Thursday, 7 July 2011
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 1, motion re the arrangements for tomorrow's sitting, to be taken without debate; No. 2, motion re the Harbours Acts 1996 to 2009 (Transfer of Functions of Dundalk Port Company) Order 2011, back from committee, to be taken without debate; No. 3, motion re the mutual recognition of protection measures in civil matters opt-in, to be referred to the joint committee and to be taken without debate; No. 4, Public Health (Tobacco) (Amendment) Bill 2011 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3 and to conclude not later than 1.45 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed six minutes, and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than 1.40 p.m.; No. 5, the Defence (Amendment) Bill - Committee Stage, to be taken at 2.45 p.m. and to conclude not later than 4.15 p.m. if not previously concluded; and No. 6, the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2011 - Report Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 5 and to conclude not later than 6.15 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.45 p.m. to 2.45 p.m.
I thank the Leader for his contribution yesterday on the re-ordering of business and allowing additional time to debate a number of the Bills, particularly Report Stage of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to be taken later and the Final Stages of the Defence (Amendment) Bill to be taken tomorrow. I genuinely thank the Leader for that because it shows that when we work together on the ordering of business, Members can be satisfied that they can contribute properly to the debates.
I wish to raise a number of matters. The European Central Bank today intends to announce a further interest rate rise of 0.25%, the second rise since April. It is likely there will be another two increases before the year's end. We are all aware of the pressures mortgage holders are under and these additional increases, based on a €250,000 mortgage, will mean an extra €100 per month in repayments.
There was a raft of promises in the programme for Government on assistance for mortgage holders in distress, including increasing the mortgage interest relief to 30% for first-time buyers and people who bought houses between 2004 and 2008. In the past week my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, asked the Minister for Finance what the Government intended to do about that and when it would follow through on the firm and detailed commitments given in the programme for Government. Last month, the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, stated that the Government would examine a number of proposals regarding its commitment and that any changes to mortgage interest relief would be considered in the context of the annual budget and Finance Bill process. What we have now is another review. We have detailed commitments in the programme for Government that have not been honoured. I put it to the Leader that mortgage holders cannot wait until the budget in December and the passing of the Finance Bill in January. If the Government has made firm commitments in the programme for Government, this side of the House and my colleagues in the other House will have no difficulty in facilitating it in quickly bringing forward the commitments it made both in the run up to the election and during the formation of the Government.
Will the Leader indicate the proposals the Government will be bringing forward on providing assistance for mortgage holders? When will the Government follow through on its commitment to increase mortgage interest relief to 30% for those who bought houses between 2004 and 2008? When will the Government bring forward legislation to make good on those promises because, unfortunately, in terms of the ECB action, people will have at least two further interest rate increases before the end of the year? I would like to know from the Government when it intends to do that, and I put it to the Leader that it should be done urgently.
My colleague, Senator Thomas Byrne, yesterday raised a serious issue directly with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. I believe the Minister withheld very important information from this House when the debate on the Smithwick tribunal was being taken. The Minister and the Government have restricted that tribunal, tied its hands and set a date of November for the tribunal to report. The tribunal chairman has stated that witnesses will not now come to the tribunal. I remind Members that our party tabled an amendment which was defeated in the Seanad to allow for additional time for the tribunal to report.
Prior to him coming into this House the Minister had in his possession a letter from Judge Smithwick outlining his grave concerns about Government restrictions on the tribunal. The Minister did not even allude to that. Our amendment was voted down. In the interests of clarity and transparency, the Minister should have, at the very least, informed this House and the Dáil during the debate that he was in possession of a letter from the chairperson of the tribunal, Mr. Justice Smithwick, stating the timing restrictions would hinder the job being done by the latter. The Minister did not inform the House; rather, he withheld vital information. My party has tabled a motion of censure of the Minister in the Dáil. We intend to follow this through in the Seanad at every available opportunity. If a Minister is to show scant disregard for the Oireachtas by withholding crucial information relevant to a Bill before either House, it is unacceptable. Our amendment was defeated and the Minister never even alluded to the information in his possession. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to return to the House specifically tell us, as Members of the Oireachtas, that he did not inform us he had received a letter from Mr. Justice Smithwick.
