Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Post-Release (Restrictions on Certain Activities) Order Scheme 2010, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the tributes to the late Senator Peter Callanan; No. 2, Údarás na Gaeltachta (Amendment) Bill 2010 - All Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1, on which spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House; and No. 3, statements on innovation and job creation, to be taken at 6.15 p.m. and to conclude within two hours, on which spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House. The Minister shall be called upon ten minutes from the conclusion of the debate for closing comments and take questions from leaders or spokespersons.
No doubt we will discuss the impact of some of the changes in the British budget on the Irish economy at a later stage, including the changes in VAT rates. I note in passing the comment by the Chancellor that he was trying to introduce a budget that was tough but also fair. He also noted the coalition government had inherited the largest budget deficit of any European economy except Ireland. It is interesting to note there is a £2 billion levy being put on the banks in the UK.
To return to more domestic matters, we have heard much about the intentions of the Minister, Deputy Gormley, with regard to a directly elected mayor of Dublin. The Minister stated that it is his intention to have this mayor elected by the end of the year and a number of questions arise with regard to this.
Will the Leader or the Deputy Leader inform the House of the position on this legislation? As Members of the House know, the four Dublin local authorities are in the process of electing their mayors this week and next. It is important that the people of Dublin know in what context these elections will take place. It would be very helpful if light could be shone on this. When will the legislation come before the House? Will it be prior to the recess? Will all Stages of the legislation be passed prior to the summer? When will the election take place? Is there agreement between the Government parties on the timing of the election? The local government (Dublin mayor and regional authority) Bill was not on the list of Bills circulated. Was this a mistake or is it an indication that the Bill will not be introduced until next year? This needs to be cleared up because there is quite a degree of confusion and uncertainty about it. The people of Dublin deserve to know and we need proper time to debate the legislation if the election is to go ahead this year.
It is also important that the Minister for Social Protection come to the House to discuss issues with regard to social welfare payments. I am conscious that the detailed social welfare legislation will be before the House next week. We hear comments on the social welfare fund and money not being available. It is important that we have an opportunity to discuss the broad issues that arise with regard to social welfare. The Minister commented on pensions being cut and we ought to have a debate in the House prior to discussing the details of the Bill.
I echo Senator Fitzgerald's points on the local government (Dublin mayor and regional authority) Bill. I have significant interest in that legislation because it is also the intention to deal with the name of a small town in west Kerry in which I have a deep and abiding interest. Last month, I asked my esteemed colleague Senator Boyle about it and he assured me it was in play. I take his word on that and I look forward to seeing it.
Senator Fitzgerald touched on the matter of today's UK budget, which has two points of significance. The VAT rate has been raised from 17.5% to 20%, which should be good for businesses on the Southern side of the Border. The other issue is that a levy was placed on the banks and I want to raise an issue related to this which I ask my colleagues to take very seriously. Last week, the Minister for Finance said, conceded, admitted or told the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service that the costs of the new central bank regulatory system would be borne significantly by the taxpayer. This flies in the face of what is happening in regulation throughout the world. Recently, people on both sides of the House spoke up about the cost to local radio stations of paying for their own regulation. We saw it was necessary, we conceded certain points on it but we had strong words to say on it. In the regulation of accountancy, and I am a member of the board of the Irish Audit and Accounting Supervisory Authority, IAASA, the accountancy bodies pay more than half of the costs. The entire cost of the Personal Assessment Injuries Board is borne by the insurance industry or the applicant. The Government now proposes that the taxpayer should once again be asked to go to the well to pay for the cost of regulating banks. It is grossly and utterly unacceptable that we should be asked to do this and I ask my colleagues on the other side of the House to raise the matter within their parties. It is not included in the Central Bank Reform Bill which I have gone through with a fine tooth comb. I am not sure how it is covered, but at this stage the banks should pay their own regulatory costs. Last year the cost of regulation to the taxpayer was €39 million. An additional 50 or so people will be appointed and one can add another €50 million this year. In the scheme of things, when we are talking about billions of euro, one might say €50 million is only a drop in the ocean, but these are the drops in the ocean that concern people in terms of the way we are doing our business. I ask the Minister for Finance to come before the House or to send somebody else to explain to us why this is happening this way, why it cannot be changed, what is the rational behind it and why the taxpayer has to pay to regulate the individuals who got us into this mess in the first place.
