Thursday, 10 December 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re joint report on Implementation of the Lisbon Treaty: Interim arrangement on enhanced role of Houses of the Oireachtas, to be taken, without debate, at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Statute Law Revision Bill 2009 - All Stages, with Second Stage to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1, on which spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, and Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken at the conclusion of Second Stage; No. 3, statements on climate change, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 and conclude not later than 2 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, and with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes from the close of the debate for concluding comments and to take questions from spokespersons and leaders; and No. 4, statements on budget 2010, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 3 but not before 3 p.m. and conclude not later than 6 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, and with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes from the close of the debate for concluding comments and to take questions from leaders and spokespersons. The House shall then adjourn until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 15 December 2009. There will be a sos from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The Leader suggests we take No. 1 on the Order Paper, a report from the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny on the role of the Houses of the Oireachtas in the implementation of the Lisbon treaty. It seems that would be a perfect issue to discuss in the House and the Leader might consider having a debate on it at another time, rather than merely noting it.
Yesterday I stated it was critical that the budget pass the test of fairness to families and the test of competitiveness and creating jobs, as well as protect children. On each of these three criteria, it failed. Families will not forget how much this budget failed them. We in this country took a decision to invest in children over a long period of time and a budget that cuts that investment cuts to the core of our value system. To cut child benefit and to tax and take money from poor families in the way the budget has is to cut to the core of families and hit at their children. Child benefit aims to support families and supports the decisions they have made on child care. However, it has been attacked in the budget which has failed families most in need. Carer's allowance, disability allowance, illness benefit, the guardianship payment, blind person's pension and the one parent family payment have been reduced. When my party suggested in its pre-budget announcements that families earning under €30,000 should be protected from cuts, it meant it. The Government should have taken that policy on board. It is galling to see the amount that is being taken from families most in need, while money is being thrown at the banks, including Anglo Irish Bank. The contrast is striking.
The other issue that jumps out from yesterday's budget is the lack of reform. I note, for example, that there is absolutely no reform of FÁS. That body's administrative costs have been left exactly as they were despite the litany of revelations about waste and the misuse of public money. What message does that send out to public sector workers who were told they must tighten their belts and accept reduced income levels, yet the Government will not deal with such reform issues? The budget did not deal with reforming the way the Government does its business. It did not suggest any initiatives on reform, so business will continue in the same old way with the same waste. FÁS is the most startling example of that. I look forward to the budget statements in this House this afternoon.
I agree with Senator Fitzgerald that it is a great day to be rich in Ireland. I just do not know how people can square the circle because seriously rich people have not been asked to put their hands in their pockets. They have made no contributions from their wallets, yet those earning €25,000 in the public sector are being asked to make a contribution. Members of the Seanad are reasonably paid, and I do not think any of us can complain about what we are being asked to pay. I cannot complain and I do not have a problem with that. I cannot reconcile, however, how people earning less than €30,000 a year should be made to make a contribution with no attempt whatever to talk about those earning over €200,000 in the private sector. One can see what is happening. The reason this is being done has nothing got do with the budget, it is about strategy. Once one hits those earning under €30,000 one can say "We have buried that crowd, now let's look at the minimum wage in the private sector; after all, we could not allow the minimum wage to be that high while we are cutting public sector pay". That will be the next thing the Government will hit. It is as clear as day, but it is grossly unfair. We deserve to be hit and we must pay the price of the sins committed by others. I have to live with that, but I cannot reconcile or explain why people at the bottom of the pile had to be pulled into this, as well. They are struggling hard enough as things are. I will say more about that this evening.
We heard on the news this morning that the Emerald Star cruiser company is to reduce its operations in Ireland. I am not sure if I have raised this matter on the Order of Business before, but I have certainly written to the Minister on a number of occasions over the last six months. I have also raised it with Emerald Star as well as with the union representing workers in that company. For the past six months I have been trying to find out what is the impact of the transfer of assets from Ireland to the UK or France for creditors and the pension fund. I do not know if there is such a fund. I do know, however, that Emerald Star was established by Government grant, which is taxpayers' money. The Cathaoirleach will share my view on this because he lives beside the River Shannon and knows what a significant part of the tourism industry Emerald Star is. An investment was made in Emerald Star to create employment in the Shannon basin area and help tourism there. This is a backward step, however. I want to know if all creditors are secure and if the pension fund is secure, if there is one. Is it legal to transfer assets abroad from a company that was set up by a State grant? Is it acceptable to the Government? We need answers to these questions before we get into the emotional issues of the impact of today's news on local communities.
