Wednesday, 22 April 2015
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on National Council for Special Education inclusion support services, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and conclude not later than 2 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than five minutes before the end of the debate; No. 2, Sport Ireland Bill 2014 - Second Stage, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 4.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; and No. 3, Public Services and Procurement (Social Value) Bill 2015 - Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m., with the time allocated for the debate not to exceed two hours.
I draw Members' attention to No. 3, a Bill I have produced with my colleagues with a view to assisting Irish businesses, the SME sector in particular, in accessing State contracts. I will be circulating a note on the Bill and ask Members to examine it. We have all received representations on how the State might do more to support businesses in accessing State contracts. What I propose in the Bill is already being done in other EU countries, including Denmark and Scotland, and complies with EU rules. I am hopeful Members will be able to support it on Second Stage and that, should it require amendment, we can scrutinise it further on Committee Stage.
The figures released by AIB which, according to anecdotal evidence, is not the worst bank when it comes to dealing with individuals in arrears reflect the increasing number of repossession orders being issued by all of the banks. This issue has become particularly acute in the past year, as we predicted would happen owing to the Government's introduction of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2013 which made it easier for banks to repossess homes, the watered down code of conduct on mortgage arrears which set aside the previous code and the abolition of mortgage interest supplement which had probably been the most targeted way of assisting those in arrears in making interest payments on mortgages. Families across the country are living in fear that their homes will be repossessed. I am certain that we have all been contacted by numerous people seeking our assistance in keeping the family home. That is ridiculous in a modern society. The system in place gives the banks a full veto. We argued against the inclusion of this provision in the personal insolvency legislation and, unfortunately, the issue has come home to roost. In this city and county less than 20 applications under the mortgage to rent scheme have been approved by lenders and local authorities in the past three years. There has, therefore, been a total failure to grapple with the problem.We have seen an increase in the value of properties over the past 18 months to two years. The banks are now moving because they know they will get as near as full if not full redemption of their loans. They are enforcing this even when people are doing their best to try to pay something. This is the single biggest problem we are facing at the moment, and the Government is doing nothing about it.
My colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath and others in the other House, and I, in this House, raised only a few weeks ago the ongoing scandal of the rip-off of variable mortgage rate customers. It is an utter scandal, yet there has been no action. Only now is the Government talking about having a look at the bank veto. It might have a look at doing something about the variable mortgage rates. We do not have time. People need action.
I am proposing an amendment on the Order of Business that the Minister for Finance would come into this House and outline what are Government plans to remove the bank veto and to ensure that people are afforded, at least, the protection of retaining their family homes to live in. This situation is getting worse daily.
I was delighted to attend just now the launch of the Yes Equality bus which will be making a nationwide tour over the coming four weeks. It will be calling for a Yes vote in the marriage equality referendum on 22 May. We have debated this issue already in this House, of course, but I ask colleagues to keep an eye out for the bus when it visits their local area and to tweet if they see it.
Yesterday a number of us called for a debate on a drug and alcohol strategy. I ask the Leader if he could ascertain when the public health (alcohol) Bill is likely to come before the Seanad. An excellent conference was organised in Dublin yesterday by Alcohol Action Ireland. It focused on girls, women and alcohol and the changing nature of female alcohol consumption, which is a particular issue of growing concern to those involved in seeking to reduce harm caused by alcohol. Among the issues debated at the conference was the issue of the public heath (alcohol) Bill and what can be done to bring that forward. Some very serious issues were raised at the conference about the level of alcohol-related harm in Ireland. That strengthens the call for debate on this issue. We might also seek to ascertain when we will have the specific legislation on this issue before us.
I also ask for a debate on the issue of prostitution and how best to reform the law. A report by the justice committee recommended criminalising the purchase of sex. The Minister for Justice and Equality brought forward a draft scheme of legislation before Christmas in which these provisions are contained. We very much welcome that and I have spoken in this House on the matter. I note, however, that some other measures to address prostitution may also be needed in the Bill. The justice committee has already asked the Minister to examine including those measures in the Bill.
