Order of Business

Before I announce the Order of Business, on my own behalf and that of the House, I extend deepest sympathy to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, and his wife, Mary, on the tragic loss of their daughter. It is a very sad time for them and their family.

The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the current overcrowding levels in Irish prisons, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 2 p.m., if not previously concluded, on which spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for eight minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments and to take questions from leaders or spokespersons; No. 2, Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) (Amendment) Bill 2008 — Second Stage (resumed), to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 but not before 3.15 p.m. and conclude not later than 5 p.m., if not previously concluded, on which spokespersons may speak for eight minutes and all other Senators for five minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, with the Minister to be called upon to reply ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate; and No. 32, Private Members' business, motion No. 17 on Seanad reform, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m. The business of the House will be interrupted between 2 p.m. and 3.15 p.m.

I join the Leader in extending our sympathy and condolences to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, and his wife on the devastating loss of their young daughter. I know the Cathaoirleach attended the funeral yesterday and no words of ours could offer comfort or capture the grief the family must be feeling. They are in our thoughts at this very difficult time for them.

I would like to raise two issues. The first is the date of the budget. I understood from the Deputy Leader of the House yesterday there was a possibility the budget would be moved forward. Yesterday the Taoiseach talked about 7 December again. It is important there is clarity about this because many people are very concerned about the impact this budget will have on their lives.

On the education cuts discussed today on the pages ofThe Irish Times and elsewhere where we read that cuts to special needs staff are being proposed and several hundred of the 10,000 special needs posts are under threat, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that we ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills to attend the House today to discuss the impact of the budget on the education sector. It is critical, as Senator MacSharry stated previously, that we discuss in this House, by sector and by Department, the choices and tough decisions that will have to be made. It is also critical that we discuss the impact of these cuts. There is discussion about class size and about the pupil-teacher ratio being increased again. There is discussion about cutbacks to special needs and about college registration fees. There was research yesterday showing that families are finding it very difficult to pay college registration fees as they stand. It is essential that we discuss these issues in this House and that the views of every Senator are heard on this critical issue of education.

If cutbacks to education, especially early education, have a devastating impact, not only on individuals but on the economy, and if we are talking about a smart economy and ensuring people will be able to take up opportunities when they arise, we need to be very careful about the kind of decisions that are made in the lead-up to and in the budget. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills to come into the House today to begin this discussion by sector on the budget decisions that will be taken in the next few weeks which will have such a key impact on individuals and families and on the health of the economy.

I agree with my two colleagues about extending our sympathy to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, but it is a little awkward to deal with it for the following reason, and I am not saying this in a political manner. I am sure we all share that viewpoint, but can we take it that in situations such as this, the Leader would speak on our behalf to some extent so that everyone can be part of that?

Otherwise, it seems as if some Members refer to it and others do not. I would appreciate it. I am aware of the genuine feelings of Members on it but I just want to make that point.

The amendment to the Order of Business which has been put forward by the Leader of the Opposition is something that the Leader should take seriously, and not just on the basis of the issue in question. I have been saying in the House over recent months that we need in the community clarity of objectives and certainties on which we can depend. If we know what it is we are trying to achieve, we can all find a way to do that. It is not necessary for the Opposition to agree cravenly with the Government's views on it but, as has been stated on both sides of the House, there is no point in the Government side asking Labour, Fine Gael, the Independents and others to outline their views if the Government does not create the opportunity to do it. This is the opportunity to do it. We all are clear on the overall objective of cuts and perhaps we can be clear on job savings as well. Let us now look at where our priorities should be within each section.

The importance of this is not merely for the issues of clarity and certainties which I mentioned, but also in order that we can assess what is working. On the question of old age pensions, for example, pensions have saved people from poverty and, to that extent, the system works very well and any movement towards reducing pensions should be made in that context of what we want as a society. It is similar with education. This is a positive, progressive and helpful proposal by Senator Fitzgerald. I urge the Leader to take it on board in order that we can deal with these and with every sector in the same way, not in any great discussion about what the Government has done for the past ten years but simply to state the objective, what we are trying to achieve in this Department, the budget in the Department for next year and how the Government proposes to deal with it. It could be helpful to the Government as well as to the rest of us.

