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Finance

tsbMick's 'topical issue' suggestion was selected for debate on Thursday, May 23rd, 2013. The subject of the debate was the threat to the TSB deferred pension scheme. Mick was joined by Deputies Thomas Pringle and Clare Daly in raising the issue while Minister for Finance Michael Noonan responded for the Government. You can watch the full debate here while the full transcript is below.

Thomas Pringle

Permanent TSB had a defined benefit pension scheme which closed to new members in 2006. At the time when Permanent TSB was taken over by Irish Life in 2001, the pension scheme was 120% funded but over the intervening years, the company did not make the full contributions that would have been required to keep the pension scheme in balance. There is now a deficit of somewhere in the region of €115 million.

The reason we put this topical issue forward today is because on foot of the Mercer report, the Minister for Finance asked the covered institutions to come back to him with plans for how they were going to reduce their payroll by a minimum of 6%. I understand that Permanent TSB has submitted a plan to the Department of Finance, the main plank of which is that it intends to end the defined benefit scheme within the company. This is projected to save between 8% and 10% of the cost. This may satisfy the Mercer report but will affect 1,200 current and former workers who have taken early retirement and have deferred pensions until they reach retirement age.

This will not affect the existing pensioners because they are protected under existing law but these 750 deferred workers and 450 active members of the pension scheme will see their pensions reduced by between 53% and 68% of what is projected if this scheme is closed in such a fashion. That the company should even consider doing this to the pension scheme is very unfair when it was the company that ran it down by not making the proper contributions over the past number of years and allowing the scheme to run up a deficit.

It is in the Minister's power not to accept this plan from the company, send it back to find the reductions from somewhere else and protect these workers who have invested in this pension scheme, made the contributions and are looking to protect their future which they see being seriously undermined.

Mick Wallace

I am sure the Minister is well aware that the Government has signalled that the issue would be addressed in the Bill. It is not being done so for other reasons and thousands of workers are facing loss of pension benefits as a result of the Government's failure to do so. IBEC has pointed out that this is very unfair to the workers involved. As it stands, where a defined benefit scheme is at risk of being wound up, people already in receipt of a pension from it have absolute priority, leaving those members who have not yet reached retirement age with only a fraction of the pension they expected. A group of them were in here yesterday, one of whom told us that he had paid for a pension of €20,000 and is now looking at €8,000. He was devastated, as were a number of others. A worker of 64 years of age who is months from retirement might be left with only a fraction of what they would have expected. They pointed out that although the chief executive, Jeremy Masding, has taken a 2% cut in his contribution to his pension, he is not taking a salary cut.

When people put money into pension schemes, I do not think they saw it as a form of speculation yet we have seen plenty of evidence where people who have speculated in the banking area have been paid in full. We must listen to the chairman of Permanent TSB, Alan Cook, say "we have an obligation to save the bank and we have to take corrective action at this time." We save banks but we do not save people. Does the Minister think this is fair?

Clare Daly

We are told that in less than ten days' time, Permanent TSB will shut down its payments into the defined benefit pension scheme and move to a defined contribution scheme. The points made by the other Deputies are very relevant. This is an absolutely enormous blow to over 1,200 people who had a reasonable expectation that they could retire with some degree of certainty that their living standards would be protected. I have no doubt they had made plans with their families and instead, almost overnight, they face the prospect of having to live out the rest of their years in relative poverty having paid into a pension scheme all their lives.

The reason we are raising this issue is because the Minister has the power to do something about this. When the Government sold Permanent TSB to Irish Life, the pension scheme was adequately funded. Contributions have not been kept up. The Government has failed in the legislation before the House next week to deal with the priority system when defined benefit pension schemes are in jeopardy. Not only IBEC but also the unions involved have said they do not want the scheme shut down but want to look at alternative ways in which this issue can be dealt with. It is sickening to think that this proposal is coming off the back of a cost-saving measure when enormous fees and payments are being made to board members, not just those working in a full-time capacity but part-time directors who are getting more for attending a couple of meetings a year in an average payment when one spreads it out over the year than people who retired after spending decades working in the banking system.

