Thursday, 5 May 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No.1, a referral motion re motion 9 on the Order Paper. The motion concerns the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse which was established in May 2000 for a period of two years, and which was subsequently extended in December 2001 for a period of three years, until 23 May 2005. The chairperson of the commission wrote to the Minister seeking a further extension of the commission's term. This was agreed by the Government. The motion is to be taken without debate; No. 2, Registration of Deeds and Title Bill 2004 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m.; spokespersons have 15 minutes each and all other Senators have ten minutes. The Minister is to be called upon to reply not later than ten minutes before the end of Second Stage.
With your permission, a Chathaoirligh, I wish to explain the arrangements for a Bill which will come before the House later today. The Dáil is today dealing with urgent legislation, the British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2005. It is hoped that the Bill will have concluded in the Dáil by 3.30 p.m. The Seanad will then be required to deal with the Bill. It is therefore proposed that all Stages of the Bill be taken from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Spokespersons will have 15 minutes each and other Senators ten minutes. The Minister is to be called upon to reply not later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage.
The Bill is being presented by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív. The Bill was placed in Senators' pigeon holes this morning. It is a narrow, technical measure, but I understand from what I have been told that it simply must go through the Oireachtas today. There will also be an earlier signature motion to which, if the Bill is passed, we will ask Members to agree. I assume the Bill will successfully pass through this House. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. until 4 p.m. to allow for the passage of the Bill through the Dáil. I understand people may wish to get away, but the Dáil will spend two hours on the Bill and it will then take another half hour before it is ready to come before the Seanad from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. There is no way out of the timetable.
It is unusual for a Bill to be rushed through in this manner. However, I understand that it relates to a mistake made in initial legislation concerning ground water and the applicability of the legislation to the bodies established under the British-Irish Agreement. We will support the Bill and ensure that it gets through this House today on the basis that it will help the bodies and ensure the continued work of the Agreement.
Senator Norris raised a very important matter on yesterday's Order of Business concerning drink-related problems in accident and emergency departments at weekends. In the Dáil, the Taoiseach cited the extraordinary statistic that three out of four persons admitted to accident and emergency departments in Dublin acute hospitals at weekends are drunk. We have a responsibility to protect staff and patients who are genuinely sick, and an additional responsibility to make these other people pay an additional charge. It is unfair and wrong that they can abuse our health service for no other reason than they are out of their heads with drink. I ask the Leader to forcibly express my views and those of other Senators to the Minister for Health and Children.
Additional Garda protection is also needed in accident and emergency departments over the weekend. It is a most unsatisfactory situation for staff and patients. Senator Norris and others proposed drunk tanks, whereby drunk people are segregated from ordinary, decent patients.
The Minister for Health and Children should take up the issue.
As a former Minister for Education and Science, and as someone who has particular educational expertise, will the Leader comment on the controversial website www.ratemyteacher.com? I have received complaints about this website from many decent, hard-working teachers in my own constituency and others. Very little can be done to take action because it is hosted in the United States. However, we have a responsibility to speak up for the vast majority of teachers who work hard in our schools but must put up with anonymous statements by students. It is unfair. If people have something to say they should do so to a person's face or put their name to a statement.
They should not scurry around by means of a website, making anonymous comments. Teachers must be told by both Houses that their work is valued. This is a gimmick used by some as a means of making teachers accountable. People should state their opinions to others' faces rather than anonymously on a website.
I raised the issue of the Marino Institute of Education on yesterday's Order of Business and was pleased it was taken up by many others over the course of the day. Senator Fitzgerald mentioned that the real issue is what will happen to students in the future. It has now come to light that the college cannot finalise its teacher education budget for next year because it does not yet know the cost caused by the legal action fiasco. The college was advised not to take legal action but responded in a macho fashion by allowing the principal take a case for constructive dismissal. Its attitude was, to coin a term, "Bring it on". I will not try the Cathaoirleach's patience, but have written to him this morning seeking the urgent adjournment of the House to deal with the issue. I know he will respond positively and I hope to deal with this matter in an hour's time. I look for his support in this regard.