I will finish up on an issue which I have raised in the House on three or four occasions and which Members on both sides and in all parties of the House have raised, namely the question of the 116000 telephone number for missing children. The Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has been dealing with this over three different meetings. We still do not know Government policy on this. We were told today that the Garda does not have any strong view that we need such a number. We are being told by the Department of Health and Children that there is a better use of resources than to put it into a missing child helpline. If that is the case, we have been misled in this House. We were under the impression the Government was in favour of the establishment of that number but that at this stage it was not able to put it in place for want of resources or otherwise. We are also aware that the ISPCC and One Child International have offered to operate this number for free if the Government supports them in bringing to every house in Ireland the outline of how to recognise child abuse and to guard against it.

I also express my deepest sympathies to the Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin, and his family on the very sad death of his daughter at the weekend.

In the United States yesterday, as we have seen overnight on the news, there has been another change election. From my perspective, I am sorry to see that there would appear to have been a sharp shift to the right in American politics on foot of this election. Much of what we have seen happening in the United States in recent weeks has some resonance in this country because there are many candidates in those elections who appear to think that the way forward for a modern democracy and modern economy is to cut, slash and emasculate the state and cut the heart out of public services. That has been elevated almost into a political mantra in the United States. It is not as if it is something new, but certainly it has come back very much as a major agenda item in that country.

It has resonance in this country. Unfortunately, there are many people in the debate in our country who seem to think that all we must do is to cut the heart out of the State and out of public services, and have the kind of effect on public services and public entitlements to which Senator O'Toole referred a moment ago, for example, those who hold pensions.

There is a genuine concern, shared by me and my party, about areas of waste in public services. We must look at that and consider it carefully. I agree with Senator Fitzgerald's proposal also, very much in the spirit of what Senator O'Toole said. Can we begin to have a debate on public services about what we want to have in this country——

——not what we want to cut? I refer to this indiscriminate slashing of the knife for two or three weeks in public before a budget. Can we sit down and work out what we cherish, what we want to have and what is worth keeping, rather than taking the debate from the other perspective? That would be a useful exercise for us to undertake here.

One of the areas that we should consider as part of that debate is education. I have made the point in this House previously that we all have areas that we will say in the debate that we want to see preserved. It must be the case - I believe this to be the position of the Green Party - that education at all levels is an area which should be preserved, nurtured and fostered; it would be a terrible pity if the Green Party was to abandon its previously stated position, for example, on third level fees or the introduction of third level fees by stealth through a hugely increased registration fee.

It would be a great pity if that party was to abandon that. I appeal to it not to do so.

It is easy enough to say——

It happened in last year's budget.

Another one is coming.

It is easy enough to say about education that there are many who can afford a higher registration fee and perhaps it is the case that most Members in this Chamber could afford a higher registration fee for their children. That is not the point. The point is that higher education should not be the preserve of the well-off. We have made a commitment to higher education and education at all levels, that it is not a commodity to be parcelled up and sold off to the highest bidder and that it is something we believe all children and all young people should have access to irrespective of the wealth of their parents.

It is an interesting debate on whether we have the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills in here to discuss what cannot be cut and in some respects I agree with Senator Alex White that we need a debate on what we cannot afford not to have. Between the two positions, of what cannot be cut and what we cannot afford not to cut, is what can we afford. Therefore, in any debate we have with any Minister we have to be able to state that while we do not want one particular cut something else can be cut. We cannot object to every cut while at the same time state we have to save money. We cannot be pro the Croke Park agreement and state there cannot be change. It seems to be very easy to fight both sides of a particular fence, depending on what day or hour of the day it is, and a debate that is honest about what we cannot do without——

Hear, hear. Bang on.

——and how we achieve it and how we can afford it is a much more important debate that we need to have.

