Thursday, 9 July 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Defamation Bill 2006 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill 2006 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, the Twenty-Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (Treaty of Lisbon) Bill 2009 - all Stages, with Second Stage to start not before 2.30 p.m., spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes, all other Senators for ten minutes and Senators may share time by agreement of the House; and No. 4, motion re statement for information of voters on the Twenty-Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (Treaty of Lisbon) Bill 2009, to be taken in conjunction with No. 3.
Our economy will continue to change over the summer and the effects of the difficulties will become more apparent, for example in the health and education sectors. By the time we come back in September, Monaghan General Hospital will have closed, in effect, as an acute hospital. The effects of increased class sizes in schools throughout this country will start to be evident. The headlines in today's newspapers reflect the effects of the wanton violence of criminals on all parts of society. There is an opportunity for the Seanad to contribute to the debate on how our society and economy are changing, but it needs to be structured properly. We should be more proactive as regards what we do and make ourselves more relevant. It is time to start planning in this regard so that we may be more effective on our return in September and see the effects of all of these changes.
I ask the Leader that when the Seanad resumes in September and Members request him to make inquiries on various issues to particular Ministers or Departments, a structure is put in place which provides for an official written reply to his or her query to be issued to each Senator, as opposed to the Leader just giving his opinion on it at the end of the Order of Business.
On Seanad business, perhaps the Leader might raise this issue with the Government Chief Whip. Half our business today and much of it throughout the week has been the recommital on Report Stage of Seanad Bills that have been changed by the Dáil. There is nothing wrong with that, but on many occasions the changes made in the Dáil relate to an issue that has already been raised in the Seanad, where a Minister will have acknowledged it needs to be dealt with, agreed to reflect on it and then changed it in the Dáil instead of on Report Stage in the Seanad. This means we are duplicating the business unnecessarily and I ask the Leader to look at this.
Departments should be told that if an issue is raised on Committee Stage, the structure is to deal with that on Report Stage, not to say it will be dealt with in the other House and brought back to the Seanad again, where the entire procedure has to be replicated.
An unseemly row has broken out between the head of the HSE and the Archbishop of Dublin on Crumlin hospital. We often hear that doctors differ and patients die, but this is akin to the third secret of Fatima as regards who is telling the truth in relation to what is going on in Crumlin. I am completely confused by it. Parents with children in that hospital do not know the explanation. Professor Drumm is telling us that there is no need for surgery theatres to be cut back, while at the same time Archbishop Martin, who is chairman of the Crumlin hospital board, is saying this is the only choice. Another member of the board says the board has nothing to with such matters which are executive decisions. We need to know the truth of the matter and we also need to be informed concerning certain governance issues there. If State money is being given to a hospital, there is no point in the HSE whinging afterwards as regards how the money has been spent. It should know beforehand how it is going to be spent. The business or work plan for the year should be approved before money is handed over. This row would not arise if proper governance structures were in place. From a political viewpoint we are dealing with a situation where the Department has handed over discretion for spending money to the HSE, the HSE has passed that discretion to the hospital board and taxpayers and politicians do not know how or why the money is being spent. We need concrete knowledge and information about this. It is fine that hospitals are autonomous and how they spend their money is their decision, but where taxpayers' money is involved we need to know it is approved by our system. There is a breakdown in communications and the approval system and it is an unacceptable way of doing business.
Today the G8 countries are meeting in L'Aquila in Italy. Last week Archbishop Tutu and former President Mary Robinson wrote to the leaders asking them to set up a global fund for education. At the weekend the Pope also wrote to them, speaking about education and calling it an indispensable condition for the working of democracy. The Pope asked the G8 countries to reaffirm their commitment to development aid, something that was picked up by Sir Bob Geldof, who edited a special edition of La Stampa, the Italian newspaper at the weekend. He called on Prime Minister Berlusconi to explain himself for Italy's failure to match its commitments. Mr. Berlusconi said he was sorry, accepted that Italy had not met its commitments and reaffirmed that it would, within the next three years.
I ask the Leader to extend an invitation to Sir Bob Geldof to make a case in the Seanad as to why Ireland should reaffirm its commitment to meet its targets for development aid by 2012.
