Tuesday, 27 January 2009
Order of Business
Before I call the Leader of the House, there is an error in No. 1 on today's Order Paper. The time allowed for the Order of Business should read "50 minutes", not "40 minutes". It has been corrected in No. a1 of the Supplementary Order Paper.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re times for Order of Business, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion re extension of specified period for the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1 and to conclude within 30 minutes, if not previously concluded, with spokespersons having five minutes and the Minister to be called upon five minutes before the end of the debate for concluding comments; and No. 3, statements on the economy, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 but not later than 4.40 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with spokespersons having 15 minutes, all other Senators eight minutes, and on which Senators may share time.
I inform the House that emergency legislation is before the Dáil and that it will be necessary for me to return to the Seanad later this evening to amend the Order of Business to take this legislation, the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill 2009. A Supplementary Order Paper will be issued later.
I received a letter from the Cathaoirleach before I came to the Chamber which stated he did not intend to take any further the matter of the vote which was not called on the Anglo Irish Bank Corporation Bill 2009. We had a number of serious concerns about the fact that a vote was not taken by you, a Chathaoirigh, despite a vote having been called for by Senators Norris, Cummins and others. While you do not intend to take the matter any further, I asked that it would be referred to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and the parliamentary adviser because of concerns on this side of the House about what happened. I am informing the House that I will raise it at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges because the vote was called but, as far as we are concerned on this side of the House, agreement was not reached during the procedures last week.
I have written to Senator Fitzgerald on that matter and I have also set out the position on the record of the House. The Bill was passed in accordance with a resolution of the House and I have nothing further to say on that.
I am concerned about the level of disorder on the floor of the House, which at times causes difficulties in dealing with the business before the House. I have two options for dealing with disorder. I can either suspend the House or, where appropriate, deal with the individual Member causing the disorder. If disorder continues I will have no hesitation in following either of those routes in future.
Despite all the talk by the Government about partnership, the legislation was rushed through the House last week. Some 18 amendments were tabled by Fine Gael but not even the first one was reached that evening. I would like an assurance from the Leader that important legislation will not be rushed through in that manner without adequate time. It was really important legislation yet not even one Fine Gael amendment was reached or discussed. These amendments would have protected the taxpayer. If there was disorder — and people made their point of view clear about this — I think the Cathaoirleach can understand why we felt we had to make the point that this was no way to do business in the Seanad. It is not the way to get consensus, good legislation or to conduct our business. I make that point absolutely clear. I ask the Leader again to ensure that we are not asked to rush through important legislation without adequate consultation, preparation and time to consider Opposition amendments with a view to co-operating with the Government. There is a great deal of talk about partnership from the Government but we do not see it in action.
I oppose today's Order of Business because we are having a debate on the economy without adequate input from the Government. We are not discussing proposals or policy. We are having this debate in a vacuum and the least we should have is a question and answer session with the Minister on the details of policy and proposals which the Government should bring to the House. We have waited since the mini-budget last July and the budget in October, but we are still waiting now. There seems to be no clear plan from the Government for discussion on the floor of the House. We see the same thing happening with the partnership talks. On Friday, the social partners were meant to get detailed information on the Government's approach but it would appear as if it broke up in disarray with no discussion. It seems an extraordinary way to conduct the social partnership talks, as is the way it is being dealt with in the Seanad today. The very least we should have is a question and answer session on the economy and the Government's proposals and policies, as opposed to these statements. The public feels it is being dealt with in that way as well. The public is calling for leadership, asking for plans and seeking reassurance and hope that there is a plan in place from the Government. The very least we should have are some proposals and policies on the table from the Government to discuss here.
Will the Leader agree to an all-party motion regarding Pamela Izevbekhai who lost her case in the High Court earlier?
We have discussed this matter in the House a number of times. It is clear that Members on all sides are concerned about this case. An all-party motion should be tabled and agreed by the House to allow Pamela Izevbekhai and her daughters to remain in the country.
There was a great deal of debate over the weekend about the outcome of the Roscommon incest case and related matters. I did not listen much to it because I can no longer stomach the craw thumping, puke inducing hypocrisy of commentators shedding crocodile tears for children who suffer abuse and neglect while blaming the HSE and everybody else along the way. It is 22 years since I was first elected to the House and there probably has not been one year in that time I have not raised a children related issue ranging from the Stay Safe programme to mandatory reporting. Along the way we have refused to address the issue. We had the same debate following the Kelly Fitzgerald and Kilkenny incest cases and the Ferns report. Time and again we do not give children the confidence to say "No" to deal with abuse. It is more than I can stomach anymore.
There is no honesty in the debate. Each time any of us has moved on the issue, we have been hammered. The same people who tried to stop the State intervening on behalf of the children in Roscommon were outside my gate with posters calling me a pervert and a pornographer when I was promoting the Stay Safe programme. When we tried to introduce this minor, soft programme in schools to give children protection, a number of organisations such as the Knights of St. Columbanus, Family Solidarity, as well as solicitors and politicians, including county councillors, lined up against it. I hope every one of them takes responsibility for what is happening because they are all responsible.
