Wednesday, 25 April 2012
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re sitting arrangements on Friday, 27 April, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion re sitting arrangements on Monday, 30 April, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, Competition (Amendment) Bill 2011 – Order for Committee Stage and Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 and conclude not later than 2.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 4, Road Safety Authority (Commercial Vehicle Roadworthiness) Bill 2012 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 3.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 5, statements, questions and answers on transport, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 4 and conclude not later than 5 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes, the contribution of one Sinn Féin Senator not to exceed two minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed one minute when asking a question of the Minister; and No. 27, motion No. 8 re nurse training, Private Members' business, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m.
I think it is appropriate, because the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government came into this House two weeks ago and explained to Members why it is not appropriate to ban corporate donations. We have found out in the interim that the Fine Gael Party has been going around the country hoovering up the last of the corporate donations it will be able to receive, such as in my own town of Malahide this Friday, Punchestown today-----
I regret the weather has not been kind to the party, but it is appropriate we revisit this and have a look at the advice the Minister gave to this House when he said it was unconstitutional to ban corporate donations. In fairness, we have heard certain rebuttals from different Ministers who have said they will do what they like at the moment because the legislation has not changed. That is for another day.
Can the Deputy Leader arrange a debate on the Croke Park agreement? I noted with interest comments from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform yesterday, and over recent months a divide appears to have formed between the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party on where they stand on this issue. The Croke Park agreement is an arrangement in which we firmly believe. It was castigated by the Government parties when they were in opposition. It should be given time to allow those savings come through. The message being sent out by the Government is that everything is on the table. I heard the chairperson of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party say on radio this morning that increments are up for grabs and that parts of the Croke Park agreement will be torn up. I also heard Deputy Peadar Tóibín from Sinn Féin say this morning saying that his party does not support the agreement. That was a departure. Our Sinn Féin colleagues might have to answer for that.
It is important we provide time to discuss the Croke Park agreement, to look at the savings that have been made within the agreement, to look at other work that can and should be done, and to review it properly in this House so that we can figure out where changes and additional savings need to be made. We should do this properly. People are working hard to try to change how they work with fewer resources. It would be a worthwhile debate.
Yesterday, my party leader, Deputy Martin, my colleague, Councillor Eoghan O'Brien, and I were canvassing in Malahide on the European treaty. Much work needs to be done to get this treaty passed. I welcome the fact the Government is issuing information notes to every household. I would appeal to all parties advocating a "Yes" vote to ensure we knock on as many doors as possible and as early as possible. We should take down the queries now. We have six weeks to the referendum and this will not be a long time coming. I got a sense yesterday evening that other matters such as water charges, household taxes and so on are coming into the mix. We need to divorce our views on them from the matter of the treaty itself and what we in Fianna Fáil see as its importance for this country. Much work needs to be done on this.
Has any work been done on the scheduling of business in the Seanad in the run-up to the referendum to allow Senators participate fully in the campaign itself, regardless of whether they are for or against the treaty? I ask the Deputy Leader to look at the schedule.
The other main issue raised yesterday with me and my party leader was water charges, and the confusion around it. I will once again move an amendment to the Order of Business this morning to call on the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to come to this House to explain how much people are going to pay, what the free allowance of water will be, who will pay for the meters and how they will be paid for. As a few people in Seabury, Malahide, said to me last night, we did not pay for a gas meter or an ESB meter, so why should we pay for a water meter?
I would like to raise the issue of absenteeism in the health service. It may have been raised previously but I would like to raise it again because it is important at a time when there is much difficulty in making ends meet in the health service. There was a 19% absenteeism rate in one hospital in this country for the month of January. One out of every five workers was not at work when they should have been. The interesting figure is that the absenteeism of junior doctors was only 1.24%, and these are people who work up to 80 hours per week. There is now a name for it, "duvet day", when people feel it is inappropriate to get out of bed to come into work. It is a real issue that must be looked at and tackled. If it is a problem in a particular hospital or unit of the health service, the reason for it should be examined and a clear message sent that we, as taxpayers, cannot afford to allow it to continue. We need a debate on how we provide for full pay for persons on sick leave. It is part of a debate we should have with the Minister, particularly when we consider all of the money collected in income tax last year did not cover the full cost of the health care service. This year we will also have a difficulty with the amount collected in income tax not covering the health care budget. It is an extremely important issue. It costs every taxpayer and puts lives at risk when people stay away from work when there is not a genuine reason for it. It is an issue we should debate the next time the Minister for Health appears in the House.
