Thursday, 19 April 2012
Order of Business
The Order of Business is Nos. 1, statements on the sale of State assets, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude no later than 3.30 p.m. with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes, a contribution from one Sinn Féin spokesperson not to exceed two minutes and all other Senators not to exceed one minute when asking a question of the Minister; and No. 2, Road Safety Authority (Commercial Vehicle Roadworthiness) Bill 2012 - Committee Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1 and to conclude no later than 5.30 p.m., if not previously concluded. Immediately following the Order of Business we will be paying tributes to our former colleague, Myles Staunton.
I take this opportunity to express my condolence, and that of the House, to the family and colleagues of Paul Barry, a former usher, whose untimely passing we learned about this morning. I am sure everybody in the House will join me in extending our condolences to Paul's colleagues and family.
It is on a sombre note that the Leader announced the Order of Business. We on this side of the House would also like to express our sincere condolences to the family of the late Mr. Barry. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
I will begin with good news for the Government and yesterday's jobs announcement. That has to be welcomed, particularly so given that it affects areas of County Galway which are experiencing high levels of unemployment and emigration. I commend the IDA, which is involved in a long lead-in time with many of these companies. The Government of the day always reaps the public rewards but none the less these are real jobs and it is heartening to hear the reaction from young people around Inverin who can now think about finding employment at home rather than having to emigrate like many of their friends and relatives.
The bad news, however, is that media reports have again drawn attention to the ongoing political donation saga. Without going into the details of today's newspaper reports about €850 per table fund-raising events in the constituency of the Leader of the House in Malahide, as an editorial in the Irish Independent stated, the Government's much vaunted commitment to ensuring that political donations are reduced practically to zero has yet to come to fruition. Perhaps the Leader can indicate when it is proposed to introduce legislation on-----
Fianna Fáil has already committed to introducing legislation to outlaw corporate donations. It is a fact of life that more than 80% of donations to my party are small donations rather than coming from the corporate sector. This matter is tainting all political parties and it would be of interest to know-----
We are discussing something that is happening now. It is proposed to hold an event in Malahide at which €850 will be charged to meet a Minister. These are the facts of the story.
Every Member of the House received a letter from the deputy general sector of the Communications Workers Union, Terry Delaney, regarding Vodafone's decision to relocate a significant number of jobs out of Dublin and Dundalk to Northern Ireland. I will be very careful to avoid a certain partitionist attitude because the jobs are not leaving the island of Ireland. Admittedly the decision will cause severe disruption but I hope there will not be too many job losses for those employed in Leopardstown and Dundalk. The jobs are not going to the other end of the world, which was the case in respect of previous Vodafone job relocations.
Although it is a private company, Vodafone makes a significant contribution to this country and a considerable number of Irish people hold its shares. I am one such shareholder, primarily as a result of the original sale of Telecom Éireann, which morphed into Vodafone. I ask the Leader to convey to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the serious concerns expressed by the Communications Workers Union about the impact of this decision on jobs and request that he intervene with Vodafone, at least to establish why it has been exporting jobs from this country not only to the North but also to India and Egypt over the past 12 to 18 months. Is it winding down its facilities in Ireland and will there be further job losses? I am more concerned about this than about the fact that the jobs are moving to the North of Ireland. They are only going a wee bit north.
I ask that the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade make it a practice to come to the House on a more regular basis in light of the developing international situation. Over the past several days the Palestinian Prime Minister boycotted a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the continuation of peace talks. A spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority has gone on record as stating that the two-state solution involving the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel was nearly finished or finished.
These are serious issues and I urge the Tánaiste to communicate with the Israeli Prime Minister and use the contacts that have been built up with the Palestinian Authority to try to bring both sides together in the interest of peace.
I join my colleagues in expressing condolence to the family of the late Mr. Barry.
