Thursday, 30 October 2008
Order of Business
Today's Order of Business is No. 1, statements regarding the Morris tribunal report. It is proposed that No. 1 will commence on the conclusion of the Order of Business and adjourn not later than 1.40 p.m., if not previously concluded. Spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for eight minutes. Senators may share time by agreement of the House, with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes from the end of the debate for concluding comments and questions from spokespersons or leaders.
Considerable uncertainty and fear has been created by the announcement that tax relief for care in nursing homes will be changed from the marginal rate to the standard rate. Ministers have issued contradictory statements about this subject. The Government is also hiding behind the fair deal proposals, on which there is also confusion. These details should include eligibility criteria. The scheme provides for high dependency but does not outline how the dependency will be defined. There is a necessity to clear up this matter.
On the overall budget, will there be a cap on the numbers who can participate in the scheme and will a limit be set on the spend for the scheme? When will the full details of the fair deal scheme be brought before the House? Will the health expenses relief be amended as part of the social welfare Bill and when will that Bill be brought to the House? On another social welfare matter, will the Social Welfare Bill include a provision to exclude those over 70 from paying the 2% health levy or will that be set out in other legislation?
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to debate agriculture, an issue that has been raised by a number of Members in recent months. The ill thought-out measures included in this year's budget will have severe consequences for farming.
The Leader very kindly, at the conclusion of the Order of Business yesterday, spoke about putting factual matters on the record. It is time to engage with fact in the debate on education. There is much unfounded comment that is presented as fact when that is not the case.
I would like the Leader to confirm that every time the Minister for Education and Science challenges the teachers' unions, he challenges not only the unions but the whole education community. The teacher unions have not stated one thing differently to Catholic, Church of Ireland and Muslim management. I have not heard from the Jewish schools yet, but their comments are exactly the same. The same point is being made by Gaelscoileanna, Eagraíocht na Scoileanna Gaeltachta, the Catholic Primary School Management Association, the National Parents Council Primary and the National Parents Council Post-Primary. Consequently, although the Minister is trying to divert this into an issue that pertains to teachers, it is not a teacher issue, it is that teachers happen to be the front-line professionals dealing with a particular issue.
To bring this matter to a neat conclusion and to make matters easy for the Leader and me, I challenge the Minister for Education and Science to come into this House and state on record what he is saying outside. Outside the House, the Minister has stated there will be no more than 200 fewer jobs in Irish education next year than there are this year and that that will have no further impact on teaching and education. In other words, his point is this simply constitutes a loss of 200 jobs. However, my point is that such a conclusion does not factor in the increase next year in pupil population. The crucial issue is not the difference between this year and next year but the difference between this year and what would have been in place next year had the Minister made no change to the schedule. It will mean a loss of far more than 200 jobs and will be closer to the figure of 1,000. The Minister should come before the House and state that. He should fulfil the commitment he gave last week.
Second, I support very strongly the proposed amendment to the Order of Business. As the Cathaoirleach is well aware——
I second the amendment. In particular, I wish to focus on the impact of the budget on farming and the west. I raised many times in the House the difficulties relating to fishing and infrastructure in the west. I have raised many issues, such as Valentia and otherwise. I am coming to the conclusion that the Government does not care a whit for the west of Ireland and that it considers we would be better to cut it off at the Shannon and allow it to drift out to sea.
The impact of the budget on small farmers, sheep farmers and people in disadvantaged areas is utterly disproportionate. That is the problem with this budget. While everyone is aware that cuts must be made, in each sector they are being made on those who are most vulnerable. A debate on agriculture should take place and I will make a significant contribution on the subject of disadvantaged farmers in regions, some of which are close to the Cathaoirleach's area, who are utterly dismayed by what has been done to them.
I support the points made in respect of the education debate with the Minister, which I hope will take place soon. Whatever debate takes place must be based on facts and accurate information. In fairness to the Minister for Education and Science, numbers might not necessarily be his strong point, as Members discovered during the summer in respect of third level fees. However, I am sure there will be a sufficient number of people to advise him when he comes before this House to debate such issues, as I believe he will. I agree with Senator O'Toole that this is an unworthy attempt to seek to reduce a highly important debate on education and the future of education provision to an attack on teacher unions or teachers' self-interest. It is reprehensible to seek to reduce it to such a proposition. Members should have a much better debate in this House that will be based on facts and information, the validity of which can be tested.
