Thursday, 22 October 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business today will be tributes to the late Senator Tony Kett, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business; and No. 1, European Union Bill 2009 - Second and Subsequent Stages, with the contributions of spokespersons on Second Stage not to exceed 12 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, on which Senators may share time and the Minister is to be called upon not later than 1.50 p.m. to conclude the debate. Committee and Remaining Stages shall be taken at the conclusion of Second Stage.
I ask the Leader if it is intended the House will sit next week. He might clarify the matter at the end of business today. There are many important issues we should discuss when we next meet. The trade unions made it clear again yesterday that they plan to engage in industrial action, while almost 16,000 families presented a petition to the Taoiseach urging the Government not to deliver yet another child unfriendly budget. It appears there is a danger that the Houses will be sidelined in the debate on the public finances. It is critical, therefore, that we have an opportunity to air our views in the House on the critical decisions that will have to be taken before the next budget.
Will the Leader ensure that debate will take place next week?
I raise with the Leader the extraordinary story on the front page of the Irish Examiner today that 73 bags of heroin were found in a jail cell in Limerick Prison. A man who had been convicted of murder was found to have 73 ready for sale bags of heroin when his cell was searched. What happened to the policy of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of having drugs free prisons? Where are the resources? What is the explanation for this? The Minister must come into the House to explain this extraordinary story. He could usefully come into the House to deal with these issues next week. Given the discussion we had yesterday on Seanad reform and the need to address critical and topical issues, I ask the Leader to ensure that debate will take place next week.
I am glad the Government has taken on board the points Senator MacSharry and I have been making here in recent weeks about the importance of getting the social partners around the table in Government Buildings. It is important to recognise what is going on. I know that Members on this and the opposite side of the House will be disappointed by talk of strike action and agitation, etc. but I would like them to recognise that when they walked into the meeting two days ago, IBEC, the representatives of the six banks and all the others who had created the mess in which the country finds itself sat down at the table and, at a time when we all agree we must make our contribution, looked across at the workers and trade unionists and the representatives of the community and voluntary pillar and told the representatives of the community and voluntary pillar that they were living on social welfare and that they should take cuts. They then told workers, those in the public sector in particular, that they should also take cuts. It may be necessary to do this but I want people to understand that those who created this crisis and were funded by the six banks have made no offer to come up to the plate and do their bit. One can understand, therefore, the frustration of the trade union leadership and workers. They had nothing to do with creating the problem but are already paying the price. They are now being asked to pay even more. I am merely asking that people understand this fact. We will see what happens next month. It is my fervent wish that there will not be any strikes. However, I hope pressure will be exerted on IBEC and the people it represents to step up to the plate. As well as apologising for what they did, I hope they will also indicate what more they can do.
I am extremely disappointed that the Government appears to have lost out on the opportunity afforded to it when its representatives met the social partners - I believe they are still referred to in this way but the title may now be something of a misnomer - to engage in any real or meaningful discussion, particularly with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The Government's current line is, "We have to do what we have to do". Such an approach does not provide a basis for seeking consensus across society in respect of the difficult situation we face and the undoubtedly serious measures that must be taken. It is simply not good enough that the Government puts out three figures as comprising the €4 billion in savings that need to be made and then announces that this is the way it must be. There will be no consensus in respect of, buy-in to or support across society for this type of dictatorial approach with regard to what is going to happen in the next couple of months. I appeal to the Leader to do what he can, however minimal that might be, to persuade the Government and the Minister for Finance not to take this kind of approach or attitude towards the former social partners. I also urge the Leader to convince the Minister for Finance to use the opportunity that will present itself in the coming weeks to enter discussions with the trade union movement and put it up to its members to contemplate those areas - be they in the public service or elsewhere - where radical change must occur and invite them to come forward with proposals. I do not know if that is the basis on which the Government wishes to have the discussion on this matter. However, simply announcing a position at this stage will not work.
I wish to comment briefly on the issues which exercised Members yesterday. I listened to the proceedings on the radio in my car and what I heard was quite bleak. It pains me to say it.
There is a serious point to be made in respect of this matter. It was stated on the radio a few moments ago that in the eyes of many members of the public, the show was over for the Seanad.
It may seem I am adopting a holier-than-thou attitude. However, I accept that I am sometimes not behind the door in interrupting other Members.
During yesterday's proceedings Senator Regan took the opportunity to misquote me. I never stated this House served no useful purpose. I am not a supporter or member of the Fine Gael Party. However, for Senator O'Toole to describe what seems to be a genuine proposal that we consider the concept of institutional reform - including as it relates to this House - as harking back to the 1930s is so absurd as to draw the level of debate so far down that said debate is almost not worth having.
