Tuesday, 2 November 2010
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re report of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Sport, Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs entitled, 20 Year Strategy on the Irish Language 2010–2030, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 6.45 p.m., if not previously concluded, on which spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for eight minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments.
I again note that the schedule for this week does not feature legislation. Will legislation be available to the House before the Christmas break? Does the Government intend to introduce any?
The cost of borrowing for Ireland continues to increase and has reached record highs again today. As the Deputy Leader is aware, there is a sense of great uncertainty internationally as far as Ireland is concerned. The country features in the headlines in today's edition of the Financial Times and many other news items focus on uncertainty about us. This uncertainty has been fed by the resignation of Deputy Jim McDaid who in his letter of recognition states that where the Government has made decisions, it has invariably pursued the path of least resistance, focusing on what is politically possible rather than what is economically necessary.
It has been repeatedly pointed out in this Chamber that the Seanad must discuss the difficult decisions that will be made. In that regard and in the light of recent publicity concerning third level registration fees, has the Government taken a decision on the matter? Will the Deputy Leader inform the House what is the Green Party's position on the issue of registration fees?
The issue of a referendum on children's rights has been raised again. I was astonished last week to hear the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, state that if the referendum had been passed and the constitutional amendment made, it would not have been relevant to the case discussed last week. I fundamentally disagree with his view. It is impossible to state retrospectively whether passing a referendum and enshrining children's rights in the Constitution would have affected practice. The Minister of State's comments on the issue were unacceptable. Is the Government serious about holding a referendum on children's rights?
With the key decisions due to be taken in the next few weeks, the possibility of bringing forward the budget has been mooted. The vacuum that has been created regarding the budget has left people concerned, fearful, upset and unsure of how to plan their household budgets. Has the Government considered bringing forward the date of the budget to deal with the grave uncertainty affecting individuals and families?
I have bored the House in recent weeks by referring daily to the Croke Park agreement and the lack of political traction in making it work. I compliment the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, on being the first Minister to give political traction to it. This issue must be closely scrutinised. I have listened to people who have criticised the agreement and suggest it cannot work, will not bring savings or efficiencies and will not happen. I listened to Deputies Noonan and Burton state correctly after they had emerged from the Department of Finance last week that nothing had been saved under the agreement thus far. It appears as though one Minister has come up with a plan to reduce numbers in the public service by up to 5,000 that will result in savings of €200 million or more a year. The agreement should deliver €1 billion in savings a year and reduce public sector numbers by approximately 20,000. The proposal made would go one quarter of the way towards achieving this. However, if people can only find problems in response to it, we are going nowhere. If politicians cannot discern that this is the road forward, there is no basis for them to seek the levers of power. Moreover, those who think it takes four weeks to make a decision should not be allowed to vote. It seems clear that this is something that must be done. Certain measures must be taken.
The HSE should put in place an advice line to provide advice and support on a number of issues, including taxation, social welfare and pension arrangements. It should also arrange to hold retirement seminars and similar stuff. Such a mechanism must be put in place in order that people will have all of the facts available to them. However, I ask colleagues to think about this point. When one hears about the problems this will create, it points to what is required under the Croke Park agreement, namely, flexibility and mobility, as well as financial and quality control. These are the measures that must be taken and they must and will be delivered in the current financial year. That was the thinking from the outset and this proposal would take us one quarter of the way. However, if politicians consider this to be too much, we are going nowhere.
It is also a response to those who talk about the Croke Park agreement as something from which we should walk away. If it is done properly, it can deliver savings of €1 billion a year, as well as efficiencies and a reduction in numbers. It can be done voluntarily with the support of all the partners involved. It would be ironic were we to get that far with all of the people involved, yet at the same time fail to get political support for it. I want to hear what other Departments have to offer at this point. Members must support this measure rather than find problems with it. While, of course, there will be difficulties, this is the way forward.
It is not a valid form of protest. This is a democracy and people will have a chance to show their contempt for the Government at the ballot box. The resignation this morning of the former Minister, Deputy McDaid, is a sure sign, with four by-elections now outstanding, that the Government is coming apart at the seams. It is interesting that the Deputy Leader is taking the Order of Business because it is being reported in the newspapers that his party is being pushed into accepting an increase in student registration fees of almost 60% or €20 a week. This will push many students out of college and onto the dole.
The coalition is also at odds on matters such as climate change legislation, despite the Deputy Leader's assurance that the House would see such legislation. Moreover, although Members have also received assurances regarding legislation to hold the Dublin mayoral election, as a previous speaker noted, there is no such legislation on the Order Paper again this week. How long can the Green Party hang in there when it is clear that it is being pushed around and not delivering on its agenda? As Independent Members are also getting very nervy, there are clear signs the Government is coming apart at the seams.
