Thursday, 25 April 2013
Order of Business
The Order of Business is Nos. 1-4, inclusive, on the Order Paper: No. 1, motion regarding the arrangements for the address to the House by Seán Kelly, MEP, on 30 April 2013, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion regarding the arrangements for the address to the House by Nessa Childers, MEP, on 1 May 2013, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, motion regarding the arrangements for the address to the House by Marian Harkin, MEP, on 2 May 2013, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 2; No 4. address to the House by Pat the Cope Gallagher, MEP, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3 in accordance with the arrangements set out in the motion passed by the House on 24 April.
It is safe to say this has probably been one of the best weeks for the two Irish pillar banks since this Government took over. First, the Government bottled it by deciding to abstain from a vote on directors' and executives' remuneration in Bank of Ireland, an action I am sure the Leader will admit has at best disappointed the public and at worst angered it because it shows the Government has no opinion whatsoever on the fact that executives are being paid telephone number-style remuneration packages with a bank that last year lost more than €2 billion. That is incredible. In addition, yesterday evening we learned that another State bank, AIB, which is 99% owned by the taxpayer, is to increase its variable mortgage interest rate by 0.4%, resulting in an increase of approximately €20 per €100,000 per month for variable rate mortgage-holders in AIB, EBS and Haven Mortgages, which is owned by AIB.
What I cannot understand, what the general public cannot understand, is how it makes any type of sense for the Government to permit AIB to allow an increase in the variable mortgage interest rate when there are tens of thousands of people either in mortgage arrears or about to fall over the arrears cliff. Will the Leader explain to me the rationale for AIB's rate increase? Does the Government agree it is right and proper for AIB to increase its mortgage interest rate by 0.4%? I ask the Leader to answer the question in the context of reports that it is more than likely that the ECB is to reduce its base lending rate by 0.25%. In a situation where there may be an ECB base rate of 0.5% AIB, in advance of that move, actually increases its variable rate by 0.4%. What is the Government doing for mortgage holders and how can mortgage holders be expected to understand the rationale whereby a State-owned bank is allowed to increase its variable rate by 0.4%? This week has been a disaster for the Irish consumer as far as Irish banks are concerned.
I wish to propose an amendment to today's Order of Business calling on the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, to come to this House for a half an hour to outline to me and my colleagues his view on AIB's decision to increase its variable mortgage interest rate by 0.4% when it looks like the ECB will reduce its base rate in the coming days. Where is the fairness and equity in that?
I welcomed the Leader's comment yesterday on the pay packages of the executives in Bank of Ireland. He said he did not agree with those packages, which is fine, but the Government did nothing about it. What is the Government proposing to do about the AIB's interest rate increase? Is it going to drag representatives of the bank into Government Buildings or the Department of Finance? I would like to ask the Minister for Finance, if he comes to the House today, what is the view of our public interest directors in AIB on the interest rate increase. I will table an amendment to the Order of Business to request that the Minister for Finance comes to this House for a half an hour today to discuss the variable rate increase announced by AIB.
This morning I would like to welcome the formation of the working group, comprising the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Minister of States at the Department of Health, Deputies White and Lynch, to tease out the difficulties with the protection of maternal life Bill, with the aim of presenting the heads of that Bill to the Cabinet next Tuesday. I welcome that development and stress that everybody wants sensible and workable legislation to be introduced which is rooted in the expert group's report which was published before Christmas. That is what everybody wants and rather than ratchet up the shouting, we should try to approach this in the calm and measured way that an issue such as this deserves. This legislation is extremely important and the stakes are far too high for people to be screaming and gossiping about what is happening. The approach taken is a good one.
I would also like to welcome, as did Senator Comiskey on another occasion, the funds set aside by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, for the fodder crisis. I also wish to stress that a dedicated helpline has been set up at the Department for those farmers who need assistance. Farmers are experiencing great difficulties at present and we owe a debt of gratitude to the various co-operatives, including Dairygold and Connacht Gold and others, which are assisting farmers by seeking to import fodder from the UK and subsidising the prices for that fodder. It is extremely important that everybody works together at this time to solve this serious problem. It is to be hoped these difficulties will pass as the weather improves.
I ask the Leader to arrange for the public consultation committee report on cancer and lifestyle to be discussed in the House. New research involving 350,000 people across Europe shows that there is a very clear link between fizzy drinks and type 2 diabetes, which can lead to hypertension, cardiovascular problems and cancer. I ask that we invite a Minister to the House to discuss the findings of the public consultation committee. I urge the development of a programme of public advice, particularly for parents, explaining the real risks that arise from offering their children fizzy drinks. While such drinks may be offered as an occasional treat, they actually pose a grave risk to health.
