Tuesday, 30 March 2010
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re agreement between the European Union, Iceland and Norway on mutual assistance in criminal matters; No. 2, motion re agreement between the European Union, Iceland and Norway on surrender procedure; No. 3, motion re agreement between the European Union, Iceland and Norway on cross-border co-operation; No. 4, motion re agreement between the European Union and Japan on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters; No. 5, referral to committee of motion re formal recognition of the Press Council; No. 6, Petroleum (Exploration and Extraction) Safety Bill 2010 - report from the Dáil; No. 7, motion for earlier signature of Petroleum (Exploration and Extraction) Safety Bill 2010; No. 8, statements on domestic violence; and No. 9, motion for earlier signature of Finance Bill 2010.
It is proposed that Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, shall be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 6 shall be taken at the conclusion of No. 5, No. 7 shall be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 6; No. 8 shall be taken at the conclusion of No. 7 and will conclude not later than 7.30 p.m.; with spokespersons to speak for 15 minutes, all other Senators to speak for ten minutes, Senators to share time by agreement of the House, and the Minister to be called to reply ten minutes from the conclusion of the debate; and No. 9 shall be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 8.
Following the Order of Business tomorrow morning, there will be a debate on banking until 2 p.m.
I welcome the fact we have an opportunity to debate the banking crisis tomorrow. We should also have an opportunity to discuss the agreement reached yesterday.
Many days are described as momentous in politics, but clearly for this country, its citizens and the economy, today is a momentous day. We heard the disturbing news this morning about the Quinn Insurance Group. I raised the future of that group on the Order of Business here some time ago, and the connections between that business and Anglo Irish Bank, and what this would mean for the future of the industry. We will need to discuss this in detail in the House.
When we read about the billions of euro to be poured into the banking sector, today is a culmination of the failed policies of the Government over many years, the greed of bankers, poor decision making, poor management and the poor monitoring of our economy. The taxpayer and our children will carry this burden. If we look at the total amounts that are going into the banking sector, we are talking about €47,000 for every family in the country. If we look at what is proposed for Anglo Irish Bank, we are talking about €18,750 per family. When we talk about billions of euro, we forget what these billions could do if they were directed properly. There have been cutbacks in social welfare, the Christmas bonus was abolished, the medical card was taken from those over 70, while access to special needs has been reduced. Fine Gael does not believe that €30 billion should be poured into a failed bank like Anglo Irish Bank. We believe that this money should be redirected into the areas I have mentioned and into the development of our infrastructure to create jobs. It is not right for the Irish taxpayer to carry the mistakes of Sean Fitzpatrick's bank and other bankers. This is the wrong decision, but we will have an opportunity tomorrow to discuss this in detail when we hear what the Minister has to say this evening.
For the last six months, a number of us here have been calling for everybody to move in the same direction to deal with the economy, and I refer in particular to the social partners. Senator Marc MacSharry has raised this many times and Senator Buttimer has done so as well. It is good to acknowledge the progress that has been made today.
It is discouraging to hear the response from the media. All the interviews to date have been to the effect that this is no deal at all and why anyone would accept it. Perhaps it is good to know this because it will be very difficult to sell to the membership of the trade unions. I commend the union leadership for putting the economy and the country first by backing this agreement in these troubled times. The Government has finally seen sense and recognised the importance of this.
Selling the agreement might be more difficult because everything was new before Christmas, but everyone is aware of it now. People are looking down the muzzle of job losses in the public sector and huge amounts of flexibility taking place. I hope these things happen, and I will do what I can to support it. We should acknowledge today that we are moving forward.
Senator Fitzgerald raised the important issue of the Quinn Group, which is something she and others have done before. I should declare that I have a remote interest in this in that I am vice-chair of the Injuries Board, which deals with this company all the time. I hope the Leader of the House will support my viewpoint because he chaired an important committee on insurance in the Lower House a couple of years ago. The last thing we need in this country is to lose an insurance company. Insurance has been competitive for the last four or five years. Five years ago in this House, we were talking about the cost to drivers of trying to get insurance, as well as the cost of insurance for companies and small businesses. We have finally cracked that but for the past year insurance companies have been using everything, including snow and flooding, to try to make the case for increasing premiums.
Losing a competitive company would be a bad move. It is important to recognise that this is more of the knock-on infection from Anglo Irish Bank. Anglo-Irish shares were being used by Quinn Insurance as part of its solvency fund. It should not have done, but did so and acknowledged it last year. That is the reason the company is now in trouble. However, this is not liquidation, receivership or examinership - it is administration.
I wish to correct one thing because I checked the relevant legislation earlier today. On the "News at One" somebody was asked if the administrators would consider selling the company. They gave the impression that this would be one of the things they would consider. I wish to read into the record, however, the fact that section 3 of the Insurance Act 1983, states:
An administrator shall take over the management of the business of the insurer and shall carry on that business as a going concern with a view to placing it on a sound commercial and financial footing.