I appreciate Senator O'Brien's comments on the Leader's comments yesterday on the reordering of business. The Leader was very gracious in accepting responsibility for the shortened debate on the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Neither I nor any of the other leaders who saw a draft of the timetable believed two hours would be too little for Committee Stage of the Bill. I certainly did not believe debate on the amendments involved would take more than two hours. We will certainly be more careful in future. There was no intention to cut short the debate. I was involved in it and did not want to cut it short either.
Senator O'Brien referred to mortgage holders. I share his concern over the announcement that the European Central Bank is to raise interest rates. This is of major concern to all of us. I remind the Senator that the Labour group hosted a Private Members' debate some weeks ago on aids and supports for distressed mortgage holders. The Minister present stated he would consider some of the very constructive proposals made by my colleague, Senator Hayden, and others about reliefs offered in other countries to mortgage holders in distress.
I call for a debate on the renewed allegations about News of the World. I stated yesterday Irish readers should be boycotting News of the World. Given the recent reports and the escalation in their gravity, it is important that Irish readers vote with their feet this Sunday. The Irish Independent reports today that there may be two Irish victims of phone hacking by News of the World. There may be others. The Data Protection Commissioner was quite robust yesterday in suggesting what occurred would not happen here. Today there is much more concern that it is happening or has happened here. We have all learned in the past 24 hours how easy it is for unscrupulous journalists to engage in telephone hacking. The political scandal has escalated in Britain in the past 24 hours and it seems likely a major inquiry will be launched. This is especially significant because politicians in both Ireland and Britain have long been fearful of the power of News International and Rupert Murdoch. To see advertisers withdrawing advertisements from News of the World in disgust shows us that it is time we spoke up about this. Senators Gilroy and Conway, I and others did so yesterday and we should continue to do so. We should urge readers to show their disgust. It would be worth having a debate on this in the House.
I called yesterday for a debate on the contribution of religious orders to the redress Bill. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, pointed out that the religious orders are falling well short of paying a 50% share of the enormous bill of €1.36 billion payable on foot of the redress scheme. The Irish Examiner has had a very comprehensive series of reports on the amount of money and properties available to religious orders. It points out today that only seven of 200 schools owned by religious orders worth over €1 million each have been offered thus far to make up the shortfall. The Minister is correct that more properties of this kind could well be offered to make up the clear shortfall.
Having come to the House from the outside world of sport, having noted the doom and gloom associated with the economic recession and the various cutbacks that have been implemented over recent years and having heard the moaning and groaning, I reflect on the Irish sportsmen and sportswomen who continue to instil in us tremendous pride and passion and lift the spirits of the nation, not just here but among the diaspora throughout the world. Included are our rugby heroes, boxer Katie Taylor who won a gold medal at the European Union Women Championships and the Irish male boxers who also won medals at European level. Last week, we alluded to Rory McIlroy winning the U.S. Open. My own son was part of the Irish team that won the European Cross Country Championships at a time when this was not expected. When I reflect on such successes, I note that sportsmen going through bad times must not focus on the negative but on the positive; otherwise they would keep on losing. If one focuses on the negative, one will have negative energy and if one focuses on the positive, one will have positive energy. This positive energy will overflow into the general public.
Owing to my commitments at a joint committee, I was not in the Chamber some days ago when Special Olympics Ireland was being congratulated on the floor. I understand, however, that Senators were congratulating the organisation and referring to the 107 medals that Team Ireland brought home from the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens. I am not present today to offer congratulations on the 107 medals but to highlight what 107 medals represent for Special Olympics Ireland. I refer to the positive energy that exudes from the people who run the organisation. In 2003, the Special Olympics World Summer Games were held in Ireland, and this showcased the country all around the world. Special Olympics Ireland decided to use the legacy of the games in 2003 to build on its activities in Ireland and to provide sports facilities and programmes for people with special needs. Since 2003 Special Olympics Ireland has been regarded as a leader and beacon of light by the global Special Olympics organisation. The global organisation tries to learn from Special Olympics Ireland.
