Thursday, 15 March 2012
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011, Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business. The time allocated for this item shall not exceed two hours and 15 minutes.
I ask the Deputy Leader how many Ministers are here this week. Earlier in the week those of us in this House mentioned the importance of the events held on St. Patrick's Day and the week in which it falls. The two Houses are sitting this week, but yesterday, for the first time I can recall, the sitting in this House had to be suspended because there was no Minister available to take a Private Members' motion we had tabled on a number of items for which the Government should answer. We tried to facilitate the relevant Minister, but all we were offered was one hour. Whether the Government likes it, this Chamber is part of the Oireachtas. If it wants to treat it with such scant disregard and disrespect, it should bring it on. It may not like the robust nature of debates here, but as I am sure all Senators know, we take our job very seriously. I received a telephone call at 2 p.m. yesterday to indicate to me that it was not possible to find a Minister to take the Private Members' motion, which was an absolute disgrace.
There was a common trend yesterday. The Seanad adjourned early yesterday and Private Members' business was delayed in Dáil Éireann for 15 minutes because a Minister could not be found. The Government also lost a vote called by the great Deputy Peter Mathews at the finance committee as Fine Gael could not find enough Deputies to vote for it.
Where is everyone? Why not adjourn the House for the week and be done with it? The common theme running through all three issues that arose yesterday was the mortgage crisis. In Private Members' business, when we discussed the Government report card, the first item related to the thousands of people in mortgage arrears, an issue I will discuss further in a moment. Private Members' business in the other House yesterday focused on the interest rates being charged by Permanent TSB and other banks to hard-pressed mortgage holders. I note a Minister did not bother turning up in the Dáil Chamber until 15 minutes after the debate was scheduled to commence. Yesterday, when members of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform called for the Governor of the Central Bank, Professor Patrick Honohan, to appear before it the only Government member present was Deputy Peter Mathews. Perhaps the great Deputy Mathews will explain to the joint committee the reason he voted against the motion he tabled. This is a very serious matter. The Seanad was forced yesterday to move business to next Wednesday and effectively lost an entire afternoon's business. What Ministers are available this week?
I heard the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, interviewed on radio this morning. While I do not wish to make a personal criticism of him given that he comes before the House regularly, he was available to come to the House for only one hour yesterday. Which other Ministers are available? Senators will not put up with this. I want an absolute commitment-----
Given that we had to conclude business early yesterday, I ask the Cathaoirleach to indulge me.
I understand this is the first time this has happened and I want a commitment from the Leader that it will not happen again. It shows utter disregard for all Senators, especially the Fianna Fáil Party group, nine of whose 14 members contributed in detail yesterday on the fiscal compact. My party contributes to debates and we were ready to contribute on our Private Members' motion yesterday before it was pulled. That is not acceptable.
On the comments of the Governor of the Central Bank, he has raised the flag for the banks and allowed them open season to proceed with the repossession of thousands of properties in the investment sector. Does he realise the 400,000 people who own second properties are not property developers or the wealthy but individuals who invested in properties as a form of pension scheme? I would like the Governor to be much more forthright in calling on the Government to act on the Keane report and the 140,000 mortgages - he referred to a figure of 107,000 - on principal private residences which are in arrears. Until we are given cast iron guarantees on ministerial attendance in the Chamber and until the House functions properly again, my party will oppose every Order of Business and every measure the Government proposes.
I never doubted that Senator O'Brien was taking his job seriously and we are pleased to note that is the case. However, as he and other Senators are well aware, many Ministers have been paired and are travelling on State business. The Leader will respond in due course but this side of the House is doing everything possible to oblige the Opposition.
On the Senator's comments on the Governor of the Central Bank, he is misrepresenting the position somewhat. The Governor was referring only to buy-to-let properties and the investment sector. The Government is doing everything possible to help distressed homeowners keep their homes.
I propose to raise a matter for discussion in the House. It is one of particular interest to me as a former university person and I am proud of the role Ireland is playing in this regard. In August 1992, the National and University Library of Bosnia in Sarajevo was completely destroyed with the loss of more than 2 million volumes and priceless manuscripts. The European Union is facilitating the rebuilding of the library structure and three students in Sarajevo have taken a wonderful initiative to start the restocking of the library, particularly with contemporary works. I am pleased this country is playing a role in the initiative through the Genealogical Society of Ireland. I wonder if, through a debate in the House, our authorities, third level institutions, universities and private citizens could be encouraged to contribute to this positive measure. After the disastrous civil war in Bosnia, which lost a large part of its cultural heritage, it is important that Ireland supports and assists in this project.