Today eight months is Christmas Day. As a shopkeeper I am always reminded of how many shopping days remain until Christmas Day. The work we need to do to achieve the goals of the Government's programme for this year does not seem to be taking place; there are distractions and it is being put on the long finger. We must, however, make sure we do it.
Today is supported employment day, organised by the Irish Association of Supported Employment. I heard Senator David Norris on radio this morning talking about the great work being done. I have been involved with this organisation for a number of years and it is doing a great job. It encourages those who otherwise would not have had a job because of difficulties with a disability and gives them an opportunity to take the first step on the employment ladder.
Could we do something about the report published today by the Institute of Directors of Ireland? This is a serious issue. The directors of State agencies believe not enough skills are sought from those appointed to State boards. I have had some experience of State boards and have seen some valuable individuals serving on them. They have committed themselves to the work and done it well. I also know there have been failures and political appointments, about which I am concerned. The institute has checked with all of its members who are members of State boards and they say the skills needed are not included and that transparency and openness in appointments to State boards are lacking. We have had successful semi-State operations since the 1920s and it would be a shame if people were appointed to boards in a non-transparent manner and without investigating their skills to ensure the right people are appointed.
There was a reminder today of the need for defibrillators. A number of years ago there was a campaign to ensure people who might suffer a heart attack would have a defibrillator available, but we have not gone nearly far enough. There was an incident yesterday when a person had a heart attack, but luckily someone was passing by and the person concerned was saved. We must invest in defibrillators around the country and training to be able to use them. This will save lives and the onus is on us to do so.
I welcome the students from Greenhill secondary school, Carrick on Suir, my home town. I thank Ms Greene for waiting outside until I rose to speak.
I raise the issue of loan availability to small businesses. On the last occasion the Labour Party tabled a motion during Private Members' business I led a debate on the provision of funding for small business. The Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, took the debate and was forthcoming in his support for small business. However, I have since come across many small businesses in my area which are still having difficulties with the banks, which are not being given loans or which are being offered loans with terms that are so prohibitive that they cannot draw them down. Will the Leader ask the Minister of State to bring representatives of both Bank of Ireland and AIB into the audio visual room for a formal session on the loan systems they have in place and a question and answer session with Members of both Houses? This is essential in terms of the recovery of the country and the economy. The Minister of State has outlined that there is €7 billion available in 2012 for small and medium-sized enterprises. However, unless something happens, less than 50% of this will be drawn down. As we are now the custodians of the banks, I am calling on the Leader to request the Minister of State not to ask but to instruct the banks to come here for a question and answer session with all Oireachtas Members.
I follow Senator Denis Landy by referring to news reports today that highlight the epidemic of house repossessions. There are now two per day and over one year into the term of office of the Government, despite many promises, we have made no progress. Solutions have been put forward on all sides of the House; this side has tabled two Bills, but there has not been any action and still the people wonder. Senator Denis Landy has eloquently pointed out that we are now the custodians of the banks; we are supposed to control them as large shareholders on behalf of the people, but in reality, what are we doing? Senator Sean D. Barrett mentioned the backstairs in the Department of Finance for the exclusive use of bankers. We are failing the people day by day. While the IMF can easily secure €325 billion to support governments, what is the Government doing to support families in Ireland? We introduced the Family Home Bill and the Debt Settlement and Mortgage Resolution Bill, while a proposed Government Bill to address the issue has been left sitting on Committee Stage with no action being taken, largely because it does not suit the bankers who are concerned about what the markets might say. I do not care about the markets, I care about people. I know Senator Denis Landy and other Members of the Houses care about them also. If the Whip was removed and that basic question was put, 99.9% of Members would vote in favour of the people receiving the support they need. Unless action is taken quickly, we will reintroduce the Family Home Bill which would provide a solution that might be judicial, but it could be put in place quickly to ensure families are kept in their homes, rather than allowing two families per day to be put out on the street.