Special Olympics Ireland continues to grow to this very day. Owing to its strategic planning thus far, it has over 25,000 volunteers, and 10,000 athletes and families are involved. The organisation brings together corporate sponsors, Government agencies and the police forces of Northern Ireland and the South. Special Olympics Ireland is an unstoppable force. In 2007, it enjoyed a grant from the Irish Sports Council to the tune of up to €3 million but this grant has been cut by 50%. It now amounts to approximately €1.5 million. When Special Olympics Ireland's grant was cut, we did not hear a word of moaning or groaning from the organisation. It knew it faced a challenge, which was to pull together, work together and become a flame of hope for communities throughout the Thirty-two Counties. The Special Olympics do not just take place every two or four years but every single day, all year round, among the communities. Special Olympics Ireland provides sporting activities for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
Special Olympics Ireland's funding is on a downward trend. I ask the Leader to contact the Department of Health, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Social Protection to ascertain whether they have any means of allowing the funding to continue rather than having it allocated through the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Irish Sports Council.
I would be glad to hear more of it.
I appreciate the manner in which the Leader responded yesterday to the concerns of so many Members in regard to the ordering of business, particularly the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
To the best of my knowledge, the Minister for Social Protection has not been invited to the House yet.
I welcome the opportunity to have a debate on social protection. At a time when we are closing hospitals and having to restrict very severely the amount of money we have to spend, my attention has been drawn to the fact that during the good times during which we needed many emigrants to help us to build the economy, we established a jobseeker's allowance and other allowances that were multiples of what can be earned elsewhere. When someone who has come from abroad and worked here and contributed to our economy returns home, he or she is still paid the jobseeker's allowance for a certain period of time. This is a multiple of what is paid in that country as it is based on the Irish rate and not on the rate of the person's home country. While we could have afforded this in the past I am not sure we can do so now. It may well be that we do not have an option. I understand there may be EU regulations which do not permit us to pay those who have returned home the rate of their own country.
I would welcome a discussion on this and other areas that need to be discussed. There was a time when we could be generous, and we were generous because we had the benefits of the workers from abroad. However, it could well be that we cannot quite afford to do it at a time when we are closing hospitals. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Social Protection to come to the House for a wide-ranging debate on the amount of money we spend on social protection in various areas so we can ensure we are getting the best value for money.
I could not resist commenting.
I call on the Leader to request at the earliest opportunity the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to come before the House. I know he has a heavy work schedule and much legislation pending. There has never been a more appropriate time for him to set out his stall and give preliminary notice to the House of his plans for what I believe will be complex legislation on media ownership and control in the country. It is vital that we do so at this juncture, particularly in view of the story doing the rounds at present with regards to phone hacking and the scurrilous and sinister journalistic practices in the UK.
I raise this matter this morning because in the current edition of the Irish Journalist, which is the magazine of the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, the Irish secretary of the NUJ, Séamus Dooley, writes that bosses should not be allowed to control the news. He raises serious matters which would be of concern to Members of the House regarding editorial independence in the national media in particular.
I support his call for the establishment of a media commission to examine all aspects of media ownership and control. To facilitate a consultation process which is as broad as possible, perhaps Members of the House could take part in it and be represented on the commission. Mr. Dooley has also called for members of the NUJ and journalists to live up to the union's proud traditions and high standards of defending editorial independence and genuine journalism free of commercial bias rooted in private agendas.
It is important that the House notes the NUJ, through its Irish secretary, has stated there is now irrefutable evidence that across a broad range of print and broadcast media outlets attempts have been made to shape the coverage and interfere with the reporting of the recent Moriarty tribunal. This would be of grave concern to the House. We all received copies of the three large volumes of the tribunal's report. It does not take too much to consider that in a small country such as ours how a small group of people who are media moguls could stymie the reporting of important matters of public interest. I raise this in light of the shocking revelations regarding the News of the World. It would be naive in the extreme to think it is going on in the UK and not here.
My question is whether the Minister will come before the House at the earliest opportunity to set out his plans regarding legislation on media ownership because the issue of cross ownership of broadcasting and print media is important. Many Members might not be aware that even small local and regional newspapers such as the Kilkenny People and the Limerick Leader are no longer locally owned and are not even owned by people in the country. This requires urgent investigation and legislation to ensure we have a free and open press.
