The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on Ireland's renewable energy potential, 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 ten 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 concluding comments and to take questions from leaders or spokespersons.
Order of Business
On a point of order, will the Leader inform the House whether he spoke to the Taoiseach or the Minister for Finance yesterday about bringing forward the budget?
That is not relevant to the Order of Business. The Senator can ask the Leader that question later.
On a point of order, with regard to the running of the House, will the Leader——
A point of order relates to procedure. This is not relevant to the Order of Business.
Yesterday and on Tuesday Members on all sides of the House asked the Leader——
The Fine Gael leader will speak next and the Senator will have an opportunity to do so later.
I have a question for the Chair. What mechanism is available to the Leader to come back to us on Members' requests that the budget be brought forward? The Leader was meant to report back on this question.
I call Senator Cummins.
The Fine Gael leader, Deputy Kenny, offered the suggestion that the Houses sit five days a week and return in early January to facilitate and complete the budgetary process. However, the Government seems intent on plodding along at the usual pace. Has the Green Party secured a date for holding the next general election in the second half of January, as it requested on Monday? I recall Senator Boyle stating yesterday that the stance taken was an extension of the programme for Government. Is it set in stone that we will have a general election in the second half of January or will the Green Party have to throw another wobbly on this and flex its muscles again?
It is a matter for the other House.
It is simple question in view of what Senator Boyle said yesterday. I ask for that to be clarified. I am sure everyone outside this House would like clarification on the matter.
They are worried about more than that.
We had a debate on the four-year plan yesterday when it was hot off the presses. I ask for further discussions on it when people have a chance to examine it in further detail. Perhaps the Leader can facilitate this.
We are three months into the college year, yet 13,000 students, some 21% of all students, have not yet received maintenance grants. Students are finding it very difficult to make ends meet and some are dropping out of college as a result. Some 60,000 applications for grant aid were submitted and 13,000 had not been processed by the first week of November. These figures were supplied by the Department of Education and Skills. Everyone would agree this is totally unacceptable and puts pressure on families who need the grant. Fine Gael believes there is a need for a one-stop shop that would fast-track all payments and grant applications. This is happening year after year and it must be addressed. I ask the Leader to contact the Minister for Education and Skills to ensure people get the grants before Christmas. They should have received grants three months ago and it is unacceptable to see this happening.
The issue raised by Fine Gael is one I have raised before. We should be aware of this and it should be discussed here next week in the Croke Park agreement debate. There are 32 local authorities replicating each others' work in grant applications and college fees. There are then 32 different places sending cheques to different colleges. The students then go to the college authorities, prove their identities and are then given the cheques. The students have never seen a cheque in their lives because people of that age do not deal in cheques. This should be done through technology. Grants should be transferred to the students' accounts every month. The idea of this being replicated in 32 locations and working on a system of cheques and identity creates work the like of which we would not have seen in the old-fashioned USSR. It is a poor reflection on how we should be doing business. The students' union has made this point clearly as well.
How will we see this economy grow following on from the four-year plan? There is not enough detail in it. I would like a full debate on this matter. I would like to hear people in the Chamber advancing their proposals on the economy. The other issue, which should be discussed separately, is the question of State agencies. The report has a few pages dealing with them. People talk of quangos and they are all treated as if they are the same. It is time to start looking at these, what they are doing, which ones we need to retain, which ones we do not need any more and which ones are not doing what they were set up to do. We should also consider their efficiency, whether they are getting reports out on time and whether the annual statements of accounts and budgets are published on time. We should also consider the relationship with the parent Department. We need to examine the four-year plan and focus on particular areas. Last night was satisfactory to kick it off with a general response but we need to examine certain areas, including growth and State agencies. Next week we will have a debate on the Croke Park agreement, which is another aspect of the four-year plan. We need to examine these matters with clear objectives.
The issue of growth is vital and there is precious little in the four-year plan that gives any sense of the Government's plan or strategy on growth. It is correct that we should have the objective of reaching 3% by 2014, to which most parties have agreed. The question is how we get there and how quickly we think we can get there. The debate about this year's budget and whether it should be €6 billion or whether it could be achieved with a lower figure this year is reflected not just between parties in these Houses but also by outside commentators whom the Minister for Finance and many others are quick to invoke in their favour and who have taken an interest in this point as late as this morning. Twice in its editorial, theFinancial Times cautions against the approach taken by the Irish Government and puts forward a compelling view that a slower move towards deficit reduction would be advisable, particularly at this stage. We know where we must be by 2014 but how quickly we think we can get there, especially in the budget for next year, is crucial. I welcome a debate on this aspect of where we are in the move towards 2014. The IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Union has an interest in this. It is striking that the IMF is taking a more nuanced and clear-headed view on the question of growth than some of our so-called European friends.