There are two arguments with regard to the issue of special needs assistants. If a person is employed in a school to work as a special needs assistant with a child who has a certain disability, the person will develop skills in that specific area. That person will also develop skills in general areas of support for children with special needs. Therefore, it should be easy and reasonable to create opportunities for such people to apply for positions in other schools. A panel arrangement should be put in place whereby they can be redeployed to schools for which they would be suitable.
I express my thanks to Senator Mansergh for setting the record straight regarding public and private service pay contrary to what Senator Ross had said. I misled the House somewhat——
I had a serious argument with Senator Ross some years ago when we were discussing benchmarking. I made the point that public service pensions were taken into consideration and that the benchmarking award was duly reduced. I now find that I made a mistake and concede the point. This morning the ESRI stated that private sector pensions cost the State more than public sector pensions, which is a disgrace. The private sector should pay us back money. There must be a proper adjustment of awards in the new benchmarking arrangements to ensure a decent increase next time around which takes into consideration the huge amount the State is spending on private sector pensions.
Like everybody else, I am mystified by what is happening in the Marino Institute of Education. The Government should not take the easier route and say it is a matter for the college. We cannot have the sort of chaos which has descended.
The ESRI report meshes with some of the particularly eccentric comments made yesterday regarding benchmarking. The last benchmarking report had no background information because IBEC insisted that every scrap of information it submitted about private sector salaries should be destroyed so that it would not become accessible. That is why there was no back-up report. There were only conclusions without any back-up because the employers' group, in particular, was very insistent that any information it had supplied never became public. Let us have another benchmarking review and let the entire basis for its conclusions be made public, rather than having a report without background information. We know the result, namely, salaries in different areas will fluctuate, more or less in harmony but a little out of phase.
I agree with what has been said about the website, www.ratemyteacher.com, although I looked at it and any teachers I know were rated highly. However, that is not the point. The most important thing teachers want from us as politicians is to ensure they are properly paid. Therefore, if another benchmarking award is made, some political parties should not decide to jump on a bandwagon and suggest it should not be paid. That is how one devalues teachers.
On the Order of Business, the ESRI report on pensions is worthy of debate in this House. There has been a massive rush towards tax incentives for private pensions and while one has no problem with that in principle, it ought to be a form of incentive which is not simply making well-off people even better off. This is essentially what the ESRI is saying.
In the light of the shedding of 485 jobs by Waterford Crystal, I call on the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, to provide us with a snapshot of the current state of small and medium sized indigenous industries. I do not want to hear general statistics about growth figures and the like. I want to hear about the real state of indigenous industries, which in many cases are at the heart of communities. Today, Ireland has the highest costs in Europe. How can a company compete against a weak dollar? Any indigenous industry worth its salt must export and most of our exports are outside the eurozone. We are under severe pressure with exchange rates and the costs of doing business in Ireland.
I am sure the Members are concerned by the criticism of the Competition Authority on the front page of Public Affairs Ireland, which states that the authority relies too heavily on its advocacy role and is not utilising its enforcement powers to full capacity. The point is made that it can make a difference to prevent consumers from being ripped off by anti-competitive behaviour by using its enforcement powers. Apparently, according to the economist Patrick Massey, it is not doing so. I am unsure if a report has been published, but if this is the case, can the Leader of the House arrange a debate on it? It is important that we do so.
On the point I raised yesterday regarding pensions, I support Senator Ryan. It would be a very useful debate in this House. I also raise the promised Employment Permits Bill and the new Defamation Bill. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, gave a preview of it to a selected group last night. When does the Leader of the House expect those Bills? Will they be initiated in this House? The Leader might give an indication as to when the Members can expect both of them.
Senator Brian Hayes raised a very interesting point regarding the bizarre website where students are supposed to rate their teachers. I have spoken to several teachers who found it to be particularly hurtful. They find it hurtful because it is anonymous. It is unclear if the comments even come from a pupil. A conspiracy could exist against an individual and it is very ungenerous for young people to put such insulting comments on the site. We expect young people to be courageous, forthright and to nail their colours to the mast.
Another aspect of this matter concerns the advertisers. Some very well-known business interests advertise on the site and I wonder how they can justify it. The view of the teachers is that many teachers give time over and above the call of duty outside of school hours. It is all right for an older teacher who has a track record and feels confident but this can be demeaning and hurtful for a young teacher in his or her first year who is trying to build up confidence in the profession.
