Thursday, 3 March 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on food safety, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1 p.m, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed eight minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than five minutes before the end of the statements.
Yesterday I raised the issue of the helpline set up in respect of nursing homes charges with the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when he was in the House. If the Government wanted to set up a fair and efficient system, it could not have gone about it in a worse way. Ten people are staffing the helpline and, according to the Minister for Health and Children, 37,000 telephone calls were logged in one day by those ten people. She has also said she does not have the resources to provide additional staff.
The Health Service Executive comprises various regions, including the south and the mid-west. Surely, it would have been possible to leave it up to these regions with the Health Service Executive providing a co-ordinating influence. The people staffing the helpline in Tullamore are only logging the queries and are concentrating on people who were in public nursing homes. There will be chaos.
Yesterday, on behalf of a constituent and out of curiosity, I stayed on the line for 28 minutes before somebody answered my call. The person could not answer my question about whether people who were in private nursing homes should submit applications at this stage. I was told they were concentrating on people who were in public nursing homes, although many of the queries we are getting relate to people who were in private nursing homes. The reason we are getting queries from such people is that the 2001 Act, which introduced medical cards for people aged over 70 years, stated that they were entitled to care and services. Many of those people believe they are entitled to refunds.
We must wait for the Travers report. The Tánaiste said she could probably get an international agency involved to determine the pay out structure, etc., and how we approach this issue. There has been much furore about and apportioning of blame politically in respect of this saga, which we must rectify. Will the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children seriously consider the approach that has been adopted? The fact that 37,000 calls were logged in one day by ten people does not mean 37,000 people were attended to because I assure the House that people will not wait 28 minutes for their call to be answered and will hang up out of frustration. There is no point someone in the Limerick area with a query telephoning a helpline in Tullamore, County Offaly — I mean no disrespect to that area. This issue has been handled badly. The way I have suggested is the way to go about it.
I raise the implications of the decision to withdraw funding for Intel which was in excess of €50 million. The only competition for Intel business comes from Singapore and China. I wish to discuss the implications of the Government's decision to withdraw the request it made to the EU to be allowed to grant State aid to Intel. The application encountered difficulties because the amount of funding the Government proposed to grant was more than €50 million. Although the European Union has grown, the only competition Ireland faces for Intel's business comes from countries like Singapore and China. If we are in Europe, we are in Europe. It is regrettable that the funding cannot be provided. Intel will proceed with the project at its plant, fortunately, but it has expressed some reservations about future investment in Ireland. Yesterday's developments do not send out a positive signal.
I will not discuss the unemployment problems in my local area in County Limerick because they have been mentioned. If the Government were to refer to locations which are affected by high unemployment in its future attempts to convince the EU to allow it to support inward investment projects, perhaps the Commission would take a different attitude. Fortunately, the Commission has not needed to examine many projects in this country which require investment of more than €50 million. Intel, the IDA and the Government should note recent developments and take remedial action accordingly.
I ask the House to welcome the Government's indication yesterday that it intends to support what it calls the "western rail corridor", which is referred to by Senators as the "Sligo-Waterford-Rosslare line". I have raised this issue in the House at least three times a year for the past 15 years. The House would appreciate an opportunity to discuss the matter with the Minister for Transport, or another representative of the Government. I would like to know how the project will proceed. For example, what timeframe will it have? The last time the matter was raised in the House, Senators were told that the McCann report would be ready by early February of this year, but it now seems that it will not be ready until the middle of April.
I would like the relevant authorities to produce a plan that indicates clearly that the project will be pursued almost immediately. Plans should be put in place to start working on the railway line in three or four areas and not just at the top or bottom of it. I would like this House to propose to the Government that the project should begin in three or four places — south of Sligo, between Tuam and Galway and between Ennis and Galway, for example.
The proposed link from the Limerick-Ennis line to Shannon Airport was not mentioned by the Government yesterday. The reopening of the western rail corridor is the single most significant prospect in the BMW region. There will be a working north-south infrastructural link of quality in that area for the first time. We should ensure that we keep our foot on the pedal in this regard by giving the project every encouragement and continuing the discussion in this House. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the matter as soon as the McCann report is presented and available. I think the proposal will receive wide support on both sides of the House.
A throwaway comment made by the Taoiseach yesterday about the future of the national pensions reserve fund warrants further examination because it was extraordinarily interesting. He said demographic factors might mean it will no longer be necessary, within a short number of years, for us to continue to pay 1% of GNP into the national pensions reserve fund each year. The Taoiseach's statement coincided with the news yesterday that three quarters of the new jobs created in this country last year were taken by immigrant workers. Both factors indicate clearly that change is coming. The Taoiseach is probably right. The national pensions reserve fund was established some years ago on the basis that within 20 years, two or three people would be depending on every working person. As a consequence of the influx of workers from other countries, it no longer looks like that ratio will be accurate.