We can easily bring the question of growth and stimulating the economy into our debate. We can have the growth as predicted or slow things down so far that we may have to close the whole place down.
I am completely in favour of having the debate on the Croke Park agreement next week. We know the slowness of progress on the agreement. Various committees have been set up in the Departments. I have no objection to the debate but I am slightly sceptical about how much it will be possible to find out from the Government, given that so little progress has been reported to date. I am not against the debate but we should have a debate next week on the major banking crisis. We should have a debate on it today.
Hear, hear. Bang on.
How can we talk about the four-year plan without talking about the incredible crisis that affects not just the country but the eurozone and the entire European Union? We should be debating that point and finding out where we are in respect of those negotiations. A certain level of confidentiality must be maintained. What does the Government have in mind in respect of the interest rate and a memorandum of understanding? Where will we be at the end of this process?
If that is not entering into negotiations in public, I do not know what is. We are in a precarious situation and we must wait for negotiations to happen and see what terms are offered. Both Houses of the Oireachtas will then have the opportunity to decide on their worth. It is also dangerous to claim that somehow we can extend the period by which we can deal with our budgetary crisis.
No one said that.
We need to debate the issue.
On a friendly point of information, there was no suggestion of extending the period. It was a question of the pace. Will Senator Boyle accept that is what I said?
I will go through that. If one is not frontloading——
Just be honest and fair.
If one is not frontloading in the first year, one is undermining further confidence and making larger payments in subsequent years. Extending beyond 2014 to a period like 2017——
Who proposed that?
I have heard trade union representatives suggest it. The additional cost to the country of extending to 2017 would be €80 billion. This is money we would find it difficult to receive and we would have to pay it back at a certain interest rate. There is a commitment to frontloading and to €15 billion. These are benchmarks we need to maintain. A discussion on the Croke Park agreement needs to happen soon. In line with other Senators on the Order of Business on previous days, our particular commitment to that debate is regardless of what is implemented and reviewed in the Croke Park agreement. There is a need for a signal from those of us involved in public life on budget day itself that whatever cuts and reduced costs are being asked from members of our society are particularly reflected here and to a greater extent. If that does not happen I fear for any budget package that will be presented on 7 December.
What about the election?
I wish to just respond to the question from Senator Cummins——
I welcome co-operation on having a shorter Christmas recess, sitting more days and bringing forward the finance Bill. What my party leader said quite clearly — people are having difficulty in understanding this — is that it will be on the passage of the finance Bill, which we are anticipating by mid-January——
What about the second week in January?
That is the period - on the passage of the finance Bill.
Therefore, the Green Party will facilitate it in the middle of January.
Senator Boyle's time has expired.
We take it the election is still planned for January. That is all we want to know.
Please, no interruptions.
I support what Senator Cummins said in calling for a further debate on the four-year plan. We should also discuss some of the reaction to the four-year plan, in particular the call made by the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union for a campaign of civil disobedience against it. That is very much worthy of discussion in the House because any form of protest, including peaceful protest, or people coming together, as is going to happen later in the week is a right. We recognise and welcome that, but stepping over that line to encourage civil disobedience against the State at this stage sends out a very dark and worrying signal.
I ask the people making that call to reflect on three questions. The first is what the call means. Are they encouraging people to storm the Department of Finance, other Departments or institutions of State? They must clarify that.
The second question is what it will achieve. An election is on the way following the passage of the finance Bill, whenever that may be. That gives people the opportunity to express their dissent and dissatisfaction. In other countries where organised civil disobedience took place all it resulted in, in many cases, was the death of innocent bystanders. Do we want to light that fire in our country? The answer on behalf of responsible people is "No".
The press statement issued by the union indicated that it would pursue a similar campaign to oppose the plan, if implemented. The two main Opposition parties on this side of the House are committed to implementing elements of the plan and to finding a way to deliver on its objectives.
No, they are not. The Labour Party is not.
Does that mean that, regardless of the Government that will be in place, this kind of campaign will be maintained? Will there be such a campaign, regardless of the result of the general election? That is the kind of signal that could send our society into a spiral from which it would be difficult to get out. I call on the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union to clarify and withdraw those comments because it is the wrong approach at this stage.