Yesterday we heard that the report of an bord snip nua is back from the printers and ready to be discussed by Ministers. On "Morning Ireland" today, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, from the Leader's constituency, made a very strong and compelling case as to why that report should be released and published as soon as possible. I agree with her and-----
------believe we need to see this report. We have many calls from all sides of the House for parties to engage in meaningful discussions about these proposals and we need to see them. If we do not see them we all know what will happen. This Government leaks worse than a national aquatic centre. Some journalists are going to receive off the record briefings, while others, who do not, will pretend they have. This well lead to uncertainty, businesses will retrench and not make decisions on investment, which will mean more job losses. We need to see the publication of this report. I ask the Leader to row in behind his constituency colleague-----
Over a number of weeks many Senators have expressed their concern as regards the humanitarian situation in Gaza. In recent days we have had first-hand accounts of how serious is that situation. Young people in particular are suffering because of lack of medicines and there is no food or proper housing. It is quite clear, based on the responses coming from Israeli sources that there will be no breakthrough in the immediate future.
If would be a pity to embark on the summer recess before making our position clear, particularly on the humanitarian situation. I ask the Leader to consider the possibility of an all-party motion so that we may call for a generous response to ensure that what is happening and the suffering being inflicted stops. It is right for this House to take such an initiative. I believe it would be welcomed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, because he has been so good, strong and focused on this issue, as acknowledged by many commentators. The Leader might consider a discussion in the Seanad to bring about an all-party motion, because I believe that would be a great help. As well as that, we must keep this issue at the top of the agenda. There is always a danger that it might be sidelined by other issues. If that happens, it will mean that we just help to prolong the suffering of innocent people. In this day and age, particularly where there is so much international co-operation, that is not acceptable any more.
There is an issue I again want to raise, which the Leader has not addressed. It was ultimately a question for the Minister for Finance, namely, the appointment last September of Arthur Cox solicitors as advisers to the Minister and Department of Finance as regards the bank guarantee scheme. This was done without tender and there was a certain urgency, which was the justification provided by the Minister at the time. Now they are being retained in that capacity to advise on NAMA.
I also pointed out in the House that they are legal advisers to Bank of Ireland and they were recently appointed by the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, in relation to NAMA. There are conflicts of interest here. There are, at least, five or six major law firms in this city that have the same capacity as Arthur Cox. This is the type of Fianna Fáil cronyism which has destroyed the economy. There are issues here of compliance with EU public procurement rules, but conflict of interest and cronyism appears to be the crucial issue. This same legal firm is advising developers. Developers are moving their business to Arthur Cox because they believe they have the inside track on NAMA. This is a very unsatisfactory situation.
The Minister for Finance is coming to the House tomorrow. I ask the Leader that he addresses this very important question to him, as it smacks of the type of Fianna Fáil cronyism that has brought the economy to the perilous state it is in today.
Will the Leader arrange for a discussion before the end of our term here on the developments in agriculture? The Minister made widespread announcements last night, some on investment in farming. I am very concerned about the termination of the applications for REPS 4 at close of business, 5.30 p.m. today. It has major implications for those on REPS 3 who are finishing in 2010 and could have changed to REPS 4 last May but were advised otherwise by many in this and the other House.
I am very concerned about this situation. It has major implications, including on the second Lisbon treaty referendum on 2 October. Such moves that affect European payments directly to farmers have a major impact. We have spent €3 billion since 1994 on REPS. It has been a very beneficial investment in rural Ireland. It has made a significant difference and has given employment to people in rural Ireland since 1994. I appreciate the constraints under which the Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, is working and he is doing a very good job, from an agricultural constituency, in a Government that is not totally agriculturally oriented - I am not referring to the Fianna Fáil side.
I ask the Leader to inquire into why the Department of Transport has not revoked any haulage licence over the past two years, despite the fact that 14,000 infringements have been drawn to its attention by the British and Irish policing bodies. The British say they have drawn attention to 8,000 offences in the past year and no licence has been revoked. The offences to which I refer are breaches of driving hours, driving overloaded vehicles and failing road-worthiness tests. Apparently the Irish Road Haulage Association is concerned because when it spoke to the Department of Transport, it said it had not revoked any licences because it believes there is a constitutional problem about doing so. If that is so, it is in the hands of the Minister to do something about it.
If road haulage vehicles are being driven in breach of legislation and creating offences in Britain and Ireland, it makes a mockery of our legislation. It makes a mockery in that the British drew to our attention 8,000 offences and we did nothing about it, and, apparently, we have no plans to do anything about it in the immediate future. I ask the Leader to draw to the attention of the Minister for Transport this situation and to please return with an answer on whether something is being done about it.