I recall people raising this issue time and again. I recall an edition of "The Late Late Show" during which a well known and popular jazz musician of the showband era from Monaghan stated how bad it was when fathers could not take children on their knees without being accused of being perverts. This is the society we have created and in which we live and I am sick and tired of asking for something to be done because I know it will not happen. Everybody else will say the family is more important than the child and that not interfering with the family is more important than the safety of the child. There is no political will to protect or save children and I cannot see it happening. Let us deal with the issue. Let us say, "Let our children suffer because the family is more important and we are afraid to take action with which some right wing conservative groups might be unhappy."
We face a spectacle later when there will be a debate in both Houses on the economy and I suspect we will be treated to a contribution from the Government along the lines of the single transferable speech on the economy to which we have been listening in the House for three or four months. I hope I am wrong and if I am, I will accept it. However, I do not expect the Minister to come to the House later to outline what the Government intends to do regarding the economy. However, at the same time, the Government is circulating a document to the social partners which will not be laid before the Oireachtas. Will the Leader ensure such proposals as are circulated by way of a completed document to the social partners will be published and laid before both Houses in order that we can have a meaningful and realistic debate?
I understand the process of negotiation as well as the next person and the necessity for people to be careful during negotiations. However, this relates to the future of the economy, the single most important issue facing any politician or government. Senator Fitzgerald is correct that we are not clear on whether any proposals have been made. However, we read newspaper reports about various decisions that will be made. These were then denied by Ministers as late as this morning saying it was just newspaper speculation. Apparently there was a meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party last night at which the members of that party indicated to the Taoiseach that they supported his approach to dealing with the economy. What is that approach? Perhaps some of the Members on the Government side will share some of the information as to what the approach is to dealing with the economy because it has not been published to the people. It has been described by people who have caught glimpses of it in the social partnership talks as a blancmange. What exactly is it and where are the proposals? It ill behoves the Government, whether Fianna Fáil, the Green Party or any other member, to demand the answers from the Opposition in circumstances where it has tabled no proposals whatever to address, for example, the crisis in the public finances. In the context of the debate we had last week on the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank, Senator Fitzgerald is right in calling for frankness with the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas so that we can ensure we have an opportunity to do the job we were sent here to do. For the Government to come in this afternoon with a platitudinous and single transferable speech containing no specifics or clarity is not acceptable in any democracy.
I refer to the matter of the incest case in Roscommon raised by Senator O'Toole. The facts about the Roscommon abuse case must be established before action is taken. We need an investigation to determine how this most serious family abuse could continue for so long. I do not believe the Health Service Executive should be involved in that investigation.
How can a mother abuse her children over a six-year period, subjecting them to incest, sexual abuse and neglect? Apparently the community, school and relatives all knew about it. The HSE social workers were called in as far back as 1996. The abuse mentioned in the recent court case took place between 1998 and 2004. We are told that subject to no unforeseeable impediments, the investigation into the matter is expected to be completed within six months. Why should it take six months?
I want the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to introduce the constitutional amendment on children. The Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2007, which resulted from extensive consultations by the then Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, contains a number of proposals to amend the Constitution regarding children, covering such diverse areas as children's rights, adoption, collection and exchange of soft information, and absolute and strict liability. This legislation should be brought before the House and passed forthwith.
I wish to follow up on what Senator Alex White has said about our various debates on the economy. What the Government has presented in recent months on different aspects of the economy are frameworks. We have had a framework on the recapitalisation of banks. We have had a framework for economic recovery. We now have a framework for discussions, which is essentially an agenda for a meeting. This is as far as the Government has got in mapping out a series of measures to begin to reverse the process of economic recession and depression. I appreciate that we will have a debate this afternoon on the economy and I will reserve my comments for that debate.
We have not had an opportunity to comment on or debate the invasion of Gaza by the Israeli forces during the recess. I feel duty bound to raise this issue in this public forum. I also believe the House should not be silent on the issue. There are two sides to the story. There is the issue of who broke the truce which gave rise to the invasion. There is the issue of the proportionality of the measures taken. However, we know there was mass destruction, not only of property but also of civilian lives. There is a question as to the legality of the invasion, the force used and the effects it has under international law. I call for a debate in this House. I appreciate that the Independent Senators have tabled a motion on an inquiry into certain incidents in that invasion. It is important for this House to have a view on it, to inform the policy of the Government and the EU. A statement that was issued of the conclusions of the EU Foreign Ministers on the Middle East peace process is quite anaemic. This is one area in which Europe is not playing a leading role. The creation of a president of the European Council in the Lisbon treaty could play a role in ensuring a defined and meaningful policy on the Middle East.
I support the comments of Senator White. Unfortunately, I did not hear the views of Senator O'Toole. I call for the immediate implementation of the changes required and the constitutional amendment before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. It beggars belief that it takes a case such as that in Roscommon to bring about hysteria and furore in this area. I do not know what those who have been in the Houses for much longer than I have been doing for the past 20 or 30 years.
As a practitioner of law, I can tell Members that the law in this area has been out of date for so long that it is unbelievable. We are in the dark ages when it comes to child legislation. The Roscommon case is terrible and the facts are unbelievable but there are other cases which are equally bad.