As the chalice is about to be passed to the Members of the Opposition——
Senator Walsh should not give up too quickly.
It is a pity.
We must have a general election first.
They are running scared.
It is a pity to see the leader of the Fine Gael Party play politics this morning at a time when we are standing on the precipice.
Politics are not being played.
Members should not interrupt.
A simple question was asked.
Senator Walsh to continue without interruption.
A representative of ICTU last night said the solution to the problem was to get people out to march on Saturday. Senator Donohoe, who is always constructive, rightly recognised the shambolic attitude of people like that. Unfortunately, when the Fine Gael Party goes into government it will be with a Labour Party which is in hock financially——
Senator Walsh would know about being in hock.
——and mentally to the unions.
Senator Walsh's party knows about being in hock.
Unfortunately, there will be no cohesive solution——
Fianna Fáil invented being in hock.
——or attempt to address the difficulties we are in.
That is an unfair charge.
The sooner the public realise that, the better.
Fianna Fáil has made it an art form.
There is no agreement between the parties on anything. They will not have a joint platform. The populist approach just will not work. We have had too much of it. We are guilty of some of it as well.
You certainly are.
What is being proposed by the Labour Party is a recipe for complete collapse. I would like to think we might take some note of what the former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, said to British parliamentarians in the past week. He said that politics needs religiously-minded, ethical politicians. He dismissed the secularist notion that religion and politics should be entirely separate. This is a thoughtful House. We could do well to invite Mr. John Bruton to address the House and have a debate on what he says because, ultimately, unless we have that kind of substance within the political system we will not resolve the problems as the people look to us to do.
In view of the very difficult economic circumstances it is very interesting to see that 500 to 600 people were in the ballroom of the Shelbourne Hotel yesterday bidding for the Bank of Ireland art collection. That shows there is still money in the country but it is spread around very unevenly. I welcome the fact that the Irish Museum of Modern Art was given the opportunity to choose items to make up any gaps in its collection. I salute the fact that my colleague, Senator O'Toole, signalled that very early on.
We need to look at the people who do not have access to that kind of money. It is a beautiful day but a heavy snowfall is threatened. I was involved with Age Action Ireland in a campaign to try to get aid for elderly people who will be severely hit. There is a danger of hypothermia. I hope that if anyone is listening they will think of their neighbours at this very difficulttime.
I agree with my colleagues, including Senator Cummins, who mentioned the situation regarding students and student grants. The Joint Committee on Education and Skills is meeting today on the matter. It has recommended legislation which would tidy up the situation. Let us not play politics with the issue. Let us get the legislation prepared and through the Houses as quickly as we can——
——in order that students and their families do not always have to go through this anxious time. It hits a lot of people.
Politics are being played in Brussels with the farm grant. Because of a dispute between the Commission and the Parliament grant payments will be further held up. Farmers are threatened. They are getting low prices for their produce. Now there is going to be a delay in receiving their grant payments. Where are they to get the money to support themselves given that the banks are not giving out money? It is a very difficult situation.
We still do not seem to have learned. I got an e-mail yesterday, as did other Members. I spoke to the former Leader of this House, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, who had also received it. It was from a woman in the midlands, a decent professional woman with grown-up sons who are college graduates. She parked in a bay for traders in a supermarket car park. She knew the traders only used it one day a week and it was not that day. She got a ticket and put it on her car and thought she was all right. She was in bed with the flu and the Garda arrived in a van to take her to Mountjoy Prison yesterday. Are we mad or what? What are the priorities in this country? She is a very private person. She asked us to raise the matter but not to give her name as she does not want any publicity.
A private matter such as that is not relevant to the Order of Business.
Could we please get our priorities right? Could we please get values that serve the people of this country? Let us not be completely and utterly daft.
I wish to refer to student grants, which are very important. Every year I have raised the need to bring back the criteria from the Department of Finance earlier and earlier in order that grant applications and applications for college courses could be processed together. Career guidance should have a grant element to it as well in order that staff from councils and VECs could go to career guidance events in schools and tell students what they need to have because that approach has been very successful where it has been done. When the grant application comes in all the information is to hand and it can be processed quickly. Many people leave the information until the middle of the year which puts everyone under serious pressure in September and October. The Student Support Bill that is going through Committee Stage today will help in the development of a central grants system. Will the Leader arrange a debate on the matter next week?
