Wednesday, 8 December 2010
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on budget 2011, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and 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 on ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments and to take questions from spokespersons or leaders; No. 2, Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 4 p.m. and adjourn at 5 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 35, Private Members' motion No. 17 re confidence in the Government, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Yesterday a tough and stark budget was announced. I said then that we would judge it on a number of criteria, including whether it was fair, reforming, contained a stimulus plan and protected the vulnerable. It showed no evidence of any of these. It will hit the vulnerable, is very tough on families and provides little by way of a stimulus or job creation package. It marked the culmination of failed policies from the Government in terms of its management of the economy, in regulating and managing banking and failing to make the right decisions in recent years. We will shortly have an opportunity to discuss it. However, the devil is in the detail. When one examines what is happening in schools and, for example, the national education and psychological service, in respect of which there is an 18% cutback, one is concerned for children and families who are being severely hit.
I ask the Leader to set out his plans in terms of the sitting arrangements leading up to Christmas and in the final days in office of the Government. The Green Party stated it would be leaving government in the second half of January. Perhaps the Deputy Leader might indicate us the timeframe for the general election in terms of the passing of necessary legislation.
There is a disturbing report in today's newspapers on education. An international study shows that Ireland has fallen from 5th to 17th place in terms of reading skills. There is something extraordinary happening in our schools and with our young people, given that some 17% of children are low achievers when it comes to reading. In the case of maths, Ireland has fallen from 16th to 26th place and in the case of science, it continues to be ranked 18th among OECD countries. We need to debate what is happening in our schools and the reason our children are falling behind in what is a most critical period. Therefore, I call for a debate on education as soon as possible.
I am pleased Senator Fitzgerald has raised the issue of education. It was also raised yesterday by Senator Cummins. I would like to provide a simple explanation for what has happened. On the last occasion the test was carried out in Irish schools there were particular levels of resources in respect of the provision of special schools and classes, in which children with special needs were dealt with. At the time there were many non-national children - now known as visitor children - in our schools and the State assigned teachers to assist them because they did not speak English. On average, 10% of children have learning difficulties or special needs, while a further 3% to 4% do not speak English as their first language. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 was introduced to deal in part with this issue, but the Government refused to enforce it. It then withdrew special needs assistants. There is a structural systemic difficulty-----
-----and it is going to get worse. Teaching and teachers have not changed. However, the outcomes are different for this reason. We provide community-type education, of which everyone is in favour, where all children are educated together in the same classrooms, regardless of whether they have special needs, are of another nationality, from Traveller groups and so on. Previously such children would have been tested at a different location, but they are now part of the system and, as such, the norm has been reduced. This will continue to happen unless the issues involved are addressed. I would, therefore, welcome a debate on education. I regret that I have been only able to address the issue with one-liners, but that is the reality.
Yesterday afternoon at both gates of Leinster House members of the Garda Síochána were given a torrid time by demonstrators. For more than a quarter of a century I have been involved in organising demonstrations outside the gates of Leinster House and various other places. There is a clear procedure in this regard, namely, that one contacts the local Garda station to discuss how the demonstration will proceed. Article 46.1 of the Constitution makes it clear that there may be legislation to govern such events. That legislation is the Offences Against the State Act 1939 which, among other things, requires anyone organising a demonstration to contact the local Garda station which can given certain advice. It goes on to state that should this not happen, any member of the Garda Síochána can call upon persons taking part in such a meeting to disperse. Did this not happen yesterday. I support the right of citizens to demonstrate. However, there are public servants - members of the Garda Síochána - to protect our democracy and there are parties inside the Houses who appear to give passive support to such activity which is undermining our democracy. Last night the gates of Leinster House were closed for a couple of hours, preventing cars and people from entering and leaving. This sends a strong message. If people believe they can stop the process of democracy, it will be a bad day for all of us. I compliment the Garda Síochána and staff of Leinster House on their work. Let us support the right to demonstrate but also make it clear that there are rules governing demonstrations, just as there are rules governing every other right under the Constitution. I would like to see the Garda Síochána being urged to ensure the relevant legislation, the Offences Against the State Act 1939, is given effect.