That is what is required to be done here. People should recognise that we need this company and we must ensure it is regulated. We must also recognise that the Regulator has moved in very quickly. The company is trading profitably in this country, but is losing money in the UK; that part of the business is going to be closed, while the Irish end of it will be fine. Meeting the regulation as regards the level of solvency is what has created this problem. We need to ensure this company is maintained in the competitive insurance market.
Today is D-Day for the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and how he deals with the Irish banking sector. As one commentator in The Irish Times put it, it is the most significant day in the country's economic history since the foundation of the State. We have spoken before in this House about whether we should nationalise the banks. The fact is, however, that by the Minister's actions today in pumping in over €20 billion to shore up the banks' capital, they are in effect being nationalised. As previous speakers have pointed out, this means that over €6,000 for every man, woman and child in the country will go to propping up the banks. I am glad the Leader has arranged for a debate on this issue tomorrow because much has changed since we originally debated the NAMA legislation. Indeed, many Members of this House and the Lower House have also changed their views in this regard. Yesterday, a leading Government backbencher of 28 years' standing announced he does not think the plan is workable. He is worried about the long-term interests of the banks.
I do not share his concerns. Today's announcement is potentially good news for the Irish taxpayer. I am glad to see we are having a debate on the issue, however, and I suggest that from this point forward we should have a rolling debate on banks and how we can get out of this crisis.
People will be relieved by the announcement this morning that the Government and trade unions have come to a draft agreement on public sector reform. We must salute those officials who have been involved in a marathon task in recent days, and Kieran Mulvey in particular. Last December, my party said the Government should not have broken off from the talks. I am worried that the atmosphere has been soured and polluted somewhat since then. We have seen the outbreak of public sector action, which perhaps could have been avoided if those talks has not been broken off. I worry that the public sector action may have clouded the whole issue when it comes to discussing the draft agreement. It is in everybody's interest to move on from here. The goal of public sector reform has the potential to deliver real benefits to the public, whether they involve passport applications, reform of Revenue services or ensuring people get their social welfare payments on time. There are great benefits to be gained from getting an agreement between the Government and the public sector. I hope they can manage to discuss this draft agreement in a positive way and hopefully put it into action.
We must welcome the draft agreement between the Government and the social partners which was reached yesterday evening. I agree with Senator O'Toole that some of the reporting on this has been quite peevish. The need for this agreement is due to the lack of certainty on decisions that have been made over recent months. People working in the public service needed reassurance that there would not be any further cuts and that any reorganisation of the public service, especially if aimed at making it more effective, would be accompanied by appropriate incentives. The agreement on the table allows that to happen. It will now go through a process in which the various social partners will debate the proposal and, it is to be hoped, agree on it.
A similar process should exist in this and the other House, although this did not happen when previous social partnership agreements were reached. Especially at this time when important decisions on our economy must be made, the imprimatur of both Houses of the Oireachtas to an agreement of this type, which will be economically important for decades, should be sought and given. I believe it will be given.
The decision on the Quinn Insurance Group is worrying and further discussion is needed in the House. Current events in the banking sector have had an impact in this regard. The approach of appointing an administrator will be helpful.
Pre-empting the debate the Leader is offering the House tomorrow on NAMA, I will say that today's announcement contains much for Members of this House to consider. It will show that NAMA as an organisation has been doing its work effectively. Many of the loans from financial institutions are to be discounted by a far greater amount than was discussed previously. Recapitalisation in each of the financial institutions will be done on the basis that NAMA has not been oversold and has not acted as a cushion for those who, it is claimed, were bailed out by this process. It has done its work on behalf of the State well.
When we discuss the wider issue of the individual banks, the context will be one of continuing disappointment at the efforts of those who have brought us to the state we are in. There is a realisation on the Government's part that difficult decisions must be made, but they will be the correct decisions because they are part of a process that has seen a series of correct decisions being made in this area. I hope the debate is not in any way corrupted by comments such as those we have heard along the lines of "If we had done X, things would have been easier." If we had done anything differently, it would have cost the taxpayer far more and would have had a bigger impact now and in the future. I look forward to the debate tomorrow.
I have a serious interest in the issue raised by Senators Fitzgerald and O'Toole of the Quinn Insurance Group. There should be less scaremongering and misinterpretation in the media, which has a destabilising effect. The Financial Regulator made the application to the courts for an administrator to be appointed. It is not the banking system as such that has lost confidence in the Quinn Group. It is about the concerns of the regulator. That is important.
We must also consider the positive side of this. I ask the Leader to ask the relevant Minister come to the House and make a statement to create confidence in the insurance industry and the Quinn Group. He must be proactive in dealing with this issue, in conjunction with the regulator and the various other interests, to stabilise the industry.