On the issue of corporate donations, I am glad to hear Fianna Fáil has been converted. It is a case of closing the stable door some time after the horse has bolted but none the less -----
I welcome last night's contribution from the Minister for Social Protection on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012. She made it clear that the changes proposed to the lone parents scheme are conditional on adequate child care arrangements being put in place in the next budget. She has laid down an important marker in this regard. I have met with groups representing lone parents and I know that in principle there is support for the important reforms the Minister wishes to make to ensure the State no longer plays an intrusive role in determining the nature of parental relationships. The question of whether a parent is alone or in a relationship should not be a concern for the State. The State's concern should be for bringing children out of poverty. The lone parent benefit, which has been in place for a long time, has a poor output in terms of bringing lone parents and their children out of poverty. The Minister is committed to making the scheme more effective but she recognises that the planned phased reduction in the age of children will not work unless access to affordable, safe and high quality child care is also made available. We will be debating this issue next week.
I welcome the debate on a Private Members' Bill on abortion which took place in the Dáil last night, 20 years after the X case. There was unfavourable comment on the issue in this House yesterday. I was perturbed to hear some Senators criticise the National Women's Council and the Irish Family Planning Association. I commend these organisations for hosting an important presentation yesterday, some of which I was privileged to attend.
Four brave women who themselves had been through terminations of pregnancy as a result of being pregnant with babies who were not viable and could not survive beyond birth gave harrowing and intimate accounts of the personal tragedies they had suffered from having to terminate their pregnancies in another country and the lack of compassion shown by this State. One of the women stated that it was a time of her life when the State should have put its arms around her but instead it turned its back and forced her to travel abroad for a medical procedure that should have been available in this country.
I am glad the other House has had the opportunity to debate these issues and that the Minister for Health stated that the Government will not shirk its responsibility to take action on foot of the export group report due in June or July. This year I hope we will see legislation to deal not only with the X case but also with the predicament of the many women in Ireland who find themselves in the position of the four brave women who gave presentations to all of us yesterday.
I join other Senators in expressing sympathy with the family of Mr. Barry. I agree with what Senator Bacik said about the debate. I thought Deputy Clare Daly showed remarkable courage and the atmosphere has changed. Anybody who listened to "The Late Debate" on RTE radio will have noticed a remarkable similarity in the language used in this House - regrettably from these benches - and from the person who was representing the so-called pro-life movement. It was the repeating of a mantra obviously by a group who are concerted. That is what we live with in this world.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the economy. It is timely to have a series of rolling debates on the economy because of the activities of the banks. Yesterday an elderly couple living in Killiney were evicted and are now on the side of the road. I was pretty disgusted by some of the comments on the radio from people who have no sympathy for them simply because they live in Killiney. I have no knowledge of their circumstances but where they live does not make it any easier to be forcibly ejected from their own home and forced to live in a tent in their garden without any access to their personal possessions. I believe it is a disgrace. Many of the banks that came flooding into this country when they saw easy money to be made have now shagged off out of it and are getting their jaws sunk into the unfortunate Irish people. I never thought I would see the day when there would be evictions in this country again. If they are to continue and if there is one eviction in 2016, in my opinion the whole thing should be cancelled in honour of people like James Connolly and Pádraig Pearse, who fought against evictions.
While I am discussing the banks, I ask the Leader to communicate my concern to the Minister for Finance. They are still swindling us as hard as they possibly can. If one issues a cheque it takes four days to clear. They should be given five seconds because it can be done by computer. Where did that money go for the four days? We all know where it goes - it goes to support the banks so that they can get interest on the money they have stolen from their own customers and then lodged.
We should take on board the issue of the seriousness of the issue of eviction. Four years ago in this House I called for the establishment of a department of home security to ensure people's constitutional rights to safety in their own home.
I finally refer to the so-called body exhibition that is taking place in the Rotunda, with glowing tributes from the newspaper of record, The Irish Times. Will the Leader inquire of the appropriate Minister as to the conditions of this exhibition? I understand an American company bought the bodies form a Chinese hospital. There has been a suggestion that some of these are victims of Falun Gong executions. It is clear that neither the people who were the original occupants of the bodies nor their families gave consent for this exhibition. It is an absolute disgrace and an affront to human dignity that this exhibition should be permitted in this country.
