Wednesday, 18 January 2012
Order of Business (Resumed)
I, too add my sympathies to the family and colleagues of Mr. Aengus Fanning on his passing.
I refer to the decision by Diageo to close its plant in Dundalk and relocate everything to St. James's Gate. I have submitted a request to raise the matter on the Adjournment and I look forward to having the opportunity to speak on this as soon as possible.
I also highlight, as many of my colleagues have done, the ongoing problems with our health service, specifically in the north east region. There was a dreadful accident in Drogheda on Monday evening where, tragically, one person lost her life. I want to talk about the delay in the arrival of the ambulance on the scene of the accident. I understand it took more than 40 minutes for the ambulance to arrive and it had to come from a different town. I do not understand why this happened when the largest hospital in the region is less than a mile away. I ask the Leader to call on the Minister to ensure there is a full inquiry into this incident and the ambulance service in the region. As everything in Drogheda was centralised this needs to be highlighted.
I call for an urgent debate on the Meath-Cavan 400 kv power line. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, published a report yesterday by an expert group which is welcome. Many previous reports have been welcomed and discussed. The Minister proposes to discuss it with the Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture. The Seanad should discuss this in a national context as the issues relevant to the position in Meath and Cavan are very relevant on a national basis, with plans by EirGrid to roll out significant electricity infrastructure around the country. The Seanad should play a role in that. There are many people with interests in the issue and it should not be confined to a joint committee where not everybody might get the opportunity to speak. That is an issue of significant concern, and Fine Gael and Labour made significant promises and commitments on this while in opposition. There were cash commitments for local interest groups, although these have been ruled out by the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte. Neverthless, local Fine Gael Deputies promise that they are working on the issue. That is the same as all the local promises made in County Meath.
The Minister may say one thing but the local Deputies say another in promising to sort out the issue. A year has gone by with no regional hospital or stag hunting. The pylons will not be buried and there will be no funding for groups. The Slane bypass has been cancelled. Local Deputies nevertheless argue the issues are in their hands.
They know well the matter is only at drafting stage and all the countries are making submissions or having an input. As the Taoiseach has stated, it would be very wise to await the final text because we cannot know if treaty change is required until there is a final text.
I am just coming to it. We understand Senator O'Brien's political reasons but we must accept it is in the country's best interests that the Attorney General should not rule on this until we have in position a final text agreed by all the countries. It is only then that it can be properly examined to determine if treaty changes are required from a constitutional perspective. I request the Leader-----
I want to add to what has been said about the publication of the HSE service plan on Monday, and the ramifications and consequences that publication and acceptance of the plan last Friday by the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, will have around the country. The plan will reduce spending in the health service by €750 million this year and 3,200 staff will leave the Health Service Executive. That will have a knock-on effect on the delivery of services in the country. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator White in that public nursing homes are being scapegoated. There is a proposal to cut 555 beds in public nursing homes and buried in the plan is a cut which has been approved by the Minister of almost 900 beds in public nursing homes. That was accepted by the Minister when he signed off on the plan last Friday. That is a fact.
We need the Minister to come to the House so we can hold him accountable and cross-examine him on where he will find a home for the 900 people he proposes to make homeless from public nursing homes this year. Which public nursing homes does he propose to close? Last November, the Minister in a radio interview stated that he would not close any nursing homes. The week before Christmas he stated that he would close nursing homes with fewer than 50 patients, which would include quite a few in my constituency. The Minister must be held accountable. He is avoiding the Seanad.
I appeal to the Leader to bring the Minister for Health before the Seanad as quickly as possible to allay fears in our elderly population around the country. He is attacking nursing homes and cutting home help hours by 5% this year. It is a totally unacceptable blatant attack on elderly people. We will not stand for it.
I join in conveying sympathies to all the families, particularly those in west Cork, which suffered loss in recent days. I pay tribute to the emergency services who responded so quickly; that is a tribute to their commitment to the job. In response to the health question, there is no proposal to close 900 public beds. There is a proposal regarding efficiencies in the health service. Over the past 12 months, 1,250 extra people have been included in the fair deal scheme, which must be acknowledged. I remind colleagues across the floor that €400 million was paid for people who were charged because a proper structure was not put in place for the collection of nursing home charges; that was supervised by previous Governments over 14 years. That €400 million would have been quite handy today to refurbish nursing homes.
