Tuesday, 3 November 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on developments in Northern Ireland, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 5.10 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed seven minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, on which Senators may share time, and the Minister to be called upon not later than 5 p.m. for concluding comments; and No. 2, Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill 2009 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1.
Will the Leader to outline to the House the timetable for the various Stages of the National Asset Management Agency Bill which will be taken next week? I ask him for a guarantee that there will not be a guillotine or time restriction on the legislation and that adequate time will be provided to debate the amendments tabled during the course of the debate. The Bill has critical implications for taxpayers and there is increasing anxiety and great uncertainty in the country about the shape of the budget and how the public finances are being dealt with. There is a sense that enough has been said by the Government to make every interest group anxious but not enough to give clear direction on where the Government is going in managing the public finances. The House has discussed on a number of occasions the role of social partnership, the role of the Houses of the Oireachtas and how critical it is that Members are given an opportunity to discuss economic and budgetary strategy. This is not in the schedule of business for this week so I ask the Leader to outline when this debate will take place following the NAMA legislation.
I wish to raise a number of issues concerning health. I asked the Leader last week to discuss with the Minister for Health and Children as a matter of urgency the situation in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin and the waiting lists for cardiac surgery for young children. Will the Leader inform the House if a decision has been taken to allocate increased resources to the intensive care unit in Crumlin or if the Minister can come to the House and say what is the Government policy? While we wait for the national paediatric hospital, what is going to happen to these children and will the resources be put in place?
There has been another serious outbreak of C. difficile in a Drogheda hospital with disturbing reports about deaths, wards being closed and disruption to procedures. The Minister for Health and Children needs to come to the House to explain how the issue of hospital-acquired infections is being dealt with and what progress is being made. I link that to public uncertainty as to whether people should go to their general practitioner or the HSE clinics for H1N1 vaccination. There is a need for the Minister for Health and Children to show leadership on these issues, to be available and to lead. In the same way that we need leadership on economic issues, we need strong leadership on health issues also.
It is interesting to note the European Union's prognosis for the next couple of years. It indicates that, whereas there will be no growth in Ireland again next year, the rate of growth in the economy in the following year will be greater than 2%, faster than anywhere else in Europe. I make this point because as talks continue between the social partners and the Government, it is very important to look forward.
I recall that during the last election the leader of Fine Gael spoke of a contract with the people. This is something the Government should examine very seriously. There is a need for a social contract. People will not spend while they are afraid, frustrated or until they know what is their future. It is not enough to say to them we must cut their wages or cut back on whatever service. They need to know when it will end. Only when they know when it will end and when they see themselves coming out of it will they have the confidence to put money back into the economy. That is a sine qua non.
I would like people to get inside the minds of trade unionists and trade union leaders. I was around in 1987 when we were told there was no money in the country. We found out four years later during the tribunals that the country was awash with money, except that it was all leaving the country. Of the economists lecturing us, not one of them forecast the downturn in the economy. We stated as much to the Leader one year ago. I have an article from the Irish Examiner in my office dating from this week last year which shows the forecasts of all these economists for this year. Not one of them was even close to the reality. Let us not be taken in by them. They know no more than we do.
We should sit down and work our way through it. Cuts must be made. However, we should listen to the trade union movement, ordinary people, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and others who state we cannot look to the social welfare budget.
Those of us in the public sector will have to take more pain than others. However, the process must also be seen to be fair. If we can enter a social contract with the people to deal with some of the issues before us and make them a certain promise, given them confidence and a commitment that there is a future for them, it will allay their fears, relax them and get us back into the economy again. This can only be done if the Taoiseach and the Government talk to the social partners, show them in black and white where we are and say where everyone will pitch in to ensure it is fair. At that point everyone must play his or her part and take the pain. Those of us in the public sector will probably have to take more of it than the rest, for obvious reasons. If that is the way it will be, then as long as everyone understands it, that is the way in which it will work. Until trade union leaders can offer their members something as a way out of the current mess, some future or hope, they will vote for strike action, simply to protect what they have. There is nothing else they can do. They are kicking out against everything. We have an important duty and responsibility to ensure this does not happen.
I refer to next week's business dealing with the NAMA legislation. The Government has already made it clear publically that it intends to curtail debate in this House. It announced the legislation would return to the Dáil on Thursday week, 12 November. It has already made it very clear that the debate will finish here on Wednesday night. That will amount to the guts of three days' debate in the House. We know that decision has already been made. Senator Fitzgerald is right to call for assurances but, in fact, both she and we already have our answer. It is intended to finish the debate on Wednesday night or Thursday morning next week.