Is mian liom tagairt a dhéanamh don méid atá sa Bhille dlí atá os comhair an Tí inniu i dtaca leis an teanga oifigiúil, an Ghaeilge, agus an laghdú stádais atá molta sa Bhille faoi alt 46 i dtaca le foilsiúcháin Achtanna de chuid Tithe an Oireachtais. I refer to section 46 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which relates to the downgrading of the status of the Irish language and the 2003 Act introduced by the previous Government on the publication on the Oireachtas website of Houses of the Oireachtas Acts. If the Bill as proposed were passed it would mean Bills would be published on the website in English only and not in Irish. This is a disgrace and an indictment of policy on the Irish language. Will the Leader liaise with the Minister for Justice and Equality and Government officials to have the Bill amended before it enters the House today? This side of the House will lodge amendments. The Government should see sense and live up to the commitment in the programme for Government-----
The Government should live up to the commitment in the programme for Government that the Official Languages Act 2003 would be reviewed prior to any decision to downgrade the provisions of the Act. The Government should show that commitment in the House later today.
I also want to refer to an issue raised by the Leader of the Opposition in the House, Senator O'Brien, namely, the alarming news coming from Europe that the ECB will increase its interest rate by 0.25%. This will affect 400,000 Irish homeowners who are on tracker mortgages and will increase mortgages by approximately €15 per every €100,000. The other alarming news we are learning today is that the two semi-nationalised banks, namely, Bank of Ireland and AIB, are considering increasing their variable mortgage rates. This would have drastic consequences for the people of the country who have mortgages with these institutions.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to include an emergency debate on this issue today, in the presence of the Minister for Finance or the Minister of State at that Department, so the public interest directors on the boards of both institutions are made aware by the Government of the serious consequences that any increase in mortgage rates would have for the customers of both these banks which are supported by the taxpayers of the country.
I second Senator Ó Domhnaill's amendment to the Order of Business. I do so because it is perfectly clear that the interest rate is dictated by the interests of Germany. It is about time the German people were made aware of the fact that the impression under which they appear to labour, which is that their banks are rescuing our people, is the inverse of the truth.
Our unfortunate people are being squeezed to death to rescue the German banks that imprudently invested in our property bubble.
On the guillotine that was regrettably imposed in this House, I have discovered through contacts with the Government that it was necessitated by the timelines of the IMF-ECB agreement. This suggests that we are being run by an unelected, undemocratic series of financial institutions in Europe, which is wrong.
It is appropriate that we invite Professor Jerzy Buzek, MEP, to the House for the cosmetic exercise of giving him a political platform of about 20 minutes followed by questions from selected Members of the House. Will the Leader ensure that in addition to this cosmetic, face-saving political exercise, Professor Busek is brought into contact with people in Roscommon County Hospital, carers and special needs assistants because these are the people who are paying the debts of the German banks? It is about time we put at the forefront of everything we do, both in Ireland and throughout Europe, the interests of our own people, not merely the propping up of a corrupt system.
I am pleased to be able to speak immediately after Senator Norris given his use of the phrase "face-saving political exercise". I wish to address again the matter of the Order of Business. Senators are charged with effecting change in the Seanad and while I would like to be part of such change, it is not reflected on the Order of Business. This aspect of our business should be changed for the simple reason that the Seanad's purpose is to scrutinise legislation. I joined this House for that reason, not to repeat what I read in the newspapers or heard on "Morning Ireland". If an urgent matter is referred to on "Morning Ireland", I will raise it in the Seanad but it would be preferable if the Order of Business were reduced to 30 minutes to discuss urgent matters arising. Given that urgent matters will arise, Senators should have a facility to raise them.
Bills should not be guillotined.
I congratulate the Deputy Leader for facilitating Senators and welcome the statement that we would have been facilitated further and a Bill would not have been guillotined if more information had been available. However, with regard to the Order of Business it is a waste of time to hear regurgitated what one hears on radio or reads in the newspapers.
