Wednesday, 11 November 2009
Order of Business
Today's business is No. 1, National Asset Management Agency Bill 2009 - Committee Stage (resumed) and Remaining Stages, with Committee Stage to resume at the conclusion of the Order of Business. The business of the House shall be interrupted for 90 minutes at the conclusion of Committee Stage, following which Report and Final Stages will be taken, to conclude today.
Yesterday we had somewhat of a rarity in this House when we had a flock of Ministers or, as Senator Norris described it, a whirligig of Ministers, coming in and out to debate the NAMA legislation. Despite the presence of all these Ministers, however, they failed to convince the majority of Members on this side of the House on the merits of setting up the National Asset Management Agency. We had an interesting discussion about long-term economic value but those of us on this side of the House remain to be convinced that this is the proper approach and that it will protect taxpayers. It is clear from the NAMA legislation that bond holders are being bailed out but I raise the issue of mortgage holders, which is topical given that people are falling into arrears and the difficulties in which families find themselves. The Irish Banking Federation appeared before the committee and made statements on this. Today's headlines include, for example, that the "Banks' pledge to home owners is 'useless'". I want to raise with the Leader this question of the Government approach to mortgage holders and whether there can be any legislative basis to this. Perhaps there cannot be and if so, I want to know what approach the Government will take to monitor the situation and ensure that the banks reach out to mortgage holders as much as possible in the current crisis. That is what ordinary persons facing these arrears are seeking. They see €54 billion being given to save the banks, and yet for the individuals struggling there is no sense of any underpinning, certainly of a statutory nature, to any support that they might get. This is a critical question.
Last night Fine Gael sought to include in the purposes of the Act - if, a Chathaoirligh, I could just revisit that for a moment - that there would be lending to small and medium size enterprises, in particular. We sought this as a purpose or goal of the Act and we were told that this could not be put into the legislation. Everyone's understanding of NAMA is that it would increase liquidity and help business, but we cannot put it into the purposes of the Act.
Likewise, is the pledge to homeowners hopeless or does the Government intend to take action, whether in the form of statute or guidelines, to ensure that there is some meaning behind what the federation is stating at present.
We will probably return to this question during the debate on NAMA today, but it is a critical one for the thousands of families in negative equity and for families facing arrears and worried about how the banks will deal with them.
A significant fundamental issue has been raised by Senator Fitzgerald. It is interesting to listen to her. Whereas I pointed out all day yesterday that there are things that cannot be done, Senator Fitzgerald is bemoaning the free market, and I welcome her to the club. To get what she is trying to achieve, she must move from Christian democracy, to social democracy and maybe all the way across to socialism.
There was a time not that long ago when we had these things in Ireland, but this goes back to the point made by Senator Harris yesterday. These are the issues. In all seriousness, the issue raised by Senator Fitzgerald is crucial. It has to do with the philosophical structure for political vision of the country. There was a time not that long ago when there were mutual societies, commonly referred to as building societies, which were not-for-profit organisations which looked after their members and which set out to do all of the things for which Senator Fitzgerald asked. Ten years ago a few of us here tried to hold back the tide against anti-mutualisation when Mr. Fingleton was in the bar every Wednesday night telling us to get rid - I will scratch that comment-----
-----when a well known leader of a building society was in the bar every Wednesday night trying to get us to remove the section in the building societies Bill to allow it to be easier to become public limited companies. Once they become public limited companies they are into the trap outlined by Senator Fitzgerald.
We need mutual societies. We tried to stop the change here; we could not get support. We did the same in the case of credit unions. The Leader will recall I introduced a Bill to allow credit unions extend in order to provide mortgages and to amend the 1997 Credit Union Act, and everybody on the Government side, including then Senator Mansergh, led the charge against touching that Act. These are issues that need to be addressed.