This cannot come soon enough because this morning the rate for Ireland's bond yields rose to more than 7.2%; the difference between Ireland's bond yields and those of Germany is now almost 5%. Clearly, the international markets have no confidence in the Government. Confidence must be restored and the only way to do this is through the provision of a fresh mandate, which would require a general election. I speak to many people, including tradesmen, farmers and teachers, in my native county of Meath, all of whom have nothing but contempt for the Government. They are angry with it and frustrated, but rather than take action by throwing buckets of paint over some hapless and ineffectual Minister, they must do so at the ballot box. This should happen soon.
I agree no progress is made, particularly by a public representative, in throwing paint over anyone. If that is the level at which local democracy is being exercised, it is a very bad reflection on the whole electoral process.
It is interesting to note the rush to calling for a general election, while we do not see proposals on the table. What would others offer that would be so much better, directed better or guaranteed to save us from the IMF and other bodies with which we are being threatened?
With regard to the Croke Park agreement, it has taken much co-operation to get us to this point. It is important that those who signed up to the agreement realise to what they have signed up. We, the Members of these Houses, will have to make difficult decisions in the next number of months, but they have made difficult decisions, too, and must stand over them. Rather than sit on the fence and talk out of both sides of their mouths, they must stand over what they have agreed to. There are many examples of where that is not happening.
I ask for another debate on road safety, as we head towards the darker winter nights. I have been talking about the dangers posed by pedal bicycles that are not lit and traffic islands that need reflective cat's eyes to make them visible. These are simple measures that would save lives during the winter. It is important, therefore, that we have a debate on the matter. When one raises it with the National Roads Authority, one is told it is the responsibility of local authorities which state it is the responsibility of the Road Safety Authority which authority sends one off around the circuit again.
I mention the tragedy that occurred in my constituency in the last 48 hours and ask others to join us in our prayers that the body of the person missing will be recovered. That would bring closure to what is a very sad case.
Vis-À-vis what Senator Fitzgerald said, the letter is in the public domain and Deputy McDaid refers to matters of public importance. Last Thursday morning I asked the Deputy Leader to explain why the budget could not be brought forward and he gave me an answer. I wonder if he will give me the same answer today. I support what Senator Fitzgerald said in that regard. There will be a vacuum and a lack of certainty. We know what the bond yield levels are and need to bring them down. As I said last Thursday, the forthcoming budget will be an integral part of a four year plan and decisions will already have been made on it. Why delay further and allow a vacuum and uncertainty to continue when so much is dependent on what will be contained in the budget? It should be brought forward, for the sake of the country. I will be interested to hear the Deputy Leader's reply today.
Over the weekend we were disturbed to be reminded by one of the Sunday newspapers of the frightful accounting and banking scandal involving the loan of €7.4 billion given by Irish Life & Permanent to Anglo Irish Bank in 2008. The former chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank, Mr. Denis Casey, is alleging that the Financial Regulator, the Central Bank and the Department of Finance were aware of the loan in advance and that there was a certain connivance among them. Their attitude was, "Let us wear the green jersey, lads, because we are all playing on the one team and doing very well." There is now an allegation that the chairman of Anglo Irish Bank was asked to stay on to assist politically. I would like to hear what the Deputy Leader has to say on this matter which needs to be cleared up. It is a huge scandal which, presumably, is still under investigation by the Garda. I would like to hear the Deputy Leader's appraisal of the matter.
I support what Senator O'Toole said. Like him, I completely bought into the Croke Park agreement, on which we had a wonderful debate in this Chamber. I stand with him in complimenting the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, on the blueprint she has given to every Department, either before the budget or immediately after it. Every single Member of the Seanad has sought reform of the HSE. Before its establishment, we sought reform of the old health boards. We have all been critical at one stage or another of how the health boards operated. When the HSE came into play, the staff were just transferred over and there was no reduction in numbers. Now, when we have a very good blueprint to be more lenient with that staff and to pare it back, people are pouring cold water on it. It is not a compulsory scheme, it is optional. People can opt into it or not go near it. It is an excellent scheme and one that we, as Members of the Oireachtas, should promote and encourage.
With regard to one of Senator Coghlan's points, we all read the Sunday and daily newspapers. There is a lot of scaremongering, untruth, innuendo and rumour being peddled in the newspapers.
These are serious and difficult times and we have to try to face them in the most constructive way possible. It is not helped by the fact the level of political discourse in this country has reached a very significant low. There is no respect that I can see for any person connected with politics. I listened to Deputy Michael Noonan being interviewed on "Morning Ireland" just a few days ago. I was horrified by the way in which he was barracked, interrupted and abused. This is a senior former Minister and someone who will probably occupy a very important position. That level of discourtesy is inappropriate.