I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to examine an issue which I raised last year. It is sensible that when people fill out forms for going to college they would fill out forms for grant applications at the same time so all of their administration happens together and they can then focus on academic matters. This happened a bit and I would like it to continue. It would ease the pressure on VECs, local authorities and everyone else processing these applications at present. By next year we should not have a situation whereby grants are processed but then sit for a month prior to a batch of grants being given out, as is happening at present. Issues in administration need to be dealt with to ease the situation for students.

I have had conversations with a number of people in my constituency about how out of touch politicians are with people on the ground. I noted that when Mr. Cameron took power in the UK he immediately got rid of the state cars for Ministers living in the London area. I know that of the €15 billion we have to find it would be a small drop in the ocean but it would be a symbol and it is vital that we show solidarity and leadership and give example to the people we expect to have to deal with the most austere cuts on 7 December, if that is when it will happen.

A lady commented to me that the on their way to the meeting in Farmleigh the Ministers barely opened the car windows two inches to speak through their teeth to reporters.

They were in their posh Mercs. It is Mercs and perks for the boys.

And the girls. This is the perception. Tony Blair's pension is €66,000.

Is the Senator looking for a debate?

Deputy Bertie Ahern's is €166,000——

And he is a disgrace to us.

——plus a car and a driver. If we are to show solidarity and care for our people and tune into the public mood, we must get rid of these perks for the boys.

I call for a debate on the way the media report the various numbers and figures we throw out here and which are being thrown out generally. At the weekend, one particular newspaper reported that the State owed a quarter of a trillion, no less — that is — €260 billion to the European Central Bank. In many cases, the figures being thrown out are utterly irresponsible and there seems to be a race to the bottom to show bigger and bigger figures and that the country is in debt. Many of those figures are secured on the other side of the balance sheet but this is never mentioned. I hear from many people that they are getting fed up with all of the numbers because they cannot understand what the hell they are all about and they are not adequately explained in the media.

They will understand them for generations.

I hope they do.

Many irresponsible figures are tossed out here. I seemed to have heard Senator McFadden state that €15 billion is not a large figure. I certainly think €15 billion is a large figure.

I did not say that. I stated the symbolic gesture of getting rid of the cars——

Questions to the Leader, please.

We need to be careful how it is reported because so many people are turning off at this stage from all the figures that are thrown out. It is absolutely irresponsible to state this nation is in a state of chaos when, in fact, exports have reached a record high. It is possible for us to get out of the situation we are in but we have to be careful and prudent about the figures which we throw out. Therefore, it is important that we have a debate on this.

I wish to point out, as most Members are aware, a very large march on Leinster House will take place today with perhaps 20,000 or 25,000 students. I know all politicians are coming under pressure about special pleading at present, particularly on education, hospitals and every particular area. There is a tendency when we talk about expenditure on education to look on it as current expenditure and to look at an increase in fees, which is the intention, as current expenditure. This is a fairly refined distinction which suits people and suits a certain agenda. Education is a matter, to a large extent, of capital expenditure. It is an investment in the future of Ireland.

We should note one thing, and it is not necessarily palatable to Members of the House, but much of what we have left in this economy — the engine of this economy — is down to multinationals. The energy in this economy at present is down to multinationals as is much of the hope in the economy. They will seek two things: the retention or reduction of the rate of corporate tax and an educated workforce. If they see the message go out from here today that we will increase fees and make it impossible for people who do not have enough money to get an education they will state that Ireland does not offer the same assets, opportunities and talented young people and they will not come here. This is the light in which we should look at the proposed increases in fees or registration fees. If we increase them and reduce the talent pool on offer — I do not mean only to multinationals but also to entrepreneurs — to those who are here or those who are proven to be doing the economy good we will see less of them coming and we will see one of the great hopes of recovery being removed. It is in that light, and not just as a pressure group, that we should see the protest today.