If this Bill had been enacted some years ago more lives might have been saved. I understand that those who defend civil liberties would have anxieties and there are questions, but in extraordinary times one must take extraordinary measures. The introduction of this Bill has terrorised those criminal gangs. It is hard to credit how they perceive themselves. Perhaps they see themselves as some modern day OK Corrall-type, Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday figures, but they are despised by the people, they are feared by their neighbours and they are company with which no decent people would want to be seen. What we are doing will serve the State well.
There has been no solid debate in the House on the impact of the reintroduction of third level fees. This will seriously affect students, parents who will have to pay, the third level sector and the future of our country. Yesterday, outside the gates of Leinster House, the Union of Students in Ireland, which brought out this pack, asked me to personally give it to the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, because he has refused to engage with them.
I ask the Leader to give this pack to the Minister on my behalf and especially to ask him to engage with the Union of Students in Ireland because the students are the key stakeholders - they are adults. We need to have a debate on this matter, but I do not know that we will have it before the summer recess. This must be prioritised for our first week back in September.
It is unforgivable on a number of fronts that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, is again not engaging with the Irish Pharmaceutical Union. The first point is the loss of jobs in the pharmacy industry. The Minister seeks 34% income cuts from pharmacies. If the 1,100 pharmacies pull out by 1 August it will mean a loss of 5,000 of the 16,000 jobs in the pharmacy industry. This is not the way to go at this time. It will risk patient safety. If we must return to central dispensing it will threaten drug dispensing. Drugs not properly dispensed are poisons. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister, Deputy Harney, to engage immediately with the pharmaceutical industry. She failed last time. Maybe she is a little vindictive on this, but this is not the way to go. We need to be more conciliatory in our approach and listen to those who can come up with the cuts.
I agree with Senator Healy Eames on that. The Leader gave us a pledge last week that the Minister, Deputy Harney, would come in here before the end of the session. It was not a water-tight pledge because we do not get those in this House, but it was an aspiration that she would come in, and I ask that she do so before next Wednesday. She is away this week, but it is important that is done.
Senator Regan put his finger on a problem. It is not necessarily specific to these solicitors, but the House might address it at some stage. On the same type of issue, I am astonished at the number of times PricewaterhouseCoopers comes up in the banking issue. It is banker to the Bank of Ireland. It received an audit fee of €15 million from the Bank of Ireland a couple of years ago, which is a phenomenal leverage to have on a bank. It is being appointed to various consultancy briefs by the Government, particularly looking into the banks here.
It is obvious that all these legal and accountancy firms are deeply conflicted on the issue of banking here. The defence is that we are a small country and only very few accountancy and solicitors firms have the calibre, clout, ability and resources to investigate or to serve on an issue of this sort. The solution may be as follows. I do not believe in Chinese walls so it is not fair to say they separate their structures. I do not believe that ever happens in Ireland or elsewhere. We ought to look to companies, firms and service providers that are independent. We ought to look to those with no axe to grind. We ought to look to people and companies outside the State who are truly independent if we want this to be done. Otherwise as Senator Regan implies, these people will be proven at some stage in the future to have conflicts. Then there will be question marks over not just the banks but also those sent in as independent arbiters. They will be questioned.
This issue was raised yesterday by Senators Donohoe, Hanafin, Callely and Glynn, and I raised it on 23 June. It is the constant refusal by our banks to give the support in credit terms to business, especially small indigenous business. Every time the issue is raised the Leader's response is that we will invite the Minister to the House to discuss it. Again yesterday that was the response he gave to our four colleagues who raised the issue. Invariably the Minister who comes is the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, who disappointingly is becoming increasingly glib and dismissive of the issue. His response the last time was to say that a review is being carried out of bank lending practice and the results will be available soon.
While that review is going on we are losing almost 2,000 jobs a day. Given that his family is heavily involved in business, the Leader must surely know that this is a major issue. I spoke to a businessperson last week who is heavily indebted to one particular bank. He is a developer. He sought to start a business in one of his developments and planned employing 25 people. He received 320 applications for those 25 jobs. When he went back to the bank, which was screaming for a cash flow from him, with his business proposal, it refused him the credit to begin the business.