This morning, Ruhama, along with the justice Departments in this jurisdiction and in the North, launched an all-Ireland, EU-funded campaign called Prostitution - We Don't Buy It. It asks men and boys to take a stand against sex trafficking and prostitution. It is an innovative and interesting campaign which is being run on an all-Ireland basis and it is supported by the justice Departments North and South. This campaign strengthens the calls for a debate on this issue and the calls to examine when we will forward the legislation the Minister has already published in a general scheme and the other provisions which may also be needed to ensure that we adopt an approach similar to that used in Sweden, where the purchase of sex is criminalised but the women engaged in the sale of sex are not.
I second my leader's proposed amendment and, in so doing, throw into the mix that when the Minister for Finance comes to the House he might explain why there is a resistance, allegedly, within his Department and among some Fine Gael Ministers in the Government to the Labour Party proposal, as enunciated by Deputy Willie Penrose, to reduce the bankruptcy period from three years to one year. This was alluded to by my colleague Senator Wilson yesterday. I too reiterate what he said in praising Deputy Penrose, who is a practising barrister as well as being an efficient Deputy in Longford-Westmeath. Deputy Penrose will be aware, as most of us are, of the way in which the banks are dragging their feet.
There is not a day goes by that we do not hear of the banks refusing to engage with people who have distressed mortgages. I cannot understand, as Deputy Penrose pointed out, why the Taoiseach is reported in the media as saying that he would be afraid that there would be a run on repossessions given that the rate of repossessions in the North of Ireland, where there is a one year bankruptcy period, is very low. With respect, I cannot understand the logic of that. I would have thought that if the banks were aware that there was a chance they would get nothing at all they would be more inclined to negotiate with distressed mortgage holders in the hope of getting some money back, rather than allowing them to go into bankruptcy.
I am not for one moment suggesting that bankruptcy is the panacea. However, at the time the then Minister, Deputy Shatter, brought the legislation before this House, I, along with others, queried why they were not introducing a similar bankruptcy environment to that of the UK and the North of Ireland. It does not make sense, particularly given we are bordering a jurisdiction with a one year bankruptcy period. I wondered why we could not introduce a similar one here. His reply was that we make laws for this country and that we are not worried about other countries. That seemed to me to be like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand and it is now coming home to roost.
I am sure that it is of particular concern to the Fine Gael Party that the Labour Party has referred to this as a red line issue. I hope the Minister for Finance will spell out what exactly are the objections. It seems to me to be a reasonable, sensible and logical proposal, given the nearby jurisdiction and the statistics that indicate that there has not been wholesale repossessions as a result of a one year bankruptcy period. I am sure that the people in the North of Ireland are no different in terms of the difficulties they are having in looking after mortgage repayments to those in this jurisdiction. From that point of view, I cannot understand the logic of it.
I welcome the visit of Prince Charles and Camilla to Sligo that is planned for the coming month or so. It is a great opportunity. He will visit Mullaghmore and Lissadell during his visit. I call now, if we could, to get him to celebrate Yeats when he is in north Sligo and to visit his grave. He could also visit Leitrim, off the Wild Atlantic Way, and visit the Isle of Innisfree and Glencar Waterfalls. He will travel to Northern Ireland. I believe that is the plan. If he is, he will be travelling along the N16 and there will be a great opportunity for him to visit the original Ballroom of Romance in north Leitrim, which has been refurbished and is now a country music museum. He could have a bit of a dance on the floor there. It is very good news for the north west.
It sounds like a great place to visit. I have a question for the Leader that relates to the affordability issues in the housing market. As colleagues are aware, rents are rising in Dublin and other major cities faster than people's incomes. Over the past months we have seen how this is putting pressure on tenants and the knock-on effect of this includes a rise in homelessness. We are seeing the households with least resources being pushed out of the market.