It is odd to read in the newspapers today that the Minister for Finance intends to introduce further amendments. It is not odd that he intends to introduce further amendments and I have no problem with this. However, the amendments are so complex - I understand this is the way in which it has been reported in the newspapers today - that he is not in a position to introduce them this week. He requires more time and will not be able to introduce them until next week and he will do so in the Seanad. If he must take a further week to devise and deal with the amendments, how are we expected to deal with such complex matters in a period of one day or one day and a half? We will do our best to do so but it is extraordinary since we have had, rightly, months of preparations for the legislation.
However, the Government seems to take the view that when legislation goes to the Dáil and to Seanad in particular, this constitutes the end rather than the beginning of the debate and that the real work is done by the Executive, not by the Parliament. The Government has taken this position and if I am wrong in this regard, I ask the Leader to disprove my point. The Deputy Leader also might agree to my proposal, which is to publish the amendments at the end of this week. The Leader should not wait until Tuesday morning to publish them but should enable Members to see them. This at least would give Members a couple of days to consider these complex amendments and an opportunity to deal with them when they come before this House. The Government should consider this not unreasonable request.
In respect of the day of protest scheduled for this Friday and the general issues pertaining to the trade union response to events, members of trade unions are perfectly entitled to take a day of action and to protest on the streets of their capital city. Not only are they so entitled but they are perfectly justified in so doing. Every time one makes a point about, for example, NAMA or some other issue pertaining to the economy, Members on the other side ask, perhaps justifiably, what is one's alternative. Practically five minutes into a discussion on the subject, the refrain from Members on the other side is what is one's alternative. I ask those who criticise trade union members who are taking to the streets and considering industrial action what alternative do they propose. What alternative do they propose to people who can see their living standards have dropped and who can see no real stake in the future? The problem people have is there is no clarity and they can see absolutely no stake into the future regarding how these issues should be dealt with in budgetary terms. What alternative is proposed by those people who fill the airwaves with criticisms of trade unions being lunatics and everything else?
I welcome the three days that have been set aside for the NAMA debate next week. I am sure Members will sit late into the night to ensure a full airing of all the amendments proposed. I also welcome the proposed break in order that Members can prepare their thoughts for it. The Opposition parties, including Fine Gael, the Labour Party and others, can work on their amendments, which Members on this side of the House look forward to seeing. They should be published as soon as they are available in order that Members can evolve their own thoughts on them to have a more full and inclusive debate.
I agree with Senator O'Toole's point that people require certainty as they look to the future. When there is more certainty it will lead to more confidence and in that context, I welcome the European Union's outlook in respect of future economic performance. On a related point, I wish to repeat a request I made in recent weeks that between now and the budget, time should be set aside on a weekly or daily basis to enable Members to come up with suggestions on where cuts should be made, rather than on where money should be spent. I acknowledge that all Members and all trade unions know and have agreed that cuts must be made. Moreover, far from thinking the trade union movement and workers' representatives are lunatics, they are anything but that. They constitute an important and vital aspect of these negotiations and I welcome and support their entitlement to protest if they so wish.
However, Members also must play their part and I believe they should encourage the social partnership process because this is the model, albeit one adjusted from that which obtained from 1987 to the present, which will help to lead us through this crisis. I wish the union leaders well, together with the Cabinet and senior Government representatives, as they continue through negotiations and considerations to ascertain how they can best put together the budgetary process to deal with these crisis. However, as Members of this House also should play their part, a minimum of a couple of hours per week over the next couple of weeks should be made available to all Members to enable them to consider from where, under the various ministerial Votes such as education and agriculture, savings could come.
I wish to add my voice to those of Senators Fitzgerald and Alex White regarding their serious request to the Leader to outline for Members the programme for next week with regard to NAMA. This perhaps is one of the most important items with which this House must deal during the lifetime of this Parliament. Sadly, it is necessitated by the manner in which the bankers fuelled the greed and unfortunately got up to so many shenanigans themselves. No doubt Members will be reminded of this later this evening when our colleague, Senator Ross, launches his book, The Bankers. Moreover, today's edition of the Irish Examiner also reminded Members of the serious transgressions in this regard.
That was by way of a preamble to another matter. I look forward to the Leader outlining the details for the House. I support the call for the early publication of the amendments. Perhaps the Leader can tell Members with what areas these amendments will deal.
Perhaps the Deputy Leader can inform the Leader when we will have the legislation promised by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which will provide for the election by the people of a Lord Mayor of Dublin. Will the legislation address the problem of Dingle-Daingean Uí Chúis, which the people have already sanctioned through a plebiscite and which Mr. Gormley has promised-----
Will the Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to the House? We could raise a number of important matters with him. One concerns the disappointing signals emerging from the negotiations on the climate change agreement for the Copenhagen meeting, which is scheduled for December. An international climate change treaty is now very unlikely to emerge from the Copenhagen meeting and instead a series of political decisions will chart the way forward. That is very disappointing and I would like the Minister to appear in this House to tell us the view of the Irish Government on this matter.