Yesterday's budget has been a disappointment to many people, both inside this House and outside it. Time has been arranged for a debate on the budget later today, so I will focus my attention on a few particular areas. The Labour Party considers that the budget is unfair and potentially socially divisive. It fails the fairness test in that it fails to protect those who are worst off, not just in our own society but overseas also. There is no doubt but that the cuts in children's allowances will drive more children into poverty. What the Government will save in child benefit payments is little more than it is losing on the alcohol levy. I agree with Professor Carl Whelan that reduced alcohol levies will not make an iota of difference to cross-Border shopping. It is just a sop to Fianna Fáil backbenchers. The cuts in child benefit will lead to more children falling into poverty.
I am also disappointed with the proposed cuts to the overseas development aid programme. Let us be under no illusion because it will have a real impact on the ground. For instance, children will not be able to access primary school education as a result, and AIDS sufferers will not be able to access anti-retroviral therapy. In addition, people will not be able to feed their families because they cannot grow food as a result of cuts in our overseas aid programme. Once again the aid programme has suffered disproportionate cuts, but we cannot continue to do this without realising that it has a significant negative impact on the world's poor.
The Labour Party did not vote against the proposed carbon tax in the Dáil last night. My personal view is that as long as the revenues raised go towards fuel efficiency measures and do not impact on the poor in terms of fuel poverty, it is potentially a good step forward. I will be attending the Copenhagen summit and I expect that such measures will feature prominently in the debates there.
I wish to clarify what the Leader means by saying he intends to take statements on climate change after the Statute Law Revision Bill. Given the time allocations, that may mean that some parties will not be able to participate. Consequently, will he accept a change to the Order of Business to remove the sos so we can continue with the statements on climate change until every party in the House has had a chance to make a contribution?
We will have an opportunity later today to discuss the budget, as well as discussing the social welfare provisions next week. There is an air of predictability that whatever was decided yesterday would provoke a reaction. Indeed, it is the Opposition's job and responsibility to do so.
It is important that we have a proper context, however. In accepting an adjustment of €4 billion and that public sector costs should be reduced by €1.3 billion, there is also an onus on the Opposition to say how that can be done without making the type of changes that were done yesterday.
We will have an opportunity to debate the budget later. Buoyancy and competitive tendering have already been factored in to the figures presented to the Oireachtas for decision, so it is not being honest to those we represent to say otherwise. We will not avoid difficult decisions in this or subsequent budgets. It is not as if anyone wants to make these decisions, but it is the Government's responsibility to ensure we have, or are working towards, a balanced budget in the coming years. Every effort was made to do so in yesterday's Budget Statement, particularly in areas such as child benefit where those on social welfare and family income supplement will continue to receive the same level of support. Pensioners have been protected also. The level of cuts has been minimised.
I support what Senator Fitzgerald said about No. 1 on today's Order Paper. We do have a busy agenda up to the Christmas recess. We must discuss the report on how national parliaments should interact with the European Parliament. That is central to how this House should regard the reform of its own activities. I ask that such a debate be held as soon as possible.
The faith and trust that people put in this Government have been misused and abused, given what we saw yesterday. We saw a savage attack on young people. It is a budget for emigration, telling young people that they are not wanted in this country. It is an attack on the most vulnerable, including cutting rates to blind people by €8.30.
Carer's allowance has been cut. These are the people who are saving the country millions by looking after their loved ones instead of putting them into nursing homes. They are the ones we tackled yesterday. If the Minister for Social and Family Affairs had tackled fraud, we would not have had the cuts imposed on carers yesterday.
It tends to be forgetten that public service workers have families too. They have made plans based on a certain level of income which has been decimated. Attacking those in the public service on an income of less than €30,000 is an absolute disgrace. Members on the other side of the House should be ashamed of themselves for making such an attack. My party had made plans without any mention of buoyancy. There was no rising tide to lift all boats, as mentioned by Senator Boyle of the Green Party. We had proposed tackling those on higher incomes, whether in the private or public sector.
Seven weeks ago I asked for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the Seanad for a debate on law and order. I did so again five weeks ago. Senator Bacik and others also asked for a debate, but we have been treated with contempt. We have not had a debate on law and order or the prisons for a considerable length of time. I, therefore, propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform be asked to come to the House to debate matters of law and order.
