Thursday, 23 June 2011
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2011 - Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude no later than 2.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes, and the Minister to be called on to reply no later than 2.20 p.m.
Some information became public this morning about AIB's sale of a Bulgarian commercial lending institution that it purchased three and a half years ago for €216 million and off-loaded last month for €100,000. AIB, as we know and regret, is 93% State-owned. What really worries me is that this information, from what I have read, had to be dragged out of AIB, which was not willing to disclose the terms of the sale last month. The Irish Times this morning reported that the bank had sold its stake in the Bulgarian-American Credit Bank for €100,000, which represents an effective loss to the Exchequer of €215.9 million. AIB, furthermore, will not confirm whether it must inject any further capital into this bank as part of the sale in order to extricate itself. This is a serious matter. It is ironic in one respect, and probably shows how badly the bank was managed, that the chief executive at the time the bank was purchased, Eugene Sheehy, said that the investment was part of its strategy for central and eastern Europe, "which involves acquiring and investing in businesses at reasonable valuations in targeted high growth markets". That says it all. To portray €216 million as a reasonable investment is erroneous, and in contrast to the portrayal of high-growth markets, it has effectively lost 99.9% of its value.
I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Finance to immediately undertake an independent investigation into the sale of this stake. Did it represent value for the taxpayer? I do not believe it did. Why was the information not made public, in view of the fact that the public effectively owns the bank? AIB has been asked to sell other assets to bridge the gap created by its debts. What other sales are pending at the moment? What advice is the bank getting, and who is giving it? The Minister for Finance and his Department are best placed to investigate this. I ask that it examine this sale and any other potential sales in the future, because the loss to the Exchequer on this sale is colossal.
My other question is about transport for cancer and dialysis patients in the HSE western region. We were told only yesterday that in less than a week, hundreds of patients who are dependent on transport to and from hospital for cancer and dialysis treatment will no longer have a service. To be fair to the Minister, he has only had his feet under the desk for 100 days or so, but this will happen next week, according to the HSE. My concern is about how those patients will get to their appointments, which are in many instances for life-saving treatment. What contact has the HSE had with this patients? What provisions does the Minister intend to make to ensure these patients get the treatment they need?
I find it abhorrent that the HSE feels it can just issue an announcement on this, as though it were a done deal. We have all in the past been critical of the fact that the HSE seems to effectively make its own decisions on these matters, but I would like to know what the Minister for Health proposes to do about this situation so that people in the west of Ireland can get the cancer and dialysis treatment they require next week. Are there any other surprises coming down the line from the HSE? Will this measure be expanded countrywide? Many people are concerned about this.
The issue of third level grant applications was raised by my colleague, our spokesperson on education. These are usually out by the end of May, but it is now 23 June and the application forms have not yet been issued to students. When does the Minister for Education and Skills intend to have these grant applications published? The next academic year is just around the corner and we fear that in view of the time taken to process applications, students will not receive their grants until early next year.
This was a good week for the Seanad, and an important week. The debate on yesterday's Private Members' motion by the Labour Party was particularly good, with some excellent contributions, and it is heartening to see an all-party consensus developing in this regard. I welcome Fianna Fáil's offer to come up with some further ideas and perhaps even some legislation. I also note with interest Senator MacSharry's exuberant and energetic contributions.
One speaker yesterday mentioned the summer school in Drogheda and seemed to be critical of some Senators who allegedly made some comments in favour of abolishing the Seanad. I was keen to find out more about this, and I concluded that the Senator was perhaps a little harsh in her criticism. Some Senators made mild criticisms of the Seanad, but we do need to face up to the weaknesses of the House and move to address them. As the Pope might say, the Senator was in error in her criticism of her Seanad colleagues yesterday.
The Technical Group's debate on political reform was particularly good. The fabled 12 reports on Seanad reform seem to have all died on the vine. Why is there a lack of political will to reform Seanad procedures and system? Some time ago it was suggested TG4, or another national broadcaster, would allocate some of its broadcast schedule to cover some Seanad debates. If more people could see more of our contributions, the rush for Seanad abolition might not be as strong as it is.
During the debate on the Private Members' motion on how the Seanad conducts its business, I mentioned that political reform and active citizenship will be one of my themes during my Seanad term. Another theme I will be concentrating on is how education should work for the betterment of our citizens. I will be advocating and promoting a more holistic approach to education based on inquiry, thought and pluralism and not on memory tests and singular voice.
Last November, the then Government published a draft national plan on better literacy and numeracy for children and young people which has led to a good and concerned debate among educators, parents and students. Will the Leader inform the House about the current status of the draft plan? Will a final plan be published? I believe the date for submissions was extended from the end of January to 28 February 2011. We are now almost in July. When the final plan is published, will the Leader set aside time for the Seanad to debate its findings and recommendations with not only the Minister for Education and Skills but the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and other Ministers who could have an impact in this area?
