Thursday, 28 October 2010
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the macro-economic and fiscal outlook, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 3 p.m., if not previously concluded, 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, 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 No. 1a, statements on the child care inquiry report, to be taken at 3 p.m. and conclude not later than 4 p.m., on which Senators may speak for five minutes and may share time, by agreement of the House, with the Minister to be called upon five minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments.
I welcome the statements on the child care inquiry report. As one who deals with social workers on child care issues, I fully understand this area can be extremely emotional, especially when there are family problems between parents. It can be very stressful for both the social workers and the families involved and is fraught with ethical and legal problems. Rather than the House merely having a discussion about this report and the inquiry and what went wrong in regard to this family, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, should come to the House and give a detailed overview of social work services. Concerns have been expressed in other parts of the country that there are not enough social workers or back-up services to provide other psychological supports to young children at risk. We need the presence of the Minister to discuss the broader issues around this report and what is happening throughout the country.
I also welcome the debate the House will have on the economy and hope the Minister for Finance, Deputy Lenihan, will be able to attend and provide a more detailed report as to what will happen in the weeks before the budget is announced. There is a great deal of fear among the public about what may be coming down the tracks. They need to know the facts soon. There is no point in continuing the charade of having big announcements on budget day. We must prepare the people for the severity of the cuts that are coming and they need to know what these are now.
I welcome the debate we will have and the questioning of the Minister, Deputy Harney, but I respectfully disagree with my colleague in Fine Gael. It was quite clear from what Mr.Geoffrey Shannon said today that the situation came about, not because of an absence of social workers or of legislation, but through dereliction of duty complicated by serious and unwelcome interventions. I am not unique in this House in my absolute abhorrence and repulsion at the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children. We all share these values.
It would be helpful if we had copies of the report. I have not received one yet although the media have. I welcome that they have and do not begrudge them it because it is important they should be allowed to comment. That said, we should have it too in order that we can discuss these matters with a degree of detail which, as it stands, will be missing.
Mr. Geoffrey Shannon also stated there had been undue deference to family support and parental rights. It is clear the social services and the interests of the children were neglected because they were bullied by what were described as right wing, Catholic, pro-family groups. These people acted in betrayal of all the decent Catholic people in this country and of Catholic social principles. It is time they were held to account because, as a result of their intervention, these unfortunate children were exposed to further, continuous, systematic, sexual, emotional and physical abuse. I take my hat off to the eldest of those children, in particular, who used money given to him by his relatives, not to buy incidentals like sweets but to store up tins of long-term food in order that he could exercise a proper parental interest in his siblings by ensuring that when they were being starved, he could at least arrange for them to be fed.
I wish to know whether it is true such people intervened and who they were. I want an end to these people who describe themselves as standing for some notional idea of the family and used that in order to sustain systematic abuse of children. In 1991, the Child Care Act, which is being revised, passed by this House. I secured a very significant amendment that introduced for the first time the guardian ad litem clause which came about in Britain after a similar case in which Maria Colwell was returned to an abusing family and murdered. I do not believe that clause, which is in law, was invoked. I am very proud of that amendment and that I stood side by side by my colleague, Senator O'Toole, when we were more or less lone voices calling for the implementation of the Stay Safe programme in schools to prevent the sexual and physical abuse of children. We were vilified and reviled by similar organisations which claimed to be standing for the rights of parents. The children must be central to the issue regarding this case of abuse which, shamefully, continued. This is not an historical situation but one that continued into our own century. There must be an end to this.
Senator Norris is right in every point he made except one. I believe he will accept that he and Senator O'Toole, although they were correct in what they said, were not actually lone voices calling for the Stay Safe programme to be implemented in schools and regarding much other legislation and best practice proposals across the system.
Perhaps this is not an occasion for that level of debate about who was what or where and who said what, where. In regard to the overall legal context of what has been reported upon in the Roscommon case, there is a clear relevance to the children's referendum. I agree with Mr. Geoffrey Shannon that if the wording of the referendum had been implemented and entered into the Constitution this year, it would not have made any difference, unfortunately, to the situation that pertained in this case. It may be difficult to point to any specific case on which a change in the Constitution would impact in the direct way some people expect. That said, it would change the constitutional atmosphere in which people work.