There are structural changes in our economy and we need to look at them. The same issue arose today on "Morning Ireland" when representatives from the banks and Fine Gael argued about whether it is a matter of rules or structure. It goes back to the point raised yesterday by Senator Healy Eames about a certain well-known banker walking free. In point of fact, that well-known banker - people might not know this - is under investigation by the Garda, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, his own accountancy body and the oversight body for auditing and accounting, and is also likely to hear from the DPP. It moves slowly, but it is wrong to state that the person is walking free.
The problem is this. If we go to a rules-based structure people will walk free unless one has precisely anticipated the breach of the rules. What we need is principles-based structures, which existed before there was any company legislation, where persons must act honourably and properly, and on top of that a rules-based system of internationally accepted accounting standards and auditing standards. That is not in place at present.
The UK, the US and Europe have different views. In fairness, the UK and Europe have finally almost come together on this and the US recognises this. Enron would happen again tomorrow morning in the US. They brought in legislation, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which is rules-based and not worth the paper it is written on.
We need to debate that idea raised yesterday by Senator Harris. There are fundamental issues here and it might make people in some of the more centrist parties take a look at the kind of a country we need.
I am concerned about the Department which appears to block graduates from claiming social welfare payments. We have had the benefit of having interns in this House from DIT over several years. They provide a terrific service in helping us in our functions and duties by conducting research and doing other various vital work that allows us do our business in a clear and concise way. Perfectly good claims from them are being refused for no good reason. It is well hidden within the website, that if somebody needs to claim, they should claim on a VW form. This is an archaic way of dealing with this. It is up to the discretion of the social welfare officer. This must be addressed. There must be much more clarity on the entitlement of interns or graduates when they are seeking work and doing internships. They are involved in what would be termed voluntary work. It is, in fact, providing a service for which they do not get paid. It is a valuable service and they should be entitled to claim their benefits without having to go to this convoluted means to get it.
My second point relates to the swine 'flu vaccination programme. I was amazed to find that even though I qualified as a nurse in 1981, I cannot volunteer my services to help with the administration of the vaccine, if I wish to do so, unless I have done a course. This is in accordance with rules of the HSE. I checked this with An Bord Altranais this morning and it appears that if I wanted to volunteer my services as a registered nurse and midwife, I cannot do so even though I have been giving injections since 1978. This is just more of the kind of carry-on where the HSE imposes convoluted tactics.
It would appear that in certain areas of the country vital service providers to day-care centres and Alzheimer's units will be redeployed to help with the vaccination programme. I wonder if the HSE is once more in the process of taking away or cutting back on vital services under the guise of this pandemic and crisis, and we are not addressing it in a meaningful way. It seems sad. I am making the point, not that I was willing to give me time for free but that there are some situations where we must go beyond what seems stupid policy.
I wish to raise two matters. Senator Fitzgerald touched on the matter of improving liquidity. We all want to improve the flow of credit. As I stated yesterday at the committee to which she referred, and perhaps here too when we debated NAMA,-----
We all are vitally interested in the question Senator Fitzgerald raised. It will not happen until NAMA is in being. At this stage, the sooner NAMA is in being and up and running, the better for the sake of our economy. We want it to work properly and well.
Despite what doubts we may have had, we all must act in the national interest when NAMA is in place.
We should not go hard on the Irish Banking Federation. We must remember it is merely a trade body, not the regulator. We must get matters right in this regard.
The guidelines the Minister is introducing separate to the Bill will, in effect, be merely window-dressing because the banks will still make their own decisions - perhaps that is what they should do, as they must assess the situation, gauge the level of risk and so on. While we want things to happen, we had better aim our shots at the right targets.
I want to raise another issue, that of transport and CIE, on which we are greatly indebted to our colleague, Senator Ross. Will the Leader bring the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to the House? It is scandalous that a State body kept from a Minister a report it had for a long time. A view is being given credence, rightly or wrongly, that what we have heard merely scratches the surface. We do not know if we have another FÁS on our hands but the sooner this matter is unearthed and the stones turned over, the better. I would be grateful if the Leader could arrange such a debate.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on education? It is interesting and, in some ways, very positive that there has been an 8% rise in the number of successful applicants for university. However, this has to be funded. I am very concerned at how education, particularly research and teaching, will be funded in the absence of fees. This issue needs to be discussed.