While bettering literacy and numeracy for children and young people is important, this should not be done at the expense of an holistic approach to education. A submission from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment welcomes the focus of the draft plan, particularly on the clear mapping of how the plan for better literacy and numeracy fits in with the priorities for children's learning more generally. Alarmingly, however, it states:
The prioritisation of literacy and numeracy in this draft plan raises fundamental questions concerning what we want for our young people's education today and the kinds of learning experiences that are most likely to meet those priorities. Both the entitlement of all children to competence in literacy and numeracy, and the need to improve the current situation are uncontested. But a relentless focus on literacy and numeracy must be balanced with a concern for children's learning more generally. It is of note, in this context, that the importance of fostering innovative endeavour in our learners - concerned with risk-taking, failing and using these experiences to imagine and develop different and better ways of living, learning and being - has been a focus of discussion by NCCA. The skills of reading and mathematics matter not just when children have them, but when they choose to use them.
This House has an extraordinary range of expertise from educators to innovators, from entrepreneurs to politicians, from lawyers to art makers and those involved in children's rights. It would contribute in a productive way to a debate on the draft plan in question and allow it to influence public policy over the next ten years.
Today's newspapers contain reports on the latest developments in the saga around the Rostrevor nursing home. It seems HIQA and its inspectors were rightly praised by the District Court judge when the order for the home's closure was made.
An issue, however, arises as to what protection is available for those who blow the whistle on abuses in nursing homes and other such situations. A further issue arises with regard to the position of migrant workers who may become unemployed as a consequence of their whistleblowing. Is there any protection for these persons from deportation, for example? It would be invidious and unjust that a person could find himself or herself in a vulnerable situation as a result of exposing wrongdoing in the public interest.
These matters can be discussed next week in Private Members' time when I will table a motion on the protection available for whistleblowers in society. We need to have particular regard to the challenge facing migrant workers and the kind of circumstances involved, such as in the case of the Rostrevor nursing home. I am sure many Members are already exercised about the need for greater legal protection for whistleblowers. It is a timely issue and the current story about the Rostrevor nursing home illustrates one of the problems that arises.
Yesterday, in response to some points I made on the Order of Business, the Leader said a preferendum could not be allowed for the public to decide the future of the Seanad. There is, however, a difference between putting the issue to the people for final decision in a preferendum and my suggestion of using it is a first step in consulting the public. There cannot be any constitutional or legislative obstacle to holding a preferendum as a means of consultation. When we are shaping our democratic institutions for the next generation, it is not acceptable to have a three-week debate culminating in a referendum with a "Yes" or "No" question. What is called for is a more extended process of consultation.
One way of doing so would be for these Houses to devise several questions and possible options which can then be put to the people in a preferendum, perhaps coinciding with the forthcoming presidential election. This would allow the people to indicate what they see as preferred choices. One could then have the referendum at a later stage which would lead to a more considered shaping by the people of our legislative institutions.
I welcome the good start made by the national forum on patronage and pluralism in education. It is clear there is goodwill on all sides.
Will the Leader agree with me that if we can get away from the targeting of people seeking to control schools and recognise that different groups in society have the right to aspire to provide education with the support of the people they represent, great progress will be made in this area? It is somewhat of a pity that there was no great attendance at the opening session of the forum but that reflects the fact that many people are very happy with the ways our schools are run and the issue of patronage. This should not be lost on those organising and participating in this forum.
In light of the announcement by the British Government to close 15 of its 18 lighthouses across the United Kingdom, will the Leader invite the Minister with responsibility for the marine to the House to establish if this will have any implications for Irish lighthouses? This matter was raised in the House on previous occasions. I am interested in it because a number of years ago the previous Government bought millions of euro worth of new equipment for the lighthouses at Malin Head and Valentia. That equipment is lying idle and has not been put installed. In light of the British Government's announcement this morning, does the fact that the equipment has not been installed indicate a policy of closure by stealth in respect of the Malin Head and Valentia lighthouses? I ask that the Minister come before the House, as a matter of urgency, to confirm that neither facility is being closed by stealth and also to indicate that the equipment will be installed in order that both might be upgraded and their futures secured.
Will the Leader make time available, as soon as possible, for a debate on the aquaculture industry and on mariculture, a branch thereof? The aquaculture industry has been neglected and in the past I criticised Governments of which my party was a part in that regard. For example, there is a seven-year wait to obtain aquaculture licences. Let us consider what has been achieved in Norway, Scotland, France and Chile where coastal waters are used to provide jobs. For example, at one stage some 50,000 people were employed in the mussel industry in Chile. As an island nation in a time of recession, the creation of employment along our coastline is critical.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Simon Coveney, to come before the House to debate the specific direction in which the aquaculture industry is going? The industry has been bogged down for a number of years. Bord Iascaigh Mhara and those involved in aquaculture and mariculture produced figures in the early 1990s when the target to be achieved in respect of exports was 50,000 tonnes. Those figures indicated that the level of production never exceeded 10,000 tonnes. Regardless of whether one considers the position in Scotland, France or Norway during the same period, one will discover that production in these countries far exceeded that in Ireland. This indicates that something is radically wrong with the industry in this country.
I am not seeking that money be injected into the aquaculture industry because the latter could be self-financing in its own way and could assist in creating employment. What I want is for the industry to get out of the rut into which it has fallen. I have no doubt that several thousand jobs could be created along our coastline. I request that time be made available for a debate specifically confined to aquaculture and mariculture in order that we might discover how we might map our way forward in the context of creating jobs. Perhaps the Minister, who might bring a new impetus to bear, could help get this industry out of its current rut.
