Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Dog Breeding Establishments Bill 2009 - Second Stage (resumed), to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the Minister to be called at 1.20 p.m. for concluding comments; No. 2, statements regarding the regulation of the sale of dangerous substances through head shops, to be taken not earlier than 2.30 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for eight minutes and Senators may share time by agreement of the House; and No. 33, motion No. 21 regarding the response of the local authorities and the Government to the recent cold weather emergency. The business of the House will be interrupted from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.
I am sure Senators on both sides will agree with me when I say the work of the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation which is ably headed by its CEO, Mr. Jonathan Irwin, should be supported by the House and the Government, particularly when one hears from it today about the cost of caring for a child in a residential institution, as opposed to at home. The contrast in the figures is extraordinary. It costs €147,000 a year to care for a child in a residential setting and just over €16,000 if he or she is given the support the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation gives to children. I ask the Leader to take up this point with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, and ask her to approach the HSE to see how this work can be further supported because it represents a saving to the State.
I want to focus on the jobless figures and the increase in unemployment. If one considers those figures and the decrease in the tax take, one can see that the words used by the Government, namely, that we have turned a corner and the worst is over, are not true.
It reminds one of the statement by Michael McDowell that gangland crime was over. He referred to gangland murders as the last sting of a dying wasp. We saw George Bush on a warship saying, "Mission accomplished"; that the war was over. We must face the reality we see every week when we meet people who are unemployed. They are offered courses, very often by FÁS, which are not appropriate to their needs. They do a course for a short period and are then back at home, without any plan being offered to them and without support, feeling very hopeless. It is the same at national level. There is no plan, no jobs stimulus and we have seen no plan for job creation. Clearly, the budget did not accomplish its task of giving hope to people and providing a stimulus to create jobs.
I wish to invite the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, to the House today to discuss the whereabouts of the stimulus plan and the overall macro-plan for job creation. Will she come to the House today and present this information to us? Then we might have a meaningful debate on the actions needed to give the people some hope in the future of this country and in their own future, through job creation.
Some weeks ago I raised the issue of human rights in Colombia and the fact that negotiations were going on in that regard between the European Union and Colombia. We agreed to pass a motion supporting the stance on this taken by all the Irish MEPs. However, we neglected to pass that motion, No.18, through the House and therefore I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, namely, that we take No. 18 first, without debate.
In recent days, the House has had a number of discussions on children's rights and how they are being dealt with in different institutions. What gives me most grief is that we spent months in this House discussing education for persons with special educational needs. There was further discussion in the other House and many changes were proposed for implementation. Briefly, the idea was that a child with special educational needs has an entitlement - we could not get the word "rights"into the legislation - to have a full assessment done within three months. Following an involvement of professionals, namely, psychologists and teachers and including parents and every other party, an individual educational plan was to be put together for that student which would be implemented by the school and checked and assessed every six months. If the plan in question was found not to work a new plan would be put together.
Everybody thought this was the way forward and it had all-party support in both Houses. The fact that the essential parts of that Bill have not been commenced is shameful and an absolute disgrace.
It demeans what we are doing politically. There will be another report on this matter very shortly. People are asking why we have not implemented this. They do not understand that when a Bill is passed by the Oireachtas without a commencement date, which happens time and again, nothing will happen until the Minister commences it. This Bill has not been commenced and children are suffering. One gets only one chance at primary education. If these children do not get that chance in their first few years they will never get it. I appeal to the Leader to invite the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy O'Keeffe, to the House to explain his plan for the implementation of what was passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas and signed into law by the President. When will children get the benefit of it?
I support Senator Fitzgerald's call for a debate on the stimulus plan for the economy and jobs, and her call that the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Coughlan, should lead the debate in this House. She is one of the Ministers we tend not to see in the House. We see a great deal of some Ministers and very little of others.
The bad news today is that unemployment figures have reached 13% which makes the need for such a debate urgent.
I call also for a debate on the need to ensure there is a stronger ethical code and regulation in banking, something Deputy Joan Burton has called for consistently, as has Senator Alex White. It is made even more urgent by reports today that Anglo Irish Bank is proposing to make an interest-free loan to a developer and has declined to state on what security. This is now a State-owned bank. The ESRI is highly critical of the long-term impact of this type of practice. It is important that we keep some kind of scrutiny, particularly on the actions of a State-owned bank.
