Thursday, 13 October 2011
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the importance of statistics in developing public policy and planning for the future, to commence at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 2 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes, and the Minister or Minister of State to be called on to reply to the debate not later than 1.50 p.m.
I am sure all my colleagues share my disappointment with the Keane report and the proposals therein, which fall far short of what the Government promised. It appears from the report that the Government will leave the decisions on debt settlement to the banks, and there is a proposal to set up a toothless agency. This is unlike the independent debt settlement office which my party, Fianna Fáil, proposed by way of a Bill published yesterday and which will go before the Dáil next week.
To be fair, all Senators want to assist people in mortgage difficulties as much as possible. I do not doubt the intentions of the Government but these were laid out very clearly in the run-up to the general election and the programme for Government. I remind the Leader of two specific elements which were promised and which I have raised directly with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan. These include the proposal for 30% mortgage interest relief for individuals who bought houses between 2004 and 2008, which on average would amount to as much as €166 per month net. This was promised during the general election and although we have consistently asked the Minister when it will be implemented, it has not been done.
The new Government also promised it would ensure that the State-covered banks would subsume and forgo future ECB rate increases, of which we have had two this year, amounting to a 0.5% increase in total. None of those increases have been subsumed by the banks, and this amounts to another broken promise. The Government also indicated that it would create an agency with teeth and legal standing to assist people with mortgage and personal debt issues. What was proposed yesterday in the Keane report goes nowhere close to doing that. Over the past six to seven months the Government has raised the expectations of individuals who are extremely vulnerable and it has reneged on the promises it made.
The Dáil will debate this report next week and I assume we will debate it at length. I ask the Leader to set aside the maximum amount of time next week to debate the findings in the report. The Minister for Finance said he will listen very carefully to the views of Members of the Oireachtas from all parties, which I welcome. New Beginnings, which is an excellent group, and many other independent groups are very disappointed with the Keane report.
We will wait until next week to debate it and I hope the Leader sets sufficient time aside because even in the short time of this Government, my party has published two significant Bills, one of which would protect the family home and which was defeated by three votes in the Seanad. We have now published a Bill on establishing an independent debt management agency to which the banks would have to answer. What the Government proposes is that our people will be answerable to the banks. It has reneged on significant promises it made in the election. Will the Leader set aside time next week for us to once again put forward the realistic proposals we have?
Will the Leader reiterate what the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, and Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, said at their 100 days in office press conference, namely, that they would not cut social welfare and increase income tax? Yesterday, the Fiscal Advisory Council called for a €4.4 billion adjustment this year. If the Leader knows how in God's name the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, will do that without cutting social welfare and raising income tax, he should tell him. Can the Leader tell me that the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government is still committed to no social welfare cuts and no tax increases?
Like Senator O'Brien, I would like a debate on the Keane report but I would differ greatly with him on his analysis of that report. I have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, to come to the House to debate the Keane report with us. We should have a lengthy debate on it. However, I welcome the proposals in it which at least offer some sort of concrete comfort to many families in distress with their mortgages and as I have said before, it is extremely rich to hear Fianna Fáil lecture us on the shortcomings of this Government-----
I welcome the proposals in it which offer 100 new mortgage advisers to people in distress with their mortgages and who will negotiate directly with the banks on their behalf, as Deputy Ciarán Lynch, said the other night.
I also welcome the proposal for two new mortgage to rent schemes which the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, will roll out that will offer-----
The schemes proposed will offer practical help to the many families who are in genuine distress with their mortgages.
I call on the Leader to arrange a further debate on prostitution law following the excellent debate we had last night on foot of Senator Zappone's motion on prostitution law. I very much welcome the fact that during the debate, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, gave a commitment that the Government would spend the next six months-----
On a point of order, should we debate what was part of last night's Private Members' time this morning? People who are in distress and face severe financial difficulties are looking to Members in this House to act responsibly and this is what we get.
I am not sure what Senator Walsh is talking about. I asked the Leader for a follow up debate in six months' time on prostitution law with the Minister, Deputy Shatter, or the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to follow up on the commitment the Minister of State gave last night that the Government would spend the next six months engaged in public consultation on the introduction of a prostitution law similar to that introduced in Sweden and Norway in which the purchase of sex is a criminal offence.
We had a very good and a very informed debate in this House with a full visitors Gallery. There is huge interest in this issue and it is extremely welcome that the Government has given a commitment to spend the next six months engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the many interest groups and individuals who are concerned about this issue. It is important that the Minister of State, or even the Minister, come to the House in six months' time to explain the progress made and outline the Government plans for legislation. It is an extremely important request to the Leader.
