Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Communications Regulation (Premium Rate Services and Electronic Communications Infrastructure) Bill 2009 - Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude at 5 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 32, Private Members' motion No. 22 re the Haiti disaster, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude at 7 p.m. The business of the House shall be interrupted between 1.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m., following which there will be tributes to former Senator Billy Kenneally. The business of the House will resume at the conclusion of the tributes.
The talks in Northern Ireland are due to continue later today. I hope they will prove fruitful, as it is the wish of everybody on this island that Northern Ireland find the solutions that it so desperately needs in these critical times.
This week marks the fourth anniversary of the publication of A Vision for Change, the Government's mental health strategy. It is critical that we have a debate on the document, given the very poor progress made and the lack of the ring-fenced funding promised. Service users are meeting today with Members of the Houses in the audiovisual room at 5.30 p.m. I hope Senators will be able to come along to hear their views.
Yesterday I raised the issue of fairness in the education sector, following the cuts in the area of special needs which attack the most vulnerable. There is a lack of clarity on the part the Minister for Education and Science on the issue. How many special needs assistants will be removed from classrooms at the end of the week? What will happen to those children who need special needs assistants to integrate properly in primary school? However, the question of fairness goes further than special needs assistants. What about the changes made by the Government to the pay of public servants on salaries of €150,000? Decisions taken in the budget were reversed for the people concerned, yet the decisions taken in respect of those on salaries of €30,000 were not. Does the Government intend to address this issue and deal with the question of fairness as it affects those most poorly paid in the public service? Last night there was division in Fianna Fáil about this decision. I ask the Members of the Government parties in this House if they will bring this decision back to the floor of the Houses. The decision was taken outside the Oireachtas and after the budget. How can people believe in the budget process if they see decisions being taken in this manner which are so unfair and are taken outside the budget discussions? This is a question of fairness and transparency in decision making and involving the Houses of the Oireachtas in a meaningful way.
I agree 90% with Senator Fitzgerald on that point. The Government did the right thing in reversing the decision. I know I am in a minority position on that point. It was taken in terms of fairness for that particular group but the Minister did that group no favours by not explaining what he was doing in the House on budget day when he dealt with all the other matters. I know the way the assistant secretary grade was dealt with. People at that grade received bonuses in lieu of salary on the basis of bringing private sector rigours to bear on public sector pay scales. Last year, they got rid of the bonuses and those people effectively took a drop in salary. The most recent reduction would have been a third reduction in salary for these people. What the Minister did was fair but Senator Fitzgerald is correct. I have failed to convince the many people I have spoken to on this. This should be brought back to the Houses to explain to people how the Minister came to this decision, which I believe is correct. I ask the Leader to get a briefing on this point so that we can debate it in the House. I agree with Senator Fitzgerald's point that this should not be done away from the budget. It needs to be properly explained.
The Murphy and Ryan reports have been sitting there for months on end. I do not know where the Government is in terms of implementation. I do not know what results or consequences we are dealing with. I have raised the question of the involvement of the churches in primary schools, the connection between school patrons and clergy about whom there might be complaints and the conflict between being the school patron and the shepherd of the flock. I do not want this to be interpreted as anti-anything; it is the reality. Everyone dealing with schools, children and education should be vetted properly and correctly. The idea of not making any change and not having any restrictions or rigours imposed on patrons and chairpersons, such as bishops and parish priests who are patrons of schools or chairpersons of the boards of management, shows a lack of confidence in the system. It is not just I who say this. Clergy also say it and the Archbishop of Dublin has raised this issue. We need to see the consequences and we must ask what we have learned from the Murphy and Ryan reports and others to come. What will we do about them? It is a shame if we do nothing about this. This House could make some movement on the matter.
We see matters going to the brink in the Northern Ireland talks. We all hope for a positive outcome later today. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I have seen an immense amount of goodwill on the new committee, formed after the previous general election, that brings together elected representatives from both sides of the Border and all areas of this island. I hope the immense positivity on that committee will pay off in terms of a positive resolution today.