In the context of renewing the call for a debate on the education cuts, I reflect on what is a theme of mine, of which there were plenty of examples in the House yesterday. It appears the first lesson one must pass to succeed and perform on the other side of the House is an ability to say one thing when on one's feet and vote the opposite way a few minutes later. This is extraordinary. It appears to have been fostered and almost encouraged by the former Taoiseach in particular that one can say anything one wishes as long as one does the right thing when pressing the button or lining up in the voting lobbies. One can make fun of this and people write about it in newspapers to the effect that it is a bit of gas and so on, but if one thinks about it, it is a serious matter. While I do not wish to become too po-faced about this, the practice contributes to an added cynicism in respect of politics and politicians.
People can stand up in the Houses of the Oireachtas, make marvellous speeches that purport to take one particular position and end up doing the complete opposite. What, therefore, are people supposed to think about politicians? What are they supposed to think about the Government and those who supposedly support the Government?
While the Deputy Leader may not accept my bona fides in this regard — I say this more in sorrow than in anger in respect of the Green Party, for many members of which I have considerable respect — it appears to have learned that lesson and to have passed it with flying colours. Its Members attempt to persuade the people that they can look in one direction when speaking and in another when voting. That simply is unacceptable.
Members were treated to a short lecture by the Deputy Leader last night in respect of the duties——
This is a question. Does the Leader agree it is unacceptable for the Opposition to be treated to a lecture from the Deputy Leader as to what are its duties? He did so in circumstances in which 18 months ago, his party, in the form of Deputy Gogarty, was able to tell the people:
Fianna Fáil have fooled us before on education and they won't get away with it again. They have broken promises, they have under-invested, and have failed to grasp the opportunity presented by our booming economy.
As I understand Deputy Gogarty will be leading for the Green Party in the debate in the Dáil today, he is not that much of a maverick. He stated:
My message to voters is this: If education is important to you, then it is essential that you vote Green Party candidates Number 1 to ensure a real input into any future educational investment.
That is the basis on which his party got its mandate. That is the mandate on which its Members are in these Houses. That mandate is completely spent because they are doing the polar opposite to what they told the people, whether it was in Dublin South, in which 14 teachers are to be lost——
——or any other constituency. I seek honesty, clarity and some dignity in these Houses. Lectures to the Opposition about bogus motions and so on should cease. Members should face up to their responsibility to do something along the lines they stated they would do during the election campaign.
I too wish to be associated with the call for a debate today on agriculture. Members are tied up at present with matters pertaining to education and are concerned about our youth. While education is a vital foundation for life, one cannot overlook the fact that the farmers of Ireland traditionally were perceived as the backbone of the economy. Although that might not be the case today as much as heretofore, sadly a highly important industry has been treated rather shabbily in the recent budget. It is worthy of a debate and other Members will wish to speak on it.
On another matter, there have been many calls to patriotism in these straitened times. Only yesterday, Members on all sides outlined measures they believed would improve our flagging economy. Obviously, practical patriotism is required all round at present. In this regard, the repatriation of our tax exiles would be timely.
I refer to Irish citizens holding Irish passports who loudly proclaim their Irishness. They are as Irish as the rest of us and, as Members are aware, many of them do much good work in their communities and with various charities. It behoves them——
It behoves them to come within the scope of Irish tax law. I am coming to my question to the Leader. In that context, perhaps the Government will re-examine the definition of residency with a view to amending the very generous 183-day rule. The Leader should respond on that point.
Why have the Ministers for Education and Science and Health and Children not appeared before this House? It is an absolute disgrace and it ill behoves the Seanad, as the second Chamber of the Oireachtas, that the Minister for Health and Children has not come before it to discuss the callous cuts regarding medical cards. We need an answer giving the reasons she has not been to the House.
While the Leader is inviting the Minister to the House, he should also ask her why Cork University Maternity Hospital, which was built at a cost of €75 million and opened last year to great fanfare, has a capacity of 7,000 births per year but is now catering for 8,800. What is even more damning of the Health Service Executive is the fact that a woman in the southern region may have to give birth on a trolley in a hallway. Is it acceptable in modern Ireland that the HSE cannot plan ahead and is now asking women to give birth on trolleys in the hallways of a modern maternity hospital? The Irish Examiner has reported on this issue and I have made my own inquiries with the INO which has been able to confirm the risks that are presented to the health and safety of women who are due to give birth.
