Tuesday, 23 March 2010
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, Energy (Biofuel Obligation and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010 - Report Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, and No. 2, statements on mental health - A Vision for Change, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 but not before 5 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7.30 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time, by agreeement of House, and with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments and to take questions from leaders or spokespersons and give answers, if appropriate.
Today the much anticipated Cabinet reshuffle takes place. The Taoiseach will obviously fill the vacancies by promoting backbenchers and change some responsibilities but the truth is that the reality will continue for the people tomorrow. The reality is that the Government has failed to lead. Nowhere is that more obvious than in what is happening outside the passport office which is simply unacceptable. There is a backlog, panic and upset. A woman left Wexford at 3 a.m. to try to ensure her son would be able to go on a school trip. A family which saved hard-earned money to go on a holiday has now been thrown completely into disarray. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to ensure the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, will come into the House today to outline the action he intends to take. This situation cannot go on; a solution must be found. I have to ask what the public sector unions hope to achieve with this action which is impacting badly on the public but it has been ongoing for nine or ten weeks.
Everyone in the House is familiar with the queries about medical cards which are not being answered and aware that people are waiting to hear about social welfare payments which are being delayed. We have to remind ourselves how this happened. It happened because of a breakdown in the negotiations between Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the unions before Christmas. What has the Government been doing since? What is being done to deal with this backlog? We are talking about 40,000 applications, social welfare offices that are not responding to representations and county councils that cannot answer the telephone. This has been going on for nine to ten weeks and I am concerned about the frontline services affecting our citizens. I want to hear what the Minister has to say about it today.
The unions have reminded us that their members earning under €30,000 had money taken from them while senior civil servants had money given back to them. This emanates from the inequitable budget which has totally fuelled what has been going on in recent weeks.
It is fair to comment on what is going on in the Passport Office. As someone from a strong trade union background who has frequently voiced an opinion on such matters, I believe this action should be suspended on the grounds that it is strategically daft.
I do not believe it is achieving what it sets out to achieve. Having said that, I completely agree with the objectives of the people taking industrial action. I remind the House that before Christmas many of us on this side of the Seanad and indeed some Members on the Government side such as Senator MacSharry, called for talks on a regular basis to hammer out an agreement. Many backbenchers, including Fianna Fáil Members, told the Government to walk away from it, so it got what it wished for. Remember, when the budget came out, we said these lower paid civil servants were being very poorly treated, and we should not forget that. Let us also keep remembering that while all this is going on in Molesworth Street, as the Minister, in fairness, said on the radio this morning, this is the most efficient Passport Office of any capital city in Europe. That is the truth of the matter. That is what we had and it is what we walked away from.
I hear people asking why they do not have the decency to go on strike. Such people will get their strike as soon as they want it. It will happen, and then we shall see where we stand. If the fire services goes on strike people will have to find something new to say, such as "sack them". There are people who would, strategically, welcome the Government sacking people now. That would allow people without a strategic purpose on the other side to move this forward. The reality is that unless a deal is hammered out and agreed, there will never be peace. People in this House have been saying this for months, including my colleague, Senator Buttimer, and others in all parties. Rather than saying, in effect, "let them go on strike" or "have them sacked" or "let's take on this crowd", there is one simple question to be answered, namely, where we are all going to be when the music stops. We are heading into serious trouble and as with any other issue it can never be solved with brute force from either side.
Whereas I have difficulty as regards what is going on in the Passport Office, I have complete sympathy with the objectives of the people taking industrial action. I do not believe they should be going about it this way, but I understand their frustration and objectives. Bear in mind that it is not just those workers, but also the fire service, the police, nurses and all the different groups that have to be heard, one after another. To hark back to what we heard in the bars, lounges and among ourselves two months ago, about there being no appetite for strike in the public sector and so they should be taken on, of course there was no appetite for strike. Nobody wants a strike, but they will if they believe they are being trampled on. They believe they have been badly treated and a deal is on offer to the Government in Government Buildings. I again appeal to the Government to show leadership and take the risk involved in such an initiative towards ensuring a calm and peaceful public sector which delivers efficiency, productivity and good value to the taxpayer. That is on offer now to the Government and it should accept it.