It is time we reintroduced some measure of courtesy into our political discussions, if for nothing else than to respect the people who elected our representatives. It is partly this kind of debasing of political debate that has led to these extreme incidents, such as the appalling example of the Minister, Deputy Mary Harney, being attacked with red paint. People could be blinded by that. I remember that eggs were thrown at people during the last election. There was a case in the past year where a person lost the sight of one eye through an egg being thrown. An egg may appear quite a silly thing but it can do a fair amount of damage. This is completely wrong.
While I happen to disagree with the Minister, Deputy Harney, on a number of issues and I have made this plain, that is the level at which it should be maintained. It is surprising it has taken this long to discover there was excess administrative capacity in the HSE. This will have to be addressed very carefully and managed properly or it will backfire. Let us at least show some degree of courtesy in our public discourse.
The other matter I wish to raise is the extraordinary fact of the contradictory items contained in many of the newspapers. The Irish Examiner reports that a significant academic report has demonstrated that alcohol is a more damaging drug than either heroin or crack cocaine but the same page carries a call from the drinks industry to drop tax by 20% and abolish VAT. I do not know from where these people are coming. These kinds of contradictions should be exposed in debate in this House.
I concur with Senator Norris's point on levels of courtesy. It has come to a sorry pass that people are treated so discourteously. I read in one of the newspapers that a person intended to throw everyone from the door when the election was called. This is terrible. If people stand for office, they deserve a level of respect. What is the difference between a person who stood and was elected and one who is choosing to stand for the first time? We need to help bring a level of courtesy. People need to think about what they are doing when they damn all politicians in the same way. On that subject, I am not one bit surprised that Deputy McDaid is retiring. In this game, you are damned if you do, and damned if you do not.
I was very interested in what Senator O'Toole had to say about the Croke Park agreement.
It is one of the most critical matters we are facing. Everyone in this House has stood up to say there are far too many in management in the health service and that we need to streamline it. Contrary to what Senator Hannigan believes, we have a dynamic Minister. If any of us has quarter the opportunity she has had to serve this country, and if any of us does quarter of what she has done, he or she will have a proud reputation to hold on to.
The Minister has decided to move swiftly on the question of the Croke Park agreement. While I am sure the Minister's schedule is tight, I am sure she has been negotiating with the unions behind the scenes on achieving change for many long months. Change is here at last. I ask the unions and employees to outline what the Croke Park agreement means to them and how it can deliver a modern, adaptable service that will safeguard front-line services. We are all watching with interest to see how this happens.
Like my colleagues, I strongly condemn what happened yesterday to the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. The biggest wonder about it is not the actual event but, unfortunately, that it has taken so long to happen. We acknowledge time and again in this House the desperate state of the economy. Let us consider what the bond markets are saying today. Colleagues have already touched on the fact that the bond yields have increased beyond 7%. Today the financial markets believe there is a chance of approximately 40% that Ireland will default on its debt next year. Those are the figures. The fear within the financial markets is felt to the bones by the people we serve.
We talk of the need for politicians to be respected. We are in circumstances in which the political system, and the Government in particular, must regain respect. It must do so in two ways. First, the budget the Government is considering should be brought forward. If the markets do not have time to understand what the budget is and how it fits in with an overall strategy, there is a greater chance of it being misinterpreted and of there being no calm deliberation thereon. We would then end up in a perilous place in January.
The second way involves the entire political system. While I know responsibility sits with the Government, I believe that if any Member on this side of the House says he or she is against something, he or she will have to state what he or she would do differently. We will have to do this because the problems will not go away. If there is a new Government in place tomorrow, a fresh mandate, of itself, will not solve the difficulties we are in. There must be clear willingness to say what will be done differently. Otherwise we will add to the problem rather than take away from it.
Will the Deputy Leader invite the Minister to the House to discuss the tendering process which seems to militate against small businesses and manufacturers? I refer also to education. Senator Donohoe stated a change of Government would not bring a change of policy. I listened to an interview with Deputy Quinn of the Labour Party yesterday. He was asked five times to state his party's policies on education. He was asked if the party would increase the registration fee but he did not say whether he would. All he said was: "Put us in power and we will see what happens." That is basically all he said. If one wants to check the tapes, one may do so.
What beggars belief is that the Labour Party is asking people to trust it. We will have a debate on the Labour Party's education policy if the Leader allows it because the party does not seem to have one other than saying: "Trust us; give us enough seats and we will see what happens." There needs to be a debate on third level education.
