Thursday, 2 December 2010
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Standing Orders of Seanad Éireann Relative to Public Business, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion re Joint Committee on European Affairs, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, motion re Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 2; No. 4, motion re Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Women's Rights, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 3; No. 5, motion re powers of national parliaments under the Lisbon treaty, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 4; No. 6, motion re draft Commission of Investigation (Banking Sector) (Amendment) Order 2010, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 5; No. 7, motion re agreement between the European Union and the USA on the processing and transfer of financial messaging data for the purposes of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme, back from committee, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 6; and No. 8, statements on the EU-IMF programme for Ireland and the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 7 and conclude not later than 3 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for 12 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 ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments and to take questions from leaders or spokespersons. Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, provide for technical amendments providing for (1) the incorporation into Standing Orders of existing arrangements for the exercise by the House of its scrutiny role under the Lisbon treaty and (2) continuity in that role following the dissolution of the Dáil and the subsequent Seanad Éireann general election until such time as the Houses have had an opportunity to establish a new committee system.
Given the dreadful economic and weather conditions and the fact that we are less than a week away from what will be the harshest budget in the history of the State, I will break from my usual format of criticising this dreadful Government and speak only about positive matters. Last night I had reason to ring a number of people in County Wexford which has seen the most dreadful snowfall in decades and was surprised by the number who were not at home. When I rang them on their mobile phones, I discovered they were helping their friends and neighbours by calling in on them, doing their shopping and looking after farm animals. We should commend everyone who is doing this during these dreadful weather conditions.
The House should also commend local authority workers, gardaí, ambulance crews, doctors, public health nurses and all other health care professionals who are caring for patients and doing their jobs on behalf of the people in what are dreadful weather conditions.
We should add to that list those decent public servants who are keeping the infrastructure of the country operational. It is worthwhile recognising this.
Let me make a comment on something we will discuss later. We could welcome the fact that the IMF and its friends are insisting on implementation of the Croke Park agreement within the next year. For the past six months I have been saying there is no reason we should not do that. It is only right that we apply pressure to address any blockage. We do not need public debate on whether someone should have half an hour to cash a cheque or whether top class equipment should be left unused. These things should not be allowed to happen. It is our job to ensure progress is made in this regard for everyone's sake, not just for the country but for the people working in the services. This will allow them the job satisfaction of being able to reform, move things forward and produce efficiencies and effectiveness in a way that can be a role model for all of Europe. I welcome the commitment in the report to that particular aspect of the Croke Park agreement.
I echo the praise of my colleagues for those who are contributing to their communities during this terrible weather and who are keeping essential public services running. We all hope we will get through the weather crisis, if not the financial crisis, within the next few days.
While I welcome the debate we will have later today on the content of the EU-IMF programme, we also need a debate on alternatives to the programme. We have all received a copy of the programme document and a number of issues stood out for me when wading through it. First is the appalling vista it presents for ordinary people in terms of the cutbacks envisaged. Second was the acceptance, as mentioned on the first page of the document, that the domestic banking system is at the root of the problem. I believe we need to focus a debate, perhaps next week, on the alternatives to this programme. The Government has been selling us a line that there is no alternative to this package, but a considerable body of opinion suggests there are alternatives and that we should look seriously at those alternatives.
Deputy Rabbitte has suggested that this agreement constitutes a legal international agreement under Article 29 of the Constitution that will require a Dáil vote. I think he is right on that. If the courts do not accept that, future Governments are not legally bound in the same way as if the document had the status suggested. There are issues with regard to the status of the document.
There are also issues with regard to what happens next. I have seen a very bleak commentary from Barry Eichengreen from Berkeley, a well-respected economist, that suggests this package is a disaster and that the programme solves nothing but simply kicks the can down the road. His words have been echoed by Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times today, suggesting that default is the preferable option. He says that the right answer to insolvency is default, not liquidity support. Therefore, there are a number of alternatives we need to explore in any debate in the House. Perhaps today we will focus on the content of this document, but we also need to look seriously at the alternatives. We should not necessarily buy the Government's line that there are no alternatives. The Labour Party offers an alternative approach to the front-loading of the cutbacks and the €6 billion the Government envisages cutting in next week's budget.