I am grateful that the Leader has confirmed that the House will sit for an extra week. I presume that the Bill will go before the Dáil first, if it is to appear before the summer. That leaves a period of only two weeks during which it can appear before the Dáil because I do not believe it is on the Dáil Order Paper to be taken this week. Is there any possibility that it will appear before the summer recess? Without extending the argument and in order that there will be clarity, will the Leader or Deputy Leader do us all a favour and confirm that it will not happen before the summer recess, that it is not proposed to take the Bill until the autumn? There is no reason this cannot be confirmed. Why can it not be confirmed without further ado that it will not happen until the autumn?
On the banks, the finance spokespersons are meeting the Minister for Finance this week to discuss the form the banking inquiry will take. I ask the Leader to give us an undertaking that he will report to the House once there is clarity on the precise form the proposed inquiry will take in order that we can debate the issue. It is all very well for the other House to have the matter before it and have the various spokespersons dealing with it, as is proper, but we should provide for the maximum involvement of the Members of this House who have shown a careful interest in the issue which we have debated many times. Given the expertise available in this House, we should be involved at the highest and deepest possible levels. I ask the Leader to confirm that that will occur in order that we will have a timetable in debating the matter.
On the legislation dealing with the election of the Dublin mayor, the Bill will be published within a matter of weeks and it is hoped parliamentary time will be made available in both Houses to allow it to be properly processed. I am confident it will be published and that parliamentary time will be provided. I do not know whether there will be sufficient time to allow it to be fully processed before the House goes into recess, that will depend on when the debate occurs in both Houses.
On the Central Bank Reform Bill which is to be brought before the House, I understand it allows for a mechanism of levies, but Senator O'Toole is correct that it does not specify what the levies will be and how they will be applied, a legitimate matter for debate in the House.
In regard to the banking inquiry, it is my understanding that the terms of reference of the commission of inquiry will be discussed by the members of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service which includes Members of this House with the Minister for Finance today. The terms under which the committee should investigate other aspects of the two banking reports will be brought before both Houses when Members will have an opportunity to discuss the issues raised.
I call for a debate on mental health services, outside the need for additional resources or implementation of A Vision for Change which centres on the culture of mental health and psychiatric care services. During the weekend I visited a psychiatric facility in which I saw two young people, a 29 year old man and a 26 year old woman. The man had been in the facility for four years. He has a four year old child whom he has only seen on one occasion since he entered this facility. The 26 year old woman has been in it for five years. One of the reasons for her continued detention is some person medically defined her as being in danger of becoming promiscuous if she ever lived in the outside world. When our cultural values inform our system of psychiatric care in such a way, we need to consider the issues of resources and institutions in a wider context than the bread and butter arguments we tend to have in this House. We must ask whether we are making the correct decisions about people who are being kept on the outskirts of our society.
The second HIQA report on Loughloe House was published at noon today. Of the 37 actions required on foot of the initial inspection, 30 have been taken. I ask the Leader and my colleagues across the floor whether they want to close our public facilities for the elderly. That is what the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, intends to do in regard to Ofalia House in Tullamore, Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon, St. Brigid's ward in Waterford hospital and the facility in Carlow. The HIQA report on Loughloe House found that the standard of hygiene had improved significantly, the centre was more comfortable and patients were really happy and receiving care in an unrushed manner.
When we debated the fair deal scheme in the House, were we aware that all public facilities for the elderly were going to be closed? Yesterday a newspaper reported on the scandalous closure or downgrading of a Dublin care centre for Alzheimer's patients. I do not accept that, as a caring community, we want to close public facilities for the elderly. Of course, people should be allowed to choose between public and private care services and, under the fair deal scheme, to opt for their preferred centre, but I fervently believe public facilities will always be needed for the elderly. I will not give up on this issue because public facilities for the elderly offer a better standard of care than some private facilities. In the light of publication of the aforementioned report, I ask that the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for the elderly be invited to the House to discuss the issue.