I call on the Leader to request the Minister for Finance to come before the House to outline the agreement or understanding the Government has in place with banks regarding the support of small and medium businesses with existing loans. There have been incredibly disturbing accounts with regard to people who are trying their very best to keep their businesses afloat and their employees in jobs. A relative of one such business owner recently related to me an account of a telephone call the latter had received from a bank. During the conversation the business owner in question was informed that his overdraft was being withdrawn and that his loan was being called in. Thereafter he received three telephone calls a day informing him that the bank wanted its money back. When one receives the first such call, one knows the bank wants its money back. Telephoning someone three times each day borders on harassment, bullying and intimidation. Such behaviour is certainly not in keeping with the message being conveyed to the Government by the banks to the effect that they are extending support, sympathy and empathy to businesses. The banks have indicated that they are extending every support possible to businesses and individual mortgage holders. From what I have heard, I do not believe the case to which I refer is an isolated one. I ask the Leader to request the Minister to come before the House in order that he might place on record the understanding or agreement the Government believes it has with the banks on supporting people in these difficult economic times.
There are reports this morning that Nursing Homes Ireland is concerned that a registration fee which will be applicable under the new nursing homes legislation will have to be paid by nursing homes. My comment on that is, "Poor old them." Nursing homes generally charge up to €1,000 per resident per week. Under the new legislation, the families of these residents will be paying for their care.
A substantial debate on the nursing homes legislation took place in the House some months ago. Those who want to make a case in defence of the Seanad need only reflect on the work it did as part of the process of deliberation on that legislation. Our comments on it were closely observed by the owners of nursing homes. It is fair to state nursing home proprietors will prosper as a result of the nursing homes legislation. I would be gravely concerned, therefore, if this modest registration fee of less than €200 were passed on to the residents of nursing homes and their families. It is disappointing that in advance of implementation of the legislation nursing homes are already sounding warnings about the imposition of further fees on residents.
The Oireachtas has attempted to put in place a new system of caring for the elderly. I have difficulties with parts of that system. However, it is reasonably fair and balanced. I hope nursing homes will not now take advantage of the Minister, taxpayers or, most significantly, the elderly people in their care. I would welcome it if between now and Christmas the House could, as has been the case on many previous occasions, engage in a substantive debate on care of the elderly and nursing homes.
Many Senators, particularly those from rural areas, have been contacted during the past two weeks or so in respect of proposals for the introduction of some kind of windfall tax. I accept that this is a debate for another occasion. However, people in rural areas who wish to sell individual sites - often to neighbours, family members or friends - are deeply concerned that they may be obliged to pay this tax. I would like the position to be clarified in order that we might ease their concerns.
On Senator Alex White's call for more decorum in the House, I suggest that at its next meeting the Committee on Procedure and Privileges examine the events of yesterday. I would go some way towards agreeing with what the Senator had to say. However, the House must also be a place in which Members show anger and passion when the need arises. I disagree vehemently that the party opposite brought forward the relevant proposal as a sincere attempt at institutional reform.
On the call for a special debate on social partnership already made by several Members today, I agree that such a debate must happen and that it should help to inform the process. In particular, I accept the need for employers' representatives to step up to the plate at this time of national need, as there has been little indication of an apparent change of culture among that sector of the economy. That said, the choices that must be made in the budget on 9 December will be unpalatable, whatever they may be. I would be surprised were any suggestion made by the Government to be greeted with anything other than derision by Opposition Members, however needed they might be.
With regard to the issue addressed yesterday on the funding of religious ethos-based schools, it is welcome that a meeting was held between the Taoiseach and representatives of Church of Ireland and other denominational schools yesterday. The Minister for Education and Science is in a difficult position, given that there has been a re-prioritisation of education spending due to the recent review of the programme for Government. However, I appeal to him to examine this issue, in particular, in the light of comments made by several Members yesterday. If there is a continuing constitutional difficulty in respect of this matter, he should examine ways as to how it might be addressed. If there is a need to diminish the funding, it should be done over a longer timeframe rather than singling out such schools to be the only set of schools nationally that will experience a decrease in capitation grants next year.
I sympathise with the Cathaoirleach on the manner in which he was obliged to try to maintain order in the House yesterday. Consequently, Members like me did not have an opportunity to contribute, which I find objectionable. While everyone deserves to be able to express his or her passion and anger, it is outrageous to shout and roar across the House. Some visitors from rural Ireland were in the Visitors Gallery yesterday and could not believe the carry-on in the Chamber. I found it to be offensive and ask my colleagues on both sides to desist from interrupting Members who are trying to be sincere and honest about their contribution.
Yesterday I tried to support my colleague, Senator Healy Eames, regarding the bilateral agreement on Vietnamese adoptions because I had received an e-mail from a constituent stating the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam was visiting Ireland and had arrived yesterday. I ask the Leader to ensure the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, will raise this issue. The lady who contacted me is one of the people who had their applications in on time but ione of the 228 who have been left out. She cannot understand how the applications of 20 people were processed, while she was one of the 228 who were left out. This appears to be an absolute outrage and I ask the Leader to have the issue raised.
