Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Statements on the Burma tragedy. It is proposed that No. 1 will be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 5.20 p.m. with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed eight minutes, Senators may share time with the agreement of the House, and the Minister to be called upon ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for concluding comments and a response to questions from spokespersons.
Last week we spoke about the unavailability of frontline services for children even for those at risk and about the lack of resources available to social workers. I compliment the Leader on inviting the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, to the House tomorrow to respond to the concerns we raised.
We saw another aspect of services for children being exposed on last night's "Prime Time Investigates" programme on cyber bullying, which is very worrying. The Department of Education and Science needs to issue new guidelines to schools and to get involved in training and support for teachers. As evident from last night's programme, the isolation felt by parents and children is extraordinary. People felt they could not do anything about the bullying to which they were exposed. Unfortunately, one young woman committed suicide. We need to do far more in this area. Perhaps the Minister for Education and Science will come into the House to address this issue.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business in order that we can debate the housing market. A social housing project has collapsed because the developer quit and major projects face an uncertain future. We must feel for the communities which are so disappointed that these projects will not be delivered. The future of social housing is at a crisis point. The affordable housing schemes also face an uncertain future with the dramatic changes in the property market. Will the Leader invite the Minister with responsibility for housing to the House to discuss this issue as soon as possible?
It was interesting to hear the debate on the hijab taking place in other fora during the past week. As a young child in Dingle, I recall that our teachers, who were nuns, were veiled. At that time when women went to church, they always covered their heads with a hat, mantilla or a veil. It was accepted as normal practice. I make that point because the question of the wearing of the hijab by Muslim girls or women in Irish society needs to be addressed. In the recommendations on Seanad reform, the Seanad was considered an important place for debate. The Minister has insisted there will be debate on the matter, which is good, but could we lead that debate? I do not pretend to know the answers but I have views on the issue and would like to hear the views of others. Everyone's view is important.
I gave that example from my youth because practice becomes normality. I followed the debate in France very closely, although I am not sure whether I was happy or unhappy with the outcome. It challenges us in all sorts of ways in terms of whether it helps pluralism and integrates society or does the opposite. One could argue both sides. It would be very helpful to have a debate in which people could offer their views and in which the Minister who will deal with this, whether it be the Minister for Education and Science or the Minister of State responsible for integration, could engage in an open way without prejudice to what might happen. Let us hear people's views.
We have touched on three or four occasions on the issue of stem cell research. Our colleagues across the water and in other European countries are grappling with this issue. We are afraid to deal with it because we may not like the outcome. I may have different views from others on the matter. This is another issue on which we should lead the public debate. We should let people hear both sides of the argument and inform society. That is an important role for the Seanad. We will have three debates on Statements this week. As one who is privileged to attend Leaders' meetings — although I am not a Leader — I am happy issues on which Members have asked for debate will be debated. These are two further important issues.
There is a clear need for a debate on the matter alluded to by Senator Fitzgerald, namely, the collapse in the past 24 hours of the so-called public private partnership housing projects at St. Michael's House, O'Deveney Gardens and other areas of Dublin city. It is not an exaggeration to describe this event as a parable of our times. It tells us a number of things about where we are at this stage of our development.
First, it tells us that at the time of an economic downturn, the first people to feel the brunt are the most vulnerable in our society, those whose communities have been ravaged by under investment, drug abuse, social exclusion and the lack of basic facilities. We saw reference in the newspapers to schemes being abandoned. I agree with Senator Fitzgerald that it would be no exaggeration to say that when we talk about schemes being abandoned, we are talking about communities being abandoned.
Second, it tells us and brings into stark relief something many of us suspected. It demonstrates the folly of our over-reliance, particularly in recent years, on the private sector to address pressing social problems and concerns. We have become obsessed with outsourcing everything to the private sector and have little or no confidence in our ability or the ability of a properly funded public sector to take the lead in issues such as this. This is what inevitably happens when we have such an obsession, over-reliance and naive belief in the private sector and trust it will set aside its basic profit motive and deal with and confront the issues. I am tempted to suggest that instead of denoting public private partnerships, the acronym PPP should denote private profit prevails. That is clearly what it means in the current situation.
