Tuesday, 9 November 2010
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the European Council, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude within two hours and 15 minutes, on which spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and all other Senators for ten minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, with the Minister to be called upon 15 minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments and to take questions from spokespersons or leaders.
We all know this is an incredibly difficult time for the country and that the impact is being felt by families across the country. It is important we realise that while, at a macro level, the broad parameters of fiscal policy are being discussed in the Dáil and the Seanad and at the meetings taking place with Commissioner Rehn, the impact of these discussions on ordinary families will be profound. In the research findings issued today we see that people are feeling the impact of the recession in their personal lives. They are concerned about their mortgage repayments and what the future holds for their children. It is very depressing to hear the country being discussed internationally and predictions by Ernst & Young that the level of unemployment will remain above 10% until at least 2018. We do not need these messages. We need to believe there is a more hopeful message. When we see bond interest rates continuing to rise and hear what international news agencies have to say about Ireland, this brings home to us the seriousness of the task we face.
Polling information carried in the media today suggests people are very concerned about being able to repay their mortgages. While this is an issue we have discussed a number of times, it is important we invite the Minister to the House to debate it again. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, spoke about it last summer; the Minister of State with responsibility for housing has discussed it on a number of occasions, while a number of Senators have had an input into documents on it, including Senator MacSharry. Will the House have an opportunity to discuss this important aspect of the crisis?
I am not sure everyone in the House agrees with Morgan Kelly's sentiments expressed in The Irish Times yesterday, that if we thought the bank bailout was bad, wait until the mortgage defaults hit home. It is a real issue when one hears about the 84 cases heard in court yesterday in which people lost their homes. We have heard of no approach to this problem being adopted by the Government. The House should be briefed by it on the issue as to whether its thinking has advanced and whether it is feasible and the outcome out of the discussions with the banks. It is important this key issue for families is discussed in the House, with the broader issues.
I note again from the Seanad schedule that no legislation will be debated this week. Neither will we have any discussions on the various sectorial areas we said we would discuss. This must be examined for the next two weeks. At this critical time will the Leader examine what will be debated in the House next week and have something different from the statements on the schedule again this week?
It is important to recognise nothing stays the same. At the beginning of the economic crisis we were told that not only was it bad internationally and nationally but that we had huge personal debt and mortgage problems. In the past two years the size of personal debt has been reduced significantly and it has gone away as an issue. If anyone had listened carefully to the reports on the 83 default cases before the courts yesterday, one would have noted dthat one after another concerned someone with six houses, someone who had built a house against a business or some other arrangement. They did not just involve cases of people losing their homes, if any. I agree with Senator Fitzgerald's points, but any debate on this matter must be focused purely on the people who are losing their homes because of mortgage repayment difficulties, not on those who use their homes to buy six houses one after the other.
Last week the House passed a motion on Seanad reform. The matter will not go away. If the courts ruled last week that an 18-month delay was inappropriate and inordinate in the holding of the by-election in Donegal South-West, they will certainly rule that a 30-year delay in implementing a constitutional amendment in respect of Seanad reform, as passed by the people in a referendum in 1979, is completely out of the question. If the Government acted so smartly after the High Court's declaration, should it act more smartly on a decision made by the House?
Will the Leader inform the House where next with this matter?
Over the weekend the main Opposition party published a policy document, Reinventing Government. It contains many proposals with which I disagree, but it is an intriguing and innovative document that raises issues that need to be discussed. It contains many positive proposals which I welcome and at which the Government should look seriously. They should be debated in the House in a level-headed and broad-minded way. Its approach to quangos, for instance, is quite different from that adopted in other proposals I have seen.
We should now be organising the second debate on the Croke Park agreement to assess what progress has been made in the intervening month. Will the Leader give a commitment that it will be dealt with later this month?
The international media are seeking all-party consensus on the economy. Senator Fitzgerald rightly raised the international media's reporting on the economy. It is not all bad; some of it is good. For example, The Wall Street Journal had a positive article on the economy this week. We need to know what is the Opposition's response to the international view that there should be a consensus approach to the Government's budgetary plans. I want to hear how the Government will make this happen and how the Opposition will engage with it.
For example, if consensus is being sought on a four-year plan, we will have to see the plan before we can decide whether we agree with it. Is that not straightforward? Anyone can see that that is agreeable.