I wish to raise the non-registration of properties to the Private Residential Tenancies Board. A survey was carried out in Cork over the past few weeks and in the Mardyke alone, of the houses surveyed, 235 houses were not registered. Some 60% of houses around UCC and NCIT are not registered with the PRTB, with a loss of approximately €19 million in fees alone. The board was set up by the last Government-----
I do not believe the Order of Business is the appropriate forum to debate the health service plan in great detail but it is important that the Minister for Health attend the House as soon as possible to discuss last Monday's announcement and go through the plan. We must acknowledge that every political party in this and the other House respected the concept of €3.8 billion being taken from the budget, and that will affect every Department, including the health service. We should not pretend to be surprised about the impact of cuts in the Department of Health. Senators Quinn and Crown spoke on health-related matters and achieving savings in medicines and generic drugs, which should form part of the debate with the Minister. We will not solve the issue on the Order of Business. I support the call from my colleagues, although I may not agree with all the analysis, and the Minister for Health should attend the House as soon as possible.
It has been a welcome feature in recent months that in advance of the publication of legislation, Ministers present their concepts to the appropriate Oireachtas committee, leading to debate of possible legislation in advance and engagement with outside groups and civic society. We are advised that at some stage over the next 12 months, legislation will be brought forward dealing with the future of this House. In advance of the publication of legislation relating to the abolition of the Seanad, it would be appropriate for the relevant Oireachtas committee to engage in a debate on the matter. That discussion should engage with civic society and various interest groups, as that concept has worked well with other legislation. It has worked well in regard to other legislation and should equally apply to the proposal on the future of this House.
I too wish to be associated with the votes of sympathy to the families of the fishermen drowned in west Cork and to the family of Aengus Fanning, an outstanding journalist who transformed the face of Irish media. In light of the competitive pressures being brought to bear by international media moguls, it is a tribute to him that the Sunday Independent continues to enjoy such commercial success.
It is a shame that Mr. Rivlin, the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, has left the House. Mr. Rivlin's views on Ireland's position on the Middle East process have been quoted in the national media. I had a brief exchange with him in the antechamber this morning where I took the opportunity to stress that while there is enormous sympathy for and empathy with the sufferings of the Palestinian people, that should not be interpreted as proof that all Irish people are anti-Israeli. Many of us, including me, are strongly of the view that Israel has every right to exist within democratic and viable borders, just as the Palestinian people have the right to self-determination. The Government is focused on that balancing act in its engagement on the Middle East, and the Tánaiste is following a proud tradition in that regard.
Senators Walsh and Crown referred to the ending of patents in the pharmaceutical industry. Together with several Oireachtas colleagues, I was privileged to have been briefed on this issue by management at Abbott Laboratories in Sligo last week. The company employs several thousand staff in various locations across Ireland and is an important driver of job creation. In the context of expiring patents, the company representatives said they were increasingly emphasising research and development and pointed to several trials currently under way which they hope will result in the development of viable commercial drugs.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, to address this challenging issue on the next occasion on which he comes to the House? We must increase investment in research and development, particularly in the pharmaceutical area, and we must work to encourage new and existing pharmaceutical companies to convert their production lines into producing generic drugs. It has already been suggested that the Pfizer plant in Cork, at which employment will be lost due to the ending of patents, may possibly be taken over by an international company which will produce generic drugs. This is relevant in the context of the debate we will have on job creation. I ask the Minister to outline the Government's policy on increased investment for research and development and how it proposes to protect jobs in the pharmaceutical industry once patents run out.
I support the call by my colleague, Senator Healy Eames, for a discussion with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, on rural schools, DEIS schools and the loss of career guidance counsellor positions. The controversy that has erupted in regard to the salaries of senior academics is indicative of the need for the Government to examine the position of very highly paid people in this country, including the chief executive officers of semi-State companies. At a time when our country is on its knees, those salary levels should be benchmarked against European counterparts. In a context in which we are borrowing every cent we require for the day-to-day running of the country, we must examine whether those on the highest pay are making an adequate contribution to the austerity being imposed on everybody else.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to examine this issue and to facilitate a debate in the House in the near future in regard to the contribution of the most highly paid within the public service and the semi-State sector?
-----call for the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, to come to the House for an earnest debate on the HSE service plan for 2012. As we know, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. For the purposes of that debate, I ask our colleagues on the other side of the House to bear in mind how many beds were closed when the previous Administration was in power.
