Tuesday, 12 July 2011
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re referral of agreement between the European Union and Australia on the transfer and processing of passenger data to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, to be taken without debate; No. 2, address to Seanad Éireann by Mr. Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, to commence at 2.30 p.m and to be followed by a question from each group leader who will be called upon in turn by the Cathaoirleach - to facilitate the prompt start of Mr. Buzek's address, Senators are asked to be in their seats no later than 2.25 p.m; and No. 3, Public Health (Tobacco) (Amendment) Bill 2011 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 3.45 p.m. and conclude not later than 6.45 p.m. Business will be interrupted between 3.10 p.m. and 3.45 p.m.
In welcoming the visit of Nabil Sha'ath, a former Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Palestinian Authority, I mention again the idea raised by Senator Feargal Quinn last week: that we prepare and agree a cross-party motion calling on the Government to support the efforts of the Palestinian Authority to gain recognition for full statehood within the United Nations. Senator Feargal Quinn raised the issue last week and this side of the House completely agrees with him. I, therefore, ask the Leader, if possible, to seek agreement among the Whips on a motion to be discussed this week while Mr. Shaath is here. Some of us have been in contact with Palestinian groups and Irish support groups and the visit offers an opportunity for the House to table and agree a motion. Our Whip will certainly discuss with the Government and other groupings an agreed motion in support of the application for full statehood in the United Nations.
On Thursday there will be statements on A Vision for Change, the document introduced by the previous Government, on which much work was done by the then Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues, John Maloney. It is ironic that last week, under the radar, a decision was taken to disallow further admissions to St. Ita's Hospital in Portrane in my constituency, Dublin North. This is the largest psychiatric hospital north of the River Liffey but from 31 August there will be no new admissions. This follows a week of major issues in the health service, with people wishing some things that had been said could be unsaid and promises broken. I ask the Minister for Health to come before the House to explain how decisions such as this can be made directly to the staff, with no communication with the Dáil, the Seanad or other elected officials. This Government decision will no doubt be blamed on the HSE, but it means that 800 new admissions for acute psychiatric care must go elsewhere, although there is no provision made on the northside of Dublin for these patients. Within six weeks St. Ita's Hospital will be issued with a closure order without any announcement by the Minister for Health, in whose constituency the hospital is located. I will be raising this matter on Thursday, as no doubt the Leader will suggest, during statements on A Vision for Change. The irony is not lost on me. A vision for change in north Dublin means the shutting of a psychiatric hospital which is not the sort of change I want to see.
I will try to be relevant for fear I will incur the wrath of Senator Cáit Keane. Last week I asked about the assistance being given, based on promises in the programme for Government, in respect of distressed mortgages, following the recent ECB base rate increase, with two further increases expected later this year. I will ask the President of the European Parliament questions about this later.
Can the Leader tell us when the Government will make good on the promises it made in the programme for Government to increase mortgage interest relief to 30% for first time buyers who bought their houses between 2004 and 2008? I note that in reply to a parliamentary question in the Dáil last week the Minister for Finance said this would be considered in his deliberations on the forthcoming budget. That is not what is said in the programme for Government. In the first quarter of 2011, more than 140 houses were repossessed, an increase of more than 25%. When will the Government bring forward its proposals? They will be supported by this side of the House. Today we published our Bill on the protection of the family home. Senator Marc MacSharry has been working on the Bill and I hope when it is introduced in the House on 27 July there will be cross-party agreement on it, just as on the Labour Party motion on house repossessions.
I support Senator O'Brien's call for a cross-party motion in the House on Palestine. It would be a suitable topic for a cross-party motion; the Labour Party would fully support it. The idea first mooted by Senator Quinn is good and this is a good week to do it, given the visit this week of Dr. Sha'ath.
We all might predict the type of questions we will ask Mr. Buzek, the President of the European Parliament. Senator O'Brien has already alluded to that. It is an auspicious day with the positive announcement on interest rates but it is worrying that this appears to have been precipitated by the news from Italy and concerns about that country's debt levels. Some of us might frame our questions in the context of what will happen in the eurozone generally.
I again ask the Leader to arrange a debate on media ethics. Since last week, when I and others raised the issue of the News of the World, matters have moved swiftly. I doubt that any of us expected or anticipated the announcement that the News of the World would close. Many honest journalists lost their jobs as a result. It appears to have been a rather cynical move by Mr. Rupert Murdoch to try to save his bid for the takeover of BSkyB, which now appears unlikely to be successful. It has become a full-blown political scandal in Britain and has serious implications for the British Government. In Ireland, there is a need to debate media ethics to try to forestall any news that these underhand and illegal tactics have spread to Irish newspapers. News International has a big hold on the Irish newspaper market with both The Sun and the The Sunday Times. News of the despicable and illegal attempts to get material on Mr. Gordon Brown and his family should be a warning for us to ensure that these tactics are not used in Ireland. I hope we can have a debate on this issue.
I seek a debate on the future of universities. In that context, I congratulate Trinity College which has been named among the leading universities in the world in the latest QS world university rankings. Social sciences feature in the top 100 for each of the listed disciplines. I confess a certain self interest in this regard given that the law school in Trinity College is in the top 100. Trinity College is also the only Irish university to make it into the top 50 for sociology, politics and international studies. That is a remarkable achievement in view of the level of cutbacks the third level sector has faced in recent times. A debate early in the next session on the future of the university sector would be very useful.