The third thing demonstrated by the collapse of the PPP should be of urgent interest to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and to Senator Boyle. It relates to the reason given for the abandonment of these projects. I have been told it relates to the downturn in the construction, but what was less well noticed were the other reasons proffered by Mr. McNamara for walking away from these projects, namely, that he must, rightly, observe the reasonable and necessary building regulations with regard to energy conservation and apartment size that have been introduced in Dublin city. It is interesting that he withdrew just at a time when the State and local authorities demand basic standards of design and size for apartments. What kind of shoeboxes did he propose to build on those sites?
There are sighs from those on the Government side and no doubt this will be an issue at the famous event in Galway at the end of July. When we had this debate previously with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, he sought consensus across the House on construction standards. I said to him then that the most significant area of concern in that regard was the attitude of the people on his side of the House. He needed to ensure his colleagues in Government would see to it that the construction industry and their friends in it would take the new regulations seriously. The collapse in the PPP mentioned demonstrates to me, if not to the House, that certain elements of the construction industry, bigger builders and those who find themselves in the top two or three in the CIF's recent publication, do not take the standards seriously. That is where the Minister's attention should be directed.
I support the call for debate on the housing issue, but I am sure it cannot take place today. We cannot expect an instant response in terms of having an available Minister. The memorandum in terms of responsibility between Cabinet Members and Ministers of State has not yet been fully drawn up. There still could be uncertainty over who has full responsibility and would be best to come into this House. However the earliest possible opportunity should be taken to have such a debate.
I share the concern on some of the reasons cited. We must be clear that a funding mechanism for the projects has collapsed and there is an onus on the local authority concerned and the appropriate Department to ensure a proper, appropriate funding mechanism is put in place. The communities identified are in need of housing and these projects should be completed as soon as possible. We should be cognisant of the views of the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. John Purcell, who expressed as his parting gift his reservation about an over-reliance on public private partnerships as a funding mechanism. If we need a lesson on that, the events of the past few days are a good example. If the developers concerned cite the need for those in need of social housing to live in energy efficient houses of sufficient space as a reason not to proceed or involve themselves in such projects, they are not doing our society any good whatsoever.
I raise the issue of turbary rights and the reaction of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to the report on the protection of our habitats and the most vulnerable and rare species. Nobody is more protective of the flora and fauna of rural Ireland than the people who live in it and use it. I ask for a very urgent debate on turf cutting for personal use in the countryside.
The Minister, Deputy Gormley, seems to lay the blame for the damage and danger to these wildlife species squarely on the people who cut turf and I find that objectionable. My telephone was hopping yesterday with calls from people who have spent years cutting turf, as did their families before them, without damaging the environment to the extent the Minister suggests. It would be more in his line to consider the developers and lack of infrastructure from this Government. For example, Athlone has no main drainage and no money has been forthcoming for the infrastructure to protect water. Consequently, dirty water is destroying our countryside. I call for an urgent debate on turbary rights because we are taking away the rights of the people of rural Ireland.
RTE should be complimented as a public service broadcaster on its very courageous programme last night on bullying in schools. It shows that public service broadcasting is very effective. Those who contributed to the programme were very courageous. Looking at the programme I felt some very vulnerable young people were involved and they should be given every support by the HSE, services and the schools. I suggest every primary school——
Yes, it would be worthwhile to debate this but as a matter of urgency I suggest to all school principals that this programme should be shown in every school in the country and a discussion had on what happened in that programme and the effect on young people. This would bring it to the attention of the principals and others involved. I call on the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to come to the House to discuss this issue and to determine what action will be taken. There is no point in having protocols or procedures if action is not taken on the ground. Quick decisive action on this must be taken by caring principals, and I again compliment RTE.
I call on the Leader, Senator Cassidy, to ask the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to have a debate here on ongoing developments in the health service. I particularly refer to the transfer of €4 million funding away from palliative care in Roscommon County Hospital. An eight-bed unit was promised and committed to and plans were under way to provide that service at Roscommon County Hospital. Not only is the HSE proposing to withdraw acute surgery from the hospital, but this has probably resulted now in the proposal to remove the funding of €4 million for palliative care, which has been organised by the Mayo-Roscommon hospice which raises approximately €1 million a year for home help and home care.
As a former member of the Western Health Board, I feel one had more influence as a member of a health board than has any Member of the Oireachtas or, indeed, any member of the Government, as far as I can see, on the HSE. There is definitely a democratic deficit as far as the activities of the Health Service Executive are concerned. I know it constantly comes in for criticism in this House and many of the difficulties are not of its making now, but there is no consultation with anyone in this House.
