Tuesday, 29 November 2011
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Road Transport Bill 2011 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 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 to be called on to reply to the debate not later than 6.50 p.m. Between 2.30 p.m. and 4.15 p.m. the Seanad Public Consultation Committee will hear presentations from Professor Gerard Quinn of NUI, Galway on the added value of a United Nations convention on the rights of older persons and Professor Rose Anne Kenny of Trinity College Dublin on the relevance of findings from the TILDA study for the rights of older persons. All Senators are invited to be in the Chamber during the course of the afternoon for these presentations.
There is a glaring omission from today's Order of Business. Last week, I and other colleagues in the Opposition called for a pre-budget debate in the Chamber in which we could have a proper meaningful discussion. At the time I was grateful because the Leader acceded to the request and stated that he would arrange for the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, to come to the House today for an hour and a half, which would not have been sufficient but would have been a start. When the Order Paper for today was circulated last Thursday I noticed the matter was missing from it. I am very disappointed and will move an amendment to the Order of Business that we have a meaningful pre-budget debate and discussion in the House today, as was agreed by the House last week. I will wait to hear the Leader's response to see whether we will push that amendment.
My colleague, Senator Averil Power moved an amendment on the Order of Business last week concerning the residents of Priory Hall. Yesterday, those residents should have been back in their homes but despite the schedule of works agreed with Dublin City Council and the errant developer, they are still out of their homes. It greatly concerns me that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, has not seen fit to meet these residents. This issue is not specific to Priory Hall. There are many other such apartment blocks, as was borne out yesterday by the general secretary of the national firefighters and paramedics union. The fire service reckons that about 10% of apartments across this country do not meet fire regulatory standards. Only four weeks ago in Swords, close to my own area, we had a issue whereby fire doors were not operational in a building. I ask the Leader to contact the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to meet a delegation of Priory Hall residents. That is the very least he should do as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
When does the Government propose to fill the vacancy left following the resignation of the former Minister of State, Deputy Willie Penrose? Most of us agree that the portfolio for housing and homelessness is a very important one. It concerns me greatly that over the past two weeks since the Minister of State resigned on 16 November, there has been no one at the Cabinet table fighting for the 5,000 plus homeless people in this country.
Deputy Penrose was the Minister of State with specific responsibility for housing and the homeless. The Government has not moved to fill that vacancy because the Labour Party cannot decide whom they wish to elevate to the high chair at the Cabinet table. That is an outrage and I now hear that the vacancy will not be filled until after budget day. I will be interested to see what the Government proposes for the homeless and for social housing in the budget. There are more than 100,000 people in social housing.
The Leader should ask the Taoiseach therefore. I am disgusted that this portfolio has remained vacant for two weeks. Was this portfolio simply a sop? If the Labour Party could get its act together and decide who will be elevated to the Cabinet table, maybe we could have someone advocating for the homeless at Cabinet level. It is outrageous that this has not been done.
I am asking the Leader to ask the Taoiseach about this matter.
More than four weeks ago, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, clearly told us that a mortgage arrears implementation strategy would be published in advance of the budget. Where is it? Is there any legislation from the Government for dealing with mortgage arrears and distressed mortgages? The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, will not even confirm that he will publish it before Christmas.
If I could be permitted to speak I would answer Senator O'Brien. I gave him a very full answer in my response to the Order of Business on Thursday concerning the Government's strategy on mortgage arrears. As Senator O'Brien knows, the Government is currently undertaking a consultation process due to be completed at the end of November.
The consultation process is to be completed at the end of this month and the Government will then proceed to publish the strategy. Senator O'Brien can rest assured that there is no shortage of advocates at the Cabinet table on behalf of those struggling with mortgage difficulties.
I commend the Leader and the PCC's public consultation process we undertook on Thursday. Nine different groups addressed us to advocate the rights of older people. It was an instructive and enlightening process. We have moved ahead hugely in terms of knowledge about what is required. We heard a great deal about the draft UN convention and the various needs of older people. It is an important part of Seanad reform to engage in this process, not only by having guest speakers like Mary Robinson, who was inspirational last Thursday, but to engage in public consultation with groups, such as the experts with whom we will engage this afternoon. I urge Senators to come in and listen to Professor Gerard Quinn and Professor Roseanne Kenny who are noted leading experts on the rights of older people. It will be an excellent session.
I support others who have called for a debate in the new year on domestic violence. We are in the fifth day of the Women's Aid "One in Five Women" national campaign. This morning I had the privilege of launching a report by the Sonas housing association, entitled "A Safe Space", co-authored by Ms Monica O'Connor and Ms Jane Pillinger. The report calls for the establishment of a women's refuge in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area, which is currently without a full-time refuge. The report has found seriously inadequate provision of refuge spaces in the Dublin area and across the country generally.
Last week, Senator Leyden acknowledged the start of the Women's Aid 16 days of action opposing violence against women, which Senator Bacik has just mentioned. This campaign, which highlights the fact that one in five women experience domestic violence, runs until Human Rights day on 10 December.