This issue is critical to County Cavan because up to 600 people are employed by Quinn Direct insurance, which is a stand-alone company, in Cavan town and 1,200 by the larger Quinn organisation in County Cavan. The company is of the utmost importance to our county and to the economy. I know my colleague will be speaking on this as well. Families and homes are at risk. There are people around the country who have insurance from Quinn Direct. Some people have multiple insurance with the company, because Quinn Direct sells a package. The people employed in Quinn Direct and their families need confidence restored. They need a statement from the Minister and need the Leader to make a statement after the Order of Business. We should not dramatise this or present the bad side of it. The banks have not expressed a lack of confidence, the company has not gone into liquidation and I hope the industry will continue. The Quinn Group is a very strong firm and I have every confidence it will continue. That message must go out.
Like other speakers, I was shocked and saddened to learn this afternoon that an administrator had been appointed to Quinn Insurance. I know Seán Quinn personally. He is a practical patriot whose initiative, risk taking and investment have created over 7,000 jobs worldwide. Some 5,500 of those people are employed in Ireland, thousands of whom are employed in County Cavan and the surrounding counties. The Quinn Group issued a statement today stating that in the context of the continued profitability of the group - currently in excess of €20 million per month - it was deeply disappointing that an administrator had been appointed to one of its branches, namely, Quinn Insurance. The statement went on to point out that the group felt that given time, the issue could have been resolved to the benefit of all concerned. I appeal, through the Leader, for the Minister with responsibility for this area to be called into the House. We should put to him the importance of Quinn Insurance and the Quinn Group to the economy. The Quinn Group is equivalent to five Dells and should be given all the time and support necessary to continue in operation.
On the "News at One" today, a Mr. McCann said customers in Ireland would not be affected and that the decision on whether to sell the company would be made in the future. It is outrageous for him to make this statement within minutes of being appointed as an administrator to the company. I call on him to withdraw that statement and clarify the situation. This is a case of administration, not liquidation. The Regulator has a job to do and is now on site in the company's office in Cavan. If it was not for Seán Quinn, the Regulator and Mr. McCann from Grant Thornton would only see waste ground and bogland when they came to Cavan. The man we are talking about made that difference through his commitment, initiative and investment in this country.
We often talk about historic days. This is probably the most historic day I can remember in terms of the life and economic future of the country. I have just been looking at an article in The Irish Times of 19 March by Professor Brian Lucey in which he said the recently revealed figures could only have been written by Pollyanna. He said:
Despite admitting that it expects a 30-per-cent-plus discount on assets to be transferred to NAMA, AIB actually booked provisions less than half that. Expect much the same to come from the other banks.
That is what we have now. The Bank of Ireland has a cynical and dishonest policy of under declaring its liabilities and bank loans. It reduced its NAMA bad loans listing from €16 billion to €12 billion. Anybody looking at the situation would realise the liabilities are greater rather than less. Why did the bank do this? It did it because if the liability of €16 billion was accepted, it would wipe out the shareholder funds and it wants to avoid majority takeover by the State. However, what we are getting is nationalisation by dribs and drabs. That is the way we are going, but the bank continues to be acutely dishonest and not face reality. Some of the things the bank is doing, such as selling its profitable overseas investments, may appear to be a good idea in the short term, but doing this reduces the viability of the bank and leaves it to be carried exclusively by the taxpayer. I am very concerned. This is a historic day, but I hope it will not be a black day.
The final matter to which I wish to refer is the report of the Law Reform Commission. Its recommendations will have a number of important repercussions for the work of the House. My extremely hard working secretary who works a great deal of overtime for which she is never properly compensated by the State was recently called for jury service, which is inappropriate. In view of the inadequate nature of the backup services available to us, as parliamentarians, it is not appropriate to remove the very important support we receive from the secretarial and other staff of the Houses. I welcome the fact that the Law Reform Commission has recommended a series of new exemptions from jury service and that the staff of the Houses are covered thereunder. The level of support available to us is insufficient and it should not be further weakened as a result of people being called for jury duty, regardless of how essential and important the latter may be to the functioning of the justice system.
Like previous speakers, I welcome last night's announcement that agreement had been reached in the pay talks. This is a momentous development, particularly in the light of the problems we have experienced in recent years. It was difficult for those who work in the public sector and their families to sustain the extremely draconian pay cuts imposed. I am pleased that there is now a basis on which we might move forward, for which the leaders of the various unions deserve our gratitude. While they are contemplating whether to vote for or against the agreement, I hope union members will be in a position to pull back from the current industrial action in order to allow normal working to resume. Perhaps the Leader could arrange for a debate on this matter at an early date in order that the House might assist the public sector in its deliberations on the details of the agreement. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to Mr. Kieran Mulvey who, in conjunction with his officials, has done an outstanding job in recent days. Everyone from the Labour Relations Commission deserves our gratitude.