I would like Seanad business to have productive and measurable outcomes. I ask the Leader and Committee on Procedure and Privileges to indicate what have been the outcomes of all the questions asked on the Order of Business. To cite one example, the matter raised by Senator Ó Domhnaill this morning, he spoke mar gheall ar an teanga Gaeilge. Beidh go leor ama againn tráthnóna inniu, mar beidh Bille os comhair an Tí ar 3.30 um thráthnóna. The debate on a Bill, to be taken in the House at 3.30 p.m., will allow Senators to raise the matter to which Senator Ó Domhnaill referred.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice and Equality to the House. Prior to the dissolution of the previous Dáil, legislation was proposed to reform the National Asset Management Agency. I understand a delegation of NAMA met members of the Fine Gael Party yesterday to discuss how the agency does its business. Perhaps the Leader will indicate whether the delegation proposed that the website announced two weeks ago will be open and transparent, as NAMA indicated it would be. As I stated yesterday, it appears that not all properties under the control of the National Asset Management Agency which are to be sold will feature on the website.
I thank Senator Coghlan for his contribution. While the agency may be operating within the law, the problem is that it is not open and transparent. People need to have confidence in NAMA because taxpayers' money is involved.
I ask the Leader to arrange to have the Minister for Justice and Equality come before the House to discuss the issue of data protection. The religious orders and bishops are hiding behind this issue by insisting the Oireachtas introduce more legislation to allow them to share information with a body they established, the National Board for Safeguarding Children. They were informed three times last year and once again this year that data protection issues do not arise. The Data Protection Commissioner met the religious orders and indicated to them that further legislation is not required. Will the Leader seek clarification on this matter? It appears the agreement unfortunately reached with the religious orders cannot be undone. The orders should pay half of the costs of restitution to those who were in the institutions. The Catholic Church appears to be more concerned with protecting itself and its institutions than being open and transparent. I ask that the Minister for Justice and Equality provide the House with clarification on data protection issues and whether the Catholic Church should share information with its own audit.
A delegation from the National Asset Management Agency attended a meeting of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party last evening. Like other Members, I had many questions for NAMA whose officials gave us two hours of their time. It was notable that they stood up to rigorous scrutiny.
I am providing this information for the benefit of the House. The National Asset Management Agency is open to receiving questions and attending meetings and has even provided a special e-mail contact for Oireachtas Members.
I propose to follow up on Senator Eamonn Coghlan's comments on the positive energy and inspiration provided by the 107 Special Olympics medalists. It often intrigues me that Ireland's special Olympians achieve much more success than able bodied sportspersons. It is an inspiration to see how the Irish team performed. The previous Government did not commence the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, which was enacted in 2004. The programme for Government includes a commitment to implement the Act. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, to come before the House to make a statement on how this commitment will be met in this term given the resource implications involved. I have requested on several occasions that the Minister come before the House for a broad debate on our vision for education. Such a debate should be held before the summer recess in order that Senators are ready for the new session in September.
I concur with Senator Quinn on the need for a broader debate on social protection. The Minister for Social Protection has been to the House on a number of occasions, including for the debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. I tabled a number of amendments on that occasion but they were not discussed. The Minister told Members she is setting up a reform commission on welfare. We should invite her to the House to discuss the terms of reference of that commission. We could, for example, explore the feasibility of a household or family welfare cap and how it could be applied fairly, and the rate of support Ireland pays to non-resident families where one parent is working in this country. It is ludicrous that we are paying Irish levels of welfare payments to people in other countries and not the rate of the home country. I raised those questions with the Minister but did not get answers. We need-----
I have asked my question. I want the Leader to invite both the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to the House as soon as possible for a broader debate on both issues.
Seanadóir Mullen anseo anois, mar is eol duit, a Chathaoirligh.
If I were bringing an ex parte application before the High Court seeking an injunction without the other side being present, I would be expected to act according to the principle of uberrima fides, namely, the principle of utmost good faith. That means I would put all material facts before the court in the absence of the other party so the court could make an honest decision pending further resolution of the matter. One of the big issues before us at present in the context of the relationship between the Government and the Parliament is the principle of utmost good faith.
I am not sure about the facts behind the Minister for Defence, Deputy Alan Shatter's, dealings with the Smithwick tribunal but I am very concerned about what happened in the House yesterday. The Minister brought forward the Defence (Amendment) Bill which gives a committee of selection selecting, for example, a military judge the right to widen the scope of potential applicants. He did not tell us, however, that there was a very significant back story-----
Yes, I have a very serious question about this. If one were dealing with some type of international measure of transparency and corruption in politics, one issue that would be relevant would be any situation where the executive or government withholds material information from the legislature. That is essentially what happened yesterday. We were not given information-----
-----supposed to be private investigators but scrutineers of legislation. I told the Minister yesterday that either he has good reason to be annoyed with the Defence Forces and his officials for not apprising him of the full story behind that legislation-----
I will be brief. I fully support Senator Keane's contribution earlier. Indeed, in the two months I have been a Member of the House, it is the most common sense contribution I have heard. The Order of Business is unquestionably flawed and is often used as a platform for political posturing, unrealistic proposals and headline grabbing, all of which we have seen this morning. This is not what the Seanad is for, at least not in my understanding of the Seanad. The Order of Business is the procedure in this House that receives the most publicity and is consequently the most often seen by the general public, and we do ourselves no favours in our attempt to retain the credibility of the House when the three activities I have just mentioned take place. Some Senators clearly do not understand what the Order of Business is about, or maybe it is I who does not understand. This morning we have heard legislation being discussed and questions being put to a Minister who is not present. This is just terrible.
I support Senator Keane. I ask the Leader to meet with the leaders of the groups in the House and the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to see if there is some way of measuring the outcome of the Order of Business, certainly to reduce the time of the Order of Business and to prevent the windbaggery and posturing that has become synonymous with it.
I commend Senator Eamonn Coghlan on the positive note he struck this morning. Indeed, a few more positive notes would not go astray here from time to time.
There has always been cross-party consensus in this House on the Irish language. That was evident both when dealing with the Official Languages Act and the 20 year strategy. Unanimity was achieved in both cases. It was not very easy but it was a great achievement for the language at the time. I do not wish to see any downgrading of the vision set out in the Official Languages Act and the 20 year strategy. The Supreme Court has already put down a marker in regard to certain legal instruments being made available in the Irish language. The person who brought that to our notice was the former Leader of Fine Gael in the Seanad, former Senator Maurice Manning, an eminent gentleman. While what is being discussed at present might not be a legal instrument in the same way, I have a feeling that if it goes back to the courts, there will be another view on that as well. The Leader always listens carefully so I ask him to maintain the consensus that exists here and, second, to ensure the right of people to have this documentation made available to them in Irish. I hope that can still be achieved.
I support Senators Ivana Bacik and John Whelan in seeking a debate on the media, particularly arising from the hacking scandal involving the News of the World in Britain. The British Prime Minister might have been understated when he described it as disgusting given that it was the most vulnerable people who were the victims of this hacking. Senator Whelan is quite correct about the ownership of the media in this country. I raised the issue several times in the House over a number of years when I saw the monopolies that were being built up and the Tipperary Star, the Clonmel Nationalist, the Kilkenny People and other newspapers going out of Irish ownership.
There is an issue here of editorial rights or editorial responsibility. If it is being handed down from owners, to editors and then to journalists, we are in a very sorry situation, particularly those of us who seriously support the freedom of the media and freedom of expression, which this House always has. I urge all Members to read the editorial in the Irish Independent today which makes a decent effort to put into context what has happened with this hacking scandal.
I have no doubt that the same thing might be happening here under our noses. Why is that the case? It is because those who own the media are driving to that point to increase sales so the balance sheet will look healthier. It should not be deferred by a couple of months.
Can the Leader tell us the progress the Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation has made on reform of the joint labour committees, JLCs, and in his negotiations with the various stakeholders, particularly the unions? This morning, the High Court ruled that the JLC system for the fast food industry is unconstitutional. This is a serious and significant development. What is the Minister's response to this ruling? Has he ended his period of consultation? Has the Cabinet discussed the issue of JLCs and when can we expect a Government decision on JLC procedures?
We all appreciate that the system is outdated but everyone has a different view. Some are right and some are wrong. There is a myriad of opinions. It is most important that the Government make a decision and move on. There was an increase in the JLC rate for the retail sector on 1 June. I was surprised to see that, given that the Government has announced it is looking at the process.
What is the Government's position on JLCs and can we expect a decision in the very near future? Has a timeline and date been set?
I could not agree with Senator Keane's proposal that we shorten the Order of Business. It is a valuable and unique opportunity for every Member to bring to national prominence matters that are of importance on a national or constituency level. There would not be much support for shortening the time.
I agree, however, that speaking time should be measured and that we should receive feedback on our queries. I grew tired of speaking on the Order of Business because matters that were raised went into the ether and were never heard of again. In that respect, I compliment the Leader on the way he is handling business. He has the respect of the House for the professional manner in which he does his job. We will not always agree with him or help him. That is not our job. However, we respect what he is doing. The House is running more efficiently that the last Seanad. That is my opinion.
Can the Leader have something done at Cabinet level for commercial ratepayers? I am thinking particularly of small family businesses and single retailers, like myself, who have struggled during this recession to keep our businesses going and our staff employed. The one unchangeable and fearsome bill received every year is the rates bill. The rateable valuation system needs a total overhaul. I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate on that matter.
We inherited a Victorian British system of rating, whereby each property has a notional value which has no bearing on the real value of a business. There are all sorts of anomalies. In a single street one might have five premises of different sizes paying different commercial rates and very often the smallest building has the highest rate imposed on it. We must do something about that inherited system. Even our most patriotic and law abiding retailers who always paid their way in the hardest of times are finding it very difficult now to pay their rates. Something must be done to help them. Every other sector has a lobby group. I do not believe the independent retail group are loud or forceful enough. I ask the Leader to have this matter raised at Cabinet and give these people some relief at this difficult time.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business.
The Order of Business is a shambles and a joke, and it is getting worse. I have been a Member only a few weeks but if this continues there will be no need to worry about retaining the Seanad. It will be gone. Unless it improves it will be a good riddance, as far as I am concerned. I take no pleasure in saying this.
It looks as though the ECB will raise interest rates by 0.25% and that the Bank of England will not raise its rates. The ECB rate is 1.25% while the British rate is 0.5%. Such an increase would cost approximately €250 million to the people who have loans from Irish banks. If interest rates increase by 1% the added cost would be €1 billion. We can have a positive input in regard to Irish financial institutions. I am referring to all financial institutions and not just those guaranteed by the State. On too many occasions when there have been ECB interest rate rises banks have tagged on an extra 0.5% or 1%. We have control over the institutions within the State.
I have a question for the Leader. Would he consider inviting the Governor of the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator to attend the House for a debate on the procedures taken by Irish institutions, which are funded by the taxpayer, when the ECB raises interest rates? We must ensure that people who have loans from Irish banks are not ripped off. The debate should be narrow, so that people do not discuss everything to do with banking. We need a narrowly focused debate with those two gentlemen. I ask the Leader to arrange that. This is something the Seanad could do to ensure that we keep money in the pockets of Irish citizens. This is how the Seanad could work on behalf of the public.
Senator Darragh O'Brien spoke about assistance for mortgage holders. An amendment has been proposed to the Order of Business in that regard, which I do not propose to accept. Senator O'Brien also referred to the Smithwick tribunal. The Minister for Justice and Equality was in the House yesterday and gave a comprehensive explanation of what happened. He was asked if information was withheld from the House. The Minister said he had received a letter from Mr. Justice Smithwick, marked private and confidential to the addressee only, that he had asked Mr. Justice Smithwick if he could put the letter in the public domain and that he did so. The Minister gave the relevant dates and gave comprehensive information to the House on the matter. It is a matter of surprise and regret that we are seeking, on the basis of selective quotations from lengthy correspondence between the Minister and the judge, to involve the operations of the tribunal in a party political controversy.
Senators Bacik, Ó Murchú and Whelan raised the despicable telephone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom, which could be happening here also. Senator Whelan suggested the setting up of a media commission. We already have a Press Council. There is major concern in the public and among Members of the Oireachtas about media ownership and data protection. I will examine the possibility of mirroring that concern in a debate and decide who would be the appropriate Minister to take the debate. I will try to arrange such a debate in the autumn.
Senator Coghlan referred to the sporting achievements of our participants in the Special Olympics and the positive energy they generate. Senator Coghlan generated positive energy in the House today. The question of funding is one on which we can make representations. However, it will be difficult to secure funding in any area, given the current financial constraints. If any sporting body is to be assisted, it should be Special Olympics Ireland.