I support the proposal made yesterday by Senator James Carroll for a reduction in VAT on energy-saving domestic and commercial development. At present, 6,500 people are employed in this sector. I would also like to see double glazed windows included in the proposal for upgrading houses. A total of 1 million houses need to be done and there is €10 billion for developing this. By reducing VAT and including double glazed windows we could increase our workforce by another 6,500 people. This is a huge amount of people to take off the unemployment register. We should do so in the budget.

I appeal to all Members to attend a meeting to be held on Wednesday, 10 November, with the Spirit of Ireland Group. Approximately €6 billion worth of oil and gas exports leave the country each year and we do not guarantee this. This company is now ready to introduce a new system and secure our hydro and wind energy systems, create many needed jobs and make us more competitive. This is the type of company which we want to support over the coming years. We need these developments to move away from our dependence on gas and oil. We could also ensure that we are an energy exporting country.

I second Senator Fitzgerald's timely motion on the need for the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House before the budget. Senator Ross also spelled it out. Yesterday I attended an OECD meeting about education being fundamental to enhancing growth in our economies. The clear message was that education should not be cut, that neither preschool, primary nor secondary should be touched and if third level education is to be touched, loans must be facilitated. We need to cop on in this country and in this House but particularly the Government needs to cop on. The problem is that we do not know what the priorities for growth should be. We do not educate for the sake of education; we educate for economic and social progress. The facts show that everywhere economies grow, they are linked with high learning outcomes. We need a second debate on how well we are doing with regard to learning outcomes because we are doing poorly at the top and poorly at the bottom and we are pretty good in the middle. This is the reason we are averaging out. However, we do not have the top graduates for the big posts which is why Google has to employ people from abroad, and we have 17% falling off the wagon by leaving school early. Above all, the message from the OECD was that we need to set our objectives as a nation beyond budgets and beyond elections. We need to know what is good for our country and for our nation in order to save our people.

Let us work together with the students who are marching today because they are our future. We were those students 20 years ago. It is imperative that the Minister comes to the House. I felt ashamed at the OECD meeting yesterday when parliamentarians from other countries commented to me that Ireland used to be the model and they asked what had happened to us. They asked me, "What happened to that man Ahern?"

Time, please.

As an Irish person abroad I was ashamed.

I assure Senator Healy Eames that this Government and the Greens within it certainly appreciate the importance of education and the need for it to be at the heart of any economic recovery and the need to keep the cost of entry into third level education as low as is humanly possible. There is no doubt that the registration fee increases have made it difficult for some and that further increases will make it more difficult. Therefore, they need to be kept as low as is humanly possible. The non-introduction of tuition fees is part of the programme for Government. Everybody understands this cannot be cast aside willy-nilly. I agree with Senator Ross that in large part, this is an investment in human capital and could be considered as capital——

The Greens should do their duty; they can do it.

Senator Healy Eames, this is not allowed. There should be no interruptions.

I think the Senator will find that part of the political process is to enunciate our position. That is my duty and I am doing it now. I thank the Senator for her advice.

I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey, to the House to talk about the essential area of support for people in receipt of the addiction services around the country. This issue is very close to my heart and one which the Minister and myself have worked on in a collegial manner. I know he understands how vulnerable people in addiction are and therefore how the front line services provided efficiently by the community and voluntary sector ought to be protected. I would welcome the opportunity for the Minister to come to the House to speak about the provision of resourcing to the community and voluntary sector in the area of addiction counselling and addiction services generally.

As we face a budget, none of us is in any doubt about how difficult it will be. One thing also not in question is that the categories of people who will suffer most will be students, pensioners and the unemployed. I am not an economist but we all know that by abolishing the Christmas bonus last year, the Minister contributed to a reduction in domestic demand which is killing the lifeblood of rural economies. The money in the Christmas bonus would have been spent in local economies throughout the country, particularly in rural economies. The loss of the bonus was a retrograde step because that money was not being put into a biscuit tin or being saved in a bank but rather it was being spent in local economies.