From the brief reports I have heard on the meetings which took place with the Commissioner this morning, I do not know whether matters have changed specifically. Perhaps the Leader might comment on this. However, there appears to be less certainty about the figure of €15 billion in the four-year adjustment period. The three main parties are agreed on the need to make an adjustment in order that we can get to the figure of 3% by 2014. There should be no question about that target, but what will it actually mean? We know that up to three weeks ago the Government believed the adjustment figure would be €7.5 billion which quickly became €15 billion. Three scenarios were presented by the Government for the budget to be announced in December. On 22 October The Irish Times reported Government sources as saying the Department of Finance was seeking an adjustment of €4.5 billion. Only two and a half weeks ago the figure was €4.5 billion, it is now €6 billion. Anyone may look to the Opposition for consensus or certainty, but we must look to the Government in the first place for a sense of what is going to happen. I agree and accept that the situation is fluid. The Government must examine the growth predictions for next year and where we will be this time next year with the unemployment figures and so on. I accept that matters are in a state of flux, but Senators on the other side of the House should not demand certainty from the Opposition, a demand they do not make of the Government. This is simply not logical.
It is the principal objective of the Government to prepare a budget, present and have it passed by the Dáil. There is a lot of talk about whether the Opposition parties will help to get the Government over the line. The Government must get the budget over the line. If it cannot do so, it will lose not just the confidence of the people, it will also lose the confidence of Parliament and have to go. That is the way our democratic system works. It does not mean, however, that we are against adopting a co-operative approach. We will do everything we can, for example, concerning the adjustment to be made in the budget. The Labour Party will come forward not just with a clear and specific set of objectives, it will also show how they can be achieved. When we talk about consensus, let us be clear about what we mean. Let it be understood that, in the first instance, this is the job of the Government.
I represented my party in a series of meetings held by Commissioner Rehn this morning and heard clearly what he was saying. I presume he said the same thing to all of the political parties. He stressed the need for consensus. I am sorry if I am breaking a principle, but I disagree with what Senator Alex White said. My understanding of consensus is not, "You tell us what you are going to do and we will tell you whether we agree". Consensus is about recognising the nature of the problem and making suggestions to solve it. It is about deciding how problems can be dealt with collectively. That is what we are lacking in the political system. We should contrast what is happening in the country with what happened recently in Portugal which is facing similar problems. The main Portuguese political parties held talks which broke down initially but then resumed and a budget was presented. The Opposition party abstained to allow the budget to go through in the national interest. That is what consensus is, but we are still a long way from this.
The message from Commissioner Rehn was there was a need for structural changes to bring us into line with more sustainable economies in the European Union. On these grounds, we need to have a wider debate.
As regards the budgetary process, suggestions are being made about public sector reform. I agree with what Senator O'Toole said, particularly about the interesting Fine Gael document entitled, Reinventing Government. No one in political life can claim to have all the answers to all of the problems. At this time in our political and economic history we especially need to take ideas on board from whatever source, debate them and see if they can be brought to fruition. If we are talking about reinventing government, we must also talk about reinventing democracy. That means having a wider debate and getting rid of the old paradigm of the Government is right and the Opposition is wrong or vice versa. Then, we might go about solving our problems in this country.
There is no doubt we are in an dangerous place - standing on the brink - and we all have duties to stabilise finances and assist in restoring foreign confidence. Foreign confidence is one of the major ingredients that is absent. Fine Gael will publish its plan and its commentary on the four-year budgetary plan. We will present budget proposals in advance of the budget. Who knows what will happen following the meetings that took place with Commissioner Olli Rehn. Matters are evolving.
Regarding the mortgage difficulties referred to by Senators Fitzgerald and O'Toole, our concern in seeking a debate relates not to those who engaged in property speculation or who have a multiplicity of properties and are in difficulty but with genuine family homeowners. Something must be provided in order that they can park debt or park interest for an interim period to assist those genuine people in dire straits. This will be made more difficult because we will all be hit by the budget on 6 December. In support of what Senator Fitzgerald said, I plead with the Leader to arrange a meaningful discussion on this subject. I acknowledge that Senator MacSharry and others have done some work on this area and it is now timely to revisit it.