I recently received a poignant letter from a gentleman who was anxious to see greater activity on the issue of missing persons. He writes about his sister, Ellen, who went missing nearly ten years ago and describes how his life ended and the torture he endures as a result of this event. He wants to raise the level of our awareness of families who are living in hell because loved ones have gone missing. I raised this issue almost ten years ago and have raised it on several occasions since. I am certain there have been improvements, but if one walks through any town or city, one will see flyers that families have posted on lamp posts in the hope of jogging somebody's memory of a young boy or girl who has gone missing. My correspondent has asked that the issue of establishing an international designated telephone service, currently operating in only 11 countries, be taken up by Senators and Deputies in order to make the service available in Ireland. Other Senators who received the same letter will share my view that the correspondent was not seeking something for himself - he has lost hope of seeing his sister again - but was making a case on behalf of other people in a similar position, of whom there are hundreds, if not thousands. I ask the Leader to raise this matter with the appropriate Minister to enable Senators to respond to the gentleman in question and offer him some consolation that, having gone to the trouble of corresponding with us, he has not been ignored and the House pursued the matter to the best of its ability.
I am about to repeat myself by raising an issue I have frequently discussed in the past. Today, we will have approximately one minute less daylight than yesterday, the longest day of the year. A campaign was launched in the British House of Commons yesterday to urge the British Government to adopt UK summertime throughout the year. I note the group in question does not suggest joining central European time. The arguments in favour of such a move are sufficiently strong to have won the acceptance of the Tories and the Labour Party. I believe Britain will switch to central European time and I hope Ireland will not find itself unprepared for such an eventuality.
Ireland and Britain joined central European time in 1968 and until 1971 both countries enjoyed an extra hour of daylight throughout the year. Adopting central European time would deliver fuel savings, a reduction in carbon emissions, business and tourism benefits and fewer road traffic accidents. There is no question, therefore, that we should proceed with my proposal. We did not do so in the past because the British were unlikely to join central European time at the same time. As I have argued previously, we should be willing to leave the nursery, even if nanny does not come with us, although I accept we would have to coax Northern Ireland to join us in switching time zones. We could achieve this outcome.
I urge the Leader to draw to the Minister's attention the possibility of Britain joining central European time in the near future. Let us ensure that Ireland is ready for any such announcement and enjoys the benefit of an extra hour of daylight throughout the year.
I fully support Senator Quinn's position, having been in the House long enough to know that joining central European time was one of the first initiatives he proposed in the Seanad. I hope the Leader will have something positive to say on the issue.
I ask the Leader to request the Minister of Foreign Affairs to come before the House in the early part of the autumn-winter term to discuss the Irish diaspora. I raise this issue for two reasons. First, as one of the legislative Chambers of the Republic of Ireland, the Seanad should devote at least one hour of our time each year to discussing the diaspora. To do so would give an indication of the Government's initiative in this area and show the wisdom of Senators on all sides and their personal experience in reaching out to the diaspora in its various forms.
Second, the Minister for Foreign Affairs announced that as a result of an initiative debated last autumn at the Farmleigh forum, plans are afoot to initiate a process that will result in a certificate of nationality being extended to as many as 70 million people worldwide who claim to be of Irish descent. It would be available to those who, for one reason or another, do not automatically qualify for Irish citizenship. This wonderful initiative is one of a number of such measures to have emerged from the forum.
The Farmleigh meeting, a wonderful initiative taken by David McWilliams and on which the Government quickly acted, was wrongly derided by some elements of the press. We are beginning to see some of the fruits of this gathering of the great and good from around the world who gave of their own time to attend. The forum brought together individuals from the corporate, social and political worlds to act in the best interests of the country. We need all the friends we can get in the current economic climate.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs to discuss the Irish diaspora and Government initiatives and give both sides an opportunity to make a contribution.
I refer to the debate on the Health Service Executive held in the House last week.
