Thursday, 16 February 2012
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the EU fiscal compact treaty (resumed), to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 12.25 p.m., if not previously concluded - this is to allow the Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, to reply to the many questions posed during the debate; and No. 2, Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2011 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 2 p.m. and conclude not later than 4 p.m., if not previously concluded.
Last December my party colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, tabled an amendment to the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland (Amendment) Bill 2011 to give the Financial Services Ombudsman the power to name financial institutions in breach of codes of conduct. Members will have seen the report for 2010 which states 7,200 complaints about financial institutions were made by members of the public, many of which were related to institutions not adhering to the statutory code of conduct on mortgage arrears. The problem that arises in this regard is that the ombudsman is toothless. While he can publish a report, he cannot name the institutions in breach of or not following the procedures correctly. I, therefore, ask the Leader to liaise with the Minister for Finance on whether he proposes to accept the amendment tabled in December by Deputy Michael McGrath to the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland (Amendment) Bill 2011. It is in all of our interests to know which financial institutions are adhering to Government policy and statutory codes of conduct. Issuing a report indicating the number and type of complaints made without pinpointing the financial institutions involved does not go far enough.
During our debate on 8 February on Second Stage of the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2011, Committee and Remaining Stages of which are being taken today, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, confirmed that the warmer homes scheme initiated by the previous Government, under which approximately 6,000 jobs had been created, had supported 5,800 jobs last year and that this year, owing to a cut in the grant available for external insulation works, in particular, from €4,000 to €1,800, it would only support 4,500 jobs, a decrease of 1,300.
I have met people involved in small construction firms who have diversified into this area. The construction sector has been hit more than any other by the current crisis and I have been told that at least 1,600 jobs have been lost in it since announcement of the budget. A debate on the jobs plan which I am reading and does not state additional money will be made available in this regard is due to take place in the House soon. More than €35 million has been cut from the allocation for the warmer homes scheme which is supporting people involved in an industry which has been hammered during the past few years. This makes no sense, as Ireland is required to meet its energy targets by 2020. This is to be achieved by way of the conservation of energy and having warmer homes which can only be done through the creation of employment in the construction sector in which some 1,600 jobs have been lost since the announcement in the budget of a cut in funding for the warmer homes scheme.
I ask the Leader to raise this issue with the Minister for Finance. I will also be raising it again today with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, as it is an issue of concern to all Members of the House. The scheme supports jobs. The Minister has confirmed that there are at least 1,300 fewer in the sector. My figure is 1,600. I would appreciate it if the Leader would raise the matter with the Minister for Finance.
Senator Darragh O'Brien referred to the financial institutions. I am requesting the Leader to consider how this House can best liaise with the committees of both Houses. Yesterday the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality had a three hour discussion on the heads of the insolvency Bill which was attended by a wide range of interested parties, including the Irish Bankers Federation, the Association of Insolvency Practitioners and representatives of FLAC. It afforded us a valuable opportunity to question, in particular, members of the Irish Bankers Federation about the practices engaged in in lending to customers during the boom years and what has been done since to alleviate pressure on mortgage holders. It strikes me that it would be useful if there was in place a formal mechanism to allow committees to report back to this House on some of the issues raised. The Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform also held hearings on similar issues during the past few weeks. There is a good deal of work being done outside this Chamber and the Dáil on issues to do with financial institutions, accountability and providing greater protection for mortgage holders. The hearings on the heads of the insolvency Bill are a valuable part of this work, of which, perhaps, Members of the House, with the exception of those who are members of committees, are not sufficiently aware.
I renew my call for a debate on higher education. I note the formal opening took place yesterday in Trinity College Dublin of the school of medicine in the new Biomedical Sciences Institute on Pearse Street by the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, which was opened last June. This is a very important innovation and initiative which it is hoped will generate a good number of jobs. It is already generating a great deal of research which will lead to further innovations in bioscience. This is an area in which our biomedical departments are leaders. I, therefore, seek a debate on higher education in the context of such initiatives taking place in both Trinity College Dublin and other institutions of higher education.