In the light of yesterday's budget, I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate on commuting. The carbon tax introduced yesterday will only be effective if alternative arrangements are made in densely populated areas such as the one I represent in Drogheda, Laytown, Gormanston and Dundalk. The stick was introduced yesterday of increased petrol and diesel prices for commuters, but unless alternative arrangements are made by Iarnród Éireann, we will not be able to take full advantage of the carbon tax as a catalyst for change. I ask this, mindful of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey's push to encourage more people to cycle to work and use bicycles for various reasons.
During the three-month period following the collapse of the Malahide viaduct between August and November I actively represented commuters as a councillor and will now do so as a new Senator. As such, I am appealing directly to Iarnród Éireann to examine what it is doing, given that it has diminished the service on the Drogheda to Dublin line. People have been forced to get to the station earlier, yet arrive in Dublin later than they used to prior to the collapse of the viaduct, which totally defeats the whole purpose. I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate on the matter, if possible, before Christmas, buit, if not, early in the new year. We should invite the Minister for Transport to the Seanad to deal with these issues and ask him to impress these points on senior management in Iarnród Éireann. Most commuters finish work between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., yet there is no express service to take them home in the evenings. Since the service was reintroduced three weeks ago, the train stops at virtually every station, prolonging the journey home for commuters. These simple steps need to be taken if the carbon tax is to be effective.
Following the reopening of the railway line on 16 November, I conducted a survey among commuters, the findings of which which were reported in the Drogheda Independent three weeks ago. I asked commuters whether the previous arrangements were better, worse or no different from the alternative ones when they had to take the bus. Some 70% said it was better to take the bus because they were at least guaranteed a seat, that there were quality of life issues and that they could plan their time, whereas now they have to rush to catch a train, have to park at the station earlier, fight to get a seat and then return home in the evening distressed and hassled. I urge the Leader to deal with this issue. While I welcome the reopening of the railway line, numerous problems have arisen since. I ask management of Iarnród Éireann to take these points on board and the Leader to facilitate a debate with the Minister for Transport as soon as possible.
I genuinely do not see much point in having debates on issues of such importance if some political poodle is to be sent to listen to what we have to say and not even bother to convey that message to the Minister for Finance who is elsewhere. We should certainly accommodate the Minister by having a debate at a time that suits him, which is perfectly reasonable. However, I do not believe it is reasonable that we should have a debate when somebody is just shoved in to listen and then goes away. That has no impact and there is no point in pretending it does. It would be a waste of time. I, therefore, ask the Leader to assure the House that the Minister will be present this afternoon because Members of this House have some very important, heartfelt and genuine things to say to him and carry a message from constituents. I say this without great hostility to him.
Although I shall be voting against it, the budget at least passes the forensic test. The test of meeting figures and the targets which they set has been met, for which the Minister must be given a certain amount of credit. It is not easy; he is going to get the budget through and will deliver on it. However, it does not pass the tests which everybody on this side of the House has highlighted. Senator Fitzgerald is right - it is extraordinary to see the budgets of monsters such as FÁS being increased, in so far as I can see, while the amount of money made available through child benefit is being decreased. What is going on?
I thank the Senator for her interruption. This is a budget which apparently gives oxygen to the quangos. What happened to the attack on semi-State bodies and State agencies we were expecting? What happened to the attack on public expenditure waste? That is what is so important. I should like the Leader to answer these points, specifically the one about whether the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is coming to the House.
I made a statement in the House on 5 November 2008 in which I noted that many of us had benefited from the special savings account arrangements. I proposed the introduction of a reconstruction bond to the value of at least €10 billion. I repeated this proposal in January and in announcing the budget the Minister for Finance said he had received a number of proposals to establish a medium-term national savings fund as an additional source of funding for capital investment. I welcome this and believe the amount should be approximately €10 billion to be administered by the National Asset Management Agency and the An Post savings schemes. I recommend that everyone contribute to this bond, which is a reconstruction bond, which I proposed in this House early in 2009 and is being supported by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU.
I would particularly appreciate if the Leader could clarify in his reply exactly what is in this budget for young people. I believe the people should be mad as hell with this budget. I see no future for young people in terms of this budget. It lacks a job stimulus package and provides no graduate opportunities or internships. I point out to Senator Boyle that by contrast Fine Gael had identified 38,700 places between graduate opportunities, internships and apprenticeships.
Social welfare benefits have been slashed to €100. A graduate said to me last night that the Government's solution is that young people should live at home or emigrate.
