Thursday, 6 October 2011
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on finance, to commence on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude no later than 1.45 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, followed by questions from other Senators not to exceed one minute.
Yesterday An Bord Pleanála gave final approval for metro north, a crucially important piece of infrastructure that has been at the planning stage for a number of years. Land has been purchased and €80 million has been spent on the project. It would create 6,000 construction jobs and has the potential to create 37,000 permanent jobs post construction. Given An Bord Pleanála has sanctioned final approval, will the Government reaffirm the commitment of the Fine Gael deputy leader who said the project would deliver 37,000 jobs in the economic corridor along the proposed metro north route? The Minister for Social Protection referred to the project as a "no-brainer". I agree with them but all the decisions on capital projects have been kicked into a review. The Government gave firm commitments on this project, which is crucial infrastructure not only for Dublin city, but also for the north east. Since approval has been given, can the Deputy Leader confirm that metro north will be given the go ahead in line with the commitments given to the electorate prior to the general election? Will the Government see that through?
Every day the EU-IMF deal is mentioned and I raised this with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources yesterday when discussing the Government's proposed sale of State assets. Can the Deputy Leader confirm that in the memorandum of understanding with the previous Government, no commitment was given to sell State assets? The revised memorandum published in July states, "The Government will consider options for an ambitious programme of asset disposal", and yesterday in the Dáil the Minister for Finance confirmed to my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, that no figure was included in the original MOU for the sale of State assets and that the Government parties included a figure of €2 billion in the programme for Government.
I want to be sure my colleagues across the House are aware of this in order that they can get it clear in their heads and can ask the Minister about this. We will not listen every day to statements that the Government's hands are tied in regard to the sale of State assets; they are not. My party is opposed to the sale of strategic State assets such as the ESB, which we discussed yesterday. I will ask the Minister for Finance about this later.
I have asked the Deputy Leader to confirm that it is correct that no commitment or figure was given in the original deal with the troika by the previous Government to dispose of State assets and that this is a new departure and new policy by the Government to sell off the family silver.
With regard to the pension levy and the raid on private pensions, the Government has raised €461 million from the savings of normal men and women and we have witnessed the effect that has had on pension schemes such as the airline and Tara Mines pension schemes where annuitants have had their pensions reduced by 10%. Will the Deputy Leader confirm that the cost of the measures in the jobs initiative was €255 million and that the pension levy was a tax raising measure with an additional €200 million raised for the coffers of central Government? We were told this would not be an additional cost to the Exchequer but it has been a raid on people who have done what successive Governments asked them to do, which was to prepare for their retirement. The Government has trousered €200 million on top of the measures it brought in the jobs initiative.
Today is a big day for Ireland. The Minister for Justice and Equality is presenting a report on our performance and delivery of human rights to the United Nations Council on Human Rights this morning. A live stream from the council is being broadcast in Buswells Hotel. Each UN member will question and raise issues with the Minister about Ireland's performance in various areas. I spent time at the hotel earlier and many of the recurring questions related to our performance on places of detention for juveniles, prisons - an issue which has been raised repeatedly in the House, the predominance of denominational education, health, equality and, especially, the need for us to urgently ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is Ireland's first audit.
We can all recall the great presentation to the House last week by Dr. Maurice Manning. It is important that on the return of the Minister for Justice and Equality we have a debate on how we are performing on human rights issues. We scrutinise legislation but it is time we scrutinised our rights. One never knows when one's rights will be tested, when one will need them or when they do not exist until something happens to one or one's family or friends but then it is often too late. We need to take a macro, responsible view on this. I commend the various stakeholders in civic society that compiled the report, Your Rights. Right Now. I also strongly commend Senator Katherine Zappone who is attending the UN council meeting on her own merits as an observer. This would also be an important debate to have on her return. I would like support from all sides on this issue.
With regard to the metro north question raised by my friend, Senator O'Brien, there have always been serious difficulties with the lack of economic appraisal of that project. I did a "Prime Time" programme with Miriam O'Callaghan and the former Minister, Eamon Ryan, and we found most of the documents in the economic appraisal were Tippexed out. It is regrettable that the engineers went ahead with the project before it was properly appraised.