It is timely that all sides of the House are addressing the economic issue, having had our minds focused by the visit of the European Commissioner. The main challenge facing this Government is to convince international markets, those who lend us money, that we will be in a position to pay it back. The uncertainty created by the Germans primarily, in alliance with the French over recent months, has resulted in the bond rate increasing to an unprecedented 8% and is the other major challenge facing the Government. We do not have to borrow on the international markets until late spring or early summer but notwithstanding that, the message coming from bond markets is that they do not believe Ireland has the capacity to pay back the money. Members on all sides of the House agree that the attempts being made and the consensus arrived at in terms of broad parameters will get us out of this difficulty. The problem is that uncertainty must be addressed. I am not sure that speaking in this House will get as far as the German Bundestag or to the chancellery in Berlin but Chancellor Merkel should end the uncertainty and come out with proposals. It is not enough to leave statements hanging in the wind alleging default by countries on the periphery of the EU and stating that harsh sanctions will be imposed on countries that default. That is what has caused the bond market yields to go up and what has led us having to look at the possibility of borrowing at these high rates. In that context, I welcome much of what Senator Boyle said and what he believes about consensus. Consensus is about trying to agree on those parameters. I have no doubt the Opposition will rise to the patriotic challenge when the specifics of the plan are announced over the next few weeks.
Commissioner Rehn is in Dublin and he is welcome. I wish him and the Government well on their discussions but I regret that he was unable to meet representatives of the marginalised and vulnerable. I refer in particular to Social Justice Ireland. It was said he would not meet any representatives of the community and voluntary pillar. I hope the Government tells Mr. Rehn that its responsibility is primarily towards the people of Ireland and Irish society rather than protecting property speculators, delinquent bankers and international financial institutions from the consequences of their gambling instincts and unwise decisions. I make this point in the context of an article on the same front page of The Irish Times which indicated that an 81-year-old woman perished in a fire after her electricity had been cut off. I must emphasise that this was not cut off by the ESB but by her son-in-law, who had just lost his job and was transferring the bill to his wife's name. We must retain the human element. In that context, I welcome the publication by the Irish Human Rights Commission of an interim or partial report on the situation regarding the Magdalen Laundries. From this it appears very clear that the State and some of the religious orders have questions to answer. In particular, questions arise about official State records being incomplete or unavailable, the existence of records in the possession of religious orders, which should be made public, and the fact that a latter was sent to a Deputy in response to a question on 4 September 2009 by the Minister for Education and Science stating that the State did not refer individuals nor was it complicit in referring individuals to the laundries. That is clearly incorrect. Enough questions were raised by the Irish Human Rights Commission for us as part of the Oireachtas to require that a statutory commission is established. This also should include the Bethany Home, which the Church of Ireland archbishop has said should be included in the redress system.
I note the historic event where the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement met today with the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee from Westminster. It is a first which shows the evolution of the Good Friday Agreement where representatives not only from North and South but east and west were present. We are usually in separate locations but we had members from all points of the compass, with cross-membership of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee and the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, in the one location. Everybody's joint efforts to look at issues such as the dissidents and the threat to economic prosperity, and more positively, the opportunities we will have to drive prosperity in the province of Ulster was core to the debate and discussions.
I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate and information session on the switch-off of the analogue service for television on the island of Ireland when we will go digital in 2012. My information is that a number of relays are not included in the system. We need answers on what is included, what is excluded and what the costs will be for people once the transition takes place. There is no point in getting into a panic a week or a month before the event takes place. Currently, there is a concept known as "saorview" and "saorsat". It will be far from saor, free. We need to discuss a lot of technical detail. Ultimately, it will cost people, especially in certain locations in rural and urban parts of the country, anything between €150 and €250 for the switch-over and multiple uses of technology. We should debate the issues in advance of the change and ensure that television through which we sell our message and get information is not a complete disaster on the 2012 switch-over from analogue to digital.
When we are looking for consensus in this House the one important thing is that we do not get lectures from the Government benches on the economy and the public finances because it is the Government which is totally responsible for the mess and economic crisis we are in.
It should be acknowledged that a fair measure of consensus has been reached to date. There is acceptance on the need to reduce the budget deficit to 3% by 2014. There is agreement also on the front-loading of the cutbacks of €6 billion. Cutbacks of €15 billion cannot be agreed or even confirmed by the Government until realistic estimates are made of the growth rates that are anticipated. The involvement of the Commission in deciding on those projections gives comfort that perhaps we can have confidence in the figures presented by the Minister for Finance in future.
The other area of consensus is that the budget deficit would be below 10% in 2011.
