Leaders’ Questions

We welcome the publication yesterday of the personal insolvency Bill and are gratified that it takes on board many of the suggestions we made in the legislation we brought before the Oireachtas before Christmas. It shows that this Oireachtas can really work if everybody is given an opportunity to have an input into legislation. However, we are concerned about the proposals in that it leaves the involvement of the banks in respect of secure debt as optional. Our proposal was radically different in that regard. It is fair to say that the Tánaiste pointed out many times in the past four years that leaving issues to the discretion of the banks is a bad idea but effectively what we are getting in these proposals is light touch legislation.

(Interruptions).

The Government is putting the code of practice into legislation but it is not giving it teeth, so to speak. I ask the Tánaiste to reconsider that matter. Will it introduce amendments to strengthen the Bill, particularly in respect of secured creditors and home loans?

I asked the Tánaiste a question last week about the interest rates ITSB is charging. Effectively, it is twice the rate charged by AIB and it is having a major effect on mortgage holders. Has any progress been made in resolving what is a straightforward issue in that it is basically a State owned bank? Similarly, it has been brought to my attention that regarding the EBS, which is now owned by AIB and is one of the Minister, Deputy Noonan's, pillar banks, the idea was to get some form of convergence. What steps does the Government intend to take to ensure there is convergence in the interest rate being charged on home loans by the EBS towards the AIB rate? I would point out that ITSB issues new house loans at a lower rate than those in respect of existing mortgage holders.

I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for welcoming the publication yesterday of the personal insolvency Bill. It is a pity he took some of the good out of the welcome by making some begrudging comments in respect of it.

It is fair to say that the biggest worry in the period of this recession for individuals and families, even bigger than the loss of the job or the loss of the business, is the fear of losing their home. I refer to people who have found themselves in mortgage difficulties and in circumstances of personal debt of one kind or another. That issue has been addressed by the Government in the publication of the personal insolvency legislation yesterday, which is the most radical reform of personal insolvency legislation we have seen. I remind Deputy Ó Cuív that his party had 14 years in Government in which to address this issue and did not address it.

The Government has addressed the issue of personal insolvency and introduced legislation which will reduce the period to three years. That alone will strengthen the hand of borrowers in their discussions with their banks. The legislation provides for a range of non-judicial debt settlement arrangements, provision for a debt relief certificate for people who have unsecured debt of under €20,000 with no income and no assets, debt settlement arrangements where people can make a settlement with their bank and, critically, the introduction of the personal insolvency arrangement, which includes secure debt and will include also mortgage debt. For the first time we will have legislation that will enable borrowers to negotiate debt settlement arrangements in a realistic and reasonable way with their banks and their financial institutions. It is a good day for this country that for the first time we now have hope for families and households in that they can see a way to working themselves out of their personal debt circumstances. Interestingly, this comes on a day when as a country we have seen the first signs of hope regarding our re-entry to the markets with the bond exchange yesterday, which is the first time the country has been back in the markets since September 2010.

This is a very positive development. The intention is that the heads of the Bill will be discussed in the joint Oireachtas committee and any improvements Members of the House wish to suggest or detail they want to discuss can be discussed in that committee. The Bill then will be formally published and I hope it will be enacted in a relatively short period.

The Tánaiste is a radically changed man in the past year and a half because what happened yesterday was that the European Central Bank lent money to the banks at 1.5% which have lent it to Ireland at 5%, making a substantial gain because of the arrangement in the ECB. I compliment the NTMA on availing of the opportunity but the basic structure is wrong given that the big gains are for the private banks. However, that is another day's work.

A question, please, Deputy.

We welcome the Bill. An issue the Tánaiste spoke about before coming into Government was interacting with the House and taking on board good suggestions no matter where they came from. The Bill proposes that the banks, in respect of the biggest loan that most people have, that is, the secured loan that is the mortgage on their house, are not forced to get involved in debt resolution, and that it is an option for them. As we are aware from the past, when the banks have options, they do not always take those options in the interests of the customer. It should be mandatory on the banks, as it is for the unsecured creditors, to get involved. That is the fundamental change needed to make the Bill effective. If not, it will not work.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, said yesterday that he was hoping for the co-operation of the banks. The Tánaiste was critical of the lack of co-operation from the banks throughout the fiscal crisis and the fact that they would not tell us how badly they were scorched.

