I welcome the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan.
Finance Bill 2011: Second Stage
It is a great pleasure to be in Seanad Éireann to introduce the Finance Bill 2011 to the House.
The Bill was passed by the Dáil in a very short period of time and we all know the political circumstances which led to that. It is a matter of regret to me that the procedure was accelerated as much as it was, and the procedure of two weeks would have been preferable. I thank, first, my officials and the staff here at the Houses of the Oireachtas for the considerable efforts they have made to ensure the Bill could be dealt with in an expeditious way. Great credit is due to them on that account.
Of course, if there were no amendments in the Bill, as every Senator will be aware, it would be possible to pass the Bill in a day. However, necessarily and inevitably, every finance Bill involves amendment and a process of amendment, and the general precedent has been that the Bill is not enacted until the end of March every year and that the Bill is not published until late January. My Department arranged, after receiving the appropriate directions from me, to have the Bill published on Friday last, and that means we must take all the more care on the consideration of such legislation. That said, the Bill has gone through all Stages in the Dáil.
During the discussions with the other parties, I was anxious to see that the position of the Seanad was fully safeguarded. I believe this particular procedure on this Bill shows the value of Seanad Éireann as an institution. While being a money Bill, the only function of the Seanad is, of course, to consider the Bill and submit recommendations to the other House, the existence of that power of recommendation creates a real revising capacity not otherwise available in the consideration of this legislation.
The only amendments taken in the other House were sponsored by the Government and clearly it is desirable to conduct a final check of a Bill like this, and that check is possible. That is why the Seanad is sitting on two days. It is sitting today, I understand, to deal with Second Stage and tomorrow it will take Committee and Report Stages. The Dáil can be reconvened, if necessary, on Saturday evening if any recommendations are required. I have done my best to ensure no recommendations will be required but I will yield to the ingenuity of the Seanad if it can devise a suitable recommendation.
The Bill embodies the various budgetary measures but it also contains other provisions, as finance Bills necessarily do. However, it does not include all the matters which would have been contained in the original finance Bill. The question of civil partnership, which was agitated here during the year as well, arose on the finance Bill because the solemnisation of civil partnerships begins from 1 April this year and it would have been desirable to have had a finance Bill clarifying the tax status of these relationships in advance of that. Work was far advanced in my Department on preparing the necessary amendments which involved 150 statutory provisions to give effect to that. However, as it happens, it will not be possible in the limited time available to us to table those amendments and while I am sure some Senators will breathe a sigh of relief that the matter will not be freshly agitated in Seanad Éireann, it seems undesirable with the status now coming into force on 1 April and that those who contract accordingly do not have clarity about their tax status.
We swept it through the Seanad.
The parties can deal with that issue. It was extraordinary that the Green Party, which made such an effort at pushing the question, could not find it in its heart to give the Government another week or two to arrange it. These are matters of political consideration. They are not matters relating to the finance Bill.
The Bill is always important legislation. It is not normally the focus of national and international media and intense public attention. That this is the case on this occasion points to the unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves, both politically and economically.
The Finance Bill 2011 is an essential part of our commitment under the external assistance programme. A failure to have it enacted or uncertainty relating to its progress would jeopardise Ireland internationally. It could jeopardise even the arrangements we have arrived at with the EU and IMF on our funding.
The debate on the funding and the EU-IMF arrangement has not progressed beyond the elementary argument about sovereignty. The reality is that when one borrows one loses one's sovereignty and this country has had to borrow extensively since 2008 from world money markets to continue to fund itself. It is that which has compromised our sovereignty, not any particular decision to enter any particular arrangement. It is important that the public understands that. Sovereignty, one's freedom to choose, one's freedom to exercise different options, rests in financial matters on the financial capacity one has and if one's financial capacity is already compromised by an excessive reliance and dependence on external borrowings, the origin or source of that really should not determine the question of sovereignty. Putting it in plain language, once one must visit a bank manager, one loses some of one's sovereignty. It does not matter who is the manager. It is important for this country, however, that some certainty be brought to this matter when world money markets were as bad as they were in autumn last.
Also, because no doubt it will excite much debate in the weeks ahead, there seems to be a view expressed by many commentators and some Members of the Oireachtas that these problems can be solved in a unilateral way in this country. We are part of a European arrangement. We are part of an arrangement, for example, in currency matters, that involves the European Central Bank. We are part of an arrangement in economic matters that involves the European Union itself. We are in arrangements with international lenders. This is a small open economy which is extraordinarily exposed to global trends. The idea that Ireland can unilaterally execute adémarche and renegotiate anything is a complete illusion. The idea that such would be submitted to the people as a serious policy proposition in the next few weeks is disturbing because it is misleading the people as to the essential and real choices available to us.
Of course, there is a scope for international discussions on this subject but these are not bilateral discussions between Ireland and some international ogre. They are multinational discussions which will have to take place between the Government of Ireland and the Governments of all of the other European countries because the interest rates in this particular arrangement were fixed and determined in advance of any discussions or application by Ireland. We must ensure that whatever interest rates apply, for example, are reduced by international consensus, and that is a different task from arriving in Brussels with a fresh mandate and stating one wants to renegotiate this. If one arrives with a fresh mandate and states one wants to renegotiate this, one will be told to go home and cop on to oneself. We really need to understand that difficult international discussions must take place here and that these discussions have already begun.
At the January meeting of the Finance Ministers all of these issues were discussed in great detail. The focus, of course, was on the effect that high interest rates have right across the board on countries that will be in the facility. The focus was on how Europe generally can stabilise the position of the euro. The focus was on how Europe collectively can borrow more money rather than leaving it to individual member states. The focus was on the issue of whether there is scope to buy member state bonds at European level. All of these issues are on the table but it will require a sophisticated, sensitive approach to international discussions to ensure our essential interests are safeguarded and advanced. As I stated previously, both in Brussels and at home, theSkibbereen Eagle approach that believes the Czar of all the Russias will listen to our representations is not the right approach in these matters.
We need to go there, field our best and work together to ascertain how we can advance our interests. While I have digressed somewhat, this is the political context in which this finance Bill has been discussed.
I already have gone through the timescale and have explained that the Bill gives permanent effect to the revenue measures provided for in the financial resolutions that were passed on budget night on 7 December last. On the Second Stage debate in the Dáil, the subject of the public finances was a recurring theme and the question of the interest rate levied by the European Union also was raised. Following the granting of bilateral loans to Greece and after detailed discussions, the member states agreed to the financial assistance. The cost of the loans provided to Ireland is on the same basis as would apply to any other member state and consequently, any change to such rates cannot be negotiated for Ireland in isolation but must be seen in the wider context. As has been widely reported and as I noted previously, discussions are ongoing at European Union level on a comprehensive package of measures to deal with the various financial challenges facing the European Union and the euro area. This includes possible changes to improve the efficiency of the various facilities.
As for the banks, because this has been the other area of great difficulty for Ireland it is important to understand that we already are in receipt of substantial external assistance for the banking system. It has become a matter of common knowledge that the European Central Bank has in excess of €100 billion in the Irish banking system at highly favourable interest rates of 1%. The Irish banking system is being propped up by our central bank, as it should be, because the European Central Bank is our central bank. While I have had my arguments with that institution, as I am sure will members of future Governments, it is the central bank with which we must deal. The European Central Bank has provided this degree of support to the Irish banking system and clearly is anxious about that exposure and this is the context in which many of our banking problems have arisen.
Much domestic debate has been dominated by the idea that we can somehow default on certain categories of bank obligations, after which we would be out of the loop and would have no difficulties. That is a highly attractive story and were it so simple, it would be very attractive and everyone would be delighted to implement it. However, it is not as simple as that. The vast amount of the external funding that came into the Irish banks came by way of deposit and not by way of debt finance via bonds. Moreover, the vast majority of those deposits have been withdrawn and replaced by support from the European Central Bank. The idea that Ireland can renege on bank debt unilaterally would be very difficult to implement without the support of a central bank. In the United States, where the principle of moral hazard has been acknowledged to a greater degree and where default on bank obligations has taken place, the Federal Reserve stands ready to protect the banks and wash them through with money whenever such a default is executed. The idea that the Irish Central Bank on its own could supervise such an operation is illusory, as this would require the support of the European Central Bank.
Again, one returns to the point of departure in respect of the question of interest rates and of the question of bank default. It can only be done in the context of a restructuring that is agreed with our European partners. Having raised the issue of unguaranteed senior debt in the EU-IMF discussions, I discern a very limited appetite for such restructuring. Were that issue to be pressed during the forthcoming election campaign, public figures and commentators would be peddling an illusion to the electorate. They would not focus the electorate on the real choices we must face.
Having dealt with all the bad news and bad stories, I will outline some of the good news and positive signs because if there is a criticism to be made about the conduct of our economic debate, it concerns our lack of faith in ourselves and in our capacities and strengths. The labour market has seen a significant fall in the claimant count number of unemployed in the fourth quarter of 2010. Another highly encouraging development is the movement of the current account of the balance of payments into positive territory in the third quarter of last year. This means that from that point, the nation as a whole no longer has been increasing its external liabilities but quite the reverse. Recently published figures show GDP and GNP expanding in the third quarter of 2010, which is highly encouraging.
The recovery is being driven by the exporting sectors, underpinned by the significant improvements in competitiveness that have taken place. This is most evident from the 13% annual rate of export growth recorded in the third quarter of last year, which was one of the best performances in the European Union. This export growth is broad-based and while the pharmaceutical, software and financial sectors are involved, the food sector also has seen significant growth. This is as a result of decisions taken by the Government. This is as a result of the Government's insistence on greater competitiveness and on reductions in wage bills across the board, with the market and the Government dictating such reductions in the private and public sectors, respectively. Through this adjustment, the country has become more competitive and is able to export more. All of that was opposed vigorously in this House by the parties opposite, who now subscribe to what I call "The Late Late Show" doctrine. This doctrine states that one opposes all tax increases and expenditure cuts, after which one then tells people that one will not change matters if one enters into office. This is "The Late Late Show" doctrine as enunciated by Deputy Gilmore on that show and is what one is facing into in the forthcoming election campaign. This is a doctrine that states that one can agree with everything the Government has done even though one opposed it in most violent language with allegations of treason, economic suicide and economic corpses.
That was Deputy Bertie Ahern. The suicide reference was made by the Minister's former colleague, Deputy Bertie Ahern.
No interruptions, please.
One then turns around on "The Late Late Show" to state that one accepts all these reductions and tax increases——
The Minister should correct the record in this regard.
The Minister to continue, without interruption.
——and that there is nothing wrong with such tax increases. I understand this and God knows it has not been easy to take more money from pay packets in this finance Bill. Every time I see people from the Labour Party on television, I hear them talking about pay packets but I assume such pay packets also will be covered by "The Late Late Show" doctrine and that they also will not be interfered with——
Has the Minister ever seen a pay packet?
——when the Labour Party enters office.
Does the Minister know what it is?
The Minister to continue, without interruption please.
Let us have a discussion on the real issues that face the country. The real issue is how we manage the return to growth that already is under way——
I hope he soon will find out.
——and how we ensure this return to growth is not squandered and wasted by unnecessary arrangements that waste public money in the delivery of public services or expenditure. In addition, let us ensure that this return to growth is marked by a renewed commitment to the reform of our public service, to competitiveness at every level, to flexible work practices and above all to education, which already has given Ireland one of the best educated workforces in Europe. While quantitative investment in education is highly important, qualitative assessment is important and one must attend to standards and ensure they are being maintained. This is what will keep Ireland in the first class league in the years ahead.
I will return to the issue of bank default for a moment by referring to one of the biggest arguments made against it by our European partners — I am sure that awareness is dawning on all that we cannot do this without their support. One of their biggest objections to it in Ireland's case is that Ireland still is a very wealthy country by European standards. It is considerably wealthier than the countries we are asking to permit us to default. It is difficult to persuade a poorer country than one's own country should be allowed to default. It is time that people in Ireland reflected on these realities when having their national debate.
One success story of the economy continues to be the international financial services industry. The International Financial Services Centre, IFSC, has been in existence since 1989 and has been one of the key drivers of Irish services export growth. As part of that strategy, the funds industry has been one of the main success stories. Even in the current environment, it is long recognised that consistent Government policy is an essential condition for the continued success of the IFSC. It is interesting that despite Ireland's very disappointing sovereign rating, it bears no relation to the viability and robustness of Irish funds. Moreover, it is important to allay any misplaced concerns that may have been voiced and to emphasise that the Irish governmental and regulatory commitment to supporting the financial services industry, based on a firm and robust framework, now clearly is in place. Senator Ross always has taken a strong view on this issue and whatever our differences may be, he must accept that there has been a huge transformation brought about in the regulatory system on foot of the appointment of Professor Honohan and Mr. Elderfield.
Hear, hear. Well done to the Minister.
A huge amount of change is being driven there and it will take time because much of the work involved will require detailed on the ground implementation by them in the performance of their duties.
The resilience of the international financial services market in Ireland in an unprecedented global environment is evidence of the sustainability of the business being done here and the quality of those doing it.
How much time do I have left?
The Minister is doing fine. We will not limit him.
I now have to turn to the detailed outline of the provisions of the Bill, having given the substance of my opinion.
The Minister did the political part and will now do the financial part.
I now have to deal with the detailed provisions of the Bill. Senators have always attended very well to legislation and do not need me to examine each section. They have studied them and we will have an opportunity on Committee Stage to discuss them. I regret that I will not be here for the entire Second Stage debate but I will be present for Committee Stage tomorrow. I will take the Bill through the House in its entirety and explain the individual provisions.
Section 3 provides for the new universal social charge which replaces the income and health levies and applies at a low rate on a broad base. The implications of the universal social charge on personal income have been the subject of much comment. I would like to put the universal social charge in a particular context. It is part of a programme of income tax reform which I enunciated in my Budget Statement. It is a comprehensive programme which will reform Irish income tax in the years ahead.
We made the essential first step by consolidating the health and income levies. The next step will be consolidation of PRSI and the final step will be the consolidation of the entire base with income tax in order that there is a unified income tax system. It is a worthy objective because the current system, with four separate heads of taxation on personal income and different levels of thresholds determining one's liability, is clearly a disincentive to work and simplicity. All the basic classical canons of taxation enunciated by Adam Smith more than 200 years ago, such as equity, simplicity or efficiency, are entirely violated by our current income tax arrangements.
It was important in the budget to make a real start on income tax reform. There were commissions in the 1980s and more recently, all of which proposed a unified income tax system. There are real political problems in moving in that direction but everyone recognises that if there is a single charge on a widely defined income base with the minimum of exemptions and reliefs such a system would be fair, equitable, highly progressive and incentivise work. The budget is a decisive first step in that direction.
The provisions in section 3 were set out in my Budget Statement and I will not discuss the details of the different amounts and where taxpayers are brought into particular amounts. The universal social charge does not apply to social welfare payments, including contributory and non-contributory State pensions. However, it is worth noting that if we were in a position to move to a unified income tax system it would then be possible to complete the integration of welfare and transfer payments in the tax system, which is another opportunity created by moving in this direction.
Certain amendments were tabled on the universal social charge in the Dáil. In particular, the medical card holders were exempted from the immediate application of the charge. The reason that was introduced was that it introduced a disproportionate liability for them. An amendment on Report Stage dealt with bank bonuses and provided for a special high rateof the universal social charge on bonuses paid to certain employees of certain financial institutions.
I note an article inThe Irish Times today regarding correspondence from last July on the potential payment of bonuses to AIB staff. The details of all these matters were set out by me last December when I prevented the payment of the bonuses and there is nothing new in today’s article. AIB sought guidance last June on whether it could pay the outstanding bonuses. My Department and I sought the advice of the Attorney General and he informed me that I, as Minister, had no role in making the decision given that the bonuses were stated to be pre-existing contractual entitlements. That point was stressed to AIB in the reply. In the context of the recapitalisation of AIB I was able to take action on bonuses, notwithstanding the fact that they were pre-existing entitlements.
Sections 4, 5 and 6 provide for the budget announcement to reduce the standard rate bands, the age exemption limits and the tax credits in line with the overall reduction in income. Section 9 amends section 470(b) of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, providing for an age-related tax credit in respect of health insurance premiums.
As announced in my Budget Statement, section 13 provides for a new tax incentive scheme to encourage taxpayers to invest in works which will improve the energy efficiency of their homes. The tax relief will be provided by way of repayment in the tax year following the year in which the work has been completed and in which the expenditure was incurred. Section 14 provides for the abolition of rent relief for new claimants from 8 December 2010 over eight years to 2018.
Changes are made in section 15 to the tax relief available for third level fees and charges. This change takes account of the Government decision to replace the existing student services charge of €1,500 with a flat-rate student contribution of €2,000. This charge will be ineligible for tax relief, as was the student services charge. However, the contribution only in respect of the first student will not be allowed. The contribution for the second and subsequent students attending college simultaneously will be eligible for tax relief. In effect, because students attend different colleges it would be impossible to implement this on an administrator basis. Therefore, the tax system is being used to ensure that the increase in the student registration charge only applies to the first student and the amount of tax relief that applies ensures that the existing level of charge applies to the second and subsequent students.
Section 17 provides for the introduction of a €40,000 limit on earnings for the artists' exemption. Section 19 deals with the various changes in the tax treatment of private pension provision announced in the budget. These changes involve the extension of the flexible options on retirement and access to approved retirement funds, ARF, to all defined contribution pension arrangements. There will also be an increase from 3% to 5% in the annual imputed distribution applying to the value of assets in an ARF.
Section 23 provides for the progressive restriction and eventual abolition of the use of accelerated capital allowances under the various area-based and property-based tax incentive schemes, while section 24 deals with restrictions to relief for lessors of rented residential accommodation, namely, section 23 relief. Both sections provide for changes to property-based reliefs as set out in the Budget Statement Financial Resolutions. However, the commencement of these provisions is now dependent on the carrying-out and publication of an economic impact assessment into the effects of the proposed changes.
The provisions restrict the use and carrying forward of capital allowances and section 23 relief. The aim of the changes is to reduce ongoing legacy costs to the Exchequer and ensure that tax will be paid on some income previously sheltered by the various reliefs. Legislating for the restrictions in the finance Bill as originally intended, combined with undertaking an impact assessment of their effect in advance of any commencement, strikes the right balance between seeking to restrict tax relief and taking note of real concerns that have been expressed about the proposed changes.
From the correspondence available to me in the Department it is clear that the effect of the immediate introduction of the various restrictions would cause personal insolvency, job losses and further exposure in the banking system. The risk of legal challenge cannot be ruled out given that the State made previous commitments in this area. For all of these reasons it is desirable that a detailed economic impact assessment be carried out to determine the impact of these measures before any commencement takes place.
It will also give any future Government the option of restricting the reliefs in a less drastic manner than was originally proposed. I did not believe that, in the short time frame which was available for the finance Bill, it would have been possible to restrict the draconian effect of the original amendments because detailed teasing out of the implications of such restrictions would have taken time. In the circumstances the best course of action is to conduct a very detailed statutory assessment of the provisions in question and their impact on individuals. A future Minister can then be guided by the findings of such an assessment. Following an amendment I tabled on Committee Stage the provisions could apply from the date of commencement but they cannot be applied retrospectively; the commencement can only be prospective.
Section 25 provides for the continuance of the relief to farmers for the increase in stock values for a further two years to 31 December 2012 from the current closing date of 31 December 2010, subject to the usual state aid clearance from the European Commission. Section 26 abolishes the tax exemption relating to qualifying patents. This measure was announced on budget day and was included in the list of tax expenditures set out in the national recovery plan for abolition or restriction.
Section 32 provides for the extension of the section 481 film relief scheme for a further three years to 31 December 2015, beyond its current expiry date of 31 December 2012. The extension of the scheme will create a medium term certainty for the film industry, which operates in a competitive international environment. The sector supports a significant number of jobs in the local economy and contributes to cultural tourism initiatives. In order to compete successfully with other countries and locations for productions, we need to offer a stable and supportive base. The extension will be introduced by ministerial order, subject to the usual state aid clearance from the European Commission.
As previously announced, the existing business expansion scheme is being reformed and renamed the employment and investment incentive. This is being done in section 33 and the new incentive will ensure the tax relief is more targeted at job retention and creation. It is subject to the approval of the European Commission and the existing scheme will continue until this has been secured. The three-year exemption from corporation tax, which was introduced in 2009 on the trading income and certain gains of new start-up companies, is being extended in section 34 to include start-up companies which commence a new trade in 2011.
Sections 36 and 37 deal with provisions around tax relief on interest on borrowings. Legislation will now provide that relief will not generally be allowed in respect of interest on intra-group borrowings to finance the purchase of assets from another group company, nor will such interest be allowed as a deduction in computing profits or gains of a trade. The scheme of accelerated capital allowances for expenditure by companies on certain energy efficient equipment, introduced by budget 2008, is being extended in section 38 for a further three years to 31 December 2014.
Section 40 provides for the amendment of section 110 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, which deals with the taxation of securitisation and structured finance transactions. The proposed amendments extend the type of assets that a section 110 company can acquire, while at the same time section 110 is being restricted to better reflect its original intention. The objective of this measure is to enhance the competitiveness of the international financial services industry. In particular, it will be of benefit to Ireland's international aircraft leasing industry and the development of a green financial services centre which was launched by the Taoiseach yesterday. The potential of the green economy is widely acknowledged. It is one of the five pillars set out in Building Ireland's Smart Economy — the Government's framework for sustainable economic renewal. This initiative shows that international financial services has a good future in this country. There are great opportunities in green financial services to build on the success of the IFSC and create new businesses and jobs here in Ireland.
Part 2 of the Bill deals with customs and excise, including the air travel tax reduction to €3, the changes on betting duty and the extension of betting duty arrangements to remote betting and related activities conducted by Internet. There are also a number of vehicle registration measures. Part 3 deals with value-added tax and Part 4 deals with stamp duties. The changes relating to stamp duties are of fundamental importance for the home property market and I hope we will have an opportunity to discuss them on Committee Stage. Part 5 deals with capital acquisitions tax and Part 6 deals with various miscellaneous matters. I have been careful in looking at the work of my offices to ensure that the minimum of additional powers are conferred on the Revenue Commissioners in this measure.