I welcome the very significant job announcements made yesterday by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, particularly the 250 jobs for Inverin in County Galway. Very significant employment opportunities will be available to many young people in the west of that county. I hope this is the start of many significant announcements over the coming months. We are starting to see some stability and confidence return to the country. I hope the people will take that on board when they come to decide on the stability treaty in six weeks. Investors want to see confidence restored in the euro and want to see confidence restored in our country.
Following the publication of the report of the commission on credit unions, I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on that report at an early opportunity. Everybody in this House and the Government recognise the important role of credit unions as a volunteer co-operative movement and the distinction between them and other financial institutions. We all want to see a vibrant credit union sector. The credit union was always regarded as the bank for the small saver and small borrower. That credit unions are lending very little now is causing great hardship and distress. We need an open and vibrant discussion on the role of the credit unions in the light of the publication of the commission report and the possible restructuring that may take place in the coming months. Obviously it is encouraging that the number of credit unions that are undercapitalised has reduced from 56 to 51. The Seanad needs to discuss the future of the credit union movement given its importance to the people.
I ask the Leader to arrange an early debate with the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Shortall, on her campaign to introduce legislation to control the price of alcohol being sold in supermarkets. Below-cost selling in supermarkets is putting enormous pressure on publicans and their families and is also encouraging excessive drinking at home. Vodka can be bought for less than €15 for a bottle and whiskey and other spirits can be bought for less than €18. Last Sunday's newspapers advertised Tesco selling 24 large cans of beer for €24 and Supervalu had a similar offer for Heineken at €18. It is putting pressure on the trade and also on families. I commend the Minister of State on her work in trying to introduce this even though she is meeting enormous resistance from the industry and also from the newspaper industry. Sunday newspapers rely greatly on the supermarkets advertising between Aldi, Lidl, Supervalu, Tesco and Dunnes Stores.
Last Monday I passed through Castlerea and noticed publicans erecting a sign proclaiming "Customers wanted - apply within". While this was a humorous approach by the two publicans Albert McCormack and Seán Lavin of the Horse and Jockey in Castlerea, it nevertheless indicated the pressure on pubs at this time. Today's edition of the Roscommon People highlighted this particular situation. Some 1,617 pubs closed down between 2005 and 2012 with approximately 25,000 job losses in the past five years. If any other industry had such a loss there would be an outcry. In every town and village there have been job losses in the publicans' trade. By highlighting this in Castlerea, we will raise the issue again here in the House. Below-cost selling in supermarkets is detrimental to the well-being and health of the public. On 25 March 2004, a publican, Thomas Byrne, of The Square in Roscommon sent a letter to the editor highlighting the detrimental effect it would have in this regard.
I extend my sincere sympathy to the family of a man who lost his life in a house fire in Beaufort near Killarney last night.
I do not call for a debate, but I warmly welcome a newspaper report regarding developments in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
The UK Department of Health is due to publish a review of the breast cancer screening programme later this year. According to a recent study, at least ten such women are receiving unnecessary treatment each year. When the review is published, perhaps the Minister will attend the House to let us know how this will affect the treatment of women and a small percentage of men who get breast cancer in Ireland each year.
I want to give a cautious welcome to yesterday's statement on lone parents by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton. It was an important and significant statement. When the budget was first announced, those of us in opposition said that child care was an impediment to many unemployed lone parents seeking access to the labour market. I welcome the Minister's statement that she will not implement the measure which, unfortunately, remains in the Bill to reduce the cut-off age from 14 to seven. This concerns the age of the youngest child in terms of qualifying for the one-parent family allowance.
It is timely for this House to have a proper debate on child care provision. We all aspire to having world class, affordable, safe and high quality child care but unfortunately we do not have it in this country, although huge progress has been made in some areas. Taking what the Minister has said at face value, if it is her intention, and that of the Government, to improve child care in this State, it is important that we should discuss what that will mean. We should discuss not just the child care needs of lone parents but of all parents, whether employed or not.