Many have described today as a momentous day in the history of banking in this country. There is no question that this is the case and that substantial announcements relating to the investment of valuable resources owned by the State in the financial institutions will be made later. That investment is extremely unpalatable for all Members of the House and the general public. No one would wish to be obliged to do what needs to be done today. However, this does not mean that we can shy away from the necessity of taking the action required. In the light of the transfer of loans to NAMA, the recapitalisation of the various institutions and the great news relating to the agreement reached at Croke Park last night, we will finally be presented with a template which will bring about stability and act as a catalyst to encourage growth in the coming years. That must be welcomed by everyone concerned.
Will the Leader make time available for a debate on third level education? The number of applications made for university places this year is the highest ever. This augurs well for the future and it is incumbent on us to ensure there is an adequate number of places available for those who have made applications in order that they might assist with and build upon the nation's recovery.
I also welcome the draft agreement that emerged from the negotiations at Croke Park in the early hours of the morning. Given our current situation, the agreement is realistic in nature and I hope its emergence augurs well for the economy. I wish it a fair wind and hope it will bring finality in respect of the current uncertainty.
As previous speakers stressed, Quinn Insurance has merely been placed in administration. As in other sectors, competition is extremely important in insurance. The entry of the firm in question to the market has been extremely important in an overall context. I again stress that it is only the general insurance arm - the life and pensions business is not involved - that has been placed in administration which I hope will prove successful, particularly in the light of the various aspects of the matter and the jobs at stake that are vital to the economy. I do not like what I have heard but we must await the statement of the Minister for Finance.
There are so many matters which remain up in the air in respect of the banks. We do not know if the European Commission has made a definitive ruling on the sale of assets by the various institutions. The haircut that, it is hinted, will be applied in respect of loans from AIB seems particularly severe. I am delighted the Leader has arranged a debate on the banks for tomorrow. Such a debate is badly needed and timely. I hope it is not a make or break plan because we are in a period of change and readjustment and must be prepared to move on these lines. We await with interest what the Minister has to tell us and I hope it will lead to a final clear-out of the boards and at senior management level with the removal of those persons responsible for landing us in the appalling mess the State has to deal with. We will hear more on this anon and I am glad we will have a debate tomorrow morning.
Last week I was very annoyed about bomb scares in Derry which affected access between Belfast and Dublin. On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the joint birthday party of an 80 year old and a 76 year old in Bridgend. Their entire family circle was together for the party. On Sunday night I had the less pleasurable task of checking with a superintendent that they were safe because they were in the house closest to a van which potentially held a bomb and reportedly had been driven across the Border from Derry and abandoned by four armed and masked men. Fortunately, it was a hoax. Unfortunately, however, there was much disruption. We had to wait for a bomb disposal unit to come from Athlone. Yesterday one of the two people mentioned ended up in hospital and we still do not know whether it was directly or indirectly related to the scare received. Another device was left outside a head shop in Letterkenny.
I again call for a debate on the type of republic we want on this island as we approach 2016. I call for a joint debate on the issue with the Ministers for Defence and Justice, Equality and Law Reform, as well as any other relevant Minister. People from England attended the quiet happy family event mentioned. They are asking whether it was because they had come from England that the bomb was left near them, even though it was not a bomb. Locals are wondering what potential outside investors and tourists are thinking. We have to be clear and state this is not supported by us. We need the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister to state there is full North-South co-operation in the north west to ensure this action is not allowed to persist and that the people involved are pursued vigorously. I ask that we consider having cross-Border bomb disposal units because the more we allow the inconvenience the more effective they are. While we do not want to have bomb disposal units-----
This is a very important day from the point of view of economics, banking and finance. However, there are pressing justice issues which should also concern us. Where is the justice for a young woman with Down's syndrome who is blocked from giving evidence in court against her alleged attacker on the grounds that she lacks the mental capacity to give evidence? As everyone knows, this is what happened to Laura Kelly. The Lunacy Regulation (Ireland) Act 1871 does not define "capacity" or provide guidelines. It is arguable that the judge could have allowed her to give evidence but given a corroboration warning to the jury. Even in that instance there is a debate to be held because in 1990 the Law Reform Commission recommended that juries not receive corroboration warnings in such cases, but in case law Judge Hardiman in the DPP v. Molloy in 1995 stated that matter about which a jury should be advised was the child-like mental capacity of a person giving evidence. Whether or which, we should leave the matter to the common sense of juries; people should certainly be in a position to give evidence. We should also note that if we are to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we will need to comply with Article 13 of the convention which requires state parties to ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities. Will the Leader bring the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House to tell us when, where and how this might be achieved? I also seek the appearance in this House of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in the light of the failure of the European Heads of Government to agree a poverty target at their recent meetings. They failed to set targets on reducing poverty or addressing educational disadvantage, despite the European Commission having proposed relatively modest targets on both issues to be among the headline goals for the Europe 2020 strategy. This failure displays a completely unacceptable lack of any sense of urgency or determination to take the necessary measures-----
Last week, I had occasion to compliment the trade union movement on its display of courage in changing direction when the common good required it. Today, I again salute the leadership of the trade union movement for the manner in which it engaged with and facilitated the outcome of the Croke Park meetings. I am disappointed at the manner in which some people were very quick to talk down what has emerged from the Croke Park discussions. Some sections of the media appear to think that nothing should be given the opportunity to progress and the ink could hardly have been dry on that draft agreement when it already was being put in a position of negativity. It is not right for the media to do this as they should give leadership in such a case. The contents of that draft agreement must now go back to the membership and the last thing one wants at this time is for further negativity to be heaped on what already exists.