The taxpayers have given a major transfusion to our banking system and yet the very life-giving blood that business needs is not forthcoming. It is a major issue that does not seem to be addressed in any serious way in this House. As Senator Twomey said earlier, this is the forum in which we could find out exactly what is happening within our banking system. Appointing directors to these banks is not the solution. Their sole fiduciary duty is to the entity - the bank - and not to Irish business or the taxpayer.
I join colleagues in asking for the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to discuss the pharmacy issue. I am once again in receipt of very detailed e-mails quoting facts and figures from pharmacies, principally small pharmacies throughout the country. I have no sympathy for the international chains. The Minister is partly responsible, through legislation, for introducing a two-tier system in pharmacy as well as in medicine. What about the pharmacies in rural areas and in working class suburbs? The countryside is already largely deprived of post offices, buses and pubs. Now the chemists may fizzle out. We need to review the issue.
The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill will come to this House next week, which will be absolutely useless because no amendments will be taken. In the aftermath of the Phoenix Park murders by the Invincibles at the end of the 19th century, an attempt was made in Britain to introduce just such a law and the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Pallas, said that any attempt to impose upon the duty of trying crime without juries would impair confidence in justice.
I listened to the news this morning. In a case in Limerick, Gary Campion has just been sentenced. This was adduced as evidence to show why this Bill is necessary. It is completely the reverse. Mr. Campion was rightly convicted by a jury in Limerick. We are talking about getting rid of juries. This is a fundamental strike at human rights. We really need to discuss it properly. Everyone is opposed to this kind of criminal warfare. Those involved are a real blot on society and people rightly despise them. They hold people up to terror, but we must use a surgical approach to them. There is no point in using hysteria as a cloak for diminishing human rights. Let us have a proper debate and not have all these irrelevancies.
I strongly support Senator Cannon's remarks. I m sure that, like me, Members of this House are approached every day by business people complaining about the banks. The banks are not discharging their responsibility. It is a simple as that. We, as parliamentarians, cannot stand idly by and watch this happen. The lifeblood of this country in terms of commercial activity is ebbing away before us and we need to do something about it. If we need to come back into this House and stay until 8.20 a.m., as we did when we were giving the banks a shot in the arm, that is what we will do if we need to reverse what we did. Someone must be accountable, not for what is happening but for what is not happening, which is that the business people who create jobs and give employment are not getting the support of the banking system. It is as simple as that. There is no point in coming in here, hiding our light under a bushel and pretending it is not happening because it is happening. The banks have no regard to their responsibilities, which they are not discharging. If we need to sit on another day, which could be Monday or Sunday, it does not matter. Let us do it and discuss the matter with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to establish what we are going to do about it because something must be done. What is taking place is an absolute disgrace.
Some very useful suggestions have been made this morning, first by Senator Twomey about written answers to questions, a matter on which I have campaigned in the past and in which I know every Senator is interested. We should have a facility in Parliament whereby Senators can receive written answers to questions put to Ministers. In the absence of that, I fully endorse what Senator Twomey has said. Perhaps when we come back in the autumn, the Leader through his parliamentary assistant and by reference to the Official Report can have these matters properly processed, reviewed and dealt with. It would be of great assistance to every Member of this House.
I am sure the Leader is very much aware of Senator O'Toole's very useful suggestion. Ministers often say they will amend a Bill in the other House when it could be done on Report Stage in this House.
I agree with what has been said that nothing is happening with banking following recapitalisation. The banks are waiting for NAMA. We will need to discuss that matter further with Government.
Senator Norris spoke about pharmacies, which are vital to our towns. They are small operators who are being squeezed. We know what is going on with the discounts. What he said about the big operators is quite right. I have no time for them either. However, we all have a vested interest in protecting the streets of our towns. The pharmacy is vital in all those locations and we need to do something about that.
I echo the words of Senator Coghlan and again call on the Leader to ensure we have a debate on the pharmacy issue with the Minister for Health and Children next week. I believe he has already promised and I would like him to confirm it.
I also support Senator Ó Murchú's call for an all-party motion to be adopted in this House on the need for humanitarian relief to get through to the beleaguered people of Gaza who have been suffering so badly since their bombardment by Israel earlier this year. Yesterday, Senator Ó Murchú and I along with others had the privilege of meeting Derek Graham, one of the people from the Free Gaza Movement who was detained by the Israeli authorities when the ship on which he and Mairéad Corrigan Maguire were travelling was detained. That ship was trying to bring humanitarian supplies through to Gaza. Derek Graham's account of the dreadful conditions in which people are living in Gaza made chilling hearing. Senator Ó Murchú and I promised him that we would do our best to try to ensure adoption of an all-party motion condemning the actions of Israel and Egypt in blocking humanitarian relief getting through to Gaza. I urge the Leader to arrange for the adoption of such a motion.