One issue we debated for more than a year in that committee was the threshold of intervention. When and in what circumstances the State should be entitled to intervene in a family where there is risk to children is a controversial point. There is an argument abroad that this entitlement should be greatly curtailed and maintained at a very restricted level, as it is currently in our law. That is one outcome a change in the Constitution might achieve. It would have a practical effect for social workers and care managers across the system because, from what I observe, there is a level of uncertainty and sometimes even fear on the part of practitioners and their managers as to what they are entitled to do in any given situation. As is natural and human, they tend to hold back from an intervention if they think are legal constraints and they err on the side of caution and non-intervention when it may have been appropriate for them to intervene, acting in accordance with their better professional instincts. There is a legal and constitutional context to this that must be addressed at the level of the Constitution, and that should be done.
While many are involved in the debate, which is as it should be, there has been silence so far on one side of the debate, namely, those who argue we should restrain and restrict intervention. What do they now think in regard to the Roscommon case? Do they believe the threshold of intervention should be as high as it is or do they accept it should be changed? There is no point in saying these were exceptional circumstances. Every time there is a case such as this, people say it is exceptional. There are far too many so-called exceptional situations and cases. We need to change the law and the Constitution. I welcome the debate.
Will the Leader to convey to the Cabinet the urgent need not only for a debate on the Roscommon case but for a referendum? We should reflect that in 1999 the then Minister, Deputy Frank Fahey, who had the portfolio of responsibility for children, wrote to the then chairman of the Joint Committee on the Constitution, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to ask it to carry out a constitutional review to discover whether it was possible to improve the rights of children as contained in the Constitution. That all-party review was undertaken in 2003 and came to the unanimous conclusion after 18 months of public consultation and meetings with scores of groups that the right of the child within the Constitution was not protected adequately. I am disappointed that almost a decade later this referendum has not taken place. Another committee has looked at this issue and made a further report. It is essential that we move on and hold this referendum. I ask that it be held on its own, a stand-alone referendum, to highlight the importance of this issue and that it not be held with other referendums to muddy the waters. If at all possible, it should be held next year. The Roscommon case is appalling, but it is not unique. There was the Kilkenny incest case and several others in the past ten or 15 years. Progress, to date, has not been satisfactory. I express my support for Senator Norris in his condemnation of the right-wing group which, for whatever reason, supported the parents in this instance. I was listening to a radio programme on my way here and somebody texted the programme to say, in effect, "Fair play to this right-wing group for its great work in intervening when nobody else did." Let us call a spade a spade. Its intervention to support a family in appalling circumstances allowed a continuation of the horrendous treatment, neglect and abuse of the children involved for a decade or more and its support should be highlighted for what it is. There should be a full investigation to discover where it is coming from and from where it is getting its funding.
I draw the attention of the House to a number of Bills that have been enacted during the years, the first of which is the Companies (Amendment) Act 1990 which was introduced by Albert Reynolds on examinership to benefit one individual in particular, namely, Mr. Larry Goodman, and his group of companies. Section 19 of the Finance Act 1994 was introduced by Deputy Bertie Ahern when Minister for Finance and a tax concession to one individual, Mr. Ken Rohan, in relation to his art collection. The Markets in Financial Instruments and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2007 was introduced by the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen. Again, it was introduced following lobbying by one individual, namely, Frank Fahey.
Yes. It is incidental that these Acts benefited other individuals during the years, but the reality is that they were introduced to benefit specific individuals and at their instigation. Given the tradition of Fianna Fáil Ministers for Finance to introduce legislation to benefit specific individuals, I believe Deputy Fahey, when Minister with responsibility for fisheries, found it quite acceptable in the circumstances to introduce a scheme to benefit two individuals in his constituency. I am talking about the lost at sea scheme-----
It is for this House to take a decision on it and I am calling for a debate. I ask the Deputy Leader to accede to my request. The matter has been examined. The last time it was discussed in the House it was referred to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which has decided that the Ombudsman's report should be rejected. However, it is for the House to decide on its position. It is important not only in terms of the Office of the Ombudsman, but also in terms of the Oireachtas committee system that Deputies and Senators can act in an independent, objective and non-partisan manner.