How does the Government plan to keep young people in this country? As I parent, I do not want to educate to emigrate. As a nation, we need to retain our young people at home. The Government is getting rid of them, in effect. What it has done is a scandal. Young people are our future. They are the hope generation and they are leaving this country.
I again ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on genetic modification. It appears that the green debate is in many ways being taken over by people who sometimes go against their own aims. The reality is that, through genetic modification, the use of nitrates for plants could be greatly reduced. Many who support the green agenda are against genetic modification. However, there would be less nitrate toxic waste in our oceans, rivers and lakes if plants were genetically modified to use less nitrates. In other words, it is of huge benefit to the green agenda to consider genetic modification.
Often in this House people use inflammatory language during debates. I ask the Leader to encourage Members to refrain from using words such as "attack" in this House. There is no question of there being an attack on anybody in the context of the budget measures. Great care was taken to ensure that nobody was attacked and that there was a fair and even distribution of the weight. Similarly, people often make statements to the effect that they hope there will be no riots on the streets and so on. There is absolutely no real question of this happening. From where is this coming?
I listened yesterday evening to the budget debate and this morning to some extensive discussions in that regard. I also heard many people complaining, which is natural, given some have been badly hit. It was harrowing to listen to people document how much they have lost and how little they will have to live on. I believe Members on all sides empathise with this. I was struck to hear people such as Mr. Colm McCarthy and a number of international commentators, give a guarded welcome to this budget. They suggested that although it was tough and cruel and something nobody wanted to do it was a move in the right direction. This country is almost bankrupt and these strong measures were necessary.
While I welcome much of that contained in the Budget I do not welcome the reduction in tax on alcohol. I believe this is a disastrous measure. I listened to a Minister suggest there is no correlation between the price of alcohol and the diseases provoked by it, which goes completely against all known scientific evidence in this regard.
I believe it is a mistake for the Government at this stage to give misinformation in this regard. I respectfully disagree with my colleague and distinguished commentator, Senator Ross. I believe we must invest in FÁS at this time. We must try to ensure a return to work for people-----
I strongly support that. I regret the cut in overseas development aid. Many people have suggested that if it had been left expressed as a percentage it would decline naturally anyway. In 2010, we will be giving less than that which we gave three solemn commitments to provide, which is disastrous.
We are in difficult times and should row together to support not the Government but the country. Everything in this country appears to be in tatters, including the banks, the Church, politics and the law. The only area in which there appears to be hope is that which Ms Mary Robinson called the fifth province, the artists of this country. We can still be proud of them whether popular musicians or writers, of whom we have many. The Calatrava bridge, which is a glorious addition to Dublin, was opened today and is named in honour of Samuel Beckett.
I was sad to hear the other day of the passing of Liam Clancy who was an extraordinary, wonderful and magisterial figure. I know much about James Joyce but Liam Clancy knew more about and had a deeper love of James Joyce than most academic professors put together. I had the pleasure of listening to him recite from memory page after page with love and understanding. Thank God there is still one of our five legs of State in which we can glory and celebrate.
I commend Senator Norris on his balanced contribution. I genuinely believe we should all be speaking in that tone given the difficult times we are experiencing in this country. We have all spoken in this House about vulnerable people and the need to help them. While they may not have been assisted in the budget there are many other ways vulnerable people can be helped.
I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on FÁS, an issue on which I have spoken on several occasions. We should differentiate between the controversial issues that arose at management level and what is happening on the ground in FÁS.
Currently there are waiting lists for places on training schemes. The question has been asked what we are doing for young people. FÁS can help young people by retraining them and assisting them in getting back into the workplace. FÁS is assisting the most vulnerable too. There are many people who will never enter mainstream employment and for whom FÁS services are vital. It is important these people have a reason to get out of bed every morning. It is through providing opportunities that we can lift the depression of communities.
Many of our training schemes have had a 95% success rate in terms of job placements. I have not pulled this information out of the air and can show where this has happened. In the past we were able to train people, give them confidence and return them to the workplace. Surely, this is what we should be seeking to do now. I expect the cut and thrust during the next couple of days in regard to the budget but when that passes ,we will still have to deal with the real world.
It is important the Government has set in place a strong, realistic, economic foundation on which we can build. It seems to meet all the necessary criteria for maintaining our credibility not just internally but also internationally. I am delighted that FÁS will continue to play a central role in solving the problem of unemployment.