I have never witnessed such blatant tactics by the Government side, engaging in time wasting, going over time, talking about smoothies and nothing to do with the HSE bearing in mind the kind of crises and scandals we have witnessed in recent times and not so recent times where the Government needs legislation to access files, where we have had misdiagnoses of miscarriages and secret committees advising the HSE in the background about reconfiguration, where we have had misdiagnoses of breast cancer and letters not being opened in hospitals. In that debate I called on the Minister to take responsibility for the HSE. She appears to be on the run. She was not available for the quarterly meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children; that debate has been deferred. She did not answer any questions last week and the Government side went over time and deliberately wasted time so that the Minister did not have to be accountable. It is a matter of urgency for the Minister to come back in here-----
I call for a debate on cycling. In view of the fine weather it is important to look at what is going on around us. I come from the university city of Galway. Unfortunately, although many people are cycling at the moment, the facilities in the city do not match the desire of people to cycle, which I believe is the case across the country. Most of the European cities that people visit on holidays have fantastic cycling facilities, whereas the culture of cycling here is really not up to scratch. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister to come to the House for a debate on the matter.
Senator Quinn spoke about the question of Central European Time. I ask him to remember the west of Ireland where we would have darkness just after lunchtime if we were to have Central European Time during the middle of the winter.
Today's edition of The Irish Times carries a very serious report about the return of third level fees in the Colin Hunt report. Senators will remember that the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, appointed Dr. Colin Hunt to carry out a long-term strategy report on third level education. Last week I again asked the Leader for a debate on the future of third level education. What is our vision for third level education? What do we want as a nation? How do we want third level education funded? Is it fair that the students - or rather their families - must now foot the bill of €2 billion, which is the cost of third level education here? Would it not be far fairer to introduce the Fine Gael plan of a graduate contribution once the graduates take up employment? I would like to hear the Green Party response. That party has renegotiated the programme for Government-----
Thank you, a Cathaoirleach. The Irish Times reported that Dr. Colin Hunt sees no alternative to the return of fees. It is time that we, as public representatives, represented the public view on third level education in this House. We need an urgent debate on the matter. There is a chance that our views might form part of his proposal if we have the debate.
I join Senator O'Toole in seeking a debate on bank regulation and banking generally. As I have said before, we need to constantly dip into and out of this issue given events outside the House. I welcome the recent report by the regulator about the intention to introduce more stringent controls. It will certainly make life potentially difficult for people. It is an awful shame that those kinds of controls were not in place earlier, but it is appropriate to introduce them at this stage. I wholeheartedly agree with Senator O'Toole that the sector should finance the cost of regulating that industry. It is the norm throughout the world throughout other sectors and we should do it here. I ask the Leader to raise the issue with the Minister for Finance and I will do so myself.
Is it possible for the House to have an update on the progress of the expert group chaired by Mr. Hugh Cooney on the issue of mortgage arrears and personal debt? As Members are aware, the group I co-founded, the prevention of family home repossessions group, is most anxious to see some tangible actions which will give protection to primary family residences. This is not to pay mortgages or a NAMA for the people but rather legislation to provide people with the dignity to pay their own bills and innovative ways and time in which to do so. The expert group has had adequate time to consider all these issues and it is now the time for action. I would appreciate an update on that.
I ask the Leader to transmit to the Government congratulations on the very welcome fact that Ireland has been given a major European award in recognition that road deaths have been reduced by 41% since 2001, which is remarkable. It is a very good news story and we should pay tribute to the signal, determined and consistent efforts of Mr. Gay Byrne, who took on the job of being in control of this and was derided in this House and in some of the newspapers. We should welcome this award and the lives that have been saved.
We should also congratulate a remarkable human being who has just won a significant victory in the Irish courts. I am talking about Dr. Lydia Foy, who 13 years ago took action to establish the rights of transgendered people to have their newly assigned gender reflected on passports. She was eventually successful in the High Court some years ago in getting a declaration under the 2003 Act passed by these Houses incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights, as the existing Civil Registration Act was incompatible with the convention.
It was a very significant ruling as it was the first made under this legislation. It took enormous courage for somebody coming from a spectrum many people would think rather bizarre to take the action. She was courageous, dignified and tenacious in her action. In light of this, when will the Government address the issue by introducing new legislation?
We are in a position where transgendered people can have existing marriages annulled but this does nothing for the rights of the remaining spouses and the children, who are merely facts on the ground. We should urge the Government to follow the United Kingdom example, which recognises the rights of transgendered people and also recognises the rights of spouses from previous relationships. It is humane.