I add my voice to those which have expressed sincere regrets that the family in question were subject to such trauma. It is important, however, that we do not add to their burden, recognise the abuse that happened, learn from it and hold people accountable. We do not need to nitpick over the details in such a manner. It is important that we expedite the holding of the referendum. In that regard, I ask for a debate on the status of the Child Care Act to find out to what extent its provisions have been developed and implemented. For example, where parents are unable to cope with children, there is provision for the teaching of parenting skills and other interventions, with social workers being on hand in particular cases. I am not referring directly to the case that will be before the House this afternoon, but rather to the implementation of the Child Care Act in general. Have we seen full intervention by the agencies which can help to support children because, unfortunately, this is not an isolated case? There are various forms of domestic violence and next month for a period of 15 days we will seek to increase the level of awareness in that regard. I want to pre-empt this by saying we need to hold a debate on the issue. It is important that we learn from what went on, find mechanisms to fully implement the provisions of the Child Care Act and hold the referendum. Nothing we do today should add to the personal trauma of the family involved.
As I gather we are to have a debate this afternoon, this is not the time to raise the issue. However, I would like to address one particular point that has been made on a number of occasions. This right-wing group in question has referred to as a "Catholic right-wing group". It cannot, in any sense, be held up as a Catholic right-wing group.
It is very definitely, however, a right-wing group. Senator O'Donovan mentioned that someone had telephoned a radio programme this morning to compliment the group on the help it had given to the family. It did not help the family, rather it helped the parents to the detriment of the children.
We need to be very careful in the words we use on this occasion.
Next week we shall all be sad at the loss of the extra hour of daylight in the evenings. I am sorry for repeating myself, but this is an old topic of mine. One of the reasons we have not changed is that the British have not changed and we do not want to have different times in Dundalk and Newry or Dublin and Belfast. The good news, however, is that it was announced this morning that a Bill would be introduced in the British House of Commons on 3 December to do exactly what I have been proposing for 15 years, that is, that we follow central European time and have that extra hour of daylight every evening the whole year around. The benefits will be immense and I hope this will be the last time we will put back the clock. I also hope the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, is paying attention to what is happening not just here but also in Britain and that we follow whatever changes are made there. Senator Harris said there was good news coming through. Let us ensure in this case that it will be good news rather than bad.
I do not want to say much, as Senator Quinn has said, as the debate on the child abuse report will take place this afternoon. We should bear in mind that the children involved have made it very clear that they do not welcome the fact that the focus has been placed on them and that it is adding to the trauma they have suffered. However, we need to be mindful of a few aspects. It has been stated by those who have studied the report closely and are familiar with the case that the holding of a referendum would not in any way have assisted in the prevention of the abuse. There was, undoubtedly, terrible abuse of the children involved, but it also involved a dereliction of duty by individuals within the public service.
There has to be accountability; we can no longer continue to hide. At the time I was critical of the Government for failing to take action against those who were culpable and criminally negligent in the HIV scandal. People died as a consequence of the gross negligence of individuals within the service and there should have been accountability.
Another aspect of the case which is a concern - this has arisen in other inquiries we have examined in the House, such as the Dublin-Monaghan bombings - is the failure of people to keep proper records. There has been criticism in this instance that the inquiry had tremendous difficulty getting any details on the records of social workers and the management of social workers within the system. That is intolerable when we have all sorts of management procedures in place. People in the public service are extremely well paid now, so the lack of performance in this area, or any area of the public service, is no longer acceptable.
I would like an earlier debate than is proposed on the Croke Park agreement and suggest we could debate this on a weekly basis. Last week, I raised the issue of lecturers and professors within our universities who are paid in excess of 50% more than their counterparts in Britain. It is on the public record of these Houses in recent times that many of them only lecture for six hours per week. I know they do research and spend time on preparation, but these conditions bring into focus the amount of money being paid and the lack of value we receive for it. I would like to highlight that the Chief Justice in Ireland receives €130,000 a year more than the Chief Justice in the United States.