We must have a debate in the House soon about the very real divisions that are emerging in our society and the disconnect between what happens in here and the experience of people in the general public and how they think. The huge mistake and injustice in yesterday's budget is the reduction of pay for people earning under €30,000 per annum. That is very wrong. It is wrong as an incentive to employment as these people are close to the same income as those on social welfare. That issue is worthy of debate in the context of a debate on unemployment. There is huge unfairness, injustice and discrimination in that decision. I believe it is the grenade that will explode. It is equivalent to the decision on medical cards for the over 70s last year.
Its impact has not yet filtered through but when the reality hits pockets, that will be the grenade.
The reduction in child benefit is wrong. Children are unable to determine their own income and cannot organise themselves. Furthermore, not all homes are good. The benefit is a direct payment to children and should have been left intact. These two decisions are the huge issues that must be addressed.
I refer to the important point raised by Senator O'Toole regarding Emerald Star and ask the Leader to arrange a debate on it. It is an important issue for County Cavan and particularly Belturbet, which has suffered a great deal owing to the recent loss of the social welfare office in the town as well as other infrastructure and the closure of shops. I appeal for a debate on Emerald Star and how its restructuring will affect towns such as Belturbet in County Cavan.
Senator Hanafin asked us to be careful about the words we use and referred in particular to suggestions of riots and protests in response to the budget. One of the Government's objectives in the budget, an objective all of us should have, is securing international recognition from the financial markets. It will be interesting to see if we achieve that. It appears that steps being taken in the pre-budget report in Britain yesterday have not been helpful with regard to the interest the UK is likely to have to pay on its borrowings. It will be interesting to see if the international financiers regard yesterday's budget as a success or failure. The threat of strikes by the public sector unions still hangs over us. Mr. David Begg of ICTU is on the board of the Central Bank. He has the figures before him and is clearly aware of the concerns that exist. My hope is that he will be able to use his influence to ensure that whatever protests or actions take place to argue the unions' case will not damage the country's economy.
Will the Leader draw the Tánaiste's attention to a decision taken by the American authorities last year regarding the introduction of 100% container scanning from 1 July 2012? It is a couple of years away but it involves container scanning of all imports to the United States at the point of export. There will be no cost for the United States but it will mean huge costs for a country such as Ireland. It means that in every port from which we export it will cost tens of millions of euro to ensure every container bound for the United States is scanned. We have been given a couple of years' notice. The Americans are introducing this system to avoid acts of terrorism but it places a huge onus of responsibility on us, is a threat to our exports and will involve huge costs before we implement it. I do not know if the Tánaiste has done anything about it but it certainly requires a discussion with the US authorities which should take place right away.
I will return to my three questions. If I get an answer to one of them, I will be doing well this morning. The first question relates to the honesty of the budget and the plans for next year. The budget does not include provision for funding for further recapitalisation of Irish banks. A discussion is currently taking place about the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA. It is already becoming apparent that the assumptions in the NAMA business plan for property valuation were too optimistic, that the capital base of Irish banks will be further undermined and that at some point next year they will either have to go to the markets or to the taxpayer for more money. That is not included in the budget assumptions for next year. Will the Leader guarantee that we will not be watching the budget unravel again next year because the same banks that were responsible for ruining our country are looking for more money from the taxpayer?
My second question relates to the jobs test the budget must pass. The Government has spoken repeatedly about the smart economy but the only proposal it has in the budget relating to job creation is a cut in the price of drink. Is this what the Government has been talking about with regard to the smart economy over recent years? What else is in the budget apart from that?
My final question is actually a proposal to the Leader. The most important test the budget had to pass yesterday was whether we will be able to maintain our economic-----
Can our country maintain its economic independence? That is the most important question the budget had to answer yesterday. The Leader must invite the Minister for Finance to the House every second month of the new year to confirm that the budget assumptions are being met. That issue, honesty, is what concerns all of us.
There is no point whingeing about aspects of the budget. It is like trying to change the weather in this country. However, it must be said that there are aspects of the budget that are profoundly regrettable. We knew what would happen with child benefit but that is no consolation. The cut in child benefit is inappropriate and redolent of the attack on families by the Government through the introduction of tax individualisation a number of years ago. Child benefit is the way in which the State recognises the contribution made to society by families with children. It is regrettable that it was targeted in this way. However, I am glad the Minister has, in general, stuck to his guns and stayed with the project of making the necessary cuts in expenditure to get the economy back on track.