I congratulate President Rousseff of Brazil. A major feature on her Cabinet has been published in today's edition of The Irish Times in which it is pointed out that she has appointed women to ten of the 39 ministerial posts. She is trying to ensure greater participation by women in the political system in Brazil. The report states it is languishing with a female parliamentary participation rate of 12%, well below the average in Latin America, albeit not far off Ireland's very poor representation rate of 15% in the Dáil. It is, of course, much better in the Seanad. Interestingly, however, Brazil has failed to introduce the legislation Ireland is introducing - it was debated in the House yesterday - to ensure political parties will be required to ensure at least 30% of their candidates will be of each gender.
I revert to a matter ventilated in the House yesterday, the review of embassies and, in particular, representation at the Vatican. I strongly support the work of the diplomatic corps. Ireland is extremely well served by it, although it is small when compared with that of other states such as the Netherlands. It does very good work and we get good value from it. As for the Vatican, I understand the new papal nuncio will present his credentials to President Higgins today. I welcome him and hope he will have a successful tour of duty here. I understand he is a close confidant and associate of Pope Benedict XVI, which shows the seriousness with which the Vatican is taking its relations with Ireland. However, charges were made on this side of this House yesterday against the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, to the effect that there was a personal vendetta that was ideologically driven against the Vatican and he personally had selected the embasssy for closure. However, in the Dáil yesterday Deputy Micheál Martin blew the whistle on that suggestion when he indicated that precisely the same three targets had been presented to him but that he had turned them down. While he may have turned them down, this indicates clearly that the list pre-existed the formation of the current Administration and the remarks made should be withdrawn. They were obviously factually wrong and perhaps ideologically driven.
This morning the former Fianna Fáil Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. David Andrews, appeared on Newstalk. He is a man who has appeared in this House and showed great independence of mind and courage on the situation in Timor Leste. He also spoke about the strength of the diplomatic corps but stated that, on practical grounds, he considered having one embassy in Rome was correct. His is a voice that also should be listened to. Moreover, he started from a philosophical view that I also have brought forward in the House on the question of whether a church should also be a state. I will quote from the gospel according to Mark, chapter 12, which is echoed in the gospel according to Luke, chapter 20, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's". I believe in the separation of church and state and this presents a great moral difficulty for the Roman Catholic Church.
I thank Senator Denis Landy. I will be brief. I am concerned about this matter because I myself have received completely contradictory notices from the Greyhound company as to the day on which I should leave out the bins. Everyone is in a mess and there does not appear to have been a proper tendering process. The company has a bad record and was obliged to repay money to CIE. In addition, the council members had their view overturned by the diktat of the city manager-----
I seek a debate on this serious issue, particularly in the light of the waste of money. I understand Ernst & Young had its services secured, at a cost of a €250,000 to provide a list. I could do it in half an hour. Someone should, please, appoint me as a consultant, as I could do with €250,000. Moreover, I would do the job efficiently and for less. Next time, let the council seek tenders. I will provide such a list and while I will not charge the council €250,000, I will charge it a good fat fee.
I congratulate Senators Feargal Quinn and Mary Ann O'Brien on the Private Members' motion they introduced last night which enabled a fantastic discussion to take place with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, on the food industry and the issue of food waste. I also compliment the Minister on being willing to accommodate the two Senators by accepting most of the motion's contents and coming to arrangement whereby the debate on the motion was adjourned to enable further discussions to take place. The debate facilitated a comprehensive discussion of food and food labelling and, in particular, food waste. It is highly appropriate to discuss the issue of food waste at a time when so many people throughout the world do not have enough to eat.