I am aware that we can do nothing about this matter in a legislative sense, but we should be aware that this is insidious. I do not blame the pupils. I blame the site, which is based in America, and I also question those people in Ireland who advertise on it.
In the light of the welcome and positive reports that appeared in the newspapers today about the Cabinet proposals for a €20 billion transport initiative over the next few years, which will include a metro with a link to Dublin Airport and on to Swords, I ask the Leader for a debate on this important subject. It is necessary for the House to give support because the idea for the metro came from here. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport unanimously supported a metro and has commissioned a report from an independent expert which has also endorsed it. At this stage, it would be politically useful to give the Government support, particularly because there will be the usual cavilling questions from the Department of Finance.
I also ask for a debate on Iraq because it has been some time since we monitored the situation there and it was useful when we did so previously. We now know that the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, clearly lied because we are in possession of the full text of Lord Goldsmith's advice to the British Government. The terms in which this advice was written raise worries about the morality of politics in our neighbouring island. It includes references like "greying the line" and notes that matters would be illegal, but that efforts must be made to try to justify it. We no longer hear so much about it. However, almost every day, there are explosions in Iraq, with ten, 20, 30, 60 or 100 people killed. They say the war is won and is over. It is a disaster, and we should not let it slip from our consciousness.
On a positive note, an anniversary has occurred that we should be proud to celebrate in Ireland. I have just received the Genealogical Society of Ireland's newsletter, as have the other Members. Until I read it, I was not aware that this year is the flag of the European Union's 50th anniversary. The flag, with its blue background and 12 gold stars reflecting the membership, was designed by the Chief Herald of Ireland and accepted by the EEC in 1955. We can be proud that the flag, which is still used as the emblem of the European Union, was produced by Irish genius and craftsmanship and we should celebrate this 50th anniversary.
I join with Senator O'Toole in calling for a debate on the situation at the Marino Institute of Education. Some of the details which emerged yesterday were shocking and many questions need to be answered. Our primary concern is for the students and staff, but we could all benefit from a debate on the issue as a matter of the utmost urgency as it is a very serious situation.
I also wish to raise the issue of local government funding, which I have raised here previously. For a number of years now, we have been informed that a review of local government funding is under way, but there is no sign of its completion. Can the Leader arrange for the Minister to come to the House to debate the issue? In the meantime, local authorities all over the country resolve budgetary shortfalls by increasing commercial rates. While all businesses must pay their fair share and are willing to do so, the situation whereby 8% of the beneficiaries pay 50% of the budget must be addressed. We need a more equitable system.
I join with the other Members who have asked for a debate on the ESRI report on pensions. Although we have had debates at my request on pensions in this House previously, it is timely that we have one now following the publication of this report and also in light of the many articles which one frequently reads about SSIA money and the efforts of the pensions industry to get its hands on it when it matures and that the Minister for Finance may be considering some other form of pension to tie in with the money. I am concerned the Minister will not demand that the pensions industry provide some protection for private sector pensions in return for any new deal. Senator O'Toole is correct that the Government is spending millions of euro in tax relief for the private pensions industry and we are not getting value for money. While I welcome the guarantees afforded to public sector pensions, the same is needed for those in the private sector. It is time we had another debate on this issue because the Minister is considering matters in this area.
We have discussed youth drinking in this House many times but I ask the Leader for another debate on the issue in light of research carried out by Trinity College, Dublin. This research shows that heavy and reckless drinking by young women, particularly when they are pregnant, is leading to a considerable amount of very severe abnormalities, particularly intellectual disabilities, among newborn babies. A debate on this issue would be timely, particularly one that focused on early education to combat binge drinking. This kind of preventive education should be introduced in primary schools. I am aware that some people consider this kind of education too shocking to be introduced in primary schools but I believe it is necessary because binge drinking will affect society today and in the future. It will have a long-term effect on the Exchequer with regard to health and education spending.
I agree with Senator White who raised a very relevant point with regard to the long-term sustainability of indigenous industry. Our economists can only forecast as far as 2006 regarding predicted growth of 5.5%. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to know that we will have that growth because 12% of all investment resources are tied up in the construction sector. We must examine the post-construction sector of the economy. As everyone is aware, indigenous industry throughout the country is tied up with the construction sector.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it is with regard to the manufacturing sector. We learned a very hard lesson in Donegal, where the Government was left with the problem of what to do with the workforce following the decline of the manufacturing sector. The Government sent workers on computer courses as a solution. We should plan for the future.