It used to be the case that stroke was a death sentence. It is now one of the most treatable events, although unfortunately not in Ireland. Stroke care in Ireland is very poor and people are dying or being incapacitated needlessly. In an ideal world approximately 20% of people would receive thrombolysis after a stroke but the figure in Ireland is as low as 2%. It is 1% in Cork. This is not a matter for yesterday's budget but for the HSE. It must take this issue seriously. I am concerned that, since strokes bring about disability and it is often the elderly who are affected by them, they are the lobby least able to voice their concerns. It is important we re-engage with the issue of stroke care and that the HSE does the necessary work to structure properly equipped, furnished, resourced and manned units to ensure adequate stroke care.
I look forward to the necessary correction and recovery in the months and years ahead.
I wish to refer to Senator Mullen's comments on health. According to the Department of Health and Children's publication entitled Health in Ireland: Key Trends 2009", population growth and population ageing will have clear implications for service planning. Would it be possible to arrange a debate on this issue to ensure we have the appropriate services to meet the demands? I support Senator Mullen's call for appropriate stroke services. The report noted a major improvement in the health of the nation and its people's life expectancy, which is welcome.
I am usually a positive person, so I will start by welcoming the mortgage relief provided in the budget for people in negative equity and the fact that the moratorium is to be extended to 12 months. I hope the banks will apply this provision and I look forward to it being put into action.
When I was canvassing for my friend, Senator Paschal Donohoe, in the by-election earlier this year, I met a lady in the heart of his constituency who told me that she could never vote for us because we had added a shilling to the old age pension, an act referred to by Senator Leyden. It struck me this morning-----
I continued the thought this morning. When I googled the situation, I read Alfie Byrne's striking contribution in the Dáil. The elderly, the so-called grey brigade, stood up against the Government about the medical card. For this reason, the Government was afraid to touch them yesterday. However, I remind the Leader that each old age pensioner the Government has not touched has children and grandchildren who will be affected by the cuts in child benefit, a 5% reduction in salaries of €30,000 and an extra 5 cent on a bale of briquettes and €2.40 on a bag of coal. There will be children who will be cold and hungry this winter because of this heartless budget. I will not use emotive words.
I wish to correct Senator Donohoe, who mentioned job creation. Some €130 million has been invested in the retrofit. It is important to point out that this will create a further 5,000 jobs. Were this a multinational entering the country-----
I just wanted to mention it in passing, but my main comment is on potential solutions for mortgage holders. EBS has drawn up proposals via the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, in particular Deputies Thomas Byrne and Olwyn Enright. I became involved in terms of the banking angle. We decided not to make suggestions, but to see what proposals the societies would make. Of the number generated, one was to the effect that two years without penalties rather than the current period of 12 months would be afforded to defaulters and added on to their mortgages at the end. Another suggestion from the report is on a new insurance policy guarantee scheme to create a bond for people who default on their mortgages at some stage. It would also support banking and other institutions to have less capital on hand. I will not have time to outline these proposals.
I will make a copy available to all Senators. It is important that everyone has it. The Minister has provided in the budget for the introduction of new legislation on mortgages. Some 35,000 people are affected, so it is important that something be done.
I second Senator Hannigan's proposed amendment to the Order of Business to allow more time for the debate on climate change to ensure representatives from each party get to speak. It is especially important, since Senator Hannigan is going to Copenhagen to attend this week's climate change talks.
It is extraordinary to hear Government Senators defending the budget or describing its measures as being courageous. It must stick in the throats of even those Senators with brass necks, if that is not mixing a metaphor.
The Labour Party views the budget as being deeply regressive, anti-family, anti-children and, in particular, anti-young people. The Minister for Finance has picked on the softest targets by slashing benefits for the young unemployed and child benefit, as well as making across-the-board cuts in welfare payments that will drive many families deeper into poverty.
I was concerned by the proposed cuts in student grants, particularly the back-to-education allowance for people currently attending college. These cuts will have a severe impact on education, integration therein and ensuring access to education for the most vulnerable.
I support the call by Senators Mullen and Callely for an urgent debate on health provisions and services for older people. On the island of Ireland there are 1 million people over the age of 60 years. The collective ageing of the population is one of the great triumphs of our era. Most of us can look forward to being reasonably healthy in our old age. Older people are an enormous good for our society. Sadly, although ageing brings both gains and losses, ageism means old age is often represented in negative terms such as there being a health care burden and a pensions time bomb rather than in a balanced way.