I support the calls made by Senators Fitzgerald and O'Toole for a debate on the disturbing report from the OECD on falling literacy levels in Ireland and the poor rate of achievement in maths. It gives the lie to the notion that this is a country that can be proud of its education system when so many children are falling between the cracks in the system. As Senator O'Toole stated, this is about the systemic doing away of supports for children. I heard the other day from a friend who is part of the visiting teachers service for Travellers about the effects of the cuts in the numbers of resource teachers. This can be replicated in respect of children living in disadvantaged areas. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that, instead of having a sos for one hour, we debate the report from the OECD. While we would need more than one hour to debate it, the debate could be rolled over and continued next week.
This is a serious issue in the context of our discussion today on the budget, the most brutal in the country's history. The cutbacks will severely affect the low paid and those in receipt of social welfare. Cuts of €8 per week have been announced for those in receipt of carer's and unemployment benefit and blind and disability pensions, which is outrageous.
Having listened to the people express their anger and highlight their despair, it is important that we recognise there is a need for a stimulus package, that we support education and that we ensure there will be some strategy to promotoe growth, create jobs and aid recovery, as proposed by the Labour Party, none of which was contained in the budget. We need to learn from other countries, including Finland which, when it went through its economic crisis, insisted on the retention of supports for education. We need also to learn from Iceland. The joke, when it was going through its economic crisis, was: what is the difference between Iceland and Ireland? To which the answer was only one letter and six months, which has turned out to be more like two years. We are even now enduring the same weather conditions. One of the many things the government there did was to ensure stimulus and to ensure more women were put in charge of running the system and the economy. They have approached recovery with better leadership and government and a better strategy for recovery than our Government did in yesterday's budget.
Iceland is also the recipient of funding from the IMF and much of what is happening there is being replicated here.
I support the calls for a debate on education. It is important to consider the OECD report fully and it is also has to be accepted that inputs and outputs in education are not being measured adequately. The budgetary process engaged in by the Department of Finance has been too much about pounds, shillings and pence. Proposals were made regarding the pupil-teacher ratio, special needs assistants and larger cuts in capitation but it needs to be understood the amount being spent on education now to reverse some of the measures mentioned by Senators, and which we need to debate to more widely, has been difficult to achieve. We have the pupil-teacher ratio, we stopped the reduction in special needs assistants and we have-----
We will have an opportunity to discuss the budget and its context. Whatever the role of Senators and the House, as a citizen of this country, I am looking forward to the next budgetary process, when I believe many of the same decisions will be made.
I second Senator Bacik's call for a debate on the education system. I welcome Senator Boyle's agreement with this call and I hope when we divide later he will vote in favour of having a debate this afternoon. A sos is proposed between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. and a debate could easily be accommodated then, which could then be rolled over. I look forward to debating in detail later the measures proposed in the budget but a debate on the OECD report on education would be worthwhile. I am concerned about how this will appear to the outside world. I note the comments made by the American Chamber of Commerce last night. One of its spokespersons said this was deeply concerning and she was worried that this might have an impact on the level of external investment in the country. A debate would be worthwhile as we consider issues such as standards in schools and the curriculum. I am concerned about the drop in standards in mathematics as well as in literacy levels. I propose we have a debate as soon as possible to demonstrate the seriousness with which the House takes the most recent report.
The Minister for Finance said during yesterday's Budget Statement that, "Any reform proposals, whether they relate to the Dáil electoral system, the future of the Seanad, the composition of Government Departments or the size of Government, must have as their objective, the pursuit of the common good". When is the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government expected to bring forward proposals for the reform of the House to make it more relevant or redundant?