I draw the attention of the Leader and the House to the recent Northern Executive and Assembly initiative whereby a levy is being placed on large retail properties with sizeable retail valuations, with the proceeds to be used to reduce rates for smaller businesses. We have heard Senator Denis Landy and many others speak about this issue in the recent past and all know how businesses are suffering. There is serious concern about the effect out-of-town stores are having on businesses in town centres and traditional retail zones. We must find ways to make town centres more attractive. Out-of-town stores should make a contribution to the cost of town centre regeneration.
We have seen the drift. All provincial towns are suffering. Much of this is the result of bad planning over the years. In the drift out of town, where the infrastructure did not exist it had to be put in at great cost to local authorities. We are aware of the investment in town centres, with paving, footpaths, piping and so on. We have allowed that to suffer, very stupidly, through bad planning. Action must now be taken to redress the situation we have allowed to develop all over the country.
I encourage the Leader to look at this issue and, appropriately, to bring it to the attention of the Government.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Darragh O'Brien. It is extraordinary that the gas company is going to install water meters. One can buy electricity from the gas company. Why do we not merge them all into one?
We have been asked for a debate on absenteeism. I glanced around the House. We started ten minutes late. I was the first person in the Chamber this morning and for the majority of the time I have been here there were 12 Members present. That represents a rate of absenteeism of 80%. We should look to ourselves on this, particularly if we wish this House to continue in existence.
That may relate to another matter which I ask the Deputy Leader to bring to the attention of the broadcasting section. It is extraordinary that when the House sits on its own, as it does sometimes and during which periods it sometimes addresses important matters, it is never reported on RTE. There is a programme called" Oireachtas Report" but it only broadcasts when both Houses are sitting or when the Dáil is sitting on its own. RTE should be reminded that the Oireachtas consists of both Houses. In order for this point to be made effectively we need to show more support for this House.
Two entire groups are completely unrepresented in the House this morning. Not a single Member from Sinn Féin or the Taoiseach's nominees is here.
Members should reflect on what Senator Quinn said. Eight months from now will be Christmas Day, which is in the future. This day last year many of us were sweating during the Seanad election count. I am very glad to be back here.
Senator Keane, you are entitled to contribute now, without interruption.
Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I would be delighted.
I note the condemnation of the Government's provision of information on the referendum. The previous referendum failed. A survey conducted on that referendum and surveys conducted on referendums in England demonstrate the strength of the old adage, "If you don't know, vote "No"'. We must ensure that people are informed.
At a conference of political studies, Professor Paul Wheatley from Essex clearly showed, using statistics from throughout Europe, that lack of information was a key factor in the British referendum on electoral reform. A survey done in Ireland found that 47% of people felt they were ill-informed about the referendum on Oireachtas inquiries. This was true even of people who intended to vote. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties was right to condemn the previous Government for not doing enough to inform the people. The Government was very cagey, knowing it would be criticised if it informed the people, and equally if it did not. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties also criticised the Referendum Commission for not doing enough to inform the people.
Elected representatives must not fall between a rock and a hard place because of the McKenna judgment. We must go out and give factual information. The Constitution, which we all admire, is a blunt instrument. It is difficult to decipher complex information and decide whether to vote "Yes" or "No". The people must be given factual information. There is a requirement that the Government not spend public money on promoting one side or another in a referendum. The people need factual information. Throwing a copy of the fiscal treaty, as it is written, in someone's doorway is not giving factual information. The Government should be entitled to explain what the treaty says in plain and simple language and not expected to list the reasons for a "Yes" and a "No" vote. Any Government is entitled to do that.