A sticking point in these negotiations was the extent of international aid to be given to developing countries and who would administer the aid. It is disappointing because, after intense negotiations to try to arrive at a consensus before the meeting is held in Copenhagen, those concerned about climate change were hoping a legally binding global climate change agreement would emerge from the meeting. It appears the resolve is weakening and I would like to ask the Minister for his views on this issue and what the Government might do.
If the Minister appears in the House, I would also like to ask him his views on the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. I saw some disturbing headlines in the newspaper today indicating that Mr. Bernard McNamara, the developer, is looking for the Dublin Docklands Development Authority to guarantee his exposure. He is being sued for €140 million as one of the purchasers of the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend at a purchase price of more than €424 million. This site has fallen in value to approximately one sixth of that price. Mr. McNamara said that-----
The reason I raised this matter and said the Minister should appear in the House is that the Dublin Docklands Development Authority is a statutory agency. There are serious questions about the assurances allegedly given to Mr. McNamara that the Dublin Docklands Development Authority could fast-track planning permission for the site and that it would not be subject to a planning appeal. The background is the annual report of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. The 2008 annual report has not yet been published and questions must be answered about the finances of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. For that reason I ask the Minister to appear before the House.
I ask the Leader to raise with the Minister for Foreign Affairs the case of a Palestinian Christian woman, Berlanty Azzam, a fourth-year student in business studies. She was arrested on 28 October and held in custody in Netanya. She was taken blindfolded and handcuffed in an Israeli military jeep. The charge is that she is a person from Gaza. The Israeli authorities have decided to strangle the education system as hard as they can and I have been asked by Professor John Kelly, former registrar of University College Dublin, and Brother Jack Curran, who is involved in Bethlehem University, to make the strongest possible protest against this violation of a young woman's right to self-development.
I wish to comment on the fact that the Government finds it impossible to provide time in the Dáil to discuss NAMA and must make use of this House to get its amendments through. That should be drawn to the attention of those who believe Seanad Éireann has no function whatever. It plainly has an extremely vital function in getting this important legislation through.
I spoke in this House as a sole voice supporting the Shell to Sea campaign. I know there were other decent honourable Members on the Government benches who felt the same way but were constrained from saying so. Let it be recorded that An Bord Pleanála referred back this planning decision because of concerns that mirrored exactly what had been said by the Shell to Sea campaign - that the pipeline, as currently constituted, was dangerous and too close to houses. The people concerned, including those referred by judges to psychiatrists because of their concerns, have been vindicated at last in this appalling, long drawn out and very questionable process of the Government. We were told in this House that they were gangsters, paramilitaries and lunatics. They were not and they have been justified.
I always like to end on a positive note. I congratulate Trinity College Dublin on yet another major scientific breakthrough in the fight against cancer. It is very important that we know our research institutions are again at the forefront of medical research.
We have had many discussions in the past year on the economy and at times some of us considered there was a lack of reality in many of the discussions. We considered that negativity was beginning to smother any debate that might be positive or that might give us an opportunity to see where exactly we would solve the problem, which we all accept is of a catastrophic nature. I am glad to state one senior trade unionist has shown a sense of reality by stating clearly that if we do not make the cuts now required in the public sector, there will be only one answer, that is, a loss of jobs. That gives us an idea of the two situations with which we have to deal.
Sometimes we miss out on positive news. In recent hours we have seen figures which indicate consumer confidence has taken a major jump; in fact, those who conducted the survey were surprised by the jump. It was the highest in the past 18 months. They went a step further and stated they believed the reason this had happened was that most people accepted that the worst was over and that we were focusing on the solutions that lay ahead.
I do not honestly see what can be achieved by a day of protest.
I have been a trade unionist all my life; I was an officer in the trade union movement for many years and at all times I defend its rights. However, this is one occasion on which when we must balance requirements in the State. I made the point here on a previous occasion that we needed to be particularly careful regarding most of those on social welfare because they were in a very serious situation as they had no jobs and big mortgages to pay. Those who can keep their jobs are asked to make a sacrifice and that should be the case. I compliment the media because in recent weeks they have adopted a very realistic approach to the problems we face.
I will refer to a market commentary in the Financial Times today on the fall in the value of Irish bank shares which has continued today. It refers specifically to delays in the passage of the NAMA legislation and the President signing the Bill. It also refers to the Supreme Court possibly having to pronounce on the Bill. From where did it get these issues? They were raised by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, last week in a cheap political shot against the Opposition. If there is a fall in the value of bank shares, the very issues the Minister raised in the Dáil are the ones the Financial Times, in its commentary, ascribes to the fall. I do not think the Seanad can be blamed for the fall in the value of bank shares or the delay in the passage of the NAMA legislation because it has not yet come before the House. 3 o'clock
If there are discussions about the delay, this point must be borne in mind. When the legislation comes before the House, we will deal with it expeditiously.