Our economic crisis affects everyone but none more so than our most vulnerable. Safe Ireland has identified a 43% increase in the number of women accessing its services over the past three years. Financial pressures and stress exacerbate what might already be a difficult home life for many people. Women who in the past may have had access to their own money that might have enabled them to leave violent situations, no longer have such funds available to them. Figures show that on more than 3,000 occasions last year services were unable to accommodate women and their children because a refuge was full or because there was no refuge in the area. Therefore, what Senator Bacik referred to is so important.
Funding to deal with domestic violence has been cut year on year for the past three years and some organisations have had their core funding removed. There has been an 11% cut in frontline service funding nationally over the past three years and the north-east has experienced a 35% cut over that period. As the need goes up, the money goes down. The reality of these cuts to statutory agencies and other service providers is that women and children must remain living in volatile, violent situations where their safety is at risk in their own homes.
We are all aware of the context of the budget and austerity measures, but the questions we must ask when making decisions about cuts in frontline services are: first of all, are we cutting the administrative fat, if there is any; or are we cutting the actual services which may result in harm being caused to our most vulnerable people? Second, has the Government undertaken an impact analysis of the cuts in this area to ensure that the lives of people will not be at greater risk? If and when we get the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, into the Chamber these are the questions I will ask. I want to support Senator O'Brien's request in that regard.
Senator Leyden called on us to mark the 16 days of action opposing violence against women, while Senator Bacik has sought such a debate and I support their calls. To achieve clarity on this issue, perhaps we should invite the Minister Health to attend the House as he has responsibility for funding the sector. He might also be able to deal with crossover issues such as those concerning the national strategy on domestic and gender-based violence, which comes under the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality. Yet it also has relevance for the Minister for Health because, as the strategy identifies, one of its high-level goals is to deliver effective and consistent services to those affected.
I share the concern expressed by Senator O'Brien about the absence of any person nominated to the position of Minister of State responsible for housing and tackling homelessness. That problem is deteriorating and there is no doubt there will be deaths again this winter as a result of homelessness, particularly if we have the severe weather we had last year. The Government's response has not been satisfactory at all. I am sure other colleagues will have heard Ms Alice Leahy, a very remarkable woman, on the radio this morning. She indicated that in the past the Government transferred responsibility for many of these problems to religious orders, with unfortunate results in some cases. She argued that it is time for the State to step up to the plate and take clear and direct action, but it has not done so, which is a reproach to all of us.
I will also refer to a matter I raised last week, the question of some degree of investigation into the media. This is appropriate and it is not sufficient to confine the debate to the appalling case involving Fr. Reynolds, whose reputation was completely traduced. There is always a danger, particularly with people who put themselves forward from their private lives, of being punished for making these kinds of requests. That has happened to me and it may well start happening again. I was the focus of some comments in some of the Sunday newspapers and in one article a lady journalist suggested I was simply looking for an investigation into the medium that focuses on the lives of powerful persons like myself.
This is not the case at all and I have consistently raised the cases of ordinary anonymous citizens whose lives have been invaded and destroyed, and in recent days I have contacted a number of the people whose cases I raised. They all told me they would give me secretarial support but they do not want their names mentioned. The ordinary people of the country are terrified of what is being done. The editorial in The Sunday Times related lies about me before and I received a grovelling apology from the editor, although he did not see fit to publish it in his newspaper. He published a correction and then left the material on the Internet.
This goes back to the well known Murdoch cliché about sausages, in that people who like sausages might not like them quite so much if they saw the process by which they are made. That is very insulting to the public as there is an insinuation that the Murdoch media regards them as pigs, which can be disposed of and turned into sausages. There is a remarkable-----
I am asking for a general examination of the media. An editorial from last weekend argues that it is improbable that the public's hunger for intrusive personal knowledge will diminish. That is exactly right and I am well aware of it. A couple of Sundays ago I was in my local newsagents and saw a woman coming hot from the church who bought a newspaper, the front page of which reported on a woman having sex with a dog. There is an interest. Public interest is not just what the public is interested in. The public may well be interested in filth and seedy details of people's private lives but it is not always in the public interest to publish these, and a good editor should know the difference.
I agree with everything said by Senator Norris and I look forward to the debate being ventilated much more strongly in the House and among the broader community. I ask the Leader for a debate on the Croke Park agreement at the earliest possible opportunity. I hope that such a debate can be commenced before the Christmas recess. Ministers are currently attempting to finalise the Budget Statement for next week and it is fair to say that to a large extent their hands are tied by the provisions of the Croke Park agreement.