Previously, I called for a debate on cancer care services and I want to reiterate that call. I have spoken on many occasions about the need for radiotherapy services around the country. I do not wish to labour the point but many people are suffering and we need a debate on this issue. The Department of Health and Children is breaching its own cancer care guidelines over dedicated oncology wards, which are not available in many hospitals.
Waterford Wedgewood announced yesterday that it is to close its plant in Dungarvan with the loss of approximately 400 jobs. If one examines the scale of this closure, a closure of its magnitude in Dublin would result in 30,000 to 40,000 jobs being lost. We need an urgent debate on the closure of the Dungarvan plant and the Minister should come to the House and urge the IDA to redouble its efforts. I do not think the IDA is doing enough for provincial towns like Dungarvan.
Figures published last Saturday in The Irish Times indicate that 70% of the wider prison population reoffend after they are released from prison. The Government introduced the Connect scheme some years ago, which dramatically reduced the rate of recidivism among participants. Only 5% of the scheme's participants reoffended and wound up in prison again. The abolition of the Connect scheme some two or three years ago received no publicity. This issue should be debated in the House and I ask the Leader to consider asking the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to debate the prison visiting committee reports. I attended Wheatfield prison on one occasion as part of the Connect scheme with which I was extremely impressed. I was stunned last weekend to learn of its abolition.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House to explain why he has declined the invitation from the Prison Officers Association to attend its annual conference. He is the first Minister in 20 years to decline such an invitation. At a time when dialogue is essential, the Minister is, as ever, being confrontational on this matter.
I would like to positively respond to a point made by Senators O'Toole and Terry. The ESRI report addressed a very important point. Senator O'Toole's point that the private sector was costing €1.5 billion in relief to taxpayers should be debated. This debate would address the pensions industry. It is very easy to say that €1.5 billion is being lost to the Exchequer, which is undoubtedly true in a very forensic way. However, we need to ask the Minister to address the question of who has their fingers in the pensions pie. The pensions industry is a complete racket involving bankers, brokers, fund managers, lawyers, consultants and all kinds of people making a fortune——
I am seeking a debate on this issue. I am asking the Leader to respond to my request for a debate. All the people I mentioned are making a fortune out of the pensions pie. If these people took less, and they have a vested interest in this industry's continuance, there would be much more money available for the taxpayer and the €1.5 billion would be substantially reduced every year.
I join with my colleagues and support the call for a debate on Government supports for indigenous small business. Blanked-out shopfronts can be seen in every town in Ireland as a result of increased rates, insurance and fees. It is of paramount importance that we have a debate on this matter urgently because we owe it to the small businesses of this country to support them. The Government has not done enough for small businesses.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should come to the House to discuss the role of Dúchas. Dúchas appears to be unaccountable and today, under a notice for the Adjournment, I saw Dúchas' position on the heritage site at Rathcroghan. I received a reply stating this was not the function of the NRA. I would like to find out Dúchas' position on the proposed advice on——
Will the Leader arrange for a debate on the schools building programme and have the Minister for Education and Science attend? We are now in May and schools are facing another September without having advanced through the programme. The devolved grants are a welcome step but in one school in County Carlow, instead of receiving the €1 million it was looking for, it got €560,000. This left the school in an awkward situation because it is not enough to proceed and a refusal would result in its going back a few years in terms of building. This is a disaster.
The announcement by the Minister last week about 124 schools progressing through the architectural planning stage is a complete myth. Two schools in County Carlow have gone backwards in this process, which is hard to believe. A secondary school in County Carlow received word four or five years ago that it would get a new building but last week——
Senator Brian Hayes raised the matter of accident and emergency services and the Taoiseach's answer in the Dáil on 4 May that three out of four people at specified times are drunk when they check in. They are causing a danger not just to themselves, as they brought on their conditions themselves, but to staff and other patients. The Senator asked that these views be conveyed to the Taoiseach's office and I will do so. Senator Brian Hayes then mentioned the website www.ratemyteachers.ie. There is nothing one can do about a website. The Senator strongly commented that something should be said to a person's face and I could not agree more. People scurrying around talking about others is the wrong way to conduct one's business. One should seek an appointment with one's teacher and say it then. I cannot stand people who mutter in dark corners and who do not say what they want to say.
