Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Order of Business.
I welcome everybody back. The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on innovation at the heart of the jobs challenge, to be taken at 4 p.m. and to conclude at 6 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, following which questions from other Senators to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation will be taken in turn. I hope as many Senators as possible will have an opportunity to put questions to the Minister this afternoon. I ask Senators not to preface their questions with statements during the questions and answers part of the debate. The fairest way of ensuring we have a broad-ranging high-level policy discussion with the Minister is to pose clear and direct questions. I am sure everybody in the House shares this objective. I do not want the same people to hog the debate and the questions. I hope all Senators will have had an opportunity to ask questions before anyone comes in for a second time. We are still trying to arrive at the best possible formula for these question and answer sessions. I hope we will receive the full co-operation of Members in this regard.
I am pleased to be back. I look forward to the upcoming session. In the last session the Seanad made a great deal of progress in terms of how it does its business. I commend the Leader of the House, the leaders of the other groups and all Members on that. I hope this afternoon's question and answer session will be fruitful. Many valid questions will be asked. We will see what the answers will be like. I raised a specific issue with the Leader on a number of occasions during the debate on the Finance (No. 2) Bill 2011, which brought the jobs initiative into force, in effect. The initiative was paid for by means of the imposition of a levy on the private pension funds of people who saved for their retirement, as they were told to do by successive Governments. The current Government has seen fit to take €1.8 billion from such people to pay for its jobs initiative. The number of jobs created under the initiative will not be monitored. I am dubious about whether the VAT decreases provided for in the initiative have been passed on to consumers.
Earlier this afternoon, our leader met annuitants from Tara Mines who receive an average pension of €10,000 per annum, which is substantially less than most public service pensions. These people have been notified by the scheme trustees that their pensions will be reduced from €10,000 to €9,000 per annum because the scheme is under-funded and unable to pay the pensions levy introduced by the Government. I raised another pension scheme - the retired airline workers scheme, which has 15,000 members - in the House previously. This scheme is under-funded, like 80% of Irish pension schemes, and will simply not be able to pay the pension levy. The only way it would be able to do so would be if it were to reduce the benefits to be paid to its annuitants. The incomes of those who are outside Leinster House today have been cut by 10% to pay for VAT decreases from which many of this country's major newspapers will benefit. The question of whether this measure will create a single job is not being monitored. Certainly, this side of the House will be questioning the Minister, Deputy Bruton, who I am glad is coming in, vigorously about how we can bring in a jobs initiative, which was previously to be a jobs budget, and then not track whether it is achieving results. I can tell the House those in the Tara Mines and aviation pension schemes know well the impact of this jobs initiative because their pensions have been cut by 10%.
On the three year fiscal plan, I welcome the fact that the Government has decided to publish a plan to show people where there will be tax increases and expenditure cuts to try to give them some degree of certainty as to what is coming down the track. I assume and ask that this would be debated in this House.
Does the commitment still stand that the Government will not raise income taxes and not cut social welfare in the forthcoming budget? Over recent weeks, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste seem to have rowed back quite a degree on their pronouncements of the 100 days in Government. Can the Leader tell me today that the Government remains committed to no income tax increases and no social welfare cuts in the forthcoming budget?
It is the first day back and we are not too restricted by time.
I will be quick. Many Members have asked when the Minister for Health will come to the House. The Minister for Health came here once to take legislation that had cross-party support, an important Bill on female genital mutilation. We have not had a proper questions and answers debate with the Minister on the health services. It was interesting to note that the day figures were published showing the largest number of citizens on trolleys ever in the history of the State, the Minister was not even in the country to deal with that. I want him to come in to this House to answer questions on that.
I join others in welcoming colleagues back. I hope that everyone has had a break over the summer and is ready for the busy and challenging term that lies ahead in which we all hope the Seanad will play a productive and valuable role and in which we will see further progress with the procedural reforms we have begun to make. The Leader referred to the format today for questions and answers with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, which I think we found to be a more valuable way of interacting with Ministers in this House when we had the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in previously. We also need to bring forward the reforms on public consultation and on inviting speakers, with which I know we will proceed.
We all look forward to the debates we will have today on jobs and innovation, tomorrow on transport, next week on the arts, and also on the important legislation, some of which carries a good deal of urgency, particularly the legislation on the referenda on judicial pay and on committee powers. In the context of the job creation debate, given the events of recent weeks, it is worth expressing sympathy with the workers in TalkTalk in Waterford at the closure of the plant and the manner in which it was announced, an issue which Senator Landy and others will raise this afternoon in the House.
Another momentous event that happened over the break was the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It would be useful to have a debate in this House at a future date, either with the Tánaiste or an invited international speaker, on the legacy of 9/11, on the international movement for democracy that we have seen develop this year and which has been called the Arab Spring, and on what we in this House and in this country can do to support those movements for democracy that are fighting so hard in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and other places and that are being suppressed brutally in some of those places. That would be a valuable way to honour the legacy of the many who died in 9/11.