In respect of the consideration by trade unions of one-day strike action, I believe the Government can negotiate to find ways other than pay cuts to save the €1.3 billion that must be saved. I have been approached by people in my constituency who still are employed but who run the risk of having their houses dispossessed because other members of the family have lost their jobs. Such individuals cannot deal with another pay cut and their core wages must be protected. There must be flexibility in respect of overtime payments, increments etc. to find ways to not burden such persons any further. The people want Members to legislate for them and not to be bickering, shouting and roaring like buffoons in the Chamber.
I wish to defend the House, as I did not get a chance to do so yesterday. I also wish to defend the right of Members who rise to speak in the Chamber without being interrupted. I have been interrupted many times and was obliged to write to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to have it stopped. It is unfair that any Member should be interrupted when speaking. One must honour Members who have been elected to the House; Members are letting themselves down badly if they do not do so. I also wish to defend the right of the House to exist as part of our democracy, for which we fought extremely hard. Moreover, I agree with Senator O'Toole when he states it is easy in difficult times to put a price on what democracy is worth. The democracy in this House is worth keeping. It also is important to bear in mind that in budgetary terms, it would save half a day's expenditure out of a budget for 365 days. I refer to the right-wing thinking of the leader of the Fine Gael Party who proposed the abolition of the House, which is the wrong option. Moreover, Senator O'Toole put it clearly when he stated the other proposal for the Lower House in respect of a list system was completely undemocratic. The list system does not represent the people who elect Members. It represents those who do not want anyone to be elected and represents a diminution of democracy.
It is important that Members play a major role in addressing the matters that are not right with the House. I agree that they could deal with their business more efficiently and so forth and it is important that they do so. Changes must be made, of whichI am in favour.
I will wind up on a point regarding small businesses, to which a previous speaker alluded in respect of support from banks. However, many small businesses are being put out of business by the rates levied at local authority level. Fine Gael and the Labour Party are in a great position to freeze rates in each local authority this year to help out and ensure-----
It took the leader of Fine Gael four and a half hours to extract a weak vote of support at an unusual meeting of his party members yesterday. Apparently, however, he was supported uncritically and enthusiastically by the leader of Fine Gael in the Seanad, Senator Fitzgerald, as well as Senators Twomey and Donohoe. As two of these Members have served previously in the other House-----
-----and the other one wants to get into it, they are not really determined to be in this House. In the circumstances, as this proposal was made in the context of an economy measure, is it appropriate that they should continue to serve in this House? Should they honourably surrender their salaries to all the projects they suggested were being cut back because of the existence of this House?
I wish to raise the case heard in Mullingar last week in which a youth of 19 years was sentenced for having consensual sexual relations with a girl aged 16 and three quarters. She was 90 days under the limit and it was accepted that he believed the limit was 16 years. The parents were upset-----
-----to a committee of the Oireachtas that in such circumstances there had been no prosecutions and that there would be no prosecutions. That is the reason I call it the Romeo and Juliet syndrome. The matter must be investigated because this issue was discussed in the House and I warned this might happen.
I wish to raise the sentencing yesterday in an Israeli court of Ezra Nawi, an Israeli citizen with whom I had a long relationship and whom I still value. He was sentenced in a manner that was very close to the Denning judgment. He was engaged in a non-violent protest against the illegal demolition of the hovels of some Palestinian subsistence farmers. The film evidence, the only evidence available, shows clearly that this was the case. Previously, there had been attempts by the Israeli Government to have him sentenced on the basis of perjured evidence of soldiers and police, but these were thrown out by a succession of judges. It has now got its way. We should have a debate on the situation in the Middle East. What is really worrying is that Israel, which calls itself a democracy and is always labelled the only democracy in the Middle East, has included conditions in the sentence.
I refer to the last point raised by Senator Norris. I applaud him each time he raises a human rights issue in the Chamber. This matter should not be left lying. All these issues are important and there should be a method to ensure there is proactive follow-up each time such an issue is raised. I hope the matter raised by the Senator will be taken up and that there will be a response to it.
Senator McFadden's comments this morning on the decorum, or lack of it, in this House were like a breath of fresh air. I have raised this issue in the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The problem of interruptions has been very distressing, especially in this Seanad. If we act like a circus, we will be perceived as one. That is not fair to this House which has served the State and the nation well. I hope everybody takes Senator McFadden's message on board.