On a day that we will debate the blasphemy laws, it is nice to be able to agree for once, which I rarely do, with a Catholic priest, Fr. Willie Russell, who I note from an article on the front page of The Irish Times, is the local parish priest in Rathkeale in County Limerick. He has been rather critical of people there who appear to be paying homage or worshipping a tree stump which they believe depicts an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Fr. Russell might be at risk of being found guilty of blasphemy since he is being critical, grossly abusive or insulting to people of a religion who seem to want to worship a tree. We should be mindful of the danger of introducing an offence like blasphemy in light of the sort of events that we are seeing in Rathkeale in Limerick.
In light of the fact that statistics show there has been an increase in the number of people smoking, that lung cancer is the biggest killer in Ireland, with 1,600 people dying from it each year and that 7,000 people are dying in Ireland each year from smoking-related illnesses, I welcome that the tobacco control legislation will be before the House next week. It is a response to issues in this regard that were raised on the Order of Business on many occasions. I draw the attention of the Leader to the Irish Cancer Society's concern that the penalties that will apply to minors for such offences will be diluted. We should be au fait with the fact that minors have to be enticed to smoke to replace the 15 or 20 people who die every day in Ireland from smoking-related illnesses to ensure the smoking industry continues.
I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to introduce stronger penalties for those who are caught importing contraband cigarettes. Whatever about dealing with the retailers who are legitimately selling cigarettes to people over the age of 18, and they should be deterred from selling to those under 18 in the strongest possible manner, contraband cigarettes are being imported and very light penalties apply. A recent television programme showed that a person who had imported approximately 200,000 contraband cigarettes was fined in the region of €26 and the maximum penalty imposed on any of the offenders was €200. The penalties must fit the crime. If we are serious about not only addressing cancer but also gangland crime, we must to tackle the illegal importation of cigarettes and alcohol. I would like to think that early in the new Seanad year - I was going to say academic year - we would address the issue of alcohol abuse.
I support my colleagues who called for debates on two issues. Senators Cannon and Coghlan raised an issue that was discussed on yesterday's Order of Business regarding the behaviour of banks. We will be discussing this matter in the context of the legislation on National Assets Management Agency in September, but in response to what Senator Glynn said, I emphasise that the Parliament cannot afford to stand idly by but the Government did stand idly by when the agreement was made to recapitalise the banks. If the Government had been aware of the dangers facing the small business sector, it would have agreed a stronger plan with those banks to ensure credit would flow during the period when they received €6 billion of taxpayers' money
I support the call for a debate on the pharmacy issue. I seek clarification on two points in that respect. The first is a statement by the Minister that the cost of supplying €1 billion worth of drugs in Ireland is €640 million. Therefore, two thirds of the cost of supplying those drugs is absorbed in profit margins and the administrative costs of the various people involved. That is an extraordinary figure. We need clarification of that figure. More to the point, the Government needs to clarify how it managed to get us into this situation, if it is true that the supply of drugs to people costs such a large amount of money.
I have heard representatives of the pharmacy union spell out the cuts they are willing to impose, but I treat that with some scepticism. I have rarely found turkeys who are willing to vote for Christmas, people who are willing to put in place their own cuts. I want to hear a response from the Minister for Health and Children on the IPU's proposals. If it is willing to come forward with proposals-----
I express my concern and anxiety about a constituent of mine, Sharon Commins. I acknowledge the good work of our Department of Foreign Affairs, the Sudanese authorities and all others who are working for her safe release. I had the opportunity to meet the Sudanese Ambassador yesterday and good progress is being made, but our thoughts are with Sharon today and hopefully in the hours that follow we will have good news.
I would like the Leader to clarify a matter in regard to the pharmacy issue. We are a number of days away from a protest action being taken by pharmacists and we understand the Department of Health and Children and the HSE have a contingency plan for the supply of drugs. I do not know what that plan is in my area. I have not been given any briefing on it. If any person contacts me about it, I cannot tell him or her anything about it. I have been talking about the HSE for some time and now I am prepared to say publicly I have no faith in it to deliver any plan, service or contingency plan. Many people do not understand the pharmacy issue.
