Wednesday, 30 November 2011
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2011 - Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and 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 to be called on to reply to the debate not later than 1.50 p.m; No. 2, Road Transport Bill 2011 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 5 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 3, motion for earlier signature of the Road Transport Bill 2011, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 2; and No. 17, motion 6, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m. For the information of Members, we will sit on Friday, 9 December, and Friday, 16 December.
The people of this country woke up this morning to read a most pessimistic overview by the Economic and Social Research Institute in its latest quarterly report. One stark reality that is facing the nation, according to the report is that "As long as Europe remains in crisis, there is little prospect of Ireland returning to a path of sustainable, export-led growth." It is obvious that there is a failure of leadership at European level but the question that remains for this country and its citizens is what exactly Government policy is on the evolving euro crisis. Try as I might I can find nothing other than a holding operation by the Government from the Taoiseach down. Is it an active participant in the debate on the future of the euro or is it sitting back and being pliant because we have to receive money from the European Central Bank? Is it succumbing to the, as it were, Merkozy form of European Government? Are we to assert ourselves, despite our diminished sovereignty, as a country that has an opinion and a point of view? What is making it all the more critical is that in the ESRI report question marks now surround Government policy on the achievement of its budgetary targets by 2015.
While the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and other Ministers have repeatedly said that the austerity measures that have been imposed on the Irish people are going to achieve prosperity in the short term by 2015, it is salutary that the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday put his hands up and admitted that the UK will not be able to reach its budgetary targets by 2015. Our economies are similar but the UK is admittedly larger. The question remains as to what exactly is Government policy in this regard.
Our party leader, Deputy Martin, wrote to the Taoiseach three weeks ago seeking a meeting so that a cross-party policy could be developed that would support the Government and help it in the debate and discussions on the evolving crisis. The Taoiseach has declined the offer. Once again, I ask the Leader to convey the request to the Taoiseach. We are in a national crisis. Therefore, we need to have a national response. It is not sufficient to say, as some Ministers have been saying since the election, that they represent a national government; they do not. They represent a portion of Government. They represent a particular segment of the Irish people. Therefore, it is important that there should be all-party consensus on the future that would strengthen the hand of the Government.
There is a need for further clarity in light of the ESRI report, the other points I have made, and the leaks from Government that are scaring the living daylights out of people in terms of next week's budget. The Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, must come to the House today to issue a statement to clarify exactly what Government policy is on the evolving euro crisis, to respond to much of what is in the ESRI report, which is dictated by what is happening in Europe, and to tell us whether the Government has a plan B in the event that the euro collapses. Banks outside of the eurozone have already stated publicly, according to yesterday's Financial Times, that they are now activating a plan B in the event of a possible collapse of the euro.
I wish to end on a positive note. I am sure the Leader would agree that confirmation of Giovanni Trapattoni as the Irish soccer manager for the next two to three years has given a big boost to this country. I am sure he would also agree with the patriotism shown by Denis O'Brien-----
-----in once again contributing to Trapattoni's fee to ensure he would stay on. I also compliment the FAI on the decision it has taken not to change the strip in advance of the Euro 2012 finals next summer, which will mean a considerable saving to parents who would have been in dread of shelling out more money for a new strip considering all of the budgetary measures that will be imposed on them.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs would come to the House today to issue a clarifying statement on the evolving euro crisis.
I am delighted Senator Mooney ended on a positive note. That was very welcome. We all agree and wish our very best to the Irish team and Giovanni Trapattoni.
To respond to what he said in terms of the gloomy news, certainly the ESRI report did make for gloomy news as it emphasised the serious nature of the difficulty at European level, beyond national boundaries. Senator Mooney sought greater clarity on Europe. What is lacking in today's headlines was the result of the meeting of European finance Ministers last night which came up with what we all hope will offer a way forward through the crisis, namely, giving the IMF a more dominant role in terms of providing support to states in financial difficulty. Those reports offer a more optimistic prognosis for the future than we see in the ESRI report. Any debate we have must take account of that issue. Our Minister for Finance and other representatives were active in that regard. Senator Mooney referred to our similarity with Britain, but there is a significant difference in terms of our presence in the eurozone while Britain is outside it. Any agreement we reach on a way forward must be in conjunction with eurozone partners. That is very clear. That is plan A and it is also plan B.
I also wish to point out to Senator Mooney that yesterday's Cabinet meeting agreed the establishment of a Cabinet sub-committee on European engagement - an interdepartmental committee on which the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, will play a major role. A formal mechanism has now been established to ensure a more interdepartmental approach to European engagement.
There will be great support for the Senator's suggestion. It would be helpful to have a debate on the Croke Park agreement in the new year. Others have called for that. However, any debate on the agreement must take account of what is happening elsewhere. We see gloomy news today for those waking up in Britain with a day of action and a strike taking place. The bulk of those covered by the Croke Park agreement are low paid public sector workers on salaries of €30,000 to €40,000 per year who have taken immense cuts and pain in recent years and yet we have not had anything like the type of unrest evident in Britain. We have not had strikes. We must take account of that in any debate on the Croke Park agreement.
I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, of a further cut to public pensions of more than €100,000. Although only approximately 250 people are affected and the saving to the Exchequer is not great, it is important in the interests of fairness that the Government is doing this, as so many lower paid people are taking a lot of hits. I very much welcome it.
I also welcome the report from yesterday's Cabinet meeting that an expert group is being established to implement the ABC judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on access to abortion, and that the group will report within six months. That is extremely important. It is a matter on which successive Governments have dragged their feet for many years but which the Government is committed to tackling.
I congratulate the House, in particular the members of the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges, on what has turned out to be an excellent and healthy debate and discussion at the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. I saw it yesterday. The contributions, particularly by Professors Quinn and Kenny, were extraordinary. It shows what the reform of the Seanad can do and the impact of its engagement with civil society. I am disappointed by the lack of media interest but the integrity of the debate and the discussions we are having will have a cumulative effect. We can look back on this time in the new year as one of achievement.
The discussion with Dr. Mary Robinson was also moving. The level of debate by Senators from all parties and Independent Members was extraordinary. We should take inspiration from what Dr. Robinson has said, in trying to lead on particular issues that might not be central to the immediate concerns of citizens. Being at the frontier of such debates and bearing witness is important.
In that regard I take note of what this country's black leaders stated last Friday. They had a debate in which they condemned and called upon the Government to debate and consider issues of racism in this country. In October the Immigrant Council of Ireland issued an important report, Taking Racism Seriously, in which it looked at the experiences of migrants in terms of violence, harassment and anti-social behaviour in the Dublin area in particular, especially with public servants working in Dublin Bus and the Luas. It contained an extraordinary number of stories, on which Senators could take a lead. I ask the Leader to look at having a debate on racism, perhaps in the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. This is an important subject on which the Seanad could take a lead. Could the Minister for Justice and Equality come to the House to respond to this important document?
The report by the Immigrant Council of Ireland reveals the reluctance of victims of racist attacks and abuse to report their experience to the authorities. An awareness campaign could advertise the available supports and services for victims of racism and advise on how to report an incident. The Seanad is a perfect place to raise this awareness and provide leadership. The report says experience of racism in the workplace is not easy to understand if one has not experienced racism. For example, one bus driver who complained about racist abuse he experienced was told by his supervisors, "We all get that." There is a need for leadership on the issue of racism, discrimination and xenophobia from employers and for an understanding and sensitivity to the differences between bullying and racist bullying. I ask the Leader to arrange this debate and that the Seanad continue the leadership it has already shown and will continue to show.
I ask the Leader to arrange a general debate on economic and financial matters. In the past, I criticised the previous Government for dithering. We now have a Government that has unprecedented control over every single organ and lever of Government and power, yet we have the same kind of dithering, which I find astonishing.
The Taoiseach indicated he would address the nation. This would be welcome if we got clear vision from it. Now I understand RTE does not know if this address is going ahead and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, does not seem to know if it is going ahead either. This creates further confusion. It shows a classic lack of leadership and vision which is replicated throughout Europe.
We saw the extraordinary spectacle of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy summoning the Prime Minister of Greece, the home of democracy - if it is not a criminal office to use a classically derived word in the demeaned society in which we now live - imposing a lack of a referendum on the citizens of Greece and telling the Prime Minister he cannot consult his own people. How is that for democracy? They then imposed an unelected eurocrat. After 14 years of the scandal of Mr. Berlusconi in Italy, which everyone tolerated, they now move in and get rid of someone who should have been got rid of and put in another unelected eurocrat.
The system itself is corrupt and doomed. When Members of this House were gloating at what they saw as the death of communism, I said they might, in their own lifetimes, find themselves attending the obsequies of capitalism. I believe this is what is happening. The market is not as it was understood in previous centuries. It is skewed in favour of huge financial interests. The ordinary person has no rights whatever and the entire system is completely corrupt.
What is happening about the ratings agencies? These malignant toadstools were spawned by the economic disaster for which they were principally and criminally responsible. They have never been held to account. They have fed upon this corruption and grown to the point where they are now rating not only companies but governments, and not just governments but the strongest and biggest economy in the world. Who are these malignant mushrooms and what can be done about them? I have been speaking about this for three or four years. I would like to see something done about them.
There is one future for this planet, if we take it seriously. First, we must look at the underlying cause, which is perfectly simple. When I did my intermediate certificate there were 3 billion people on this planet. We have now passed the 7 billion figure. That must have an effect on resources and on tensions between states and needs to be looked at.
I am asking for a debate on this. These are the most fundamental issues. The tragedy is that Washington and the Vatican intervened in a most significant experiment in Nicaragua, where a Government which was partly composed of Roman Catholic priests - idealistic people from the liberation theology movement - was trying to meld together elements of capitalism with incentives and the social conscience of decent good people. That is the way we must go. Otherwise we are banjaxed.
I am glad I now have no money whatever left. I do not know where it will end up and I do not want to see it ending up in the hands of banks or irresponsible Governments. I ask for a strong, clear and radical debate on the whole question of the economy.
I am glad my colleague, Senator Bacik, has also asked for an open debate on the Croke Park agreement. I agree with her that the agreement in its entirety needs to be looked at. Many low-paid people are part of the agreement as well as some who may need a clipping.
Every day, phrases are used in this House and in the Dáil to refer to the poorest and weakest in society and the less well-off. Could the Leader arrange a debate that would identify who the poorest and weakest in society and the less well-off really are? We are about to see a change in the people who will be classified under those headings. We need an open debate on that. That debate should include some of the representative bodies of the less well-off in society.
The fact that a matter may or may not be raised on the Adjournment does not prevent it from being raised on the Order of Business. The two are not in contradiction. I ask the Leader of the House to consider having a debate in the House on the issue. The Adjournment debate merely allows for one person to speak and a Minister to reply. I want every Member to discuss this issue.
Some 8,000 people are affiliated to People with Disabilities in Ireland. There is an active membership in County Roscommon. A local member, Mr. Michael Treacy, brought this matter to my attention. Mr. James McClean is chairperson of the organisation, Mr. Malachi Foote is PRO and Mr. Morgan McKnight is chief executive.
The word, "equality" should be removed from the title of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. There is no equality if funding is removed from people with disabilities. How can the Minister claim to be the Minister with responsibility for equality and withdraw funding from an organisation that represents the most deserving and disabled people in the country? Some 8,000 people are affiliated to the organisation and they are in every town and village in Ireland. This is outrageous.
The Government can make decisions in this regard but Ministers should bear in mind the effect their decisions will have on the most disadvantaged people and those who deserve representation at this level. This is a shameful decision and it should be reviewed. We accept the need for cutbacks in this difficult time, but surely we should not hit the poorest people and those with the greatest difficulties and disabilities. There must be another way of raising the funds needed by this organisation. I ask the Minister to reconsider his decision and I ask the Leader to request that the Minister for Justice and, perhaps, Equality come to the House to defend his decision in this regard.
I also call on the Leader to initiate an economic debate in this House. I have spoken previously about having pre-budget debates and providing for a pre-budget consultation period within the Houses and firmly hope this will be considered prior to the introduction of the budget in 2012. However, I would like to have a debate on the issue raised by Senator Paschal Mooney whom I hold in high regard. He spoke about the ESRI report which is gloomy and very worrying. It would be a good idea to invite members of the ESRI to the House for a debate and a mature, all-party discussion on the future of the economy and what is happening within Europe, as we should also debate the European crisis. As a Parliament, we and the Government need to be robust in articulating our views on the situation in Europe. It would be no harm if a transcript of the proceedings of that debate were forwarded to the Bundestag in order that it would be made aware of and have a comprehensive understanding of how this Parliament views our role. I have concerns about the euro and sincerely hope it survives, as it is an important model. As a small peripheral country, it is in our interests that it works. I look forward to taking part in such an economic debate if the Leader decides to have one.
What happens next Monday and Tuesday will be critical as we attempt to regain control of our finances. I was distraught to learn there were no plans to have a pre-budget debate in the House this week. One would think, at a time when we are all trying to show the value of this Chamber to the public, that time for a pre-budget debate would be provided. Furthermore, the decision by the Government benches not to facilitate such a debate marks a continuation of the old politics which blighted the Oireachtas for so many years and does not resemble the new politics promised post the general election.
The latest ESRI report makes for bleak reading and makes it all the more important that we ensure the budgetary decisions made will be the correct ones. Coming from a business perspective, I find it hard to believe the only debate that will take place in this Chamber will be held post the event when it will be virtually impossible to make any changes. I use the word "debate" loosely with regard to the discussions that will unfold next week, as more than likely we will have one of our haranguing sessions or shouting matches, with the blame for our economic problems being kicked over and back. Such a debate would serve nobody, except the knockers of the Seanad.
Sticking to the business theme, if we are to believe the leaks in the past couple of weeks, in the budget small businesses will be crucified. Being a small business owner, I have been contacted by a number of businesses about the VAT regime and the supposed increase in the rate to 23%, about which fear and horror have been expressed. Lest Senators be in any doubt, businesses will close as a result of the VAT increase, particularly those close to the Border. The number on the live register could reach 500,000 in the course of next year. We need to assess the effect a rise in the VAT rate will have on businesses which are already struggling to survive, not to mention the proposed changes to the sick pay arrangements which we discussed last week and which have been mooted to solve the problems of the public sector, with little consideration being given-----
I urge the Leader to revisit his decision not to allow time for a pre-budget discussion this week. If he will not grant time for such a debate, will he, at least, try to structure the exchanges on the budget next week in a businesslike and productive manner.
I ask the Cathaoirleach to bear with me in mentioning briefly the tragic death of the Welsh soccer manager. It goes without saying the death of this young man by suicide was shocking and horrific. However, I feel extremely strongly about the media reports of such tragedies. It is critical we fully address this issue. Many research studies draw a link between how a suicide is reported and copycat suicides. In 2009 an updated media guideline on the reporting of cases of suicide and self-harm was launched. It provides information for journalists on how such events should be reported. For example, the guideline recommends disseminating contact information on support services to encourage persons at risk to seek help at an early stage. Using yesterday's newspapers as an example, the majority of articles on the death of Gary Speed did not include contact details for support groups. Of the eight papers reviewed in my office, The Star alone included details of Samaritans.
The media guideline also discourages the highlighting of expressions of grief, yet most Irish newspapers yesterday carried a picture of a visibly distraught Shay Given in tears after the death of his close friend. To quote the guideline: "Research suggests that media portrayal can influence suicidal behaviour and this may result in suicide and-or an increase in the use of particular methods".
I wish to raise two issues. The comprehensive public expenditure review will only be published within two working days of the announcement of the budget. I echo what Senator Mary Ann O'Brien said that this is what should inform our discussion rather than letting it be turned into a hectoring session. The review will provide valuable information. I understand the opposition to its publication comes from people in the permanent government rather than from the Cabinet. If this vital document is available, it should be supplied to parliamentarians to allow them to have the structured debate for which Senatord Mary Ann O'Brien called.
Reports today suggest VHI which is technically bankrupt is thinking of buying one of its rivals. We need a competitive health insurance business, not one which is monopolistic. The Leader has impressed on the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, the need to ensure the design and development of a health insurance business take place in a period less than the five years the Minister seems to think is appropriate. We need it now and should not make the mistake of running along monopolistic lines. Previous advice from VHI led to defeats for the Government in the Supreme Court and the European Court. It is important we have a competitive health insurance business quickly.
I have put a lot of thought into whether it is worthwhile raising this issue and, against my better judgment, have come to the decision that it is. In so doing I run the risk of giving an accomplished self-promoter even more publicity, but it is probably worth doing. Yesterday I spoke about the publication by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs of a report highlighting the dangers and risks involved in using high potency cannabis grown in this country. I asked the Leader if we could have a debate on the issue - a responsible debate was what I was seeking. This morning, when I opened my newspaper, I found some rather foolish comments made by a Member of the other House who drew inferences and conclusions from the report. The comments of the Member of the other House seem to have been aimed at self-promotion rather than seeking a proper debate on the issue. While the Leader has agreed to arrange a debate some time in the new year, I urge him to arrange it as a matter of urgency; it should take place sooner rather than later because in the absence of responsible and mature reflection on the issue, the airwaves will be dominated by irresponsible comment.
I assume Senators from all parties are concerned and worried about the latest forecasts from the ESRI which has forecast that next year the domestic economy will only grow at half the rate predicted by the Government, less than 1%. The ESRI predicts that 35,000 more young people will emigrate, that 22,000 more people will lose their jobs and that we could and probably will take a hit on our exports because of a drop in consumer demand and problems in the American and European economies. It also talks about the crisis in the eurozone. While it is reasonably optimistic that the euro will survive, it is very concerned about the lack of leadership being shown in Europe.
This goes to the heart of many of the discussions that have taken place in the House in recent weeks. On six occasions I called for proper pre-budget debates. I accept the bona fides of the Leader that he tried to get the Minister of State to come to the House this week. We must do things differently next year. A number of Senators from the Government parties spoke about wanting to see better governance and better ways of doing things. This is a national crisis which needs a national response. We will not have a national government or a government of unity but we must explore all of the options, proposals and ideas from all of the groups and parties and properly debate them.
Along with a number of Senators from the Government benches, I attended the pre-budget launch of the medical research charities group this morning. There are launches from these groups every day but we are not being given the opportunity in this House to debate them with the relevant Ministers. Perhaps the Seanad Public Petitions Committee might give us an opportunity next year to bring in some of those groups.
I implore the Leader to ensure we have proper discussions about these very important issues next year because an accusation was made about politicians in the past, with which I fully agree, that they were asleep at the wheel. However, we cannot be accused of that if we are not given the opportunity to have proper discussions. Those on the opposite side of the House cannot say they do not want shouting sessions and the Punch and Judy type politics they say they get from this side of the House if they do not give us an opportunity even to discuss proposals we are putting forward and want to debate.
There is a real need for a culture change in this Seanad. There have been positive changes and I commended the Leader on them yesterday. They will make a difference to the workings of this House but there is still a long way to go if we are to have the kind of debate, scrutiny and oversight of which we need to be part and which this country needs at this point.
I was made aware at the medical research charities group meeting, which we attended, that a position has become vacant in the Department of Health. The position is that of assistant secretary with responsibility for medical research. This is a very important position because, as we all know, medical research is very important and this country can become a world leader in this area. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health to clarify when this position will be filled?
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the Seanad Public Consultation Committee and to listen to Professors Rose Anne Kenny and Gerard Quinn. People in England and Ireland were traumatised over the weekend by the suicide of Gary Speed and I suggest that rather than have the debate in the Seanad on the issue of suicide, which the Leader very kindly arranged, we discuss it in the consultation committee as soon as possible.
I spent a year in my office writing my document, What We Can Do About Suicide in the New Ireland. Like many Senators who were shocked by the publication of the traumatic ways in which people die by suicide, I had to come to terms with the devastation suicide causes families, relations and society when writing this document. This issue must be dealt with urgently. In my document I said hanging was the most commonly used method of suicide for all age groups in the total population and that within the male population it accounted for 55%, rising to 69% among males aged 15 to 24.
There are probably very few of us in this Chamber who do not know of somebody who has died by suicide. It would be a great help to the people if they saw we were airing this issue. Many people want to keep it under the radar, which is part of the problem.
There is help out there. All of us can help people. If one has empathy and emotional intelligence, sometimes one can help people who are going through very serious depression. The parents of many who died by suicide told me that doctors told them their children would be all right and would get over it. General practitioners in this country are not trained to identify serious depression and are not up-to-date on the proper medication to prescribe for depression.
It is my pleasure to support Senator Paschal Mooney's amendment to the Order of Business.
All the calls for a debate on budgetary matters, the economy, the eurozone and so on are totally understandable. I agree we should have a debate on the ESRI report which shows that the growth rate will decline somewhat as opposed to other forecasts. To be honest, there is such a heavy legislative programme that it will be impossible to have such a debate, in particular in advance of next week's budget. We are up against it.
Next year is another matter. I thought those opposite were looking for a debate this year.
The important thing in regard to the eurozone, about which we are all so concerned at the moment, is that European Financial Stability Facility is beefed up because as the Taoiseach has pointed out repeatedly, we will have to work with the tools we have rather than plan ahead for something that might involve treaty change. If the Leader could arrange it, I would like a debate on that issue.
This week was one of highs and lows for Irish sport. The week of highs was referred to by Senator Paschal Mooney when he said that Mr. Trapattoni's contract had been extended for two years and for God only knows how many million euro. It was a week of lows because the president of the Olympic Council of Ireland resigned from the Olympic task force which was asked to identify opportunities for Ireland to bring foreign teams here in preparation for the London Olympic Games which, in turn, would promote Ireland and Irish tourism internationally. Perhaps he resigned because of the lack of facilities in Ireland for these teams or perhaps because he was unable to secure anywhere between €50 million and €300 million to put an Ireland house in London in which Ireland could promote tourism, culture and sport during the Olympic Games.
Since I have become a Senator, I have been lobbied or asked by numerous people in the sports industry to be a voice in the House. This week, in particular, I received numerous emails, letters and requests and I have been on the airwaves speaking about the below the belt bad news that, with 21 hours notice, University College Dublin decided to dig trenches across the athletics facility in Belfield. It was shameful. The facilities in UCD are not just for athletes training for the Olympic Games or national champions. The facilities are for the wider community in south County Dublin to work on their health. I noticed signs there the other day stating the track was closed for health and safety reasons.
Yes. I am sure the people who recommended closing the track for health and safety reasons have probably never walked a lap of the track.
Sadly, in a month or so we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the GOAL mile at which many thousands of people have raised funds. The UCD authorities have not given answers to the various representatives as to why they have closed the track. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, to seek answers as to why the authorities closed the track and brought shame on our country in terms of our sporting facilities.
I am sure Senators have read this morning's newspaper reports about the HSE withholding travel costs from staff. I call on the Minister to intervene to determine whether this is legal. Front line workers, for example, community carers and community nurses, will not be reimbursed for their travel expenses until at least two months after these expenses have been incurred. Many home care workers who look after the elderly live from week to week and will not have enough money to put petrol in their cars if they are not given this subsistence expense. They depend on it. Given that we are nearing Christmas, I want the Minister to investigate whether the HSE's decision is legal. Companies and local authorities must pay within 30 or 40 days. The HSE has a duty of care to people working on the front line. It is interesting that low-paid community carer workers and community nurses as opposed to highly paid administrative staff are being targeted. If the HSE removed some of the duplication in administrative roles, it would have plenty of money to stay within budget while paying its front line staff. The HSE's decision hits below the belt. Will the Minister intervene?
Senator Eamonn Coghlan referred to the president of the Olympic Council of Ireland resigning from the Olympic task force. There might be two sides to the story, given that funding was not provided for a facility that the president sought. I would also like the advocacy of the mingling of sport and drink in a pub-type system brought out into the open.
I read that the Taoiseach reiterated yesterday his intention to abolish the Seanad and that he has taken steps in that direction. If the Seanad is abolished, we will only have ourselves to blame. This year was a lost opportunity. I call on the Leader to ensure that we earn our keep in the run up to the budget next year. It is too late to do it this year. We need to influence the drafting of the next budget before it is issued. This House can perform better. The Leader has done a wonderful job in improving the way we handle a number of issues. Yesterday afternoon's consultation committee meeting was a good example of that. If we are to earn our survival, it will only be by playing a useful role prior to budgetary decisions being made.
I have been looking at Lithuania's figures. Its economy fell farther than ours, but it has bounced back quickly. Lithuania's GDP decreased by 14% in 2009 and has since increased by 6.6%. Lithuania is the shining light for the small countries adversely affected by the economic turndown. It reduced its corporate tax rate from 20% to 15% and invested in education. Lithuania has done what we should have been doing. We are doing it in some cases. Let us examine other success stories before our budgetary decisions are made. I urge the Leader to ensure we do not let this chance slip by again. Let us hold budget discussions well in advance of decisions so that we might influence the budget.
Like Senator Quinn, I wish to raise the issue of the House's role. One of my proposals was on EU legislation. Yesterday, I highlighted the fact that the Commission has published its programme for 2012 and that there are 129 proposals for debate on its schedule. There is no reason that the Seanad cannot debate some of these issues and influence the decisions being made at European level. I reiterate my suggestion that two days per month be set aside to discuss EU matters. In this way we can be part of the European debate instead of merely discussing issues post-implementation.
I raised a matter at yesterday's meeting of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. I have also raised it with the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. She is anxious that the issues relevant to Ireland and under discussion at Europe level also be debated in the Houses. It would be a useful way to put information into the public domain.
Senator White discussed suicide. There is no comparison in how we have invested funding in and addressed the issue of road traffic accidents in the past ten years and the funding we have invested in suicide prevention services. The House needs to debate how to proceed. Councillor John McTernan in County Leitrim has voluntarily set up a structure for early intervention. It is benefitting people in the area. Structured developments of this type are necessary. I call for a debate so that we might discuss the positive actions that we can and should take.
I concur with the main outline of Senator Norris's contribution and support his request for a debate on the economic situation. However, that debate should take a different form than usual. I recall a discussion with a young Argentinian some years ago. He told me about the morning that his people woke up and realised that their bank savings had evaporated overnight. I believed it was fantasy land and the stuff of nightmares.
There is a fear that this nightmare has visited us. In the past week, several people have asked me about the security of their bank savings. They went a step further by asking about savings in the post office, which is State guaranteed, and whether there were any circumstances in which the State could renege on its guarantee. We need enhanced communications with the public. The information vacuum is being filled by celebrity economists who are only interested in personal TAM ratings. I have great regard for the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, who comes across as an exceptionally decent person. There is no reason for him not to go on television more than once. The Taoiseach should appear on television from time to time to address issues like post office savings.
The young Argentinian man told me that, once the savings had evaporated, any money people still had they kept at home. During the week, three people asked me whether they should remove their money and hide it in biscuit tins under their beds. This is the seriousness of the situation. Millions of euro in deposits have left the banks. Can the House imagine what will happen if we do not allay people's fears?
The debate must take a different shape. The Leader knows as well as I do that information provided in the Dáil or the Seanad-----
Senator Eamonn Coghlan has left the Chamber, but I concur with him on the issue of the Belfield track. As a student at UCD in the 1970s, I used that track regularly. Many students use it. Closing down any sporting facility when there is no replacement for it is a retrograde step. I endorse the Senator's call for the track to be maintained.
The report on the review of sex abuse cases in the diocese of Raphoe between 1975 and 2010 was published this morning. It leads indirectly to suicide, to which other Members referred. Many members of the community of Donegal and the north west have been affected by this and driven to depression and, in many cases, suicide. I know of cases where this has happened.
I want to read one sentence that can highlight this severity of the issue. The report states: "Insufficient emphasis was placed on the needs of victims, often in the misguided attempt to protect the reputation of the Church." That is one sentence that people can recognise as a major problem. In the context of this report being issued at 10 a.m today, I ask that we discuss it further. Along with the issue of suicide mentioned by Senator White, this is a matter that has affected many people in Donegal. This happened between 1975 and 2010, a period of 35 years. During the day there will be more reaction to this and, in the context of this report, I ask for a debate on this and the wider issue.
Many issues are pressing on the Minister for Health and they are all important. I hope that in dealing with the many problems arising where there are different interest groups in society pointing to injustices to themselves, the Government does not forget there is a world outside Ireland, where people also face major challenges. I was struck by a comment yesterday in The Irish Times, where the new Minister for Health in Libya, Dr. Fatima Hamroush, was interviewed. She is a consultant ophthalmologist in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda. I am sure everyone wishes her well in what will be a challenging position. Among the calls from the international media and embassies wishing her well, it appears she got messages from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital to say that she could go to take up the post in Libya only if she found a locum to cover for her. As I read that I wondered what we are coming to in this country.
Senator Crown and others have spoken eloquently about how the RCSI did not cover itself in glory when it came to protecting some of the students supposedly involved in a pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain.
Medicine is supposed to be neutral. A few weeks ago, Senators on this side tabled a motion on gendercide, which was well-received across the House. The Government insisted on tabling an amendment that removed any references to India and China as specific countries where this is a problem.
Will the Leader make it known to the Minister for Health that many of us in this House would like Ireland to make special gestures to support Dr. Hamroush in her new duties in a challenging place? We should be proud of the fact that one of our own has taken on this important responsibility. She did so at considerable inconvenience to herself and her family. I also ask that the wider question be considered.
I support my colleagues who have spoken on the issue of suicide. This matter would be an ideal topic for a public consultation session, similar to what is happening with representatives of older people. It would be an opportunity to bring in the groups and representatives who work with people dealing with the trauma of suicide. It would be a worthwhile exercise and would do great service to this House.
I support Senator Keane in her condemnation of the HSE for its attempts to withhold legitimate travel expenses from front line staff. If the HSE has to withhold the travel expenses from anyone, it should be from the more senior and top-level management and executives throughout the country. If the HSE carries out its proposal, the only people who will suffer are those depending on the call from the public health nurse or a home help. The HSE should be ashamed of itself for contemplating this method of saving money coming to the end of the year.
I have written to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, about the independent inquiry into the "Prime Time Investigates" programme. I want to make certain that the Fr. Reynolds case will be dealt with and that a second case, concerning another family, is also included. The family feels their relative's reputation has been impugned. I ask the Leader to confirm with the Minister that this is the case. If it does not happen, there will be further expense incurred by the State because a second inquiry will be called for.
I dtosach báire, ba mhaith liom soiléiriú ón gCeannaire más féidir maidir leis an díospóireacht a bhí geallta faoi chúrsaí Gaeltachta. Cénuair a tharlóidh sin? Bhímid ag súil leis an taobh seo den Nollaig. I echo the call by Senator Leyden about funding for People with Disabilities in Ireland, PWDI, the removal of which is a retrograde step. The Medical Research Charities Group was mentioned this morning and made a good presentation. It would be interesting to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, to discuss the area of medical research. There is great potential for job creation. It would be an important and positive debate if the Minister of State could attend.
I disagree with my esteemed colleague Senator Bacik on her praise of the Government regarding the cuts to pensions.
We would appreciate if the trim being given to former taoisigh and top civil servants was in the same vein as the short back and sides or a No. 1 blade haircut being given to people on lower incomes around the country. It is an optical illusion and it is a disgrace that the Government has not gone further. We have called for a debate on ministerial perks and pensions and the amount of money paid to top civil servants and I call again for such a debate. The poor former Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen, is taking a hit of €4,000 and so he must survive on a pension of €147,000. Mr. John Bruton will have to survive on a pension of €138,000 and Mr. Dick Spring will have to survive on a pension of €119,000.
We need a serious debate on why this Government has not been serious and is insulting the people by flying kites about budgets, medical cards and severe cuts being made to people on very low incomes, while the high society of Ireland is getting away with minuscule cuts to their already extensive remuneration packages. It is an absolute disgrace.
I refer to the REFIT price for wind energy. It is very important that we try to get a decision on this. I listened to the Minister yesterday replying to a question in the Dail. He is awaiting a response from the Commission. It beggars belief that we have an industry that has stopped even though it is crucial to the development of our country at a time when we need economic growth. One of the bodies funding the country, the European Commission, is also stalling on this decision. This project will allow people to advance. I am in contact with people involved in the construction of wind farms. Hundreds of billions of euros of work is lined up if the Commission responds with a one-line response to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. I am not asking the Leader to request a response from the Minister, who is at his wits end trying to get a decision from the Commission. With the consent of the Seanad, I ask for all-party agreement on a motion. I expect a unanimous decision from the Commission to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources that the REFIT programme can be agreed to as quickly as possible. There is hundreds of millions of euro worth of work which could be done immediately. If we want this Chamber to be relevant, this is something we could do with the agreement of the Whips.
It is reported in today's newspapers that the constitutional convention will take place in the spring and the Taoiseach has specifically remarked, in comments attributed to him in today's edition of The Irish Times , that the future of the Seanad will not form part of the discussions at the convention, that the issue will be determined in a separate referendum which it appears will take place-----
I have asked previously and I am asking again - this is not an invitation or a summons but something in between - that the Taoiseach, as head of the national Parliament, come and speak to one of the Houses of the Oireachtas about his plans on the future of the Constitution and this House. I cannot understand how such a debate has not yet taken place. In many ways, apart from the ongoing economic catastrophe, one could argue that, in terms of the purity of parliamentary democracy, this is the most serious question we have to address. Many of us have strong feelings on the necessity of reforming both Houses. As I have said before, the primary architects of our misfortune were not the Members of the Seanad, whose worst sin was the sin of omission, of being asleep at the till, while the primary architects sat in the other House, with the Ministers they appointed. If we are to carry the country forward, there is a need for serious root and branch reform to look at the way we represent ourselves in both Houses. I, therefore, ask the Leader to urge the Taoiseach to come and discuss these issues with us.
I support the call for this House to become more involved on a substantial basis in discussing European Union matters. This issue has been raised a number of times in the House. Will the Leader either provide a forum for debate on how we could do this or invite the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, to the House to discuss ways by which we could co-operate meaningfully? In the context of all the observations made on the future of the Seanad, it is meaningful work in which we should engage. If we are to get involved in such matters, they should not be paid lip service but dealt with on a concrete basis.
Perhaps I might take the liberty to remind Members that the National Office for Suicide Prevention was invited by the cross-party mental health committee, of which I am a member, to provide training for Senators and Deputies and their staff in identifying persons who might be at risk of suicide or a psychological upset. That training is being provided again tomorrow between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and I understand there are still some places available on the course.
As mentioned, the ESRI report states the number in employment will fall by 22,000 next year, but this will be masked by the emigration of 40,000, in addition to the 35,000 expected to emigrate this year. According to the CSO, there are 3,440 legally defined electoral divisions in the State. The ESRI estimates that 12 people per electoral division will emigrate next year - almost an entire GAA team. Using the same estimate, in a two year period at least 24 people in all of our local areas will emigrate. When I met my old school principal earlier this week, we reflected on the people who had attended my school. The large majority of those with whom I went to school have emigrated; every second one has emigrated to Australia and New Zealand. This is unacceptable. We should invite the Minster for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, to come to the House to speak about unemployment and, more specifically, youth unemployment and how the Government expects to realise its objective of creating a knowledge economy when all of our skilled graduates are emigrating. This is an incredibly important topic which we need to address as soon as possible. We need to open dialogue because we cannot afford to lose any more people to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. We need them to rebuild the economy.
Some 30 Senators have spoken on the Order of Business. I allowed some leeway, as it is not always possible to accommodate 30 Senators in a period of 55 minutes. I will raise the issue at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges later today.
I hope the time allowed will be kept at 55 minutes.
Senator Paschal Mooney, the acting Leader of the Opposition, asked about the Government's role in the European Union. The Government is playing a very active role in trying to repair the damage done by the previous Government through its lack of engagement with our partners in the Union for many years. We will endeavour to keep-----
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail mentioned the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. Certainly, there is a lack of media interest in public consultation and this House. This is an issue that will have to be addressed. The Senator also asked for a debate on racism which can be arranged in the new year.
Senator David Norris has informed the House that the European system is doomed. I hope he is not correct. He also called for a wider debate on the economy, as did Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú. While a budgetary debate will take place next week, I agree that we need to have a more wide-ranging debate on the economy in the new year.
Senator Tom Sheahan asked for a debate on the less well-off in society. This issue could be included in the debate on the economy.
Senator Terry Leyden called for a debate on funding for people with disabilities. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has made it perfectly clear that €900,000 was spent on administration by the head office of the organisation concerned. She has rightly said funding should be spent directly on providing service for people with disabilities. Senator Martin Conway has sought a debate on the issue on the Adjournment. He also called for a debate on the economy.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien expressed her dismay at the lack of a debate on pre-budget submissions. As stated yesterday, the Minister for Finance is fully aware of all the pre-budget submissions made by parties and organisations and will take them into consideration when framing his budget. As other Senators stated, I will agree - please God - to arrange a pre-budget debate next year, well in advance of the budget, to allow everybody an opportunity to have his or her say.
Senators Catherine Noone, Mary White, Rónán Mullen and Colm Burke, among others, called for a debate on the issue of suicide and raised the possibility of having it as the subject of discussion at the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. The committee will consider that request. Prior to the death of Gary Speed, I had arranged a debate on the issue. The Minister of State had confirmed that she would come to the House on 12 January to deal with it.
Senator Sean D. Barrett raised the matter of reports, with particular reference to VHI and Quinn Healthcare. The Government is considering a range of issues on the future structure of the private health insurance market. No decision has been made on the matter yet. It is a complex area, as the Senator knows, and it requires careful consideration. In the first instance, the State must take action to address the recent ruling of the European Court of Justice, which removed the VHI's derogation from being authorised by the Financial Regulator. The Government also wants to rebalance the spread of risks in the health insurance market because at present most of the older and sicker customers are with the VHI. This makes effective competition very difficult. An option being considered is that the State would buy Quinn Healthcare, which is currently for sale, and merge it with the VHI. It would then be split into a number of companies with a more even risk profile. The Government has made no decision on the matter yet and its main concern is to act upon the judgment by the European Court of Justice on the VHI. The Government is examining the issues urgently and will make a decision shortly. The first priority is to ensure a well functioning health insurance market that provides choice at competitive prices for customers.
Senator Gilroy raised the issue of the potency of cannabis grown in Ireland. I will try to arrange a debate early in the new year on drug abuse. Having Members of any House promoting drug abuse and the use of cannabis is not to be encouraged.
Senator Cullinane, Senator Coghlan and other Senators asked about the ESRI report. It is welcome that the ESRI is projecting a return to growth in the economy this year, with the first annual increase in real GDP since 2007. The ESRI is predicting stronger growth this year than most other economic commentators. The institute is also forecasting that the economy will continue to expand in 2012 but now expects much weaker growth than it did previously. This reflects the volatile European and international environment, and it expects growth of 0.9% next year, which is below other forecasts. It also argued that the agreement reached at the end of October in Brussels is not an adequate solution in the view of the institution and that the ECB must provide directly or indirectly the funds Government needs to fully capitalise the banks and reduce Greek debt to a manageable level. We might have a debate on the ESRI annual report in the new year.
Senator O'Neill asked about the vacancy in the Department of Health for an Assistant Secretary responsible for medical research. We will ascertain the position with the Minister for Health on this subject.
Senator Eamonn Coghlan asked about the resignation of the president of the Olympic Council from the committee dealing with the Olympics. Several teams have committed to come to Ireland prior to the Olympics and the Minister is working hard to attract further teams to come here. I will take up the matter regarding the athletics track in Belfield. The Senator might raise the issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Ring; he is waiting to come into the House to address Second Stage of a Bill after the Order of Business.
Senator Keane asked about the HSE not paying travel expenses to some staff. All staff in the HSE should be paid on time. It is not acceptable that staff are not paid on time and we urge the HSE to act swiftly and to pay the entitlements that staff are due in a timely manner.
Senator Quinn mentioned having a pre-budget debate. We can look at this next year and have a debate well in advance of the budget.
Senator Colm Burke asked about the scrutiny of EU directives and reports, a matter he has raised in this House previously. I am informed the committees are dealing with all EU scrutiny matters. I am favourably disposed to debating EU legislation but it will require more resources to have such debates in the House. We could hold such debates on Mondays or Fridays. If we can arrange such debates we will.
Senators Ó Murchú and Norris agree on the need for a debate on the economy and the outflow of funds. The flow of funds out of the country has ceased since the Government acted on the banks and undertook to capitalise them.
Senator Harte called for a debate on the reports on the diocese of Raphoe. There are reports today on six dioceses, Raphoe, Derry, Ardagh, Kilmore, Tuam and Dromore, and it is to be welcomed that the reports are to be published today. It is important for transparency, public confidence and to support much of the good work that has been done in the Catholic Church on child protection. I hope all future reports by the dioceses will similarly be published. The Minister and the Government will consider the reports once they are published. Child protection is a serious issue for every organisation working with children. It is important that organisations comply with child protection rules and that the public is vigilant in monitoring child protection standards and reporting concerns. This is one of the key social priorities of this Government and I welcome the work already done by many organisations in Ireland working with children on enhanced protection.
We join Senator Mullen in congratulating the new Minister for Health in Libya and wish her every success.
Senator Mullins asked about a debate on the "Prime Time Investigates" programme and called for another matter to be addressed. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, will reply in due course to the Senator on that matter and hopefully he will accede to the request.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh asked for a debate on the Irish language and the Gaeltacht. We will arrange such a debate in the new year. Unfortunately because of the amount of legislation that will come to the House in the coming weeks, it will be impossible to slot statements in anywhere. We will deal with legislation all the way from now until Christmas.
Senator D'Arcy called for a worthwhile all-party motion and I will talk to him about it after we finish the Order of Business.
Senator Crown asked about the future of the Seanad and the possibility of the Taoiseach coming into the House to discuss constitutional reform and the future of the House. I will ask the Taoiseach about the matter but he is totally committed to having a referendum on the future of the Seanad. He has made that perfectly clear for well over a year.
I am only informing the House that the Taoiseach is committed to holding a referendum.
Senator O'Keeffe asked about EU matters and pointed out that it is important that we cooperate meaningfully in the House. She noted that the Suicide Prevention Office is providing training for Members of the House and staff.
If there are vacancies left, people should seek that training, if they can possibly do so.
Senator Kathryn Reilly, the youngest Member of the House, rightly spoke passionately about emigration and unemployment. They are certainly matters we will address and on which I will arrange a debate early in the new year.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 16 (Sean Barrett, Thomas Byrne, John Crown, David Cullinane, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Paschal Mooney, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Feargal Quinn, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 32 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Eamonn Coghlan, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, 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, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Mary Ann O'Brien, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, Jillian van Turnhout, John Whelan, Katherine Zappone)
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: 37 (Ivana Bacik, Sean Barrett, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Eamonn Coghlan, 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, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Rónán Mullen, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, David Norris, Mary Ann O'Brien, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Feargal Quinn, Tom Shehan, Jillian van Turnhout, John Whelan, Katherine Zappone)
Against the motion: 11 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Paschal Mooney, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe; Níl, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson..
Question declared carried.