I would like to get the details of a discussion or correspondence the Cathaoirleach had with RTE in regard to a case which I will not discuss. I refer to the principle of the independence of the Oireachtas and freedom of Members of the Oireachtas to speak on issues that affect them, subject only to the regulation of the Houses in which they serve and to the Chair's rulings which I respect.
Today's edition of The Irish Times reported that RTE contacted the Cathaoirleach and stated that the Cathaoirleach was happy to be made aware of the long-standing principle of not discussing in the Oireachtas a case that was still before the courts. What was the Cathaoirleach's response to RTE? Did he tell it to go away, which is what he should have told it?
The public record states that the Cathaoirleach was in contact with RTE and that he was happy to be advised by RTE as to what should be spoken about in this House. It is a matter of huge concern to us that RTE would put that pressure on the Cathaoirleach. I am not criticising the Cathaoirleach.
-----and that the Leader brings it before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I hope my colleagues do so because it is a matter of serious concern. RTE has no business telling the Cathaoirleach what is in Standing Orders. The Cathaoirleach's response should have been very impolite and in the vernacular. I will not describe what it should have been here. He should have told RTE to go away at the very least.
It is very important. We raise this in support of the Cathaoirleach and not to criticise him.
We need an urgent debate on mortgages and not with the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose. He set this fire alight in regard to mortgages during the summer when we said there would be debt forgiveness. He clearly was not speaking with any expertise or on behalf of his Department. We do not want to discuss two pilot schemes in regard to mortgage to rent. We want to discuss the Keane report with the Minister for Finance, if he is available. I would be happy with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, who is a relatively senior Minister of State. That debate is very urgent.
The Government has let the people down. Fine Gael made a specific promise on mortgage interest relief of €166 per month. Tens of thousands of people voted for Fine Gael because of that promise alone. That promise was like the promises given to taxi drivers and Eircom shareholders but people were so vulnerable and in such a bad way that they believed the promise. It was like the promises made in regard to Roscommon and Blanchardstown hospitals.
I am calling for a debate on that issue. We have been pushing to see when this proposal by Fine Gael will be implemented. We now find that the Keane report is complete rubbish. The difficulty we have with the Keane report is that many of the members of the group were on the committee which published a report last October. The Government has not done anything to implement the findings of that report, which is a good one. The New Beginning was not invited to contribute to that committee. It suggested an excellent solution which works on a cross the board basis rather than on a case by case. Addressing the issue on a case by case basis is code for putting vulnerable borrowers in a room with a bank official who orders them to eat this for breakfast and go to that shop.
I raise the issue of commercial rates. Yesterday, in Buswells hotel we met a delegation from Irish employers for affordable rates. To say that the retailers this group represents are struggling is an understatement. I have raised this issue on numerous occasions, including with the Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, Deputy Perry, who promised to consider alternative ways of assessing commercial rates so that blue chip companies could be dealt with in a different manner to small retail units.
Commercial rates in County Roscommon are valued at €74 per square foot compared to €52 in County Westmeath. The area surrounding Athlone is divided between County Roscommon and, across the bridge, County Westmeath. It is ridiculous that there is a difference of €22 per square foot between the rates levied in these areas because nobody will come to County Roscommon to establish a business.
The hotel sector is also struggling. Hotels are being assessed on a commercial rates basis for rooms that are not being used. If they could fill their rooms they would have no problem paying their rates bills.
A hotel in my area closed down because it could not pay its rates and water rates, with a subsequent cost of €840,000 per year in social welfare payments. Small retail units which employ three people face rates bills of €5,000 per year. If they close they will cost €63,000 in social welfare. The argument is made that debt forgiveness for small businesses would impact on the local government fund but the alternative is that the Exchequer will have to cover the higher bill for social welfare.
Irish employers for affordable rates would like the Valuations Acts to be amended to allow employers to appeal a rates valuation on the basis of changing economic circumstances. I call on the Leader to arrange for a debate on the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Perry.
IBEC published a number of proposals today which are worthy of debate. I suggest that the Leader might find time for such a debate in the near future. The problem which faces us is that we are not spending in Ireland. We have a strong export sector but we are continuing to save rather than spend. I grew up during a time when we were all encouraged to save but it appears now we need to find methods to encourage people to spend and create more jobs. IBEC suggests that if people had access to a portion of their pensions, perhaps at a reduced rate of tax, they could spend it now. I acknowledge this proposal presents all sorts of long-term difficulties but it should only involve a portion of that pension. The proposal is at least worth discussion.