——and we will raise it here and in a different forum. We have an opportunity in this House for more ongoing discussions as far as health is concerned, and the HSE should brief Members. No Oireachtas Member in Roscommon has been briefed as far as the removal of funding——
——to be briefed and I call on the Leader of the House to arrange an early debate on the ongoing developments of palliative care. Under that specific heading, we should discuss the outrage in Roscommon that we are losing this planned eight-bed unit which would provide tremendous service for those with very serious illnesses.
I am sure Members of the House will join me in expressing the hope for a successful outcome to the convention on cluster munitions currently taking place in this city. It is a sad reflection on the state of affairs that four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are not represented at this conference. It is disappointing and I raised the matter with a member of the US State Department in Washington last week. There is a serious question of example that needs to be shown by Western democracies in particular. Some of the participants in this conference have had their lives changed irreversibly as a result of injuries sustained through cluster munitions and it is time that Western democracies, in particular, our friends in the United States and Britain, set an example.
I am happy to note that among the 109 countries represented at this conference are 70 countries which use cluster munitions. It is to be hoped that the outcome of these deliberations will set an example and that countries such as the US, China, Britain, Russia and Israel will awaken to their responsibilities, not just to their own people but to the international community, and that we will see an end to these horrible weapons of war which do no more than destroy innocent lives, sometimes many years after they have been dropped.
I also mention in passing another sad story, which is that of children going missing in this country. It seems we are in danger of having a——
Yes. I would like a debate on this. It is good that we now have legislation which criminalises the trafficking of persons into this State for their exploitation in various ways — in the sex industry, in the labour market or, indeed, for the use of their organs. I took part in the Seanad debate on the legislation and tabled several amendments.
As we see, however, there seems to be a difference between Irish children who go missing in this country and the 300 or so foreign children who have gone missing. The Health Service Executive has confirmed that five young Kenyan nationals have now gone missing. It is feared that these children and others have been removed for trafficking and general exploitation. This points up the need for more than mere legislation which criminalises human trafficking. We need resources for the Garda Síochána and for those who act on our behalf to ensure this does not happen.In our debates on immigration, I hope we will not lose sight of the fact that there are often vulnerable people at the heart of this story. We need to be serious about it and hopefully we can start that with a comprehensive debate on the subject in this House.
I join the call for a debate on stem cell research. The debate has been muddied to some extent, especially with the links made in the national media between in vitro fertilisation and stem cells. There is no objection in pro-life circles to IVF, despite the impression that is out there. However, there is a request for respect for the embryo. It amazes me that after ten years and billions of euro spent, the only legally defined clinic to provide stem cells to adults or children who may need them provides adult stem cells, and that being X-Cell in Germany. After all these years, they have not been able to stop the nature of the embryo which allows the stem cell to multiply and divide at a very fast rate. Even though they tried to succeed, they failed and have caused cancerous growth. Why do we have to go through all this again only inevitably to find out that it is simply not working? Despite being ethically wrong, it does not work.
Last week I spoke about the latest round of trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation, especially regarding agriculture. I stated that Ireland currently has a veto and that it will continue to have one after the Lisbon treaty referendum. The European Commission has since confirmed that position, even though the Government has been slow to state its position and whether it would use the veto. Notwithstanding the fact that the Commission has confirmed that position, we received a press release from Libertas which states that the Government and the Commission are lying on the issue.
This must be met head on. This organisation has lied about the position on abortion, despite the express wording in the treaty that it can have no effect on the abortion law in Ireland. It has lied about the 12.5% corporation tax, despite the express wording in the treaty. It is now lying about the position of agriculture and the WTO agreement.
I ask the Leader to deal with this issue tomorrow during our debate on these negotiations with the Minister. What position will the Government take on exercising the veto that exists? The President of the European Parliament confirmed in this House the position on abortion, on neutrality and on the 12.5% corporation tax rate. Libertas persists in leaving a doubt on these issues, despite the express wording of the treaty. We need a clear and unequivocal statement from the Minister tomorrow, and that will assist the farming organisations.
At the outset, I agree with Senator Regan's points on the Libertas statements.
I would like to call for a general debate on housing. In light of recent developments in Dublin, it would be appropriate to look at this. There are a few public private partnerships and private finance initiatives which may have been planned, but which may be in danger now due to viability reasons. I think we should debate that. We could also debate the merits of Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, and the fact that it may need to be changed. I am not sure we are getting the optimum results for which we had hoped.