I would like to be associated with the commendation of those in communities who are working through difficult weather conditions. They prove that at these most difficult times for the country, there is hope and there are possibilities among the people and we should seek to build on that. I look forward to the debate we will have later today on the EU-IMF package. I agree with Senator Bacik that we need to discuss the alternatives. I believe the alternatives are well known, but what is not understood are their consequences. If we debate the issues, the day will reveal much in that regard.
I also agree with Senator O'Toole's call for ongoing monitoring, by way of debate, of the Croke Park agreement and welcome the measures that are being taken to monitor it. I would like to go further. Given the budget we face and the programme we are discussing this morning, there is a need for those of us in the political system and those at the highest levels of the Civil Service to give real meaning to the term "burden sharing", especially in the context of the cuts that are expected across Departments, in social welfare and through taking more people at the lower level of pay into the tax system. There must be cuts in political costs and the cost of higher paid civil servants. I know this constitutes a breach of the Croke Park agreement, but for the 4,000 to 5,000 civil servants and for Members of both Houses, it is a measure that must be taken if the budget that is to be passed next week is to have any credibility.
Senator Bacik used an appropriate phrase - appalling vista - and I would like to apply the same phrase to the report published by the Central Bank yesterday on the review of bonus payments made to senior bankers. We have discussed at great length in the House the appalling mistakes made by the Government in regulating the banking sector over recent years. It is almost beyond contemplation that the same mistakes are still being made when these banks are in receipt of tens of billions of taxpayers' money and are one of the direct causes of the economic depression in which the country almost finds itself. The report published yesterday states, "The link between remuneration and risk management remains poorly defined, poorly articulated and poorly governed" and goes on to say: "Unless remuneration arrangements are given a more definite form, banks risk repeating past errors."
We have seen to our cost what these errors have been and the effects they have had on ordinary taxpayers. Now we have a report from the Central Bank saying the banks and bankers have not learned from their mistakes and the same culture is still in place.
Today of all days, and next week of all weeks, when the budget that will be introduced will show the cost of those mistakes to the country, the fact we have clear evidence that this continues to happen should be unacceptable to this House. It is absolutely unacceptable to the people of Ireland. I urge the Leader to arrange an immediate debate on this report.
With regard to the what Senator O'Toole said on the Croke Park agreement and the document published yesterday, what I find most dispiriting is that it tells us to do things that in our hearts we knew we should have been doing anyway. We should not need the IMF to tell us we need to tackle the cost of sheltered professions or accelerate implementation of the Croke Park deal. That, above all else, is the most deflating aspect of the document.
I commend Senator Twomey on his magnanimous contribution. He was brief and to the point and set a tone from which we could all learn. The resilience and generosity of the people have come to the fore once again in these challenging weather conditions. It is inspiring to see people helping each other, getting out to push a car, clearing snow, delivering groceries and so on. These people are providing leadership and we should respond by providing leadership here. It is very easy to go through a clinical analysis of the current economic crisis, but we must still depend on the spirit of the people. As we approach Christmas, the difficulties people face will suppress that spirit. Those of us who are secure financially should remain generous towards charities and should find ways of helping people. If we set that tone over Christmas, we can build on it for the other difficulties we face.
I appeal in particular to the media and urge it to adopt a positive attitude over the next few weeks. It has the power to support this spirit. Building the spirit of the people is not headline news but it is the fuel the engine will require to get over the huge challenges we face. We should try to build on what Senator Twomey described, reflect on it and try to be generous in our comments, even for the few weeks leading up to Christmas. If we return to the cut and thrust of politics again after Christmas, so be it. We all share the same feeling and it is only a question of somebody giving leadership in that regard.
I join Senator Twomey in paying tribute to decent, ordinary and simple values. I particularly mention Macra na Feirme which helped to organise the response among local communities, the ushers who did a terrific job, the Gresham Hotel near me and the planning office.
