Wednesday, 14 June 2006
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, and No. 27, motion 21. No. 1, the Road Traffic Bill 2006 — Committee Stage, is to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 1.30 p.m.; No. 2, Health (Repayment Scheme) Bill 2006 — Report Stage, is to be taken at 2.30 p.m., to conclude not later than 3.30 p.m.; No. 3, European Communities (Amendment) Bill 2006 — Second Stage, is to be taken at 3.30 p.m. until 5 p.m., to resume at 7.15 p.m. and to conclude not later than 8.30 p.m., with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed eight minutes and Senators may share time, and the Minister to be called to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage; and No. 27, motion 21, will be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m.
Later today, the Irish Nurses Organisation will again protest on the streets of Dublin about the conditions and salaries of its members. Many thousands of nurses are flabbergasted that, at a time when they have been asked to work so hard within the acute hospital system, many senior and middle managers within the Health Service Executive, HSE, have awarded themselves such a massive increase in salary, pay and conditions. There must be a sense of perspective in this regard.
The chief executive of the HSE has stated that his priority on assuming the job was to build up capacity within the community care services. However, I have discovered that at present, there are seven fewer public health nurses in Dublin than was the case in 2001. This is despite the massive growth in population in the greater Dublin area and the greater pressure which has been placed on postnatal care services and on many existing schemes catering for the elderly. It is horrendous that, at a time when the delivery of quality community care is expected, HSE executives appear to be more concerned with paying themselves fat salaries than with delivering the kind of results Members expected when the Government decided to introduce radical reforms, such as removing politicians from health boards and similar measures.
Members should debate the manner in which the health service is being administered and governed with the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children before the summer recess, in order to bring some accountability to the system and to ensure value for money and that those people who are working hard will receive their deserved rewards.
Senator Brian Hayes made some serious points with which I agree.
The issue raised yesterday by Senator Minihan regarding the leaving certificate mathematics paper is a good example of how change should not be managed. It is clear, given the concerns raised by third level institutions, that the mathematics paper requires change. However, permitting pupils and students to walk into an examination only to find a completely reorganised and reformatted paper, with a completely new approach is the incorrect way to manage change. This issue has created trauma for pupils, is unfair to teachers and creates worry for parents. Although the Minister would state that this is a question for the State Examinations Commission, I ask the Leader to raise it with her. There is political responsibility in this regard and change should not be managed in this fashion. The House should be informed as to how this could be dealt with in future. If change is required, people must be aware that it will take place to be able to prepare for it and deal with it.
I wish to raise an issue concerning the Leader's own constituency. I can assure the House that had a bog fire taken place in County Wicklow, it would have taken over the national media for the past week. A serious and risky event occurred in County Longford last week, namely, a bog fire which ran riot for a number of days. It was extremely serious and necessitated the movement of livestock. Moreover, people were obliged to move from their houses, property was damaged and trees were cut to create firebreaks. I seek reassurances that this cannot happen again, as lives could be at risk.
Apparently, other locations handle such outbreaks better. My understanding is that in places such as Laois and Offaly, a fireman is assigned to each bog to ensure that bog fires are treated and dealt with at an early stage. However, the problem in the Longford area was caused by cutbacks, which meant that a similar approach was not taken and no defence mechanisms were in place. This is one of those issues in rural Ireland which is simply ignored by the establishment. It is a serious issue which could cost lives in future. I seek reassurances that it cannot happen anywhere in the boglands, which extend throughout the midlands.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate as soon as possible on what appears to be the reorganisation of the health services in the north-east region. A report has been completed and is being launched today by the HSE, amid reports that a new hospital is to be built. While what is happening in the north east is primarily of concern to that region, issues on how the HSE organises and delivers services arise in other parts of the country. It is important we have this debate and many Members share my concern that since the abolition of the health boards, and despite the establishment of the so-called regional fora, there is no democratic accountability in the delivery of the health services.