I second Senator Fitzgerald's motion calling for an amendment to the Order of Business, to have the Minister for Foreign Affairs in here today. It is an urgent matter. Cycling in here today I met some of the many people who had been queuing all morning outside the Passport Office. They were outside it, as it happens, at 1.30 p.m. today because of a bomb scare. There has also been a flood, apparently, machines broken and disbelief, anger, frustration and great distress being caused to many people whose holidays have been cancelled or who have missed important business appointments, jobs and a great deal of money as a result of the delays. I add that the Labour Party leader, Deputy Gilmore, has asked for the CPSU to suspend its industrial action. I also believe, as Senator O'Toole has said, there is immense frustration among the low paid public sector workers who have seen their pay cut twice in the past year by the Government. They have seen the Government allow negotiations with the unions to break down at the eleventh hour. There is immense frustration and anger among those low paid public sector workers whose concerns also need to be taken on board.
While the action of the public sector unions is not gaining them a great deal of support among the public and the strategy needs to be examined, their objectives are very understandable. We need to hear from the Government what it intends to do to ensure this chaos does not worsen and that the thousands of people who have been disadvantaged - the 22,000 social welfare recipients whose payments have been delayed and the 40,000 people awaiting passports - are not joined by countless others who will also suffer further disadvantage if this crisis in our industrial relations system is allowed to continue.
The Government has relied on social partnership for a long time but has now allowed it to break down. On top of the financial chaos we are seeing with regard to the banks and the failure to regulate sufficiently in the financial services sector, we are seeing a real failure of regulation at the industrial relations level. We need to have that bigger debate as well as a debate today with the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the passport crisis.
I also ask for a debate on jobs - jobs for people generally in this country on a day when we are looking at jobs for the boys among the Green Party members of the Government, and perhaps a job for the girl too, if Deputy White gets a junior Ministry.
There seems to be an unjustified emphasis on jobs for a very small number of members of the Green Party parliamentary party when we should be focusing on the many tens of thousands of people who have lost their jobs and those who are facing pay cuts and uncertainty in their future as a result of this Government's mismanagement of our economy. That is the debate we should be having today.
I add my voice to the calls for the situation in the Passport Office to be resolved. I know of the case of a person who applied ten weeks ago and, when an inquiry was made two weeks ago, the Passport Office told the person it did not know where the application was and that the person should apply again. The person is going on holidays next week and thought ten weeks notice was sufficient given we are being told 20 days is the current turnaround.
I wish to raise an issue which also concerns the discommoding of the public on this island but which is not getting a fair airing. I ask the Leader for a debate on republicanism and what it means to be a republican. Those who are called dissident republicans are creating terror across Ulster. On Friday, one could not go anywhere in Derry without getting involved in some sort of scare. At present, no one can travel between Belfast and Dublin without impediment owing to a device that has been in place since Friday. When members of the PSNI, which we all voted as the new police service of Northern Ireland, went to deal with the device, they were shot at.
We have been talking about the discommoding of people going abroad on their holidays or business. While I agree it is a serious issue, people on this island, old and young, are being discommoded when travelling for business or pleasure and must get on and off buses and trains or drive their cars not knowing whether they are safe or unsafe. People driving around a town, trying to get from A to B, collecting children from school, shopping and trying to do their business do not know whether they will be safe. In addition, a device was found today in Molesworth Street.
I ask that we evaluate what type of republic we are looking for. Do we want a republic where those who are undemocratic are allowed to run rampant or do we want a republic where everyone is treated with equality, respect dignity and democracy?
I strongly support the call of Senator Fitzgerald and others that we would hear from the Minister today in regard to the situation that has arisen in the Passport Office. We are all aware that the system cannot cope with this backlog of 40,000 applications and, as a result, we have an emergency situation.