Does the Deputy have a question?

I have a question. I would have thought that the Tánaiste, above all people, would have realised that depending on the voluntary goodwill of the banks is a foolish way to go. Will the Tánaiste amend the Bill to make it mandatory for the banks to engage? In respect of the bankruptcy issue, debt resolution should ensure that bankruptcy will not be the option for the majority of ordinary citizens and that resolution will be the option.

Deputy Ó Cuív, please.

This is a Second Stage speech.

Bankruptcy is the last thing-----

I am calling the Tánaiste.

Steady now; give him a chance.

-----ordinary people dream of; they want a resolution to their issues. They do not want bankruptcy and, therefore, we must deal with this issue.

The Deputy should start again.

The Government is always open to taking on board constructive suggestions from any Member on legislation. That is why we have decided that the heads of the Bill will go immediately to the joint committee. We do not intend that to be a prolonged period and we are looking at having that process completed by the end of February and then moving ahead with the formal publication of the legislation thereafter.

Deputy Ó Cuív refers to radical change. This is radical change. There is no other legislative arrangement of this kind of which I am aware. Certainly there has been none in Ireland to date, nor is there any anywhere else of which I am aware that deals with the issue of secured debt in the way it is proposed to be dealt with in this legislation. This is not some kind of a voluntary optional arrangement for banks. This is legislation that is writing into law for the first time a range of non-judicial debt settlement arrangements which will give a reasonable prospect to people who have accumulated debts, who have mortgage debt they cannot pay, who are in negative equity and who face the awful prospect at some stage of losing their home of navigating and negotiating their way out of that situation. The banks will know that as a backstop, the new completely changed personal insolvency arrangement, incorporating a reduction to three years, is in place. This is radical new legislation which will provide a new basis on which people can work their way out of personal debt, including mortgage debt.

We have had a long period since the country went into recession-----

-----and people have been facing all kinds of difficulties in respect of jobs, the economy and their personal situation. For the first time since the country went into recession, individual families and households can look to a legislative basis through which they can get debt resolution and to a new legislative basis for personal insolvency which combined will give them some hope of getting out of the debt with which they are saddled . In fairness to Deputy Ó Cuív, he has welcomed the publication of the legislation.

Today the Tánaiste intends ramming the Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011, or the septic tank Bill as it is known, through the House, a measure that will impose great hardship on citizens. The use of the guillotine to rush this measure through is cynical. The Tánaiste said he was open to constructive suggestions in respect of any proposals, but in this case he is rushing the legislation through without having taken or considered the very constructive and fair amendments tabled by Members. I am aware that what is happening today stems from a failure of successive Governments involving Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party to comply with the 1975 EU directive. Unfortunately, what the Dáil is telling rural Ireland today is that it is the people who will pay for the failure of politics. This legislation should not go through without the full standards by which septic tanks will be assessed being agreed, published and understood, because in its absence, fear and panic has spread throughout rural Ireland.

People fear they will faced with bills of several thousand euro they simply cannot meet.

Can we have order for the speaker, please?

Like the Tánaiste, I support any measure that means individuals and families, as he has just stated, can see their way beyond hardship and debt.

Will the Deputy please put a question?

This particular measure, however, advanced in the manner it has been, not only causes the fear of further debt but will bring home that reality. How can the Tánaiste defend rushing the legislation through without publishing the standards by which septic tanks will be judged-----

-----and, crucially, without offering reassurance to families and individuals that there will be a fully funded grants scheme to support those families who have to make repair works to their septic tanks?

(Interruptions).

It is a pity that Deputy McDonald does not have the good grace, as Deputy Ó Cuív did, at least to acknowledge that the Government is dealing with a real issue that families are concerned about which is the problem of mortgage debt. Previously, she claimed the Government was doing nothing about the mortgage problem and on the day that we are doing just that, she does not have the good grace at least to acknowledge that. Instead, she has to spend the morning trying to find an issue on which she can criticise the Government. Deputy McDonald said the Government is rushing this measure and we are not giving Members an opportunity to debate it in detail.

The Deputy is right.

The committee which debated the Bill finished three hours early.

That was because the amendments were ruled out of order.

Three extra hours were available during which all these detailed issues could have been raised.

Look, I have the fiver.

Will the Deputy please resume his seat?

Deputy Mattie McGrath is a clown.

(Interruptions).