With regard to the economy, most people have braced themselves for a particularly difficult budget. Undoubtedly, the trade unions will look after their members particularly well, as they should. I hope strike action will not be the net result of their actions because I do not believe that will help the country. As I mentioned yesterday, this House has held a particularly energised debate on its existence and future. I wish we could be as energised on social issues. I am particularly concerned about the messages being conveyed at present regarding social welfare recipients. There might be anomalies in the social welfare system but there are families in dire straits. To take even a few euro from those people will push them over the line. The Members of this House live pretty well. We will not be hungry, cold or traumatised. We are well paid and have good expenses. I believe it is time we gave a voice to the people who do not have a voice at present. There should be a discussion, before the final decisions are made, about people in the social welfare net who are there not because they want it but because the system generally has failed them. It would be very bad if such people in a country like Ireland that has done so well from the Celtic tiger economy were to suffer any further. I hope we get the opportunity to express our views on this issue in the future.
The Leader is considering whether the Seanad should sit next week. I reiterate the request I made yesterday that the Seanad sit and deal with Committee Stage of the Bills relating to multi-unit developments and the property regulation authority. Thousands of families in Dublin and its commuter belt are feeling the impact of the lack of regulation in this area. Their payments to management companies are often excessive and are often levied without consideration for the actual fees involved and the expenditure incurred. We have been promised action on this for the last number of years. The Second Stage debates on these Bills took place four or five months ago and their passage is being delayed by this House, not the Lower House. I ask that we take Committee Stage of those Bills next week.
I have been asked to raise in the House the European inter-regional programme which affects counties Louth, Meath and Monaghan and counties north of the Border. It is a programme of funding for local organisations in the cross-Border region. The organisations are three years into the programme but still have not received approval from the Minister to spend any funds. In these difficult times money from Europe for this programme could be put to great use in the local economies of the towns and villages in the area. The committee in charge of the programme is seeking a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to find out why there is a delay in the approval of funds. Will the Leader use his good offices to ask the Minister to meet representatives from the committee as soon as possible so this funding can be released to local organisations?
I refer to the issue we discussed yesterday, Deputy Kenny's proposal that the Seanad be abolished. I was disappointed I did not get an opportunity to contribute. It was a good and lively debate. I do not agree with Deputy Kenny's proposal to abolish the Seanad, although I strongly believe there is a necessity to reform the Seanad soon. However, what Deputy Kenny is proposing, that the future of this institution is put to the people in a constitutional referendum, makes sense to a certain extent. If this House is to have any legitimacy we need to know that the people of this country support us and believe the work we are doing is important.
A serious programme of reform must be carried out. Unfortunately, 11 reports have been produced in the past 60 or 70 years but none of their recommendations has been acted on. This is, as far as the public is concerned, evidence of complete political inaction on the issue of Seanad reform. If we are facing the possibility that there might be a Fine Gael-led Government in place at some point in the future and given that Deputy Kenny, as leader of Fine Gael, has committed himself to holding a referendum on this issue within the first year of that Government, the onus is on us now to move quickly and seriously on a programme of reform. Personally, I am impatient with the pace at which the process of Seanad reform has been undertaken. We must undertake this seriously and not just have superficial reform. We must examine serious issues such as offering the people an opportunity to directly elect Members of the Seanad, broadening the franchise for the university panel, the criteria under which the Taoiseach should nominate people to the Seanad and giving the Seanad a role in scrutinising European legislation as well as debating more European issues, thus providing a link between the public and Europe and encouraging greater public understanding of European policy and political developments.
Today we will discuss the European Union Bill. The programme for Government refers to the issue of extending voting rights to Irish people living outside Ireland for presidential elections. During the referendum campaign on the Lisbon treaty I was contacted by a number of Irish people working in Brussels and elsewhere for European institutions. They felt strongly that they should have a right to vote in European treaty referenda. They represent this country's interests and work hard on behalf of this country within European institutions. This is an issue we should examine. Will the Leader consider inviting the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House so we can put that proposition to him?
I welcome Senator de Búrca's and Senator White's defence of Deputy Enda Kenny this morning. It is welcome that there is broad cross-party support for what he suggested.
Senator Fitzgerald raised a legitimate issue this morning on which I ask the Leader to arrange a debate. A prisoner in one of this country's prisons was in possession of 73 bags or deals of heroin. What does that tell us? It shows there is drug dealing in our prisons. In every city and large town people are dying or are up to their eyes in debt while families are distraught as a result of drug use. The national drugs strategy is not working. We see the Minister of State with responsibility for the drugs strategy, Deputy John Curran, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, releasing press statements about issues in Cork while organisations such as Fellowship House, Arbour House and Tabor Lodge are in difficulty with the HSE regarding service agreements and finance. People who are making an effort suddenly find that the State is preventing their recovery through lack of funding. I urgently seek a debate on the national drugs strategy programme.