I would like the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to make recommendations, because I admire that body. If it criticised the previous Government for not doing enough to inform the people I would like it to get involved with the Government and say how the treaty should be explained to the people. Public representatives should get out and consult the people, listen to their views and come back to the Government. We have a duty of care. I am delighted to see most Opposition Members are helping the Government in its effort. Senator O'Brien and the rest of us are out canvassing for a "Yes" vote.
I ask the House to recommend that factual information be given. Listing reasons to vote "Yes" and "No" is not giving factual information. If I were required to do that I would have to make up good reasons to vote "No". That would not be fact. It would be my fiction.
I have asked through the normal channels if there is any proof that payments given to people to pay mortgage interest are being passed on to the banks. If people are given a choice between feeding their families, keeping the lights on or keeping the house warm and paying the bank, no one will blame them if they fail to pay the bank. We must find different mechanisms to assist people who find themselves in that difficulty. However, we need an assurance that people who are receiving assistance to make mortgage interest payments do pass the money on to the bank. People who use those funds for food, fuel or lighting should get the necessary assistance.
I support my colleague, Senator Coghlan, on the issue of rates. In Northern Ireland out of town centres pay higher rates than businesses in the centre of towns. That is something the Deputy Leader might look at.
I very much welcome the positive contribution made by Senator Darragh O'Brien this morning in calling for a "Yes" vote and compliment him on being actively out on the stump already and canvassing. This is one of the most important decisions for the country that we will make and it will have an impact for many decades to come. The treaty must be passed in the interests of job retention and job creation and I very much welcome the fact that chambers of commerce, farmers' organisations and employers have come out strongly in support.
I understand that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is to make a decision today and I would call on it to reflect strongly on that decision.
-----and to create employment. At a time when there are 445,000 unemployed, we need every opportunity and support we can get to create employment and to bring about confidence so that people will invest in our country. The trade union movement has a significant role to play. As I stated here yesterday, those who oppose the treaty have not come up with one advantage to the country of voting "No", but there are certainly very many advantages to voting "Yes". I would strongly urge ICTU to come on board and support this referendum.
All the other decisions will be made in due course. We were accused of rushing into matters by bringing the property charges on board too quickly. This is a major decision. We need to get it right. We need to ensure that it is fair and balanced. That cannot happen overnight.
I would ask for a little patience and indulgence on this particular major issue. It is vital for the country to have a safe, secure and plentiful water supply in the future and Senator Darragh O'Brien can be assured the Government is treating it seriously and we will get this one right.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business tabled by my colleague, Senator Darragh O'Brien. The Government side of the House should take warning from Senator O'Brien's comments on his experience so far on the stump on the forthcoming referendum. I have some concern about what Senator Keane stated about attempting to suggest that there should be continual clarity. If a Government Senator is at this stage suggesting that there is a lack of clarity, then there is a real need for the Government to up its game.
That is kind of the Leas-Chathaoirleach and I thank him. What I was going to say is that every referendum up until now has brought in extraneous issues. While I appreciate fully the concerns being expressed here about water charges and various other matters, when one goes out knocking on doors one will be engaged, not about the fiscal treaty but about a range of other issues. That will be a challenge for all those who are involved in supporting this referendum.
All I am asking is that the Government would up its game a little more because the sands are shifting in Europe as we speak. If one reads any of the newspapers and any of the economic commentaries over the past week on the fiscal treaty, there are various changes taking place in Europe with various governments in various countries and an attitude across Europe of anti-austerity sentiment. If that will be translated into the Irish electorate, voters will say to themselves that they do not really fully understand this treaty because the Government has not really outlined it. In fairness to the Government, we all agree it is not quite as simple and straightforward as has been teased out in debate here. All I am saying is that I would welcome the Leader ensuring that there would be ongoing and regular updates on the campaign on the fiscal treaty. This House should continue to highlight the positives in that regard. We have an obligation to do so.