There is no circus without a clown.

This issue-----

Just one moment, please. I want no more of this farce. It is a disgrace.

This is the national Parliament.

This issue dates back to 2009 and was not dealt with by the previous Government. Now, there is a 3 February deadline within which the Water Services (Amendment) Bill must be enacted. The country is facing possible fines, including a lump sum penalty of €2.7 million and a daily fine of more than €26,000 if the legislation is not enacted and a way to deal with septic tanks is not found.

The Government is proposing a reasonable measure, a once-off registration charge of €50. There will also be an inspection regime that will be reasonable. We have an example of how the inspection regime has operated in County Cavan where it operates in a reasonable way. The legislation is not being rushed. Plenty of time has been provided to debate it. It must be enacted by 3 March.

Some in the House might find this a source of comedy. I remind Members that many people watching us whow we represent do not find it funny at all.

That is Tea Party rubbish.

There is no one who does not accept that we must guard the quality of our water supply and that we need a proper inspection regime. That is not the issue. The registration fee is not what is causing the difficulty. The problem lies with the legislation the Government is rushing through. The Government has failed to accept amendments from Sinn Féin and others. The legislation is explicit that a fine of up to €5,000 can be levied. There can be no fudging on this as it is there in black and white. However, it is the absence of a series of standards for septic tanks that causes deep concern, as well as the fact that, should a household be faced with undertaking significant works to bring a septic tank up to standard, the Government is making no commitment to families the length and breadth of the country that there will be a helping hand for them.

The Deputy is over time.

There is little point in giving with one hand and taking with the other. I will always acknowledge any effort to assist families in financial distress and will read carefully the Government's proposals which I acknowledge. However, I put it to the Tánaiste that it is deeply unfair of the Government to put through this legislation without being absolutely clear on what standards will be applied. Will there be a grants scheme? Will there be assistance for families where in order to protect the water table and the quality of water they must upgrade their system? The least those living in rural Ireland should expect from the Government is help and assistance in this matter.

The Deputy is on both sides of the argument.

It is not sufficient to simply rush the legislation through the House.

Let us discuss the issue of fairness. Certainly, it is not fair that taxpayers are facing a daily fine after 3 February because of the failure of a previous Government to deal with issue since 2009. It must be and is being dealt with.

The Deputy is confusing what is included in primary legislation and the detailed regulations to be made subsequently in secondary legislation. The inspection regime for septic tanks will operate under the Environmental Protection Agency which has considerable experience of inspections and environmental controls and does its work in a reasonable way. What is included in the legislation is not unfair, but what is unfair is the approach being taken by some Members who are frightening elderly people, in particular, by suggesting they will be caught with-----

(Interruptions).

They have base motives.

They are using the legislation to whip up fears for political advantage.

The Tánaiste is good at working the fear factor himself.

As everyone knows, the legislation must be put in place by 3 February.

(Interruptions).

The charge is reasonable and the inspection regime that will apply-----

-----under the Environmental Protection Agency will also be reasonable.

We do not know what it will be.

Will the Tánaiste define the word "reasonable"?

Deputy Mattie McGrath should stop shouting people down.

In the meantime, I urge Deputies not to whip up fears among people who have nothing to fear from the legislation.

Answer the question.

(Interruptions).

May I have an answer to my question on a grants scheme?

Order, please. Does Deputy Joe Higgins have a question?

We did not get an answer to the question.

Will the Deputy please resume his seat?

Who will pay for the work supposed to be carried out on septic tanks? It is another charge on-----

(Interruptions).

Deputy, I want to say something.

The Minister did not say who would pay for any remedial works required. We are all in favour of having a proper water system. The Tánaiste must answer the question about those who cannot afford to pay for remedial works.

The Deputy is out of order. Will he please sit down?

The Tánaiste did not answer the question-----

I have something to say.

-----about who would pay for the remedial works. Will it be the responsibility of-----

If the Deputy does not resume his seat, he will have to leave the House.

He did not answer the question.

The Tánaiste has not answered it.

The Chair is on his feet. The Deputy knows the rules. For the last time, will he please resume his seat?

(Interruptions).

Then, I must ask the Deputy to leave the House.

There has been no answer to the question.

Deputy Joe Higgins is on his feet.

This is a farce. The Tánaiste did not give an answer to the question. It is a disgrace to expel Deputy Martin Ferris when clearly the Tánaiste did not answer the question. He completely avoided answering it.