The Government's view is that the balance between expenditure cuts and taxation increases should be 3:1. A fair measure of consensus on the broad parameters would allow us to give some indicators to the market and Commission Rehn who has referred to Ireland as a low tax economy. However, that is not so in one respect. In successive budgets the price of cigarettes and tobacco was raised to double that in the rest of Europe. The problem in this regard is that, apart from not succeeding in reducing the level of consumption of tobacco, an extraordinary illegal trade has been created from which criminal gangs and dissident republicans are benefiting. If we continue down this route and do not reverse the flawed policy followed in successive budgets, we will have a major problem in law enforcement.
The discussion seems to centre on the meaning of consensus and how we can reach it. Far be it from me to lecture anyone on the definition of "consensus", but I hope that, as a result of Commissioner Rehn's suggestion, we will sit around the table to try to tease out matters. There is a bigger picture and one-upmanship is not what I want for the country. I want us all to reach agreement together to try to get out of this awful mess.
I raise the topic of Tallaght hospital. Dr. Maurice Hayes has reported on the discovery of unreported X-rays and GPs' letters of referral which were not forwarded. I seek a debate on the question of whether patients were harmed as a result. There have been significant inefficiencies, mismanagement and ad hoc queuing arrangements in making patient appointments. Will the Leader provide time for a debate on this issue to ascertain whether measures are being put taken to arrest and correct the matter? Most people in the Tallaght area are anxious about and aware of the mess in the hospital. A debate would be worthwhile to clarify whether there have been improvements.
I join others in calling on the Leader to arrange a debate on the economy in the wake of the visit of Commissioner Rehn. As Senator Ormonde mentioned, there has been some debate on the definition of "consensus". Clearly, there is no consensus, but having listened to Senator Boyle and others, I am worried that the Government's definition of "consensus" is that the Opposition should roll over, take whatever the Government will give it in the budget and abstain from voting. That is not consensus.
How can the Opposition possibly agree when it does not have the information it needs to decide whether it can agree? I am concerned that Irish borrowing costs are at a record high on international markets. It is urgent, therefore, that we know what are the terms of the four-year plan, yet the Government has decided to delay publishing it until after the by-election in County Donegal. This does not seem to be a way to achieve political consensus, as Commissioner Rehn stated. It does not seem to be the case that we are being given the information we need in a timely fashion in order that we can consider it and discuss it with the Government. The Government needs to actively promote consensus, not to take political potshots at the Opposition.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the elections in Burma? Since the sham elections took place at the weekend, we have seen worrying reports of thousands of refugees fleeing into Thailand. The likely outcome of the election is that the military regime will continue to be propped up. Aung San Suu Kyi and other Opposition leaders remain under arrest and in detention. We need to have a debate on the very serious political situation that is unravelling in Burma.
I join other Senators in asking the Leader to contact the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, on the issue of mortgage arrears. The expert group on mortgage arrears chaired by Mr. Hugh Cooney is to give its final report to the Minister this week. I have concerns as to the superficial nature of some of the actions that may be contained in that report and hope that even at this eleventh hour some of these rumoured actions, or rather the lack thereof, in the report can be addressed. I speak as one who is involved in the prevention of family home repossessions group, established in March 2009. Many Members of this House at that time joined in highlighting what would become a huge problem. At this late stage it is interesting to see that many economists and others now agree this is a problem and a new group plans to take legal cases against banks to challenge the underwriting quality of that time, and rightly so. I could speak for hours on this but the important point is that the Oireachtas faces this issue as a real one. As we contemplate the very difficult decisions that must be taken in coming weeks I believe there is automatic consensus on one matter, namely, the protection of the family. To give adequate protection to the family we must ensure to protect the family home - not trophy homes or investment properties. In order to do that statutory change is needed in regard to the Enforcement of Court Orders Act, for which I have lobbied in this Chamber for some time. Also required, irrespective of the market's reaction, is an acknowledgement that debt sharing is the only way to give adequate protection to family homes. That is essential as, clearly, we will have to contemplate other financial difficulties and are prepared to do so. Family homes must be protected.
My second and concluding point relates to the Croke Park agreement. Although I am a strong advocate of partnership, as are many Senators, I ask the Leader to contact the Taoiseach and suggest that he invite all the social partners to the Oireachtas so we can examine those aspects of the Croke Park agreement which I believe are no longer possible to implement given the change in the past 12 months. One need only look at reports in today's newspapers on education expenditure, 75% of which is on pay. We know that 70% of the health budget goes on pay. Colleagues, it is time we faced the elephant in the room. We are paying ourselves too much throughout all Departments, particularly the higher-paid.