Since I became a Member of Seanad Éireann, I have raised the subject of the number of administrative staff within the HSE on many occasions. It is good that there is going to be a reduction in that number. However, the timeframe of 17 days in which people will be obliged to make a decision on such an important issue is extremely short. There is an element of suspicion with regard to why this process must be completed with such haste. We do not have exact figures in respect of how many administrative staff are actually employed by the HSE. The figure tends to vary from two for every one member of front-line staff to seven for every such member of staff. There is a need for a very real evaluation with regard to the actual number of administrative staff within the HSE.
It will be important to ensure that an element of corporate memory is retained in areas where there is a large take-up in respect of the early retirement and voluntary redundancy schemes. We cannot allow there to be deficiencies in respect of services, particularly in instances where vacant positions will not be filled. People will have 17 days in which to reach a decision and then a further couple of weeks will be devoted to evaluating the process. It is simply not feasible that this can all be done within the month of December.
I do not agree with what happened in respect of the Minister for Health and Children yesterday. I do not believe offering a protest in the way we witnessed yesterday would be acceptable in any civilised society. However, the Minister came before the House on numerous occasions to take statements in respect of the HSE and she never referred to the fact this major element of reform was on the cards. She never discussed this matter or put out feelers in respect of it. Neither has she given people who work in the health service time to consider what is about to happen. The drip feeding of information relating to budgets, borrowing levels and the dire straits in which we find ourselves is very similar to the time limit that is being given to people in order that they might make life-changing decisions. The amount of time being provided is simply not adequate. While I fully support the Croke Park agreement, a realistic timeframe must be provided in order that a proper debate might take place.
I wish to request a debate on the subject of reducing VAT as a stimulus measure. I am particularly interested in the reduction of VAT to 5% in respect of energy upgrades, repairs, maintenance and improvements to private dwellings. A move such as that to which I refer is allowable under the sixth EU VAT directive. There would be five benefits to a move of this nature, namely, it would lead to the creation of jobs, a reduction in domestic fuel bills, stimulate activity in the construction sector, be of assistance in tackling the black economy and - I know the Deputy Leader will be in agreement with regard to this aspect - enable the Government achieve its targets in respect of reducing carbon emissions.
I submitted my proposals in respect of this matter to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, this morning, and to the Cabinet, this afternoon, in order that it might be debated. I accept there is a back-and-forth element to discussions in this Chamber but there is no doubt that Members must put forward specific ideas and stimulus measures for the forthcoming budget. I hope the Deputy Leader will take on board my request for an urgent debate on this matter.
Those of us who come from a business background are always surprised with regard to the length of time it takes for the Government and the public sector to move. The Croke Park agreement came into being approximately five months ago. In such circumstances, it seems that a long time passed before the Minister for Health and Children made her announcement to the effect that numbers in the HSE are to be reduced by 5,000. I wish to correct Senator Prendergast who stated that people would only have 17 days in which to make a decision. I understand that, overall, there will be a period of 30 days in respect of the acceptance of applications.
A huge number of jobs in the public sector could be removed from the system. In that context, one need only consider the number of quangos that are in existence. Sir Philip Green was appointed by the British Prime Minister to carry out a review of government spending and procurement. He said he could save £20 billion with the number of quangos he would reduce. There is a need for us to grab hold of things. A sense of urgency is needed, as is a sense that we are going to move on it and can do it. Senator Fitzgerald was correct. The sooner we get decisions such as the budget, the better. I do not know if it is possible to move the budget any earlier, but the sooner we can do it, the better. I have a concern that if there was an election, the longer it was delayed the more questions would arise as to the policies of those who will be elected. I would love to hear the Labour Party policy and to hear it say what it will do because there will be more doubt the longer the question is not answered.
There is a sense of urgency, not just at Government level but also in Opposition. That should happen.
I was delighted to see a proposal that the cruise ships coming to Dublin should come in to the centre of the city or further up the river. It is a smashing idea. I was in Cobh quite a lot and 53 cruise ships came into it last year. They come into the centre of the town and passengers can step off into it. The cruise ships which come to Dublin are stuck outside, far beyond the toll bridge. It is possible to bring them in. There may be a vested interest in asking whether they can be brought into a particular location, but it would mean that tourists on those cruise ships could come into the city. That is something that does not cost money. We can and should move on it immediately.
With 1 million people over the age of 65 now living on the island of Ireland, there are challenges and opportunities. The fact that we are living much longer is a cause for celebration, a tribute to human progress, better diet, better housing standards and a better standard of living and to the genius of medical science. Older people today - I speak to the Gallery - are more active-----
------by Martin Donnellan, retired Assistant Garda Commissioner, entitled "We all too often fail to see the benefits that come with experience". Senator Feeney spoke about 5,000 people being given the choice of optional retirement in the HSE. I once again call for people to have choice and not be forced into retirement at 65 years of age. It is a denial of the human rights of older people that they do not have a choice. As I have said many times in this Chamber, in my document, A New Approach to Ageing and Ageism, I have 28 recommendations which spell out the ambitions and the way we should treat older people. I would like to read recommendation 28.