I support the calls made by my colleagues for an urgent debate on agriculture. The agricultural community has faced enormous financial pressures for some time but the measures proposed in the budget, including the removal of the farm installation grant and the farm retirement pension, represent an especially bitter blow to young farmers and their parents. We know of many cases from our constituencies of people who were on the threshold of applying for the schemes but who now find that their financial prospects have been entirely changed by the cuts. A debate on agriculture is urgently required.
Calls were made on yesterday's Order of Business for a robust debate on the economy. This would provide us with an opportunity to hear ideas on turning around the economy and to make suggestions which the Government might take on board. Several speakers referred to the public service. We all recognise the necessity for reform and a certain degree of financial restraint in the public service. Perhaps we can hold a series of debates on the economy between now and Christmas so that problems can be raised and solutions proposed. While we should focus our attention on the public service, we should also recognise that public servants include the staff and Members of the Oireachtas, the gardaí on the streets outside Leinster House, the soldiers serving overseas in Chad, our nurses and our teachers. Public servants are good people and we have a good public service in this country, although it needs reform. In the current economic climate, we all recognise that savings and sacrifices will have to be made.
A realistic debate is needed on the economy, beginning with the public service given that it consumes — and rightly so — an enormous proportion of the budget. Any service which uses so much taxpayer money can and should be examined with a view to reforms. The document published by Deputy Richard Bruton in advance of the budget should be explored as part of our debate because he has outlined many good ideas which deserve to be fleshed out in this House.
I call on the Leader to arrange an emergency debate on the cost of petrol, diesel and home heating oil. The price of a barrel of oil is now $69, compared with $147 in July. The price at the pumps in July was €1.335 per litre of petrol and €1.438 for diesel, whereas it now stands at €1.099 in Kerry and €1.129 in Strandhill. Last Tuesday, the price in Knockroghery was €1.139.
I ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to come to the House next week to discuss the cost of fuel. I would also like the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to explain to the House why energy costs so much in this country.
I am delighted that the Leader has agreed to hold a debate on the economy once every month. I have had the opportunity to visit Finland during almost every decade since the 1970s. I suggest that, in advance of our next debate, every Senator should read an article in today's The Irish Times written by a professor of education and lifelong learning in UCD. This very interesting article concerns the success of the Finnish economy. Finland was called the Nordic tiger but it encountered similar problems to Ireland's current economic difficulties. It came out of that difficult period, however, and is now experiencing significant success. Part of the reason for that success is Finland's continued investment in education.
Its investment in education is approximately 33% higher than Ireland's as a percentage gross domestic product.
Finland has a fascinating history which contains many similarities to Ireland's. Its population is almost the same and it went through a Finnish revival in the 1890s which was similar to the Gaelic revival. It won independence in 1917 and has the experience of a civil war and a powerful neighbour. Its history is so similar to ours that it is worthy of study. However, its success over the past 30 years are most interesting. I was fascinated by the figures revealed in The Irish Times and suggest Senators read the aforementioned article before we hold our debate.
I gather that the prize fund for the national lottery is increasing. However, it was reported in the newspapers that Catholic Youth Care is concerned that its funding is being cut by 10% even though 90% of it comes from lottery money. I do not quite understand this. Is it possible that the Government is using lottery money to make savings? This had not dawned on me previously but it is a stealthy way of making cuts by using the increasing pool of money in the national lottery. I ask the Leader to investigate the matter.
I support Senator Quinn's call for ongoing debates on economic matters. We are facing serious economic times both nationally and globally. The example he gave of Finland is apposite. A green party participates in that country's Government and we can adopt many of the lessons learned from its experience. In recent local elections, despite being in government and changing economic times, the Green Party vote has increased.
I support the call for an ongoing debate on education matters. Recent Cabinet meetings and the budget have confirmed that education spending will be prioritised during the rest of the term of this Government. We have taken a step backwards and there must be an ongoing national debate on the best use of resources. I am confident there will be changes in how those resources are used but it will take a collective change. The partners in education are part of that process and I look forward to that debate.
I promise to take care of the sensitivities of the Opposition, which feels it has the right to condemn the Government and hold it to account but that the Government cannot hold the Opposition to account.
This is part of every representation I make in this House. Part of the debate that occurs in this Chamber is not only challenging the Government in what it has done but challenging the Opposition on what it could do and what it has done in government in the past.
