Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Order of Business
I would like to mark the passing of Nuala O'Faolain, the broadcaster, journalist and author. Her stark ability to call things as they were was never more visible than in her approach to her recent illness, including an interview on the public airwaves. May she rest in peace.
Can the Leader give an update on when he proposes to have a debate on agriculture in the House? We will have statements on rural development this week but there are huge concerns in the farming community regarding the World Trade Organisation negotiations. This matter has become linked to the attitude of the farming community to the Lisbon treaty. It is critical that we have an opportunity to discuss the range of issues in this House and for the Government to outline the stand it will take on the negotiations. This is a matter of concern to a number of people on this side of the House.
This afternoon I want to focus on the issues highlighted in the "Prime Time Investigates" television programme last night. In this regard, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to discuss the lack of front-line services available to children in crisis situations. In the programme last night, social workers were interviewed anonymously because they feared the impact speaking out publicly could have on their jobs. This raises many questions. They spoke of the lack of services and the lack of people available to respond to calls relating to children at risk. This is serious because children's lives are at stake and there have been a number of reports in this regard over the years, including the Kelly Fitzgerald report and the report on Madonna House. There have been numerous reports on children in the care of the State and there is a commission sitting at present to investigate abuses that occurred in care in a previous generation. Now young people are at risk in communities and no social or care workers are available to investigate the most urgent cases.
The new Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, has spoken of republican values but what kind of republic does not give support to front-line staff to deal with emergency cases? What kind of values has the Government had for the past 11 years? It has received report after report. The Health Service Executive asked the Department of Finance for money to fund front-line services but it is not available. Some 2,800 front-line staff have been taken out of action since September due to the ban that has been imposed.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to allow us discuss these issues because many Members on this side of the House raised this matter when the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, was in the House but did not receive satisfactory answers.
We did not learn how these cutbacks are being managed in the HSE. We did not get answers. The Minister came to the House, was very fluent and used many words but did not answer the questions raised regarding the HSE approach and the embargo on front-line staff.
What kind of republican values have been espoused by the Government over the past 11 years if front-line staff for children at risk have not been put in place? I seek this amendment to today's Order of Business and ask the Leader to invite the appropriate Minister to attend the House to respond to our queries. If we are to be seen as relevant this is the topic we should discuss today.
Senator Fitzgerald's point on the World Trade Organisation and farmers' attitudes towards the Lisbon treaty is something to which we should return. As I understand it, that debate remains to be continued. As parliamentarians and elected public representatives, we should keep a close watch on this. I was in France when the referendum on the European constitution was held and on the evening it was rejected I met five people who had voted against it. All five were in favour of the treaty but they voted against it for different, spurious reasons. I agree with those who oppose the treaty and who dislike the manner in which the previous Taoiseach referred to them as "loo-lahs". That is unacceptable and it was a mistake. I respect those who have genuine reservations and are opposed to the treaty for valid, intellectual, logical or other reasons. However, whether somebody is for or against the treaty, he or she must stand for republican values and those of the citizen. The idea of farmers using their views on the WTO as a reason to oppose the treaty is unacceptable and we all should say so. People may vote against it for other reasons——
——and we have to respect their positions and live with those.
Similarly with health and hospital lobby groups, whatever the cost politically we all should have the courage to say that it is unfair, unacceptable and unpatriotic of people to use local issues to use the State as a hostage to fortune in the future. Whatever their views, people should champion their issues for the good of the country. If they do not like the Government, they have the opportunity to vote it out sufficiently often. However, they keep returning the same Government.
This is an issue on which we all need to take a stand. It is not good enough to stand back and allow people to make the future of the country a hostage to fortune, or use it as a lever for spurious reasons, to hit the Government on the Lisbon treaty. The Lisbon treaty is concerned with every citizen and the country at large. If people are opposed to it, let them be against it for what it contains and what they fear. If people are in favour of it, their support should be on the basis that it is for the good of the country and its citizenry. It should not be used as a lever for other issues, extraneous and spurious.
I support and second Senator Fitzgerald's call for the amendment of Standing Orders to provide for a debate on the issues raised in the "Prime Time Investigates" television programme last night. It was a particularly good analytical programme, which set out in stark terms the reality of what is happening throughout the child protection services presided over by the Health Service Executive, and ultimately, the Government. It showed the alarming extent to which children, at risk of abuse and neglect, are being failed by the social services system, and it is an issue on which there should be a debate in this House.
It is not acceptable for a Minister to say, as I heard this morning, that this is a matter for the HSE. We have heard the old mantra of the HSE having to live within its budget, with the suggestion that ultimately, this was not a matter for political accountability at all. We have repeatedly debated issues concerning the health and social services in this House and were told they were matters for the HSE, which must live within its budget. There must be political accountability for these types of issues, with a debate and an account given to this House and the public on what is happening. It is not acceptable for the HSE spokesman to say, as he appeared to do last night, that what was being said and the evidence given, was not true. People were giving the evidence to their programme of their work on a daily basis and we, as viewers, were being told that this was not occurring at all.