Last week, emergency legislation on the economy was passed. That was needed and I fully support emergency legislation where required. This area requires emergency legislation also because children are suffering. If we cannot protect them in a republic, who can protect them? I call for an immediate debate. The Oireachtas committee is doing its work but this must be brought to fruition at this stage. We cannot wait any longer, we need change in this area forthwith.
I call for a debate on the extraordinary and compelling comments of Mr. Justice Paul Carney yesterday when he said that he felt constrained such that he was unable to impose a life sentence on a rapist convicted of rape for the third time because of an appeal against a previous decision of his where a life sentence was reduced. I strongly believe in a rehabilitative system of justice. I am not for a "hang 'em and flog 'em" system of justice.
When Mr. Justice Carney asked whether the female half of the population must accept that one or more might be a target because of a rapist's constitutional rights, then it is time for a debate, particularly in light of the latest report that describes assessment and treatment services for sexual offenders as patchy. Until such time as we take seriously the treatment and assessment of sexual offenders and the need for a rehabilitative system of justice, we must not put women or other citizens at risk. People refer to constitutional amendments and we must do what we must do in the Constitution and in our legislative system so that life sentences can be passed on rapists convicted in the circumstances of the case to which I refer.
I refer to the question raised by Senators O'Toole and McDonald, namely, the horrifying events in Roscommon. The House needs to debate this issue and it needs to be a calm and reasoned debate and we must avoid hysteria. I am not inspired by some of the comments I have heard already. There seems to be a desire to bring an extraneous matter into the issue, namely, some fringe group which was offering assistance of some kind. That is an extraneous matter——
——and even then we do not know why the High Court made its decision and neither do we know why the HSE did not appeal the decision.
I think I know a little bit about law and I can say this much. We have ample legislation in the child care Acts to provide that the State may intervene in cases of abuse and neglect and if it is the case that the courts are being tardy in this matter, it is open to us to bring forward legislation that gets into the detail of the circumstances where the courts might provide that children be taken into care. It should be remembered that since 2004, more than 400 care orders were granted and that number grew to 1,200 in 2007.
I have no problem with a constitutional amendment on children's rights if that is necessary, but I have a problem with posturing and people living in the 1980s and hauling down scapegoats from the past when what we should be doing is asking how we address the needs of children who may or may not be subject to the possibility of abuse and who may in any event be subject to the risk of abuse or neglect. There should be an end to the posturing——
—— and we should start trying to deal with the problem and if a constitutional referendum is needed, that is fine by me. It is far more likely that what we need is a tweaking legislation and we need the existing law to be applied by the HSE and others.
I support Senator Eugene Regan's point about the situation in the Holy Land. The Israeli ambassador and the representative from Fatah appeared before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and to say it was a full and frank exchange of views is putting it mildly. To be balanced, I told the Fatah representative that their problem was that they were corrupt in the extreme and this was the reason they lost the support of their own people. The Israeli ambassador eventually admitted——
The ambassador eventually admitted that there was a phosphorus element in the shells the Israelis were using in Gaza. I am pleased to report that at a subsequent meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs, the Fianna Fáil Senators——
I ask again that whoever has a mobile phone, BlackBerry or whatever to please turn it off or leave it outside the Chamber immediately. It is impossible to conduct the business of the House and it is unacceptable. I apologise to Senator Daly.
At that meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs, Fianna Fáil Deputies Timmy Dooley and Michael Mulcahy proposed that the European Union and the United Nations Secretary General should compile a report on human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine and if human rights abuses were confirmed, Article 2 of our preferential trade agreement with Israel would be invoked and its preferential trade arrangements with the EU would be withdrawn.
I support the remarks of Senators Fitzgerald and Alex White on today's debate on the economy which will not be properly structured. Senator Alex White reminded the House that today the Government will publish a document on cutbacks which, if I understood correctly, will only be made available to the social partners for the talks they are having. None of us has any objection to the social partnership talks; they have their own place. However, this is a Chamber of the Parliament. This evening's debate on the economy would be better informed if the Leader made this document available to Members beforehand.
I appreciate the Leader speaks ex cathedra when he is replying on the Order of Business and giving us what he believes is the Government's report.
I was here last week and the week before as the Leader well knows. The document to which Senator Alex White has drawn our attention should be made available to Members.
I also support Senator Fitzgerald's amendment to the Order of Business. Are talks in progress concerning the proposed recapitalisation of Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland? If so, is there a timetable for them? The longer this process is delayed, the longer confidence will be absent in the marketplace. As we all know, it is an intangible matter but without it much damage is being done every day. It is a most important matter and I appreciate it is top of the Minister for Finance's agenda. However, we are still in the dark as to its progress. I would appreciate if the Leader would inform us as to the Government's view on the recapitalisation programme and where matters stand.
I support Senator Regan's calls for a debate on recent events in Gaza. The Seanad was in recess when these happened and we did not have the opportunity to express our views on them in the Chamber. There is no doubt there was palpable outrage at these events throughout Irish society which was particularly well reflected in the Irish media. For that, some Israeli spokespersons gave us a rap on the knuckles, as if we were being partisan in our denunciations of what happened.