In welcoming the Taoiseach's recent announcement of a task force on reform of the public service, we in this House should have a debate on the issue. Our views, which are many and diverse, could be of help to this task force. As Senator White said, there is much farming out and subcontracting of many services to the private sector. Many of these surveys or consultancy reports may be better carried out by our public service, which may have the in-house expertise, making it more cost effective in these times of scarcity. A debate on those issues would be greatly appreciated.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House to discuss the awarding of contracts by the HSE to companies involved in very serious fraud in the US. My worry concerns Quest Diagnostics last week and the dialysis unit for Fresenius this week. This matter has serious implications for how we do our business. I ask that this be debated urgently.
I ask the Leader to organise for the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, to debate bullying. I know Deputy Andrews will be in the House tomorrow. "Prime Time Investigates" must be congratulated. We all know where we want to be on Monday nights when that programme is broadcast. Everybody wants to watch it to get the picture. We see the tip of the iceberg but the programme goes into the depths of the matter.
Society should be fearful because of the scenes depicted on that programme and, as parents, we are horrified. I was horrified and found myself thanking God that my children are out of the teenage stage and are now young adults. I would be terrified as a young parent if I had children in second level school today. Is it not terrible that the perpetrators get away whereas, for example, the two young girls from Wexford have dropped out of school and do not intend returning to full-time education because they are too scarred?
Bullying is not a new phenomenon. It is an age old problem but the methods are new. It is not about texting or the Internet, it is the age old problem of bullying. I was taken aback when a teacher on the programme talked about the aggression of students and how some come to school with knives in their bags. What will it be like when they are in the workforce? Will there be fighting in the workforce? This subject is worth a dedicated debate because it applies not only to students but also to adults in the workplace and, irrespective of whether we like it, it exists in this Chamber. It is about time we let the bullies know this is not acceptable.
I call for an interdepartmental debate on the social, personal and health formation of our young people. This is the third time I have made the request. I say this as a result of the "Prime Time Investigates" programme on cyber bullying. I have raised the issue of bullying on numerous occasions. This is the second major study in this country. The Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, reported that 43% of our children had been bullied in the current term. Some 95 of the 4,500 children surveyed experienced physical violence in the term.
We cannot load everything onto schools. I received a call from a school principal this morning whose deputy principal broke down as a result of the programme last night. Much help is needed by parents. Parents have telephoned me to say they do not know what to do. They also need guidelines and, in the context of the broad debate on the social, personal and health formation of our young people, we must examine how we can help parents. We must examine the social debt owed to society by Internet providers, by Facebook and by Bebo. They are making a fortune on the backs of our young people. We are not managing to control them or to get anything from them to invest in our youth.
I wish also to raise today the collapse of the social housing project for Dublin. This is not new. In Galway, there are 3,000 people on the housing waiting list, with people from the west side of the city, including Salthill, waiting ten years for a house and people on the east side waiting six years. As funds promised last year by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will not be forthcoming this year, Galway City Council has had to take out a €1 million bridging loan to complete its project. The Department has reneged on its promises. I ask that the Leader invite the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with special responsibility for housing, Deputy Michael Finneran, to the House to discuss the issue. We do not hear a great deal about housing in the Seanad, and we must address the issue urgently. Galway City Council will not be able to meet even its Part V requirements from the money available to it this year.
I second Senator Frances Fitzgerald's amendment to the Order of Business.
I support Senator Mullen's call for a debate on the issue of missing children. Where is our outrage as a nation? If I were living in another humane and civilised country and my child went missing I would want the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Government to take the matter seriously. I have not heard anything on this issue from the new Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. What resources are being put in place and what actions are being taken in this regard?
I, too, call for a debate on the issue of bullying as shown on last night's "Prime Time Investigates" programme. I watched the programme following which I contacted colleagues of mine in the teaching profession and asked for their views on the issue. They all said that what is wrong is that society is breaking down. The fundamental question of why this is happening remains.
I accept bullying is an old concept with which we have all had to deal. However, what was shown on television last night is more than bullying. There is a criminal and vicious aspect to what is happening now. Fundamental questions must be asked. Why are people so angry? We need an interdepartmental debate on the matter between the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
I was unable to attend last week's debate on rural communities and how the quality of life therein has deteriorated. However, I hope it is an issue that will come up for discussion during the interdepartmental debate in order that we can question what is going wrong and examine how we can curb this trend. Many questions need to be addressed. For example, in what way can our professionals assist in this regard, do we need more resources or professional back-up and where are we going wrong? I do not know the answers. Does anybody here know the answers? We must conduct a brainstorming exercise on the matter to determine if we can come up with a solution. I believe the matter can be addressed by way of legislation. I would welcome a debate on this issue.