I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate next week on social partnership. Never before have we needed genuine social partnership more. I appeal to IBEC and the unions to stop the gamesmanship and, in the interest of every worker in this country, to sit down with the Government to hammer out an agreement in order to preserve, protect and maintain jobs. I have listened to the pomposity of some self-serving Members this morning on what happens in this Chamber. The single biggest issue is the creation and retention of jobs, not what happens in here.
Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are unemployed, queueing in social welfare offices and waiting for six to eight weeks to get social welfare payments. That is what we should be about, not who shouts across the Chamber. I will defend this Chamber everywhere but we need these urgent debates.
Yesterday, the 3Ts (Turn the Tide of Suicide) and Console launched a 24-hour helpline to help reduce the rate of suicide in Ireland. At the launch, the chairman of 3Ts, Mr. Noel Smyth, said suicide is a scourge in Ireland. Ireland has the fourth highest youth suicide rate in the EU. I congratulate Console and 3Ts for having a 24-hour helpline. Unfortunately, the HSE has utterly failed to provide a 24-hour helpline. Speaking at the launch yesterday, Professor Malone, Professor of Psychiatry and Mental Health Research at UCD, said 80% of those who died from suicide had reached out for help in the previous weeks. The launch of the helpline is a window of opportunity for people to reach out and call the helpline. The number is easy to remember, 1800 247100.
I refer to a number of Acts that were passed in this House in July. They were rushed through by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. One was the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, which dealt with firearms, the European arrest warrant and the Schengen information system. Another was the Defamation Act, containing the infamous blasphemy provisions. As Bills these were rushed through, particularly the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, on the basis that they were needed as a matter of urgency. These and other Bills that were passed in July have not yet been published. Ignorance of the law is no excuse but access to the law is imperative if people are to be charged under such Acts. I question whether this Government can get anything right. It rushes legislation through yet it does not follow the procedure and publish the Acts so that people can access the legislation.
I ask the Minister to explain the rather simple task of publishing the legislation and explain the extraordinary situation in Limerick prison where a prisoner can have bags of heroin. Given the urgency of these questions, the Minister should come into this House and do so.
Regarding yesterday's debate in the House, I agree with those who believe the shouting and roaring was unseemly. I hope nothing I said provoked unruly behaviour. I wish to clarify one point because Senator Alex White said I misspoke when I referred to "The Late Late Show". When the Leader, Senator Donie Cassidy, defended the House on that show, Senator White stated "Unlike Donie, I think there is a question mark over the relevance of the Senate". It was in that context that I spoke yesterday. I hope that clarifies the position.
Is it possible that the Leader could arrange a debate on the proposed carbon tax before the budget? I propose the debate because of the effects the carbon tax could have, particularly on the cost of exporting goods and the cost of haulage and other services. We should be supplied with the various submissions that have been sent to the Department on the carbon tax. It is relevant in the current circumstances.
There is much talk this morning on the availability of heroin. I would love to know what those involved in the war in Afghanistan are doing to prevent the growing of poppies. Some 92% of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan. What is being done? Let nobody tell me that they cannot prevent this happening. They are well able to fly over and drop bombs but they are not able to fly over and spray crops to get rid of them and prevent the scourge that exists around the world. Rather than talking about wars against violence and wars that will prevent further atrocities, heroin is the greatest atrocity at the moment.
Last week I referred to the question of illicit cigarettes being imported into Ireland. The figures were startling as far as I was concerned but my attention has now been drawn to new figures. Today, PJ Carroll & Company Ltd announced some job losses but did not say that this was due to a reduction in consumption. Apparently there has been an increase in consumption of cigarettes, which we do not applaud. There is an increase in the importation of counterfeit cigarettes, not just smuggled cigarettes. These are cleverly designed in Asia and the packets contain the Irish tax stamp and a health warning on the back as Gaeilge. This is a highly professional importation of counterfeit cigarettes that contain products different to normal tobacco. These are very unhealthy compared to normal tobacco. The Garda Síochána is very committed to doing something about this and has had some recent successes but it has not been given the resources to combat this. I gather the Garda Síochána has one scanner that can identify what is inside a truck and if the scanner is known to be in Rosslare those who are importing cigarettes elsewhere can proceed.
The other area drawn to my attention concerned the trivial sentences imposed. The State loses some €500 million to €750 million yet those charged, who may not be high-powered gangsters in the operation, face trivial fines of €400 when a fine of €1 million is required. This is important and we should do something about it.
I was disappointed to hear the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, saying we should not even discuss genetically modified food. I hope this is a correct reflection of what he said. The world must produce much more food in the future and this is Ireland's strength. We should be able to debate it and discuss whether crop productivity can be improved with science. If so, we should debate it rather than saying it is not open for discussion. I request a debate on this in the near future.