What is required at present is an injection of confidence into the national mood and this is precisely what the Government and the trade union leadership provided last night.
It behoves all Members to contemplate for a moment the importance of what happened at Croke Park. Members should consider how prospective investors in Ireland or those who already have money invested and who have provided such important employment will reflect on what is happening. I have the feeling that the draft agreement will be accepted by the membership. The reason I say this is, with an ear to the ground, it is quite clear the public sector is the engine of the economy and the State at present. The trade union membership knows full well that everyone has a contribution to make to the recovery and I believe that as the leadership of the trade union movement has reacted positively, the membership will do likewise.
It is indeed a momentous day when the Irish taxpayer must contemplate the recapitalisation of the banks, the administration of Quinn Insurance Limited and the public sector pay talks, which hopefully will come to a proper conclusion. These are the major issues that Members will debate this week. However, I wish to reflect on two issues that may be smaller in the context of people's general concerns but which are significant issues within the sectors involved. The first issue, on which I seek a debate with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, as soon as possible, pertains to the non-availability of non-consultant hospital doctors in accident and emergency departments nationwide. A total of 25% of senior non-consultant hospital doctor posts are about to fall vacant in accident and emergency departments across the country. This is a serious issue for those patients who will be using accident and emergency departments in the coming weeks and months and must be dealt with.
Another issue on which I seek a proper debate in this House concerns a media report I read over the weekend to the effect that public servants going about their duty on behalf of the people now must get security personnel to accompany them. It is an incredibly sad reflection on the direction our society has taken that one must employ security guards to assist social workers, community care workers, doctors and nurses to do their jobs. As someone who has worked unsocial hours in deprived areas, I acknowledge that hairy situations can arise. However, in the past I never felt the need to have anyone riding shotgun with me when entering any such places. It is a sad reflection on society that there is an obligation for someone to ride shotgun with public servants as they go about their duty on behalf of the people.
Any one of the three major stories breaking today would have made it a red letter day. To have three in the one day is truly an indication of the type of flux with which we are living in political and economic terms. It behoves everyone to keep one's head, not least the administrator appointed to Quinn Insurance, the commentariat on the Croke Park deal to be put to the union membership and Members in this and the Lower House. We all need a degree of calm and moderation in the face of everything that is occurring.
I am delighted to hear Senator Ó Murchú speak with some optimism about the eventual outcome of the ballots on the deal to be put to union members. It is the beginning of the healing of a dangerous rift that has opened between the public and private sectors. Each side has a sense of bitterness towards the other. Some of this bitterness has been stoked while some of it has been caused by circumstances. It is important that this opportunity be grasped and that people in the two major parts of our working economy begin looking at one another as colleagues in common cause, not as competitors.
I have noted an intersection between the announcements on NAMA and the potential deal, namely, the degree of certainty that will begin to return to business. Certainty in public sector pay will feed into the business community's approach to pay within its sector and create a good basis for planning business until 2014 at least. This is welcome.
Combined with this is the fact that NAMA will begin to take bad debts from the banks. I look forward to the Minister's comments in terms of making credit flow again for the sake of all of the economy. The coming together of these two key factors - stability in costs and the availability of credit - is a significant intersection today.
We must proceed carefully and with respect for the taxpayer. According to today's The Irish Times, the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, stated he would unveil a recapitalisation plan that would draw a line under the financial crisis once and for all. It will be in the order of €20 billion. How can the public trust that, yet again, a line will be drawn under the financial crisis once and for all?
Let us consider the steps. We have had the deposit guarantee scheme, with which we were in agreement. Last year saw a recapitalisation. We saved the zombie bank, Anglo Irish Bank. NAMA was the penultimate plan, but the problem is still not solved.
It is being strangled by a lack of co-operation and credit from the banks. May I tell the House what I heard locally in Galway? Our local banks are not even sending loan applications to their headquarters because they know it would be pointless.
The Minister has all of this on his shoulders and he must intervene for the taxpayer. He must tell the banks that, if the Government gives them something, they must give a legal guarantee to provide credit for small and medium-sized enterprises, which the good Leader has always stated is the lifeblood of business, and protect the mortgages of home owners. It is time there was a dividend for the taxpayer.
Emergency legislation to ban the sale of mephedrone is currently going through the British Parliament. This will boost the profits of these despicable head shops in Border counties. It is important to establish how the Government intends to respond.