I also ask that we contact the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to ask for a full explanation of what is happening with the Ryan report. While I know there are difficulties, it is worrying that this very significant report is being delayed yet again. It was delivered to the Government authorities, including the Director of Public Prosecution, in July. In October we found there was another problem with it and that more would have to be blanked out. One woman was a victim 50 years ago. How long more do the people concerned have to wait for justice? Why was this issue not properly examined and scrutinised and why were the perpetrators not prosecuted earlier? Will we ever receive the report and in what mutilated form will we receive it?
While I do not often mention sport, it has been very interesting to listen to reports on the fate of Derry City Football Club, an issue which has some political implications. As a constituent of mine pointed out in a letter to The Irish Times yesterday, Derry City has some difficulties. There was financial malpractice which apparently is widespread and Derry City is not the only football club affected. Its future is greatly threatened and I am concerned because Derry has a large population of young men interested in football. If the club hits difficulties, they will be available for other opportunities and other occupations in a city where the dissident republican groups are growing. I would hate to think a lack of resources provided by a football club in the city would lead to the involvement of young men in a horrible revisiting of the worst periods of the past 20 years.
I wish to highlight two issues in regard to the NAMA debate and put a question to the Leader. While we are none the wiser with regard to much of the detail of the Bill, the presence of various Ministers in the House yesterday showed up some extraordinary differences of views within the Government.
We had an answer indicating that NAMA would not make a profit. When I challenged the Minister in question on that point by noting that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, was proud to project that it would make a net profit of €4.8 billion over the ten years-----
-----he said it was not definite it would make a profit. I find this extraordinary and believe it shows up the unreality of the business plan which the Government brought forward only weeks ago. I ask the Leader to clarify the point. Is it the view of the Government that NAMA will not make a profit over the ten-year period or is it that it will make this extraordinary projected net profit of €4.8 billion?
However, I welcome one thing that has emerged from the debate, namely, the clarification from the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, that whatever we decide has to be formally notified to the European Commission. All of the assumptions, valuations and haircuts will be examined and vetted by the Commission under its state aid rules and nothing can happen or go ahead until the European Union formally approves the project and all its details.
I do not think anybody in the House is in favour of capital punishment. I find it extremely offensive that one of our closest allies, the United States of America, last night once again in a high profile case barbarically executed yet another person for a crime which he undoubtedly, or probably, committed, although that is irrelevant. I heard on radio this morning that some 400 people had been executed there this year in a savage fashion. It is imperative that we send a message to the United States that the Irish people and Government, as well as both Houses of the Oireachtas, do not approve of this behaviour. We have made appeals from these benches and others for perhaps 25 years since capital punishment was officially abolished in this country. I do not believe the Minister for Foreign Affairs is conveying this message to our friends overseas, particularly across the Atlantic. It is particularly disappointing, in view of the fact that President Obama, when he came to office, made it clear he was not in favour of the death penalty, yet it is continuing under his Presidency, particularly in Texas and West Virginia. It would be a worthy move, representative of everybody in this and the other House, if we took the opportunity presented by the savage execution last night to convey our utter disapproval of this activity in the United States.
I support the call for the Leader to make known the view of the House that the death penalty is not acceptable, even for the most heinous crimes. The state must be seen, in whatever circumstances, to act in a proper manner. Life is sacred, even in cases where the most heinous acts have been committed.
On another matter, I ask that we vary the debate on the pre-budget statements this year. It is clear, having considered the budget, that there will be certain cuts. A Minister only has so much room to manoeuvre. It seems that in every obvious case where the cuts will be made the leader of the Opposition says, "We will not make that cut." To ensure the public does not become too cynical about politics, could we have an opportunity in the pre-budget statements for the Opposition to outline where it would make the cuts? Perhaps the Leader would consider an open-ended debate in order that, if the Opposition wanted to go through the night explaining where and how they would make the cuts, they would have an opportunity to do so.