IBEC also proposed that children's allowance be paid with an electronic card that can be only spent on goods here. It has been suggested that much of the money paid is not spent in Ireland. I could be accused of coming from a tradition of encouraging people to spend their money in supermarkets but that is exactly where the cards would be used. It appears that some of the money received in children's allowance payments is not necessarily being spent on children. IBEC's proposal has the dual benefit of solving what we want to do with children's allowance while giving a boost to the retail trade in Ireland.
Today is world vision day, which is observed to highlight ophthalmic health and the challenges facing the blind and visually impaired community. Unfortunately, 100 blind and visually impaired people are about to hold a protest outside Leinster House to urge the Government to establish a working group that would implement the recommendations in the World Health Organisation report commissioned in 2001 or 2002. Given that our population is aging, blindness and ophthalmic health will become a major issue. It would be prudent for the Government to consider establishing a working group comprising officials and experts from the field. I ask the Leader to bring this issue to the attention of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health as a priority.
Given that it is world vision day, I will end on a positive note by describing my experience in the Houses of the Oireachtas. For the first time ever a Member has been able to access legislation electronically on an ipad. I commend the Leader, the Cathaoirleach, the bills office and the ICT unit on the work they have done to ensure I have equal access to legislation and other information. On world vision day I have access to the Order Paper electronically for the first time ever in an Irish Parliament. That is a good day for the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Oireachtas is often criticised but it can be proud of this initiative. I look forward to robust debates which can be accessed electronically.
I support my colleagues opposite on amending the Valuations Act 2001. I also met the organisation which is running the campaign on commercial rates. I suggested that we would support any amendment to the Act that would allow a right of appeal. Will the Leader bring such legislation to the House at the earliest opportunity.
I agree with Senator Byrne. I, too, raised the issue of RTE and I hope the Leader will ask the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to investigate whether the station contacted this House to gently remind us to keep our noses out of its misdeeds. It would be a bad development for democracy if the fourth estate dictated to us what we can and cannot say.
I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the backlog of EU legislation that has built up since the general election. We learned at yesterday's meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade that 57 items of legislation are awaiting review by committees. Since the second Lisbon referendum, 132 items of European legislation have been sent to the Oireachtas. All parliaments are supposed to make formal submissions after eight weeks but none of the 428 submissions made were by the Houses of the Oireachtas. We have passed more items of European legislation without amendment than we have passed in this Dáil and its two predecessors, combined.
To the public, it must sound like a disgrace that we allowed so much European legislation to pass through these Houses without making one iota of a change to it. That is a failure of the system and it cannot be allowed to continue. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to the House for a discussion on the 57 pieces of legislation we are supposed to review before next week. It is possible that they will all have to be passed within seven days. That does not sound like a functioning democracy. As I said at yesterday's meeting of the committee, it sounds like a rubber-stamping operation. We do not have the facilities, the legal expertise or the independent advice of the bureaucrats in the European Union that we need to guide us in the right direction. That will come back to haunt us when the legislation takes effect five or six years from now.
I detect a certain level of excitability on the Fianna Fáil benches. Perhaps they might benefit from being led by the Chair in some deep breathing exercises before the Order of Business.
I would like to ask the Leader a serious question which perhaps he might raise with the Minister for Health. I understand the competing demands on the Minister's time and our scarce health care resources. I am talking about an issue on which good progress has been made in the last couple of years. There is a real danger, however, that the progress made will be eroded. I refer to the medical specialty of surgery on spinal deformities such as scoliosis and kyphosis, both of which are progressive illnesses which are usually diagnosed in later childhood and will lead to permanent disability or paralysis if left untreated. In 2007 the waiting time for surgery was three years. However, great progress has been made since and last year the waiting time was 12 months. I am afraid the timeframes are creeping out again to 18 months. The specialists working in this area have met the Minister and officials from the HSE and the Department. We know the Minister is extremely sympathetic. I, therefore, ask the Leader to discuss this issue with him. Will he get a clear direction from the Minister on the plans that have been formulated and the stage these plans are at?
Further to what was said by my colleague about RTE, I put the Cathaoirleach on notice that I would like the relevant legal advice received the day before yesterday and the relevant Standing Order to be made available to Members. I will be putting the question of the sub judice rule down for consideration by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. While it is important not to abuse parliamentary privilege, it is equally important not to emasculate the functions of this House.