If we are to debate the Croke Park agreement in this House, we should not follow a "tear up the agreement" pattern because we know life is not as easy as that. There are certain elements, terms and conditions within the Croke Park agreement which are unreasonable and cannot remain in the current economic climate where we are absolutely beholden to the IMF-EU programme. We were told 12 months ago, when the IMF arrived in the country, that everything was on the table for renegotiation. I read with interest at the weekend the result of an Irish Examiner survey which indicated that the Irish public - which is always much more mature and further ahead than the body politic - accepts that we must work within the terms of the agreement. In that spirit of public common sense we need to revisit, where possible and practical, some of the Croke Park agreement to ensure this country can regain its economic sovereignty at the earliest possible date.
I am asking for a mature, open and frank debate on the Croke Park agreement. In the current economic climate, what was agreed and thought feasible and desirable 12 months ago is no longer as practical and acceptable as it may have been. We must all live in the new economic order and cut our cloth accordingly. That is why matters such as the Croke Park agreement must be up for consideration. We should start the debate in this House. It does not have to be a Punch and Judy show and this House is at its best when people make common sense suggestions in a bipartisan and friendly fashion, bringing forward constructive suggestions rather than party political propaganda. It is the ideal House in which to start a debate on the Croke Park agreement.
Last Friday the Chief of Staff of the Army visited Dún Uí Néill barracks in Cavan town, one of the barracks proposed for closure by the Minister for Defence. It is due to close at the end of March next year. During his visit the Army Chief of Staff requested that a delegation of Army spouses hold a meeting with him, and six spouses attended at the entrance to Dún Uí Néill barracks. One of these was told she would not be admitted and when she questioned this, an officer replied that it was because she is a Fianna Fáil county councillor. She would not be allowed on the delegation as a result. That woman has had a close association with the Army for over 40 years and is married to a former Army sergeant. She has two sons currently serving in the Army. She was made to stand outside the barrier at the entrance to Dún Uí Néill barracks for an hour and 43 minutes last Friday because she was not deemed suitable to attend as part of a delegation to meet the Chief of Staff because she is a Fianna Fáil county councillor.
Who gave that direction for the woman not to be admitted? Was it the officer who delivered the message and quite clearly told her she was not being allowed into the barracks because she is a councillor? Was it the Chief of Staff or was it the Minister for Defence who gave the direction that this woman should not be admitted to the barracks? She has been a good advocate down through the years for Army personnel based in Cavan and throughout the country. Will the Leader use his good offices to find out who gave the direction preventing her from attending that delegation, leaving her standing for over an hour and 43 minutes in the rain outside the barrier at the entrance to the barracks last Friday morning? She had no car in which to leave and had to wait for the others to come out of the barracks.
He gave me a printout from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland on the acute coronary syndrome programme. Every county is shaded in except Donegal, which means that patients who need the service require more time to travel the extra distance to the centres in Galway, Dublin or Cork that deal with acute coronary problems. The map provided by the Health Service Executive through the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland covers every county except Donegal. Dr. David, the cardiologist in Letterkenny, queried that at the conference but the response of the Health Service Executive was that Derry would look after Donegal, which is totally impractical. I seek the advice of the Leader or the Cathaoirleach on whether I should raise the matter on the Adjournment or call on the Minister to come to the House to explain why Donegal is not included. I will e-mail the map to all Members for their consideration. It is a problem throughout the country.
We heard advertisements recently on the prevalence of heart attacks and strokes. I have had the experience of having a stent put in, therefore I know the importance of cardiologists and nursing staff and the good work they do. An explanation should be given as to why Donegal is not included on the map at this stage. I will take the advice of the Leader or Cathaoirleach on whether the Minister will be asked to come to the House or whether to raise the matter on the Adjournment.
Some rather disturbing figures were presented over the weekend which showed that in terms of international survival rates for cancer in the OECD - the group of economically developed nations - this country is faring badly and is anchored close to the bottom of the list. It is at the bottom of the list for some types of cancer. It is being suggested that this may be due to a relatively slow penetration of the practice of screening healthy people for cancer in the Irish population. That may well have something to do with it. People should be aware that the most intensely screened country in the world is the United Kingdom and it was just above us in the low pecking order. Of the large countries with developed medical systems, the British traditionally have the poorest cancer survivals.
We have heard much about the improvements in cancer survival, which have undoubtedly occurred in the past ten to 15 years, but they have improved everywhere. We have not come up the pecking order compared to where we were, or if we have it is only to a minimal extent. I would like the Leader to ask the Minister for Health to clarify the current and future policy with respect to the one area of cancer care where we had a relatively progressive regimen in this country, namely, access to cancer drugs. Historically, this country has had rather good access to drugs. The access was limited by the desperate shortage of specialists to give the drugs, but in terms of the policy for prescribing them, we had a much more liberal regime than in the UK, which I would describe as barbaric. The entity in the UK which rations cancer drugs is a group with the rather Orwellian sounding name, NICE, the National Institute of Clinical Excellence. I once said that when the history of the war on cancer is written NICE would be considered war criminals. I fear that the same philosophy of rather brainless rationing of cancer drugs without thinking through some of the subtleties of the economics involved is starting to creep into this country. It is with respect to this that I would ask the Leader to clarify with the Minister whether there is a change brewing in respect of access to cancer drugs. I have heard that a list of ten cancer drugs has been provided by the National Cancer Control Programme, NCCP, to oncology pharmacies and that under new rules those drugs will only be approved for individual patients by the NCCP. I see this as the first step towards the institution of a similar rationing organisation here.
