Tuesday, 11 October 2011
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, referral of a motion re the creation of a European Account Preservation Order to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, to be taken without debate; and No. 2, statements on supporting, embedding and realising return of investment in science, technology and innovation for national competitive advantage, to commence on the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 5.45 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, followed by a questions and answers session with the Minister, with questions from other Senators, each not to exceed one minute.
I am glad the Cathaoirleach allowed the Adjournment matter tabled by my colleague, Senator Byrne, regarding the James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown. I remind Members that this is the hospital where, only two weeks ago, the Minister, Deputy Reilly, saw fit to open for a second time a unit that had been opened by the late Mr. Brian Lenihan, former Minister for Finance. It is interesting to see the new Government proposes to curtail the services and therefore its political stunt in Dublin West-----
I will get down to business with some questions for the Leader. Will the Government publish the review of the capital programme and when will it be debated in this House? Last week An Bord Pleanála dealt with the final planning permission for Metro North, a real project that could create 6,000 jobs. Instead of listening to NewERA being bandied about left, right and centre, we could have a project with 6,000 starting jobs and 37,000 further jobs to be created therefrom. The Government gave a commitment to follow through on this matter. When will the House have an opportunity to debate the results of the spending review and when will the Government give the go-ahead to the project to which I refer?
Two weeks ago we engaged in a very good debate on the Thirtieth Amendment of the Constitution (Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries) Bill 2011 as it relates to the Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions and the granting of powers to negate the effects of the judgment in the Abbeylara case. We discussed at length some of the pitfalls and also how careful we must be to ensure people's good names are preserved. We were right to discuss that matter in such a measured way and, while I have a number of concerns, I was happy with the responses provided by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. It is in this context that I must inquire about the national broadcaster, RTE, and what it was allowed do, through the medium of its "Prime Time" programme, to Fr. Kevin Reynolds.
I wish to ask a procedural question that does not relate to the specific case mentioned. Has the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, been in contact with RTE regarding the editorial procedures followed by those who make programmes such as "Prime Time"? I will not refer to the specific case in question because I understand the import of what the Cathaoirleach said. However, I am most concerned that the station proceeded against all the advice it was given in this matter. In this instance, a person had vehemently denied all the allegations made, was subsequently proved to be correct and then left swinging in the wind for 12 months and had his good name tarnished. On a general point of procedure, will the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, if he has not done so already, seek an urgent meeting with the director general of RTE to discover the nature and extent of the editorial procedures that apply in cases such as this?
No. I am asking the Leader who I believe will accede to my request to ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to raise with RTE the procedural and editorial issues that have arisen in this matter. Members of this House and all citizens outside it are entitled to their good names. When the national broadcaster can wantonly disregard a person's right to his or her good name, publicise matters relating to him or her and broadcast programmes such as that to which I refer-----
Without referring to a specific case, particularly one before the High Court, issues relating to which are in the public domain, it is most inappropriate to suggest the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources should contact RTE regarding the editorial content of current affairs programmes.
I compliment the Leader and everyone else involved in organising last Thursday's excellent and wide-ranging debate on the economy with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan. Some of the information the Minister provided in response to a query from Senator Tom Sheahan on credit unions became the lead headline on all news programmes that evening. It is worth noting that as a result of the more meaningful format now in use during debates in this House, whereby Members can interact directly with Ministers on a question and answer basis, valuable and newsworthy information of the sort to which I refer is being obtained. I commend the Leader on the format and I hope we see more of it.
I know we will see more of that today with a Minister of State, Deputy Seán Sherlock, in the House and when we come to the health debate with the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, on 27 October.
I ask for a similar question and answer session and debate on housing. I have already made contact with the Minister of State, Deputy Willie Penrose, on the issue. In particular, we should discuss the report due to go to the Cabinet this week on how best to protect people in mortgage difficulties. Anybody who saw Richard Curran's excellent programme last night on RTE will have felt very concerned about the position of many people, even those who are not directly distressed mortgagees. These people are able to make their repayments but like a couple we saw in Clonee, they could be stuck in an apartment that is far too small for a growing family. Those people did not wish to stay in the apartment. There is a significant number of people in negative equity and their position should be addressed by the Government.
The Government is taking steps to address the issue but in the Seanad we should follow up the publication of the report with a debate on its proposals, particularly if there is a proposal for a new independent group to negotiate with lenders on behalf of borrowers and redress the balance as Deputy Ciarán Lynch has argued. We must consider how best such a group can work to ensure that people in distress with their mortgages, who are struggling with repayments or who are in negative equity can have their needs addressed.