I am sure the Leader will agree with me that we all owe a debt of gratitude to Senators Katherine Zappone, Jillian van Turnhout, Fiach Mac Conghail and Marie-Louise O'Donnell, in particular. The Senators who are Taoiseach's nominees introduced a powerful motion last night on the need to criminalise those who purchase sex. I cannot understand how it was possible for the Government to propose an amendment to it.
That issue was decided on yesterday. It has been raised on the Order of Business this morning and I have decided on it. If the Senator does not have another question for the Leader of the House, I will move to the next speaker.
Contrary to some of the points made by our very worthy opponents, the problem of mortgage arrears will continue until the banks show more flexibility and start lending again. It will not go away and the State has very few direct options. I join others in looking for a debate on the matter, as the Government has been urging the banks to show greater flexibility. Another arm of State - the Central Bank - is imposing regulatory requirements that prevent the banks from lending, in effect. I welcome the enhanced role the report envisages for local authorities. We need to debate the many aspects of this suggestion. I think it would be very good if this were to happen. We need guidance from the Central Bank on the future mortgage market in order that the irresponsible practices that led us into this mess are not repeated. I hope the Leader can arrange for us to debate the matter at an early stage.
I want to raise an issue relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly. A number of Senators have previously called for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to come before this House at some point. I remind the Leader that we should consider this possibility. It is important to do so in the context of the £4 billion cut in the Assembly's budget from the block grant from the British Government. One of the key campaigns of the parties in the North involves the transfer of fiscal powers from Westminster to the Assembly. That would allow the parties in the Assembly to deal with this problem, for example, by raising taxes.
I am asking for a debate on the matter. If Senators are not informed about the actual powers and functions of the Assembly, they cannot do themselves justice when they speak in ignorance about what is happening in the North. I remind the Leader that policing and justice powers have been transferred from Westminster to the Assembly. The same needs to happen in relation to fiscal powers. That cannot be an issue for Sinn Féin alone. It has to be an issue for all parties in the State. They need to work with us to seek these fiscal powers and thereby enable those who are democratically elected in the North, rather than British Government politicians at Westminster, to make decisions on taxation issues.
I support Senator Ivana Bacik and others in calling for a debate on the Keane report. The Government has made it clear that this is a work in progress. It expects various people to make suggestions on how the report and its findings may be improved and is keen to hear from them. Perhaps the excitable Members on the Opposition benches might direct some of their energy towards making suggestions in that direction.
In recent days there has been much criticism of the media. I take a moment to congratulate the BBC for its programme "All Roads Lead Home", broadcast last night, which celebrated natural navigation but in fact was a wonderful showpiece for County Mayo. It was absolutely delightful and was an hour long advertisement for that beautiful county. I praise the BBC for that. It shows the media can, at times, make a very positive contribution.
I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come to the House for a debate on the CAP proposals. The proposals will be the subject of discussion for many months to come but, as they have been published in their basic form, it is in the interests of this House to contribute to that debate. Although I suspect that debate may not occur for some time, I would like to put down a marker now and ask for it .
Will the Leader ask the Minister to attend the House to discuss an issue of great scandal, namely, that of the Priory complex in Donaghmede which was in the news in recent days, where 187 apartment units are uninhabitable because of the condition in which they were left and the severe fire hazard they constitute? Unfortunately, many people who purchased apartments there are now grossly disadvantaged. I ask the Minister to consider investigating this issue. It is not just culpability on the part of the builder and developer. Many professionals were involved, from the architect, who designed and presumably should have overseen and certified the scheme, to the mortgagors, who would have arranged their own inspections when they gave mortgages to the mortgagees. On the architectural and the legal side, this shows that there has been a complete dereliction of responsibility. It is not good enough. This scheme might be symptomatic of similar problems across the country.
I support my colleague, Senator Daly, with regard to the situation concerning EU scrutiny. At the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade yesterday, we were informed that 57 EU directives and Bills in the foreign affairs portfolio are outstanding since last February. It is now too late for us to make any observations on them so it is suggested we just put them through with a rubber stamp. Given the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade would have the least number of EU items to be scrutinised, we can take it there are hundreds and probably in excess of 1,000 such items across the various Departments and the public service. This demonstrates an appalling lack of governance.
To add to that, responsibility was given to these Houses to play our part under the Lisbon treaty - in fact, this was debated in the Seanad on a number of occasions, as the Cathaoirleach knows. I was heartened by comments from the Leader in the early stages of this session that this Seanad would have an impact, would have real substance and be much more energised with regard to issues that came before us. I have to say the Order of Business today and for the past three weeks has left a great deal to be desired. There have been huge time gaps between items of business, which portrays a very bad image, while, at the same time, we have a load of European scrutiny documentation that is, like the archives, totally unattended.