I ask for clarification of the date on which the Leader will ensure we have a debate on women's participation in politics. Last night I took part in the first sitting in Trinity College of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution. We had a panel discussion afterwards about Article 16 and on the way in which Deputies are elected. A major focus of the discussion was on my presentation about the need to ensure we have more women in the Dáil and Seanad. A great deal of interest in the topic was expressed by the audience and other participants. We need to have such a debate in this House.
One point raised concerned the difference having more women would make. In my view, it would make an enormous difference in the ethical codes in the governance of our banking and financial services systems. It has been said in this House, including by me, that a machismo led to this sort of profit-at-all-costs culture within banking that caused the economic collapse we see today. It has often been said that if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters the international financial crisis would not have been nearly as bad. It is no coincidence-----
Yesterday I raised the issue of the current dispute between trade unions and the Government. The passport express facility, which has been terminated for the present, applies to all parties. I inform the Opposition they will not get any break by not having applied-----
At least there is equity in that regard.
Concerning go-slow actions, the processing of medical cards for people aged over 70 has been centralised in Dublin and this is causing much hardship. I appeal to the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and to the HSE not to have all medical cards brought to Dublin for assessment. That will create chaos. The present arrangement, whereby they are processed in the different counties-----
Senator Fitzgerald made a fine contribution on the frightening increase in unemployment figures and the need for an overall jobs plan which is of paramount importance for our economy. In view of that, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, namely, that we ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, to the House to debate that issue.
Last week I asked the Leader to arrange an early debate on the Government's waste policy. Today there was a worrying report from the ESRI, which stated it did not believe there was an underlying rationale to the waste policy of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. The ESRI is concerned about the needless cost to the economy, the 30% cap proposed by the Minister and the incineration of municipal waste.
Perhaps more important, the ESRI is concerned, as are all of us, about the damage this policy will do to our reputation abroad as a place in which to do business. Nobody wants to harm our competitiveness or our economic development at this difficult time but the Minister's policy poses a threat to our capacity to comply with the EU Landfill Directive. Overall, it is a very worrying development. The debate I called for last week is needed more urgently than ever.
I wish to bring to the attention of the House that a number of Senators visited the Council of Europe last week. A number of posts were filled there, including vice-presidencies and presidencies of all kinds. Is there a capacity for those of us who attend the Council of Europe to provide feedback to the House on the work we do? I raise this matter on the basis that I am now president of the Sub-Committee on Youth and Sport of the Council of Europe and also because the new leader of the Labour Group, Senator Bacik, referred to the issue of women in politics. The Council of Europe discussed that matter on Wednesday evening last. It is extremely important that the work done at local authority level and in both Houses of the Oireachtas should be tied to that done at European level. If there is capacity for us to do so, we should disseminate information in this regard.
The issue of media freedom was also discussed at the Council of Europe meeting to which I refer. It is important that we obtain access to the airwaves in order that we can highlight the work we are doing and thereby counterbalance coverage relating to the costs of that work.
I would welcome it if we were given an opportunity to provide feedback on what the Council of Europe is doing when we return from attending its meetings. It would also be good if there was feedback from the House on the work being done at committee level in the European Union. That work relates to the work being done in this country.
Will the Leader ask the Taoiseach to come before the House at the earliest possible opportunity? In view of the debate at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party which took place last night and about which a number of newspaper reports appeared this morning, it appears the Taoiseach is still a prisoner of the Department of Finance. The extraordinary episode we are witnessing with regard to higher paid civil servants receiving preferential treatment above everyone else is led by that Department. I did not realise - I do not know how many Members are aware of this fact - that the people to whom I refer were in receipt of bonuses for the past four or five years, a period during which the country was going to rack and ruin. Responsibility for what happened in the period to which I refer rests, in the first instance, with the person who was then Minister for Finance who happens to be the Taoiseach and those who form the permanent government, namely, the mandarins in the Department of Finance.