I concur with Senator Mac Conghail who stated that a more holistic approach should be taken to education. As a teacher, I agree that this is the direction in which education must go. I welcome the news that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, is due to meet book publishers in respect of schoolbooks. That is an extremely important matter, particularly at this time of the year when the State examinations are due to conclude. The amount of paper that is wasted and the number of books which cannot be passed on is scandalous. My son is completing his leaving certificate today and my daughter sat her leaving certificate last year. My other daughter is due to sit the same examination next year. Each of them took eight subjects for the leaving certificate cycle but only two textbooks were common among the three. Last night we packed a suitcase full of books that are no good to anyone because the publishers have brought out new editions. A few weeks ago, Senator Feargal Quinn referred to the amount of paper that is being wasted through the use of envelopes. I am of the view that it is extremely important that attention be drawn to the waste of paper to which schoolbooks give rise.
I welcome the news regarding the school that agreed to be part of the pilot scheme to introduce iPads into education. This is a fantastic idea not only because it will lead to a greater level of holistic learning, but also as a result of the fact that it will mean children will no longer be obliged to carry heavy schoolbags. Any Senators who are parents are only too well aware of the dangers posed by such schoolbags.
I request that the Leader ask the Minister to comment on the proposal that the schoolbook loan scheme be made compulsory in every school. Many schools are involved in the scheme but quite a number are not. Given that we are in a recession, we must consider ways to reduce costs for both parents and teachers. We must do so before schools issue their book lists.
I wish to pay tribute to or note the passing of an old friend who was a very distinguished leader of Irish life. I presume it is permissible to do so. I am not seeking tributes to a former Member, although I understand that sadly there will be a need for such tributes in respect of another individual. I am sure the House will join me in mourning the passing of Kader Asmal, who was a colleague of mine at Trinity College. He was also one of the founders of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, on the board of which I served with him and Mary Robinson for many years. He then went on to serve as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, a very important role, and Minister of Education in South Africa. I was extremely sorry to hear of his death and I am sure other Senators will join me in mourning his passing.
I wish to request a debate on the Bethany Home. This is the third occasion on which I have raised this matter since the current Seanad came into being. I also raised it during the lifetime of the previous Seanad. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí, has refused to include the survivors of the Bethany Home in the redress scheme. That is quite astonishing, particularly as the former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. John Neill, specifically requested that Government to include these people as a matter of urgency. Dr. Neill apologised on behalf of the Church of Ireland to the survivors of the home.
It is remarkable that this appeal from so senior a member of the Church of Ireland has been completely ignored by the Government. That prompts me to wonder whether it is only Roman Catholic institutions which come under the scrutiny of the State. All institutions, regardless of their religious ethos or whether they are secular State institutions, should come under such scrutiny. I attended a ceremony held in Mount Jerome cemetery in the company of one of the survivors of the Bethany Home, Mr. Derek Leinster - I commend him on his courage - at which flowers were laid on a plot containing the unmarked graves of 219 children. We should not brush this matter under the carpet.
I agree with Senator Moran's comments regarding schoolbooks. A huge amount of paper is wasted in this regard. When I attended school, the nice Mr. Murray who worked in Hodges Figgis would exchange books for one. There was a second-hand books department in the basement of the shop and one could hand in one's books for a particular year and receive a discount on the books one needed for the following year. Such recycling would be extremely apt in the current climate and it should not be confined to schoolbooks. Senators receive an enormous number of reports which they do not have time to read. It would be better if we were presented with single page transcripts of these and we could then seek further printed material, if required, or else seek the relevant information online. A massive amount of paper is wasted in these Houses.
I ask the Leader to confirm that the recycling programme previously in place in the Houses has been abandoned. I hope the Government will reinstate it because all the unused material could be placed in green bags and recycled. I do not know why the programme was brought to a halt but that certainly happened during the final session of the previous Oireachtas.
No matter what Senators may say, we face a major challenge in terms of communicating information about the work we do in this House and also the value of such work. In that context, I support the comments made by Senators Gilroy and Mullen that a way must be found to put in place an extended process of consultation. We should approach broadcasters - perhaps, as Senator Gilroy stated, TG4 - which might be willing to devote more time to airing the proceedings of this House. Consideration should also be given to establishing a national forum on the Seanad. This would allow us to engage in a national conversation regarding the value of the work done here. Democracy is an extremely fragile flower and in the run-up to the referendum we should be careful that this House will not be abolished on a whim without the ramifications thereof being fully considered in the first instance. If the Leader could consider both of my proposals in this regard, I would be very grateful.
I support Senator Mac Conghail's call for a debate on the quality of the education imparted to children in classrooms. Such a debate should maintain a clear focus on educational outcomes around literacy and numeracy. As a former educator, I am aware that imparting knowledge to children is not easy.
Considering the many issues with which teachers have to contend, much of the time it is down to the expertise of the teacher in the classroom and how he or she manages all the problems. I believe we need a debate on the matter.