We are asking the Minister to look at this issue, call a halt and instruct the bank not to shut down the defined benefit scheme and to enter talks under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission or whomever to come up with a fairer answer that does not leave people pauperised in the latter years of their lives after having worked all their lives for a decent pension.

Michael Noonan

When publishing the review of remuneration practices and frameworks at the covered institutions on 12 March 2013, I indicated that the Government had formed the view that with the remaining covered institutions still incurring losses, it was an inevitable conclusion that the cost base of the institutions needs to be reduced further. This is essential if they are to return to profitability, be in a position to support the economy and repay the State's investment through a return to private ownership.

On behalf of the Government, I directed the banks, including Permanent TSB, to achieve 6% to 10% savings on remuneration costs. I was not prescriptive in how this was to be achieved respecting their differing levels of State ownership and paths to profitability. Those outline plans have been received but it is not possible at this stage to reveal precise individual details bar what has been put into the public domain. I can confirm that all three institutions have put forward pension changes to varying degrees as part of their respective responses.

I am constrained as to what I can say presently due to commercial sensitivities and perhaps, more critically at this stage, industrial relations concerns as the normal protocols continue and need to be respected and observed by all parties. This is something I have advocated throughout this process. I am anxious, therefore, that all the participants in these discussions are given space and time to conduct these critical negotiations.

Accordingly, I encourage all sides to engage in these discussions proactively through the appropriate forums in view of the serious consequences for all concerned. In this context, the Government readily acknowledges the sacrifices made by bank employees to date at all levels and recognises that this has been achieved without major industrial unrest in what is a critically important sector.

In respect of the specific issue - the proposed wind up of the defined benefit pension schemes at Permanent TSB - I need to be explicit in stating that this proposal emerged from Permanent TSB management which is responsible for managing the bank's operations commercially in accordance with the relationship framework. The relationship frameworks with the banks recognise that the covered institutions remain separate economic units with independent powers of decision and that the boards and management teams retain responsibility and authority for determining their institutions' strategy and commercial policies and conducting their day-to-day operations.

As I have said in response to recent parliamentary questions, the pension arrangements for the staff of Permanent TSB are a matter for the management of that company and the trustees of the relevant pension schemes. I am informed by the bank that very substantial funding deficits exist in the various defined benefit schemes which it operates.

In response to this significant problem and as part of a review of the overall cost base of the business, Permanent TSB has recently communicated to staff its plans to discontinue employer contributions to all existing defined benefit pension schemes and to commence in their place contributions to a new defined contribution pension scheme. Ultimately, it is for the trustees of the defined benefit pension schemes to decide how the schemes will respond to this development, but it may result in the defined benefit schemes being wound up and the assets already accumulated being distributed among the members of the relevant schemes, in accordance with the requirements of the Pensions Act. I understand such matters have been the subject of discussions between the interested parties. I am also informed that both staff and management have agreed that, in the absence of any agreement to date, the matter should be referred to the Labour Court for an early hearing. In the light of this development, all sides should agree that space be given for these negotiations to take place in a constructive manner.

I am very aware of the serious funding challenge facing pension schemes. It is acknowledged that the fundamental problem is that pensions are significantly more expensive owing to increasing life expectancy and lower than expected investment returns which are reflected in the increased cost of annuities. The issue of how the assets of a pension scheme are distributed on the winding up of a pension scheme is under consideration by the Minister for Social Protection. It has been the subject of a detailed review, including engagement with representatives of stakeholders and external consultants. This is a complex and sensitive issue, one which requires careful consideration before any change is made to the current provision as set out in section 48 of the Pensions Act. I understand that in a wind-up of a pension scheme the additional voluntary contributions, AVCs, are given the highest priority, followed by the pensioners, while the deferred and active members are each given the same rights to the remaining assets. I cannot speculate on the level of assets that would be available to the deferred and active members in a wind-up of the Permanent TSB defined benefit schemes.