On the comments made by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, there was worse. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív - Dev Óg - said the Government was out of control and that it was time to pray. That is not an inspiring message.
I am concerned that, through the memorandum of understanding, an unelected group of bankers has firmly tied us down and prevented us from burning senior bondholders. We are in a battle with forces in Europe who are speculating against the euro in the hope of bringing it down. This is a war with clever people. On the continent of Europe is there not enough wit among our financial wizards to put together an array of armaments to fire back at these - the word I intended to use is unparliamentary - unscrupulous and devious people? Let us punish them for inflicting such misery on others.
I agree with Senator Donohoe on the obscene spectacle of leading bankers rewarding themselves with bonuses. As wild figures are thrown around, I do not know the truth of the statement I heard on the wireless that bankers in Britain had awarded themselves £7 billion in total. It was pointed out that £7 billion was the same amount as the cutting measures in Britain. If that is true, the money is being transferred from the poor to the rich. That is why I object so strenuously to the bondholders who are wealthy individuals. Let us take them on.
I agree with Senator Norris that we should take on the people concerned, to whom obscene amounts of money are being paid. As Senator Ó Murchú noted, we need to show leadership. Senator Boyle has shown it in his call for politicians to accept reductions in their remuneration in order to retain legitimacy as we make difficult but necessary decisions. I certainly did not become a Senator for the money and doubt many of my colleagues came here with the intention of being anything other than public servants. It is crucial that we retain legitimacy by showing our mettle on this issue.
I seek a debate on climate change and ask the Leader to indicate the status of the climate change Bill. The snow was incredibly deep as I walked back to my accommodation in Dublin at approximately 1 a.m. We are experiencing the coldest November on record and the climate is changing before our eyes. It is crucial, therefore, that we bring forward the necessary measures on climate change.
I concur with Senator Twomey and commend the efforts of very good people the length and breadth of the land.
Senators Bacik, Donohoe and Norris spoke about the serious matter pertaining to the banks. I recognise that we will debate banking issues today, but I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the specific issue of the banks, perhaps next week, in the light of the Central Bank report to which Senator Donohoe referred.
We have been given headline figures for reorganisation and downsizing, but we do not know the Government's detailed strategy for the banks. We are aware of the winding down of two institutions, but we do not have information on downsizing-----
As Senator Donohoe noted, the climate has changed, but the culture has not. Although the Government exercises control of financial institutions and its moral authority on behalf of the taxpayer extends beyond its shareholdings, it has not yet managed to replace all of the legacy directors and, more importantly, senior management. Many of these senior figures are now managing impaired portfolios on an agency basis for NAMA. I seek a debate on this specific issue in order that we can learn more about the Government's strategy.
To some extent, I endorse what Senator Donohoe and others have said about the Central Bank report. However, I am amazed that they are amazed about it. It is somewhat difficult to believe they are shocked or surprised because that is the way bankers behave. The Central Bank report was relatively mild because the bank pulls its punches when it raises these issues. In effect, the report indicates the banks are regrouping. The bankers have been travelling under the radar for the past 18 months, but they are up to their old tricks in rewarding themselves with unjustifiable bonuses at remuneration committees. Bonuses are awarded for acquisitions rather than avoiding risk. It is not a surprise.
The Government shares a large part of the blame for what is happening inside the banks. Token gestures have been made in terms of a few heads on plates at the top of the banks. The banks made a virtue out of capping salaries at €500,000 or €600,000. The taxpayer is paying the people concerned who are, basically, liquidators, €10,000 a week. They include those who work for Anglo Irish Bank. We should not be surprised.
I seek a debate on the fishing industry. I recognise that we will have a busy schedule until Christmas, but perhaps when we return in the new year, the Leader will set aside time some afternoon to discuss the current status of the fishing industry, particularly in the light of the ongoing review of the Common Fisheries Policy. My colleagues may not be aware that Iceland and the Faroe Islands are catching ten times the amount of mackerel Ireland is entitled to fish, even though this is an EU member state. I am shocked to think our quotas may be further reduced next week.