While I am on the subject of universities, I express my regret that the top 100 listing of universities in the world no longer features an Irish university. My colleague, Senator Barrett, organised a meeting with the Higher Education Authority, which discussed this issue, among other topics. I am concerned about the criteria used for compiling the list, which I do not believe for one second to be accurate. One of the things I was told was that the reputational damage done to Ireland by the economic crisis was having a spin-off effect and what is being measured is perception rather than reality. As Senator Barrett will, I am sure, confirm, at least two or three of our universities deserve to be in the top 100 universities in the world.
I ask for a debate on an issue that must be close to the Deputy Leader's heart, namely, the way in which the global financial system operates. For the 100th time, I refer to the malign impact of the ratings agencies. They were at it again yesterday when they began nibbling away at the United Kingdom. I am highly concerned about practices within this discredited group and the disproportionate power it has been permitted to have. I am also concerned by an article on the front page of The Irish Times today which features a statement by a senior executive of Goldman Sachs, Greg Smith, in which he is critical and condemnatory of the company. He states employees were told to "hunt elephants" which was "Goldman-speak" for getting clients "to invest in products that would generate most profit for the bank, regardless of whether they suited the investor." Where is morality in the international financial system? Why are Goldman Sachs and the ratings agencies not held up to scrutiny and held to account? These institutions are the very source of the global financial disaster, yet they are getting away with it and continue to milk money from clients whose interests they are not serving.
I note once more a wonderful phrase used by Rolling Stone magazine about a decade ago when it described Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." I am not on the side of a vampire squid but I am on the side of humanity, as I believe is every Member of the House. We may be a small Parliament in a small country but a David can sometimes take on a Goliath.
One of the Ministers who is not in the country today is the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, who is in Silicon Valley where he announced a €30 million investment fund to be administered through Sofinnova Ventures, a venture capitalist company which will work with small medical and health care companies in this country. This welcome development forms part of the Government's action plan on jobs. The global health care sector is due to grow by 9% in 2013 and is estimated to be worth €1.2 trillion per annum. This is an important and welcome announcement on which I congratulate the Minister. It signifies the value of Ministers' travelling abroad at this time of the year.
I am reminiscing about the days I spent abroad. It is appropriate that the House recognise this great week and I wish everyone present a happy St. Patrick's Day. I also wish all our Ministers abroad great success in attracting industry and tourism to Ireland.
I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, to come to the House next week to clarify a matter regarding the household charge of €100 per house. Yesterday, Senator Jimmy Harte referred to legal advice provided by a solicitor indicating that a question mark hangs over the legality of the charge. It has been brought to my attention that a misleading document circulating on the Internet may be the same document to which the Senator referred. A reputable firm of solicitors, McCann FitzGerald, associated with the document has issued a statement that it had no hand, act or part in regard to it. It is important that this be clarified because the name was used and abused by somebody purporting this was advice given by that firm of solicitors, which is absolutely inaccurate. Whatever one thinks about the charge, the legislation was passed by this House and the Dáil and signed by the President. It is not being challenged other than on the basis that it was not published in the Irish language. The document in circulation which has been brought to my attention is misleading. I am glad McCann FitzGerald has issued this statement clarifying the matter because it was associated with the document.
I ask the Minister to extend the deadline for the payment of the charge until the end of April because people are encountering great difficulty in securing the form. Many people do not have access to the Internet to complete it. It would be a good idea, therefore, for the Minister to examine the matter and come to the House to clarify the issues raised by Senator Jimmy Harte yesterday.
I thank Senator Terry Leyden for raising this matter. He has covered the point I made yesterday, namely, that erroneous information is being peddled on the Internet about the legality of the household charge. In the interests of those who want to pay it - I believe all of the people in the country want to do so - the Minister should clarify the position.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House to discuss the issue of rural schools? I make an interesting journey every Tuesday morning from Donegal to Dublin and when I cross the Border at Strabane, I pick up BBC Radio Ulster. However, I lose that coverage when I leave Aughnacloy and travel into County Monaghan. The content of the coverage on Radio Ulster is completely different from that on radio stations here from the point of view of rural schools. The situation of rural schools in County Fermanagh was discussed recently while I was travelling to Dublin. There are 44 in primary schools in County Fermanagh, 40 of which are located in rural areas. In terms of the enrolment threshold, 25 of these schools will have to close. However, none of the four urban primary schools will have to close. This will affect 1,600 primary schoolchildren in rurals areas of the county. Will the Sinn Féin Party Members of the House tell me why it is planned to close 40 rural primary schools in County Fermanagh?