I echo Senator Fitzgerald's call for a debate on special needs provision with the Minister for Education and Science. Yesterday I called for the Minister for Education and Science to come into this House for a debate on the future of universities. I am grateful to the Leader for indicating he is agreeable to having this take place. There is immense concern among academics and those who rely on the products of academia - graduates - to build our knowledge-based economy about this drastic reduction in funding of on-line journal access. This will undermine research and teaching.
The Minister for Education and Science has been notable by his absence from this House.
We need him in here on a number of debates. A critical one is that to which Senator O'Toole referred, namely, the patronage of schools. Deputy Ruairí Quinn wrote an excellent article in yesterday's The Irish Times setting forth the Labour position, which seeks change in the system of patronage and recognises that it is no longer appropriate in today's multicultural Ireland. Senator O'Toole referred to the Murphy report and he is quite correct about the concerns it raises in respect of Catholic bishops and priests being so closely involved in the day-to-day running of schools. There is a bigger issue about parental choice. Throughout Ireland parents are voting with their feet and inundating new multidenominational schools run by Educate Together and other bodies to the point where they have enormous waiting lists and cannot cope with the demand yet there are places to spare in Catholic schools. In my area, Dublin South-East, and also in Dublin South-Central, we see an incredible misfit between the number of Catholic places available and the tiny number of multidenominational places, even though parents demand a multidenominational, more pluralist education for their children. We need to debate this point with the Minister and we need a national forum on patronage of primary schools. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Education and Science to come into this House to debate education at all levels.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the state of the railways in Ireland. We discuss roads on many occasions but there does not seem to be much debate on railways. I refer in particular to my neck of the woods. I hope there will be positive news in the not too distant future with the western rail corridor opening. Over recent years there have been major improvements in the railways throughout the country. The number of trains to each of the cities has improved and speed has improved but there is still a long way to go. It still takes more than two hours for me to get to Dublin from Galway.
No, it is not the bypass, it is another road. Investment in, use of and management of railways has not improved to the same extent as roads improved during the Celtic tiger era. To a large extent we are talking about management rather than a major amount of investment. There is good rolling stock and good signalling systems so a good debate on railways and how we can improve them is necessary.
Senator Bacik referred to patronage in schools. I would very much welcome that as I was involved in trying to help set up an Educate Together secondary school in Galway.
Indeed, but I contend it was highly unfair that he favoured the elite and did not do the same for everyone else. By reversing bonuses only it does not affect their pensions. That is where it is unfair.
I have though a lot about the following and have come to the conclusion that the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, is doing a bad job. There are two main reasons which I will highlight. He is undermining the value of our degrees at home and abroad by proposing to abolish the NUI. This has serious implications for Ireland as a country. Two of my degrees are from the NUI and have served me well at home and abroad, as they have served many other graduates. For €1 million he wants to cut out this office. Developing an iconic, worldwide brand like the NUI would cost far more than €1 million. Fair dues to the National University of Ireland, Galway which said that it would keep its brand name because it works well. I agree with the letter in today's The Irish Times which stated the Government does not have the moral authority to disestablish the NUI. The opinion of the universities and their graduates must be sought before any decision is made. I ask that the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, come to the House to answer this serious charge. We are having difficulties already in selling Ireland and we need to maintain our reputation rather than diminish it in this way.
My second point is-----
I join other contributors in wishing those involved in the Northern talks well. Given that we have dealt with so many matters already, there is an understandable expectation that the two disputed issues can be resolved. I was impressed by the body language I saw on television late last night.
I ask the Leader to arrange structured debates on matters relating to the economy. We know where we ended up last year and that the outlook for 2010 will probably not differ greatly in that the shortfall will be approximately €20 billion. We should be able to make a structured contribution to the policy debate on a quarterly basis.