I join Senator Norris in congratulating all involved in the successful efforts to reduce carnage on our roads. I applaud in particular Mr. Gay Byrne of the Road Safety Authority and the industry which has produced vivid television adverts which have had an impact. I congratulate those involved on the success of all the campaigns carried out.
We will have a debate on job creation today and I support Senator Prendergast in her calls for a debate on health. Today we will receive the HSE annual report. Does the Leader intend to give time to the House to debate this report and the financial statistics? Is it possible for the Leader to present, either on a monthly or quarterly basis, reports made for the various Departments? The job creation debate today will be important but I understand a Government report is forthcoming on the financial difficulties that some of the small and medium enterprises are experiencing. An expert group has identified a number of measures that would greatly assist SMEs in the current, difficult economic climate, particularly in the context of obtaining payment in respect of goods sold. There are some that are not meeting the 15-day deadline that has been established in this regard.
It would be of assistance if Members were made aware of the contents of these reports, particularly if they are relevant to debates such as that relating to job creation which is due to take place later today. I ask the Leader to put in place a mechanism to allow Members to keep abreast of the reports that have been commissioned and their current status.
I share Senator O'Toole's concerns with regard to banking, which has experienced the worst type of nightmare. As Mr. Andrew Healy, president of the Institute of Bankers in Ireland, has stated, the sector is on its knees and has never been weaker. He also stated, "Trust has been broken with customers, shareholders, regulators and with the State". He further stated that without State aid, meltdown would have been inevitable and that rebuilding people's trust will be a slow and painstaking process that will take many years to complete. Everyone accepts that a fundamental change in culture must happen if we are to have any hope of restoring our economy to the position in which we would like it to be. Re-establishing integrity and professionalism is essential in the context of restoring reputation.
How can we restore the banking sector if those who steered the ship on to the rocks are, in a number of instances, still on the bridge? The Government has made some valiant efforts in the context of the State aid it has provided and has appointed several superb public interest directors. Sadly, however, a number of people, at both board and senior management level, remain in place and that is not right.
Individual Members, Governments and parties come and go from the Houses. States and unions also come and go. Last week several Members objected to the churches speaking out on matters in respect of which they have competency and in which they have an interest. Not only do the churches have a right to speak out on such matters, they also have a duty to do so. The issue on which the churches commented last week was the Civil Partnership Bill.
It is widely recognised that the economy is improving and that there is likely to be stronger growth this year than was originally expected and that there will be growth of 3% in 2011 and possibly 4% in 2012. In light of the fact that we are close to achieving the major goal we set out to achieve two years ago, it is time to give recognition to the public service and ask that those within it - who have achieved such marvellous results and who, like others, have shouldered such a heavy burden - hold their nerve. These individuals should not be forgotten when the good times return.
I join other Members in requesting a debate on banking. The people are weary of those within the banking fraternity, particularly those at the highest levels who make the decisions. What the people want is accountability. They want the banks to pay the cost relating to what has happened and to assist ordinary citizens and business interests to get their affairs back in order. We have to stop bailing out the banks. As Senator O'Toole stated, last year the cost to the taxpayer in respect of regulation was €39 billion. This year the cost will be €50 million. Where will it end? Ordinary people have paid enough.
Will the Leader facilitate a debate on the State Examinations Commission? Yesterday we witnessed the embarrassing debacle of an examination paper being incomplete. Who was responsible for this error? It is unacceptable that the State examination paper for leaving certificate accounting, or any other subject for that matter, should contain a blemish.
It is unacceptable. There is no accountability in this country any more. I request a debate on the role and functions of the State Examinations Commission and in regard to who is responsible for these errors. The last thing we need is a lack of confidence in the integrity of the examination system. Yesterday was yet another poor day for our examinations system. I do not know who is responsible for what happened. I ask that the Leader provide time for a debate on this issue.
I support Senator Boyle's call for a debate on mental health, concentrating in particular on the area of detention. Senator Boyle's story of a 26 year old girl who has been in a mental institution for the past five years because a person believes if she is not so confined she will be promiscuous beggars belief.