In the six weeks left before the referendum, we can get caught up in much unnecessary tittle-tattle. We need to micromanage the message properly and give people the facts. In the first instance, what is being distributed to the 1.6 million households explains a treaty. It is up to the people then to decide whether they will vote "Yes" or "No".
It is fair to say that we do not know what the consequences for this country will be if we vote "No". Nobody has told us what will happen if we vote "No". I want to hear what the alternative of those advocating a "No" is. It is easy to shout and roar and say "Vote "No" against austerity, against the European Union and against what is happening." One may blame bankers, water meters, septic tanks and what one likes, but what is the alternative? I want to hear the alternative. I want to hear a comprehensive rebuttal of the "Yes" side by the "No" side. All I have heard up until now is ill-informed and ill-advised, and what I would describe as "subversive soundbites". I have not heard one positive contribution on an alternative from the "No" side. This morning I challenge one person from the "No" side to get up and give us an alternative because I think we need that.
Obviously, it was the wrong day to do that.
I commend the Institute of Directors on the report it released today on appointments to State boards. It is interesting that almost half of those appointed are appointed because they know about it, either through word of mouth or with contact with the Minister or the Minister's office. Obviously, this is of concern. It is the case that we would like to see all of these appointments made through public advertisement and through proper public interview.
Of more concern is the finding that directors themselves consider there is not enough communication from Ministers and that Ministers do not outline their long-term vision for what they want the board to do. That is coming from those who sit on State boards. This is a concern. If one adds to that the fact that the directors think that the skills mix on the board is wrong, and that at the outset 40% of them believe that the skills requirements were not outlined to them when they took up the job, obviously there is a big deficit in the State boards at a time when we need State boards to work even harder.
At least the Institute of Directors has done the work. I commend it for that and for pointing out the difficulties that are there. I want to ask for a debate on this matter and the associated specific point the institute made at the end of its report, which is that it believes that directors on State boards are not paid well enough. The Institute of Directors' chief executive, Ms Maura Quinn, stated today that she believes that they should be paid well. I suspect that within this House there would be quite a level of disagreement as to how that pay should be given to directors who work in this capacity. I would call for a debate on that matter and on the appointment of directors to State boards.
A "Yes" vote in the forthcoming referendum is critical for the stability of the country and will allow us to get on with addressing the issues of most concern to the people. I spent the last two days at a meeting attended by representatives of all 27 European Union member states at which it was clear youth unemployment was the major concern throughout Europe, just as it was in Ireland. If we are serious about tackling this problem, we must provide a stable environment for the economy to grow. All of the evidence suggests the next growth spurt will emerge from the digital agenda. In fact, it is estimated that e-commerce is growing at such a rate as to provide up to 30,000 new jobs a year across the European Union. The problem, however, is that neither Ireland nor the Union as a whole is ready for this development, with demand already outstripping supply in terms of the availability of information technology professionals. A truly shocking figure is that by 2015 there will be a shortage of such professionals to the tune of some 700,000. We must work together to address this skills shortfall. We must be prepared to meet developments in this area, as a Government and as a country, for the sake of our young people. Will the Deputy Leader facilitate a debate on the digital agenda, including a discussion of the reasons broadband penetration in the State remains below the EU average? The Minister for Education and Skills should also be invited to the Chamber to discuss the implications for universities and institutes of technology of the projected shortfall in the number of IT professionals. Every business and marketing course should include a core component on information technology, digital marketing and social media, but that is not being done. In the absence of a proactive approach, it is our young people who will lose out. The great news is that the digital world is one that appeals to them.
I agree with colleagues that the work of the Seanad is not reflected fairly and equitably in the media. We have heard many calls in the House for RTE to devote a greater portion of "Oireachtas Report" to proceedings in the Upper House. The Seanad is sitting five days this week, yet that programme is being shown only on the days on which the Dáil is in session. We must have a debate on the need for greater parity in media coverage of the work of the two Houses. The excellent work being done in this Chamber is often glossed over. On last night's "Oireachtas Report", for instance, the important debates on the fiscal treaty and the Mahon tribunal's report in which we engaged yesterday were barely mentioned.