It is difficult for public representatives at every level to get answers and information and to fully represent the concerns and needs of their constituents.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I ask the Leader again to let us know when the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is likely to publish his proposals on a press council and media freedom. I would also like to know about the publication of a new set of regulations on crèches.
In recent days we heard of the momentous decision of the Irish Christian Brothers to withdraw from education and to hand their schools over to a trust for the future. This is after 200 years of dedicated service to the Irish nation providing Irish education for Irish children at a time when that was not available, particularly for those who could not afford it. They gave us a sense of self-esteem at a time when the country needed it, they prepared us for careers and made it possible for us to build up the new State.
Most of the staff of the early Civil Service were educated by the Irish Christian Brothers. They were central to the promotion of Irish games and culture. Nobody could express fully the gratitude and appreciation we owe to the Christian Brothers. I raise this issue because I hope the State will not allow this period to pass without acknowledging what has happened appropriately and generously. Future generations and history will not thank us if we do not avail of this opportunity to show our gratitude for how the Christian Brothers helped us to get up from our knees and bring us to our current position.
Last week the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources presented a comprehensive document on energy, the first of its kind produced. It took a considerable period of time and the committee met all the people involved in energy over 18 days. That document is extremely important. Energy is the most important issue we will have to deal with in the near future. Over 90% of our energy comes from fossil fuel, a volatile resource.
The document includes components on wind energy, which we want to increase to 21%. Despite the regulator's reassurance that we will achieve our objective of having 13% of our electricity derived from renewable sources by 2007-08, on the ground I found many impediments to wind energy promoters. I am not sure we have our act together. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister to have a comprehensive debate in this House on that report?
The House would welcome the news that agreement has been reached on what was always a contentious Orange march in north Belfast. It might be the source of a debate for us in the autumn. This is a hopeful development in that it was brokered by local people, such as councillors, political parties, clergy, the loyal orders and residents. Linked with the meeting between Archbishop Seán Brady and representatives of the orders, it is a welcome sign that people on the ground are beginning to talk and listen to each other and understand each other's point of view. That can only be hopeful.
I support Senator Maurice Hayes because the marching season is often fraught with tension, particularly for the minority community in Northern Ireland, and it shows maturity that they are talking to each other and that these contentious marches are being agreed. That is the way the community should go. Would the Leader request information from the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources about a serious subject that was brought to my attention by listening to RTE Radio 1, when Mr. Derek Davis pointed out that we passed legislation in both Houses governing safety in sailing and motor boats and providing for further developments by ministerial regulation?
Although prepared, these regulations have not been signed. They would include a requirement to have at least a level 2 motor-boat certificate. One does not need a certificate of competence or a licence to drive a boat. Some of them are dangerous and can go at 240 km/h. We have had a series of tragedies over the last couple of years with people using jet-skis, which can be dangerous. There is no regulation and drivers do not even need insurance. If this House passes legislation and the Minister fails to sign regulations, putting citizens' lives in danger, we are entitled to an explanation.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Chair, the issue riveting the nation is whether any of the Bloomsday ladies in the photograph that was in the national media this week caught Senator Norris. There is growing concern among people west of the Shannon that there is another anti-west lobby on decisions on the re-opening of the western rail corridor. A report was published some weeks ago by the Western Development Commission, the conclusion of which asked why dual carriageways stop approximately where the Shannon separates east and west and why people in the west should not have the same infrastructure and development of services as those in the east. I link that to a perception that there has been a reduction in spending in the BMW region under the national development plan and from EU funding, which continues until 2012 at least.