I welcome No. 32 on the Order Paper, the Financial Stability and Reform Bill, which was discussed in the House yesterday. I thank Senators Hayden and Sheahan on the Government side and Senators Byrne, Quinn and O'Brien on the Opposition side, for their contributions to that discussion. I would also like to thank the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Hayes, who turned aside the advice of his civil servants not to accept the Bill and accepted the advice of this House. Hence, the Bill is on the Order Paper.
We need to reform banking, to increase the capital of the banks, to move to equity and to separate utility banking from casinos. This is happening in the United States of America and the United Kingdom and I request the Leader to ask the Tánaiste to supply, through our diplomats in those countries, information on what is going on in terms of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform and the Consumer Protection Act, the Brown-Vitter banking legislation, the Volckler Rule and the banking reform Bill in the UK, which is now on Report Stage. We should not rely on Europe because this is not a problem in Europe. Germany has spent about 3% of GDP bailing out banks, while we have spent almost 60% doing so. This is our problem and it must be solved here.
I welcome the determination of the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, to do so but we need something about banking on the A list, preferably, or at least on the B or C list. This unreformed sector has drained the Exchequer and society of vast sums of money for nearly five years. There must be a sense of urgency about this. The Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, has that sense but I am not so sure that his advisers or officials in the Department of Finance share it. We need a Bill to regulate this sector because the problem of the high earnings could be solved then. Let those people gamble with their own money by raising equity rather than being bailed out by the taxpayer when something goes wrong. The treatment of people in mortgage arrears could be addressed, as well as many of the other issues about which Members are concerned. These issues and problems can be solved if we move quickly, as the Minister of State intends to do, to adapt the best policies from the United States and the United Kingdom to regulate banks properly.
We must reverse the way in which supervision was removed from the banks. They have been insulting members of this Parliament and this entire society for a long time. The banking system must be properly supervised to ensure that these problems do not recur. It is essential that the permanent government shows some urgency and stops hanging around with the 26 other European Union countries. It must go to the countries where this problem started and where it is now being corrected. Our diplomats must funnel back the necessary information so that we are up to date on what is happening. This is urgent. Otherwise we will continue to have questions such as those raised by Senators Hayden and O'Brien this morning about the way that a rescued, highly-subsidised banking system abuses the rest of society.
Senator O'Brien is always interesting to listen to on the Order of Business and, indeed, otherwise. However, he knows full well that it was a previous Administration which signed off on the remuneration package of the man in Bank of Ireland to whom he referred.
The Minister is awaiting a response from the banks. Regarding events yesterday, Senator O'Brien again knows full well that the State equity in Bank of Ireland is 15% and reducing. The institutional investors and their proxies own approximately 75% or 80% of the shares in the bank. That fact was well known. This is a commercial operation-----
We cannot have a situation in which the taxpayer has to ride to the rescue again to bail the bank out. We certainly do not want that to happen. That is a commercial decision that no Government, past or present, should interfere with.
That is Government policy - we are not going to interfere. We must have commercially viable, profitable banks. I am not standing over the decision, which will be very tough for mortgage holders.
We must go down the route proposed by Senator Barrett, which is supported by the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes. I am delighted there has been a meeting of minds on that because there must be proper regulation and supervision of the banking system, which was certainly lacking during Fianna Fáil's time in office.
I second Senator O'Brien's amendment to the Order of Business. I accept what Senator Coghlan is saying in some respects. However, while the banks may be commercial institutions, we cannot ignore the fact that they are central to our economic problems and they must also be central to finding solutions to those problems. The fact that a senior banker is being paid €800,000 per year is unacceptable. It is not right to suggest that we have to adopt a hands-off approach in regard to that while at the same time trying to convince the rest of the population that they must accept austerity measures. The Irish people are accepting those austerity measures in very good spirit but also in the hope that something will change.
The Bank of Ireland AGM made for dismal viewing on television last night.
It was left to Deputy Ross to make the case that we have to be making here and the Government should be making. I do not know how long the patience of the people will continue - we seem to expect a lot from them. We are not in the blame game politically - it is not about that. If it is a commercial institution and we take it off the radar, then the banks disappear behind a smokescreen and in some way we cannot give answers to the types of questions asked at yesterday's AGM. After bailing out the banks, there is something wrong in the methodology that is being applied in regard to the banks and they need to be held accountable in the Oireachtas. That does not take from the requirement for them to be viable commercially. Nobody is suggesting that.
