Tuesday, 19 October 2010
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Report of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Construction Contracts Bill 2010 - Order for Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1; and No. 3, Statements on the restructuring of VECs, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 and conclude not later than 6.45 p.m., and 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, with the Minister to be called upon to reply ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments.
The headlines in the various newspapers today say it all: the Irish Independent "Budget 2011: Double the pain"; and The Irish Times, "€5 billion in spending cuts and tax increases could be on agenda". My question for the Government is why has it taken so long for these figures to emerge. Why has the public not been told the truth because these figures did not just emerge when the Opposition spokespersons went in yesterday? Why has it taken so long for the real state of the public finances to be on the agenda in a real way? The newspapers also state that the Government will have to come clean. I raise this particularly in view of the speech the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, gave this morning, where she stated that €600 million would have to be cut from the health budget.
This will come, it would appear from what she stated, mostly from front-line services. Front-line services means, in effect, everything from home help to services in the community and services for neonatals. I met a couple at the weekend who had a very young vulnerable sick child and who told me the suctioning material and equipment they need was being rationed by hospitals at present. That is what we are talking about.
I call for a debate in this House on these issues because this is what we should be discussing because everybody else is. It is not enough that it happens only in the Department of Finance. We need to be discussing these figures in this House. I call for an amendment to the Order of Business to discuss the reality of the figures which were presented to the Opposition spokespersons yesterday and their implications and the kind of response they will need from all parties in this House. This is what we need to be discussing in the House today. The public needs to be involved in these discussions. They need to hear about these choices in these Houses at this time. This is not about private conversations in the Department of Finance with anybody. This is about real discussion in the Oireachtas in the weeks to come.
Regarding the budgetary figures as they emerged yesterday, it looked good to see all the different party groups going in and going through the issues with the Department of Finance and coming out with a clear message. There is also a need for us to give a further message, that we have been in this place previously - in the 1980s when the national figures were equally bad. It is important we recognise that, whether under this Government or the next Government, we can work our way out of it.
I do not believe we can get back to a 3% deficit by 2014, but we need to take the hard measures early on. The current budget should be front loaded for the simple reason of giving confidence and certainty to those who can spend money but who are afraid to do so. We need to be able to state after the forthcoming budget that it was the worst of the budgets to come. People are saving more than ever and the savings ratio is higher than at any time in the history of the State. Many pensioners and public servants have money but need assurance if they are to spend it, keep the economy going and improve consumer confidence. This can only be done by introducing a front-loaded budget. People will then know the worst is over and subsequent budgets, while bad, will not be as bad as this one. In this regard, I applaud a report over the weekend on the Fine Gael Party's view on public sector reform and its attitude to the Croke Park agreement, which it states it wants to work. It is important that everyone sees there is consensus on this matter.
To respond to issues raised by a number of individuals, including Senator Harris, as I have consistently stated, public sector reform is necessary. However, one should not forget that the reform process commenced 18 months ago when the talks that delivered the Croke Park agreement began. A moratorium on recruitment, the pension levy and salary cuts were introduced and accepted, however reluctantly. The reduction in public servants' salaries is delivering savings of €1 billion per annum, the pension levy is delivering savings of €800 million per annum and the savings arising from jobs not being filled since the introduction of the moratorium amount to €500 million per annum. Combined, these measures have produced savings of almost €2.5 billion or three times the annual cost of the benchmarking process, an issue which has repeatedly been raised. Public sector workers, as opposed to the public sector per se, have taken a reduction that delivers annual savings of €2.5 billion. It is equally important to remember that, notwithstanding the reduction in public service numbers, work on public sector reform is still being done, although more needs to be done. It is for this reason that the Croke Park agreement needs to be pushed forward.
The Tánaiste made an incorrect statement in the other House last week when she indicated that the plans from the various Departments would not be published. I checked this morning with the Department of Finance and the plans will be published. The performance indicators will be available and Senators will be able to monitor improvements.
The issue I raise relates to the dignity and relevance of the House. On 16 June last the Seanad debated the Health Service Executive, with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, present. At the time I stated the Government side had colluded with the Minister to help her to avoid answering questions during the debate. I expressed this concern twice and the Leader twice responded that I did not have reason to worry, as the Minister would return to the House. When I raised the issue on 22 June, Senator Feeney, the Acting Chairman, stated the Minister had taken detailed notes of the questions raised and had undertaken to reply to Senators when she next came before the House. The Leader indicated that the Minister had agreed to return to the House and would do so within two weeks. I did not believe the assurances I had been given and Senator Buttimer and I raised the issue again on the Order of Business on 6 July. The Leader responded that the Minister would return to the House the following week when the debate would resume. Nothing of the sort happened and when the debate resumed on 29 September, almost 15 weeks after it had commenced, the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, was in attendance. During the debate I did not receive a response to any of the issues I had raised with the Minister in June. When I raised this as a point of order, I was alarmed to learn from the Leas-Chathaoirleach that he could not direct the Minister to answer any questions. The important debate has acquired greater significance following the Minister's statement today that cuts of between €600 million and €1 billion will be made next year.