I accept that the Government, particularly the Minister for Finance, has responded vigorously to this perception in recent weeks. I would like the Leader to consider a debate, if not before the recess then after, possibly in Government time as a motion that would allow this House and the Government to clarify the spend of money in the west on infrastructural development. It might help lay the myths that are growing up about this and would allow Senators on all sides of the House to make a contribution
A meeting is taking place across the road on the future development of health services in the north east. This was triggered by the tragedy when a 75 year old man bled to death in Monaghan General Hospital last year. We have had a review and a report on that review by Teamwork management consultants. It is daft in the extreme to think that another consultants' review and report on the health services in any part of the country was necessary. I support Senator O'Meara and Senator Brian Hayes on the urgent need for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to come to this House and debate openly whether she is in control of the health service anymore. This is stage 1 of the reintroduction of the Hanly report dressed up in different clothes.
This is a very serious situation. It may be a case of the HSE chief executive, Professor Drumm, introducing the provisions of the Hanly report by other means and it requires debate urgently. What will be the Tánaiste's input into or direction on this?
I support Senator Finucane on the urgent need for a debate on energy policy. I have serious reservations on the part played by the energy regulator in implementing what is supposed to be Government policy. Throughout the countryside many individuals and co-operative groups have wind energy projects ready to begin but they are being denied access to the national grid because there is a preservation order on the system. Energy prices affect everyone. Why must we rely so much on imported fuel when we could generate our own electricity through wind energy at less than half the current cost?
I welcome the proposal for a debate on health services. I recently met representatives of the Brothers of Charity and the Galway Association on funding in the area of disability. It is outrageous that the system is the same as that under the health board whereby in the western region, for every euro Roscommon receives Mayo receives two and Galway three. It is based on a mathematical formula rather than an assessment of needs. A more realistic system should be put in place for the voluntary and disability sectors.
I was told at the meeting that money is badly needed in the areas of occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy. These organisations have the personnel but need funding to allow these therapies to be put in place in the western region.
Some three years ago the Human Rights Commission wrote to the Government requesting that it be accountable directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government did not oppose this but sought to consider the suggestion. Can the Leader find out the position on what seems to me a valid and sensible suggestion? Three years is sufficient time to formulate a response.
A British newspaper report this morning indicated it is possible to buy a strain of smallpox on the Internet with total freedom. An initial release would affect ten people and could spread to 2.2 million people in 180 days. I do not know what the answer to this is but it seems ideal for a terrorist who seeks to use the Internet to secretly and efficiently create horror. Smallpox was eradicated many years ago but it is possible for terrorist organisations to access strains of it. I do not know whose responsibility a response to this might be but we should be aware of the situation so that we can take steps to address it.
I support Senator O'Toole's comments relating to the bogs of Westmeath and Longford. It took millions of years to create them and mere hours to destroy them. This is not the first time this has happened. In my own locality people lost their entire crop of turf to bog fires and immeasurable harm has been done to wildlife so people should be very careful. This seems to have happened often in the past but I cannot say what should be done about it.
On the role of the Christian Brothers in Irish education, I am proud to be a past pupil of the Christian Brothers school in Mullingar. We are talking about the rule, not the exception, and I have fond memories of the Christian Brothers there and around the country.
Yes. I agree that the Leader should request the Taoiseach and Government to mark in some way the role the Christian Brothers have played in the education of the people of Ireland at a time when there was no hope of ordinary boys, especially those from deprived areas, receiving an education.
I welcome Senator Maurice Hayes's announcement that there was agreement on the Orange Order marches in north Belfast. This House should indicate that we welcome this co-operation.
Politicians around the country can sometimes feel helpless when it comes to participation in decision making. Many decisions are now made by people within the health service who are answerable to no one. If we are to have a proper health system the people who make decisions like handing out medical cards, allocating beds and moving patients up waiting lists must be accountable and answerable. If politicians behaved in such a way a tribunal would most probably result. The vast majority of people in the health service work hard and fulfil an admirable vocation but some abuse the system, seeming to consider it one big pay cheque for themselves. We should lead the way in ensuring that accountability be introduced. I ask the Leader to invite Professor Drumm to address this House and outline what he intends to do.