This is the first of the 16-day campaign against domestic violence. The statistics are horrendous. Anyone who was in Buswells Hotel this morning to meet the agencies involved in dealing with the issue knows that many aspects remain to be debated. I could go through a list of the information provided, but I would prefer to do so during the debate.
I can raise a matter on the Adjournment concerning the need for the North and South to work together to ensure the switchover from an analogue service to digital will leave the North with a good service from which people living in County Donegal can benefit like those in other Border counties. However, it is amazing that I cannot raise on the Adjournment the issue of the changeover on the island of Ireland——
I have ruled the matter cannot be raised on the Adjournment.
——from an analogue service to digital because the Minister has no responsibility in the matter. He either has responsibility or he does not. He should be responsible for what happens in the Republic.
I have ruled on the matter.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation to explain to the House the role played by Enterprise Ireland and the IDA in encouraging job creation in rural towns? From my experience in County Galway, they are playing little or no role. In the Lower House a question was posed to the Minister to learn how many investors had been brought to a number of vacant industrial parks in rural parts of County Galway in the past year. The answer was none. While 58 investors have been brought to Galway city, no one has been brought to the 27-acre business and technology park in Tuam or any of the other industrial parks throughout County Galway in recent years. Expanding on the theme of growth, we must recognise that there are the capacity, expertise and determination within all rural towns to create the jobs we need, but such towns are being ignored by Enterprise Ireland and the IDA. Consider what can happen when such capacity, expertise and determination are rewarded. For example, JFC Manufacturing Limited in Tuam employs 200 people, Chanelle Pharmaceuticals Manufacturing Limited in Loughrea employs 220 people and has a presence in 90 countries, while Topform in Gort has just exported its first shipment to Australia. There is the capacity to create jobs in rural towns. Enterprise Ireland needs a dedicated unit to support this development. I am interested in hearing the Minister's views on the establishment of such a unit.
In recent weeks we have heard a great deal about patriotism and the foundation of the State. It is right and proper, therefore, that the House should react to what I can only describe as dark forces circling around the bastion of democracy. As always, Senator Donohoe encapsulated this feeling effectively. These darl forces should be condemned. The media have a responsibility in this regard. As I work with the media, this is not a media bashing exercise. A continuing litany of commentators on national radio and television are being allowed to express opinions that border on incitement. This creates an environment about which most ordinary and decent people are concerned. I do not doubt that those who march are sincere, but we need only consider the experience of the past year or 18 months, the most recent example being the students whose protest march in this city was hijacked by extreme forces who have no loyalty to the institutions of the State and are, in modern parlance, the nearest thing to anarchists. This must be a period for cool heads and wise words, particularly among political leaders and the political establishment. We must convey to middle Ireland, the majority of ordinary and decent people who are unquestionably angry and fearful concerning their children's future, that it is not well served by those who call people out onto the streets. Once they are called out, control is lost. It is important, therefore, that both Houses seek to ensure continuing loyalty and adherence to the democratic traditions built up over decades by successive Governments and other politicians. With the media, we have a duty to ensure that this will be a period of calm and that we will try to work our way through the crisis.
The Taoiseach's ultimate message yesterday was one of hope and confidence in the future that we could and would work our way out of the difficulties.
A document in my hand makes for grim reading. It is a report prepared for a court case a number of weeks ago on the liquidation of a construction company. It makes for grim reading because it lists the 1,620 companies and subcontractors owed money by the company in question.
Each of the 1,620 companies and subcontractors is an employer. The threat posed to them is that, because another company has gone into liquidation, the same could occur to them. These companies would not be on the list if we had been able to pass legislation proposed in the House last May.
It will be before the House again before Christmas. As the Leader's heart is in it, he will do his best to ensure its passage. I am referring to the Construction Contracts Bill 2010 which has reached Committee Stage. I urge the Leader to do all he can to ensure it will not only pass through this House before the recess——
——but also that it will pass through the Lower House.
However, its passage through the Lower House is not his responsibility. Senator Mooney mentioned the need for hope. We could have good news because of this Bill, as it would protect subcontractors. It is based on legislation introduced in other countries and would set the standard once it was passed through the Seanad and the Dáil. If we make amendments to improve it, it will be able to pass through the Dáil more easily and without delay. I am confident that this can be done before Christmas, but it will need the support not only of the Leader but also of every party. Up to 200 subcontractors met in a hotel at 10 a.m. and are hanging on to learn whether we can have the legislation passed promptly. I believe we can and doing so is in the House's hands. Let us ensure it is passed before Christmas.