I can only refer to what was imposed on Gaza as sheer brutality and butchery. I am in no doubt that there was a connection between the timing of the invasion and the change of presidents in America. The intention was to make an impact and to virtually commit genocide against the people of the Gaza Strip before the US President, Mr. Bush, left office. It was also intended to make it more difficult for the new US President, Mr. Obama, to indicate his position on the matter.
I welcome, however, the appointment of George Mitchell as US envoy to the Middle East. He showed great integrity, insight and tenacity in Northern Ireland for which we owe him a great debt of gratitude. One would hope he will not be restricted or constrained by the American Administration in what he is expected to do in Gaza.
When people could no longer take the outrage they felt when they saw the bodies of innocent little children being carried from the rubble in Gaza, they referred to it as a second Holocaust. This upset some Jews at the time. Relatively, however, if six members of the one innocent family were wiped out, it is a holocaust to them and the survivors have the memory of their lives coming to an end when their loved ones were butchered in such a way. It may not go down well when I say Hamas has to be recognised in any talks because its representatives were elected by the people.
If one studies world history, one will realise that in any part of the world where the electoral decision of a majority has not been accepted or crushed by another state the long-term result has been to prolong suffering. It is vital that George Mitchell ensures Hamas is brought into any negotiations that will take place. Israel may think its endeavours to wipe out the leadership of Hamas, including Ministers and representatives who have been elected by their own people, has put an end to the matter or changed its status but they have had the opposite effect. We have witnessed this in every country, including this one. I would welcome a debate on the matter. It would be wrong of us to suggest that because the bombing, killing, brutality and butchery have come to an end the perpetrators should not be held accountable by the free world. If that does not happen, we will have undermined the entire concept of democracy and uniting against the terrorism inflicted on Gaza.
I strongly support the comments made by Senator Ó Murchú. I ask the Leader whether he will accept non-Government motion No. 32 which urges the Government to support the establishment of an international war crimes inquiry. I tabled this motion before I became aware that the Government was, in fact, taking this line. I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, on the action he took in the matter. It is clear that we must have a war crimes tribunal. I pay tribute to the extraordinary, heroic, noble and selfless work of people such as John Ging. I am proud that an Irishman like him is representing the UNRWA in Gaza and remaining with the terrified people to bear witness and call for an inquiry on behalf of the United Nations.
There is prima facie evidence that war crimes were committed and I have no doubt that they were. I watched on al-Jazeera as the first shell was fired and knew it was white phosphorus. I immediately asked my office in Dublin to contact Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organisations. Queasy, miserable and lying excuses were made by Israeli spokespersons to the effect that they were using these munitions in the same manner as Britain and other European countries had used them. When did Britain or any other country use white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas?
These arguments are heard not only from Hamas but also from the United Nations and the international doctors present. They know what happened, including about the disproportionate use of force, the use of white phosphorus and the targeting of United Nations schools, despite having global position co-ordinates. The attackers knew exactly what they were doing. One third of casualties were innocent children. Lies were consistently told to the effect that Hamas fighters were based inside the schools. Let us find the truth by means of an international inquiry. It is a disgrace that EU Foreign Ministers have turned their backs and do not even want an inquiry. In other words, they do not want to know what is happening. In the same way, we have this farce of human rights protocols being attached to external trade association agreements. I have repeatedly asked over the past three or four years that they be monitored but this is not even happening. It is a systematic undermining of everything we know about human rights.
Thank God for al-Jazeera and people like Ayman Mohyeldin who was reporting in the thick of the events. The Israelis did not want anybody to know what was going on. That is the reason they kept all the reporters out, just like America did in Iraq. I strongly make this call.
I say to the Leader, through the Cathaoirleach, that we have had very passionate statements from the Government side of the House and equally passionate pronouncements from this side. We appear to be in agreement and we are only urging and reinforcing the Government in acting the way it should.
Shame on Germany and how dare the Germans behave in this way. It was not enough that they were responsible for the Holocaust; now they want to turn their eye again against this kind of attack on humanity out of their guilty feelings. Why should the Palestinians pay for their guilty feelings?
I am sorry if I have taken a while with this but I feel very passionately about the subject. I saw the doctor beating his head when his children, his entire family, were wiped out. We must have a debate on this issue.
With regard to the events of last week, I will content myself by saying I called for a vote and I pay tribute to those who recorded the fact. There was some disturbance but I indicated at the time that we should have adjourned so people could have been heard. I will leave that aside.
If I may, I will quickly return to one matter which was raised, namely, the Roscommon incest case.
I want to move on from that to the Roscommon case. I have been disgusted by some of the comments made in this House, for example, during the discussion of civil partnership, etc. We were told, and it was reported by various interest groups, that a gay couple would not be fit to raise children. Would those Roscommon children not have been better raised by a loving couple who happen to be of the same sex than exposed to this particular family? This concept of family is protected in an idolatrous fashion despite the damage it does. We should not have any more of this cant and nonsense.