I join Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Bacik and Hannigan in seeking a debate on education. The OECD report is a damning indictment of the Government's policy and it is important we have a debate. Senator Boyle referred to the pupil-teacher ratio. As bad as it is, it is not the problem. The problem is the Government-----
If the Senator listened for a while, he might learn something. The Government has taken away the support structures in schools. When I started out as a teacher, there were 30 students in a class but while I welcomed the attempt to make education all-inclusive with children with intellectual disabilities, Traveller children and children of visitors to our country being added to the mix, the Government then withdrew funding for special needs assistants, SNAs, Traveller education teachers and support for one-to-one education, which has led to failures in the education system.
Will the Leader facilitate a debate on the failure to implement the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act, the abolition of the rights of individual students and the failure to honour the commitment to the pupil-teacher ratio in the programme for Government?
I seek a debate on the justice system, especially in light of yesterday's coroner's hearing regarding the assault on Noel and Marie Keegan in Longford following which, sadly, Noel Keegan died minutes afterwards. The perpetrator, who had a record of assault, should have been in prison on the night of the attack but owing to a number of failures and blunders by the State, he was free to commit further assaults. Will the Leader also arrange a briefing document? I understand the Minister for Justice and Law Reform is undertaking an investigation along with the Courts Service and the sooner we have all the information, the better.
Will the Leader arrange with the other group leaders to make accommodation for topical debates in the ordering of the business of the House, especially as we deal with the current economic and financial difficulties? Will he arrange a debate on the National Asset Management Agency? Obstacles have been placed in the agency's path during its early months trying to put the finances in the property sector back on track. Misleading and what has been perceived in certain instances to be false information has been provided by the financial institutions which is causing delays and serious problems for the agency in doing what it was set up to do. Will the Leader try to get Members briefing documents and to arrange a debate on this matter as quickly as possible?
Like everyone else in Ireland, I care for my country, as do my colleagues in the Seanad. In the closing days of this Seanad we should reflect on the crisis in Irish politics, which is the lack of respect for politics and politicians. Our primary task should not be to score points against each other within the political system. All politicians have a duty of care to the Irish people and to get people to respect politics once more, because politics has never been so disrespected in modern Ireland.
Part of respecting politics is to understand the nature of the crisis. Conventional wisdom is that it is an economic crisis. It is that, but we have been through economic crises since the 1920s and dealt with them. The problem with this crisis is that there is a crisis of authority as well - a crisis of politics itself and of leadership. That is the reason I proposed, in my column in the Sunday Independent last Sunday, a reverse Tallaght strategy for Fianna Fáil - that in Opposition it would support the incoming Government. The broad parameters of the budget are agreed and what people are fighting about here is the small change. It is like arguing about the composition of a Christmas pudding, where the raisins should go or whether there should be less flour and so forth. The point is that all political parties in these Houses are committed to the broad parameters of the budget and it behoves Fianna Fáil to support the incoming Government. Otherwise, we will be at the mercy of the anarchist, independent and messy forces in this society.
People crave stable government from the centre for a few years to allow them to get their heads and their act together. I appeal once more to the parties about this. I am glad the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, picked up my reverse Tallaght strategy on "The Frontline" programme and that the Taoiseach endorsed it this morning. Fine Gael and the Labour Party should consider their duty of care to the other side and their duty to give Fianna Fáil a soft landing. They should say: "Yes, we accept that we all have a duty of care and that we are all within the broad parameters of this budget together. We have a duty to create a centre of authority in Irish politics."
That duty devolves on the Labour Party as much as others. I was interested to see that Deputy Seán Sherlock believed the budget should be supported. That marked the intelligence and cop-on for which his family has always been noted. All political parties in this House should consider whether it would not be wiser of them to gather around and protect the broad parameters of this budget and of public policy. I know, and they know in their hearts, that is what the Irish people want them to do.
I have no problem with a debate being held on the OECD report. The education committee held a meeting last Thursday and it was interesting to discuss the different approaches and topics with a range of people from the third level sector, the business community and the student sector. It is important to note that they are concerned that the image of Ireland that is being conveyed is very negative, because people within the business sector said the people they encounter are not reflective of that.