I join Senator Fitzgerald and other Senators in calling for a debate on the financial crisis facing many couples and partners in their homes. The biggest threat to family life today is paying the mortgage in a mortgage crisis situation. This massive crisis is putting a strain between partners and between husbands and wives. It is unbelievable. We have an obligation to protect the family and the family home. As Senator MacSharry noted, that means we must look at this issue from a collective and holistic point of view. If it means embracing second generation mortgages and so on, let us do that. Let us consider the European model and not be afraid to look at it. Let us have Government action on the protection of the family home. If a family does not have a home it has nothing. The Government has an obligation to take action.
Senator Boyle again raised the issue of consensus. I remind the Senator that consensus is not about the Opposition rolling over and doing the Government's bidding but involves meaningful dialogue and the constructive passing of information. The Government has not done this and has got it wrong on every occasion. The Minister for Finance has not had the correct figures on any occasion. He should come to this House, as should the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach should come to the House this week and explain what he knows about Anglo Irish Bank and what he knew about the banking situation before it collapsed completely. What does he know? What does the Government know? One cannot believe the day from this Government which has got its figures wrong at every opportunity.
Mr. Rehn spoke about consensus. The best consensus we could have would be to go to the people and let them decide who should govern. The people have no confidence in this Government and do not believe it or have trust in it. They do not see its policies working. There are 450,000 unemployed, a generation is emigrating and people are living in fear every day.
I, too, ask for a debate on consensus. I am confident there is consensus within Europe to the effect that we can deal with our difficulties. That consensus was expressed by Commissioner Michel Barnier last week and Commissioner Olli Rehn today in the belief that we can manage our finances and that there is a way forward and a clear path through the European model.
There is another consensus in certain parts of the Irish media, however, which have gone from biased to pure inquisition. There is no objectivity whatsoever in certain quarters of the Irish media. They want to do down this country at every hand's turn. Have they no confidence, pride or self-belief? We were in much worse difficulties in the past and faced much more difficult times in terms of our opportunities for export, the interest rates we had to pay on debt and the numbers that were unemployed. It is saddening to think that Ireland is the only country in Europe that has no objectivity in certain parts of the media.
I join others in calling for a debate on the economy, especially how it is affecting our citizens, in particular those who are trying to keep their homes. I completely agree with Senators Fitzgerald, Buttimer and MacSharry about people who are desperately trying to hold on to their homes. More than 100,000 people in Ireland are struggling to pay their mortgages, equivalent to one in eight. Some of these people go without food and borrow from their families as well as from this, that and the other to try to keep their homes.
This is a very powerful constituency, and I am sure there are more. It is a massive number of people and I assure the House that if one or two decide to form a coalition with all the others in a similar situation, stop paying their mortgages and treat the Government in the same way as they have been treated by this country, then we will stand up and take notice. It will take €30 billion to pay off the Anglo Irish Bank debt, equivalent to two to three years of taxpayers' money. It will take another three years to pay off Bank of Ireland and AIB. What the Government has done to the country is criminal, and I rubbish this consensus proposal, because it is not fair. This Administration has been in power for 12 years and has run the country into the ground. I really resent Senator Boyle calling for a consensus. While I appreciate the country is in a very serious situation, I ask right now for people to be conciliatory, to care for those about to lose their homes and to find ways to ensure they can remain in their homes.
I, too, call for a debate on the economy following the visit of Commissioner Rehn. I remind the House that he has said political consensus would be helpful in the situation in which we find ourselves. We all have a duty to take on board what that means. However it is implemented, consensus will help Ireland's recovery. To rubbish it is premature and irresponsible given that the call was made to us only yesterday. It is something we need to look up to.
Commissioners such as Olli Rehn and Michel Barnier are expressing confidence in our ability to get out of this ourselves by our own actions. It will take extraordinary seriousness of intent on our part, as a political class and not merely as Government and Opposition, to do that. It is incumbent on us all to make it happen, as it can, given the serious of application that is called for. It cannot be about sectors; it has to be about Ireland.