I refer to the announcement of the ranking of universities worldwide earlier, which shows that Irish universities are falling. This does not refer to either a decline in the quality of graduates or in the quality of research papers produced. The measure chosen to indicate a decline in quality was the reduction in the number of staff. That is called productivity in most other sectors. I do not know why it should be a problem for The Times Higher Education World University Rankings Supplement 2011-12. The reduction in staff had to be undertaken because of the difficulties with the national finances.
I am worried because three analyses have been conducted on third level funding and staffing by the Comptroller and Auditor General, an bord snip nua and Dr. Colin Hunt and his group. The Hunt report was spectacular because of the absence of people on the group who had been in a lecture hall or had done any teaching in recent years. It is favoured, therefore, by the bureaucrats within the Department. The other reports show that the share of the education budget spent on paying lecturers has reduced to 40%. An army of bureaucrats has been created. They come to the House and they appeared before the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education recently. According to the The Irish Times rich list of November last, more than 100 officials earn €112,610 per annum. One cannot that earn that as a lecturer. Within the current constraints, we need to divert money back into the classroom and lecture halls and away from this growing army of bureaucrats. That includes, if necessary, the abolition of the Higher Education Authority and the higher education section of the Department. There are only seven universities and, therefore, it should not take that long for somebody to write seven cheques and put the money into education. The ranking of universities will then improve.
I call on the Minister for Health to come to the House to provide answers regarding a case that has arisen in Galway. Newborns are leaving hospitals in the city without proper immunisation and, in particular, the BCG vaccination. Babies born in hospitals elsewhere in the country are immunised prior to leaving hospital but in Galway they have to wait up to eight months for the vaccination. This poses an unacceptable risk to babies and I would like this matter to be rectified as soon as possible.
We were all here to see him on the Adjournment.
Recently, we had a good debate on the arts, their contribution to employment and how we can expand on that. The debate had been sought by Senator Mac Conghail and I seek a similar debate on sports tourism. I am mindful of the great contribution of our rugby stars in New Zealand. It is reminiscent of the Euro 1988 and 1990 campaigns and is great for the national psyche but in terms of events we have hosted here in the past such as the World Rally Championship in the north west and others, there is a great deal not only of revenue to be earned as a result of hosting such events but also in terms of the marketing tool it gives to the nation. Many millions of people are watching the coverage of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and one can see the benefit of that for tourism in that country. It is worth noting that more than 50 million people watched the live final stage of Rally Ireland at Mullaghmore in County Sligo. That is more than the number that watch the Rugby World Cup final or the Wimbledon finals annually.
In these difficult days when the Government does not have the resources it would wish for the marketing of this country we must box clever and examine other opportunities available to us to market our country and bring in a revenue stream. It would be beneficial if the Minister for sport could come into the House for a debate, similar to the arts debate, with a focus on the contribution of sport and how we can use it as an economic tool in the future.
I support my colleague, Senator Higgins, in her call in respect of the immunisation of young children at University College Hospital, Galway. It is a serious issue and it must be taken up by the Minister.
I ask the Leader to organise at the earliest possible stage a debate on the high levels of suicide. I do that against a background of something I saw this morning where another young person was pulled out of a river, and there was evidence that there was a wheelchair on the bank of the river. The issue of suicide is such a serious matter we need a debate in this House, as well as debating the treatment of patients with mental health problems.
I raise that because concern was expressed by our colleague in the other House, Deputy Dan Neville, who is president of the Irish Suicidology Association, that psychiatrists often exclude families when they are treating patients with mental illness. Patient confidentiality is frequently quoted as the reason but professionals must recognise that family involvement is key to the recovery process.
There is often a reluctance to discuss the after care needs of patients once they are discharged from hospital. The practice of excluding the family in the recovery programme must change. Those are issues we must tease out in this House with the Minister. Given the numbers of people losing their lives through suicide, which is probably three times as many as the numbers killed on the roads, it is an issue of national importance and this House should discuss it at the earliest opportunity. I hope the Leader will facilitate such a debate to which I know almost every Member in this House will want to contribute.