I would like the Government to outline the current position in this regard. The basis on which the Government makes its plans is never properly explained to this House. We often discuss health, education and housing, but I would like a Minister to come to the House to discuss related matters such as demographics, the birth rate and our dependency ratio. Decisions are made on the basis of a logical extrapolation of information that is available. It is simply a statistical exercise. We need to hear from somebody who makes judgments on the likely position in 15 or 20 years.
The release of moneys from the national pensions reserve fund would have a significant impact on infrastructural projects. It would be the most significant thing we could do. I have supported the national pensions reserve fund from the beginning, when it needed to be established. That does not mean it has to be continued, however. We need to consider how the moneys can be released. I would like the Minister for Finance to indicate how he thinks this matter will develop.
Last Christmas, the Department of Social and Family Affairs gave two payments, instead of one, to recipients of certain social welfare allowances such as invalidity payment, carer's allowance and retirement pensions. The double payments received a great deal of attention in the media at that time. Various people, including representatives of sectoral groups, called on the Government to allow those who received an extra payment to keep it, on the basis that the error originated in the Department and was not the fault of the recipients. The Department decided to claw back the additional payments in the first week of January. However, there was a difference between the remuneration that was overpaid in December and the level that was clawed back in January. I refer to the increase of €10 that would have applied in some cases in the first week of January. Given that 40,000 people were affected by this move, one can work out that a considerable amount of money was involved.
I have asked the Department to give me details of the number of people who were affected by this event, but I have not received an official response. I asked how many overpayments were made, for example. If payments were withheld because an increase of €10 was involved in the first week of January by virtue of the increase in social welfare payments, when will the moneys be repaid to those from whom it has been withheld? I ask the Leader to seek clarification from the relevant Minister in this regard.
There have been media reports in recent days about the conditions in which the killers of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe are being held. A newspaper referred to an official report that suggested the killers have a major say in the running of the bungalows which form part of Castlerea Prison. The reports are disturbing for the family of Detective Garda McCabe and all others who were affected by the appalling tragedy of his death. The reports will damage public confidence in this country's prison system. I ask the Leader to seek clarification from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in respect of this issue.
I would like to discuss an airline, other than Aer Lingus, which has origins in this country. The airline, of which the Leader has had previous experience, was fined in the UK this week for violating that country's consumer protection laws and misleading customers about prices. The airline's reputation was built on low fares. It has sold most of its flights on the basis that it provides a low-cost service. In this case, the airline was fined because it did not make clear the full cost of seats.
Many Senators have called in recent times for debates on over-pricing and other issues which affect consumers financially. We should ensure that the problems which have been encountered in respect of this airline in the UK do not recur in this country. We need to be aware that an airline that operates in this country has been fined in another jurisdiction. We should ensure that it complies with the law of the land and does not take advantage of consumers.
Will the Leader consider arranging a debate on substance abuse, with particular emphasis on under-age drinking? Perhaps such a discussion could take place in the context of a motion that would allow for contributions from all sides, in the presence of the relevant Minister. I am calling for the debate following reports today in the media of comments made by Bishop Forristal about the confirmation pledge. I am sure many Senators are used to the pledge being given publicly, but the church has recently adopted what it calls a "silent pledge". I confess that I cannot understand the logic behind the change. As David Quinn wrote in today's Irish Independent, when the promise was made publicly, there was a greater emphasis on ensuring it was kept.
I am sure the Leader agrees we should commend the compassion of Fr. Micheál MacGréil and the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and encourage an initiative taken by the association. I confess that I was not aware of the existence of the special under-age pledge that has been introduced in schools, even though approximately 15,000 people between the ages of eight and 12 have taken it. That there is a need for people of such a young age to have a special pioneer pin is a sad reflection on our society. My speech is not intended in any way as an apologia for the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, of which I am a member. I know that many Senators on all sides of the House are involved in the organisation. Our society has reached a crisis point due to the prevalence of under-age drinking and the abuse of drugs, including alcohol.
I learned yesterday that one of the reasons many young Irish people are not applying for J1 visas to travel to the United States for the summer does not relate to economics. That they have decided not to go there because a law in that country ensures that one cannot purchase alcohol until one is 21 years of age is a sad reflection on Irish society. It is past time for a debate in the House on the matter. Such a debate would be valued and all sides of the House could contribute to it.
In early 2002 the Government withdrew the disability Bill and promised it would reintroduce a Bill that would be meaningful and helpful and which would respond to the needs of many people with disabilities. In the meantime, a new version of the Bill has been produced but it has not satisfied the various organisations dealing with people with disabilities and their parents. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill has been introduced under the aegis of the Minister for Education and Science. Like the other Bills, it also promised much.
All of us read with horror a story in today's newspaper about a family in Kells in County Meath with four children suffering from autism. Both parents had to give up their jobs and are now full-time carers. They have about two hours' rest per day in which to sleep. Both the Department of Health and Children, through the aegis of the Health Service Executive, and the Department of Education and Science have failed this family miserably. The needs of the family were assessed over a year ago and the parents have been at loggerheads in every way with the Health Service Executive regarding their efforts to be granted the supports they need. The executive has failed. The family has been on a waiting list for education places for two years. Every day, Ministers criss-cross the constituency of Meath. I ask that one of them, be she responsible for health or education, call to this family and guarantee it, once and for all, that there is somebody willing to help.