As we all know, lone parents were specifically targeted in the budget when one considers the cuts to their earnings disregards, payments while on CE schemes and qualified child payments. There were also cuts to the back-to-school allowance, rent supplement and fuel allowance, which had a disproportionate impact on lone parents. While the cut-off age aspect of the budget on lone parents is important, and hopefully we will see a change in it, there were many other aspects in the budget that have disproportionately and wrongfully impacted on lone parents. I hope that they will also be reversed in the context of the Social Welfare Bill's progress through this House.
Following the Christmas recess, we passed the Electoral Amendment (Political Funding) Bill, which is now before the Dáil for consideration. To a degree, that legislation addresses the concerns raised earlier by Senator Mooney. During my contribution to the Bill on Second Stage, I said the Minister had got the legislation as correct as he possibly could. The alternative to personal or corporate funding of politics is that the taxpayer would pay the bill for political parties. I am not sure how the public would respond to that. Since we debated that Bill here, there have been further developments and controversies about political funding. I hope that during the forthcoming Dáil debate the Minister, and the Government generally, will reflect further to see if additional changes could be made. We must ensure an end to any corrosive impact on the political process by how it is funded. I hope the debate is still open as far as the Government is concerned and that any further legislative changes will revert to the Seanad where the Bill originated.
Reference was made to the abortion debate yesterday in the Lower House and the presentation that took place in the audio-visual room. I attended that particular hearing and was struck by the harrowing tales presented to us by the women present. One would have to be sympathetic to the scenario they presented, but this is a complex matter. I wish it could be solved easily, but it cannot and will not be. The debate has to be dealt with calmly and rationally. I am disappointed by the attempt sometimes to portray pro-life people as being some sort of prehistoric ogres, which they most certainly are not. We must be careful in how we portray and categorise people.
As of today, the only alternative I can see to the pro-life culture of Ireland is the abortion culture of Britain and America. If that is the only alternative on offer, I would certainly prefer the status quo.
I ask the Leader to organise a debate with the Minister for Social Protection present, on the report from NUI Galway which stated that 21% of children in this country are going to school, or to bed, hungry. That would account for 344,000 children who are not getting enough to eat. That statistic is all the more shocking because the media gave very little coverage to it. In addition, the debate in this House is not describing the situation as an emergency, which it surely is. If 350,000 children here or elsewhere are going to bed or to school hungry we should call it an emergency.
The figure is all the more stark because at yesterday's meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade it was pointed out that in 2006 one in six children in Malawi were going hungry while today, due to Irish Aid, the figure is one in ten. There may be different levels of hunger but I do not think one can explain that to a child in Ireland or in Malawi.
Surely we can put in place a school meals scheme, as has been done in other countries. It has also been put in place in some schools but not enough obviously, given the scale of the problem involving 344,000 children who are going to school hungry. Food should be available in our schools for all those children who need it. One in five schoolchildren today could be going hungry, which is an appalling situation. Simple solutions include breakfast clubs and dinner clubs but at the very least we should not allow our children to go to school or to bed hungry.
I was not too concerned when I read that Jedward had to cut the number of suits they can take to the Eurovision song contest from 14 to seven. Neither was I hugely concerned - although perhaps a bit disappointed sentimentally - that Larry Gogan would not be travelling to the Eurovision event this year. It is the first time he has not travelled there for many years. One becomes concerned, however, when one realises that the National Symphony Orchestra has had its travel and performance budget curtailed without notice. When one reads that RTE's London office will be closed after the Olympics, one realises that the €25 million in cuts are really beginning to bite. RTE's director general, Mr. Noel Curran, has said that in future the emphasis will be on sport of Irish origin, which most Members of this House would support. RTE's regional news output will be maintained but they will examine ways to make savings through leases and rents.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to attend the House for a debate on what should be occurring at a time of crisis in RTE. The emphasis on regional news and current affairs should be strengthened. At this time, our sense of stability and pride in who we are can be cemented and encouraged by greater regional reporting, rather than by reducing it. When I read those lines, my fear is that this is the thin end of the wedge and we are starting to examine ways of cutting such offices. Those offices are then reduced slowly and entirely over time and it is only a small step before those journalists are taken away at a time when we need the emphasis to be more on the regional differences and the cement that binds us together. Such a debate would be worthwhile and if we had notice of it, we could contribute in a way by bringing forward ideas and suggestions - I realise that cuts have to be made - so that the core value of regional broadcasting and regional news which RTE has held high for many years, would be retained.