The central issue appears to have been both missed and lost in the emotion surrounding this episode. The question that arises is: why, in the name of God, did those to whom I refer obtain bonuses in the entire period to which I refer? I simply do not understand this. Calculations have been made and it is being stated these poor individuals are losing their bonuses. Those involved in the Department of Finance should never have received bonuses. What is needed is not a debate such as that at a muted parliamentary party meeting, at which a rebellion was quelled with a flick of the Taoiseach's hand, rather the Taoiseach must come before the House to explain how the extraordinary decision to give bonuses to those who presided over the greatest disaster in the economic history of the State was made. He must also indicate how much the people concerned were given in bonuses and outline what they did to deserve them. To state the calculation relating to pay cuts will be based on the fact that these poor individuals are losing their bonuses is absolutely absurd. The Taoiseach must come before the House to clarify the position on this entire matter. It is not acceptable that he merely explain the matter to his parliamentary party, the members of which just seemed to collapse in the face of a completely inadequate explanation.
I agree with Senator Coghlan that the House should debate the issue of waste management. The Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will be discussing issues relating to this matter later today. There is a particular need to question the publication of the ESRI report earlier this morning. I have great respect for the ESRI and its work on economic and social issues. However, I do not believe it has the expertise necessary to deal with environmental issues. That the report in question was commissioned by Dublin City Council to counter the international waste review undertaken and overseen by officials of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is a worrying development. If we commission expert reports within government and ensure they are compiled and published in a open way and then have them second-guessed by people to whom they do not relate, problems will arise in the context of how decisions are made and resources allocated.
The debate should focus on the issues to which I refer. If Members took the time to read the ESRI report, they would discover that it refers to rates of increase in the level of waste which did not occur at the height of the Celtic tiger era. It also refers to the fact that recycling rates will be frozen and not increased in the years to come. It is extremely badly put together and deserves to be scrutinised and the subject of argument. This House would be a good forum in which to have a debate on it.
On the questions raised by Senator Ross, again, there is widespread concern regarding the fact that such decisions have been made. It is not merely the short-term effect of such decisions or their effect on the general public or those working in the public sector whose wages have been cut which is a cause of concern. The underlying problem relates to the long-term effect. The existence of a bonus culture and the inclusion of such bonuses in the assessment of future pension entitlements lie at the heart of the reason there are problems in this area. There is a need for a real debate and honesty in this matter to ensure the short-term cuts necessary to ensure public sector costs and those relating to the economy are brought into line are not affected by people's personal needs or considerations relating to their long-term future.
Senators Fitzgerald and Bacik have referred to the fact that the figures relating to unemployment are on the rise again. They both requested a debate on the Government's stimulus plan for the economy. Such a debate cannot take place because, as far as I am aware, the Government has no such plan. Meanwhile, there is a major crisis in the economy. Joblessness is on the increase and the number of college places is decreasing. I reiterate what I said to the Leader yesterday, namely, that he must impress on the Minister for Education and Science the need to resolve the matter relating to the provision of additional college places with the heads of third level institutions which are also facing a crisis in their funding. There is a need to provide thousands of additional places. College places constitute a recession-proof measure the Government can provide while the economic difficulties we are experiencing continue. The Government must realise FÁS is not the answer to everyone's problems. The latter has a great deal for which to answer, not least in the context of the way in which examinations it oversaw were marked. I call on the Minister for Education and Science to take urgent action on this issue. He should not even wait to come before the House to debate it but rather should work with the third level institutions to increase the number of places available.
An issue also arises with regard to the fact that leaving certificate students are no longer taking honours level mathematics as a result of the demands doing so places on them. There are other subjects which students can study to obtain the necessary points. The Minister for Education and Science has said the project maths programme is not the answer to everything, although we continually hear the programme is on its way. However, it has still not appeared. It needs to begin in primary school. Mathematics must be be taught to a good standard at both primary and second level.
I agree with certain of the comments made by Senator Bacik and will put a question to the Leader in respect of them. However, I am sure he would first like to respond to the accusations which appeared in the media this morning in respect of last night's meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party. The debate which took place at that meeting was extremely mature and positive in nature.
It is the particular comment that Senator Buttimer has just repeated which has done a gross disservice to the very genuine and committed people within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party who expressed very positive views on the matter.
It emerged at our meeting last night - this is an extremely disturbing discovery - that 231 of the 600 people to which the change in pay cut related were directors of service employed by local authorities. The Minister for Finance has made the point that this number exceeds the number of such persons employed in central government.