In a letter in yesterday's Irish Times, a homeless person is quoted as having said: "They don't see you now, they examine you on the computer and give you a piece of paper, then you leave." If this represents the stage we have reached in this country, it is very bad.
I concur with Senator O'Toole's comments on the western rail corridor. I welcome the comments made in this regard by the Taoiseach in the Dáil yesterday and also the Government's support for rail infrastructure. The West on Track committee, the McCann committee, had a meeting last Friday. It has produced a report, which is to be forwarded to the Minister early next week. I hope it will lead to further developments.
I support my colleague, Senator O'Toole, in asking for a debate on the national pensions reserve fund which would be very useful. In the debate, we should consider the wider aspects of pension provision, particularly the disgraceful anomalies that exist. I refer in particular to the case of an Army pensioner who wrote to me. He was a contributor to the contributory pension scheme but he has had one subtracted from the other. This is an anomaly because younger Army personnel do not suffer from this and given the enormous sums of money in the national pensions reserve fund, the decent approach is to pay the victims of this type of mean-minded anomaly.
When we have looked after pensioners, perhaps we could build a metro with the rest of the pension fund.
I have no doubt that we could put one into Roscommon eventually. I have no problem using the money on infrastructural projects if we do not need it.
On the matter raised by Senator Finucane, namely, the Intel investment, the position is slightly different from that which he outlined. There were four competitor areas which included China, as identified correctly by the Senator, Singapore, Israel and North America. There was a very useful radio programme on the subject this morning. It would be useful to debate the issue in the House. I would like to hear from Senator O'Toole and Senator Ross, who has very clear knowledge of this area and expertise therein. It seems extraordinary that the European Union would cut off its nose to spite its face. There was no internal competition within Europe for this investment. We were not competing against France or Germany or some such country. Why should the Union not compete against Singapore, China and Israel?
Unless there is something I have not spotted, I believe it should do so. The only argument that the representative of the Union came up with was that the type of grants in question could spark off a kind of auction in which countries with deeper pockets, such as France, would outbid us. I do not find that argument very convincing. The RTE economics correspondent, George Lee, was absolutely fascinating, very clear and determined. As politicians, we should be equally determined in following up the interests of this country.
I support the calls by Senators O'Toole and Scanlon for a debate, to be held as soon as possible, on the western rail corridor and the development of the rail infrastructure. It is of vital importance to the development of the entire west. Those of us who are now canvassing daily realise the pressures associated with travelling from Meath and Kildare to the city centre.
The Cathaoirleach will agree that it would be useful to have a debate at the earliest opportunity to ensure that as much momentum as possible is given to the report on the rail corridor. This would ensure a counterbalance along the western seaboard so that people living there will have the same type of service as people on the eastern seaboard.
I agree with our deputy Leader on the public disquiet over the shabby handling of the helplines set up by the Health Service Executive to provide information on securing for the elderly those moneys that were taken illegally from them by various health boards. Many constituents have contacted me about the lengthy periods they have had to wait on the helplines. Will the Leader ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, who has taken full responsibility for health, to address the problem before the public lose confidence in the system?
Will the Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House to debate the establishment of an audit commission to assess the performance of local authorities? As we all know, the public assesses the performance of elected members, but elected members sometimes adopt policies that are not implemented by the executives, thus resulting in a very serious problem. The public deserves an audit commission. It is important and would warrant a debate in the House. Such a debate might go some way towards addressing the fact that the policies of the elected members are not being implemented. I gleaned evidence of this from several counties. We should grade those councils that perform extremely well. Many councils have performed extremely well in the areas of housing, environmental services and roads, for example.
Will the Leader arrange for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to come into the House after the by-elections to consider this matter further? The forms have been sent out but they refer to people claiming on behalf of the person named. Fifty people voted in the Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon to the effect that they are quite capable of submitting a claim themselves and do not need a solicitor or anybody else to make the claim on their behalf.
I support the remarks of Senators Norris and Finucane on the issue of Intel and multinationals. It is appropriate that we have an early debate on what has happened there. Too often the House decides to have debates on matters which are irrelevant by the time we come to discuss them.
We may generally be running riot with EU rules and I am not sure whether that is good or bad. Intel is not the only case of this kind which has given rise to concern at the Commission in the past week. It is about to intervene to say that RTE is abusing its position with its use of the licence fee in a non-competitive way. The Commission is concerned with the public sector as well as the private sector.
We should have a serious debate on this issue and the Government's attitude to it, by inviting the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the House. It is stunning to see that the Government appears surprised at the EU Commission's decision. It withdrew quickly in the face of this opposition which could have serious long-term consequences for inward investment. We might need to reconsider our economic direction. It would be useful to have a serious debate on this before the end of next week.