Thomas Pringle

When the State sold Irish Life for €1.3 billion recently, it also secured a windfall profit of €114 million from the quarterly profits of that company. That €114 million would be sufficient to close the deficit in the Permanent TSB pension schemes and allow the workers, including former workers, to secure their pensions. It should be within the control of the Minister, as practically the sole shareholder, to instruct the management of the company to make the money available to the pension schemes. Failing that, he has a responsibility to instruct management to continue to pay into the pension schemes while the issues to which he referred are being resolved through the Labour Court and the Minister for Social Protection's pensions Bill. At least, the workers, including former workers, would not be closed out completely from whatever system and solution were put in place.

Mick Wallace

By chance I received an e-mail in the past hour from a woman in Enniscorthy in which she wrote:

I started working in the bank in 1980. At that time the sign over the door read, Dublin Savings Bank. I left the bank 30 years later in 2010 after witnessing many changes, not only the name over the door but the way banking business was done. During my employment I was hard-working and loyal and I was bound by the terms of my contract and obliged to save part of my income each month toward my pension. I am sure you can understand now how horrified I am to learn that the chief executive of Permanent TSB, Mr. Masding, is making the decision to wind up the pension scheme. By doing so, he puts my future and the future of my family in jeopardy. The action he is about to take will wipe out any hope I ever had to afford a good education for my child and will place me and my family in the position of asking the State for financial assistance in our older years.

We, the staff, have worked hard over the years to grow the bank. We have honoured our commitment to the bank and it is not right when the management decides to take advantage of employees and make them pay the price of the failure. Are you aware that the funding situation is not only due to poor marketing performance but to the lack of urgency and procrastination by the management of the bank to address the problems for the last five years?

Surely the Minister agrees there is false economy involved. The people concerned may end up being dependent on the State in some way and they will be unable to contribute to the domestic economy in the manner they would have expected. It is a case of losers all round. It is nuts.

Clare Daly

The Minister has attempted to swat away the problem and say it was as a result of a management decision and had nothing to do with him. We do not accept that is the case. Unfortunately, the attempts to close down defined benefit schemes are becoming all too common. It happened recently in the national theatre - the Abbey Theatre - and there is a threat to the scheme at the airport. This is a serious issue for many reaching retirement age. Any talks are very welcome if they are taking place. However, has the Minister instructed management at Permanent TSB to continue paying into the defined benefit pension scheme while these talks are in progress? To be honest, if he has not done so, it is an academic exercise and window dressing and will not be a serious attempt to address the very real problems faced by the staff. It is not just because people are living longer that there is a problem with pension schemes; it has come about as a result of a race to the bottom in employment and many staff who joined these companies joined defined benefit schemes, but the schemes were inadequately funded. I assume the Minister is aware that the OECD has stated companies should not be allowed to walk away and leave pensioners holding the can for poor decisions. What does the Minister intend to do in the next ten days to make sure this scheme is not shut down in order that there can be meaningful discussions to look at how the situation can be retrieved and people who have worked a lifetime in the bank can retire with dignity?

Michael Noonan

The situation may be worse than the Deputies who have raised the issue are aware. I am informed by Permanent TSB that the 2012 annual report showed a deficit of €127 million on the pension schemes. However, new accounting rules which came into effect from 1 January 2013 will cause this deficit to rise. As permitted under the accounting standard which applied in 2012 - IAS 19 - Permanent TSB adopted the corridor approach which allowed the deficit to be smoothed over a period of time. However, the corridor approach was eliminated from 1 January 2013 under the new accounting standard; therefore, the deficit will rise as a result. Based on the deficit figure on 31 December 2012, the new accounting rules will increase the accounting deficit by €184 million, as disclosed in the 2012 annual report, giving rise to a deficit of €311 million. The best way forward is as I have stated, to allow the matter to be referred to the Labour Court - both management and employees agree that this should happen - and allow the space for negotiation under the guidance of the Labour Court.