I wonder whether this is a deliberate ploy on the part of the Government to downgrade the work of these Houses so that, when it comes to putting the referendum next year, it will be much easier for it to have the abolition of the Seanad passed. That is an appalling vista when one considers the Government has a majority of 60 seats in the Lower House. It is dangerous and a recipe for bad governance.
We need to stand up and say this. I ask the leaders of the Opposition to come together and, where the schedule of business is poor, ensure that amendments to the Order of Business are accepted. I appeal to them to do this so we would, if nothing else, highlight the issue, which would apply pressure. I know this is not just a matter for the Leader because it is controlled by the Chief Whip of the Dail, who controls the business of this House. That, unfortunately, is one of the great deficiencies in the manner in which we do our business.
I wish to raise two issues. First, I thank my colleague from Kerry, Senator Daly, for bringing to the attention of the House the great work Build 4 Life does. I would appreciate any help he can give because I have had several meetings with the Minister, Deputy Reilly, on this issue. We have made ground and, I hope there will be a resolution or a solution to the issue in the near future.
Second, I seek guidance from the Leader. The harp is the emblem of our State. I see it on Seanad paper, on Dáil paper and on the office of Uachtaráin na hÉireann. The same emblem is also the logo of Fianna Fáil, which has destroyed our country-----
As today is World Sight Day, I commend Senator Martin Conway, who is a great example to this House and to the country for the work he has done and the contribution he has made. I commend the Leader, the Cathaoirleach and the Clerk for providing the necessary services, and also commend Senator Katherine Zappone for her contribution yesterday in regard to hearing. The House has made a big contribution in this regard and I compliment all involved.
I congratulate the Government on its barefaced cronyism in the appointment of Mr. Justice Michael White of the Workers Party, friend of Eamon Gilmore and his personal secretary-----
I must put this forward. I ask the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, to come to the House to discuss the Keane report. It is vital that he comes here, not the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, who may be out of Government fairly shortly when the barracks in Mullingar closes. We want some continuity in this regard. We must have somebody who will be there for the long haul, so we want the Minister to come to the House.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, come to the House to discuss the Keane report next week, or as quickly as possible - today, if possible - although I presume he can come next week.
In concurrence with all of the other Members who raised the matter, I also call for a debate on the Keane report. I was somewhat dissatisfied when I saw the briefing by the Minister for Finance which mentioned that the matter was to be discussed in the Dáil, particularly given the interest of, and the time devoted by, this House to the issue of mortgage debt and arrears. I point out to those who have not had a chance to read the report that two of the Seanad proposals relating to mortgage to rent and mortgage to shared equity are included. Senator Thomas Byrne should note that Labour Party Members were anxious to support his Bill, but they pointed out that, unfortunately, there were legal issues with it. They asked him to withdraw and amend it, but he did not do so.
I do. Members may not be aware that earlier this week Threshold and Focus held a conference on homelessness in Ireland and, in particular, the most recent housing policy statement of June 2011. Unfortunately, front-line organisations such as Threshold have warned the Government that the number experiencing homelessness is on the increase. The fact remains that after all the debates in this House in the past two days about child trafficking and so forth, two out of every three children who leave-----
While I am unsure whether there is a precedent, I ask the Leader to invite three Ministers to come to the House, namely, the Ministers for Health and Social Protection, as well as the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, all of whom have responsibility in dealing with the issue of homelessness. A commitment was given by the previous Government and each party in this House to end homelessness by 2012. Consequently, I seek the attendance in the House of the responsible Ministers to explain to Members the reason we face an increase in the level of homelessness.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I was saying I had a certain amount of sympathy for Senator David Cullinane's proposal to the Leader that we have a debate on the transfer of fiscal powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I wonder if this is part of the project. As two thirds of the economy of Northern Ireland relies on the block grant and as two thirds of the working population of Northern Ireland is engaged in the public service and, therefore, reliant on the British Exchequer, one wonders whether the proposal to transfer fiscal authority to the Northern Ireland Assembly might perhaps lead to a collapse of the Northern Ireland economy, which might be part of the Sinn Féin project. It is a rather interesting development. However, I wish to take-----
I have no difficulty with that at all. Incidentally, I formally second the proposed amendment to the Order of Business.