With regard to the issue of NAMA and bank shares, is the Minister telling us everything or is he holding back? The passing of the legislation is an issue, but there is also the issue of EU approval. I ask the Leader for clarification on whether the European Commission has expressly approved the NAMA project as set out in the legislation. If not, will there be a delay in its approval of the legislation? How far has the Minister advanced the approval process?
My last point is with regard to the day of protest. It is perfectly permissible for trade unions and workers to agitate, defend their wages and make their cases on the public finances. However, the options the unions are coming up with must be credible. There is an onus not only on the Opposition parties but also on the unions to come up with credible alternatives. The suggested alternative is to tax us out of existence and kill the economy. In addition, a reduction in numbers in the public service, as distinct from dealing with pay and conditions, is not a realistic alternative.
Last week the CSO revealed figures indicating that 106 people had died by suicide between January and March. This is the equivalent of one person killing himself or herself each day between January and March. These are frightening figures and it was dangerous for the CSO to release them without consulting the relevant scientific organisations dealing with the issue of suicide. Because they were based on year of registration following completion of the inquest, there may be a certain number of suicides that occurred in 2008 and are included in the year of registration figures. Therefore, we must be careful in drawing final conclusions. However, from other sources such as the National Registry of Deliberate Self-Harm, we know that in 2008 there was a strong increase in the number of self-harm cases presenting at accident and emergency departments. In addition, in 2008 the strongest increase in the incidence of self-harm occurred among young men in the 20 to 39 year age group. It is likely this increase is related to the economic downturn which happened very quickly in 2008. Particularly among men, there is a strong link between self-harm and suicide. The increase in the incidence of self-harm among young men in 2008 may be followed by an increase in the number of suicides. If we admit that these are the tragic consequences of the recession in Ireland, we must realise that suicide prevention is the last area in which we should be making further cuts.
I ask the Leader for a debate on a positive matter - in contrast to some of the more negative issues about which we have been talking today - No. 32 on the Order Paper, a motion from the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, of which I am a member, noting the report of the joint committee on women's participation in politics, which was laid before the Seanad on 28 October. I was rapporteur to the Sub-Committee on Women's Participation in Politics, of which Senator McDonald was also a member. We have drawn up a report which makes important recommendations on improving women's representation in politics. At present, an extremely low 13.8% of Deputies are women. Given that the percentage of women Deputies has never gone above 14%, it is clear that we need to do something. The report has received overwhelming cross-party support from the joint committee and is scheduled to be launched on Thursday. I would like the Leader to arrange for a debate on it in the Seanad because I understand it is to be debated in the other House.
I also seek a debate on transport in Dublin city centre in light of Dublin City Council's decision to lift the bus gate at College Green at certain times over Christmas. As a committed cyclist, I believe the bus gate has given enormous advantages to cyclists. It has made life much more pleasant for both cyclists and pedestrians and the crossing at the College Green junction has been greatly improved. I am disappointed that traders are so strongly opposed to it because it is important that we strive to keep private vehicles out of the city centre.
In tribute to Dublin City Council, the dublinbikes scheme, which I used last week, has received a very positive reaction and is widely used across the city centre with few problems. We should commend the council on instituting this scheme.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on innovation. I have heard good news from Trinity College Dublin regarding a cancer drug. Given the current difficulties in world markets, it is important that we focus on areas which offer advantages. The future of the country and its economy will be based on export-led growth. The population of the Republic is 4.3 million out of a global population of 6 billion. Wonderful opportunities exist on our doorstep. For example, the positive developments on new methods for producing gas from shale will change the energy industry over the coming decades.
I am conscious that the Shell to Sea campaign never wanted a pipeline. We ought to debate this issue because there is no question of not applying An Bord Pleanála's rulings. The most recent ruling does not mean Shell to Sea is correct, however. We continue to need a gas pipeline to take ashore the 200 nautical miles of energy which lie beneath Ireland's seas and if we are to develop our gas resources.