Will the Leader ask the Minister to give us a categorical guarantee that there will be no rationing of cancer drugs as long as one cent is spent by the Health Service Executive, the Department of Health and the National Cancer Control Programme on public relations contracts and press secretaries? In my scale of priorities when such staff are all fired and all of those contracts are cancelled and if we are down past the fat into the bone and muscle of the cancer treatment services then we can negotiate about cutting access to cancer drugs.
As the Government is planning the final stages of the budget I again ask it, through the Leader, to consider something which was suggested by me in this House on several occasions, which I believe would save a great deal of money for the health service - my colleague, Senator White, feels strongly about it as well - namely, to end the practice of mandatory retirement, taking people who wish to work, to contribute and pay tax and forcing them to become dependent on the State.
Is there any way the Leader could ask the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform whether they would consider amending pension law for Oireachtas Members so that nobody can claim an Oireachtas pension until he or she has either reached the age of 65 or unless he or she has had-----
I agree with everything Senator Bradford has said on the Croke Park agreement. It appears that everything is on the table except the Croke Park agreement. I call for this debate in light of discussions I had recently with a senior manager in the public service who told me that if he had the power or the wherewithal to get rid of people out of the service as he chose, he could get rid of 20% of those who worked under him in his Department and increase productivity. That is a strong statement for a senior manager in the public service to make; that if he was allowed to get rid of those who were surplus to requirements, he could increase productivity.
I ask the Leader to explore the possibility of inviting the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, to debate the ongoing negotiations on the Common Fisheries Policy. The Minister is battling on our behalf at present but the tides are coming strongly against him. The House should give him any help it can. The issue should be debated. We must copperfasten what we have and maintain it if increases in quota are not achievable. Will the Leader also ask the Minister when the "O'Keeffe" Bill - our former colleague, Mr. Jim O'Keeffe proposed a Bill on the introduction of administrative rather than criminal sanctions for fishermen - will be introduced?
I join Senator Darragh O'Brien in asking the Leader why the debate on pre-budget alternatives is not scheduled for today, tomorrow or Thursday. The Leader indicated last week that time would be provided. In tandem with Senator O'Brien, I await his response.
I raise with the Leader the retail sales index figures which were published yesterday, which show that apart from the motor trade the volume of business reduced in October by 0.2%. Over the past year the volume of trade has reduced by 3.8%. Over the past four years we have lost 55,000 retail jobs with an additional 40,000 retail jobs in jeopardy. I sought a proper, constructive debate on the retail sector on two occasions last week. It is a sector that is struggling. It has been hit hardest because of the recession because so many have lost their jobs and so many pay packets have been taken out of the local economy. I met with the chamber of commerce in Waterford yesterday. Chambers Ireland and many business advocate groups are concerned about the impact of the recession on many small retailers. They are also concerned about the potential 2% VAT increase and the impact that will have.
There were calls last week by a number of Senators on the need to buy Irish. There is a real need for us to have a proper discussion and debate in this House on the retail sector and its future and for us to hear practical proposals.
To finish on a positive note, I join in Senator Bradford's call for constructive debate in this House. I pay tribute to the Leader on the Seanad Public Consultation Committee meetings that took place last week and this week. It is a new departure. When we call for debates on important issues it should not simply be about Ministers coming to the House; we should be able to do work ourselves. For example, the committee had a discussion on older people. Through that structure we could bring forward papers, practical proposals and action plans that could go to the Government. We could do the same on the economy and the retail sector. This is a valuable opportunity for the Seanad and I hope the Leader and the Chairman of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee will listen to the calls being made on a range of issues and use the committee which could provide an opportunity to bring in organisations representing the retail sector and listen to what they are saying. I have spoken to many retailers in Waterford who are working for less than the minimum wage simply to keep their shops open and people in employment. The difficulties in the retail sector need to be debated in the House in which positive and constructive proposals from all groupings and parties could be put on the table and some hope offered to people who are struggling.
The issue of access to funding for research and development should be debated in the House. Are we using all of the available opportunities to access this funding? A proposal for the sharing of information across member states is on the European Commission's agenda for 2012. There is also a proposal regarding researchers from countries outside the European Union. More than 80% of those involved in research outside the Union end up working in the United States and do not come to Europe. We need to change the legislation in this area. In Ireland we produce many graduates, but we allow many opportunities to go out the door. It would be appropriate to have a debate on this issue and for the Minister to outline how we could further improve access to research funding and make sure we use every possible opportunity to carry out research. The net long-term benefit would be the creation of employment in industry. I, therefore, ask for a debate on this matter in the near future.