The debate in June addressed one of the few areas of public policy that attracts cross-party support and agreement, namely, the manner in which the Health Service Executive behaves. The questions many other Senators and I raised were important to many people. For instance, I referred to decisions to close services without an appraisal of the options, HSE decisions that had resulted in the Minister breaking her word, the impact the cervical cancer vaccine programme would have on those who normally relied on public health nurses and the waste of money by the HSE. The Minister has a duty to address the issues and should not be facilitated in dodging questions anywhere, least of all in this House. As the person in charge of the health service, I want her to be accountable to the Upper House. On this occasion, she was not accountable, which demeans the Seanad and defeats its purpose. It supports the case of those who argue that this House is irrelevant and a waste of taxpayers' money. It certainly was irrelevant on this occasion and certainly wasted money because it is estimated that the Seanad accounts for between 20% and 25% of the entire cost of the Oireachtas, which is upwards of €20 million annually. This means that it costs the guts of €200,000 per day to run the Seanad and if one makes a conservative estimate that a three-hour debate comprises one third of Members' average working day, then this Seanad debate costs €75,000, not including the hours of the Minister's staff. All that money and all that effort, which supposedly was directed to addressing matters of public concern, was completely wasted.
The House will have an opportunity tomorrow to debate the statement by the Minister for Finance in the other House on the ultimate cost of the banking crisis. It will be an important debate because it will answer some of the questions posed this afternoon by Senator Fitzgerald. The budgetary outlook, as outlined in the monthly Exchequer figures, has been more or less on track with regard to the expenditure and taxation that was forecast in the budget for 2009. The banking figures undoubtedly are the new difference between what was anticipated then and what must be dealt with now.
A further factor is that forecasts for economic growth must be revised downwards. Although such growth still will occur, this has happened because of the judgment that has been made on Ireland by international ratings agencies and this is the reality we must face. Like Senator O'Toole, I am grateful for the opportunity afforded to Opposition parties to go to the Department of Finance yesterday. The meeting between the leaders that will take place later this week, as well as possible other meetings with key spokespersons, will advance that process. If there is one message that must be sent from this House, it is that this budget, which Senator O'Toole has rightly stated must be front-loaded and after which the four-year budgetary strategy process needs to take a step-down approach, is one that will affect each citizen within the State and any attempt to pretend otherwise to the effect that there will be people who will not be affected by the decisions that must be made would not be honest.
When formulating as largely an agreed a process as possible, Members must ensure those who can take more of the brunt of such decisions do so. This is where the real political challenge will be.
As for other debates before this House, I seek an opportunity to examine some of the issues that have been raised with regard to the health debate. The figure of €600 million to €1 billion, while large in itself, constitutes 4% to 5% of the overall budget and if everyone is honest, these are the type of cuts that are envisaged across all Departments. Where real consensus exists is about the existence and the future of the Health Service Executive as the best body to deliver health services. It is on this issue that debate is required in this House, which might inform where real savings and improvements in the health service may be made in the coming years.
Members learned today that up to €15 billion in adjustments will be needed over the next four budgets - double the hole, double the pain. When will it stop? Where is the outrage? I second the amendment to the Order of Business tabled by Senator Fitzgerald. I again ask the Leader how long was the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, aware of this because it was not just yesterday. What kind of phoney Government does Ireland have? First there was the blanket guarantee, second there was NAMA and now a national consensus is what the Government needs to remain in office for another two years. The Government has let people down at every hand's turn, especially the Minister for Finance because he has got each prediction wrong. I seek the Leader's personal view on the need for an immediate general election because that would provide something honest and truthful. For a start, it would give a good news story to the international market.
The second issue I wish to raise with the Leader is the extent to which the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills is out of touch with the scale of unemployment among young teachers. I am shocked and galled that of 400 graduates from one of our teacher training colleges this year, only 30 are employed. The Tánaiste does not even need the public finances to be rectified to fix the mess over which she presides at present. When I met 40 young teachers yesterday, they told me the probation period for newly qualified teachers was being cut from five years to three and that there were no posts in which they could be on probation. That could be fixed with the stroke of a pen. Some principal teachers, including one I know of in Galway, are hiring retired teachers to cover for teachers on maternity leave. This is completely wrong and the Minister must intervene. By having such a spot one could allow a teacher to teach on probation. It is outrageous that the Minister would seek to amend legislation to allow unqualified teachers to teach when so many young teachers are on the dole. Let her get a grip. I call for an urgent debate on the matter to replace statements on the restructuring of the VECs.
This Chamber attracts much criticism from the media and the general public and the leader of one of the main parties wants to abolish it. I would like to report some positive news about it. First, I thank the Leader who receives more than his fair share of abuse. He responded promptly and proactively on the matter of employment in north Kerry which I raised last Wednesday. He said he would arrange an urgent debate on the issue the following day. That decision by him exercised many minds at high levels and before the day was out a statement had been issued on the ongoing problem by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. Next week officials from the Chief State Solicitor's office will meet legal representatives of the promoters of the project. This indicates great clarity on what was a big muddle, for which I thank the Leader.
Several months ago I raised the matter of pilfering in the postal service in Munster. There had been widespread reports of money and valuable items going astray in the post and the issue was picked up in the media. I am glad to report An Post engaged in covert surveillance of the service in Munster and last week newspapers reported that the surveillance had been fruitful, that at least one arrest had been made and a file sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. People are also finding that their post is getting to its destination. The House, therefore, can be useful to the public in practical ways and as such, we should not talk ourselves down.