Senator David Norris commented on attendance rates in the House and claimed none of the Taoiseach's nominees was in attendance today. I remind him that I am one of those nominees and I am here every morning. Observers who see an almost empty Chamber might conclude there are few Senators in the vicinity of Leinster House. However, it is only when one becomes a Senator that one realises how much of our work takes place outside the Chamber.
We should have a debate on the issue.
We were greeted this morning with the horrifying news that three more inmates of Loughan House had escaped yesterday, a development that is highly embarrassing for the Irish Prison Service. We must have an immediate explanation of these apparent failures of security, with the latest incident coming barely one month after another escapee managed to evade capture for several days. The security arrangements at Loughan House and throughout the Irish Prison Service must be urgently reviewed.
It saddens and angers me greatly to observe the ongoing debate on the domiciliary care allowance. The problems in this regard are clear to me from speaking to nurses with the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation. We have 288 families under our wing, including babies whose development has been severely delayed as a result of brain damage, many of whom are adversely affected by delays of up to eight months in the processing of domiciliary care allowance applications. Furthermore, the processing of applications for carer's allowance and medical cards is intertwined with the payment of domiciliary care allowance. It is utterly shocking that the Health Service Executive continues to request that families we assist submit domiciliary care allowance review forms in the knowledge that the children concerned will not get better. These children will never bake brown bread or kick a ball and, in most cases, their condition is terminal. I was convinced that my husband, Mr. Jonathan Irwin, who is chief executive officer of the foundation was mistaken when he told me what was happening. To my dismay, however, I discovered that it was very much the case.
As if that were not bad enough, what is truly appalling is that payment of domiciliary care allowance is withheld for the duration of the review process which takes, on average, eight months. This is bureaucracy gone mad and totally unfair. Severely disabled children and their parents are being treated with complete disrespect and their lives made more difficult than they already are. I call on the Minister for Health, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Finance to resolve this crisis and rectify the delay in the processing of claims for carer's allowance and medical cards. I am also asking Government Senators to step up to the plate by lobbying to have this issue resolved. Our purpose must be to safeguard the most vulnerable in our society, to which category the people to whom I refer unquestionably belong. Children and their parents deserve better and no politician can hide behind the excuse of there being no money available. Addressing these issues will ultimately result in a cost saving.
Mar atá a fhios ag gach duine, bhí díospóireacht an-leathan anseo inné ar an gconradh fioscach agus fáiltím roimhe sin. Fuaireamar deis cuid des na hargóintí a chlos ar gach taobh den díóspóireacht agus bhí díospóireacht an-mhaith ann. Tá seasamh na gceardchumann ar an reifreann spéisiúil, chomh maith leis an chaoi a bhfuil níos mó grúpaí, de réir a chéile, ag teacht amach i gcoinne an reifrinn.
Yesterday's debate on the legislation to facilitate the holding of the referendum on the fiscal treaty was useful and proactive. It became heated from time to time, but it was was very informative on both sides of the argument. More and more groups are coming out publicly in opposition to the treaty. In particular, I commend Mandate, UNITE and the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union, TEEU, for their call for a "No" vote. SIPTU, meanwhile, has released a statement indicating that it will consider advising its members to support the treaty in the event of an undertaking from the Government to implement a stimulus programme.
We are taking all elements of the debate on board. I have been contacted by numerous rank and file members of SIPTU who are somewhat dismayed at the stance being taken by the union's leadership. They have asked me to seek clarification of the Government's intentions in this regard. The Deputy Leader will correct me if I am mistaken, but I seem to recall that she indicated on Committee Stage yesterday that the Government did not intend to give any such undertaking in advance of the referendum.
Will the Deputy Leader clarify the Government's position on the demand of SIPTU that a commitment be given in advance of the referendum on the introduction of a stimulus package to create jobs? If that commitment is not to be given, trade union members can follow the advice of their leadership to reject the treaty. If, on the other hand, such an undertaking is in prospect, it begs the question as to why it is being given in advance of the treaty.
