Leaders’ Questions

Tá áthas orm go dtógfar Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí ar an Déardaoin feasta. I welcome the introduction of Leaders' Questions and I hope the Tánaiste's replies will be clear and concise.

It depends on the question.

Even your own people are laughing at you.

Is the Deputy really Gay Byrne?

Can we get on with the question, please?

I note the decision made by the Government yesterday to sell its final 25% holding of Aer Lingus along with 25% of the ESB. Does not the sale of the 25% of Aer Lingus prove that, despite the assurances given in advance of the partial sale of Comhlucht Siúcra Éireann and that airline, once one starts selling parts of State companies one heads down an inexorable route towards total privatisation?

Who sold out Irish Sugar?

Deputy Sherlock sold out on Mallow hospital.

Allow Deputy Ó Cuív to make his point.

Who sold out the country?

Would the Tánaiste not agree that the sale of even 25% of the ESB will change its nature from a company that operates in the national interest to one which serves the narrow interest of financial returns to shareholders? I would appreciate it if he could outline the Government's thinking in terms of realising money from State assets in this fashion.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as ucht an fháilte a chur sé roimh an gcinneadh Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí a bheith againn ar an Déardaoin. I am happy to give him clear and concise answers and, in return, I hope the questions will be equally clear and concise.

He asked me to respond to the decision he claims the Government has made in respect of selling the remaining share in Aer Lingus. No such decision has been made. He also asked me to respond to what he said was a decision made by the Government to sell 25% of the ESB. No decision has been made in respect of the percentage of shareholding in the ESB to be sold. The Government has considered the necessity of selling some State assets in order to deal with the financial circumstances in which the country has been put and to raise money for investment in job creation. The Government's decision in respect of the ESB is to sell a minority shareholding. The company will not be broken up, a course of action I heard somebody advocating on a radio programme this morning. It will be retained as a single entity in the national interest. A decision has been made by the Government to sell a minority shareholding but the manner in which that sale will take place, the amount of the shareholding to be sold and the issue of finding a compatible investor are matters that will be addressed by the Ministers for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Public Expenditure and Reform. They will report to Government on these matters by the end of November.

Frankfurt won.

I take it from the Tánaiste's reply that up to 49% of the ESB might be sold. Can he confirm that the transmission assets, which comprise the power cables as well as the network, will be retained in 100% State ownership and will not be transferred to Eirgrid? Can he also clarify whether the transmission system in Northern Ireland, which is owned by ESB, will be retained in State ownership or are we doing something that every previous Government set its face against, namely, diluting the State's ownership of the wires in the electricity system? Will the Government accept or reject the proposals in the McCarthy report to transfer the hydroelectric schemes, including Turlough Hill, to Eirgrid in order that they can be retained in 100% State ownership in light of their importance? If these vital national assets are being transferred out of the ESB, has a value been placed on the residual value of the company?

I remind the Deputy that we are in a situation whereby we have to consider the sale of State assets because of the hole his Government dug for this country.

The Tánaiste promised to renegotiate the bailout.

We have renegotiated it.

Has the Deputy seen the interest rates?

Fianna Fáil did not bother to renegotiate it.

Allow the Tánaiste to continue.

It lacked the competence.

It is remiss of the parties opposite not to acknowledge the success enjoyed by the Government in getting the interest rate reduced.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

It could not be done according to them.

From the time the Government was formed last March, they constantly told us it could not be done ——

The Government got a shock about it.

——and that it would not be done.

It was not expecting it.

It was done on terms that were far in excess of what the parties opposite claimed were possible. The reason the Government has decided to sell a minority share in ESB is because it is necessary to do so in order to deal with our financial problems and generate funding for job creation.

Not, it is not.

The Deputy cannot take it that 49% will be sold. There is already a minority shareholding in the ESB which is held by the staff of the company. As I said earlier, we will not break up the ESB. The Deputy opposite seems to be taking that line of thinking, but there will be no breaking up of the ESB by this Government. It will remain a single entity, which is what is in the national interest. It will be in State control and a minority shareholding will be sold, the proceeds from which the Government intends to use to generate funds for employment in order to get this economy going.