I remember exactly what Senator O'Toole said about how we were blackguarded when we raised the question of Stay Safe. We were asked about the rights of parents, as if it was a right of parents to molest their own children. I remember these organisations and the personnel, who have remained the same. It is the very same rotten source in Irish society. I will no longer tolerate being told by groups and organisations, including the church, who represent forces that singly fail to protect children that gay people are not as good as anybody else at keeping children——
I join other speakers in asking the Leader to postpone the debate this afternoon, given that the relevance of politics and politicians is being debated now more than ever. As Senators Alex White and Fitzgerald have said, we will debate the economy today in a vacuum. We are one of the two Houses of Parliament and this Government has yet again shown disrespect not just to us but to the ordinary citizens we represent. It is incumbent on the Leader to bring to the House the document being presented to the social partners today so we can debate it.
This is clearly a case of the Government making up policy on the hoof. There is no cogent plan or vision as all we are seeing is fire-fighting with no water or sand. We are leaderless and the ship of state is on the rocks. It is audacious to ask us to become part of a national Government when the Government is not providing leadership. How dare it do so.
The Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, should attend the House. I am not a legal expert but rather an ordinary citizen who saw what happened with the Roscommon incest case. I am not as eloquent as Senators Norris or Mullen. The events that took place in Roscommon should never be allowed to recur in this State. Responsibility for this matter should be placed upon the various authorities that failed to act. Deputy Shatter is correct to state that the Health Service Executive should not be involved in the independent inquiry because it has a vested interest and would be investigating itself. The HSE should do the honourable thing and stand aside.
We need leadership — this has not been forthcoming from the Government — in respect of children's rights. When I worked as a schoolteacher, I taught religion and disseminated information on the On My Own Two Feet programme. Parents questioned my motivation and that of colleagues throughout the country in respect of this matter. Teachers should not be blamed for what occurred in this instance. They did their job. We must try to discover the identities of those who failed to do their jobs. Action must be taken to ensure that children will never again be placed at risk. It is time to stop playing politics with children's rights. This matter revolves around people and the Minister must come before the House to discuss it.
I wish to comment on the announcement that 73 employees are to be let go by Kildare County Council and on the fact that others throughout the country are also being made redundant. I accept that we will debate this matter tomorrow but I wish to raise it here because yesterday was the third anniversary of the publication of A Vision for Change. I am concerned, in a roundabout way, with budgets and the fact that Kildare County Council may have been told to make redundant the people to whom I refer. The council has not been given a budget; nor has the Health Service Executive. How can any of these organisations make plans and provide leadership to their employees if they do not have budgets?
The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Moloney, was extremely modest when discussing A Vision for Change. He held his hands up and stated that implementation has been far too slow. Senators Corrigan and Prendergast raised this matter on several occasions and stated that mental health is the poor relation within the area of health. All of the money obtained from the sale of real estate is being ploughed back into the big black hole that is the HSE and not into the services where it is required most, namely, those relating to mental health. Despite the major problems in the context of drug abuse, eating disorders and so on, there are only 30 beds available for adolescents throughout the entire country. I accept that this is an improvement. However, money should be ploughed back into the system to improve matters further in the area of mental health services.
I met a mental health provider last evening who informed me that people are being transferred from the psychiatric services at Naas General Hospital to St. Loman's in Mullingar at 5 p.m. each day because the hospital is not able to cater for all of the people coming in from Dublin. The staff at St. Loman's are then expected to treat the individuals to whom I refer in a loving and nurturing way. There is no joined-up thinking in respect of this matter. The Leader should arrange a debate, as a matter of urgency, on A Vision for Change and the delay relating to its implementation.
I request that the Leader make time available for a calm, serious debate on the mandatory reporting of child abuse. It is time such a debate took place in Ireland. Senator O'Toole referred to the extremely important distinction between the protection of the child and the protection of the family. This is a taboo subject with which we are all afraid to deal. I was one of those teachers who, in the early 1990s, encountered opposition from people when obliged to implement the Stay Safe programme. The latter was extremely mild in nature and was designed to assist children to protect themselves.
I also worked as a teacher in the United States. While there, I was obliged to operate within a system where mandatory reporting applied and I received adequate training to allow me to apply it. My experience in the US made me look differently at the areas of child protection and child abuse. I made one report during my time as a teacher in the US. When one makes such a report, one does not know if one's suspicions are correct. On checking the position in the case to which I refer, however, I discovered that there was a history of abuse within the family concerned. A sister of the little boy in my class had been flushing her hair down the toilet because of how she felt about herself.
It is time we faced up to this issue. Senator McDonald spoke very passionately about the terrible horrors in that house in Roscommon. However, this Government has failed to implement the Children First guidelines. Let us call a spade a spade. In every school in Ireland, only one person is trained to be a designated liaison person to report child abuse. That is not enough. The abused or neglected child could be in someone else's classroom. It is only the duty of the school to report child abuse and not to investigate it. I have no doubt that when teachers see nits and lice on a child's face, they ask questions. However, they cannot make the Health Service Executive or the Garda act.
Who is protecting our children? It is time we faced up to mandatory reporting because once one lives under that regime, one deals differently with this issue. One knows that one has a different responsibility.