The latest official figures, reported in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times, show that almost 1,000 children are homeless and living in emergency accommodation in Dublin. Private sector rents in Dublin have increased on average by 7% for housing and by almost 11% for apartments over the past year. The number of children becoming homeless has been steadily rising every month since last June. A significant percentage of them are children of lone parents. I raised this issue of one parent family supports with the Minister for Social Protection in this Chamber last week. Many Senators expressed their concerns about the welfare of children of lone parents in light of the deprivation rates among these families. Senator van Turnhout and I suggested that the Department of Social Protection should investigate the access to adequate housing as part of its ongoing review for one parent family policies. I hope that proposal is followed through.
I am sure colleagues are aware the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, was cited in today's edition of The Irish Timesas saying that his proposals regarding temporary accommodation for homeless families have been rejected by Dublin city councillors as the councillors want a more long-term solution. The long-term solution is a functioning rental market, in which rent affordability can be guaranteed, due to adequate supply and appropriate regulation. The housing strategy by itself will not alleviate the immediate problem of unaffordable rent increases with instant effect. We cannot wait for the recovery to deliver a desired, sustainable rented sector in three to four years times. The most vulnerable in our society need help to remain in their homes right now.When the Minister of State with responsibility for housing debated these issues of affordability with us in February, he indicated that he is considering all options for achieving greater rent certainty and stability in the current market. Will the Leader provide us with an update on any plans to address the affordability issue in the private rented sector?
I wish to raise a public health issue that was brought to my attention by Professor Michael Turner, professor of obstetrics at UCD, who is calling for a national campaign on the benefits of taking folic acid for women of child-bearing age. The Seanad is the right place to initiate such a campaign. Folic acid is an important means of preventing neural tube defects, which are, once again, on the increase in Ireland. Research shows that only one in four Irish women takes folic acid prior to pregnancy. According to Professor Turner, to achieve maximum benefit, women should be taking it for four months prior to trying to conceive. A major education campaign on the benefits of folic acid is needed. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health to issue a statement and commence a national campaign? We must intervene immediately to reverse the increase in serious neural tube defects, including spina bifida, by ensuring more women are supplementing their diet with folic acid. This applies to all women of child-bearing age, not just those who are planning pregnancies, because, as we know, not all pregnancies happen in a planned way. There are great benefits for women and their unborn children and, from the State's perspective, a significant benefit in preventative medicine terms.
Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an éileamh atá á dhéanamh go ndéanfaí fiosrúchán neamhspleách maidir leis an díolachán a rinne IBRC ar Siteserv. I support the calls for a full independent inquiry into a number of IBRC transactions, including the 2012 sale of Siteserv. Serious questions have been raised on foot of information that has come from the Department of Finance regarding a number of transactions that were described as "poorly executed". That is a very serious allegation to have put to the board of IBRC. Tensions have been noted between the Department and IBRC for some time and it is acknowledged that the bank got a less than optimum return on the sale of Siteserv. The delay in the release of this information is a cause for concern in itself. It is important that the Minister for Finance should come to the House to discuss the role of IBRC, how it is performing its function, and the relationship between it and the Department.
The Central Statistics Office has indicated that its figures on crime do not include information for the last two quarters because the Garda Síochána has not provided those data. In addition, a report by the Garda Inspectorate points to serious shortcomings in the way crime statistics are recorded, with evidence of under-recording of certain serious crimes and so on. This is an incredibly serious issue which may have implications for cases coming forward. If the information is not being gathered properly, how can we be sure the evidence is being gathered in a proper manner? The Minister for Justice and Equality should come to the House to discuss this matter. We must ensure gardaí have the resources they need and that any decisions on the allocation of resources are not being based on statistics which have been shown to be flawed by the Garda Inspectorate. This is a matter of urgency and we should discuss it as soon as possible. Ba mhaith liom go mbeadh díospóireacht againn leis an Aire Dlí agus Cirt agus Comhionnanais faoi seo chomh luath agus is féidir.