Ní chóir aon chuid den ESB a dhíol. Sin an méid a dúirt Pairtí an Lucht Oibre i rith an toghcháin. Tá Bord Soláthair an Leictreachais ag déanamh brábúis mhóir le blianta anuas agus in ionad aon chuid de a dhíol ba chóir an brabús seo a úsáid chun jabanna a chruthú.

Yesterday I appealed to the Taoiseach to stop giving money away to banks and instead to invest it in jobs. Since then we have heard that an additional 420 jobs may be lost in Dublin. Yesterday, one the first day back after the summer, in response to a question from Deputy Martin Ferris, the Government admitted its plan to sell part of the ESB. I remind the Tánaiste of what he said during the election:

Labour is committed to the concept of public enterprise. It is opposed to short-termist privatisation of key State assets such as Coillte or the energy networks.

When the Deputies on my left sold off Eircom, the Tánaiste called it a debacle and referred to the company being bought and sold like a clapped-out second-hand car. Surely if there is any purpose in Páirtí an Lucht Oibre being in Government with Fine Gael, it is to prevent this type of approach. I appeal to the Tánaiste to consider his position and to stand up for the rights of working people by opposing this sell-off.

I remind Deputy Adams that his party has made its own unique contribution to the difficulty the country is in and the circumstances this Government inherited last March. The reason money is being paid to the banks is that the State provided a guarantee to those banks, a guarantee which the Deputy's party supported.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

(Interruptions).

Will the Tánaiste tell the truth about this for once in his life?

Deputies opposite must remember that when one gives a guarantee it must be honoured.

Poor Caoimhghín paid a heavy price.

This country is in economic difficulty. This Government will get the country out of that economic difficulty.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

All of the decisions we have taken in the first six months of the life of this Government have set the country back on the road to recovery.

Unemployment is increasing. Where is the jobs initiative?

If one looks at the circumstances the country was in when we formed this Government and considers the progress that has been made, one will see the renegotiation of the deal with the EU and the IMF, the reduction in interest rates, the jobs initiative we have taken——

A Deputy

What about the JLCs?

(Interruptions).

The Government has taken various initiatives to bring about economic recovery. In an ideal world we would not want to sell the ESB or any State asset. However, we are not in an ideal world; we are in a world where this country's economy and its finances are in deep trouble. This Government will take the decisions that will get us out of that trouble, get people back to work, get our economy moving again and bring about recovery.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

The decision we have taken in this matter, in the national interest, is that we will retain the ESB intact as a single entity and sell a minority shareholding. We are not going to do it in a loose kind of way but rather in a very considered way. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform have been tasked with the responsibility of working this through, discussing it with the energy regulator and the European Commission and looking at the manner in which a minority shareholding can be sold in the best interests of the country. It will be done in a way which secures the future of the ESB, ensures energy security and contributes to investment in this economy that will get people back to work and the economy moving again.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

The Tánaiste did not answer my question. The response all the time from Government members — and the Labour Party is aping Fine Gael on this issue, as it does on every other — is that the big boys made them do it.

(Interruptions).

We are dealing with reality.

I am wondering respectfully whether the Government might consider amending the Proclamation where it states: "We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible". Perhaps it should be amended to indicate that this applies except where the big bankers, the golden circle, the EU or IMF, or Fine Gael dictate otherwise.

(Interruptions).

Sinn Féin supported the guarantee which signed away our sovereignty.

I have a question for the Tánaiste as Government representative and also as leader of the Labour Party. What type of society will be left when we have sold off not just our natural resources, as the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, has already expedited, but also our key assets? What will happen when we have no public postal service, when we have sold off a whole range of necessary public energy bodies, when we have no forestry body? What are the social consequences of such a strategy? I ask the Tánaiste again to reconsider this decision and to stand firmly on the need to use the dividends from these profitable State assets to grow jobs as opposed to selling them off like a clapped-out car.

First, the big boys did not make us do it. The Government is perfectly capable of making its decision and taking responsibility for it. I am very much aware of what is in the Proclamation. The problem we have and the problem the country has is that when we took office, the country had lost its economic sovereignty.