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House to outline that the Government has no policy to close rural schools? Sinn Féin is going down this road in Northern Ireland. When I travel through Northern Ireland I pick up Radio Ulster-----
I wish to deal, first, with what happened at the meeting of the finance committee yesterday. Those who like to view what happens here as a Punch and Judy show can put their own interpretation on what happened. The point at issue is that Parliament has a role to play in dealing with the national finances and the issue of reinvesting in the banks. It was in that spirit that we asked the Governor of the Central Bank to appear before the committee. I believe every member of the committee supports the Minister for Finance, the Taoiseach and all those seeking to reduce the promissory note payment of €3.1 billion on 31 March, which is bad news for the media. There may have been doors that did not unlock such that the full committee was not able to meet, but it is fair to say we all support those who are seeking to reduce this burden. As we said the other day, the use of promissory notes, letters of comfort and so on is frowned upon by the Comptroller and Auditor General and not part of a proper parliamentary process.
I wish the very best for Mary Ryan-Hayes, aged nine years, in her continued recovery following the incident with a train near Tipperary. It was great news for us to hear, although it was tempered somewhat by the reports on the loss of 22 schoolchildren from Belgium while returning home from a school outing. We extend our sympathy to the people of Belgium.
On the issue of university rankings, we had people in, as Senator David Norris said. The counterbalance is that we have universities in the top 15 in the world. Sometimes league tables do not make much sense; they are sometimes used by lobby groups, of which we must always beware. The good news is that research articles are widely cited and referred to. It is recognised that this is a very difficult time for the public finances and that people have to play their part in setting the country to rights again.
I wish to refer to the university rankings which have been mentioned. The rankings of TCD and UCD have slipped. The previous two speakers have worked in and may still be a part of the university sector. We have to key an eye on these rankings. The Times higher education rankings are regarded as being the most authoritative in the world. I know Senator David Norris has criticised them, but in order to criticise one must have the facts. We should conduct more research on our universities to ascertain if we have the requisite number of professionals with PhDs lecturing in their own field. It is one thing to have the requisite number to qualify in terms of university rankings, but to have the requisite number qualified in the field in which they are teaching is another.
If we had criteria in place for funding universities, the funding would follow the level of performance. This would make people in universities pull up their socks. There should be checks and balances. We have to decide how we will evaluate our universities, aside from the The Times higher education rankings. In that respect, if a university does not perform, it should not receive funding. I, therefore, ask the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House to have an informed debate on the issue to ensure we protect the integrity of our universities.
Harvard University is still ranked number one. It is not the case that our students are not as bright as they were in the past. Therefore, what is the problem? Irish students are now more intelligent that they were many years ago. I welcome the students in the Visitors Gallery. What is happening? We have bright students. Therefore, who is at fault?
Ba mhaith liom an cheist maidir leis an muirear teallaigh, an household charge, a tharraingt anuas. Tá sé in am anois ag an Rialtas a admháil gur botún a bhí ins an muirear teallaigh a chur i bhfeidhm agus gur cheart é a tharraingt siar. Is léir nach bhfuil aon toil sa bpobal an muirear teallaigh seo a íoc agus nach bhfuil sé ar a n-acmhainn é a íoc. Ba cheart é a tharraingt siar, ní hamháin ar an gceist maidir le cúrsaí acmhainneachta ach maidir leis an gceist dlí atá ardaithe anois maidir le foilsiú an Achta i nGaeilge agus an dúshlán atá á thabhairt mar nach bhfuil an reachtaíocht a bhaineann leis an muirear teallaigh le fáil i nGaeilge.
Ba cheart go dtabharfaí an t-Aire Dlí agus Cirt agus Comhionannais isteach sa Teach. Sin an díospóireacht a bhéinn a lorg. D'ardaigh mé riar mhaith uaireanta i ndíospóireachtaí a bhain le cúrsaí Gaeilge agus leis an Aire féin maidir le cúrsaí dlí agus cirt, go raibh sé éagóireach nach mbéadh reachtaíocht ar fáil i nGaeilge agus i mBéarla ag an am gcéanna. Rinne an Rialtas cinneadh, agus vótáil Seanadóirí ar thaobh an Rialtas den Teach ar son an athrú maidir le Billí a fhoilsiú go comhuaineach ar an idirlíon i nGaeilge agus i mBéarla. Tá an Rialtas ag leanacht den nós nach mbéadh Billí á fhoilsiú go comhuaineach. Taán cosúlacht ar an scéal anois go dtabharfar dúshlán don Acht seo agus do reachtaíocht go leor eile.