I agree that there is a difference in how things are dealt with now since the incorporation of all abilities and disabilities within the classroom. However, many resources were put into classrooms. Senator O'Toole said nothing had changed other than these people had been included and that teachers had not changed. Perhaps teaching styles need to change. When I was teaching in England there were three levels for what one was teaching - high, medium and low ability.
I was dealing with that.
I again ask whatever party is in the next Government to examine the role of music, both music therapy for those who need it and music as a personal development tool in the education sector. There are proven links between that subject and mathematics. I might be a lone voice crying in the wilderness in this Chamber but I am not the only voice on this when one considers international research, which has proven those links.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to the House for a discussion on justice and an update on how the Children Act is currently being implemented. I read with horror a report in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday. Many children who commit crimes are too young to be dealt with in the system. In the North, one child had committed an offence at three years of age and one had committed nine crimes at four years of age. Have we a similar problem with children aged from three to seven years old committing crimes? Under the Children Act, parents were made responsible for the actions of their children. A comparison should be carried out between the situation here and that in the North under the Minister for Justice, Mr. Ford, given that there is so much cross-Border co-operation.
Every family in this country will be approximately €3,000 worse off as a result of the budget yesterday. However, this country could face nothing worse right now than a recession in our education system. It is an outrage and alarming for this country that in terms of literacy standards it has fallen from fifth to 17th place in the OECD and in terms of mathematics standards it has fallen from 15th to 25th place. Let us wake up and smell the coffee. We are on the brink of a major depression if our educated workforce is at risk.
I wholeheartedly support Senator Bacik's call for the House to urgently invite the Minister to the House to discuss standards. This is a failure on the part of the Government. Why has the Government not monitored standards and learning outcomes? Why has the Minister for Education and Skills not kept an eye on standards? Above all, why has the Minister not invested in teachers? I am not referring to pupil-teacher ratios but to the quality of our teachers and their ability to remain in touch with the needs of children today. The needs of our children are being benchmarked against the developed world. Our youngsters must compete against the best in Europe. The only chance this country has is to have an educated workforce so we can continue to attract industry.
I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Harris about the need for consensus on these issues. It is painful, and Senator O'Toole referred to this, to watch political parties exploiting the protests outside the House. However, we have seen over the last couple of years the exploitation of the financial and economic crisis in the country purely for party political gain. It does nothing for the image of politics and definitely does nothing for this country.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Callely, on the need for a debate on NAMA. It is not functioning as effectively as it should be at this stage. Unfortunately, much of the future of this country is vested in NAMA and unless it performs to its full and best potential, we will suffer as a consequence. I seek a debate on this.
With regard to the OECD report, while we should not be complacent about its findings we should consider it in context. It has been acknowledged that it is a comparison with five years ago and we have a significant number of young people who are immigrants and whose literacy skills would obviously be more challenged than those of natives. The other issue, which is positive in some respects, is the fact that there are fewer early school leavers. Many children are remaining in school, which is a good development.
That said, we should hold a reasonable debate on the subject. The quality of teachers, which is a huge issue, and the curriculum should certainly be the focus of that debate.
Finally, will the Leader hold a debate at an early opportunity on the HSE and the hospital consultants' contracts? It is shameful that, having increased salaries by approximately 50%, they are now reverting back to the breakdown between public and private practice in our hospitals. A stop must be put to this abuse of privilege and I seek an early debate in that regard.
Is there something we have missed with regard to Government plans to drastically slim down the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? According to the figures there is a cutback of over 31%. There is also a cutback of over 60% in the heritage section. I am concerned about some of our historical and heritage properties. Is it the intention to have the section subsumed within some other section of the Department? I am particularly concerned about Killarney House, which is falling into rack and ruin. This is a major tourist attraction both within the town and in the national park in Killarney. It would be disastrous if something like that were to suffer because we need to boost tourism. I do not know if the Leader has any information on this.