I commend the comments of Independent Members, in particular, as I would like the Leader to arrange a debate on the need to stimulate the economy. There is a great deal of doom and gloom, but we also need to remember the positive aspects. I have in my hand a report that presents many issues in a positive light and there are still many good developments occurring. For example, eight of the world's top ten pharmaceutical companies are based in Ireland, as are 15 of the top 20 medical device companies, more than half of the top financial companies and eight of the top ten technology companies. We attract more inward investment from the United States than Brazil, Russia, India and China combined. We produce enough beef to feed 30 million Europeans. Ireland is the largest exporter of beef in Europe and the fourth largest in the world. We export 80% of our dairy products, 15% of the world supply of infant formula, eight of the world's top prescription drugs——
Is the Senator seeking a debate on the matter?
We want as much good news as possible.
I want to share some good news with the House because we have heard enough bad news.
Some 24,000 people are employed in medical technology companies in Ireland, the exports of which are valued at €6.9 billion per annum. Irish companies have invested €189 billion abroad, whereas foreign companies have invested some €169 billion here. These are up-to-date figures.
Is that a question to the Leader?
Half of the world's fleet of leased aircraft are managed in Ireland. Some 16,000 people are employed in forestry, a sector that has exports valued at €1.9 billion. Funds to a value of some €1.4 trillion are managed in Ireland. The value of exports has increased significantly, while the value of imports has decreased. Senator Donohoe referred to industrial disputes. The number of man-days lost has decreased from 66,000 last year to 1,000 this month, for which workers are to be commended. I hope the trend will not move in the wrong way. I am aware of the green energy figures, but a potential doubling in green energy in the next three years, as was done over the last three, is very good news for this country. All the draconian stuff in the four-year plan is one thing, but by God if we look at the positive side, we may not have to implement many of those items, the things we do not like, and the cherry-picking that Senator Alex White talked about if we stimulate the economy. That is what we need to focus on right now.
I, too, strongly support Senator Cummins's request to the Leader for a further debate on the recovery plan. Amazingly, the plan makes no mention of the banks, for which the great bulk of that €85 billion loan package is intended, regardless of whether it is drawn down or is to be the backstop or the firepower that has been spoken about so much on the Government side of the House. We need to hear more from Government about the possible amalgamation being mooted between Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society for a Fine Gael-type bad bank, which might not be a bad thing, for the transfer from the other institutions of the distressed and impaired loans that did not make their way into NAMA. It is very important that we have a debate on the plan, especially the banking aspects.
On another issue, the Supreme Court handed down a most important unanimous judgment yesterday on the challenge to the Mahon tribunal by O'Callaghan, Quarryvale and others. That is an extremely significant decision because, I presume, the tribunal report could not be published until the challenge to its publication or whatever was out of the way. Now that it is out of the way, it is vital the House debates the report the minute it is available. Naturally, it covers very important matters to do with planning, alleged corruption and all the rest, but the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal are matters of concern to every citizen, and it is our place to have a debate on it. I am sure the other House will want to do the same. Perhaps the Leader can enlighten the House as to what the Government knows about this matter.
I am deeply concerned at the escalation of serious crime and that the value placed on human life has now broken the Richter scale. The shooting dead of Glenn Murphy and Mark Noonan in a north Dublin shopping centre early yesterday is a step too far, and I offer my condolences to the family and friends of these two young men. Will the Leader agree to have a debate on policing and request the Minister for Justice and Law Reform to outline the policies to address and resolve gun crime?
On a better note, I draw the attention of the House to a tremendous programme on RTE the other night on the subject of young carers. It showed the outstanding commitment, love and care by young people that needs to be recognised and applauded. It was absolutely fantastic. I salute all the young people, including those who featured on the programme, who are caring on a 24-7, 365-day a year basis. They do tremendous work and, from the viewpoint of a former office holder, I recognise that the State could never provide what volunteers do in this regard.
I also pay tribute to the Carers Association which carries out tremendous work and needs to be supported in every way possible. I ask the Leader to request the Minister to work with the Carers Association for all the carers who are doing tremendous work and, in particular perhaps, to focus on appropriate recognition for young carers.