This matter is going to be considered in the proposed local government review. It is a disgrace that there are 34 local authorities and 231 directors of services.
I agree with Senator Bacik's request to the Leader. I am glad she raised the issue of women's participation in politics. I spent the past couple of years outside this House being somewhat frustrated at not being able to be involved in the wonderful initiative with which she has been identified in trying to improve the numbers of women in politics. Ironically, I wrote the book on it.
Maedhbh McNamara and I published a book in 2001, which I recommend to Senators, entitled Women in Parliament: Ireland 1918-2000. During my time as a member of the Council of Europe I prepared and published two reports on women in politics. What has been missed in all the proposals and worthwhile debate that has centred on this topic in recent years is that it is the political system in this country that needs to be addressed. It is not just about getting more women involved or more quotas. The political system of proportional representation-----
A number of us attended the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation event this morning to which Senator Fitzgerald and others referred. We were very impressed at the amount of work being done there and the level of active citizenship involved in such organisations. It focuses on the care of young children with severe disabilities who are not being looked after by the State - we do not expect the State to do everything. This is for young children only up to the age of four. Senator Norris asked what would happen if it managed to extend it to those up to the age of 6. It is very clear that the value coming from groups such as the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation is not just worthy of support but is also worthy of recognising the patriotism and active citizenship in so many organisations doing work that is of great value to the State, including in financial terms.
I mention this because it is not normal to speak about active citizenship and patriotism. A few years ago President McAleese called for the amount of active citizenship taking place to be recognised. Yesterday the European Union imposed on Greece a number of strict conditions if it is to correct its economy. The next countries targeted to get their economies right will probably be Spain and Portugal. It did not mention Ireland on this occasion solely because we have taken the first steps. When I talk about patriotism and active citizenship I believe everybody should be doing that. I am very concerned - Senator Leyden touched on just one small aspect - about those with secure jobs, who, while they have taken cuts in State pay, are suggesting they will work against the steps that have been taken. This is an occasion where everybody, especially the State employees, needs to say: "Let's bed down this year and put our hearts together in supporting the steps that have been taken by the Government in order to ensure we're not next in the line for conditions to be imposed on us from outside."
One of today's newspapers reported that the study that had raised concerns about the use of the MMR vaccine has now been retracted. Over the past 12 months serious questions have been raised regarding the reliability of the study's findings. While it was initially accepted a number of years ago, it has had a very detrimental impact on the uptake of the MMR vaccine, particularly in Ireland, because of the supposed links with the onset of autism. Ireland is in the midst of a very significant outbreak of measles. It is now very clear that there is no scientific evidence, present to us at the moment, to question the safety of the MMR vaccine. However, we clearly know that measles, mumps and rubella can possibly cause death and may also cause the onset of disabilities, which are entirely preventable. It is vital to give as much reassurance as possible to parents to take up the vaccine and protect their children.
A number of colleagues have spoken about the number of unaccompanied minors who have gone missing from the care of the HSE. Having raised the matter on numerous occasions, I would say that while it is helpful for us to comment on it, it is not sufficient. I ask the Leader to arrange for either the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform or the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs to come to the Chamber to discuss the matter. The national plan that has been agreed between the HSE and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform will be helpful for any children who go missing in future. However, we still need to address the fact that at present 424 children are missing from the care of the HSE. We must do whatever it takes to assure ourselves that each of them is safe. I suggest that a specific campaign be launched which at a minimum should provide a telephone number that members of the public can contact if they have any information regarding those missing children.
It would be a very good idea if the Taoiseach came to the House because a number of issues need to be cleared up. Yesterday I raised an issue about the Minister, Deputy O'Dea, and since the Leader will not answer the question, the Taoiseach might be able to answer it. The issue raised by Senator Ross of the pay for higher civil servants should also be raised with him. The problem is not the cost of it, but the thinking behind that decision. What has been done is that since there was a cut in bonuses, the new pay reductions would not apply. That means the thinking is that the bonuses were permanent and they are now built in for the future. That is the flaw in the thinking and is the wrong approach. The Taoiseach should answer the question and explain why the Government has gone down this route. The budget and the entire Government policy in getting us out of recession has been based on fairness with everyone sharing the pain. However, because it is not being applied equally, it undermines the Government's entire policy.
There is another issue on which the Leader has not responded. When we adopted the NAMA framework legislation on 12 November, I indicated at that time that it needed to be notified to the European Commission. I asked the Leader to keep the House informed about notification. That framework legislation gave us no details about financials or haircuts. All we have is a draft business plan from last October. It is important for us to know what is going on. There are questions about the notion of including Anglo Irish Bank in the scheme and including unimpaired performing loans in the scheme. When it gave its opinion on NAMA the European Central Bank raised serious concerns about the entire pricing issue.
I wish to correct the record regarding a matter raised yesterday.
It is important to highlight the January 2010 Exchequer returns which indicate a deficit in receipts. However, it is important to note that the €3.1 billion in tax collected and the €4.1 billion reduction in expenditure are in line with the Department of Finance forecasts with an expectation of a return to economic growth in the second half of 2010. We should congratulate those involved in the forecasts given what is reflected in the figures for January 2010. I look forward to the expected return to growth in the latter part of the year.
I refer to the coverage of CAO applications, which is creating concern for both parents and students. I happen to be in that position myself. It is slightly unfair on students who are attempting to put their efforts and energies into examinations in the expectation that they will be accommodated only to find there is a myth to the effect that there may not be enough places. Although the eventual number of applicants will be fewer than the eventual number of applications-----
I agree with Senator Coghlan's call for a debate on the waste management issue. I am not sure if what Senator Boyle said is particularly helpful in terms of the ESRI report. It is true the ESRI is an economic research body, but for anyone to suggest that the management of waste and environmental matters is not an economic issue is absurd. Of course it is an economic issue, and it is quite legitimate that the ESRI should produce this report. By all means let us have it debated.
We all appreciate the pressure the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, is under in relation to the constituency aspect of this. However, there is a wider interest in terms of the waste management of the country which transcends any local or constituency interest. For that purpose there ought to be a debate in this House. It is remarkable that the Minister's Cabinet colleagues are so silent on this issue, given the pressure he appears to be under. The silence from his colleagues is really deafening in relation to any suggestion of support for him.
I support what Senator Bacik said about last night's debate in Trinity College Dublin. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution, it was an excellent debate and it was important that the committee should go there. I compliment the department of political science, TCD and the students there on the enormous contribution they made for a most stimulating evening. Senator Mooney indicated that there is a wider issue of political reform to be addressed here, and I believe he is right.
Others have referred to the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting last night, which is where most of the debate seems to be going on about all the issues of concern to the public.
When we are talking about bonuses for senior civil servants, the reform of local government or all the other issues of concern to the public, the debate should be held in the Houses of the Oireachtas and not behind closed doors so that we do not have to tune into "Morning Ireland" to find out what was happening from some poor soul who was at the meeting.
I will finish with the issue of reform and in doing so want to agree with Senator Mooney who says there is a wider issue involved. It is a pity that it would appear from the reports of the parliamentary party meeting that many members of that body seek to maintain the status quo. In particular, The Irish Times today says the Senators were saying they do not really want to see real reform. It is not a job just for Members of the Oireachtas to talk about reform of the Oireachtas or local government. We cannot leave reform of the Oireachtas to the Members of the Oireachtas.
I second Senator Coghlan's amendment to the Order of Business. I ask the Leader for a debate on the ESRI report because it seems that Senator Boyle and members of the Government, when it is convenient, can ridicule an independent body that has provided excellent reports to Government for a generation. The management of waste and the whole issue of the environment needs to be debated, but it is disingenuous of members of the Government to accept a report when it suits them and to cast it aside when it does not. The ESRI is either independent or it is not.
I also ask the Leader to invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, to address the Seanad. I have a specific question for the Leader. Where is the hope, the vision, the stimulus plan, the job creation package and the Government policy to get Ireland back to work again? The answer is that 13% of our fellow citizens, men and women, qualified, unqualified, blue collar, white collar, young and old are unemployed, without work. It is soul destroying, and they are being let down by a Government, which, as Senator Ross quite rightly said, has no interest in fairness, transparency and equality. It lets certain people get away with matters while accepting a bonus culture and higher remuneration and then more people are struggling.
Yesterday the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party had not the courage of its convictions to support the abolition of higher pay. Senators come into the House bleating, yet when they were behind closed doors they rolled over like Shep. Will the Leader say whether he supported the abolition of the higher pay yesterday? He did not, but sat quiet and rolled over, and his colleagues did the same.
I am concluding on this. Do they realise that they are members of a party in Government and are not in Opposition, that they cannot stand on the plinth and say one thing and then say another thing before the parliamentary party, and, more important, they cannot legislate and then say the opposite?
On the economic area, I am a prophet crying in the wilderness. Why did the people meeting in Davos not take up the situation of Standard & Poor's and Fitch, which dishonestly rated products, were involved in this whole bundling system, helped to walk us into this position and at whose beck and call we are still because they continue to rate people? The Davos world economic forum should have taken the opportunity to get rid of Standard & Poor's and Fitch and set up an internationally established independent ratings system, but they did not have the courage to take them on.
I support what Senator Fitzgerald said about the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation. I was there this morning and it springs from the tragic situation Jonathan Irwin found himself in, but he responded in a very positive way. It was demonstrated by Professor Normand and Dr. Revill from Trinity College that the cost to a family, even if a child is in hospital, is €50,000 and €25 million could be saved by implementing a further programme of the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation.
I want to raise a matter that I believe to be of great significance in terms of the smart economy. We are always talking about that, yet a proposal appears to be emanating from central sources to disconnect the universities from access to electronic journals. In terms of the sciences, there have already been 4 million hits on this service. In terms of the social sciences, it is 4.5 million, to give a total of 8.5 million hits. This is the lifeblood of research and intellectual inquiry and senior people in the university have suggested to me that this is a lunacy and the equivalent of book burning. I ask the Leader to pass on this strong concern of people on all sides of this House to the Minister of Education and Science. In a situation where the universities are part of the knowledge-based society, they must continue to have uninterrupted access to electronic journals.
I support calls from Senator Fitzgerald and others for a debate on jobs, especially in the light of the figures Senator Healy Eames talked about and which were published yesterday. She indicated that more job losses were announced and in particular referred to the fact that 6,700 of these related to people involved in part-time work. People involved in part-time work tend to be young and they are trying to get onto the jobs ladder for the first time. These are the same people who, this January, were facing cuts in their social welfare payments. They inhabit the environment where the educational opportunities, job placements and third level places have been cut as well. The Government is saying the solution to getting the young into work is to cut social welfare payments, but job opportunities, schooling and college places are also being cut back.
These people did not benefit from a rise in house prices or from tax cuts. They are certainly not benefiting from pension deals, so we urgently need a debate on this matter. This highlights the point made by Senator Ross to the effect that one part of our society can see cuts in pay absolved and changed while in another the young are facing times and circumstances that are becoming ever harsher. Daily, Members on the Government side come to the Seanad to huff and puff about this but when there appeared to be a chance to do something about it last night, they could not even manage to do that. For that reason, it is important to have a debate about this in the Seanad and have the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach present to address these points.
I join other Senators in calling for a debate on unemployment. Six months ago, the Labour Party launched a document with a ten point plan to find a way out of unemployment. One of those points related to apprentices. I am glad that others have raised the subject of apprentices. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, suggests that if people cannot find a place in colleges through the CAO process, they might try apprenticeships. Unfortunately, however, the country is suffering at present and there are not enough apprenticeships available. I call for a debate on that issue.
He also suggested that if people cannot get into college here, they should try to do so in the UK or Northern Ireland or take up post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses. However, those places are also suffering due to issues of supply and demand, and tonight we will have an opportunity to discuss the cap on PLC places in colleges in Ireland. There are limited opportunities for people who cannot get into the CAO process. We should hold a debate on this because the Minister is wrong and must act soon to ensure that people who are trying to access further education have a chance to fulfil their dreams.
I support the comments of Senator Regan, Senator Ross and others about the reversal or partial reversal of the pay cut to be endured by higher remunerated public servants. I am struck by a different element of this issue, which is the question of access to power. It appears to be very easy for people at a certain level of society to secure consideration of their needs. Not for them letters to Members of the Oireachtas, letters to newspapers or the necessity to mount a lobbying campaign. Instead, it is perhaps a word in the Minister's ear. That type of thing, or even a perception of it, will sap public confidence at a time when, let us face it, much more deserving people are being asked to make sacrifices without any reversal of what is proposed. This is a matter of concern.
Yesterday, Senator Bradford and others raised the issue of nursing homes, the mistreatment of people in residential homes for people with disabilities and the lack of transparency surrounding investigations of abuses. Today, we learn of the publication of a report on the contract between St. James's Hospital and a private nursing home in Maynooth, County Kildare. A large number of people were admitted to the nursing home within a very short time, in circumstances where the nursing home was incapable of coping. It happened two weeks after the report on Leas Cross was published. Something very similar had happened in Leas Cross, where a large number of patients, perhaps in more extreme circumstances, had been admitted from St. Ita's Hospital in Portrane. Again, I ask the Leader to commit to holding a debate on the care of older people and people who are vulnerable. There is a responsibility not just on nursing homes but also on hospitals who would make arrangements to put people into nursing homes in circumstances where the homes might be unable to cope and people may suffer as a result.
Will the Leader arrange for a debate on the economy? The Revenue Commissioners have issued figures for January which show that VAT receipts were not what one would have hoped. However, I am surprised that no commentator has mentioned the obvious fact that VAT is generated by consumer spending and that in the first two weeks in January we experienced the worst weather for the last 30 years. Naturally, there would be a major fall in revenue as a result. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests there is an increase in spending. That evidence has been given to me by the same person who strongly warned last year of a big fall in revenue, so that source is quite reputable. I suggest that things are better than we might imagine. However, the figures for unemployment have increased again. That must be the focus for this House in the coming year. We must focus on areas where we can increase employment. I was glad to hear Senator Quinn mention that the European Union has given stricter guidelines to Greece and is about to give stricter guidelines to Spain and Portugal, but considers what we are doing to be correct for the Irish economy. We will turn the corner this year. Perhaps this House can serve the country even better by focusing on employment and ways to create employment in a growing economy.
I support Senator Hanafin's call for a debate on the economy. That is extremely important. Various people in the Opposition talk about Government stimulus packages. The Government is providing €6.5 billion in stimulus and is working on that. However, there must also be a stimulus package from the private sector. I refer in particular to high street rents. They are not reducing to the proper level and many businesses are suffering due to over-expensive rents. Many businesses are closing and there are many gaps in our high streets. We must protect small businesses. I hope the debate on the economy sought by Senator Hanafin will happen as soon as possible.
Senators Fitzgerald, Coghlan, Quinn and Norris congratulated the Jekyll and Hyde foundation for the wonderful work it is doing. Senator Fitzgerald outlined the huge difference between the cost of the services being provided by the foundation and those provided by the HSE. It is something we must examine-----
My apologies. It is the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation. This is an area where, again, the Minister has an opportunity to address something substantially, which could be of huge benefit both to the young people who receive the services and also to the Exchequer. I support the Senators and will convey their views to the Minister after the Order of Business.
I accept the point made by Senator O'Toole about commencement dates in Bills. This is something we must examine, and I will convey the Senator's view to the Minister.
Senators Fitzgerald, Bacik, Coghlan, Healy Eames, Callely, Buttimer, Donohoe and Hannigan expressed their concern about the new figures that have been published for unemployment and tax revenues. As Senator Hanafin pointed out, given the weather in the first two weeks in January it is understandable that VAT income is down substantially. Everybody experienced difficulty at that time, particularly people in the retail sector. With regard to the unemployment figures, employment always lags behind growth in the economy. As we know from experience over the years, the economy will pick up and will be in growth for some time before the unemployment figure starts to reduce.
Various views have been expressed, particularly by Senator Ross, about the tables which illustrate the change and reductions in net pay since 2008. I have a table before me which indicates that the pay of clerical officers at the lowest rate was reduced by 7.3%, the pay of assistant principals was reduced by 16.8%, that of principal officers by 19.3%, that of assistant general secretaries by 24.9%, that of Department general secretaries by 27% and that of Secretaries General by 33.9%.
When I allocated time for a debate two weeks ago and had the Tánaiste in the House to participate, the debate collapsed. I see where the issue is at heart for some Senators. I thank the Senators who called for that debate on the Order of Business and who were genuine and sincere in making their points in the presence of the Tánaiste last Thursday week.
Consistency must be the order of the day on the Order of Business.