I support the call for a debate on agriculture. The actions taken in the budget in a host of areas cut right through agricultural policy in this country. A number of measures, such as the farm retirement scheme, are fundamental in maintaining and improving efficiency and encouraging the constant process of the modernisation of Irish agriculture. The Irish Farmers Association took a particular position with regard to the Lisbon treaty and made life difficult for the Government about the World Trade Organisation negotiations, but the Government should not be vindictive because the IFA adopted that position. The range of measures and the depth of the cuts displays a bit of payback time for farmers and the IFA. That is what I read in the budget and I welcome a debate on this matter.
A matter that should not go unnoticed, as it has been the subject of much discussion in these Houses, is the conclusion of oral hearings of the Mahon tribunal. I raise this because it is relevant to the national issues we discuss in this House and which are of fundamental importance. I have a question for the Leader. The tribunal was established essentially to investigate the activities of Fianna Fáil politicians. Those politicians under investigation have obstructed and delayed the work of the tribunals.
This has added to the time and delay in the conclusion of the tribunal and the cost. The Fianna Fáil-led Government set the legal fees and must take responsibility for the protracted delays and cost of the tribunals. This is the end of the process and there is a picture emerging——
——in diverting public scrutiny of these activities in these Houses. It has worked brilliantly. A clear picture is emerging and the question to the Leader is whether we have learned any lessons. Over the past year, having established the Mahon tribunal, we have had Ministers and the man holding the highest office in the land challenging the work of the tribunal.
In particular, I call for the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to attend. Last week, Gordon Brown made a major speech in which he referred to the Keynesian nature of the future of the British economy. In the past 12 years we have had 11 surpluses. This is the first year in which we have had a deficit. It is standard practice that in times when the market cannot function as it did, the Government steps in. It is a simple method of Keynesian economics. In this country, we are past masters of that. When others would not invest in this country, the Government set up semi-State companies such as Aer Rianta, Aer Lingus, Bord na Móna and ESB, the success stories that have brought us to where we are.
——and using the money correctly and investing it for the future, is it incumbent on the State to retake Eircom for the benefit of the nation and develop it as we would wish when we could pick up the company for a reasonable rate?
Fianna Fáil has always undertaken what was good for the country.
We had a debate on a specific aspect of education cutbacks on children with disabilities. This is an important aspect but we need a fuller debate on education.
I fully support what Senator Alex White has said with regard to those on the Government side speaking on both sides. After Senator White made the point this morning, we heard a number of Senators making this point. It undermines people's trust and confidence in politicians. To hear Senator Leyden express a permanent state of indignation at what his Government is doing is extraordinary and it beggars belief.
——the way they have spoken and in accordance with principle. Senator Boyle expressed his support for a debate on education yet voted against the amendment to the Order of Business tabled by Fine Gael, not once but twice, this week and last week.
That beggars belief. Those who have been in this House a long time become utterly cynical about it and it is no wonder people outside these Houses are utterly cynical about politicians if they hear people saying one thing and then voting another way. This happens all the time. I ask the Leader for a debate on people voting the way they say they will vote and on people voting against their principles.
The broadcasting networks in Ireland have much to be proud of. Over the years we have had many fine and responsible presenters who were aware of, and reflected, the values and the deeply held beliefs of the people who, in fact, paid them. However, it is important we have a debate on standards in broadcasting every so often.
We received a message from Britain in recent days when we saw the debacle with two highly paid presenters there. The first reaction of the BBC to the offensive action was to defend them but when it received 18,000 telephone calls, the situation changed resulting in the resignation of one of the presenters and the suspension of the other one.
In recent times in this country we have witnessed situations on television and radio programmes which were not acceptable if they were to reflect the values of the people. I do not believe it is acceptable to poke fun at Down's syndrome children, Travellers or the crucifixion of Christ. All that happened on our broadcasting network.
Taking a message from Britain, we should step back and realise that it is not only a matter of ignoring and dulling the sensitivities of the people but it is a negation of responsibility that action is not taken. I raised a specific incident on a previous occasion and in fairness to the "Late Late Show" and Gay Byrne, an apology was given. It is, however, quite clear that this is continuing and is being magnified over and over. Therefore, if we do not take a message from what happened in Britain, we will not maintain the standards we expect in the broadcasting network. With that in mind, I ask the Leader to arrange debate at an early date to give us an opportunity to express our views in a more extended and broader way.