The right of the citizen to a passport is an entitlement, not a privilege. We are interfering with the citizen's constitutional right to travel. There is ministerial responsibility on this issue, as there has to be. I understand the Minister has the power to issue emergency travel certificates for anyone whose passport is out of date or who does not have the necessary passport at this time. We know there are 40,000 people without passports and needing to travel. The Minister must put in place immediately a mechanism to allow for the issuance of such documentation to allow citizens the right to travel freely, a right which is constitutionally guaranteed. We must hear the Minister today and these certificates must be issued immediately to end the growing deep frustration which is not a situation we want to see on our streets. As Senator O'Toole and others have said, there are other issues involved and these must be dealt with but I ask the Leader to bring the Minister to the House today to have this out among ourselves and get it sorted.
I agree with all the points raised on the passport issue. It is a disgrace that so many people who are trying to obtain their passports are losing money in the process. I ask them to abandon their protest while the talks are in progress. I am not sure we will be able to get the Minister to come to the House today. I would love him to come to the House today if at all possible but it must be borne in mind that he cannot be called at a moment's notice to come in here-----
I ask for a debate at another time on reform of the leaving certificate curriculum. I refer to a very interesting article in today's newspaper. We must question whether the curriculum is suitable for the educational needs of today and I do not believe it is. We do not know how to change the leaving certificate. We should use this Chamber to discuss the future, IDA's Horizon 2020, strategies and entrepreneurial skills. The new breed of graduates are not able to cope with the transition from leaving certificate to third level education because they are not properly prepared. This is not the fault of teachers. We have become comfortable with the leaving certificate and it has stood the test of time but I question whether it is suitable for Irish society and the types of jobs required in the future. I suggest the House plans for an ongoing discussion on this issue because it will not be settled overnight by means of one debate.
The prospect of people queueing in very difficult circumstances, sometimes tragic family situations, and being treated by all accounts from live radio broadcasts in a manner that could only be described as completely bolshie, is appalling. It shows a contempt for the public. They are very foolish because they need the public on their side and their action is not actually exerting any influence on Government but is making a lot of people very miserable. This is not just the case in the Passport Office. I ask the Leader to raise a matter with the Minister.
Not long ago, a number of us raised the matter of the Jack and Jill Foundation on foot of a very powerful briefing we received from Mr. Jonathan Irwin and other executives. They made a very strong case for increased State support. The foundation's support has been cut back by nearly €40,000, a total of 6.5%, on a value for money basis, despite the fact there has been an independent professional report showing the foundation is excellent, unmatchable and unrivalled value for money. I wrote an urgent letter to the Minister and I received this reply.
I wish to thank you for your recent letter on behalf of Mr. Jonathan Irwin...I regret to inform you that due to industrial action the Minister is not in a position to provide a substantive response to your correspondence. If this matter continues to be of concern to you, however, the Minister invites you to raise it with her again in due course.
This is outrageous, in my opinion. This is an urgent matter. The Minister is incapable of dealing with it because of industrial action. In other words the Government has been paralysed. In urgent situations this should not be allowed, there must be a degree of flexibility. I know people were reported as working to rule and being on a go-slow. I wish to God I could go on a go-slow, I certainly do not seem to be able to in this House or in my office, where I am chained to my desk.
I would like to add my voice to those calling for a lifting of the go-slow. The passport service is second to none, and everyone in the House has received a tremendous service from the Passport Office over the years. I hope it can get back to full capacity and get the emergency passports, in particular, out immediately. I am inundated, as all of us are, with calls and requests for passports for serious cases. I hope that the staff will see sense and return to full working. I ask the union to call the go-slow off.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for a confidence debate in this House? This House provides a tremendous service to the people. There are 60 Members of the House who are working to ensure democracy is retained. We scrutinise legislation here and give a good account of our stewardship. I served in the other House and as a Minister of State and I found this was the most effective place to amend legislation in a positive way. The expertise in this House cannot be got in any other House because of the way it is structured. Other countries in Europe - France, Britain, Germany, the US, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan - all have two chambers so why should we-----
-----that moving to a single chamber would only enhance the executive dominance over politics. It would also diminish the pool of talent available to participate in national debates and shape legislation. I ask the Leader to consider having a debate on this issue. It would give us an opportunity to defend ourselves. Surely those who are on trial, having been charged by the leader of the Opposition, should have a chance to defend themselves.