I second the motion proposed by the leader of Fianna Fáil in the Seanad.
I call on the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, to intervene in the dispute between fire fighters and Roscommon County Council. Twenty five fire fighters have been suspended and the issue has been referred to the Labour Court, having been with the Labour Relations Commission, where the hearing was adjourned on 25 November.
It has not been resolved. The position in Roscommon is very serious. The people have been left without a 24 hour, seven day accident and emergency service at Roscommon County Hospital and we are now being left without emergency services on the same basis. The fire service provides an excellent service in County Roscommon. No other county would tolerate being left without such a service. I call on all those involved, including the chief executive of Roscommon County Council, to reinstate the men immediately and negotiate a settlement of the dispute. It seems illogical that the chief executive of a county council would suspend 25 or 27 fire fighters. There is a danger of floods in several areas of County Roscommon, in which event we would have to rely on the Army or the fire services in adjoining counties which must deal with difficulties in their own counties. I ask the Leader to call on the Minister to intervene in the dispute. The Minister is responsible for local government and in charge of the fire service. We have no Minister of State with responsibility for housing or any other purpose. I, therefore, ask the Minister intervene in that regard. I also ask the Seanad to call on the chief executive of Roscommon County Council to reinstate the 27 fire fighters with immediate effect, pending a resolution of the dispute in the Labour Court in the near future.
I wish to ensure that when we make bad decisions, we do not repeat them. I speak in the light of the recent scrapping of the decentralisation plan of the previous Government. I ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to come into the House to give details of the cost to the State of that foolhardy and over-ambitious plan. How much land does the State own? What did it pay for it? What buildings do we own and what did we pay for them? What is the current value of these assets? What plans does the Government have for them? Are there any community purposes for which they could be made available?
I know that, a Chathaoirligh. We need to analyse the overall cost to the State of the plan in order that no future Government of any hue will expose taxpayers to such an over-ambitious, foolhardy and costly exercise. It was a huge waste of money and someone needs to be held to account for what happened. It was a deliberate plan to buy an election. Taxpayers are paying a very high price for that foolhardy exercise. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister to come to the House for a discussion on the plan and where we go from here.
I support Senator John Crown in asking that the Government not reduce the cancer drug project, even by one cent, while a single cent is being spent on public relations officers in any aspect of the health service. A former Minister for Health told me she could not believe that every time one of the health quangos wanted to meet her the appointment was made by a public relations officer paid by the quango. There were, apparently, dozens of them throughout the country. I, therefore, support Senator John Crown's call entirely. Public relations officers and lobbyists are being use when we should have direct access to a Minister or a Department.
The Minister for Social Protection addressed the Seanad recently about her plans to have the first four weeks of sickness benefit paid for by the employer rather than by the State. One of the proposals made in the Seanad connects with what Senator David Cullinane said. It was that the measure should not apply to small companies employing fewer than ten people. That proposal makes a great deal of sense. We want to create jobs, establish start-up companies and help people who have a concept and want to start a business. Such persons should not be bound by the regulations and red tape appling to big businesses. These regulations are a huge deterrent to someone who wants to start a business, employ people and get off the ground. Today the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the United Kingdom, Dr. Vince Cable, will launch a report which recommends that businesses employing fewer than ten people not be subject to the same regulations that apply to bigger businesses. That is something from which we could learn. It is certainly something to which we should give serious thought. If we are to establish businesses, they will come from that area.
Senator John Crown is reminding me to say charities and not-for-profit agencies should be exempt from the proposed ban on the use of public relations officers.
We could learn a huge amount from the optimism of those who set up small businesses. That is from where future growth and employment will come. While we should continue to seek foreign direct investment, success in the future will come from people who say, "I would like to set up a business myself." If the regulations applying to big businesses are applied to small ones, it is highly unlikely they will get off the ground.
I join Senator Paul Bradford and the other Senators who spoke about the Croke Park agreement. As the parameters have changed, we must have a discussion on this matter. There is no better place to have that discussion than in this House. I urge the Leader to do what he can in that regard in the short term.
I join Senator Michael Mullins in his comments on decentralisation. We knew it was crazy at the time, but we must make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves. In a way, we have our own NAMA stock of properties around the country with which, it would appear, we can afford to do nothing. We should discuss this issue soon in this House with a view to deciding on some way to use these properties if we are not going to go ahead with phase two of the decentralisation plans in most towns. We must offload these properties or do whatever is necessary in order to create some good from the bad situation we have had to deal with.
I also wish to raise an issue that has been on my mind and which will arise again in the new year. This may seem a small issue, but the Grand Canal Theatre will be called the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from March 2012. I find this unacceptable.
I must agree with the Cathaoirleach. There is a certain element of theatre about that sort of contribution on the Order of Business.