I join with Senator Healy Eames in calling for a debate with the Minister for Justice and Equality on the issue of human rights. She rightly highlighted the worthwhile discussion we had in the House recently with Dr. Maurice Manning. The same individual and the Irish Human Rights Commission have spoken prior to the Minister addressing the United Nations on Ireland's performance in respect of human rights: the way women are treated in this State; immigrants - the way we treat people in direct provision centres is appalling and should be examined by this Government and anyone who supports human rights; vulnerable groups, whether it is Travellers or victims of the economic situation from working class backgrounds who cannot get their rights vindicated in terms of health and education; and people with disabilities.
It strikes me that it is easy for us to have a nice, polite conversation with Dr. Manning and to stand up in this House and say we need to do something about human rights but when it comes down to it we have to do something ourselves. We must pass legislation. For example, we had an opportunity yesterday to extend voting rights to citizens abroad and to people in the North. That was rejected by the Government.
I was in the Dáil Gallery some years ago when a Bill on a measure to help people with disabilities was introduced by the previous Government. The people who had disabilities and all the campaigning groups were opposed to the Bill because it was not rights-based. If we are serious about all these issues we should legislate, bring in those Bills and vindicate the rights of people with disabilities, children, women, immigrants and all those who are being denied their rights. That is the most important action we can take.
I would welcome the opportunity to have a discussion with the Minister for Justice and Equality. I hope he will be able to come into this Chamber and that we can have that discussion. However, when Bills, motions and opportunities present themselves to this House that would allow us do something about all of these issues, very often the people who are calling for people's human rights to be vindicated vote against the motions and legislation that could do that.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Cullinane. It is opportune for the Minister for Justice and Equality to come into the House for a debate on the various aspects of human rights that affect many different migrant communities and minority groups in this country. The periodic review is taking place as we speak. It is probably the first time we have put ourselves up for scrutiny internationally. That is welcome, irrespective of the outcome of the review, because there is always room for improvement.
In terms of UN conventions, the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is not that far off. Once we introduce and pass the mental capacity legislation in this House we will have ticked all the boxes required for ratification of the convention. In terms of our European colleagues, we will be one of the first to ratify that convention when that legislation passes.
I ask the Leader to indicate the scheduled timeframe for that legislation. When can we expect the mental capacity legislation to be brought to Cabinet, published, debated, passed and signed into law by the next President? That is an important issue. It will happen and the sooner it happens, the better. We can beat ourselves up constantly about human rights but we are a nation which, as I stated during the debate with Dr. Maurice Manning, fundamentally respects human rights internationally. For generations our people have gone to the Third World and helped enable people to fight for their human rights. The Irish people support human rights but we must ensure that our legislation is up to standard.
I am delighted that human rights is the issue on which this term of the Seanad is reflecting. I hope that by the end of the term of the programme for Government and this Government's period in office we will see the necessary legislation to ensure we are legislatively proofed when it comes to that issue.
I ask the deputy leader if she will invite the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Willie Penrose, to the House to give us an update on progress to date regarding the so-called ghost estates. The Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, came into the House in the previous term and, to his credit, within 48 hours he acted on some of the suggestions made from both sides of the House. I congratulate and compliment him on that. It is important, however, that we get an update from the Minister of State because as we approach the long winter months we must remember that people and families are living in these ghost estates which have no outside lighting or footpaths. The conditions are disgraceful. Will the deputy leader invite the Minister, Deputy Penrose, back to the House to give us an update on progress to date on ghost estates?
I also renew my call for the Deputy Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government into the House so we can get an update on the reform of local government, particularly his intention to reduce the number of county councillors.