I recall the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, saying last week during the debate on the Health Service Executive that mental health is no longer the Cinderella of the health service. Unlike Senator Prendergast, I thought that debate was excellent. The Minister spoke for 20 minutes and was commended and congratulated by all sides of the House on her wonderful presentation. I do not recall if the Leader was in the House for the end of that debate but the following information may assist him when replying. The Minister had to leave the House ten minutes earlier than planned and, with the permission of the House, took detailed notes of the questions raised in regard to which she undertook to reply to Senators when next in the House. The manner in which the Minister was spoken of on today's Order of Business is unfair. It would perhaps have been better had the Senator concerned raised his issue during the final stages of the debate. Perhaps the Leader will clarify that debate will continue on another day.
I wish to raise two issues with the Leader. When is it proposed to hold a debate on care of the elderly, which debate has been sought for some time? The Leader has indicated he is amenable to having such a debate. Would it be possible to have it before the Houses rises for the summer? Senator McFadden, other Senators and I have raised in this House the issue of the Health Information and Quality Authority standards for nursing homes, which standards are being imposed on supported care homes, which are not and were never intended or designed to be nursing homes. This is a serious issue on which I believe we should have a discussion. There are a number of these homes throughout the country, several of which are located in my constituency. These homes are drawing up budgets with a view to keeping their doors open and need as soon as possible a decision in regard to the imposition of nursing home standards on supported care homes, which are not full time nursing care homes and as such these standards should never have been applied.
I ask also that the Leader provide time for a further discussion on health before the Houses rises for the summer, in particular the provision of public health services across the regions. The Government has decided not to publish the recently completed report in relation to the realignment of services in the south east. Despite this, it announced two weeks ago, through the HSE, that Lourdes Orthopaedic Hospital in County Kilkenny is to have its budget halved and the number of joint replacement operations, the hospital's main function, are to be halved between now and the end of the year. Also, the number of beds at the hospital are to be cut from 51 to 31 between now and the end of the year. It is believed - this too is my belief - that this is the thin end of the wedge for Kilcreene hospital, which is a shocking statement in respect of a facility that provides much needed public health services for the south-eastern region and is a shining light in terms of how our medical services should be run into the future. Lourdes Orthopaedic Hospital has been a huge success in terms of the work it undertakes. I would like to see that hospital continue in operation into the future.
I rise to ask about progress on the Civil Partnership Bill 2010 which it is expected will come before this House prior to the summer recess. The delay in bringing the Bill before the Oireachtas is not welcome. It must be introduced as soon as possible. Things are happening outside the Houses which are not helpful to the passing of legislation. Last week, the bishops called for a free vote on the Bill. I respect their views and they are entitled to have them. However, this cuts both ways. The bishops want to speak on this issue but remain silent on issues of abuse, where they have to be hauled over the coals to persuade them to express their opinion and reflect on their position on what is happening. They do not seem to have a problem speaking out on issues such as gay partnership, which they clearly do not agree with, but it is another thing when it comes to children's rights and respecting children, when they are silent and their views have to be dragged from them. I criticise what the bishops said last week. On the other hand, I respect them for saying it. They need to be less hypocritical and more forthcoming in general terms if they feel their opinions are required on all temporal matters. We must either have separation of Church and State or not. If not, they should be made to speak on all matters.
Senator Buttimer's point about the State Examinations Commission is valid. We should have a debate on this issue. We also need to examine the issue of Irish not being compulsory at leaving certificate standard. Lately, I have witnessed many young chaps who are struggling with Irish and are under huge pressure coming up to examinations
It is irrelevant which party proposes this policy. Young people are suffering because Irish is compulsory. I know there are many gaeilgeoirí in the Houses but we are doing Irish no favours. I did well in Irish in school but I believe more people would do well if it was not compulsory. We also need to look at how we teach civics in schools. Conversational Irish might be brought into a civics type programme so that people can respect and understand where we come from.
I welcome today's debate on innovation and job creation. There is good news today of the opening of the Waterford Crystal visitor centre in the new Waterford Crystal House. I have a personal interest in the matter as my grandfather re-opened the Waterford glass factory in the 1940s and I was sorry I could not go to the opening today. The staff there kindly invited me and I wish them all the best for the venture. Many of us will hope to visit it. I certainly intend to do so in August when I will be in Waterford. It is a really welcome innovation for job creation, tourism and selling Ireland abroad. It is a positive development and I wish them well.