The front page of the Irish Examinertoday includes an article about the dangers of purchasing medications online, including a slimming medicine containing the highly toxic substance, dinitrophenol, or DNP, which was implicated in the death of a young girl in England in recent weeks. Many people make purchases online but when it comes to medication, including slimming aids, it is important to be aware of the risks. The Department of Health and the Health Service Executive should be doing more to raise awareness, including the introduction of an advertising campaign warning people of the risks of purchasing any type of medication online and taking it in the absence of appropriate medical advice. There already has been one death as a result of taking the particular medicine to which I referred and there will likely be more unless people are made aware of the risks. It is an issue that needs to be highlighted.
The scheme to administer a mobility allowance to people with disabilities has not yet been finalised by the Department of Health. I am meeting a lot of people with disabilities who are angry at being forgotten about. I have written to the Department on several occasions and received assurances that the issue is being worked on, but nothing has happened. If the Leader could issue a statement to the House giving an update on this issue, I would very much appreciate it.
I was delighted to read in one of the Sunday newspapers last weekend that if the banks do not move on the situation regarding variable rate mortgage holders, the Government will introduce a levy or tax. I call on the Government to focus minds in the banks by introducing such a levy without delay.
I do not know how the 300,000 people who are paying above and beyond to service their mortgages are managing. In many of the cases of mortgage restructuring of which I am aware, the people involved actually had tracker mortgages. One can hardly imagine how much variable rate mortgage holders are struggling. Will the Leader ask the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance to introduce the proposed levy and thereby oblige the banks to deal? I have it on good authority from bank managers in Galway that the political class will simply have to force the banks to act. They cannot get their boards to agree to such action because of the concerns of shareholders. However, if forced to act by Government, they will do so.
In June 2012, the German Chancellor, Ms Angela Merkel, and the Taoiseach reached agreement on a bank recapitalisation deal for Ireland. Almost three years later, we have not seen a cent from that deal. We all know that Ireland saved the entire European banking system. I meet so many people in the course of my work who are hurting and it is time we paid them back in some way. I accept that we are not flush with funds. However, even Mr. Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, is on record as saying that Ireland bailed out the European banking system and is due something. I want to see the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance putting this issue high on the agenda and working to secure a deal for Ireland.
Senator Darragh O'Brien has made a great play for the removal of the banks' veto in the personal insolvency process, and he is right to do so. We know the banks shovelled out money very irresponsibly to people during the boom years. In the case of mortgages, loans of 90% or more of the value of the property were given. The cost to the banks of borrowing money is approximately 1.5% at most, and the EU average on loans is 2.09%. I will be making a case later for the involvement of the Credit Review Office in order to introduce an element of independent overview to the issue of setting interest rates.
There is a good case to be made for setting a maximum rate of 2.5% or so for non-tracker customers. The level of defaults is huge and the banks, in their own view and in the interest of the taxpayer and so on, have chosen to issue repossession orders in an effort to get customers to engage. In many cases, judges have taken a very different and more independent view in these matters, for which we can be very thankful. I hope to see more engagement by the banks with their customers. I am not arguing for the large-scale writing off of debt. The reality, of course, is that very little, if anything, has been written off on residential mortgages compared with development loans and so on.I am not making an argument-----
I support what has been said by my colleague, Senator Ó Clochartaigh, on the sale of Siteserv by IBRC. This matter has clearly been rumbling around the halls of Leinster House, and around many other halls, for a long time. There is something just not right about the matter. It is time for a full, open and independent inquiry into the matter. I would be obliged if the Leader would bring the proposal to the relevant Ministers.
I raise the matter of inservice training for English teachers in the proposed new junior certificate syllabus provided by the Department of Education and Skills. What is going on with it? I suggest we ask the Minister to attend the House to give an explanation. We lay on an inservice training course for 6,000 teachers knowing that they have been instructed by their unions not to attend. There is an industrial relations dispute going on. Instead of trying to resolve it, we have set up training and sent trainers to various education centres throughout the country even though we know, before we start, that no one will attend. My information this morning is that of the 6,000 teachers who were to engage in inservice training at the various education centres, 20 have undergone training.
As of today, only 20 teachers have undergone training. Training sessions were set up in education centres throughout the country but no one has attended. Why have we not tried to resolve the industrial relations issue rather than waste money sending officials to deliver inservice training to people who will not attend?