The question with the Croke Park deal is whether we can find agreement across the House on its review date. The review date of March next is probably too late. While I appreciate that is what has been agreed, an earlier review would be extremely helpful in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It would allow us to reconfigure what has been achieved so far. I acknowledge what has been achieved, as I did several times when the unions voted on the Croke Park deal. The review needs to take place sooner to provide us with an opportunity to use every mechanism within our power to deliver the type of rescue plan the country needs.
On mortgages, I commend Senator MacSharry on his work and observations in this respect. The negative equity locked down in so many mortgages is an enormous millstone around our prospects for economic recovery. I hope the recommendations of the report to be brought forward this week will release people from some of that negative equity. The moral hazard is at times over-stated and is an easy cover to do nothing. We need to be clever and to find ways through which we can by-pass that moral hazard and free up people, for their sake and that of the wider economy.
A British politician once said that the duty of the Opposition is to oppose, which I have never supported or quite understood. It is the duty of every elected person to ensure legislation to protect society as a whole. The whole question of consensus must, therefore, as Senator Boyle stated and Commissioner Rehn suggested, come into being.
We are faced with a serious situation. However, we faced as tough and difficult a situation 23 years ago in 1987. The Leader of the Opposition stated at that time that if the Government did the right thing it would not oppose. We got ourselves out of that situation within a few years to the extent that we jumped from the bottom of the pile to the top of it. We can succeed but to do so requires us all to work together. In regard to Commissioner Rehn's comments about consensus, it is important that rather than engage in point scoring we accept that what we need at this time is consensus.
I would like to take up one other matter with Senator Boyle. We must have an open mind on certain matters. I note there are three Members of the Green Party in the House today. I am concerned about some of the Green Party's fixed ideas, in particular in regard to genetically modified foods. I ask that the Leader provide time for a debate on that issue, if possible. Oxfam recently stated that if we are to solve the world's food problems in the years ahead we will have to consider the use of biotechnology in some form or other.
Those who say that our minds should remain closed to this will damage opportunities for Irish agriculture and farming. We must remain open minded and consider whether genetically modified foods have a future. Let us not jump to suggesting there is no future in it and condemn it on that basis. I ask that the Leader provide time in the near future for a debate on that matter.
As spokesperson for children on this side of the House, I draw my colleagues attention to an article in yesterday's The Irish Times by Jamie Smyth in which he stated that during the first nine months of this year 13 children under the age of 16 years were admitted to adult psychiatric beds in our hospitals. It is totally against the human rights of children that they would be admitted to adult psychiatric units.
Not alone are the children open to risk but the nursing staff are not trained in treatment of children with psychiatric problems. I spoke earlier today with Mr. Hugh Kane, chief executive officer of the Mental Health Commission who told me he has appointed a senior Scottish psychiatric consultant to investigate the reason nine of the 13 children admitted to adult psychiatric units are from the Limerick area. The Scottish consultant's report will be completed within the month.
I also spoke recently to Mr. Martin Rogan, assistant national director of the Health Service Executive mental health directorate. He questioned the reason for this cluster in Limerick and expressed the concern that social deprivation may be the reason so many people in Limerick have mental health issues. The good news is that two new 50-bed units for children will shortly be opened in Galway and Cork. With the additional special dedicated beds in psychiatric hospitals in Dublin for children, progress will be made, but having the issue on the radar in this House was a driver and contributed to ensuring these new beds are available for children.
I support my colleagues who asked the Leader to provide sufficient time in the very near future for another debate on economic matters, including banking, the mortgage crisis and, more important, the overall economic position. While it is a cliché to say the clock is ticking, it is also correct. We are almost reaching the end game. One need only observe what is happening on the international financial bond markets. It is a vote of no confidence not just in the Government but, I fear, in our political system also. There is a view that we are not able to deal with the current economic crisis. Those of us in this House should be in a position to provide a degree of leadership by, at least, having a further broad spectrum economic debate.
While I agree with Senator Bacik that we do not and cannot have consensus, we are examining the concept of consensus in a negative fashion. We are seeing it as a cave-in. For the Government, it must mean that it is willing to reflect on what the Opposition is stating and consider the proposals made in documents such as the fine and far-seeing one produced by Fine Gael at the weekend entitled, Reinventing Government. On our side consensus means that we should, at least, be willing to listen to what the Government has to state, but I genuinely believe the public, while not debating the concept of consensus, is calling on all of us to play our role in national recovery. We cannot be sure what that role will be, but we need to consider the options. Politics is not a one-way street. For far too long we have had an old-fashioned view of the role of Government and the Opposition. I was taken by what Senator Quinn said and agree with him. Surely every elected Member of this House has something to say. If all we can say is no, we are in the wrong country and Parliament and from a different era. The Government should give us the opportunity to bring forward ideas with an assurance that it is willing to listen. If even one quarter of what Fine Gael proposed last Sunday was taken on board by the Government in the near future, it would help to transform the country. We need that transformation. We are giving the Government some ideas and I ask it to please listen to us.