I would prefer to debate the industrial action in the public sector than to engage in more navel gazing on the role of the Seanad and what we should be doing. There are far more pressing problems now and Senator Leyden should be calling for the Leader to arrange a debate on those.
Discussions are underway between the Government and the public sector union leadership but the Opposition has no idea what is happening in those negotiations. We have all received representations from public sector workers who are concerned about these pay cuts. I have received one letter from the leadership of a public sector union that issued veiled threats about what it would do at the next general election if we do not support them. I say to the leadership of the public sector unions that we do not even know what it wants to negotiate on. Even though some people in this House support the public sector unions in this industrial action, the public sector unions themselves are not engaging with the Opposition to any degree. If we have a debate about these strikes, I ask the public sector unions to engage with us.
There is a concern that we have discussed before that a divide is arising between public and private sector workers. This industrial action will only ensure a divide between the public sector and the general public. That will do nothing to solve the problems we are discussing. I ask the public sector unions to discuss these issues with us. I do not expect the Government to do it because it does not know what it wants to do but the unions should let us know what they aim to achieve in the negotiations so we have some idea what is happening at the moment.
This crisis has the potential to affect the economy detrimentally over the course of the next year. It must be addressed urgently so I am asking for a debate in this House on this important issue. We should have it today, there is no point having it next week, and the public sector unions should also engage with the Opposition.
It is always important during challenging times to look for a glimmer of hope. There was a glimmer of hope recently on the part of the trade union movement that has gone unnoticed. An instruction was sent to members not to co-operate with specified political parties but that instruction has now been withdrawn - I have seen the letter - and the element of partisanship removed. That is a sign of courage which is particularly important at this time.
What is happening at the Passport Office amounts to a misuse of the strike weapon. I have been a trade unionist all my life. I have been secretary of a trade union and stood on the picket line when necessary. Who is really suffering at the Passport Office? Generally, those who seek a passport as a matter of urgency are people who wish to visit sick relatives, attend funerals and have saved, as we heard in a recent debate, to take their children on holiday.
Each time I have spoken on this issue I have asked for a resumption of talks. Regardless of whether they take place as part of the social partnership process or under another structure, talks are required but we must start from the premise that in the current economic climate it is clear that the cuts imposed will not reversed. However, there is a way forward which may help lower paid workers. The way forward is that the main discussion should be about root and branch reform of the public sector. In that way it is possible that some of the things taken from the workers could be returned to them.
I am not opposed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs coming to the House but it would be the wrong focus because he can only deal with the problem as it affects the Passport Office. There are much bigger issues involved. Therefore, we must deal with the problem in a much more comprehensive way. As a first step, what is happening at the Passport Office should stop and the Government should respond positively to the courage shown by the trade union movement recently.
The people are demoralised and the debacle at the Passport Office on Molesworth Street is only one of the many bushfires raging around the country. We can see the very real effects of the warning signals given many months ago about the divide between public and private sector workers. It sad to see workers and citizens being pitted against each other in such a public manner just a few hundred yards from where we sit. Senator O'Toole and others were voices of reason but more of this is needed if we are to pull the people together. If we do not find a solution through communication, we will face anarchy. We must remember that citizens have been waiting for months to receive jobseeker's allowance, student grants and other benefits. They, too, are frustrated.
I wish to bring to the Leader's attention a serious matter that has arisen in the south east in the past week as a result of the Cabinet's decision to discontinue the 24-hour sea and air rescue service based at Waterford Airport.
I appreciate that but I call for a wider debate in order that all Senators can contribute to a discussion on the sea and air rescue service which is being denuded in the south-east region. Coastal communities will be neglected as a result. This is a despicable decision to make on an island nation but it is not too late to reverse it, which is why I call for a debate on the issue. The contract has not yet been signed. All Senators should have an opportunity to express their opinions on the matter.