Will the Leader arrange either a debate on the siting of the children's hospital or for the making of a statement by the Minister on the matter? At the beginning of this process I had a motion on the Order Paper looking for an international peer review of the site selection process and I was advised by consultants on the matter. However, my call was denied, although it would only have taken one month to complete the review. I recently heard a woman on radio telling how she had brought her son who had appendicitis to the Mater Hospital. Because of a function which was taking place in Croke Park she could not get down the North Circular Road and had to go all the way around, eventually reaching the car park. She then could not get into the accident and emergency department from that end and had to take her son all the way up Eccles Street, around by Berkeley Road and down the North Circular Road. By the time they got into the hospital he was very ill and his appendix ruptured before he got to the operating theatre.
We then saw the resignation of Mr. Philip Lynch who instanced a funding gap of €110 million, to which I have adverted. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, went on the airwaves to say one could not change the destination of a train once it had left the station. I advise her to visit Kingsbridge Station, renamed Seán Heuston Station, where one can catch trains the direction of which can be changed by a judicious use of the points system. One can travel to Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Tralee and Westport. The expert was not asked whether the hospital should be built on the Eccles Street site but whether it could be built there. The instance the Minister gave of Chicago is also misleading. The site of that hospital was the least positive and most negative factor in its development.
I am surprised by the support the Minister has been given by Mr. Frank McDonald. However, I am talking against myself to a certain extent, as it is important that the hospital is built. To be supported by Mr. McDonald when one of the crucial transport elements of the plan is the metro north project that he has devoted his entire career to sabotaging and undermining suggests a certain degree of confusion. It is important, therefore, that we have the matter clarified and, in the interests of our sick children, the hospital built at in the best site and with the maximum speed.
Last week I attended a full to capacity cross-party meeting at one of Dublin's historic sites. The meeting was addressed by Mr. James Connolly, the grandson of the illustrious patriot of the same name. It was an emotional and inspiring occasion and we were all conscious of the great legacy of tenacity and sacrifice we as a people had inherited. The significance of that legacy cannot be avoided in these challenging times. The meeting had been called to highlight the campaign to save the Moore Street buildings connected with the 1916 Rising and the signing of the surrender document. It was interesting to learn that the relatives of all of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising supported the campaign. We have an ideal opportunity to establish an historical and cultural centre that would lift the spirits of the people, particularly those who would visit it. It could be a major tourist attraction, but there are fears that the buildings will be desecrated. I ask the Leader to contact the Government about the buildings and, if necessary, introduce emergency legislation to save them. I also ask that they be integrated into any programme being planned to mark the centenary of the Rising. I beseach the Leader to treat the matter with urgency because it was evident at the meeting that the campaign had widespread support.
If the Green Party had not bounced the Taoiseach into seeking consensus, when was the Minister for Finance going to tell the people about the savage cuts coming down the tracks? The real political challenge for the Green Party and Fianna Fáil in the next seven weeks is to be as honest as possible with the public. For this reason, the Leader must arrange for the Minister and the Taoiseach to appear before the House. They will have to give up on the idea of making phoney budget speeches in the first week of September and instead begin to outline what is to happen in this country not only in the next 12 months but also in the next few years. Based on what the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, has said which is worthy of debate, we will see cuts of at least 15% in front-line services. That will entail reductions in home help services, the availability of nurses and equipment in intensive care units and for newborn babies. The cuts will be dramatic and before Senator Boyle looks sideways to suggest I am being silly-----
I might be working for longer than the Senator thinks. These economic matters have serious consequences for the people. We need to bring to an end the phoney games and begin to offer real figures and have proper discussions on the savage cuts coming down the line.
I call for a debate on the national minimum wage. I do not refer to the amount per se but to the fact that it is acting as a barrier to employment creation for a cohort of those seeking jobs.
The last increase in the minimum wage was on 1 July 2007 when it went from €8.30 to €8.65, a 35 cent increase. While that may not seem much, for every 100 hours of employment an employer provides, it is a €35 increase, and many small employers are providing 200 to 300 hours a week. One can do the sums to round that up to approximately €5,000 per year which this 35 cent will cost an average retailer, small business, pub or otherwise.
It is a competitiveness issue but it is also a case where employers are deciding not to employ and to run their businesses on the basis of providing a minimal service level to customers because they simply cannot afford to provide a full service. If employers were free to negotiate with prospective employees around rates below the national minimum wage, it could bring a very large number of new people into the workforce.
Obviously, in these negotiations such people would need to be protected by employment regulation orders and registered employment agreements if it is within a sector that is recognised by the sectoral agreements currently in place. With some consideration and sufficient protection given to those seeking employment, an arrangement could be entered into whereby, for a limited period of perhaps a year, people could be brought into the workforce at a rate below the national minimum wage, obviously with a view to their being on the minimum wage of €8.65 an hour within a given period. This would remove a significant barrier, act as an employment generator and give a huge boost to competitiveness for many employers who currently provide a sub-optimal level of service to their customers.
The Government announced late last year or at the beginning of this year that €7.5 billion was the adjustment needed in the public finances between 2011 and 2014. The IMF has adjusted that figure upwards and there are further adjustments given the lack of pick-up in economic growth. What this signifies is the wrong moves made at every turn by the Government on economic policy, where delays in taking decisions have stultified growth and depressed market conditions.
I welcome the co-operation which is taking place between the political parties. Given the crisis we are in, normal opposition politics is not on. It is incumbent on all parties to take their responsibilities and share in the policy formation that is necessary to get us out of this economic crisis.