I congratulate my colleague, Senator Noone, on the survey she has carried out on the Croke Park agreement. That agreement is the elephant in the room in all of this. It comes down to a choice between retaining the same number of front line staff on less pay or having fewer front line staff on the same pay. The choice was made, under the Croke Park agreement, that we would have fewer numbers and maintain pay rates.
I am not a mathematician but I have done some sums. If we had a 5% reduction in salary for those earning more than €65,000 in the HSE and a 10% cut for Professor Crown and his consultant colleagues, there would be no need for any cuts in the service programme for 2012.
I join with all the Members who expressed their sympathies to the families of the fishermen lost in the accident off west Cork. The skipper of the vessel was a fellow county man of mine, from the small village of Bunmahon in Waterford. Our hearts go out to all the families. Likewise, we extend our sympathies to the family of Aengus Fanning, editor of the Sunday Independent and a very influential figure in Irish journalism.
Senator O'Brien asked about a strategy for mortgage arrears. I will endeavour to have the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, come to the House to address that issue. In regard to the interdepartmental committee on Europe, there has been constant speculation as to whether or not we will have a referendum. One does not put all of one's cards on the table before going into the negotiating room. That is not how one operates in negotiations. The Government is working very well on this matter, but the question of a referendum is not yet decided upon. Moreover, the advice has not yet been given. As Senator Coghlan observed, it is better that we have the final text in order to decide whether a referendum is necessary. We should not rush our fences on such important issues. There must be proper consideration of these matters in order to avoid rash decisions.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on the report of the expert group on the ABC case, as soon as that report is published. I will be pleased to facilitate that debate. The Senator also seeks a debate on waste strategy. Waste collection services in Dublin are a matter for the local authority, but we can have a broader debate on waste strategy with the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, in due course.
Senator van Tunhout asked that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, update the House on her plans for the referendum on children's rights. The Government's legislative programme, issued last week, attempts to accurately reflect the position of legislation in the process at a particular point. The heads of the legislation relating to the children's rights referendum has not as yet cleared Cabinet. However, work on it is ongoing. It is a top priority for Government, as confirmed by the Government Chief Whip this morning. The stated position of Government is that the referendum will be held in 2012.
Senator van Turnhout also raised the issue of accommodation for young offenders, which is an important issue. I will ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs or the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House to address that issue at a later stage.
Senator Quinn and other Senators raised the issue of generic drugs and the possibility of reducing costs in this regard. The Senators also mentioned blood tests, x-rays and the use of the Internet in regard to education on health. This is an important issue, one that must be addressed, in particular given the comments of Senator Crown and others in relation to the pharmaceutical industry. Senator Crown mentioned that seven out of ten of our top selling drugs are due to come off patency in the coming years, which creates a problem. The Minister, Deputy Reilly, is addressing the area of generic drugs. It is hoped Senator Crown will expand further on his ideas in this regard during the debate on jobs ideas on Thursday. We look forward to that debate.
Senator Healy Eames spoke about education matters, including DEIS and small rural schools and guidance counsellors. She also highlighted the issue of senior academics refusing to take a pay cut. It is disgraceful that some of these people have not even replied to the Minister's request.
I agree that they should be benchmarked against their EU counterparts. It is not acceptable that these people can live in ivory towers when the Taoiseach is prepared to take a cut and have his salary capped at €200,000. These people, who are well heeled, should take such a cut. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Quinn, for a wide-ranging debate on education. The Minister will be in the House next week dealing with legislation.
Senator Leyden asked about the position of the Registration of Wills Bill 2011. While the principle of the Bill was acknowledged, there is no question but that it was technically flawed, which is the reason it has not been dealt with. I will ascertain for the Senator whether the Government intends to introduce a Bill in that regard.
Senator O'Keeffe welcomed the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, of road improvement grants of €100 million and spoke of the dangerous condition of the N4 which has not been included in the roads improvement programme. I will try to ascertain the reason for this for the Senator. I am sure every road is prioritised by the National Roads Authority. I will try to get some further information for the Senator.
I have already addressed the issues raised by Senator Crown, including putting in place tax incentives for further research and the recommencement of our own industry in the pharmaceutical area. I am sure the Senator will raise this issue again during Thursday's debate on jobs ideas.