Caithfidh an t-Aire Dlí agus Cirt agus Comhionnanais teacht isteach agus a mhíniú cén fáth nach bhfuil sé seo ag tarlú, cén fáth go bhfuil an Rialtas ag séanadh a gcuid cearta ar an leath mhilliún duine a bhfuil Gaeilge acu agus a úsáideann Gaeilge go laethúil.
Ag an am gcéanna, tá an Rialtas ag tarraingt siar ar Oifig an Choimisinéara Teanga a chuireann i bhfeidhm ár gcuid cearta. Ba cheart an cheist seo a phlé mar cheist phráinneach, mar beidh go leor cásanna dlí ag eascairt as an gcás seo. Ba cheart don Rialtas an muirear teallaigh a tharraingt siar. Is léir nach bhfuil sé ag dul a oibriú agus nach bhfuil daoine ábalta nó toilteanach é a íoc. Caithfidh an Rialtas teacht ar bhealach eile le híoc as seirbhísí na gcomhairlí contaetha. Is léir go bhfuil na moltaí atá á gcur i bhfeidhm ag an Aire Comhshaol, Pobail agus Rialtais Áitiúil iomlán éagórach agus iomlán mícheart agus nach bhfuil glactha leo ag an bpobal.
When Ministers come into this House, they are not doing us a favour, they are carrying out their constitutional obligations. The Government is accountable to this House. At some stage in the short to medium-term, we may have a referendum on the future of the Seanad, a campaign I am looking forward to. Until then, however, it is imperative this House is treated with absolute respect. We are not second rate or second hand politicians and the thousand county councillors and the tens of thousands of university graduates who elect the majority of Senators are not second rate electors. It is imperative that we are treated with respect and I share the sentiments of my colleagues who were disappointed by events yesterday. That must not occur again. A strong statement must go from this House to Ministers and Government that they are not doing us a favour by coming in here to engage and respond to our debates; they are carrying out their constitutional duties. Until such time as the Irish people decide on the future of the Seanad, it is vital for that full engagement to continue. We cannot replay yesterday but we must learn from it. If one word should be on the Government agenda in its relationship with the Seanad, it should be "respect".
I concur with other Senators, particularly Senator Bradford. On this occasion contempt has been shown for all Members of the House. I have been vocal in the past in praising the Leader and Deputy Leader for changes to procedures here and how we do our business in the House. The Government, however, has shown absolute disrespect to all Members of the House and to the Leader. I do not hold him responsible but I expect him and the Deputy Leader to raise this at the highest level. As Senator Bradford rightly said, it is not a case of doing one a favour, this is not a democratic dictatorship; Ministers are servants to this House and its work rather than doing favours for us.
I ask the Deputy Leader to respond on this. I do not hold her or the Leader personally responsible but I expect swift action and a statement from the Taoiseach on the issue. He has not covered himself in glory in pursuing an abolitionist agenda that he likes to reinforce at every opportunity. No doubt we will have that debate in due course but I would like a response from the Cabinet that, at least for now, it acknowledges that as a functional democracy, Ministers have a responsibility to this House and to the people of Ireland to which they did not live up yesterday.
It is timely to have a serious debate on the mortgage crisis in this House, especially in light of Patrick Honohan's words in the University of Limerick, where he appears to favour repossessions, if they must take place, taking place for over-indebted buy-to-let borrowers who can no longer service their debts. Have we come to a moment in time where we must now ask what is our priority? My priority is to save the family home. No greater crisis can befall a family than their home to be taken from them. I want to see what Patrick Honohan can do to help Government policy. Will it make it easier for banks to save family homes if the buy-to-let properties are repossessed? Is that the subtext of Mr. Honohan's remarks? We must get clarification of such issues.
It is customary at this time of the year for Ministers to travel all over the world to promote our special little island, which needs the world's help. I agree a Minister should have been here yesterday but this is a special moment because every Government Minister will be promoting "The Gathering" that is to take place next year, the initiative the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is promoting to boost tourism numbers in 2013.
I join with those on all sides who have once again encouraged Ministers to wear the green jersey across Europe. In the ongoing debate, I was heartened and taken aback by an editorial in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times which lauded the fact Irish Ministers are going abroad, and went so far as to say it was an imperative and suggested there were elements in the media that had been controversial about the issue in the past. I was astonished because there was a collective attack by all of the media in recent years, particularly when Fianna Fáil was in Government, that this was about junketing. Now, all of a sudden, in this brave new world, it is an imperative. It was always an imperative that we went abroad during St. Patrick's week.
I compliment once more Tourism Ireland and its CEO, Niall Gibbons, for the outstanding work in establishing the green lights on iconic attractions across the world, from Niagara Falls to Sydney Opera House and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. For the next week, little Ireland will be the focus of world attention. Jimmy Crowley, a great folk singer from Cork, recorded a song many years ago that I will paraphrase by saying we will all be Irish tonight; everyone abroad will be Irish for the week and I hope, with the help of Ministers, Enterprise Ireland, IDA, the Irish diaspora and all of those networking throughout the world for the week, that it will result in the attraction of more visitors and more jobs. I applaud them for their efforts.
People have criticised Ministers for not coming into the House but we must get our own house in order. I raise again the role we can play in European legislation. I understand a letter was sent to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission about the allocation of staff to deal with that issue. That was more than six weeks ago and I am anxious that the Deputy Leader looks at this issue again - the setting aside of time to deal with very important legislation.
We have been here now for 12 months. Recently it took us 90 minutes to have nine votes. We must look at our own procedures and use our time more efficiently. We are reluctant to move with the times and we will soon be entering a major debate on this. We must show the electorate we are prepared to change with the times. I am not convinced that has happened yet. I have no difficulty with votes being called but I have a difficulty with there being an electronic system in place but it still takes 20 minutes to deal with the issue once a vote is called. We need to move on from there.
The other issue I wish to raise is that of third level colleges. It is wrong in this day and age that we have colleges producing graduates for whom there are no jobs in this country. I refer, in particular, to the law faculties, in respect of which we have not adjusted to the times. It is sad that it takes so long for a third level institution to change to meet what the market is now seeking. If we have a debate on education, we should debate ensuring colleges respond to what the market requires. That is not happening or is not happening fast enough. The issue should be included in the debate on the next occasion the Minister for Education and Skills is in the Chamber.
To follow Senator Colm Burke's comments on third level education, let us not limit ourselves to third level education provided in universities. Let us remember that there are job possibilities in other areas. I am thinking, in particular, of the hospitality sector and the great work being done in that regard by a number of third level education facilities. I was in the Cathaoirleach's county on Monday. It was my first visit-----
I received a great welcome at Ireland West Airport in Knock. I was very impressed by its plans for the year and the number of aeroplanes that will fly to the west from various European countries. This is the first time the airport has had such large numbers arriving. Clearly, it is gearing up for a huge increase in the number of tourists from the Continent this year. I mention this because when talking about creating jobs and solving the unemployment problem, there is nowhere in which this can be done quicker than in the hospitality business. Tourism offers, possibly, the one chance we have left. Perhaps the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, might be invited to the House for a debate on tourism. It is something we can do immediately; it does not take a long time to develop the business. I realise the Government's heart is in the right place and that it is committed to the industry. The steps it took with regard to value added tax, VAT, were in the right direction, but the industry is always under threat. The Government could decide, however, that it was a one-off measure and put the rate back up again. We have a chance to do something about tourism and should debate the issue in the House, as it would be worthwhile. If we wish to use this House to best advantage, we must ensure time is allocated for a debate on tourism.
I wish everybody a happy St. Patrick's Day. As I walked to Leinster House this morning it was truly heartening to see so many foreign visitors in the city. I hope we will have a good weekend of festivities, that everybody will be safe and that people will celebrate wisely.
Last night we were briefed on a topic I had raised previously, symphysiotomy. It is welcome that there are to be statements on the subject in the Dáil this morning. However, I reiterate my call to the Leader that we do likewise and hold a debate on these absolutely barbaric procedures carried out on women. There are approximately 150 known survivors. As time is against them, we must solve the problem now. Up to 15 people died before their cases were settled. As I have said previously, symphysiotomy was a barbaric act performed on women in childbirth. What is shocking is that many of them did not even know the procedure had been carried out until years later after the broadcast of the "Prime Time" programme. Last night one woman described how she had watched the programme on television and realised it had had happened to her. It was the reason she was unable to walk and had no control over her body. It is horrendous that the women concerned have not received justice to date. I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on the issue.
I read with disappointment the report that we were dropping down the leader table of university rankings. God knows, it is not that the heads of departments, professors, presidents and so forth are not being paid enough. They are among the best paid, if not the best paid, university professors and presidents in the world. However, we are not getting the return. There is no point in throwing money at the problem. It would not be a bad idea to haul some of the people concerned in here and make them account for themselves.
I read with dismay a report in yesterday's Irish Independent that a child in Virginia, County Cavan, who suffers from cerebral palsy, still had not been accommodated in school, with the special dog that assists his mobility both at school and at home. The board of management of the school has refused access to the school for the dog. That is horrendous.
We have spoken a number of times about the disrespect shown for this House. I ask my Fine Gael colleagues to personally ask the Taoiseach to respect his party members in the Seanad by coming to address the House which is part of the Oireachtas under the 1937 Constitution. It diminishes the status of this Chamber that the leader of the Government has not come here. To be honest, if we were in government, we would insist on the Taoiseach coming to the House and different Taoisigh did come here on many occasions.
Yesterday I spoke about the speech made by Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman ever in American politics, in which she spoke about e pluribus unum. I was shocked to discover that she had visited Leinster House yesterday. Why did she not come to the Seanad? I had my photograph taken with her and was absolutely delighted-----
The issue I wish to raise is one I have raised a number of times, the lack of finance and liquidity in the economy. Each time I raise it the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation dismisses it. It has gone too far, for too long. Does he understand business? Personally, I like him, as he has integrity. However, does he really understand what is happening?
The Miniser is listening to the bankers. Mark Fielding of ISME, Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, said this week that in the last three months half of the people who had looked for finance from the banks had been refused. One cannot run a business or a company-----
I join my colleagues in extending good wishes for St. Patrick's Day to all our people at home and, particularly, to the Irish diaspora throughout the world. I hope our Ministers will enjoy a successful few days abroad as they promote business and tourism in this country. A significant launch by the Taoiseach is linked to that. Yesterday, a significant initiative which is linked to that was launched by the Taoiseach next door. I refer to the Ireland Reaching Out initiative, which was founded in 2010 by a fellow Galwegian, Mr. Mike Feerick, who is a businessman. Under this initiative, local volunteers can use information and communications technology to trace the descendants of individuals who emigrated from their parishes in years gone by. These people are then contacted and invited to visit and become part of the local community. Some 2,500 parishes have signed up for the initiative to date. The potential benefits of this initiative are significant given that this country has a potential diaspora of approximately 70 million throughout the world. I ask all Members of the House to work within their own local parishes to support this initiative, which dovetails nicely with a Government initiative - The Gathering - which is planned for 2013. I hope both initiatives will bring significant economic benefits to this country over the next number of years while linking the people at home with the diaspora throughout the world. I ask the Leader to encourage all Members of the House to support the initiative that was launched yesterday. I hope we will see the benefits of it in 2012 and in subsequent years.
I join my colleagues in asking the Deputy Leader to ensure the Taoiseach comes to the House. I do not blame the Deputy Leader for what happened yesterday afternoon, which was totally unacceptable. I do not blame the Leader, who is representing this House abroad during St. Patrick's week, for it. I do not blame the Government Chief Whip for it either. Since I was elected to this House, I have noted an attitude among Ministers of this Government and previous Governments who do not seem to believe the Seanad really counts. We are treated as second-class Members of the Oireachtas even though we are not. We are here by constitutional right. I want the Deputy Leader to write to the Taoiseach and his Ministers to inform them that we will not accept being treated as second-class Members of the Oireachtas.
On 15 December last, some 27 employees of Lagan Brick in Kingscourt, County Cavan, were told by management that the company was no longer viable and would close with immediate effect. The employees have picketed the plant since then in an effort to ensure they get their entitlements. Talks with the Labour Relations Commission collapsed earlier this year. The company has refused to take this matter to the Labour Court. Will the Deputy Leader invite the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to the House so we can discuss this matter?
Official strike action at the plant commenced last Saturday. We are asking that these employees be given the entitlements they are due. This matter was raised on the Adjournment by my colleague, Senator Byrne, a number of weeks ago. It has been raised consistently in the other House by my colleague, Deputy Smith. No resolution is in sight. I ask the Deputy Leader to invite the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to come to the House so we can discuss this issue and other industrial relations matters.
I would like to welcome an initiative that was announced by the Minister, Deputy Shatter, yesterday evening. I refer to the extension of the Irish short-stay visa waiver programme for a further four years. When the programme was introduced for the first time last year, it was introduced as a positive step in encouraging visitors to Ireland. It was originally due to last until the end of October 2012, but it will now be extended for a further four years. A total of 18 countries are now included in the programme. This initiative has received a unanimous welcome from the tourism promotion industry. Before the Chair reminds me to put a question to the Leader-----
I am sorry for getting here late. I would like to add my thoughts to those which have been expressed already about the need for Senators to be given an opportunity in the near future to discuss the strategy for higher education with the Minister for Education and Skills. Such a debate is necessary in light of this morning's disappointing news that there has been a further attrition in the academic rankings of leading Irish universities. We reached a high water mark in this regard as recently as two years ago when two of our institutions were ranked in the world's top 100, with one of them being in the top 50. We now have none in the top 100.
Rather than putting our hands in the air and bleating for more resources - I accept that additional resources are needed - we should apply some intelligent thinking to this problem, like all others. We need to identify what the problems are and decide how best they might be tackled. This will require people to suspend some of the values that are sometimes disproportionately emphasised at election time. People need to understand that the problem in this country is not a shortage of universities. We are clearly seeing that the universities we have are - for whatever reason - under-resourced, sub-critically sized and sub-critically staffed.
It is generally felt that the reason for the drop in our universities' status this year was the loss from this country of some of its most productive researchers. I refer to those who were producing the greatest numbers of papers, manuscripts and reports, getting the highest numbers of international peer-reviewed grants and securing the greatest status from international research-sponsoring organisations. When a university loses people like that, it loses real metrics like the impact factors of the journals and the citation indexes of the papers that are published, etc. This has a knock-on effect throughout the whole system.
If an institution is perceived as not being a quality institution, it will have more trouble attracting top-quality international funding, faculty and students. These days, students are much more mobile. Some people who are seeking an education in Ireland preferentially may decide to go elsewhere if the university in which they are giving consideration to studying engineering, medicine or law is not considered to have a high international ranking. We need to get the Minister to come in to have a chat with us about this matter. This is one of the classic issues for which the Seanad was designed. There is an opportunity to bring in people who have a different skill set from that of full-time politicians. I am not disparaging such people. Six Members of this House are designated to be here because they have been elected by university constituencies. I accept there is a democratic deficit in the way those seats are derived. If our presence is to mean anything, it should give us an opportunity to have a serious discussion on a strategy for the development of the third-level sector and to try to put remedial steps in place.
I will give an example of what I am talking about. This country has six medical schools, which is approximately two and a half times the number in the US and one and a half times the European average. We recently discovered data that show there are just 60 consultant-level full-time academics across the six medical schools - an average of ten per school. Harvard Medical School has 1,500, which tells us something. We may need to have a serious think about the number of institutions we have here. Without advocating closing any down, we need to forge very definite strategic alliances between those institutions here to reach a critical mass of expertise unimpeded by institutional chauvinism. I join my colleagues in asking the Minister to come to the House to give us an opportunity to discuss these issues.
I will only be responding to colleagues who are still in the House or who have given me their apologies for leaving, in keeping with the Leader's policy. Tá a lán ceisteanna inniu. The first and perhaps most pressing issue, which was raised by Senators Darragh O'Brien, Diarmuid Wilson, Mary White and others, is that of the suspension of the House yesterday and the deferral of Private Members' business until next week. I absolutely share the view of all speakers who raised this issue on both sides of the House. As Senator Wilson said, it was unacceptable and deeply regrettable.
I am very concerned to make sure it will not happen again. I had already talked with Senator Coghlan about sending a letter to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste expressing our concern in the strongest possible terms that this would not happen again and that we would always have a Minister available for Private Members' business. It was asked whether it is necessary to have a Minister present. It is necessary for Private Members' business. We had initiated reforms in this House. We had an excellent three and a half hour debate yesterday on the fiscal compact, with a large number of speakers from both sides, but with no Minister present. We can do that for other debates but certainly not in Private Members' time. It was unacceptable and I do not want to see it happen again.
I should say no blame at all attaches to the Seanad Leader's office, which made every effort to ensure a Minister would be here, which I know colleagues will appreciate. Clearly, it is more difficult when Ministers are away. This was a wide-ranging motion which covered a number of different areas of responsibility for Ministers. Article 28 of the Constitution makes clear that the constitutional duty of the Government is to the Dáil, although I do not say any of that by way of excusing what happened yesterday. I feel very concerned to ensure it will not happen again. I give a commitment to Members that that letter will be going out today to the Taoiseach and to the Tánaiste expressing our concern at what happened yesterday and at the lack of availability of Ministers. Members can take it the matter will be taken up.
On other issues, Senator Darragh O'Brien raised the issue of the Governor of the Central Bank yesterday. I said yesterday I would send a letter to the Taoiseach expressing the concern of the House at the delay in action on mortgage arrears, and that letter is in hand.
Senator Paul Coghlan also raised the issue of the comments of the Governor of the Central Bank. I believe it would be helpful to have a debate. There is a debate scheduled for 28 March on housing and the fallout from the Governor's comments about buy-to-let mortgages in particular is one we might discuss at that time.