Reference was made to community spirit. I welcome what the IFA is trying to do in rural Ireland in terms of assisting local authorities to grit roads. It is perplexing that local authorities are refusing generous offers from organisations such as Macra na Feirme and the IFA on the grounds of a lack of insurance.
Groups such as the IFA and Macra na Feirme should be lauded and encouraged rather than discouraged for lending assistance to people in remote rural areas who need it in this difficult economic climate and these appalling weather conditions.
I call for a debate on the fishing industry in the aftermath of the Common Fisheries Policy as I am deeply concerned about the implications of this for the Irish fishing industry and our coastal communities. I also call for a debate on the agriculture industry particularly bearing in mind that if this inclement weather continues for several weeks, farming provisions will run out early in the spring, which is a frightening scenario. Neither the farmers nor the fishermen benefited from the Celtic tiger but these are the communities, particularly the farming sector, who can be the backbone of the recovery of this economy.
Tributes have been rightfully paid to the generosity and resilience of our people in the snowy weather during the past few days but it is worthy of mention yet again that the level of restraint and control our people have shown during the economic crisis in recent months is remarkable. Because they have shown this they deserve fairness and hope. What was contained in the Central Bank report yesterday was an affront to fairness. It is a disgrace and an affront to the good people of this country who have acted with great resilience, fortitude and restraint in recent months to witness that bankers are getting obscene bonuses, all their bad practices are continuing and that nothing has changed. That is wrong and it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. I ask the Leader to make a statement on that specific matter.
People need hope and the only way we can give them hope is by having a job creation strategy. The great anxiety and stress in every home is that young people - graduates, technically trained people and tradespeople - are without work. We need to have a series of debates in this House on job creation sector by sector in the New Year. My greatest objection to the IMF-EU agreement is that it has removed from us the capacity to create jobs immediately by removing the capacity for discretionary spending when such funding could have been used for job creation but it has been assigned to debt repayment all at once. It is shocking that this has happened. I ask the Leader specifically to arrange for a detailed debate early in the New Year on job creation strategies in agricultural, tourism and every sector, even if we have to sit extra days. If we do not do that, it will be an obscenity and insult to the people who have shown such restraint.
Like other Senators, I am concerned that it has come to the attention of the Central Bank that bonuses are being paid. What are the bonuses for? There is nothing in the banking system from which to take any good cheer such that anybody should be paid extra for the work he or she is doing. If it was not for the direct indication from the EU that it does not want any default on any bank debt, many of us here on this side of the House would be calling for a default. However, it is clear that the EU does not want a Lehman's type situation and that is understandable. With that in mind, it is time we had a debate on this matter. If the bankers have not learned anything from all that has happened, where are we going? It is not a question of being Scrooge at Christmas time; the reality is that there is no reason for a bonus to be paid. There is no good news in the banking sector that warrants anybody getting bonus payments at the moment; they are lucky to have their jobs.
I join others in calling for a debate on the Central Bank report published yesterday. It is extraordinary that a Government that can cut the minimum wage can allow excessive pay, higher remuneration and bonuses to be given to bankers. That is some indictment of the Leader's Government. Senator Ross was right in saying that we should not be shocked or surprised by that. The bank culture and the bad practice in the banks have not changed. We own the banks now. We should be dictating and directing policy and informing them. The Central Bank report did not go far enough; it was far too meek and mild. That is the reason we need to have a debate on it.
I compliment public sector workers who went out in the elements yesterday to make sure that essential public services were available. Public transport was available and hospitals were kept open. Public transport was never more needed in this city than it was yesterday. We do not see the cynics and the critics in here today talking about the great work that was done yesterday. Volunteers also went out to help out throughout the country. It is that kind of spirit that we need to keep alive and that candle of hope, to which Senator O'Reilly rightly referred, that we need to keep lit.
I also call for a debate on the national lottery. I raised a matter on the Adjournment Debate yesterday on where the proceeds of the national lottery go and, to say the least, the reply was disappointing. National lottery sales are increasing. There is money coming into the Exchequer coffers from such sales and the House and the people of Ireland deserve to know where it goes.