We need to see a speedy end to the problems being experienced at the Passport Office. I urge the Government to work as hard as it can to achieve a solution. A number of Fine Gael Senators have made excellent contributions on the issue. However, I tend to agree with Senator Leyden on this side of the House who has pointed out that there is a very real issue to be addressed. I would very much like to hear the views of Fine Gael Senators in a debate on the abolition of this House. Senator Twomey has stated it is important we have a debate on the public service but if we do not have a House in which to hold the debate, it will be impossible for that debate to take place.
I fully appreciate that. I have been a Member of the House for some time now and appreciate that a call for a debate or a question to the Leader is required. However, the issue of respect for democracy has been raised. One week ago there were statements in this and the Lower House on the report of the Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, on the lost at sea scheme which was designed by a former Minister to facilitate two of his constituents. The criteria adopted to facilitate-----
It is very important because it is a serious safeguard for democracy, about which the Senator has just spoken. We have the Oireachtas, a courts system, a free press and an Ombudsman. These are very important safeguards. The Government has sidestepped and shown total disrespect to the Ombudsman. I quote a former Senator, Mr. Maurice Hayes, who wrote recently in the national media. He stated the office of the Ombudsman had been established by the Oireachtas and the least we could do was to respect the office and the integrity of the officeholder.
We have not respected the office in not having a proper debate and not giving proper consideration to the recommendations of the Ombudsman which should be respected. Senator Boyle stated that the Ombudsman should be respected in her request to have the matter referred to an Oireachtas committee, and that has been supported by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. Does the Leader agree that this matter can be referred to an Oireachtas committee? There is a constitutional issue here and the Joint Committee on the Constitution might just be the committee to have this referred to.
I also raise the issue of the way that the public has been treated in the Passport Office. No doubt whatever aims the people who work in the Passport Office may have had, have been negated in full by the strong reaction from the public and I suggest that this is not the way forward to achieve their aims. When this economy was doing quite well, there was benchmarking. Given the severe downturn, there was no question of upward only benchmarking. Everybody had play their part. Notwithstanding that, there would be a time when the social partners would be told the sacrifices being made now would not be forgotten and that when the economy would begin to grow again, benchmarking would reappear and continue on an upward trajectory. That is an important point. The good times do not last forever but neither do the bad times.
There was a fine call for a debate on Seanad reform and the question over the supporting of the abolition of the Seanad. That said, one of the comments suggested that the Green Party took 30 pieces of silver for dealing with Fianna Fáil. That is probably one of the most ignorant, stupid and wrong comments I have ever heard in this House.
Senator Hanafin's remarks deserve to be answered. Perhaps the Leader could answer Senator Hanafin by asking him what is the Fianna Fáil record of ethics in Government and of ethics in politics. The answer is seen far and wide in this country, Senator Hanafin. It is like getting 30 pieces of silver.
The Green Party in Government has learnt well from Fianna Fáil and the proof will be evident today when we will see the Cabinet reshuffle and the announcement of the Ministers of State later on. I ask the Leader and, in particular, Senator Ó Brolocháin, who is not here, whether he would facilitate-----
I am responding to, reciprocating and augmenting the request of Senator Regan that this House would debate the lost at sea scheme. I challenge the Members on the Government side. If they are so concerned about democracy and if they are so concerned about the rights of people and the rule of law, allow for this debate to be taken and allow for this House to bring in the Ombudsman to the committee and for her report to be discussed at committee. What are they afraid of? Are they afraid of subverting the rights of this House?
I also ask that the Minister for Foreign Affairs come into the House today. It is important that he come in, and also the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Finance.
What we have today is industrial unrest. What we could have tomorrow are riots in the street. Is this what the Leader wants on behalf of the people? The people are the losers here. I refer to the people who have no passports, the people who cannot get medical cards and cannot get social welfare payments. These are the big losers, along with the public sector workers.