The consensus which is emerging, and which I imagine will be on the broad parameters as distinct from the detail, is to be greatly welcomed. We know we have a national crisis and it is important from our point of view to play our part in the national interest. That said, I do not want the Government parties to think this is giving them political cover. There will be no net benefit to Fianna Fáil and the Green Party for what is happening. The wrong moves that have been made and the crisis we are in are of the Government's making. The electorate will remember who is responsible when the election comes.
On another issue, when we talk about consensus, there was a vote of the Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last week in regard to the Ombudsman's report on the lost at sea scheme. I hope there would be some consensus in this House and the Lower House in regard to that scheme, which was designed for two constituents of a former Minister with responsibility for fisheries. I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on this matter. We need to deal with it and we cannot reject out of hand a report of the Ombudsman on the matter.
The issue of the children's hospital was raised by my colleague, Senator Norris. I knew a mother on the Beara Peninsula who had got out of bed at 2.30 a.m. week after week to catch the train to Dublin and then take a taxi from Heuston Station to visit the old Crumlin Hospital with two sick children. Such people, whether on the Beara Peninsula, in Dingle, County Donegal or Dublin, are sicking of waiting for the new hospital. Please get on with it. I have no agenda, but it should be borne in mind that people living in rural areas want the new hospital to be built. Let us forget about the Dublin 4 agenda. When the woman from the Beara Peninsula arrived in Dublin, she did not care where the old hospital was, whether it was located in Tallaght, and her problem is replicated for other parents in remote and not so remote parts of rural Ireland. People living in my part of the country are sick of the debate on where in Dublin the new hospital should be located.
On the issue of hospitals, approximately 1,200 Irish trained nurses emigrate annually. How many non-EU nurses are working with the HSE and how many are working in private hospitals? Two of my sisters had to emigrate to train in the nursing profession and they are still abroad. I would hate to see a new generation having to emigrate. We train our nurses to degree level in best practice, but the majority of our newly trained nurses are leaving our shores for foreign climes. I do not want to give the wrong impression, but it sticks in the craw of some when they see that a large percentage of nursing staff are non-EU nationals. Is it a question of using cheap labour or special contracts? What are the facts and figures?
Senator O'Sullivan has referred to the fact that the Seanad received positive news this week because of his success last week. I have some positive news to relay also. On 19 May the Leader promised that I could introduce the Construction Contracts Bill today. He has kept his word and Committee Stage of the Bill will be taken today. This is very different from the situation in October two years ago when I introduced a Bill dealing with organ donation and the giving of presumed consent. That Bill was not put to a vote on Second Stage because the Minister said she would like to engage in public consultation on the issues involved. Some of the figures published this week by the Irish Kidney Association show that, once again, Spain is way ahead of other countries and just ahead of Portugal in terms of the number of organ donors per one million of the population at approximately 35. Ireland is in tenth place. What is important in this regard is not the rate of organ donation, but the number of transplants that take place following organ donations. In that context, Ireland is in 16th place. This means that some lives are lost because we have not reached a high enough level of transplants following organ donations. It is possible to do something about this. The opt-out system, the system proposed in the presumed consent Bill, would be worth accepting. The Minister said she would give serious consideration to it but wanted to engage in public consultation. I do not believe we need to engage in such consultation for two years; it could be done more rapidly. As lives are being lost, we could and should move more quickly on the issue. I, therefore, urge the Leader to press the Minister to move on it straightaway.
I agree with Senator Twomey. It is essential that the Government is open and honest with the Opposition parties and that a consensus develops. I note the Senator is now privy to the seriousness of the matter, having accompanied the Fine Gael finance spokesperson in the Dáil to the discussion. It is equally important that Senator Twomey and members of the Opposition in general also be open and honest. If a person highlights the fact that €1.5 billion or €2 billion is going to be paid in interest on the money that has been invested in the banks and if he or she does not believe this should be the case, he or she should outline his or her alternative. I do not know anyone on the Opposition benches who is promoting the idea that we should allow the country's finances to collapse.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on competitiveness. I am of the view that an issue arises in the context of the minimum wage, which is an inhibition to job creation in certain sectors of the economy. Members who are in contact with business people will be well aware that the joint labour council agreements which apply across many industries are a major obstacle to competitiveness. People have been made unemployed and some have been encouraged to enter the black economy as a result of these agreements. This matter must be addressed and the agreements must be set aside. It was fine to establish rates of pay in the good times. However, two or three years later we cannot afford those rates. This is similar to buttressing the salaries that obtain in the public service.
I agree with Senator Ó Murchú in respect of Nos. 15 and 16 Moore Street. It is essential that these two buildings be preserved, maintained and placed in public ownership in order that they will be there for future generations to see. It would be a travesty, in the run up to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, which ignited the War of Independence and led to our subsequent freedom from the British, if we did not give the utmost priority to preserving the heritage of the era to which I refer.
We are all in total shock with regard to the picture that appears to be emerging with regard to the current budgetary position, which is much worse than we were previously led to believe. Matters have reached such a pass that one is obliged to inquire as to whether the position was masked or whether we were misled by the Government in respect of it.
I welcome the briefings that are taking place as part of the current process. I agree with Senator O'Toole in respect of the need to front-load the budget in the interests of conveying certainty and restoring confidence. In that context, I would welcome it if the officials from the Department of Finance made all of the relevant information available to the Opposition. Everyone wants to be honest about this matter and there is a need for people to place their cards face up on the table. I ask the Leader to give a commitment for a full debate on this matter in the House when we reach the stage in the process where all will have been revealed.