Senator Norris made a very interesting point this morning as regards the length of time it takes for a cheque to clear through the system. Clearing house practices and rules exist but we need full accountability and transparency in this regard. I wish to add to his call for a debate on banking and the economy. In regard to banking, it is important that we know that everyone in the two pillar banks in particular - as the foreign banks have virtually departed - both at senior management and board level, have all been approved at this stage by the Central Bank and that they have met the fitness and probity tests as laid down. There is also the question of the downsizing of AIB and the position as regards the offer to the staff. I am concerned that we will have a duopoly with just two pillar banks. This is not good as regards the availability of credit in the future. I refer to the role of the credit controller's office and how it interplays. I support Senator Mullins's very interesting point in regard to the restructuring of the credit unions because there would be less competition without them. These are all very important matters and in my view are worthy of a debate in an early court if that can be arranged.
I was referred to in a debate yesterday as Ned O'Shea. I am beginning to enjoy the anonymity of it all.
It might be timely to have a debate on the Irish horse-racing industry, especially in light of the recent great news from China, whereby the Chinese will attempt to establish a racing industry of their own, based on the Irish model and using the expertise and knowledge of our Irish trainers and all that goes with that. This is a significant success and I compliment Horse Racing Ireland and everyone in the racing industry and also the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for achieving this arrangement for Ireland. This will underpin further the importance of the racing industry to the country in which thousands are employed. It is not an exclusive sport by any means because it is for everybody. Every housewife in the country had a few shillings on the grand national and next week there will be the great flagship show piece in Punchestown where all the world will see the very best of racing and the very best of sport. I ask the Leader to consider arranging such a debate in due course so that we can highlight even further what is one of the treasures of the Irish economy.
I agree with Senator O'Sullivan in that matter. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has done a very good job and I compliment the Department and all those involved in progressing this sector and ensuring that Ireland is reaping the benefits of the hard work done over a long number of years.
I wish to highlight the report published this week on the implementation of the reform of the intern year for junior doctors. I asked a question at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children about the number of junior doctors who have left Ireland after completing only one postgraduate year, the intern year, in an Irish hospital. A total of 45% of interns working in Irish hospitals who finished college training in 2010 had left the Irish medical system by July 2011. This is a frightening statistic. I thank the HSE for setting up the procedure of monitoring the movement of interns and this is the second report in this regard. However, it highlights the reasons young doctors are leaving at such an early stage in their training and it points to the lack of a clear career path for medical graduates. There is a need for a discussion on this issue and I ask for a debate. More than 600 students graduate from medical schools every year and it seems a large proportion are leaving the country within a year of graduation. This needs to be investigated.
This is a detailed report which also deals with the aspect of record-keeping. Only 31% of graduates believed they had sufficient training in the area of record-keeping. It is quite frightening that after five years in college and 12 months in a hospital, only 31% believed they were sufficiently trained in this important aspect of their work. This issue needs to be tackled in view of the fact that such significant awards are paid out in litigation. This should be highlighted in a debate when the Minister for Health is next in the House. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on this issue at an early date.
I agree with Senator Ned O'Sullivan as regards the horse-racing industry. The announcement by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, was spectacular and it seems to have been lost between headlines. It means a national stud in China will have been created and brought about by Ireland. For example, Coolmore stud is a world-class facility and we can all be proud of the Irish horse-racing industry.