If the HSE is saying, against the evidence given on the programme, that these children are being seen, who is seeing them? They are not being seen by the social workers who were interviewed in such numbers on the programme last night. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Health and Children or the new Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs to come to the House and facilitate a debate on these very serious and grave issues, which need to be confronted by the Government immediately?
In light of yesterday's publication of a pastoral letter by the Catholic bishops regarding the patronage issue in primary schools, I ask the Leader to facilitate also a debate in the House on that question. We have dealt with it before, in a Labour group Private Members' motion some months ago, when I recall that the then Minister for Education and Science told the House there was no need for a public debate or the type of convention that we were calling for at the time. The Department has since varied its position and proposes hosting a conference next month. However, the bishops' pastoral is a very useful contribution to the debate.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the House to discuss the substantial hikes in energy costs the country is likely to face next year? From front-page newspaper reports, rising oil and gas prices will mean the ESB and Bord Gáis will attempt to increase their prices next year. Oil has risen to an unprecedented level of $126 a barrel while natural gas in London costs 86.5p per unit. The British gas supplier, Centrica, indicated it will raise its prices by 20%. This will have implications for Irish consumers and householders. Both the ESB and Bord Gáis will make submissions in July to the Commission for Energy Regulation for their 2009 price plans.
It is also important for the Minister to discuss with the House the broader issue of energy security and the plans both the ESB and Bord Gáis have to diversify their fuel sources to ensure Irish consumers are protected from these unprecedented price rises in oil and gas.
We have quite a job on our hands to get the Lisbon reform treaty through the forthcoming referendum. If the Lisbon treaty fails, it will be due to the Government's inaction. Last Friday, along with five others, I carried out a survey on the streets of Galway with a sample of 115 people. Of those surveyed, 91% believed the Government had not adequately explained the Lisbon treaty, 35% will vote "No" and 34% are yet undecided. Our only chance to get the Lisbon treaty through is to persuade the undecided voters. What is more worrying is that the majority of those surveyed felt the EU has been good for Ireland. Almost one fifth of those people are voting "No" and another 25% are undecided.
Today's Irish Independent stated the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, plans to bring the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party into line on the referendum, which I welcome. He has, however, another problem on his hands because the Government has reneged on its promises on local issues such as Roscommon hospital. As a result, last night 600 people in Roscommon took a decision to vote "No" to the Lisbon treaty. The Government, not just Fine Gael, needs to deliver on the Lisbon treaty.
I welcome the bishops' pastoral letter, Vision '08, which states the Catholic church will stay in Catholic education if parents wish. This is a significant new departure for the Catholic church. Prior to this it ruled education with too tight a rein. I hope their pastoral letter is not too late.
I agree with Senator Alex White on the need for a debate on the patronage of schools. The Bishop of Killaloe, Dr. Willie Walsh, this morning said parents are turning away from town schools to country schools because town schools have more diverse populations. Parents need to know in the knowledge-based economy that their children will get results. There is quite a debate on our hands. I commend the bishops for having the courage to give leadership in this area when the Government has not done so.
Before I came to the House, I attended a Lisbon treaty debate in County Donegal with the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív. He has already had similar debates in counties Mayo and Sligo. I was shocked by some of the literature in circulation on the treaty. It is important, as Senator O'Toole said, to debate using facts. This is particularly the case with regard to claims the Lisbon treaty will bring abortion or, as Senator Norris will appreciate, single sex marriages and all sorts of things into Ireland
I knew I was bringing trouble upon myself when I said all this. It is important the Leader would get clarity, if possible, from the Catholic Church that it would come out and advise people that the information going around at churches on what this treaty is about is not what it is about.
Given the day that is in it, Senators on the Government side might be a little late in looking for an audition for some of the parts that are being offered in the other House. It would be out of character for them to be given here. None the less, I want to draw attention to the fact that three of the five Nancys on the BBC television programme "I'd Do Anything", which started off with a significant number of entries, are Irish. I raise this on the Order of Business because I would ask the new Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Martin Cullen, to come to the Seanad to outline his proposals for the arts as he takes up the reins of his new office. It is an issue that needs to be dealt with. I raise the fact that three of the five Nancys on "I'd Do Anything" are Irish because Irish artists and musicians are leading the world but this is more from their natural ability than the support they get. I advocate bringing the Minister to the House to discuss the further needs of the arts.
I ask that we would also bring to the House whoever, at the end of today, is the Minister or Minister of State with responsibility for education and business. As I said before in the House, while it is important we would highlight the fact we are making a significant investment in third level education, there needs to be a debate on whether what we are investing links to the needs of business people on the other side, which may or may not be the case. A policy document was being prepared by the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern. If that policy is up and running, I would like to think we could have a Minister or Minister of State to the House to discuss it with us.