Senator Fitzgerald's amendment relates to the health budget. I am referring to the overall budgetary position. It would not be possible to hold the debate I am seeking today. I ask that the Leader give a commitment to making time available for a debate on the budgetary position when the process to which I refer, and which may be ongoing for some time, has reached a more definitive point.
I support the calls by Senators Norris and O'Donovan that the new children's hospital be built and that the process should move forward. We started this debate over four years ago in this House and I thought it had all but been put to bed until we realised late last week there was a clash of personalities. As the Minister has said, we should leave personalities to one side and do what is best for the sick children of this country.
I know parents who travel from the four corners of our little country to come to Dublin. As Senator O'Donovan has pointed out, they do not care where in the city or the outskirts the hospital will be built. They just want good and proper facilities for sick children rather than treatment in antiquated buildings. They are very grateful for the medical personnel treating their children but why should they not have state-of-the-art facilities to treat their children? Quality and safety should be put before ease of access. I know parents who do not have private transport to take sick children to Dublin and they must avail of public transport. Everyone should be covered.
As I noted earlier, the debate is closed and the process has moved on. If we consider the McKinsey report we can see that the Mater site is well fit for the type of hospital to be built there. I have only seen plans in the newspapers and on television news programmes but it looks to be absolutely outstanding infrastructure. There will not be a country in Europe that could look in on us. If we let the issue go now by seeking a review, the money will be lost and the sick children of the country will lose out.
Consensus should mean agreement on the big unpopular decisions to be taken. There is a quid pro quo in this, which is surely that the Government must avoid playing any public relations games and allow access to the kind of quality information needed to assess the various decisions to be made over the coming months, even when that information may be used to make a case against the Government. That must be the true meaning of consensus - a free sharing of information and a genuine approach to the issues that seeks to judge different proposals on their merits.
It is true that severe cutting must take place but it would be madness not to continue with intelligent planning, as well as extra expenditure for areas where expense can be spared in the long term. I am thinking in particular about stroke care in Ireland, about which I have spoken before in this House. The Irish Heart Foundation commissioned an excellent report done by the ESRI and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland on estimating the annual economic cost of stroke. We can say that the jury is no longer out. It is quite clear that we can have better stroke care in this country, saving 750 people a year from either death or disability, while at the same time making some savings. If 650 people were to have access to acute stroke units, with another 100 people having access to thrombolysis, there could be a saving of €13 million. More than this, much unnecessary misery, heartbreak and disability could also be saved.
It is important to have the Minister in the House to speak on the topic. A decision must be made if the aim is to be realised to ensure adequate nursing staff to bring about the necessary change in the short term. There must be a certain ring-fencing of funding for stroke service developments. Just because we are talking about taking a great deal of pain in this country over the next number of months, it cannot mean that we close our eyes to any necessary extra expenditure in areas where lives and expenditure can be saved in the longer term.
Occasionally we get the opportunity to debate different issues and it is interesting that we got some clarification last week as a result of those debates. Sr. Mary MacKillop was in her day excommunicated because members of her order reported on child sex abuse and last week she was made Australia's first saint. There is no clearer indication from the Vatican as to where it stands on the issue. It would be useful to remember that in further debates in this House.
I ask the Leader for an ongoing debate on the opportunities to develop employment in the economy. Now that we are taking the necessary cuts and looking for consensus, which we are right to look for because the situation is serious but not impossible, we have the perfect opportunity in this House to identify regressive taxation or business opportunities that could and should be brought to the attention of the Minister. Perhaps the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation could spend some time on a regular basis in the House so we can debate those issues with him.
It is important that we remember that Government has a five year mandate. It is a mandate which it is expected to uphold through thick and thin. The ultimate date for the Dáil to end is 14 June 2012 and the Seanad 90 days thereafter.
If we are to solve the problem in our national finances and bring hope and confidence to our people three core ingredients are necessary. The first is the confidence of the people in the process. The people must be with the process and believe in it. To achieve that three things are necessary. First, the people must be told the truth. While yesterday was a step in the right direction it is reprehensible that there has been a tardiness in bringing the truth to the people.
It would not be generous of me not to say that Senator Harris made my second point before but it merits repeating and I have made it in the past. We will have to start by giving an example in the House. Top salaries are being paid in the country. Bonuses will have to go and top salaries will have to be cut. Confidence that the cuts are starting at the top must be instilled in people.
An audit of waste in the country will have to be done. This is the most serious point I wanted to make and I want the Leader to take it on board. If we began an audit of waste - I do not refer to front line services-----
I want a debate on this. We need to audit wasted public expenditure at an institutional level in semi-State bodies, quangos and the whole governmental process and an immense level of savings could be achieved. I am prepared, based on my work in my clinic, to document 25 areas of waste I encounter on a regular basis. That is necessary. We cannot talk about reductions in services and intrusions into the freedoms and rights of people until we establish that waste has been removed, that the cuts start at the top and that there is transparency and fairness about the whole process.
I join with others in welcoming the fact that some briefings have taken place over the past number of days. Following those briefings, I am glad to see that there is much agreement on the kind of work that needs to be done. Yet, I sense that we will spend another week discussing the indignation of what got us into the mess, which is perfectly understandable, and the depth of our problems. We must begin to focus on the solutions and start putting forward what we can talk about and what has to be talked about, namely, where the cuts can be made and usefully done and what are the suggestions.