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On Thursday, February 14th Mick addressed the Dail regarding the Promissory Notes motion. In his speech he pointed out, that although delayed payment of the promissory notes gives us breathing space, the debt was never ours to repay in the first place. The full text of the contribution is below. Paying for Anglo Irish Bank's problems over a longer period rather than up-front is certainly a help. The Government says we are saving €20 billion over the next ten years but we should never have been paying €20 billion now or at any other time. Ashoka Mody, a former IMF economist who is now at Princeton University, argued this week that it is a pity "that the 'debtor' nations view their bargaining position as so weak that limited gains ... have been overly celebrated." He goes on to say "But not only was sovereign debt restructuring abandoned, governments were forced to assume debt they never signed on to. What is the principle that requires the Irish taxpayer to honour the debts of a rogue bank? The promissory notes deal must not be judged by the relief it provides to the Irish budget; the right benchmark for its achievement is the debt obligations that live on." The Government has admitted that it never even sought a debt write-down. That is not what the Irish people expected from it after the last election. The Labour Party's manifesto said "Labour believes that bank bondholders should share in bank losses." It also said "Labour will seek to ensure that burden sharing with bondholders is part of a renegotiated deal." Fine Gael boasted in its five-point plan that it was the first party to argue that it was unfair for the Irish people to shoulder all of the losses of our banks and that it was right that investors who had lent recklessly to the banks should also share in the pain. It added: "It is neither morally right nor economically sustainable for taxpayers to be asked to beggar themselves to make massive profits for speculators." It said: "Irish and other European taxpayers can no longer be expected to carry the can for reckless lending between Irish and other European banks. It is a basic rule of capitalism that if you lend recklessly you must take the consequences." God be with the day. A study published today by Caritas Europa entitled The Impact of the European Crisis says that an entire generation of young people are faced with unemployment - 55% in Spain, over 50% in Greece and 30% in Ireland. It states that children are at greater risk of poverty or social exclusion than the rest of the population in 21 member states. The study strongly challenges current official suggestions that the worst of the economic crisis is over. The report highlights the extremely negative impact austerity policies have on the lives of vulnerable people and reveals that many others are being driven into poverty for the first time. The report's main conclusion is that austerity is not working and an alternative is needed. Where do we go from here? Members are probably familiar with the journalist and economist at Cambridge University Ha-Joon Chang, who says: "[I]t is important to reiterate that the fiscal deficits in the European countries ... are largely due to the fall in tax revenues following the finance-induced recession, rather than to the rise in welfare spending." Maybe that is what the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, was trying to tell the Minister for Tourism, Transport and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, yesterday. He continues: So, attacking the poor and eviscerating the welfare state is not going to cure the underlying cause of the deficits. ... [I]n the past three decades of dominance by free-market ideology, many of us have come to believe in the myth of the individual fully in charge of his/her destiny. ... The beauty of this worldview - for those who disproportionately benefit from the current system - is that, by reducing everything down to individuals, it draws people's attention away from the structural causes of poverty and inequality. It is well known that poor childhood nutrition, lack of learning stimulus at deprived homes, and sub-par schools restrict capability developments of poor children, diminishing their future prospects. When they grow up, they have to contend with all sorts of prejudices that constantly discourage and deflate them... What we have been looking at over the past while is a model of capitalism that has been forced down the throat of the world as the only way to run a modern economy at a cost of ballooning inequality and environmental degradation. It has been discredited and only rescued from collapse by the greatest State intervention in history. The great twins of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism have been tried and tested to destruction. For 30 years the West's elites insisted that only deregulated markets, privatisation and low taxes on the wealthy could deliver growth and prosperity. Neo-liberalism was handing power to unaccountable banks and corporations, fuelling poverty and social injustice, while all the time undermining democracy. Surely, we need to reconstruct our damaged economy and society in a more democratic, egalitarian and rational way. A sustainable alternative that would prioritise the concerns of ordinary people is possible. There is an alternative.