On a point of order — I do so with some reservation — my colleague, Senator Regan, for whom I have a lot of respect stated earlier that the Libertas organisation, for which I have no axe to grind, lied on a number of occasions in respect of the current referendum campaign. I assure the House I would be as quick to my feet were such comments made in respect of an organisation campaigning for a "Yes" vote. The Libertas organisation is campaigning for a "No" vote.
I heard a debate recently during which a spokesperson for Libertas——
I heard a spokesperson for Libertas say he was not making the case specifically on abortion. I will now make my point of order and, I hope Senator White will support it. A word such as "lying" should not be used whether it be in the context of an individual or an organisation in the conduct of a referendum campaign, particularly given that we are trying to have a rational and courteous debate on both sides. I encourage Senator Regan to withdraw the remark and I ask the Cathaoirleach to rule accordingly.
I quoted from the Libertas press release "Government and Commission lying over WTO veto". I stated that if anyone is lying it is Libertas which has given out misinformation on abortion and the 12.5% tax rate. It is an organisation which has serious question marks over its sinister nature when we read The Irish Times today. Declan Ganley is in no position to interpret the Lisbon treaty for the Irish electorate.
This strengthens the point I made in this House with regard to my reservations about the military aspects of the Lisbon treaty and the development of the European armaments group and its desire to go into competition with the United States armaments industry. This would be a clear explanation as to why people with links to the United States arms industry——
I was clarifying an issue for Senator Regan.
I join with colleagues in calling for a debate on the collapse of the social housing programme. This calls into question our very values as a society. We can have the Shelbourne Hotel and the Thornton Hall super-prison but apparently we are spancilled when we try to do something for the most disadvantaged sections of our society.
I happen to live close to some of the areas concerned and I admire and respect the people there. People living on Sean McDermott Street and Dominic Street got together, formed committees and negotiated. Some of their houses and apartments have been vacated and have begun to be demolished. However, once again the prospect of new housing is snatched away from them. Apparently, one of the problems is the increased size of apartments and standards of heating efficiency. This suggests that people are not entitled to a decent standard.
Yes, because the Government is responsible. It allowed the housing industry to overheat and encouraged it by giving incentives to pals. The new Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, has a challenge to resolve this problem and reassure the Irish people that the standards are those of which he spoke so movingly in Clara, County Offaly.
No. 38 on the Order Paper is linked because it is an attempt to face up to developers. It is a motion in the name of some Independent Members on the location of the Abbey Theatre. This situation has changed again because of the planning and development issues at the north end of O'Connell Street. There is an opportunity for our national theatre not to be hidden away at the behest of sectoral interests in the IFSC but to be placed where it belongs in the centre of the principal thoroughfare of Dublin. Will the Leader ask the Minister responsible to come to the House to explain where the theatre will be sited?
I also support Senator Fitzgerald's call for a debate and I acknowledge Senator MacSharry's concern about the collapse of the social and affordable housing scheme in Dublin. An urgent debate on this matter is needed.
Senator O'Toole called for an honest and open debate on education and the form of dress, which I welcome, because there was a time when the uniforms of certain orders of nuns resembled the hijab. Only their faces were visible. If that is what people want, we must have an honest and open debate on it.
The Leader is the conduit between the House and the Government and last week in reply to my question, he stated:
Senator Coghlan asked me to clarify who is the Minister for arts. It is Deputy Martin Mansergh, a distinguished former Member of Seanad Éireann, who was in the House last night. We are very proud of his new appointment.
On mature reflection, could the Leader further clarify this statement in the light of remarks made by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Cullen? I look forward to his reply.
With regard to the protected habitats and species report mentioned earlier, I am more concerned about water pollution and water quality. Damaging reports relating to the Killarney lakes——
Yes, because significant upstream development in the form of afforestation has taken place resulting in fertiliser run off and silt build-ups. Significant damage is done by detergents in septic tanks because of the phosphates they contain. I make the plea to the Leader for the development of phosphate free detergents because phosphates fuel the growth of algae which damage fresh water in our lakes and rivers.