I raise an issue brought to my attention over Christmas concerning a practice being engaged in by a large multiple which I consider to have contributed to the production of a great deal of food waste. The multiple in question was forcing its suppliers to overstock the supermarkets and put more products on the shelves than would be sold. This resulted in much of the stock being left on the shelves over the Christmas period and because the supplier was forced to take back that product-----
I raise a serious matter that was highlighted yesterday in the Irish language newspaper, Foinse, which is published with the Irish Independent. The headline that appeared in yesterday's edition was, "Mic léinn ag dul gan bhéilí mar gheall ar chostais arda", that is, students are going without meals because of high costs. This is a serious issue that shows starkly the pressure being exerted on third level students as a result of the economic crisis. The article reports that many students are going without food owing to the high cost of transport, the lack of part-time jobs and rising registration fees. This was an eye-opener for me, as I assume it would be for many Members. The article reports that many students are living on €1 a day as a result of being obliged to pay their registration fees of €2,500 per year, as well as significantly more expensive bus and train fares. I was shocked to learn that certain students from Trinity College Dublin were reporting they could only afford one meal a day. Consequently, I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House to discuss this important matter. Many students appear to be availing of welfare services and vouchers from student unions. I commend the student unions which are providing such services. However, it certainly is shocking if students are going without meals. Although this should not happen, it is and a number of student union officials were quoted in the article. I pay tribute to the iriseoir of Foinse, Ms Orla Bradshaw, for carrying the story in the newspaper. If the student registration fee is increased next year and in future years, as the Government has indicated, many students will be forced to drop out of education, thereby jeopardising the country's future economic and social prosperity. Consequently, I seek a debate on the issue of students going without meals. Members should face up to the realities being reported in the daily and weekly newspapers.
Yes. My question relates to people being fined for not displaying national car test, NCT, certificates on their cars. If a traffic warden places a ticket on a car in respect of the non-display of an NCT certificate, he or she is doing so without knowing whether the owner of the vehicle has actually applied to have the test carried out. Traffic wardens are not in a position to check computer records in order to discover whether a test has been applied for. As a result, people are being fined in respect of the non-display of NCT certificates when some of them have evidence - either written or in the form of a mobile phone text - that they have applied to have their vehicles tested. When these cases go to court, they are thrown out by judges. This means that the time of traffic wardens, the courts and judges is being wasted. Under the Road Traffic Act 2010, road traffic wardens were given responsibility for checking whether people are displaying NCT certificates on their cars. However, they lack the equipment necessary to allow them to do the job properly. I request, therefore, that the legislation be amended.
I am also seeking that the provisions of this legislation which relate to the imposition of fines for road traffic offences be amended. What happens at present is that a fine is issued, then a reminder is sent out and then a registered letter is dispatched. If the latter is not signed for - there are many serial offenders in this country who do not pay fines - it is returned to the relevant local authority. Literally thousands of these letters are being stored in boxes in local authority offices throughout the country. There is a need for a new system to be put in place in order to ensure that these fines are paid. I ask that the relevant Minister re-examine the parts of the Road Traffic Act 2010 which relate to the matters to which I refer.
I wish to thank everyone who contributed to last night's Private Members' debate on food. Senators raised a wide range of issues and I ask the Leader to keep in touch with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on this issue. The latter has promised to forward to us the replies to questions in respect of which information was not available last evening. I compliment Senator Mullins on the congratulations he extended to the Minister.
I raise this matter again because yesterday I read an article on obesity and unhealthy and non-staple foods which indicates that a proposal has been put forward in the US to the effect that people should be prevented from using food stamps to purchase unhealthy foods. At present, these food stamps cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco. In this country we pay people child benefit but we have no control over how that money is spent. In the United States they use the system of food stamps to which I refer and people cannot use their stamps to purchase tobacco or alcohol. We cannot control our system in such a way and I do not know whether we should be in a position to do so. However, it might be appropriate if we were to take some form of action in order that we might meet the challenge we face in the fight against obesity and unhealthy foods.