Senator Hanafin keeps making that call and I do not know whether to laugh or cry when I hear it. I am sure the Government will at some stage come forward with its proposals because, of course, it is running the country. Let us see what it has to propose and we will then have to make a response. Let the Senator be assured that we will do so.
In respect of the NAMA legislation, to which we will be returning following the Order of Business, I do not wish to dwell on the point raised by other colleagues about the constant changing of the guard yesterday in regard to the ministerial presence to deal with the legislation. I know there is a difficulty and if the Bill is being taken all through the day, it is not possible to have the Minister for Finance here all the time, which we all appreciate. However, to put it as delicately as I can, this legislation is so important that Ministers dealing with it in the House should be reasonably au fait with it. They should have not just an ability to read the legislation, but also an understanding of its key aspects. We were faced with a serious difficulty last night. I will certainly not direct my comments at any individual, but there appeared to be either an inability or an unwillingness to face up to the fundamental issues in the legislation that we were attempting to debate with him. That is the problem we had and that is why the temperature rose for that period last night.
I heard the beginnings of a debate earlier on the question of Christian democracy and social democracy. I have no problem with having such a debate, but was it suggested that the NAMA project is consistent with a social democratic vision of society? I am not sure that was suggested, but I thought I heard that.
Following up on the position taken by Senator Fitzgerald and the Fine Gael Party, it was described as Christian democracy, but they then said one should turn to social democracy. Social democracy is a vision of society to which I very much adhere but the NAMA project is not part of it.
I support the comments of Senator Ross on capital punishment. It is important for us to make our views known on an issue such as this, even though the executions in question are outside our jurisdiction. First, history contains many cases of innocent people being executed and subsequently exonerated. The mere fact that that can happen should alert us to the dangers involved. Second, capital punishment dehumanises society. It should not be necessary for us to start by saying that we condemn and are outraged by the crimes in question. However, once we go down the road of revenge, which is what capital punishment is, it sends out the wrong message concerning the type of society we want to develop. The views expressed in this Chamber should be communicated to our friends in America. Very often capital punishment may give short-term alleviation to the loved ones of victims who have been murdered, but that is not the case in the long term. We are forgetting that grief does not go by a single act of revenge. Even though the bereaved may turn up to witness an execution, I do not genuinely believe that it is good for them or for society at large.
Europe has expressed a general view against capital punishment. There is always a knee-jerk reaction, but the death penalty is not a deterrent. I do not believe that executing a human being necessarily prevents somebody else committing the same type of crime. That is why what Senator Ross said is particularly important. We should not ignore capital punishment because it takes place at a distance. We are talking about humanity and the fraternity of nations. I strongly urge the Leader to seek a response from the Minister for Foreign Affairs to see what reaction he got when he brought the views of this House forward.
Will the Leader arrange a pre-budget debate on social welfare and child benefit in particular? Does the Leader agree with the leader of Fine Gael that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs should not touch child benefit? A cut in child benefit is an attack on the women and children of this country. Does the Leader support that?
I also seek a debate on yesterday's pledge by the Irish Banking Federation regarding the protection of home owners. It appears that there is confusion about this matter. The free legal advice centres, FLAC, have revealed that many sub-prime lenders are not signed up to this pledge. As Senator Fitzgerald said, NAMA provides for protection of bondholders, but when will we protect the most vulnerable home owners who did not create the current catastrophe? When will we go after the people who caused this trouble?
I disagree with Senator Coghlan in that the banking fraternity and those who made the decisions were not acting in the interests of the ordinary person. They acted out of greed for profits and had no consideration for people. It can be Christian democracy or social democracy, but it is called greed.
If there is a need for a legislative approach, the Minister for Finance should set it out in this House. We have a bailout of the bankers through NAMA, but the Minister refused to accept a Fine Gael amendment to protect home owners. If we are serous about getting credit flowing and protecting small and medium enterprises and home owners, we need a meaningful legislative approach. Otherwise, we are heading towards Armageddon part two.