I call for a debate on the public service. I ask that such debate would consider the broader issues associated with public sector reform, especially public sector efficiencies and accountability with consequences. Those two issues are hugely important. I draw to the Leader's attention the fact that what is happening at the passport office is unacceptable. I also draw his attention to a public undercurrent in favour of a resolution. Many are commenting on the success of the late US President, Ronald Reagan, when he experienced a similar action by essential public servants in air traffic control, the manner in which he dealt with it and the consequences of his actions.
On a separate issue, the attitude and actions of banking officials are having a huge detrimental impact on the economy. We have all heard of cases of, and some Members may have personal experience of, such banking officials' actions. Will the Leader consult the other party leaders on the need to have a focused debate on this aspect of our banking institutions and its impact?
Other Members have raised the difficulties experienced by people who wish to leave the country in seeking passports but I wish to raise the difficulties experienced by people coming into the country. A recent report shows that this year 15 of the 20 busiest European airports will grow, while five will see a reduction in capacity. Dublin Airport is in the latter group and will witness the largest reduction, with 10% fewer passengers than last year, all because of the €10 tourism tax. The implication is that we will see further job losses. A total of 1 million passengers through Dublin Airport generates approximately 1,000 jobs at the airport in, for example, car hire firms and outside it in restaurants and hotels. The tourism tax needs to be examined because it is costing us money. I seek a debate on the issue.
I support Senator O Brolcháin's call for a debate on Oireachtas reform, the future of this House and the way politics is conducted. I also want to make it clear to him that my party and I will not take any lectures on integrity from him or his party which has shown an avarice for political office that puts Fianna Fáil to shame.
A debate on the Passport Office is needed for the sake of those involved in providing public services. It is apparent that there is a crisis among the public in respect of those who work in the public service and the way services are provided. Before the events at the Passport Office, there were thousands of medical card and social welfare applications not being dealt with or handled. There were also questions about the State care of children and related decisions. While the Government must take responsibility for these, so too must those involved in providing these services. This is a necessary debate.
That said, there was one public service done last week in the call made by the Garda Representative Association on the participation of its members in industrial action. It made it clear it would stop its members using their personal equipment to do their jobs properly. What kind of country are we living in that we ask gardaí to use their own telephones, cars, time and personal resources to protect us from those who are threatening our security and safety? While I hope industrial harmony and peace are restored, I hope these practices are not.
That is okay. I will leave you off this time if you give me an extra minute.
I agree with Senator Bacik in her comments on the Green Party in government. Will the Leader clarify if the House had a debate on the renewed programme for Government since it was agreed several months ago, considering the horse-trading we have seen in the past few weeks between Fianna Fáil and the Green Party over positions as Ministers and Ministers of State?
This applies also to the avowed position of a former Green Party councillor on the national airwaves some months ago, at the time of the renewed programme for Government, who said his party would support NAMA and the renewed programme for Government if there was a deal on legislation for animal welfare. I would like a discussion as soon as possible. I am disturbed that we have had a number of debates and the Dog Breeding Establishments Bill has not yet completed its passage. At a time when the Government is talking about setting up an inspection system, much needed in some areas for dog breeding establishments, which would cost millions of euro, the Government is also taking €1 million from the air sea rescue service for the south-eastern region, which will save human lives. There can be no moral equivalence between animal lives and human lives yet the Government seems to be prepared to allow that.
I join with Senators who raised the matter of the Passport Office and the scandalous queues and the misery caused to families across the country because of delays in there. It is the same in local authorities and Departments. There is a failure of members of public sector unions to deal with urgent queries from members of the public and public representatives. What does the Leader understand to be the meaning of the term work to rule? I thought work to rule was where someone does the job but does not do the extra tasks they sometimes carry out as part of their responsibilities. In the Passport Office, there is not a work to rule because people are being paid but they are not doing their job. They are doing it for a few hours a day but not for the hours they are being paid. That is totally and utterly unacceptable. I have the greatest sympathy for lower paid public servants and at the time of the budget I said the first €30,000 of pay for lower paid public servants should not be touched but they are going about industrial action in the wrong way.