I welcome the Minister to the House. We are in the final days of an Administration that will not be easily forgotten by the people. In the red hot heat of the current election campaign the Government is bearing the brunt of the people's anger, but when the cold harsh spotlight of history is shone on this period, Fianna Fáil will be the poster boy for the greed, cronyism and deceitfulness of this era. Fianna Fáil deserves the contempt being heaped upon it. The role of the Minister's party in this debacle is substantial, and clearly has not been acknowledged at all so far. The Minister criticised the Green Party for not giving him a couple of weeks for debating this Bill. I am not sure the people could put up with the current Government for that couple of weeks because they are mad keen to get rid of the Government, for very good reason.
The people are hurting. Many have lost their jobs, their mortgage payments are under pressure and some are losing their homes. When I was canvassing in New Ross last weekend, I met a man who had a very suppressed anger on the door step. It is only when one delves deeply into it that one understands people's pain. The man was self employed, his business had gone broke and he had no safety net. The auctioneer was coming to him the following day to put his house on the market. This man is 45 years of age and has a young family. What is the future for him? This is the sort of thing we are seeing happen to many people in the country. Across the country and across every constituency we hear of children emigrating, as the Minister well knows. It is sad that once again our children are going like live exports to every corner of the world. Third level grants have not been paid yet to many students in third level institutions. How can we have a recovery if we cannot keep our young people in third level education for the next couple of years? There is absolutely no dignity for patients who are continually treated on trolleys. A patient of mine with severe gastroenteritis came to tell me about being treated and examined on the corridor of a hospital. That is not what we expected at the beginning of the 21st century here. The confidence of the people has been shattered and their anger is growing. Last night, I watched a woman break down in front of me as she explained to me her carer's allowance, respite care and her husband's disability payment had all been cut. We have completely failed the most vulnerable people in society.
While all this is happening, people are watching Ministers walk away with their pockets lined for a very cosy future, leaving behind the smouldering ashes of what was a thriving economy. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but that has nothing on the misery imposed on our vulnerable people by our departing Ministers. They are carpet-bagging their way out of government. The Minister for Finance, the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, and Deputy Bertie Ahern have one thing in common, namely, they were very good communicators. Unfortunately, what they have been saying has too often been wrong. Too often, we have been told we have turned the corner or seen green shoots. The Minister even managed to convince his own backbenchers that he was interested in the leadership of the party. The people of Ireland are finding it hard to tell the difference between the silver tongue and the forked tongue.
The former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, is the man who promised everybody in Cork a new school, promised to get rid of waiting lists when Minister for Health and Children and no doubt promised world peace as Minister for Foreign Affairs. He is the man who sat next to Deputy Bertie Ahern and the Taoiseach in the past decade, but now he cannot stop himself from saying he is sorry for the misery his Government has heaped on the people. He reminds me of the sort of two-timing eejit we meet in every part of the country. Everybody knows the type, constantly fooling around behind the back of his long-suffering girlfriend and constantly saying sorry and that it will never happen again. He does not realise that this time she has thrown him out for good. This is how the people feel about how they have been manipulated by the Government. In the past week the former Minister, Deputy Martin, has been putting on his smarmy smile, going down to the local service station, buying a bunch of €1.99 flowers and running around the corner to see if he can convince her to let him back into the bedroom. That is the type of man we need to get rid of because he will certainly not give this country the leadership it needs. Deputy Martin is leading a party that is less popular than Sinn Féin, yet he is demanding leadership debates. The idea of him giving leadership is comical. The people will not take much notice when Fianna Fáil candidates come to their doors in the coming weeks offering empty promises with a bunch of €1.99 flowers under their arms——
On a point of order, what has this to do with the Bill? The Senator's comments are about the leader of Fianna Fáil.
That is not a point of order.
The relevance will be established later.
Senator Hanafin should have waited until I, like the Minister, had completed the political part of my speech. The Senator is also in haste to face the people and that will happen soon enough.
The Bill represents a holding position. When one delves deeply into it, one wonders how much the Minister can stand over. Many provisions have been amended or dropped. They are expected to generate savings in a full year, which I doubt will come to fruition. If the Croke Park agreement does not deliver on the reform and efficiencies outlined by next September, the IMF negotiators said they would impose stringent cuts unilaterally. How will the huge Exchequer deficit be reduced in the coming years and a start made on it this year?
Fine Gael wants a reduction of 30,000 jobs throughout the public sector. This includes quangos and public servants who are not doing much as opposed to the vast majority who work hard. However, a choice must be made as to whether we reduce public sector numbers, insist on pay cuts for public servants or increase taxes for everybody. The Government is avoiding that debate. Of all the political parties contesting this election, other than Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil is saying it will make the smallest reduction in staff numbers in the public sector. In other words, if Fianna Fáil is returned to power, which is highly unlikely, it will increase taxes for everybody or further reduce the pay of public servants whom the party has hit so hard in the past 18 months. That lack of honesty in dealing with gardaí, teachers and nurses is turning people off politics. Fine Gael candidates are prepared to talk to public servants on the doorsteps and say we are looking to get rid of quangos and reduce numbers across the public sector but Fianna Fáil is not even prepared to be that honest with this legislation. What hope have the people if they let the party back into power again?
I have met many self-employed people on the canvass. They are not among those earning more than €100,000 a year whom the Minister is rewarding with an additional tax. He has adopted the simplistic notion that he can tax the self-employed. He does not know how much the 10% USC to be paid by them will bring in. He has thrown it out as an option for the election and nothing else. A number of these people have lost their businesses and there is no safety net for them. They cannot draw social welfare and they are entitled to nothing else when their businesses go broke. That is why the man to whom I referred is selling his house. He has nothing. The Government wants to promote SMEs but there is no safety net for individuals who are prepared to take a chance to get the country moving again if everything does not work out for them. That is neglectful on the part of Fianna Fáil.
Every worker has found out how the budget has affected their pay cheque. They are well aware of what will be the cost of the bank bailout and what "Bertienomics" is all about. They have been ruined by the Government. People now know how much the USC charge is and the effect of the reductions in the widow's pension and the carer's allowance. They are hurting but the Government does not recognise that.
As Donald Rumsfeld would say, what about the known unknowns? The Bill provides for €450 million in cuts that are described as "administrative efficiencies". Perhaps Senator Hanafin will explain that. What are those cuts? What policies underpin them? I asked that question of the Minister of State two months ago and he still has not given me a straight answer. Fianna Fáil Ministers are coasting out of government and they are leaving an unholy mess for those coming after them.
History is repeating itself with this Fianna Fáil Administration leaving an unbelievable mess to be cleaned up after them.
Fine Gael is the only party that can get the country working again. We want to enable people who can work to secure the jobs they deserve. However, widows, those with disabilities and the elderly need the protection of the State. There is a clear difference between people who can work and those who are not in a position to work and the Government has not made that distinction. It has reduced social welfare payments to widows and people with disabilities and it has hit carers hard. These people look after sick or ill relatives 24-7. Everybody deserves access to good health care and an education but Fianna Fáil has failed to outline a policy, which is why we are in the mess we are in. Fianna Fáil is always working out the quickest buck it can make for political advantage and that is why we are where we are.
Who would have thought in 2006 that we would be in this position today? I recall debating the finance Bill that year in the Lower House with former Minister of State, Tom Parlon, who was laughing because people had second and third houses. Everybody was flying it. At the time I tried to explain to him that the personal debt burden on young couples was making them feel like hamsters on a treadmill but he thought it was funny because his buddies were making millions of euro at the time and they thought everybody was having as good a time as themselves. People were not and, because of the failure of this and previous Governments, the people on the treadmill are finding it harder to survive. The Minister is correct that we must look to the future. If we do not get it right, there could be pressure on pension payments and sustaining State pensions and public sector pay in the next few years. No one should believe, like Fianna Fáil did, that everything cannot change detrimentally. The party lived in a bubble and believed something would be around the corner to get us out of the mess. Ministers failed to deal with the problem as it was developing. That is what we need to do to make hard decisions quickly and we need to be firm in making them.
I fully agree there is a need to restore confidence and to give people hope again. Someone described the sterling performance of Fine Gael's finance spokesperson, Deputy Noonan, as that of a man who had found his mojo again. Fine Gael wants to help people to find their mojo again. We can have confidence in ourselves that we can emerge from this and we can give hope to the people in the next few years. We all have the experience and ability to turn this around. I agree with the comments of Government Members but, unlike them, I am passionate about this and I am not just saying it. We can turn things around and make this a better country again. I hope to God that when the people go out to vote, they will have this at the back of their mind too.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh. In welcoming the Finance Bill 2011 I am conscious that we have achieved a significant front-loading of what is necessary to have our budgetary figures in balance by 2014.
From a political perspective, I welcome the hysterical reaction of Fine Gael in the House this morning on the Order of Business and, as we have just heard, in the debate on the Bill to our new leader. It confirms that it is the last thing they wanted and that it is the best thing for Fianna Fáil.
God help us. I know him well.
That is delusional.
Fianna Fáil has a lot to look forward to.
Senator Hanafin should be allowed to speak without interruption.
To give credit to the Taoiseach, he took the necessary steps to ensure the stability of the economy and our standing. He never once looked at the political implications for Fianna Fáil, rather he did what was necessary for the State. Given the situation in which we found ourselves at the time when world markets and the banking sector were in such a state of crisis, we took the necessary and difficult steps. That was despite the misrepresentation and fault lines that appeared between the Labour Party and Fine Gael on the bank guarantee, a fundamental tenet in ensuring our stability and which proved that any agreement between the two parties would not be in the best interests of the State because they could not agree on what was absolutely necessary. We took the tough decisions and did what was necessary. We are now ready to move further forward, given the level of growth in the last quarter of 2010, the position in world markets and the expectations for 2011 when the economy of the United States is expected to grow by 4% and the European Union and our other trading partners are expected to move forward. We will see growth, possibly stronger than the conservative estimates of the National Economic and Social Council.
We have restored competitiveness, repaired the banking system and are returning the public finances to stability. In taking the necessary measures we have had to make cuts. I accept there has been deflation and that people have lost their jobs. It is the concern of the Government to ensure we put people back to work. We see evidence of this already in that the rate of unemployment is falling. I accept emigration is a factor, but we have witnessed this previously. I look forward to the day when people will have the opportunity to return to the State because of the necessary measures we have taken.
We are expected to believe people who have an insight into politics which enabled them, in a sense, to politically see around corners were taking decisions to support bankers, as if they would put bankers before the people. The short-term soundbites and the ill-informed knee-jerk reactions do not do justice to what the Government has undertaken on behalf of the State. I look to the balance the Government has sought to strike in the public finances. When there were cuts, efforts were made to ensure the least well-off did not suffer. During the time when there was a surplus, it was not as if the Opposition was saying, "No, you have made the wrong choice; you cannot increase public spending. We want less money spent on schools and hospitals." Across every sector and Department, no matter how much was spent, there were calls for more spending. The Opposition parties had no special insight; it did not foresee what happened, except to throw the usual brickbats at the Government. They are the very ones who now accuse the Government of not seeing what it should have seen, of not knowing about the property bubble, despite the fact that the Fine Gael manifesto for 2007 proposed the complete abolition of stamp duty, throwing petrol on the flames of the fire.
We have been in this position before. Not only that, we were in a worse position previously. In the 1980s the debt to GDP ratio was 130%. Although there was an unemployment rate of 18%, we paid interest at a rate of 16% to 18%. There was sustained unemployment and emigration, yet we were able to turn that around. In the 1980s we paid more than 30% of our net income on interest repayments. Currently, our debt to GDP ratio is approximately 100% and before it turns, it will hit 120%. We also know that the economy is growing. We are paying 20% of our net income on repayments as we have access to cheaper funding than we did at the time. It is incorrect, therefore, to present the situation as a missed opportunity. It is also incorrect to say anyone else knew that this was coming down the line and that the recession would happen. We did save the economy because had we defaulted on our banking obligations, there is no doubt that, with the globalised economy, the amount of money that would have left the economy and the inability of the Irish banks which might have looked to remain standing to access funds used in the normal course of business from other banks would have dried up immediately. The result is that banks would have failed and could have closed. Where would we have been then?
The taxation measures we have taken have always been taken with an eye on ensuring balance. The starting point in respect of the universal social charge at 2% is very low, being significantly higher for those earning more, as it should be in any progressive taxation system. Again, those who have more will pay more. Previously, 45% of people paid no tax. There will now be more people in the tax net. The reality is we have significant social services that must be paid for. The model on which we are now working is sustainable, which means that we must raise more in taxation in order to provide services.
There are other positives in terms of taxation measures such as the employment incentives in the form of reliefs for those who invest in employment creation. We will continue to ensure the 12.5% corporation tax rate is retained. It is the icing on the cake. The other positives are our competitiveness, our educated young workforce and the fact that the IFSC and multinationals are again contributing significantly to the economy. We have seen 18% growth in exports, even in the worst years of the recession.
As we emerge from the recession, we must balance income with what we need to spend. I am conscious of the fault lines in the proposals made by the Opposition. One side suggests it would cut the number of public servants and abolish the Seanad. Those of us who have given our working lives to politics to try to do better or ensure the public service is functioning properly would be asked to just go. I suggest the better way would be to have a much fairer taxation system in order that we could ensure those who did provide a service would be retained. The public service provides a service for the State and has an economic value. A previous Member suggested we were not petty as a people. Having a second Chamber is one of the classic forms of government. It is in existence to provide balance and a second voice. Let us consider the amendments made in the past term and the number of amendments to legislation we have made, sometimes at the request of the Dáil and sometimes of our own volition: some 2,000 or so have been made. Let us consider that one third of all legislation is published here and that often Ministers who arrive in this House take the view that the best debates take place here because they are done not with a view to the local constituency but to the national constituency. With this in mind, are some of the cuts proposed in the sound bites not somewhat petty?
We need balance in the economy and we must look to people who are less well-off. As we face into the election, the debate should focus on how we use the resources we have to ensure social equity and it should be balanced. I expect there will be a four-week campaign such that the knee-jerk reaction can be taken out of the system and we can hold a true debate, without snide personal remarks, not on personalities but rather on the issues. We must focus on bringing a proper election option to the public.
I am pleased that property related reliefs are being considered, especially in light of the great number of tax breaks overhanging. Some people who invested at one time may be significantly disadvantaged because they invested significant amounts based on the taxation system. I welcome that the Government has decided to defer a decision on this matter such that social equity can be addressed in any changes. I also welcome that we will ensure a reduction in stamp duty. This reduction will ensure that the property market will find a better ceiling and floor for the prices achieved for properties. A great deal is dependent on the values of properties in the banks. It has always been clear to me that we must find value for properties in this State. The fact that the Government has reduced the amounts of the property-based tax significantly will ensure this at a time when property values are falling.
Recently, I heard a suggestion in the House which was most interesting and I call on the Minister of State to take it to one of his officials. Perhaps there may be some means to produce a report on it. There are advertisements on international television stations for the Malaysia My Second Home programme. As part of the programme the government allows people from outside the state to buy properties there. It also allows them to bring in a car at a lower VAT rate and it provides access to certain visiting rights, visas and so on. Given the expatriate population of the Irish and the overhang of property here, would it not be a wonderful suggestion to examine how we could incentivise people to purchase properties in Ireland and provide incentives to ensure those who are wealthy and abroad, who have Irish connections and who wish to return could benefit? We could benefit as well. This was Senator Quinn's suggestion and once I heard it I thought it was one of the best.
I call on the Minister of State to address a particular interest of mine, that is, the green energy sector, whereby we could be the Saudi Arabia of the world because of access to tidal and wind power and the other benefits we have as an island nation off the west coast of Europe. The presence of offshore resources is significant. I have long believed Europe should have a place for offshore exploration. We have drilled little: only 170 wells have been drilled but we have found significant resources in Ballycotton, Seven Heads, Helvick and Corrib. This represents a good hit rate. In the UK and Norway, some 4,000 wells have been drilled. Our national boundary for energy resources extends some 200 miles into the North Atlantic. Would it not be of benefit for Europe to take a direct interest in our offshore resources? What a great boost it would be for Ireland to see the first commercial oil reach our shores. What a boost of confidence that would represent. I leave such suggestions to the Minister of State in the full knowledge that there will be an election and a new Government will be formed but I call on the Minister of State to ask an official to examine this option to put in place what I hope would be useful suggestions that may benefit the State.
The finance Bill as outlined represents a mixture and a balance. There are increases in taxation where necessary. We realise we will pay somewhat more in tax but we have achieved stability against the most difficult headwind possible. We are back to growth and there is a future for the people.
I call Deputy Ross. That is to say, Senator Ross.
I trust that was not deliberate. The Minister's speech is a document of shameful surrender. When I hold it up before the House I regard it as a white flag from the Government, which comes to the Seanad having been in the Dáil. It represents the Government's capitulation to Europe and the IMF and it sums up the situation in which the Government leaves the country. It represents an appalling legacy for the Government to leave the nation cap-in-hand to the IMF and Europe. This document is not a speech written by the Government or its civil servants. This speech was written and dictated by Europe and people outside the State. This is the reality.
When the Minister refers euphemistically to what he terms the "external assistance programme", he is referring coyly to a surrender because the external assistance programme is dictating the economic future of the country and the detail of what is contained in the finance Bill under discussion. It is a shameful and humiliating document to read when put in this light. Even the Government, with its compelling spin, cannot suggest is a great triumph for Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.
This does not mean we believe the change of Government likely to take place in the coming weeks will be any better. When I read what Fine Gael and the Labour Party state in respect of the economy and other matters, sometimes I agree with their aspirations. However, I do not believe that they will be any better. There is general acceptance among the Opposition parties of this document and I question whether we will get any change or difference and whether there will be any difference in fundamental thinking when the change of Government takes place. Whereas this document is shameful as are the figures it contains, they are accepted. The fundamental premise is accepted by both of the main parties in Opposition in this House. The fundamental €86 billion figure is accepted as are the distribution and allocation between the IMF and Europe.
The Opposition Members here and the spokesmen for these parties in both Houses are referring only to tinkering around the edges. It may be better or worse but the real question is never asked. Senator Mansergh has upbraided——
I am a Minister of State temporarily.
We might swap titles. The Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, has upbraided me in this House before for referring to this matter. However, the fundamental question is whether this is a disastrous deal that could have been avoided. Are the terms of this deal acceptable or affordable? Will we be able to pay back the money we have promised or accepted in desperation? Why were the bondholders not burnt? Why was the default option not given serious consideration? It happened in Iceland which is on the road to economic recovery while our credit rating still goes down. The question of default is the taboo, the unmentionable in the bailout document.
It has been well flagged in the reliable media that what happened on the default issue was equally shameful and ignominious. When the issue of burning the bondholders was put on the table on the Saturday night of the negotiations, the guys from Europe demanded it be taken off. What did the Irish negotiators and the Government do? They took it off. It was surrender and diktat from day one.
What is more shameful is that the International Monetary Fund was prepared to discuss this particular option but the European Central Bank representatives apparently had a fit and said there would be no negotiations and no money if there was even a mention of the possibility of default. What sort of negotiations were these when one's biggest card was taken off the table from the very start? After that, it was all downhill. It was surrender and retreat for every remaining hour of the negotiations resulting in this bailout document dictated by Europe and accepted by the Government.
Why did we not stand up to Mr. Trichet's boys and say default is on the table? Perhaps we have adopted such a craven attitude to our international masters that we can no longer challenge them when needs be. We had a card to play and they were scared stiff we would burn the bondholders resulting in contagion and their banks getting burned too.
The morality of all of this, one must remember, is very serious. Who lent to Anglo Irish Bank, AIB and Bank of Ireland? How could they borrow vast sums from the international money markets which they then lent on with equal recklessness to the developers and to those unfortunate people now in negative equity? They got this money from the very banks the European Central Bank protected during these negotiations. Those very banks should pay a price at least equal to that being paid by the people. While I do not agree very much with Joe Higgins, MEP, he is right that the people and taxpayers are paying for the recklessness of European banks. They were the banks that provided the money that ended up in the hands of the developers in Ireland. They were the banks which gave vast sums of money to Anglo Irish Bank, AIB and Bank of Ireland without a care because they claimed that was how the markets operate and it was all guaranteed. Why should these banks not take some of the pain? Why should Ireland claim it can afford to pay this? If it were a sin, as it is, for the bankers here to have lent so recklessly, it was equally irresponsible of those European banks which lent to our banks so recklessly from the start. On that dreadful St. Patrick's Day in 2008 when Irish bank share prices fell by 25%, the markets signalled through selling and short selling that they knew the Irish banks were rogue banks. They had read the balance sheets and knew our banks were going to go bust. At the same time, their brother banks, knowing full well of this development, were still lending to Anglo Irish Bank, AIB and Bank of Ireland in the money markets. They relied on our mug Government to pay them off for their reckless lending. The result is this bailout deal which is a crucifixion of the lower paid, the middle classes and those on social welfare.
It is a shame. Despite what everyone says, it is very doubtful we can actually repay this debt. The money is coming now with its short-term benefits but it is doubtful it can be repaid. One can see already that the European conscience is working in the reports that some European Union member states do not want Ireland to pay such a high interest rate. Europe has realised this deal may land Ireland in a situation where it cannot make the repayments and will have to default anyway. This means we signed a deal that was so humiliating that we cannot even deliver on it. It would be a good idea if the Government promised, in principle, not to allow its debt rise above a certain level if the interest rate on the bailout loans were lowered. It has never been properly explained to me why the IMF and EU interest rates are different except that we were so desperate we agreed to the European one. The bailout was an ignominious deal.
The finance Bill, which is meant to represent the options taken by the Government, the Minister for Finance and his Department within the limits of the deal, contains all the wrong choices. What happened to the Croke Park agreement? It remains untouched, a political sacred cow. It should at least have been addressed. The issue of the power of the social partners who feathered their nests at the taxpayers' expense should also have been addressed. We should have said we will no longer be dictated to by outside forces. For a long time we tolerated diktats from our internal social partners on our budgets which has caused problems further down the line. One was the benchmarking deal, dictated by the public service unions and which we are paying back now. They can no longer dictate anything anymore because we have not got the money to bribe them to give us industrial peace or to capitulate to them for political advantage and votes. They have been replaced by the IMF and Europe, more outside forces. All Governments, including those involving Fine Gael and The Labour Party, allowed the social partners and trade unions to usurp their power and that of the Oireachtas. This was one of the fundamental problems of the country's budgetary process. Europe is now doing it instead and there is a form of puppet Government ruling over us. We will have another such Government if those who come to power after the general election do not have the courage to challenge the fundamental reasoning behind the finance Bill.