In light of the impending budget and Friday's national day of protest, will the Leader facilitate a debate on social partnership? Never before was social partnership more needed. I am not sure if the Members opposite understand that we are bordering on civil unrest. People are genuinely angry and frustrated at being unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The absence of leadership from the Government is part of the problem. I hope Friday's demonstrations are not a catalyst for people to engage in a different course of action. It will give people an opportunity to protest and agitate. A pre-budget debate is urgently needed. Why can we not include IBEC and ICTU in a meaningful debate rather than merely making statements? This is not a question of political processes or votes. This is about the lives of ordinary people, many of whom are suffering hardship. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul published its pre-budget submission today. The document's title - Don't Push Them Over the Edge - goes to the kernel of the problem. Politicians, specifically the Government, must not push people who cannot give any more over the edge. RTE is pitching the public sector against the private sector and other media are commenting on the issue. Senator O'Toole is correct; economists do not have a bloody clue. They should be put into a boat to set sail from Roche's Point and remain offshore.
I am proud to congratulate the people of my city on Cork's success in making the Lonely Planet guide's list of the top ten places to visit in the world. I place this matter on record because I had hoped Senator Norris would refer to it.
Having listened to Senators comment on the national day of protest, I urge people to consider how well social partnership has worked over the past decade or thereabouts. I encourage all those involved to use the social partnership model, which has passed the acid test, and call on them to participate in talks and negotiations and do everything in their power to achieve an outcome much more meaningful and beneficial than a simple day of protest or other similar action.
I congratulate the emergency services, especially the Garda Síochána and Customs and Excise, on their work in detecting contraband and illegal substances entering the State. One of the largest hauls of illegal cigarettes ever found was discovered two weeks ago and many other illegal substances have been found recently.
The Dublin City and County Coroner has noted a significant increase in the number of deaths caused by the use of illegal substances, in particular a specific type of drug. I ask the Leader to seek a statement from the coroner on the matter and decide, on the basis of the statement, whether the House should hold a debate on the use of illegal substances.
I recently drew Senators' attention to a track and trace system for counterfeit medicines because it is important the House is aware of the system and its benefits. Yesterday, the European Medicines Agency drew to public attention the efforts being made by criminal gangs to cash in on the H1N1 pandemic by selling counterfeit anti-influenza vaccines over the Internet. This development is likely to catch the attention of many people who would not otherwise consider sourcing medicines over the Internet.
To add to Senator Callely's point, when I raised the issue of counterfeit tobacco in the House a couple of weeks ago, I was unaware that smuggled tobacco was counterfeit or that the products featured Irish markings and health warnings. Last week's coup by the Garda Síochána in detecting a large haul of counterfeit cigarettes from the Far East reminds us of what can happen in that area. In this context, it is important to note that counterfeit anti-viral drugs have joined the list of counterfeit goods such as cigarettes. If we do not draw public attention to the problem, it is likely that many citizens will purchase such items on the Internet.
I understand the latest anti-viral vaccine may not be available to everyone who wants it. For this reason, many people may try to source it on the Internet. That criminal gangs are seeking to sell counterfeit anti-viral medicines on the Internet is a dangerous development. The Minister for Health and Children should be aware that a track and trace system is being tested in Sweden. We should adopt it when it becomes available.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to come to the House to discuss the development of the new insulation programme in view of the fact that we are going to introduce a carbon tax. I would like to see the Minister developing the scheme much further. There are 6,000 people working in the industry. The Minister was active in pursuing the proposal I made six or seven months ago and got the scheme up and running. While it is working extremely well, it could be developed much further. It would help to make the new carbon tax more acceptable. People would be able to insulate their houses and install new smart equipment which would cut costs very substantially. It would be a great opportunity.
I disagree with the Senator who commented NAMA was driving down the share prices of the banks. That is not true. It is generally accepted that-----
The Minister made it clear that he did not see any reason for holding up NAMA, provided we do our business properly here. I agree with previous speakers that we should tease out the legislation. This is the House in which to do it, as this is where we have the value. I agree with Senator Norris. It is important that it should come before the House.
On social partnership, the one day strike should be called off in view of the fact that the social partners are now involved in talks. It is fair to say that when things were going extremely well, the social partners took all of the good things. It is now time to give a little back. It is important a more responsible approach is adopted.
Before I call the next speaker, I am sure Members will join me in welcoming the Rt. Hon. Mr. David Hawker, MP, former Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives. On my behalf and that of all my colleagues in Seanad Éireann, I extend a very warm welcome to him and sincere good wishes for a very successful visit.
I would like the Leader to invite the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, to come to the Seanad. We have been raising the issue of Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin for a very long time. We all know of the very sad case of baby Joy who has a hole in her heart and narrowing arteries. Yesterday in my clinic I was visited by a mother of six children, whose youngest child, a seven month old baby, has two holes in his heart. His name is Aidan and he is on diuretics because he cannot be given a bed. His operation has been cancelled twice, on the first occasion because there was no bed available and on the second because of swine flu. I appeal to my colleagues to lobby the Minister because I have made several representations but have got nowhere. The level of stress and strain on the family is outrageous. There are five other children in the family. The baby cannot undergo physiotherapy because of the extent of the damage to his heart. I wonder where this is going to end. I have received representations about two babies and I am wondering how may other little children are suffering like this.