The three main components of the current crisis, or the long war as I call it, are the collapse in bank credit, the collapse in jobs and, perhaps most importantly, the collapse in the personal ability of people to discharge their debts. It is a pity that the debate initiated by Senators Fitzgerald and O'Toole should have been diverted into a sort of proto-NAMA debate. Time is precious so we should be dealing with current issues on the Order of Business. NAMA can come later.
Personal debt is now a major problem. It touches on what Senators O'Toole, Fitzgerald and Alex White said about the role of the State. I am one of the few people in this House who can speak with some authority on this since, 20 years ago, the only impact the collapse of Communism had on Irish politics was a split in the Workers' Party on foot of a pamphlet I wrote about the collapse of Communism and the future of the left. Against a background of the worst recessionary crisis we have ever had, I am struck by the fact that nobody has seriously demanded a socialist solution, in other words a total state solution. Nationalisation of the banks has been called for on a temporary basis, but people have learned the hard lesson of history that a return to socialism will not do this and neither will a return to naked capitalism.
Twenty years ago, I defined social democracy as the free market mediated by the state. In other words, the state was like a tough referee trying to let the match run as freely as possible and only interfering when there were some serious professional fouls. That is roughly what social democracy means in practice.
The reason I complain so much about party politics here is because I fear the role of anger. On Monday night, I saw the nasty side of it on Pat Kenny's television programme "The Frontline". There is a lot of that anger there. I warn the Opposition, although I am not specifying the party, that they may be in Government soon and if so, they will have to deal with that anger too. They should be careful of what they foment therefore. Fomenting that kind of anarchy, which is going nowhere, is very bad news. We need a lot of light, which was one of the great roles of the Seanad. It stood slightly back from partisan politics and addressed itself rationally to the problems that needed to be solved.
We need to deal with the problems of personal debt, of which the largest component part is a mortgage. The problem of negative equity is the largest component in private debt. It is ridiculous to pretend that NAMA can solve that. The Minister rightly said that we do not want to NAMA-ise that because NAMA will come after the defaulters. However, we need a system of State agencies to assess each individual mortgage and then lean on the banks to create lifetime mortgages. They could be pitched so that people will end up paying a market rent, so that their mortgage becomes a rent and is passed on to their nearest relatives. Otherwise, 300,000 people, which is equivalent to the size of the public sector, will never be out of debt. It is corroding their marriages and private lives, as well as leaving a weeping wound in Irish society. We must address that now.
Yesterday, I was impressed when many contributors spoke about the need for this House to discuss solutions to people's current problems. In that regard, it is wrong for the Government to try to fill the three vacant Seanad seats at a time when we are faced with unprecedented cuts, including child benefit, and are trying to find savings. I understand that, sadly, these vacancies have occurred through natural causes. It is absolutely wrong not to use this opportunity to show the people we are in touch and will make changes in our own House.
What is the timeframe for the Student Support Bill? I have asked the Leader about this previously. We learned this morning that there are more students in the country than farmers. As Senator Norris asked, how will we continue to fund third level education unless we have a framework? When will the Bill be before the House?
In light of what Senator Coghlan said about the role of the Irish Banking Federation versus the role of the banks, what exactly are the obligations of Irish banks to the people given the €54 billion bailout by the Irish taxpayer?
I commend Senators Ross, Ó Murchú, Hanafin and others on raising the issue of capital punishment. It is horrendous to think that such punishments can occur in the civilised world. It raises the question as to how Ireland can, as a nation, courteously but insistently disagree with other countries when they abuse human rights in various ways. During the Jubilee year, there was a beautiful symbolic gesture every time a person was freed from the death penalty or had his sentence commuted or when a country changed its laws for the better in that the lights were turned on around the Colosseum, that great symbolic place where so many innocents lost their lives in past millennia.
It is important that a country such as Ireland, which is small but which can be influential, make its voice heard. Sometimes this will have to be an uncomfortable voice. I regard Britain's abortion laws as barbaric. They should be a matter for discussion. Last year we spoke about human rights abuses in China and asked what our response should have been in the context of the Olympic Games in Beijing. It is important for small countries to have the courage to be awkward and recognise that the fact of their being small does not mean they cannot be influential.