Where are the fundamental changes that are required at this time and the cuts to the budgets of the semi-State bodies located in the Bill? Why did the Government not reduce the budgets of FÁS from €1 billion to €500 million a year and that of CIE from €300 million to €150 million? Why are we subsidising these semi-State agencies and bodies and not reforming them?
We are doing so because some of us use public transport.
The Minister of State has woken up at long last. I am delighted. It is about time. I accept that his experiences recently have been difficult but he must realise that it is unlikely that things will remain quiet for long.
Where is the Government's corporate tax policy? Why is it not examining the possibility of introducing fundamental tax reforms rather than fiddling with the system that is already in place? I have inquired on numerous occasions with regard to why we do not change the position in respect of corporate tax. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, correctly referred to the IFSC and to multinationals as great successes. Why have these been so successful? The answer is that it is a result of the special taxation rate of 12.5% which applies to them. If the sector in question works so well, why did the Minister not consider reducing the corporation tax rate to 9.9%? If that sector is one of the flag carriers of the economy, then it should be looked after and promoted. I am not stating that it should be subsidised but it should certainly be encouraged. However, the finance Bill does not contain anything to encourage the sector. The Minister could have reduced the rate of corporation tax rather than increasing other taxes.
That would have been totally impractical.
Totally impractical because the Government has no imagination. All its members know how to do is to be subservient to Europe and the IMF. The Government is responsible for the——
I am shocked by the Senator's demagoguery.
I am glad the Minister of State is awake.
I welcome the Minister of State. Listening to Senator Ross, there can be no doubt but that the general election campaign has well and truly begun. I must confess that I share many of the misgivings expressed by the Senator, who has been consistent in his opposition to the social partnership process, particularly in its latter years. I am on the record of the House — which is open to examination by others — as stating on many occasions that the social partnership concept was excellent but that much was left to be desired when it came to its execution. In this regard, I refer to the fact that it led to the creation of a democratic deficit.
If the elected representatives of both Houses had been more involved in the social partnership process, things might have been different. Instead, we were obliged to sit in Leinster House and wait to hear what was going to be revealed at Government Buildings by a group of unelected representatives who pursued their own sectoral interests. The public service unions pursued their own agenda vigorously and with great success. It is rather sad that the opprobrium being heaped on the Fianna Fáil Government that was in power during the period in question is coming from critics who appear to have collective amnesia regarding the role played by the public service unions, the voluntary sector and the other members of the pillars relating to the social partnership process, particularly in the context of benchmarking.
I hope that in the forthcoming general election campaign a rational debate will take place in respect of this matter. I also hope that, following proper analysis, people will reach the conclusion that not only was it a case of the then Fianna Fáil Government making mistakes but that there were other players who were just as prominent and just as involved. Effectively, the players to whom I refer constituted an alternative form of government in this country for a long period. During the social partnership discussions, these individuals used to appear on our television screens on a daily basis to reveal to the country what they had achieved or gained. At the same time, elected representatives in this and the Lower House were obliged to wait for the announcement of something that was essentially afait accompli. It was then presented as a package and was voted through because the Executive had the support of the majority in the Dáil.
As my party's newly-elected leader, Deputy Martin, stated in recent days that we are facing the most critical and challenging general election for a generation. I take this opportunity to congratulate him. As a member of Fianna Fáil, I am proud of his unstinting and unequivocal apology for the mistakes that were made by the Fianna Fáil-led Administration. It was right and proper that he should have made such an apology. It is time for politicians of all hues, particularly those in Fianna Fáil, to have a little humility when it comes to facing the electorate. We must admit that grievous mistakes were made and that these have angered the people.The level of the anger to which I refer is unprecedented during my time as a public representative.
The election must be about binding and healing the wounds of the nation. There will be an onus on everyone participating in the election to reach out and show empathy to those who are hurting financially, emotionally and in every other way.
As Members are aware, one of my broadcasting commitments relates to highlighting the importance of the Irish Diaspora. As a former emigrant, I am very proud of my work in this area which has been long neglected. I pay tribute to Deputy Martin, who, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, and in conjunction with Mr. David McWilliams, initiated the Farmleigh economic forum. It resulted in the establishment of the global network, a forum for members of the Irish Diaspora — both native-born and those of Irish descent — who have succeeded in business to use their unique skills and expertise to assist in improving this country's economy. I hope the incoming Government will continue to support and expand the role of the Irish Diaspora in the context of the impact it can have on the country. That impact is already beginning to be felt and I wish those involved well.
Senator Ross is the latest Member to articulate the very real concerns with regard to the heavy weight of debt being shouldered by the people. It is only right that members of the general population should inquire why they should be obliged to bear the burden of a debt for which they have no responsibility and which was amassed by private banks. I welcome the fact that among the shifting sands of European political and bureaucratic activity there appears to be growing recognition that a small open economy such as ours cannot realistically hope to relieve itself of the massive burden that has been placed on it as a result of reckless lending by German banks in the early 2000s — following the introduction of the euro — and by their Irish counterparts. When they obtained the money to which I refer, the Irish banks shovelled it out to people.
The most recent example of the type of recklessness to which I refer was reported in the newspapers earlier this week. I refer to the case of a man who had no background in development who was given a massive loan. The individual in question was a successful local businessman in County Monaghan. I do not wish to single him out but his is typical of the type of stories we have been hearing and reading since the financial tsunami hit in 2008. It is unbelievable that a bank could give the man to whom I refer €32 million in the absence of any track record which would indicate that he could repay the debt. Alarm bells were already sounding in the wider economy when this individual was advanced the sum in question and I do not understand how the bank believed it would somehow be in a position to recoup it. That man was treated unfairly. He is as much a victim as anyone else who is suffering as a result of what happened in recent years. His story is an example of the recklessness that held sway in this country.
I accept that it is easy to point the finger and state that, in the context of the regulatory regime, the Government took its eye off the ball. However, what was happening here was also taking place elsewhere across the globe. It was a return to the idea propounded by Mr. Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Margaret Thatcher to the effect that the market wins or that it rules all. The idea to which I refer was first put forward in the mid-1980s. It then filtered through world economies in the 1990s and resulted in Ireland, for the first time since before the Famine, having some money to improve the lot of its people. We lost the plot when it came to spending that money.
I am particularly pleased that the Minister has drawn attention to the successes we have achieved, despite our current economic difficulties, such as the continued momentum of export companies. Ireland is unique among the countries suffering from the financial downturn, namely, Greece, Portugal, Spain and, to a lesser extent, Italy and Belgium, in that it has a balance of payments surplus. This momentum has been maintained since the world economy started to turn in 2009. Members on all sides of the House will agree that our export success between 1994 and 2001 was almost exclusively responsible for the increase in the population and employment levels. I pay tribute for this to the rainbow Government of 1994 to 1997 and its successor from 1997 to 2002. The national recovery plan acknowledged that the proven success of the export-led model of that period should be the basis for future growth. Economists suggest there will be a trickle down effect over 12 to 18 months before there are real gains in reducing unemployment figures. Please God, that will come sooner rather than later.
I applaud the Minister for drawing attention to the success of the IFSC. While I appreciate this success is related to our low corporation tax rate, it is providing real jobs. In the light of the criticisms levelled at the inadequate regulatory environment between 2002 and 2008, it is ironic that many companies are being attracted to this country because we have put in place a much stricter regulatory regime.
Other aspects of the Bill have been addressed and I will not discuss them now, although I hope we will have further opportunities on Committee Stage to discussed them in detail. I hope a way will be found to adjust the budget which has been more or less thrust upon us by the EU-IMF financial package in order to relieve the burden being placed on the most vulnerable in society.
The Senator should table a recommendation.
People are hurting. We have a collective opportunity with the election of a new Government to reduce the burden of debt. I have every confidence that our European friends will realise the economy can thrive if it is given a realistic opportunity to do so. I hope a way can be found to isolate the private bank debts that have been transferred to the State.
Senator Mooney has noted that we have just come out of a period in which the market was not reined in adequately. He has contrasted this attitude with that in the 1980s when the market was not such a marauding or unfettered element of public policy. I concur with much of what he said, but our system faces certain difficulties in this regard. I do not wish to ratchet up the tension levels because the few of us who are left in the House should be able to hold a calm debate on these matters. It is as if we are being kept back after school. Everybody else is gone.
This and future Governments will have to be prepared to defend the policies they implement. The Governments which came to power in 1997, 2002 and, to a lesser extent, 2007 celebrated the unfettered market which was at the heart of their policies. Senator Mooney may argue this was due to the improper ideological influence of the Progressive Democrats, but, while the full history of the recent past will not be told until it has been analysed by historians, the journalism of the period indicated an absence of resistance on the part of Fianna Fáil to the policies which the Senator rightly criticised. As Minister for Finance and Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy was an apostle of this approach.
I may disagree with particular policies, but I accept that people are entitled to seek the electorate's support for them because we live in a free world and a democracy. However, Government Members cannot come along afterwards and say the policies of the past were terrible and should not have been introduced as if they were semi-detached. I am not personalising my comments to Senator Mooney. Deputy Martin's apology this week was not as full blooded as it has been described, but he beat his breast about the way in which the tax base had been undermined by reducing taxes too quickly and vigorously. People are going to expect more from politicians on all sides. We have to get away from the idea that Governments can deny the policies they pursued for ten or 12 years.
One has to learn from one's mistakes.
That is fine, if there is genuine learning. I expect clarity from Fianna Fáil in the coming weeks on whether it is acknowledging the policies that were at the heart of the Governments it led were wrong. That could open up a period of honesty in public debate on what needs to happen.
The Opposition is regularly accused of opposing everything. I look forward to my party being put to the test in the next three or four weeks. I do not claim perfection in any of our policies on the economy or public services, but they are clear and carefully thought through. I would broadly summarise them under the heading of social democratic politics. Fianna Fáil Members will sometimes claim in private that they are social democrats, but let us have a public debate on our real political options and opportunities. That can only be held if we stop attempting to look both ways at the same time because that has bedevilled politics in this country.
We will have an opportunity to deal with the details of the Bill on Committee Stage, but I respectfully express my disagreement with some of the claims the Minister made. Part of the spin on the IMF-EU deal has been a phony discussion of the issue of sovereignty. While the meaning of sovereignty in the modern world may be questioned, it is not correct for the Minister to claim there has been no impact on our sovereignty as a result of this deal. It is just ludicrous to say that or, as the Minister did, to say that if one borrows from a bank manager, one has lost sovereignty. Sovereign governments have borrowed internationally for centuries, but the fact that they borrow does not of itself mean their sovereignty is in question.
We should face up to the situation in a spirit of honesty. We have been given this borrowing facility but our budgetary, fiscal and economic policy is being determined outside this country, not by the Government or this Parliament. That is what is happening and we must be clear about it.
For the record, 95%——
There can be no interruptions.
On a point of order——
What is the point of order?
I do not wish to engage but the fact is that 95% of the package was agreed by the Government.
That is not a point of order.
I try to have the courtesy to listen to people when they are speaking, and not interrupt.
The point is——
There can be no interruptions. Senators will have an opportunity to speak.
The point is that our policies are being determined elsewhere. There is no greater proof of that than that we must give reports monthly, quarterly and in some cases even weekly to our new masters on our progress on many of the issues set down in the agreement and in the memorandum of understanding, which I have read carefully. There is no question that there is, at the very least, close supervision of fiscal, budgetary and economic policy-making in this country. If there is any such thing as a loss of sovereignty, that is it. We can move on from it but there is no point stating that it has not happened when it manifestly has. To say that the fact that the US, a sovereign country, borrows internationally means there is a loss of sovereignty of the same character is nonsensical.
The second matter I wish to raise is something on which I agree with the Minister to some extent. An interesting debate is starting now, which Senator Ross spoke about, on the issue of whether there is an alternative. This will be at the heart of the election campaign, which I welcome. The issues are the extent to which there can be renegotiation of the deal and the extent to which the senior bondholders can take an impact for what has occurred. These issues will be at the heart of the campaign. The Minister wants to have it both ways. He acknowledged here that in the course of the negotiations over the weekend in November he raised the question about the senior bondholders. He was told there was no appetite for it.
I would have been amazed if the Minister had not raised this, and the fact that he did raise it is welcome. He tried to get agreement on it but did not get very far. That is fine. However, he cannot tell those of us who say the issue must be revisited and reopened that we are deluding ourselves. He saw fit to raise it and, apparently, got the bum's rush, if that is not unparliamentary language. That does not mean the issue is put to bed forever or that a new Government cannot be in a position or should not at least strive to be in a position to raise the issue again. I agree with the Minister that it cannot be done unilaterally. I disagree with Senator Ross, who holds the same position as Sinn Féin on the question of burning the bondholders. They believe we can simply announce that we are doing it and it will be all over.
The same question that is put to Sinn Féin must be put to my colleague, and putative new constituency colleague, Senator Ross. What will we do next year and the following year to pay for public services? The idea is that it can happen unilaterally but I agree with the Minister that it cannot. However, that is not to say that it cannot be raised or pursued in the sophisticated way the Minister for Finance mentions. It must be done in a way that has regard to our interests, influence and, unfortunately, loss of influence in Europe. These questions must and will be re-opened by a future Government. There is no way that can be avoided.
The main reason it cannot be avoided is that every economist and commentator and Members of this House who are honest with themselves are fully aware that we cannot achieve what is in the four year plan in the time scale set out for it and that we cannot sustain the level of interest repayments required of us. It simply cannot be done, and everybody knows it. It is not included in speeches but when one talks to somebody after they have made a speech, they will say: "You are right. Of course, we cannot do it." Sooner or later we will have to move from our current state of double speak, in which people will say publicly and aspirationally that we will do it but then privately say they know it cannot be done, to getting to grips with the problem, examining the timetable that has been set out for us and revisiting the issue of the interest payment. These issues will and must be addressed by the new Government, regardless of what parties are in it, and there is no point saying that people who say as much are deluding themselves. They are not; they are speaking the truth.
It is the people who say we can deal with this issue by burning the bondholders at the stroke of a pen who are deluding themselves and attempting to mislead the electorate. These issues must and will come back on to the agenda. The Minister says that if we go to our European partners at this stage, we will be told to go home or take a running jump, to use his phrase. Unfortunately, that is what happened on the fateful weekend in Europe when our negotiating team and our negotiating hand were so weak. We came away with a dreadfully poor deal for this country. There is no question that we negotiated a bad deal with a weak hand. We were panicked into an agreement at the last minute, an agreement which even members of the Government, if we are to believe them, did not know about until it had practically already happened.
The chaos surrounding that event, the lack of a sense of clarity on the part of the Government as to what it was doing or intended to do and its lack of frankness with the people have added to the dislocation. When I talk to people — I am sure colleagues have had the same experience — they tell me the worst thing for them is the squeeze on their incomes as a result of the universal social charge and so forth. It is said repeatedly by people, and they will tell the Minister for Finance the same thing when he knocks on their doors with regard to their pay packets, which he was so quick to refer to somewhat dismissively.
People are gripped by a lack of trust and belief. I am sorry to point out, which might sound a little partisan, that the lack of trust is not just in Fianna Fáil. It is now so corrosive that it has gone into people's belief in themselves and in the possibility of the country getting out of this situation at all, with any Government. That is the level it has reached. People are despondent and despairing. The old refrain we encountered previously was that we are all the same, but the despair is at a different level now. It is a level at which their belief in their country and the ability of any sovereign Government to deal with the situation is being questioned. That is the worst legacy of the last three or four months of chaos, indecision and not just a lack of frankness but, at times, misrepresentation of the position by the Government to its people. It has reached the extent that people have lost trust, and that trust will have to be restored.
It will not be done on the basis of the finance Bill before us. The Bill is a measure that was forced upon the Government rather than one on which it had an opportunity to engage genuinely with the public. I am glad we will have the opportunity to deal with this issue in the political context, which is where it belongs. Trust and hope must be restored.
I call Senator Boyle, who has ten minutes.
I am not speaking on behalf of the Government, a Chathaoirligh, although I am happy to speak now.
I am giving you the opportunity to speak now.
The Finance Bill 2011 and the circumstances arising from it consist of two very separate issues. The first is the need to pass the Bill to give a sense of certainty, cohesion and continuity to the very uncertain political and economic situation in which the country finds itself. The second relates to the contents of the Bill and it is here there can be legitimate public debate about the nature of the economy and how the burden is being shared between all citizens.
We can describe the Finance Bill 2011 as probably the longest death wish in Irish political history. Unlike previous Finance Acts that were passed before the 2002 and 2007 elections, this is hardly an election Bill. When I think of those particular Acts and the budgets that accompanied them in 2001 and 2006, we can see how radically the situation has changed. Public expenditure increased by 20% in 2002 alone, which was far in excess of the rate of inflation. In 2006, public expenditure increased by 14%, which again was far in excess of the rate of inflation. These exercises were nothing less than the traditional attempt to buy the subsequent election. While we might concentrate on the banking mess that occurred since, the reality is that our biggest problem is our public finances and this has been caused by a decade or more of spending too much and taxing too little.
Until we address that essential truth, much of the name calling and points scoring will be fundamentally dishonest in this debate.
I put it to Members that where we will be ending up in taxation and expenditure terms is probably where we should be. Pain is being caused because the adjustment is happening too quickly and too much for many citizens. That is where the political debate needs to be. If we had not reduced taxes recklessly and if we had not increased expenditure in a naked attempt to buy political power, position and prestige, then we would not be in this position. We then have the banking mess on top of it.
Having said all that, it does not give my party any particular pleasure in agreeing to pass this Bill. However, it needs to be passed. The best achievement has been to get rid of some of the unwelcome signals that were coming out of the original draft of the Bill. These signals included the signal that those earning over €100,000 should not be charged an extra 3% in the universal social charge because it would affect the effective tax rate, the signal that there should not be a particular punitive rate of tax on bankers' bonuses, and the signal that the property tax reliefs in sections 22 and 23 could somehow be postponed into 2012. Those were unacceptable signals on top of a narrative where many of the citizens of this country were told that they had to bear a burden that others in our society were not expected to bear.
In leaving the Government, I am pleased that the Green Party challenged these particular provisions and we achieved amendments on them. There are others in the Lower House who have claimed this. Their involvement in those amendments was nil. I remember being involved in the negotiations on the formation of the Government and we expressed our concerns about the treatment of Independents supporting the previous Government. We did not want to be associated with that naked type of opportunism which accompanied the decisions of that Government. The strategy, as revealed at the time by Fianna Fáil, was that Independents did not effectively change anything but that decisions had already been made and the Independents were then given the opportunity to mouth off and say that they achieved those changes. The changes to property tax reliefs, to the taxation of bankers' bonuses and to impose a 3% charge for incomes in excess of €100,000 were effected by the Green Party. I particularly resent the views of Members of the Lower House who are not known for their own adherence to the ideas of tax equity or even tax compliance claiming to be champions of the people in this area. On those grounds, we need to put aside the circus-like atmosphere that has attached to theBill.
There are some welcome elements in the Bill, most notably the excising and extinguishing of tax reliefs. The formation of the Commission on Taxation was a Green Party demand in the programme for Government. Its insistence that its recommendations be adhered to was something the Green Party in government called for, not only in this budget but in preceding budgets. It is again disappointing that it has taken the worsening of the crisis to implement many of these recommendations because they should have been implemented in 2008 and 2009. At least we are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel. There is reason to take particular pleasure in seeing amendments to property-based tax reliefs in section 22 and 23 which bring these reliefs to an end. There has been much lobbying on how individuals will be affected by these changes. Undoubtedly, some small-scale investors will feel the brunt of this particular change. However, the Green Party believes that this type of property tax relief was akin not so much to throwing petrol on a fire, more to setting fire to a refinery in terms of the effect it had in creating a property boom. We have had to live with the results of that since. The idea of a roll-over relief for properties already owned being added to new properties that were being created in a market for which there was no demand seems to epitomise everything that was wrong with the property-fuelled element of the Celtic tiger. That is why we should take some degree of pleasure from extinguishing those reliefs.
The other element of this Bill relates to the universal social charge and its effect. Undoubtedly, people on lower incomes are feeling this pinch more than others. However, there are good things to be said about it. The rationalisation of our levy system, whereby we have had an income levy, a health levy and PRSI as well as an insurance levy in the past, means that we need to get to a simplified system of one social insurance charge and one system of taxation. I would like to have seen that done in this budget. We have a half a horse approach on this and many other items in the Bill. We now have a USC, we now have PRSI and we now have income tax. It does not help the public mood, and if we were to have chosen reform, we should have done it in one bold leap.
One of the disappointments I have had as a party spokesperson in trying to influence budgets is the reluctance to embrace refundable tax credits, especially for the working poor. I would not lay the blame for this at the hands of the Minister, because I believe he is supportive of the idea. We proposed that this be introduced in the Bill at a cost of €100 per person, or a total cost of €60 million, increasing by the same amount over four years. In this way, a real benefit would be given to those at lower income levels. I am afraid that the people who opposed this the most are people in the Department of Finance.
I am disappointed with one thing the Minister said in respect of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. He intimated that if the Green Party had given this Government another two to three weeks of artificial life, the measures in respect of that Act would have been brought into the Bill. I understand that at the meeting of all party spokespersons a few days ago, it was commonly accepted that the 150 amendments relating to the Act can be introduced in the finance (No. 2) Bill, which can be passed before 1 April. I would like to see every political party commit to that. I welcome the fact that the Minister said he was surprised at the Green Party being seen in this position as the Green Party had pushed most strongly for the civil partnership legislation. This is something I did not hear from the relevant Minister at the time when he was finishing the debate on the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. On where we are as a country, in terms of the social aspects and taking responsibility for the financial difficulties we are in, my party has made sure that what can be done is being done. Those who will follow in the incoming Government will at least have a better base on which to improve on the policy mistakes made before we entered government.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. This finance Bill is, effectively, the sad epitaph of a failed Government. Its tombstone is the bailout and the sale of our sovereignty and the writing on the tombstone is the finance Bill. This debate is happening at a time when 1,000 people are emigrating each week. This statistic, when it rolls off the tongue, can hide a shocking human reality and sadness for parents. It is happening at a time when there are 450,000 unemployed and 30,000 mortgage holders in serious arrears or default. Therein lies an awful human story for them and their families, with the anxiety that it entails. The other evening I was canvassing in a place called Mullagh in County Cavan, one of the small satellite towns almost on the border with County Meath. After canvassing for three hours in a couple of estates I went home positively depressed because I had heard some horrendous stories. The timeframe for this debate does not allow me to give a graphic description, but they encapsulated all of the issues I mentioned, including unemployment and redundancies.
I stated on the Order of Business that it was welcome that my party leader and the Minister, Deputy Noonan——
There have been a lot of promotions here this morning.
I should have said the future Minister, Deputy Noonan. It is welcome that both he and Deputy Kenny are meeting President Barroso today with a view to opening channels of communication that will lead to a renegotiation of the terms of the International Monetary Fund deal. I wish them well in these negotiations which are important for the country. It is a given that we will have to renegotiate the deal. The Minister suggested we could not act unilaterally and that it was almost cynical to suggest we could. We are not suggesting we take unilateral action or something that would not involve round table discussions within the European Union with all countries. Implicit in the Minister's suggestion was that we were going to on a solo run that would be rejected. That will not be the case. My party has connections within the European People's Party the largest party in Europe, of which Deputy Kenny is vice president. That will give us a network within which to operate.
We also recognise that there is a reluctance, which will continue until after the general election, to offer new terms, but new terms will have to emerge. I understand an interest rate of 5.8% — I do not fully understand the terminology — is 300 basis points above the cost of funds. In essence, this means the money being given to Ireland in the bailout is being sourced at a radically lower figure than the 5.8% interest rate at which we are paying. It is not sustainable that this would remain the case. It will have to be renegotiated and it will be. I accept there is a growing consciousness of this within the European Union and our connections within it will assist in that regard.
Fine Gael wants the holders of unguaranteed senior bonds to become involved in sharing the burden of bank debt. That does amount to populism. These are the people who gamble and it is the normal commercial practice that they make an investment. It is similar to betting on horses. When it goes well, they make the windfall profit, to use a term with which Senator Boyle would be familiar, but surely they have to accept some of the burden when it does not.
I accept that we cannot press a nuclear button, but we must work within the IMF framework and European structures to bring about a change. We are committed to negotiating an acceptable solution with our European partners, EU institutions and the central banks. It is not the case that we intend to press a nuclear button, as implied by those who use such rhetoric on radio stations, etc. Tragically, that will not be possible, but what is possible is a renegotiation of the fundamentals of the deal made in haste. There was a major bleed, so to speak, and a plaster was put on it without the patient's consent and without any effort being made to do anything worthwhile. The entire deal is predicated on all the wrong principles. It must be put right in terms of the interest rates charged, the length of time involved and the entire approach adopted. There must be an examination of the sharing of the risk or burden by the bondholders who gambled with their money and must accept some of the consequences of failure. They cannot have an each way bet on this one. This must and will happen within a reasonable timeframe; it cannot be otherwise. I welcome the fact that the process is being initiated. If we were to do otherwise or acquiesce in the current circumstances and allow matters to continue, there would be a real risk that, ultimately, we would default, which would be tragic for everybody concerned. We must get it right before default becomes the only option.
The universal social charge represents the crystallisation of all our problems. While it may have progressive dimensions in objective taxation terms, if other levies and costs had been eliminated, we were operating in different times and if it did not have such a dramatic effect on those on low incomes — arguments that may be suitable for a parlour discussion and after dinner chats — the human reality of the universal social charge is different. I accept that the Minister, under pressure from a chorus of voices, has amended the criteria relating to those who hold a medical card and while the lower rate is preferable to the higher 7% rate, the charge remains regressive and damaging to those who cannot afford to pay.
Another issue with the universal social charge is that it applies to those earning as little as €4,000 per year. The tax net needed to be widened. That is a widely held principle arising from the reports of the Commission of Taxation etc., but the drop has been too extreme, radical and quick. If Members had been canvassing with me the other day, as others in this Chamber will be doing in the coming weeks, they would have gone home after an hour having been left in no doubt that the drop had been too radical. It is a blunt instrument and wrong in the way it has been designed.
It is welcome that the bankers' bonus issue will be dealt with because, as I mentioned on the Order of Business, it is critical that we deal with bankers' bonuses, bonuses at the top levels of the Civil Service and over-hyped salaries if we are to have any sense of fairness or, to use that awful modern term, have a buy-in by the people to austerity packages.
The missing dimension to the finance Bill and the entire budgetary strategy of the Government in recent years when it has been caught putting up barriers here and there to stop the dams bursting is a stimulus package to promote job creation. There is tremendous potential in the agrifood sector, the tourism sector which I would like to have dealt with in greater detail and the green energy sector. We can be the Saudi Arabia of Europe with our wave and wind energy. There is potential still in information technology and pharmaceuticals.
I accept a point made well that we need to do more about drilling for oil off our coasts. There is a clause — I will finish on this as it is the last point I want to make——
There are many speakers lined up.
——in the finance Bill relating to €400 million of administrative efficiencies. That is a euphemism for real cuts. I would challenge the Minister to delineate those cuts in specific terms before we agree to the passage of the Bill.
It is important we bring the Bill through the House and, while doing so, scrutinise it in great detail. That is the strength of this House, that we look at all the legislation going through it. The House has been well worth its value in terms of ensuring proper, well structured legislation goes through, and this Bill is no different.
It is important from an international point of view that we pass the finance Bill, which enacts the budget measures. We can see that international bodies are looking at how we do everything, especially given that we have had the IMF and the ECB and various other organisations in here. It is sending the right message that Ireland is able to conduct its business in a proper way and democracy is working in this country.
From my point of view, the Bill is important in that it restructures our financial position. This Bill and the four year plan, coming together with the necessary cuts in terms of the day-to-day running of the economy, infrastructural development and what not, are now set and we can see where we can develop in the next four years, possibly at a slower but nevertheless steady rate. That is very important to bear in mind.
It is also important to recognise that there have been many successes along the way. People complained many years ago that those on social welfare and on pensions were not that well off, but they have been brought up to standard during the 11 years of improvements in people's living standards the like of which we have never seen before. We have seen a 300% rise in the level of payments. Whether we have been able to afford it or not is probably a debatable point now, but I would hate to think of those on social welfare and pensions being less well off because we did not bring in these new rates of payment.
We have also seen major increases in staffing in the education system. More than 10,000 assistants have been recruited to help slow learners and people like that in the education system. That has been money well spent and it has been an investment in the future for our young people.
We have also seen greater investment in the health service. While one can complain about it, we have the finest health service anywhere in the world once one is in the system. Our nurses, doctors and consultants are second to none. Certain parts of it need to be streamlined in terms of middle management and ensuring we get better value for money in that regard, and the Government is now tackling that. In the middle management sector, which is probably overstaffed by approximately 7,000, in excess of 3,000 staff have taken up the early retirement scheme and that should help in terms of reducing costs in the health service.
We also have a better transport system in which we have invested heavily in the past ten to 12 years. We have seen the Luas extended all the way out to Cherrywood. That has been a good infrastructural development that will deliver a high class transport service to the city on the south side of Dublin. These are built-up areas that need rapid transport and that can deliver many benefits to the country.
We have also had the IMF and ECB. Of course, there have been various comments from our European neighbours who have helped us out when we have needed it. While people can argue about the cost and the rates we are paying, we did not have much choice. They were offering us a better rate than was being offered in the bond market. It is important to lay down that marker.
We hear about negotiations. One can have negotiations about anything but one must realise that it is only by having them include countries such as Portugal and Spain and countries that are likely to be in trouble, such as Italy and others, that we can negotiate from our strengths. Those countries will be looking for help in the next few years and it is vital we play a role in ensuring Ireland is getting the best possible rate.
It is important to stress as well in this finance Bill that the negotiators put down a marker that our 12.5% corporation tax was not for auction. The message must go out loud and clear that whatever Government is in office after the election ensures there is stability in that regard. Inward investment was very good in 2010. When one considers the difficulties we encountered on the world markets, the inward investment did very well. That is because we have an attractive tax base to ensure there is a good return on the investment made from abroad. In return, they employ substantial numbers of our people who, in turn, pay taxes to the Exchequer.
I stress also the importance of the Bill in terms of tackling waste in the economy to get better value for money. The taxpayer will be demanding that. Workers in the private sector in particular have suffered significant reductions in pay of 30%, and 35% in some cases. While the public sector has experienced substantial reductions as well, it is important that both the public and private sectors have put their shoulder to the wheel.
I would welcome a degree of urgency in respect of the Croke Park agreement to ensure it lives up to the expectations that Members, as politicians and public representatives, demand in this regard. Otherwise, there will be a question mark over the manner in which trade unions operate in Ireland. They will be perceived as being unable to do their business and it is now evident that such business can be done elsewhere. It will not be a question of trade unions making decisions, as the IMF or the ECB will do so. I wish to send a message on the importance of the Croke Park agreement. The unions should enter negotiations to ensure a substantial outcome in respect of savings and so on.
May I have the permission of the House to share time with Senator Harris? He tells me he only seeks two minutes.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I believe this Bill is not welcome as it imposes even greater hardship on people but Members must take a longer term view and from that perspective, they do not have a choice. The reason it is not welcome from my point of view is that I dislike Bills with such a tight time constraint. While this is not the Minister's fault, I believe that good legislation requires a second or third look. I was highly impressed by the contribution today of the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan. He came into the Chamber without his notes, unfortunately, and spoke for ten minutes without them. I would like to think I could do the same when I speak because he certainly demonstrated to Members how much in control he was.
There is a real need to get the economy back on track and there are good signs in this regard, some of which were mentioned by the Minister. The ESRI has stated that the economy will grow at a reasonable rate of 1.5%, which admittedly is a little more slowly than had been thought previously. The institute has also predicted that the number in employment will fall but there also were some good signs the Minister mentioned today. In particular, I refer to how well our exports are performing.
I was somewhat surprised by certain Independent Members of the Lower House who voted for the budget measures a few weeks ago but who now appear to have backtracked with an election in sight. I believe a little politicking is taking place in this regard. Cuts must be made and there is no choice. Unfortunately, those on low incomes must also take up a burden through the universal social charge, although I believe one must protect some of those who are worse off. I note that widows, who previously were not subject to the universal social charge, must now contribute. The Sinn Féin proposal that we should raid the National Pensions Reserve Fund this year and then go to the bond markets next year appears to make no sense and really must be exposed. Some of these suggestions are simply way out of line.
As I noted, I am concerned by the speed of passage of the Bill and refer to an interesting article by Brian Keegan of Chartered Accountants Ireland. He has argued that because tax law can be complicated and is so extensive, it is notorious for producing unintended outcomes and that consequently, Members should give it far more time than they normally do. I am concerned by the social charge changes in the Bill, which I believe will affect small and medium-sized enterprises in particular. The Small Firms Association has expressed concern in this regard and has stated that the raising of the universal social charge for the self-employed owner-manager is not encouraging for small businesses. However, when asked about tax, etc., the association stated that a reduction in red tape would be of much greater benefit. Can something be done to remove such burdens? In this case, it appears as though such burdens are being increased in many cases. It was interesting to hear President Obama's recent speech in which he stated the aim is to find a way to reduce the amount of red tape in which small and medium-sized businesses — I believe a different term is used over there — are involved. This also applies here in Ireland.
I refer to an issue that I introduced into the House last week and which really incensed me. Ireland has a great opportunity to do something about wind energy in particular. However, although there have been 300 applications for wind generators in the last three years with huge investment potential, not one has been brought to fruition. I do not know the reason for this and I gather the delay is caused by the involvement of Departments. I will repeat the example I mentioned previously of an Irishman who was involved in wind energy generation here and who spoke to a group of Oireachtas Members last year but who has gone to the United States. He proposed to build a wind farm somewhere in Texas of 100 or 130 windmills — I cannot recall the exact number — and asked how long it would take to get permission. He was told that as that day was Wednesday, he should have permission by the following Wednesday. In other words, he got permission within one week. There is a concept underlying this anecdote to the effect that one can do things. It is not simply about taxes, income or charges but is an attitude asking what can be done to remove red tape from small businesses in order that they can get to work. Retail Excellence Ireland has also produced some interesting figures on the number of retailers. It expects 400 retailers to go out of business in the month of January because it is so difficult to operate a business in the face of a loss of public confidence and something must be done in this regard.
I seek answers in respect of three aspects of the Bill. At a time when innovation is so high on our list of priorities, I am concerned that we have removed the benefits that encouraged patent income. This has been removed since budget day and is a matter of real concern because we should be encouraging patents. Second, I must be the only Member who does not share the concerns of others in respect of bank bonuses. If one is running a business of any kind, one will want the best people to do it. Admittedly, if we own the banks ourselves, we can decide what to do about bank bonuses, as we would not wish to overpay people. However, in the case of someone who owns a business or a bank and who wants the best person for the job, it seems to be simple begrudgery to state that owner will not be permitted to get the best person because the State will levy tax at 90% or whatever is the solution. In this regard, I worry about the IFSC and whether there is a danger that the centre will be less attractive to investors than it otherwise would be.
My third point of concern arises from a letter I received, as perhaps did other Members, on the removal without warning from first-time buyers of the benefits pertaining to stamp duty. The aforementioned person who wrote to me stated that he had saved all his life for a house and together with his partner had decided to buy a house. They were ready to conclude the deal when the stamp duty changes were introduced. He wrote about how the stamp duty increase and general tax increases imposed a fairly heavy cost on him. Can something be done in this regard? My correspondent suggested the introduction of a transitional period which would delay the implementation of that measure until perhaps next June, to facilitate people who already had made a decision to buy a house for the first time.
I am concerned that in the first year of operation of a new tax system, that is, this year, a taxpayer with income tax and capital gains liabilities could have as many as five different dates for filing returns to meet their tax liabilities and pay their pension contributions. This is a time when one should be trying to simplify such obligations and should be considering how to make the tax system much more simple. However, it appears as though the present system is very different to the pay and file system that was initially intended. Such simplification should be encouraged and were we to manage to find an easier system, we would increase the revenue available to the State.
I notice the Cathaoirleach is signalling that I should make way for Senator Harris.
I thank Senator Quinn for sharing time and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady. In common with Senator Quinn, I also wish to register the extraordinaryextempore performance of the Minister for Finance at the outset of this debate and to ask myself rhetorically whether Fianna Fáil has not made a dreadful mistake. That said, having acknowledged the Minister’s extraordinary mastery of his brief, I wish to turn to the next charge that is made against him, namely, that of spoofing. Spoofing is often a charge made by those who do not like what is being said and is analogous to the charge that the Seanad and the Dáil are talking shops. What else would the House be except a talking shop? Members are not armed and do not fire bullets at one another, as talking is what they do. Spoofing is a phrase that mediocre minds use when somebody speaks to effect. The Minister may be like a barrister picking up a brief sometimes but that is the kind of speech one needs to inspire people and get them through bad times because there are always two sides to a question. The Minister takes his side and there is nothing wrong with that in a democracy if the other side is prepared to expose it as spoofing.
I wanted to make the point on spoofing because it brings me to another point, namely, the general toxic attitude towards politicians. It is a product, I am sorry to say, of a conflation of factors. Nothing will ever convince me that an alternative Government would have behaved differently in regard to property. It might have acted a bit faster but I doubt if it would have calmed down the property market. I do not know if an alternative Government would have known that the banks were corrupt as they were. Where the last Government can be faulted is in the sins, not of omission but of commission, such as the bloating of the public sector and the failure to deal with public expenditure. These things were within the Government's remit and it is for that reason it should say sorry.
To a limited extent, Governments are insulated by the modern Civil Service. That is why it is important that we have a Civil Service that is fit for purpose. I am not anti-public sector, rather I am anti an inefficient public sector. I welcome that the Croke Park agreement will see senior civil servants stepping down who are not being replaced and junior civil servants stepping up to the ranks. The public service needs a dynamic, proud work ethic. We have many great public servants but they are held back by antediluvian methods, old antiquated forms of doing their work and a rigid promotional structure.
The finance Bill reminds me of Engel's great remark: "Freedom is the recognition of necessity." The Bill must be passed. One has to hold one's nose and swallow it. It is outside our control and is a matter of necessity. We have to wish a new Government well in doing what it can with it. It is not a case of tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new because, unfortunately, the same pastures will face the next Government. However, there will be new shepherds and we must wish them well.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brady, and wish her every success in her re-election to the Dáil. She has played a very important role in her position and was involved in the fair deal scheme for nursing homes. She has allayed the fears of thousands of elderly people. The scheme has worked very well and I am sure the Minister of State would agree that it has been a great achievement. Nursing home care was a major concern for older people and the new scheme is ingenious. The Minister of State and the former Minister, Deputy Harney, deserve great credit. The scheme is working very well.
The phrase "Cometh the hour, cometh the man" is from John 4:27. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, inherited great difficulties when he was appointed to his current role. He took on a very difficult role and has done his utmost to resolve the situation. No other person had the same capacity as him. History will judge that the Minister dealt with the most challenging period in Irish history and I have no doubt that students of economics and history will be taught that he was the Minister that was dealt the hardest of hands and responded in the most diligent and patriotic way.
It is easy in these times of rolling news, constant commentary and instant reactions to forget the journey that Ireland has travelled and how we fought an honest fight for the good of our nation and the future of the country. We now have to deal with instant communications. The mobile phone has been taken over by Twitter and hourly reactions to issues that are highlighted.
Let us look at what we achieved in this country. Fianna Fáil was established in 1926, 85 years ago, and the contribution it has made in government, in particular, cannot be thrown away in the general election. People should recognise what was achieved, such as roads, schools, buildings and hospitals. Nobody ever said we should not extend Roscommon hospital and spend €11 million on it or bring the decentralised office of the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages to Roscommon. Did people object when we built schools in Elphin, Strokestown, Roscommon and throughout the country?
Let us be clear. We are engaged in political warfare and we have to go into the campaign on the basis of the finance Bill and the four year plan. We should let the people know what has been achieved. The increases in social welfare were justified but if we held more money back naturally we would have been in a stronger position to face the collapse of the banking system. Charlie McCreevy and the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, followed by the Taoiseach and the Minister were all involved in putting €25 billion aside.
With respect to Fine Gael and the Labour Party, I can show the documents relating to the Mullingar accord where they decided to spend the €25 billion which was put aside in 2007, 2008 and 2009. It was in their manifesto. I do not doubt the document was sincere because they thought there would be a constant 5% increase in the economy. They were the same projections we were given. I understand the manifesto is gone from the Fine Gael and Labour Party websites and no longer available but I have a copy and can produce the facts. I respect what Fine Gael achieved. It was prepared to stand by and support many of the initiatives in the budget. It and the Labour Party are responsible parties.
I question the position of the Labour Party on the bank guarantee because what person in Ireland would not want his or her savings to be guaranteed? People who frugally put money aside for a rainy day have a basic right to be protected. We gave that commitment. The commitment covered was €20,000, then €100,000 and then became unlimited for an individual borrower. The scheme will be extended and I hope the new Government will extend the guarantee. I want to get a commitment from the Labour Party that it will extend the guarantee from June. It will be an issue in the general election. If voters want me to provide a list of questions to put to the Labour Party, I advise them to ask its canvassers on the doorsteps if the party will guarantee the money they have saved for a rainy day. Fianna Fáil put its neck out and gave a commitment.
I remember when Proinsias De Rossa, who was then a member of The Workers' Party, as were many distinguished Members of both Houses——
Some of them were more forgettable than others.
It was a radical party. I was in the Dáil with Tomás Mac Giolla and many members of The Workers' Party. Some people walked out of the party and left a large bill. Some people sent letters to Moscow looking for money for the party. I will not name names because I do not want to——
I do not want you to name names.
It would be unfair. I did not refer to specific people. I met a manwho had the typewriter to type the letter and he told me the story. I have parliamentary privilege.
The Senator is exploiting it.
Thanks be to God, I have it.
We are dealing with the finance Bill.
My contribution is relevant to finance.
We do not want a history lesson. We are debating the finance Bill.
When one is financed from the USSR——
If one can get it from Moscow one will get it from Europe.
We will deal with the finance Bill. The Senator has been speaking for seven minutes.
I wish I had more time. Former Minister De Rossa gave a £1.50 increase in pensions. That is the point I am making. Fianna Fáil Ministers such as the Minister, Deputy Hannifin, or the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, gave dramatic increases and people appreciated it. Would anybody be delighted to lose money? The answer is no, because nobody wants to lose money.
The decision on section 23 relief is welcome. I commend the Minister for it and listening to what Members of the Dáil and members of Fianna Fáil who discussed the issue at the parliamentary party meeting had to say about the harsh effect the removal of the relief would have. People bought properties on the basis of the surety of the State on the relief. Therefore, the State cannot change the rules. When a commitment is made, it must be honoured. When the commitment is complete, then it will be fine to scrap the scheme. The people of north Roscommon, Longford, Leitrim and the south of Sligo benefited from the Shannon corridor section 23 provision. It boosted the economy, but unfortunately it overheated and we have been left with some ghost estates. That is all part of policy. Policies can go wrong, but the objective was right.
I wish all the best to Deputy Enda Kenny, possibly the future Taoiseach, and Deputy Michael Noonan, who is a fine and responsible Opposition spokesman. I have been very impressed by Deputy Noonan. I hope he gets the finance portfolio and that it does not go to the Labour Party. However, I think they will come back one hand longer than the other tonight because no concessions can be given to them, although I hope they manage to get concessions.
I received representations from various people with regard to different aspects of the finance Bill and I will submit those representations to the Minister. For example, a person called Tony mentioned there had been a big reduction in his widower's contributory pension. I received a document from a Mr. Paul Brady and a very good document from A.L. Ruttle. I will submit both documents to the Minister for consideration. I compliment a group in Cork which sent a message saying that it would be grateful and obliged if we could help it in any way, even with a few words of encouragement. It is trying to build a youth café in Glanmire, County Cork. I will give that note to the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, and perhaps she will consider whether it is possible to give that group any support.
I wish everybody well in the election, which we will fight fairly. I believe there will be a bounce back to Fianna Fáil and that we will get more seats than people expect.
I wish to concentrate on the future of the economy, which is what the finance Bill is all about. Whatever points people have to make about the future of the economy and how it will recover, they must recognise an essential fact, namely, that politicians do not create 80% of the jobs created in this country. They do not directly create the jobs within the private sector that will be vital to stabilising the country and regaining its security and independence. What we do is to create the environment within which those jobs are created. We try to put in place the incentives, supports and arrangements to allow other people exercise their enterprise and ingenuity to give employment and create wealth for others. This is an insight which the country lost sight of for a number of years and regaining that insight is essential for our recovery.
As a consequence, there are two principles to which the next Government must remain true. The first relates to taxation and the policy and views Fine Gael advocates in this regard. We want to tax less, and in order to do that we will spend less. That will mean making tough and clear choices regarding the size and cost of our public service and of our political system. We will be very clear with the people and those considering voting for us what this means. The next election must be fought to a degree whereby the truth will set people free. If we want to maintain taxes at what they are, reduce them or ensure they do not increase further, that can only be done through lower public spending or a decrease in the rate of increase in public spending. This will mean clear and tough choices with regard to spending. The Fine Gael Party will be honest and clear about those choices and hopes to get a mandate for them. If one wants to tax less, one must spend less. Any political party that seeks to evade that is guilty of the kind of dishonesty that has brought our country to this point.
The second principle relates to stability. I am deeply concerned that forces will develop within the country that will threaten centrist politics and the stability of governments to deliver moderate sensible policies.
The anger that permeates the country will either be replaced by complete despair or by weariness. Both of these forces are in their own way as dangerous and volatile as what we face. It is fundamentally important for the next Government to ensure a period of stability within which businesses, individuals and families can make choices. They must know the horizon and what is ahead of them. It is these two elements, economic stability and clarity on taxes and honesty on how they will be funded, that must drive the formation of a new government and for that reason I want to see Fine Gael lead that Government. I believe it will lead it, but it will be the choice of the people. We will campaign on an agenda that is honest and look for support on it.
This debate has been very interesting because we have seen two philosophies outlined. The first was the Labour Party's philosophy that was articulated by Senator Alex White. He talked about the need for a social democracy within the country and the need to develop it. I disagree with him. This disagreement is good because political parties are different and we should be honest about that. I am not being critical of Senator White, I just disagree with him. There are two reasons this is a route that is not appropriate for the country. First, any form of social democracy, as suggested, inherently involves a willingness to tax more. I know from working and talking to the people I seek to represent in the future that the majority of the people have no money left on which they could pay higher taxes. Our retail and service economy is fundamentally fragile, to the point of almost breaking apart, and any suggestion that people should face dramatically higher tax levels will smash it completely. Second, that philosophy inherently involves a degree of collectivism, a degree of running the economy and politics in a way that has been shown to be discredited. People will look to elect politicians to govern the country. They will want these politicians to talk to them and gain their consent and support. They want to elect people who will govern, and will reject any who cannot make decisions on their behalf. The dispersal of authority throughout our system has had disastrous consequences for our ability to look after our banks and the health system and it must come to an end.
The second philosophy was articulated by Senator Ross, a man for whose work I have huge respect. I will touch first on the points on which I agree with him. He said we need to take a stronger stance on senior banking debt. This is Fine Gael policy and also the policy of the Labour Party. He said we need to take a strong stance on the funding and management of semi-State bodies. It should be apparent from what I have said that this is something in which I believe. Fine Gael is also in agreement. However, the Senator then moved on to other territory. It is important to comment on what he said then given his willingness to comment on Fine Gael. He asked why the option of sovereign default was not being advocated here. It is not being advocated because that is the politics and economics that would turn our country into a pariah state. Take a look, for example, at the last country that considered doing that. Look at Russia or Argentina, which are still paying double digit interest rates on the money markets and consider that they are far bigger and far less globalised economies than ours. If one gets into the economics of default, one question has to be answered. Where will the €16 billion we do not have to fund public services be found? If we do not have that money, what cuts will be made? That is what the politics of default means. When I hear anybody advocate default, no matter how much I respect him or her, it reinforces my belief that the politics of the centre must hold. Extremism comes with smiling faces at times. That option for the country represents the route back to a history we looked to escape from on the foundation of the State. It is dangerous and it must be challenged.
A similar example is the notion of decreasing corporation tax. Many people want to do this but, leaving aside the political feasibility of doing it, where would the money come from to replace this revenue? How would it be funded? It is not good enough any more in our politics to say what one is against; one has to say what is one for. There is the notion of advocating an economic policy and saying the one thing I will do to make that happen is to reduce funding of semi-State companies. If only it were that easy and the existential crisis gripping the country could be solved with that one fell blow, but it is not as simple as that. A great deceit is being peddled by members of our society that the solution to the crisis is simple and cost free but it is a pity that all our politicians are so venal, stupid or corrupt and cannot recognise that solution. Politics will not be that simple if it is to rescue the country. The politics of default is the clearest example.
I refer to the need to examine the deal with the IMF and the ECB. With regard to the margin being charged for the funds, Professor Karl Whelan stated:
The margin goes back to the EU budget and it is distributed to member states at the end of each financial year. The European Commission does not charge any fees or keep any margin for its own use. It is clear this is something that has to be looked at.
However, it has to be looked at in a centrist and sensible way.
A number of weeks ago a respected Senator compared the way Ireland was treated to the way Germany was treated following the conference of Versailles. Too many politicians from various parties refer to our "European masters". The moment they use language such as this, they are giving space to others who will use it to pursue a sinister agenda.
We have to reclaim the centre; the centre must hold.
I have been privileged to be a Member of this Seanad for the past three years. Regardless of what happens to me in the general election, I will not address or speak in the next Seanad. I will conclude with a plea for the politics of the centre to hold. Just because one has a moderate opinion does not mean one should articulate that opinion without ferocity, conviction and commitment. If that cannot be done in the next Oireachtas, different forces will take over, which would be disastrous for the country. People who have a conviction regarding how the country will rescue itself must speak out with moderation. I do not care who stands up to challenge that. It must be challenged and we must reassert ourselves. That is the challenge facing our system and economic policy in the next few years.
That was an excellent speech.
I wish the Senator well.
I sincerely hope Senator Donohoe is elected to Dáil Éireann because we need voices and leadership like his.
I am sure the people of Dublin Central will, in their wisdom, choose him. I hope they will because the Senator has always contributed a great deal. I was prompted to say that even before he had indicated that he did not intend to return to the House.
Previous speakers, particularly Senator Boyle, repeatedly referred to higher taxation and stated we taxed too little and we spent too much. They are throwing the baby out with the bath water. I am glad to have been present for Senator Donohoe's contribution. In the 1980s, the Government taxed too much and people were crippled. When an appropriate level of taxation is levied, people will pay it and the black economy will be closed off and that is why we have to keep our taxation levels low. The important corollary to this, as Senator Donohoe said, is to control spending. Senator Boyle outlined how spending went out of control when plenty of money was available. One probably makes better decisions when money is tight. I am glad that I am not the only Oireachtas Member, following the demise of the Progressive Democrats, who believes in a low tax economy and who does not think low taxation was the cause of all our problems. It was not the only cause. Of equal significance was that spending was allowed to get out of control.
The insistence of the Government that the Bill should be passed is an act of extraordinary political generosity. There is nothing in it for Fianna Fáil to have tidied up the Bill. Earlier on the Order of Business, Opposition Members attacked Government Members about measures in the Bill. This is only indicative of what will happen on the streets and on doorsteps, which is most unfortunate. That is why I wish Senator Donohoe good luck. He is a man of measure and I admire that about him. He is not an opportunist. The three major political parties know it is important to pass the Bill. Fianna Fáil could have walked away from this and decided that because the party would not be in the next Government, the Opposition parties could sort out this mess.
In one way, I regret that is not the case because it would have required all Members to be honest about what they are offering the people. Fine Gael and the Labour Party were divided on the scale of the adjustment to be made this year with one proposing €6 billion and the other €4.5 billion. However, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance know it is in the country's interest and that of the next Government that the Bill be tidied up. It may be futile to ask Opposition Members to be more measured in their communications with the people.
Senator Alex White referred to the lack of trust and, more than anything, we need hope and honesty. The one way to demonstrate how people can trust politicians is if we engage with them honestly during the election campaign. It will be a difficult campaign, particularly for Fianna Fáil, but that does not mean we all do not have a responsibility to behave in an honourable way because this is about our country. The Minister had a go at Deputy Gilmore for saying he was opposed to everything but he will not reverse one measure if he gets into power. Let us not snipe at each other but let us be honest. If one is not prepared to reverse measures, one should not highlight them. As the Minister said, nobody likes to take money out of people's pockets but it has to be done. We have to curtail spending.
If the feelings Senator Donohoe outlined prevail in Fine Gael, there will be an opportunity for the new leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Martin, to seek a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. He has given a commitment that if he is in opposition in the next Dáil, he will honour the four year plan, which is only right because he has to be coherent. If one is arguing in its favour when implementing it in government, one must surely believe in it when one is in opposition. This provides an opportunity to unite like-minded people who will put the national interest first. I would love to see that. I accept it is probably sacrilege to suggest that to Fianna Fáil members, whatever about the members of Fine Gael. Nonetheless, it is time for change and to do things differently. If the polls are to be believed it would be an interesting election campaign if that option were mooted because Fine Gael would have more of an influence over the next Government if it is in a position to offer opportunities to a smaller Fianna Fáil rather than a larger coalition partner. That is something else we should put into the mix if we wish to be honest about providing the best government for the country. Elections are about electing the best government. Let us keep all the options on the table.
Like other speakers I am disappointed that the regularisation of tax issues for those in civil partnerships has not been resolved. I have faith that it will be done quickly by the next Government.
Senator Boyle in particular objected to section 23. We must be careful about how we treat people. If, in imposing the measure we were going to drive people into bankruptcy, that would not be desirable. We need to think things through. I welcome the fact that an economic impact analysis will be carried out on the measure. We need to consider that because while there is no need for tax incentives on property we must be careful about how we withdraw them. I wish the Bill well. It is an act of extraordinary generosity on the part of the Government. I hope it is rewarded for it.
In the context of Senator Donohoe, I should have said that there are rather unusually two Paschals in the House, both of whom spell their name with a "h".
Obviously they were both Easter babies.
No, as it turns out.
Easter bunnies — the two Paschals. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady.
I agree with Senator O'Malley's assessment. This is a difficult Bill for everyone. In different company I tried in the past weekend to get people to respond to the Opposition position in the Dáil on the Bill. This is nothing to do with party politics. Not one person could understand how parties could say they believe in the national interest that they should facilitate the passage of the Bill through the House but that they would vote against it. I say to my colleagues who will be in government in a short while, that is what they complained about in terms of Fianna Fáil in government in the past two years. Those in Fianna Fáil complained about their own leadership, that it could not communicate what it was about. I could not understand what the Opposition was doing with the Bill in the past week. If I were in charge of the Government I would have done exactly as Senator O'Malley suggested and said, "Okay, take it yourself, guys and let us have an election, point things forward and move them forward." I dislike much about the Bill, but for the record, in case anyone suggests I get off the fence, were I an Independent Member in the Dáil I would have voted for it because I felt we needed the stability even though I did not like the Bill. I would also support all the changes that might be brought to improve it when the new Government is in place. That is what the outgoing Opposition should have been doing. That creates a difficulty.
We need to make another issue clear. My colleague, Senator Harris, said some things, one of which I have been saying for three years. I made a speech in the House prior to the 2007 election in which I suggested that the Government which had managed to reduce the price of houses would lose the following election. There is no question about it. I do not believe for one second that any other party in government would have had any greater handle on the housing market. I will not get into the question of stamp duty prior to the previous election, where people stood on it and what people were asking for. That is the reality. It does not point the finger.
We need to look at what we did. It is proper to allocate blame for mistakes made and that those in political control must take responsibility even if they are not personally accountable. Because they are the political heads, they must take responsibility. They will pay for it at the ballot box. That is the way the system works. It is important to recognise the difference between responsibility and accountability. The person who is accountable, who made the mistake, might be down the line but as a Member on the Government side indicated previously the person at the top who left the person in the job must take responsibility for it. That is the way the system works.
I say, as an independent observer — I will say it when the next Government is in office as well — just because a politician makes an error does not make the person corrupt. In the media it has become almost synonymous that when a person gets something wrong he or she is labelled corrupt. We saw the mistakes that were made. I have outlined them previously. The fact that bankers walked away with billions of euro does not mean that the politicians who made the mistakes which allowed that to happen did it corruptly.
I do not say they were not corrupt, but it does not follow. Perhaps some people were involved in corrupt actions but it is important that we make those distinctions in order to get the honesty we require.
The other point made by my colleague, Senator Harris, is about banking. I accept that the Government must take responsibility and pay the price but I do not believe that if Deputy Kenny were Taoiseach he would have known about the problems in the banks. I would defend him in the same way were the tables turned. Let us go back to the speeches that were made in this House and the other House in 2003 and in the debate on the credit institutions legislation, or to the speeches I made when I fought for director's compliance statements to be made. I could not get anyone in opposition or on the Government side to support me. The only person who supported me was the former Minister, Deputy Harney. She had to concede on the basis of all the pressure that came against her. That was an interesting left and right approach to what is going on in politics.
Senator Harris talked about grandstanding. He is correct. One of the Paschals made a speech — the Paschal from Leitrim, Senator Mooney — and he had great things to say about social partnership. For 15 years I have been insisting in the House that we get answerability in terms of the involvement of both Houses but the party in power refused to do it. I got the support of IBEC and the ICTU in order that anything happening in terms of social partnership would be brought into the House. I got the Leader to agree to set up a committee of the Houses. I secured the same agreement in the Joint Committee on Finance in order that no one could state that something was happening in Government Buildings to which the people did not have access. The reason it was not acceptable to the political classes, in government but particularly in opposition, is because once one sits at the table — those of us who led unions know this — one is sitting with the devil and one is tied into the outcomes as well. That does not suit the political classes either on Government backbenches or in opposition. Nobody likes to accept responsibility. It is easier to stand, shoot and fight about it. Whatever the problems and mistakes made — I will deal with those at another time — in terms of how social partnership worked, the reason for non-political involvement is because the Dáil elects the Taoiseach and the Government and the Government represented both Houses in the process. That did not suit me. I would have preferred if those issues that were being argued in Government Buildings were also being argued in the Seanad but nobody wanted that to happen.
Of the issues that have arisen in the past five to ten years, the biggest ones for me in terms of where we are now, apart from housing and banking to which I referred, have been our approach to broadband and renewable resources. Ten years ago we were leading Europe and in many ways we were global leaders in broadband. Now we have dropped way down the list in terms of accessibility, WiFi and many other ways. The facts are there. I will not go into detail. The other issue relates to renewable resources. We were leading the world in two areas, namely, wave energy and tidal energy. We have been passed out by Scotland, Newfoundland and other places. Here we are with an average wave height off Mayo of 2.5 metres all year long. That is as high as the top of the door in the Chamber. It is there for us to harvest but we are not doing it. It is a classic example of losing a ship for a hapeth of tar because only small money is needed in this case. I recall Senator O'Malley and myself met groups in Mayo who showed us the possibilities five years ago and we brought the matter as far as we could.
I have a suggestion for the new Government. Metro north is not unlike the railways. Accountants carry out an assessment but they know nothing about planning, political need or infrastructure. They only have regard for what comes in and goes out. Metro north would bring long-lasting infrastructure.
One of the great things from the boom has been the infrastructure in this country. Metro north would create 4,000 jobs plus a further 2,000 were it to be put in place. This is the gain which could result from moving the project forward immediately.
Another issue of importance is water-metering. The company with which the State has had the longest relationship is Siemens, which built the Shannon scheme. It made an offer to the Government some six months ago to the effect that it would install water-metering throughout the country. This would represent a saving of more than €1 billion, it would create employment and it would allow money to be charged and gained in the not too distance future. The project would create 7,000 jobs.
If the Minister of State takes nothing else away from this debate, she should note that the Government has been afraid and cowardly in dealing with the gas project in north Mayo. The gas must come ashore as long as it is done legitimately and it passes through all the hoops and the relevant company has jumped through all the hoops bar two. I checked the matter recently and it requires two further permits. The process is stalled because this Government did not introduce a foreshore Act or other legislation which the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security has requested for the past three years. The two necessary permits could be issued before the Government leaves office. All it takes is two ministerial orders. This would directly create a further 1,000 jobs in Mayo from April and a further 1,000 extra jobs. People may question whether I have anything positive to say, but these things could be done. I could take the matter further but I must conclude.
I wish to pick up on some of the issues raised about the public sector and the Croke Park agreement. I was pleased to hear Deputy Eamon Gilmore state yesterday that he would speed up the process and I was pleased to hear Senator Harris make remarks this morning which were not what I normally hear from people who write off the public service. He asked about what is causing the problem. It is the recruitment and management, not of the people but the process. I am aware, as is anyone here, that there has been a great intellectual investment in the Irish public sector and the Civil Service. If we were to make some small changes tomorrow morning, including open competitions for every promoted post, it would be fine. Also, instead of having assistant secretaries rooted and imprisoned in a given Department, there should be a cadre of assistant secretaries which could be moved from one Department to another such that they do not grow up with the culture of people being confined to the Departments of Justice and Law Reform, Health and Children and so on. They should be let out to see what is taking place all around. These changes could be made and people should be able to move in and out of the public sector.
Another point on which I agree with Senator Mooney is that the speed of reform in the public sector under the Croke Park agreement is not good enough. It is moving well and I was pleased to receive a document yesterday — I presume it was circulated to everyone — from the Minister to this effect. This development is significant. I have stated that the deal could save 20,000 jobs and more than €1 billion each year. Will someone tell me what is wrong with that? Why is that not a good deal? There are some opposed to the Croke Park agreement. Different people have stated that it has not been delivered. The Acting Chairman, Senator Mooney, stated it was not delivered on time, and I agree. It must be delivered on time with no messing. The new Government must do this. Any new Government must be able to show us more than €1 billion per year in savings continued.
To date benchmarking has cost the State €1 billion. In his Budget Statement the Minister outlined that what he has taken back from the public sector amounts to €1.8 billion per year, a point acknowledged by Senator Butler earlier. The Croke Park agreement will give a further €1.1 billion according to my calculations, a further €1.2 billion according to the Minister and a further €1.4 billion according to Deputy Eamon Gilmore. Regardless, some €3 billion per year will be going back. The cost of benchmarking is not a real issue when we are discussing the billions of euro in costs associated with this country but it must be discussed and examined.
Senator O'Toole will have the opportunity to expand on his well reasoned arguments on Committee Stage. I trust he will appreciate that time is of the essence. I call Senator Cassidy, Leader of the House.
I wish to share time, with seven minutes for myself and three minutes for Senator Ormonde. I welcome the Minister of State to the House to take this important Bill. The finance Bill is the most important of the year in which we make adjustments.
I have a vested interest but I wish to make a case with regard to capital allowances and section 23 relief. A great many Irish people have invested in the past ten or 15 years for their pension funds. In one way or another, they have made major investments under the capital allowances and section 23 relief. The trust in which the State was held is relevant. Contracts were offered with attractive incentives made by the Governments of the day in good faith. However, I fear that an attempt has been made by the Oireachtas to pass legislation in retrospect. A trust existed in which capital allowances and section 23 relief were offered but the spirit of the arrangement is about to be broken in every shape and form.
There was major investment in the tourism industry, nursing homes and all the other infrastructure needed by the Government at various times. When the investments were made, some 40% of the total was received by the State, whether by way of PAYE, PRSI, income tax or VAT. The State was the first beneficiary of the investment. It continued to be the beneficiary as a result of the great number of people employed.
There are 200,000 people directly employed in the leisure industry. Eamonn McKeown, chairman of the Irish Tourism Industry Federation, expressed a hope to recoup 20,000 jobs in the near future if everything continues as it does. We are all aware the industry has gone back to 1997 prices. This has been detrimental to the industry. I welcome that an impact analysis will be carried out in this area but I do not believe anything is to be gained in any shape or form or with regard to monetary policy by the proposed changes.
Can I have the attention of the Acting Chairman while I am addressing the Chair, please? This is unacceptable. I seldom address the House.
I am unsure whether the income sought by the Government is attainable. Many of the establishments in question will finish up in NAMA. As we are all aware, the State is doing its best to facilitate and help every sector that provides, maintains and sustains jobs. The level of income is not in place and it has fallen by in excess of 50%. The projections of investments made in the major years of 2005, 2006 and 2007 do not add up. The State has carried out great investment and has received a figure of 40% into the Exchequer from a sector that continues to employ high numbers. The State is receiving PAYE, PRSI, income tax and VAT on a month-by-month basis. I call on the incoming Government and Minister to examine the matter and to support those who create and sustain jobs and employment.
The position with section 23 is the same. Tens of thousands of families decided to have their own pension funds or to provide for their children's education through purchasing a second house by availing of the section 23 relief. I have never had so many representations on a budget measure as I have had with the proposed removal of this relief. Will the Minister allow time for the economy to recover and an opportunity for these families to plan alternatives before removing the relief? Will he assign a cut-off date for its removal such as 2018?
While I accept no new schemes will be permitted under this finance Bill, it is unfair to break the trust people had in investing their money in existing ones. It would be dishonest of any Government to break the trust of a contract. Who would believe in any new governmental scheme if one has already been broken? In the past, when it was difficult to borrow money, people invested in Government and ESB bonds which allowed them to put away five or ten shillings a week. I recall administering those investment bonds and their returns on behalf of the hard-working decent people of north Westmeath after taking it over from my parliamentary predecessor of 38 years.
Multinational corporations came to Ireland, making it the number one country in the world for inward investment, not just to avail of the 12.5% corporation tax rate but also because of the protections offered to intellectual property rights which the Acting Chairman, Senator Mooney, knows better than others. However, under some changes to the area, if artists, be it U2 or The Cranberries, release an album for Christmas, up to 60% of the royalties will no longer go back to the innovator, creator, the band or the record company. I know the Acting Chairman, Senator Mooney, is aware of this problem as he has a very talented family in this regard. Whatever success Irish artists can have worldwide, Ireland's royalty system is now the same as it is across the rest of the world.
There is a concern that no investors will come into the music business if intellectual copyright is not protected. We must amend the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000, which gave us the advantage and made us world leaders in this field and which the Acting Chairman played an important part in framing, to address this concern. Will the incoming Government make this a priority? I understand the Attorney General's decision on copyright is back with the Department and the Minister has promised the industry that Ireland will become a world leader in intellectual property rights again.
This was the most unusual week I ever experienced in the Oireachtas. The finance Bill has been brought forward in an unusual set of political circumstances. The proposal to accelerate its passage to facilitate an earlier general election means some amendments, such as those concerning civil partnership, will not be made. However, they will be addressed later in the year which is welcome.
I welcome the amendment concerning the new universal social charge that will mean medical cardholders will pay a rate of 4% rather than the 7% rate announced in the Budget Statement. The Minister is correct that everyone must pay according to their means. That 45% of income earners pay no tax is not a sustainable policy.
I too have received many representations regarding the removal of section 23 relief. I am glad the Minister has decided to postpone its removal and ordered an economic impact assessment of such a move. This relief was not just about big developers. Many, such as teachers, doctors, gardaí and ordinary everyday people, who had a lump sum often invested it in properties for rental purposes or as a partnership in a nursing home or medical centre while availing of the relief. It was established in a spirit of trust. Removing it would have a huge impact on employment. I am glad the Minister has seen fit to postpone its removal.
In the next few weeks during the election campaign, I hope every party will get a fair and balanced hearing from the media. I hope in interviews a Government representative will not be drowned out by the three representatives from the Opposition. Let the media take stock of what I have said and be fair in the forthcoming election campaign. We all have much to say about election issues and have a fair assessment of them. Let the best man win on the night.
The finance Bill represents the final act of a discredited and inept Government. The Labour Party will vote against the Bill because it may cut too much and, accordingly, endanger any potential economic recovery.
I noted the comments of some of the so-called Independent benches such as Senator O'Toole who wondered whether there was an element of opportunism in the Opposition's behaviour regarding the finance Bill. It must be made clear why we are facing into a general election. The Labour Party had a no confidence motion on the Dáil Order Paper which should have been heard this week. However, the Green Party would not support it. Accordingly, the options were that we could have waited three weeks to pass the finance Bill and then gone to the country. Alternatively, we could have facilitated its passage sooner than that and go to country as soon as possible. If Senator O'Toole had come out with me to canvass in the past months, he would have heard one message from everyone – they want rid of this Government as soon as possible. I have no doubts that we have done the right thing.
If the Labour Party is elected to government, it will make amendments to the finance Bill to include measures such as those referred to by Senator Ormonde. That will happen a short number of months after the general election.
The Bill before the House is one of the harshest of its kind introduced since the foundation of the State. The need for it has arisen as a result of the failure of the economy. Fianna Fáil, previously the main party and now the only party in government, is mostly to blame for this. I accept that external issues such as the collapse in the global economy have not helped our cause. However, the ineptitude of the Government in dealing with economic matters and bank regulation was, in large part, responsible for causing the current economic crisis. Its failure to rein in the banks and its expansion of the property bubble were major factors in the development of the mess in which we find ourselves.
Up to two years ago, the Leader, Senator Cassidy, was still talking up the property market when everyone in the House knew that this was the wrong thing to do. On the Order of Business on Thursday, 10 April 2008 he stated, "We have a duty to tell first-time house buyers, young couples with no previous experience, that there is unbelievable value in the marketplace today." He went on to say, "I will remind the House, perhaps in 12 or 18 months, when prices have again increased by 25% or 30%, that they were told this by the Leader of the House." I have heard nothing from him with regard to the property bubble in the two and a half years since he made this pronouncement. The end result of the collapse of the property bubble and of the ineptitude shown by the Government is reflected in the measures contained in the Finance Bill 2011.
Meath, where I reside, is one of the counties that has been hardest hit as a result of the Government's policies. I encountered many people in recent weeks who informed me, in anguish, with regard to the situations they and their families find themselves in as a result of tax increases, the introduction of the universal social charge and the reduction in the minimum wage. The way the universal social charge is being applied is particularly hard on the poor and the vulnerable. In effect, the latter are being made to pay for the Government's errors. The reduction in pensioners' incomes is causing hardship, as are the reductions affecting those on low incomes. Unfortunately, it appears that those who are least well off are being asked to bear the brunt of the Government's failure in respect of matters of an economic nature.
The self-employed are also finding it difficult to cope. Those who are self-employed are finding it particularly difficult to access any sort of payments through the PRSI system. This is a matter to which consideration must be given. The end result of that to which I refer is that many people are either being made unemployed or are emigrating. There was emigration in this country in the 1950s and in the 1980s, when I was obliged to leave the country. Many individuals are currently leaving these shores and heading elsewhere. This morning I spoke to a man who dropped his son, who was heading to Australia, to Dublin Airport. Members can imagine the heartache being felt by those in that man's house. This is just one of numerous families who are saying goodbye to our best and brightest. Those who should be assisting us in recovering from the current crisis are leaving these shores in order to work elsewhere throughout the globe.
The universal social charge is hurting those with young families and also single-income families. The imposition of this charge and the reductions in child benefit mean that those to whom I refer are finding it extremely difficult to survive. A few hours ago I was contacted by a resident from north Meath who is concerned about the position with regard to rent supplement. In effect, the Government has increased the number of people in receipt of this supplement who are obliged to pay extra money to their landlords. Simultaneously, it reduced the other benefits these people receive. I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate how he can possibly defend his actions in this regard.
I am an optimist and prefer not to dwell on the past. It is important to understand how we got to where we are but I do not wish to dwell on the matter. I want to look to the future. I am of the view that we will emerge from this crisis. However, it will take us a number of years to do so. Developments in the global economy will be responsible for our emerging from the current crisis, particularly in view of the fact that Ireland is a small economy. What is happening globally creates cause for optimism. The rising tide of the global economy will mean that there will be greater demand for our exports. In addition, increasing numbers of tourists from traditional markets such as the UK and the US will visit our shores.
I expect to see more companies from overseas seeking investment opportunities in Ireland. The important thing is that when those opportunities arise, we should be ready for them. We must ensure that our workforce is retrained and well educated. In addition, the Government must introduce measures which will ensure that Ireland is an attractive destination for potential investors. However, there is a great deal we can do ourselves.
One of the key issues that arises for small businesses in particular is access to credit. I have spoken to representatives from many businesses which have reasonably healthy order books. However, one of the major problems they face is obtaining access to credit to allow them to pay for labour, plant, materials, etc. One of the Labour Party's proposals in this regard relates to the establishment of a strategic investment bank — rather like the Industrial Credit Corporation or the Agricultural Credit Corporation of old — which would focus on providing credit facilities for small and start-up enterprises in order to ensure that they have access to the capital they require in order to establish and grow businesses and also to hire employees. The result of this type of activity would be the generation of further economic wealth. There are changes relating to PRSI which we would like to be introduced in order that employers might take on additional staff. If given the opportunity, these are matters to which we will be giving consideration in the coming months.
The Labour Party believes that Ireland will emerge from the desperate difficulties in which it finds itself. However, it will not be easy. None of the political parties has a magic wand to wave in respect of this matter. A representative from one of the minor parties took part in a programme on my local radio station, LMFM, and it was clear to the listeners that said party has no real understanding of the difficulties the country faces.
I know it is not the Green Party to which Senator Hannigan is referring.
The Senator is correct. I take the opportunity to wish Senator Dearey well in his endeavours in the coming weeks. The Senator has been a tremendous contributor to the House since his election. I would be pleased to see him return in some way, shape or form to either of the Houses.
As stated, I am an optimist and believe we will emerge from the current crisis. Like the other parties, the Labour Party does not possess a magic wand. The main thing we must do now is focus on what type of society we want to have when we reach the end of the journey we are currently on. It would be easy to leave many people behind by reducing their incomes and their entitlements. That is not the type of society my party wants to see develop. We want an inclusive society and we will be putting forward in our manifesto — which will be published in the next ten days — a range of measures to address the crisis the country faces.
One key matter to which consideration must be given is how the political system operates. Every arm of State requires reform. As a result, the Labour Party will be proposing a series of measures relating to how the Houses and the committee system operate, the responsibilities of Ministers and transparency in respect of Government. We will also be putting forward proposals on anti-corruption legislation and also laws in respect of whistleblowing and lobbyists. Measures of this nature will be vital in the context of restoring faith in the system. People have no faith in any of the parties and are of the view that each of us is tarred with the same brush. Citizens want reforms to be introduced not just in respect of how the banks do business but also with regard to how the Houses operate.
There are many difficult measures within the budget introduced in December with which the Labour Party does not agree. For that reason, we will be voting against the finance Bill.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Bille tábhachtach atá á phlé againn. The finance Bill is one of the most important items of legislation debated by the Houses each year. Recent events — I refer to the political shenanigans that occurred during the past week or so — appear to indicate that the Bill has been relegated to a position of minor importance. It is extraordinary that people who would argue strongly for time to be allowed between the Stages of a fairly minor Bill would seek to accelerate the finance Bill through the House. I acknowledge that the Labour Party and Fine Gael have facilitated the passage of the Bill. It is for them to explain the contradiction between, on the one hand, facilitating it and, on the other, voting against it. It is like having one's cake and eating it. This attitude is regrettable at a time when the political system has come under the microscope.
Some of the difficulties we are facing are the consequence of increased public expenditure during the good times. The Opposition criticised the Government for not increasing expenditure even further. All of us should apologise for practising the politics of soundbites and populism. I apologised in this House for any part I may have played while I was here during the good times. I am pleased the new leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Martin, has also given a public apology. The political system needs to be thoroughly examined. It is too easy to demand that the Seanad be abolished. That is a one line sound bite when we need to examine the entire system, starting from local government.
I join Senator Harris and others in commending the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, on his contribution and the manner in which he has conducted himself in response to the most serious fiscal and economic challenges this State has faced. I recall attending a meeting in July 2008 at which the former CEO of the Bank of Ireland, Michael Soden, expressed his concerns for the financial system. He described the precipice on which we were standing as being similar to that which led to the great depression of the 1930s. That was the first time I realised the seriousness of our situation and I approached the Minister about it. The Minister has consulted Mr. Soden and a number of other people in order to get an understanding of the problem and the potential solutions.
Between 2000 and 2008, public spending increased by 140% compared to a 35% increase in the consumer price index, CPI. Sadly, if we had increased spending at the same rate as the adjustments to the CPI our expenditure would match current revenue. In other words, we would be close to a balanced budget. On a recent visit to Switzerland I learned that country's constitution prohibits its Government from bringing a deficit budget before Parliament. Perhaps we should consider that type of discipline for our system.
In regard to social welfare changes, it was decided to maintain the State pension at its current level. We should have done the same in respect of the widow's pension. I have made this argument in years gone by to Charlie McCreevy and subsequent Ministers for Finance because I have personal experience of being raised by a widowed mother from the age of five. I understand the difficulties that people in such circumstances face. I would like to think the Department of Finance will at some stage bring the widow's pension in line with the old age pension. However, we should also recognise that social welfare benefits have increased by 117% since 1997, compared to a 40% increase in the CPI. Fianna Fáil led Governments during this period also brought significant reductions in taxation levels, the widening of bands and the removal of many people on low incomes from the tax net. Our policy was to ensure the benefits of the Celtic tiger were distributed to those who had not been benefitting. While these decisions must be acknowledged in hindsight as unsustainable errors, the motivation was justifiable and the other parties would have introduced similar measures.
I will briefly address the bank guarantee in light of the significant expenditure required to pay the interest on our debt. Shareholders and subordinated bondholders were burned during this period. Those who would argue the Government was wrong to provide the guarantee should indicate whether they would have deprived domestic and international depositors of their deposits by allowing the banks to fail. That would have been the result if we had not introduced the guarantee.
With regard to senior bondholders, I met two leading international economists in the past three months. The first was Roberto Newell, a former consultant for McKinsey & Company. He was adamant that allowing the banks to fail was not an option because it would have led to catastrophic results. During his time with McKinsey & Company, he was involved in the financial crises in Peru, Ecuador and Argentina. The only loan Argentina was able to get since it defaulted in 2001 was from Venezuela and the interest rate on it was 11%. The second economist I had the opportunity to meet was Dr. Nouriel Roubini, with whom several of my colleagues and I had dinner in December. Dr. Roubini is a leading US economist and is regarded as one of the top 100 intellectuals in the world. He explained that a sovereign debt default is an illusory proposition. In regard to senior bondholders, he advised us to act in a co-ordinated manner within the framework of the European Union. He argued that the debt could be restructured by extending it over a longer period and by making a significant reduction in the coupon being paid. Everybody recognises that the interest on the EU-IMF loan facility is too high. The facility itself has been positive for this country in giving us certainty about our ability to meet the ongoing costs of the State and allowing us time before returning to the markets. Any reduction in the interest rate must be done by agreement but we must keep up the pressure if the rate is to be set at a more acceptable level.
I have outlined my views on numerous occasions regarding the macro-economic choices between tax increases and public spending. Fianna Fáil has opted for a 2:1 ratio of cuts to tax increases, Fine Gael chose 3:1 and the Labour Party would prefer a 1:1 ratio, which would increase taxes to an unsustainable level and adversely affect the economy. Personally I concur with the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who today told the World Economic Forum his Government is applying a ratio of 3:1.
In 2002 I advised the then Minister for Finance to introduce a war on waste campaign. Waste is endemic in most big organisations, particularly within the public service. Value for money is not being achieved in the public service and greater discipline and controls on spending are needed. The Croke Park agreement is progressing at a pedantic rate and it is probably too late. Productivity improvements, modernised work practices, efficiencies and cost effectiveness and better quality of management are urgently required.
Pay levels within the public and private sectors are too high. Supreme Court judges get €100,000 per year more than their counterparts in the United States. Our university professors are paid 50% more than their counterparts in Britain for lecturing 16 hours per week. In fact, most of them in the economics departments have been operating throughout this period as freelance commentators on all television and radio channels and, presumably, getting paid for it. However, if the quality of what they are expounding is similar to the quality of their teaching, I would be concerned for future generations of economists in this country.
Hospital consultants here are paid 50% more than those in Britain. This is unsustainable. I have also mentioned the tribunals and legal costs many times. I hope these issues will be tackled as a result of pressure from the IMF and the European Union.
How are we paying for all of this? We are increasing the level of income tax. The marginal rate is 41%, while the rate of PRSI is 4%, all of which comes from the productive sectors of the economy. The universal social charge at 7% is not tax deductible. If one calculates the tax payable, one arrives at an effective universal social charge of 12.73%, which is very high. I accept that in the current fiscal climate the Government does not have an alternative but to try to bridge the gap. My criticism is that we need to apply the scalpel far more enthusiastically to public expenditure. That must be done as a matter of urgency. If not, we will be in further difficulty.
With regard to capital acquisitions tax, the threshold is being reduced by 20%. There are also changes in stamp duty on residential property. We must be careful in capital taxation that we do not create a disincentive for investors similar to income tax creating a disincentive to work. With regard to approved retirement funds, I note that PRSI will be reduced by 50% and that the annual distribution is moving from 3% to 5%.
I am concerned about some of the taxation measures in the pensions area. Only 50% of people pay into a pension scheme. As we have an ageing population, the demands and challenges will be huge in the future. We must take another look at how we tackle this issue and it must be done in a co-ordinated and cohesive way.
I concur with what has been said about section 23 relief. People acted on the basis of commitments from the Government and there should not be changes in the middle of the game. Investors are facing substantial capital losses and many of them are heavily leveraged.
I will conclude on a positive note. A recent economic report found that the GDP ratioper capita in Ireland in 2009 was ahead of that in Britain, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Sweden and the USA. Only Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and Luxembourg had a higher GDP ratio per capita. The world economy is projected to grow by 3.1%, the US economy by 2.4%, the euro area economy by 1.4% and the Chinese economy by 9%. The Irish economy is at least twice as open as that of any other country; therefore, these global positive projections will have a beneficial effect. It is not without risk, but the news emanating is good. Ireland’s export growth figure is also good, but we need to restore confidence for consumers and investors.
However, there is also negativity. Contrast the remark of the man who hopes to be Tánaiste who said the economy was an economic corpse and the statement of the next Minister for Finance, Deputy Joan Burton, that the country was banjaxed with the positive and constructive approach being taken by the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan. It is time for people to take stock, not to vote on what happened in 2007 but to look to the next five years, at where we are going, how we will extricate ourselves from these difficulties and who is best equipped and determined to do it.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak to the finance Bill, probably the final legislative measure of this Oireachtas. It is important for the country, economy and the people that the Bill is brought to a conclusion.
I take on board what Senator Walsh said about Opposition parties seeking and facilitating a debate on the Bill but not supporting it; however, when the politics of the argument and this House are removed, let us hope the Bill, when passed, will provide a building or foundation block for the recovery of the country. Sometimes a person is given foundations which he or she would have built differently, but the next Government will start with the building block provided by this Bill. I hope it will start its five year term with the the heavy lifting with regard to restraint in public expenditure and the €6 billion adjustment having been made. This is necessary for the preservation of the economy.
My party leader and finance spokesperson are in Brussels today for discussions with President Barroso. It is important that anybody making the case for Ireland, be he or she on the Opposition or Government benches, can present a picture of a political system in this country that is mature, realistic and ready to take the necessary steps to turn the economy around. The passing of the Bill, notwithstanding that many Members have differences on individual sections and different perspectives, is absolutely necessary in order that the economy and politics can be rebuilt and grow.
There will be a general election campaign in the near future. The news of the imminent general election was made known when we were in the House last week. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Mansergh, was present. The few Members in the House at the time offered the view that they hoped the people and the political parties would engage in a constructive, detailed analysis of the steps which needed to be taken by the next Government. Due to the current economic circumstances we are in a very strange place politically. The people are despairing, worried and devoid of hope. There is an enormous responsibility on the political parties, as they engage with each other in the next few weeks, to paint a clear, sharp and concise picture of how we wish to take the country forward and the steps we will take.
It is a good and necessary part of democracy that there be constructive and robust debate between the parties, but I hope it will be about the future. We have learned the tragic lessons of history and, as I have been saying for the past 18 months, I believe the public has made up its mind about the Government. There is no need for the Opposition parties to focus on this. We must tell the public what we will do and outline the necessary steps we will take. I am looking forward to an engaging, constructive election campaign in which the issues will be discussed. It must be, as part of turning the economy around, an election in which the issues will be debated with courage, truth and honesty because we are where we are, both economically and politically, as a result of a lack of courage, truth and honesty in politics.
The reform that is necessary for our society and political system must have courage, truth, respect and honesty at its core. The word one constantly hears on the doorsteps is "reform". The public does not just want to change the Government, it also wants to see the political system change. It wants to see the way these Houses do their work changed. It wants change in how we engage with the public service and how the public service responds to politicians and the public. Reform should be at the core of any recovery programme and that reform must take place throughout the system. Obviously, it must start in the political system. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach — perhaps future Cathaoirleach — knows, my party is proposing a reform in politics which might see this House abolished, but the public will make the decision on this. However, the political system certainly must be reformed.
I might be drifting somewhat from the Bill, but every decision taken politically impacts on the finances and economy of the country. I should point out for the umpteenth time that while we continue with our current electoral system, we make it almost impossible for the Government and political parties to make the decisions that are necessary for the country. I hope that during the campaign and beyond the political parties will begin seriously to address the issue of electoral reform in order that at election time the electorate will decide to elect governments standing on policy platforms, not 166 individuals because of medical card forms filled in, potholes fixed and favours apparently granted. We need a new mature politics and we need a new electoral system. Hopefully that will provide for a very engaging debate over the course of the next Oireachtas and will be at the top of the next Government's agenda.
I listened an hour ago to Senator Donohoe. He made a very profound speech along the terms of what he called the political centre. It is something that needs reflection. Our economy and society can only be stabilised with a strong building block or foundation in the centre. We will hear in the next few weeks the usual loud but useless slogans, such as "tax the rich", "burn the bondholders" and so on. That grabs headlines, but it does not solve problems. Do the people who want to impose those views and solutions on us not recall that the system which they aspire to bring to this country existed across one third of the Continent for almost 50 years on the other side of the Berlin Wall? It resulted in the ruination of nations and peoples. Those people have a simplistic analysis in favour of a high tax, high spend, anti-enterprise and anti-profit system. That is the ultimate failed system, and we must not allow it to gain a foothold in this country.
The parties of the centre, none more so that Fine Gael, a Christian democratic party, must continue to promote enterprise, business, job creation, low taxes and careful public spending. That is the key to turning around this economy. Taxes must be as low as possible. We must lift the burden on those who want to create work, make it easier for people to take up work and to move from welfare to work and remove some of the blockages in the current social welfare system that are providing a disincentive to job creation. That must be examined veryseriously.
I listened with interest to cases made by some of my colleagues in respect of tax reliefs and tax incentives. In the aftermath of the budget, we were all contacted by concerned citizens in respect of section 23 and other reliefs. I do not have any property that enjoys those tax reliefs, but the loud, generally left-wing campaign against tax reliefs is a bit like that phrase fromAnimal Farm which claimed “Four legs good, two legs bad”. We have decided that every tax relief is somehow immoral, ineffective and bad politics and economics. Much of our infrastructure would not have been provided without tax reliefs; therefore, we must tread carefully as we begin to dismantle them. The era of reintroducing tax reliefs has probably passed, but some people entered into projects four or five years ago with a guarantee of a tax relief for a certain number of years. We have to be very careful about removing those tax reliefs.
As a nation, we face an election of profound importance. This is not just about changing Government and one party going to the other side. That has happened over the course of our history. We face a profound choice of what type of society we wish to build and what level of responsibility politicians wish to take on our shoulders. There is a need to share the burden and the pain which the public are feeling every day of the week. There is a need for the political parties to take on that burden and responsibility and to provide the hope that is so desperately lacking. I have every confidence in this country, which recovered from the War of Independence and the Civil War. It survived the efforts of the Provisional IRA and their political bedfellows to dismantle society in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. A country that has come through all that can come through our current economic crisis. It needs serious leadership, rather than soundbite leadership, with deep analytical thought.
This must begin with a general election campaign. We are advised that is being called next Tuesday. I do not speak on behalf of the Fine Gael Party, but I hope the Taoiseach, in deciding the date for a general election, will allow the maximum amount of time for the campaign in order that candidates can take their message to the people and so politicians can listen to the public. It is too important to turn this into a two or three week sprint. We need a serious election campaign so Ireland can decide in a mature fashion. I have every confidence in my party and in its policy platform, on which we have been working for a few years. Our document, Reinventing Government, will be shown by history to be the most profound political piece of work in the past generation. I look forward to that debate.
I offer my best wishes to colleagues who are facing a general election. Regardless of what side they are on, I know how difficult the campaign will be. I am sorry for meandering far beyond the confines of the Finance Bill 2011, but it is important we present the Bill in the broader context of the huge political challenge and choice that faces the people.
I would like to share two minutes with Senator Ó Brolcháin.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I cannot recall a time when the permeability between the political process and the state of the economy has been greater. They are causing each other to flux in a way that none of us can recall and have created a level of instability that needs to be addressed and remedied. On one level, it is futile to spend too much time looking back, but it is necessary to acknowledge that behind the economic collapse that we have suffered lay a series of political decisions and a political process that just was not up to the task.
My colleague, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has stated a few times that this was the first time Ireland ever got rich. Maybe there was always going to be an inevitable splurge. Most of us remember when we got our first year's full employment or our first pay packets when we were much younger than we are today. There is some truth to what Deputy Ryan said. Joining the euro and the unprecedented access that gave us to money beyond measure, as far as some of our banks were concerned, and as far as some of the banks that lent to us were concerned, meant that without the proper regulation and oversight in place, there was always the danger that something like this could happen, and indeed it has. It is a dreadful shame that this was the case. Instead of realising that with great opportunity comes great danger, we only saw the opportunity and completely ignored the dangers.
One of the reasons I am in the Green Party is due to the analysis we produced in that period. We could see quite clearly that the planning process was completely unable to deal with the amount of cheap credit that was available in the country. This in turn triggered much unneeded development, under the weight of which the planning process simply collapsed and left us with inappropriate, unneeded and in some cases, useless development on the edge of many of our villages and towns and large parts of the inner urban area of Dublin.
Senator Donohoe's contribution was stirring. It certainly touched a deep chord in me when he spoke about the value and the place of moderation in politics. I am sometimes accused by those who support me from the left of being a raving capitalist because I run a business, and I sometimes get accused by those on the right who look at our position on issues such as section 23 of being a "lefty". This leads me to the conclusion that I am probably somewhere in between, and that is a space I am happy to occupy. If cherry picking the best of the ideas from both sides is what the Green Party does, marrying it to the notion of trying to develop an economy within the limits of the planet's ability to sustain us all, then that is an important function to develop analysis and politics in that space on behalf of the country and in a way that influences the wider political process.
I was struck by some of the comments made today about the easy sloganeering accompanying some parties' political analysis. I would identify Sinn Féin, in particular, as being guilty of this. At times it is comic book stuff. We are aware of the impact of such doctrinaire thinking in my part of the world during the Troubles and the vacuum left when rational economic thinking did not take place and instead people came to rely on the block grant from the United Kingdom which insulated people from political reality and the fact that Ireland had to survive as a small, open economy in a fiercely competitive world, that we could not spend money we did not have and that we could not continue to tax less and spend more. That is not possible in a country that must rely on its own resources to generate wealth. Unless Mr. Adams, in particular, is aware of an oil well in Ireland of which I am not aware, none of what he is saying makes sense and must be consigned to the bin.
The Bill, effectively, constitutes our attempt to meet the demands of year one of the four year recovery plan. That demand is to reduce by €6 billion the deficit which is currently running at approximately €18 billion. We must eliminate the deficit in diminishing numbers this year, next year and the following two years.
The EU-IMF document states:
The National Recovery Plan lays out our strategy for staying the course of needed reform in a way that is socially fair ... Recognising that Ireland already has put in place a business friendly environment, our plan also lays out a range of structural reforms that will be implemented to underpin economic stability and enhanced growth and job creation.
The question is: how fair is it?
Senator Hannigan talked at length about the reason we had to protect spending on social welfare, in particular, and the way cuts were affecting his constituents, as they are mine. Like him, I am getting it on the doorstep on a daily basis, but he and the Labour Party generally must recognise that its proposals would require higher levels of taxation. I am not necessarily saying that would be a bad thing, but it would have to be done with extreme caution, particularly because of the dampening effect it could have on wealth creation. There is a balance to be struck in that regard.
We have one idea to which Senator Boyle referred. I understand the Minister, Deputy Lenihan, saw merit in it, but the Department of Finance did not, which is most regrettable and says a great deal about the relationship between the public service and elected representatives and Ministers, in particular. It is that tax credits to which all of us are entitled be refundable if we cannot avail of them on earned income. Such a measure would have immediately generated a strong signal of equity to which people could have related in their suffering. It is a measure I would dearly love to see in the Bill and I regret it has not been included. Having a refundable tax credit, even if it was only worth, say, €100 in the first year, would cost between €40 million and €50 million. Bearing in mind that it was possible to achieve a switch yesterday at a cost of €80 million, such a strong signal could have set us on course towards a properly integrated tax and welfare system, whereby all income, including welfare payments, would be taken into account. It would get rid of the barriers between work and unemployment and also mean the low paid, the working poor, as they are often described, would be able to cash in unused tax credits. That would have been a tremendous signal to send and I regret it did not happen.
Other amendments I would like to see made to the Bill which I understand are not possible, in part because of our decision last Sunday not to continue in government, to address some of the enterprise issues raised include the following recommendations in the innovation task force report. It states we need to re-evaluate whether our tax offering to mobile, intellectual property, IP, intensive businesses is attractive enough and develop what it calls an innovation box that the rest of the world can see clearly makes Ireland a home for high value IP activity.
There are a number of opportunities I would like to see taken at the level of small and medium businesses, if the debate on the Bill could allow for it, encompassing the alignment of accounting and taxation treatment of deductible expenses; the allowing of the same capital allowances for corporations, sole traders and partnerships; and the bringing of the current system of capital asset depreciation into line with the actual lifetime of these assets. These would be small but significant measures that would affect businesses at the margins which I hope will be considered in the Finance (No. 2) Bill later in the year and regarded as being practical and implementable by the new Government.
I welcome the Bill. Its presentation has been a key issue for my party, as Senator Dearey rightly pointed out. We considered it was crucial for us to stay in government to ensure its safe passage because it was our belief that if we did not do so, it would cost the country a great deal of money. There are myriad reasons that would happen in terms of business confidence and our ability to negotiate interest rates which we hope will be lower than the existing interest rates negotiated with the IMF. A swift passage of the Bill is of crucial importance to the country's national recovery.
As I have only two minutes, I will address a particular issue. I was disappointed to hear the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, having a side-swipe at the Green Party because of the fact that the civil partnership provisions were not going through as quickly as they should have, but it was our expectation they would be included in the Bill. We have talked to other parties to ensure the Finance (No. 2) Bill which will be published later in the year will include the necessary provisions. I find it regrettable that the Minister has tried to suggest the Green Party has held them up because that is not the case. I was proud, as were many Senators in this Chamber from all parties, including many Fianna Fáil Members, when the Civil Partnership Bill passed through this House. It received one of the highest number of votes in this House. Unfortunately, four Senators opposed it, most of whom were from the Minister's party. Therefore, if anybody is responsible for holding back the provisions, it is the Minister's party. We want to see the civil partnership provisions going through the House at the earliest possible opportunity.
Overall, it is important that we conclude this business as quickly as possible. That will allow us to get on with the general election and restore stability to the country.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Pat Carey, to what is probably his last appearance in either House of the Oireachtas. I am sad about the way this Parliament has disintegrated. I do not believe any party or individual has covered itself, himself or herself with glory. There is no question that every one of them was jockeying for position to gain political electoral advantage. The Green Party probably came out of it the cleanest but a fat lot of good that will do it. That is the problem. I agree with Senator Donohoe. We need from our politicians standards in public life, as well as honesty, decency and directness. We do not always get them, but there are people within all parties who provide them.
I listened to my colleague speak of moderation. There is a place for moderation but we need to know the temper of the times. Coming back from having been abroad for one day because the Seanad did not sit and I had an urgent appointment somewhere else, I was looking at things and thinking about it. It made me think of 1848 because this is not just in Ireland. We are foolish if we think we are culpable, that, as one of the columnists stated, we have been caught with our pants down and no other country has. We all are in it. Every Government across Europe is out of touch totally with the feelings of its people and their fury that they are being made pay for the crimes of treachery against the people by the large financial institutions and the golden circle. I refer not to the piddling little golden circle that is in operation in Ireland but to that right across Europe.
I must say with great sadness that I always have had a regard for the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan. As a Minister, he has behaved with integrity and courage in confronting difficult problems, both in his personal life with regard to his health and also with regard to the economy. However, I remember stating in this House that I did not agree with the approach taken by the Government. I voted against the bank guarantee. I came up three months before NAMA with an idea that was not entirely unlike NAMA and I warned that the Government was doing it backwards and was getting it wrong. What I was saying and doing throughout that period of approximately a year was noted by a remarkable man of whom I had never heard previously, Mr. Peter Mathews. He stated that the broad outline of what I was saying was correct, he was on the same line as myself and he wanted to supply me with the figures. Thanks to Mr. Mathews, I have the figures accurately predicted in advance and, tragically, every one of them is correct.
I remember standing here and telling the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, that I believed he was wrong. I took a completely different point of view, my analysis was done and I had been supplied with figures which appeared to show that clearly, but I hoped I was wrong and he was right. Sadly, I was right and he was wrong. This has created a difficult situation.
Some may think it is futile for this House to meet after the Bill has been passed by the other House. I heard a distinguished former Member of this House, who is now a member of the Opposition and who, I think, is shortly to be a member of Government, state in the Dáil that as far as he knew no amendments had ever been accepted, that we are not allowed make them. That is true to a certain extent. We are precluded by the Constitution. It is a particularly stupid provision because we could not make a bigger bags of it than those in the other House no matter how hard we tried. However, there are provisions called recommendations. I had three and a half pages that I wrote included in the finance Bill at the time by the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, as a result of recommendations in this House. Let no one say that Seanad Éireann has never played a role. Admittedly, it was not a world-shaking provision. It was providing grant aid to the areas of the north inner city in Dublin. Perhaps it was parochial, but at least it showed that something could be done.
I listened with great respect to some of my colleagues. Senator O'Toole spoke about alternative energies or, as I would call them, natural energies, such as wind and wave energy. I would not be quite as despairing. I note there is tremendous innovation. I brought representatives of Wavebob to the House for consultation. It is a sophisticated engineering design challenge because of the number of variables involved in the movement of waves, but Wavebob appears to have solved that and to have a prototype. I very much hope we will be to the forefront on this.
I also agree with Senator O'Toole on the metro. Of course, I would. Why would I not? It was I who amended the Dublin transport Bill 15 years ago in a situation where the Government changed without an election which meant that the Independent Senators on the university panel held the balance of power. We argued hammer and tongs, time after time in the House, and Senator Quinn provided really strong support. Of course, I think the metro is important, despite the consistent and rather obscurely reasoned opposition by Mr. Frank McDonald inThe Irish Times. I note with satisfaction that the professional assessor, in an independent assessment of this project, has stated it is a good thing because one must justify these matters economically if they are to be taken on board, especially in this difficult situation.
Section 23 relief has been mentioned. I am one of those who would pick and mix. If an idea is good on one side or another, it does not matter. I have been called a communist, a fascist, and this and that. I do not care. What we need is to think of the good of the people and implement whatever is in their interests. I also have been lobbied about section 23 relief. A person on the other side of the House stated they had received innumerable letters from lobbyists. I received only one, but it was very well argued. There is a case that small investors may have been unfairly caught in this and it is worth looking at that. I say this as no friend of any golden circle.
We need an entire review. For example, we need the position of the student body to be clearly determined. I have spoken on this rubbish about free fees on many occasions. I will not revisit it in any great detail, but the most vulnerable should have access, if they are properly qualified, to the educational system. I have told the students time and again that it all revolves around ensuring the means test is as high as possible.
I would make one practical suggestion in that regard. Let the incoming Government employ a person or group to conduct a survey and come up with a universal means test which could be included in the tax return and would be recorded in the computer in order that, at the push of a button, one would know where an individual stood. It is not beyond the capacity or the wit of man to devise such a means test in order that there would be a universal reading for every citizen showing where he or she stood. It is idiotic that every Department conducts its own. How stupid can one possibly get in this regard?
I very much regret that Senator Quinn's important Bill concerning subsidiary payments in the construction industry, which have led to disaster for small companies, will be mangled up in this political difficulty. I hope it will be resurrected by the incoming Government. While I am not sure that the Senator will be standing, I presume he would be elected were he to do so. If he is, I certainly will be happy to lend my support again to that important Bill.
I have listened to some of the contributions from politicians outside. I am afraid Mr. Gerry Adams did not know where the European money was coming from or going to. It was as simple as that. It was really an unfortunate contribution. From the point of view of his party, it would be better if he left that to Deputy Morgan, who is one of the few in that party who appears to know what he is talking about on the economy.
The former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, stated to the media that he wished someone somewhere had let him know that things were going wrong in the banks. Think about it for a minute. A former Minister for Finance wishes someone somewhere had let him know. He should have known.
He should have spotted it. There is no excuse. It suggests a lamentable lack of professionalism. I am not trying to make a partisan point because I have friends in all parties and there are Members of all parties I certainly respect.
Senator Bradford made a good point that we need a change, not only in government but in the way we do business. The Cathaoirleach does a good job within the constraints, which sometimes are idiotic, such as rulings, for example. This is taking place in the middle of a difficult situation in that the election has been precipitated by a major financial crisis, yet there was a ruling that it was not a crisis at all.
Senator Norris's time is just up.
It could not possibly be. Is it really?
Yes. A number of speakers are offering.
There is plenty of time. I want to make a couple of points because there was plenty of latitude provided to the other side.
There is no such thing as latitude.
On the question of the banks, I do not accept that we are responsible at all. There were plenty of German banks which foolishly speculated on our property bubble. Why should we pay them back? As for the interest rates, we are touching our forelocks again. They should be paying us to launder their money.
We never touched our forelocks.
Time is up.
We certainly are touching them.
A large number of Senators still wish to speak.
In that case, I certainly will obey the ruling of the Cathaoirleach and will sit down. However, I serve notice that I will take up some of these matters tomorrow on Committee Stage. I have tabled a series of amendments that may resolve some of the problems experienced by both sides.
This probably is a nostalgic occasion because it more than likely is my last statement on a finance Bill in this House. I have been in the Oireachtas for at least 34 or 35 such Bills since 1977 and while there have been severe budgets that were perceived by the public as being too harsh, none has been as harsh as this one. Harsh budgets have been introduced previously and as a political party, Fianna Fáil has been obliged to make the public endure some harsh penalties. When the late father of the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, became Taoiseach in 1987, I remember that Fianna Fáil entered government and was obliged to introduce immediately a Finance Bill that really hurt people. The same position obtains today.
Future Governments must note that our regulatory system failed us entirely on all fronts. The regulators kept it to themselves with, regrettably, the full collusion of some senior civil servants in the Department of Finance who, if the regulators were doing their jobs, must have been aware of what was going on. Sadly, those concerned have got away scot-free without being examined properly by the Oireachtas. They retired, bid a last farewell and left behind the mess. These people were put in charge and I do not believe that any Minister for Finance or Taoiseach of the day, irrespective of party, should be obliged to be responsible for knowing what the regulator has been told without being so informed themselves. This issue must be considered. Another point that future Governments must consider pertains to the type of backup they will have. Governments should be entitled to introduce their own senior personnel to act as backup alongside the civil servants in respect of how Departments are run. While that is all I wish to say in this regard, we definitely have been let down by the regulatory authorities who undeniably allowed what has happened in Ireland to take place. While the present regulatory authorities may be overactive in some ways, a positive outcome therefrom is that there will be regulation and the political system will be informed as to what the regulators are doing and what is happening.
People ask what benefits accrued from the boom. Members are aware that while many benefits flowed from the good times, many have been forgotten about quickly. One should consider the quantity of new infrastructural developments that were put in place, such as new roads, motorways and so on, as well as the upgrading of other roads and road improvements right down to the most minute country cul-de-sac. These benefits will endure for years to come, although one must take care in future not to allow what has been put in place to begin to disintegrate for lack of investment. This issue must be taken into account by whoever is in office in future. I noted that one benefit that has been left behind is the new motorway network but I also refer to many other infrastructural items, such as new schools and water and sewerage schemes, that will serve generations in the future.
I have some gripes in respect of this finance Bill and all Members are aware of the constraints placed on the Government in respect of its drafting. It was a case of drafting the finance Bill with one's hands tied as one was obliged to come within certain parameters. However, attacks have been made on certain areas that are detrimental to improving the economy, with one such attack being the imposition of carbon taxes. While everyone accepts that our carbon footprint must be reduced, carbon taxes affect rural people much more severely than they do urban people. People are obliged to use cars to get to and from town and they do not have the option of using public transport. I also believe that the increased costs associated with carbon taxes will have a serious effect on a considerable segment of industry.
Moreover, I will not be convinced otherwise that the recent increase in fuel prices willhave a major effect on rural and farming communities. Agriculture is completelydependent on fossil fuels such as diesel oil and so on which comprise a major part of the farming community's production expenses. Moreover, while there were protests when the price of petrol reached €1 per litre, the price now is approximately €1.40. There has been a phenomenal increase in the cost of doing one's daily business, which has a knock-on increase in the cost for industry. The Government should have included a provision to the effect that whatever VAT increase came about as a result of the increase in price would be offset from the carbon charges that were put in place. This was one way in which this measure could have been balanced and it would have been cost-neutral to the budget. At present, the increase in fuel prices will increase the amount of VAT that is being paid by the consumer, who will not get back any benefit. This could have been offset by reducing the carbon taxes that had been put in place as a means of trying to balance matters, rather than allowing an increase in fuel prices to become a revenue-raising operation for the State. Something should have been done in this regard.
Many of my colleagues have discussed the proposed changes in respect of section 23 reliefs. These proposals are not constitutional because people entered into such section 23 related contracts in the belief that they had the write-off benefits for the full lifetime of the project or property. It is not possible in business to tell people that they have a five-year guarantee, only to tell them halfway through that they only have a two and a half year guarantee. This would not stand up and while I acknowledge this proposal is to be reviewed, the incoming Government of whatever shade should take note that tampering too much with the section 23 provisions will have serious knock-on effects for those who have invested in section 23 property. This must be taken into account.
While there is need for real political debate on the Bill, sadly people are so anxious to interview the public by means of a general election that they are forcing through a Bill that in every other year has been allocated at least two to three weeks in the Dáil and at least two weeks in this House. For political expediency, however, people are trying to drive it through in the space of a few days. This is not in the best interests of either democracy or the public, who all Members are meant to serve. People are playing short-term political tactics on this matter and I do not agree with so doing.
One aspect of the Bill which annoys me is section 26 concerning the abolition of patent tax exemption. One might argue that people will derive benefit from their patents in some other way, such as through the manufacturing process or whatever. However, this is similar to the exemption for artists and others that was introduced by the late father of the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and which made a tremendous contribution to Ireland. It encouraged people to become involved and encouraged artists to remain in Ireland rather than setting up base elsewhere. I refer in this context to the international acclaim garnered by some of our artists, musicians and actors. The measure was a great success. The abolition of the patent tax exemption is wrong and the net result of it will be that if somebody has patents, rather than setting up an operation in Ireland he or she may decide to operate from a more attractive tax base. Perhaps it could be re-examined with regard to how people can be encouraged to become involved.
I welcome the debate on the finance Bill. In terms of dealing with Bills this week, the Labour Party proposed that we clear the schedule and remove our motion of no confidence if the Government agreed to an orderly timeframe. In participating in that, a lot of political common sense prevailed earlier this week in the context of how we did our business in the Oireachtas. There was a meeting of minds, political maturity and consideration of the seriousness of the issue and the timeframe.
People want a general election. It was our considered view that, given the manner in which the Government was disintegrating, the sooner we dealt with the Bill in the Dáil and Seanad and proceeded with the election the sooner we would achieve the desired outcome. Unfortunately, the situation is not as clearcut as that for some people. A former Member of this House, representing Sinn Féin, who is now a Member of the other House, viewed our position as supporting the Bill. Our position is quite clear; we oppose the Bill and will be voting against it. It is one of the most draconian Bills either House has dealt with. The budget was one of the most severe introduced by any Minister. Pensioners, students and the unemployed have seen basic levels of social welfare reduced. Other sectors of society have suffered disproportionately from the economic collapse. If one considers the situation in an historic context, one will understand there was a global collapse but things were much worse in Ireland in terms of the handling of the economy and the political input behind the ideology that governed the country in the past 13 or 14 years.
The Progressive Democrats might be gone but its ideological monolith will be in place for a long time to come. Its right-wing ideology that corrodes an equal society is very much evident in Ireland today. I wish to tell our colleagues in Sinn Féin that in supporting the process we have allowed an orderly timetable in which we can dispose of this business and proceed to a general election.
Part of the reason we are in our current mess is the blanket guarantee. A Sinn Féin Member of the House indicated his support and that of Sinn Féin for the blanket guarantee. They participated in the vote when the Labour Party took a political gamble in standing back and voting against it. Sinn Féin supported it and is no different from the Government on this issue. It cannot conveniently say that other parties supported the Bill when it is contributing to facilitating the arrangement of the debate in order that the country can get the general election it so badly needs.
We have seen some tough and challenging political and economic times in this country over the years. We all remember the 1980s, in terms of unemployment and emigration, issues we thought would be consigned to that decade. Unfortunately, they are now very much a feature of 2009-11 and we have returned to the ugly scene of emigration and unemployment.
Youth unemployment is a major issue. If we are not careful we will see a whole generation of young people caught in the trap of long-term unemployment. We all know what that does to people's morale, dignity and self-esteem. Thousands of people are struggling to pay utility bills, put groceries on the table and find another €10 or €15 to provide essentials. That is all a result of the blanket guarantee, political and economic mismanagement and the disastrous decision to include Anglo Irish Bank in the guarantee and pour billions of euro of taxpayers' money into a black hole.
From 1995 to 2000 most of our GDP revolved around exports, which was good. We need to remind ourselves that as bad as things are, other sectors of the economy, in particular exports, are good, and augur well for the future. From 2000-05 there was a property bubble. We all know the capitalist vultures who borrowed money and the idiotic bankers at the highest echelons of our banking system who poured millions on top of billions of euro. We had an economy which was largely based on credit and was false. There was bonus-driven lending and no proper stress testing.
All of the bankers are in no small part responsible for the mess the country is in. It is disgusting to turn on the national broadcaster and see a former executive of Anglo Irish Bank in Massachusetts living in a $4 million house while people in this country are barely hanging on to their homes and jobs and those in receipt of a blind pension are losing €8 a week. These are the people who are being picked on, targeted and victimised by the right-wing Government in order to bring money into the system which we can throw at Anglo Irish Bank.
Our banking system has been bailed out, recapitalised and propped up. Banks provide statistics to the effect that there is a 70% approval rate for lending. No one believes that rubbish. We want a banking system which will lend money to small and medium enterprises that are the backbone of the economy. We need to get small and medium businesses back into liquidity, get money moving, circulate money in local economies and sustain jobs, particularly in areas such as west Cork and rural Ireland. Many parts of the economy depend on such lending to survive.
On jobs in rural Ireland, the decision to abolish the Christmas bonus was short-sighted. The Minister for Social Protection may have saved some money in the short term but in the long term the rural economy has lost money and as a result rural jobs have been lost. Pensioners and the long-term unemployed were spending the Christmas bonus in the local economy. I do not know anybody who saved it and when the money was not given it was not spent. As a result, demand in local economies contracted and the knock-on effect was extremely negative.
The schools building programme is an old chestnut. We have all raised matters on the Adjournment and the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, has taken many Adjournment matters over the years regarding extensions to schools. I will not be parochial but I have to sound a note of caution on the Tánaiste's announcement that 400 projects had been given the green light. In recent years a lot of language was used to band different projects and put them at various stages of design, planning and detail.
There are no shovel-ready projects, even though projects are ready to go and would reboot a rural economy. We all know the jobs, skills and trades that have been lost in recent times would be best put to use if the Department of Education and Skills decided to replace the prefabricated buildings it is renting. A lot of dead money is being spent on rent and the money would be better invested in building schools.
One feature of the election will be strong. The electorate are discerning and holding politicians and political parties to account, rightly so. The policies of various parties and politicians will be scrutinised upside down and inside out. Nobody will buy the rubbish from the Tánaiste. A number of schools in my area were the subject of announcements in 2002, 2007 and 2011. They have been moved to the next instalment of the schools building programme but I do not buy it.
The debate surrounding the facilitation of the debate on the finance Bill in the House this week has been somewhat besmirched by ill-informed and ignorant comment from some people, namely, Sinn Féin. It is an appalling vista that the leader of that party, who is contesting for a seat in County Louth, is as economically ignorant as someone not in any way attached to politics or economics. It is frightening that someone would make statements with regard to pulling out of the European Union at this juncture in the economy. We are dependent on Europe at this time for our loan, although there is scope to renegotiate the penal interest rate. For any party or politician to advocate leaving the European Union when we need it most is daft.
By nature, I am an optimist, but I shudder daily when I hear the negative and doomsday language from almost everybody on the other side of this Chamber. I do not know how, as politicians, whose natural inclination should be to inspire hope in the electorate and the people, they can verbalise and utter such brutal words regarding the disastrous state of the country. If they knew anything about business, they would know it untrue the country is in a disastrous state. Earlier today, the Minister indicated that recently published figures show that both GDP and GNP expanded in the third quarter of 2010, which is very encouraging.
Senator Buttimer is at his phone, but I would ask him to listen to what I have to say. I always listen to him.
I am listening. The Senator spoke about GDP and the Minister's speech.
Senators should speak through the Chair, not across the floor.
The figures for the last quarter of the year are very encouraging, because there has been growth in GDP and GNP. The recovery is being driven by the export sector, underpinned by the significant improvements in competitiveness that have taken place. As the Minister said this morning, the private sector drove the improvement in competitiveness in the markets and the Government drove improvements in competitiveness in the public sector. This is the reason the economic situation has stabilised and we have had a significant increase in manufactured goods and financial services.
Could I please have Senator Buttimer's attention, because he is very——
Through the Chair, please. The Minister of State and his officials are listening.
Would the Cathaoirleach mind asking our colleagues not to speak while I am speaking? I listened attentively to them.
We have not spoken yet.
I draw attention to how competitive we are. The world competitiveness year book suggests that Ireland remains an attractive place to do business. As I have said many times in recent years, our market here is so small it cannot support a business that wants to grow and employ people unless we sell goods, services and products to people outside of our tiny country. Unless we export goods and services, we cannot create employment. The good news on competitiveness is that we are in first place with regard to corporate taxes, fourth on the availability of skilled labour, fourth on being open to new ideas, sixth on labour productivity, seventh on the availability of financial skills and seventh on the flexibility and adaptability of the people.
How innovative is Ireland? Almost 50% of all enterprises in Ireland are engaged in innovative activity. Lir Chocolates, which I co-founded, today employs 250 people. When I was a full-time business person with the company, we were innovating relentlessly day in and day out. We introduced approximately 30 new products a year. Unless one constantly innovates, one cannot grow one's business. We are an innovative country and almost 50% of all Irish enterprises are engaged in innovative activity. With all due respects, I hope to see more innovation among Members of the Oireachtas in future and less navel gazing and time wasting talking about irrelevancies. We must see innovation among Members and see innovative reform of the Seanad. I am sure the Cathaoirleach agrees. I find it frustrating that it is not businesslike. It is no wonder people give out about it. We must be innovative. People and businesses must continually change if they are to keep going and be seen to do something.
We are all aware competitiveness is a key influencing factor in winning foreign direct investment. In its annual report launched two weeks ago, IDA Ireland reported that 2009 saw Irish competitiveness improve significantly and that business costs, including energy, private rents, office rents, services, construction and labour had all become more competitive. It advised that if we are competitive and can sell our goods and services at the right price, we will create more employment. The report stated that for potential investors, Ireland offers a greatly enhanced competitive position, demonstrated by the following trends: construction tender prices are back to 1999 levels, a reduction of 29% from their peak in 2007; office occupancy costs fell almost 30% between 2008 and 2009; the cost of private rental on a national level has fallen by approximately 25% from its peak in 2007 when the bubble began to burst; and the cost of living has fallen, with prices falling by 4.5% in 2009.
I wish my colleagues, particularly those in Fine Gael, would read the newspapers and economic journals and study what is happening in the real economy. They need to study business more rather than concentrate on political debate.
Should they study "Bertienomics"?
No interruptions, please.
They should not just engage in political debate and in wasting time. I have had the honour in the past eight years to be the nominee of the Irish Exporters Association for the Seanad and I am pleased to have been offered that distinction again. This week I attended the launch of the report, Trading with the Asia-Pacific Region 2011-2015, produced by my nominating body, the Irish Exporters Association. This association, driven by the chief executive, Mr. John Whelan, draws to the attention of the Government and whoever the incoming government may be, that they must drive greater trade with China, India, the Republic of Korea, Japan and Malaysia. We are not even scraping at the surface export wise. Over 50% of the world's population lives in Asia and three of the four fastest growing economies are located there. In China, for example, economic growth exceeds 10% per annum and there are more than 160 cities in that vast country with a population in excess of 1 million. I visited China about 15 years ago with my husband, when it was still entrenched in communism and socialism and nothing was moving economically. Now it is a dramatically different country. Irish companies must be in the forefront in developing markets in Asia. The potential rewards are huge. Based on World Trade Organisation figures for China, we can extrapolate that if we were to increase our exports to 1% of total Chinese imports, we would increase our sales to China by over $10 billion annually. As a business person, I know one cannot grow a business and create employment unless one is selling one's goods at a competitive price and filling a demand. We have a colossal opportunity to do so.
I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, the best of luck in the forthcoming election. It has been my pleasure to say each time he has been in the House that I will appreciate to my dying day the vision his father had for the country.
I wish to share time with Senator McFadden.
This Bill is the final act of a failed Government. The election poster picture may have changed but the legacy of 13 years remains and can never be forgotten. It is one thing to say sorry because it looks great and it sounds wonderful, but it is a soundbite. The financial proposition before us inflicts pain on ordinary citizens who did not cause the economic meltdown in the State. People need and deserve to see justice and those responsible must be held to account. Politically, I am confident Fianna Fáil will be held to account in the election but, apart from that, there needs to be retribution on behalf of the people. Politicians, regulators, bankers and developers must be taken to court and prosecuted in order that we can collectively move on as a nation.
Senator Bradford referred to Animal Farm but fairness and social justice were at the core of Orwell’s writing. The country wants justice, equality and fairness from all of us and for all of us. As a political group, we must be seen to give leadership. The budget and the Bill have funked political reform. Our expenses and salaries should be reduced further and ministerial trappings should have been tapered off, but that was not provided for.
The people are angry and looking for change, but in the race for electoral popularity, we must all take a deep breath and not rush because we must hold on to values that cherish work and responsibility and that cherish the family and raising a child. One of my regrets regarding the legislation is the Minister did not provide for the taxation changes for those in civil partnerships. The passing of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill was one of my proudest days in the Chamber.
I hope the new Dáil and Seanad will bring that to a resolution. Emigration, pay cuts and unemployment mean people feel desperate now. The universal social charge must be examined again. It is crippling the ordinary citizen, an gnáth dhuine, whether he or she lives in Ballyphehane, Bishopstown, on the Rochestown Road or in Carrigaline. They are suffering. They did not make a fortune during the Celtic tiger era but they must now pay the cost of the mistakes made, which is wrong. I wish Deputies Kenny and Noonan well in Europe today because it is important we offer hope to a generation of young people who are looking to us for leadership and to the next Government to resurrect the country. The Bill is bad for the people and it does not deserve to be passed.
I refer to the non-adjacent third level maintenance grant. It is an investment in young people's education whereas if they are on the dole, it costs the State more than €9,000 annually. The dole only sustains claimants and it does not represent an investment. People are left at home without anything to do and they are degraded whereas if they were educated, it would provide a means to an end and it would be an investment in them and their quality of life.
There is no mention, good, bad or indifferent, of self-employed persons who are down on their luck and who have absolutely nothing. There is no leg up available to them to get them back into business. Most of them have worked all their lives. They are prepared to work and they want to bring this country back to a good place in the world. They have been left to rot and there is no compassion or regard for them. They have paid tax and PRSI throughout their lives. I visited a family in that extreme situation last night. They have nothing and they do not know how they will put food on the table. The Government has not given them support. They have paid tax, PRSI and employed people for years.
The Minister for Finance will be here presently and, therefore, I will share time with him. I thank the Senators for their contributions and I will try to address each of them as best I can once I have made a few general comments. We have had an interesting and informative debate and we are facing into an interesting time. This has been an unusual finance Bill, both in terms of its timescale and the circumstances in which it has been developed, but the Minister for Finance can bring it forward with a degree of optimism. Following the sharp contractions in 2008 and 2009, available data point towards a stabilisation of economic activity last year. Recently published figures show both GDP and GNP expanding in the third quarter of 2010, which is encouraging.
It is also encouraging that our recovery is being driven by the exporting sectors, underpinned by the significant improvements in competitiveness that have taken place. As wages and other costs adjust, we are pricing ourselves back into global markets. The Minister cited our 13% annual rate of export growth recorded in the third quarter of last year, one of the best performances in the EU. With this export-led growth, Ireland will have a balance of payments surplus this year and, therefore, the country will pay its way. The Minister stressed in his opening contribution that Ireland remains open for business and is still the destination of choice for many of the world's leading firms.
It is perhaps appropriate to revisit some of the key measures in the Bill. In particular, I refer to the importance of the universal social charge which was highlighted during the debate. The measure represents a substantial change to our tax system. It is based on the principle that everyone must pay according to their means. As the Minister has said many times, it is simply not sustainable that 45% of income earners pay no tax and he stands by that statement. The Minister has arrived and I will hand over to him.
Apart from the general matters raised by Senators, I would like to respond to particular contributions. Senator Twomey suggested that I did not know what the yield would be from the higher universal social charge on income in excess of €100,000 arising from self-employment. I have said that this charge would raise €80 million in 2011 and I have further elaborated that this charge would pay for the reduction of the universal social charge for medical card holders, which is expected to cost approximately €80 million in 2011. It is an important point in our fiscal future. We will have to explain where money comes from.
The Senator will also be aware that the Bill provides that the new student contribution that replaces the student services charge will be allowed for tax relief in respect of second and subsequent children that attend college simultaneously. This was not the case with the old student services charge which was not eligible for tax relief at all. While it is not my area, the Student Support Bill 2008, which completed all Stages in the Seanad earlier this week, provides for a significant streamlining of the student support grants system. It provides for the amalgamation of the existing four grant schemes into a single statutory scheme and gives authority to the Minister for Education and Skills to designate a single awarding authority for the new scheme compared with the present situation where there are 66 awarding bodies. I hope that addresses some of the concerns raised by Senator Norris.
I thank Senator Hanafin for his support and, in particular, elaboration on the reasons for our approach to the public finances and solving the problems of the banking sector. I thank him also for his remarks about the changes to stamp duty on residential property. As he indicated, the reduction in the rates is intended to stimulate the residential property market. He recognises that the universal social charge is a progressive tax and improves our current taxation system. It is more sustainable than the income and health levies which it replaced and removes many of the anomalies and steps intrinsic to these charges.
Senators O'Reilly and Hannigan voiced concerns about the universal social charge. In response to the suggestion that the entry point is too low, when investigating the charge, I found that I could not provide for a zero rate at the bottom that would be available to all income earners regardless of income. My only other option was to introduce an exemption threshold. That is one step. My experience is that steps higher up the income ranges cause anomalies and poverty traps. Taxpayers can lose in net pay terms from an increase in gross pay. One of the objectives in introducing the universal social charge was to remove such an anomaly which was a feature of the old system of the income and health levies. One cannot widen the tax base without bringing persons into the tax net. It is also true that one cannot bring people into the tax net without charging them some tax. If any income earner moves from a position where he or she pays no tax to a position where he or she pays some tax, no matter how small, he or she will feel an impact on his or her net income. Income earners are feeling an adjustment, but I reiterate my belief everyone should contribute something, no matter how small.
Senator Ross should note that, in spite of the shortened timeframe for the Bill, I have introduced specific amendments to improve the competitiveness of the international financial services industry. The Bill extends the assets that a section 110 company can acquire to include plant and machinery, commodities and carbon offsets. The extension to include plant and machinery will be of benefit to Ireland's international leasing industry, in particular, the aircraft leasing industry. The inclusion of commodities will facilitate the use of Irish securitisation companies in Islamic finance transactions, while the inclusion of carbon offsets is part of a broader initiative to develop a green financial services centre. I thank Senator Mooney for his support on the Irish Financial Services Centre initiatives.
On the points made by Senators Ross, Donohoe and Norris on bondholders, as I said in the Dáil, I have provided for burden-sharing with holders of subordinated bonds in institutions in the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010. However, as we have discussed on numerous occasions in the other House, senior bondholders rank equally with depositors in having claims on Irish banks. I add in reply to Senator Ross that, in the context of discussions with the IMF and the European Union, it was clear that "burning" such bondholders was not an option supported by these authorities. In the current circumstances there is no way that the country, whose banks are so dependent on international investors, could unilaterally renege on senior bondholders against the wishes of the European Central Bank.
The Senator suggested also that the 12.5% rate of corporation tax could be reduced to below 10%. Members of this House and of the Dáil point to numerous measures they believe are not working in the economy and society and which they argue, in some cases correctly, should be fixed. The Senator takes issue with perhaps the single most successful policy tool at our disposal, one that has worked and continues to work. While trading companies, whether foreign or indigenous, would not complain if the corporation tax rate was further reduced, there have been no widespread calls for this to happen. The focus of industry, in common with that of the Government, has been on protecting and maintaining our low rate of tax in the face of significant negative sentiment internationally. Apart from costing more than €700 million in tax revenue which we could ill afford at this time, a reduction of 2.5% in the corporation tax rate would leave that task immeasurably more difficult.
I disagree with the point raised by Senator Alex White on the external determination of policy. However, I note that the provision of financial assistance by the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism and the European Financial Stability facility for any member state would be on the basis of strong policy conditionality and based on terms and conditions similar to those of the International Monetary Fund.
I welcome Senator Boyle's comments on the removal of tax reliefs and the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission on Taxation. A number of Members, including Senators Boyle, Ormonde and O'Malley, alluded to the taxation aspects of civil partnership. I wish to update the House on the current position. The legislation to make provision in the Tax Acts for the requirements of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 has been largely drafted. It is unfortunate that, because of the unusually truncated process, the legislation was not completed in time to be part of the finance Bill. However, I am assured that the legislation can be dealt with by the new Government in a finance (No. 2) Bill before April, if the Government is so minded, and all taxation aspects could be made applicable from 1 January 2011.
I echo the point made by a number of Senators, especially Senator Harris, on the need for high quality debate and how it is so often to be found in the Seanad. I agree with him, Senators O'Toole and Quinn that the finance Bill may not be what we would like to see in terms of its measures, but it is necessary.
I thank Senators Butler, Leyden and Ellis for their acknowledgement of the progress made in recent years. Senator Leyden has endorsed the need for the bank guarantee, although Senator McCarthy raised issues with it. I reiterate that the introduction of the 2008 credit institutions financial support guarantee scheme succeeded in stabilising a challenging liquidity position for the Irish banks. Similar actions have been taken by other member states in the European Union. Had the guarantee not been introduced, we would not now have an economy, never mind a banking system.
I note the points made by Senator Leyden and numerous other Senators, including Senators Hanafin, Butler, Quinn, O'Reilly and Norris, on the green energy sector and its potential. The Government set a target of having 40% of our electricity generated from renewable resources by 2020. Already we have achieved a figure of 15%. The target will be achieved through the provision of support under the REFIT scheme and investment in the electricity network. The State energy companies are investing in renewable energy production. EirGrid has planned a €4 billion investment under its ambitious Grid25 investment programme. The ESB is investing in smart metering, electric vehicle recharging capacity and wind farms projects, as well as supporting the development of certain emerging technologies. We have provided €60 million in capital funding for the retrofit programme which will deliver energy efficiency savings through labour intensive employment. The Exchequer will fund a further €12 million investment in ocean energy research, in addition to the activities of the ESB and Bord Gáis Éireann in promoting technologies capable of harnessing wave and tidal power. I could cite many other examples of Government support for green energy projects — covering tax incentives, information programmes, Exchequer support and the involvement of commercial State companies. In short, investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects is an integral part of the Government's activities.
I remind Senators that the business expansion scheme is being revamped and renamed the employment and investment incentive. We will have an opportunity to consider this matter in more detail on Committee Stage tomorrow. The incentive will target job creation in companies through the provision of additional tax relief which will be awarded where it has been proved that employment levels have increased at the company concerned at the end of the holding period or where evidence is provided that the company used the capital to meet expenditure on research and development.
On Senators Quinn and Ellis's comments on the abolition of the patent royalty exemption, the exemption is being abolished on foot of a recommendation to that effect made in the report of the Commission on Taxation which expressed reservations about the effectiveness of the measure in incentivising companies to engage in research and development activities in Ireland. The Government concurs with the recommendation and considers that, despite various refinements made to the scheme during the years, the tax relief does not provide sufficient value for money. Its abolition was announced in the national recovery plan.
Senator Quinn mentioned that first-time buyers had been adversely affected by the stamp duty changes and asked whether a transitional period could be provided for. I have provided for a transitional arrangement in circumstances where the effect of the budget changes is to increase the stamp duty payable on the transaction. It can be paid under the new regime — because stamp duty is being reduced — where a binding contract was in place before 8 December 2010 and the instrument is executed before 1 July 2011.
I advise the Senator that the proposed "pay and file" self-assessment changes were withdrawn by me in a Report Stage amendment in the Dáil. The change was worth considering. One of the problems with our budgetary process is that receipts come in in November and the Minister for Finance then introduces a budget shortly before Christmas. Because the receipts come in so late in the year it reduces the room for manoeuvre in the timing of the budget. The idea in bringing forward the "pay and file" dates for the self-employed was not to penalise them in any way but to ensure there would be an earlier date on which the receipts could be calculated in the Department. That said, I acknowledge the significant pressure smaller businesses and farmers are under and, therefore, I decided not to introduce the change this year but to leave it to a subsequent Minister to address the issue.
Senator Ellis referred to the price of petrol and taxation, especially the carbon tax. In that regard, it should be noted that the carbon tax amounts only to 3.4 cent per litre of petrol and 4 cent per litre of auto-diesel. Petrol and especially auto-diesel are cheaper here than in Northern Ireland.
I note the support voiced by a number of Senators, including Senators O'Malley and Ormonde, for the changes I have introduced on the restriction of property-based tax reliefs. I understand the Leader of the House, Senator Cassidy, spoke on this subject as well. It is important for Senators to understand that this subject is not easy. There is no doubt that the generosity of these reliefs contributed to the bubble in the economy and to the construction boom. I was amazed to learn that a section 23 relief property would qualify an applicant for tax relief on income deriving from properties not of section 23 in character. Many of these reliefs are set to continue for a long period. While the entitlement to acquire such reliefs may have been restricted in recent years, the long duration and working out of these reliefs over a long period was compromising the public revenues. The intention at my Department and the advice I received was to cut off what was described as "the tail" of these reliefs over time. All that is left is the tail. My intention was to cut off the tail in small slices. However, a thorough job was done in the budget presentation where, in effect, the entire tail was removed — decapitated is probably the incorrect term. I am unsure how one removes a tail from an animal but the tail was entirely removed in one operation. Clearly, this would have exposed many businesses and private individuals to extreme hardship and insolvency. It would have accelerated bank losses and left the State open to legal challenge. The correct procedure is to carry out this inquiry, examine all the facts and work from the facts to a reasoned conclusion on this matter.
This issue illustrates another point of importance in our economic debates. For many years I have been listening to speakers on many sides of the House suggest this problem was created by developers and bankers. However, when I saw people queueing at my constituency office to discuss section 23 reliefs they were not developers and bankers. They were receptionists and secretaries, hairdressers and teachers. They had purchased second and third properties and benefited from the tax reliefs. This serves as an illustration of a point which has been ignored in our economic debate: it is easy to isolate and target individuals who are culpable in part for what took place, but there is a denial of general responsibility for what took place which is simply unreal. Anyone who attended to their constituency business in January and witnessed the queue of individuals complaining about section 23 relief and its restriction would have realised these individuals were not wealthy property developers or bankers but people in the varied occupations that make up the great majority of vocations in Irish life. This has been the approach taken on the issue of property-based tax reliefs.
I acknowledge the positive economic statistics quoted by Senator Mary White. On this positive note, I conclude my response and thank Senators for participating in what was a constructive debate.
- Boyle, Dan.
- Brady, Martin.
- Butler, Larry.
- Callely, Ivor.
- Carroll, James.
- Carty, John.
- Cassidy, Donie.
- Corrigan, Maria.
- Daly, Mark.
- Dearey, Mark.
- Ellis, John.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Hanafin, John.
- Harris, Eoghan.
- Keaveney, Cecilia.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- McDonald, Lisa.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
- O’Brien, Francis.
- O’Malley, Fiona.
- O’Sullivan, Ned.
- Ormonde, Ann.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Cannon, Ciaran.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Fitzgerald, Frances.
- Hannigan, Dominic.
- McCarthy, Michael.
- McFadden, Nicky.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Norris, David.
- O’Reilly, Joe.
- O’Toole, Joe.
- Regan, Eugene.
- Ross, Shane.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Twomey, Liam.
- White, Alex.
The House has already ordered that it will sit again at 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.