I seek a debate on the water infrastructure in the greater Dublin area. Water is the equivalent of what oil was in the 1950s and 1960s. We need to know whether we are getting value for money from our water supplies in Dublin, the cost of the necessary infrastructural upgrades and the location of alternative water sources.
Yesterday I offered my congratulations to Trinity College for hosting a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Constitution. This morning, however, I wish to withdraw my congratulations. A letter from the college's department of political science purporting to invite me to the meeting revealed that its professors know sweet damn all about practical politics. It states that the proceedings would be on the Dáil record, even though as a joint Oireachtas committee they will be put on the Official Report of the Oireachtas. Trinity College should know they will most definitely not be on the Dáil record because its graduates send three representatives to this House, so they should be aware of the Seanad, although the department of politics appears to be blissfully unaware of this fact. The letter also makes a puff about the wonderful contributions the department's professors make to this, that and the other.
The professors inform me in the letter about who will be on the platform. They have no right to do so and they do not understand the Constitution or Standing Orders. Every Member of the Oireachtas has a right to sit in and contribute to any joint committee. I discussed this matter with the Chairman of the committee, Deputy Ardagh, who shares my feelings about it.
The second paragraph of the letter announces a panel discussion chaired by John Bowman which will involve an assortment of professors, including my good friend and one of the three Senators representing Trinity College, Senator Bacik. I am one of the Senator's biggest fans and, having spoken with her about the matter this morning, she understands my concerns. The department of politics plainly does not understand practical politics. It is proposing to invite one of three representatives of the Dublin University constituency to address approximately three hundred voters. Senator Bacik informed me that she was of the understanding that all three of us had been invited. This is quite extraordinary. I no longer intend to attend the meeting because I feel like the Victorian lady who brought her harp to the party but nobody asked her to play. Having also received an invitation to an important film premiere, I will attend that instead.
I suggest there are honourable exceptions in this House to Senator Norris's assertion that members of academia know little about politics.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate with the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with responsibility for housing, Deputy Finneran, in light of the disturbing report in today's Irish Independent about the housing overhang throughout the country. The figures for my county of Leitrim indicate that 2,945 houses were built during the Celtic tiger years despite a projected housing requirement of 588. The question arises of what is going to happen to these houses and ghost estates. We must consider the social and economic implications for the towns and villages which have been scarred by these developments, particularly in areas of dispersed population in the west and Border counties. The report indicates that although urban areas have the highest proportion of ghost estates, higher population densities mean they will eventually be absorbed. It is frightening that more than 300,000 houses in this country remain unoccupied.
I commend the Minister of State on his recent initiative to encourage local authorities to use some of these unoccupied units as social housing. This reveals his social conscience and I hope local authorities act promptly to take up his offer of funding.
I too call for a debate on housing. The issue has been extensively covered by the media over the past several days. A rather excellent "Frontline" programme on Monday night revealed extensive research by NUI Maynooth which conclusively proves the existence of 300,000 unoccupied units in this country.
The programme included a strange contribution from the president of the Irish Planning Institute, who openly admitted the housing needs of our towns and villages for the next 30 years have already been zoned. He suggested that one of the reasons for unoccupied houses is the proliferation of one-off housing in rural Ireland, which he argued has taken from the vibrancy of towns and villages. Once again, this is a confirmation of the major bias that exists within the planning profession against one-off rural housing and the rural way of life.
A couple of years ago I attended a conference on this subject in Lahinch, County Clare. A Green Party councillor suggested that one-off housing and the dispersed rural way of life were not conducive to creating a vibrant community spirit, which is nonsense. The planning profession and the Green Party appear to see another opportunity to pursue their vendetta against the rural way of life. The fact that people continue to enjoy vibrant communities in rural areas is not the reason 300,000 houses remain unoccupied in ghost estates. To the Green Party, the planning profession and anyone else who wants to denigrate the rural way of life, I say hands off our rural housing and way of life.