I commend Senator Harris on his remarks. We really need to consider the economic crisis and issues relating to banking and debt through the lens of human dignity. This is why I very much welcomed the debate this morning on the nature of social democracy and what it has to contribute. The great traditions of Christian democracy, with their emphasis on the dignity of the human person and the importance of family life, have very much to say on the current crisis in which families are at their wits' end dealing with debt.
In so far as the discussion between Deputy Kieran O'Donnell and Mr. Pat Farrell on the rules-based approach to banking is concerned, it is very clear that we need rules. This goes back to Saint Thomas Aquinas and even Aristotle in that coercion was sometimes believed to be required while people were acquiring an appreciation for virtue. However, unless we accompany a rules system with the cultivation of civic virtue, we will be faced constantly with the problem of people getting around the rules. We need both a rules-based approach and a principle-based approach founded on a culture of civic virtue.
I agree with Senator Harris's remark that the level of personal debt is very serious. Why can we not put pressure on the banks to extend mortgage terms to 50 years or 60 years? In some countries, 40-year or 45-year mortgages are offered. I do not understand why we cannot offer them here.
The Taoiseach stated the Government, when formulating the budget, will consider areas it would not normally consider. There is talk about cutting child welfare payments. This Government never learns. Today Ernst & Young is examining Irish Nationwide Building Society which will be either wound up, nationalised or taken under the wing of another financial institution. A senior accountant in Ernst & Young is being paid €3,000 per day and a junior accountant is being paid €800 per day. It is outrageous that such fees are being commanded by such companies in this day and age.
Not only are the fees being charged but the Government is paying Ernst & Young to analyse a banking institution that is defunct. The Leader should bring this to the attention of the Minister for Finance as a matter of urgency because the nation cannot afford such fees. The subject of fees arose in the past in respect of tribunals but yet again we are overpaying fat cats.
There are two trends in medicine and health care that deserve attention. It is trite to use terms such as "win-win" but these trends relate to practices that offer good value for money. The first is the trend towards prevention rather than cure. Much can be done in this regard and we really should find time to debate the matter.
The second trend is towards new technology and the phenomenon is known as "e-health". A report last week by COSTEFF in Brussels referred to telemedicine, which I had not heard of. It is well worth debating and paying attention to because it is suggested that we can look after our own health from home.
I attended the Carers Association briefing on the budget this morning and in this regard I noted that telemedicine serves as a reminder of the good value for money we can achieve if we concentrate on prevention rather than cure and on treatment at home using such techniques as telemedicine. An example given was that people can look after their weight through using their mobile phones.
The diabetes check all of us in the Oireachtas have been offered is an example of real prevention rather than cure. Those who had the chance to be tested will receive advice as to what they should do. When I, given my height, was told I would benefit from losing a little weight, I offered to put on height rather than drop weight. I did not actually achieve anything, however. We must consider medical treatment at home rather than in hospital and the concept of prevention rather than cure. We must find time to debate these because they will offer value for money.
I support other Senators in expressing their condemnation of the imposition of the death penalty in the high profile case in the United States. We would do well to remember that Ireland, as a member of the Council of Europe, is part of a group of states that have happily turned their backs on the death penalty and now regard it has barbaric. I welcome calls on the Leader to determine how best we can put pressure on countries such as the Untied States, China and Saudi Arabia, which are still imposing the death penalty far too much. Clearly, any imposition of the penalty is wrong and barbaric. I agree entirely with the other Senators in that regard.
I would like to contribute to the debate on democracy by asking the Leader for a debate on religion in schools and the place of religion in education. If we live in a democracy rather than a theocracy or Christian democracy, we must be concerned about the very prominent role the churches, especially the Catholic church, continue to play in the provision of primary and secondary education. I speak in light of the decision by the European Court of Human Rights last week in the case of Lautsi v. Italy, in which the court held that the presence of crucifixes and religions symbols in the classroom was in breach of the rights, established in the European Convention on Human Rights, of the applicant and her children who wished to be educated in a secular way and not to be exposed to the symbols of one particular religion.