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mwOn Friday, December 14th the Property Tax Bill was debated in the Dail. In his contribution Mick notes the Government's neo-liberal approach as they force more taxes on those who cannot afford them and describes this new tax as something which will 'contribute to driving our domestic economy further into the ground.' You can watch the speech here.

The property tax, at this difficult time, lacks fairness and good economic sense. The decision to give special new powers to the Revenue Commissioners to take money from people even when they may be struggling to put bread on the table is draconian in the extreme. This property tax, on top of all the existing challenges that many people face, will contribute to driving our domestic economy further into the ground, driving more of our young people out of the country and driving more people into poverty. The political philosophy that drives this form of government thinking is not new; it is called neoliberalism. The world-renowned political writer Noam Chomsky describes it as the defining political economic model of our time. The term refers to policies and processes under which a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximise their personal profit. Neoliberalism can rationalise anything from lowering taxes on the wealthy and scrapping environmental regulations to dismantling public education and social welfare programmes. Any activity that might interfere with corporate domination of society is automatically suspect because it would interfere with the workings of the free market, which is advanced as the only rational, fair and democratic allocator of goods and services. At their most eloquent, proponents of neoliberalism sound as though they are doing poor people, the environment and everybody else a tremendous service as they enact policies on behalf of the wealthy few. The economic consequences of these policies have been the same just about everywhere and exactly what one would expect - a massive increase in social and economic inequality, a marked increase in severe deprivation for the poorest nations and peoples of the world, a disastrous global environment, an unstable global economy and an unprecedented bonanza for the wealthy. The ultimate trump card for the defenders of neoliberalism, however, is that there is no alternative, as the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, said on RTE radio this morning. Communist societies, social democracies and even modest social welfare states have all failed, the neoliberals proclaim, and their citizens have accepted neoliberalism as the only feasible course. It may well be imperfect but it is the only economic system possible, they argue. Neoliberalism operates not only as an economic system but as a political and cultural system. It works best when there is a formal electoral democracy but not when the population is diverted from the information, access and public fora necessary for meaningful participation in decision making. As neoliberal guru Milton Friedman put it in his Capitalism and Freedom, because profitmaking is the essence of democracy, any government that pursues anti-market policies is being anti-democratic. What we are left with is a political philosophy that amounts to a trivial debate over minor issues by parties that basically pursue the same pro-business policies regardless of formal differences and campaign debate. Democracy is permissible, as long as the control of business is off limits to popular deliberation or change. The neoliberal system, therefore, has an important and necessary by-product - a depoliticised citizenry marked by apathy and cynicism. We have that by the bucketful now. Could one blame our citizens?

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nooWhenever a budget appears a critical question must be asked. Does the budget seriously address the massive levels of inequality in our society? Does it make a genuine effort to close the gap between the top 10% and the bottom 10%? Sadly, the answer today, as with previous austerity budgets, is "No".