Senator Quinn asked for a debate on social protection and referred to social welfare rates and payments to people abroad. Those issues were dealt with comprehensively during the debate on the social welfare Bill with the Minister recently. The Minister agreed to return at a later date to discuss other social welfare issues. She is open to coming to the House in the autumn. She was present last night for the debate on the Registration of Wills Bill 2011, which was her third appearance here. She has paid good attention to the House.
Senator Ó Domhnaill proposed an amendment to the Order of Business. I note his and Senator Ó Murchú's comments on the Irish language.
In reply to Senator Norris, the fact remains that we have lost our economic sovereignty.
That is a fact following the EU-IMF bailout signed up to by the previous Government.
With regard to next week's debate with the EU President, we have 30 minutes of his time and it will be impossible to facilitate every Member asking a question. The CPP came to the agreement that the group leaders would ask questions for two minutes, the President will make a 15-minute presentation and the Leas-Chathaoirleach will sum up. The said gentleman will appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs after that.
Senators Keane, Gilroy and D'Arcy raised the issue of the duration of the Order of Business. This time allocation was increased during the previous Seanad. It used to last 45 minutes and this was increased to 55 minutes at the request of the vast majority of Members. If that view has changed, I would like to know. Three Members feel the duration should be reduced to 30 minutes. If a majority of Members favour that, let us hear it. I am willing to act on behalf of the membership but the previous Seanad complained there was insufficient time for the Order of Business. I cannot be all things to all men. I will do what the majority of Members want in that regard and I welcome comments from Members.
Senator Daly referred to the church hiding behind the Data Protection Act. He also asked a question about NAMA. The publication of the agency's annual report is imminent. We could have a debate on that when it is published.
Senator Healy Eames sought debates before the summer recess on education and social welfare. This will not be possible as it would not be realistic but I will consider such debates for the autumn session.
Senator Mullen raised a matter we dealt with on Second Stage of the Bill yesterday. He made some strong allegations against the Minister, who rebuffed them.
It is a serious matter, which the Minister addressed well to the best of my knowledge yesterday.
Senator Conway raised the issue of JLCs. I will ascertain what the Government's timetable is in this regard and I will get back to him on the matter.
Senator O'Sullivan referred to ratepayers. It is a major burden on many small businesses throughout the country. The rateable valuation system is archaic but it is the one that is with us. I will endeavour to invite the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to the House for a debate on local government at a later stage.
Senator D'Arcy asked that the Governor of the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator would appear before the House. The CPP will have a special meeting next meeting to discuss the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions and special invitations to people to appear before the House. That is another matter we can address.
I sought a reply at the request of several Members from RTE regarding the non-coverage of our business when the Dáil was not sitting. The letter from the director general, Noel Curran states:
Thank you for your letter of 23rd June 2011 concerning the absence of Oireachtas Report on 14th June. There is a long standing practice of not having an Oireachtas Report on days in which Dáil Éireann is not sitting. As you are aware Oireachtas Report comprises reports on the day's activities in Dáil Éireann with a shorter segment on Seanad Éireann. If RTE had gone ahead with Oireachtas Report on 14th June, all the reports would have to have been on the activities of the Seanad.
That is the gist of the reply.
I will seek the advice of Members on this but I have promised a wide ranging debate on agriculture, food, horticulture, fisheries and aquaculture. The Minister has agreed to come to the House on 20 July for two and a half hours. Having discussed the matter with him yesterday, he is prepared to devote half the time to agriculture, food and horticulture and he will make a ten-minute statement and, for the other half, he will deal with fisheries and aquaculture and he will also make a ten-minute statement. However, rather than giving spokespersons five or ten minutes each to make statements, he is willing to take questions from the floor on each area. This would be a good way of expanding the relevance of the House.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill has moved an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate on the increase in mortgage interest rates, with particular reference to the holders of mortgages from AIB and Bank of Ireland, be taken today". Is the amendment being pressed?
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 15 (Mark Daly, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Paschal Mooney, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Darragh O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Feargal Quinn, Kathryn Reilly, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 29 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Eamonn Coghlan, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Fiach MacConghail, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, Jillian van Turnhout, John Whelan, Katherine Zappone)
Tellers: Tá, Senators David Norris and Ned O'Sullivan; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe..
Amendment declared lost.