The Cathaoirleach and colleagues on both sides will remember the legislation on the refund of nursing home charges that went through the House. I did not disagree with it and I knew it was long overdue. However, an issue remains to be addressed with regard to those who could not get a bed in a public facility and had to go to a private facility. Throughout the country, many people who took early retirement used their gratuity and others used their savings to fund their relatives' stay in a privately owned nursing home because they could not get a public bed. As the Government spokesperson for health and children at the time I was contacted by a number of people throughout the country and I strongly agreed with their position. What happened was not just. The legislation as it stands does not address their problem. The only people who were refunded were those in public nursing homes or long-stay institutions, including psychiatric hospitals. This anomaly needs to be corrected. I know it will cost money and that we are in bad times but there is a right thing to do and in this case the right thing was not done.
Quite a number of people, including members of my party, have contacted me with regard to the far from satisfactory situation obtaining to people defending themselves and their homes. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House to discuss this matter? The law strongly favours the offender as against the offended and this is intolerable. I do not state that people should come out with all guns blazing but there is a weakness in the law covering people protecting themselves, their families and homes from intruders. It is far from satisfactory.
Last week, I called for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the House to outline to us the steps he intends to take to address the chronic overcrowding in prisons. The Minister and his two predecessors gave categoric assurances in this House that we would have drug-free prisons when certain measures were put in place. In view of what we have seen in Limerick Prison, will the Minister come to the House as a matter of urgency and outline what steps were taken to prevent drugs entering prisons? Have these measures been put in place? If they have why are they not working? It is imperative that the Minister comes to the House to discuss this. On a number of occasions, including today, he has been asked to come to the House to discuss various matters. I suggest that the Leader tables statements on justice to be taken next week and that the Minister comes to the House to address the myriad of proposals made, including that made by Senator Glynn. My party proposed a Bill on that matter and received very little support from the other side of the House. Let us address these problems in a proper manner.
I agree with the freezing of local authority rates. It would very laudable to have no increase in rates. However, the Government cannot speak from both sides of its mouth. It must provide proper funding to local authorities to enable them to have a freeze in rates.
In the 1930s, Tom Johnson told the House that for Senators to vote for the abolition of the Seanad would be to engage in a self-condemnatory act. It is my view and that of many that we have been honoured by county councillors throughout the country to be elected to this House on the vocational panels. I consider it a privilege and I consider it insulting for any sitting Senator to propose the abolition of the Seanad. Those Senators should resign their seats or at least get off the Seanad reform committee. That committee was established to examine various ways of reforming the House and there is cross-party consensus that it should be reformed. However, to engage in populist political point scoring undermines democracy and the role we play as Senators.
This morning, the Irish Independent reports that the MBNA credit card company is engaging in scare and heavy-handed tactics. It rings, texts and e-mails people up to seven, eight, nine or ten times per day. I call for a debate on the manner in which financial institutions are repossessing people's houses, and bullying and harassing them in the workplace to retrieve the money that they owe. These are unprecedented economic times and people are in huge difficulties. The political system is ignoring this. While the Government is recapitalising banks and bailing them out, we are ignoring the most fundamental need of people. This financial hardship is causing huge psychological damage and breaking families apart. To think that credit card companies which engage in practices that are questionable to say the least can get away with this is offensive and something should be done about it.
This morning in County Galway alone 24,000 people got up with nothing to do. They are unemployed but the vast majority of them do not want to be unemployed. They are more than willing to roll up their sleeves and make whatever contribution is needed in their communities. I know this because a huge number of them have told me so. At the same time, Galway County Council, like many local authorities, is cash-strapped and looking at a debt this year of €30 million. The largest vacuum it has is in human resources and the vast majority of people who are unemployed are more than willing to fill that vacuum. This is a very straightforward equation. When I raised this issue on 24 September the response of the Leader was:
I say to the Government it is about time whoever is in charge would cover the insurance of tidy towns committees or town development committees for individuals and groups of young people. If young people want to work voluntarily in areas identified by those experts who are advising these committees, insurance should not be the problem...I certainly will allow a debate on this take place at the earliest time.
The delay in having this debate is mimicked by the Leader's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, who last July, following the very worthwhile ideas campaign conducted by Aileen O'Toole, took only three or four ideas from that campaign, one of which was to establish a community voluntary corps. This has not happened, the debate promised a month ago has not happened and people are still more than willing to make that contribution.
If the Leader of the House is adamant that the House remains relevant and that the issues we raise have import the notes he so furiously scribbles every day should not be consigned to the bin as he leaves but should result in real and meaningful responses given to the issues that we raise every day.