Deputy Noonan made a very good point on NAMA in the other House yesterday. NAMA has the largest property portfolio and we have a stagnant property market at the moment. He made a worthwhile suggestion that NAMA should release some properties to get a proper floor on the market so people can lose this image that the market will fall further. We could at least establish a floor. That is a very worthwhile proposal and we should commend it.
I renew my calls for a debate on wage structures following yesterday's budget. I was pleased to see that a maximum wage in the public service was introduced by the Minister in the budget. I called previously for the maximum wage to be linked to the minimum wage, but that was not done. I was looking for a linking of eight times the minimum wage. The figure of €250,000 is between 14 and 16 times the minimum wage, depending on what the minimum wage is. It is important to have a debate on this because it affects many people.
Senator Leyden spoke about a debate on the abolition of the Seanad. It is important to have that debate. I would personally advocate reform rather than abolition. If we had a referendum on the abolition of the Dáil right now, there is a possibility it would pass. A knee jerk reaction on the abolition of the Houses of the Oireachtas is not a good idea. Clear reform is what we need.
Finally, I support the call by Senator O'Toole for a full debate on the EPSON Act. The education debate is very important. We should bring the Minister to the House for a debate, but it is crucial that we have that debate in the context of the budgets that are realistically available for education. We should be able to implement the Act under any budgetary circumstances. It is in the renewed programme for Government. I accept that the progress on its implementation has not been what we would like to see, but we need to have discussions with the unions to ensure the Act can be implemented regardless of the budgetary situation, either now or in the future.
Most of us find ourselves giving reluctant support to the budget, despite the lack of credibility in the Government's projections for growth on which the four year plan is predicated, and despite the apparent political opportunism which continues to bedevil decision making. Everybody is happy to see that there were no cuts in the State pension, but when we see that there were cuts for people with disabilities, it becomes clear that political calculations were at work and that is very unfortunate.
I ask the Leader and the Deputy Leader to speak to their bosses in the Government about the playing of politics with the institutions of this State. We heard that there was a last minute discussion about whether it would be a good idea to scrap the Seanad, apparently in order to gazump the leader of the Fine Gael Party and to do what he did a few months ago, namely, to reach for the cookie jar of populist ideas, instead of having a mature, considered debate about how the institutions of our State are working. This is reminiscent of the five minutes' notice given by the smaller party to the larger party in the Government about its general election intentions. It is simply cynical.
Those of us who have some kind of political contribution to make will find another way of offering ourselves to the electorate. It is not about us. However, was any consideration given to the people who work in administration here as support staff for Senators? Or is it just all about gaining the political advantage? If there was serious respect for the institutions of this State, we would be looking at a reformed Seanad. We would be looking at a list system so we could move from a situation where people are voting on the basis of local considerations to a situation where parties would be putting their ideas out on a platform, the personnel on a list, and people would vote for ideas instead of personalities. That would be real political thinking and would show real responsibility towards the electorate-----
I agree with the Senators who spoke about cross-party support for the budget. I do so, not just in the light of today, but in taking the long view. I was pleased to see the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, indicate on "Prime Time" that if Fianna Fáil were to go into Opposition, it would support the Government of the day if it were to implement the four year plan. We have taken the first and necessary steps on that road. Those Senators who are looking at cross-party support are looking at doing business in a proper manner for the benefit of this nation. We did the same for the North of Ireland, which was the most intractable problem. It was much more difficult and much more serious than our current economic problems, yet we achieved results.
I commend the €250,000 limit on public funds and salaries. Some people are on salaries that look like telephone numbers to rest of us, and it just does not make sense that public funds would be expended in that manner. Some €250,000 is still a significant sum.
There have been many calls for reform of the Seanad and there have been many knee jerk reactions on getting rid of the Seanad without properly thinking what the Seanad does, how many separate times it has implemented legislation, and how many times it has amended legislation. I think about 1,200 amendments are made per term. If we amend legislation 1,200 times, that is because it needs to be amended 1,200 times. Unless the Dáil is going to sit night and day to ensure that no legislation gets through that is not correct, we need a second Chamber.