I do not want front line health services to be cut. If 70% of the bill comprises pay, it is a no-brainer, unfortunately, and that is what we will have to talk about. I do not refer to the people who are paid the least, who are on the minimum wage or who are at the lower levels but rather those at higher levels. It is a simple fact of life. Of course we do not want to cut services but we must ask those who are paid the most how much less they can take in their wage packets and still maintain the same level of public sector services. It is as simple as that and it will have to be done.
None of us wants to impede upon the very good things that are coming forward in the Good Friday Agreement but we cannot continually ignore the elephant in the room. I agree with Senator O'Reilly-----
Senator Harris also mentioned it. It must be done as a matter of the utmost urgency. There will be a debate on banking in the House tomorrow and I hope Senators on both sides of the House can all stand up and say they think X or Y can be cut because that is what needs to be done.
I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Walsh who spoke on the joint labour council agreements on the pay rates for various trades and NERA. They involve policies which were introduced and legislative changes over the past number of years which are representative, unfortunately, of a different time. They were established to protect workers and ensure they were paid the correct rates. Now, because of the way things have gone, they are an impediment to the maintenance and creation of employment. We must debate them to see how we can reform these agreements and NERA to ensure they assist in the maintenance and creation of employment rather than being an impediment, which they are increasingly becoming.
I do not think anyone else is going to take a bet on that happening. I support calls by others for a debate on the extent of cutbacks in the forthcoming budget. We are getting a drip-feed of increasingly worse news about the true extent of the cuts which the Government intends to make, from €3 billion to €4 billion and now to €5 billion. While I, like others, very much welcome the sharing of information with the Opposition spokespersons, it is something that Deputy Joan Burton has sought for many months - indeed some years - to allow us to have informed debate about the scale of the crisis. As she stated, it is on an horrendous scale. We need a debate in order that we can have greater clarity about the true extent of the cuts, not only for the finance spokespersons but for all of us and for the people of the country who are being drip-fed this news that seems to get worse by the week. They are being kept in an almost deliberate state of intimidation and fear about the true extent of the crisis. As we are looking at a four year budgetary plan, it is very important that we are given greater clarity about the real state of the finances.
I join others in calling for a debate on health care, especially on the location of the children's hospital about which there is great controversy. There is public concern about what is happening to the funding and the true state of the plans. There are also concerns about the inadequacy of the proposed site at the Mater Hospital.
I commend the very brave and courageous young campaigner, Orla Tinsley, who has a very powerful piece in The Irish Times today.
She notes the good news that a contract has been signed for the provision of a new cystic fibrosis unit at St. Vincent's Hospital. We need a debate on the way we can best improve services more generally for those living with cystic fibrosis.
I support the call by Senator O'Donovan to discuss the reasons so many young nurses must emigrate while at the same time a number of non-EU professionals continue to occupy nursing positions in hospitals. While they are professional people and it was fine for them to do so in good times, I believe as a philosophy of life that we must look after our own first. Perhaps we should have a debate on why so many cannot find jobs in this country. They are fine young women and men who, despite having qualified through the CAO system, gone to college and obtained degrees, must emigrate. There is something not right about this.
I support Senator Ó Murchú on the preservation of the block of old buildings between O'Connell Street and Moore Street. Coupled with this discussion could be a debate on the placement of the Abbey Theatre which has been discussed for a long time. O'Connell Street is the way forward. It needs it now, especially for the republican image that all of us in the House have.
In my experience, this is a fair-minded assembly, except on the rare occasion on which it is gripped by party fever. I ask the House to put on its fair-minded apparatus to hear two points. I support the call of Senators O'Toole and O'Reilly for the brunt of any cuts to be borne by those parts of the public sector best able to bear them, and that means starting with ourselves. Far too many Ministers, from the Taoiseach down, are paid far too much with too many ministerial pensions and there are far too many fat cat civil servants retired on €155,000 and upwards. Let them bear the brunt first because no else is able to bear it. If there are any rich people left in Ireland, and there are some, they are not property developers because they are all in NAMA. With regard to whatever is to be divided out, looking objectively at the State one will see those best able to bear the burden are those in the upper echelons of the scale in permanent and pensionable employment. I am all for taxing the rich and the farmers, but after that one still needs to look at the public sector. Those of us in the political class should bear the brunt of it first by taking a cut.
I ask fair-minded Members of the House, particularly Senators Ó Murchú and Norris, to consider the gap between the treatment of the state of Israel and the great Russian Federation on the matter of passports. When the Israelis abused our passport, the Minister for Foreign Affairs made a song and dance about it. Hwever, when the intelligence service of the Russian Federation abused it, he was mute. One could understand it if officials in the Israeli Embassy were to show a certain cynicism as a result. They cannot express it, but I can. The gap in the behaviour of the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the case involving the Russian Federation and in that involving the Israelis can be measured by using four words - mendacity, double standards and hypocrisy.
He does not want to increase tax rates. He has chosen the third option, which is magic. If he can present a means by which the circle can be squared to the other House and this one, through his colleagues, he will be the Houdini of economics. We have been accused of drip-feeding information. I think everyone would say the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is giving the information as he receives it.
I also seek a debate on health, with specific reference to the children's hospital. We should recall a huge debate that took place in Manchester a number of years ago where people could not agree to amalgamate three hospitals into one. The three hospitals are still operating and the people of Manchester are worse off for it. I do not know whether it would make a huge difference if the new hospital was located a few miles one way or the other. We are all seeking the best health care system for our children. I would like to conclude by giving the House some good news, following the debate on Kenmare Community Hospital. Members will be glad to hear Glenbeigh Construction won the tender competition.