My question relates to the tourism industry, particular in the south of the country, in advance of the impending tourism season. The potential for job creation in the tourism sector in counties such as that in which I live, namely, the kingdom of Kerry, is enormous. In the short to medium term, the best prospects for growth in local economies is to exploit the solid product that exists in tourism hotspots. Between December and February, trips to Ireland were up by 2.7%. Some 1.15 million people from overseas visited the country during those three months. However, Shannon Airport has lost 2 million passengers since 2007 and is understood to have a long-standing debt of €100 million. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, previously stated that Shannon will be the first of the State airports to have certainty about its future and that he would make a recommendation to Cabinet by Easter on the best option for its future viability. I do not believe the Minister has made that decision or has delivered his recommendations to the Cabinet. I, therefore, ask the Leader to invite him to come before the House in order that we might discuss the future viability of Shannon Airport, the tourism product in this country and the possibilities that exist in the context of creating employment in the tourism sector.
I hope that at its meeting today ICTU will not leave matters open as to whether its members should vote "Yes" or "No" in the referendum. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, put in a first-class performance on last night's "Prime Time" programme. The person speaking on behalf of the "No" campaign was also excellent. There is a need for organisations such as the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland to get on the airwaves and, in the context of foreign direct investment here, to state how important it is for Ireland to be at the centre of Europe and that Ireland is a fulsome and passionate supporter of the EU. As stated yesterday, the only jobs that have been created since January - some 2,300 - came about as a result of foreign direct investment. As former member of the Federated Workers Union of Ireland, FWUI and like Senator Mullins, I am of the view that it all comes down to jobs. What is happening is beyond belief and because the numbers are dwindling, certain individuals are being opportunistic in the context of frightening people. It behoves all of us to knock on people's doors and inform them of the fact that the treaty relates to jobs.
I cannot understand Sinn Féin's position in respect of this matter. From where are we going to obtain the money-----
The Referendum Commission of which the Clerk to the Seanad, Ms Deirdre Lane, served stated that the lead-in periods in respect of previous referendums were too short. The Government should have the guts to state that it made a mistake and that the lead-in period for the forthcoming referendum is too short. It should delay the referendum until the end of June.
On this occasion Sinn Féin is opposing the referendum because it wishes to seek publicity. I am of the view that its members do not even believe the arguments being put forward. Any person who is involved in business and in creating jobs is advocating a "Yes" vote. These are the people who are maintaining the economy at present.
I am seeking a debate on an issue relevant to Donegal which was the subject of an report in the Irish Independent. I refer to Donegal County Council paying out almost €3 million to a private consultancy firm. I was a member of the council at the time and I am in a position to state that we were not made aware of this payment until the public auditor highlighted it and the internal auditor clarified the position. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government should come before the House and inform Senators as to how local authorities throughout the country have paid out in consultancy fees and to indicate what is the future with regard to consultancy contracts. The internal auditor informed the Irish Independent that the information provided by the consultants in question to Donegal County Council could have been downloaded free of charge from the Internet. Instead, these individuals were paid €30,000 per month to provide it. The council was still paying the gentlemen involved up to last year.
This matter is still under review and, in such circumstances, I request that the Minister come to the House to inform us where matters stand in the context of local authorities paying consultancy fees. Local authority budgets are becoming increasingly tight.
Will the Deputy Leader impress upon the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the need for the Government to use its influence with the banks, particularly those which are in State ownership, to encourage them to take part in the resolution process relating to the residents of Priory Hall? She will be aware that the process, which is being chaired by Mr. Justice Finnegan, was announced on Friday last. The residents and Dublin City Council welcomed the process and have indicated that they will take part in it. In the absence of the mortgage lenders involved, there is not much point in the process proceeding because it will not be possible to reach any kind of resolution. I raised the matter of the position of Priory Hall residents vis-À-vis their mortgages on a number of occasions in the House. I did so for the first time on 20 October of last year, just after the residents had been evacuated from their homes.