I support the calls from Senator Ó Murchú and Senator Glynn for appropriate State recognition of the contribution made by the Christian Brothers to the development of Irish society over the past two centuries. Many generations of Irish boys would not have had access to an education but for the contribution and self-sacrifice of many within the order. It imbued a love of our island, of being Irish and having pride in ourselves. It also gave us a love of our native sports, hurling and football, and grá for an teanga Gaeilge atá sa chinn. It is very appropriate that the order be recognised at this stage, as it is no longer actively involved in the education system.
I support the comments made with regard to the need for wind energy. I previously called in this House for national guidelines for a national wind energy strategy to emanate from the relevant Department. My understanding is that the matter is now being addressed. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to attend at an early stage to discuss the content of those guidelines. Senator Quinn and others have championed the need for independent energy sources in order to meet our future obligations.
The gaming and gambling industry has changed completely in the past number of years with the onset of on-line betting. Ireland is one of few countries which has no legislation in place to regulate the industry. If recent newspaper articles are correct, on-line betting is causing major hardship in many households throughout the country.
Is it the intention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to introduce legislation to regulate the whole area of on-line betting? He has mentioned that he intends to plug the loophole relating to casinos in separate legislation which will be introduced. This area deserves the Minister's urgent attention because of the hardship which has been caused. There should be regulation. I urge the Minister to come to this House and explain if or when such regulation will be introduced.
I agree with Senator Ó Murchú on the role of the Christian Brothers in schools. I was amazed when I recently learned that almost 3,000 primary schools in the country are not in the ownership of the State. They are mainly in the ownership of different religious orders. They account for approximately 90% of schools, which is a significant proportion. We are vulnerable in one way, as when religious orders leave education, primary schools could be closed down and sold if the orders suddenly began to sell their assets.
I add my voice to the demand for an urgent debate on health services. It is not until one is immersed in a scenario of a crowded accident and emergency department, or crowded corridors, that one becomes fully aware and appreciative of the problems which exist. We have spoken of trolleys and patients on trolleys, but because so many people speak of it the whole time, the impact is not realised until a situation occurs similar to what happened last night in Letterkenny General Hospital.
My mother was at the accident and emergency department there last night, and a crash victim was brought in. The staff excelled in preparing for the arrival, but the victim unfortunately passed away. After the incident, relatives of the deceased arrived and were mourning the loss amid other patients in the corridor. They were not afforded the dignity to mourn the loss. There was mayhem on the corridors, and the dignity which people should be afforded at that time was not given because of the cramped and crowded conditions.
We should stop the talk and jargon about investing in primary care and the roll-out of infrastructure and development.
We must act and keep our word. People within the health service who are discussing the issues in a professional way must put their money where their mouths are, with the aid of this Government. It is important we fund the bricks and mortar and afford people the dignity they deserve.
Yes. He asked for a debate on the administration and delivery of health services.
Senator O'Toole discussed the need for management of change in the second-level school curriculum. He pointed this out with regard to how the higher-level maths papers have gone in the leaving certificate exams. The Senator correctly stated that the Minister will advise that the State Examinations Commission will decide on the issue, but he nevertheless felt it should be more hands-on, and that this kind of curriculum change is not being managed. A curriculum change in any subject is significant for any school.
The Senator commented on the Longford and Westmeath bog fire. In Laois-Offaly a fire officer is specifically appointed to monitor bogs. There was a strong wind paired with the significant heat last Thursday and Friday, which fanned the fire in question. I take the Senator's point. The incident was highlighted well, and Ciarán Mullooly reported each evening on it. That is not the point. It is a significant rural issue. Many people in Dublin do not know what a bog is, let alone speak of a fire on it.
Senator O'Meara spoke of the delivery of hospital services as we are to be told today of what will happen in the north-east region of the HSE. If we want change and better services, the country will have to be divided and examined. The Senator wants the issue out in the open, which is an admirable suggestion.