I express my satisfaction with something that happened last week. I made a suggestion in the House that the air traffic controllers should use the available labour relations mechanisms to solve their problems. I am delighted they took our advice the next day and went that route rather than the one they had proposed to take. This shows that no matter what one does in labour affairs, it is necessary to use the available mechanisms before any other action is taken.
I ask the Minister for Transport to examine the possibility of the NRA giving some of the funds available to it to local authorities to repair national, regional and county roads damaged in the severe storms.
-----ask the NRA to make some of its funds available for the repair of roads mentioned? Damage to these roads affects people's lives more than damage to any other. We all benefit from using motorways but if people are unable to go about their ordinary daily business on the roads mentioned, it makes life very tough and impossible. The cost of repairing the damage that will be done to vehicles using these roads will far outweigh what has to be spent to have them repaired.
Last night on the Adjournment I requested the Minister of State, Deputy Martin Mansergh, to set up a single agency to manage and maintain the River Shannon to prevent further flooding but the response I received was less than satisfactory. In listening to the news last night I realised that the Government had not yet applied to the European Parliament for funding for flood relief measures. I find this an absolutely appalling outrage because I understand that today is the closing date for the receipt of applications. I seek clarification urgently from the Leader as to whether this is the case because one does not always believe everything one hears in the media. I, therefore, ask the Leader for confirmation before the day is out.
I support Senator Bacik's call for the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House to deal with the many issues raised, although I would not expect him to answer all of the questions I wish to ask. I refer to the role of the universities and raise the question of whether there are too many of them; whether there are too many institutes of technology and whether there is duplication of programmes in third level institutions, as well as the role of primary schools' boards of management. Many issues arise with regard to the future of education. I refer to the role of the VECs and possible duplication of courses, with too many academic courses as opposed to vocational courses. These are all significant issues. I do not expect the Minister to be able to answer every question but there is a role for this House to in a discussion of the future of education and how we will shape future society. I suggest we do not need to have the Minister come to the House in order to have our own discussion and a brainstorming session. As the jury is out, it would be worthwhile including in the work programme for this term an ongoing debate on many of these educational issues.
I support the calls of Senators Cannon and Mooney for a debate on housing and, in particular, the number of unoccupied houses. I was interested to hear Senator Mooney praise the Government for having a social conscience in raising the issue. We need to be very clear that it was the absence of a social conscience and social awareness in the first place that led to this significant problem.
I also support Senator Fitzgerald's call for a debate on the reversal of the decision on the pay of senior civil servants. I wish to comment on one aspect of that decision. The award of bonuses that take the place of basic pay and which are, in effect, guaranteed is wrong for bankers, lawyers and senior members of the Civil Service. It is a bad idea that leads to trouble. This is a classic example. What is most damaging is the perception throughout the entire crisis in which the country has been engulfed that people at the top have suffered least. A decision such as this gives us no option but to believe this is, in fact, true. It is vital, therefore, that we have a debate on the issue to clear up what is happening and allow the Oireachtas to make a clear point.
I concur with the views of Senator Cannon on one-off housing. He referred to a conference he attended and the view expressed that one-off housing did not contribute to community life and community spirit, which is at variance with the facts as we know them. In Britain the village concept involves congested housing but in Ireland the traditional village community was always understood to mean a dispersed community. In that context, I do not think anyone would suggest we did not have good community spirit as a result.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the Irish Diaspora which was the subject of debate in the House when specific issues arose. In the chequered history of Ireland one of the most significant elements was the mass exodus of thousands of people who travelled all over the world. They subsequently proved to be a great resource for this country at any time when they were needed. This is still the case. Therefore, a debate would be worthwhile to examine the current status of the Diaspora. We know there are certain funding opportunities for organisations abroad but I wonder if we should take a closer look to see what their needs are. In one context, we are talking about members of the first generation who are still particularly deprived and very often do not have anyone to look after them. I would like to hear a report on how the welfare organisations have been responding with the funding they have received. There are other cultural and sports organisations and it would be worth looking at the role played by them. There is a danger that these issues will go off the radar, as happened in recent times. However, we need to focus on and have a debate to examine the funding and structures available and the reports on the funding invested to see if there are further ways we can help. In America these groups are coming together formally to see how they can pool their resources. I would welcome such a debate at an early stage.