It is somewhat revealing that two members of the Fine Gael Party have more or less criticised the concept of decentralisation. Am I to take it therefore that the Fine Gael Party is opposed to the concept of decentralisation? More than 5,000 people decentralised out of Dublin as a result of the decentralisation concept, but I would be the first to concede that there were flaws inherent in the concept and would welcome the suggestion-----
With respect, tell that to the 5,000 plus people who have spread around the country and who contribute to the local economy in the various areas, including in my county where in excess of 100 people are in the Department of Social Protection in Carrick-on-Shannon as a result of decentralisation. The current Government stopped further decentralisation and prevented a further increase in the numbers in a building that is already there. Let us get real about the issue.
I would be very happy if Fine Gael organised a cost-benefit analysis and benchmarked that against what has been suggested. Perhaps Senator Mullins is not wrong about the valuations relating to property, but decentralisation should be benchmarked against the social and economic contribution it has made to rural Ireland. Decentralisation has been as much about that as about anything else. The Senator is treading on very thin ice here. He should go back to his constituents and tell them he is not in favour of decentralisation and tell the people who have decentralised that-----
Owing to the continuing internal navel gazing we are going on with because of the serious situation in which we find ourselves, we somehow seem to have forgotten about human rights abuses taking place across the world. This House has a very proud record of highlighting human rights abuse and Senator Norris and others have highlighted these issues on many occasions. In recent days, the United Nations has published a report on human rights abuses in Syria. It has concluded that over 250 innocent people have been killed, including a two year old girl who was shot by one of Assad's thugs who was quoted as saying that it would prevent her from growing up to become a demonstrator. Would the Leader agree that in light of the various requests that have been made for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come to this House, this is an opportunity for this House to highlight once again human rights abuses in a country that seems to be flying in the face not only of the United Nations and world opinion but also of the Arab League? Syria continues to defy international sentiment to stop the violence.
I raise this issue because sometimes those outside of the House who do not have a voice need to be given one. I ask the Leader to give serious consideration to giving Government time to statements on foreign affairs that will embrace the United Nations report and the entire Middle East, where there is continuing political ferment and evolution in which this House and the people have an interest. If this cannot be done before Christmas, it should certainly happen immediately afterwards
This morning, the National Advisory Committee on Drugs published a report entitled The Potency of THC in Cannabis Products. One of the main findings of this report shows that illegally grown cannabis in Ireland contains higher concentrations of the psychoactive element than imported illegal drugs. I call for a debate on this issue. It is important that those people who promote the use of cannabis, including people in the Dáil who promote it as a harmless or fun activity, read this report and before making further irresponsible contributions, take advice from the experts. This advice indicates that increased concentrated levels are associated with a higher incidence of addiction, mental illness and suicide. Those people who promote cannabis use would do well to factor this into their argument before speaking in public.
I agree with Senator Mooney on the issue of decentralisation. It is about time we had a debate on the issue because it seems that many Government Senators and Deputies think the Government has abandoned decentralisation. That is not the case. In fact, it has continued with many decentralised projects and has pledged to review many others. With regard to Carrick-on-Shannon, it is ludicrous that the Government is prepared to fly around the world to get a major multinational company to put jobs into that town but at the same time is unprepared to locate one of its Departments there, despite this approach having worked successfully in many other parts of the country. We need a full debate on this issue to get the full facts and to inform people that the Government has not abandoned decentralisation, rather that it has reviewed it. We should also discuss its benefits. Mention was made of cost-benefit analysis and we should examine the benefit to communities and with regard to jobs.
I want to mention the debate this week on community hospitals and public nursing homes. It seems there is a deliberate shift in policy from public to private. A comment made on my local radio this morning set me wondering why we are closing community nursing homes when massive private sector nursing homes are under construction currently. I was delighted to see a fairly substantial private sector nursing home under construction, but when I subsequently found out about the plans to close public nursing homes I started to think about the reasons for this. People who contact local radio stations have also started thinking about this. I am concerned that some of the most senior policymakers in the area of nursing homes have connections to the private nursing home industry, which seems to be booming currently, and there seems to be a deliberate transfer from a public service to a private service. That is what is happening and the Labour Party should be aware of this and must make investigations and inquiries.
We had the HSE, our public health service, which Fine Gael proposes to transfer to private interests. That is exactly what is happening now. This debate is timely, but we need a full debate on health policy, on where it is going, who is pulling the strings, why those strings are being pulled and why we are looking at private rather than public services.
I wish to support the calls made for two specific debates, one of which should be on the media. Sadly, we are all aware of the many serious transgressions in recent times, where the reputations of innocent people have been tarnished and people have been seriously damaged. I hope these people exercise their legal rights in pursuance of their reputation and that we see the necessary successful actions for libel and defamation.
I support the call for a debate on the Croke Park agreement. It is a serious matter. Everything is on the table except for this, which is sacrosanct. We cannot afford that.
I wish to acknowledge that the chief executive of Coillte Teoranta has agreed to take a 15% pay cut. I support Senator Darragh O'Brien's call for a debate on the forthcoming budget and on the pay rates which continue to be paid in the semi-State organisations. Mr. Gunning, the chief executive officer of Coillte, is on a salary of almost €300,000 and earned in excess of €430,000 last year. Despite efforts by the previous Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, verbally and in writing to the board of Coillte, it refused to waive a €56,000 bonus to that same gentleman in 2008. This must be discussed in this House in the context of public expenditure on semi-State organisations. I had requested that the pay of the chief executive officer of Coillte be discussed at the Oireachtas Joint Committee of Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture meeting today. In light of that, I assume the pressure exerted on Mr. Gunning resulted in him reflecting on the situation in recent days and we welcome that reflection. However, it is only part of the solution.
I refer to the very regrettable position in which we find ourselves this morning with the Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011 having been rushed through this House-----
A Senator referred to the criminalisation of fishermen and how we should row back on that. What the Government side did by voting for the Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011 was criminalise people with septic tanks. That is what has happened.
I, like others, would like a national audit or national inventory on the lands and buildings on which the State has long-term leases and which it has bought for the decentralisation project. I agree that decentralisation has, to a large extent, worked very well. Many counties in rural Ireland benefited significantly from decentralisation but it did not work following that famous budget. The following day there were posters all over County Offaly stating "Parlon country" and "Parlon delivers".
It was to treat people like sheep and it was absolutely appalling. We are living with the consequences of that and as such, will the Leader request the OPW to do a complete inventory on the number of buildings on which we have long-term leases and on the land banks we have purchased, what these buildings and land banks cost and what the Government proposes to do about them? Can we break these leases? Will we benefit from the upcoming legislation-----
Will we benefit from the upcoming legislation on upward only rent reviews? Will the Leader look into that?
We need a mature debate on the Croke Park Agreement 2012 as opposed to the Croke Park Agreement when it was negotiated in 2009-10 because we are living in a completely different environment. We must look at every element of government and micro-manage all aspects of the public sector. I suggest respectfully that the Croke Park Agreement should be examined to see if there is a way to ensure more cost savings and greater efficiencies. I look forward to taking part in that discussion.
I suggest also that it would be no harm to organise a session in which we bring in the social partners to get their up-to-date perspectives on the Croke Park Agreement.
I refer to a serious issue which I have brought to the House's attention over the years. I published a document in 2008 entitled, What we can do about suicide in the new Ireland. I am sure everybody is aware that Gary Speed, the former English premiership soccer player and the manager of Welsh soccer team, hanged himself on Saturday night.
On a point of order, is there a ruling that a Senator on either side of the House cannot use any information to develop a very legitimate point? The case referred to by Senator White has overwhelmed the population of the United Kingdom.
In Saturday's edition of The Irish Times, there was an extraordinary article by Mr. Peter Murtagh on the young lady who was the director of the Democrats Abroad election campaign for President Obama in Ireland. After writing to The Irish Times in August about her profession, she took her own life immediately after so doing.
In Ireland, as in many other countries, four times more men take their lives by suicide than women. The National Suicide Research Foundation is about to publish a research document which shows that 48% of people who died by suicide in a particular cluster in a particular part of this country, which I am not free to mention, were unable to access counselling help. Some 48% of these young men died by suicide in a cluster-----
Not being a Seanad veteran, I will do my best to be brief. I wish to inform the House of a very serious case of neglect in the care of a four year old child in County Tipperary. Some Members might think it is quite a serious claim but unfortunately, it is the reality. James John Ryan was four years old in September. He was a premature baby.
Okay. This little boy was born with a hole in his heart, a chronic lung problem and a brain bleed at birth which left him suffering from quadriplegic cerebral palsy. He is profoundly deaf, cannot swallow and is unable to speak. The Jack and Jill Children's Foundation should have finished caring for him in September, but we are continuing to care for him because we cannot get the HSE to interact with his family regardless of how often his family has written to it.
I bring the House's attention to a letter that the HSE wrote to the child's family this week. One paragraph in particular is mind-boggling. The HSE stated that finding a way to operate within the level of available resources while still meeting the needs of families was the task that the HSE and the foundation were required to address in collaboration with each other. The HSE also reiterated that neither this service nor any other disability service was demand-led and that, in the current economic climate, it was imperative that all services operate within their allocations. If the health system is not demand-led, what is it exactly? The only conclusion I can draw from the statement is that a senior HSE official has committed to paper that the organisation's current culture and systems are fixed and rigid.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Health to the House as a matter of urgency to explain to us whether it is the Minister's opinion that the HSE is not demand-led and why the needs of the boy in question are being neglected by the State? The seriousness of the case cannot be underestimated, as I have just learned that the Ombudsman for Children has appointed an investigative team to examine it. It is great news for the family, but it should never have come to this.
I indicated to the House that we would have a pre-budget debate. When I made my request, I was informed that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, would be available next week. Due to unforeseen circumstances, however, he will no longer be available. I also raised the matter with the Minister for Finance who replied that he was fully aware of every pre-budget submission from parties and groups. This is all I can say.