We cannot continue to pay these kinds of salaries. When I listened to the Dáil debate yesterday, I heard Ministers focus on what people in the public service who earn less than €100,000 get, because it was a good soundbite, rather than focus on the real cost of our public service.
I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Quinn. He has been through it in his time and is right about the move to central European time. Hopefully, the Government will move on that in line with the move Britain is about to make as outlined by the Senator.
I understand the four-year economic plan, which is to be approved by Brussels and the European Union, is to be finalised and published by mid-November. Can the Deputy Leader clarify the timetable for that? Given it will happen then, would it not be appropriate that the budget, which is such an integral part of the first step of that four-year process, would be taken in conjunction with the publication of that plan? We should do this in order to regain the confidence of the markets and secure our future funding. Does it not make sense to do both together if we are to have the necessary housekeeping money to sustain and keep our public services going at the proper level? This would better establish the certainty we know is necessary and would, in addition, secure what all sides and so many of our colleagues spoke about yesterday and encourage spending from the billions of euro of savings we have. If this happens, it will help us regain the confidence we need in our future. I would like to hear the Deputy Leader's opinion. These areas are all bound up together and there is a great case to be made to deal with and have done with the issue so we can move forward.
I welcome the fact we are to have a debate at 3 p.m. on the report drawn up by Norah Gibbons of Barnados and thank the Leader for arranging this. The report is comprehensive and a copy of it has been sent by e-mail to all Deputies and Senators from the HSE this morning. It is unfortunate that it is being termed the "Roscommon" case. I know the area involved, but will not mention it. The report suggests there should be careful debate in this regard because the children, four of whom are in care and two who are now adults, are making progress. The High Court should study the findings relating to its refusal of the HSE's, or western health board's, application to rescind the order restraining it from placing the children in care. It is important to examine this because a friend of the family intervened at the time to try and obtain help. Other relatives were also conscious of the situation and made efforts to bring the children into their care. Neighbours also contacted the western health board on the issue. It is a complex and sad case. The report is comprehensive and I am delighted it will be discussed later today.
I support Senators Norris and Walsh in their belief that the fundamental problem in Roscommon was a dereliction of duty by public servants. There have been other reasons adduced and there is much merit in Senator Alex White's belief that in the background a certain amount of foot-dragging was caused by the constitutional protection afforded to the family. This certainly causes people to look over their left shoulder at the Constitution. Perhaps public servants are now looking over their right shoulder at the Freedom of Information Act. Many journalists informally agree that the Freedom of Information Act, which was meant to illuminate large policy decisions and protect the public purse, may be inhibiting public servants from making decisions they should make. Nevertheless, that does not excuse the failure of the will, what the Greeks called akrasia, a failure to do one's duty. In that respect, I wonder what kind of training public servants now get in the culture of decision making, of integrity and of standing up and having some basics of moral courage. Parnell said that the Irish people had huge respect for moral courage because it was such a scarce commodity in Ireland. There is a lot of truth in that in the public sector.
Mention has been made of a right wing organisation supporting the children. It calls itself a Catholic organisation, but I think that is a travesty of Catholicism. It is just a fundamentalist family organisation. Its support reminds me of Lenin saying the Communist Party should support the bourgeoisie. The organisation in question supported the children as a rope supports the hanging man.
I too welcome the efforts of Norah Gibbons and her committee in publishing the report and commend the bravery of the children of the family in supporting the publication of the report in the hope that this will never happen again. We have had the McColgan report, the Kilkenny incest report and now we have another report. I just wonder how much work has been done over the past three or four years since the beginning of the term of this Seanad. The Minister of State with responsibility for children said in his press release last night that he would meet with the HSE to hear its proposals on how it will implement the main recommendations of the report. This causes me concern, because here we have just another example of HSE failure, systems failure and people failing young children and society. I do not know how the HSE can do what is necessary.