I welcome and salute the commitments given by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs in seeking agreement with their British and Northern Ireland counterparts to solve the current problems in the North. We all wish them well. It is in the interests of the people on both islands that they reach a solution as soon as possible.
I support Senator Ó Murchú's request for a debate on the Irish Diaspora. I know there is disappointment in the United Kingdom about the proposed 14% reduction in emigrant support funding. This is greater than the cut proposed by an bord snip nua and very disappointing. It will mean that services will suffer. Already there has been an increase in the incidence of dementia among older Irish people living in the United Kngdom and also an increase in the number of Irish people being made homeless because of drug and alcohol misuse. We will see a reduction in funding support for cultural centres, places in which first, second and third generation Irish learn about their heritage and culture. It is very important that we support Irish citizens who had to leave these shores to seek a better future abroad. I join Senator Ó Murchú in asking for a debate on the subject as soon as the Leader can provide time.
I reiterate what Senator Hannigan said. I wish the Taoiseach the best of luck in representing us in the talks on Northern Ireland. They stayed up until 5.30 a.m. The talks continued until late the previous night also. He is doing us proud. I hope the discussions can come to a positive conclusion today.
I support the call by Senator Ormonde for a debate on the role of third level colleges and universities. I attended a meeting in UCD last night at which it was interesting to hear the ideas of different people. Peter Sutherland is giving funds towards a new law school in UCD. He has also mooted the possibility of UCD and Trinity College joining together.
That notion could generate much debate and division. I know people who take positions on both sides of the argument. It is important to examine whether there is duplication and a cross-over on a number of courses provided by institutes of technology and VECs. Given the tough economic times, we are in a unique position to consider the broad range of issues that could not be tackled previously. We need a vision for where we are going in terms of third level and fourth level education, as research will provide a future for the smart economy.
I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on young people and health. This morning I attended a meeting on how we could develop transition year programmes, for example, to include mini-companies and how we could focus on a broad range of issues such as the health, including mental health, of young people. I encourage the Leader to focus on these issues in the near future.
Does the Cathaoirleach agree that the Minister for Education and Science and his Cabinet colleagues are in the process of dismantling education? A total of 1,200 special needs assistants are to lose their jobs. The pupil-teacher ratio has increased and the NUI is being abolished. Cuts have been made to the leaving certificate applied programme, while the spectre of the McCarthy report looms large. As a result, morale is at rock bottom. There is no confidence in the Government to bring forward coherent education policies. In tackling the economic recession, if we are serious about the smart economy, we need to have an education system that is well financed and resourced and that will inspire young people. It is important that the Minister for Education and Science come to the House for a debate on all aspects of education, but especially on how we can protect those who need education the most and how we can look after those who will go on to higher and further education after completing the leaving certificate.
Some who criticise the Catholic Church's role in education do the church a disservice. Many fine priests, the religious and nuns have been involved in organising education and have done a very good job. It would be wrong to paint every priest and nun in a bad light because of the sins of a minority.
We need a debate on education because the Government has no policy. The policy is being made up as it goes along. The Minister is like a football supporter coming out after a Munster final; depending on who he meets, it was either good or bad. We need to have a coherent support system for education. I hope the Leader will allow such a debate to take place because that is what the people demand.
Members of the Green Party came into the House yesterday - Senator Ó Brolcháin may well throw his eyes up to heaven-----
I support the call by Senator Callely for a rolling debate on the economy. I am especially mindful of the fact that the United Kingdom experienced low growth in the last quarter of 2009. This followed growth in the economies of Germany, France and the United States. The reports on the world economy for 2010 project increased growth rates from 3.1% to 3.9%. In other words, the world economy is coming out of recession. Having dealt with the issues that confronted us last year, namely, the budgetary position, NAMA and ensuring we had a stable banking system, the House could well turn its attention to the major difficulty of providing jobs in this growing economy. Looking towards the future, there are many fine ideas expressed in this House. I have heard such positive suggestions made previously about the use of finance to project our exports abroad and to provide for jobs-based growth. I ask the Leader to seriously consider arranging a rolling debate on job creation during this term.
I support the calls of previous speakers for a debate on the overhang of housing. It is important that we have such a debate with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing. The Leader will have seen recent coverage on unfinished estates and the seriously substandard infrastructure in many estates in communities around the country. Residents and communities are in despair trying to find someone to take on the responsibility of dealing with the problem of unfinished estates. Local authority officials are shrugging their shoulders. Developers are long since gone and the Government claims to have no role in addressing the problem. It is not good enough that we isolate and desert citizens in this way. It is important that we face up to the fact that there are problem areas in our communities and that we need to do something about the matter. We should let people know where they stand. They might not like what they hear but it is important that we are upfront. We need to tell them what the problems are and how we can solve them. We could do a job in this House by addressing that problem by way of providing adequate time and resources and getting the relevant Ministers to come to the House to see whether we can find a solution to the problem of unfinished estates. This is a genuine call for the House to address the matter. We have the time to consider it and can make ourselves relevant. Let us find the solutions to help the residents affected who are to be found in every community, county and city.
I refer to A Vision for Change. As I indicated previously, 2010 will be a landmark year for mental health services. The Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, is to be congratulated on securing an extra €43 million for the services, in addition to separate funding for the provision of a new national central mental hospital. I welcome the Leader's commitment to bring the Minister before the House in February. Would it be possible for the timing to be arranged a little differently? Last year the Leader introduced a question and answer session following statements by Ministers. On 1 March the Minister intends to outline the implementation plan and how he will proceed with it for the remaining four years of A Vision for Change. It is clear that given the level of funding now agreed, that this will be momentous and bring about significant benefits in terms of the quality of service we provide. In restructuring the time available when the Minister comes before us, will the Leader make provision for a longer question and answer session? That would allow for a much more interactive session which I believe the Minister would welcome. It would benefit and inform his plans for implementation of A Vision for Change.
We continuously read that we will have an election for a directly elected mayor in June, yet, as we know there is no mention of it in the Bills to be published this session. Perhaps the Leader might enlighten the House on the matter. Given that we are at the end of January, does the matter have Government approval? Is it envisaged that we will encompass the existing four local authority areas in Dublin, each of which has its own mayor and council? As I understand it, the mayor will not have a council, yet from what we read, it is envisaged that he or she will have executive powers. What will those powers be? We need detailed information.
Given the paucity of information made available in response to my query yesterday about the incinerator in Poolbeg, I am slightly hesitant to ask the Leader, as I might not get very far, but we in this House rely on him to act as a conduit between the House and the Government in providing this vital information. I would like to hear from him on the matter. In following up on the matter raised yesterday, will he arrange for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to House at an early stage to debate the matter?
I support Senator Corrigan's remarks on A Vision for Change and want to add to them in congratulating the Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney. The policy document, A Vision for Change, has been with us for some time. It contained a vision but, up to now, there was certainly no change. It was the same service, different date. Fair play to the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, for acquiring €43 million in funding, which will make a significant difference.
On the day when that debate takes place, I hope we will have an opportunity to refer to the most recent report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals and his views on a number of psychiatric hospitals throughout the country, including St. Loman's Hospital in Mullingar. I have been speaking to people in Mullingar in recent weeks. The inspector made particular reference to the condition of St. Loman's Hospital. However, he forgot to mention that a request was made on several occasions by nurse management and hospital management for the upgrading of services, which was not forthcoming. It is wrong to blame the people providing the service there, including medical, nursing and other grades. Their duty is to look after the residents; they are not painters, decorators, carpenters or plasterers.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Bacik, Callely, Hannigan and Carroll wished the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the British Prime Minister and all the leaders in the North of Ireland well. Their determination to get to a successful conclusion by sitting until 5.30 a.m. shows the people of the world that at this time a historic page is being written for our country and the island of Ireland. As a supporter of the Good Friday Agreement and a member of the British-Irish committee, I look forward and hope that this historic occasion and the decisions that are being taken will be lasting for peace and, at the end of it all, the generations of the future will benefit from the serious deliberations of the leaders of all the parties in the talks in Northern Ireland at present.
Senator O'Toole called for further debate in regard to the Murphy and Ryan reports, as did Senator Bacik, in regard to school patronage, Garda vetting and everything concerned with the running of our schools. I do not want to let the occasion pass without paying tribute to the clergy and all they have done in very bad times from the Famine days until now, and the total commitment they have given of their time and energy in helping and assisting in this regard. Whatever the way forward will be for our educational institutions is for the Legislature, Oireachtas Members and parents in particular to decide. However, what the clergy have done has been unbelievable in regard to the commitment to educating young boys and girls of generations past.
Senators Mooney, Cannon, Ó Murchú, Coffey and Donohoe called for a debate on housing and asked that the Minister would come to the House. Reference was made to the opportunity that has presented itself due to the downturn in the economy, in particular for first-time house buyers. There is an opportunity to take a leap of faith given that first-time buyers can now purchase a house for 40% to 50% of the price those homes were two years ago. There is a huge stock of houses to be sold, quality homes in most cases, and first-time buyers in particular have a terrific opportunity to buy them given that interest rates are low.
I agree with the sentiments expressed in regard to unfinished estates. Some 12 years from the time of planning to the time the developer is answerable is far too long. We must examine our planning regulations in this regard. If the estates are phased, the first phase should not be allowed to be inhabited until the second phase is totally completed. As good legislators, which we all like to think we are, given the experience we have had in recent years, the area of planning regulations is one we have to tighten up. I am pleased to note that Westmeath County Council last Monday de-zoned land in the town of Mullingar. There are those who have had zoned land for the past 15 years, or more in some instances, but did not put one block on top of another. The council decision is a shining example of good county management and a good county council.
Senators Fitzgerald, Corrigan and Glynn called for the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, to come to the House to discuss A Vision for Change. Senator Corrigan has been leading the way in this regard, ably backed by Senators Fitzgerald and Glynn today. I watched the Minister of State's performance on television last night. The €43 million extra received in the budget must be commended. I will take on board Senator Corrigan's proposal that we have a longer period of time for a question and answer session, if the Minister of State is agreeable. I have no difficulty in this being extended and I welcome it because a longer question and answer session is what all Members want to see from our Ministers. With regard to the debates and deliberations in regard to the future of where we are going in this area, the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, must be congratulated. He is transforming and determined and is making a huge change and giving a serious amount of hope in this portfolio area.
Senators Fitzgerald, Bacik, Ó Brolcháin, Healy Eames, Ormonde, Carroll, Buttimer and O'Toole called for the Minister for Education and Science to come to House for a broad debate in regard to all of the education sectors, whether it is primary and vocational schools, ITs, universities or other areas of education, as was said this morning by many of our colleagues who are real experts in the field of education. I spoke with the Minister again yesterday in this regard. He is very agreeable to coming to the House to have a full debate on all education issues and to have a question and answer session following that. I will endeavour to have this take place in the month of February.
Senators O'Toole and Healy Eames brought certain issues to my attention. The Finance Bill will be published in the next day or two, as we all know. We will all have an opportunity to discuss the indications of that Bill, which will be in the Dáil next week. Given all the issues that have been raised this morning, we can consider the Government's up to date proposals on the Bill and take the debate from there.