On the issue of the Central Bank report, it is shameful in the extreme that bonuses are being presided over at this time. We all find that shocking. On the issue of remuneration, I have said many times previously that the salaries of those in the public sector earning over a certain threshold - not the less well off but those who are higher paid - need to be examined. This also applies to all Government-supported agencies, whether it be the FAI, the IRFU, obviously the banks of which we have so much ownership, or the semi-State sector; we cannot preside over salaries struck at levels at a time that the State was relying on a tax base that was completely unsustainable, as we now all know. There needs to be adjustment downwards.
The suggestion by the IMF that there needs to be public sector pay cuts if the Croke Park agreement is not realised within nine months is laughable in the extreme. I must repeat that if this was a business plan, it would have been agreed yesterday and implemented this morning. If there is an agreement in place and work practices are to be changed, they need to change immediately; otherwise, we should cut public sector pay and do it quickly, and not wait nine months to do so. We need to realise the kinds of efficiencies that are necessary. We need to insulate the lower paid in the public service but the people, the sacred cows, above a certain level need to face up to reality, and we need to have adjustments downwards. Certainly, that includes those in the banks who, effectively, are public sector workers by extension.
I read during the week that the FAI announced that it will take significant cuts, and that is just too. Sligo Rovers won the cup a few weeks ago and they got €100,000 as a bonus for winning it, but the chief executive officer of the FAI receives more than €450,000. How is that just in a society? How much money on an ongoing basis does the likes of executives in the FAI - not to hone in on the CEO of that organisation - and many other agencies get?
I wish to put on the record an issue about which the Cathaoirleach will not be pleased. Senator O'Toole mentioned earlier in the week that he intends not to seek re-election. That is a major retrograde step for this country. As one of the fathers of social partnership, which gave so many benefits to this country, I hope that in the interests of this country he will re-consider that decision and ensure, as a Member of Seanad Éireann in the future, unlike this time, that it will reformed.
I call on the Leader to contact the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Transport to deliver a common statement to all county councils on how best to assist our rural communities during these extremely bad weather conditions. Louth and Meath, among other parts of the country, have been worst hit by the recent bad weather. We need a uniform policy among councils in this respect. I do not understand how one county council can refuse to allow local people, including farmers, to collect salt and grit from a local council depot and treat the roads in the rural areas and bad junctions which a council refused to treat. I am aware that last January Donegal County Council assisted communities in such circumstances. Kerry County Council is currently doing so, yet Louth County Council and Meath County Council are refusing to do so. It does not make sense that one council dictates one policy because of the views of a group of engineers or a county manager, while another council dictates a totally different policy. People in rural Ireland cannot get to school, work or make hospital appointments. I call on the Leader to contact the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Transport to instruct county managers and county engineers to deliver a uniform policy that allows salt and grit to be accessible and available to local communities.
I thank the Cathaoirleach very much. I am happy to have the opportunity to be called. What progress, if any, has been made in regard to my suggestion to the Leader to discuss and reach agreement with other group leaders to improve the Order of Business and set aside time in our weekly schedule for important and topical debate? Very often Members call for a Minister to come to the House to discuss a particular issue. We all know that finance and job creation are the two topical issues. I have said before that we should set aside time in our weekly schedule to accommodate such debate. The relevant Minister would be able to attend knowing it was a weekly slot.
I find the procedures and fairness in calling Members on the Order of Business somewhat frustrating. Today I was here from the start of the Order of Business and I noticed people coming into the Chamber after me but being called before me. It is not the first day this week I noticed that. Perhaps there is room for improvement.
I fully accept that. I congratulate the volunteers, local authorities and all in the emergencies services who are endeavouring to respond to the challenging weather conditions affecting the country which are also having a major impact on small and medium-sized businesses. I encourage people, therefore, to buy local and to buy Irish.
Will the Leader seek clarification on whether it is legal to use snow chains on tyres? Some companies are selling them on the Internet. Snow sleeves are also available. Will the Leader get clarification on that? I do not expect him to get it today but perhaps some day next week.
