I move amendment No. a1:
In page 4, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
"2.—The Minister shall not rely on any exemption set out in the Freedom of Information Act 1997 and 2003 in connection with a request for disclosure of material relating to the operation of this Act.".
The purpose of the amendment is to subject the Irish part of the operation of this legislation to the Freedom of Information Acts. On Second Stage, I raised the issue of the lack of information about NAMA, the absence of a business plan and the reports in today's newspapers about real estate opportunities and what might happen in regard to Battersea power station and the State's influence on, and participation in, that project as a consequence of NAMA.
I wish to explain to the Minister that the reason for that is central to this Bill. Europe and the eurozone area are experiencing an existential crisis. The markets are now treated as a god — it is ironic that God did not get a mention in the European Constitution but we now have another god in the bond markets. The stabilisation fund, which makes a lot of sense and which the Labour Party supports as an act of solidarity, is in effect a mechanism for putting a floor under countries such as Ireland, but also countries that have been even more in the news, such as Greece, Spain and Portugal which are under threat from the bond markets and may not be able to continue to obtain sovereign debt.
My reflection was on the Irish position. We are approaching the expiry date of the guarantee. We do not know what the debt cliff for Ireland is because we have not been given solid information by the Minister. In discussions last week he suggested that it might be €29 billion, but in answers to questions I put to him in April he suggested €74 billion. I do not know what the figures are, but I believe that as the Labour Party spokesperson on finance, I should have a line of information about the figures. Every other European Parliament has that facility.
Given that we are now part of this protective fund — this aspect is not in the Bill, but it is germane to the general discussion — there will in the future be enhanced EU scrutiny over our budgetary and debt affairs. That is why disclosure about NAMA is so important. Anybody who is assessing the debt of Ireland will not just count the existing debt, but also the debt arising from the bank guarantee and the cost of the bank bailouts, such as the €22 billion put into Anglo Irish Bank and the €3.7 billion put into Irish Nationwide, both of which are goners. That is about €27 billion that we have spent on two bank rescues, and we will be very lucky to see €3 billion of it, between the two banks, returned to us or made available for future banking requirements.
The price of the stabilisation fund for countries such as Ireland is enhanced EU surveillance of both our budgetary processes and our debt burdens. It is difficult to envisage the EU having those powers while the sovereign Irish Parliament does not have the same powers and does not have access to the information flow. Fianna Fáil sometimes carries on as though it were the only party of Government in this country either in the past or in the future. However, we have a parliamentary system and an Opposition, and the Opposition has a right, on behalf of the people, to have an account from Fianna Fáil of the implications for the country of the material that is in this Bill and the implicit commitments.
We are signing up to accept, in this arrangement, enhanced surveillance of our budget process and our debt process. We are doing that with no provision for the Irish Parliament — in particular, the Opposition — to be provided with at least the quality of information that will be made available to an unelected eurozone stabilisation fund management system. Herr Regling, who recently produced a very good report with Mr. Watson, is the new boss appointed by Europe to be head of the commission. He recently said that when he examined our property-based tax breaks, which he identified as a key cause of our collapse, he found, to his amazement, that they were three times larger than those of any other eurozone country. He confessed himself to being astonished at that.
Since the time I became Labour Party spokesperson — that is, from late 2002 or 2003 onwards — I have spent a vast amount of time seeking the truth about property-based tax breaks. I have sought their names and identifications and costings. Here we go again: we are now entering into a new procedure under which, down the road, it is quite possible that various European entities will solemnly advise the Government of Ireland to do this, that and the other with regard to our annual budget, spending, taxes, and debt liabilities. They will communicate in private with the Minister, the Government and the Department, and we will know nothing about it until we hear the announcements on budget day. This is unacceptable in a democracy.
When I spoke last year at the Humbert Summer School in Ballina, I mentioned that we needed fundamental reform, including an office of the commissioner of the budget, which would report to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service. That model exists in a number of other countries, including the United States, and there is a similar model in the UK. Otherwise, we will have no information that will allow Members of the Dáil to exercise any influence or control over the consequences of Ireland's signing up to the stabilisation fund. I have said on behalf of the Labour Party that I am in favour of the stabilisation fund. It makes eminent sense to have such a solidarity package. However, it is not a free option for Ireland. It has enormous consequences for how we conduct our monetary and debt affairs as an independent country.
The purpose of the Labour Party amendment is to make this legislation the subject of the Freedom of Information Act. The stabilisation fund is not a federal institution, although it is seeking to have certain powers with regard to finance, budget and debt matters. The sovereign states remain sovereign and, therefore, at the very least, if Fianna Fáil wishes to protect our sovereign democracy, the least we can expect is a right of access to information. That is why I raised the issue of NAMA, which is in effect a secret organisation controlled by its board, the Department and the Minister for Finance.
There is a major story in all the newspapers today about a prominent company in NAMA whose two principals have made announcements that one of their companies posted a loss of €1 billion last year. The company is committed to a project at Battersea power station, and it is suggested in the newspapers that the cost of that development will be between €5 billion and €6 billion.
As the information comes from them and not from the Department of Finance, I am assuming this information is broadly reliable. They have indicated in their statements and information to journalists that they are hoping the Irish Government will allow them create some kind of special purpose vehicle for Battersea power station and it may well be that the Government, through NAMA, will be involved in financing that. There may perhaps be a very solid case for this but I am not initially persuaded.
It seems very odd that this country should be financing the rebuilding of the Battersea power station area and that part of London when, at the same time, there are 400,000 people unemployed in Ireland. I need to hear the argument. Most importantly, the information on this can be given in the public press. I and others here are Dáil spokespersons on finance and we have no idea about the dimensions of the story, how much of it is correct and whether the financial figures given are correct. I know that the same company, CREO, is shortly being listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange. I asked the Minister of State a question whether the principals involved in those companies have given guarantees to the Government, in the context of NAMA, or whether they will be able to float off to Singapore and come back when the rest of us have spent the next decade sorting out the effects of the crash.
This is why freedom of information provisions in this legislation are important. It does not necessarily involve a huge amount of information being available. In any event, under the Lisbon treaty — as I am sure the Minister of State's officials will tell him — Europe will be committed to publishing much of this information and making it available. Why cannot Fianna Fáil accept that freedom of information should automatically apply to this legislation and be included in it? If we could understand what is the exit strategy of the guarantee, what is the debt overhang, what are the implications of the Treasury Holdings, REO and CREO announcements on the Battersea power station project in the media today, we might be in a position to evaluate it. As we do not have that information, it leads to people being extremely suspicious and rightly so.
My second example is that last week, the Minister refused to have the economic policies of the Government included in the various reviews or the commission of inquiry. Instead he said he had decided to send it to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service for its consideration. He was very expansive in saying that he would make any documents available, specifically, the minutes of the committee dealing with matters, I understand it is called the domestic standing group. I am waiting for that information but so far I have not received it. The Minister said he would make the Merrill Lynch report available because it did not recommend the blanket guarantee. We know this because both Mr. Regling and Professor Honohan disclosed this fact in their respective reports. We were never told by the Government.
I put it to the Minister of State that had there been more freedom of information to start with, when people like myself raised questions about the state of the banks and questions about the property-based tax breaks, it may have been less comfortable for Fianna Fáil but it might have helped to head off the severity of the subsequent crash. I cannot understand why the Government would not be more than happy to accept freedom of information applying in full to this legislation.