However, we are dealing with an unusual situation just as it was an unusual situation for the taxpayers to have to bail out the banks. We can say it was Fianna Fáil or somebody else who did it - we have gone way beyond that stage. People are weary of that type of debate, which leads us into a cul-de-saceach time while people on the ground are still suffering.
I do not believe we have seen the end of the austerity measures in spite of the signals coming from some Ministers. The austerity measures coming down the line may not be as open as before. They will be some kind of hidden tax. However, we have obligations to Europe. We cannot accept that anybody is entitled to €800,000 a year while somebody else is expected to live on €200 or €230 a week. That is the bottom line. We should not make excuses for the banks either. We are only fuelling the situation by making those excuses. If it is not in the generosity of anybody earning €800,000 a year to stop and say, "Wouldn't I be doing very well if I got €200,000 a year?", then pressure needs to be applied. While not necessarily legally, we have to apply pressure. The Government should have used its 15% stake and voted at the AGM, even if it might not have been seen as correct in economic or commercial circles. We need to send out a clear message that austerity in the future will not work. It is not working now and will not work in the future unless we hold these people to account and they also become part of the solution.
I congratulate Senator Barrett on his Bill, which was a very interesting and timely Private Members' Bill. It was very positive that the Minister of State accepted that even though EU legislation is being prepared on a macro level, it was perfectly acceptable to introduce in parallel separate national legislation on banking regulation. I am on record on a number of occasions as saying that our current banking system is not fit for purpose. We can point to a number of examples, including interest rates and bankers' remuneration. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister with specific responsibility, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, to come to the House for a debate on banking.
Last week I congratulated the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, INDI, which had launched its inaugural "Nourish Children" week. I called for a debate on INDI's recommendations particularly those on childhood obesity where it highlighted serious deficiencies in childhood obesity services. One recommendation was the removal from schools of vending machines selling high-calorie and sugary products. Research published today by Imperial College London shows that there is irrefutable causal evidence that drinking just one can of carbonated drink per day increases a person's chances of developing type 2 diabetes by 20%. Diabetes is one of the most significant emerging diseases in the world. Last week I called on the Leader to ask the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, to have vending machines removed from schools. No contribution those machines make to a school's finances is worth the long-term health risks to children. More importantly, State money is being invested in community centres, sports centres etc. with similar vending machines and I expand my request to all Ministers to show leadership in removing these machines from facilities in receipt of State money.
I warmly congratulate Senator Barrett. I do not remember an occasion when the Government accepted such significant legislation in the economic sphere from this side of the House. The importance of the Financial Stability and Reform Bill cannot be overestimated. I ask the Leader to ensure it is put on the A list, which is the way forward.
At a human level, I understand that to have people on such a grotesque level of salary as the chairman of the Bank of Ireland confronting people who have been ruined by the malpractice of the bank - many of them bankrupted - at an AGM is profoundly shocking, but it is a diversion. We should not be bothering with that kind of rubbish. The real substance was addressed in yesterday's debate on the Private Members' Bill. What Seanad Éireann did last night is the most positive thing that has been done in recent years in the financial area and that should be recognised. Chasing after individuals is a waste of time. One understands the reasons the public might do so, but there are politicians floating around the place who were egging on those bankers in the same practice and they are now coming out for another diversion with nothing substantial to offer to get us out of it. That is why I applaud Senator Barrett.
I wish to mention two very positive things. This House has a job-shadow initiative which brings people in to see the work of the House. I have here on job shadow with me a distinguished person, Mr. Niall Monahan, the son of an old friend of mine Mr. Ken Monahan, a nephew of James Joyce. I am delighted at the wonderfully positive initiative to plant 1 million trees - not Sitka spruce but broadleaf trees - in one day. I understand you, a Chathaoirligh, and the Ceann Comhairle will be planting at 12.30 p.m.
I am sure those salaries were discussed in the Galway tent at the time and there was no talk of reducing the €2 million to €800,000 or €500,000. I am totally opposed to any bank employee getting €800,000, €600,000 or €500,000 and I fully support the calls from my Labour Party colleagues in the Dáil that this should not have happened. The Minister should have objected but that would have been a futile exercise and I understand his stance. Ordinary people want to see the Government take on the banks, which is what we are doing unlike the previous Government.