The other issue is swine flu. There were numerous debates yesterday on the national airwaves on the roll-out of the vaccine but I find it quite extraordinary that patients are being referred back to their GPs from the clinics when the GPs may not have the vaccine. The HSE has stated the vaccine has been rolled out but two GPs I have been in contact with today still do not have the vaccine, although they are prepared to give it. They have set up their clinics and staff to do so. As patients must wait for 20 minutes after they receive the vaccine, there is a significant logistic process in organising the vaccine. The Minister has remained quiet on the matter. I will not go on about Drogheda as I will leave it to my colleagues.
I strongly support Senator Mary White's comments on suicide. In the last Seanad I was a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children and part of a sub-committee which compiled a report on the high incidence of suicide in Irish society. It is time we debated that report and there is no point in brushing suicide under the carpet; it is a fact of life.
As a member of the male sex and given that the incidence of suicide among young males is approximately seven times that in young females, I know young men are particularly at risk. This is primarily because young women will go home and speak to Mam or Dad or to a friend, but Johnny or Pat do not do so and bottle it up instead. Hence, they are prone to adverse consequences.
At some stage we will invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, to the House. My colleague and I have made such a request with regard to how we carry out elections and the electoral register. There is also a practice in this country, both in public and private car parks, of people parking in disabled persons' parking spaces when they are not entitled to. I see it on a daily basis and it is the lowest form of motoring practice. There is no doubt that the offence should carry penalty points.
It might be more pertinent to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, but we must impose very serious sanctions against those people who have the use of their limbs but who deliberately take up a parking space designated for disabled people just because they are too lazy to look for another space. I repeat that it is the lowest form of motoring practice and it must be stamped out.
I will follow up a point raised by Senator McFadden earlier that is causing great concern to the people in the north east, namely, the outbreak of the C. diff bacteria in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. It has already claimed ten victims. Ireland is one of the first countries in the world to put in a notifiable diseases alert for C. diff and it appears that the staff in the hospital are implementing best procedures in the management of the outbreak. They are referring ambulances and GP referrals to other hospitals in Dundalk, Navan and Dublin. They are also asking that people who suffer accidents turn to other hospitals or use their GP services as opposed to going to the hospital in Drogheda.
It is very important to keep this under control and I would like the Leader to raise it with the Minister. If the staff and management of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital feel they need additional resources to monitor the position and ensure it does not get worse, we should ensure that the Minister will make those resources available.
I have listened to many Members express their concern about Friday's planned day of protest and its implications. Will the Leader arrange for a debate on the fiscal challenges that face us? We should concentrate on the macroeconomic issues of the amounts involved, such as the €20 billion wage bill which has gone from €7 billion in 1998, the €21 billion social welfare bill and the remaining amount of €15 billion. That will focus minds on what must be done.
I have read with interest some of the commentary in the newspapers from trade unionists and others. Some of this commentary has been responsible but some is not as responsible. It would not inspire confidence. In that regard, I single out Deputy Seán Sherlock.
I extend my compliments to him on displaying a unique show of statesmanship by putting the country first. It was phenomenal and should be recognised. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this from all sides, especially on the Opposition side. We need to put the country first and if we do that, self-interest must take a back seat. Unless we work towards that, we will be in dire straits and will not resuscitate the economy any time soon.
I have a query for the Leader and also perhaps for the Cathoirleach, through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. One of the proposals I put to a newspaper that surveyed Members recently concerned the whole area of social partnership which served us so well in the 1980s and early 1990s and probably made serious mistakes in the latter part of its term of service. I proposed that relevant persons should come to the Houses and be accountable and open to debate. If we had the ability in this forum to invite trade unionists to make their case reasonably and be questioned reasonably, and if we could hear other points of view made, we might have a much more mature approach to addressing the very severe difficulties we now encounter.
I join Senator Hannigan concerning his remarks about the great problem of C. difficile in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Our hearts must go out to the families of the two deceased people. As a matter of urgency, we need a debate on hygiene in our hospitals, the auditing of it and of staffing levels and investment. The entire area needs investigation and I appeal to the Leader to set aside time for that. People will interpret that as the Seanad responding to an area of great current need.
I wish to raise a distinct issue with the Leader and the House. As we approach the Christmas season the exodus from this country to the North to shop will take further wings and become greater. It is established that at present approximately 250,000 people shop regularly in the North. That number will be added to and it is a very serious problem. In a report yesterday the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland stated 2,000 rural pubs are set to close within the next ten years. That is an enormous issue with regard to local employment and the social structure of rural Ireland. Some 70% of licensed premises have experienced great reductions in their trade over the past five years. Cross-Border shopping has led to a loss of €400 million in revenue to this State in the past year. In my constituency alone there are approximately 300 licensed premises, many of which are rural. Jobs will be lost there. It is extraordinarily serious.