Ireland is a member of the Council of Europe and must have regard to the fundamental principles of the Council, the European Convention on Human Rights and the need for tolerance and respect for those of other religions and of none. Just because one religion is dominant in this country does not mean it should have a near monopoly on the provision of primary education. The Catholic church still controls 91% of primary schools in Ireland, depriving parents of choice. Parents may themselves be Catholic but may wish their children to receive education in a much more rounded way and in a way that does not include instruction in a particular faith.
I ask that we debate this, in particular the role of the integrated curriculum, whereby children are still receiving religious instruction during school hours in breach, I would say, of their rights under Article 44 of the Constitution and under the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 44 says children have a right to attend publicly funded schools without receiving religious instruction in those schools against their parents' wishes. I ask the Leader to organise a debate on this urgently.
As with Senator Quinn, I attended this morning's meeting with representatives of the Carers Association. I was struck by the dedicated work the association does under very difficult circumstances. I was particularly struck by the need to ensure there are no cuts to respite care which provides carers with an opportunity to do other things in their lives besides spend 24 hours a day in their home. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate in the near future on the issue of respite care.
I also attended this morning's meeting with the Union of Students in Ireland and was shocked to hear that 50 students are dropping out of the education system every year because grants are not being paid on time. Some VECs say it will be next January before the backlog of grant payments is cleared. This is largely due to the fact that we have not enacted the Student Support Bill 2008, which is stuck in committee. I believe the reason it remains stuck in committee is because the McCarthy report recommends rationalisation and a reduction in the number of VECs. I met with the chief executive of Meath VEC and see no reason the number of VECs should be reduced. I believe such a move would be counter-productive. I am disappointed that the Student Support Bill 2008 is held up-----
-----because the Government is considering a proposal as daft as the rationalisation of the VECs. I ask the Leader to see if he can have the Student Support Bill moved out of committee and back onto the floor of the Houses as soon as possible so we can get on with it, thus ensuring it is easier for students to live their lives and get their grants.
I concur with the Senators who expressed their condemnation of capital punishment in the US. It also applies in other countries. As a Christian I am opposed, as I am sure other people will be, to the taking of life. It is difficult to listen to brass neck pronouncements by people who are so condemnatory of that but see absolutely no incongruity with supporting abortion or euthanasia. I do not know how they make the distinction between people-----
On a point of order, I ask the Cathaoirleach to note the final comment of the Senator which I say to you very clearly amounts to an outrageous allegation against me, which I will not take in this Chamber. At what point does the Cathaoirleach intervene? This is my point of order.
It is also true that the Cathaoirleach's view and mine is that a person is clearly identifiable. The Cathaoirleach has used that phrase himself. It is also true that the Cathaoirleach cannot force Members to do anything because we have the right to free speech here. An issue has been raised and what needs to happen is that the Cathaoirleach needs to look at the report - he can do no more - and then offer a view on the matter when he comes back into the House. The Cathaoirleach cannot force a Member to unsay what was said but he can give the view of the Chamber as to whether it was appropriate or inappropriate. It is then up to the Member involved to decide if a comment needs to be withdrawn.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Prendergast, Coghlan, Regan, Alex White, Burke and Walsh called for the a discussion on the issues raised yesterday in regard to NAMA, in particular in respect of mortgage holders and how the Government can assist them in this difficult time. I agree fully with all the sentiments expressed by colleagues who can put their questions to the Minister or Minister of State present in the House today for completion of Committee, Report and Final Stages of the Bill.
Senator Fitzgerald quite correctly stated, in regard to support for small and medium enterprises, that alarmingly 80% of businesses are SMEs. This is a critical area to which the Government must provide assistance. During our pre-budget debate, we will have to come up with a formula and ideas to assist the Minister and the Government on how SMEs can be kept going to retain the current 800,000 jobs they provide.