Senator Ó Brolcháin called for a debate on the state of our railways and referred to further investment in rolling stock. Looking back over the past ten to 15 years, my predecessor in this position and my constituency colleague, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, when Minister got huge investment into all areas concerning the railways. We are seeing the benefit of this today, including the magnificent carriages and all the up to date facilities available when travelling by train. As Senator Ó Brolcháin said,rail services are now battling with dual carriageway systems, whether it be on the Dublin to Cork, Dublin to Galway or Dublin to Limerick routes. There has been a transformation in provision of good rail and road services for the travelling public.
Senators Callely and Hanafin called for a rolling debate on the economy, particularly in the context of jobs and the current economic position. The Finance Bill will provide Members with such an opportunity in the next few weeks.
Senator Callely also called for a debate on water costs, the imposition of water charges and the challenge faced in terms of managing our water supply. It is mindboggling that 100% of the water used is treated given that only 15% of it is used for drinking purposes. We do not need to treat the water supply that is used for other purposes. The cost of such treatment will have serious implications. We will have a debate on this at the earliest possible time.
I noted Senator Norris's comments about Standing Orders in terms of the forthcoming hosting by Trinity College of the meeting of an Oireachtas committee. I fully agree with most of the sentiments he expressed.
Senator Ellis spoke about the use of the labour relations mechanisms in the air traffic controllers dispute. I am delighted to support the views expressed by the Senator, a long-standing Member of this and the other House. I wish everyone well in their deliberations and congratulate them all on the responsible way they acted when the challenge was laid down.
Senator Ellis also suggested that the Minister for Transport should reallocate part of the NRA funding for the repair of rural county roads which suffered damage during the recent inclement weather, whether due to flooding, severe frost or snowfalls in some parts of our country. All county councils are undertaking an appraisal of the state of repair of roads in their areas. Westmeath County Council will need an extra €2.5 million for such works as roads were badly affected and I am sure every council will require similar additional funds. The Senator's suggestion is worthwhile and I will pass it on to the Minister for Transport.
Senator McFadden raised the issue of putting in place an action plan for the River Shannon and the application to the EU for flood relief, today being the last day for its submission. The Government will be availing of this application. We need it as a matter of urgency because of the serious implications of the recent flooding for people in the Cork area and in the Shannon area, from Westmeath down to the Banner county of Clare. Major funding will be required to assist those unfortunate people who were driven out of their homes at only a few minutes' notice. We are interested and concerned about the long-term plan for the River Shannon and I have no difficulty in putting the weight of the membership of this House behind the application to the Minister in this regard.
Senators Ó Murchú and Hannigan called for a debate on the Irish diaspora, a subject that is near and dear to all of us who have been working for a very long time with people in Irish societies throughout the world. Government funding for the Irish abroad has maintained the wonderful work that has been carried out. I refer in particular to the 110 Irish associations in the UK, which look after the needs of the elderly Irish there, and to the great work that has been carried out by the Irish organisations throughout the United States, Canada and Australia over the years. The Government has facilitated the setting up of the Irish American Council, which has brought together the leaders of Irish Americans to further the interests of Ireland in cultural and economic fields. Irish leaders in the world of commerce and Irish diaspora leaders throughout the world attended the event in Farmleigh last autumn to examine what could be done to assist Ireland in its hour of need. We must acknowledge, be grateful and thank all who assisted our country at that tremendous three-day event. I have no difficulty in having a debate on this subject and I thank Senators Ó Murchú and Hannigan for bringing it to my attention for our consideration.
Senator Coghlan raised the issue of a directly elected mayor for Dublin. I will make inquires about this. It is a matter with which we will have to deal. I am aware that one or two colleagues on the Opposition benches are seriously considering putting their names forward and I wish them well.