We pay one of the highest rates of taxation on drink in Europe - nine times the EU average. Along with the weakening of sterling vis-À-vis the euro, this contributes greatly to the exodus of trade and money from this State. Jobs are at stake and revenue is going. Rather than accruing income, the present VAT position is losing income and this needs radical address in the budget. I ask the Leader for a debate on this issue and that we take it very seriously. Jobs are at issue in the entire Border region and the counties immediately below the Border. I know the Leader comes from that area and I ask him to support this issue.
Problems concerning drugs were mentioned earlier. We are all well aware of the incidents that occurred at the weekend. On a previous occasion I raised the matter of heroin and the fact that 92% of it comes from Afghanistan. In light of the fact the presidential situation has been clarified and President Hamid Karzai has been installed, could we ask the Americans to make it a condition of their significant investment in rebuilding Afghanistan that the poppy industry be put to an end and poppy fields be sprayed as a way of trying to put a stop to global heroin use? This would make a greater contribution than anything else.
I was also glad to hear about Deputy Sherlock's comments. I view with concern the move towards strikes and protests. I am thinking of the day of protest on Friday and the day of action on 24 November. An all-party motion in which we would express our concern about this wrong approach to the crisis is necessary. In our statement, we should deplore the effects that the pursuit of selfish or sectoral interests could have on the most vulnerable.
Today, I heard directly about the most vulnerable in our society. I never heard as impassioned a presentation as that of Professor John Monaghan of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul this afternoon. He pointed out that, in terms of food, Ireland is the second most expensive European country, a situation unchanged by deflation. He discussed this point in the context of there being no moral justification for a cut in social welfare or pension payments. He hoped for the reinstatement of the Christmas bonus, which has tended to be used for basics such as heat, light, food and clothing. The most vulnerable in our society should be the focus in the coming weeks in the lead-up to the budget.
Last week, there was a report on a sad issue relating to children diagnosed with Down's syndrome. In England, more than 90% of such children are aborted. It is sad that, in Ireland, the figure is something like 50%. Professor Fergal Malone of the Rotunda Hospital pointed out that the difference was because children with Down's syndrome are more visible and accepted in our communities here. That is certainly true. Perhaps he should also have pointed out that it owes to legalised abortion being seen as a right in some countries and as a fundamental violation of human rights in others, such as Ireland.
In the run-up to the budget, our primary focus should be on the most vulnerable in society, including families supporting children with disabilities. When it comes to making the right choice, they should always be supported in our laws and budgetary arrangements.
The Lisbon treaty gives the upper houses of parliaments in every member state a role in dealing with legislation on matters relating to Europe, particularly concerning subsidiarity. Perhaps we could debate this issue as I have just learned that the President of the Czech Republic has signed the Lisbon treaty. It can come into effect from 1 January.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, MacSharry, Coghlan, Ó Murchú, Buttimer, Regan, Callely, McFadden, Hannigan, Hanafin, Walsh and O'Reilly expressed their opinions on matters pertaining to the Order of Business. It is my intention to start the debate on the NAMA legislation at 10.30 a.m. next Monday, with Committee and remaining Stages on Tuesday and Wednesday. The procedure in the House has always been to discuss every section and every line of every Bill. It is our intention to afford as much time as necessary to consider this important Bill. I look forward to the participation of every Senator, as Members will play their part and give of their expertise and experience to the Government where this testing legislation is concerned. We all hope and look forward to NAMA working, turning the economy around, restoring Ireland to its rightful place, putting people back to work and restoring our competitiveness, which is key.
I compliment everyone who played a part in social partnership over the years. I am heartened to hear that talks are ongoing. People can be disappointed, frustrated and annoyed by losing jobs and money in their pay packets, but this matter must be negotiated around the table. I look forward to there being common sense. As far as I can ascertain, everyone wants to play a part, be it on the street, in the workplace or at home. However, I remind the Government that they want to know for how long they must play their parts. Is it for one, two or three years? If possible, there should be a timeframe. Everyone realises the country's difficulties and wants to play a part.
Many Senators expressed strong opinions on the lack of funding at Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin and the plight of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda. In recent days, I endeavoured to arrange for the Minister for Health and Children to attend the House this week, but she will be out of the country for the remainder of the week. As a matter of urgency, I intend to bring her to the House the very minute we conclude our deliberations on the National Asset Management Agency Bill next week. I agree with the many concerns raised by Senators about emergency operations. One life lost for the sake of money is one life too many. The story of the young person with two holes in their heart would draw a tear from a stone. Every Senator wishes that seriously ill patients be given priority and attended to immediately.