I agree with Senator O'Keeffe about the need for further discussion about RTE and the media in general. In particular, I read reports at the weekend - as to whether they are true is another question - that the GAA is considering going into the digital area and perhaps having a digital channel whereby the all-Ireland hurling and football finals would be exclusively broadcast and would not be free-to-air. The GAA has benefited enormously from State aid over the years-----
-----and there is a responsibility on the GAA in the first instance. If it does not live up to it there is a responsibility on us as legislators, to ensure that major sporting events with such historic links as the all-Ireland football and hurling finals and the provincial finals and other major GAA events, are available to all citizens of this country, free of charge. It is the least we can expect from our treasured national game.
I apologise, it was just a Freudian slip. I was referring to the Fianna Fáil group leader whose constituency is in north County Dublin. The north County Dublin Fine Gael organisation has issued invitations for an €850 table at a fund-raising event in a hotel in Malahide and this has hit the national papers.
I thank Senator Mooney for clarifying that matter. I am quite happy living in Waterford, I assure him. I am not aware of that fund-raising event but he has clarified the matter. He mentioned €850 but I believe that is the cost for a table of ten. The vast majority of funding from my party - 90% - comes from €80 tickets sold to members and supporters the length and breadth of the country.
Senator Bacik mentioned the debate that took place in the other House on abortion and Senators Norris and Bradford raised this also. I indicated yesterday that an expert group chaired by Mr. Justice Sean Ryan will report back to the Government on this issue in July. The Government believes this is the appropriate forum in which to examine this complex and sensitive matter. I am sure we will have an opportunity to discuss the subject when the report has been published.
Senator Norris also raised the possibility of rolling debates on the economy. We will certainly try to arrange that. He also mentioned the eviction of people from their home in Killiney. It is sad to see any person evicted from his or her home in this day and age. With regard to the clearance of cheques, I know the Senator raised the matter last night with the Minister for Finance. He went straight to the horse's mouth on that matter.
Senator Mullins spoke about the recent job announcement in Inverin, County Galway, as did Senator Mooney. It is great to hear that young people now feel they can stay at home and work in their own parishes and communities as a result of these job announcements. It was good to hear from Senator Leyden that he was rushing off to Boyle, where there is a further announcement of jobs this afternoon. I hope the tide is turning in that regard. The Senator also mentioned the report of the commission on credit unions. We can and should arrange a debate on that report as soon as possible.
Senator Leyden also raised the question of below-cost selling of alcohol. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Shortall, has indicated that she will attend and speak to the House on this subject, which is close to her own heart. I am sure she will make progress soon. Senator Moloney spoke about advances in the treatment of breast cancer and prostate cancer in Britain. We can arrange a debate on that with the Minister for Health. It is encouraging to see these new advances in the treatment of all kinds of cancer, which give hope to so many people in the country who suffer from cancer.
Senator Cullinane mentioned the provision of child care. The Minister for Social Protection will be in the House all day and until late at night next Thursday dealing with the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. She will also be here on Friday next. The House will be sitting, as I indicated, from Monday to Friday next week to deal with quite an amount of business. Senator Bradford spoke about political funding. I am sure that if there are any amendments to the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill, it will come back to us in due course. Senator Daly can raise the points he made about child poverty when the Minister is here on Thursday and Friday of next week.
Senator O'Keeffe spoke about the cuts in RTE, which were also mentioned by Senator Conway. I agree with the Senator that it is important that RTE retain its core values with regard to coverage and an emphasis on the regions, which is an important part of its remit. Senator Coghlan spoke about the duopoly of the two pillar banks, which does not augur well for competition. We can include that in our debate on the economy, which is to take place soon. Senators O'Sullivan and Conway spoke about the Irish horse racing industry and the development of the horse breeding and racing industry in China. This is of great benefit to the horse breeders and everybody involved in the thoroughbred industry in this country. I compliment the Senator for raising that matter.
Senator Burke raised the issue of interns and junior doctors leaving within 12 months of graduation, and the fact that only 31% of those in training had a knowledge of record-keeping. This is a disturbing report, and I agree with the Senator that we should arrange a debate on this matter as soon as possible.