I agree with Senator Bradford who has made a valid point. I agree with other Senators also. People cannot be bullied into consensus. The Green Party is not proposing anyone should be bullied into adopting a consensus position, rather it is stating we all need to pull together because this is a very tough time. I want to see a debate on the economy take place.
I agree with Senator MacSharry, in particular, on the issue of public service wages which he called the elephant in the living room. At the peak of the boom we had the benchmarking process when the salaries of workers in the public sector were benchmarked against those in the private sector. People are telling me there should be benchmarking in reverse; however, it would not be benchmarking in reverse but a renewed benchmarking process.
On the national minimum wage, I have long held the view that there should be a maximum wage in the public service. Currently, workers in the public sector are earning over 50 times the national minimum wage which in the current economic climate is obscene.
A maximum wage should be introduced and linked with the national minimum wage. I propose that it be around eight times the national minimum wage, not 50, which is obscene. We must deal with higher wage earners. No one in the public sector should be earning more than the Taoiseach.
I support the calls for consensus made by many of my colleagues. However, it is important to emphasise the point made by Senator Regan about the degree of consensus that already exists in many areas, including on the need to reduce our deficit to 3% of GDP by 2014, to implement budgetary adjustments at an early stage, and to ensure that what we do stays within the eurozone framework. In some ways, our difficulties are so grave that to blame our crisis on the lack of consensus is to miss the point. The financial markets are looking at Ireland and they know all the main political parties are committed to the broad strategies that are in place. They are not doubting the commitment to those strategies but the strategies themselves. They are doubting whether the State has a sufficient appreciation of the budgetary difficulties in which we find ourselves, and they are doubting whether our statement that our banking difficulties have come to an end is correct.
The calls for consensus are based on the assumption that if we reached a full consensus our difficulties would go away. I do not think that is our main challenge. Our issue is not a lack of consensus about the strategy; it is that the financial markets are doubting the strategy of this Government, and potentially the entire political system, in terms of dealing with the vast difficulties in which the State finds itself. That is the real challenge that this Government probably cannot face up to any more, but that the next Government will certainly need to.
I strongly support Senator Mary White in her remarks about children being inappropriately placed in adult psychiatric facilities. Child and adolescent psychiatry is a specialised area. I encountered this when I was in the profession, and I am disappointed to hear that it still obtains. Every effort must be made to reverse it.
I must compliment the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Moloney, on the efforts he is making in the area of psychiatric services. It was certainly the Cinderella service for many years, but since he became a Minister of State he has been making a real effort, and I commend him on it. We must clearly state in the House that the placing of children in need of psychiatric care in adult facilities is not appropriate. Children with a psychiatric aspect to their illness need to be treated in a way that is appropriate to their condition. I am disappointed to hear of this case in the mid-west, as it should not be so.
President McAleese has paid tribute to the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas, which was established by Irish Catholic bishops in 1985 and which is celebrating 25 years of good work in supporting overseas prisoners, advising them on issues such as repatriation and deportation, and helping to make referrals to post-release support agencies. I am waiting and hoping to take part in the continuation of the debate about overcrowding in Irish prisons. There is a need for further discussion about how we treat prisoners.
It is interesting that the former governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan, has been critical of the Irish Prison Service with regard to its handling of the release of Larry Murphy last August. Larry Murphy may be a person with whom nobody here would sympathise, but it is undoubtedly the case that when it comes to the treatment of prisoners, we should favour a system that is not just punitive but also focuses on rehabilitation. One of the main problems in the case of Larry Murphy was that it was not mandatory for people to take part in treatment programmes to deal with their criminality and their attitudes. Such participation should be made mandatory, and we should incentivise prisoners by linking early release with their having satisfied certain requirements with regard to attending treatment and coming to terms with what they have done.