The Senator asked when the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will bring forward his ideas on a press council. He may have been ready to run with the idea but for other matters intruding. With regard to the regulation of crèches, I have spoken to the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and he stated he would like to come before the Seanad to speak on the matter. I will raise the matter with him again.
Senator Ó Murchú praised the role of the Christian Brothers and indicated that we should mark it in some way. Senator Finucane mentioned the document on energy. We all received it and it looks like a very impressive document. The Senator stated that the appropriate Minister should be invited in to debate the detail of the report.
Senator Maurice Hayes mentioned that communities had reached agreement on the contentious Orange march in Belfast. That is ground-breaking in itself, and it is a welcome sign.
Senator Norris brought up the issue of legislation on the safety of sailing boats, and ministerial orders arising from legislation waiting to be signed. This raises a much bigger question. Much legislation depends on Ministers signing statutory orders. They are often in the Oireachtas Library having been signed. The Senator indicated such orders are not signed and are urgent.
Senator Mooney mentioned a debate on the BMW region. We had such a debate two weeks ago with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen. The Senator would have been busy with his European duties. We commented on the western rail corridor yesterday, with the issue raised by Senator Kitt. We discussed how the so-called smart media are trying to run down the whole concept, as if the trains would stop at Athlone and that would be the end of the journey west. I have previously stated that when we went into Government in 1987, there was much pressure from the Department of Finance for cuts to be made. One of the cuts suggested was that all trains going west would terminate in Athlone. I was delighted to be there. I wondered whether they would stop in the middle of the Shannon or cross it. As one can imagine, that proposal got nowhere.
Exactly, where would they be turned?
Senator Ulick Burke raised the issue of the delivery of hospital services throughout the country. The Tánaiste is in control of the health service. Thankfully, she has a good working relationship with Professor Brendan Drumm. The Senator also wanted a debate on energy and the role of the regulator. He stated we appear to have a preservation order on the national grid and one cannot tap into it. We will endeavour to get the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to the House to debate those matters.
Senator Kitt raised the matter of funding for disability services. He stated that in the western region a mathematical formula is still used, particularly in counties Galway and Mayo, and, to a lesser degree, in County Roscommon. Senator Kitt suggests it should be based on the need for moneys for physical and speech therapies.
Regarding Senator Quinn's point, the Human Rights Commission wrote to all of us, enclosing documentation and stating it wants to be responsible to the Houses of the Oireachtas, which I thought admirable. I intended to examine that issue and take responsibility to hear from the commission and work through the document.
Easy access to lethal drugs on the Internet must be investigated. Senator Glynn raised the issues of the danger of bogs and the role the Christian Brothers played in education. He asked me to request the Taoiseach to mark their role in Irish education on the announcement that they will move out of it.
Senator Feighan welcomed the agreement on the marches in Belfast. He also requested that Professor Drumm come the House. I imagine the man has enough on his mind and there would be no chance of him coming here.
The Cathaoirleach is correct.
Senator Jim Walsh raised the role of the Christian Brothers in education. He also requested a debate on energy. Senator Cummins raised the issue of gaming and gambling. He has been interested in this for some time. I mean interested in having it debated.
He asked when the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will regulate on-line betting, which causes a great deal of domestic trouble. I am sure people waste their money. I believe horses are a cod. I go to one race meeting in Kilbeggan a year, and I pick the horses by their nice names. Sometimes they win.
Senator Browne raised the issue that school sites are not in State hands and the expense involved. Many orders put them in trusts from where they can be accessed. He also mentioned the role of the church in schools. Boards of management may have a lay chairperson. That is the case in many schools and they do an extremely good job. I agree the multidenominational primary education sector does great work.
Senator McHugh raised the issue of the delivery of health services. He told a tale of people having to express their grief and comfort one another in crowded corridors and stated that surely it is a small matter for hospitals to provide a bereavement room where people could gather and talk over what happened. It is a fair point. Some hospitals do so but the disparity in the delivery of services is very significant. I thank the Senator for raising the matter.