I call for a debate on the funding of local authorities. The combined total owed by local authorities is in excess of €4 billion. That is quite a considerable amount of money. Senator Butler stated that the vast majority of local authorities are controlled by Fine Gael and the Labour Party and that they should reduce the rates on commercial properties throughout the country. Rates should be reduced. Many businesses throughout the country are in very serious financial difficulties and a reduction in rates and water charges would go a small way to alleviating them. However, local authorities also have serious difficulties. Throughout the country the buoyancy of rates is decreasing because ratable businesses are closing. It is not good enough for Senator Butler to state that Fine Gael and the Labour Party have a duty to reduce rates without the intervention of the Government. The Government needs to give extra funding to local authorities to provide services because otherwise services will go. Local authorities will then have to increase rates because they do not have sufficient funding to balance their books. Will the Leader arrange a debate urgently on local authority funding because this is their budgetary season?
I would also like a debate on the National Roads Authority and the funding for national and county roads, to know what roads will be subject to cutbacks.
Yesterday a member of the Leader's party asked the Leader to give the International Monetary Fund, IMF, an opportunity to address this House. I did not hear the Leader's response to this request but I want to register my complete and utter opposition to such an idea. I do not want the IMF anywhere near this country.
I know we are members but I am completely confident that we have within our own means, with the support of the European Union, the ability to make our country secure. I have great respect for the Member in question and for many of his contributions but I completely oppose this request which sends out the wrong message to those who watch what we do.
On the proposal my party advocated, I agree with the point Senator de Búrca made. I tried to make the same point yesterday. Our proposal is to ask the people whether they want to give their consent to support the continued existence of an institution for which they pay but whose Members many do not elect. Those who would describe a proposal that seeks the consent of the people as anti-democratic should pause and reflect on that contribution.
It was an interesting proposal to invite someone from the IMF and it is important that we debate fiscal rectitude. I call for a debate on how we are handling the national finances because the Government is doing an excellent job. We would not need to get outside advice if there was not a cynical application of politics from the Opposition-----
I would like to have a debate on the disparity in tax rates between the North of Ireland and the Republic, particularly now that the value of sterling has fallen by a third in the past year. There is a huge moral hazard for people who might get involved in illegal transactions for carbon fuels or other items and will wear a republican or paramilitary hat to justify their existence. These gangsters will be back on our streets if we do not dovetail the tax rates in the Republic with those in the North of Ireland to deal with the large disparities between them. Under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement we should go to the British Government and ensure every month that there is no disparity between the rates at which people can purchase goods in the North of Ireland and the Republic because we are leaving ourselves open to difficulties down the line.
Senators Fitzgerald, Corrigan, Boyle, Cummins and Hanafin all called for urgent updates on the banking crisis and on the budget and budgetary matters. They also want a debate on what is being done for small businesses which are under siege and about rates relief, which many colleagues mentioned this morning. I have no difficulty with these debates taking place. We will have more than one debate on the forthcoming budget. I intend to hold a debate on our financial circumstances every second week between now and budget day. We hope to return to that commitment to assist the Government with the good proposals that will emanate from this House. They will be well-received by the Government.
Senators Fitzgerald, Buttimer, Regan, Ellis and Cummins referred to the 73 bags of heroin that were found in a cell in Limerick Prison. This is very alarming. It is appalling to say the least. It should not happen. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will do everything in his power to get rid of the drug epidemic that seems to be rife in certain prisons around the country. I will make an urgent request of the Minister to come to the House to update Members on the national drug strategy, drugs in prisons and overcrowding, as Senator Cummins requested. I will do everything I can to bring the Minister to the House at the earliest possible time so that colleagues can express their views and he can update them on what is taking place.
Senators O'Toole, Alex White, Boyle, Ó Murchú and Buttimer all expressed their views on social partnership and hoped that union members will not engage in the massive strike as they are being called on to do. Everyone has leadership responsibility. The union leadership is no different from that of the Taoiseach or anyone else in a responsible position. We must realise that we do not have the luxury of addressing the country's finances in this budget. We have had 11 fair budgets that helped the poorer sections of our community, and gave double the rates of inflation to social welfare and everything pertaining to it. This budget will be completely different as we all know. It will be a budget of urgent corrective measures and everyone must play his or her part. I hope that common sense will prevail.
Social partnership has served this country well since 1987 when two out of every three streetlights in the country were turned off and there was no money for anything. We faced a serious challenge and the Taoiseach of the day, the late Charles Haughey, got together with Michael Mullen, the leader of the trade union movement. The present trade union leader has a responsibility, created by his predecessor, along with the present Taoiseach to lead his people in the national interest and to find common ground such that we will not see tens of thousands of our neighbours, our friends and relations on the streets. Everyone wants to play his or her part and to be told that it will be for a period of time. Everyone will play his or her part if that is the case. I call on everyone here today from Seanad Éireann to act in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the people who yearn for the implementation of measures to deal with the challenges facing the Government in this budget.