Senator Prendergast referred to social welfare payments and to those who are providing the important service. I fully agree with her sentiments, which I will pass on to the Minister. It is difficult to believe that the Health Service Executive will not allow qualified nurses to administer the swine flu vaccination on a voluntary basis.
The Minister for Health and Children must inform me, as Leader, before the Order of Business tomorrow morning as to why that carry-on is being allowed. It does not make sense. I will take up the matter with the Minister immediately after the Order of Business today and report back to this House in the morning. I thank Senator Prendergast for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.
Senator Coghlan called for a debate on the CIE report. I have no difficulty with such a debate taking place. Senators Norris, Healy Eames, Bacik and Hannigan called for a debate on education in the context of the Ryan report. I join with Senator Walsh in complimenting the Catholic Church on all it has done for education and the good work it has done through the years. We are proud of what it has done. No other organisation took on the responsibility when no funding whatsoever was available, for example, in the 1920s and 1930s and all those years when not a penny was available to assist the underprivileged. I compliment the church and acknowledge its work.
Senator Norris spoke about the Derry City football team. We certainly do want to see that opportunity lost. Much good work has been done by the team in that city. It provided a release valve, pride and a taste of success to men who so richly deserved it but who had been denied it for generations.
Senator Regan called for a business plan and spoke especially about matters pertaining to NAMA. Further clarification can be sought when the Minister is in the House today. I know the Senator will avail of that opportunity.
Senators Ross, Hanafin, Ó Murchú, Mullen, Bacik and Walsh condemned capital punishment and supported this country's opposition to it. Capital punishment exists in some states in America, but one state is one state too many. I fully support the sentiments that have been expressed by colleagues this morning. I will pass on their views to the Minister.
Senators Hanafin, Buttimer and Hannigan spoke about the pre-budget debate. All parties should come to the House to give it the benefit of their proposals, on which the Minister can then adjudicate. The strength of having a pre-budget debate is that party proposals can be considered by the Minister. When the budget is published parties can then agree or disagree on an individual basis. This is a wonderful opportunity when the Minister will be present and all parties can make their proposals to assist him and the Government with the challenging budget that is facing the country.
Senator Buttimer referred to the Irish Banking Federation, IBF, pledge to home owners, which we all fully support and welcome. The former Senator, Pat Farrell, is in charge of the IBF. Everything and anything that can be done to assist the plight of the home owner should be done.
Senators Harris, Mullen and Burke raised the issue of bank credit. Senator Harris correctly pointed out that the major challenges facing families and individuals are the lack of bank credit, the loss of jobs and personal debt. To say the least, that puts it all in a nutshell. We must give all the assistance we possibly can to the 300,000 people in difficulty or worrying about mortgage repayments. The expertise and experience we have gained through life will be called upon in the coming months to assist those people. The day has come when we might have to consider two-generation mortgages. The system works extremely well in other countries. Such a change would take much of the financial burden from those with mortgages who are perhaps trying to achieve too much too quickly in the current climate. Things were great for ten or 12 years but the financial challenge that everyone is facing now has to be considered in a different light. That is one possibility we could consider.
On the various expressions of socialism, being left, right and centre of parties, and where colleagues on the opposite side of the House see themselves; it is interesting to note the background of some colleagues and how many parties they were a member of, especially one or two, before they finally rested where they are today.
Senator Healy Eames raised the filling of the vacant seats in the Seanad by-elections. I listened to her views with interest. It is a constitutional requirement that the Seanad has 60 Members. I look forward to welcoming each and every one of the three new Seanad colleagues who will be with us at the start of business shortly after Christmas. Two new Senators will attend in the last week of the current session. I look forward to welcoming them to the House.
Many young colleagues will have an opportunity to experience the Upper House and make a massive contribution to public life on behalf of their constituencies. I look forward to welcoming those two new colleagues to assist us in our deliberations.
Senator Quinn brought e-health and telemedicine to the attention of the House. I wish to learn much more about that. It makes sense to me. I look forward to allowing time so we can discuss that. Perhaps Senator Quinn will take the lead in the debate when we have it.