I would like to support what Senator Harris said about the Irish passport issue which I raised in the House last week. I compared the action taken against Israel with the lack of action against Russia. I asked for the Minister to be invited to come to the House to explain the action he intended to take. Regrettably, we have had nothing but silence to date.
Last Thursday night 75 prisoners took part in a major riot at Mountjoy Prison in which several prison officers and prisoners were injured. I take the opportunity to compliment our prison officers who do an excellent job in very trying circumstances. I have continually called for debates on the many issues relating to our prisons, including overcrowding.
The Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention has referred to such issues in his annual reports, but we have yet to be given an opportunity to debate the conditions in our prisons. The former Governor of Mountjoy Prison, Mr. John Lonergan, said yesterday that overcrowding was causing major problems in the operation of the prison. However, the Minister for Justice and Law Reform has contradicted that view. We need to debate the issue as a matter of urgency. I ask the Cathaoirleach to ensure such a discussion takes place at last.
I support what Senators Harris and Cummins said on the Irish passport issue. We need to show that this House has a balanced view of world affairs. Sadly, we are continuing to express a one-sided view of Israel, in particular.
Senator MacSharry's Freudian slip about the Good Friday Agreement has brought me to the point I would like to make. As I have said previously, peace on this island, to a reasonable degree, was achieved when the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland decided to work together. None of the parties in question lost its political flavour or position because they decided to work together in a spirit of consensus and co-operation. We have to approach the country's current economic plight in the same way. I am glad a degree of reality has become apparent with regard to the scale of our economic problems and we need to match it with a degree of political reality. The Leader must accept the concerns of Senators on this side of the House about the possibility that the Opposition will be walked into a political trap. As I have said repeatedly in the last 18 months, my guiding principle in this respect is the fact that the Government's political goose is absolutely cooked. I remind my colleagues that we do not have to consume that goose by this Christmas.
We need to set aside time to turn the economic ship of State around. I reiterate that the various parties could demonstrate political maturity by sitting down and agreeing a date for the next general election which I believe should take place early next summer.
Between now and then we should not have to worry about the views of certain Independent Deputies who are concerned about the parish pump rather than the country as a whole. We could debate the issues that need to be addressed and put in place the foundations for the reconstruction of the economy. I assure my Fine Gael colleagues, in particular, and everybody else on this side of the House that I am absolutely confident that when the election comes, the Government will be booted out of office. However, we first need to help to turn around the economy.
I join Senator Fitzgerald in calling for a debate today on the figures seen by the Opposition parties yesterday. I supported the idea of a consensus, involving the Opposition parties in getting their hands on the fine details from the Department of Finance. The figure of €3 billion in cuts came from the Government which has projected that the overall figure will be between €7.5 billion and €8 billion. We have been told today that it was suddenly learned over the weekend that the figure could be anything up to €15 billion. Was the Government deliberately hiding these figures? Were we to be given the figures at some stage in the future? We should have a discussion about them and the discussion should not take the form of a blame game, as somebody suggested. We need to know what the exact figures are and from where we are working. In advance of the budget we need to get a handle on the projected economic growth figure for 2011. The Government is projecting one figure, while the ESRI is projecting something else. It is obvious that the figure will have a significant impact when it comes to putting a budget together.
I agree completely with the point Senator Norris made about the national children's hospital. Like Senator O'Donovan and others, I have met the parents of children who have used the facility during the years. To a man and a woman, they all oppose the siting of the hospital at the Mater Hospital site. They are concerned about the various space and access difficulties associated with it, for example, with regard to car parking. We should have a full discussion on the matter as soon as possible.
I will make two brief points. Senator Phelan spoke about the widening deficit being faced by the country. The Opposition spokespersons on finance were given the role of communicating that information to the country yesterday. If this side of the House is willing to come forward to engage with the Government on the perilous state the country is in, the Government owes it to the Opposition and the people to provide clarity on the state of the public finances and the hole that needs to be filled. If the Government is to hope this process will work, it needs to reflect on the fact that Deputies Noonan and Burton had to perform that role yesterday. The Opposition is trying to respond in good faith to the fact that Ireland cannot afford to borrow on the money markets. I ask the Government to do the same. The most important 3% figure in this discussion is not whether we should borrow 3% of national income but whether the economy is growing at a rate of 3%. If that 3% level is reached, our budget difficulties will be reduced significantly. That is where a great effort needs to be made.
I acknowledge the presence of a former local authority member of long standing, Mr. Patsy Traynor, in the Visitors Gallery.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Prendergast, Boyle, Healy Eames, Twomey, Regan, Walsh, Coghlan, Mullen, Hanafin, O'Reilly, MacSharry, Bacik, Harris, Daly, Prendergast, Phelan and O'Donovan outlined their serious concerns about the state of the economy and the changes proposed in every Government portfolio.
I compliment Fine Gael on taking its Seanad finance spokesperson to the Department yesterday. It was very important that the Seanad was represented by Senator Twomey. I hope the Labour Party will follow the example set by Fine Gael when it goes back to the Department because this House has a serious contribution to make. I fully encourage spokespersons to be centre stage in regard to the briefings and in the national interest in terms of what must be done.