I join Senator O'Toole in welcoming the decision of the Government to introduce a voluntary redundancy scheme in the HSE. I remind Senator O'Malley that the Government is making it up as it goes along. The Government has been in place for 13 years and has shrunk from and funked every opportunity to have real reform of the public service. I ask the Deputy Leader to send a message today to the CPSU that the half hour allocated for banking should be done away with and let it get into the real world. We are all in this together but that type of propaganda does not do us any good.
I ask the Deputy Leader whether the Minister, Deputy Harney, will come to the House to make a statement on her proposal? As a proud public service advocate, it is important that she enshrines in the new deal that there will not be redeployment back into the scheme and that people who take the redundancy package cannot be redeployed in the HSE or elsewhere. Let us have real reform in the public service. It is important we protect the jobs which are there because, as I said before in the House, we should not have the public versus private war which certain Members of this House want to have.
I also ask that we examine the possibility of bringing the budget forward. There will be an interregnum between the publication of the four-year strategy and the budget and if you listen to the commentary today on every radio programme and read every newspaper, despite what Senator Feeney believes, the people are afraid. They are in trepidation. They are also incandescent with rage. They blame everyone, the Government in particular which has been asleep for 13 years and which has made a monumental mistake in this country. That said, it is important to reassure not only the markets but also our people and give them hope and optimism. The people do not see it from Deputy McDaid today, nor from the Government and nor from the benches opposite.
I support and commend Senator Carroll on his proposal into which he has put a great deal of work. It is innovative and creative and is the kind of issue to which everyone in this House should be dedicated at present. It is thoughtful in the context that one rarely seeks - certainly, the Department of Finance is nervous about it - to reduce VAT as a means of stimulus. Senator Carroll has shown through his research, however, that with the use of the Sixth EU VAT Directive, such a measure is permissible and has proven in other countries to create employment, not least in helping our environment in terms of retrofitting many buildings. It would give adequate stimulus. I ask the Deputy Leader to make time available in order that we can discuss the merits of it as a matter of urgency.
Another proposal which I have made to this House in recent times in the context of forthcoming actions in trying to deal with the economic crisis was to see whether the Government could introduce a change in order that the Irish Government bond yield rather than the German yield curve would be the valuation benchmark for Irish pensions. Currently, pension funds are required to use German bond yields when calculating the minimum funding standard or current valuation of future liabilities of pensions.
This development would bring two benefits. First, it would create additional demand for Irish bonds from Irish pension funds. As Members may be aware, less than 15% of Irish debt is owned by Irish sources. Second, it would improve the solvency of specific funds by enabling them to discount their future liabilities at the higher Irish bond rates rather than the lower German bond rates. Reports in recent weeks state this could increase demand for Irish debt and Irish bonds by up to €10 billion and, as anyone who has seen the yields this morning at up to 7.3% will testify, we certainly need that in this country. At 15%, the amount of debt owned by Irish institutional interests is very low. In Spain, it is expected to be 90% at the end of the year. Rather than being ultra-conservative as it so often is, the Department of Finance needs to follow the industry and the calls of others, including myself and other Members of this House, and take the appropriate action in this regard.
I congratulate the Minister for Health and Children in bringing in the first set of real reforms to the public sector. I understand what Senator O'Toole is saying but I must say some of the unions are stretching the credibility of the Croke Park deal to a great extent. First, SIPTU's demonstration on Monday night last in Letterkenny to protect the local hospital does not argue that they are in the business of structural reform which they will be required to do under Croke Park.
As for the public sector unions which are putting question marks over the Minister's proposed reforms, let me give them a reality check. After the last budget, public sector workers on €35,000 a year saw their salaries reduced by 4.17%. By contrast the private sector workers in the same period on €35,000 a year saw their salaries reduced by 61.7% if they were made redundant. A public sector worker on €75,000 a year had his or her salary reduced by over 4%. Private sector workers, on the same salary of €75,000, thrown out of work would see their salary reduced by 78%, and they do not have pensions. When Senator Buttimer speaks about Members in this House fomenting trouble between the public and private sectors, the facts provide the trouble. It is like when one condemns the Provos in Northern Ireland one is not contributing to the peace process. The facts show that there are very fat public sector workers and very poor private sector workers without pensions, and that is the reality.