It is good to be back, and with all colleagues. The words "equality" and "human rights" - three of my favourite words - were put together with the word "merger" at the end of last week when the Government announced it had agreed in principle to merge the Irish Human Rights Commission with the Equality Authority into a new human rights and equality commission. The press release indicated: "The purpose of this change is to promote human rights and equality issues in a more effective, efficient and cohesive way." "Effective", "efficient" and "cohesive" are powerful words too. While it may be the case that issues related to efficiency and cost were integral - central, in fact - to the Government's motivation for this far-reaching change in institutional, legal and practical infrastructure for equality and human rights, if this new body proves to be more effective and cohesive in the way it does its business, this can only be welcomed by the people who stand for freedom, fairness and dignity. Will this not be the ongoing test? As a result of this merger, will Ireland be better at ensuring equality, eradicating discrimination and promoting and protecting the human rights of all who reside here, especially those who are not free, those who are vulnerable and not equal? Now more than ever before in the context of the very vulnerable Irish economy and society, we need to get it right in terms of how equality and human rights are delivered side by side. As law-makers, we need to think carefully how we can bring these two institutions together in a substantive way in order that the new institutional arrangements will not be made at the expense of human rights and equality obligations.
Some of the key questions that need to be raised include what form of equality we want and whether income equality is part of this agenda. How will we ensure this new body complies with the Paris Principles, specifically that it will be genuinely independent and the pluralism of its membership will be ensured? The Irish Human Rights Commission holds "A" status. This is a critical badge, indicating that the United Nations and the international community view it as truly independent of the Government. Will the new commission be able to wear the same badge? The Minister has promised that it will have a direct reporting function to the Oireachtas through its committee system. While this release of Government control towards oversight by the Oireachtas is greatly to be welcomed, will it require the amending of the name of a committee to incorporate changes in respect of human rights? The Good Friday Agreement promises that the Government will establish a human rights commission with a mandate and a remit equivalent to that within Northern Ireland. As we put in place these new institutional arrangements, will we maintain equivalence in respect of human rights protection? I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice and Equality to the House early in the drafting of this legislation on the new commission to give Members the opportunity to raise questions and offer our views.
It appears the European Commission never takes with one hand without giving with the other. I am sure Members were astounded by the bizarre comments of the German Energy Commissioner, Mr. Günther Oettinger, when he suggested flags should be flown at half mast in bailout programme countries, as if this might in some way deter countries from getting into debt or letting their debts get out of control. To be fair, it seems Mr. Oettinger is already back-pedalling furiously.
It is probably more appropriate for us to note that the European Commission is starting to talk about introducing options on eurobonds and that the Commission President, Mr. José Manuel Barroso, has been making the right noises in this regard. Of course, we should also note the good news for Ireland in the reduction of the interest rate and the extension of the maturity period of our loans under the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism. This is the direction in which things have to move if the European Union is serious about helping countries with debt problems to tackle the crisis they face. While Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon say they are going to do everything to save Greece, it is increasingly clear that the powerful countries at the heart of the European Union need to do something more than talk. They need to show themselves capable of taking co-ordinated and speedy action and implementing the serious measures necessary to maintain confidence in the ability of European countries facing a debt crisis to meet the challenge.
I note the reforms introduced in the Dáil to facilitate debates on topical issues, which are to be welcomed. It appears our colleagues in the Dáil will be able to enjoy the privilege we have enjoyed of being able to raise topical issues from time to time. I have long thought that a reform we should try to achieve in the Seanad concerns our ability to put parliamentary questions directly. We are not well served by the current Adjournment debate procedure at the end of each day's proceedings. I often had pertinent questions to ask which simply did not fit what was available to Members in Adjournment debates. It seems that while the Constitution provides clearly that the Government is accountable specifically to the Dáil and that this is the rationale for accepting parliamentary questions in that House, the Seanad would function better if its Members had a more direct opportunity to put questions to the Government. Some consideration should be given to this possibility.
I welcome Senator Bacik's comments on-----
In respect of the proposed debate on the Arab Spring, Members should not simply note it in passing. They should have a debate on developments in the Arab world and the consequences thereof. While they welcome movement towards democracy in Arab countries, they must also begin to ask questions about what might happen to minorities which are vulnerable to persecution. There is a particular crisis regarding the persecution of Christians in different parts of the world which has the potential to become a more severe crisis as a downside of the good news of democratisation in Arab countries. The western world has been too hesitant in talking about this problem, and in their debate on emerging democracies in the Arab world, Members should also discuss what can be done to protect minorities. I refer specifically but not exclusively to Christian minorities in these countries.
As previous speakers have noted, everyone is welcome back and I look forward to this session.
The Leader should ask the Minister for Transport to clarify the stock of salt in the State for the winter season and how much of it has been distributed to the local authorities. Last year, although the National Roads Authority indicated there was a certain stock of salt in the State, it transpired that it was not in the country but had been ordered. As a consequence, the country nearly came to a standstill. If one is to believe it, another hard and cold winter has been forecast. As a consequence it will be important to have our preparations made for it. In this regard, it is also relevant to ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to clarify the attitudes of certain local authorities towards voluntary groups which provided assistance in certain areas last winter. Some local authorities allowed members of the IFA and community groups to help in gritting roads and so on, whereas others refused on the grounds that they might not have been covered by insurance and similar issues. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government should clarify whether local voluntary groups would be allowed to help local authorities were we to experience another hard winter.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, come to the House to explain his pre-election commitment on the retention of accident and emergency services at Roscommon County Hospital which have now been closed and to give a report to the House on the issues involved. This matter will not go away and will be neither forgiven nor forgotten as the people of County Roscommon have been badly let down. Commitments in writing were given by the Minister in advance of the general election and confirmed by the Taoiseach in The Square in Roscommon town before the election. The people of Roscommon-South Leitrim were conned, as they voted for two Fine Gael candidates, only one of whom remains in that party. The other resigned from the party and is now an Independent Member of Dáil Éireann because he could not live with the fact that he had been betrayed and, more importantly, the people of Roscommon had been betrayed by the commitments given by the Minister. If the Minister is able to visit China on a mission in the company of his private secretary, a councillor from north County Dublin and his wife-----
I have proposed an amendment to the Order of Business and I am explaining the reasons for it. If the Minister was able to visit China, why was he not able to come to this House to explain to the electorate the commitments he had given before the general election? I note members of the Fine Gael Party in County Roscommon will meet party officials next Monday night and are considering mass resignations from the party over this issue. I do not blame them; they are absolutely right. They have also said that it will be very difficult, nearly impossible-----
-----to canvass with Gay Mitchell for the presidential election. In fact, the Roscommon hospital action committee will accompany the candidate all over Roscommon with placards saying, "You lied, you betrayed, you let us down." It will be a very-----
It is regrettable that this issue is coming into the presidential election and that the Labour Party and Fine Gael candidates will find themselves very unwelcome in Roscommon. West of the Shannon will be a very unhappy place for them. Under the circumstances, Gay Mitchell------
I too would like to welcome my colleagues back to the House and wish everyone well for the forthcoming term. It is worth noting how serious the current Government is and that we have come back two weeks earlier than normal. We are also forgoing our mid-term break and working much closer to Christmas than the previous Government insisted on. It highlights how serious we are.
I congratulate the 56,930 junior certificate students who received their results today. As a mother and former teacher I understand the anxiety felt by the students and parents in anticipation of the results. It is great to see more students taking project maths, the schools which have piloted it at higher level, more students obtaining honours at higher level in it and the overall increase in students taking higher level subjects.
I draw attention, however, to recent research which has shown that the average under-age drinking age in this country has decreased from 16 years of age ten years ago to the frightening age of 14 in recent times. Given that students will be celebrating over the next couple of days, it is very important that we highlight the dangers of teenage drinking. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come to the House and have a debate on teenage drinking.
I would also like to raise and other issue related to a frightening article in yesterday's Irish Independent. The acute emergency services in Louth hospital were transferred to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, which is a centre of excellence.
I do. In the Irish Independent yesterday the worst hospital in the country for waiting times was highlighted as being Our Lady of Lourdes. I ask the leader to ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, to come to the House to debate the lack of services throughout accident and emergency departments in the country.
Like my colleagues I am very glad to be back and I look forward to our serious work. I was struck by the analytical way in which Senator Zappone approached what is perhaps a problematic area, namely, the amalgamation of certain organisations which have done very good service. She may well have support from the Government side because I remember these issues were raised when the Equality Authority was downgraded in financial terms, the Combat Poverty Agency was abolished and the Irish Human Rights Commission suffered severe cuts. Both parties in the current Government were very good on those debates. She may well find, particularly because of the considered way in which she analysed the situation, that there will be a sympathetic ear in Government.
There are economic issues and it is important to start on a positive and constructive note. I was very glad to hear the Minister say that this year there will be no cutting off of gas or electricity because people cannot pay. That is a basic standard. It happened last year and I was ashamed it was allowed to happen. Thank God it will not be allowed to happen this year. Other things are not so positive.
I was very sorry to see that four Irish Travellers were charged - they have not been convicted and are before the courts at the moment - with slavery in an island next door where I thought slavery had been abolished as a result of the work of William Wilberforce. They are only in this situation because there has been in a change introduced in the British Coroners and Justice Act 2009, whereby people can face 14 years' imprisonment for holding someone in slavery or servitude with similar lengthy sentences for forced labour. Unfortunately, I understand that no such change has ever been made in Irish law. I was waiting for a case to occur. One of today's newspapers reports that this has occurred, I believe in a suburb of Dublin in a fast food shop. On that basis I ask the Leader to find out-----
Yes, this is my question. Will the Leader take this to Government and ask if plans can be made to introduce something similar to section 71 of the British Coroners and Justice Act 2009? It should be a comparatively simple matter. It would be utterly shameful if we find there are conditions of slavery - we know of people, particularly illegal immigrants and others from foreign countries who are really vulnerable and appear already to have been held in difficult situations which might amount to slavery - but the people abusing them cannot be held to account because of a defect in legislation. This House could lead the move to amend that.
I wish to speak about the money advice and budgeting service, MABS. I acknowledge the great work it has done in the past and the importance of the work it is doing now in these difficult and challenging times. There are more than 50 offices throughout Ireland. I wish to raise in particular the lack of staff in the Sligo office to deal with the number of people looking for support, help and advice. Perhaps the Leader could invite the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, to come to the House to clarify the future of MABS and its structure. The programme for Government outlines plans to restructure MABS into a national debt agency. In the times we are in with the number of families who are struggling, it is important to get clarification and act on this as soon as possible.
Like previous speakers, I welcome everybody back. Much has happened over the course of the summer months, not least the fact that more than €17 billion of taxpayers' money was put into the banks a number of weeks ago. At the same time as that money was put into the banks, I am sure I am not the only public representative present who has received phone calls from constituents and people in the locality outlining the difficulty they were having in receiving payment of the back to school allowance. Even those in receipt of the payment found it inadequate in meeting the needs of sending their children to education. I have also been contacted by young people who will not receive a grant and will be unable to do a third or fourth level course. I have previous experience of people who were very late in receiving their grants. In addition, there have been cuts in the areas of special needs and household benefits, all of which will impact on vulnerable people. All these have happened at a time when the Government took €17 billion of taxpayers' money to put into the banks.
A total of 575 jobs at TalkTalk in Waterford are now gone. I do not blame for the Government for those job losses; corporate greed is at the heart of that company's decision to let those workers go. Senator Bacik spoke about the disgraceful way in which those workers were treated by the company. Those workers and all those who have lost jobs want the Government to act and support them in their hour of need. That is why it is so important that the upcoming budget does not, for example, cut jobseeker's allowance and, instead, does something to help those workers pay their mortgages, with which they will have difficulty. Crucially, we must get those people back to work. The Government put in place a jobs initiative that has patently failed. We are losing jobs while creating very few new ones.
If Senator Bacik believes the jobs initiative is a success, God help the 460,000 people out of work. There will be a budget in December and I ask the Minister for Finance to come into the Chamber in the coming weeks and talk to us about what initiatives he will put in place to create jobs and help workers across the State who have lost their jobs.
I ask the Minister for Education and Skills to define the term "professor". A couple of weeks ago, Trinity College decided with the stroke of a pen to call everyone lecturing in the college a professor. This will put other lecturers at a disadvantage when applying for jobs. How is "professor" defined? To do it with the stroke of a pen is not good enough. If there is to be standardisation in education, professorships should be awarded on merit, as they were of old, where a person had to have a certain number of papers published in the discipline or to hold a chair at the university before appointment. I would like the Minister for Education and Skills to examine this so we avoid a system like that in America where there are professors in institutes or even colleges. Our system should not allow for this in one college.
If this comes down to salaries, how will it be dealt with? There are many different types of professor, visiting, honorary, clinical and so on, but gradation should be clear to anyone applying for a job and to the students being taught by "professors" who are glorified lecturers. Trinity College had a position where to be a clinical professor, one must be the senior clinician with a consultant contract in a hospital tied to the university who has demonstrated commitment to research and scholarship in the form of publications appropriate to the discipline in which he is appointed professor. I would like to see the same criteria for every professor appointed to our national universities.
I support Senator Leyden's amendment to the Order of Business to ask the Minister for Health to come into the House. As Senator Leyden pointed out, he has only come in once so far, on an issue agreed by all parties. Members opposite have also asked for him to come into the House so we will see if they will support the call for the Minister to come before us.
I note the Deputy Leader's remarks about the Arab Spring. I hope the Labour Party and Deputy Gilmore, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, will support the UN resolution on recognition of the Palestinian state and that the flag of Palestine will fly outside the UN in New York as that of a full state.
My colleague, Senator Rónán Mullen, has spoken about flags and the suggestion by the German Commissioner, Mr. Günther Oettinger, that we should fly our flag at half mast. As one walks around Dublin, there are many buildings where the EU flag is prominent, including on the GPO, but how friendly is that flag? I met the German Ambassador and a member of the Bundestag at a briefing of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade during the summer and asked him to tell his colleagues in Germany that if they think any EU referendum would be passed in Ireland any time soon, they should realise it will not happen. The Irish people are not going to vote in favour of resolutions to centralise control by the Germans and French, considering how much money the Irish taxpayer is going to pay back to German and French banks. It would be an impossible sell on the doorsteps. To say we have shared sovereignty is a nice way to describe what has happened, but giving more power to the Germans and French would not be acceptable. They have not done a great job with the little power they have at present.
Today, the Minister for Youth Affairs launched a report by One in Four, whose director is Maeve Lewis. I thank Ms Lewis for her support of my speech in the House on the final day of the previous session regarding abuse in Carrignavar in County Cork.
I am seconding Senator Leyden's amendment to the Order of Business. I also thank Mr. Gordon Jeyes of the HSE, Mr. Ian Elliott of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church and Detective Superintendent John McCann for their efforts in this regard. Garda investigations are ongoing and I ask anyone who has information to give it to the appropriate authorities. It is interesting to note that there have been 24 reports to the Garda on the matter.
I, too, welcome my colleagues back for this new session. Many of us were disturbed to read in newspapers over the weekend that 99 top civil servants are receiving huge severance pay packages. I call on those civil servants to make substantial donations to a jobs fund. These severance packages are equivalent to what five or six ordinary people would earn in a year. This is not too much to ask at this time, when our country is in such dire circumstances.
My attention was drawn to the scandal of imported diesel and the problems it is creating for many people who are in the business of selling diesel. The estimated cost to the State of the contaminated, or washed, diesel is between €100 and €200 million. There are 35,000 litres in a tanker of diesel. The profit from a full tanker, bought legitimately, is approximately €1,500. However, the profit from a tanker of imported diesel, without VAT being paid on it, is approximately €16,000. This should be a huge concern for the State. It is certainly a huge concern for those who are in competition with this diesel anywhere in Ireland. The imported diesel is agricultural diesel that has had the dye washed out of it so that it looks like normal diesel.
I was delighted to see last week that the Garda had arrested four garage owners. I was pleased that attention was being drawn to the problem and that something was being done about it. However, my attention was then drawn to the fact that one garage owner, not one of those arrested on this occasion, had been fined €3,500 and was instructed to close for 24 hours. Some garage owners who have been instructed to close for 24 hours are open again within 24 hours. The cost to the State is huge and the cost to individual garage owners who are trying to compete with this activity is such that it is making a mockery of legitimate trading in Ireland.
How does one solve the problem? I was interested to hear the Northern Ireland Minister talk this morning on the BBC about the difficulty this is creating north and south of the Border. He mentioned the removal of the dye by washing agricultural diesel. The answer would appear to be to allow farmers to buy normal diesel and make a subsequent claim for the amount they use for agricultural purposes. I am sure the problem is not easy to solve but this is certainly a better solution than the one being used at present.
I call on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence to have an investigation into this matter and to see how we should handle the problem. It is clearly a huge scandal, it is bringing the law into disrepute and it is a huge cost to the State.
I too was disturbed at the reports in recent days about Irish involvement in the slavery that has allegedly taken place across the water. I am very disturbed to think that Irish people were involved in that, given our history and given the way Irish people have been treated when they have gone abroad to work over the years, and the difficult terrain they had to go through to make a living. It is desperate. However, I was even more shocked to read about an Indian takeaway in Clondalkin paying somebody 51 cent an hour, for 77 hours a week, with one day off in the year. We have inspectors who go into restaurants to make sure that the toilets are clean, the floors are clean and that checklists are met. How could this have happened here?
I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence and other relevant Ministers to set up some sort of inspectorate system to check out other such establishments across the country. They must make sure that this type of slavery, which everyone abhors, is not going on. It is appalling in 2011 to think that such behaviour could occur here. It should be rooted out. The Leader should bring this urgently to the attention of the Minister.
I agree with Senator Leyden in calling for an urgent debate on health. There are many issues that continue to afflict the health service, not least the budgetary restraints all over the country, the moratorium on staff recruitment, the relegation of the people of the north-west region to second class citizens in the context of the provision of services. A silent vigil will take place this evening to coincide with the visit of the Labour Party presidential candidate to Sligo. It will highlight that party's commitment to develop a centre of excellence for cancer care in the north west of Ireland at Sligo, and the fact that the party reneged on it very quickly with the mere defence that if it were the senior party in the Government, it would have done that, as if that were ever likely. It will also highlight the Fine Gael commitment that there would be a return of the services which were removed a few years ago, which was also reneged upon.
While I appreciate that the Minister has had recent trips to China and elsewhere, so far we have only had one visit to the House in the eight months of this Administration for very important legislation on female genital mutilation. I do not wish to undermine the importance of that legislation, but I would like to see similar respect for the plight of people from the north west, north of a line from Dublin to Galway and west of Mullingar, who seem to be under instruction from the HSE either to move closer or die, rather than have the services they require.
The last act of these Houses before the summer recess was to deny the people fairness and equity in trying to deal with the difficulties of the recession and meet mortgage repayments. They need the same kind of flexibility that is being shown to our nation and our Government by Europe to elongate the mortgage debts of this country by up to 30 years. The Commission proposed today that the rates of those mortgages should be reduced to 0%. It is incumbent on the Government to look again at the Family Home Bill 2011, which was voted down in this House by only three votes-----
I have. Thank you for the latitude you have afforded me. The Bill enjoyed the support of many independent Senators because it had real proposals, which The New Beginning group called "the only show in town" for providing real options to people. They were denied because "they were not necessary", according to the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, on the night of the debate. However, we have seen it fester as a major issue throughout the entire summer. Therefore, pending the return of the Bill either through the Dáil or in this House, I call on the Leader to allow for an urgent debate on the solutions which must be put forward and measures which must be put in place, similar to those that have been put forward by the European Commission for our State. Let us do the decent thing for the plain people of Ireland as we would expect the nations of Europe to do for this nation.
I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Finance to come before the House, provided he can find time in his busy schedule, to discuss the issue of credit unions. It is an absurdity that, according to newspaper reports, credit unions are only able to lend for the first ten days of each month. I am interested in discovering the facts as it appears they are only giving approximately 20 loans of €5,000 each month, which is absurd in the current climate. While some credit unions may have engaged in reckless lending, they were not involved in even a fraction of what the banks were up to. It is somewhat rich of the Central Bank to issue directives to credit unions not to lend beyond the tenth day of the month to people in serious need of finance.
While the issue of teenage drinking raised by Senator Moran is very important, the bigger question is why teenagers would not engage in serious drinking when adults do so. We live in a country where people come out in a rash if they have to attend an event where drink is not on offer. Far be it from me to be a killjoy - I like to socialise as much as the next person - but the culture of drinking and general attitude to alcohol in this country present serious problems, the results of which will become increasingly clear in the years ahead. A strategy is needed to address this problem. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on this issue of serious public importance.
Prior to the recess, Senators were summoned to consider emergency legislation to deal with the shortage of medical person power which had emerged, despite the country having the highest number of medical schools per head of population of any western or OECD country. The House was compelled to pass urgent legislation in order that we would be able to recruit or, as some would say, plunder doctors from two of the most medically under-served populations in the world to keep our health service functioning. The two countries in question are India and Pakistan. While I supported the legislation through gritted teeth, I considered it indicative of a profound and long-term failure of planning that we could find ourselves in such a Ballymagash-like position in which several days before the end of the mandated contractual deadline for young doctors, we had been forced to fundamentally re-jig and re-order the processes we had in place for the assessment of doctors coming to practice in the State.
I echo the contributions of colleagues in calling on the Leader to please urge the Minister to come before the House to have a little chat with Senators about a number of issues relating to the health service. On a specific issue, it is important that a report be furnished to the House outlining what was the disposition of the recruitment process, how many doctors were recruited, how many came here and how many passed through it. It is being reported in the lay press that many of the young doctors who came are still not working because, we are told, the documents they were required to provide were not in order. I suggest it was incumbent on those importing doctors from such medically starved areas to this country where, apparently, many of them are appropriately being supported, fed and sheltered, even though they are not yet able to work, to ensure the necessary documentation was in place before they arrived. It is another extraordinary failure of planning that this has happened.
This is a microcosm of a larger problem. As I have stated previously, it was very depressing to read that in August, traditionally the quietest month in the health service and the time when trolleys are empty, the number of patients on trolleys was higher than at any time in five or seven years - I forget the exact period. This is a desperate warning that when the winter-----
Will the Leader request that the Minister come to the House and report to us on the status of the young doctors that we discussed and the number of beds available for the upcoming flu season compared to last year. Is it a desperate warning sign that in the month in which we need medical services the least, they are already breaking all records for under-supply and lack of resources? There is a great line in "Jurassic Park" when the dinosaurs start eating all the people after Dr. Malcolm had warned that this was the inevitable outcome of making them. He says: "Boy, do I hate being right all the time." This is what is happening. The health system is run by the wrong people and it is funded in the wrong way. We need to fix these problems urgently.
Finally, I suggest a new-term resolution for all my colleagues. I ask them to remember that in this House they do not represent any geographical constituency, and to bite their tongues every time they want to start a speech with the phrase "in my constituency".
Maraon le mo chomh-Sheanadóir, ba mhaith liom mo chomhgairdeas a ghabháil leis na mic léinn a fuair torthaí na meanteistiméireachta inniu, leis na daltaí a rinne an scrúdú ard leibhéil sa matamaitic agus go háirithe leo siúd a rinne an t-ábhar nua, project maths. Tá sé rí-thábhachtach go mbéadh líon mór daltaí ag déanamh matamatice ar an ard leibhéal.
Iarraim ar an Cheannaire dul i gcomhairle leis an Aire chun deimhniú nach mbéadh aon laghdú caighdeáin ar an gcuraclam matamaitice de bharr project maths, so that it is the methodology that has changed and not the curriculum as such. We need a strong and rigorous set of A-level mathematics students so this country can continue its recovery. Project maths is very welcome but we should make sure it does not lead to dumbing down.
I will finish by mentioning all students starting their third level studies. I was out at the campus of NUI Maynooth twice this week, and the enthusiasm and the sense of hope and self-belief was very strong. Thinking of this broken country, I was reminded of the words of T. S. Eliot: "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?" Our students are our hope for the future and I wish them well.
I support Senator Noone in her call for a discussion on credit unions. The Financial Regulator may have gone somewhat over the top in curtailing the lending activities of the credit unions, which were always regarded as the small person's bank. Never before was the credit union needed so much by people who are struggling to pay the fees of their children in college or bridge financial gaps for short periods. My major concern is that we will drive those people into the hands of moneylenders, and we all know the difficulties that can cause.
I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Finance to come to the House on an occasion that suits him for a discussion on the major loss of revenue to the Exchequer through illegal and criminal activities. Senator Quinn mentioned the incidence of diesel laundering but there are also other areas where vast amounts of money are being lost to the Exchequer. Figures published yesterday indicate that €1 billion has been lost to the Exchequer over the past two years through illegal tobacco activities, namely, the smuggling of cigarettes into this country. There is also the area of the black economy. Legitimate businesses are being forced to close as a result of activities of cowboys who are able to undercut legitimate operators by not paying their tax and not honouring their commitments to the State.
I also raised an issue some time ago here about-----
My question is whether the Leader can arrange for a debate on this issue to take place as a matter of urgency. I raised the issue of cross-Border activity in regard to machinery where people were defrauding this State as a result of the importation of machinery from the North. At a time when we are desperately trying to plug the hole in our finances and various services are under pressure, we need to ensure we get all the moneys we possibly can into the Exchequer.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House to discuss the outrageous proposals to increase class sizes for primary school pupils? I ask Members on this side of House to object to the idea that such a proposal would even be contemplated. Such proposals were put by officials to the previous Government and rejected outright when our four year plan was being prepared. There is no doubt there are pressures on the education budget but investment in primary education and initiatives such as the free preschool year, which was introduced in a tough budgetary environment but prioritised by the previous Government, are important. There is numerous research that shows that the best investment in education, from a social and economic point of view, is in the early years.
I would like the Minister to come to the House to outline if such proposals are being seriously considered by the Government and to give Members on all sides of the House an opportunity to express their views on that. There was also an airing in the media of the idea that the free preschool year might be abandoned. That would be a crazy move. There are other ways to save money. That is a part of the education system that should not be touched. From the point of view of disadvantaged children, it is the best possible start for them. It is all very well to invest in those who were lucky enough to make it college and obviously that is a priority in terms of research, but from the point of view of the disadvantaged, the best impact we can have is to help younger people at the earliest possible stage and ensure that everybody gets the best possible education even in the current economic environment. That needs to be protected at all costs.
Senator O'Neill touched on an important issue when he referred to the lack of co-operation between local voluntary groups and local authorities and whether there is an insurance issue involved. The country is too small to lack uniformity in this regard. It is something we should pursue with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. I intend to pursue it with him, particularly when we have such a wonderful headline example of co-operation between a local authority and all sorts of voluntary groups in our tourism capital in Killarney. Members will be aware of what happened there recently. I compliment the town council and all its outdoor staff, all the local organisations, street and State committees and associations, the chamber of tourism and commerce there, Yvonne Quill and her committee who gave a wonderful lead, and Fr. "Tidy Towns" Michael Murphy. It was wonderful what was-----
I cannot let it pass without mentioning that Senator Coghlan, in his modesty, did not say that he was out with a litter picker on many occasions.
Prior to the recess I asked for the chief executive of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to be brought before the House. I ask again for that to be done as a matter of urgency. Some 700 jobs are about to be relocated because of the sledge-hammer approach by the EPA and I would like its CEO to come to the House to explain that. There is a 1.4% possibility of contamination.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Financial Regulator and the Governor of the Central Bank attended that committee during the summer but one only gets a minute at the end of the meeting to ask a question and when one directs one's question to the Financial Regulator but the Governor of the Central Bank chooses to answer it, that is not good enough.
I ask the Leader to ask the Financial Regulator to come to the House. I have raised for the past year the issue of the sledge-hammer approach that has been taken to the credit union movement. When I put it to the Financial Regulator in committee that he had done this before in another jurisdiction, he went pale. He came to the committee with a naive approach that he knew nothing about the credit union movement. He destroyed the credit union movement in Burma and he is trying to do the same here. He is a banker who is destroying to destroy the credit union movement.
I support my colleague, Senator Quinn, on the issue he raised. I can confirm for the Senator that diesel laundering is happening not only in my constituency. It is an issue in the entire Border region and it is expanding south. It is being distributed practically throughout the top half of our country. It is a major issue. Senator Quinn mentioned the question of loss of revenue to the economy and the fines imposed but the fines are minuscule. A fine of €3,000 and €4,000 and the closing of a business for a day for some of these distributors is minuscule. It is a pittance. It should be examined. It is a major problem and one about which I am very concerned. There are legitimate businesses in every county along the Border and they are losing out greatly.
My question to the Leader is how we solve this. I have read about this and it has arisen in the Seanad and Dáil previously. I ask the question, and perhaps it is a stupid one, about the implications for the country and for the farming community in particular if we were to have only one type of diesel. The farming community could apply for a rebate every three to six months or annually. Why have two types of diesel in the first instance? I do not expect the Leader to answer that question today. I am sure somebody has asked that question previously in one or other of these Houses of Parliament. What not have only one type of diesel and thereby eliminate all this diesel laundering?
Senator O'Brien raised the issue of pension schemes being underfunded. Quite a number of pension schemes in the country are underfunded. I cannot understand how 0.6% levy would result in a 10% reduction in pension payments. That is something that would have to be investigated. The levy introduced on pension funds was 0.6%. I do not know how that can translate into a 10% reduction. It must relate to the underfunding of the pension scheme itself.
The commitment not to increase tax or cut social welfare was given some time ago. I have no further information on whether it still pertains, although I would think it does. I am not au fait with the situation.
Several Members called for the Minister for Health to be present for a debate. I will endeavour to arrange that in the near future, if possible.
Senators Bacik and Cullinane spoke about the job losses at TalkTalk, with particular reference to the way in which the workers involved were treated. It is appalling that workers can be treated like that in this day and age. We can raise the matter with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation when he comes to the House before 6 p.m. I am sure there will be ample opportunity to address the problem and to ask pertinent questions about this issue.
Senator Bacik referred to the Arab Spring. We hope an all-party motion in that regard will be put on the Order Paper and brought before the House tomorrow.
Senator Zappone mentioned the merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority. We all hope the merger will provide for a more effective and cohesive policy. We can ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House to speak on the matter.
My intention is that the public consultation committee which is now in place will concentrate on the single issue of human rights over the next few months of this term. I suggest we deal with the matter by allowing people to make submissions to the committee. I will raise it with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges at an early stage.
I intend to invite the President of the Irish Human Rights Commission, Dr. Maurice Manning, who is a former Leader of the Seanad, to address this House before the end of the month. An enlightening debate should follow the former Leader's contribution on behalf of the commission.
Senator Mullen and a number of other Senators raised the German Commissioner's comments about the Irish flag. I would like to treat those remarks with the contempt they deserve by refusing to comment further on them.
Senator Mullen referred to the decision to extend the terms of the loans and to reduce the interest rates. We all welcome the proposals that are emanating from the European Commission.
The Senator also spoke about the situation in relation to parliamentary questions. I remind him that this House continues to deal with four Adjournment matters each day. I am sure questions can be asked each day in this House in the form of Adjournment matters.
Senator O'Neill raised a number of issues for which the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is responsible, including the stockpiling of salt in advance of the winter months. We will make inquiries about the situation in that regard. The Senator also asked the Minister to clarify the role of local and voluntary groups in assisting local authorities during the winter, especially with regard to insurance. We will try to get answers to both of those questions from the Minister and provide the information to the House at a later stage.
I do not propose to accept Senator Leyden's amendment to the Order of Business. He is playing politics with people once again.
Senator Moran and other Members congratulated those students who received their junior certificate results today.
I will arrange a debate on the problem of teenage drinking, which was raised by a number of Senators. This House should address this serious issue.
Senators Norris and Conway referred to the charges of slavery that have been brought in the UK. Senator Conway also mentioned a case of forced labour that arose in this country. It is obvious that there is a gap in our own legislation in this respect. I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality whether he plans to plug the legislative gap in this regard.
Senator Henry spoke about the money advice and budgeting service, MABS. There has been a massive increase in the number of people seeking the advice of MABS in recent years. We will seek clarification from the Minister, Deputy Burton, on her future proposals with regard to MABS.
Senator Cullinane addressed the question of the job losses in TalkTalk. We will deal with that at a later stage. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, will be here to answer questions later this afternoon. The Senator also called on the Minister for Finance to come to the House. The Minister, Deputy Noonan, will be here next week to deal with legislation. I hope he will come to the House in the first half of next month for statements, questions and answers on the whole financial and economic area.
Senator Keane mentioned the decision that has been made with regard to professorships at Trinity College. I understand the decision is cost-neutral. The Minister for Education and Skills will come to the House soon. We can address those problems with him.
Senator Daly spoke about the Arab Spring. As I have mentioned, the House will be asked to consider a motion on the matter.
Senator Comiskey referred to the severance payments that have been made to senior civil servants. There is grave disquiet among the public about this matter. Perhaps the Senator can ask the Minister for Finance about his proposals for the future. Proposals are already in place to reduce future pension entitlements.
Senators Quinn, Mullins, Brennan and others highlighted the cost to the Exchequer of the scandal of washed diesel. I join Senator Quinn in complimenting the Garda and the Customs and Excise on the wonderful job they do in this regard. It is derisory that garage owners who are found to be selling illegal diesel are merely asked to close for a single day or to pay fines of €3,000 or €4,000. It will have to be addressed as a matter of urgency-----
-----perhaps in the budget or beforehand. This matter certainly needs to be addressed. The whole idea of having one diesel for farmers, and allowing them to recoup the costs, should be examined. That may have been done already. Some kind of operation needs to be put in place to stop these people from gaining money at the expense of the public and the Exchequer, which is what is happening.
Senator MacSharry spoke about hospital services in the north west and referred to the Family Home Bill 2011. The Minister has stated plainly that proposals will be made and action will be taken on mortgage relief before this year's budget comes into place.
Senators Noone, Mullins and others raised the issue of credit unions. We will have the Minister, Deputy Noonan, in the House next week and we can address those matters with him.
Senator Crown raised the recruitment process and the report on junior doctors. The report is something that should be given to the House. He also raised the question of bed closures for the winter. I will endeavour to have the Minister for Health come to the House as soon as possible to address these matters.
Senator Jim D'Arcy raised the issue of project maths and sent compliments and good wishes to the third level students whom, I am sure, we all would want to wish well. We hope that we will have turned the economic corner, and the opportunities and jobs will be there, for those third level students who are commencing their studies this week. They are the country's future and we all wish them well for the future.
Senator Mullins raised the issue of diesel laundering and the matter of the importation of machinery, which he raised previously, and illegal tobacco activities. The black economy seems to be thriving again and that is a threat to the many legitimate businesses. We will raise that, in particular, with the Minister, Deputy Noonan, to see what can be done.
Senator Power sought a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, will be in this House dealing with legislation next week and I hope to have him in later, in October, for statements and questions on education.
Senator Coghlan raised the issue of the capital of Ireland, Killarney, and local authorities there.
There is no doubt it is the tourism capital of the country. Senator Sheahan raised the issue of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and problems in that regard. I suggest that the Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht would be a more appropriate forum than the House at which the chief executive of the EPA could attend. There is also a request that I consider a visit by the Financial Regulator with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I do not think that we will be acceding to it. We will consider it but I think it is a matter for the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform. Senator Brennan concluded on diesel laundering, a matter which several other Senators raised.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 19 (Sean Barrett, Thomas Byrne, John Crown, David Cullinane, Mark Daly, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Darragh O'Brien, Ned O'Sullivan, Averil Power, Feargal Quinn, Kathryn Reilly, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 29 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Deirdre Clune, Eamonn Coghlan, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, Denis Landy, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, Jillian van Turnhout, John Whelan, Katherine Zappone)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Ivana Bacik and Paul Coghlan.
Amendment declared lost.