A report issued today by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, states that almost half of the wastewater treatment plants which serve urban centres are failing to achieve national and EU standards. The report also indicates that treatment plants in Cork city, Dún Laoghaire, Meath and Dundalk must meet the requirements relating to nutrient reduction. There is a need for the House to take note of this report. I suggest that the Leader request the Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht to invite Mr. Dara Lynott, director of the EPA's office of environmental enforcement, to come before it. I will certainly be proposing that Mr. Lynott be invited to address my party's internal committee. However, that is a separate matter. This will be a crucial issue for the men, women and children of this country during the next 20 years.
I wish to seek a debate on the household charge. We have not had such a debate since the charge was introduced. It is clear to many people that not only is this charge unfair but that it is also deeply unpopular. The Leader will be aware that Waterford City Council passed a motion against the household charge on an eight to five basis. Many people are not registering for it and are not paying the charge. This is not because they want to break the law, it is simply due to the fact that they cannot afford to pay. People believe they are getting the thin end of the wedge and that the charge will continue to rise and will be followed by water and all sorts of other charges. I have been asked whether the Government intends to amend the Fines Act in respect of people who are brought to court because they cannot afford to pay the household charge. Is it planned to amend that Act in order that any fines can be deducted directly from people's social welfare payments or wages? It would be disgraceful if this were to happen. Trying to force people to register to pay a charge they believe to be unfair is nothing short of bully-boy tactics on the part of the Government.
Those in government should put their hands up and state that they got it wrong and that it is not fair to inform someone who receives €300 per week that he or she should pay the same amount as someone who earns €3,000 per week. Likewise, a person who lives in a two-bedroom house should not be obliged to pay the same amount as someone who lives in a mansion. The Government should admit its mistake and then bring forward its plans for a so-called progressive property tax in order that we might examine them. This flat, regressive €100 charge should be abolished. Does the Government intend to amend the Fines Act? If it does, when will amending legislation be brought forward. Does the Leader agree that the household charge is both unfair and regressive?
Yes. Approximately two weeks ago, I raised the issue of the payment system relating to the household charge. I have been contacted by many people seeking to discover where and how they can pay this charge. Advertisements relating to the charge have not appeared on local radio stations or in local newspapers. People have written cheques but they do not know where to send them. Will the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to put in place an advertising campaign in order to inform people how they can pay the household charge. Those who have decided to pay want to get on with doing so.
I support Senators Cullinane and Sheahan in respect of what they each said. I suspect the Government is somewhat embarrassed with regard to this charge and is, therefore, not going to go out of its way to oblige people to pay it. The introduction of the household charge has had unintended consequences, particularly in the context of the tourism industry. In my constituency, where tourism is the mainstay of the local economy, a particular family has, over the past 30 years through its own efforts and without any State aid, built up more than half a dozen traditional Irish holiday cottages which it markets successfully. As a result of the downturn, like many other family-owned tourist operators the family is struggling to keep its head above water. Families like these are not corporations or limited companies. They will now be liable for this tax on top of the second home tax they have also had to pay because they are not exempt. They will be liable for a bill in excess of €2,000 to €2,500 on top of all of their other costs. This is not happening in County Leitrim only; it is happening in every part of the country, but particularly along the west coast of Ireland, where there has been a tradition of establishing traditional Irish cottages which appeal particularly to the continental European market.
I call on the Government to introduce an exemption. I have the greatest respect and affection for, and a personal friendship with, the Minister of State with responsibility for tourism who is a west of Ireland man doing a great job. I call on him to make representations to his Cabinet colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, to introduce an exemption, with guidelines and strictures, for those involved in tourism to prevent this tax damaging an already fragile industry throughout the west of Ireland. It is unfair and morally wrong. As the Minister has stated it is not the most equitable tax which has been implemented in advance of the progressive tax he will introduce.