Will the Leader make a statement on two important issues of public concern, namely, the statement in the leading article in today's edition of the Irish Examiner that alleged participants in insider trading are doing business unthwarted, thus damaging confidence in Irish business, and the misdiagnosis of patients in the north east and the administrative mayhem that has followed, resulting in enormous trauma for affected families?
I am glad Senator Coghlan again raised the question regarding Deputy Martin Mansergh, the new Minister of State. I am confused because nothing stated in the media or elsewhere is out of order. The Minister of State has specific responsibility for the arts but the same situation applies in every other junior Ministry. Sections of the media were trying to develop a little civil war regarding this appointment but no one understands the system better than the Minister of State because he spent 25 years in the Civil Service and he understands the protocol and the procedures. I had an opportunity to have a discussion with him in Cashel over the past two days. He is an outgoing individual and he loved a little cut and thrust in this Chamber. He was as bemused as anyone by the manner in which his appointment has been presented.
It is important at this stage that he be allowed to get on with his work. It is possible that he attracts more of the spotlight than others because of his ability and efficiency. I do not have any doubt that he will play a very significant and pivotal role where the arts and the Office of Public Works are concerned. I also know that Senator Coghlan will welcome him with open arms to the many attractions which exist in the Kingdom.
I ask the Leader for a debate on imprisonment, specifically the imprisonment of women. In a week when Thornton Hall is in the news, it is time for us to take a critical review of the need for imprisonment and, in particular, the need for this super prison initially proposed by the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell.
This prison seems to be forging ahead without anyone questioning whether we need these places. I was going to use the "L" word but I hesitate to use it, other Members of the House having fallen into problems, so I will say that misinformation rather than lies have been told about the need for more prison places in this country. The reality elsewhere shows us that if one builds bigger prisons, judges and sentences will fill them with people. This is the sad reality and we need to reappraise whether we need this many prisons, especially for women.
This week, we are fortunate to receive a visit from Baroness Jean Corston from the British House of Lords who produced a very radical report last year on women in prison and who recommended, after a very thorough review, that prison places for women should essentially be abolished and that there should just be a small number of small detention units for women. Otherwise, alternative sanctions should be used. We could very much learn from the lessons of that report.
I am happy to say that Baroness Corston will be visiting Leinster House on Thursday. Deputy Mary O'Rourke and I are hosting a meeting with her for all women Members of the Oireachtas. I am sorry that we cannot invite any male colleagues interested in this issue to the briefing with Baroness Corston.
I would be happy to meet them to discuss the issues at another time.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice will also host a seminar on Thursday evening on the future of women's imprisonment. This is an issue which we could very usefully debate in this House and could lead the way in calling for a critical review of women's imprisonment, as Baroness Corston has done in Great Britain.
I support the call by my colleague, Senator Fitzgerald, for a debate on the emerging housing crisis. It is difficult to accept that as we reach the end of the Celtic tiger era, one of the issues which remains as significant a problem as it was when that era began in the mid-1990s is the housing crisis and the fact that tens of thousands of people are still looking for social housing. A debate is urgently needed because while all these people are awaiting housing, there are thousands of vacant houses throughout the country. There is a crisis in the housing industry. A large number of houses are available for rental accommodation. From a policy perspective, we certainly need flexibility, a little bit of imagination and a significant amount of investment. The debate called for by Senator Fitzgerald is very urgent and I support her request.
I thank the Leader for arranging a debate on the world trade talks this week. I also wish to raise the issue of housing, which I raised last week, and the shortfall experienced by many local authorities, not just the collapse announced in Dublin with regard to social and affordable housing. Many local authorities have seen a significant cut in their allotted funding for social and affordable housing. The local authority in my area of Kilkenny has been advised not even to take Part V units that have been completed but rather to seek money from developers so that works that are already under way can be completed. That is certainly not what was envisaged when Part V was initially brought into play. It would be opportune for us to have that discussion.
I was charmed to hear Senator Ó Murchú defend his constituency colleague and former Senator, Deputy Mansergh, and his role as Minister of State with responsibility for the arts. I will mention the name of a former colleague of mine, the former Senator, Feargal Browne, who on a number of occasions in this House when he was a Member raised the issue of drug driving. A report commissioned and published by the insurance company Hibernian contained some startling information about the proportion of drivers under the age of 30 who had driven while under the influence of drugs. About one third of those surveyed stated that they had driven while under the influence of drugs. I call for a debate during which we should examine the possibility of introducing a drug driving test. There is a test in existence in Australia and we should consider introducing it here. The same survey indicated that 96% of those under 30 would not consider driving while under the influence of alcohol, which is a very contradictory finding vis-À-vis the issue of drug driving.