The four-year plan published yesterday, although necessary, will obviously mean a great deal of pain for all our people. I am not at all clear about what it is to achieve, however. It was decided the €15 billion in the plan was needed before the bailout figure of €85 billion for the banks. Given the bailout figure and there is no mention of the bank debt in the four-year plan, is this plan capable of meeting our bailout repayments? I do not believe it is. Neither do I believe we are at all clear about what this plan will achieve exactly. Is it just to achieve our deficit reduction, and do we know exactly how much the banks owe? We started off with €4 billion, but it then went to €34 billion, then €40 billion and now we are at €85 billion. I am concerned that we do not have a handle on it and some market analysts are saying it could be in the region of €250 billion. We need absolute clarity from the Governor of the Central Bank and the Minister for Finance on how much the banks owe. If we do not know what we owe, how can we know what we have to repay?
Looking at the four-year plan, we all agree that education is the driver of growth, yet we see that students and their families will really be paying the price. There is a €500 hike in the registration fee for third level students, while no one is talking about the €200 hike for PLC students. In many cases these are disadvantaged students, educationally and socially. Like others, I ask the Leader to advance the Student Support Bill through this House before the recess. It is before the select committee today. If we are really serious about the future of the country, which is in the hands of our students, whom we expect to pay for our pensions in the future, then let us serve them well.
On an important point of information, the €85 billion is a single figure that covers both borrowing for current expenditure and the banks. Some €40 billion of it will go towards covering the current spending deficit, as I understand it.
Is the Senator sure?
I am sure.
The Senator is sure. It is on the record. That is fair enough.
If Senator Healy Eames checks with the Members around her, they can confirm it. I raised the matter yesterday, to which I would appreciate a response while understanding why it was not possible to get one in the context of yesterday's debate, about the need to inject greater expertise into the dealings of the Oireachtas and the public service, generally. I proposed that a partial list system might allow parties to make key appointments in finance as well as in other areas where expertise on the floors of these Houses would be of great value. I ask again that the Seanad be given the opportunity to debate this, given the crisis in which we find ourselves.
On the implications of the four-year plan for local government, I foresee enormous changes for councillors once the various charges scheduled for local government are collected. It will not be, from 2013 on, the job it was. There are also implications for local authorities that do not have a collecting function for local government finance. They will find that their wealth is, in effect, going to an authority on which they do not have representation. There are profound implications for local government in this. I am aware of them, as I know is the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We must not lose sight of the repercussions these necessary measures will have on how local government functions. It highlights the need for local government reform in order that local authorities that continue to exist will have revenue raising and spending functions. That is an essential principle we need to pursue.
I welcome some of the measures in the plan dealing with enterprise, stimulus, the retention of the 12.5% corporation tax and the extension of the PRSI scheme for employers. I worry about the VAT issue, however, and believe we need to return to it. I spoke last week about how sensitive a question VAT is for Border areas, and this is something we need to examine in much more detail.
I support what Senator Mooney said on the Order of Business. It was an excellent example of a contribution that does not involve a question to the Leader but which nonetheless needs to be heard in the House and, as such, is worth noting. The key issue is that we need to keep our dignity as a nation, and that applies to the people who will be out marching. It pains me to turn on an international news channel and see Ireland at the top of the agenda and to think that the way we behave may be making matters worse in this regard. I ask people to by all means have their protest but to keep their dignity. In this regard, I regretted the chaotic manner in which it was announced we would be having an election in the new year. It should have been possible for those in government and leaders of the Opposition to talk about this following which a statement could have been issued saying that Ireland will go to the polls in April, May or June 2011. The manner in which it was announced reflects badly on us. It shows us as a nation whose leaders are at sixes and sevens, which is to be regretted. There is time to learn from this and to get things right.
I compliment and support Senator Quinn on what he is trying to achieve by way of the Construction Contracts Bill. It is important we take a bipartisan approach to the Bill and that we lead by example on this issue, as the Senator has done.
On the four-year plan, the Government is at pains to stress balance in terms of protecting necessary areas, namely, education and innovation. Hard choices will have to be made. I wish to make a plea on behalf of education. The change in name of the student support charge to a contribution to higher education at least has the merit of honesty. Up until now we have had a reintroduction of fees by the backdoor. We need to monitor any reduction in expenditure in education.
Time, Senator, please.
A reduction in the number of teachers in schools may lead among other things to ordinary and higher level class groups being taken together. This will hit the weakest. The students who may have learning disabilities will not get the attention they need. Although hard choices have to be made, we must continue to be discerning in the making of those choices. This is nowhere more necessary than in the area of education.