I join my colleagues in their remarks on women. We must start at the top, we must treat women in this building better. I do not mean that in a personal way but we could start with the Seanad. Was the Seanad a complete afterthought? There are no facilities near the Seanad, we must go half a mile to use them. I am sorry to talk about something so base on the Order of Business but it should be pointed out and I wish someone would start thinking about these things. I am on a floor where there are eight or ten women but there is only one facility and we must go up and down the stairs to use it. We must think more about what women want in this country. That kind of thing does not make sense to me and I am going to do something to change it because I am no longer going to accept it.
The other topic is voting rights. For once I slightly disagree with Senator Cullinane.
I generally agree with him and he is careful about how he says things. It was Senator Cullinane who made the point about women but, on voting rights, the people who live in the country are the people who control the country and therefore should be the people who vote. I do not understand why, unless people only leave temporarily, people who live abroad should have a vote here.
Yesterday's debate on voting rights specifically related to the presidency, not to Dáil elections or local elections. A distinction should be made there because the President travels outside the country and is seen as ambassadorial and is, therefore, connected to the diaspora. I agree that we should have a debate because I do not think yesterday should be the end of the issue; it should continue and we should have a further debate.
I hoped the opportunity might arise where we could discuss Ireland's relationship with Europe. I am not talking about the bigger issues of funding or lending. It has struck me forcefully how, throughout its duration and up until very recently, the recession has impacted on our debates in the Seanad. We used to see it on the Order of Business every day but in the last few weeks other issues are now coming to the fore, particularly human rights. That is good and it is important that we salute the people of Ireland for the manner in which they have responded to the recession. When we look at the anti-social behaviour that happened in other countries, there is no doubt that it hindered progress. I can see progress here and I see a sense of confidence coming back. We should salute everyone - the trade unions, the media and everyone who has participated in this exercise.
I seek a debate on the relationship between Ireland and Europe to look at smaller issues. There is an excess of bureaucracy coming out of Europe. I see this at local level, where small indigenous industries want to be active. Someone might want to make cakes and apple tarts at home but they require a stainless steel kitchen and those who want to raise a few hens to lay eggs must register the hens. It has got out of hand. Has it got out of hand because we are over-interpreting these rules while other countries ignore them or should we revisit these issues in Europe? I do not see Cashel getting any big industry in the near future but I see the effort being made by people locally to create jobs. It is important we do not obstruct them in that.
On behalf of my mother, I must plead guilty to having four unregistered hens. Senator Ó Murchú mentioned this as stemming from the excessive bureaucracy of Brussels but perhaps we should look closer to home. Much of what we deem to be Brussels bureaucracy stems from Government Departments interpreting EU directives. That is where the debate should start. The European Affairs committee is very proactive in this area but the EU regulations must be more widely debated in the Oireachtas, particularly here in the Seanad, which is the ideal vehicle for examining them.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was in the House some weeks ago for a general debate on agriculture, it would be opportune that in the immediate future the Minister would attend for a debate on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy. Matters are now progressing swiftly in Brussels and in the next few months there will be a degree of finality on the future funding of European agriculture and the impact that will have on Ireland. That will deeply affect every rural family and the Irish economy for better or for worse. There is a question of securing the maximum degree of funding and how that money should be spent. Again the Seanad should play a lead role and not just have the Minister attend for a broad presentation on agricultural policy. He must specifically discuss current thinking on the future of the CAP. I am sure Members, particularly those from rural areas, would be interested in contributing to that debate.
I wish to return to the issue of Northern Ireland. We had an interesting debate here yesterday but I believe in using the time of the Seanad effectively, so I want to ask the Minister to ensure that when we have another debate on voting rights for Northern Ireland - I agree it should be kept at the top of the agenda - it be timed so that it comes after the terms of reference of the constitutional review group have been issued. We do not want regurgitation of the same debate. The Private Members' motion was well outlined in six points but there was very poor attendance for that debate. To use our time effectively, we should ensure the debate takes place after the constitutional review group has been given its terms of reference.
If we seek a debate, we should ensure we should get something out of it. The Minister replied yesterday and we will not get any new information. We should discuss this again but it should only be done after the terms of reference are issued but before any report so we can have an input into the constitutional review group.