I am very concerned at the decisions being made by the HSE without clear communication with the Minister. This ties in with something Senator O'Brien said. I had first-hand experience of this yesterday when we brought a delegation from UCHG to meet the Minister for Health. That hospital is seeking 24 nurses just to keep theatres open and eliminate the backlog. Four of the hospital's 16 theatres could not be used because of a lack of nurses.
When it was put to the Minister, he provided 14.5 of those nurses because the HSE was not doing its job. The Minister will be coming to the House soon and I know he is up to his eyes with requests for meetings. He has 600 meetings on his plate at the moment. However, he is doing his utmost. How can communication be improved? The HSE is operating like a republic on its own because of the authority the previous Government gave it.
I concur with Senator O'Brien on the removal of transport services from the HSE. Senator Healy Eames also referred to the matter and I hope she will now take action in this regard. It is the responsibility of Government Senators to do what we did in the past and preserve these services. These services were provided for dialysis and cancer patients in the west and all of a sudden the HSE has now cancelled it. Those on the other side of the House have enormous responsibility and I hope they take it seriously. They should speak to the Minister, Deputy Reilly. Even though he abolished the HSE board, the HSE is still in existence.
The Government better control the monster. Why has the HSE west been isolated from the rest of the country vis-À-vis transport? This needs to be resolved and nothing less than the full restoration of the service will be acceptable.
I have just come back from attending a Council of Europe meeting in recent days and I discover another stealth tax. It is not possible to leave the country without coming back to another stealth tax. First there was property tax, water tax and now a proposal for a septic tank tax.
It is a very good phrase. There are 450,000 septic tanks in the country, not all of which operate to the satisfaction of the Environmental Protection Agency. The cost of replacing these tanks will be approximately €15,000 per household if they are close to a public water supply. The reality is that the people will not be able to afford this and the Government will need to introduce a grant scheme in this regard. It is unacceptable to introduce a €200 to €300 charge just for inspections because people know the exact state of their septic tanks and are prepared to discuss it with the local authorities. This is an outrageous attack on people living in rural areas.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House forthwith to explain the situation and put a halt to his gallop; this man has gone mad and is charging for everything. Fresh air will be charged for next and it will be impossible to survive here.
One Senator referred to a problem with bogs. The bogs pale into insignificance compared with the attack on those living in rural areas with the imposition of a charge of €200 to €300 per household for the sake of carrying out inspections which are unnecessary.
We could confiscate his passport in the meantime.
The accident and emergency unit in Letterkenny General Hospital was due to open in June 2012. However, following McNamara Construction going into receivership, the project has been put back by up to a year. I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, has made a statement on it, but I ask the Leader to bring it to the attention of the Minister. According to radio reports in recent days, the two most dangerous times of the year to get sick are in January and July because of the changeover of junior doctors. The accident and emergency unit in Letterkenny like other accident and emergency facilities throughout the country will be under severe pressure in the summertime. I ask the Leader to talk to the Minister for Health and also the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, to expedite the project. I understand the legal position with the receivership is complicated. However, such complications should not get in the way of people's treatment. It should be brought to a conclusion very quickly because the money is there to do it and the receiver obviously has a job to do. Given that we have been waiting for years for a new accident and emergency unit in Letterkenny, I ask that we get clarity on the issue. It should be possible to ask the receiver directly to get the work finished in the interest of the people in County Donegal.
I support Senator O'Donovan's call for the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to come to the House for a debate on mariculture and aquaculture. The size of that industry here is less than one tenth of that in Scotland, which illustrates how we have failed to exploit the resource the sea represents for us. Our shipping, fishing, mariculture and aquaculture sectors are a pale reflection of what they could be and we need to lay emphasis on the area. Having listened to the Minister recently I know he has a priority focus on the area and I am sure he would welcome coming to this Chamber for such a debate.
I welcome yesterday's announcement by the Minister with responsibility for public reform and expenditure on adjusting salaries across the public and semi-State sectors. However, it is creating some anomalies. It is inexplicable that hospital consultants would be excluded from that at this stage given that they are earning 50% more than people doing similar jobs in Britain. Of all the professions it is the most skilled and probably should be at the top of the remuneration scale. However, in the current economic climate it is essential that no area of privilege is ignored. The real anomaly is that there has been no announcement from the Minister or any other member of the Government on curtailing legal costs and fees. We are still paying barristers €2,500 a year.
This means they are getting multiple amounts compared with people working full-time for the State and doing much more important work. It is continuing with gay abandon and is disgraceful. I ask the Leader for an early debate on the matter. It is one of the big failures of the previous Government, which should have tackled it. I hope the current Government will not drag its feet in that regard.
I wish the Minister, Deputy Bruton, well today in his discussions with the Labour Party with regard to the JLCs and REAs. For the past three years I have been saying that it is not just a downward adjustment that is needed, but they should be suspended along with the minimum wage for a period of three years in order to try to generate employment. I have made this case in the House many times. I spoke to a representative of one of the major flagship multinationals based in this country that is recruiting significant numbers of staff. I was told that of every five people on the live register who are also on FÁS's list of people seeking employment, only one is interested in being interviewed and exploring the possibility of getting a job.