A person appeared on last night's news bulletins and spoke about Bank of Ireland's AGM. I will not mention the name of that individual but he is a former Senator and in the past he proposed that Seán FitzPatrick should have been Governor of the Central Bank. That is more revisionism.
He would be delighted to come here. The Senator should submit a request that he do so to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP. I am sure Deputy Martin would be delighted to come to the House to answer Senator Harte's questions.
In 2009 the then workers at Waterford Crystal received the news that they were going to lose their jobs because the company was insolvent. Hundreds of jobs were eventually lost. The former workers also discovered, to their horror, that the vast majority of their pensions were gone. This was because the company pension scheme was insolvent. Most of them received between 18% and 28% of their pensions. The former workers were made aware of the fact that the State, by not transposing into domestic law a European Union directive on pensions which gives protection to all pension holders, had failed in its responsibility to protect them. Some ten of them took proceedings against the State at the European Court of Justice, which ruled this morning that the State failed in its obligations to protect them. In short, it found that the State was in serious breach of those obligations.
When the former workers lost their jobs, the way they were treated by the company and the then Government was nothing short of an insult. However, the State added insult to injury by defending the indefensible in the court case to which I refer. The State took this approach despite the fact that Britain had previously lost a similar court case. There is a responsibility on the current Government to finally do the right thing for the former workers of Waterford Crystal and all other workers in the State. Two things must be done. First, all former workers at Waterford Crystal must be compensated for the fact that the State failed to meet its obligations. Second, the Government must introduce legislation designed to transpose the relevant EU directive into Irish law in order to provide all workers with a level of protection and to ensure that when they pay into pension schemes, people will obtain a reasonable return. The directive in question stipulates that every pension scheme should have a built-in insurance fund in order that workers will receive back at least 60% of the amount they invest.
I commend the ten former Waterford Crystal workers who took their case to the European Court of Justice. I strongly criticise the State for defending the indefensible in this instance. The latter approach was just crazy. The Government has a responsibility to do right by the former workers at Waterford Crystal and by all those who pay into pension schemes.
I congratulate Senator Barrett on the very significant Private Members' Bill he brought before the House last evening. I hope that Bill will make a significant contribution to the regulation of the banking sector here in the future. I agree with previous speakers that no one can stand over the obscene salaries being paid to some bank officials. In that context, many previous speakers referred to the over €800,000 being paid to one individual. When the banks submit their proposed cuts of 6% to 10% to the Minister for Finance next week, I hope these will contemplate very significant reductions in the salaries of the highest paid officials in the banking sector. I call on bankers to put the country first for once and to make very significant adjustments to their salaries.
Will the Leader arrange a debate with the Minister for Health in respect of the cost to the health service of the treatment of alcoholism? It is reported in this morning's edition of my local newspaper that €22 million - €4.4 million per year - has been spent in this regard in the past five years at University College Hospital Galway and Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe. The amount in question equates to 35,000 bed days. Mr. Joe Treacy, a well-known addiction counsellor and secretary of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, has stated that the easy availability of alcohol in every supermarket and superstore throughout the country is making a significant contribution to the problem of alcoholism. This fact, along with the amount of advertising in respect of alcohol products, must be addressed. At a time when we are enduring the worst recession in the country's history and when people's finances are under severe pressure, it is incredible that there has been a significant increase in the amount spent on alcohol. Increasing numbers of people are being treated in hospital in respect of the abuse of alcohol.
It is time we revisited this matter and the Minister for Health must be involved and must provide information on the costs incurred in respect of it by the health service. We must address issues such as availability, the display of alcohol products in supermarkets and advertising. Many Senators have raised these issues in the past but it is time to take the matter seriously in light of the figures which have become available today.
Yesterday was a particularly good one for the House. I add my voice to those of others who congratulated Senator Barrett not only on what was a very good debate on the banking sector and financial stability but also on the fact that the Minister did not, as had been planned, vote against the Bill. This serves as a reminder of what this House can do and of the skills and abilities possessed by its Members. The debate on Senator Barrett's Bill was one of a number of extremely useful debates which took place here yesterday.
I met a man yesterday who informed me about the benefits of which he had availed by virtue of being able to tap into his additional voluntary contributions, AVCs, following a provision in that regard which was included in the budget. The individual in question was able to eliminate his credit card debt and pay his daughter's secondary school fees. I mention this matter because the suggestion that people be allowed to access some of the moneys they paid in the form of AVCs originated in this House. This is another reminder of the value of the Seanad. I hope the Government recognises the benefit of having individuals such as Senator Barrett and others here because they are able to make suggestions which benefit the community in general.