What this Government is doing — and what we will have well done by the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising — is seeking to restore this country's sovereignty. We will have people back to work, we will have a good economy and a better and fairer society.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

That is how we will commemorate 1916.

What type of society does Deputy Adams think we would have if we followed his prescription and defaulted on the debt? Where would we get the €18 billion or €19 billion that is required to pay for services, to pay the teachers in our schools——

——to make social welfare payments, to pay for all of the services which the Deputy rightly demands every day in this House? This Government will restore and is restoring the country's economic sovereignty. The steps we are taking will get us out of the economic difficulty we are in. Some of the decisions we have to make and are making are difficult. We are making them, we will make them and we will do what is necessary to restore this country's fortunes.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

The Government did something right in regard to the ESB when it restricted the pay of its chief executive officer by way of the introduction last session of a cap on pay in semi-State bodies. People with private pensions are up in arms about the plundering of their funds through the Government's levy. Nowhere was this more evident than last week when salt was poured into the wounds of these pensioners with the news that Mr. Dermot McCarthy, the former Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach, was given a €700,000 pay-off and a pension that would make a banker blush. It is an extraordinary situation. The person who sat beside Cabinet at a time when the Government was preaching austerity was given €700,000 to retire at the age of 57. I am interested to hear the Tánaiste's response to the following. Bankers and people in private industry are paid vast sums for failure and people at the top of the public service are paid to retire early when, if they are so good at their job, they should be incentivised to remain on. It is unacceptable that this type of practice continues. This package-deal puts the deal given to Mr. Patrick Neary and the former Governor of the Central Bank, Mr. John Hurley, in the shade. It is not acceptable for the Government simply to say there is little it can do. An element of the package with which Mr. McCarthy walked away was tax free yet small taxpayers are being asked to pay more in their pensions. Can the Tánaiste give us an assurance that there is no other such pension or payment in the pipeline?

There is one more.

I believe there is at least one more. I want an assurance that this will never happen again and that the Government will take steps to ensure those types of bonuses and pay offs are taxed at the same rate as were bankers' bonuses, and rightly so, by way of an emergency measure introduced by the previous Minister for Finance.

I can assure the Deputy that the Government will put an end to the high level of severance payments. I understand that the particular severance payment to which the Deputy referred was agreed to and signed off on by the previous Government.

There are a number of elements to this. First, the Government has already capped the salaries of top people in the Civil Service. After 29 February 2012, that cap on salaries will also apply to pensions. Second, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is introducing new pensions legislation in respect of the public service, which will address many of the issues raised by Deputy Ross. Third, an element of the package to which the Deputy referred was an arrangement agreed in 1987. While prior to the putting in place of that arrangement secretaries general were appointed for life they were thereafter only given seven year contracts. I understand it was also agreed at that time that where secretaries general retired following the seven year period a separate severance element applied. I understand that arrangement applied in this case.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is reviewing that arrangement with a view to putting an end to it.

I accept that the Government will try to address this in the future. I suggest, however, that it will not do enough. Perhaps the Tánaiste will answer the following two supplementary questions. Should he not, in light of what has happened, abolish lump sum payments to top civil servants? Can the Tánaiste give us an assurance that no further lump sum payments will be made? The capping of these payments at €60,000 is completely unacceptable. There should be no such payments. There is no excuse for giving people lump sums at a time of austerity, such as we are now experiencing.

If the Tánaiste can do nothing to address this problem right now, which I doubt, will he join me in asking Mr. McCarthy to return his lump sum payment given the enormous pension he is on?

It is important that we disaggregate some of these issues. As I said, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is reviewing the special severance arrangement with a view to bringing it to an end.

The issue of lump sums which are part of the pensions arrangement which people have is a separate matter and arises from pension entitlements. As I said earlier, the levels of pensions paid will now be reduced as a consequence of the capping of the salaries concerned. There will be new legislation dealing with pensions in the public service.

Will the Tánaiste ask Mr. McCarthy to give back the money?

That is a matter for the individual concerned.