Senators Twomey, O'Toole, Bacik, Boyle, Ó Murchú, Norris, Coghlan, Buttimer and Callely all congratulated our local authority workers, public transport workers, the Garda Síochána, the Civil Defence, the Defence Forces, hospital staff, church leaders, teachers and all those helping during the very bad weather we are experiencing. I fully agree the media have a responsible role in this regard and in fairness to our national television channels and radio stations, they are answering the call and are providing up-to-date information, practically minute by minute. I say well done to them. We certainly need all the assistance that can be given.
As Senator O'Donovan outlined, the Irish Farmers Association, the Gaelic Athletic Association, all sporting organisations and Macra na Feirme are trying to help rural people in areas where no gritting is taking place. They must be commended on that. The local authorities should use their discretion in these areas.
Senator Carroll highlighted the difference in the regulations and in the interpretation of them in the local authority areas. I will pass on the Senator's comments to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in particular in regard to the Senator's native county of Louth, after the Order of Business.
I agree with Senator Callely that we should encourage our people to buy local and buy Irish at this extremely difficult time. The bad weather will have a considerable impact on the retail sector. As someone involved in the retail business for many years, I have often said that three or four snowy weeks before Christmas, when more than 50% of the year's profitable turnover occurs, would be a disaster for the retail sector. I fully support Senator Callely's call to shop local and buy Irish, if at all possible.
Senators O'Toole, Boyle, Norris, Ó Brolcháin, Coghlan, Hanafin and MacSharry called for speedier implementation of the Croke Park agreement. This House has taken on the responsibility of holding the Minister, the Department and everyone involved to account for the speedy implementation of the agreement and I want to send the message out loud and clear that this House will hold them to account on a monthly basis. The Minister has been very forthcoming in supporting that call by the House. That is what we will do until the agreement is implemented.
Senator Bacik asked about the budget which will be announced next Tuesday. We will debate it for as long as Senators require. She again raised the question whether the recent agreement with the EU, ECB and IMF needed to be passed by the Dáil in accordance with an article of the Constitution. The Taoiseach has rebutted this concern and the Attorney General has advised the Government on how it is conducting its business and on constitutionality in this regard.
Senators Donohoe, Norris, Coghlan, Ross, Hanafin, Buttimer and MacSharry called for a debate on the Central Bank report. I have no difficulty holding such a debate before the Christmas recess. I mention the issues outlined in the House this morning, including the sheltered professions. It is an area the Government is seriously considering currently. We had a long debate yesterday at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting on how we can fast-track this and implement it as soon as possible.
Senator Ó Brolcháin asked about the up-to-date position on the climate change Bill, about which Senator Bacik asked yesterday. The Bill will be published in the next two weeks.
Senator O'Donovan called for a debate on the fishing industry. I propose that Fianna Fáil Private Members' time next Wednesday be used to respond to this urgent matter and the challenge in regard to the Common Fisheries Policy and the industry.
Senator O'Reilly referred to job creation and hope. I fully agree with his wishes in that regard and I will do everything I can to see that it is covered over the next few days, starting today.
Senator Buttimer called for a debate on the national lottery which is very timely. I have no difficulty arranging such a debate but perhaps he might speak to the Fine Gael leader and use Fine Gael Private Members' time, if possible, to debate it before Christmas. It is an issue about which many constituents are asking.
Senator MacSharry called for Senator O'Toole to reconsider his position after the next election. We all echo that call. He has been a tower of strength to this House and has been central to many of the changes that have taken place over the past 30 years. No one has made a greater contribution to public life or to the affairs of this House than the Senator. I fully agree with Senator MacSharry's call, and I would say I am speaking for all Members of Seanad Éireann.
Senator Callely spoke about the Order of Business. That is governed by Standing Orders, as I am. It is implemented under the supervision of the Cathaoirleach, and I extend an invitation for anybody with a good idea to improve the Order of Business and make it more meaningful. I have no difficulty in that taking place.