This is disgraceful. It is unsustainable in any economic climate and in the current climate, in which we are heading for the rocks, it is lunacy. Something needs to be done. I support the sensible proposals made by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton. I hope the Opposition parties will row in behind him and that people in the Labour Party who may be married to some failed ideologies will also see sense. It makes no sense to have people remain on the live register if there are jobs, albeit scare, to which we can direct them.
I echo the sentiments of Senator Gilroy and others on communicating messages from this House. There has been much debate on the reform and abolition of the House. While we are here, we have a responsibility to communicate what we are doing to the people as best we possibly can. We have a very good communications unit in the House and further resources should be diverted thereto to enable it to send our message to as many people as possible.
It is great to see so many school groups visiting the House because this is bringing democracy to young people. Some years ago an outreach day was held here on a Saturday during which children from all over the country were invited to walk around the Houses of the Oireachtas. If this outreach day is being organised again, I would like to know the date on which it will be held. I suggest that on one Saturday per month, the Dáil and Seanad be opened for people who would like to visit, in the same way as they were opened for the young people.
Communications is important. We can justify our existence if we communicate our message to people. If there is a debate on education and we can alert those involved in education throughout the country that it is happening, we may be able to justify our existence.
I agree with the sentiments of the Leader of the Opposition, Senator O'Brien, in respect of AIB. I was very disturbed to read in recent days that AIB purchased over 100 cars registered in 2011. As far as I am concerned, the bank is a State agency. The State owns 93% of it, as Senator O'Brien correctly pointed out. Who authorised the bank to purchase the cars when the country is broke?
I admire the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan-----
He has brought in a new team to drive banking policy in the Department. I commend him on this. I ask the Leader to raise with the CPP the concept of inviting to the House the chairmen and chief executives of the State-owned banks to explain themselves so that they will be accountable to the people for the billions of euro in taxpayers' money their banks have received over recent years.
Yesterday Senator Kathryn Reilly asked for a debate on food labelling and the Leader said it will be held in a couple of weeks. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has points to make, but not only on food labelling, from which we can learn. A debate is to take place on raw milk legislation over the weekend at the Totally Tipperary food festival. Such legislation is to be introduced in this country later this year. It is very interesting that some say raw milk is safe while others say it is not. We can debate this. In Britain, raw milk is allowed to be sold and used for cheese-making. A number of farmers in Ireland rely on it and have very successful cheese-making operations. Are we to say the State will protect those who have always consumed raw milk and cheese or are we to say it will interfere?
We must interfere if safety is at stake. I heard a professor state the argument made by those whose families have consumed raw milk for generations with no adverse effects, thus provoking them to ask why the State is interfering, is like arguing that, in spite of legislation passed, one wants the right not to put seatbelts on one's children in the car. This subject is worthy of debate in the House because, while the State deciding what is right for the people exposes it to the danger of becoming a nanny state, it must ensure the safety of the citizens is taken into consideration.
I am reminded of the calls for a debate yesterday on tight State control of the pricing policy of hotels. There is some belief that the marketplace is not the right place to decide on such policy. If we had tight control on prices, as we used to have in various areas, we would never have had a Ryanair. One may not like Ryanair, but one should note it has managed to introduce a form of transport that has enabled a very large number of people to travel who would not otherwise have travelled. If the State decides what people should do and what hotel prices should be, such that hotels cannot increase prices when there is a big event taking place, it is not in accord with the principles of the marketplace. Ryanair is a very good example of a company that would charge an outrageously high price if there were a big football match taking place and a very low price if nothing were taking place. This is the nature of the marketplace and what we should be taking into account.
I would very much like to have a debate on the remarks of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, particularly on raw milk legislation, and I am sure it can be included in the debate on food labelling.
I agree, for once, with Senator Leyden in that it is not all fun being in Government. This is because of the state in which the country was left by his party some months ago. He is scare-mongering as usual in regard to the proposed septic tank charge, as reported in the newspapers this morning. No legislation has been introduced on this yet. Senator Leyden forgot to mention that whatever measure is introduced will be to prevent a fine for nonconformance being imposed by the European Commission. This issue was not addressed by the previous Administration.
Earlier in the week, I raised the issue of HSE transport in the west for cancer and dialysis patients. This was raised by Senator O'Brien this morning. At a meeting of the HSE forum in Galway on Tuesday, the HSE denied it is to withdraw transport services from those patients. If there is confusion about this, I ask the Leader to clarify with the Minister for Health whether the HSE has rowed back on what was outlined at the public meeting in Galway.
Some fine contributions were made in the House over the past week or so on Seanad reform. It worries me that the pace of reform may be very slow. Some weeks ago Senator Quinn asked in the House for a very minor administrative change whereby the Order Paper we receive every morning would not be received in a sealed brown envelope. If there were no envelopes and each Member's address were printed on the Order Paper, we would make the saving requested by Senator Quinn.
We are all concerned about the deteriorating circumstances in Northern Ireland.
As the July marching season approaches, I would like the Minister for Justice and Equality to give us an update on the discussions he is having with his counterparts in the North and to determine whether there is anything this House can do to help diffuse the situation. It is of grave concern and I would hate to see the wonderful work that has been done by so many in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years undone by a few thugs intent on indulging in mindless vandalism and hooliganism.