I raise the issue of the forthcoming referendums. The Referendum Commission has a website up and running but I am concerned that the campaign has just recently been launched. Having carried out informal surveys over the weekend, there seems to be very low public awareness that people must vote on two amendments to the Constitution on 27 October, in addition to the forthcoming presidential election. I worry about changing our Constitution without the electorate being sufficiently informed and involved in debate.
I note that last Thursday in Geneva the Minister for Justice and Equality announced that early in 2012 we will have a referendum to strengthen children's rights in the Irish Constitution. I ask that we have a debate at the earliest opportunity to discuss the proposals for that referendum to ensure we do not encounter the pitfalls we encountered before.
Before making my contribution I may be able to assist the Cathaoirleach on one point arising from Senator O'Brien's contribution. The operation of the sub judice rule exists so as not to prejudice proceedings that may be taking place in the courts. I have taken legal advice on this specific point because I come from the parish in question. As long as one confines oneself to the apology and facts already in the public domain, that is fine. There is a real danger that we could weaken the status of this House and tie our hands to the point where we would be unable to comment on issues that are legitimately commented on elsewhere and in the media in particular. It is important as other institutions-----
This is a point of order as I am explaining a legal point. Other institutions in our society in the past have been rightly criticised for taking a too conservative approach with regard to legal advice. If we do the same it will be to the detriment of our job in the Seanad. Confining myself to issues in the public domain, Senator Bacik is right to a certain extent.
Senator Bacik knows him very well. What I believe is appropriate is that the relevant managers of RTE be invited to come before the all-party Oireachtas committee dealing with communications to explain how the decision to broadcast the Fr. Reynolds allegation came to be made, why it was decided not to await the outcome of the paternity test offered, what disciplinary actions will be taken against those responsible, what steps will be taken to ensure that this never happens again-----
I call for an urgent debate on the role and performance of the media. This issue, along with others highlighted last week, necessitates an urgent discussion on the role of the media and how they conduct their business, in particular the national broadcaster because substantial sums of taxpayers' money could be involved in this particular situation. It is appropriate for this House to discuss that.
I am aware of what the Cathaoirleach said but I am concerned and hurt by the fact that RTE succeeded in sowing doubts in my mind about a man I knew well and worked with as a public representative.
I am ruling on this matter. I wish to state the following for the benefit of the House. While the RTE apology is in the public domain and it is a matter of public interest to be debated, the substantive issues relating to the apology and the circumstances in which it arises are the subject of proceedings before the courts. In fact, a party to these proceedings has informed us that the matter remains before the courts and, in light of this matter, should not be discussed by any Member in either House.
On a point of order, this is a completely unacceptable ruling for the following reason. Making a ruling like that simply means that all any party to a dispute needs to do is to prolong a court dispute so as to prevent the Houses of the Oireachtas commenting on facts that are in the public domain. That is quite probably either as-----
The Cathaoirleach has stated on the record that a media organisation has asked him not to have debate on this issue in the House. I cannot accept that. It does not have that power over us. We are entitled to raise any issue on this matter.
After that intervention, I am going to speak about the very mundane but important matter of car clocking. Some Senators may laugh, but if they were to purchase a car, they might find it is among the one in five cars that have been clocked. What are we doing about this issue in Ireland? Under the existing online system, we could be doing a lot more about it and I ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to consider taking action. Car clocking occurs most often in cars imported from the United Kingdom. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport could share the 8 million or more mileage readings recorded on its NCT database. When a change of ownership takes place, motor dealers use the Revenue online service which could be adapted to ensure mileage is recorded at this stage. When carrying out VRT readings, Revenue could also record the speedometer reading when an imported vehicle is being registered for the first time. These readings could be compared with the national mileage register in the United Kingdom and with one click of a button it would be possible to peruse the mileage readings for the cars available for sale in Ireland. I ask the Leader to forward these recommendations to the Minister. In addition to synchronising readings with the UK register, we could make significant savings if we were to devise a national register. It would also improve road safety because we would put an end to cars that have done more miles than their clocks indicate.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for Defence come into the House to outline his plans for the Defence Forces, with particular reference to Army barracks. I refer, in particular, to four barracks, in Clonmel, Mullingar, Castlebar and Cavan, which for several weeks have been the subject of rumours that they are to be closed as part of alleged cost savings measures. These closures would affect not only 1,000 Permanent Defence Force personnel and 1,000 members of the Reserve Defence Force, with their wives, partners and families, but also the economies of the towns concerned. In my home town of Cavan it would mean a loss of revenue of €3 million per annum at a time when this money is badly needed by local businesses. It would mean losses of €25 million if one takes all four towns together. I propose that we invite the Minister to come to the House to discuss the matter which is important not only for the Army personnel concerned but also their families and the communities they serve so ably. Certain Members have claimed that this is only a rumour, but the dogs in the street know these four barracks have been proposed for closure by the Minister and if we were not in the midst of a presidential election, their fate would already have been made known. This will not be tolerated by Army personnel, their families or the communities in which they serve.