I ask the Leader why it is taking so long for the Government to ensure that prosecutions will follow those who, in the view of most reasonable people, are responsible for the near collapse of our economy. As the budget draws near and as Senator Ross correctly pointed out, we will see thousands of students demonstrating outside this House today about the proposal that registration fees will increase from €1,500 to €2,500. This might not seem like a lot of money to some people around here but €1,000 is a hell of a lot of money for a person depending on welfare or a student trying to become a graduate who will then be working and paying tax at a higher level. This money is reinvested. I speak as a member of the party whose Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, abolished third level fees. This was a significant decision which allowed thousands of people from less well-off backgrounds to go to college.

In submitting a list of assets and liabilities to the High Court this week, an individual whom I will not name but who is known to everybody and particularly known to the Garda Síochána, forgot to mention that he had a pension pot of €28 million. The same individual has assets of €13 million. In this context the Government is proposing to take more money off old-age pensioners, to take more money off people who are looking for non-existent jobs and who are depending on a welfare rate of €190 a week. When will we see people in jail to pay for the criminality in which they engaged and which has brought the country to its knees?

I am glad Senator Ross raised the issue of the student demonstration today. I remind the House that in 1997 when Tony Blair was campaigning to become Prime Minister, he said his government had three priorities: education, education and education. Yesterday I had the privilege of attending my daughter's graduation ceremony at DCU, along with over 1,000 students, bright, happy and confident, as youth invariably expresses itself. The ceremony was aided by an inspiring speech by the president of DCU, Brian McGrath, in which he spoke about the glass being half full rather than half empty. He outlined the job opportunities for DCU students and the fact that it is one of the top universities in Europe and one of the top universities in Ireland for job creation. I could not help but contrast that speech with the fact that 25,000 students will be on the streets today protesting, as students have the right to do and have traditionally done over decades, about the cost of education. I could not help but reflect that the Croke Park deal is protecting the income of 370,000 workers, including teachers, over the next four years and that one of those teaching unions has remained outside that process while, at the same time, students are protesting, rightly so, about what they regard as an increase.

Three of my children have gone on to third level education, of whom two are still there, one is job-seeking and a fourth child will be going to third level in the next two years. As a parent rather than as a politician, I do not need any lectures from people about the cost of third level education but we will bear that burden, as every other parent has borne it and will continue to bear it.

The Senator had the benefit of free fees.

However, if 85% of the education budget is going on staff wages, that leaves 15% annually, irrespective of what Government is in power, and this will be the reality to be faced. It may be time that teachers started thinking about making some sacrifices instead of crying crocodile tears about holding onto their special posts of responsibility, of refusing to give up an hour at the end of the day. If I am a little emotional about the attitude of teachers, it is because I am a parent and I know the reality of it. I ask the Leader to embrace what has been said here and invite the Minister for Education and Science to the House to outline her priorities for education in the future.

I congratulate my colleague, Senator Pearse Doherty, who I understand has won his action and that this will precipitate a by-election. I hope it also precipitates a general election which this country needs.

I agree with Senator Mooney that there will be 15,000 to 20,000 young people outside the gates of the House today and I congratulate them on their organisation. I believe in a free universally accessible education system just as I believe in a free universally accessible health system. However, my heart goes out to the young people I heard on radio this morning who are motivated to go to university but whose parents had never been and are not well paid. Now they realise they will not get there. I feel bad for them because they will now be caught in a pincer movement being deprived of a third level education at a time when the jobs market is contracting.

There is much dishonesty in this House. Free fees is an ugly, stupid phrase and it is an oxymoron. It was a cruel and cynical political deception and it never existed. One either pays fees or gets a free education. One cannot have it both ways. That might be an unpalatable truth but I have had regular meetings over the past five to ten years with student leaders and I have told them this because I knew where the real battle was. The real battle will be to concentrate resources on young people like the ones I heard on radio this morning.

Currently, it costs €1,500 to register. Is that a fee or not? It is certainly paid and it will go up to €3,000. The Green Party has moderated its position and apparently will accept €2,500. I met the students in UCD where it costs €4,500 for student accommodation for those coming from the country. They must also pay for subsistence and books. One is then very quickly reaching €12,000 or €15,000. How will people with one parent working or parents out of work be able to pay?

I share the concern of others about our smart economy and educated young people. I spoke at the Institute of European Affairs last week. There was a young woman there who was in a class of 200 two years ago which is down to 12 this year. That is what is happening to our education system.

The Senator has made the point. He can raise it in the debate.

I am glad there will be a general election very soon.

The Leader has ordered the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) (Amendment) Bill 2008 from 3.15 p.m. to 5 p.m. Is it his intention to roll over this debate on the basis that he told us the week before last that there were so many speakers, it could not be dealt with that day? What is his intention in regard to Second Stage today?

The Government is now prepared to make more focused forecasts and sharpen the range of figures available to the Opposition in regard to the budgetary situation and the four year plan. We all appreciate we must close the gap between what we spend and take in. When that information is made available, it would be helpful if this House could debate the economy. We must be calm and dispassionate. This House is perhaps more capable of being reflective and it could maybe minimise the differences. We all know what we must achieve but how we do so is the difficulty. It would be helpful if we could have such a debate when the information is made available.

I join Senator Alex White in calling for a debate on the role of Government. The mid-term elections in America indicated a very clear feeling among people, which I believe would be replicated here, that they want a debate on what it wants Government to do and on its role.

Cutting expenditure must not be the sole job of Government. We must have a debate on what Government should do, the services it provides and the people it must look after. The Leader should remember there are people who cannot look after themselves and who require the State to do so. That is why we must have a debate on what the Government does. I am very much in favour of the elimination of waste and creating efficiencies but we must remember our job is, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, to look after people when they cannot do so themselves.

Like Senator Fitzgerald, I call for a debate on education. If we are to become immersed in the smart economy, then cuts to education at any level are wrong. If we are to make education the launch pad from which to rebuild Ireland, the Government must be honest with the people in regard to it.

I totally disagree with Senator Mooney's comments on teachers. Thousands of teachers do not leave school until well into the evening and give their time voluntarily and look after their students. It is wrong to pigeon-hole teachers in the way he did. Senator Mooney also paraphrased Tony Blair. Will the Leader comment on the mantra of Fianna Fáil which is to remain in power?

The bottom line is that we need a general election and Senator Doherty's High Court action result is an indication that there has been an unreasonable delay in holding the by-election. The Irish people are not waiting in the long grass or in the short grass but they are waiting for the Government.

Yesterday the Deputy Leader told us we would have plenty of opportunity to debate the budget and the economy over the next few weeks. All the talk is that the budget will be so severe that everything will be on the table. Will the Leader make a particular effort to ensure we look at high earners versus low earners? There is a huge difference in the day-to-day life of somebody earning €30,000 and giving up 10% of it and somebody earning €300,000 and giving up 10% of it.

There is a group of workers in this State earning very generous salaries and protected by the Constitution. I was disappointed to learn that not all have stepped up to the mark and offered a voluntary contribution. Can we debate that particular group, which I will not name? It is very disingenuous of its members when they are on very generous salaries in these unprecedented times——

There is a separation of powers between this House and the Judiciary. It is very easy to recognise the group about which the Senator is talking.

I did not name the group.

It is clearly identifiable.

We are all aware that everything will be on the table and no group should be left out of the loop.

We should have a detailed debate on education today. Education is the one vehicle to create equality of opportunity and to achieve economic recovery. The proposal to double or almost double the registration fee is very dangerous and is not the right place to look for money. It will act has a huge barrier to access to education.

Many families with whom we deal on a day-to-day basis are in extraordinarily tight positions and will simply not be able to meet a doubling of the registration fee. It will mean that education will return to the situation which obtained when we were children, when it was the preserve of a certain class and group of people. There are two things wrong with that. The first is the inequality and injustice of it and the second is the great resource which will be missing when we seek to recover and grow our economy into the future.

Many other areas could be looked at in terms of the administration of the university system. There have even been notable and well-documented cases of excessive salaries at the top of the university pyramid. We can look at many areas but not at preventing access to university by our brightest and best. With the collapse of the building industry and many other sectors, the only inheritance and empowerment parents throughout the country can pass on to their children, despite the level of unemployment, is an education to give them dignity and fulfilment as a person and to equip them to avail of future economic opportunities. We need to have a debate on education and to knock on the head immediately the notion that a barrier to entry to college may be put in place.

I join colleagues who have called for a debate on education. Some 15,000 to 20,000 students will demonstrate outside these Houses today and they are welcome to do so. As a nation, we do not pay water charges or domestic rates, we pay registration fees but we do not pay university fees and we pay child care benefits and State pensions to the super wealthy. This is unsustainable. Far from trying to prevent those who are less well off from securing a university education, it is essential that we begin to charge university fees for those who can pay, not to eliminate the possibility of such an education for those who cannot afford to go to university but to ensure resources are available to give equal opportunities to those people who heretofore could not afford to compete with the super wealthy and pay the €9,000 per year to go to university. It is time that people who can afford to pay a contribution towards this did so. It is unsustainable that we continue to support the super wealthy and upper middle classes by offering levels of entitlement that are completely unsustainable.

Why not tax them?

Consecutive Governments since the early 1970s have perpetuated a redefining of the word "entitlement" that is unnecessary and completely unsustainable. That is not to penalise those who are already among the working poor or those suffering from unemployment or poverty but to ensure those who can pay should pay.

Unpalatable it may be but inevitable will be our fate if we do not take the responsibilities that future generations now demand of us.

I want to raise a subject that has not been touched on so far: that of the recent European Council meeting at which the Taoiseach and leaders of other countries met and at which agreement was forged regarding a new way in which nations need to conduct their finances and economic policies. The famous Stability and Growth Pact, which was shown to be nothing of the sort, is now being strengthened. There will now be new conditions upon which countries can make decisions and new rules they will have to obey. I welcome such constraints and that kind of environment but it will have a major effect on how countries such as ours conduct their affairs in the future. It seems odd that decisions of that magnitude have been met by silence within our political system. They merit debate.

The point made about the future funding of third level education is a principle that must be obeyed. In terms of taxation, the principle is age old that people must be asked to pay according to their means. If they do not have the means, they should not be asked to pay. That is a simple principle of we cannot lose sight in these times.

I refer to the mid-term elections in the United States on which some of my colleagues touched. What we saw happen in the United States last night is what we saw happen in 1982, 1992 and 2002. I take a far more positive message from it than many others, that vast unbridled wealth, combined with a sinister agenda, does not always buy one success in politics. We saw that happen in some electoral races in the United States. It must give hope to many people of more modest means who are represented in this House.

This time last year thousands of people protested outside Leinster against the possibility of reducing State pensions. I speak again in defence of older people and those in receipt of State pensions. The State pension is a fundamental cornerstone of our society on which we should all be able to rely. We all contribute towards this basic lifeline not only through PRSI and income tax but through the essential roles we play in our society, communities and families. Today's older people not only supported their parents' generation but also provided for the education and health needs of those of our people working today. Older people continue to contribute in volunteering, caring for partners and grandchildren and running local community organisations and groups. These contributions, though unpaid, have enormous value. If they were not voluntarily made, they would cost the State millions of euro.

The Government should beware of grey power. Last year 15,000 people marched outside the gates of Leinster House to protest against the political blunder of the removal of the medical card. This generation of older people, as I said yesterday morning, are more self-confident, more ambitious and more conscious of their rights. The Government, at its peril, will touch the State pension. It keeps 84% of people over the age of 65 out of poverty. Most people over the age of 65 are dependent on State pensions and transfers for their welfare.

I call Senator Ó Murchú. I apologise for not calling him earlier; I missed his signalling that he wanted to speak.

This House has won considerable kudos in recent weeks, particularly on the Order of Business which has been dominated by the economic situation and the forthcoming budget. The debate here is exceptionally balanced and good. As is inevitable at a time like this, various interests will rise to the top. This morning the issue seems to be education. Another morning it was health, another day it will be social welfare and so on. That is understandable but it also poses the question of how we balance all those interests. That is a challenge we face. If the Government decides on a single theme in the forthcoming budget, namely, that those who can pay should pay and that those who need assistance should be focused on, that is the only hope we have of creating unity in this country at present.

I have been observing what has been happening in Greece, as have many other Members. We see people on the sidelines who are waiting for opportunities to create chaos and anarchy. The only hope we have is for people in this House and in Dáil Éireann to work together in manner that I now see emerging. I have listened especially to contributions made by those in the Fine Gael Party in recent weeks and I have heard several good speeches, which clearly indicate that we have achieved a good deal through the debates in this House. Matters may not be necessarily be clear at this stage but they will be clear on budget day. It is not a matter of "if" or "or" but of having a single theme, which is that we should help the vulnerable and that those who can pay should be generous and forthcoming and it should be legislated for in the provisions of the forthcoming budget in December that who can pay should pay.

Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Keaveney, Ross, McCarthy, Coghlan, Buttimer, Healy Eames, Feeney, O'Reilly, Norris, Mooney, Dearey, MacSharry, Donohoe and Ó Murchú all called for further debates on the forthcoming budget. For the past few weeks we have debated the finances of our country, the banking difficulties and the challenges facing the Government and all parties in both Houses in regard to the forthcoming budget. I have no difficulty in arranging for the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House and hear the views of colleagues on the proposals in respect of and the challenges facing the budget allocation of the Department of Education and Science. I will endeavour to have that take place in the next few weeks.

Senator O'Toole asked about the Government's policy on the missing persons telephone line. I will endeavour to see what I can do to enhance the proposal put forward. The ISPCC's offer to operate the telephone line appears to be practically cost neutral to the Government. I will lend my full support and that of the House with a view to making progress in that regard.

Senator Ó Brolcháin called again for a debate on media reporting. As I stated last week, I do not have a difficulty in allowing such a debate to take place.

Senator Butler supported Senator Carroll's call made yesterday for a reduction in VAT on energy saving measures. This issue could be teased out during the debates on the budget for which the Minister for Finance will be present.

I look forward to the visit next week by representatives of the Spirit of Ireland group. As it demonstrated on previous visits, the group's proposals offer a great opportunity to reduce Ireland's dependency on oil. I support the work it is doing.

Senator Dearey requested that the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey, come before the House to discuss the Department's support for those unfortunate persons with addictions who avail of services such as counselling. This is a worthwhile request which I will facilitate.

Senator McCarthy expressed his serious concerns about the collapse of the banks and asked what was the up-to-date position on the ongoing inquiries in this regard. While such inquiries take time, I understand they are proceeding with speed and that there will be developments by Christmas.

Senator Coghlan asked what was the position on the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) (Amendment) Bill. We will review progress as the legislation proceeds through the House this afternoon.

Senators Alex White and Buttimer called for a debate on the role of government. I do not have a difficulty with such a debate taking place.

Senator Mary White expressed strong views on State pensions and Senators concur with most of her comments. As she indicated, the State pension is a lifeline for older persons whose participation in voluntary organisations and groups in their retirement years is crucial. They make an immense contribution and we do not want to interfere in a manner that would inhibit the great work they do. They reflect everything that is good about our nation.

Senator Fitzgerald has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Education and Science on the impact of the potential provisions of the budget on each sector of education be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 22; Níl, 28.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • Norris, David.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Prendergast, Phil.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • White, Alex.

Níl

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Butler, Larry.
  • Carroll, James.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Dearey, Mark.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Joe O’Reilly; Níl, Senators Niall Ó Brolcháin and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
Question put: "That the Order of Business be agreed to."
The Seanad divided: Tá, 27; Níl, 22.

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Butler, Larry.
  • Carroll, James.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Dearey, Mark.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • Norris, David.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Prendergast, Phil.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • White, Alex.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Niall Ó Brolcháin and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Maurice Cummins and Paschal Donohoe.
Question declared carried.