I have raised the issue of a nursing home in Athlone several times before, but this is not just about Athlone, but about care of the elderly across the nation. If we do not care and respect the elderly in their final years, we are at nothing. I am talking about Loughloe House in Athlone. It is a nursing home that was purpose built in the 1970s in the most ideal situation on the banks of the River Shannon. The HSE delivered a very uncompassionate ruling to close this nursing home. There were 24 residents in the nursing home seven months ago, but there are only five remaining today and they are refusing to leave. The HSE manager, Mr. Joe Ruane, gave an undertaking that people would not be thrown out, they would not be bullied and they would not be intimated. Sadly, that is not the case.
The pictures have been removed from the walls. The oratory is being dismantled. Mass was said in the oratory for the last time yesterday evening. Furniture has been removed so that visitors cannot sit around and visit their relatives. People have now been told that Friday is the last day for the home to remain open.
I call on the Leader to bring the Minister of State with responsibility for older people, or the Minister for Health and Children, before the House today, to tell us why Loughloe House is being closed and explain how we will care for the elderly. If it was happening in St. Mary's Hospital in Mullingar, the Leader would be just as emphatic as I am today. Senator Phelan has raised the situation in Kilkenny several times. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business because I feel strongly about this. The Minister for Health and Children, or the Minister of State with responsibility for older people, should come in here to discuss this issue.
I welcome Senator Leyden's opening comments on the reference in yesterday's budget speech on the future of the Seanad, as well as Senator Mullen's comments. In all the discussion on abolition and reform, the Members of this House over the past few decades have taken it upon themselves to initiate a variety of debates that have culminated in a stack of reports with very positive proposals on how this Seanad could be more reflective of life outside it. If there has been no reform, that has not been the fault of the elected Senate, but rather the fault of successive Governments that have failed to grasp the need for reform of the Senate. Senator Leyden is right to paraphrase the former Minister, Michael McDowell, talking about his own party in saying we must be radical or redundant. I would welcome any initiative the Leader, even at this stage, could bring forward that would inform the public. If it was suggested that the Dáil would be abolished, I guarantee the public would vote for it. That could be followed by the Presidency and then we could get rid of the local authorities. We can go down this road if we wish but at the end of the day there must be some loyalty to the democratic institutions of the State. If there is to be further debate on the future of the Seanad, it must take account of the various reports that have been done, the most recent of which was carried out under the former Leader of the House, Deputy O'Rourke, which contained far-reaching proposals. Governments have ignored it, however, and now it is turning around with a populist, knee-jerk reaction to suggest the Seanad should be let go. Of course the public would be happy to abolish this House. They would abolish everything and I do not blame them, but they must be informed.
Yesterday was a sad day. Traditionally budget day was a day of some spectacle, and I use the word advisedly. Yesterday we saw massed ranks of gardaí both in front of and behind the House. People are fully entitled to protest, it is right and proper they do so, and we all know and appreciate the anger, pain and hurt being felt by those who are struggling with families. God knows, it is not too far from my own door or those others of us who face an uncertain future. I wish to record, however, my appreciation of the behaviour of the gardaí yesterday, where they adhered to their oath to uphold the institutions of the State. This House should express its thanks to the Garda Commissioner for the manner in which the Garda Síochána carried out its duties yesterday.
I second Senator McFadden's amendment to the Order of Business and join other speakers in complimenting the gardaí on their work yesterday. They did an excellent job in upholding democracy.
On Seanad reform, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government met the party leaders and others last year on that subject and he said he would have proposals in a Bill before the House before Christmas 2009. We have not seen a single idea from the Government side.
I join my colleagues in calling for an urgent debate on Seanad reform and agree with Senators Leyden and Mooney when they alluded to the former remarks of the former leader of the former party, the Progressive Democrats, when he said they must be radical or redundant. If we do not reform and reform quickly, we will be made redundant quite quickly, and let us be under no illusion about that.
