Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Order of Business (Resumed)
I support the comments of Senators Fitzgerald and Alex White on the way children are being treated and not looked after because of the staff embargo in the Health Service Executive. We hear the words "staff embargo" but we do not focus on what they mean and the neglect that results for the most vulnerable in our society, which was apparent in last night's "Prime Time Investigates" television programme. A foster mother meets someone to report what is happening, for example, to a child who is bruised, or bitten in some cases, but no action is taken. Social workers are so overworked and understaffed they do not even have time to read files to prevent access by people who are abusing little children. This is a scandal, which is why I support the call for a strong debate on the issue. The Minister should come to the House, be responsible and take serious action. She should realise what a staff embargo actually means.
While the Leader was in America, a meeting with the Minister for Education and Science was sought by a deputation from Athlone community college. The college is in band 1 but what does this mean? Will the new Minister continue with the band system? What is the position regarding the summer works scheme, which the previous Minister, Deputy Hanafin, had agreed to bring back next year? These are two serious and important issues which need debate.
I recently requested the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to the House to debate the issue of unruly tenants. Within the last week events in Mullingar provided a very strong basis for my call. There was absolute mayhem on at least two estates on two occasions. I will not discuss the causes as it is not my role, but there are ways of resolving difficulties and disputes rather than by practically holding an entire estate to ransom and the residents as prisoners within their own homes. These events have been replicated throughout the country. In deference to the hard-pressed taxpayer — we all pay taxes — we have a very strong tradition of looking after those who are not capable of looking after themselves by way of providing housing and other services. I ask that the debate be held sooner rather than later.
I certainly will be voting "Yes" to the Lisbon treaty. We have had two very well attended meetings in County Westmeath, one in Athlone and the other in Mullingar.
I was at one in Galway which was attended by Senator Healy Eames.
There is misinformation on the Lisbon treaty. I agree with Senator O'Toole that if people have issues, local or national, they should be regarded as stand-alone issues, just as the Lisbon treaty is a stand-alone issue. The level of misinformation on the treaty has really caught my attention. There is nothing but only pure lies being spread thereon. I commend the three main parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, as well as other parties for coming out in support of the treaty. While one might disagree with how the other is promoting a "Yes" vote, there is nevertheless a common denominator which we should pursue.
Will the Leader again arrange for the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House, this time to discuss funding for the Health Service Executive, particularly for cancer care services? That €3 million has been allocated in the Vote but not spent on these vital services is a sad reflection on the commitment made in respect thereof. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
The issue of school security has been brought to my attention by teachers and boards of management, particularly in connection with one school wherein there is a major problem associated with pupil security. Pupils are bringing knives and imitation guns into school and it is unfair that teachers have to deal with this. The only action they can take is to expel the offending pupils. In primary and all other schools there is a lack of security in the sense that anybody can walk into or ramble around a school. If we do not take action in this regard in the very near future, injuries and perhaps worse will be inflicted on children. It is about time, therefore, that we examined this matter. I ask the Leader to bring this issue to the attention of the Minister concerned to determine what proposals we can make to stamp out this considerable and widespread problem.
I join Senator Fitzgerald in raising the issue of the World Trade Organisation talks and the importance of the votes of those involved in the agriculture sector in the referendum on the Lisbon treaty. The Government must address this issue, on which we have been seeking a debate for some considerable time. I, therefore, ask the Leader to organise it. It is an important matter and one we can clarify. I hope the farming organisations can ultimately be assuaged such that they will revert to their former position, that is, of supporting the treaty.
I agree with Senator O'Toole that acceptance of the Lisbon treaty is in the national interest and entirely separate from any sectoral interests. The issues concerning the latter must be resolved by the Government. The treaty is important to the national interest. That is why Fine Gael supports it and is putting aside domestic political issues for another day.
The Government has launched its campaign and the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, has come out on the offensive with regard to the treaty. The only problem is that he has not read the treaty and has admitted that he has not done so.
I make this point because it is important. If one has not read the treaty, how can one explain it to people and expect them to vote on it? It is akin to a Minister presenting a Bill in the House without having read it. It is not simply a question of not having read the Bill, as this suggests the treaty is unreadable. People run away from this issue. I have the treaty to hand and it has been criticised as being unreadable and unintelligible. If I may read one or two lines——
While I do not wish to delay the House on this subject, it has been suggested the treaty is unintelligible. People from the private sector and one Opposition party have claimed it is unreadable and is for lawyers and eurocrats. However, the aims of the treaties are set out. The "aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples". The treaty continues on in such language. Another article states, "[c]ompetences not conferred upon the Union in the Treaties remain with the Member States". Although it is set out in plain language, journalists, including Vincent Browne, have made great play that it is unintelligible. It sets out in clear terms the competences of the institutions——
—— and the new areas in which the Union is extending its competence with the agreement of member states, such as climate change and energy security. It is set out in the treaty in plain language.