I have heard people say that public servants have let these children down, but we, as politicians, have also failed. Senator Harris spoke about the moral courage of public servants. There is little moral courage here when we look into our hearts to see how much we have done to protect children or how much we have done to ensure this will never happen again. I hope we will not be here in another five or ten years looking at more reports and wondering when this will happen again. We need to bring this issue to the forefront. It is swept under the carpet on every possible occasion. I do not want to go over the nitty gritty of this particular case, as that would not help at all. However, we can see clearly that people have failed in their duties and heads need to roll.
We have seen a similar failure in the banking area and in the various economic crises facing us.
I thank the Deputy Leader for allowing time today for a debate on the Roscommon report. The fundamental question that has not been addressed is when we can expect people to be held to account and to accept responsibility. A lack of accountability and acceptance of responsibility have been at the core of Fianna Fáil in Government for the past 13 years. It has been a failure.
Senator Harris can talk about moral courage, public servants and dereliction of duty, but there must be responsibility and accountability at all levels. I agree with Senator McDonald that if we as politicians want to have moral courage, we should ensure the referendum on children's rights is held and that these rights are enshrined in the Constitution.
I accept that had this been done, it would not have stopped what happened in this instance. Let us do it, none the less, and let us forget adversarial partisan politics. I am not a lawyer and do not have a legal mind but we could, with political will, obtain the consensus needed to ensure the children's rights referendum is passed in the morning. That takes moral courage, not people going on "Morning Ireland" or other radio programmes to get media outings to get this done. Let us do it.
I am a proud Member of Seanad Éireann today. In the middle of the difficult economic times in which we find ourselves, it is right and proper that Senators from all sides of the House would highlight the issue of child care in the manner they are doing. It is a much more important issue than the economy and is fundamental to the bedrock of our society.
I commend Senator O'Donovan on his remarks on the necessity to hold the children's rights referendum. I call on the Minister to set a date today for the holding of this urgent referendum, although we do not need to hold it tomorrow or to do so in haste. Consensus can be found on this issue. While we have used the word "consensus" a lot recently, I believe there is broad consensus on this issue. We have had years of appalling failures in respect of child care. We are no longer prepared to accept dereliction of duty.
I take issue with the comment that had the referendum been passed, it would not have impacted on this case. The key issue in the referendum is that the voice of the child be heard. My understanding of this report is that had the voices of the children been heard to the extent they should have been, this abuse may not have occurred. While I accept there was a dereliction of duty, we need proper checks and balances, and these are not currently in place. I believe that when, not if, we have this referendum debate, we will have in place better child care structures because they will be underpinned by legislation attaching to this referendum. We need to have this debate. I call on the Minister to set a date today for holding the referendum.
I, too, welcome the debate on the Roscommon abuse report. Like others, I am appalled and saddened by the terrible failures of the State it discloses. It does not bear thinking about that for 25 years, from when the family concerned first came to the attention of social services in 1989 to 2004 when the HSE finally took some of the children into care, these six children were subjected to such horrific abuse. I know we all feel that way.
Senator McDonald is correct that it is not just that there were failures during that lengthy period by individual social workers or the health care system but also that there was a failure by the political system to provide the legal and constitutional framework within which this family would have been treated differently and within which, as Senator Alex White stated, there would have been a different threshold for intervention. The children's rights referendum is essential because it would provide that different culture or legal or constitutional framework within which social workers and the HSE would be able to operate and intervene at a different and earlier stage to prevent this type of appalling abuse from happening.
Other Members referred to the Kilkenny incest report and the Sophia McColgan case. Many brave individuals, young adults, who were abused as children have come forward in order that this would not happen to other children. We owe it to them to ensure we change the framework to ensure this does not occur again. I urge the Government to set a date for the holding of the referendum. There has been much debate and work done on the wording. We are all agreed that it is essential the rights of the child come before the rights of the marital family. Unfortunately, there is undue deference in our Constitution to the rights of the marital family, enabling the type of sinister intervention we saw in this case to have occurred by a right wing organisation. That, too, must be investigated.
I welcome the Leader's announcement yesterday that a debate on prisons will take place in the House next week. That debate will provide us with an opportunity to discuss reducing our over-reliance on prisons and, as a result, saving money at a time when that is important in terms of the Exchequer.
I join others in condemning what is outlined in the recently published Roscommon report. I agree with other speakers that there are many reasons for failure but no excuses for it. While I understand Senator Ó Brolcháin's reference to the pride he feels in terms of the unity among Senators in their condemnation, we all share in the shame of the inaction of many years. I believe everyone shares the frustration expressed by Senator Buttimer and others at the pedestrian nature of change which seems only to take place over many years. I welcome that we will debate that report.
The yields on Irish bonds widened considerably this morning to above 7%. This has happened for three reasons, namely, the collapse of Portugal's budget discussions, the shortfall in Greek tax revenue which has reignited concerns about peripheral European economies, and the suggestion by Bloomberg yesterday that investors were losing faith in Ireland's plan to lower its deficit as spending cuts threatened to undermine economic growth. This should be a stark reminder to us all as we contemplate what is to be part of the four-year budgetary process and the budget which will be introduced in December that it will take innovative and creative suggestions from all Members of both Houses to give confidence to the market that we are prepared to display a level of bravery and leadership that has been alien to us over recent generations, a level of flexibility and an ability to improvise and adapt quickly which has been alien to our public services. We will also need to focus on some of the sacred cows, namely, senior public servants, politicians, the Judiciary and those in the higher echelons of the public service in academia and other sectors who are highly paid. Clearly, we will have to re-examine the Croke Park agreement. We may well have to enter into a new benchmarking process that benchmarks our salaries and positions not with those in the private sector but with those in other countries throughout the world.
Much has been said about the Roscommon abuse case. I am truly appalled by the lack of care for children in difficulty in this State. What is the point of the lessons of the past 20 years, to which Senator Bacik referred, if no one is held accountable for this horrid abuse and neglect? Is this just today's news? Is this just today's story? What progress has been made in implementing the recommendations of the Murphy and Ryan reports? I do not have confidence that anything is changing. Let us mean what we say. If this House did nothing else but ensured a date was set by the end of this year for the holding of the children's rights referendum and that there was accountability in terms of neglect of the voiceless and timid in our society, we could be proud of having achieved something. However, I am not convinced that anything is changing.
Last week I raised the issue of the hundreds of young unemployed teachers in this State. A total of 400 graduated from St. Patrick's College this year but only 30 are employed. The issue I want to raise, however, is that of probation. A teacher used to spend five years in probation here but that has been cut to three. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, last night and it is clear she does not have a notion what I am on about. She said there was a shortage of inspectors but if that is the case the probation period should be lengthened. Young teachers are telling me they can emigrate but they cannot emigrate if they are not probated because they cannot come back and get a post here.
First, I agree with previous speakers who spoke on the issue of child abuse and the lack of care and dereliction of duty. There is no question that as public representatives our message to the public officials is clear. They should do their duty without fear or favour and without consideration of any care other than that which has been entrusted to them. In the case of child care, it is all the more important that they continue to do their duty. Sadly, even though we may legislate and change the Constitution, if individuals are not prepared to stand up for what they have to do and do it straight through, this will happen again. That should be the message that goes out this morning. They should do their duty at all times.
Second, I ask again for a debate on the way we are handling the current crisis, in particular with regard to the media representation. I am not talking about political representation but representation of the difficulties in the economy. Unless there is a belief that we can deal with our own problems the public will not have faith and if the public do not have faith in themselves, it will not be possible for them to succeed. We must help them, as public representatives, to believe that we can succeed and get through our difficulties.
I am not sure that today is the day to debate this important report. It seems to me to be an exercise in window dressing because I wonder how many of us will have had an opportunity to give it the scrutiny it deserves. If we were operating in a mature fashion we would be debating this report early next week, having had an opportunity to consider it properly. Instead, we will have bland statements to the effect that the Seanad discussed it and were we not wonderful but that is no substitute for genuine concern for children's rights and welfare.