We should not have to beg managers who have no work to do in the public sector to reform and to move on. When there are 400,000 people out of work, are we seriously expected to pay workers to move from one secure job to another in the public service, to pay teachers to accept an authentic performance management system and an exit process to move incompetent teachers out of the system, to pay psychiatric nurses to move from Victorian hospitals to modern health care systems and to compensate air traffic controllers for doing a job with the flexibility long ago given by the private sector? In other words, does the private sector not have a right to demand a reality check from the public sector?
I support the suggestion made by Senator MacSharry on the excellent document prepared and submitted to the Government by Senator Carroll. I support calls to have a debate on it next week in advance of the budget. It is an extremely well worked out document, the kernel of which is a proposal to reduce the VAT rate to 5% on the reconstruction of houses. There is approximately €100 billion in savings, some of which could be released into the system to upgrade the quality of houses. A reduction in the VAT rate to 5% would generate an enormous amount of building work. I compliment the Green Party and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on the insulation of houses which has been an extremely successful campaign which has resulted in the creation of jobs. This is a very worthwhile proposal which should be teased out in the House. Rewiring is required in numerous houses as what is in place dates back to the 1950s and 1960s; in fact, some houses are in a dangerous condition. If the proposal was adopted by the Government it would create more funds.
It would be worthwhile to have a debate in the House on the university sector. As far as I can see, most lecturers spend more time appearing on RTE and Newstalk programmes than they do in lecture chambers. It is time we looked at this. I understand the children of all university staff can avail of free fees. Perhaps Senator Bacik can confirm this.
I agree with the overall approach adopted by my colleagues, Senators O'Toole and Donohoe, to the announcement made yesterday by the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and the budgetary difficulties facing the Government and the country. I certainly welcome what was announced yesterday. We all wish it happened earlier and that reform had commenced sooner. However, to use a cliché, we are where we are and I hope what the Minister for Health and Children has commenced in her Department will spread to other Departments and that the same level of flexibility and innovation which she is seeking can be entertained throughout the public sector. There is a formula under the Croke Park agreement and it is one my party fully supported from early on. The agreement provides for sensible and manageable reductions in numbers throughout the public sector. Without it happening in the very near future, the country will be declared economically bankrupt.
We have to listen to what the bond markets and financial markets are stating. As late as today, there is not sufficient confidence in economic policy, or perhaps political policy from the Government or even the body politic, and it is virtually impossible now for Ireland to borrow the resources it needs. Last week I pointed out that on 1 January or thereabouts the country would require a borrowing figure of almost €19 billion to allow it to be run and managed next year. Unless the politics and economics are corrected before 1 January, we will not get the money we need. We are almost at the edge of the cliff. Senator Donohoe is correct to state politicians must show realistic leadership. We have a few weeks to turn around the ship of State.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. Senators should read Deputy Gilmore's speech in which he set out clearly the parameters of the Labour Party's economic policy and that in the budget we would favour a 50:50 split between taxation and revenue raising measures and cuts in spending.
It is ironic that Senators are looking for the Labour Party policy on education when, even after 13 years in government, Fianna Fáil's policy on education is still not clear. We need clarity across all education sectors on the extent of the cuts to be imposed. I, therefore, ask the Deputy Leader for a debate because it is extremely difficult for those involved in the university, primary and secondary school sectors to plan ahead.
I know it is open season on university lecturers and that it is very easy to attack. However, if we are serious about building a knowledge economy and attracting foreign direct investment and non-EU students who pay high fees, we need to support the university and third level sector.
I ask for a debate on the issue of choice in primary school education, a matter on which the Labour Party has a very clear policy, unlike other parties which have done nothing to ensure diversity of patronage across the sector. There will be a group of parents and children outside the gates of Leinster House tomorrow whose protest will take the form of a children's parade calling for multidenominational school places to be made available.
I commend the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, for the way in which she continued with her duties yesterday, despite having been treated so discourteously. I abhor such action. It is outrageous that people stoop so low. I also welcome the fact that she has put in place a plan to seek 4,000 voluntary redundancies which I hope will be taken up. However, the timescale is very short to allow people to make up their minds. I wonder, however, why it took the Minister so long. At the eleventh hour she is giving people 17 days in which to make up their minds. I worry about the state of the health service when such a measure is introduced so quickly. While I welcome the Minister's initiative and think she is right, I worry about how it is to be implemented.
A report by HIQA was issued today on St. Vincent's care centre in Athlone. Such reports by HIQA are to be welcomed. However, it has destroyed the quality of the service provided and the morale of the nursing and care staff in St. Vincent's care centre in Athlone. When asked, all of the patients complimented the staff, saying they were being very well cared for and that both nutrition and the level of care provided were very good. Nurses in the centre are run off their feet because they are expected to complete bureaucratic forms morning, noon and night. I question the reason nursing staff face such a predicament when the role of the nurses is to care and spend time with the elderly patients. I, therefore, question the value of HIQA. We never again want to see another case similar to the one at Leas Cross, but it is outrageous that nurses and care staff are expected to do such work.