I noticed that in the Minister's speech last week there were no references to restorative justice, on which I would like to put the focus at the next opportunity. I ask the Minister to indicate whether it is the Government's intention to bring forward a prison system that will not only justly punish but also seek the rehabilitation of offenders.
I will finish by asking the Leader to outline the progress made on the animal welfare legislation about which I asked previously. As far as I can see, no legislation will be discussed this week. I have mentioned previously that it is legal to dock the tail of a puppy up to one month old without using an anaesthetic and that it is not a crime to attend an animal fight. We should get busy to make the country a better and more humane place for animals.
Before responding to the issues raised on the Order of Business, I offer our congratulations to Mr. Noel Curran, the new director general of RTE, as announced earlier today.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Boyle, Mooney, Norris, Regan, Ormonde, Bacik, Hanafin, McFadden, Dearey, Quinn, Bradford, Ó Brolcháin, Donohoe and Mullen all expressed their views on the visit of Commissioner Olli Rehn. It was certainly a very good idea to achieve consensus and brief the leaders of all the parties. With the involvement of the Minister and the Governor of the Central Bank in his deliberations and discussions, it is a partnership that can only bear fruit. I know times are very difficult and unprecedented, but in the national interest it is extraordinary what can be achieved. Everyone is to be complimented on and commended for their efforts to make a contribution. I will have no difficulty in holding a major debate on the four-year budget plan as soon as we receive the final figures and also on the need for a stimulus package, as without growth and competitiveness we will not get over the problem as easily or as quickly as one might think. A major stimulus package needs to be put together in an effort to create employment. While it is marvellous that 1.8 million people are continuing to work during these very difficult times, the 450,000 who are unemployed or available for work certainly present a challenge which we need to meet head on.
Many colleagues called for a debate on the challenge mortgage holders are facing in making repayments. We all fully support Senator MacSharry and the great work being done by Mr. Hugh Cooney, chairman of the expert group on mortgage arrears and personal debt which is due to report later this week. As soon as the report is made available I will listen to the suggestions of Senators and we can debate the issue in the House to see what we can do to help everyone concerned. Senator MacSharry has suggested an amendment may be required to the legislation on the protection of the family home. That is an aspect we should debate and discuss in the House.
Senator O'Toole spoke about Seanad reform and the decision made by the House last week. I am sure that whenever time is available, the Minister will assess that decision. These are difficult times and there are considerable demands on the time of Ministers, particularly in formulating the budget. There have never been as many Cabinet meetings in the formulation of a budget. As the Minister said in the House, the amount of time spent on formulating the three budgets announced in the past two years was equivalent to that put into formulating the previous seven or eight. It is a matter of the Minister finding time in his diary. I will keep the House updated as I receive information from him.
Senators O'Toole, Boyle, MacSharry, Dearey and Ó Brolcháin suggested we should debate the Croke Park agreement again. I have no difficulty with such a debate taking place before the Christmas recess, possibly within the next two to three weeks. I take on board the view that there should be an early review, if at all possible.
Senator Norris spoke about human rights, State records and the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills. I will pass on his strong views to her.
Senator Keaveney spoke about the challenge faced in the switchover from an analogue to a digital television service in 2012 and, in particular, the needs of householders in rural areas. We should hold a special debate on the matter, as such householders will face a considerable challenge. The Senator also spoke about the historic meeting today of Oireachtas Members and their Westminster colleagues and the excellent work being done with the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and other committees. I share her views in that regard.
Senator Ormonde expressed serious concerns about Tallaght hospital which I will discuss with her after the Order of Business. Perhaps the issue might be dealt with in Private Members' time in order to get a response to the matters she brought to thea ttention of the House.
Senator Bacik expressed strong views on the Burma elections, while Senator Quinn called for a debate on food production and processing, the challenges facing farmers and the quality products being produced in Ireland by the farming sector. There is an opportunity for the industry and I will certainly allocate time for such a debate.
Senators Mary White and Glynn spoke about the 13 children under the age 16 years admitted to adult psychiatric units, nine of whom are from the Limerick area. I welcome the provision of two 50-bed units for children in Galway and Cork which, as Senator Mary White said, are at an advanced stage. The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health services will be in the House tomorrow when the matter can be debated after the Order of Business.
Senator Mullen spoke about the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas. The debate on current overcrowding levels in prisons will resume at 2 p.m. on Thursday. The Senator also asked about the animal welfare Bill, on which I will update the House on the Order of Business tomorrow morning.