In Thursday's debate, all Senators will be given five minutes to put forward their ideas on job creation. The House will be flexible but Senators should stick to ideas for job creation rather than straying into other areas. It is hoped that following that debate the Leaders of the various groups will put together bullet points in regard to ideas put forward by their counterparts which can then be presented to the relevant Ministers. This will show that this House is meaningful. Many Members of this House are capable of coming up with ideas in respect of much needed jobs.
Senator O'Neill welcomed the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, that no further tolls will be introduced during the next few years. He also called for a debate on fuel costs. The issue of fuel costs, raised in committee by the Irish Road Haulage Association, deserves further discussion. I will endeavour to have the Minister come to the House to discuss the issue of fuel costs and diesel laundering which was raised by Senator Quinn and other Members. This practise is causing major problems not alone in terms of collecting moneys for the Exchequer but in an environmental context.
Senator Cullinane and other Members called for a debate on the health service plan. I will endeavour to have the Minister, Deputy Reilly, come to the House to address the problems raised in that regard. The Government faced difficult choices in setting the health estimate. It has set as its priority the maintenance, to the greatest extent possible, of the service within the resources available. Everyone will accept that the combination of saving measures, including the absence of extra funding for unavoidable extra costs, service needs, plus the further reduction in the numbers employed will inevitably impact on services across care programmes. There is no question about that. The Government is committed to developing a universal single tier health service which guarantees access for medical procedures based on need rather than income. This continues to be the aim of Government.
Senator Kelly raised the issue of processing medical cards and pointed out the difficulties being experienced with pharmacies and so on. I acknowledge that there is a problem in terms of delays in processing medical card applications. I do not believe 85% of applications are dealt with within ten to 15 days. I do not know from where that figure comes. I know that people are experiencing significant delays, in particular in respect of discretionary medical cards for people with terminal illnesses who would normally be given medical cards. These applications are being delayed and choked up in the system. I agree with Senator Kelly that this issue needs to be addressed.
Senator Walsh called for a weekly debate on economic issues. It may not be possible to arrange on a weekly basis for a Minister to attend the House for a debate on economic issues. However, I will endeavour to do so. The Minister, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, have been in the House on many occasions in recent months.
Senator Comiskey raised the important issue of carbon monoxide poisoning and alarms on mobile phones and so on. Carbon monoxide and radon gas are causing problems. We need to highlight these issues by way of an information campaign so that people are aware of risks of carbon monoxide poisoning and so on.
Senator Daly called for a debate on the EU treaty. One does not go into negotiations putting all ones cards on the table. Senator Daly also spoke about democracy. Democracy has always prevailed with parties on this side of the House and that will continue to be the case. On the introduction of a waiver for the undocumented Irish, the Government is campaigning and negotiating with its colleagues in the US in this regard.
A number of Senators called for a debate on foreign affairs. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, will be in the House on 2 February for a two-hour debate on various issues in regard to foreign affairs. The points raised by Members can be raised during that debate.
In response to Senator Whelan's remarks regarding Irish Water and a consultation process, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, will be in the House next week to address the issue of the establishment of Irish Water. This will provide the Senator and other Members with an opportunity to contribute to the debate on the issue.
Senators White and Ó Domhnaill spoke about the loss of public nursing home beds. As Senator White noted, there will be an extensive consultation process in that regard.
Senator Moran referred to the decision made by Diageo, as well as delays in the ambulance service. She indicated her intention to raise both matters on the Adjournment and I encourage her to so do. Certainly, it is a serious matter if it takes 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the scene of an accident.
Senator Byrne mentioned items pertaining to EirGrid and the electricity infrastructure that can be debated with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, when he comes into the House.
Senator Colm Burke also raised the issue of nursing homes, as well as the question of houses not registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board and the consequential loss of income to the Exchequer and the PRTB. This is a matter on which greater emphasis should be placed and those who have not registered their houses should be pursued. All landlords are aware they should be registered with the PRTB if their houses are rented. This matter should be followed up by the relevant authorities.
Senator Bradford mentioned the practice of holding debates on legislation in advance, with particular reference to the proposed referendum on the Seanad and the relevant Oireachtas committee. I ask those Members who are members of the aforementioned committee to call for such a debate on the issue at that committee.
Senator Mooney spoke about a foreign affairs matter. I believe I have dealt with it, as the Tánaiste will attend the House.
Senator Sheahan discussed the Croke Park agreement and the cuts made as a result of the agreement. I believe I have dealt with most items raised and apologise if I have not addressed each item raised by Senators.