In the light of the political points made by Senators Tom Sheahan and Ivana Bacik on Fianna Fáil's role in government in recent years, I would welcome the Leader considering the possibility of arranging a debate on the previous Administration and the fact that we have reached our present position. Let the facts come out for the people. Let there be a proper analysis of the exact reason we are in the position in which we find ourselves.
I would be happy with an analysis, as would other Members on this side of the House, because it would be discovered and concluded that not everything that happened under a Fianna Fáil Administration was responsible for the collapse of the world economy. I refer the Leader to the global economic forum in the Far East that concluded yesterday at which the Chinese Deputy Prime Minister stated we were all in this together as our economies were globally interlocked and that the only way we would be able to get out of the crisis was by working together. As for any suggestion that what happened during the terms of office of the Fianna Fáil-led Administrations led to the collapse of this economy and that of the entire world, I rely on the good instincts of the people who will decide.
They decided last February, but all I would say to the Senator is what goes around comes around.
The CAP proposals were discussed at European Parliament level earlier this week. Will there be an early opportunity for the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come into the House to give an indication of what precisely is the Government's thinking on the CAP and the proposals as outlined?
Specifically regarding the ongoing controversy relating to the raised bogs issue affecting my native county of Leitrim, will the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, come to the House to explain and perhaps indicate whether he will give support-----
-----to the view that there is scope within domestic legislation to ensure those operating in what are called national heritage areas, as distinct from special areas of conservation, will be allowed to continue to cut turf for their own domestic use?
It will be important for the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to appear in the House as soon as possible. By all accounts, we face a tough budget and one is told that €1 billion is likely to be cut from the social welfare budget. It is important that this House debate that budget before decisions are finally made. Right across the board, Members should have an opportunity to make proposals on where savings could be made for the good of the country and its citizens. This would be a general debate and while I do not believe it has been called for in the House previously, I am sure many Members would have interesting proposals to make. For example, considerable savings could be made in the social welfare budget by investing in a free book rental scheme for schools. However, Members must examine the details of such proposals. In addition, this morning I was interested to note the ESRI had published a study demonstrating that people were not better off while in receipt of social welfare benefits, despite what it is often said.
In fact, as few as 3% of unemployed persons would have a lower income were they to work. However, the report contains another figure that is of great concern. Some 42% of those in receipt of social welfare benefits, that is, 183,000 people, are long-term claimants. That group should be specifically examined to ascertain what could be done for them. Rather than considering the entire cohort out of work and claiming social welfare benefits, it must be broken down and categorised to ascertain how specific groups might be helped.
My concern is that members of the Joint Committee on Social Protection often have such discussions, but such discussions do not take place in this Chamber unless the Minister is present. While it is great to have such debates at the joint committee, one can fool oneself sometimes into thinking everyone knows about it. Consequently, some of these proposals and ideas must be thrashed out much more tightly. I, therefore, urge the Leader to bring the Minister into the House very soon. If €1 billion of a budget cut of €3.6 billion is being sought in this way, it is considerable.
While I acknowledge the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Support, Deputy Leo Varadkar, has been a good attendee in the Seanad, it is time to bring him back for an urgent debate on the future of the regional airports. The bad news from Galway this morning with regard to the pull-out of Aer Arann follows on from a near-disastrous set of circumstances in County Kerry towards the end of the tourism season when no flights were operated to and from Dublin for a period. The Government has not got a sense of the importance of our regional airports. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to come to the House for a debate on the matter.
I am sure the Leader and other Members will be as surprised as I was to learn that every time a person purchases an item in a shop and pays with a credit or debit card, it creates and supports jobs in the UK. I am an independent retailer and when our terminals failed and needed to be replaced and updated I learned to my surprise that rather than dealing with AIB, we were dealing with Ingenico, which is based in Huddersfield or some other place in England. It appears that AIB has franchised its entire plastic operation to a British company. We are effectively the owners of AIB and I cannot understand how that situation was allowed to develop. Some 75% of retail sales use credit or debit cards and we are supposed to be the masters of the smart economy. Why in the name of God was that done? I ask the Leader to investigate and come up with an answer.
Further to what Senator Leyden said about judicial appointments, the Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, did indignation very well every day when he was in opposition and he drove a very honourable man out of the top job in the Oireachtas, the former Ceann Comhairle, John O'Donoghue. He took the high moral ground.
Earlier Senator Daly spoke about legislation from the European Union. All draft legislation is circulated to all 27 member states before going through the Commission and the European Parliament. We have 90 representatives permanently based in Brussels watching EU legislation so Europe is not pushing through legislation without consultation. That issue needs to be clarified because it is wrong that misinformation is out there giving that impression.