I join Senators Mullen, Healy-Eames and others who have expressed their outrage at the discovery yesterday that five girls from Kenya have disappeared without a trace. I wish to express my absolute horror at the fact that they went missing last July but we are only now hearing of it. The girls have been missing for ten months and it is completely unacceptable that they would just disappear off the face of the earth while in the care of the HSE. We should have a discussion on this issue at the earliest possible opportunity.
Last week in this House I called for a debate on the role of public private partnerships, particularly with regard to public housing and public infrastructure projects. I called for that debate last Thursday because four of the enterprises that have been destroyed by the announcement today by Dublin City Council are in my constituency. In recent weeks the negative perception and doubt regarding the status of those projects has been increasing.
Any debate conducted in this House must be clear on several points. Senator Dan Boyle stated earlier that what has happened here is the collapse of a funding mechanism. We must be clear that what happened today is a lot more serious than the collapse of a funding mechanism.
For many communities in Dublin that have been bypassed by much of the economic growth and positive developments in our country in recent years, what has happened today is not merely the collapse of a funding mechanism but the collapse of hope. Their confidence that local and national Government will take their concerns seriously and do something for them has also collapsed. We should not stand up in this House today and assert that what has happened is the collapse of a funding mechanism when there are people in this city who were looking forward to new homes, who were right to expect them but who, because of events beyond their control, now find they cannot have them.
If any Member of this House were to table a parliamentary question or to lodge a freedom of information request about the role of public private partnerships, he or she would be told the information is unavailable because it is commercially sensitive. However, when something goes wrong with the operation of these schemes, we are the people who are — rightly — expected to stand up, show leadership and give confidence back to our communities that their hopes and aspirations can be delivered on. Urgent action is required to deal with the devastation of five communities in our city.
Within the EU, Ireland is one of the most reliant on public private partnership. Most of Transport 21, for example, is reliant on their operation. We must have a discussion about how they operate nationally, about the lack of information on them available to Members of the Oireachtas and on how they can be reined in to ensure they operate in the public interest.
Senators Fitzgerald, Alex White, Boyle, Leyden, Healy-Eames, Ormonde, Norris, MacSharry, Bradford, Phelan and Donohoe all called for an urgent debate on the challenges facing the local authorities in Ireland regarding housing stock. I congratulate the new Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for housing, Deputy Michael Finneran, who was an excellent Senator before being elected to the Dáil. As a Senator, he was Government spokesperson on Finance in this House. I understand the Minister of State has a budget of €2 billion at his disposal this year.
There are more places in Ireland than Dublin. I am as au fait with the north inner city as any other Senator, with the exception of Senator Norris. I look forward to arranging for the new Minister of State with responsibility for housing to come to the House to hear the serious concerns Senators outlined today. However, this could not be happening at a better time in terms of the Government, councils and other local authorities securing value for money for such work.
The value for money that can be obtained by local authorities in regard to the building of houses and the number of contractors and top class tradespersons available is better than at any time during the past ten years. I am sure this issue will be addressed head on and successfully by the Government and the Minister of the day.
I support the concerns about this matter expressed by Senators on all sides of the House.
I also want to congratulate RTE on last night's "Prime Time Investigates" programme, as outlined by Senator Leyden. The content of its investigation is a matter of serious concern to Members, be they Members of the Dáil or the Seanad. It highlighted the challenges that face our younger generation. We must have a debate on this matter in the House as a matter of urgency during which we should cover Senator O'Toole's point on guidelines for schools. These guidelines are important, as also pointed out by Senator Fitzgerald. There is also the matter of the help the students, parents and boards of management must be given by the Department and by us as Members of the Oireachtas. The Internet presents many new challenges for our young people.
Senators O'Toole and Coghlan called for a debate on school outfits and dress codes in schools.
The new Minister asked the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to bring forward a report on this matter and the publication of such a report will present an opportunity for such a debate.
Senators O'Toole and Hanafin called for a debate on the up-to-date position on stem cell research, for which I have no difficulty in setting aside time.