For those of us who understand the pharmacy issue, some arrangements are in place, which are the bedrock and foundation of the cost of medication in Ireland. People should get a handle on that. Dispensing costs are a different issue. The two positions being put forward are contrary. The IPU's position does not equate to the position being put forward by the Department of Health and Children and the HSE. Equally, the position being put in regard to pharmacists going on strike and the HSE providing a contingency service cannot be sustained. I ask the Leader to arrange a briefing for us on this matter without further delay.
I support what Senator Hannigan had to say about the cuts in overseas development aid. This is a topic to which we have returned on a number of occasions and to which we will need to return again. I note that the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, urged the UN high level conference to recommit to the world's poor and stressed that between 200,000 and 400,000 more children would die needlessly as a result of poverty in the current economic crisis. However, it seems that the moral authority with which Irish Ministers can say such things is greatly lessened in circumstances where we have executed such swinging cuts to our overseas aid budget. I only hope that despite our economic crisis, there will continue to be an effort on the part of the Irish authorities to ensure we have the moral authority to make these statements on the international stage by undoing some of the damage we have done to our overseas aid budget. It is worth noting that the number of people on the brink of starvation has reached a record high of 1.02 billion, one sixth of the world's population, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. This is a critical issue, regardless of the severity of our own financial crisis.
I welcome what Senator Callely had to say and the article in today's The Irish Times reporting from Reuters that the Goal volunteers Sharon Commins and Hilda Kuwuki are reported to be in good health and that they are likely to be released shortly. Let us all hope that is so. This must be a terribly stressful time for their families and loved ones and all those involved in trying to ensure their safe release are to be commended and supported in their efforts.
I listened with care to what Senators Regan and Ross had to say about Arthur Cox. I accept the credentials of both Senators and I understand that there is a need for transparent dealing and clear structures that prevent conflicts of interest. Nonetheless, if I were a solicitor in a reputable legal firm I would not like it to be presumed that simply because my firm acted for more than one client there would automatically be corruption. We need to believe in the possibility of professional integrity while also insisting on the fact that good fences will make good neighbours and good internal structures will ensure that one is not just depending on professional integrity but that one has the structures to prevent wrongdoing.
I would imagine that there is more likely to be a danger of corruption in matters relating to finance and accountancy than legal advice because legal advisers will, I hope, generally advise their clients to the best of their ability while decisions will be taken elsewhere.
Senators Twomey, O'Toole, Hannigan and Coghlan outlined various issues to the House this morning. All opportunities should be taken by them tomorrow to raise the urgent matters colleagues justifiably raise on the Order of Business every morning when the Ministers will be present for the discussion on the IMF and the OECD.
A written official reply is something we can consider in terms of Seanad reform. The Fianna Fáil submission will be handed in to the Minister tomorrow afternoon. We look forward to the promised legislation on Seanad reform. I thank colleagues on all sides of the House for playing their part and making their submissions to the Minister. We wish to continue to play a central role, first, as protectors of the Constitution and, second, to ensure the taxpayer gets good value for money. The people of this country can rest assured that every word, line and section of every Bill is minutely debated and discussed. I congratulate all colleagues, past and present, who have made it possible for this House to be called the Upper House of Parliament where every part of a Bill will be discussed. That is to the benefit of the taxpayer-----
-----and protects the Constitution.
The Government has published a record number of Bills this session. We have initiated a significant number of Bills in the House. When Bills are initiated in the House and they go to the Dáil, if the Minister accepts amendments the Bills come back to this House. Thankfully, the number of Bills being initiated in the House are on the increase. When I first became a Member of this House years ago we were lucky if one or two Bills were initiated in the House in an entire year. Last year 30% of Bills were initiated in the Upper House, the Seanad. That is to the betterment of the legislation.
I thank all colleagues for their help and assistance in this area.
Senator O'Toole expressed strong views and concerns, as we all have here, on Crumlin hospital, its future and the great work it is doing. Reference was made to the bishop of Dublin.
We support the good work that is taking place and that has taken place in the past. Some of us have personal experience of Crumlin hospital.
Senator Hannigan referred to the report of an bord snip nua, the McCarthy report, which was to be handed over to the Minister last night. I fully agree with my constituency colleague, whom I have always backed up.