Senators Bradford and Glynn spoke about the Nursing Home Support Scheme Bill, saying it was a fair Bill which encourages our senior citizens and that the small charge of €190 will ensure standards will be maintained and our senior citizens get the service they deserve and require. When I heard on the radio this morning that the charge would be passed on, I thought how unreal it is that greed has taken over in certain quarters.
The senior citizens of our country gave us the democracy we have. The men and women of 1916 really made sacrifices for Ireland. We made no such sacrifices. They placed their lives on the line so we could have freedom of speech and be in Parliament today freely expressing our views. We may not always agree with the opinions of colleagues but such is the great work of democracy. Most Members of the House have been in total agreement with the job done by the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, and the Department in this regard. I have no difficulty in asking the Minister to come to the House to update Members regarding her proposals and the Bill which was welcomed so much when it came to the House.
Senator Boyle spoke on funding for Protestant schools. I said yesterday the €2.3 million involved, a small allocation, is a godsend for rural Protestant schools and we must do everything we possibly can to ensure the funding which has been in place for the past 40 years is left with these young students, especially in rural areas.
Senator McFadden spoke on the adoption of Vietnamese children and matters pertaining to the portfolio of the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews. The Minister of State was in the House on two occasions. He visited Vietnam and I understand he is doing everything he can. I will pass on the Senator's strong views to him because the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam is in our country now. I shall try to get an update for the House in respect of this matter and report directly to the Senator.
Senators Butler, Norris, de Búrca, McCarthy and Donohoe expressed their strong views regarding the retention and reform of Seanad Éireann. I am pleased we are meeting next week with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, for the final discussion on meaningful Seanad reform. I very much look forward to this meeting. I hope we can show the people the good work that takes place in Seanad Éireann. I would like to see an orderly Order of Business take place for an hour one morning a week on national television, as the Dáil does, to let the people know the meaningful work that takes place in this House. Perhaps we can discuss this with the administration committee to see how we might achieve parity or near parity with our Dáil colleagues.
Senator de Búrca mentioned voting rights for persons outside the State who wish to vote in elections and requested a debate on this with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government present. I strongly suggest that Green Party colleagues should consider this as a Private Members' motion because a great deal of legislation is coming to the House in coming weeks. This is a worthwhile suggestion and the issue might be considered for Private Members' time when it is the turn of the Green Party.
Senator Mary White is doing great work for unfortunate people plagued by illness that can result in their committing suicide. As she said today, 80% of those who commit suicide reach out long beforehand. The new helpline number, 1800 247100, is welcome. That is an easy number for all of us to remember and we should assist the Senator in what she is doing in this area for people.
Senator Ellis called for a pre-budget debate on carbon tax. I have no difficulty in allowing this as there will be debates on the budget in any case.
Senator Quinn again outlined to the House all the challenges facing the cigarette industry and gave the House his views and the benefit of his experience. He also spoke on challenges facing the Irish food industry. We should do everything we can to assist that industry and I have no difficulty in setting time aside to discuss the matter.
Senators Norris and Ó Murchú called for a debate on the situation in the Middle East and I shall pass on the Senators' strong views to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin. The House has recently debated the situation in the Middle East but I have no difficulty in arranging another debate soon.
Senators McFadden and Ó Murchú expressed their serious concern about the behaviour of colleagues in the House with regard to decorum and everything else that has given the Upper House of Parliament its reputation. This was not a one-liner in a poem but was hard earned by the men and women who went before us, including some who became President, Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Ministers and Ministers of State. Colleagues should bear these achievements in mind when somebody says something with which they do not agree and follow with an outburst. It does not look or sound good, as Senator White said, who listened attentively to yesterday's proceedings. I ask colleagues to bear this in mind in the future. The Cathaoirleach has a difficult enough job at times. I fully support the Senators' call.
Senator Ó Murchú spoke about the plight of those currently on social welfare. Going back 50 or more years, when I was a younger person, the most important part of the budget was the social welfare section. That is unfortunately the case in 2009 with so many people unemployed. The chat around the fire at night in the 1950s was whether the Government gave one or two or three percentage points. They thanked God for what was given. I make the strong case, along with Senator Ó Murchú, that social welfare recipients need everything they get and I fully agree with his sentiments. When we have the debate on the budget we can all make our strong views known to the Minister for Finance when he comes to the House.
Senator Hannigan asked me for the up-to-date position on two Bills. Senators will know both the Multi-Unit Developments Bill 2009 and the Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009 completed Second Stage in the Seanad before the summer recess. During these discussions very many proposals for amendments to both Bills were suggested. Consultations with relevant stakeholders have taken place in the meantime and discussion with the offices of the Attorney General and the Parliamentary Counsel are taking place with a view to preparing and drafting Committee Stage amendments. I understand that as soon as these are completed the Bills will come back to the House on Committee Stage.
Senator Hannigan also mentioned the remarks of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Lenihan. I will pass on the Senator's views to the Minister.