It should not go unnoticed that the Green Party, which was so shrilly loud in its calls for a debate on Seanad reform, is now going out to see the plum jobs it has got in the reshuffle. Its interest is clearly in the plum jobs rather than reform of this House. Many of the Leader's Members have similarly departed.
I support the motion proposed by Senator Fitzgerald. There is a consensus in the House calling for people in the Passport Office to call off the dispute. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the root of the public anger and the public service anger is that those earning less than €30,000 were targeted. That was wrong, unjust and immoral. However, the point I want specifically debated is that the real own goal is that higher civil servants were given an exemption from the full rigours of the income levies on the grounds they were losing bonuses. Bonuses were only paid for doing their jobs in the first place. That was the own goal that removed the confidence of lower Civil Service staff in the system and caused alienation and bitterness. I ask for the Minister for Finance to attend the Chamber, debate the matter with us again and retract his position on higher civil servants. Therein lies the kernel of the difficulty. Senator Ó Murchú often talks of the need for a national effort. There would be no difficulty with that if it was predicated on fairness. The absence of fairness is at issue.
Senator Donohoe raised the point that there has been an inordinate waiting list for medical card processing even before this go-slow. The delay in processing carer's allowance was in excess of two months. Farm assist cases go back to September, and there is a problem with jobseeker's allowance. I ask the Leader to have a separate debate on that issue because the least anybody in the poverty trap deserves is a speedy response. There is potential to solve that problem, and it needs debate. That was the case, even without the current action.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Bacik, Keaveney, Ormonde, Norris, Leyden, Twomey, Ó Murchú, Coffey, Ó Brolcháin, Hanafin, Buttimer, Callely and O'Reilly expressed their disappointment in regard to the issue of passports not being processed. Public sector reform is urgently needed. In response to Senator John Paul Phelan, my understanding of a work to rule is doing the job one is appointed to do. I agree with him in respect of his interpretation.
In recent weeks Members on all sides of the House have called for the Government to go back to talks, and talks have started. Talks will bring this issue to a successful conclusion which we hope will be to everyone's satisfaction, or nearly everyone. I join the leaders in the House in calling on the personnel, regardless of how infuriated or upset they feel, to leave the matter to the negotiations for a period of time in the national interest. That will give everyone an opportunity to conduct their business affairs and give our country a chance in these very difficult economic times. I refer to those who have jobs because we heard on the Ryan Tubridy radio show this morning, as we have heard on the various television shows and every other show, about the numbers of people who are unemployed. They are the people who are listening and who must wait until the economy becomes favourable again for them to get gainful employment.
Senator Ó Murchú has been a trade union member for a long time, and Senator O'Toole has been a guiding light to the trade union movement and has participated in social partnership, which I have always advocated, as I have always congratulated those who were the founding fathers of social partnership. A consensus must be agreed but as Senator Hanafin said earlier in regard to benchmarking, it was important at the time. We are now facing a different set of challenges because of the wage scales in the United Kingdom, European countries and the United States of America. These are our competitors and we are no longer a low cost economy. Young boys and girls must come into an era where competitiveness is the order of the day and everyone is given a chance.
I have no difficulty in the House discussing this issue at a future date but as we are all aware, a Cabinet reshuffle is being announced by the Taoiseach in Dáil Éireann as we speak. As we are aware also, two appointments have to be made to Cabinet and it is not easy to arrange debates until those appointments are made. I compliment the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, who is doing everything he can in a very difficult set of circumstances. We all give him our support and when the time is opportune, whether that is tomorrow, the next day or whenever, to have this debated in the House, especially in regard to the transport issue, I will come back to the leaders to tell them the earliest possible time this debate can take place. I am in full support of Members debating this issue in the House.