The man to whom I refer only took €10,000 out of his AVCs as a result of the strict limits which apply. Denmark adopted a similar approach in 2007. Allowing people to access their pensions in this way on an open-ended basis has given rise to huge benefits for that country's economy. I request that the House engage in a debate on this subject at some point in the near future in order that we might encourage the Government to consider what has happened in other jurisdictions. In Denmark, the economy took off and people were able to access their money, invest and spend it and open small businesses. I am of the view that we could engage in a debate on this matter which would be similar to the one initiated by Senator Barrett during Private Members' time last night.
I compliment Senator Barrett on the Bill he introduced yesterday and on the literature relating to it which he circulated to all Members and which explained its contents in very simple terms. I was on the point of standing up and apologising to the Senator for the fact that the Government was most likely not going to accept the Bill and for the nonsense whereby while I agreed with the legislation, I was going to be forced to vote against it. Before I could do so, however, I noticed further nonsense whereby a Minister of State who appeared to be very interested in the Bill and who engaged with those on all sides was obliged to leave and was replaced by another Minister of State who knew nothing about the debate which had taken place during the previous 90 minutes. If the Seanad is to have a future, then the Whip system must be sorted out. In addition, the type of thing to which I refer in respect of last night's debate should not be allowed to happen.
There was a ferocious culture of lending during the period leading up to the banking crisis. I cannot remember a day during that time when I did not return home from work to find a letter addressed to my wife in which she was being offered loans of €30,000 or €40,000 to replace our car, remodel our kitchen or whatever. All she would have been obliged to do to obtain one of those loans was sign her name beside the big red X. It is no wonder that the culture to which I refer gave rise to the crisis with which we are now dealing. I agree with Senator Darragh O'Brien that when bankers are paid €800,000 per year, it is difficult to see that culture changing. I am of the view that the culture in question is going to be with use for a long time.
Before the Cathaoirleach asks, there are two questions I wish to pose.
I have never heard anyone answer these two questions, and they are simple questions. Given the fact that we have recapitalised the banks, have we any say in the running of the banks? It is a simple question. We have put 15% into Bank of Ireland. We are allowing a man to earn €800,000 per year. Have we any say in how the bank does its business? The second question relates to the money we put into these banks. Will we ever get it back? Is there a clause such that when they start making profits, we get it back? I want to make one further point in this regard.
I am sorry about that. Can I make one point? I am aware of someone who owes the Bank of Scotland €400,000. It is willing to accept €150,000 and walk away and leave this woman with a property that is worth €150,000, as long as she can simply find €150,000. However, no Irish bank will give her €150,000.
I wish to support my long-lost relative, Senator Darragh O'Brien, and his amendment. It links up with what I wish to speak about this morning. I welcome the Government's publication of the Action Plan for Jobs last month and its excellent press release from last Monday, in which it announced 20,000 new jobs in manufacturing by 2016. I call on all Senators to engage with me. Can we please have the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, in to discuss the Action Plan for Jobs?
There are many entrepreneurs and citizens throughout Ireland that have ideas to start businesses. There is a wonderful website overseen by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and there is wonderful help available but this does not correspond to the reality I find. Recently I have met ladies, gentlemen, young people and older people who have great ideas to start businesses. However, when they get to the level of meeting people they only get so far because, ultimately, the money or the help to borrow the money is not available. We must go back to the question of those banks freeing up some of the money that we lent to them and lending it to entrepreneurs.
Let us remember that entrepreneurs take a considerable risk if they start a business because our social welfare system will not support them if they fail. The fear of failure is considerable among these people. Although I warmly welcome the Action Plan for Jobs I believe we need to dive deep and look at the nuts and bolts and the reality of the journey for an entrepreneur and ensure we get it absolutely right.
I wish to join other speakers on the issue of bankers' salaries. It strikes me that if a doctor or solicitor or some other professional had behaved as irresponsibly when it came to their profession as the bankers in this country have when it came to lending, they would be hauled in before the Law Society of Ireland or the Medical Council and struck off. These same bankers are earning in excess of €800,000. No one can stand over this. I hope the Government will take a strong line with these bankers. They are not coming in here next week but we should haul them in here. If the Oireachtas inquiries referendum had passed it would be the very situation whereby we could have the bankers in here and scrutinise them properly about their lending habits and these vast salaries. As Senator Mullins stated, they are planning cuts next week. I hope there will be sufficient and sizable cuts especially in the larger salaries in the banks. I am disappointed that they are let get away with this level of pay and that they are breaking the caps that were implemented. The whole thing is sickening for the average person.