Regarding the vacancy left by the resignation of the former Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, has assumed responsibility for the housing portfolio until such time as a Minister of State is appointed. Last week, the Minister outlined a major new policy approach to homelessness and stated that a move away from the current over reliance on emergency accommodation provision to a more permanent accommodation solution was required. We all agree with his proposal. Filling the vacancy is a matter for the Taoiseach. I remind Senator Darragh O'Brien that the people of Donegal were left for a year and a half without representation last year.
Senators Bacik, Zappone and others called for a debate on domestic violence and the need for the Minister for Health and possibly the Minister for Justice and Equality to attend the House. Senator Zappone also raised the question of organisations' funding in this regard. I will attempt to arrange a debate on the subject early in the new year. We are unlikely to have statements on any subject before Christmas, given the number of Bills with which we must deal. We will probably only deal with legislation between now and Christmas.
Senators Bradford, Sheahan, Noone, Paul Coghlan and Conway asked for a debate on the Croke Park agreement. I will try to arrange a debate with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, for early in the new year.
Senator Wilson asked about the Chief of Staff not meeting a Fianna Fáil councillor. I would have expected the inclusion of public representatives in any meeting but I will try to ascertain the situation.
Senator Harte asked for a debate on cardiology services in County Donegal, but it might make for a better Adjournment matter later this week.
Senator Crown raised a number of important points about cancer screening and access to cancer drugs. It is paramount that people have access to cancer drugs. I will ascertain for him whether a change to the policy has been proposed for the near future. I agree with him on ending the mandatory retirement age, which was discussed by the Seanad Public Consultation Committee with representatives of older people last week.
The question of pensions for Deputies and others who are aged under 65 years has been addressed in 2004 legislation. People who retire in their 40s, 50s or whatever will not receive pensions until they are 65 years of age.
Senator Sheahan requested a debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP. I will try to arrange it and determine the position of former Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's Bill on administrative rather than criminal sanctions in respect of fishermen.
Senator Cullinane called for a debate on the retail sector. I will try to arrange one for early in the new year, as it would be a worthwhile debate.
Senator Burke discussed improving research projects' access to funding. I will arrange a debate on the issue. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is due to attend the House in January.
Senator Leyden asked about fire-fighters in Roscommon. This issue was raised as a matter on the Adjournment in the name of Senator Kelly last week. The matter is for the council and the Labour Court to address and I have no intention of debating the subject in the House.
Senators Mullins, Mooney, Byrne, Conway and others referred to decentralisation plans and the requirement for cost-benefit analyses and an inventory of leases. It was a flawed process in many ways, as has been accepted by some Members on the other side of the House.
Senator Quinn asked about the first four weeks of sick pay being a burden on employers. When the Minister for Social Protection attended the House last week, the Senator suggested that this provision not be applied to small businesses, namely, those with fewer than ten employees. We will await the budget.
Senator Noone asked about NAMA's stock of properties. This matter could be discussed during our debate on decentralisation. Regarding the question of the Grand Canal Theatre being sponsored by Bord Gáis, every arts organisation is in need of funding. If organisations cannot get sufficient funding from the Government, they must seek it from other sources. However, this is a matter for the Grand Canal Theatre. It is a private organisation and the Minister cannot get involved.
Senator Mooney referred to human rights abuses in Syria. Every Senator joins with him in condemning these abuses. The Tánaiste will attend the House in January.
Senator Gilroy raised the important matter of the growing of cannabis and the promotion of its use by some Members in the Lower House. This is a serious matter that we can debate early in the new year.
Senator Byrne asked about nursing homes, a matter that is the subject of a Private Members' motion. I am sure that people on this side of the House will refer to the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats policy on co-location, but we will have ample time during Private Members' business to address the points raised by the Senator.
In any parliamentary democracy a debate like that would be sufficient for such a Bill. Regarding the scaremongering by Senator Ó Domhnaill about €12,000 being charged for the replacement of septic tanks, I wrote and invited Senator Ó Domhnaill to provide me with examples but I received nothing from him.
Senator White called for a debate on suicide, which I have already arranged, and the Minister will be in the House in January. Senator Mary Ann O'Brien referred to a specific case of neglect of a child. I suggest that this can be the subject of an Adjournment debate, when she will receive a more detailed response.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 14 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Terry Leyden, Paschal Mooney, David Norris, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Darragh O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Kathryn Reilly, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 30 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, John Crown, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Fiach MacConghail, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Mary Ann O'Brien, Marie Louise O'Donnell, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, John Whelan)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Ivana Bacik and Paul Coghlan.
Amendment declared lost.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 31 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, John Crown, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Fiach MacConghail, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, David Norris, Mary Ann O'Brien, Marie Louise O'Donnell, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, John Whelan)
Against the motion: 13 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Terry Leyden, Paschal Mooney, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Darragh O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Kathryn Reilly, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ivana Bacik and Paul Coghlan; Níl, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared carried.