Senator O'Toole raised the issue of the Marino Institute of Education and suggested the House should adjourn to allow Members deal with it. I telephoned the Minister for Education and Science's private secretary yesterday. The Minister is giving a lecture in Poland and will not be back in Ireland until the night of 6 May. I was told that she had just cleared, checked and made changes to the Adjournment debates on this issue in the other House. One sometimes wonders whether the parent Minister has made her imprint upon an Adjournment debate when it is held by another Minister or Minister of State but she has done so on this issue. I agree there should be clarity on the matter.
I asked yesterday about having a panel arrangement for special needs assistants because I take the Senator's point. If one is dealing with children who have a disadvantage of some kind, one requires skills of a general nature that can be transferred into specifics later. To lose such people is wrong.
Senator O'Toole also said that private sector pensions cost more than public sector pensions. Senator Ryan joined with him in asking for the Government to intervene in the Marino institute case. Senator Ryan then said during the debate on benchmarking that all of the documents and evidence should be included in the report this time rather than having some destroyed.
Senator White asked for a debate on indigenous small industries and asked for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to address the House. She suggested what the Minister should say but we have no control over that. However, the European Central Bank's report is positive about Ireland, citing 5.2% economic growth this year, an increase from 4.7%. I remind the House that the euro was worth US$0.90 two years ago and is now worth $1.30. Oil prices have also doubled. The report also says there was an increase in exports from Ireland in 2005.
Senator Coghlan called for debates on pensions and the forthcoming work permits legislation. The Senator was present yesterday when I asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to bring the legislation to the House. There is a legislative meeting today during which this matter can be aired.
Senator Ó Murchú thought it ungenerous of young people to berate their teachers. The website was started in the UK and those who advertise on the site are doing so because it is viewed often. Nothing can be done about this. Senator Norris asked for a debate on future transport policy, such as the metro and other matters concerning the millions of euro to be invested. He also commented on the war in Iraq and was correct in saying we have not had an up-to-date debate, particularly in view of the British Attorney General's report on the matter, which mentioned illegality.
I remember the day I said in this House that the war in Iraq was illegal. I felt the world falling on top of me in condemnation but we only saw the tip of the iceberg. Senator Norris also gave us some interesting facts. I did not know the Chief Herald of Ireland had devised the EU flag and that this is its 50th anniversary.
Senator MacSharry called for an urgent debate on the Marino Institute of Education and pointed out that the shortfall in local government funding is being made up by increased business rates. This is the case in every local authority. I often feel this is not fair on business ratepayers who are asked to supply far more than the consumer price index increases.
Senator Terry has been hammering at the pensions issue for some time and she spoke about the private and public sectors. Senator Feeney spoke about the research by Trinity College, Dublin, showing that young pregnant women who drink run a risk of abnormalities in their children. The Senator asked for another debate on youth drinking.
Senator McHugh raised the issue of the indigenous construction industry, about which he has often spoken. Senator Kenneally spoke about cancer care and what is occurring with Waterford Crystal in Dungarvan. We made the point yesterday that the scale of job losses in so small an area is significant and I can only imagine what it is like. Senator Cummins also raised this issue yesterday but I thank Senator Kenneally, as I know he is involved. Senator Quinn mentioned that under the old Connect project, the recidivist rate was only 5% compared with 70% among other prisoners. This arose from a report on prison visits. The Senator called for a debate on the report.
Senator Cummins asked why the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has refused to go to the annual conference of the Prison Officers Association. Whether he goes is the Minister's business. I do not keep his diary but the Senator can be sure he has a good reason. If the Senator goes——
——to the ante-room now, he can ask the Minister himself. Senator Ross supported Senator Terry's call for a debate on the pensions industry. He went on to make strong statements about the industry and all those who have their fingers in the pension pie. If he expresses himself with the same robustness, this will be an interesting debate. I cannot answer him in such a fashion.
I suggest he writes to the heritage section of the Department. Senator Browne referred to school buildings and cited a strange anomaly whereby a lift that will be welcomed by disabled pupils is being installed in an old building rather than a new one.