We will discuss the matter later.

It is a disgrace that you are protecting the Tánaiste who will not answer the question put by Deputy Martin Ferris.

Please withdraw that comment. I am not protecting anyone.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle should not have thrown out Deputy Martin Ferris. The Tánaiste did not answer the question. You should have thrown him out, as he did not answer the question.

That is the end of it.

In recent days press reports on briefings given by the Minister for Social Protection and senior officials in her Department have pointed to the beginning of a campaign to exert pressure on and harass unemployed people. Apparently, the Minister is to unveil next week a programme entitled, Pathways to Work. It has been stated every unemployed person in the State will be given a date by which he or she will be expected to be off the live register. This is referred to in a sinister turn of phrase as the "prediction of exit date", something one might associate more with sentencing in a capital trial rather than with how people who find themselves in difficult circumstances should be treated. If the unemployed person is not off the live register by that date, he or she will face what has been referred to as a "challenging interview". Apparently, senior officials in the Department are referring to this among themselves as "Operation Transformation", a reference to an RTE project as part of which people who consider themselves to be overweight or seriously obese undertake a stringent programme to overcome the problem.

We have been told in the same briefings that the Minister's drive will include calling unemployed people to Alcoholics Anonymous-style motivation meetings if they do not meet their exit dates.

The criminal profiteering and greed of a tiny minority of people in this State led to a catastrophic collapse in economic activity over the past three and a half years. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people lost their jobs. The disastrous austerity policies of this Government and its predecessor have kept hundreds of thousands of people on the dole, unfortunately. Are they to be regarded as having a serious dependency disease, of which they have to be cured? Will the cure involve humiliating and harassing them and making it intolerable for them to come to get their weekly support? Is this how far the Labour Party has fallen in less than a year? Before last year's general election, it published extensive documents claiming it would be the champion of the jobless and the powerhouse of job creation.

In the same week that the perpetrators of this crisis - the speculating bondholders - have been rewarded to the tune of €1.25 billion, it has been revealed that a Labour Party Minister is planning the institutionalised victimisation of the very victims of this crisis. Those precious resources should be used to create emergency programmes of work for unemployed people. We have been told this is being pushed by the troika, which makes sense. The idea of an army of unemployed people in the peripheral countries of Europe competing with each other to be forced into dreadfully paying jobs, thereby driving down wages and conditions, is part of the troika's programme. That is the pitiless strategy of capitalism. Can the Tánaiste explain why the Labour Party, which was founded by the great champions of the victims - Connolly, Larkin and others - intends to participate in the classic Tory ploy of victimising and blaming the unemployed, who are the victims of this crisis?

Deputy Higgins has a great penchant for hyperbole.

A bit like the Tánaiste.

I have to say he has excelled his most outrageous excesses this morning by describing in such lurid terms a Government document that has not yet been published.

He is like the Minister, Deputy Reilly, in that regard.

He might at least have waited until he had read it.

Why would he do that?

Deputy Higgins is right to say the Government wants to get people off the live register. We want to get people back to work. That is why we have proposed a range of measures. This week, we will propose a range of measures at an EU summit that will provide for jobs and encourage the European and Irish economies to grow. We are taking steps to bring confidence back into our economy, encourage investment here and bring people back into employment.

The Government's approach to people who are out of work is to assist them with training and education. We help them to find job experience and internships, where appropriate. That will enable them to work themselves back into employment as jobs become available. The Government has no intention of allowing people to languish on unemployment payments without taking active measures to help them to return into employment and improve their skills. In fact, the OECD has criticised the performance of previous Governments in this respect. Deputy Higgins seems to have an absolute fascination with the Minister, Deputy Burton. I presume it is because he shares a constituency with her. The approach being led by the Minister is about reforming our social welfare system so that rather than being left in long-term unemployment, people are enabled to get back into employment as quickly as possible. Her proposals and reforms will be set out in a strategy document, Pathways to Work, which is to be published shortly. A range of activation measures will help people to re-equip themselves for the workforce and get retraining, where appropriate. The interviews mentioned by Deputy Higgins are necessary because people have individual needs. Unemployed people are not statistics.

We are not talking about percentages - we are talking about people. Individual people have different needs, depending on where they previously worked and their levels of education and experience. The Minister, Deputy Burton, is putting in place a new regime whereby individual people who are out of work will be talked with individually. Their needs, requirements and wishes will be established. Our State training, education and labour activation systems will be used to help them to improve themselves while they are out of work. That strategy will be implemented in conjunction with the strategy the Government is pursuing to attract investment to this country, create jobs and reduce the number of people who are on the live register. I assure Deputy Higgins that we want to get them back into gainful employment as quickly as possible

There is one cure for mass unemployment. That is job creation. The Government needs to discontinue its austerity policies, which are destroying tens of thousands of jobs in the domestic economy. That approach is the reason an additional 200,000 people are on the live register, compared to three and a half years ago. The creation of real jobs with decent wages is the answer to unemployment.

These so-called labour activation measures are an excuse for the Government's failure to create jobs over the past year.

They are a way of getting people into training and education.

Unfortunately, the relentless loss of jobs in the domestic economy will continue as a result of the Government's policies. In response to a question asked by my colleague, Deputy Daly, the Minister for Social Protection said it is expected that there will be an additional 45,200 net redundancies this year, unfortunately. The Minister added that there will be a further 40,000 redundancies in 2013. Incredibly, the Department of Social Protection is making money available to community employment schemes to provide for the redundancy of community employment workers. How does that square with the Tánaiste's pronouncements on everything the Government will do for the unemployed? I advise the Tánaiste and the Labour Party to be careful about where they are going with this. Perhaps the Tánaiste should pass that advice on to the Minister, Deputy Burton. Certain newspapers in this State that are owned by billionaires-----

Is the Deputy referring to the newspaper from which he read earlier?

Perhaps he means the Irish Daily Mail.

-----are straining at the leash to resume the headlines they last used in the late 1980s about "spongers" and "malingerers" on the dole. It is coming close to the surface. They did not dare to use such headlines over the past three years because it was clear who are the culprits and who are the victims. Perhaps they think such headlines can be used again now. Does the Tánaiste want the Labour Party to be responsible for that as a consequence of its focus on so-called labour activation measures, which really involve blaming and harassing the unemployed rather than creating real jobs? At the end of March, the Government will pay €3 billion in respect of Anglo Irish Bank promissory notes. I suggest that money should be invested in emergency programmes that encourage job creation and improve infrastructure. One such programme could involve the remediation of septic tanks in rural areas. That would bring thousands of people into work. Such an approach is the cure for unemployment.

Can the Deputy explain that again?

As always, Deputy Higgins is only seeing half of the equation. He quoted the redundancy figures, but he omitted to talk about the record levels of job creation by IDA Ireland since this Government came into office. He did not refer to this country's trade or export levels.

That is not where the jobs are.

We have the highest trade surplus ever.

Deputy Higgins does not believe in that

The Government is setting out to get people back to work by ensuring that jobs are created. That is what we are doing. For the information of Deputy Higgins, this means we have to attract investment into the country and that investment would certainly not be attracted into this country if we were to pursue the idiotic economic policies the Deputy advocates we should pursue. We must have our economic situation managed in a way that attracts investment into the country, that restores confidence to the domestic economy and that grows jobs. That is the Government's strategy.

As Deputy Higgins and everybody will be aware, we have a very significant level of unemployment which is far too high with 440,000 people on the live register. We want to get that figure down. Everybody, bar Deputy Higgins, perhaps, realises that this cannot be achieved simply by waving a manifesto at it. Rather, it must be done over a period. People who are out of work, who have lost their jobs, and some of whom have been out of work for a some time, have real needs which need to be addressed. The Government does not intend to leave people who are unemployed aside without addressing their needs. This is the reason for our approach which is aimed at equipping them with new skills. People have different needs and they want to change career. There are budgets available to training and education bodies for all these areas. The Minister, Deputy Burton's budget for labour activation measures will be increased by about €100 million this year so that we can deal more effectively and fairly and appropriately with the needs of people who are unemployed. In case Deputy Higgins has any doubt about it, we will be clear about two issues: first, the Government's priority is creation of jobs, growing of our economy and getting people back to work; second, we wish to deal-----

That is baloney.

-----in a fair, reasonable, appropriate and supportive way with the people - I remind Deputy Higgins they are not statistics - who are out of work and who want some hope for their future, a hope that they can get back to work and to be equipped to do so as quickly as possible.