I totally concur with Senator Mullen. Service provision is often poor, not only in cases of illness. There is free screening for breast cancer up to the age of 64 years, whereupon it stops, although women are seven times more likely to develop breast cancer after 65. For other age-related illnesses such as stroke and dementia, service provision lags considerably behind that provided in the treatment of cancer or cardiac disease. Dementia and stroke are illnesses that hit older people, yet service provision is appallingly poor. As Fianna Fáil spokesperson on older people, I totally support the call for a serious discussion on health provision for this section of the population. I am also delighted that the old age pension was left as it was.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate as soon as possible on the implications of the budget for young people. Listening to the speeches yesterday, I could not understand what young people had done to the Government but its treatment of them yesterday was appalling.
There is talk about having a knowledge economy and getting people back into education but those in receipt of the back to education allowance will no longer receive a maintenance grant. That does not make sense. There is a 27% cut in the primary school building programme at a time when there are more than 1,200 schools on a waiting list, with others on a waiting list to get onto the waiting list. Child benefit was cut across the board. There is meltdown in dealing with maintenance grant applications, a matter about which I spoke last night when I pointed out that 22,000 grant applications remained to be processed. What was the focus of the Minister for Finance? It was on cutting the maintenance grant.
The worst decision made in the budget was the one to attack the under-25s who have now taken more than a 50% cut in social welfare payments. We are all supposed to cry crocodile tears for the Taoiseach who has taken a 20% cut, but in real terms, after tax, this represents a cut of less than 10% net on a salary of over €280,000. A person aged under 25 years-----
-----is expected to take a 50% cut. It is absolutely shameful and will lead to emigration. It is about sending a new generation of young people abroad. Is a disgraceful act on the part of the Government and I ask for an urgent debate on the matter.
I appreciate the Cathaoirleach's indulgence at this late stage on the Order of Business. I have a question for the Leader on the budget but before going further, there is one myth I wish to correct. It has been said consistently since the budget was announced yesterday that pensioners have not been touched. That is a lie. In April the Christmas bonus was abolished. This equates to a 2% reduction in the rate of the State pension. Pensioners were the first vulnerable group victimised and targeted by the Government.
The Taoiseach and his Ministers have made much of the 20% and 15% reductions in their salaries. That is also untrue. They opted for a 10% voluntary reduction; therefore, in real terms, this time the cut is less than 5% and 10%. The difference in take-home pay is what some must exist on, or do not even have. The budget is draconian, unfair and will cause a revolt. Will all Government Members be subject to the impositon of a three-line whip when various instalments of the budget are being voted on in this House? Does the Leader have any sense of embarrassment or shame because of the injustice perpetrated on public service workers, those on social welfare and the unemployed?
I assure Senator Hannigan that every Senator will be given an opportunity to speak on the topic of climate change. As I am spokesperson for the Department of the Taoiseach, I propose to take the Bill after the Order of Business in the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Carey. I will be present to adjust matters, if required.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Hannigan, Boyle, Leyden, Healy Eames, Hanafin, Norris, Ó Murchú, O'Reilly, Donohoe, Callely, McFadden, Buttimer, Bacik, Doherty and McCarthy either welcomed or expressed constructive opposition to the budget. The budget debate will begin at 3 p.m. and conclude at 6 p.m. However, if other Senators wish to make a contribution, I propose to continue the debate on another day to ensure everybody will be given an opportunity to speak.
To put the matter in proper context, older people will continue to receive the old age pension. There should not be any confusion about this. They will also continue to receive a free television licence, a gas or electectricity and be able to avail of free travel. It is important to state allowances such as the living alone and fuel allowances were not changed for senior citizens.
Regarding vulnerable children, low income families-----
I am correcting inaccuracies to give balance to the debate. I am sure all colleagues appreciate and welcome the fact that vulnerable children and low income families will be protected from the reductions in child benefit. The qualified child payment for those in receipt of social welfare payments will increase by €3.80 to €29.80 per week, a very welcome announcement. With regard to family income supplement, the weekly earnings thresholds have been increased by €6 per child to support working families on low incomes.
Nobody likes to see a reduction. As stated in the Chamber, the inflation rate was well exceeded by the Government in recent years. I hope that in the not too distant future the reduction of 4.1% from 1 January will be reversed. All sides of the House support everybody who needs to be supported, particularly those on lower incomes.