I acknowledge the work done by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and by Tourism Ireland on the new strategy to encourage more visitors to Ireland from Australia. That country offers significant potential for growth in Irish tourism. The new three-year strategy has set out challenging and ambitious targets which would see the number of Australian visitors grow by 20%, which represents almost 220,000 visitors from down under by the end of 2017. Under Tourism Ireland's new strategy, Ireland will be positioned to complement rather than compete with the most popular European destinations which are the main draw for Australians. The Minister and Tourism Ireland must be complimented on the initiative.
The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Darragh O'Brien, raised a question about Mr. Duffy, the former CEO of AIB, going before a committee today. I prefer to wait and see what Mr. Duffy has to say before commenting on what he might say. I reject totally the assertion that the Government has done nothing to help people in mortgage arrears. More than 110,000 accounts were in arrears at the end of the fourth quarter of 2014. That represents a decline of 6.4% compared with the third quarter of 2014 and a decline of 26,000 accounts over the course of 2014. Almost 115,000 mortgage accounts were classified as restructured at the end of 2014, which represents an increase of about 30,000 accounts over the course of 2014.
The number of very long-term arrears is a matter of major concern for the Government. However, it is important to note that the latest data from the Central Bank show that the number of arrears in excess of 720 days, in terms of the marked banks, dropped in the fourth quarter for the first time. The Government wants to maximise the ability of mortgage holders in very long-term arrears to afford their mortgage and retain ownership of their homes, or if they cannot, to have viable and easily accessible options available either to stay in their house or to have access to alternative housing.
As Senator Zappone mentioned, the Minister of State responsible for social housing, Deputy Coffey, was in the House in February. He is doing everything possible to ensure we have the housing programme up and running in every local authority area, particularly in the Dublin local authorities where there is greater need. The Government hopes it has the full support of councillors and the councils in those areas in providing these houses as a matter of urgency.
Senator Bacik mentioned the public health (alcohol) Bill. I will try to find out when we intend to take the legislation. I hope, as a result of requests made yesterday, that we will have a debate on drug and alcohol abuse with the Minister for Health in the first week of May. The matter was raised by Senator Darragh O'Brien and others yesterday.
Senator Mooney mentioned bankruptcy. As he will know, the duration of bankruptcy was reduced from 12 years to three years last year. The duration will be reduced to one year if the Government decides it is the best course of action for everyone involved. The Government will make the decision in early course.
Senator Comiskey mentioned the proposed visit by Prince Charles. Yesterday, the visit was welcomed by several Members in the House.
Senator Zappone mentioned the number of children becoming homeless and stressed the importance of building new social housing. I can assure her that all options are being considered by the Government and that the affordability issues will be addressed. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will make a statement on the matter in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Keane mentioned the importance for women of taking folic acid before and during pregnancy. She called for a public information campaign on the issue and I give her full support in this regard.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh called for an inquiry into the sale of Siteserv. Clearly, information on the issue is out in the public domain and there is no question of hiding anything. In March 2012, the board of IBRC met and approved the sale of Siteserv. Under the relationship framework that was in place between the Minister for Finance and the bank at that time, which has been in place since July 2009, the board of IBRC was required to engage with the Minister for Finance on certain key issues, which included any material acquisitions, disposals, investments, realisations or other transactions other than the ordinary course of Anglo Irish Bank's business. It should be noted that the relationship framework did not include any specific monetary thresholds which would trigger mandatory consultation with the Minister for Finance. It should also be noted that, at the time, the ordinary course of the bank's business was to conduct an orderly rundown and ultimate liquidation of the bank.As such, IBRC's efforts as a secured lender to maximise the recovery on its loans to Siteserv was considered to be in the ordinary course of business. For that reason and under the relationship framework in place at the time, IBRC was not required to consult with the Minister for Finance on this matter in advance of making a decision to approve the sale of the company referred to by Senator Ó Clochartaigh. There is a lot more to be said on that matter but I can assure----
If the Senator would let me, he asked the question and I am trying to respond to the best of my ability and to give him facts rather than fiction. Upon receipt of the critical representations following the transaction, the Department of Finance officials agreed with the IBRC chairman and CEO in May 2012 that they would review the transaction involving Siteserv in greater detail to better understand the decisions taken and the impact these decisions had on the process and final recovery for the bank.