If the Cathaoirleach will indulge me I wish to briefly mention another matter. I had some creative therapists in the House yesterday who deal with many of our more vulnerable citizens who have all sort of difficulties when it comes to mental health. There are many innovative ways that these creative therapists can help people who have problems such as epilepsy and all sorts of psychological issues. They are not recognised as therapists under statute in this country. That makes no sense.
The Senator even has the Cathaoirleach distracted. I compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, on their child care initiative announced in the past 24 hours. They are indicating that they will roll out this initiative on a pilot basis for after-school care and provide a subsidy. That is welcome in this era of austerity and it will go some way towards relieving the difficulty that families are facing, especially single parent families, in placing children in child care facilities at an affordable price.
Will the Leader consider inviting in either the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Ring, or the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, to discuss alcohol sponsorship of sport? The Joint Committee on Transport, Energy and Communications, of which I am a member, has been holding hearings in recent weeks. We have invited in representatives of the various sporting bodies as well as the drinks federations. I imagine Members are familiar with this because it has received some considerable coverage. We should have an opportunity to debate the issue in this House because it is a hot and topical issue.
My position is that I have always been and remain somewhat uncomfortable about the strong connection between alcohol sponsorship and sporting activity. That is not to say that I am either against it or for it; I simply feel uncomfortable about it. I am sure there are Members on both sides of the House who have opinions which they would wish to express on this matter and it would be helpful if the Government formed an opinion. I am unsure whether he was speaking personally or on behalf of the Government but I understand the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is on record as saying that he was supportive of the continuation of the sponsorship of sport by drinks companies. It is an issue. It was put in focus following the report in yesterday's Irish Independent by a number of leading medical personnel, who pointed out that the incidence of liver disease had doubled since 1995, especially among those between 15 and 40 years. I am not suggesting that the drinks companies are directly responsible for that because of their sponsorship of sporting activities but I have asked the question of whether they bear any responsibility, apart from considering how to present the most glamorous advertisements on television to attract more people to drink. They argue that they are attempting to draw from their competitors rather than increase the overall consumption of drink.
Without rehearsing the debate, all I am suggesting is that there are several aspects to the issue that should be aired in the House. The exercise would be helpful to the Government in forming a conclusion. The issue has been around for a long time and it will not go away. It is evident to me from my experience in recent weeks of listening to the various witnesses making their presentations at the committee that this issue needs to get a continuing airing.
On Tuesday afternoon in the House we had a lovely afternoon with our young Senators, as we called them, transition year students from all over Ireland.
I congratulate the organisers of that event. We saw a wealth of talent from across the country. What we did not know, however, was that sitting in these seats was a 16-year-old girl who was suffering from narcolepsy as a result of a swine flu vaccination. A group called Sound has been established for the sufferers of unique narcolepsy disorders. Its members have met the Minister for Health who commissioned a report which has since been published. Some 54 children in Ireland are suffering from narcolepsy and they are represented by this group, Sound. The Minister has granted them temporary medical cards but has also promised to put in place a support package.
Many Senators and TDs are unaware of what is going on in this regard, so I have organised a briefing for all Oireachtas Members in the audio-visual room in the coming weeks. I hope that all Members will attend it to meet with some of the children who are suffering from this disorder, as well as their parents.
Can the Leader request the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, to attend the House? I would prefer to have a question and answer session with the Minister, rather than being confined to speaking on a Bill or other measure before us. Senators have other issues they would like to discuss with the Minister also. If the Minister wishes to do his homework, we can give him the topics in advance. The last such session was very valuable so I would ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister to come here so we can discuss all the relevant matters with him.
Senator Darragh O'Brien and others have mentioned bankers' salaries, but in particular that of the Bank of Ireland's CEO. I addressed this matter yesterday and said that it was totally immoral for anybody to be on that amount of salary. The Government only has a 15% share in the Bank of Ireland. The Mercer report demanded decreases of between 6% and 10% and I hope that will happen. I hope we will hear an announcement about that next week and that we will have in excess of 10% cuts for many of the senior executives in that bank. The Government is anxiously waiting for the banks to get back to it on that issue.