I have given an undertaking to the House also that on the return of the Minister for Health and Children, I will raise the issue of the centralising to Dublin of the processing of medical cards for those over 70, which is very unsatisfactory. I want to see that decision reversed and the process returned to the former health board areas, which was fair and satisfactory. As public representatives we could always make our case and get an understanding but now we are holding on the telephone line for 15 or 20 minutes, and then we lose the connection. This is not a service; it is anything but. I have given my word that the House will debate this matter following consultation with the Minister's office. Members will be aware that the Minister only returned from New Zealand yesterday.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on jobs. The Finance Bill 2010 will be before the House tomorrow, Thursday and possibly Friday, and that issue can be raised with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Lenihan, when he is present in the House tomorrow morning to take Second Stage of that Bill.
Senator Keaveney called for a debate on republicanism. I have no difficulty in allowing time for such a debate. It is an opportune time for such a debate given that Easter is approaching.
Senator Ormonde called for a debate on education, in particular reform of the leaving certificate examination. I have no difficulty allowing time for such a debate.
I agree with Senator Norris's comments in regard to the reduction of 6.5% in the allocation of the Jack and Jill Foundation which probably gets the best value for money. I fully support his call for a debate in this regard. Members will be aware that there is available to them a mechanism through which matters of real urgency can be brought to the attention of the Cathaoirleach and that this should be done by 12.50 p.m. on a full sitting day. This issue could perhaps be brought to the attention of the House by way of this mechanism to see how we can progress the serious concerns of the Jack and Jill Foundation.
Senators Leyden, Ó Brolcháin, Regan, Hanafin, Buttimer and Donohoe called for a further debate on the value of Seanad Éireann. I believe all fair minded people will agree with what has been said in regard to the value of the Seanad. The former Minister of State, Senator Leyden, stated he always looks forward to debating legislation and the commonsensical amendments thereto from Members of this House. I believe many colleagues do not wish that a majority of Dáil Members would have, as mentioned in the media, the powers to remove the President, a judge or to veto in Brussels issues such as taxation. Nobody wants this to happen. I believe also that many hard-working, dedicated Members on the Fine Gael benches in this House do not wish to see this happening.
Senator Regan made a statement in the House, which I do not believe to be correct. As I understand it, it was suggested that the report not be debated in committee and that it was subsequently debated in the Dáil. The up-to-date position in so far as I am aware is that it was proposed that report would be debated in committee but that the Fine Gael Party wanted it debated in the Dáil, which debate took place. I have no difficulty allowing time for such a debate if that is not the case. As I understand it, the report was discussed by the Dáil.
Senators Coffey and John Paul Phelan called for a debate on south-east matters, which subject has been selected for discussion on the Adjournment today. We will await a decision in regard to such debate until we have heard the response from the Minister.
Senator Hanafin called for a debate on benchmarking. I have no difficulty allowing time for such a debate. Senator Callely called for a debate on the public service reform and banking officials. All these issues can be discussed tomorrow when the Minister for Finance comes to the House to take the Second Stage debate of the Finance Bill 2010 in regard to which I have allocated 20 minutes to spokespersons and 15 minutes to all other Senators.
Senator Hannigan called for a debate on the €10 tourism tax which he believes to be a serious deterrent to people flying in and out of this country. The House previously held a lengthy and good debate on tourism. We will await the appointment of the new Minister to this portfolio, following which I will arrange for a further debate on tourism. I have no difficulty providing time for a debate on tourism which is one of the three planks upon which we will have to rely if we are to get our economy up and running again. Tens of thousands of people are employed in the tourism sector, in which I must declare my interest. I agree with many of the proposals put forward during the debate on tourism in this House. We will wait to see what the newly appointed Minister to this portfolio will do in terms of dealing with this issue.
Senator John Paul Phelan called for a debate on the programme for Government. I have no difficulty in allowing time for such a debate following the Easter recess.
Senator Fitzgerald has proposed the following amendment to the Order of Business: "That statements on the actions which the Minister for Foreign Affairs intends to take to address the ongoing industrial action at the Passport Office be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 22 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Ciarán Cannon, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey)
Against the motion: 27 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Ivor Callely, James Carroll, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Mark Dearey, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Paschal Mooney, Niall Ó Brolcháin, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Eugene Regan; Níl, Senators Niall Ó Brollcháin and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.