I wish to add to what Senator Mullins stated on the North. While the violence may not have been as intense last night as it was over the preceding two nights, it demonstrated none the less the hatred and violence that can be generated by young thugs in the North, particularly in Belfast. As we approach the marching season, every effort should be made. I know the Government will be working with the authorities in the North. I call for a debate on the issue and perhaps the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade could come to the House for a debate on the North and where we are at in this regard.
I support my colleague, Senator O'Donovan, in his call for a debate on aquaculture licences. This would be a worthwhile debate as 579 applications have been made to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for aquaculture licences. Taking into account the 2,800 people working in the aquaculture sector, these applications must be fast tracked. The majority are new applications and the rest are for renewals. I hope they can be fast tracked and that we can have a debate on this specific issue at an early date.
I welcome the move by the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, in recognising the work of the previous Government and in moving to bring about pay cuts to the semi-State sector and senior executives in the public service. However, I react with some alarm to the fact that the Minister, Deputy Howlin, appears to have failed to include the chief executive officer of AIB. A number of Senators on the Government side have acknowledged it is now a nationalised bank. Why has the CEO of AIB been excluded? I would like to know. Reference was made to the 11 cars purchased by that particular semi-State company.
There is also the issue of bonuses and the disgraceful decision not to include the chief executive officer of the ESB in the semi-State pay cuts. Irrespective of what his calibre is, he earns more than €700,000 per annum and in the current climate this is totally unacceptable. I call on the Leader to request the Minister, Deputy Howlin, to come to the House for a general discussion on this issue. I know all Senators, irrespective of our party allegiance, would like to see savings made in this regard. I hope we can work together and use the influence of the House to ensure people such as the chief executives of AIB and the ESB and hospital consultants can be included in the reform proposals.
I call for a debate in early course on banking for a host of reasons, not least being those serious matters touched on this morning by the Leader of the Opposition, Senator O'Brien, and Senators Conway and Ó Domhnaill. In addition, as has been acknowledged, now that the State has such a stake in the two pillar banks we should discuss the role of the public interest directors, of whom there are very few to represent such a huge majority stake. Questions must be asked about the number of personnel, their role and function and why there are not more of them.
Unfortunately, some people who steered the ship onto the rocks remain as a legacy and this is disgraceful. Perhaps as seriously, if not more so, as I have pointed out before some people in senior management positions had left the institutions and were brought back, which I find impossible to understand but which happened in at least one case in one of the two pillar banks. These matters need to be seriously examined. For all of these reasons, we need to have this debate urgently and I call on the Leader to have it as early as possible. How have people remained in senior positions when they were responsible so many wrong, frightful and awful decisions which got us into this mess? Now, they are managing impaired portfolios on an agency basis on behalf of NAMA. I will not go further into it.
I will leave it to the Leader.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Sheahan, with regard to his concerns for the coast guard particularly at Malin and Valentia and the equipment that has apparently been stored for the past number of years and not used.
I join my colleagues in congratulating the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, on implementing a budget decision of the late Deputy Brian Lenihan to impose a cap on Civil Service and semi-State pay. I am disappointed he has not gone further but it is important to acknowledge the Secretaries General throughout the Civil Service who have taken voluntary pay cuts. They should be an example to people throughout the senior levels of the semi-State sector. Like my colleague, Senator Ó Domhnaill, I do not understand why the ESB has not been included. I do not know whether other similar chief executives are on similar money to the chief executive of the ESB. I doubt it very much.
With regard to the matter I raised on the Adjournment yesterday on the Croke Park agreement, it would be important to have a full debate on the House. I asked why pension costs of retiring public servants were not included in the first progress report.
It began by stating the saving of €289 million was driven by a reduction in staff numbers of 5,349 during the period, but after pages of gobbledygook it concluded by stating that public service pensioners have left the public service and therefore it would be wrong to include their pension costs in a progress report on the Croke Park pay agreement. On the one hand it stated savings were made through their leaving the service and, on the other, because they have left the service their pension costs cannot be included.
I wish to raise again an issue I raised a number of weeks ago on why we are facing a problem with junior doctors. In fairness to the Minister, he has dealt with it in the best way he can in a very short time but the issue which caused the problem was the centralisation of job applications and the lack of consultation between HSE management and local management on what vacancies will arise.
Many new junior doctors will begin working in two to three weeks but many of them will be on six-month or 12-month contracts. The jobs of those on six-month contracts will be vacant on 1 January. It is appropriate that the Minister come to the House and explain what action will be taken to ensure this problem will not arise again on 1 January. Many of the jobs that will be vacant on 1 January 2012 will have to be advertised by the end of August. It is important to get clarification on this matter to ensure the same mistakes made for the period commencing 1 July will not occur again on 1 January. The procedure whereby people get six-month or 12 month contracts should be reformed. Most Irish junior doctors can go to the UK and receive two, three or four-year contracts between various hospitals. There is a mess in HSE with regard to the lack of continuity. We need to examine this and I call on the Minister to come to the House to debate this issue.
The Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, stated the Taoiseach would like this Seanad to be the most efficient and effective ever. The European Council is meeting today and tomorrow and unless we have financial statesmanship we will all be in trouble. Speaking yesterday at the awards ceremony of my nominating body, the Irish Exporters Association Limited, Peter Sutherland, who received the gold medal for his work on the Irish economy, stated the EU has been incoherent and inadequate in its response to the financial crisis. He stated it was an understatement how ineffective it is. He pointed out all the good things but stated Ireland is being treated unfairly internationally. We are not like Greece and Portugal - he did not state this, it is my view. We have, in many senses, a dual economy. Our export sector is outstanding, recording a 9.5% increase in exports in 12 months, while foreign direct investment has increased by 20% since 2009. Our dynamic export sector is thanks to the work of the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government. According to one index, Ireland is the most favoured location in the world for foreign direct investment. What is wrong with a country in this position?
On the financial side, Ireland is being screwed into the ground by bondholders.
I want the terms of our loans from the European Central Bank changed. Greece, Ireland and Portugal are being treated as Germany was treated when reparations were imposed on it after the First World War. Bondholders must face up the reality that they have to cut their losses and the terms of repayments should not be two or thee years. The interest rate on our loans must also be substantially reduced. If Europe is to reach a safe haven, the bondholders will be required to cut a definitive deal. The Taoiseach and Minister for Finance, both of whom I like having known them for many years, must get their act together. They must not be afraid of President Sarkozy who is intimidating us by refusing to allow the ECB interest rate to be reduced because he considers the Irish corporation tax rate too low. I ask the Leader to have the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance attend the House next week to show they are treating the Seanad with respect.
I will be as brief as possible, even if the issue I raise is an important one. Senators need to put some order on the Order of Business, which should be renamed the "Disorder of Business" as it goes all over the place. We all read the newspapers and follow daily news reports and while it is enjoyable to listen to Senators raise various newsworthy issues for two hours on the Order of Business, it would be sufficient if 30 minutes or one hour were provided each day to discuss a topical issue. This time could be used to discuss the most relevant of the many important issues raised on the Order of Business in areas such as health, education and social welfare. We could even discuss septic tanks. Many Senators commence their contribution by asking what has been done about an issue they raised two weeks previously on the Order of Business.
When we speak about getting our message across, what is our message? What is the purpose of the House? This is a second Chamber whose role is to scrutinise legislation but that is not the message received by members of the public who only hear about spats across the House.
We should set out ten ways in which we would have a more orderly Order of Business which would deliver result. We must define and communicate to the public what is the purpose of the House, rather than having Senators engage in a chat across the floor on topical issues with a view to featuring on the "Oireachtas Report" programme. I would prefer if, at the end of each week, we could show what the House had achieved. I presume the Committee on Procedure and Privileges is the responsible authority in this regard. The Seanad should demonstrate its value for money by doing what it is supposed to do. Only then will members of the public respect the House. I hope we will receive a report setting out proposals for achieving this objective.
I will be brief. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, to attend the House for a genuine debate on competitiveness. I am surprised by the statements made by one of our colleagues. When reference is made to competitiveness in the economy the speaker always has in mind taking more from already low paid workers. To listen to some of the comments that have been made one would imagine that the entire economic disaster was caused by the minimum wage and joint labour committees. I draw Senators' attention to the fact that international research shows that more equal societies are more rather than less competitive. For this reason, I ask the Leader to have a genuine and informed debate on the issue, rather than having Senators take a "dúirt ban liom" approach to the issue on the basis of a conversation they may have had with a multinational mogul their way to the House.
In response to Senator Keane, last night's debate initiated by Senator Hayden and Labour Party Senators on the topic of distressed homeowners was an example of the Seanad at its best. Constructive alternatives were explored and the Opposition engaged constructively in a genuinely non-partisan debate on potential solutions to assist distressed homeowners in mortgage difficulties. It was an example of the Seanad adding value to the legislative process.
I support Senator Coghlan's call for a debate on banking in light of a report that Allied Irish Banks has sold for €100,000 a stake in a Bulgarian bank which it bought for more than €200 million three and a half years ago. It is a matter of grave concern to taxpayers, the majority owners of AIB, that such an enormous loss is being sustained.
I also ask for a debate on the promotion of cycling. Dublin Bike to Work Day, which fell this week, is a highly successful initiative for which Dublin City Council is to be commended.
I express sympathy on the death of Kadar Asmal, who was the leading light of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement for many years and was subsequently appointed Minister for Education in South Africa. Professor Asmal was also a colleague and good friend at Trinity College. All of us will express sympathy to his wife, Louise, and family.
Senators O'Brien and Bacik referred to the decision by AIB to sell a share in a company which was bought for €216 million for €100,000. This is a disgrace which shows how badly AIB and other banks were managed and how they completely lost the run of themselves in that past ten years. I will raise the matter with the Minister for Finance who intends to attend the House. The Minister has the highest respect for the Seanad and we will try to arrange a meeting with him before the end of the session.
Several Senators raised problems with transport for cancer and dialysis patients in the west. Such problems are not confined to the west. In the south east people who have had their transport withdrawn are having requests for funding for transport refused by community welfare officers. This matter will have to be addressed by the Minister for Health who will attend the House on 7 July. I will bring the issue to his attention beforehand.