I also join those speakers who mentioned the protests outside the Houses yesterday. I am a democrat and I believe people should be entitled to protest in a peaceful manner. The 200 or 300 people who protested outside this House last night, however, were nothing short of a disgrace. They are not democrats in any way and I point that some of the flags and emblems on display last night were flags and emblems displayed by the 200 thugs who hijacked the students' protest a number of weeks ago. This is a democracy and it cannot be hijacked by such people. As Senator O'Toole mentioned, some of the flags and emblems being held by protesters belong to a party that has representatives in the other House who claim to be democrats. Let us tell it as it is. These people are not democrats; they are thugs and layabouts. I pay tribute to the Garda Síochána and to the staff of the Houses for protecting Members.
I echo the remarks of Senators O'Toole and Wilson. I have been in public life for 30 years and I respect the views of everyone. That is one of the great things about this House, the other House and all the local authorities. People can put themselves forward for election, be elected and have a mandate to speak. I will not repeat the remarks made by the Senators but the fact that I have alluded to them is an affirmation of my agreement with them. The Garda Síochána is the best police force in the world. I am proud of it, as is every Member of both Houses. On the issue of Seanad reform, there is an attitude in these Houses that it is a great thing to propose radical ideas. I am aware there is nothing so good it cannot be improved. Of course this House can be improved. There have been several reports on it and they are all gathering a layer of dust. That is not the fault of the Seanad. We have put ourselves forward for reform on many occasions but nothing has happened.
Who wants to get rid of town councils? County managers do, because they are an irritant to them. Our 75 town councils, five borough councils, five county borough councils and 29 county councils are all arms of democracy. The day we abolish them will be a sad day for democracy. If they do not have powers, that is not the fault of local government. It is the fault of successive Governments. This House should set its face against the abolition of the town councils because they are the first bastion of local democracy.
As a former town councillor, I echo Senator Glynn's comments. I know that both town and county councils are concerned about their future. In the context of the suggested abolition of the Seanad, what protection will there be for local authorities? I was very unhappy at the reference in the budget speech to the proposed abolition of this House. If I never got a second term here, I would have the same view. Rushed legislation is bad legislation and sufficient thought has not been given to this. As Senator Hanafin said, this House does immeasurable work and takes much of the strain off the Dáil. If this House was not here, legislation would take twice as long to get through and the process would be interminable. Hitler decided to burn the Reichstag and while this is more subtle, sufficient thought has not been given to the process. I will oppose this tooth and nail, no matter if it comes from Enda Kenny as Taoiseach or whoever might be leader of Fianna Fáil.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Bacik, Boyle, Hannigan, Callely, Harris, Ó Brolcháin, Mullen and Hanafin all expressed views on the budget. We will have the budget debate immediately after the Order of Business until 3 p.m. I also wish to inform the House that the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Calleary, will give a progress report to the House next week on the Croke Park agreement. I look forward to this debate because it concerns one of the most crucial aspects of what is happening and much depends on the success of the agreement.
Senators Leyden, Ó Brolcháin, Mullen, Hanafin, Mooney, Cummins, Wilson, Glynn and O'Sullivan all expressed their serious concern about Dáil and Seanad reform. Never was it more obvious than yesterday, and today, why Seanad Éireann should be retained. It is the protector of the taxpayer and a House in which debates on Bills are not guillotined. The discussion on the budget was guillotined many times yesterday in the Dáil and today the debate on the Social Welfare Bill will be guillotined. That is dictatorship in itself. The protector of the taxpayer-----
We saw on our screens this morning that the budget was being debated in the Dáil, but RTE has refused to say it is being debated in the Seanad. There is a hidden agenda in this regard. We should stand up for the work being done here; the proceedings of this House should receive equal airtime as those of the Dáil. That is the problem. The media are completely neglecting-----
In New Zealand the equivalent of the Seanad was abolished in 1971. It is now being restored because the value of having a second Chamber to act as a watchdog on behalf of the taxpayer is immense. The work we do in this House on all Bills is important. As I have often said on the Order of Business, two years ago we discussed 1,201 amendments to a particular Bill. The second Chamber is a major protector of the taxpayer. We may delay Bills and the process of government, but that is our duty and responsibility under the Constitution. That is why the House was set up in the first place - as an independent voice on behalf of the taxpayer. That is what Seanad Éireann is.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Bacik, Boyle, Hannigan, Buttimer, Keaveney and Healy Eames called for an urgent debate on the OECD report on education. I listened attentively as Senator O'Toole gave his view to the House. I understand one of the reasons for the low ratings is that students from non-English-speaking families are now in our schools. Whatever the challenge is, I will have no difficulty in arranging a debate on the issue. I propose to contact the Minister's office after the Order of Business to see if we can come back later this evening after Private Members' business to hear statements from Senators.