The tourism industry is already on its knees in certain parts of the west of Ireland and this will kill it off. All I am asking is that an exemption is introduced. It is in the Minister's power to do so. The Minister of State with responsibility for tourism will come to the House and mention the great strides and great improvements being made. Yesterday we heard about the creation of jobs as a result of the reduction in the VAT rate last summer. This is all very welcome but why give with one hand and take away with the other? The Government cannot justify this.
Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna mar gheall ar phlean atá aige chun scoil lan-Ghaeilge a thógáil i dtuaisceart Chill Dara. A particular patron has made an application to be patron of a new Gaelscoil in north Kildare. The Department of Education and Skills has sought expressions of interest for patronage of the new school, and An Coiste Bunaithe has twice made an application to be its patron but these have been ignored. It has not even been posted that it expressed interest. A total of 1,600 children attend Gaelscoil Uí Fhiaich in Maynooth, Scoil Uí Dhálaigh in Leixlip, Scoil Uí Riada in Kilcock and Gaelscoil na nÓg in Dunboyne and want to be taught through the medium of Irish.
The decision on patronage will be made on 24 February. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Skills to say why the expression of interest has not been posted? The Minister has stated that parental demand for plurality and diversity will be taken into consideration in the establishment of any school and I agree with this. Parental preferences should be central to considering the type of school to be recognised. I call on the Minister to put his words into action and take into consideration the parents of these 1,600 children and the children. They want to express themselves in our native language but this is being ignored. Tá an cheist sin á cur agam inniu ar son na dtuismitheoirí agus na ndaltaí i dtuaisceart Chill Dara.
Over the past year there has been intermittent but considerable outrage at the issue of the personal assets of people who are in debt to NAMA and in turn to the same Irish taxpayer whose health and social services are being depleted to meet the terms of our external financial requirements. It appears that has been a policy of individuals attempting to hide their wealth by transferring it to the names of family members to maintain their family homes at a time when they are in substantial debt to the State. Understandably people feel very aggrieved about this.
What is apparently unrelated, but what I believe is a related issue, is that it is reported in today's Irish Independent that very substantial donations, which were heretofore not disclosed, have been made to major political parties in the State. On the basis of this morning's relatively superficial perusal of it I can identify at least two and I believe three companies which are now in NAMA which made donations to political parties. As a result they are co-culprits in the economic demise of the country and they are a drain on our country's resources and social services. I am sorry we do not have the capacity to get a large quorum of turkeys to vote for Christmas but my belief is that we need a policy of a complete ban on all corporate donations-----
I have a specific question for the Leader and I beg the indulgence of the Cathaoirleach.
Pending this, will the Leader bring to the attention of the Minister for Finance this awful conundrum we see this morning whereby people gave huge amounts of money to political parties on all sides of the House and not just the party we normally associate with this type of donation.
I join Senator Norris in welcoming the appointment of Archbishop Charles Brown as the new nuncio to Ireland. This appointment shows the importance of this country to the Vatican. This man served with the then Cardinal Ratzinger for ten years in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and as was stated this morning on the radio he has worked very closely with the pontiff. All of this indicates that we are entering a new era of-----
-----more fruitful diplomatic relations and this is very good. He will be dean of the diplomatic corps in Ireland which indicates the very long established relationship. The diplomatic mission dates from 1929 and all of this indicates its importance. Some intemperate language was used in the House yesterday and it did not help the situation. Perhaps on mature reflection it should be withdrawn. This would be helpful.
I do. If we are to provide services to our citizens we must have money to pay for them. Last week I met the manager of a hotel which pays €10,000 a week in commercial rates. This is the reality of what the commercial sector pays to local authorities. We need to get real; if we want services we must have money to pay for them. We can no longer borrow ad infinitum and decide we will not pay for the services.
Yesterday, I tabled a matter on the Adjournment on the globalisation fund. In his reply the Minister of State outlined that the retraining courses people can take do not have to be provided by VECs or State educational institutions. This is a welcome development but, according to people seeking retraining, many of the training courses being offered are out of date. If we have a debate on education, we should address the issue of upskilling the trainers who are supposed to upskill those who require retraining. Many of the courses have not been changed in recent years and they are out of date. For example, I was advised by an employer last weekend that he would not take on someone from a VEC secretarial course because audio-typing training is not provided. That basic skill should be provided for anyone doing a secretarial course. It sounds like someone has sat back for years and not done anything about bringing in modern training techniques and providing training for new skills required for people entering the private sector. I ask that this issue be included in a debate on the education sector in the not too distant future because we urgently need to review the training provided by VECs and other service providers being paid for by the taxpayer.
Senator O'Brien asked about an amendment to financial services legislation to name financial institutions and I will consult the Minister for Finance about that. He proposed the use of the warmer homes scheme as a job creation mechanism and said he would raise that matter with the Minister when he takes the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2011 in the House. I support what the Senator said in this regard. We should do everything we can to get people back to work and that is the Government's plan. If there is a restriction, the scheme should be examined again.
Senator Bacik asked for greater liaison between committees and the Seanad regarding business. I am willing to debate reports from the various committees in the House and we will do that, if necessary. The Senator called for a debate on higher education, as she did yesterday, and I have asked the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House for such a debate.
Senator Mullen mentioned the debate on food waste and food production. The debate will be resumed but a few matters must be thrashed out with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It was an excellent debate yesterday but it was a pity more Members were not in the House to listen to it. Approximately 20 Members were breaking down the doors calling for HSE plans for the south and everywhere else around the country to be debated in the House but only ten were present for the debate with the Minister for Health. Members shout and roar for debates but when they are held, only a handful of Senators are present. It does no good for the perception of the House among the public .
Senator Landy referred to the issue of fines for not displaying NCT discs. I am sure common sense would be applied in this regard. If motorists have arranged a test, they can go to the body that issues the fine to say they have done so. Common sense should apply and the fine should be dropped. I do not see why these cases should go to court.
Senator Quinn inquired about the use of food stamps. I am sure there would be a great deal of opposition if we decreed how people should spend their benefits. However, the matter should be discussed.
Senator Jim D'Arcy raised an important issue about wastewater treatment and the office of environmental enforcement. It is an issue we should address and I am sure the relevant Minister will be willing to come to the House to debate it.
Senator Cullinane referred to the household charge. He mentioned that it will increase year on year but that will not be the case. We will have what he asked for, which is a progressive property tax, and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government stated that this will happen. I hope we will have the full support of the Senator when that progressive property tax is put in place. He is on record as saying he supports such a tax to be used for local government and so on and I welcome that. Oireachtas Members and local authority representatives should not advocate breaking the law in regard to the household charge.
The fines Bill will be introduced and mechanisms will be provided under it but I am not aware of what they are at the present time.
Senator Sheahan sought more information about how payment of the household charge can be made. A site is available on the Internet and if one goes into any local authority office, the forms are available. Cheques can be sent to the address on the form that must be filled in.
Senator Mooney sought an exemption for traditional Irish cottages from the charge. I will raise that matter with the Minister.
The matter raised by Senator Keane regarding a north Kildare school could be the subject of an excellent Adjournment debate and she could obtain the information she requires from the Minister for Education and Skills.
Senator Crown raised the issue of donations by big business to political parties. Major restrictions in this regard are provided for in the Bill that was before the House yesterday. The Government is addressing the problem and significantly curtailing such donations in future. We will not have recurrence of what we witnessed in recent years, which was most regrettable.
The money is well spent at this stage.
Senator Paul Coghlan referred to the incoming Papal Nuncio. I am sure we all welcome Archbishop Brown, who will present his credentials to the President later.
Senator Colm Burke referred to the link between local authority rates and revenue. Local authority services are based on the revenue they generate and charges are collected by them. I note the issue he raised regarding the European Globalisation Fund and I commend him on his work during his time as an MEP when he helped to access moneys in this fund on behalf of the country.