I agree with Senator Ó Murchú on his call for a discussion on Europe and the integration of European legislation into this House. Senator Comiskey mentioned to me the legislation whereby someone with more than four hens must have a licence.
Things like that mean a great deal to people. Senator Bradford mentioned an issue touched on previously in this House. It was agreed by all sides of this House that we should be scrutinising European legislation more. I am sure the Acting Leader fully endorses that. I believe this matter that should be pursued with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. We have seen in the past European directives that have not been suited this country.
Yes. That is now the position because of the altered structure of the joint committees. It would be useful, as a precursor, if the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade were to come to the House to discuss this issue. It would be good to hear his views. I look forward to hearing the Acting Leader's response.
I will first respond to some of the overall themes raised. A number of Senators have requested that the Minister for Health come into the House. Senators Higgins raised the issue concerning University College Hospital Galway. It is a concern if newborns are not getting their vaccinations in a timely fashion. As previously stated by the Leader, the Minister for Health will be in the House on 27 October. The Minister was in the House last night responding to a matter on the Adjournment. I suggest that specific issues such as the one pertaining at University College Hospital Galway might more appropriately be dealt with way of Matters on the Adjournment to the Minister for Health. The debate on 27 October will be a useful and wide-ranging discussion on health. The Minister can deal on the Adjournment Debate with specific health issues which arise before then.
I thank Senators Healy-Eames, Cullinane and Conway for raising the issue of human rights and the UN periodic review which concluded this morning. I attended the ICCL live screening from Geneva in Buswells Hotel this morning, as, I am aware, did many other colleagues. It was useful to hear the Minister, Deputy Shatter, respond to the questions raised in regard to human rights protections in Ireland. I agree with all the colleagues who raised the issue that it would be good to have the Minister for Justice and Equality come back into this House to tell us what happened at the UN periodic review and how the Government proposes to deal with the critiques on human rights protection that have arisen. I am sure we will also hear on the matter from Senator Zappone who, as we heard, is attending in Geneva as an observer. I will take up that matter with the Leader and Minister for Justice and Equality.
Senator O'Brien raised the issue of metro north, which is a thorny issue. Senator Barrett also raised that issue and spoke about the flaws or problems with the economic appraisal which took place in that regard.
Yes. This is an issue on which people have taken up polarised positions and language is clearly important. I will check the current position for Senator O'Brien. My understanding is that no final decision has yet been taken. It might be useful to have a debate on the project with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar. I will take up that issue with the Leader.
Senator O'Brien also raised the issue of the sale of State assets and the position as set out in the original memorandum of understanding. Senator O'Brien's party will be well aware of that given it negotiated it.
My understanding is that it was always envisaged there would be a sale of State assets. The issue of how much has not yet been decided although the figure of €2 billion has been given. The Senator should take up the matter with the Minister for Finance-----
-----who will be in the House directly after the Order of Business this morning. Also, the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, when in the House yesterday gave a clear response to Senator O'Brien and others, including Senators from the Labour Party, on how the proposed sale of a minority stake in the ESB is to be dealt with.
Senator O'Brien also raised the issue of the pensions levy which was, as the Senator will be aware, introduced to fund the jobs initiative. I disagree with the Senator's description of it as a raid on pensions. The reality is that it was the most effective way to fund and resource the critical task of trying to generate jobs. There has already been success in this regard. I disagree with the Senator's remarks in that regard.
I have already responded to Senator Healy Eames in regard to having the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, come to the House. I agree we should have him come into this House. I am grateful to Senator Barrett for raising the concerning figures this morning in regard to the falling in the international rankings of our universities. It is worrying to see Trinity and UCD fall out of the top 100 universities and to see other universities fall below their previous rankings. As far as I am aware NUI Maynooth is the only university that bucked the trend. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, has pointed out that these international ranking scales are not perhaps the only factor in terms of bringing in international students and funding for research, which is clearly true. However, I agree with Senator Barrett on the need to divert money back into education and the classrooms so that the rankings can improve. Senator Barrett and I know from Trinity that the staff-student ratio is a huge issue. Student numbers are increasing and there has been a freeze on recruiting new staff. It would be useful to invite the Minister for Education and Skills to the House to debate this issue. The Minister will be in the House during the next couple of weeks and we may try to have a debate then on higher education funding. Senator Barrett can at that point raise the point about abolition of the HEA, which is perhaps a radical proposal. We need to look at all of these issues.