I will do my very best to have the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, present for the start of the debate, if his diary can facilitate it. I take the point expressed by Senator Ross, but in fairness to the Minister, he took Committee and Report Stages of the banking Bill in the House and I have always found him to be very supportive of Seanad Éireann.
I will do my best to have the Minister present.
Senators O'Toole, O'Reilly, Wilson and others spoke about the decision of Emerald Star and said it was a considerable blow to the Shannon basin. Towns such as the Cathaoirleach's home town of Banagher, Portumna-----
-----Athlone, at the other end of my constituency in the area of Senator McFadden and Deputy O'Rourke, and Belturbet will be affected seriously by this decision. I will have no difficulty in discussing this and seeking up-to-date information on the funding given by the Government to make the service available.
Senator Cummins called for a debate on law and order. I will arrange to have that take place at the earliest possible time. We must support our prison officers, our Garda Síochána, the Army and everyone in the services who put their lives on the line in terms of the challenges of their employment. I have no difficulty in this debate taking place early in the next session.
Senator James Carroll, in his maiden address to the House this morning - I can see this man will continue to work as hard as he possibly can, particularly in the area of transport - welcomed the carbon tax and expressed serious concern for the quality of service from Drogheda to Dublin and the plight of those in the Laytown-Bettystown area. He also welcomed the reopening of the rail line from Malahide. The Senator made a proposal to the House on the express service at 5.30 p.m. There are challenges facing the train service, which should be more efficient. Trains should arrive on time. In terms of the customers using the bus service and the survey the Senator carried out, there is room for major improvement. I will agree to the new Senator's request for the debate he has called for in the first two or three weeks of the next session.
I agree with Senator Norris on the sad passing of Liam Clancy. Donovan said he was the greatest ballad singer he had ever heard.
My apologies. Bob Dylan said he was the greatest ballad singer he had heard in his lifetime. On behalf of the House I offer our condolences to Liam's wife and family on his sad passing.
Senator Hanafin called for a debate on genetic modification and everything concerning that area. I can agree to that debate.
Senator Ó Murchú, Senator Ross and other colleagues mentioned FÁS.
I agree with Senator Ó Murchú in regard to the success of FÁS over the years. There have been other examples that Senator Ross has brought to our attention, which none of us could condone, but the extra allocation of funding for FÁS yesterday is because there are so many people unemployed.
A total of 95% of placement is an incredibly high success rate. We must continue to give hope to the young men and women who have no job. They must be given an opportunity to upskill, train and have some reason to get out of bed every day. Hope is crucially important at this difficult time.
Senator Quinn asked me to raise with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Coughlan, the container scanning system due to be put in place which will affect exports from here and all imports into the United States of America by 2012. This is an important issue and I have no difficulty in arranging time for this debate in the next session.
Senator Donohoe spoke about capital for the banks. The Finance Bill will be debated here in the first two weeks in February and issues not addressed in the budget can be discussed in that debate. I can inform the House that we will have a special debate before the Finance Bill on issues which Senators are of the opinion should be included in the Bill.
Senators Mullen, Callely and Mary White called for a debate on stroke care, the future of the Health Service Executive and the need for proper equipment in our hospitals, which was highlighted earlier. There are 1 million people over the age of 60 on the island of Ireland, as Senator White correctly pointed out to the House. This is a debate that all colleagues will want to contribute to, particularly Senator White's proposal and the outlining of the high percentages regarding free breast cancer screening. That is an alarming statistic and this House should fight hard to ensure the age limit should not be 64 but increased, as a right. I agree with the Senator on that and we will have a debate on this issue in the early part of the next session.
Senator Callely spoke about the Department of Health and Children and the issues he has highlighted to the House. They can also be discussed in that debate.
Senators McFadden, Buttimer and Butler raised the issue of mortgage relief that was extended in the budget. Senator Butler has a report from the EBS which I believe most colleagues will be very interested to see implemented. The Senator outlined the details to the House and said he would put a copy of this report in every colleague's pigeon hole later today. I welcome his initiative and his hard work in this area. We have no difficulty in putting aside time for that debate.
Senator Bacik spoke about third level funding. We can certainly discuss that issue, with the Minister present, during the statements on the budget this afternoon.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 21 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Ciarán Cannon, Paudie Coffey, Maurice Cummins, Pearse Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Michael McCarthy, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey)
Against the motion: 26 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, James Carroll, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Feargal Quinn, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Nicky McFadden; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.