Through the review, which took place in June 2012, the Department of Finance officials were made aware of certain aspects of the transaction which raised concerns with the quality of some of the decisions taken in respect of the transaction, including concerns that legal advisers to Siteserv had also acted for the purchaser, that a payment had been made to the shareholders of Siteserv and that some of those shareholders were members of the board of Siteserv. A significant proportion of those shareholders appeared to be clients of Davy, which was the financial adviser to the transaction of Siteserv.
In the light of those concerns the shareholding management unit of the Department of Finance recommended that the chairman of IBRC commission an independent review of the transaction. This was included in the briefing note to the Minister prior to his meeting the chairman and CEO of IBRC. The Minister subsequently met the IBRC chairman and CEO to discuss the concerns regarding this transaction. The chairman and CEO confirmed that the legal advice was provided by two different teams within the law firm concerned and that the appropriate Chinese walls were in place between the two teams. They also made assurances that the payment to the shareholders was necessary to ensure a vote in favour of the deal. They made further assurances that the transaction had been thoroughly assessed by the IBRC board and was managed in the best manner possible to achieve the best result for the State.
Notwithstanding that the new relationship framework had been put in place, it was decided that a senior Department of Finance official would be seconded to IBRC to explore opportunities for deleveraging with a view to maximising the recovery for the taxpayer. This had the additional benefit of providing greater oversight while supporting the managerial team.
That comprehensively deals with that question and I hope Senator Ó Clochartaigh is happy with the answer. As regards Garda resources, which the Senator also raised, the Government is certainly dealing with this matter. We have reopened Templemore and there are up to 600 gardaí gone through Templemore since it has been reopened. We will continue to provide the resources that are necessary for the Garda.
Senator Burke spoke on the purchase of medication online and highlighted the risks. It is very important that people are aware of the risks of purchasing medication online as he has mentioned.
Senator Healy Eames raised mobility allowances and I suggest she propose a Commencement debate to deal with that matter and get a response from the Minister. The levy on banks is one of a number of actions being considered by the Government and I am sure it will deal with that soon. Senator Coghlan discussed the need for the Credit Review Office to become involved with the banks in respect of variable rates. Senator Craughwell spoke on Siteserv, which I have addressed. Regarding in-service training for teachers, the Minister has been actively involved in negotiations to resolve this dispute. It is regrettable that it is continuing and, while the Minister has indicated that she is willing to speak at all times, she has put her proposal and moved quite a lot on this issue. I hope there will be further engagements from the unions in this regard.
Senator Higgins proposed to amend the Order of Business: "That No. 13 be taken before No. 1". That is permission to publish this Bill and I certainly have no problem with accepting that amendment to the Order of Business.
Senator Brennan raised the increase in tourism figures, which have been astounding over the past year or so, and the efforts to bring more tourists from Australia. The Minister, Fáilte Ireland and everybody involved should be complimented on their efforts. They are doing a great job and long may it continue because it will be of tremendous benefit to the economy and the country.
Senator Darragh O'Brien has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate be arranged with the Minister for Finance to outline the Government's plans to remove the bank veto and to ensure that people are afforded protection that would enable them to retain their family home." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Mark Daly
- Fidelma Healy Eames
- James Heffernan
- Paschal Mooney
- Trevor Ó Clochartaigh
- Labhrás Ó Murchú
- Darragh O'Brien
- Denis O'Donovan
- Averil Power
- Diarmuid Wilson
- Ivana Bacik
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- John Gilroy
- Aideen Hayden
- Fidelma Healy Eames
- James Heffernan
- Imelda Henry
- Lorraine Higgins
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Marie Moloney
- Mary Moran
- Tony Mulcahy
- Michael Mullins
- Pat O'Neill
- Jillian van Turnhout
- Katherine Zappone