Senators MacSharry, Buttimer, Walsh and Mullen called for a pre-budget debate. Every Senator has already agreed to this and I have given my word that it will occur. I hope that it will be held on the week after the NAMA legislation, which will give us plenty of time ahead of the budget due, as we all know, in the second week of December. All matters pertaining to the economy can be discussed during the debate.
I will forward Senator Coghlan's views to the Minister and make inquiries regarding the legislation on the future lord mayor of Dublin and so on. Senators Glynn and de Búrca called for a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government regarding the latter Senator's serious concerns about climate change and the ongoing Copenhagen convention, which we all want to see make progress. The Government intends to play its part. As the Senators stated, legally binding agreements on the serious challenges facing the world would be wonderful.
Senators called for a debate on the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, DDDA. I will do my utmost to determine whether that is possible.
Senator Glynn referred to people who park in disabled spots, but dealing with them is simple. All a disabled driver needs to do is park his or her car outside the spot and leave it there until he or she has finished shopping. If the other driver must wait an hour or two, he or she will learn not to park there anymore. This conduct is unfair. People are generally generous in helping those who are less fortunate and it is only the few who give a bad impression. They should not be allowed to continue doing so. I agree with the Senator that there should be severe penalties for doing so.
I will pass Senator Norris's strong views along and inquire of the Minister for Foreign Affairs about the person arrested on 28 October.
Senators Norris and Hanafin referred to Shell to Sea and planning concerns. Senator Hanafin spoke about the huge opportunity provided by the considerable gas find off the coast of County Mayo. We look forward to gas being brought ashore at the earliest possible time.
As Leader of the House, I join Senators in congratulating everyone involved in Trinity College, Dublin on the breakthrough in dealing with the terrible scourge of cancer. We all heard the wonderful news on television last night and I congratulate wholeheartedly all those involved. I look forward to this breakthrough helping millions in the years to come.
Senator Ó Murchú welcomed the huge increase in consumer confidence. The latest report is a ray of hope and indicates the earliest stages of the green shoots in a return to economic growth. I hope that, with the increase in consumer confidence, unemployment will decline. Like the Senator, I congratulate those in the media who have helped to bring this report to the attention of the people.
Senators Mary White and Glynn called for a debate on the alarming CSO figures for those who took their lives in the first three months of the year and the large increase in the number self-harming. I will have no difficulty in having this issue debated in the House.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on No. 32 on the Order Paper, a motion on the participation of women in politics. I understand the Joint Committee on the Constitution will discuss the issue tomorrow. Some 20% of the Members of this House are ladies. I remember in the 2002 general election-----
I refer to the issue of the bus gate which Senator Bacik highlighted. The damage it is doing to business in the city centre is appalling. Trade in some stores is down by 50%. The issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency. I thank all those who are trying to deal with the difficulties traders are experiencing. If something is not done, many shops in the area will be closed in January and February, not just one or two. I confess the bus gate is working very well for passengers and others but we do not want to see that part of town become a wilderness. That would not be fair or right.
Senator Hanafin called for a debate on innovation. I will have no difficulty in allocating time for such a debate.
Senators Callely and Quinn referred to illegal substances, called for a debate on counterfeit medicines and congratulated the Garda Síochána on last week's huge find of illegal cigarettes. We all congratulate the Garda Síochána and everyone involved in the find. I will have no difficulty in allocating time for a debate on the issues raised.
Senator Buttimer called on the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to come to the House to debate the insulation programme. I have no difficulty with such a debate taking place.
Senator O'Reilly referred to people travelling to the North to shop and the challenges facing the hotel and licensed vintners sectors. I will have no difficulty in allocating time for such a debate.
Senator Ellis called for a debate on the scourge of heroin, the difficulties many families are experiencing and the huge challenge our society faces as a result of the abuse of this dreadful drug. I will certainly pass on the Senator's strong views to the Minister for Foreign Affairs after the Order of Business.
Senator Mullen and others congratulated the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on the great work it is doing and has done over many decades. Some colleagues were alarmed by its pre-budget submission made today. To say it was an eye opener would be an understatement. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is at the coalface and knows what is happening in families and elsewhere. We will support it in any way we can at this very difficult time.
Senator Cummins called for a debate on EU legislation. Now that the 27 member states will sign the Lisbon treaty, I will have no difficulty allocating time for such a debate. Seanad Éireann could play a meaningful role in the scrutiny of EU legislation. The 27 member states will have eight weeks to deliberate on proposals. I intend to bring all proposals made to the House fortnightly, if possible, in order that we can assist the relevant Minister and the Government in teasing them out to determine Ireland's position.