Senator McFadden, my constituency colleague, highlighted the difficulties in terms of turbary rights experienced particularly by people in the midlands and the challenges facing generations of turf cutting families in the midlands. I have good news for the Senator, namely, that the slane turf cutters, which are the family turf cutters, are not included in the regulations. Those of us who were reared in the 1950s, when turf was the only means of fuel, and who spent time on the bogs of Ireland can return to traditional ways. As the Senator is aware, sausage turf-cutting is not allowed, but she can tell all her friends and all those who voted for us 12 months ago that there is good news from Senator Cassidy that the old slane turf cutting is allowed——
——and they may have available to them, without any interference, their perches and areas of turf for future generations.
Senator Leyden called for a debate on the HSE in regard to the services provided by Roscommon hospital. I will allow time for a debate on the serious concerns he raised regarding that hospital. The Senator was chairman of the former Western Health Board and brings to the House considerable experience of the challenges facing the providers of hospital facilities in the western region. I have no difficulty in allowing time for such a debate.
We would agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Mullen regarding the cluster bombs convention that is taking place. I understand it was the initiative of the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to arrange for representatives of 107 countries to attend this urgently required conference. I congratulate the Minister and everyone concerned in organising the conference. I am pleased that representatives of 107 nations are attending it. That speaks for itself.
Senators Mullen, Healy Eames and John Paul Phelan called for a debate on children who are missing as a matter of urgency. I can arrange to set aside time for such a debate and I will endeavour to ensure it takes place before the summer recess.
Senators Regan and MacSharry raised the issue of Ireland having a veto at the WTO talks. The issue regarding Ireland having a veto was correctly pointed out by Senator Regan, with whom I do not often agree but I must agree with him on this occasion.
He is not always wrong. The Minister, Deputy Smith, will come to the House for the first time in his new role to clarify this issue in minute detail for the people of Ireland and they can then adjudicate on it. I refer in particular to the hard-pressed and hardworking families, generations of whom have devoted their lives to agriculture. Members of the farming community are the backbone of our country. A major statement will be made by the new Minister tomorrow when he comes to Seanad Éireann to clarify for the people of Ireland for once and for all the situation regarding the challenges facing the farming community to enable them to make up their minds and do the right thing when they vote in the Lisbon treaty referendum. I look forward to the Minister's presence in the House and to a full attendance tomorrow for clarification of this important issue to the House and to the people of Ireland.
Senator MacSharry called for a debate on the task force on reform of the public service. Such a request is timely. Given the experience of colleagues in the House, Senator O'Toole in particular, in this area, I can think of no better person to guide and lead us on this issue——
——and to determine how we can assist the Department and the new Minister in this challenge and task which has been taken in hand by the Government.
Senator Prendergast called for a debate as a matter of urgency on the awarding of contracts by the HSE and outlined examples to the House. I will arrange for such a debate to take place at the earliest possible time.
Senator Norris called for a debate on motion 38, which provides, "That Seanad Éireann urges the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, in the light of the proposed redevelopment of a very large site at the north end of O'Connell Street which includes the former Carlton Cinema, to take steps to ensure that the Abbey Theatre is located in the former Carlton site which all authorities agree is by far the best and most practical location.". I have no difficulty in allowing time to debate this motion in the House and I will ensure it takes place before the summer recess.
Senators Coghlan and Ó Murchú raised the matter of the new Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Cullen, and the new Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, our former Seanad colleague. As Senator Ó Murchú said, there is no more experienced person than former Senator, Deputy Mansergh, to take on this role. I had the pleasure of being in Adare last Friday when the Minister of State was performing an official function and I met some of his officials in attendance to support our Irish colleagues playing for Ireland in the Irish Open. I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, will excel in his Department. He is an eminent person.
I fully agree with the expectations of Senator Coghlan in regard to the former Senator's appointment to this portfolio. Senator Joe O'Reilly called on me to give my opinion on statements in the Irish Examiner. I will come back to the Senator when I clarify the statements with the various Departments. Senator Bacik called for a debate on prisons, improvements in prison services, prison facilities and on the proposed new prison. I have no difficulty leaving time aside for such a debate.
Senator John Paul Phelan called for a debate on drug driving testing and highlighted a document published in recent days. I have no difficulty leaving aside time for such a debate. To my knowledge, the only countries in which this testing takes place are New Zealand and Australia. This relates to penalty points and random breath testing. The committee responsible for this issue, which is probably the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, should investigate how we can adopt best practice.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 19 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Eugene Regan, Brendan Ryan, Alex White)
Against the motion: 24 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, Ciarán Cannon, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Jerry Buttimer and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.