Failing that, I will endeavour to arrange such a debate at the first available opportunity. I do not think one hour, as suggested by Senator Bacik, would be sufficient. We would need more time to discuss this serious issue. We need to hear from the Minister and determine how we can help.
Senators O'Toole, Walsh, Mooney, Wilson, Glynn and O'Sullivan expressed their shock, disappointment and horror at the events that took place outside the gates of Leinster House yesterday evening. I join all colleagues who commended the Garda Síochána and the staff of the Houses for their tremendous work. I hope this will not happen again. Members and staff should be allowed to access Leinster House freely; they should not be told they cannot leave the precincts for a few hours, as happened last night. As has been correctly said by many colleagues, this is something we do not want to see happen again and we should make all necessary rules and regulations to ensure it does not. This is the protection of democracy itself.
Senator Callely spoke about the sad circumstances surrounding the killing of Noel Keegan in County Longford. I will pass on the Senator's strong views to the Minister for Justice and Law Reform and try to arrange a briefing on this very sad incident.
Senators Callely, Walsh and Coghlan called for a debate on NAMA and sought an update on its progress. I will have no difficulty in arranging a debate on the issue.
Senator Harris mentioned the lack of respect for politics and, with Senators Walsh and Hanafin, called on all parties to provide the necessary support, in the national interest, to solve the problem of the country's finances. I heard the utterances of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, on "The Frontline" on Monday night and the Taoiseach's endorsement of these comments. This establishes the position of Fianna Fáil. I fully support the views expressed by the three Senators this morning.
Senator Keaveney mentioned the role of music in therapy. I fully support her comments on the issue and have always done so. It is something that should be taken far more seriously by Ministers, particularly in the field of education. The Senator also mentioned the crimes committed by children and called on the Minister for Justice and Law Reform to come to the House for a debate on this serious issue.
Senator Walsh spoke about the HSE and hospital consultant contracts and called for a debate with the Minister for Health and Children which I will have no difficulty in arranging.
Senator Coghlan asked me to point out strongly to the Minister of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government his serious concerns about Killarney House and the beautiful national park in his home town of Killarney. I have no difficulty in supporting him in this regard.
Senator McFadden mentioned Loughloe House nursing home in Athlone and the terrible plight of patients in view of its proposed closure. I share the Senator's concerns about the difficulties being experienced by the five patients in the nursing home, as well as by the 24 who were there previously. I will see what I can do and will pass on her strong views to the Minister immediately after the Order of Business.
No. In the light of what the Leader said, I accept that one hour will not be long enough, although I had proposed that the debate roll over. I ask the Leader to inquire whether the Minister will be available this evening or come to the House on the earliest possible date - tomorrow or early next week. Otherwise, I will press the amendment to a vote next week.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 17 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Ciarán Cannon, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, Joe O'Toole, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)
Against the motion: 28 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, James Carroll, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Mark Dearey, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Eoghan Harris, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Paschal Mooney, Niall Ó Brolcháin, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Nicky McFadden; Níl, Senators Niall Ó Brolcháin and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost