Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011, Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes; and the House to be adjourned not later than 5.45 p.m.
I wish to ask the Leader about the report that HSE west is to write off €6 million of funds owed to it by private health insurers, particularly in the context of the pressures the health budget is under. How is it that the HSE is allowed to make a decision to waive €6 million owed to the HSE not by private individuals, but by private health insurance companies with large profits? I ask this in the context of the downsizing by the Government of hospitals in the region, including Sligo and Roscommon, and various other hospitals and services, and the fact that this €6 million could be put to very good use. Perhaps the Leader will shed some light on that issue for Members on this side and on what the Government and the Minister for the Health intend to do about this decision taken by the HSE.
In regard to the special pay-outs mentioned last week in respect of some senior civil servants, it appears those arrangements apply also to some county and city managers and will cost the Exchequer approximately €16.5 million over the next two years. While the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have said very little can be done about this - these are existing arrangements - what pressure is the Government putting on these individuals in regard to these special payments which are substantial in nature? What is the position in respect of reports that pensions are being augmented and additional years service being added for many senior public servants across the country? I know it is happening in our universities because I raised it in the last Dáil also. In that instance, additional pensionable service is being added even though there was a directive from the Department of Finance in January 2009 that in any case where the State would have increased liabilities regarding pensions, the trustees were to err on the side of the State. I would like to get clarification on that issue and on what the Government intends to do.
I note the Government Chief Whip is missing. He is obviously still suffering from Sunday's defeat. I am glad to see my colleague from Kerry is present. I hope Senator Coghlan attends the Seanad quickly.
Stop. Everyone will join me in congratulating the Dublin team, Pat Gilroy and Bryan Cullen on a magnificent victory against Kerry. Senator Coghlan is always referring to how Killarney is the capital for tourism, but it is obviously true after this weekend that Dublin is the capital for football.
It is not often that I rise to support Senator Darragh O'Brien's remarks robustly, but it was a great day for Dublin and I join with the Senator in congratulating the team and Pat Gilroy, its manager. It is probably no coincidence that tomorrow will be blue day in the Oireachtas.
We will all wear blue in support of men's cancer programmes, although it may be somewhat difficult for some of our Kerry colleagues to conform. It was a great result not just for Dublin, but also for tourism. Ireland had a great result in Saturday's rugby. Both results gave a considerable boost to people's positivity in the face of significant economic challenges.
I renew my call for a debate on third level education. The Minister will attend the Chamber to discuss the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011 and issues concerning universities may be raised in that context and in light of the inaugural address of the provost of Trinity, Professor Patrick Prendergast. Like other Senators, I had the privilege of attending that address. It is worth pointing out that he noted Trinity's achievements and mounted a robust defence of it and universities generally at a time when universities and higher education are coming under attack. As he stated, Trinity is unique in entering the list of the top 50 universities worldwide. It was in 43rd place at its highest point, but it has since slipped down. Being one of the top 50 was a considerable achievement. As the provost pointed out, only one Irish-owned company numbers among the Fortune 500 companies. Trinity is now in 65th place and there is a concern that reduced funding and resourcing of third level and the stifling of autonomous decision-making will hinder creativity and innovation in universities.
A Higher Education Authority, HEA, study today shows that Government investment in research in universities, colleges and institutes of technology has had a direct return in investment of €1.8 billion. This is a matter of great concern at this time of economic challenge. I will renew my call to the Minister, but we need a fuller debate on third level funding. It is important that universities have autonomy and, in light of student numbers doubling, be able to hire when necessary. It should not be an either-or situation. It is not a case of putting investment into primary or third level. It should be a case of investing in education at all levels. University is not a luxury - it is a necessity, even in a time of economic challenge.
I congratulate Dublin on its ranking as ninth in the list of the world's bicycle-friendly cities. According to a Danish survey published today, this is due to visionary politicians. It is worth mentioning our lord mayor, Councillor Andrew Montague, who pioneered the Dublin bikes scheme, which has gone a long way towards making Dublin such a great city not just for football, but also for cyclists.
One of his constituents in Balbriggan defeated England. That was an achievement.
Regarding Senator Bacik's comments, universities and the points mechanism comprise the subject of a statement today that has been covered widely by the media, certainly the broadcast media. The statement was made by seven people who all happen to be men. I am a member of a university governing body, but this topic has never been discussed. The Oireachtas should be aware that the tendency of these seven people is to rush out statements without consulting anyone. Under the Universities Act, universities are collegiate and not managerial bodies.
The person who set up the points system, the late provost of TCD, Professor Bill Watts, pointed out in his book that it is independent, not subject to influence, autonomous and self-financing. Given the possibility of influence, any alternative system must be viewed askance. I am surprised that, yet again, the heads of universities rushed out statements without discussing the alternatives with their constituents. Regarding tomorrow's conference, there should be a health warning to the effect that this is what seven people decided, not the rest of us in a collegiate community.
In pursuit of a 72% pay rise, the university heads boasted on 5 January 2007 that they were no longer educators but corporate chief executives. The views on who is in college might actually reflect those of us who have the honour and privilege to teach them. I regret the heads should issue statements without drawing attention to the fact that their combined wisdom, or lack of it, is that of just seven people.
It is now over 22 years since three Irish soldiers serving in the Lebanon were killed in an incident or accident. Since then, the three families involved have been trying to achieve closure by obtaining the full details on the cause of the incident. The families were concerned that the incident could have been avoided. It is fair to say their efforts over the past number of years were not greatly successful. Successive Governments were not able to respond fully. It is with this in mind that I compliment the Minister for Defence, Deputy Shatter, on putting in place a mechanism to inquire further into the tragedy. The report was made public yesterday and the Minister apologised to the families. The apology does not bring back their loved ones but I hope it is of some small consolation to them.
I spoke to my colleague Senator Henry last night and she said two of the C company soldiers were from Sligo. She said it was important that closure of the kind in question be achieved. I appreciate the work of the Minister. He set up the inquiry last April. This shows we can make quick progress through inquiries once the political will exists.
I, too, welcome the actions of the Government on this matter. As Senator Bradford said, the families in question are from Sligo. They have waited a long time for closure on this issue. A former Member of this House, John Minihan, was in Lebanon at the time the soldiers died. I believe the Captain of the Guard in Leinster House was also serving at the time. We all welcome the progress on the investigation.
Following on from what our party leader Senator O'Brien said, I ask for an urgent debate on the HSE and the most unusual statement that it appears it is to write off some €6 million in uncollected debts from private health insurance companies. It is ridiculous in the extreme. We have seen robust debate in the House, including on the part of Senator Leyden, on the closure of the accident and emergency department in Roscommon and on bed closures in all hospitals throughout the country, particularly in the HSE west area. In Sligo, some 50 beds are closed. It seems beyond all comprehension that any Government agency could flippantly write off debt from another arm of the State, namely, the VHI, and other insurance companies. It requires an urgent statement by the Minister for Health, who should come to the House as a matter of the utmost urgency.
I call for a debate on overall responsibility within the Government for answering questions, including issues raised on the Adjournment, despite the best efforts of the Cathaoirleach and Leader of the House to have them answered. With regard to health issues, under the 2004 health legislation it seems to be the HSE alone that is responsible for answering questions. Issues pertaining to roads and transportation are solely the responsibility of the NRA. Ultimately, the people want Members to take responsibility for their actions such that they can have confidence in the political system and know that those they elect to the Dáil and to the Seanad, as councillors or university graduates, are taking responsibility for their actions. Despite the best efforts of the Cathaoirleach, it is ridiculous in the extreme that officials within the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport will hide behind legislation-----
My question to the Leader is simply that we must assert ourselves if we are to be in any way useful as an institution of the State. If we cannot get answers to questions, there is surely a major problem. It is not possible for us to invite the chief executive of the NRA to the Chamber and ask a legitimate question on behalf of the people of the north west region who, in recent years, have seen 29 people killed on this road. This is completely unacceptable. If it were on the east coast, an inquiry would have been established to investigate the matter.
I call for a debate on the nation's roads and if the Minister finds he does not have the competence to participate in the debate, perhaps he will send in the CEO of the NRA, for this is the person who seems to be responsible for all of these issues.
Like Senator Barrett, I revert to the discussion paper published today by the Irish Universities Association in which it is stated there is a need to reassess the points system of entry to college and its impact on learning at second level. I do not know the seven members of the Irish Universities Association council, but I know the chairman of the working group which produced the report, Tom Collins, a former president of NUI, Maynooth who is now in Bahrain heading the Royal College of Surgeons programme there, and I have the greatest of respect for him. The report refers to the practice of teaching to the exam. Everyone who listens to the radio is aware of the number of advertisements for exam papers. In secondary schools, much time is spent teaching to the exam. One does not fatten a pig by weighing it every day and one does not teach students by teaching to the exam. As this type of teaching is becoming too prevalent, as a statement of intent I call on the Leader to request the Minister to ban the use of exam papers as a teaching tool in fifth year and in the first term of sixth year. We need to do something about teaching to the exam.
Arising from what other speakers have said, it is all very well for the Government to prioritise the upgrading of Waterford Institute of Technology and to give it university status. I am aware reports commissioned by Waterford Chamber of Commerce and others point to possible benefits if the institute of technology is so upgraded and I know it is part of the programme for Government. However, it is interesting that it took the job losses at Talk Talk to see this issue suddenly put on the agenda. I wonder whether issues are being managed at the level of PR more than anything else when we see this quick upgrading of the priority given to the goal of creating a new university in the south east.
I raise this issue because I wonder whether it is easier to make this type of commitment than it is to deal with the hard questions of the type being asked by the new Provost of Trinity College, Professor Prendergast. He stated he needs funding and freedom and we need to debate these issues. Professor Prendergast also stated if there was more flexibility in how university authorities were able to run their colleges, they would be able to become employers and do more to attract students from foreign lands.
A key issue which the Provost has raised is that of university fees for those who can afford to pay them. It is easy to make a promise to create a new university, but whether that new university will be capable of delivering the type of opportunities for its region that it might will depend on whether universities have the funding they need to excel. The Government will have to deal with these harder questions and face up to more difficult issues such as the question of university fees. Let us have this debate in the House.
I join indirectly with Senator MacSharry on one of the points he made. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges is reviewing the possibility of inviting leaders of different organisations and State bodies to the House. With regard to NAMA, yesterday we heard reports of it selling 22 pieces of Irish art in London in Christies or another of the big auction houses. That is not on. Our own auction houses are like any other employer in this country at the moment in that they are struggling to survive. Besides the fact that the Irish art in question will be potentially leaving the country for ever - it is possible that Irish art collectors will go to London to buy them - it seems another thoughtless thing for NAMA to do. I would like NAMA to appear before the House in order to scrutinise the way it is doing its business because I find it is completely unacceptable. Perhaps the Leader could address the issue at some point.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Tá dhá cheist gur mhaith liom a ardú. I gcomhthéacs an dráma ar fad atá ann maidir leis na hainmniúcháin do thoghchán na hUachtaránachta, sílim gur chóir dúinn díospóireacht a bheith againn maidir leis an bpróiséas sin ar fad. With the drama surrounding the nomination process for the presidential election, it might be timely for us to have a debate on political reform relating to that election in particular and the nomination process. There are different opinions on that and such a debate would be timely. The debate should also take into consideration the all-island context in that regard. For example, recently thousands of Latvians were able to vote in their national election for their president in Newry. The Government saw fit to appoint Senator Martin McAleese to the Seanad but if he was living in his home town of Belfast, he would not be allowed to vote for the next President of the country. Such a debate would be timely.
Gabh mo leithscéal. It is a very important issue. It would be important to have such a debate while it is still in people's minds and pertinent, in particular in regard to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution and the all-island nature of it.
Reference has been made to bringing in high profile individuals to speak to us in the House. Perhaps when the nominations close it would be an idea to invite the nominees to the House to give us their vision for the Presidency.
Ábhar eile gur mhaith liom a ardú - agus cuireann sé an-olc orm - ná an cheist atá ardaithe ag an tSeanadóir Ó Briain. Is é sin na híocaíochtaí seo dos na bainisteoirí contaetha. It is outrageous what we hear again today on the amounts that are being paid to county managers. The Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly, was in the House last week. He wrung his hands in response to my statement that €400,000 was being cut from the rural transport budget. He asked where we were to get the money from. On the other hand we see hundreds of thousands of euro being paid to county managers and others. It is an example of the Government leaving pensioners waiting for buses while the county managers jump on the gravy train. It is not good enough.
We are constantly told that there is not enough money in the country and that there are harsh economic realities. While the Government wrings its hands when it comes to saying "No" to the top civil servants and such types of payments, if there was a political will the payments could and should be stopped. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, should come to the House to explain how the Government can justify making such payments when it is telling ordinary members of the public to tighten their belts and that there is not enough money to give pensioners in rural areas money for buses to bring them to the post office.
I am delighted to hear Senator Ó Clochartaigh refer to the all-Ireland context and calling for a vote for citizens north of the Border in the Presidential election. Would he be as keen to have people in Donegal voting in Northern Ireland or people in the south of Ireland voting in the Six Counties? I live in Donegal where the politicians in Derry are of great importance. Democracy is a two-way street but the debate is only one way-----
If the debate takes place in the context of an all-Ireland vote for a presidential election, people in Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth should be able to vote in areas that have a direct effect on funding for Northern Ireland. What happens in Derry and Tyrone impacts on Donegal, while what happens in Newry impacts on Dundalk. That is why I think it is easy to say we all want a vote.
I take particular umbrage with the Northern Ireland Minister, Conor Murphy, saying that we should change our Constitution. A Minister from another government is telling us to change our Constitution, but I do not think we would be telling the British to change their laws. Conor Murphy may have overstepped the line there, so he should withdraw the remark that we should change our Constitution to suit him. If he wants to vote here, he can register as a voter and live here, but we do not change our laws. A Minister in another government should not be telling us how our Constitution should be framed. If the debate takes place, it should be all-inclusive and not one-way traffic.
I agree 100% with my colleague. It would be great if the citizens of Donegal and other Border counties had a vote in the North of Ireland because, if so, we would have a united Ireland in the morning. I do not think that Ian Paisley, senior or junior, or any other members of the Democratic Unionist Party would be in favour of that, however.
I agree that citizens in the North should have a vote in the presidential election. The idea of appointing a Senator to represent Irish citizens overseas has been debated. In 2006, the current Taoiseach said he would support such a move but, of course, when the opportunity came with the appointment of the Taoiseach's 11 Senators - even though they are excellent - he did not do what he said he would do.
I wish to congratulate the Dublin GAA football team. We accept our defeat. It was a great performance and a great game.
Yesterday was a historic day when our Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade presented the first certificate of Irish heritage in New York to the family of Joe Hunter who was in squad 288 of the New York Fire Department. Joe's mother had to receive it on his behalf because, along with many members of his squad, he was killed ten years ago, on 11 September 2001, at the age of 31. It was fitting that the Tánaiste would give the award to someone in the fire department who gave his life in the service of others.
Joe Hunter represented some 70 million people of Irish descent living abroad, including 40 million Irish Americans who have contributed so much to their adopted country, as well as to Ireland. I wish to pay tribute to Ray Bassett who, in 2009, worked alongside me to ensure that the certificate scheme came to fruition. It shows the great work of our public servants when the strategic review, which was written by Ambassador Collins and included the proposal for a certificate, made it all the way to New York. Bridget Hunter, Joe's mother, said she was very proud to be the first recipient of the first certificate of Irish heritage. It is a great day for the country to start recognising the millions of people who have contributed so much to Ireland from their adopted countries.
The Government has established the JobBridge programme, which is a welcome development. Recently, I was contacted by someone who is running a community hospital. They are prepared to provide training to people who want to work as carers in the community. They have set up a training scheme within the community hospital, which is not taking jobs away from anyone. They have more than adequate staff in that hospital, but they have now been told that they cannot take on people under the JobBridge programme. A huge opportunity is being lost as a result. It was an opportunity to train people who want to work in the community. There is an urgent need for trained carers to help elderly people who want to remain in their own homes. We do not have an adequate number of people with the required qualifications and experience. The community hospital was prepared to provide that training and experience.
There have been cuts across a number of Departments such as in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, in which Deputy Richard Bruton is Minister, the Department of Social Protection, under the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, and the Department of Health. I ask the Leader to bring this to the attention of the Ministers concerned. The regulations should be amended to accommodate this initiative as developed by a community hospital, where a very good programme has been put in place in order to provide training and experience.
I am pleased to see that the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has set up a telephone appliance which highlights the hospital trolley crisis. The reference for it is m.ino.ie/trolley.htm. As someone from the north east, I find it disappointing to see Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda topping the list with 46 patients on trolleys today. It is the case that not all major hospitals have significant numbers of patients on trolleys. I ask for a debate on this issue because I am not convinced it is entirely an issue of capacity. In some cases it seems to be maladministration. I refer to the case of a person who was referred by her GP to an accident and emergency department for a routine procedure and was informed she would have to stay overnight to await the procedure the following morning. I ask why that person could not have been called back the next day and this would have allowed a person on a trolley to avail of a bed.
The provost of Trinity College, Professor Prendergast, gave a very impressive speech yesterday. I concur with Senators Mullen, Barrett and Bacik that we need to have a major debate on the third level sector and this subject will be discussed today. Senator Barrett has warned we should tread very carefully with regard to the points system. I was a student representative member of the committee of the law school when I was a law student. It may well be the same today but at the time the academic members were aghast at the prospect of the pressure being applied to admit students who had not qualified in particular areas. At that time they much preferred the points system, which is a fair system.
We need to look at the exam system to see how the exams can be made fair and balanced. I am not sure what effort is expended on school exams. For instance, in America, a whole science is devoted to ensuring consistency in school exams from one year to another. The provost, Professor Prendergast, is correct in that Trinity College is a world-class institution and it must be given the freedom to compete internationally on the basis that it will contribute to the country through the education it provides and businesses that are created as a result of its innovative research. UCD and other colleges are also very high in the rankings.
The JobBridge scheme is another example of money being given to multinational companies on the backs of pensioners. Tesco has advertised for shelf-packing staff and the JobBridge website lists waiting staff vacancies. These are not the type of skills the Government should be funding because such skills can be funded by an employer who can provide the appropriate training. We need to up-skill the workforce for jobs in the future, not just train people for jobs already in existence.
I note that people from Glen Dimplex are members of the Government's advisory board. They are very welcome and such companies are giving very good internships to students. However, some members of the board of JobBridge are political appointments and I fear they are not offering sufficient criticism of the Government. I have heard some of these members standing up for the Government all the time when speaking on the radio. This is the wrong attitude if something is not working properly. They should stop defending the process. There is a serious problem when Tesco can look for shelf-stackers and be provided with €50 a week for each such job provided. We should concentrate on up-skilling the workforce in order to market the country and to attract people who will provide jobs.
I am alarmed at the speculation that €6 million is being written off by HSE west. I dealt with a case recently where a relatively old person was hounded by a certain hospital to pay €100 for presenting at the accident and emergency department. That €100 was not written off; it was paid by a charity on behalf of the old lady.
I would like the Minister for Health to appoint a senior official from his Department to carry out an immediate investigation into what exactly is happening with this €6 million in HSE west. The inspector might also look at the various other elements of the HSE to see how much has been written off as a result of the debts of private health care. What is wrong with health care here is that we have a two-tier health service that needs to end. It is appalling and reprehensible that this is going on. Perhaps the inspector will also establish how many retired officials from the HSE are now working in private health insurance. That would be a very interesting exercise. Will the Leader establish that through the Minister for Health on our behalf?
I agree with other Senators who spoke about political reform and reform of the nomination process for the Presidency. What progress has been made in terms of the constitutional convention on political reform in this country? What has happened in the past number of weeks in regard to the presidential election makes it clear that the whole system needs to be reformed.
The Comptroller and Auditor General has issued his report and, as usual, it is getting a fair amount of airing in the newspapers. It will also go before the Committee of Public Accounts. Will the Leader arrange a debate on that important document? I have always felt that while the comptroller will identify places where money was wasted in the order of perhaps tentative millions, based on my business experience there is no doubt that no matter how tightly one runs a company, waste will accumulate. The bigger the organisation, the bigger the waste. There is probably at least a couple of billion to be saved.
This can be done painlessly by honing in on areas where we could effect economies and efficiencies by making people who are quite well paid in the public service, both in middle and higher management, accountable and charging them with getting savings across the board of something in the order of 10% on current public expenditure. Then we should send in a task force and where people are found wanting for failing to do the job with regard to cost efficiencies, their career and continuing employment should be in question. That is the way it works in the private sector and there is no reason it should not work in the public sector. Incentive schemes should also be in place to hone in on this issue. A debate is merited.
I welcome the fact that a move is being made towards a university in the south east. When a previous Government decided to enhance the regional college in Waterford to institute of technology status, unfortunately, everybody else got on the band wagon. On all economic indicators the south east lags behind other regions. It has high unemployment and a low industrial base. We need to try to ensure that the infrastructure is in place in the south east so that people living in that region can have some prospects of securing employment there.
Bhí mé ag éisteacht go cúramach leis an méid a dúirt an Seanadóir Ó Clochartaigh agus an Seanadóir Harte agus nílim i gcoinne aon rud a chuala mé uathu. I do not have a difficulty with regard to extending the franchise for the presidential election.
Yes. Would the Leader consider having a debate on how, perhaps, the Seanad election could be extended on an all-island basis? I know from talking over a decade ago to colleagues who were elected members of the Unionist fraternity in Northern Ireland that they would countenance participating in this Chamber if there were sufficient numbers to prevent them being isolated within their communities. That would be a good democratic way of enhancing and progressing on an all-island basis the peace process. It would also enhance the deliberations and prospect of all people on this island of having a voice in this Chamber. I urge the Leader to ensure this is something that is looked at. Perhaps people from here could then, on a reciprocal basis, participate in selected debates within the Northern Ireland Assembly.
While acknowledging the work that the Revenue Commissioners do, I have been contacted recently with regard to the anecdotal evidence. The banking fraternity has taken direction from the Minister for Finance regarding its dealings with businesses and people in debt. Hence there are longer timeframes for repayment, restructuring is an option and people are able to retain their homes and businesses, yet the Revenue's approach seems to be very much confrontational. There is no give or ease in the organisation's approach. Banks are engaging with people and if Revenue adopted a similar approach to ensure people remain in business and gave them an opportunity by providing more time to pay and so on, they will pay.
We are in different and difficult times and if the Revenue Commissioners endorsed a different approach, businesses and jobs would be retained. If people can keep their businesses going, they will pay their dues at some stage but if they are put out of business, those dues will never be paid and more people will be on the live register. Would it be possible for the Leader to invite the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners to the House or could a direction be sent to the organisation to give people in business every opportunity? They have to pay and they will pay if they are allowed to remain in business.
I refer to the baffling news that HSE west is about to write off approximately €6 million because consultants employed within the health service did not take the opportunity to fill in and submit the appropriate paperwork to private insurance firms. This merits a serious investigation and I hope the Committee of Public Accounts will investigate this matter. If €6 million has to be written off in the HSE west area alone, how much will be written off for the entire country? I would like to know. It is disgraceful that this should be allowed to happen when, on the other hand, the HSE, the Minister and the new Government are allowing hospitals to close and facilities to be withdrawn from patients. The Minister is presiding over a Department that has closed X-ray units in two community units in my constituency this week, namely Killybegs Community Hospital and Donegal Community Hospital. Over the summer, the service was reduced from two days to one day per week and it has now been withdrawn, which is wholly unacceptable. The Minister must come to the House and the officials responsible must be brought before the Committee of Public Accounts for questioning and to be held to account. It is not good enough that the taxpayer would be asked to pay for the failings of HSE officials or consultants.
The second issue I wish to raise is the report compiled by the Government on Garda stations. According to the report, 24 stations in County Donegal are earmarked for closure. The Minister for Justice and Equality needs to come to the House to explain the political motivation behind the report and the rationale behind the decision of the Minister and the Government to request superintendents to examine stations within their jurisdictions that could be closed. This is unacceptable, particularly given the increase in crime since the onset of the recession. I hope the Leader will invite the Ministers for Health and Justice and Equality to come to the House as soon as possible to discuss these two emerging issues of national importance.
I join previous speakers in congratulating everybody involved in our successful sporting weekend, including the wonderful achievement of our Rugby World Cup heroes on Saturday morning.
I share the concerns expressed by colleagues regarding the reported Health Service Executive write-off. I am aware that many consultants are disputing the fact that they are the cause of the hospitals' ability to claim the moneys but we must find out what is the exact position. I ask the Leader to organise, if at all possible, a question and answer session with the Minister, Deputy Reilly, at the earliest opportunity because there are a number of issues we all want to discuss with him. We have seen from previous visits here by Ministers that the question and answer type format works particularly well and we should develop that further in this session.
I refer to another important event taking place, the National Ploughing Championships 2011, in Athy. Agriculture is one of the bright spots on our horizon and it is encouraging to see Teagasc issue a statement this morning to the effect that many additional places are being made available in agricultural colleges. It is encouraging to see so many young people interested in getting involved in agriculture and agri-business. If we are to dig ourselves out of this recession, agriculture will play a major part in the revival of our economy. Most farmers would admit that all sectors of agriculture are doing well at the moment and let us hope that we can continue to build on that. Having seen our Minister here in the Seanad some weeks ago we would have confidence that we have a good man driving agriculture forward into the future. I wish the ploughing championships well today and I wish our Minister well in the difficult and protracted negotiations he will have in the coming months.
Like Senator Mullins, I was thrilled by the result of the match and I send my congratulations along with the rest of the House. Rugby is like politics. Dublin was ahead by one point at half time. I thought we had the psychological advantage and then Kerry got a goal and it went to the wire. That is exactly like politics. That is the kind of politics I am experiencing at the moment but the Senator stole my thunder when he mentioned the ploughing championships. The Cathaoirleach knows my devotion to this House. There is only one other place I wanted to be today and that was down there in Athy. I would like to shake the hand of Anna May McHugh, an extraordinary woman.
I used to go to the Spring Show. It has been completely eclipsed - in fact, I think it is gone; they only have the Dublin Horse Show - but it is so important, and I speak as the grandson of a farmer from Laois. The fact is that incomes for farmers have gone up 30% in the past year, and thank God for that. I remember them when they were outside this House and they were suffering decreases in their income. Thank God that we are seeing young people coming back into rural employment. I ask the Leader for a debate on the positive aspects of this because we also have the food industry.
Senator O'Brien and several other Members raised the question of the €6 million waived by HSE west for private health insurers. I am sure it is a matter that will be investigated by the Minister and certainly by the Committee of Public Accounts because it is appalling that such amounts can be waived for private health insurers.
On the senior civil servants and county managers, I am aware that recent payments to retiring civil servants have been on the basis of their career long contractual agreements and arrangements. Substantially increased pay rates were a feature of the previous Government. Benchmarking was introduced without any significant reform and, as such, the Government has inherited these types of situation. However, it has indicated it is committed to overhauling public service pensions. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, is currently reviewing the Top Level Appointments Commission, the terms for the new appointees and particularly the area of severance payments.
We would all like to congratulate Dublin footballers and our rugby team on wonderful victories.
The rugby team had a wonderful victory but it has far to go. We wish the team well in its endeavours to qualify for the Rugby World Cup quarter finals.
Senator Bacik spoke of a "blue day" following the victory of the blues. Blue Day tomorrow is a serious matter dealing with men's cancer. I am sure we will all wear some blue item. A number of people referred to Trinity College being in the top 50 universities of the world and the statement from the heads of universities. There is also the question of the points system. Senator Barrett mentioned the statement in the names of the seven heads of the universities, which is not totally representative of everybody else involved in the system.
Senator Bradford spoke about the number of soldiers killed while on UN duty. That matter has been ongoing for some time and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, acted by calling for an inquiry last April. Both he and the Army Chief of Staff apologised to the families, which was welcomed by them. Those families have waited a long time for justice and truth to come in the matter.
Senator MacSharry spoke about the National Roads Authority. I am sure that any question tabled for the authority's chief executive will receive a reply dealing with the roads in question. Senator D'Arcy also spoke about universities, teaching and exams, outlining reservations in that regard. Senator Mullen and others spoke about upgrading Waterford Institute of Technology to university status. That is not a promise made just now but it is on the agenda of the programme for Government. If the Senator read the programme-----
The criteria for the technological university is being worked on with the Higher Education Authority. The promise of a university for Waterford has been ongoing for the past 20 years, with promise after promise received from previous Governments. I hope it will be acted upon as a matter of urgency, as the Government has now stated. The measure is long overdue. As Senator Walsh has indicated, the south east is the poorest and most under-performing region in the country, with almost 18% unemployment. Waterford city has 20% employment and together these are the highest rates in the State. It is about time the people of the south east and Waterford get some share of the cake. By all means we should have a level playing field for universities, which should be able to compete for money, but some bodies should not try to prevent other institutions from elevating to a higher status.
Senator Noone spoke about NAMA, whose representatives have been before the finance committee. I am sure those people can be returned before the committee to answer further questions in that regard. The matter may also be raised with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, who will be here to make a statement and take questions on 6 October.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh called for a debate on the Presidency. I do not think it is an appropriate time to have such a debate as we will have a campaign in full swing within a week or so. On the same subject, Senator Harte referred to voting rights for people in Donegal and indeed the Twenty-six Counties, saying that people should have votes in Northern Ireland. Any changes in the Constitution will be decided by the people - the people in the Twenty-six Counties, the people who pay their taxes here. They will be the ones who decide on any constitutional amendment.
Senator Daly praised the firefighters, and we all agree with him.
Senator Colm Burke referred to the JobBridge programme and the need to tweak the criteria and regulations in that regard. I agree with Senator Byrne that the object should be to up-skill our workforce. I am sure that any tweaking of the criteria that is required will be done as the scheme goes on. Senator Byrne also mentioned Trolley Watch and the fact that we can now get it on the apps system.
Senator Conway referred to the HSE write-off and the number of retired staff who hold positions in private insurance companies. I do not know whether that information is available, but I will certainly raise the issue with the Minister. On the call for an update on the constitutional convention, as the Senator knows, we will be having two referenda along with the presidential election, but I will ascertain from the Government the progress on the constitutional convention.
Senator Walsh referred to WIT and said that the Seanad election could be done on an all-party basis. Again, it is a question of waiting until after the referendum on the future of the Seanad, when the people will decide. If they decide in the affirmative, that it should stay, we can discuss the item at that point.
Senator Sheahan referred to the Revenue Commissioners and the difficulties for small businesses. I think everyone can empathise with people in small businesses and the difficulties they have not only with the Revenue Commissioners, but with banks and others. Their backs are certainly to the wall.
Senator O'Donnell referred to the problem with the HSE and the withdrawal of some services from community hospitals, and also the proposed closure of Garda stations. We will try to get the Minister for Health and the Minister for Justice and Equality in to discuss those matters in early course. Senator Mullins also called for a debate and question and answer session with the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, and I am doing my best to facilitate that.
I am sure we all wish those involved in the ploughing championships well. Agriculture is certainly of paramount importance to our economy and I am delighted to hear that more places will be made available in our agricultural colleges. I thought we were going to get a commentary on the match from Senator Norris. It was like the presidential election campaign, with people scoring and not scoring and so on. However, we all welcome his comments on agriculture and wish everyone involved in the national ploughing championships every success over the next number of days.