A few days ago, I found a page from The Guardian which I had kept from 8 December 2010, the day after the last budget of the Fianna Fail-Green Party Government. The headline was, "Poor Pay Price of Saving Ireland's Economy". The article went on to say: During the budget debate in the Dáil, Fine Gael spokesman on Finance, Michael Noonan, accused the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government of being socially blind and said the budget was soft on the rich and hard on the poor. Michael Noonan added, "This is the budget of a puppet government doing what it is told by the IMF, the EU and the ECB". He was right. Irish Labour Finance spokeswoman, Joan Burton, said the winners in the budget were the bankers, both foreign and Irish, who were hoovering our money. She said responsibility was not being borne by reckless lenders or those who lent to them. She said the budget would leave Irish society more divided than ever. She was right. That same month, as they prepared for an election, Fine Gael said a recurring residential property tax on people's homes would be unfair for a number of reasons. The party said it would be difficult for asset rich but income poor households to pay, particularly the elderly and the unemployed, and that it would be deeply unfair for a young generation who paid exorbitant amounts of stamp duty and VAT on the purchases of over-valued houses, many of whom are now in negative equity. Once again, Fine Gael was right. Within three months, Fine Gael and the Labour Party were in power and how power changed everything. The people of Ireland voted for change, but they did not get it. They got lots more of the same. The gap between what politicians say they will do and what they do in reality has been well exposed. The injustice of how the pain has been shared is breathtaking. The Government's decision to allow a neoliberal philosophy from Europe to shape policy has seen the most vulnerable suffer most. We are also witnessing the development of a new poor from the ranks of the middle class. We have reached a stage in Ireland where the majority of people are struggling to pay their household bills - over 50%. Only the best off have been spared. Offering support for families that need it should be seen as a function of society and of Government. For too long politics has capitulated to the idea of evaluating outcomes when often the parts that work cannot be counted and the parts that can be counted do not work. Today, unemployment haunts Ireland as massive emigration helps to keep the figure below the 500,000 mark. The people of Ireland care more about the jobs deficit than about the budget deficit. Austerity has failed and fiscal consolidation has failed to spur growth or tackle unemployment. Growth requires financial investment, investment that does not suit the political thinking of our masters in Europe or our own Fine Gael-Labour Party Government at home. Basic economics teaches us the best way to cut borrowing levels in the long term is to get people back to work. As John Maynard Keynes put it, look after unemployment and the budget will look after itself. Europe's crisis, however, is not just about economics. Unlike GDP or inflation, unemployment is the only major economic indicator that measures real human beings. Unemployment is not a price worth paying. Sadly, at the moment Europe has a different idea, and Ireland has a different idea. What has been happening in the past few years is nothing short of a complete rewriting of the social contracts that have existed since the Second World War. In these contracts, renewed legitimacy was restored in the capitalist system after it had been discredited by the Great Depression. In return, they provided a welfare state that guaranteed minimum provisions for all those burdens most citizens must contend with throughout their lives, such as child care, education, health, unemployment, disability or old age. The path we are now taking does not put the interests of people first. We are looking at a system with deep structural inequalities and a rigid adherence to a failed economic ideology that protects neither democracy or human rights. Our domestic economy is struggling to breathe and the Government says there is only one way to deal with it, but there is always an alternative. Another world is possible. Cutting the deficit is vital but it must be done at the right time and in the right way or it will make things worse. Austerity is squeezing the life from the economy at the very time it needs more oxygen. It is squeezing the life out of the people. There is nothing inevitable about high and growing inequality. Different paths chosen by others bear this out. Nations can choose to be high tax with good social services, like the Nordic countries, or follow the American model of the survival of the fittest. Austerity economics pretends there is no alternative. A recent OECD report, Divided We Stand, noted that in the western world, the gap between the incomes of the top 10% and the bottom 10% has multiplied by a factor of 14 in the past 25 years. The experience in the West has shown that social mobility happens least where incomes are most unequal. When the fate of young people is fixed by their parents' fortunes, it reinforces the vicious cycle of poverty. The widening wages gap, and the emergence of a winner takes all culture, has been worsened by cuts to benefits as low incomes fail to keep pace with the rise in earnings. Former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, hardly a left wing thinker, recently said that the principal problem facing the developed world is the strong shift in the market reward for a small minority of citizens relative to the rewards available for most other citizens. In Ireland, much progress was made on taking children out of poverty but the austerity budgets of the past few years are undermining that progress. They are forcing children back into poverty. It is not possible to reduce child poverty at the same time as cutting child benefit. How do we measure the savings against the long-term costs? What is the cost of child poverty? This is false economics. It fails the economy, it fails society and it fails the people.

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