In raising the point of the Taoiseach not having read the treaty I am trying to be helpful to the Government. Were the Ministers to read the treaties——
I also support the calls for a debate on the fall-out from last night's "Prime Time Investigates" television programme. However, in so doing, I do not agree with the proposal to amend the Order of Business as that is a knee-jerk reaction. On view last night was a wider societal issue, which highlights the terrible problems that exist. From my perspective, it highlighted the breakdown of the family unit as one knows it. I was glad to hear the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, speaking repeatedly over the weekend on the need for support of the family unit, as well as the need to support the community unit and those who are on the margins and to bring them back in. Consequently, this is something of a knee-jerk reaction today. This issue does not pertain to throwing money at a problem. We have done that in the past and it has not worked.
——and trying to work out the best response to the breakdown we are now experiencing. Society has moved on a great deal in the past 20 years and is now plagued with problems that never existed previously, which was visible in last night's programme.
When I visited Africa four years ago, people were talking of the terrible plague of HIV-AIDS, which led to grandparents being obliged to rear grandchildren. The same now applies in Ireland as a result of drug addiction, drink or any of the scourges that afflict us today. Grandparents are being obliged to rear younger grandchildren. However, I would welcome such a debate and the Leader should facilitate it in the House in the not too-distant future, when Members have had time to reflect and take the positive approach that will be needed for such a debate.
I welcome the fact that the House will be continuing statements on the Lisbon treaty because it is important that people like me, who have what I consider to be an honourable and reasoned position against the treaty, should have an opportunity to speak. I hope that on this occasion, unlike the last time I spoke on the Bill, some of it may actually be noticed. It is only fair that there should be balance, particularly because we are not going to get it from the Referendum Commission. The Government made damned sure it neutered that body and took away from it the power which it had previously to put both sides of the argument, for and against, before the people. That was removed by this Government since the last referendum.
I believe in being fair, and in being so to the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen. He was honest. He said he had not read the treaty from cover to cover in detail. What Senator Regan said was a partial truth, a half-truth, that was used in a partisan way.
That does not seem to me to be helpful but if Senator Regan persists in being helpful in this manner to the Taoiseach, I would advise him to sit on the "No" side and be helpful to the people because then they will all vote "No" in this matter.
Although I take this position, it does not mean that I wish to associate myself comfortably with everyone else who takes this position because there are, as there are on the other side, some troubling elements who do not always tell the truth. I was horrified to hear people speaking on this in the context of the Roscommon Hospital situation. To get people to vote against the Lisbon treaty simply on local parochial grounds of self-interest about a hospital is a flagrant and cynical abuse of that vote. I would not welcome such support. I wish to have people who have a reasoned, calm and rational viewpoint and who will raise questions such as the clear commitment of the European Union, enshrined in the Lisbon treaty, to continue and sharpen the process of liberalising the markets, to open up the markets of the poorest and least developed countries on the globe which were raped in the 19th century by the colonising powers and which we are now going to pillage economically at the behest of people such as Mr. Mandelson.
People on the other side of the argument are not telling the truth when they say, as has been said regularly, that in terms of human rights legislation we would not have had the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour without the European Court of Justice. It had nothing to do with that court, nor to do with the European Union. I ought to know. I was, after all, the litigant. It was the European Court of Human Rights which is a function, not of the European Union, but of the Council of Europe.
I wish that the honourable judge who was on the radio at lunchtime would answer a couple of questions. He said he would do as much. I would like him to let the Irish people know about the European Defence Association, so coyly renamed from the former European Armaments Group. We know that we would be tying ourselves in with countries that are still committed to the manufacture and use of cluster munitions.
I ask the Leader to give Members a debate on Burma. I gather there is to be some kind of an agreed position on the issue. I welcome that and the opportunity for it to go through with some small degree of debate. When this matter was raised previously it was before the disaster of the cyclone. The country has now had that disaster and I wish to send my sympathy, and that of everyone else in the House, I am sure, not just to the Burmese people but also to the Chinese people who have had the catastrophe of the earthquake in central China. I believe we can reasonably draw comparison between the behaviour of the Chinese premier who immediately got involved in this, and the disgusting behaviour of the military junta.