As regards the situation in AIB, it is regrettable that the bank's board has made a strictly commercial decision. The Irish taxpayer has invested over €20 billion in AIB, so it is essential that the bank is run in a commercial manner in the best interests of the shareholder. In this instance, the shareholder is the Irish taxpayer.
If the bank were to continue charging an unsustainably low rate for standard variable rates, it would mean that the taxpayer would have to put more capital into the bank. That is the current position. As I have said, the taxpayer has already put in over €20 billion, as Senator Darragh O'Brien well knows.
It would not be fair for 2.1 million taxpayers to subsidise 138,000 owner-occupier mortgage holders, especially when the vast majority of them can afford to pay and are paying. The average SVR mortgage in AIB is €128,000 and the changed rate will mean an increase of €24 per month. The average SVR mortgage in the EBS is €102,000 which will mean an increase of €17 per month. AIB's SVR is 4.4%, which is below the market average of 4.45%.
Having said all that, it is not sweet music to the ears of those who will have to pay increased mortgages. We all hoped there would be no mortgage increases at present when people are finding it hard to meet repayments. The Government has taken measures on mortgages, which I hope will benefit the vast majority of those in mortgage arrears. The Government is acting on that matter. When we came into power there were 45,000 people in mortgage arrears, yet the previous Government did sweet damn all about it.
Senator O'Keeffe referred to the helpline for the fodder crisis and complimented the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the co-ops who have worked together on this matter.
As regards the debate on lifestyle and cancer, and the public consultation report, on a number of occasions I have requested the Minister for Health to address this issue in the House. I have not yet had a positive reply, but I can assure Senators that I will continue to press the Minister to come here for such a debate. That public consultation report was a very good one. It was concise and dealt with the relevant facts and figures. Other Members have spoken about obesity and, in that regard, Senator Hayden referred to fizzy drinks and vending machines in schools and other areas under State control. It is all part of the public consultation on lifestyle and cancer that we have had. I hope the Minister will attend the House soon to address that issue.
Members have rightly praised Senator Barrett for the Financial Stability and Reform Bill which was introduced here yesterday. There is obviously a need to regulate this sector further, as has been pointed out by Senator Barrett. I was pleased that the Minister ultimately decided to accept the measure, although it was not the advice he was given coming into the House. There is no question but that we should adopt best practice and the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, is certainly supportive of that. I hope the legislation will not be left there and that we will see some action on it.
Senator Ó Murchú raised some points about banks and I have addressed those matters. In addition, I have also addressed Senator Hayden's comments on childhood obesity and hopefully we will get the Minister in to debate that issue.
Senator Norris spoke about proper and focused reform of the financial sector.
The Job Shadow programme was mentioned by Senator Conway yesterday, as well as the 1 million trees project which was also referred to by a number of Senators on yesterday's Order of Business.
Senator Harte reminded us that members of the Opposition have very short memories, but we will leave that point stand.
Senator Cullinane raised the issue of Waterford Crystal and the fact that the union and workers won their case. As a native of Waterford city, I welcome that decision. They won the case which was based on the seven points that were raised. It goes back to Article 8 of the 1980 EU directive, which was not properly transposed into law here. It was a failure of the Government at the time. The Carol Robins case in the UK was in 2007, but the Government did not act on that.
One finding was the onus now is on the State to police such pensions in the pensions schemes of all these companies. In that case the court also found that the State pension did not count in calculating the 49% or 50% that is absolutely necessary in order for people to get a minimum amount from their pension. People who had worked in Waterford Crystal for 40 or 45 years came out with only 18% or 20% of their entitlements from a scheme into which they had paid over the years. This was an absolute disgrace and should not be allowed to happen. I acknowledge the current Government also fought this case, and lost it, but I hope negotiations now will be held with the unions to address the findings of the European Court of Justice. Hopefully, this wrong will be righted in the not-too-distant future because many people who had been paying into their pension funds for years found themselves without a penny. It is a disgrace and there have been a number of requests, even this morning, that Members would have a debate on pensions. On foot of the publication of the OECD report, it probably is the right time for such a debate and I certainly will ask the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, to come into the House to address that issue.
Senator Mullins raised the issue of the easy availability of alcohol. Senator Mooney also raised this issue with regard to the sponsorship of sport by the drinks companies. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy White, indicated he would come into the House again to address this issue. As to whether it is necessary for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, or the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ring, to come into the House, Members definitely will have one of the-----
I definitely will try to have one of the aforementioned Ministers come in the House to address the problem. Again, this is a matter that was addressed on the Order of Business yesterday. As for the amount of publicity, smoking-related activity is gone as the advertising of tobacco products has been practically banned. Instead, one has the alcohol sponsorship of sports and other events. However, no one is speaking about how one now encounters online betting and gambling on each television set one turns on. Very few people are speaking about this.