I refer to media comments over the weekend about third level registration fees. The Green Party has prided itself for some time on being the party of education in government. We are led to believe it is not willing to support an increase in the registration fee to €3,000 but that it is willing to support an increase to €2,500. I ask the Deputy Leader to state whether this is correct. I am someone who benefited from free third level fees as I do not come from a privileged background. The imposition of such high registration fees is the reintroduction of tuition fees by the back door. There is no doubt that for families of modest means this will be an impediment to students going on to third level education. The Fine Gael proposal, which has been in the public domain for 12 months, is that when people qualify and get a job, they will be in a position to pay back some of the cost of their education. Currently, we have a system where we educate people to a very high standard in our third level institutions but we export them all over the world and there is no return for the State from the investment it makes and that is most unsatisfactory.
Something highlighted to me a couple of weeks ago by students was the similarities between the University of Edinburgh and University College Dublin. They are very similar in terms of size and yet in UCD, the percentage of the budget spent on salaries and pensions is 72% compared with 34% or 35% in the University of Edinburgh which is a shocking difference between universities that deal with largely the same number of students. There is something wrong there. Before we look at imposing huge increases in registration fees, which will mean people from modest backgrounds will not go on to third level education, we should look at reducing that 72% figure.
I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Quinn's point on quangos. Senator Donohoe raised the issue of the budget earlier. When publishing its four year strategy later this month, the Government should look at the possibility of bringing forward budget day to give, as Senator O'Toole has said on numerous occasions, certainty to people who are anxious about what will be contained in it but who want some degree of hope and leadership for the future.
Senator Fitzgerald asked several questions which were followed through by other Senators. She asked about the lack of legislation on our weekly clár. It is a matter of ongoing concern that we cannot free up legislation but I am confident we will be able to do so in the next number of weeks. We have two Bills on our Order Paper due for Committee Stage, namely, the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill 2008 and the Coroners Bill 2007. The Bills require amendments to be brought forward by the Department of Finance and the Department of Justice and Law Reform, both of which are entertained on other matters currently.
Major legislation will go through the other House in the next week or so and I am confident they will come before this House in a matter of weeks, one of which is the Dublin Lord Mayor Bill 2010, about which Senator Hannigan inquired. Second Stage of that Bill will be debated in the other House this week. The other Bill is the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010 which is going through Committee Stage in the other House. They are both major Bills which I expect to see very soon in this House.
Senator Fitzgerald also spoke about the economic and political uncertainty caused by other events and the decisions of other people. As the Cathaoirleach pointed out, it is not our place to talk about how the other House runs and its future. Such decisions are disappointing in that we have very difficult decisions to make. As Senator Donohoe said, at a time when we require level heads and a certain amount of moral courage, that requires people being present when those decisions must be made. I hope when those decisions are made that we have that type of moral courage required.
Senators Fitzgerald, Coghlan, Donohoe and Bradford mentioned budget day. As of now, budget day has been pencilled in for 7 December but a definitive decision has not been made as to whether that will be the date or whether it needs to be brought forward. Obviously, the Government will take into account how it must react to international sentiment. In terms of moving the date too far forward, we do not want to see a repeat of what happened with a budget which was brought forward precipitously and was not the budget it should have been. That happened only a few years ago. We must be very cautious with this budget above all others. I ask for a certain amount of patience on Members' part in that regard.
Senators Fitzgerald, Hannigan, Phelan and Bacik asked about the likely increase in the student registration fee. The choices to be made in this set of Estimates and the budget in seeking additional income and curbing expenditure in all Departments will be difficult. I am bemused by the attention the registration fee issue is receiving. The registration fee has been in place for several years and increased year on year, including last year. The equation of registration fees with tuition fees is very far off the mark.
In 1980 I was offered a place in University College Cork to undertake an arts degree. I did not qualify for grants and the fee for the course was IR£3,000. Thirty years on if people believe the registration fee is anywhere close to the economic value of a course tuition fee, they are not living in the real world. There is heavy subsidisation of third level education. That must be the focus of the debate on this matter.
It is welcome that we will have a debate on education in general, including third level and primary, in the coming weeks during which such views can be expressed.
Senator Fitzgerald also spoke about the proposed referendum on children's rights. We had a debate on the report released last week. To be fair to the Minister of State, he made a relatively definitive comment on the matter when he said the holding of such a referendum was closer than it had ever been. I do not take that comment as being negative.
The necessary work must and will be done to allow a referendum to be held early in the new year. We should all dedicate ourselves to that task.