I will also ascertain the position regarding application forms for third level grants. The forms should be available and we will try to find out the reason for the delay.
Senators Gilroy, Healy Eames and Conway raised the issue of Seanad reform, on which the House has had lengthy debates. We need to move on and progress the proposals that have been made. I hope we will be able to do so in the coming weeks.
Senator Mac Conghail referred to the report on better literacy and numeracy among young children. I will try to find out its current status. The House will debate the issue when the report is published. This is an important issue in which the Minister for Education and Skills is very interested.
Senator Mullen referred to the need for a whistleblower's charter and the possibility of introducing a Bill on the issue next week. I welcome that and note the Senator's comments on holding a preferendum and the national forum on patronage and pluralism in schools.
Senators Sheahan and Coghlan referred to the fact that 15 of the 18 lighthouses in the UK are closing and they expressed concern about the lighthouses at Malin Head and Valentia Island. I will try to throw some light on that in the coming days.
Senator O'Donovan raised the issue of aquaculture. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will attend the House for a few hours on 20 July and he will address both agriculture and aquaculture. I agree the potential in this aquaculture sector is great but we are not reaching that potential in the creation of jobs, in particular, but I am sure this matter is close to the Minister's heart and he is willing to address this problem. When we look to create jobs, the potential in this area should be maximised.
Senator Moran asked that the Minister for Education and Skills meet book publishers. This is long overdue because there is a great deal of waste. The Senator referred to her children who have completed the leaving certificate and who cannot pass on the majority of the books because of changes to the texts. This wastage will have to be addressed. I am sure everybody welcomes the initiative of the school that is introducing iPads. We need to utilise the new technologies that are available and if this alleviates the need for the children to have to carry heavy schoolbags, it should be addressed and examined.
Senators Norris and Bacik referred to the death of Kader Asmal. I join in the expressions of sympathy for him. He was a great advocate for human rights and he played his part as a Minister in his own government.
I would also to express my sympathy to the Staunton family on the sudden death yesterday of Myles Staunton, who was a former Member of both Houses.
Senator Healy Eames asked about HSE west and I alluded to this earlier. It is the Minister for Health's job to sort out the executive and I am confident he will do that.
The issue of group sewerage schemes was raised by Senator Leyden. It was also raised by Senator O'Neill earlier this week when he expressed his concerns in that regard. The Senator could raise this on the Adjournment.
Senator Harte referred to problems with accident and emergency services in Letterkenny hospital and the receiver. I will try to find out the up to date position and to move it on.
Senators Walsh and others raised the issue of capping salaries and legal and other professional fees in the public sector. The Ministers for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and without Portfolio intend to take action on this. The Minister without Portfolio has acted in this regard and the Government will not shy away from the tough decisions needed to get our public finances in order. We will try to ensure these actions are taken in a fair and equitable manner. The Minister without Portfolio has done a good job but a great deal more remains to be done.
Senator Conway mentioned AIB and she also asked about open days for the Dáil and Seanad. We have had successful open days, which were initiated by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. I am sure similar days will be facilitated, possibly during the summer.
Senator Quinn raised the issue of food labelling and the safety of raw milk. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy McEntee, will attend the House the week after next to deal with the question of food safety and food labelling. The Senator also commented on the marketplace for hotels. There is nobody better qualified in the House than him to advise on that matter.
Senator Mullins also referred to the HSE and the difficulties in Northern Ireland. What we have witnessed in Northern Ireland over the past few evenings is a matter of concern but there is good co-operation between the police forces in the North and the Republic. Relations between them have never been better and it is important that they remain as they are and that we combat the problems that arise from time to time. These problems will be combated because there are many good people in communities throughout Northern Ireland and they will not allow us to go back to the dark days of old.
With regard to Senator Ó Domhnaill's comments, Fianna Fáil presided over the pay increases that were granted in the public service and it allowed bank and ESB executives to put themselves in the outrageous position they are in. The Government is trying to do something about this.
Senator Coghlan called for a debate on banking. The Minister for Finance has expressed a wish to come to the House as soon as his diary permits. As soon as the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2011, which will be introduced in the House next week, is passed, I am sure the Minister without Portfolio will come to the House to discuss public service reform and the Croke Park agreement.
Senator Burke raised the issue of contracts for junior doctors. As I stated yesterday, the Minister for Health will attend the House on 7 July to address this problem.
Senator White referred to yesterday's awards ceremony, which took place while we had a debate on European affairs. I remind the Senator that a Fianna Fáil-led Government negotiated the EU-IMF deal.
With regard to the issue raised by Senator Keane, the Order of Business is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Group leaders have three minutes to make a contribution while other Members have two minutes. The Cathaoirleach gives latitude from time to time. The Order of Business is used quite well in the majority of cases but there is a great deal of repetition and if it can be improved, we will do so. I welcome suggestions in that regard.
I note Senator Hayden's comments about the JLCs. The Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Perry, was in the House yesterday to address the jobs initiative and competitiveness. The Minister without Portfolio has also taken out the axe and capped salaries in excess of €200,000 in the public sector. It is a start and this process will continue. The Government is only in office for 100 day or so and we will continue to act in a fair and equitable manner at all times.