I wish the Taoiseach and the Cabinet well in their deliberations on the serious challenge that is at hand. I know I speak for all colleagues on all sides of the House on this matter.
Senator Ó Murchú proposed an all-party motion on humanitarian issues and the poor people of Gaza. That was supported by Senator Bacik. I fully support it too. I urge group leaders to meet with me after the Order of Business this morning to put that process in place and to try to agree a motion and have it on the Order Paper before next Wednesday. We will do anything we can to support those people in their plight. I thank colleagues who have raised the matter on the Order of Business day after day for their serious interest and concern about the serious humanitarian challenges and difficulties being experienced by the people of Gaza.
On the issues raised by Senators Regan, Leyden and Ross, the Minister will be in the House tomorrow and, as I indicated yesterday, their concerns should be taken directly to him. He is an eminent lawyer also. The Senators can bring those matters to his attention and have them teased out.
Senator Leyden brought to the attention of the House the challenges regarding developments in agriculture and the Minister's announcement last night on the deadline of 5.30 p.m. this evening for applications for REPS 4. That is a serious challenge to the agricultural community. I will bring the views of the Senator to the attention of the Minister later today.
Senator Quinn outlined to the House the challenges facing licensees in the haulage business. He suggested that the legislation in this area may have to be amended. The Minister for Transport will be present in the House when we discuss a Bill next Tuesday at 11.45 a.m. Perhaps the Senator can bring the matter to the Minister's attention on Second Stage.
Senators Hanafin and Norris referred to the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill that will come before us for our consideration. The Bill will be in the House all afternoon next Tuesday. The Taoiseach will address the House next Tuesday on Northern Ireland from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. At 3 p.m. the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will be in the House, all evening and all night, for that Bill which has come about urgently due to the serious challenge that faces society. Every colleague in this House wants to see something done about crime and the challenges we face. We look forward to the Minister's presence in the House on Tuesday afternoon and Tuesday evening.
Senator Healy Eames, Ross, Norris, Coghlan, Bacik, Donohoe and Callely all raised the issue of pharmacists. They called on me again to invite the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to update us on that issue. I made that request but as Members are aware the Minister is out of the country this week. I will endeavour to have the matter discussed next week before the summer recess.
Senator Healy Eames also raised third level education. She asked that the Minister would come to the House to debate the matter. I have no difficulty with that. I have already acceded to having a debate on education at the earliest possible time.
Senators Cannon, Glynn, Coghlan and Donohoe spoke of the challenges facing small and medium-sized family businesses and the failure of the banks to support them. The availability of credit to these businesses, which is their lifeline, has been minimised - I am being generous - by the banks. I ask colleagues to raise this issue with the Minister for Finance when in the House tomorrow. This is possibly the most important issue before us prior to the recess. We must ensure something is done in this regard.
The banks have been recapitalised to the tune of €6 billion by way of support from Government with the agreement of Members of both Houses. I call on the banks supported by the taxpayer to continue to make available credit during the next three or four months to small and medium sized businesses. I accept that the banks not covered by the guarantee are under no obligation to do so. However, those Irish banks that have done well down through the years, for whom the past ten or 12 years have been good in terms of their shareholders, should play their part and support those who have been the backbone of our economy in the interest of the retention of 750 to 800 jobs in small and medium sized family businesses. We are hearing at constituency level that the banks are not supporting people who have good credit ratings and have always met their obligations. These people should be given priority in this their hour of need. I support the call made by the four Senators mentioned and I call on them to raise this issue tomorrow with the Minister for Finance when he is in this House. No time limit has been set in respect of the debate tomorrow to allow colleagues to tease out and make known their views.
I will pass on Senator Keaveney's views to the Minister in regard to the illegal importation of cigarettes and alcohol. While this is a matter for the Garda Síochána, if there is a need to update or amend our legislation to increase penalties in this area we should do so. On the issue raised yesterday by Senator Callely, I passed on our support to the family of Sharon Commins who has, unfortunately, been kidnapped. We hope and pray that this matter will be successfully concluded as early as possible. I wish the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Department officials well in their deliberations in this regard.
Senators Hannigan and Mullen asked about overseas said. While I agree in the main with what they have said, I believe we have been exemplary as a small nation in terms of our contribution to overseas aid. We are the sixth largest contributor per head of population in the world, which says a great deal about our commitment as a small nation to the Third World.