Legislation is processed by member states; it is an ongoing process that goes back and forth between Europe and the member states. Just as the European Parliament sets aside a number of days in Strasbourg each month, why can this House not set aside two days a month to deal specifically with EU legislation?
It is not an unreasonable amount of time. It is a role the Seanad could undertake and it would be extremely helpful in getting correct information to the public. For two days a month we should deal with nothing but EU legislation.
Senator O'Keeffe mentioned that the Common Agricultural Policy will be reviewed. The Leader should invite the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development to the House to deal with that issue. It would an appropriate way to deal with the debate in addition to having the Minister come to the House.
It is reported today that the number of vacant houses has reduced and that the number of ghost estates has reduced. I commend the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Penrose, on his work in the area since he was appointed. As I have done on a number of occasions in recent weeks, I ask the Leader to invite the Minister of State to the House to give us a progress report on what he proposes to achieve in the next 12 months or so. I acknowledge that work has been done, some of it in my county, but much more remains to be done in this regard. Before local authorities take ownership of any more houses, they should conduct an audit of the houses they own at present. Throughout the Twenty-six Counties houses owned by local authorities are lying vacant, in some cases for up to two years. Before they take charge of any more houses, they should deal with the houses already in their control.
I support the call by Senator Conway a few weeks ago that we should have a debate on the National Lottery. There is at least one game to be played every day. It seems to be raking in the money but is not distributing very much of it to worthy causes. I seek an urgent debate on the National Lottery. What is it doing with the money and where is it going?
I welcome the Keane report as a first step in dealing with the big problems of people who are unable to pay their mortgages in full. In the Dáil yesterday the Taoiseach asked for further suggestions. I support Senators Darragh O'Brien, Byrne and others in calling for a wide range of measures to deal with the issue. They mentioned the suggestions from New Beginning. We should be able to get cross-party support on this major issue. New Beginning has suggested a cap of 35% of the net income with perhaps leaving €100,000 aside for some time for some people with mortgages. We should invite representatives of New Beginning to brief us on their proposals and the briefing should take place either in the Seanad Chamber or in an adjoining room. I spoke to Mr. David Ball of New Beginning yesterday. He indicated that he and his colleagues would be willing to come and address us on that issue.
I support the calls for a debate on the mortgage issue which is crippling the country with more than 60,000 families in mortgage arrears. The Minister for Finance should come to the House to address a range of issues. The Keane report has taken an excessively simplistic approach to solving the problem and we need to think outside the box to solve it. I support Senator Jim D'Arcy's call for a briefing by New Beginning to take place either in the Chamber or in the AV room, which would be very helpful to all the Members of the House.
Yesterday the CAP reform legislative proposals were announced. They will have far reaching consequences for Irish agriculture not least of which will be the transfer of funds from single farm payment to single area-based payments based on the 2014 land area farmers would have. If those proposals are given legal standing by the Parliament and the Council of Ministers there will be a land grabbing exercise between now and 2014 here and in every other member state. It is an unrealistic proposal coming from the European Commission on which we need an urgent debate.
I refer to what was said by the Sinn Féin Senator - I am sorry he is not here to listen.
It is very rich to claim it does not believe in cuts in the Republic while presiding over those same cuts 60 miles up the road. Sinn Féin Members cannot talk out of both sides of their mouths just because they believe the electorate want to hear what they have to say.
Members from all sides of the House are very energised this morning. There were quite a number of speakers. Senator Darragh O'Brien spoke about the Keane report. The Minister for Finance was in the House last week, and he took questions from everyone who wished to ask them. He will be in the House next Wednesday and possibly Thursday to deal with the Central Bank and Credit Institutions (Resolution)(No. 2) Bill 2011, so Members may have an opportunity to raise some of the points made today. We will try to arrange a separate debate on the report as soon as possible and see whether the Minister for Finance or the Minister of State with responsibility for housing will take it.
In respect of assisting people with mortgage difficulties and the promises made in the programme for Government, I remind Members on the other side of the House that the all proposals will be made known to people on budget day. That will provide the first opportunity for the Government to outline its budgetary process and whether there will be any cuts in any area. I can assure Members that to raise €4 billion, there will be considerable cuts in practically every Department.
Senator Bacik requested a further debate in six months on a prostitution law. We will certainly request the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Minister of State at that Department, Deputy Lynch, to come back into the House at that stage.
The Cathaoirleach made a ruling on the issue raised by Senator Byrne, and as far as I am concerned, the matter is closed. If Members wish to raise it on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, the chairman will decide whether it can be re-opened.