Senator Leyden raised the issue of the household charge. Again, that can be dealt with in the debate on 28 March. I point out there is currently a case before the courts on the issue of legislation in the Irish language.
Senator Barrett raised the issue of the promissory notes and yesterday's finance committee. We all accept this was a particularly expensive means by which to finance Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide. The present Government was left with this situation and, as Senator Barrett said, we all very much support the ongoing negotiations to try to ensure change to the current obligation to pay the €3.1 billion by the end of March.
Senator Barrett also raised the issue of university rankings, as did other Senators. As with the ratings agencies, there is a lot of controversy about how the rankings are carried out, and Senator Barrett pointed out there are other means of ranking according to citations and so on. Therefore, we approach university rankings with caution but, at the same time, all of us, particularly those of us involved in university education, are very sorry to see all our academic institutions dropping out of the top 100. I have made a note in regard to a specific debate on the university sector and higher education more generally, which would be helpful. Senator Keane also raised the issue of the rankings and referred to funding following performance. The RAE model in Britain has also been contentious. We can discuss how this can best be done but it is a difficult issue.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the household charge and the issue of simultaneous translation of legislation into Irish, which has been discussed previously in the House. As I said, it is a matter before the High Court at present.
Senator Colm Burke raised the role of the Seanad in scrutinising EU legislation. The Leader has taken this up, as the Senator will know, and I accept we need to explore the issue. Senator Burke also raised the issue of third level colleges. With respect, I am not sure I agree with the Senator's point that law faculties are producing too many graduates and should adapt to the market, which is what I understood him to say. Universities cannot anticipate cycles in the market, nor should they. Those law students who are currently going through law degree programmes may find that by the time they graduate, particularly if they have done postgraduate or professional training, the market will have changed completely. Universities should not be so tied to the market, nor should university education.
Senator Quinn spoke of the need for a debate on tourism, a view I share. I have made a note of this and will look for the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to come to the House to debate the issue. It is very heartening to see visitor numbers up. Senator Moran referred to the increase in visitors for St. Patrick's Day, which is very welcome. We also saw a rise in the number of tourists coming to Ireland last year.
Senator Moran also sought a debate on symphysiotomy. I have made a note of this and believe it would be a useful and valuable debate to have in this House, particularly as the debate is happening in the Dáil today. I agree with Senator Moran in her comments on this barbaric practice that was carried out on so many women in Irish hospitals.
Senator Conway spoke of the child with cerebral palsy. With respect, I agree with the Leader that this is a matter for the Adjournment. It is very serious matter and I am-----
I am grateful to Senator Conway for giving me some of the material, which I will read. I am very concerned to hear about this. However, if there is an issue with a particular school, it is more appropriate for the Adjournment.
Senator White raised the issue of Ms Nancy Pelosi. I did not get my photo taken with her, so I am very envious of Senator White. The Senator is correct that we should perhaps be more proactive about inviting people in. If we know somebody like Nancy Pelosi will be here, we could invite the person as a distinguished speaker to the Seanad. I understand we learned too late of her visit to do that but we should keep an eye on this in future.
I agree with Senator Mullins's welcome for the Taoiseach's launch of the Ireland Reaching Out initiative. I have responded to Senator Wilson on the issue concerning Ministers' attendance. On the issue of the plant in County Cavan, as the Cathaoirleach said, that is more a matter for the Adjournment.
Senator Brennan raised the issue of a welcome for the Minister, Deputy Shatter's extension of the short-stay visa waiver programme, which is quite right. We can debate this in the context of a debate on tourism more generally. The issue of the Dundalk office is clearly more a matter for the Adjournment.
Senator Crown also referred to the university rankings and the issue of amalgamation or possible strategic alliances. It is something the HEA is working on and has in hand. Senator Crown is right that it needs to be looked at in the context of university rankings as it clearly has a bearing on our placing in the rankings.
I wish all Senators a happy St. Patrick's Day. We will be having debates on the Finance Bill on Wednesday and Thursday of next week so we will have the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, in the House on those days.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 27 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Eamonn Coghlan, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Jim D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Marie Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, John Whelan)
Against the motion: 17 (Sean Barrett, Terry Leyden, Fiach MacConghail, Marc MacSharry, Paschal Mooney, David Norris, Darragh O'Brien, Mary Ann O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Feargal Quinn, Kathryn Reilly, Jillian van Turnhout, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe; Níl, Senators Mary M. White and Diarmuid Wilson..
Question declared carried.