Senator Kelly spoke on the reform of the Seanad and I understand another Bill will be published soon in this regard and hopefully next month Members will have an opportunity of discussing it in the House. I can tell the Senator that the Government has a 15% say in the Bank of Ireland. As Senator Paul Coghlan mentioned, Bank of Ireland has paid back quite a considerable amount of the capital that was put into it. I would be extremely doubtful as to whether the State gets back all its money from the AIB and the other banks. I have answered the two questions that no one else answered and I hope they are proper answers for the Senator.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien referred to the Action Plan for Jobs and welcomed the targeting of 20,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector in particular. She called for a debate and I certainly will arrange to have either the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, or the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, come in soon to debate that issue. Again, I believe this has been a good week for the Seanad. I remind Members of the debate held in this House on the question of jobs and the Action Plan for Jobs. It lasted for more than three hours without any Minister present, during which time Members came up with suggestions in respect of job creation. Many laudable suggestions were made, which have been taken on by the Government. Again, I believe this House is undervalued in such cases. Similarly, Senator Quinn again raised the issue of giving people access to some of their moneys from their additional voluntary contributions, AVCs. The suggestion was initially mooted in this House by the Senator and it was taken on by the Government. Consequently, many laudable suggestions have emanated from this House and this also should be remembered.
Senator Noone raised the position of creative therapists in the mental health sphere and I will arrange for the sought-for debate on adult mental health in particular. The Senator also welcomed the announcement on the missing children's hotline. Senator Mooney also welcomed the after-school child care places that were announced recently. I already have addressed the issue raised with regard to the sponsorship of sport. Finally, Senator Moloney spoke on the subject of people with narcolepsy who developed it on foot of receiving the swine flu vaccine and raised the possibility of having a debate with the Minister for Health, as well as calling for more question and answer sessions. Such questions and answer sessions were developed but a lot of people were not prepared to accept them. While I thought it was a very good development to have Members engaging in question and answer sessions with Ministers, I encountered criticism to the effect that Members were not allowed to speak on the various matters and sought more time to speak on them, rather than asking questions. I will try to come to a happy medium in this regard but I acknowledge one can never get it 100% right.
May I ask a question regarding No. 32 on the Order Paper, the Financial Stability and Reform Bill 2013 introduced by Senator Barrett? It was referred to earlier as having been accepted. While I would be happy were this the case, was it accepted or has it been parked?
On a point of clarification in respect of this Bill, it still appears on Second Stage, as Second Stage has not been concluded. Consequently, the Bill remains on the Order Paper for Second Stage.
Senator Darragh O'Brien has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That 30 minutes be set aside today for a debate with the Minister for Finance on the decision by AIB to increase the interest rate on variable mortgages by 0.4%." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Thomas Byrne
- John Crown
- David Cullinane
- Mark Daly
- Paschal Mooney
- Rónán Mullen
- David Norris
- Trevor Ó Clochartaigh
- Brian Ó Domhnaill
- Labhrás Ó Murchú
- Darragh O'Brien
- Mary Ann O'Brien
- Feargal Quinn
- Jim Walsh
- Diarmuid Wilson
- Sean Barrett
- Paul Bradford
- Colm Burke
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Maurice Cummins
- Michael D'Arcy
- Jimmy Harte
- Aideen Hayden
- James Heffernan
- Lorraine Higgins
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Marie Maloney
- Tony Mulcahy
- Michael Mullins
- Catherine Noone
- Marie Louise O'Donnell
- Susan O'Keeffe
- Pat O'Neill
- Tom Shehan
- Jillian van Turnhout
- Sean Barrett
- Paul Bradford
- Colm Burke
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- John Crown
- Maurice Cummins
- Michael D'Arcy
- Jimmy Harte
- Aideen Hayden
- Fidelma Healy Eames
- James Heffernan
- Lorraine Higgins
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Marie Maloney
- Tony Mulcahy
- Rónán Mullen
- Michael Mullins
- Catherine Noone
- Mary Ann O'Brien
- Marie Louise O'Donnell
- Susan O'Keeffe
- Pat O'Neill
- Feargal Quinn
- Tom Shehan
- Jillian van Turnhout