We are being invited to believe by some that if we had passed the proposed constitutional referendum we would have less of this kind of abuse. I found Geoffrey Shannon's intervention on "Morning Ireland" this morning to be deeply cogent, very clear and wonderfully passionate. Nothing I have heard here today was any substitute for the clarity and the depth of knowledge with which Mr. Shannon spoke. He made it very clear that it is no excuse to invoke the absence of better constitutional protection for children's rights. I am open to that debate and if we can give extra constitutional impetus to the need to intervene in favour of children's welfare, by all means we should do so but we should not cover up or make excuses for people who were in radical dereliction of their duty-----
-----by trying to use this to gain some political leverage for a constitutional referendum proposal which needs to be debated on its merits. There is a certain denial about the failure of people to simply do their duty. Red herring no. 1 is the Constitution. It is not an issue. The law was in place. People in this House have been quick to condemn the Church, and rightly so, for not coming up to the moral mark even when the law was not as clear as it should be about what needed to be done in the area of reporting yet they are making excuses for people who did have a clear legal mandate-----
I call on the Deputy Leader to raise the issue of mortgage arrears and default in mortgages which has now become a very serious problem. We must start to deal with that problem. I have been waiting on the Government report - we are getting bits and pieces of it - on what it intends to do about the problem. It has laid down some ground rules such as the one that someone cannot be removed easily from their house but that will not solve the problems we have with these people. Over 300,000 people are in negative equity but only 40,000 of those are finding it difficult to pay their mortgage. I suggested in the report that went to the Government that we should ask the banks to take at least 25% of the equity of people who are having difficulty paying their mortgages. That would reduce their payments and defer the negative equity until such time as the house was sold. That is an important point.
Matthew Elderfield suggested that we should examine the current position for debt forgiveness and so forth and also our bankruptcy laws, which are outdated. If one files for bankruptcy here one is bankrupt for 12 years. The period in America is three years, which allows people get back into business again where they may be able to pay their debts. Once someone is bankrupt in this country they can never pay their debts.
It is important that we have a special meeting to deal with these issues and approaching budget time is the right time to have it. If we do not have that these people will be passed over again and we will find a difficulty during the coming year, and that will become more serious. The problem will not go away. I ask the Deputy Leader to have a special meeting in that regard.
I support the request by my colleague, Senator Regan, to reflect further at the earliest possible opportunity on the lost at sea report, the special report by the Ombudsman. We should not fail to underscore the significance of this report by the Ombudsman. It was a special report, only the second occasion an Ombudsman produced such a report for presentation to the Oireachtas. The agricultural committee of the House reflected and deliberated on it but, unfortunately, divided on the matter. However, it is an issue that must come back for significant debate in this House and I ask the Deputy Leader in particular to take an interest in having a full debate here on the lost at sea scheme, which was described by a former member of the Cabinet, Deputy Jim McDaid, as one which stank. That is something upon which we should reflect.
I support also Senator Walsh's request that we continue the debate on the Croke Park agreement.
As far as I am aware the debate adjourned rather than concluded last week. I believe we can have a worthwhile, mature debate and not one that condemns public servants but with a view to ensuring that we have a public sector which works in the public interest, with fair play for all including fair salaries. It is a sector which the taxpayer is funding and on behalf of the taxpayer we must recognise that significant reforms are necessary, and in that respect we have a duty to debate further the Croke Park agreement.
The Roscommon abuse report is both shocking and scandalous. I listened to what Senator Mullen said. We will debate it this afternoon but I ask the Deputy Leader that we adjourn rather than conclude the deliberation this afternoon because many people-----
-----would be in a better position to speak with some degree of accuracy next week or the week after if we had an opportunity to study the report in greater detail. That suggestion might be taken on board and we would adjourn the debate with a view to resuming it next week.
Many Senators, including Senators Twomey, Norris, Alex White, O'Donovan, Keaveney, Quinn, Walsh, Leyden, Harris, McDonald, Buttimer, Ó Brolcháin, Bacik, MacSharry, Healy Eames, Hanafin, Mullen and Bradford, mentioned this afternoon's statements on the child care inquiry report and the wider issues involved. The proposal of Senator Bradford that the debate be kept ongoing should be given consideration, and I will examine whether the Order of Business needs to be amended during the course of the day.
With regard to the contents of the report, I urge Senators to beware of the context. It has been mentioned this morning that the young people concerned are wary of further attention being directed upon them. There is also the issue of court cases. Even references to the geographical location of the case have been frowned upon because they may help to identify the young people and the family concerned. I ask Members to be aware of those constraints when addressing this.