With regard to No. 19, motion 4 on the Order Paper concerning the Abbey Theatre, could we invite the new Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, Deputy Cullen, to come to the House? It would be an opportunity to impose that issue as a planning matter and get the Abbey Theatre where it should be, on the Carlton site in the middle of O'Connell Street.
I wish to raise an issue that is timely and important for every individual in this country. The 2007 annual report of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has been published. Most public and private organisations retain a great deal of personal data. It is relevant to every family in this country. Over recent months, we have heard about a number of farcical cases in which sensitive personal information has been lost, mislaid or stolen. Prominent public and private institutions in Ireland and the UK have lost such information. We need to debate the issue of data protection. Important information is held at all levels.
As we approach the holiday season, I want to draw attention to one aspect of this matter. Many people do not know that hotels in every country use swipe keycards on which are held details of guests' names, addresses and credit card numbers. When tourists return their keycards to hotel staff, they do not know where they will be stored or what will be done with them in the subsequent hours. Attention needs to be given to this issue if the rights of citizens are to be protected. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on data protection, which is important in the context of the roll-out of e-Government, e-commerce and e-local government. Databases are becoming more and more important in our day-to-day lives. Many people are not giving this important area the attention it deserves. I ask the Leader to give this subject some attention over the coming weeks.
While it is tempting for people to vote against the Lisbon treaty to give the Government a well-deserved rap on the knuckles for its package of misinformation and broken promises, they should not do so. The Government has an obligation to look after the people of Ireland rather than misleading them.
Last night's "Prime Time Investigates" television programme illustrated the Government's failure to take action and the inability of the Government and the Health Service Executive to find solutions. We need to have a debate about the matter raised by Senator Fitzgerald in the interests of the vulnerable people in society.
I ask the Leader to raise the issue highlighted by Senator Keaveney with the hierarchy of the Catholic church. As I have been canvassing ahead of the referendum on the Lisbon treaty, I have noticed that the "No" campaign is starting to focus on the issue of abortion. The hierarchy of the Catholic church in this country needs to issue a statement making it clear that abortion will not be introduced here on foot of the Lisbon treaty. That important message needs to be transmitted. Those of us who are pro-life and intend to vote "Yes" are having to defend our position. Leadership needs to be shown by the Leader of the House and the hierarchy of the Catholic church.
There is an urgent need for a discussion on our prison services in light of this morning's report in the Irish Examiner. I will not debate the matter again now because I raised last week on the Order of Business. It has been reported that 20% of the prison population is under protection. It is not fair on our dedicated prison officers, who are working in very difficult conditions. A debate is needed as a matter of urgency.
That is one more vote for the Lisbon treaty. I join Senator de Búrca in commenting on the issue of energy costs, which both of us raised last week. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, should come to the House as soon as possible to discuss the ongoing increases in energy costs which individuals and businesses must face.
I also highlight the matter of food security. I have been asking for approximately three months for a discussion on the World Trade Organisation talks. The debate has been promised every second week. We were supposed to have it about a month ago, but it did not take place. Now that we have a new Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, it would be a good idea to invite him to the House to get an insight into his thinking as the WTO talks approach some sort of a finale. Farmers have legitimate concerns. While there is no link between the talks and the Lisbon treaty, a political connection between them has been established. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his predecessor, who is now the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, need to reassure the farmers, on behalf of the Government, that they will not be sold down the Swanee as Commissioner Mandelson wishes to do. Senator Norris was correct in saying Commissioner Mandelson has gone beyond his brief. Those who will suffer first as a result of his proposals are farmers in the world's 49 poorest countries. Their commercial enterprises will be completely wiped out if he gets his way because, as things stand, they have preferential access to the EU market.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate as soon as possible with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on local authority funding for social housing. There has been a big cutback, according to figures released recently. I do not want to be too parochial but the figures for Kilkenny released last week show that we will be receiving the same amount of money in the next three years as we received last year. A couple of years ago, when the then Minister, Deputy Roche, encouraged local authorities to expand their building programmes greatly. However, as a result of the funding figures announced by the Minister, Deputy Gormley, local authorities in County Kilkenny will not start work on one single new house this year because they will not have sufficient funding and the situation will continue into next year.
I support Senator Fitzgerald's remarks concerning the "Prime Time Investigates" television programme, the makers of which should be complimented on bringing the matter to public attention. Any government in any state should be judged on how it treats the most vulnerable people in society. Who could be more vulnerable than young children at risk of abuse and neglect? We must move beyond blaming the Health Service Executive for everything. While we must have political accountability, there is no point in placing all the blame at the door of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. Government policy places these children at risk. The Government is ultimately responsible for providing protection for our children, but it is not doing its job. No matter what kind of Pontius Pilate attitude is adopted on the other side of the House, the Government is responsible and should be accountable after 11 years in office.
I join Senator John Paul Phelan in calling for a debate on housing. It is true that we will not have as many housing starts this year as in previous years. The proposed review of Part V of the Planning and Development Act is timely, given that there has been a big downturn in terms of the number of planning permissions being sought from local authorities. Historically, land and housing became available under the provisions of Part V, but this is no longer the case. We are effectively in a situation where there are diminishing returns and 0% of zero is still zero. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should attend the House for a debate on social and affordable housing, as we must examine where we will go from here in respect of obtaining land banks and accommodation for those in need of such housing. It would be a boost to the economy if we could provide an informed policy on the matter. There is no better place to start that debate than in Seanad Éireann.
I note that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is examining hubs and gateways. In that context, we should examine also local authority applications for the development of sewerage schemes in towns and villages. If we do not start grouping such schemes in rural villages, we will not achieve anything. Fishery boards appear to be objecting to every one-off house being built in the country. Such actions will sound the deathknell for rural Ireland. If we do not have sufficient sewerage facilities to build houses in rural areas, it will lead to a depletion of the population, the so-called brain drain. There is still a demand for housing because people want to build houses on their own land. The housing debate is vital in the context of developing gateways to keep people in their own communities.
We need to see progress with these sewerage schemes and I would welcome if the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government attended the House to debate these matters.
The "Prime Time Investigates" television programme on television last night raised significant issues which we need to deal with sensitively and reasonably. It is not incumbent to put the blame on any particular Minister or politician's door. We are all leaders in this society and we all need to take note and take action in a considered way.
The disciplinary and professional teams dealing with the care of victims of child abuse are working across multiple disciplines and that appears to be causing problems when looked at from the outside. Also, the cases are closed too quickly and once closed are very difficult to get re-opened. These are the issues we must examine.
With regard to the debate on child welfare generally, I am glad to note there is a committee dealing with this matter and perhaps it is the place where this issue should first be considered and debated, because if we do not deal with this correctly we will regret it. I agree with Senator Geraldine Feeney that there should be a considered rather than a knee-jerk response.
The housing issue has been raised by Senators John Paul Phelan and Lisa McDonald. I would not shed any tears over the lack of direct investment in local authority housing programmes because I have been around in politics long enough to see Ministers open huge housing estates amid a fanfare of trumpets. Yet, if we examine the social problems generated by our response to the housing problem over the past 20 or 30 years, we would recognise that the new social and affordable housing scheme under Part V of the Planning and Development Act will work best. This needs to be adjusted but when there are empty private housing estates and hundreds of thousands of houses for sale the solution to the housing crisis — and for people who need a house — should not come from building endless, bland housing estates. They have caused rather than solved problems. I look forward to a debate in the House and on how best to make the new system work.
I support the call for a debate on agriculture in the context of the World Trade Organisation negotiations and in the broader context of the Lisbon treaty. As with Senator John Paul Phelan, I have sought a debate on this issue for months. We urgently need clarification as, sadly, in rural Ireland there are people whose existence as farmers would have ceased long ago were it not for the support of the European Union. These people are now becoming anti-Europe because of the WTO negotiations. I recognise that the WTO negotiations and the Lisbon treaty are separate issues but, unfortunately, members of the public and those involved in agriculture are linking the two issues.
There is a grave threat of people voting "No" for the wrong reasons. People are entitled to vote "Yes" or "No" on the referendum. However, one of the messages we should keep sending out from the House is that the bizarre view that people somehow do not understand the treaty does not stack up. We do not have to baby-sit the public and explain everything, the electorate is intelligent. It is our job to debate these matters but, ultimately, the electorate will decide and it has the capacity to read and decide for itself.
Our job is to provide a forum for debate. This is a time for the people to show maturity and generosity. We have done extraordinarily well from Europe. In every walk of life there is a little give and take and we must show a willingness to continue to be a part of the bigger European project. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on agriculture so that we have the opportunity to clarify matters and address some of the falsehoods and lies that are being peddled which are unhelpful to the broader debate.
I join Senator Fitzgerald in marking the sad passing of Nuala O'Faolain. I have been admirer of hers for years. She was a wonderful ambassador for our country and was a very talented person. Her work will remain for many years after her sad passing.
Many Senators highlighted their concern over agriculture and requested a debate. I will contact the new Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, to try to arrange it. I will inform the House, perhaps on Thursday morning's Order of Business, as to when we might have it. There were many serious expressions of concern regarding the Lisbon treaty. In the national interest this is good for Ireland. The people have trusted the major political parties in this country for the past 35 years and have not been misled. We in the major parties all support the "Yes" call. Every opportunity will be given to Members of the House over the next four weeks to highlight their strong views one way or the other. We must respect the views of the "No" side, just as we do those of the "Yes" side. We will have the debate on agriculture at the earliest time.
Senator Fitzgerald called for an amendment to the Order of Business. I have had a very harmonious working relationship with the party leaders in the House. In an effort to help the Senator and her colleagues in this regard, I would suggest to her that if she feels strongly about the matter, she should change her party's Private Members' motion for tomorrow evening. Legislation must take preference in the House this week.
I am sure the new Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, would be very anxious to come to the House to address the challenges which Senator Fitzgerald and others have highlighted to the House following last night's "Prime Time Investigates" television programme. I also congratulate the team that prepared the programme on highlighting the matter to the people. I ask that Senator Fitzgerald might consider that proposal.
Senators Alex White, Healy Eames and Keaveney referred to the Catholic bishops' statement, which must be welcomed. I have no difficulty in asking the new Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe——
The House has been very fortunate to have elected for the first time 25 new Members in the last Seanad general election less than 11 months ago. For the information of these Senators in particular and to be helpful, I wish to advise that when Ministers are appointed for the first time, as is the case with the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, they are always afforded two to three weeks to read into their briefs. I will be making the request with that timeframe in mind.
Senators de Búrca and John Paul Phelan called for a debate on energy costs, highlighting the challenges facing particularly the ESB and Bord Gáis and everything to do with the commission in charge of this area. This is a very worthwhile request and I have no difficulty in trying to arrange this debate also.
Senators Keaveney, Norris and John Paul Phelan called on the new Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Cullen, to come to the House to outline his proposals for the arts. Irish people in the world of art and the world of music in particular are some of our greatest ambassadors. Their worldwide achievements, including the success of Lord of the Dance, Riverdance and other magnificent musicals, have been great for our tourism. That is a worthwhile request and I will endeavour to have the Minister come here at the earliest possible time.
Senator Glynn called for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to be invited to the House. He expressed strong views on unrest in housing estates. That is a growing problem. I will pass on the Senator's strong views, which can perhaps be highlighted for a debate in the House at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Prendergast called on the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to address issues of funding for the Health Service Executive. I have no difficulty in such a debate taking place.
Senator Brady called on me to contact the Minister for Education and Science regarding security in schools. That is a new challenge for schools. I will pass the Senator's strong views on to the Minister.
Senator Norris referred to the all-party motion on Burma. I can inform the House and Senator Norris that at the leaders' meeting today it was decided that the wording of the motion would be agreed later on this afternoon and placed on the Order Paper for Thursday morning's Order of Business. I thank Senator Norris for the strong views he expressed on the matter. If the Senator is agreeable, perhaps we can discuss the motion for a short time on Tuesday of next week because we are due to discuss legislation at length on Thursday.
Senator Coffey highlighted once again the serious concern that has come to our attention regarding personal data and the privacy of that information, especially the challenges that face many banks at present. It is a matter of great concern that much private and confidential information on customers of a particular bank has been released to persons unknown. Senator Coffey referred also to hotel keycards. He might be aware that I have much expertise in the area. I advise him that he should stay in good hotels as safes are installed in the bedrooms.
That information might not get to the area about which he is concerned. I do not wish to trivialise the matter and I consider it worthy of a serious debate in the House. I will endeavour to arrange such a debate at the earliest possible time.
I agree to Senator Buttimer's call for a debate on the Prison Service.
Senators John Paul Phelan, McDonald and Bradford sought a debate on housing, to include social housing, housing allocation and all other matters pertaining to housing. We are all aware that it is a good time to discuss the issue, as the Government and local authorities can purchase houses for approximately 20% less today than they could than 12 months ago. This could be the right time to do the right thing. We can certainly have a debate on that matter.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 19 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Pearse Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Eugene Regan, Brendan Ryan, Alex White)
Against the motion: 24 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paudie Coffey and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.