I share the concerns expressed on all sides of the House at the placing in administration of the Quinn insurance group. In particular, I agree with the comments made by my friends and colleagues, Senators Joe O'Reilly and Diarmuid Wilson. This will have an impact on people who work for the group in Derrylin and Cavan town. I caution commentators that the administration applies to the UK arm of the insurance group and gives, perhaps, an interesting insight into the state of the British economy rather than the relatively robust Irish economy. The Irish arm of the business is not affected. Those who follow football will know that a number of clubs in the English Premiership and championship have gone into administration, the most recent being Portsmouth FC. They will survive. No club has gone out of business.
Members have referred to this as a very important day. Yesterday was a great day for the west, although it has been underreported. The first phase of the western rail corridor was opened. I pay tribute to those who have been campaigning for this for many years. I met many of them during the European Parliament election campaign, as did Senator O'Reilly. They are committed people who operate on a voluntary basis. They have now seen the realisation of the first part of this project. The naysayers in the Dublin-based media immediately began to question the viability of this railway line, before the trains were even on the track. We did not hear this questioning about Luas or the DART. Of course, because the service is in the west, questions must be raised about its continuing viability. I have no doubt this will be an important extra dimension to the economic regeneration of that part of the west. Phase 2 of the line to Tuam and then to Claremorris will be the start of a widespread economic regeneration. Unless there are joined-up transportation links between towns across the west, we have little hope of surviving. This is a positive story. Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú referred to the importance of optimism. This is a good news story which shows optimism about the future, especially in the west. I wish everyone well with the new line and I look forward to using the service. I applaud the decision of the Green Party at their convention last week to endorse the implementation of Metro North which will be vital in the ongoing regeneration of the country.
I ask the Leader to have a debate this week on the issue of social partnership. In so doing, I commend the unions on their ability to reach a deal last night. This is but one step. Why could Government not have done this last November or December? Why were four months of hardship endured by people who are already under great pressure? The reason is that we have a failed Government with failed policies and a lack of leadership. The Government's failed political policies are coming home to roost today, with the Minister for Finance about to unfurl the latest recapitalisation. Senator Healy Eames is absolutely right.
When will the taxpayer no longer have to bail out banks? When will it end? When will small and medium-sized enterprises, which the Leader says are the lifeblood of the economy, be given liquidity and allowed to fulfil their role in creating employment?
I wish to refer to the positive resolution to the agreement on pay talks. I hope it will lead to people being able to get their passports in the next while. This is an extremely important development. Some people are talking negatively about the economy but I very much resonate with what Senator Ó Murchú said. We must be positive in these difficult times. I invoke the spirit of T. K. Whitaker who did great work for this country. That is the sort of spirit we need.
Regarding the western rail corridor, I had the great honour yesterday of travelling on the train from Limerick to Galway, the first train to travel on that track in 34 years. A number of Ministers were on board that train. Therefore, people who say that only negative things are happening are wrong. I agree this is a major development. We are talking about historic days and yesterday was a historic day for the west. The symbolism of the journey was enormous; the number of people who came out and stood at each station on a wet and windy day in the west was fantastic. This is a community-led project. We need communities on this island to come together and promote positive-----
I was in Waterford at the weekend and heard that there is some question over the Waterford to Limerick Junction rail link. We need to examine that and to have a debate on our railways. We cannot open one railway and close another. We do not close too many roads. In fact, we are building many new ones. Railways are a vital piece of infrastructure. We need a debate on them at which the Minister for Transport should be in attendance.
I wish to support Senator Mullen's call for a debate on a change in the law on mental capacity following the disturbing news of a young woman with Down's syndrome who was precluded from giving evidence. That was a very disturbing report. We heard an announcement yesterday by the Law Reform Commission of recommendations on reforming the law on juries, but we also need to revisit some aspects of the law on evidence. The Law Reform Commission examined the law on hearsay. I request a debate on these matters and changes in the law on criminal evidence and the jury system. That would be useful.
I join others in welcoming the outcome of the Croke Park talks but highlight the real mistake the Government made in pulling out of those talks so early and precipitously in December. By pulling the plug when it did it caused immense inconvenience to enormous numbers of the public.
The Leader will be conscious that a number of Members raised the issue of those unfortunate people queuing for passports outside the Passport Office. The Labour Party and others had called for the suspension of the CPSU action to facilitate members of the public who were not in any way responsible for the crisis in the public finances and to ensure they would not be disadvantaged in this way. I am disturbed that they are still being disadvantaged. It is important we see an end to that particular industrial action and an acceptance of the measures announced in Croke Park, particularly for the low paid public sector workers with whom we all sympathise.
I also call for a debate on jobs in the construction sector and construction-related jobs. Alarming news of the collapse of the very prestigious architects firm, Murray Ó Laoire, last week shows the immense knock-on effects of that loss not only in terms of jobs directly in the construction sector but related jobs and jobs with an international dimension because that firm had an international reach. It is disturbing that the explanation given by the firm for it going into liquidation was that it was not being paid by creditors. The decision today to put billions of euro into the banks has created a sense of alarm. Could the banks not have tided over firms such as Murray Ó Laoire with a view to preserving jobs, particularly given that they are about to become State-owned? Notwithstanding the fact that Senators will debate the issue of banking tomorrow, the House needs to have a debate on whether the billions of euro we are pouring into the banks will free up credit for ordinary firms and small and large businesses, including architects' firms which desperately need to stay afloat.