I am sorry to say that I am losing confidence in the ability of the Houses of the Oireachtas to act for the people. I do not see any point in being in this House if we do not get answers to reasonable questions. Last week we debated the Anglo Irish Bank Corporation Bill 2009 but we did not get an answer as to the bad debts we are taking on for the people. Would the Leader buy a business without knowing what he was taking on? He would not, nor would I. However, we asked the people to do so and they are in the dark.
Can we change? Can the Government show leadership? When we ask the Minister for Finance a fundamental question, he should give an answer. Unless the Oireachtas can force the Cabinet to take action, we are going nowhere. I am a new Member of this House and I wonder why I was elected. I wonder what I can give to the people who elected me. I cannot get answers and it is not right.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald called for a debate on the High Court decision in the case of Pamela Izevbekhai and her daughters. As somebody who holds pretty conservative views on immigration, I believe this country has badly failed that family. There is still time to put that wrong right. I admire the courage of that woman in trying to protect her daughters from the possibility of mutilation if repatriated. We should have a debate at the earliest possible opportunity.
I concur with many of the comments made on the Roscommon incest case. I do not disagree with most of what was said in the House. Senator Mullen said the courts were tardy. As far as I understand the facts of the case and what happened over the past seven or eight years, it seems the Government and the agencies of the State have been tardy and not the courts.
Many years ago, the former Taoiseach gave a commitment that a constitutional referendum on the rights of children would be held within a couple of months of his announcement but that has not happened. The HSE has given insufficient resources to prevent such cases as that in Roscommon. I share the views of other Senators that there should be no HSE involvement in the inquiry being conducted.
Senator Alex White and others spoke about the economic debate scheduled for later today. I agree that there is not much point having that debate if we do not have the facts on what the Government is speaking to the social partners about. That is the fatal flaw in the system of social partnership.
I was the Opposition spokesperson on finance in this House for a number of years and I constantly raised with Ministers, and Deputy Cowen when he was the Minister for Finance, the need for the involvement of the Oireachtas in the social partnership process. The Seanad, when it was set up, was to be a form of social partnership, but the vocational panels did not work as originally planned. We should have a full role in the Government's plan for economic recovery, which we know nothing about other than the small amounts of information that have been leaked to the media and are speculated upon in the newspapers. Other than that, we have very little detail on the Government's plan.
I ask the Leader to provide time at the earliest possible opportunity for an urgent debate on pensions and pension provision. The issue was raised before the House rose for the Christmas recess in regard to the difficulties of Waterford Crystal and the problems workers, and former workers, are experiencing in terms of what is essentially a black hole in the company funds for their pensions. A large number of people who work in the private sector are in defined benefit schemes. There may be cases similar to that in Waterford Crystal and there could be serious repercussions in the coming months as the number of redundancies continues to rise. I do not see any prospect of that position changing in the short term and I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on pensions at the earliest possible opportunity.
I support the views of Members who have spoken about the Roscommon case. As a parent I am appalled. The people who were dealing with this case must have had eyes in the back of their head because it is clear from the reports that the system failed those children. It is interesting that it was only when the children went into foster care that the problem was revealed. Great work is being done by foster carers. The one bit of light in respect of this matter is the fact that 100 additional social workers are being recruited. We can be assured that a number of children may be at risk and we want to ensure that we are not talking about the same subject in a week, a month or a year from now. Our children are tomorrow's citizens, leaders and Government.
I have been in contact with the Health Service Executive about the acute psychiatric services in the midland region. It does not make any great sense that people will have to travel from parts of Longford to an acute facility more than 100 miles away. That is not acceptable. As somebody who knows something about the psychiatric services, I am aware that St. Loman's Hospital in Mullingar is one of the few hospitals with an acute unit for psychiatry of later life. It is a unit with which the Cathaoirleach is very familiar and which has great successes to its credit. I will not waste the time of the House by outlining those successes but the fruits are obvious. This proposal does not make any sense to me or to anyone I have spoken to in Longford, Westmeath and further afield.
This is a proposal by the HSE. It is a case of somebody casting a cold eye over a situation which they have not considered. Acute service is about providing for people with the least inconvenience. It is not good clinical practice for somebody to travel up to 100 miles for an acute service.
Pension funds in many companies throughout the country are either insolvent or seriously underfunded. In my own city, Waterford Crystal is in a precarious position. Workers who have paid their pension contributions for 20 and 30 years are being told there is not a penny for them at the end of that time. That is a disgrace. It is criminal that pension funds should be allowed go in such circumstances. This matter was raised on several occasions in the previous Seanad by a colleague of mine, Senator Sheila Terry, who spoke on pensions on several occasions. It is a matter that has been flagged for many years but the Government failed to act in the area of pensions. I ask that the Minister should come into this House and outline to us what she intends doing about the underfunding of pension funds. It is disgraceful that people who have been in employment for over 30 years and who have paid all their contributions are being told that there is not a penny available for their retirement. That should not happen.
I join colleagues in calling for a debate on the Middle East. I condemned Hamas for its indiscriminate shelling of Israel on many occasions but "disproportionate" is not a strong enough word to describe the Israeli response to the butchery of women and children which we saw on our television screens.