Senator Kelly, Senator Daly and others spoke about commercial rates and a possible amendment to the Valuation Act 2001. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will be in the House in early November, and I am sure that is a matter he would like to discuss with Members.
Senator Quinn spoke about people accessing a portion of their pension fund and the possibility of introducing an electronic card for social welfare recipients to purchase goods in the country. We can raise these matters with the Minister for Social Protection, and there have been several requests for her to come into this House. She has confirmed that she will be in the House for statements, questions and answers on 17 November, so there will be ample opportunity for Members to raise the many points which they raised today on social welfare, including possible cuts.
Senator Conway highlighted the 2001 World Health Organisation report on people who are visually impaired, and the fact that today is world vision day. I will certainly inquire about the establishment of a working group and I will get back to him on that. We certainly appreciate his comments on accessing the Order of Business electronically on an iPad. As I stated yesterday to Senator Zappone, every facility should be made available for Members to access information, and I am glad that is being provided for Senator Conway and other Members in a similar position.
Senator Daly requested that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade be called into the House to deal with the backlog of submissions on EU legislation. This point was made by Senators Walsh and Burke. The House should be used more to deal with EU legislation, and we will certainly investigate the possibility of doing that.
Senator Gilroy spoke about waiting times for people with scoliosis and other spinal deformities. The Minister for Health will be in the House on 27 October and it should be raised with him.
Senator Mullen's issue was discussed in the Private Members' motion yesterday and decided upon, so I do not think there is any need to comment on that.
Senators Cullinane, Mooney and Ó Domhnaill spoke about the Assembly in the North. I think they have differing opinions on it, but perhaps we can come back to it at a later stage for a debate. I do not think we should be discussing it right now.
Senator O'Keeffe called for a debate on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, proposals. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been very co-operative with this House. We had an excellent debate with him a couple of weeks ago. I agree that we need a debate on those proposals and we will examine the possibility of inviting the Commissioner for Agriculture and possibly our own Commissioner to address the House at a later stage.
Senator Walsh raised a point about an apartment block in Donaghmede. He rightly pointed out that there may have been a dereliction of duty on behalf of some of the architects, developers and legal people involved. If there is any wrongdoing, these people should be brought before the courts. The plight of some of the people in these apartments is appalling. They have spent every penny they have on getting a home, yet they find themselves in these difficulties.
Senator Sheahan made a point about the Fianna Fáil logo. I do not think I can comment on that or help him with it. He certainly energised the other side of the House on the matter.
Senator Leyden proposed an amendment to the Order of Business. I do not propose to accept the amendment, but I have stated that the Minister for Finance will be in the House next Wednesday.
Senator Hayden spoke about a report on homelessness by Threshold and we will have try to bring before the House those Ministers she called for. We will certainly have the Ministers for Health and Social Protection, while I am trying to arrange a debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose as well.
Senator Mooney rightly pointed out that all our problems cannot be laid at the feet of Fianna Fáil, although many of them certainly can. I have addressed the point in relation to the CAP.
Senator Healy Eames spoke about proposals for savings in social protection. The Minister will be in the House on 17 November.
Senator O'Sullivan spoke about the future of regional airports. We will attempt to get the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport into the House. I do not wish to comment on his comments on appointments to the Judiciary.
Senator Colm Burke spoke about the EU proposals and the debate on the CAP. We will arrange that. Senator Wilson called on the Minister of State with responsibility for housing to have an audit of houses owned by local authorities. That probably has been done, but we will ask the Minister of State to address that matter when he comes before the House. There was also a request for a debate on funding from the national lottery. That could be raised with the Minister for Finance or any Ministers who come into House.
Senator Jim D'Arcy made a good suggestion that the people in New Beginning would give a briefing to Members. I suggest to the Senator that he invite them in to provide us such a briefing in the audio-visual room. The Senator can arrange that and notify Members. I am sure it will be well attended. I think I have also addressed the points that Senator Ó Domhnaill raised.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 15 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Mark Daly, Terry Leyden, Paschal Mooney, Rónán Mullen, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Darragh O'Brien, Ned O'Sullivan, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Feargal Quinn, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 28 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, 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.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 27 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Susan O'Keeffe, Tom Shehan, Jillian van Turnhout, John Whelan)
Against the motion: 14 (Sean Barrett, Thomas Byrne, Mark Daly, Terry Leyden, Paschal Mooney, Rónán Mullen, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Darragh O'Brien, Ned O'Sullivan, Feargal Quinn, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe; Níl, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson..
Question declared carried.