Senator O'Toole raised the issue of the Croke Park agreement and the HSE redundancy package offered, on which Senators Feeney, Norris, Harris and Buttimer followed up. Some Members have questioned why the HSE redundancy package is to be implemented in such a short timeframe. Having a narrow window is necessary as we have had a poor experience of open-ended voluntary redundancy packages. We need to know how many are interested in the package offered and what savings can be made on foot of it in the quickest possible time. We need a slimmed down and more effective - especially a more cost effective - health service and this is a move in the right direction. In general, Members have welcomed the redundancy package.
On a related matter, Senators Hannigan, Keaveney, Norris, O'Malley, Donohoe and Harris spoke about the unwarranted attack on the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, yesterday. I add my voice to theirs. It is particularly sad that it was a local public representative who was involved in a protest of this nature. Those of us who are privileged to be involved in public life, whether at local or national level, need to know we have a mandate to honour and that mandate can only be honoured through the force of argument in seeking to bring about change. An inane stunt that had all the sincerity of a teenage prank did nothing to further any policy goal. It is welcome that Members have chosen unanimously to condemn the action.
Senator Hannigan asked about climate change legislation. Both he and Senator Bacik should be pleased to note that we will debate the report of the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security this week when a definitive statement will be made on the state of the Government's Bill. I look forward to the Senators and others contributing to the debate on Thursday.
Senator Hannigan also raised the issue of bond yields, as did Senators Donohoe, Coghlan and Bradford. The question stems from uncertainty. Those who crave a general election before a four-year programme is agreed and the budget is introduced in December risk adding to that uncertainty. In a general election political parties may gain a political advantage. The two parties to which I refer which do not hold a common position on public sector reform, taxation and where and how we can curb public expenditure would do nothing to give certainty to the-----
My party leader has been involved in a process in which he has pointed to the need for clarity and cohesion on a four-year programme and in the upcoming budget. After that, anything should be open to political discussion. However, given the point we, as a country, are at and the decisions we have to make, cohesion, consistency and honesty are required from all those involved in public life. It saddens me that at this vital time some individuals and political parties want to make political capital.
Senator Keaveney raised the matter of road safety which warrants a further debate in the House. This has generally been a successful years in terms of a reduction in the number of road deaths. However, I note with sadness that in my local area of Cork, of which Senator Buttimer will be aware, there have been too many accidents recently. A debate on the matter might point to where the strategy is working and where it needs to be further refined.
Senator Keaveney asked about the action to be taken in the light of the fishing boat tragedy in County Donegal. All Members share her views.
Senator Coghlan raised a number of issues related to the ongoing banking scandals. The work of a tribunal into these matters, headed by a former secretary general of the finance Department in Finland, Mr. Nyberg, is ongoing. The House should welcome a recent statement by the Garda Commissioner that by the end of the year he expects a file to be passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions and action to be taken on many of the matters raised. All Members agree that there is a need to identify those who have committed acts of economic treason against the country.
We will await the findings of the tribunal and the Director of the Public Prosecutions. I am confident that action can and will be taken in this regard.
Senator Daly spoke about job creation and the tendering process. There is a commitment in this regard in the programme for Government. We are awaiting a report on green tendering which will help matters in respect of the businesses about which Senator Daly spoke, small and medium-sized enterprises, and to clear unnecessary blockages in the system. I look forward to our having a debate on the report when it becomes available.
Senator Carroll, backed by Senators MacSharry and Leyden, spoke about a proposal to reduce the VAT rate for retrofitting. It is certainly an interesting one. If an EU directive allows it to happen, it is something that should receive active consideration. There has been a difficulty about zero rating, or moving from one VAT rate to another, or creating new VAT rates. The House might benefit from having a debate on the proposal made by Senator Carroll.
Senator Quinn talked about the need to eliminate quangos, the number of which must at least be reduced. This must form an important part of the budget when presented to both Houses.
Senator Mary White has reminded us that there are 1 million people over the age of 60 years on the island. The structure of policy must be informed by how we should deal with not only that number but the increasing number of who will reach that age in the decades to come. Those who find themselves in that age category should not be viewed, as happened in the past, as a burden but a real resource.
Senator MacSharry talked about linking Irish pension funds with an Irish yields benchmark. This proposal has value, but I hope there will not be a vested interest in keeping the yields particularly high because it is something we want to reduce in as short a time as possible.
I believe I have covered all of the points raised but, if not, I will try to address any matters I have overlooked by other means.
Yes, the Senator referred to a report in Athlone. I accept the position she has taken and believe there would be value in having a debate on HIQA, particularly as the organisation recently took a difficult decision on a nursing home in County Offaly. It would be valuable to discuss the effectiveness of HIQA and the improvement in standards we all hope its inspections and actions are bringing about.