I will not give a preview of our question to the President of the European Parliament; I will leave that to my esteemed colleague, Senator van Turnhout. I have two questions for the Leader of the House relating to a significant process which Ireland is engaged in at present, its participation in the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, UPR. As Members are aware, the UPR process is an innovative mechanism under which countries are held to account every four years by their fellow member states in the United Nations on their complete performance across the full range of civil, political, social and economic rights.
Last week, the Irish Government submitted its report on its record. The report explicitly states a number of times that Ireland is deeply committed to the protection and promotion of human rights and that this is central to Ireland's domestic and foreign policies. I encourage Members to review the Government's report, if they have not already done so. It is a fascinating read and points to a number of achievements in Ireland's efforts to protect and promote human rights. Of equal importance, it provides us, as law-makers, with a concrete expression of how and why the framing of legislation must be compliant with the human rights provisions of the Constitution and our international human rights obligations.
This Government report is one of the documents the UN member states will use when they examine our human rights record on 6 October. Another document is the stakeholder report. It is a compilation by the United Nations of submissions received from Irish civil society actors and the submission received from Ireland's national human rights institution, the Irish Human Rights Commission. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties formed a coalition with an extensive number of organisations to produce Ireland's civil society UPR stakeholder report, which was launched last May. The Irish Human Rights Commission issued its recommendation to the Government yesterday that, in advance of the UN examination, Ireland ought to name its voluntary commitments that will identify how it intends to reduce gaps in its human rights protections, such as an assessment of the human rights impact of welfare and service related decisions on those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged.
Prior to Ireland's examination by the Human Rights Council in October, could we invite one or two leaders to engage with us about their views on Ireland's human rights record, for example, the president of the Irish Human Rights Commission, Dr. Maurice Manning, who is a former Leader of the Seanad, and a member of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties? This could provide us with another opportunity to implement the motion passed by the House to engage directly with leaders on issues of public importance. After Ireland's examination and prior to the outcome report from the process that will be produced in early 2012 and which the Irish Government formally adopts, will the Leader consider inviting the Tánaiste or the Minister for Justice and Equality to the House to engage with us on how Ireland will commit itself to improving its human rights record in light of the UPR process?
My attention has been drawn to the very high price the public pays for pharmacy goods here, be they over-the-counter or prescription medicines, compared to what the public pays in other countries. It is due to legislation produced here, not EU legislation. Perhaps the Leader would invite the Minister for Health to the House to discuss this. It is quite confusing that a large number of products that are available over-the-counter in other countries are prescription products here. That means people must pay to go to a doctor to get the prescription and then pay the price of the product, which in many cases is a multiple of what is charged elsewhere. It applies to a large number of products. I can understand why anti-depressant products are prescription only, as they could be addictive. However, one can go into an off-licence and buy ten or 12 bottles of vodka, which is a far bigger problem, but one cannot buy Solpadeine and some other products even though only a tiny number of people could be addicted to them.
I do not know the answer to this problem, only that Irish people pay a price for many of these products that is a multiple of the price elsewhere. Part of the reason is that the products have been put on prescription instead of being sold over the counter. As a result the pharmacists do not have the choice or freedom to do otherwise. A large number of generic products can be sold in pharmacies in other countries but we do not appear to have that freedom here. We do not permit the advertising of products sold behind the prescription counter. I understand why we do that but the matter is worthy of debate, especially when many products that are sold over the counter in the North of Ireland and in Britain cannot be sold here except on prescription.
Last month, President Obama visited this country and, for once, Ireland was projected throughout the world for reasons other than the banking crisis. That was very welcome. The Bank of Ireland building on College Green means a great deal to Ireland. It could be a symbol of where we intend to go. We must show that we have not yet lost our imagination, our capacity to reason and our ability to innovate. We must show that our artistic soul is still thriving.
In recent days we have heard the governor of the Bank of Ireland and other senior figures in the bank speak about the value of the College Green premises to the bank, but this must be viewed in the context of the abject failure of performance over the past five years. If this was 2005, I could well understand how the bank would have felt it had some room for manoeuvre, but this is 2011 and we, taxpayers, own 36% of the institution and as such, it is something to which we feel we are more entitled than ever. Much like the runner who has been outrun in the race, Bank of Ireland has not come to terms with its new position in the market and the nation. Its stubborn refusal to engage is symbolic of this. In this endeavour I fully support the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, whose idea demonstrates a capacity for seeing the bigger picture, something we now need. If his proposal were to be implemented in full, College Green could become a square that would rival those in New York and London. I imagine it would far supersede any mere bank relocation in terms of cost. I, therefore, ask the Leader to invite the Minister to explain his thinking on the matter which would enable us to have an input as to how we believe it could come to pass.
I wish to raise two issues, the first of which relates to the Family Home Bill published today by Senator Marc MacSharry and me. As Senator Darragh O'Brien said, it forms part of the Fianna Fáil strategy to deal with mortgage indebtedness and personal debt. Protecting the family home is a priority for everybody in the House. As Senator Darragh O'Brien said, there was cross-party support for a Labour Party motion in this regard. No doubt there will be some aspects of the Bill that people may or may not like and that they can address on Committee Stage. However, no one can be in any doubt that the objective of keeping people in the family home is one that should be supported in legislation in this House. I look forward to that debate when the Bill is taken in Private Members' time.
Some serious issues have arisen in the media and I hope they will be the subject of discussion at the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting. Allegations have been made in the media that the issue of whether a Deputy was loyal to the Taoiseach in last year's leadership battle is having an influence on which hospitals should be closed or kept open.
It is a most serious issue and one that badly needs to be addressed because we see Ministers running to protect their own areas.
My second point relates to media reports at the weekend that sources close to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, were seriously criticising the Taoiseach about his commitment on the issue of income tax. Whether that is true should also be addressed in the House. The commitment was given since the general election. As they got to read the books, they do not have the excuse that they did not know how bad things were. Will the commitment given be abandoned? Is there talk of it being abandoned, or did it mean anything at the time it was given? These topics in the media of concern to the people are worthy of discussion in the House. I, therefore, ask the Leader to arrange a debate on them. We were promised that the Minister for Finance would come into the House for a full throttle debate on financial issues. I fully accept, as I always have, that he is a very busy man and that his primary function is that of fulfilling his role as Minister for Finance, but time should be made available to the Seanad to discuss the issues I have raised and other serious matters concerning his portfolio.
I commend Senator Catherine Noone for her presentation on that iconic building in College Green. I also commend the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, for having the imagination to suggest it could potentially be used as a centre of excellence for literature. We know the benefit literature has been to this country internationally. The potential to develop a square, a world famous piazza, in College Green is something that must be considered. I take grave offence at Bank of Ireland's attitude in this regard. It is the least it should do, given the fact that it played a significant part in bankrupting the country, destroying the economy and ensuring------
-----our international reputation would be left in tatters. If legislation is required to ensure the building is be taken into State ownership, I for one will play my part in ensuring it passes through the House, as I am sure will other Members. The bank's attitude is appalling. To think that delinquent bankers would maintain that an iconic building in this city, which really and truly belongs to the people now, should be------
-----traded and used in horse trading because of its so-called monetary value is appalling. I ask the Leader to ensure that he raises this issue with the Minister, Deputy Deenihan. I am sure we will all play our part in whatever steps are necessary in this respect.
I have two questions for the Leader but before I raise them I make the point that it is fast becoming obvious to many people that this Government is following the lead of the previous Government. It is becoming again a Government of announcements. We heard the Minister for Finance say on radio this morning that at some point in the future there may be something done in respect of the interest rates that might be good for Ireland. We have had endless optimism from the Minister but no detail.
The President of the European Parliament will address this Chamber today. Sinn Féin is the second largest Opposition party in the Oireachtas and we do not have the opportunity to welcome the President of the European Parliament to this House. That is disgraceful and appalling. I have taken this up with the Leader of the House but I have not got a favourable response. It is appalling. Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that my party is the only party that is standing up to people in Europe and those who are trying to put a noose around the necks of taxpayers by asking us to unfairly shoulder the responsibility for the reckless borrowing of other people that they had nothing to do with the people of this country.
We also had statements in recent times. We all saw the media coverage of commitments given by the then Deputies Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny and Senators during the last election campaign in respect of Roscommon County Hospital. There has been a clear betrayal of voters by-----
I have a question. Last week we had a five hour debate on the Medical Practitioners (Amendment) Bill but we saw no sign of the Minister for Health. I intend to move an amendment to the Order of Business. Three hours are to be allocated today to take Committee and remaining Stages of the Public Health (Tobacco) (Amendment) Bill, to which there is not even an amendment tabled. This is madness. We will discuss mobile phones for two hours and yet we cannot get the Minister for Health to come in here to talk about the very real issues of health care facing the people. I am not referring only to the broken promises in respect of Roscommon County Hospital. I could mention a number of broken promises that were made in respect of my constituency of Waterford. A community nursing unit was promised-----
-----by this and previous Governments. The Minister for Health needs to come into this Chamber to discuss the real concerns people in County Roscommon and in many other counties have who believe that what happened in Roscommon County Hospital could also happen in their counties.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business: that the Public Health (Tobacco) (Amendment) Bill be heard from 3.45 p.m. from to 4.45 p.m. and from 4.45 p.m. to 6.45 p.m. that the Minister for Health would come into the House. It seems he is afraid of debate, afraid to come in here and listen to the views of the elected representatives who represent people who have been betrayed by the Government and by the promises that were made by the Labour Party and Fine Gael. It is simply not good enough. We want to know when the Minister for Health will come into this House.
I wish to raise the matter of a report on the use of legal highs published by the EU yesterday. Those in the 15 to 24 age group in our population are highest users of legal highs, with 16% of that age group having admitted in surveys to using them. This issue was dealt with last year, but it has not gone way. This problem will remain with us. Once one drug is made illegal, a new manufacturing process is put in place to bring another similar type drug on to the market. One drug alone accounted for many deaths in Europe. There were 39 deaths in Europe, 37 in the UK and Ireland. It is a serious issue which involves the Department of Education and Skills as well as the Departments of Justice and Equality and Health. At this stage, we need to implement a proactive education programme. I ask that the Minister for Education and Skills outline to the House what his Department proposes in terms of educating young people about the dangers of illegal drugs and legal highs. They may not affect their health immediately but they have long-term impacts.
I would welcome a debate on health issues with the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly. He owes it to us to come into this House and I will move non-Government motion No. 3 on today's Order Paper if the opportunity arises. We should have an opportunity to discuss the serious decision to close the accident and emergency department at Roscommon County Hospital. Yesterday, 11 July 2011, was a black day for Roscommon. It has been proven that the Taoiseach made statements on radio to the effect that he would retain those services. The Minister, Deputy Reilly, sent the letter that I read on the floor of the House last week and the Tánaiste gave a commitment to Senator John Kelly that the Government would guarantee the future of the hospital and its accident and emergency department. The Tánaiste has also stated that he will protect the accident and emergency department in Loughlinstown, which is located close to St. Vincent's hospital. The same cannot be said about Roscommon County Hospital, however. The Cathaoirleach's hospital in Castlebar will benefit from the closure of the accident and emergency department in Roscommon.
It is a major blow to Roscommon and, as someone who has been involved in this issue for a long time and signed the contract for the new accident and emergency department in 2002, I find it most regrettable. The people of Roscommon feel deeply saddened by this decision and if the Taoiseach announced the closure of the department, I do not doubt Fine Gael would have won only one seat, if any, in the Roscommon-South Leitrim constituency.
As Patsy McGarry noted in The Irish Times -----
I asked the question already but the people of Roscommon were sold a pig in a poke. Mr. McGarry made a relevant point when he wrote: "the 19th century English historian Lord Acton wrote: 'All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely'."
I am trying to support my argument for bringing the Minister to the House. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has allocated €30 million to an accident and emergency unit in Wexford General Hospital. Where the power rests in Government is where the decisions are made in favour of certain areas. I do not believe this Government will last a full term. I regret that to the extent that the Seanad will probably be abolished but -----
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the strategy announced by the Minister for Education and Skills regarding literacy and numeracy. The strategy, which was published following a consultation period, focuses on improving standards at higher and lower levels, increasing literacy and numeracy skills and setting standards for the uptake of higher level maths. It will involve changes in teacher training and continuing professional development. One of the intentions behind this important strategy is to raise awareness. A debate in this House would certainly raise awareness and we could have a useful discussion if the Minister is prepared to outline how he intends to proceed in this area. It was not my intention to refer to the closure of the emergency department at Roscommon County Hospital, but the issue was raised by two Senators. It is outrageous to suggest the Taoiseach or the Minister for Health would take advantage of the situation. Senator Terry Leyden suggested services were being improved at Castlebar hospital, while Senator Thomas Byrne made a twisted suggestion regarding the Taoiseach's relationship with members of his party.
We all know HIQA produced a report stating the services provided at Roscommon County Hospital were unsafe. Are Senators advocating that the Taoiseach should ignore this advice? If I was in opposition, I would always uphold standards in the interests of patient safety.
I did not have an opportunity to consult HIQA on the mortality figures in local hospitals, but the closure of services in Roscommon is a critical issue. I am not an instinctive "save our hospital" type of person because calm, rational and systematic decisions need to be made about the configuration of hospital services. However, these decisions must keep in mind two key variables. The first is that larger centres with a higher throughput will generally have better outcomes than smaller centres dealing sporadically with the same health problems. The second is that local people will enjoy some improvements in the quality of their care if they have local access. A balance has to be struck between these variables. For that reason, I will not state whether services in Roscommon should be closed or remain open.
I have strong opinions about where cancer care services should be provided, but I am not as certain about the emergency department at Roscommon County Hospital. However, the decision-making process which apparently led to the precipitous decision to discontinue emergency services at Roscommon County Hospital leaves something to be desired. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Health to come to the House with the figures and, if necessary, a good old-fashioned US Congress-style board because I, for one, want to understand the numbers which led to the statement that the mortality rate in Galway was 5% compared to 20% in Roscommon. As a professional, there are not many areas of my speciality in which two treatments gives rise to a 200% difference in outcome. As I thought there was something odd in the figures, I sought information from the folks in Roscommon and the figures they supplied indicate that there were approximately 430 admissions to the coronary care and cardiac unit last year in Roscommon, with a mortality rate of approximately 5%. I have also seen the figures for the patients who died while in the care of Roscommon County Hospital in 2011 and believe most of those who died could not have been saved in Mayo Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital or anywhere else. They included patients who had had devastating strokes complicated by pneumonia and elderly people with multi-system complications and no chance of recovery.
When I heard the suggestion that matters were so bad in Roscommon that not only was it necessary to close the service but that it had to be done as an emergency, I was discomfited on behalf of my good colleagues working at the hospital who for many years had provided a service on a shoestring budget and, in some cases, built modern cardiac services with limited or no support from successive Governments. They have managed to achieve and deliver a reasonably good service for the people of County Roscommon. The argument may be made in favour of centralising cardiac and other emergency services in Galway and this should be part of the national debate. However, promising in advance of an election that -----
The three most senior people in government promised that the unit would be kept open and then abruptly changed their policy on the basis of data which I believe are not correct. Furthermore, it has just been reported on radio that Mr. Patrick McHugh stated HIQA had never visited or inspected this hospital. A representative from HIQA was put on the spot on the radio programme and it has said there has not been an inspection of Roscommon County Hospital. The Minister may have made the right or the wrong decision. I do not know, but we need him to come to the House to give us the figures and take us through the thought processes behind the decision. I am sorry for running over time.
The Minister is very busy trying to fix a broken system. If there was a problem at a hospital, the first thing a solicitor would ask for was a HIQA report. The Minister must be mindful of this. The only political party to close a hospital in Ireland in the past ten years is Sinn Féin. Bairbre de Brún closed Omagh hospital.
That was a comment I wanted to make.
As I would welcome a debate on Palestinian statehood, I would like the Leader to put the matter on the agenda of the House, in support of Senator Darragh O'Brien. I want a balanced debate, not a witch-hunt. For many years we have had pogroms in Limerick and the church praying for the conversion of the perfidious Jews who crucified the Saviour.
Today we published the Family Home Bill 2011 which will be taken in the Seanad during Private Members' time on 27 July. It includes some radical proposals to protect families and prevent them from losing their homes. It has been brought forward in the context of the crisis Ireland is facing and informed by two years' work, debate in the Houses, the work of the Prevention of Family Home Repossession group, of which I am a founder, the New Beginning group and others. It is radical and will be controversial for some, but there is no reason every Member should not support it. We are not saying the Bill has been brought forward to embarrass the Government; far from it. It can be its finest hour if it embraces the good will on this side of the House in bringing forward these proposals and the ultimate improvements it would bring in protecting the family home. I have said before that there can be no more important consideration for society than the protection of the family. For this reason, the radical and fair proposals made in the Bill require, if not demand, the support of every Member. On Committee Stage, assuming we all support the Bill on Second Stage on 27 July, I have no doubt further improvements could be made to it. I hope this Seanad which all of us said we hoped would be the best if it had to be the last can take a giant leap forward and bring forward what would be a most historic Bill aimed at the protection of the family home.
I would wholeheartedly welcome an opportunity for the Minister of Health to come to the House. I know he is very busy and trying his best. However, I have grave concerns about commitments given in the heat of political debate during election campaigns. There are recordings of all of the leaders in the Government speaking about cancer services in Sligo General Hospital and other services in Roscommon County Hospital and other hospitals across the country. It is clear that the configuration of hospital and medical services must be examined. I have seen no cohesive strategy from anybody for what is proposed north of a line from Dublin to Galway, but we have reports on cardiac catheterisation, trauma and cancer services that involve centralisation andeffectively ignore people north of that line.
Yes. I am asking for a debate on this issue. I have very serious concerns about the proximity of HIQA to senior management in the HSE. Following a difficult process under the Freedom of Information Act, I managed to get my hands on a report which proved that Mr. John Billings of HIQA - I am quoting words from minutes he wrote in respect of which I had to solicit the help of the Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly - and HIQA had constructed a process-----
-----to facilitate Galway being chosen as the location of a cancer centre of excellence and ensure no other hospital could secure such a centre. I have grave concerns about the integrity of that organisation which has been borne out today by my colleague, Senator John Crown. If debates on these issues could be arranged, I would greatly appreciate it.
I welcome the publication of the Family Home Bill 2011 that Senator MacSharry is to bring before the House. We are all concerned about protecting the family home. Many of us spoke strongly about that in the last Senate, so I welcome a reading of that Bill. With a bit of luck, we will be able to find a way to support many parts of it.
I have been reading about the moves made by the Minister for Education and Skills, and I thought "there is a God, after all" when I read that he will introduce 50% continuous assessment for the junior certificate. I really welcome this move. Our children learn differently, so I am delighted to see that the Minister is talking about 50% continuous assessment and 50% for a terminal exam. I am also delighted about the publication of the literacy and numeracy strategy to which Senator Clune referred. However, I am concerned that the Minister is making rapid and far-reaching decisions that will affect all our lives and our children's lives for generations. We need him to come into this House. I ask the Leader to convey to him my concern that he has not been here. How are we to have any input into his decision making process? How are we to convey the concerns of teachers, parents and students unless we speak directly with him?
I raised the issue of AIB a few weeks ago and its slow move on issuing finance for business. I raised a case for a high-tech company in Galway with €4.5 million in new orders and which was able to employ eight people. Almost four weeks later, the bank has still not issued credit to that company. Representatives from the company contacted me today. They are now about to lose that order. This is wrong. We must have faster decisions by our banks. I have been working with the bank on one side and the client on the other side. I have been given permission by both to do that.
Time is of the essence. I call on the Leader to bring the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation before the House and see how we can expedite decisions on behalf of banks so that our companies are not losing their orders and opportunities to employ people. The small and medium enterprise sector is the lifeblood of our economy and I fear for its future if our banks are this tardy in making decisions.
I join my colleagues in calling for a general debate on the health services. What has been raised at the moment is the question of the standards of truth that prevail at election time. That is an important issue of morality and principle. I am afraid that this hospital issue has now precipitated a highly volatile and dangerous political situation at a time when the country could do without it. I wish people would be forthright and honest when dealing with these issues, and not just seek electoral advantage.
With regard to HIQA, I have no intention of disparaging the personnel and I do not have any names. I recall sharing an Adjournment matter with a Member from a Government party who is now in the other House dealing with the closure of a home for the elderly in Carlow. HIQA was involved in that and the reasons given basically amounted to a lack of proper paintwork. Elderly and vulnerable patients were forcibly evicted in what was clearly an economic move, which was not right. Our concern should be the welfare of citizens, particularly the elderly and vulnerable. I hope we will have a good examination of the economic principles or whatever is behind such action. It is a dangerous and regrettable position and I am sorry we have been precipitated into it as nobody will benefit.
Related to this is the serious issue of the haemorrhaging of young doctors from this country. All our medical graduates, including doctors and nurses, are going abroad because they cannot get proper jobs. At the same time we are importing 200 personnel from Asia and making special provisions to find out about language skills and the taking of exams. That is appalling. I do not mean to denigrate the people involved but we are asset-stripping medical resources from vulnerable people on the other side of the planet.
We must consider the issue. I support Senator MacSharry on the issue of protecting the family home with respect to mortgages. I have raised the issue many times. I am glad the Senator put the issue in the context of protecting the family, as everybody in the House would accept the concept. We are all pro-family, and I hope this will be an opportunity for us to resist the attempted colonisation of the word "family" and the values surrounding it by a small amount of interest groups in the country. It would be a dangerous path to tread. We are all part of families here, and families exist and are recognised in a diversity of forms. That should be celebrated and I look forward to making that point during this important debate. I will certainly support the Bill.
I wish to raise an important issue, namely planning in rural Ireland. There is little activity currently in the building industry but at the same time a range of tests must be carried out by people who want to build in rural Ireland. These include percolation tests. It may be time for us to consider a regional approach for An Bord Pleanála, as people are objecting to activity in rural Ireland. Along the western seaboard we have seen in recent years people seeking and getting planning approval from local councils for wind farms but people are objecting to such projects. We discussed last week how this sector could see a range of job creation for young people. I ask for the relevant Minister to attend the House so we can have a debate on the matter.
I support the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, for his initiative concerning the Bank of Ireland building on College Green. If his officials bring him through the entire file he would see a letter from me to the previous Minister suggesting the same idea. We were making progress on the issue until the untimely general election. We do not care which Kerryman opens the building, even if it is my Seanad colleague, Senator Paul Coghlan.
I will not mention NAMA today but I ask the Leader to invite the appropriate Minister to the House to discuss the proposed price increases from Bord Gáis. For the past two years, under a Fianna Fáil-led Government, there were price reductions and I want to know what the current Government will do about the proposed increases.
Another Senator from Louth raised the issue of Palestinian statehood. A couple of days ago we had the fifth anniversary of the capture and imprisonment of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who has been held in inhumane conditions within the Gaza strip. I am sure all Members of the House will join me in calling for his release. At the same time I look forward to the debate on Palestinian statehood.
Senator Crown from the Independent group spoke about what was just released on the radio. It is disturbing that no report was done and this is being used as a political tool to justify a political decision, with the justification only produced later. We look forward to the debate proposed by Senator Leyden in that regard. Will the Leader facilitate a debate in the near future on organ donation? The programme for Government discusses presumed consent and I do not know if those opposite who voted for the programme realise what that means. It means the State has the right to take a person's organs, whether the family agrees to the procedure or not.
Will the Leader organise a debate on organ donation and presumed consent opt-out? The State is basically taking people's organs without permission, which is not a positive step in any society. It has been proven that where the system was in place in other countries, it did not work. A system of organ donor co-ordination works better.
I commend Senator Bacik for raising the fact that Trinity College Dublin is rated among the finest universities in the world this year and relate this to the training of doctors. I hope the Minister for Health will come before the House, although I have seen him in here since I was elected. It would not be his first time in the House. I wish to discuss the reason our doctors are leaving after receiving good training, as they go to another country for further training before being appointed consultants.
Is it possible to consider a system where every student - not only medical students - would give something back to the country which serves people so well through training? Education is a very valued commodity in our society and it is the most valuable asset of young people. Those who receive it should be and are very grateful. I see students participating in the Gaisce awards overseen by President Mary McAleese and they are delighted to give something back. Students are also involved with meals on wheels and are delighted to give something back in that way.
We should not just pick out medical students to give something back and a system could be devised where students would get extra points - or another form of incentivisation - to give something back on foot of their education. Many young people still cannot avail of the fine education others receive. The Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Health could consider a system with the help of other training bodies. I ask that when the Minister for Health comes before the House he would give a statement on that suggestion.
With regard to how we must make hard decisions in health, it is not today or yesterday that reports were brought to the table on the closing of hospitals.
My question relates to the education and training of all students, who should give something back to the country. Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. Many students do this now but there should be a system of incentivisation to help them do what they want to do.
I second the amendment proposed by Senator Cullinane and echo the comments of Senator Daly in asking the Leader to bring the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to the House before the recess to discuss the proposal by Bord Gáis to increase electricity prices later this week.
These increases will further exacerbate the difficulties experienced by a large number of households when they receive their energy bills. They will push many people into arrears, increase the number of disconnections and lead to many people being unable to heat their homes during the colder winter months. I remind the House that Bord Gáis made a profit of €120 million last year. It persuaded a large number of people to make the "big switch" from their previous electricity supplier on the basis that they would make a saving and get a better deal. As a result of this move bills will increase and customers will lose out by more than €300 a year. This measure has been proposed at a time when more than 114,000 customers of Bord Gáis are in arrears of more than two months. That figure has increased by 300% since last year. The degree of price-matching in this sector makes it inevitable that the other two major players in the sector will-----
I ask the Leader to bring the Minister into the House to discuss this issue. I would like to know what the Minister intends to do to combat fuel poverty and how he believes the potential increases in electricity prices will affect the SME sector. When the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources comes to the House to discuss electricity prices, perhaps we can also discuss the terms of reference for the commission of investigation into the North-South interconnector, which were considered by the Cabinet last week. We could kill two birds with one stone by having an overall discussion on energy provision in the State.
I support the call for the Minister for Health to come to the House to discuss the overall health situation. I join others in requesting that the CEO of the HSE, Mr. Cathal Magee, be invited to the House as well. The HSE has not covered itself in glory in its planning of the new facility in Roscommon with advanced paramedics and an enhanced ambulance service. The big difficulty in Roscommon is that there is no confidence that the system which has been promised will be delivered. The HSE has many questions to answer. I want the Leader to impress on the Minister the need to ensure sufficient resources are provided in the hospitals that will take additional patients from Roscommon. We need to make sure we do not end up with large waiting lists and people in queues at hospitals like Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe.
I am looking for a debate. I want to make sure we provide the investment needed to ensure the people of Roscommon, who deserve a top-class health service, can avail of the necessary facilities when they have to go to Ballinasloe, Castlebar and Galway. This is an urgent request. The CEO of the HSE, Mr. Cathal Magee, must be brought in to discuss this issue.
I could not help noticing Senator Darragh O'Brien's reference to incurring the wrath of Cain. I thought he was talking as a Trekkie fan about "The Wrath of Khan". The elephant in the room - the Italian and Spanish debt crisis - has not been mentioned so far today. In that context-----
Yes. I was probably unable to grasp that aspect of her contribution. In this House some weeks ago, I asked the Minister for Social Protection where the Government would find the money to fund essential services ahead of the next budget and beyond it. My question was based on statements made by the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach to the effect that they would not increase income tax. We need to bear in mind that they cannot do anything about the Croke Park agreement, which means public service jobs are guaranteed. Nobody can be fired or let go until 2013, at least. We will have to borrow €20 billion this year or next year. Figures released by the Department of Social Protection earlier this week show that almost half the people of this country are receiving social welfare benefits. An achievement of the two most recent Fianna Fáil Ministers in that Department, Deputy Ó Cuív and Mary Hanafin, was buried in those statistics. The figures for 2010 show that savings of almost €500 million were made as a result of the initiatives taken by both Ministers. I wish the current Minister well in her continuing efforts to ensure there is no fraud in this area. We need to ask where the money will come from to provide essential services to everyone who is now on social welfare. The jobs initiative is stuttering. It has not achieved anything yet. We wish it well.
I ask the Leader, in light of the Italian and Spanish debt crisis, to consider inviting the Minister for Finance to come to the House before the end of the recess. I know a similar request has been made in a different context. The Minister should indicate exactly how the Government intends to address this matter. I am firmly of the view, which is shared by an increasing number of financial commentators and analysts, that the debt burden with which this country is encumbered is unsustainable in the medium to long term. There is a great deal of talk in Europe about all sorts of restructuring, which the international investors are interpreting as default-----
I have asked the Leader to invite the Minister for Finance to come to the House. In that context, he should raise with the Minister the question of whether the Government should give serious consideration to a revision of its current position on our unsustainable debt burden. It seems to me that something needs to be done before next year to remove the unsustainable debt burden, particularly that incurred through reckless banking. Regardless of the political charges that might be made, I suggest that reckless banking is at the bottom of this. It is happening in Spain and Italy and it has happened in Greece.
Four more Senators have indicated that they wish to speak. We have gone over time. The President of the European Parliament will be here at 2.30 p.m. An amendment to the Order of Business has been proposed. The Senators in question - Senators Walsh, Bradford, White and O'Sullivan - will get an opportunity to speak on the Order of Business tomorrow. I call the Leader of the House.
On a point of order, while I accept the Cathaoirleach's ruling, I would like to point out that this is the second time this has happened in a couple of weeks. The Chair will accept that I indicated at an early stage in today's proceedings that I wished to speak. Now that we have a quasi-Independent group in the House, the chances of Members getting to speak are much more limited. Therefore, the two-minute limit on contributions should be applied fairly rigidly.
A number of Senators continue to exceed the limit, even though the Chair has asked them to curtail their contributions. Some 22 Senators have spoken today. Given that the group leaders are allowed to speak for three minutes, one can calculate that we have lost a couple of minutes today.
Senator Darragh O'Brien referred to an agreed motion on Palestine. I have no objection to a discussion on the matter by the Whips. I do not know whether they will be able to agree a joint motion. I am quite willing to allow the Whips to meet to discuss the matter. It is unlikely that we will have a debate on any such motion this week.
Senator O'Brien raised the question of St. Ita's Hospital in Portrane. As he correctly stated, Senators will have an opportunity to discuss such issues on Thursday when the House debates A Vision for Change. Since the new Seanad started to meet, a number of Members have requested debates on that report and on various mental health issues. We will have an opportunity to discuss them on Thursday. Given that the debate was requested by Members, I am sure we will have a full quota of speakers on A Vision for Change.
Reference was also made to the problem of distressed mortgages. It is a matter which the Minister stated he will address in the budget and I do not wish to second-guess the Minister on that.
Senator Bacik raised media ethics and the deplorable hacking issue in England about which we have read and heard. One hopes it is not happening here as well. It might be an idea to have a debate on that as soon as we possibly can arrange one. I am sure we all would like to join in complimenting Trinity College on its successes.
There have been requests from quite a number of Senators for debates on education, the future of the third level sector and so on. We are trying to arrange that the Minister for Education and Skills would come in here as early as possible in September.
Senator Quinn sought a debate on the cost of prescription drugs. It is a matter which was discussed previously here but it certainly needs further attention based on a number of articles which we read about recently.
Indeed, when speaking about Senator Quinn, I refer to Senator Daly's call for a debate on organ donation. That is a matter close to Senator Quinn's heart and he has raised it on several occasions in this House. It is possibly an area on which we can have a debate. I think Senator Quinn tabled a worthy Bill dealing with that matter in this House.
Senators Noone, Conway, Daly and others sought a debate on the Bank of Ireland building on College Green. We will endeavour to have the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, in here, not alone to discuss the College Green building but also to have an overarching debate on the arts, which is long overdue.
Senator Byrne raised the issue of the Family Home Bill. I received that only today and I look forward to reading it. Senator MacSharry has put much work into this Bill. I compliment any Member who introduces a Private Members' Bill in this House. It is not easy to do. We look forward to taking that Bill on 27 July when I am sure that we will have a constructive debate.
In response to Senator Cullinane, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, in his discussions on the radio talking about reports, was only answering questions put to him by reporters on last night's meeting. He was not making any statements, but answering questions.
On the Minister for Health, the issue of junior doctors has again come up. There was a five-hour debate here last week on the Medical Practitioners (Amendment) Bill. The junior Minister apologised for the absence of the senior Minister because he had to attend a funeral out of the State on the day in question. Otherwise he would have been here.
Senator Colm Burke called for a debate on illegal highs and their availability on the Internet and elsewhere, and educating young people on the dangers of this. There is legislation but, obviously, it is not sufficient and needs to be addressed further. It is something which several Senators, in particular, Senator Wilson raised in the previous Seanad. We can raise the matter again with the relevant Minister.
Senator Leyden and quite a number of other Senators sought a debate on Roscommon hospital. Patient safety must be the No. 1 priority of any Government and any Minister. Whatever about promises or anything else, the patients' safety must come first.
Senator Clune sought a debate on the literacy and numeracy report which was published last week. It is a matter which Senator Mac Conghail questioned last week or the week before. As it is an important issue, we should arrange to have a debate and have the Minister for Education and Skills in here in September to deal with that.
Senator Crown raised the issue of Roscommon hospital. It is all about reform. There is an €18 billion deficit. Senator Crown, more than anybody else, has spoken about reforming the health service. That is what we must do. The Minister is doing his best to address the issues in reforming, but it will not happen in the first three months or in the first three years.
Senator D'Arcy also called for a debate on Palestinian statehood. We should arrange a debate. If we can have an agreed motion, we could possibly have a debate on that if we can secure the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore.
I already addressed Senator MacSharry's matter and again compliment him on introducing the Family Home Bill.
Senator Healy Eames called for a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills on the literacy report, to which I referred. She also called for a debate on AIB. I am sure the Senator, if she has dealt with the matter between both the bank and the company involved, has brought the Credit Review Office into this matter. It is not acceptable that banks are not lending to small enterprises, as she mentioned.
Senator Norris spoke about the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA. HIQA has produced quite a number of reports on nursing homes and many nursing homes have been closed. I do not think any of those nursing homes were closed down because of economic principles. The closures were based on the authority's reports on what was going on in those particular nursing homes and I am sure everybody here agreed with HIQA on the closure of the nursing homes involved.
Senator Comiskey sought a debate on planning in rural Ireland and the role of An Bord Pleanála. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, has agreed to come in here in September to discuss the question of reform of local government.
Senator Daly and Senator Reilly sought a debate on Bord Gáis price increases which will be dealt with by the energy regulator. It is a cause of concern that prices are rising. I referred previously to the question which Senator Daly raised on organ donation.
Senator Keane called for a debate on the training for junior doctors and offering incentives for junior doctors to stay at home, which is an interesting proposal. She is quite correct. There has been the Fitzgerald report, the Hanly report and several other reports on the health service over the years which gathered dust.
Senator Mullins requested the CEO of the HSE to be invited to attend the House. We will be having a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges later and we must examine the question of invitations and who we should invite into the House.
Senator Mooney raised the Italian and Spanish debt crisis and invited the Minister for Finance into the House to debate the debt burden. The Minister for Finance is anxious to come into the House but it is a matter of finding the necessary time. If we can have the Minister for Finance in here before the summer recess at the end of July, we will get him to discuss the question of debt burden and the budgetary process.