I call for a debate on the four-year plan. I am conscious of the forthcoming budget. People are being asked to take cuts, which have been as fairly spread as possible. I am conscious of an area in which there are not cuts, namely, semi-State companies which are State companies with a commercial entity. The heads of these companies are being paid in excess of €500,000, often €700,000. In the good times, we were told by the bankers earning €2 million or €3 million plus bonuses that we had to pay top dollar to get professionals. They went so far as to suggest that if we paid peanuts we would get monkeys. If Bobo in Dublin Zoo had been looking after the banks we would have done much better. The reality is that we need to examine the salaries paid by the State to people in semi-State companies that are causing people to be scandalised. A salary of €700,000 is totally unacceptable and a cap should be put on those salaries.
I am cognisant that this morning an official from Commissioner Rehn's office has suggested that the people who hold senior debt in the banks should take a write down. If this is the case, it is a game changer. Europe is now suggesting, if this is correct, that the senior debt should be restructured. I suggest we have a full debate on this matter, in particular in light of the comments made by Mr. David McWilliams that these people should be requested to take shares in the banks, which is a standard practise in the United States. If Europe is suggesting to us that senior debt should not be paid to those in the banks who took a commercial risk, we should give this serious consideration.
It is fair to say that Ireland has many needs and that there is much in regard to which we should be united in the context of the national recovery plan and possible amendments thereto. We clearly need a political debate on the choices facing the country in the lead up to the general election which will take place in the next few weeks or months. What we do not need is to allow the country to descend into chaos caused by people who believe a campaign of civil disobedience will somehow help turn around our economic plight. What did civil disobedience do for the workers in Greece? I imagine it did little. What did a campaign of civil disobedience on the streets of Paris and throughout France do for working people? It did nothing. Those who believe that a campaign of civil disobedience can help are from a different era. We often speak in this House of the need for new ideas, new beginnings and new politics. Civil disobedience is from a different time, place and society. It will cause nothing but harm.
In the next few weeks or, at maximum few months, we will all have an opportunity to put forward our views in regard to how the country should be run by way, not of a campaign of civil disobedience but a general election campaign. I hope that union representatives who are advocating a campaign of civil disobedience will reflect on the negative connotations of that type of worn out, claptrap ideology. They will have an opportunity during the general election to present their views and to advocate particular parties and candidates, which is a healthy way of bringing about democratic change. Anyone who suggests that civil disobedience is the only way forward is insulting democracy, political parties and the public. The public in a general election campaign can make up its mind about the future direction of this country. We do not need street protests. From an economic and social perspective, it is the last thing we should be talking about. I agree with my colleagues Senators Donohoe and Mooney on that matter.
I call for a debate on the four-year plan. I received numerous calls on this matter to my constituency offices in Drogheda and Ardee this morning. People are asking where are the job creation strategies of the plan. However, the State cannot click its fingers and create thousands of jobs. The four-year plan creates the conditions for the creation of those jobs, as highlighted this morning by numerous Ministers.
Another big issue, in regard to which Ireland will be only a bit player, is the debt of Portugal, Spain and the eurozone. It is important we have a debate on this issue and, as suggested by Senator Hanafin, debt restructuring in terms of whether senior debt holders should be forced to take equity in the banks, thus taking ownership of the problem too.
On a lighter note, I heard numerous discussions on the radio this morning in regard to Christmas presents for teachers, in respect of which it is estimated €250,000 per annum is spent. This is putting pressure on parents of not so wealthy means. I propose, and encourage the Leader to support this, that every school going child be encouraged to bring in €2 and that this money be given to a local charity or local St. Vincent de Paul Society conference. This would have more of an impact than would presents left lying at the bottom of cupboards and wardrobes. It is a simple proposal but one which I ask the Leader to support.
Senators Cummins, O'Toole, Alex White, Boyle, Donohoe, Walsh, Norris, Mooney, Coghlan, Healy Eames, Dearey, Hanafin, Bradford and Carroll called for further debates on the four-year national recovery plan. I thank all colleagues who participated in the magnificent debate we had yesterday in the House on the plan. The Seanad was the first House to debate it yet there was no mention in the media of the fact that we were discussing it within two hours of its publication. I thank the Whips, leaders of the Opposition and Members for their magnificent contributions to that debate. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, who participated in it.