I listened to calls yesterday by Members on the Government side for a national government. There is wide acceptance that Deputy Richard Bruton is becoming the economic brain of Ireland. I agree with that. All one need do to read his ideas and his policy for recovery through reform is to check out www.finegael.ie.
They are on the website for people to read.
The Leader promised me two weeks ago that the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, would come to the House for a serious debate on education. I listened to the Minister in the Dáil last night and he said something very important and correct. He said the quality of teaching in the classroom is what matters. However, it is very important that he knows that class size affects the quality of teaching in the classroom, as does the inclusion of children with special education needs and foreign national children without English. Heaping them in on top of other children, as it were, is outrageous.
I listened to the hypocrisy of the Green Party in Ireland and how it is letting down its Green colleagues in Finland.
I know what the Finnish Government is doing because I have called for us to study the Finnish education system at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science. It is coming out on top in all levels of achievement in PISA, the Programme for International Student Achievement, whereas Ireland is coming out below average.
I strongly support the call for a debate on agriculture. The recent budget has meant farmers will lose 10% of their income, especially farmers in the west. The suckler herd grant will be cut from €80 to €40 per cow. This is an appalling cut. Some 60% of suckler herds are in the west.
Last week 2,000 farmers attended a meeting in Claremorris. Tonight I believe they will meet in Tullamore in the Cathaoirleach's area. One should see the palpable rage among those farmers. We have seen one crisis after another. It was health last week and it is education this week. These crises will not go away.
I listened with interest to the calls for a debate on the way people vote, cynicism and so on. It seems it was a clarion call for independence. We are the only ones in this House who have the luxury of being able to act as we speak in the voting lobby. I have seen every party in the Oireachtas behave in precisely the same way described by Senator Alex White. This is a feature of the way in which the party system works. Nobody is completely without guilt in this.
We have received the Cluster Munitions and Anti-Personnel Mines Bill 2008. Will the Leader give me an idea when it will be taken? It is a very important, significant and hopeful Bill and these days we need a bit of hope and idealism. Ireland, the Seanad, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, all played a crucial role in getting international agreement. I am very proud it is called the Dublin Agreement. This is part of the realisation of this process. It would be very good if we had a debate on this, which is something of which we can be proud in these difficult times.
I thought I was in danger of agreeing with my good friend, Senator Hanafin, but then I realised I can only technically agree with his call for a debate on privatisation and so on. Let us have such a debate. Privatisation, the market, competition and so on have got us into this problem. In the broadband debate, I did not hear one person refer to the fact that Tony O'Reilly gobbled up Eircom and asset stripped it.
That company had the lowest investment in infrastructure, especially in broadband. Having flogged off Eircom, so to speak, we are going to do a little bit of short selling on the market, namely, selling and buying back again. Hedge funds; short selling — what a way to go.
Aer Lingus was happily privatised and Shannon was shafted pretty nicely. Now the workers are going to come out because Aer Lingus wants to outsource.
I call for a debate on all these issues, including Eircom, privatisation, the market and the Competition Authority which has been spoken about, has been absolutely useless, has only intervened against the citizens and neglected to notice——
I concur with the last part of what Senator Norris said. I join other colleagues in seeking debates on agriculture, education and health. Yesterday I asked the Leader for an indication when we might have those debates, although I did not expect he would be able to name the day. Perhaps he did not fully understand what I was asking.
What strikes me about the schedules we have had for recent weeks, including this week, is that it has been very slim. There are a number of Ministers in the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Education and Science and Health and Children. If the senior Minister cannot be in the Chamber for the entire debate, it should not mean we cannot have it. It is inappropriate that we have not had discussions on the budget cuts in education, health and agriculture since they were announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan. I hope we can have them as soon as possible.
When Adjournment matters are tabled by Members, there is an appalling lack of relevant Ministers coming to the House to respond. I had two Adjournment matters taken recently and have another matter listed for today, which I hope will be taken by the relevant Minister. The two recent matters came within the remit of the Department of Education and Science in which there are at least four Ministers. On both occasions one of the other Adjournment matters related to education. It should be possible that one of the four Ministers in that Department could be here to answer direct questions on such matters. It is all well and good to ask another Minister to reply, but he or she cannot deal specifically with matters relating to the Department of Education and Science. I hope that there will be a change in this respect.
The Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill 2006, which was passed here two years ago, has disappeared into the ether between here and the other House and has not been seen since. The argument could be made that, with the amount of conveyancing that has taken place in the past ten years, the passing of the Bill is a bit too late. Will the Leader advise when the Bill might be taken in the other House — I acknowledge he may not be able to do so now on the Order of Business.
I point out to Senator O'Toole and others that there are considerable disadvantaged areas in parts of the country other than the west. Farmers in my part of the country and, I am sure, in the Leader's and the Cathaoirleach's parts of the country will suffer serious cutbacks as a result of the budget with the cuts that will take place in the disadvantaged areas payments, the scrappage of the installation aid scheme and the early retirement scheme and significant cutbacks in the suckler cow scheme and a number of other initiatives. I hope we will have a debate on agriculture as soon as possible.
I strongly second Senator Ó Murchú's remarks concerning the outrageous — he did not use that term but I have no hesitation in using it — broadcast on the "Late Late Show" last week. It was insulting to many people. It was horrendous and the Senator was absolutely correct in what he said. Something should be done about it. I strongly commend to the Leader that steps be taken to deal with it.
Ba mhaith liom anois iarradh ar an Rialtas na ciorraithe oideachais a chur ar leataobh. Níl sé ceart ná cóir ranganna a mhéadú agus brú a chur ar aos óg na tíre.
We must return to the drawing board regarding the education debate. The Government will have to review class sizes and the substitution question. They are not sustainable from the point of view of the welfare of our children, their education and their one opportunity and in terms of the economy in the long term. The Leader should convey to the Minister that we have multi-ethnic classes, students with disabilities, students with a range of abilities and, thus, a mix that makes it impossible to consider raising the pupil-teacher ratio. I commend to the Leader that we have a debate on education and rectify the matter. The Government will simply have to do what it did in the other instance.
I support the calls for a debate on agriculture in this House. Agriculture is the source of employment in our country towns and our rural way of life. Virtually all jobs in the small towns are connected with agriculture. It is enough that farmers are subject to the normal taxation measures, the increase in college registration fees, the increase in petrol prices and the levy on their income. The normal taxation measures are imposed on them without the imposition of specific attacks relating to headage payments, the farm retirement scheme, the installation aid scheme and the suckler cow welfare scheme. I appeal for a debate on agriculture and for a reversal of the decisions regarding those schemes. I second the proposition by our Deputy Leader, Senator Cummins, that we have a debate on that.
I also second Senator Cummins's remarks concerning the fair deal scheme. Will the Leader clarify the tax implications of that scheme for people in nursing homes and their families? When will the fair deal legislation come through and how will it impact on the people concerned? The Leader needs to answer those questions. We talked about the anxiety among pensioners regarding their medical cards, and that was valid, but one can imagine the anxiety among people in regard to nursing homes, older people who are very vulnerable. I ask the Leader to take that on board. As my colleague, Senator John Paul Phelan said, we should be debating these issues, regardless of how long we sit every day. They are critical and the people are watching us on those issues.
I wish to clarify the Order of Business. I said that the statements regarding the Morris tribunal reports would commence on the conclusion of the Order of Business and would adjourn not later than 1.40 p.m. I should have said that they would conclude not later than 1.40 p.m.
Senators Cummins, O'Toole, Alex White, Coghlan, Bradford, Regan, Healy Eames, Boyle, John Paul Phelan and O'Reilly expressed various views and concerns regarding education. As I pointed out yesterday, there is an increase of 3.2%, or €302 million, in the education budget in these difficult economic times and the Government must be commended on that. They are the facts. There are now more than 30,000 primary teachers throughout the country. Since 2002, in excess of 6,500 more teachers have been on the Department's payroll. The Government is investing €586 million in the capital programme this year, which must be spent by the end of this year. That will deliver a record 1,200 new school places. Furthermore, the allocation of €889 million for 2009 is an increase of €80 million on the allocation for 2008. These facts must be stated to put everything in its proper context. I have no difficulty in having further time allocated for a debate on education. There was a debate on education last night.
I have no difficulty in asking the Minister to come to the House to discuss the achievements of the Government in funding for education. As Senator Hanafin said, we have had 11 years of surplus and this year is the one year we will face extreme difficulty and that will possibly continue for the following two years. Our future depends on our investment in education.