I have already dealt with Senators Higgins' questions. Senator MacSharry asked that the Minister for Health be asked to come to the House. I have already dealt with that issue. He also sought a debate on sports and tourism. We had a wide-ranging debate on sports on Tuesday with the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. Senator Eamonn Coghlan gave a great speech specifically about sports tourism on that occasion. I agree with Senator MacSharry's remarks in regard to the enormous value sports tourism brings to this country. However, it might be a little premature to have another debate on that topic so soon.
Senator Mullins called for a debate on suicide. I agree it would be useful to have a debate on that issue. Other Senators have also sought such a debate. There was a debate on suicide near the end of the final session of the previous Seanad and as such we would need to consider when such a debate should be timed. Senator Mary White and others have raised that issue before. It would be good to have a further debate on the issue.
I have already responded to Senator Cullinane's call for a debate on human rights issues. The Senator also spoke about the motion yesterday on voting rights for Irish citizens abroad. We had a full debate on that issue yesterday. As the Cathaoirleach said, the full two hours allocated was utilised. Senators Noone, Ó Murchú and Keane also raised the issue of a further debate on voting rights. Senator Keane sensibly proposed it might take place when the constitutional convention terms have been outlined. It is hoped that process will be under way early next year. Irish citizens abroad do have limited voting rights. Irish citizens living anywhere in the world, who are graduates of Trinity or NUI colleges, have a right to vote in the elections for the six university Senators. That is currently the only provision in that regard. We might look at that in a broader context early in the New Year.
Senator Conway raised the issue of human rights, which issue I have already responded to. The Senator specifically asked about a timeframe for mental capacity legislation. The Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, appeared a few days ago before the committee on justice and told members that her officials are working on that legislation. It is proposed to be introduced early in 2012. If it is possible to do it sooner, it will be done. That is a pressing matter with which the Minister of State is dealing directly.
Senator Wilson called for the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, to come to the House to discuss ghost estates. I gave a commitment previously that I would do so. I have already asked the Leader to follow up on that matter. The Senator also asked that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, come into the House. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, was in this House yesterday for two hours and again it might be some time before he can come back to speak about local government reform. However, I have no doubt he will do that. I am sure many Members in this House are interested in such a debate.
Senator Noone spoke about the treatment of women and toilet facilities for them. The Senator may be interested to know-----
It is the one nearest to here.
Senator Noone also raised the issue of voting rights. I have already dealt with that matter. We will have a fuller debate on that issue in the New Year.
Senator Ó Murchú also raised the issues of voting rights and Ireland's relationship with Europe. He clearly introduced a strand, as Senators Bradford and Paul Coghlan agreed with him. A debate on whether EU regulations are overly restrictive in some areas would be good. It is a question we can tease out. Senator Bradford's mother and her four unregistered hens were raised in this context. We could seek to invite the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, to the House. I am unsure as to whether she has appeared in the Chamber yet. It could be useful.
We could have a more general debate. I have invited the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to the House. He hopes to attend during the coming weeks to discuss a range of Foreign Affairs issues on which debates have been sought in the House, for example, Bahrain, Syria, Palestine and so forth. I hope to have that debate in early course, but the EU matter might be better dealt with by the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton.
Senator Bradford asked for a debate on the future of the CAP with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Coveney. While it would be a good discussion, we recently had a wide-ranging debate on agriculture, so the Senator's request might take some time to arrange.
Senator Keane asked for a debate on voting rights. We might arrange for one once the constitutional convention is under way.
Senator Paul Coghlan asked for a debate on EU legislation and for the attendance of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I have the latter matter in hand, but we will invite the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, also.
I hope I have responded to everyone's questions. I thank them for raising interesting issues.