I very much welcome the progress made on the issue of public service reform and congratulate all those involved in the Croke Park talks. I hope the level of support required to close this chapter and move on can be delivered.
The €20 billion rescue package for the banking system is deemed necessary. I look forward to the announcement on the issue which the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, will make later this afternoon. It will be critical for the future of the banking sector. I listened with interest to Senators who asked the reason funding was not available to individuals or small and medium-sized enterprises. The €20 billion package is necessary to create liquidity in the system. Perhaps we should all await the Minister's statement on the matter.
The attitude of certain banking officials towards customers in choosing to increase interest rates and squeeze their customers is a bridge too far. Many families are on the edge and need consideration, compassion and support. A debate is required on the impact of the actions of financial institutions on individuals and small and medium-sized enterprises. We must support individuals and SMEs. I call for a debate on the issue.
I ask the Leader to write to the Russian ambassador offering support at this difficult time following the terrorist attacks on the Moscow metro. It must be terrifying to be trapped within an enclosed, possibly dark, space when a bomb explodes. I can think of few more frightening experiences. Yesterday's bomb attacks were a heinous crime.
I welcome the progress made in talks with the trade unions, specifically the changes proposed in the public service. The agreement should return us to an even keel. I request that public service employees discontinue the work to rule action.
We have reached the final stage of the measures required in the banks. Although it appears at this difficult juncture that it will be necessary to put further significant sums into the banks, the measure should provide the banks with sufficient funding and the impetus needed to allow them to start lending again. While many bank officials are a little wary and, from what we have heard, saddened by the inevitability of the State taking majority control of the banking institutions, recent developments are the consequence of greed by a small number in the banks. Bonuses were paid not on the basis of quality but on the quantity of loans and without regard to their true value and long-term sustainability. Today we will see the fruits of greed.
As they moved from the normal venue of Government Buildings to Croke Park, participants in the social partnership talks will have passed by Leinster House. I am disappointed that, notwithstanding numerous requests for the Seanad, as part of the body politic, to discuss in detail the current economic position and the social partnership models, problems and solutions required, the House has been bypassed again. Notwithstanding the fact that the horse has clearly bolted, I ask the Leader to have the good grace to arrange a debate in the House to discuss fundamental economic matters, proposals and options and invite all the relevant parties to attend. Fundamental decisions are being made without an input from elected representatives, other than a small number of Ministers. It would be helpful, therefore, if the House were to discuss the range of options available.
That progress appears to have been made in the talks is welcome, even if the precise details of the proposals are not available. The important information we have gleaned from this morning's agreement is that everything is contingent on the economic state of the country not deteriorating further. If passports can be obtained, individuals can receive a response to their social welfare benefit applications and public representatives, on behalf of citizens, can receive answers from the staff of various offices, that is a step forward. Nevertheless, the parameters of the agreement made in our name must be made available as soon as possible in order that the House can have a reasonable debate on the issue.
I am disappointed that while Senators' requests for debates appear to be acceded to, in many cases nothing happens. Debates on the economy in this and the other House should be the genesis for solutions to our economic problems. That is our role on behalf of citizens. I ask the Leader to ensure the House is made more relevant before the summer recess.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Hannigan, Boyle, Norris, MacSharry, Coghlan, Mullen, Twomey, Dearey, Healy Eames, Buttimer, Mooney, Ó Brolcháin, Bacik, Callely, Hanafin and Bradford welcomed the successful outcome of the Croke Park talks. I congratulate everyone involved in the agreement on the draft proposals. As Senator Ó Murchú stated, the agreement gives an air of confidence at the start of this, one of the most important days in the careers of Members of the Oireachtas. As the snow falls outside the window, the Government and the nation must rise to a major challenge. All those who participated in the talks have done the country a service. Many decisions must be made in the national interest and employers, workers and others have now agreed draft proposals. I hope common sense will prevail.
As Senators will recall, last week I invited Members who had proposals on financial matters to make contributions of 15 or 20 minutes on Second Stage of the Finance Bill with the Minister present. I acknowledge the contributions of the many Senators who availed of the opportunity. The role of the House in assisting the Minister for Finance must be commended and is much appreciated by the Minister and his officials.
On the National Asset Management Agency and the banking proposals the Minister will set out at 5 p.m., the Government faces unprecedented challenges. Commentators and others take a view that Anglo Irish Bank is not important. The bank is more important to Ireland than Lehman Brothers was to the United States. The prospect we face is similar to that which occurred when Lehman Brothers was allowed to go to the wall. Senators should note, when expressing a view on the importance of Anglo Irish Bank, that it is of the utmost importance that a friendly banking system is operational as soon as possible. The incoming chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, the former Minister for Finance, Mr. Alan Dukes, has taken on this responsibility. I am very confident in the knowledge that this man has always been responsible and answerable to the people. That is the difference in having a man of his stature taking over the running of Anglo Irish Bank.