I renew my call for a debate on prison overcrowding and sentencing reform. The figures published yesterday in The Irish Times , showing our jail population has hit a record level, must be a real cause of concern for many of us. For the first time, we now have more than 5,000 prisoners in the State, with nearly 1,000 on temporary release because of overcrowding. This raises the question of how many of them should have been sent to prison in the first place. It is pointless to send people to prison for minor offences if they are to be granted temporary release within a day and sometimes before they have served even 24 hours. We need to review this practice. I am glad to see the Fines Bill going through the Houses. It is a welcome step. However, we need to look at other forms of sentencing reform to ensure we are not sending people to jail unnecessarily and causing horrendous overcrowding.
I echo Senator Norris's words in welcoming the announcement that the State will withdraw its appeal in the Lydia Foy case and I commend Lydia Foy on her bravery in taking the case. I hope we will see legislation before too long recognising, in law and properly, the rights of transsexuals.
In all of last week's manoeuvrings and shenanigans, the passing of the Croke Park agreement went unnoticed and undiscussed. I encourage the Leader to have a debate on this and on the role and importance of the public sector and the function it performs, before the Seanad rises for the summer.
I welcome the opening of the new emergency department in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. The media and newspaper campaign in recent months often prided itself on having public and private sector workers on opposite sides in television and radio studios and on the centre pages which led to a societal divide. I hope the passing of the Croke Park deal will allow us to move on to a new level of public sector reform and agreement leading to improvements and enhancements. It is especially important to have the new Minister of State with responsibility for public sector reform, Deputy Dara Calleary, one of the youngest Members of the Dáil, appear in the House before it rises for the summer. I welcome the passing of the Croke Park deal and pay tribute to the public sector workers who passed it and hope those who did not support it will see the light in the coming months and years following the transformation which will occur.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Boyle, MacSharry, Coghlan and Buttimer all outlined their concerns about the Bill dealing with the election of the Dublin mayor. I understand it is at an advanced stage and if it is ordered to be taken in the Dáil, we will process it as soon as possible after it has been passed.
The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will be before the House before the summer recess. It is one of the most important Bills of the year and will be included in the Order Paper to be taken in the next two or three weeks.
The British Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced in the budget in the United Kingdom increases in VAT, made provisions on bank levies and stipulated that banks will pay the cost of regulation. Strong views have been expressed here about the €40 million it cost last year, with a possible €50 million cost this year. Most fair-minded people would say this sector, like all others, should have to pay the cost of its regulation. It is good practice and I support the call made by many colleagues today.
Senators Boyle and Feeney asked for a debate on mental health services. I also compliment the Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney, on the great work he is doing. He secured a budget allocation in difficult times and I support him in all possible ways. I will have no difficulty in asking him to update the House on the progress he is making. Great strides are being made. I welcome the new 105 bed unit at St. Mary's Hospital in Mullingar where the Minister of State laid the foundation stone. I fully agree with the Deputy Leader and Senator Feeney and we will do whatever can to support the Minister of State in the great work the Government is doing. I will arrange a further debate on the issue at the earliest possible time.
Senator Ó Murchú called for a debate on missing persons. I fully agree with him in his call. The least any Government could do is ensure the availability of a designated telephone line to help the heartbroken parents of missing children. I will certainly raise the matter with the Minister later today and update the House in coming days on the Department's position on the Senator's genuine request.
Senators Quinn, Mooney and Ó Brolcháin asked about the retention of central European time. This is very worthwhile, especially coming from Senator Ó Brolcháin. We all know the sun sets in the west where there is always a longer daylight timeframe. The proposal is very much worth our consideration and if the UK goes down this road it is correct that we should follow suit.
Regarding the Irish diaspora Senator Mooney called for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the House, particularly in regard to the Farmleigh convention. All of us who were at Farmleigh must compliment every Irish man and woman who came from all over the world and hold every kind of senior position in their various countries to the motherland convention at Farmleigh. They gave of their time and expertise to make their views known at such an important event. The eye-opener for many colleagues who attended from the Oireachtas was the importance of the Irish diaspora and everything to do with our culture, proud tradition and heritage. I will ask the Minister to come and debate this subject in the House at the earliest opportunity.
