time available for such a debate.
The Senators also raised the question of job opportunities in respect of the schools building programme. I agree with their views. Senator O'Reilly, Senator Wilson and I represent neighbouring counties and Senator O'Reilly will be pleased to know that over €20 million was spent on school projects in his native Cavan in recent years. As he is aware, one new school has been opened already by the Minister, Deputy Smith, with four other major extensions. In regard to the two he mentioned, I am aware that the Minister, Deputy Smith, has them in hand. I am delighted to be able to agree with the two Senators and it is lovely to be able to work so closely with them in neighbouring counties.
Senators Harris, Ormonde, Ó Murchú, Burke, Coffey, Alex White, McCarthy and Buttimer called for a debate on public sector reform. Senator Harris touched on the issue earlier and is correct in terms of how influential this House can be and the part we can play once we take ourselves seriously. I congratulate the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, on his attention to detail yesterday on Second Stage of the National Asset Management Agency Bill. Almost every Member of Seanad Éireann made a contribution to the debate and the Minister responded to everyone individually, despite the late hour. I thank him for doing so. There is a need for targets to be set and to do everything possible in terms of productivity. The public service has made an immense contribution and we want to help it in every way we can in the national interest. I have no difficulty in having an all day debate on the proposal made earlier.
Senator Buttimer called for a debate on social welfare. I suggest the issue could be discussed in the pre-budget debate. The Social Welfare Bill will be brought before the House in the last sitting week before Christmas.
Senator Coffey called for a debate on road safety. We will have no difficulty in arranging for such a debate to take place. The Senator correctly pointed to the lack of service stations, particularly on the motorway with which he is most familiar, the M9. I will mention the matter to the Minister later this afternoon and do everything I can to advance it, as I am aware such services are badly needed.
How did I forget Senator Burke? He outlined his memory of various events. I will have no difficulty in having a debate on that matter at the earliest possible date. A good deal of legislation will come before the House between now and Christmas but as the Senator is the Leas-Chathaoirleach, I will do everything I can to make it happen as soon as possible.
On a point of order, to avoid the need to ask other questions on the Order of Business, will the Leader clarify where he stands on the debate on social partnership with various persons being invited along the lines of his recent meeting?