A way must be found to make credit available to the self-employed and family-run businesses. We must remember that 75% of businesses in Ireland are family-run. That illustrates how important it is that credit is made available. Thousands of employers are waiting for credit to be made available again. That is the Government's duty and the reason this evening's announcement is of such importance.
Senator Hannigan requested that we roll over the statements to be made tomorrow on banking. They will continue after the Easter recess. In the meantime, we will be able to observe progress which I hope will be made.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Boyle, O'Reilly, Wilson and Mooney referred to the Quinn Group. I wish the group well, on behalf of the Upper House of Parliament. It is a shinning example of what can be done with a can-do attitude and shows what one brilliant man and his family have achieved. It has created 5,500 jobs in Ireland and another 1,500 abroad. It is one of the captains of industry in Europe, not only the British Isles. I know it will come through this.
I had the pleasure of chairing the committee which inquired into the insurance industry. At the start of our inquiry we were told it was an industry in which it was very difficult to achieve anything for policyholders but we succeeded in having the cost of policies reduced by 50% over a four-year period. Senator O'Toole played a major role in that regard. Senators Coghlan and Leyden were also members of the committee. The Quinn Group made this possible in no small way and played a hugely significant role. Whatever the difficulties it is experiencing currently, it has made a magnificent contribution in reducing to current levels home insurance, commercial or private motor insurance, employers' and public liability insurance and health insurance premiums. We are all solidly behind Sean Quinn and the Quinn Group in its endeavours. I hope everything that can done will be done in the interests of sustaining the great work being done by what is a huge employer in Ireland plc.
I will accede to the request made by Senators Wilson and O'Reilly for a special debate which will take place on Thursday after the Order of Business. We will have statements on the up-to-date position in the Quinn Group. We will roll over the statements which will continue after the Easter recess when the picture will be clearer.
Senator Norris referred to the report of the Law Reform Commission and the exemption from jury service for staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas. We welcome the report and hope it will be implemented.
Senator MacSharry called for a debate on education, in particular third level education. I will have no difficulty arranging for the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House for such a debate.
Senator Keaveney referrd to activities in the Bridgend area of County Donegal last weekend. We support her call and I will convey her strong views to the Minister for Justice and Law Reform. We will see if we can arrange a debate on the up-to-date position on these activities which have been taking place too frequently in recent months.
Senator Mullen raised the issue of persons with a disability giving evidence in court, in which regard he was supported by Senator Bacik. He also called on the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the House to discuss the failure of EU Heads of State to reach poverty reduction targets. I will have no difficulty in arranging such a debate.
Senator Twomey called on the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to debate non-consultant hospital doctors and accident and emergency services. I will have no difficulty in arranging such a debate. I congratulate the Minister on her appearance on "The Frontline" programme last night. She told the people about all the good work taking place under her stewardship. Senator Twomey also raised the issue of social workers and I will pass on his comments to the Minister.
Senators Mooney and Ó Brolcháin wholeheartedly welcomed the opening yesterday of the western rail corridor. It is great to see progress being made. I would not worry too much about the Dublin media because I remember what they said when we were trying to build Knock Airport. How wrong they were. I remember my father telling me what the media had said about Seán Lemass when he had opened Shannon Airport. They said only rabbits would run along the runways. We all remember the doubting Thomases but when it comes to being confident and visionary, Fianna Fáil can be proud of its achievements during the years in what it has done for the people of the west.
Senator Mooney highlighted what the British Government was doing about mephedrone. I will pass on his views to the Minister. He also referred to the Green Party support at its conference for the Government's plan for metro north. It is a huge investment which will benefit the people of the north side of Dublin and the entire country.
The Senator might become mayor of Dublin and be on the first train to the airport. We all look forward to sitting beside him and enjoying the trip.
Senator Callely referred to the attitude of banks to customers. The issue can be raised in the special statements on banking after the Order of Business tomorrow.
Senator Ó Brolcháin called for a debate on the railways, in particular the good news announcement yesterday about services in Galway. I will have no difficulty in arranging for the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, to come to the House. I take the opportunity to congratulate him on opening the first phase of the western rail corridor yesterday.
Senator Bacik referred to jobs in construction, in particular the difficulties experienced by Murray O'Laoire. I was in Dubai when the then Taoiseach opened its office there. The global and local downturn has affected the company. It goes to show what is happening worldwide when a company such as Murray O'Laoire must cease business owing to a lack of credit in the system.
Senator Hanafin asked me to write to the Russian ambassador to offer our support in regard to yesterday's tragic events. I will certainly do so, as it is a good proposal.
Order of Business agreed to.