Further to Senator Jillian van Turnhout's comments on the Referendum Commission and the lateness of the campaign on the forthcoming referendums, I express my concern about the advertisement which sets out a long explanation for the referendums followed by something about two ice creams with syrup on one and sprinkles on the other. While I have a sense of humour, this is not in order in respect of the referendums. Unfortunately, I do not know to whom my questions should be put.
At the risk of moving back to television, I refer to the "Prime Time" programme broadcast last week on vaccines given to children in mother and baby homes.
I specifically ask that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, ensure the files currently held at the former mother and baby home in Bessborough, County Cork, and at any other mother and baby homes in the country are taken into the possession of the Health Service Executive at the earliest possible opportunity and that a commitment be made to open those files to the mothers and their children.
I am aware the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to cases of adoptions, another issue that ought to be examined, but these files do not relate to adoption. They relate to mother and baby homes. While they do not fall under the Freedom of Information Act, they should not be exempt.
I ask also that the Ministers investigate the illegal vaccines trials held in these homes specifically relating to a drug called Trivax which was designed to protect against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus, and any other drugs trialled at that time. How much were the homes paid, either directly or in kind, to allow these tests to occur? What records were kept and what evidence exists that mothers were asked to give their consent? Was the Department of Health notified that these trials were happening? Did the Department or its agents receive financial or in kind benefit from any pharmaceutical company involved in these trials?
I also ask that the Ministers investigate illegal adoptions involving children adopted after the 1952 Adoption Act where no adoption order was made, where the births of children were falsely registered under the names of their adoptive parents, where consent of mothers was not freely given or where signatures on consent forms were forged.
I have asked the question. I ask that these questions be put to the Ministers. I also ask that the Ministers co-operate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs to release any details his Department has which relate to the requests for passports made by nuns in mother and baby homes for the sale of babies and children to the United States between the 1940s and the 1970s. I also ask the Ministers if child benefit was paid in regard to those babies and children in mother and babies homes and, if so, the way that money was spent.
This is a huge area which I accept these Ministers were not involved in at the time, but there is an onus on us to pursue these questions. I ask that the Ministers give their response to these questions at some point. We will have to have some kind of investigation to get to the bottom of some of these cases. Women have been asking questions for many years and there has been no resolution.
Some months ago I raised the question of one airline in particular making a substantial sum of money from overcharging for credit card fees, but I was incorrect inasmuch as I did not go far enough. The charges made by all airlines for taxes, fees and airport charges for a passenger who does not travel are not refunded automatically. Not only that, each airline makes it very difficult for a customer to get a refund if they are unable to travel.
My reason for raising this is that I thought that had a cost to the individual passenger who did not travel, but the real cost is to the State. I am told it could run to hundreds of millions of euro per annum, which is a substantial sum of money. What happens is that the airline charges the person for the taxes, landing fees and airport charges but if that person does not travel, it does not have to pay that to the airport authority. However, the airline makes it very difficult for the passenger to get a refund. That money should either belong to the passenger or to the State and it is in the case of the State that I raise the matter.
I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House, having investigated this matter, to indicate whether I am correct, the amount of money involved and what we can do to ensure that not only the passengers get a fair deal but, more importantly, the State gets a fair deal rather than the airline automatically obtaining all this money by making it very difficult for passengers to get a refund.
I bring to people's attention Arts & Disability Ireland whose policy and strategic direction document I was delighted to launch yesterday. It is further evidence of the huge benefit the arts bring to the community, and I congratulate all involved with that.
I join Senators O'Keeffe and van Turnhout in expressing concern about the forthcoming referendums. People are bamboozled with elections and votes at the moment. I am reminded of Senator Mullen's point about the media. From all those perspectives, I would welcome a debate in this House on the role and the power of the media in this country. It has to be acknowledged that the media have much to answer for. If the Leader could facilitate such a debate, it would be very welcome.
I would like to second the amendment proposed by Senator Wilson. Members of this House often lament the announcement of Government decisions outside the Houses of the Oireachtas. We complain that we are often the last to know. We can imagine how the staff of the vocational education committees across the State felt last week when changes in their circumstances were communicated online, rather than personally and in advance of final decisions being made known.
I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate or question and answer session with the Minister for Education and Skills on the proposal to amalgamate various VECs and, specifically, on the location of the VECs' headquarters offices. A few issues relating to the amalgamation of VECs need to be thrashed out in these Houses before any legislation is introduced.
One of the specific issues to be addressed by the Minister is the criteria that were used when deciding on the locations of the VEC headquarters. Were the criteria decided on retrospectively? If two existing VECs were tied when the criteria were assessed, what deciding factors were considered? Were uniform criteria used across the State? Did the criteria depend on the area or case in question? It is important that there is as much transparency as possible in this process. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House to that end.
As part of that important debate, we should discuss how the VEC amalgamations feed into the comprehensive spending review that is being undertaken. What is the extent of the saving to be made through the VEC amalgamation process? If new structures have to be put in place as a result of the amalgamation and location decisions, for example, if existing VEC headquarters have to be replaced, how exactly will net savings be made?
I would like a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills to be facilitated as soon as possible. Many questions have arisen as a result of the decisions that have been made. I would like to express my disgust at the manner in which the decision was communicated to the staff of the VECs. They were the last to know and had to find out from the Department's website.
I would like to refer to a matter that I raised at this morning's meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children. At last Thursday's meeting of the joint committee, two groups in attendance were asked specific questions about the fact that a number of junior doctors are staying in guesthouses as they wait for an examination date to be set. It was disclosed to the committee on Thursday that a memorandum of agreement had been prepared by the Medical Council and the HSE. Although questions were asked at that meeting, the contents of the memorandum were not disclosed. It appears, however, that the memorandum was published and made available immediately before, during or immediately after last Thursday's meeting. The contents of the memorandum were relevant to the discussions at the meeting.
It is outrageous that two organisations came to an Oireachtas committee meeting to deal with a specific issue but failed to make the relevant information available to the committee during the debate. I asked the committee this morning to write to both organisations to express the disappointment of members about their failure to disclose crucial information and it agreed to do so. Oireachtas committees are made irrelevant if they can be treated with such contempt by these organisations. As far as I am concerned, the two organisations treated me and the committee with contempt. We were trying to deal with a specific issue and we asked them to assist us in that regard. I ask the Leader to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Health who could convey our thoughts to the two organisations concerned. They are accountable to the Members of the Oireachtas and to the Joint Committee on Health and Children, and they should have made the disclosure.
I will make one point about the earlier discussion, namely, I believe it is a retrograde step that the Cathaoirleach obtains legal advice in anticipation of matters that may be discussed in the Seanad. That is an attack on our rights as Senators, on the right of freedom of speech and on the right to represent the people who voted for us and those who-----
Anticipating what we might say and obtaining legal advice is not right and is the wrong road to take. We are allowed to raise issues of public importance to the State and the taxpayer.
Will the Leader inquire of the Minister for Justice and Equality when the legal services Bill will be published? It was promised a week ago but, since then, apparently, a Labour Party document has been circulating which seeks to water it down. I have searched the website but it does not appear to have been published yet.
I want to partially commend the Minister, Deputy Shatter, on how he dealt with the Bar Council. It was very wrong of the Bar Council to lobby the IMF in regard to a matter which is within the sovereignty of this Parliament of Dáil and Seanad. It is important to remember, given all the talk from the Government of losing our sovereignty, including economic sovereignty, that we do have sovereignty and can decide how to regulate our legal services.
It appears the Minister, Deputy Shatter, is not going far enough in this legislation, that he has given in to vested interests and that many of the proposed reforms he listed are merely being shunted off into this new super-quango, the legal services board. Whatever it is called, it will be a HSE for lawyers. It will do all the things the Law Society and Bar Council already do but it will also have the power to consider reform, rather than having the Government actually grasp the nettle and reform the issues itself. It will not do that because it is under pressure from the Labour Party, which has a history, going back to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board legislation, of standing up for the Bar Council ahead of the interests of the taxpayer.
The question is that we should have a full debate on the legal services Bill before it comes to the House on Second Stage so we can tease out all of the issues. This is very important in terms of consumers but also in terms of international reputation.
Third, I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise a matter on the Adjournment concerning Blanchardstown hospital because some promises made before the election have been broken.
I support the call initiated by Senator van Turnhout that the issue of the lack of public information on the forthcoming referenda be addressed. It is fair to say most people know of the holding of the presidential election on Thursday fortnight but the vast majority is blissfully unaware of the fact that, on the same day, two important referenda will take place. While we have pushed through the House the legislation for the holding of the referenda, I ask the Leader to allow us to use this House next week, given the following week would be too late, as a vehicle for further debate on these important referenda.
The Referendum Commission is doing its job as it is prescribed to do. However, some of my colleagues may recall that eight or ten years ago the Referendum Commission did its job in a different fashion, and we complained at the time that there was an overkill of information and that every householder was presented with the referendum issue on a "for" and "against" basis. The Referendum Commission now appears to work in a more minimalist fashion. Although it will perhaps require the work of the CPP and Standing Orders to be reflected upon, is it possible that we would allow a debate in the House next week where both sides of the arguments can be presented? There is a lack of public information and it is quite dangerous that the referenda will bring about profound change to the Constitution, particularly from the perspective of the powers of Members of the-----
-----and people will literally be voting in the dark. I ask the Leader whether there is a possibility that the Seanad would be used as a facility for further public debate whereby all sides of the argument could be heard.
A constitutional amendment is not a piece of political joking. It is a serious responsibility and a serious opportunity for the public that does not come around every week, month or year and Members must take it seriously.
I wish to raise an issue which on the surface will not seem that urgent to Members. However, the country is facing an obesity epidemic and all Members are fully aware of the poor planning regulations that have blighted the country in recent years. When the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is next available to come into this House, I seek a discussion with him and assurances from him that parks, green spaces and playing fields will not be sold for development but will be protected and maintained for all present and future generations to use and enjoy. Safe, accessible and welcoming parks, green spaces and playing fields are essential for local communities and must be safeguarded against sale for development. Furthermore, it is vital to avoid a decline in their quality and maintenance, which in turn would lead to a decline in use.
In recent years, councillors in the United Kingdom facing funding cuts have chosen to cease maintenance of playing fields or have sold them off entirely for redevelopment. As a result, in March 2011 the Protection of Bowling Greens (Development Control) Bill was introduced in the House of Commons by Labour Party MP, John Woodcock. The Bill seeks to halt the growing number of bowling greens being disposed of, thereby depriving communities of much-needed green space for physical activity. At a time of growing child obesity and the increased stress that comes with unemployment and falling disposable incomes, it makes economic sense to ensure parks, green spaces and playing fields are protected and maintained for the maintenance of a decent life for citizens.
I support those colleagues who spoke previously on the need to have a public consultation session next week in this House with regard to the proposed amendments to the Constitution. Members will have noted the Seanad started a public consultation last week on the elderly and on older people. Why not deem next week to be a public consultation week in this House on the amendments to the Constitution that are going before the people in two weeks' time? As Senator Bradford observed, everyone knows about the presidential election but very few are aware of the forthcoming constitutional amendments, which propose changes to what one might describe as the Bible that runs this country.
I also wish to raise the issue of the education system at third level in particular, which is not always adequately focused on where job opportunities might be. The two areas that come to mind as I speak are information technology and foreign languages in particular and if I may, I will focus on the latter. Last year, 567 jobs were listed by gradireland.com that needed a second foreign language. However, such jobs cannot in the main be filled by Irish graduates, only 25% of whom master a first foreign language, that is, a single foreign language. This is the lowest percentage in the European Union although it has been known for many years that people here are extremely poor at learning languages. In recent days, the German Embassy has informed me that jobs are available both in German companies located here and in Germany that require German. We have also seen the interest the Chinese market in this country. There must be a debate about the number of languages that can be made available to post-junior certificate students who have an acumen in the learning of languages. Unless such opportunities are made available at that level and at university, they will be unable to take up such jobs and opportunities. This is a serious matter because we are trying to get jobs for young people and to curb emigration in the face of current levels of joblessness. Let us tackle it at the root - in the education system. We are asking the Minister for Education and Skills to debate many things in this House.
I preface my remarks by responding to some of my colleagues' comments. If I wished to publicise both sides of the argument on the forthcoming constitutional amendment referenda in a fashion that it would get the maximum penetration into society and provide the greatest educational opportunities, I might not necessarily pick Seanad Éireann with its extensive media coverage as being the best venue.
The Minister for Health has recently acknowledged the severity and implications of the obesity problem in our society. It is a problem we rate as being second to, and perhaps on a par with, tobacco as a cause of premature ill health. In addition to the well known increasing risk that obesity contributes to heart disease, strokes and diabetes, recent data have strongly suggested it not only has a role in the causation of cancer, but may also have a role in cancer behaving badly and relapsing more quickly. The Minister has correctly acknowledged the problem and acknowledged an attempt to correct it. The medium he is suggesting to use is an attempted behaviour modification using tax incentives. He has spoken specifically to the necessity of perhaps introducing some kind of sugar tax. I would be very supportive of the notion of attempting to tackle the problem. The problem is more profound than just sugar. It also occurs in the realm of fatty foods, dairy foods, etc. If we are to be honest in tackling in something that, in truth, no longer has an industrial base in a country which no longer produces its own sugar, we should perhaps honestly acknowledge the range of health related dietary problems that need to be addressed. I ask the Leader to bring these to the Minister's attention.
I am also troubled by something else. In the first instance we have a desperate shortage of dieticians. We have a three-year waiting list to be seen in the obesity clinic in Loughlinstown. If a decision is made that a patient needs life-saving bariatric surgery to reduce the capacity of his or her stomach, the waiting time for the operation is three years. From the time that a person's GP has acknowledged that he or she has a serious and life-threatening level of obesity, which cannot be tackled-----
However, I ask the Leader to bring these to the Minister's attention because there is a specific issue that we should mention. If we are to raise money from this kind of tax, I hope the money is not just being used to pay German bankers. I hate to delve into the type of stereotyping the former German ambassador used about Irish doctors and other members of our society, but German bankers have not struck me as being a particularly malnourished group of people. I hope that any money raised from this tax will be ploughed back into-----
I am coming to that. Of course, out of respect for you and your office, I respectfully accept your ruling, but I would not mind knowing - privately perhaps - who authored the advice. Allied to that, how do querists address the question that he or she answered?
On a point of order, as Senator Paul Coghlan has raised the issue, apart from the merits of the issue that was raised by several people on the Order of Business, it would be appropriate if the Cathaoirleach would circulate to everyone the-----
I support Senator Wilson's proposal on the proposed closure of barracks, particularly the one in Cavan. The latter barracks is very much associated with the Wilson family because the late John Wilson initiated that project. It was called the Wilson barracks and was a major boost to Cavan at the time. It was brought to Cabinet in 1987 and approved by the then Taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey. That is an historical point.
I compliment the Government on the weekend's activities which were a continuation of the policies of the Fianna Fáil Government. The Government has imitated us in this regard.
It was flattery, indeed, but it would be nice if they acknowledged the work of Deputy Micheál Martin, the leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, as well as acknowledging his work on tourism. Nevertheless, they are moving in the right direction when they follow the policies of Fianna Fáil.
The Referendum Commission is doing an extremely bad job on publicity. I cannot understand the kind of coverage it is providing, which is neither witty nor informative. People are unaware that there are two referendums on 27 October. It is right to highlight that point here today and I hope we can bring it to the attention of the commission. The Referendum Commission needs to have clear statements on both those issues because people will not be aware that three ballot papers will be issued on the day. We would be doing the State some service in bringing this to the commission's attention.
I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, to attend the House to outline how he proposes to address the urgent need for a national revaluation of rateable properties to bring more equity, fairness and transparency into the local authority rating system. Following such a revaluation there would be a much closer and uniform relationship between the current annual rented values of properties, which have shifted significantly in recent times, and the commercial rate liability. It is a major issue and I believe it would be worthwhile for the Leader to bring this matter to the Minister's attention. The rates being imposed are crippling small businesses which are finding it extremely hard to continue. This change must be brought about, so the Minister should attend the House to debate the issue.
People would not be seeking a debate on the two forthcoming referendums, if the Referendum Commission was doing the job it is paid for. The commission has fallen short and has failed miserably to communicate the message concerning both referendums. The Referendum Commission is funded from taxpayers' money. The Leader should communicate our displeasure and dissatisfaction at the behaviour of the commission and the manner in which it has gone about its business. The Leader should also establish how much money the commission is being paid to run an information campaign on these referendums and revert to us with those figures. It is pitiful. Everybody knows the presidential election is on 27 October, but the Referendum Commission should have prepared itself accordingly. Its information has been poor, confusing and too late.
I am also seeking a debate on the libel laws. The Leader should speak to the Minister for Justice and Equality to see if there are any plans to bring new legislation forward to tighten the current libel laws. Every citizen has a right to a good name and due process. I am not mentioning anything in particular but I am concerned about some things that have happened in recent times. I do not want to see Ministers telephoning the director general of RTE willy-nilly. We saw what went on with Ray Burke in the early 1990s.
According to media reports this morning, the Cabinet discussed the Declan Keane report on mortgage debt, personal debt and insolvency. I am calling for an early debate on these matters. Despite what we have seen in the programme for Government and the recommendations of the first expert group, there is now a second expert group. Declan Keane was a member of the first one also. The points leaked are very superficial. Language such as, "Banks should engage in debt settlement" is used. There is a proposal to beef up MABS, which would certainly be important from a resourcing perspective in giving financial advice. Will there be an adjudicatory role and oversight or will the banks still be in full control? Is it up to them to determine, as they see fit, whether there should be debt write-off or renegotiation of the terms of one's mortgage?
When we look at the legislative programme for this session and the rest of the year, we see no mention of insolvency legislation or legislation other than the Bill we introduced which was very kindly supported by the Taoiseach's 11 appointees, which we very much appreciate because we know they saw good sense in the fact that there were good proposals therein. I call for an early debate on the issue. While the subject has not been on the front pages of some of the newspapers in recent weeks, this is no reason we should not keep applying pressure in this House. Families require the support of the Oireachtas and this is a very serious issue.
Will the Leader investigate whether it is possible to make contact with the head of the HSE, following the HIQA recommendation, to ask about the aeromedical co-ordination centre which was to be established by tomorrow in conjunction with the National Ambulance Service? I have asked the Leader to check up on this body which is supposedly offering sick leave in lieu of overtime payments. The National Ambulance Service was to be supported by the Air Corps and the Irish Coast Guard. As we are all aware, the Meadbh McGivern case brought to light the disarray in the health service with regard to transplants to take place abroad. While we very much celebrate the fact that Ms McGivern is safely home and recuperating and we all wish her well, it is unacceptable that the HSE has not acted appropriately in setting up the aeromedical co-ordination unit.
The point I am making is that when we talk about rationalisation, all I hear is talk about jobs and money. The objective is to provide services, not jobs. We must move with the times and try to provide a sustainable economy and not try to fool the people with talk about decentralisation, etc. We are trying to provide robust leadership. It ill-behoves anybody-----
I attended a meeting in Clonmel held in an hotel that was full to capacity, with approximately 300 or 400 people in attendance. There is no doubt that the meeting was emotional and, like all the subjects raised today, concerned real people. It was about their concerns on the future of Kickham Barracks. If the barracks close, Clonmel will lose €10 million; it is as simple as that. The figures shown to us last night did not indicate that there would be any savings to the State.
I will go further than that, with the Cathaoirleach's permission, because the 400 people who attended the meeting in Clonmel and their extended families expect me to raise this question in Parliament; that is why I was elected. While I support the amendment, I also want to highlight the fact that Kickham Barracks were named after Charles J. Kickham, one of the greatest Irish patriots of all time. But I also want to put on the record that Kickham Barracks was named after Charles J. Kickham, one of the greatest Irish patriots of all time.
There is a tendency at the moment to scoff at patriotism and I hear a little echo coming across the floor. Let us be serious about people. Kickham wrote extensively about the importance of community and he talked about doing things for the honour of the little village. Last night in Clonmel they were doing it for the honour of Clonmel. The Defence Forces have stood by this country through thick and thin and they have always been loyal. They went on peacekeeping missions abroad as well.
The Minister has been invited to Clonmel and has not come. Surely, if all those jobs are in jeopardy and if it is worth €10 million to the town of Clonmel, it must be possible for him to put it on his schedule.
I will make one final point. Everyone in this House agrees with Senator Mullins, who called for a debate on standards in the media. Whether we like it, there is a perception abroad that in the current culture in the media good names are expendable. We should have no wish to send a message from the House that, in particular, the good name of a priest is expendable.
In his ruling to the House the Cathaoirleach referred to a letter received from one of the parties in respect of the High Court case. I call on the Cathaoirleach to make that letter available to people in this House because it is disturbing that they are trying to gag not only the Cathaoirleach, but everyone else.
In respect of the Global Economic Forum, will the Leader to ask a junior Minister from the Taoiseach's Department to come to the House and provide a review every four months on the outcomes of the forum and the progress made on the ideas that came out of it in respect of improving the economy, tourism and culture? It was noted that while Micheál Martin and the previous Government came up with the idea of the first Global Economic Forum in Farmleigh, it was difficult to get tangible results from it, especially in light of helping small businesses, the economy and job creation, which is a major issue. My concern is that when those people are called upon to come again in two years time, if they are not told what has been achieved since this session was set up, they will not come and their goodwill will be gone.
One initiative on the Order Paper is for an honorary Senator to represent the Irish overseas. I note with interest that the Tánaiste has spoken of honouring those members of the global Irish community who have contributed greatly not only to their adopted country, but to Ireland. The appointment of an honorary Senator to represent the Irish overseas is possibly a way of doing this and I call on the Leader to bring this to the attention of the Tánaiste.
Who do the Germans and the French think they are by having meetings over the weekend and deciding what will happen with the euro? Herr Merkel and Monsignor Sarkozy seem to think that they will come up with the ideas and that the other 15 members of the euro will rubber stamp it.
We had the German ambassador in here during the summer and I emphasised to him that if he thinks we will pass a referendum as a result of a diktat from the Reichstag or Bundestag or whatever stag they are having, he is mistaken. The people simply will not pass another EU referendum to help the German and French taxpayers.
The Leader of the Opposition raised the question of the capital programme and sought a debate on the matter. I will ascertain when that will be available and try to arrange a debate on it.
I have no intention in getting embroiled in the legal niceties.
Senators Bacik and MacSharry called for a debate on housing, specifically on the report of the interdepartmental mortgage arrears working group. The Government is committed to assisting families facing difficulties with their mortgages. We all understand the difficulties the problem poses for many people and we are committed to helping in any realistic way we can. The Minister for Finance will publish the interdepartmental group's report on mortgage arrears tomorrow morning. The Government has given a commitment to hold a Dáil debate on the report as soon as possible and I will arrange a similar debate in this House. It is important that the Government hears the views of all parties on this important issue. All sensible proposals will be taken on board and acted on as expeditiously as possible, as every Senator would want.
Senators van Turnhout, Bradford, Healy Eames and others raised the low level of awareness about forthcoming referendums. The House had two comprehensive debates on the relevant Bills in recent weeks. While I will investigate the possibility of holding further debates, the Bills were comprehensively addressed in the House during the debates in question.
Senators Wilson, Ó Murchú and others asked for a debate on the Defence Forces and closure of Army barracks. This is a traumatic time for families of Defence Forces personnel in the areas in question. I agree that the current uncertainty is adding to their concerns and clarity is required on the issue of closures. While I will seek clarification from the Minister for Defence, I do not propose to amend the Order of Business to deal with the issue today. In any case, I do not believe the Minister is available.
Senator O'Keeffe raised the important issue of illegal vaccine trials which were carried out in several children's homes and requested that the relevant files from the homes in question be handed over to the Health Service Executive and State. She also posed a comprehensive list of questions for the Minister for Health and his Ministers of State. I will be pleased to pass on her questions to the relevant Ministers. This is an important issue and the families of those affected need answers to the key questions Senator O'Keeffe raised.
Senator Quinn raised the difficulty experienced by people seeking refunds from airlines and referred specifically to an alleged loss of revenue to the State. I will raise the matter with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport who is, I am sure, keen to get a few bob from any source. If money is to be made in respect of the airlines, I am sure he will follow up the matter.
Senator Reilly referred to the manner in which information on decisions on the amalgamation of vocational education committees and relocation of their headquarters, including the savings achieved through the process, was relayed. This is an important issue about which VECs in my city and county are very concerned, especially the manner in which the message was relayed. I am trying to obtain answers on some of the decisions taken on the locations of headquarters, particularly in my city.
Senator Burke referred to State bodies making submissions to Oireachtas joint committees. State bodies should be more forthcoming with information at their disposal when attending committees and what the Senator mentioned concerning the committee he attended is totally unacceptable and should not be allowed. The people involved should be written to, as Senator Burke stated they would be by the committee chairman in question. State bodies that make submissions to Oireachtas committees should put every item at their disposal to committee members for decision. It is not acceptable for them to attend and not be totally forthcoming with such information as they have to hand.
-----and when the legislation comes to the House, I am sure he will have ample time to make those points.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien mentioned the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan. The Minister will be in the House tomorrow dealing with legislation on dormant accounts and will also be present in early November for a question and answer session, so there will be ample time to introduce the laudable items raised by Senator O'Brien on the Order of Business.
Senator Healy Eames mentioned language training and language teachers, as raised by Members last week on the Order of Business. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, will be in the House during the first week in November to assist in a focused debate on the junior certificate and reform. Language teaching can be raised with the Minister during that debate.
Senator Crown referred to the serious problem of obesity and the shortage of dieticians. The Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, will be in the House in the coming weeks and I am sure the Senator will have questions for him. Last week I asked Senators to submit their questions in advance but as yet have not received any intended for the Minister for Health.
Senator Leyden and other Members spoke about critical comments made about the Referendum Commission. I am sure it will take on board Senator Leyden's advice in this matter. The Senator also raised the issue of local authority rates. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, attended the House last week and I reiterate that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, will attend for a question and answer session in early November.
Senator Conway also referred to the Referendum Commission and sought a debate on libel laws, broadcasting and the role of the media, matters that have been raised by other Members. I will arrange an early discourse. Senator MacSharry raised the issue of the Keane report, to which I responded, as I did with Senator Bacik.
Senator D'Arcy mentioned restoring the good name of this country in Europe which is what the Government is about and has been about for the past six months. It will continue to try to redress the problem we had in recent years.
Senator Ó Murchú mentioned the closure of barracks in Clonmel, a matter I addressed in my reply to Senator Wilson.
Senator Daly referred to the Global Economic Forum. I shall arrange for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, to come to the House. I agree there is a need to have better follow-up on this matter than was available from the previous Government.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Defence on his plans for the future of the Army barracks at Cavan, Castlebar, Clonmel and Mullingar be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 18 (Sean Barrett, Thomas Byrne, John Crown, Mark Daly, Terry Leyden, Fiach MacConghail, Marc MacSharry, Rónán Mullen, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Darragh O'Brien, Mary Ann O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Averil Power, Feargal Quinn, Kathryn Reilly, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 28 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, James Heffernan, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Marie Louise O'Donnell, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, Jillian van Turnhout, John Whelan)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe..
Amendment declared lost.