Senators Prendergast, Feeney and Phelan called for a debate on the HSE and everything to do with it. All of us who were present in the House for the entire contribution of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, noted her outstanding contribution on her portfolio. For approximately 25 minutes she gave an up to date detailed report on every area of that portfolio without having to consult any of the minutes or scripts provided for her. We agreed, as did the Minister, that because of the interest expressed by a number of Senators-----
They will be able to be present the next day the Minister comes to the House and can listen to the genuine contributions of Seanad colleagues at that time. The Minister is very forthcoming and supportive and is successful at a very difficult time.
The Senator is a loyal dedicated colleague.
Senator MacSharry spoke about the Hugh Cooney report and the group charged with the responsibility of bringing before the Houses of the Oireachtas an up to date account on the MacSharry report and the various other proposals that were before the House for this group's consideration. I will make inquiries about this.
Senator Ó Brolcháin called for a debate on cycling. This is wonderful weather for anybody to get out and there is no excuse except to enjoy the proposal the Senator made to the House. I have no difficulty in our discussing this at a future date.
Senator Norris complimented the Road Safety Authority. As Senators O'Toole and Coghlan and many other colleagues who sat on the committee for enterprise, trade and small business know, when we worked on the insurance inquiry under my chairmanship, we started to take seriously what could be done in the matter of road deaths. We now have the Road Safety Authority whose chief executive and chairman can take credit for what was done but the real foundation stone on which road safety was built was that committee's insurance inquiry.
At that time there were 550 Garda personnel in the dedicated traffic corps. That committee got a commitment from the then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, to increase the number over a four year period to 1,200, as it stands today. It was that committee which proposed that random breath testing be introduced. All other committees shirked that responsibility over many years. In fairness to the former Minister, Martin Cullen, within two weeks he had that proposal through the Cabinet sub-committee and it became legislation. That is the cornerstone and foundation of road safety as it is today. I am very proud to be Leader of Seanad Éireann and be able to say I was a former chairman of that committee because 41 fewer lives have been lost in this country in recent years. The committee never got the credit for this and I surely did not get it when I went to the polls in County Westmeath at the last general election. Be that as it may, however, it was the right thing to do and right and courageous decisions were made by that committee at that time. I am proud to say I was the Chairman and the colleagues who served with me on that committee also deserve great credit.
Senator Norris spoke of the announcement about Dr. Lydia Foy and everything to do with the hard fight and courageous fight she took on over many years. I shall make inquiries about when this legislation may be taken.
Senator Callely called for reports to be made available to colleagues in the Oireachtas when we debate very serious issues. As I said in the House last week, I understand these reports are made available in the Library on the day they are published. There are 33 colleagues in the library who are there to assist us in every way we need when we are preparing submissions for both Houses. I acknowledge again on the Order of Business the great contribution they have made in recent years. I shall update my information and make inquiries after this Order of Business. My understanding is that all these services are available to Members of the Dáil and the Seanad to help them formulate information and get up to date reports for the debates that take place.
Senator Hanafin spoke about church leaders and the Civil Partnership Bill. Church leaders have a responsibility to look after the faithful and their flock. I fully agree with the Senator's sentiments. He spoke about growth and the forecast for the coming year, the public service and the immense contribution it is making by way of a big hit in salary, for which it is to be commended. As Senator Carroll noted, the Croke Park agreement was possibly the most significant announcement we have seen in the lifetime of this Seanad and the 30th Dáil. I will allow time at the earliest opportunity so that we can review the findings of the agreement and see how we can enhance them, with the Minister present.
Senator Phelan called for a debate on care for the elderly which I fully support. Many colleagues made a contribution when the Minister for Health and Children was present and the subject might be included when she returns to the House over the next two weeks.
Senator McDonald asked about the timing of the Civil Partnership Bill. I understand the Bill will be in the Dáil soon and on its conclusion in that House will be introduced to the Seanad. We will order it to be taken at the earliest opportunity, as we always do when a Bill is concluded in the Dáil.
I join Senator Bacik in congratulating the people at Waterford Crystal on this, their opening day. I wish them well in the future.