Senator Fitzgerald called for a debate with the Minister for Health and Children on the challenges facing the Department of Health and Children. I have no difficulty arranging such a debate in the coming days, weeks or as soon as we can arrange a date in the Minister's diary. The Minister has always been very forthcoming in coming to the House. While I agree with much of what Senator Prendergast said, the Minister has come to the House on at least three occasions over the past three years and has briefed it on the up-to-date position. We want the up-date-proposals now that the figures are emerging. Serious challenges face the Department of Health and Children, in particular.
We have had statements on the economy over the past two weeks and we will have statements tomorrow on the Minister for Finance's announcement on banking of 30 September 2010. That can take place every week until Christmas if needs be because the situation is changing week by week and this House must play an important role and be centre stage, as has been stated by colleagues. I have no difficulty arranging that. In fact, at our leaders' meeting before the Order of Business, we discussed how we would meet this challenge and place this House centre stage and ensure the Government was well aware of the views of Senators.
Senator Boyle referred to the cost and the operations of banking. We all know the banking crisis has caused this. As I said last week and the week before last, when we watch the BBC or Sky, we see the challenges the British Government faces. In the main, it is following our example. We now hear many of the one line phrases we heard from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance over recent months being uttered in the House of Commons. This is not only a challenge which the Irish Government faces; it is a worldwide one. The Government has been exemplary in facing that challenge.
The figures have been made available to the Opposition parties and I am uplifted and heartened by the responsible way in which they are treating the serious situation in which this nation finds itself. Everything is being done in the national interest. Nothing, including person or party, comes before the national interest. All colleagues have been exemplary in ensuring that happens. If anyone or any party wants an update with the Minister, I will endeavour to do everything possible to ensure it happens because it is in the national interest.
I thank Senator Ned O'Sullivan for his words. I took very seriously the issue he raised last week in regard to the possibility of 500 to 1,000 jobs in the north Kerry area. I also thank the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for responding so efficiently and effectively. I am very pleased to hear this House made a difference in bringing everyone together this week so that this proposal can progress and these jobs can be put in place as soon as possible. I noted what the Senator said on the postal services.
Senators Norris, O'Donovan, Feeney and Bacik referred to the national children's hospital. I have no difficulty arranging for the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to give an up-to-date assessment on progress on the Mater Hospital site. Senator Phelan expressed a concern about the site. I have never met a Kilkenny man who did not know where Croke Park was. The people, including people living outside Dublin, want the state-of-the-art facility for our sick children now. As Senator Feeney said, anyone who watched television over recent nights will have seen that the proposal for the Mater Hospital site is world class. It is a state-of-the-art facility. Let us start the process with the €450 million. The remaining €200 million will be found over the next few years. It would be wonderful to see the hospital opened for the 100th anniversary of 1916 in 2016. The people of the north side of Dublin deserve investment of this nature. If one's child is sick, one would not be too long finding out where the hospital with state-of-the-art facilities is located.
Senators Ó Murchú, Walsh, Ormonde, Daly and Phelan referred to the historic Dublin site of 15 and 16 Moore Street where the historic document was signed in 1916. I have signed petitions on two occasions in my political career. I was honoured and privileged to be invited to sign a petition for the retention of the historic buildings of 15 and 16 Moore Street where the leaders of 1916 made an historic decision and signed that document. Any man or woman worth their salt would sign such a petition. I will do everything possible to ensure the Government takes these buildings into its ownership and has them restored for the 2016 celebrations.
Senator Quinn referred to his Private Members' Bill, the Construction Contracts Bill. He proposes to move Second Stage after the Order of Business and I fully support him in that. I will see what I can do in regard to his other Bill, the Human Body Organs and Human Tissue Bill 2008, which is No. 18 on the Order Paper. I will get an up-to-date position on that and will revert to the Senator.
Senator Hanafin referred to the first Australian saint and the clarification from the Vatican on where it stands on child abuse. I support his views in that regard. He also correctly stated that the date of the next general election can be up to 14 June 2012. If the Eucharistic congress date was close to that, it may be extended for one month, which would be very understandable.
Would it not be wonderful if the Holy Father took the opportunity to come to Ireland for the Eucharistic congress? It would uplift our people. We would all see the light of day in regard to the cold facts and the people could vote for the party that met the challenge to be faced.
In response to Senator Bacik who also inquired about the date of the general election, it will give everyone an opportunity and time to decide on what constituency he or she will stand for election in. I refer to those of us in marginal constituencies such as Longford-Westmeath and Meath West, into which the commission has moved me. Senator Bacik finds herself in the same position. It will give us all time to make up our minds in that regard.
Senators Harris, Cummins, Bradford and Daly expressed serious concerns about protecting the integrity of the Irish passport. On the abuse that has taken place, we must support the Minister in everything that he and the Department are trying to do.
I join Senator Daly in welcoming the good news in his home town of Kenmare in respect of the Kenmare hospital project. Yesterday we saw the value of having an Oireachtas Member in one's home town as we viewed on "Six One News" and "The Nine O'Clock News" the Cathaoirleach and the Taoiseach at the opening ceremony.
In calling again for a debate on the prisons Senator Cummins complimented the Irish Prison Service. We can all fully agree with him. I have given a commitment in that regard. We will have a debate on the prisons in the coming weeks.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 23 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Eoghan Harris, Fidelma Healy Eames, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey)
Against the motion: 29 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, James Carroll, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Mark Dearey, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Paschal Mooney, Niall Ó Brolcháin, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Feargal Quinn, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paudie Coffey and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Niall Ó Brolcháin and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost