If Cowen did not ask Fitzpatrick about Anglo, why not?

January 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

The issue of easy access has been raised as a concern for people in recent days, due to revelations regarding the Taoiseach’s golf outing with Sean Fitzpatrick. I agree that easy access is a question of some concern, but while it is important I do not agree it is the most important issue. For months and months in 2008 there must have been exchanges and contact between the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, the Central Bank, the regulator and Anglo Irish Bank.

It would be extraordinary if such contacts were not made. We know that as early as March 2008 the bank was sliding. Even though I am very critical of the Government I cannot believe there was no contact about it. We know the Taoiseach took a phone call on the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day. There are many questions concerning whether he followed up on that. He said he would raise the issue with the Central Bank. Did he ask the Central Bank or the regulator after the meeting on 21 March what happened at the meeting? He must have taken an interest. It would be a dereliction of duty if he did not. Fianna Fáil sometimes seem to think that an independent regulatory system is a way of hiding away from making decisions. It is not; having independent regulators is an important, prudent way of doing business. It is not an excuse for the Government to say it has nothing to do with it.

For months in 2008 there must have been contacts. It points to the real failure of the Houses to have a genuinely robust examination of what the Government was doing and saying, what inquiries it made and what concerns it expressed to the regulator and the Central Bank throughout 2008. The issue I have in regard to the golf outing is not easy access, which is wrong and should be criticised. Why, as Deputy Pat Rabbitte said recent days, is it believable that the Taoiseach, who spent a day with the head of a bank that was going down the toilet in July 2008, would not ask him a question on how things were? It beggars belief. If he did not ask him, why not? He must have asked him. The Taoiseach and the Government must have known what other people could see was happening in 2008. I do not buy the contention that nothing was said throughout the period in question. I would be critical of the Taoiseach and Government if nothing was said. Something must have been said. Those questions deserve to be answered.

Arguments in favour of reducing minimum wage unconvincing

December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (No. 2) Bill is the piece of legislation seeking to reduce the minimum wage to €7.65 per hour.  Labour has strongly opposed this in both houses.  Last night, an initial debate took place in the Seanad.

One of the features of this debate on the national minimum wage is the dearth of evidence on which the measure is based. A reference to the Forfás report, to appeared in the Minister of State’s speech. Perhaps Senator Mark Dearey was going a little too far, even from the point of view of his own argument, when he said Forfás had confidently predicted job creation would flow from this measure. The Minister of State did not go that far, although he did point out that Forfás had stated it was likely that the presence of the national minimum wage influenced wage levels for a further 26% of the labour force, that is, those within 1.5 times of the national minimum wage. That point is often invoked.

Senator Dearey has said Forfás confidently predicts that the €1 reduction from €8.65 to €7.65 in the national minimum wage will lead to job creation. With all due respect to my colleague, I very much doubt if it has stated this because one thing is certain: if the Minister of State had such a clear argument available to him to support what he was doing, it would have been included in his speech, but it is not. He was much more careful and made the point, which is not untrue, that Forfás had spoken about the fact that the national minimum wage as a benchmark had an influence on pay levels in a wider section of the labour force.

In 2000 the Oireachtas put in place a regime under the National Minimum Wage Act which involved a process to determine the appropriate level for the national minimum wage. This was one of the last western countries to do so. It was not a figure which was supposed to be pulled out of a hat. On the various occasions it has been reviewed by the Labour Court it has been reviewed on the basis of a clear process set out in the legislation, involving an analysis and a consideration of labour market trends, the wider economic environment and the context in which it was set. The national minimum wage has been increased five or six times since 2000 and on each occasion there were lengthy debates on what the rate should be in the context of national pay agreements and programmes. The 2000 Act contemplates an agreement between industry and the trade unions on the basis of discussions and the Minister actually makes the order. That is a satisfactory process because it involves an input from both sides and, ultimately, a decision being made by the Minister.

The biggest concern I have in regard to the change in the national minimum wage is that it seems to amount to an arbitrary reduction to €7.65 without the presentation of evidence or an analysis as to why there should be a reduction. I do not accept Senator Dearey’s point that there is a clear nexus with job creation. Not only is it problematic in regard to the figure chosen, but the process put in place under the 2000 Act for careful consideration and deliberation involving people who know about and have experience of the issues involved, including employers, has been set aside by this arbitrary decision which, it seems, has been made not on the basis of analysis but on what looks good for the optics. « Read the rest of this entry »

Where in this Budget is there a plan for recovery?

December 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Yesterday’s budget was severe on all sectors of society. There are many people who cannot afford to take the cuts handed to them by this government. Yet, because the devil of this budget is in its detail, it may take until January for the full realisation of these measures hit home. 

Today, I spoke on the budget in the Seanad. You can view the video below…

Recovery Plan is bill for economic failure

November 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Four Year Plan released yesterday afternoon will affect every man, woman and child in this country.  It is devastating – the price we must pay for political incompetence.  Within a matter of hours, I gave a speech to the Seanad.  You can read the whole debate by clicking here.

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on the plan published by the Government this afternoon. This plan is in many ways the bill for economic failure. Regrettably, it is a bill that must be paid over a period of some years.

Having listened to Senator Boyle, I have a real sense that he is finding his voice on some issues and that he may be, in terms of some of the things he said, feeling a sense of political liberation. I agree with much of what he had to say. There is a sense that people have been codding politicians, and not perhaps only Government politicians, and that they may have been unwitting participants in the illusion that we can fund and have the type of public services to which we aspire and should have for our citizens and children, and that these can be sustained and managed at a particular level of taxation. A stark statement on page 91 of the plan, with which no one could disagree, states : “We have eroded the income tax base to an unsustainable level”. This is manifestly true. However, I do not believe income tax is the only element we need to examine in the context of from where we raise taxes. I agree with Senator MacSharry and others who said that it is necessary that we not confine ourselves to only looking at income tax. We do not wish to raise taxes for the hell of it but so that we can look towards having a sustainable economy and public service in respect of which there is certainty in terms of funding into the future. We must never again think we can pin everything on the type of transitional taxation we had during the so-called boom.

I recall sitting beside a politician on a radio programme prior to the last general election. She was a supporter of the then Government and is not now a Member of the Houses. I recall her seeking to sustain the argument over many minutes on that radio programme that it was possible to reduce taxes and improve public services. I do not understand how it would have been possible then or since to do this.

The extent to which any of us was party to such an illusion was a mistake but the principal responsibility must lie with the Government regarding these matters. Opposition politicians can from time to time be criticised for calling for this and that. It is sometimes legitimate to engage in such criticism but it is greatly dwarfed by the legitimate criticism that one can level at a government that has failed to carry out the policies it ought to have implemented.

The document, regrettably and sadly, is a bill and it is not particularly detailed. It has detailed aspects and although it purports to contain a growth strategy and a jobs strategy, it does not. There is nothing new in the narrative on these areas. There is a great deal of generalised, aspirational material, with which it would be impossible to disagree, but there is little relating to a jobs strategy. The IMF is constantly being invoked but its officials are in the House and, in an interim report published earlier this week, they rightly identified the urgent necessity for a growth strategy and to put in place serious measures to get people back to work. That is what we need. « Read the rest of this entry »

How can consulting the electorate be a ‘distraction’?

November 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

From today’s Order of Business in the Seanad…

We have a caretaker Government, a significant portion of which has essentially handed in its notice and is operating on the basis that the Dáil and Seanad will be dissolved early in the new year, although how early is not clear. We know the Finance Bill was enacted on 3 April this year. Does the Leader or the Deputy Leader have any view on what was meant by the reference to financial measures? It could take us until April to deal with all of the financial measures.

I reiterate that it is a matter for the Government to introduce and pass the budget. The Constitution is clear on the issue. In circumstances in which we have only a caretaker Government it is not reasonable or appropriate to suggest the Opposition parties should act as some kind of surrogate Government when it comes to the single most important job of a Government, which is to introduce a budget.

There is much talk about whether an election would constitute a distraction. I take offence at the notion that consulting the people would be inappropriate. How could consulting them at this grave time be a distraction?

I believe in parliamentary democracy in which people are given a mandate to make decisions. They do not consult because the system does not allow them to consult at every hand’s turn for everything done in Parliament; it is necessary to repose trust in parliamentarians. However, at a time as grave as this, was it ever more necessary, appropriate and desirable that the people be consulted on what should be done?

I constantly say the Government does not have a mandate to do what it is doing, but the Opposition does not have a mandate anymore than the Government does to introduce proposed budgetary measures. Senator O’Toole says the budget should be put through, but it is not an undifferentiated thing as if we just had a quick vote on it. It will include measures that will affect ordinary citizens, including cuts in welfare and other changes. It is not just a question of getting over the line; it will include a host of measures that will need to be considered and which will affect ordinary citizens. In a sense, they are the ones who should be in the driving seat, not on every individual measure, but at a time as grave as this, what is the problem?

I know people are concerned about delay and I do not underestimate the gravity of the international situation and the implications of a delay, as others mentioned. I do not believe a delay would be particularly desirable, but when everything is balanced and knowing that there will be difficulties for whatever Government is in place in coming weeks and, by extension, the country, it is vital that the people who elect Members to the other House which needs to make a decision on the budget, be consulted at this time.

Future of Seanad Éireann on the line

November 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

Last night, a motion was put down on Seanad Reform by the Independent Senators.  You can view the motion here.  Following the debate, the motion was put to a vote where the government was defeated 28-27. Below, you’ll find my speech from the night.

There is an element of this debate that is profoundly depressing because it is shot through with a terrible feeling of déjà vu. This is at least the third time in my short time in this Chamber when I have stood up to make pretty much the same contribution I am about to make. That is not acceptable, and it is not acceptable that the Minister, Deputy Gormley, would finish his speech to the House in January 2010 with the following conclusion:

We seem to be some way off cross-party consensus on reform of the Seanad and I will be reporting this conclusion to the Government. I intend to submit a report for discussion with my colleagues in government shortly. We will have regard to the views expressed by all parties and the commitments given in the programme for Government. We will then consider the next steps to be taken in the process. While consensus remains elusive, I have previously informed the House that the absence of consensus cannot be allowed to lead to paralysis. It is my ambition that the Government will press ahead with reforms from which successive Governments have shied away.

He is correct about successive Governments having shied away. I will take that criticism in so far as it involves parties on this side of the House. However, that is now almost one year ago. The Minister had said the same thing in the House some months earlier and the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, said the same thing again today. Senator Fitzgerald was right to ask whether this proposal has been brought to Government.

We cannot fly everything on the electoral commission. Either the Government has serious proposals to bring forward or it does not. Perhaps it should just say it does not see Seanad reform as being a priority at this time. That is what I gathered from listening to the Minister of State and, although it is not what she in fact said, it was what any reasonable person would have concluded. She tipped us off when she asked what we were doing about it. I wonder what the Leader , Senator Cassidy thinks about the very thinly veiled criticism of some of the procedures and practices in the House. For example, the Minister of State was unhappy today that we had two debates about the Seanad and wanted to know what reforms we were bringing forward ourselves. In so far as it goes, that is not an unreasonable point for her to make but it does not constitute a response to this debate.

I and others have raised this issue repeatedly. On the Order of Business last week, I asked the Leader to name one reform, however minimal, he had brought forward in the lifetime of this Seanad. Out of respect, I tried to maintain my practice of not interrupting when he replies to the House and although sometimes I fail, on that occasion I did not. He announced in his reply that he had brought about a change, namely, a practice had been introduced whereby Ministers who made statements in the House would take questions. That is not a reform that has been introduced since 2007 because it has been in Standing Orders for many years. Therefore, the sum total of the reform that has been introduced since we all were elected to the House in 2007 is exactly zero. « Read the rest of this entry »

Seanad Eireann: it’s quality that counts

October 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

It is embarrassing that the House failed to sit on Tuesday last. However, it is just as embarrassing when one considers not so much the quantity of Seanad sittings but their quality. I do not for one minute suggest debate in the House is not of high quality; when it happens, it is. However, the procedures must be loosened in order that Members can genuinely delve into and scrutinise subjects, particularly the four-year plan the Government is to bring forward.

Members cannot simply have a set piece debate, for which a Minister comes into the House to make a speech, followed by others by a series of Members. Instead, the quality of discussion must be examined, as well as the ability of Members to make a genuine contribution to the public debate that must happen. This is not taking place, although Members on all sides of the House have been calling for it for years.

This is not to point the finger at anyone, except to state Members have taken an overly conservative approach to how they organise their business. They could be doing a great deal more and make a much better contribution, even in respect of Opposition proposals. Members on the benches opposite like to have the odd cut at the Opposition that it lacks proposals. But surely the way to address this is to have discussion, debate and scrutiny on the floor of the House.

In that way, we could make a genuine contribution to the public debate that needs to happen. I ask the Leader once more to determine whether we can put our heads together in dealing with this urgent question in order that we can genuinely earn our keep in the Upper House, a real issue for the people. I refer not only to the number of times we sit but also to what we do when we sit.

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