I must take on board Senator Quinn's point. As I said on yesterday's Order of Business, if a person is successful in business, what would that person be able to do if he or she had the national resources of the nation behind him or her? We must take advice from the captains of industry. That is the reason I always pay particular attention to Senator Quinn's advice to the House. We can take into account the experience of Finland when we have this debate. I know the Joint Committee on Education and Science will closely examine that and hopefully will be able to assist the Government in the future policy direction.
Senator Cummins in particular asked me about the issue of tax relief for nursing homes. I understand there are no changes in this respect. I inform the House that next week the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, will be here on Thursday for statements on the Health Information and Quality Authority nursing home standards.
Many Senators, particularly Senator Buttimer, called for the Minister, Deputy Harney, to come to the House. She has always been available to attend the House provided she is not out of the country or in the Dáil, and has been most co-operative to this House in the past 18 months. I can confirm that statements on the over 70s' entitlements to medical cards will be taken next Wednesday morning at the conclusion of the Order of Business and will continue until 1.45 p.m. Senators can be prepared for that.
That will take place next week. I know that many Senators will wish to contribute to that discussion.
On the request for a debate on agriculture, I am actively pursing the Minister in terms of a date in his diary for this debate. It is timely that this should take place and I have no difficulty in accommodating such a debate at the earliest possible time. I will come back to the House next week with a time and date for that. Senators Bradford, Quinn and Boyle expressed their various views on the economy and the public service. I have no difficulty with such a debate, which I will endeavour to have at the earliest possible time.
Senator Leyden brought a very important point to our attention on the cost of energy, particularly oil, electricity and gas. At yesterday's Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I raised this point with the chairman of the Competition Authority and his officials who appeared to discuss other matters. I highlighted the cost of energy, particularly electricity and gas, which have had increases of between 25% and 40% in this year alone. This is unsustainable and unacceptable. The chairman had very strong views on these matters and while he said that it was not within his remit he made various comments that we all know can be dealt with. Perhaps we will have a debate on the cost of energy. This will take place as soon as I can arrange it.
Senator Quinn spoke about the importance of the allocation of national lottery funds for youth services. I understand such allocations are completely dependent on the availability of funds. I will certainly pass the Senator's strong views on to the Minister.
Senator Regan referred to the old chestnut of the Mahon tribunal. I wish the tribunal well in its deliberations. It is a mammoth task and a great undertaking has been going on for in excess of ten years, with more than 400 witnesses giving evidence. I hope all can benefit from the experience. It was not just one party alone that appeared before the tribunal, I understand that members of other parties were there. I hope everyone in public life can learn from the experience that these difficulties arise from time to time. We are placed here by the trust of the people. On the day that I was first elected to the Seanad, I came home to Castlepollard where 1,000 people had come out.
My late father told me I was getting involved in a very difficult industry. He said I was going in with my good name and that if I came out the same way I would have achieved a lot. For many years I wondered why he felt it necessary to say that to me because I always tried to do the right thing in my life. At the end of it all, I realised how sensible a remark it was from an ordinary man in an ordinary part of the country. What great advice it was and I never forgot it. Now that I have placed it on the record of the House, I am sure other colleagues might deliberate on it from time to time when put in the same difficult positions. It is never the wrong time to do the right thing, as Paudge Brennan used to say, and I hope all Members of this House will always bear that in mind.
Senator Hanafin made a proposal regarding Eircom. This can certainly be discussed and debated. I will certainly pass his views on to the Minister. The House may be able to discuss them at some future time when we are discussing the issue of finance for communications. Senators Ó Murchú and O'Reilly spoke about the media. Senator Ó Murchú put his finger on the point in congratulating those responsible people in the media who have maintained the standards of broadcasting at such a high level here. We can have a debate on standards in broadcasting at the earliest time. We certainly must not let our standards slip in any shape or form. From that point of view I have no difficulty in allocating time.
Senator Norris made an inquiry about the Cluster Munitions and Anti-Personnel Mines Bill 2008. I understand that Bill was published yesterday — I received a copy of it anyway. I hope it will be through before the Christmas recess. Senator John Paul Phelan asked about the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill 2006, which was passed by this House two years ago. I will come back to him in that regard.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 15 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Fidelma Healy Eames, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Brendan Ryan, Alex White)
Against the motion: 21 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Jerry Buttimer and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Fiona O'Malley and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.