I attended a Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs meeting, to which Senator Daly referred also, at which I was glad to hear the Minister for Foreign Affairs reprimand one of his own colleagues for calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador because he believed, and rightly so, that all avenues of diplomacy should be kept open. I join those who expressed the wish that the appointment of George Mitchell as an envoy to the Middle East will bear fruit and that a process will arise that will bring peace to that much troubled land.
I support Senator McFadden's call for a debate on A Vision for Change. In light of the report launched by the Minister yesterday it would be useful at this stage if the Leader could make arrangements for the Minister to attend the House to discuss the next steps in the implementation of A Vision for Change. It has been recognised by everybody, including the Minister, that the progress made has not been at a pace we would wish. While the economy is in a serious position currently, it is important that Members of this House take every opportunity to ensure that people with disabilities and mental health illnesses do not get left behind in these very difficult economic times.
Will the Leader indicate when the legislation covering capacity for vulnerable adults will be brought forward? We had hoped to have it prior to Christmas. Is there an update on that?
There are no words to express the horror, upset and distress caused to everyone who has heard the details of the Roscommon incest case. It is clear there are lessons to be learned. There must be as full an inquiry as possible and those of us in the House, and people in other appropriate areas of society, must have the opportunity to consider carefully the findings of that inquiry. There appear to have been a number of events over the years and a study of each of those events will help us inform our own role here. Senator Healy-Eames asked why we are here but we have an important role here in terms of legislation and the contributions we make to debates.
The Health Service Executive tried to take the children into care. It went to court but its desire to take the children into care was opposed, it appears, by an organisation which believed it was acting in the interests of the family in question. Members of the Oireachtas can play a role by communicating a message that this is not a battle between the rights of the family and the rights of the child but trying to ensure everyone is society is protected to the maximum possible extent.
Twenty months ago, the then Taoiseach made a commitment to hold a referendum on the rights of the child. An Oireachtas joint committee is examining the proposed referendum. While its work has been slow, this is a reflection of interest in the issue and the large number of submissions made by members of the public. Senator Fitzgerald will agree that one of the issues to have emerged in the deliberations has been the number of organisations which mistakenly believe the joint committee's purpose is to attack the family and that they must make submissions to protect the family. Our role is not to attack the family but to try to ensure children are afforded the best possible protection in the interests of their safety. While we must consider legislation and the wording of any referendum which may be necessary, Senators must also convey the message at every opportunity that our role is not to attack families. The rights of the family and the rights of the child can operate in tandem.
Before I call the Leader, I note Senators continue to approach staff to complain when they are not called to speak in the order they wish. As Cathaoirleach, I have sole responsibility for calling speakers. There is nothing to be gained from approaching staff and the practice must cease. When the House is in session Senators should not approach or annoy staff as it prevents them from doing their job properly. I regret the Senator who broke that rule today is not present.
I assure the Cathaoirleach that this side of the House fully supports his ruling in this matter which has always made for orderly conduct.
As Leader of Seanad Éireann, on the first sitting day of the session, I offer the congratulations of the House to the new President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. President Obama has an onerous responsibility and everyone hopes and prays he will assist the world in this difficult time. The United States also has a new Vice President, Joe Biden. As I have stated on many occasions, Bill and Hillary Clinton have done great work for this country. I congratulate Hillary Clinton on her appointment as Secretary of State and look forward to meeting her during her term of office. I also extend best wishes to Mr. George Mitchell on his appointment as the envoy of the United States to the Middle East. Mr. Mitchell is a dear friend of Ireland who brought peace to our country. We wish President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton and the special envoy, Mr. Mitchell, God speed. We hope they will be successful. I look forward to their stewardship.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Regan, Coghlan, Buttimer, McFadden and Healy-Eames expressed their views on economic matters and the debate on the economy which will take place later. I acknowledge that in the past 24 hours the media have justifiably given equal coverage to the Seanad and Dáil in this matter. People will know the Upper House of Parliament is taking seriously the review of recent events when Senators update the Minister on economic matters which may be of particular relevance or urgency in their respective areas.
When the economic downturn started in earnest in late September or early October I indicated that I intended to have a special debate on the economy every five or six weeks. These debates will be wide-ranging and will allow Senators to express their views freely with the Minister, a Minister of State and senior officials in the Department of Finance present. They will be enormously helpful.
On 1 July 2008, approximately 480 people were signing on for unemployment assistance in my home town of Castlepollard. I have noted with regret seven months later that 1,200 people are signing on at the unemployment exchange in this small community, which I am privileged to represent. The percentage increase in unemployment in Castlepollard is the third largest in the country over the period in question. This is principally due to the area's dependence on the construction industry, particularly through its many sand and gravel pits, and the manufacture of various items for the construction industry. With the motor trade, which is supplied by Iralco and Mergon, experiencing a global downturn, Honda is not in a position to purchase chrome strips or parts for their stores in Europe. As a result, workers at the Mergon factory in Castlepollard have been placed on a three-day week. Unprecedented global events are taking place. I thank the leaders of the groups for their understanding and assistance in these changing times.