Because we only have an hour today, the discussion will be concerned with the narrow issues dealt with in the report. Many Members have mentioned the wider issue of resources for child care. The report is quite emphatic in stating that the problems were not the result of a deficiency in legislation or resources but rather neglect of duty with regard to the children. There are wider issues in child care that need to be discussed in the House, and we will have an opportunity of doing that.
There were calls for a debate on the children's rights referendum. This is something this House can and should revisit. The process has been going on since 2003 in various Oireachtas committees, and there is a need for the Government to bring it to finality by mentioning a date for the referendum. An Oireachtas sub-committee recently produced a useful wording for the referendum, although there is concern that it may not be sufficiently legally watertight. There is an onus on the Government to clear up any confusion that exists as quickly as possible. My hope is that we can resolve this within a matter of months and that the people will have an opportunity to vote early next year.
The subtext of the delay over the years has been a political fear of unleashing the issue of individual legal rights for children. It has been shied away from for far too long, and until we are prepared to address that issue, the idea of having a proper debate among the people and seeking to change the Constitution to fill the lacuna that exists in the rights of individual children is something to which we will return again and again. Instead of trying to address the needs of children in a proper legal and constitutional way, we will end up discussing the issue incessantly.
Senators Regan and Bradford mentioned the lost at sea scheme. In the past, we have been restricted from examining this issue further because it was being dealt with by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We had a brief opportunity, on the presentation of the report, for a debate in the House. The Senators' points were well made. The committee's report bears further examination, and if there is an opportunity for a further debate in the House, we should avail of it.
Senators Walsh, McDonald and Bradford mentioned the Croke Park agreement. There is a need to review progress made under the agreement but also to question whether the underlying figures are valid for the next number of years. We have had a debate in the House, but we should have a continuing debate to review and question the process, and I will see that further time is made available for this.
Senator Quinn, supported by Senator Coghlan, spoke about the ending of daylight saving time this week and asked whether we should move to central European time. There are significant economic and environmental advantages to doing so. We are linked in the current time zone with the UK, and any changes there would force their consideration here also, although it is not unusual for neighbouring jurisdictions - for example, Spain and Portugal - to have different time zones. Senator Quinn has proposed a useful debate.
Senator Coghlan asked about the four-year programme and the question of an earlier budget. It is my understanding that the programme will be made available in mid-November, which will allow a three-week window for further debate and discussion on the contents of the programme and the contents of budget 2011. This is necessary. As of now, the budget is pencilled in for 7 December. If it was to take place on the traditional day of the first Wednesday in December, it would be on 1 December. I am not sure whether the budget might be presented over a matter of days, but the interval of two to three weeks between the presentation of the four-year programme and that of the budget is important.
Senator MacSharry spoke about the erratic behaviour of the bond market today and the increase in bond spreads to over 7%. This is of major concern, but it also underlines the fact that we must have cohesion in our approach to the four-year programme and the budget in order to send out a message about how we as a nation are tackling these economic difficulties and how we can engender confidence among the international community. I ask Members to bear that in mind, particularly in the context of this afternoon's debate.
Senator Healy Eames asked about the question of unemployed teachers and the difficulty they are having in serving their time in probation. I am not clear about the reason the probationary period has been shortened from five to three years. There may have been good reasons for doing that, but I will undertake to get that information to Senator Healy Eames.
Senator John Hanafin asked for a debate on the representation of the economy and economic issues. This has been a theme of discussion in the House on a regular basis, including the extent to which confidence can be engendered among the people in general. I will see whether time can be made available for such a debate.
Senator Buttimer asked about comments made by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Ahern, in Poland. I did not hear those comments so I am afraid I cannot speak on them. Finally, Senator Butler spoke about the growing number of families that are in difficulties with mortgage arrears. It is my understanding that the report on mortgage arrears will be available in a number of weeks, and that will provide an opportunity for the House to debate the issue. There have already been some initiatives on foot of the earlier report, and the indications are that a number of significant new measures will be introduced in advance of the budget to allow it to take account of this problem.