Various issues have emerged from the plan, including job creation and growth. As stated yesterday by the Minister and Taoiseach, parts of the plan will be covered in the budget. The returns for November-December, which are two of the best trading months of the year, will be crucial in terms of accuracy of the budget, due on 7 December. I will have no difficulty in arranging time to continue our deliberations on the plan, but the Croke Park agreement is crucial. The reason we have taken on the agreement in this House is that we wish to hold to account those charged with responsibility under it. The Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, who was appointed by the Taoiseach has special responsibility to ensure those responsible for the changes and implementation of the agreement are doing so. We will monitor implementation of the agreement, as I said, on a four-week basis and have the issues debated. There are many parts to the agreement and the national plan can also be debated. The problem is we have so much legislation coming before us for consideration.
Where is it?
I did not interrupt the Senator.
The Leader said that yesterday.
It is crucial that those responsible for implementation of the Croke Park agreement are held accountable and that is what this House will do.
Senators Cummins, O'Toole, Norris, Keaveney, Healy Eames and Mullen are correct to call for a debate on the 60,000 outstanding applications for student grants that are urgently needed. I will do all I can to highlight this issue with the Minister for Education and Skills following the Order of Business and, if possible, will invite her to the House to update us in this regard. Some good ideas were proposed. Senator O'Toole proposed a one-stop-shop, while Senator Keaveney who has a great deal of expertise in this area said everybody should have his or her application made in good time and that all of the preparatory work could be done months ahead of making the application.
Senator Keaveney called for a debate on domestic violence. I will consider this request, particularly in the context of our Private Members' time. She also referred to the digital changeover, an issue I covered yesterday. I fully support her in everything she is trying to achieve in this regard, particularly on behalf of people living in County Donegal. It was only when we were fighting the by-election campaign that we fully understood the importance of this issue. As she said, the people mentioned are as entitled to receive a quality television signal as anyone else in the country and we must make sure this happens.
Senators Cannon and Ó Brolcháin called for a debate on enterprise. When filling in as Acting Leader, Senator Ó Brolcháin responded thoroughly to Senator Cannon on this issue. He outlined to the House an uplifting list of achievements, but I will have no difficulty in having such a debate in the House, if time permits, before Christmas.
Senator Quinn referred to his Construction Contracts Bill 2010. I am doing everything I can and would like to have a word with him following the Order of Business to see how I can progress it. The legislation committee, chaired by the Government Chief Whip, met last Thursday and I pushed strongly to have the Bill advanced. It is my intention to have all Stages of the Bill concluded in the House within the next two weeks. What is happening to honest, decent, hard working families who for generations have provided employment and manufactured the highest quality products is completely unacceptable, particularly when we realise that one company ones money to 1,620 other companies and families. It is outrageous and should not be allowed to continue. Unfortunately, I understand three or four further serious announcements are imminent. It is absolutely shocking when one sees companies in my area with their vans and trucks trying to protest and bring to the attention of the people their serious plight. They often employ more than ten or 15 people. Shane Murtagh and Floods employed between 400 and 600 people only two years ago, all of whom are caught up in the collapse and the liquidation. I assure Senator Quinn that, following our meeting after the Order of Business, I will seek an urgent meeting with the Minister for Finance to see how we can progress the Bill and ensure it will be passed by both Houses and enacted before Christmas.
Senator Coghlan called for an update on the planning regulations and the court case and announcement made yesterday. I will arrange this debate in early part of the spring session.
Like Senator Callely, I extend our condolences to the families of the two young men who were shot dead on Tuesday night. It is appalling and horrific. I will have no difficulty in holding a debate on gun crime, policing and the challenges facing the Garda. The Senator also called for our full support for carers. He referred, in particular, to the heroic work done by young carers. There are 160,000 carers, most of whom deserve a gold medal because they are the unsung heroes of our society. I agree with the Senator that we should give total support to them. I will pass on his comments to the Minister for Health and Children.
Senator Dearey referred to the list system. I recognise that such a system would allow parties to appoint experts to help them and will arrange a debate on the issue. Perhaps we can discuss it the next time his party raises an issue during Private Member's time. He also referred to the reform of local government. Local government will face a serious challenge under the four-year plan. Therefore, the call for a debate is timely. We will have it early in the spring session also.
Senators Mooney and Mullen stated we needed to keep our dignity as a nation. I fully share their sentiments.
Senator Carroll, our youngest Member, suggested students should not be expected to give Christmas presents to their teachers, particularly in this very difficult economic time. It is a sensible proposal which I support and will pass on to the Minister for Education and Skills.