I welcome the improvement in the fortunes of Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks shares in recent days. This development will give heart to small and medium-sized family and private businesses which employ more than 40% of the workforce and encourage them to keep up the good fight. I hope we will see an economic upturn in the next 18 months or two years. I have assured the House that regular debates on the economy will take place throughout the year as the economy experiences difficulty and colleagues seek to express their views on matters arising. I look forward to today's debate on the economy.
I extend my best wishes to the social partners and Government in their efforts to find a formula to meet the challenge of correcting difficulties being experienced in the public finances. As we are all aware, parts one and two of the Celtic tiger might never have occurred had it not been for the decision of the former Taoiseach, the late Charles Haughey, and the former leader of the trade union movement, Mr. Mullen, to establish the social partnership process in 1987. Everyone involved at the time deserves congratulations on finding a winning formula for Ireland which was held up as a shining example across Europe. The social partners and Government are rallying to the call to address the problem of finding savings of €2 billion required to correct the Exchequer imbalance.
Senators O'Toole, Mary White, McDonald, Mullen, Norris, Buttimer, Healy-Eames, John Paul Phelan, Glynn and Corrigan referred to the Roscommon incest case and expressed horror, shock and disappointment that it should have arisen. We can all learn from this experience and I intend to arrange an urgent debate on the issue. I am encouraged by the actions of a brave, new Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, in the few days since this matter was brought to his attention. I intend to request his presence in the House to allow colleagues to raise their concerns and ascertain how we can respond to this dreadful case.
Senators Regan, Daly, Ó Murchú, Cummins and many others brought to the attention of the House the invasion of Gaza which took place over the Christmas period and the horrors being experienced by its people. We did not believe we would see the like of this again but it is real and we were able to watch it live on television. The Seanad must commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, and the Taoiseach on the Government's stance on the issue. I intend to have a debate with the Minister present.
Senator Norris has placed non-Government motion 32 on the Order Paper. I will do everything I can to facilitate the debate but I remind Independent Senators that next Wednesday night is their Private Members' time. If the Senators wish to have additional time to discuss this and make it their priority for next week——
——I would be in favour in of facilitating and accommodating Independent Senators on the motion. A significant amount of legislation, of which I will inform the House later on, is coming before us before us for consideration and that must take precedence.
Senator Mullen has brought the judgment of Mr. Justice Carney to the attention of the House and I will pass his views to the Minister later on this afternoon. I agree with the many of the sentiments he expressed.
Senators McFadden, Glynn and Corrigan gave the House the benefit of their expertise on the issue of mental health and making it a priority. Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy John Moloney, is determined to make an impact in this area. He has been given a special portfolio by the Taoiseach. As one who has worked very closely with him through the years, I have every confidence there will be an opportunity created by the Minister of State's endeavour and determination to see that it happens. I take the point made by Senators McFadden, Glynn and Corrigan that moneys from the sale of property, such as St. Loman's Hospital in Mullingar and other areas, should be prioritised and used for the betterment of those who need assistance and care in the area of mental health.
Senators Phelan and Cummins called for a debate on pensions and pension funds and I could not agree more with the sentiments expressed. It is a difficult time for those who have been paying into pension funds for many years. The bond market is on the ground, the stock market is on its knees and investment is probably at the lowest level in 70 or 80 years. At the end of the day, if one holds one's stocks the wheel will take a turn. As we have learned before on many occasions, particularly over the past 40 years, those who have invested in pension funds have done very well. These are unprecedented times. Those who are now retiring should avail of the opportunity of extended time. I think there is an extended period of two years. Such people do not have any other option in this area. I sympathise with them because everyone looks forward to the day when they will be able to enjoy their retirement. A pension means certainty but at the moment there is no certainty. Senator Cummins has said that it is a difficult time. We, as legislators, must do everything we possibly can to create and keep confidence for those who have made such a significant contribution over the years.
I wish to inform the House of the new legislative programme. The Seanad will play a pivotal role in charting a way forward for our country during these difficult economic times. As well as continuing to meet the challenges of the global economic downturn which has affected our country, the Government is introducing a raw legislative programme until 8 April. Among the Bills to be published during the coming period are the employment agency regulation Bill, the planning and development (amendment) Bill, the financial services (deposit guarantee scheme) Bill, the National Pensions Reserve Fund (amendment) Bill, the child care Bill, the covert surveillance Bill, the criminal justice (money laundering) Bill, the property services regulatory Bill, the criminal procedure Bill, the civil partnership Bill and the road traffic and transport Bill.
Over the coming weeks and months the Government will continue to make progress in introducing legislation aimed at strengthening the laws protecting citizens and the Irish economy. Working in a renewed spirit of co-operation, Members of the Oireachtas can help to put Ireland on a firm footing to sustainable economic renewal and improved social protection. I look forward, under the guidance and stewardship of the Cathaoirleach, to working with all Members to achieve these goals on behalf of the Irish people.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 28 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Peter Callanan, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Tony Kett, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 20 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Liam Twomey, Alex White)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Maurice Cummins.
Question declared carried.