Senators O'Toole and Norris referred to human rights in Colombia and the all-party motion, No. 18. I fully accept their point and I agree to their amendment to the Order of Business. I thank Senator O'Toole for bringing the matter to our attention.
Senators Bacik, Keaveney and Mooney called for a debate on women in politics. I have agreed that this will take place on the anniversary day, if at all possible. I will discuss this with colleagues and the leaders in the House at our meeting next Tuesday.
Senator Leyden referred to the union-sanctioned embargo affecting passport applications. I will speak to the Minister about this. We all agree fully that if people are in urgent need of a passport, they should be facilitated. No matter what dispute takes place, one should be allowed to return to work in the country in which one is fortunate enough to have a job. Those whose passports are out of date are certainly in a position of hardship and should be given special consideration.
Senators Coghlan, Boyle and Alex White called for a debate on waste and waste management. This debate is very timely and I have no difficulty in allowing time for it to take place.
I take on board Senator Keaveney's views. I wish well our new Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who is to begin her five-year term this week. She is a competent, capable person and has certainly proved herself down through the years. She will serve Ireland and the Commission well in her new role.
Senators Ross, Boyle, Regan and Mullen called for the Taoiseach to come to the House to discuss civil servants' pay. I have outlined the difficulties being experienced in this regard. I wonder at times whether Fine Gael and the Labour Party have parliamentary party meetings at all because the only such meetings ever discussed in the House are the Fianna Fáil ones. Some colleagues on the far side of the House had a family tradition of being on this side of the House but, because there was no room in the inn, they are on the far side of the House. That is understandable but, really and truly, everyone must be factual in their comments.
Senator Healy Eames called for a debate on education. As I have said, the Minister has agreed to come to the House to have what I hope will be an all-day debate on education. I listened very attentively to Mr. Tom Boland being interviewed on the radio this morning. He was very informative and brought us up to date on his views. He is very experienced in the field of education.
Senator Quinn referred to the European Union, State employees and social partnership. I hope the unions, Government and all interested parties return to the partnership talks. The views of the Taoiseach, expressed yesterday, will afford an opportunity for this to take place. The talks comprised the bedrock of our success over the past 20 years. Growth of 7% per year was the order of the day for ten or 11 years. I look forward to the recommencement of the talks because they represent where we will be in the future.
The corrective measures, including those in the budget, were totally necessary, as recognised by everyone, including the EU authorities. We should move on from them, return to the partnership talks and continue making the progress we made over the very many years during which the talks took place.
Senator Corrigan asked for the position on the MMR vaccine to be outlined to the House. She referred to the outbreak of measles, of which I was not aware. I will pass on to the Minister the Senator's views, including her strong concern over the 424 missing children.
I passed on Senators' views on this yesterday and will do so again today.
Senator Regan referred to NAMA notification. The Senator has been in Brussels quite recently and I know he knows the answer to his question. It would be worthwhile to update the House on a monthly basis on the progress of NAMA. I will endeavour to have a special debate take place on the up-to-date position on NAMA. I hope it will be before the end of the month, if acceptable. I accept Senator Regan's bona fides in this case. While I do not agree with what he did, I must accept he is a person of considerable experience in the European Union. No doubt it will become apparent over time why he took his decision. I hope it was in the national interest but I just do not understand it at present.
Senator Callely called for a debate on CAO applications. This can be taken with the education debate.
Senator Buttimer referred to the ESRI report. Of course we will have a debate on it.
Senator Norris outlined to the House his concern over the smart economy and the 8.5 million hits by researchers and students. This matter can be discussed during the debate on education in the presence of the Minister for Education and Science.
Senator Mullen called for a debate on the care of older people. I have no difficulty with this taking place.
Senators Hanafin and Ó Brolcháin called for a debate on the economy. This is very timely and I hope we will have the debate in light of the publication this week of the Finance Bill. The Bill is to be taken next week in the Dáil over two full days, Tuesday and Wednesday. I will endeavour to have the debate on the Finance Bill and all the issues pertaining to the economy following that.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 21 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Jerry Buttimer, Ciarán Cannon, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Liam Twomey, Alex White)
Against the motion: 28 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, James Carroll, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Paschal Mooney, Niall Ó Brolcháin, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Jerry Buttimer and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.