As Members are aware, this is a special situation. I appreciate that there are general provisions in respect of people who have difficulty paying their mortgages as a result of a loss of or reduction in income or of being made unemployed. However, the residents of Priory Hall are in an entirely different category. This matter has nothing to do with a loss of income, it relates to the fact that their homes are uninhabitable. These people are being asked to pay mortgages on properties in which they cannot live. In fact, they do not know whether they will ever be able to return to those properties. There has been a complete lack of a co-ordinated response to this matter to date. Some mortgage lenders have paused people's repayments while others have not. Those who have had their repayments paused are not paying their mortgages on a monthly basis but the interest on those mortgages is still accruing. As a result, the amount owed on such mortgages is increasing on a monthly basis. In addition to all of the other stresses they are experiencing, the residents could be faced where, in a year or two, the amount of interest due on their mortgages may have risen by €20,000 or €30,000.
As already stated, I have raised this matter in the House on previous occasions. I wrote to the Taoiseach almost a month ago and requested that at the Economic Management Council's meeting with the banks, the Government should ask that there be a co-ordinated response, under the auspices of the Irish Banking Federation or some other group, to ensure that a fair and consistent approach is taken by the banks. All I received in respect of the correspondence to which I refer was an acknowledgement. I ask that the Deputy Leader use her good offices and her influence with members of the Cabinet to ensure the Government uses its influence on this issue in order that a fair solution might be arrived at. There is concern about this matter on all sides of the House and it has been raised by other Members in the past.
I concur with the comments made by Senator Mary Ann O'Brien in respect of the domiciliary care allowance system and chaos to which the administrative blockage therein has given rise. The House should demand a positive and quick response from the relevant Minister on this matter. I thank Senator Mary Ann O'Brien for hosting a most powerful, evocative and emotional meeting last Thursday evening in the audiovisual room. Her friends in the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation presented their case and modest requests to us for support and funding. Out of all the lobbying meetings I have attended through the years in Leinster House it stood out for its humanity and purpose and the generosity of the people who made the case.
It is important we continue to debate the merits of the treaty in the House. I welcome the fact the public will be getting direct information from the Government and Referendum Commission. Issues and questions will arise over the course of the campaign and the Houses of the Oireachtas should have a debate one day a week on the ongoing developments in the treaty referendum campaign. It would be helpful.
This week, as is the case every week, our Government will go to the European banklink machine with its credit card and have to withdraw €300 or €400 million of European money to pay our teachers, nurses, social welfare allowances and pensions. That is the core of the debate, namely, how we fund and continue to fund our country. We must keep that very much to the fore when we ask the people, in a generous, positive and calm way, to vote "Yes" to secure the future financial viability of our nation.
I refer to small schools and the loss of teachers. The issue has been greatly exaggerated. There was talk of hundreds of schools losing teachers because of budget changes, but this is not the case. There will be very little change to small schools this year.
I was not sure if the figures had been released to the public. I understand 39 schools will lose a teacher this year. I do not want to become involved in a political argument. If the other schools who appealed and were not successful at this stage have the numbers in September, they say their teachers will be reinstated. There may be little or no loss. The point that the issue was greatly exaggerated has been proven.
The Senator called for a debate on the Croke Park agreement. I have no difficulty with that and called for one previously. We had a debate on 9 February on progress on the Croke Park agreement. Disappointingly, no more than 15 Senators took part. I would be happy to ask the Leader for a debate but it should take place later in the year. If there is a lack of Senators willing to come forward when debates are called for, we should not have one so soon after the last one.
I understand Senator O'Brien said there was some division between Fine Gael and the Labour Party on the Croke Park agreement. There is not. We are both committed to making it work. The Labour Party never castigated it when in opposition.
Senator O'Brien also raised the referendum on the stability treaty. It was the theme of the Order of Business because it was also raised by Senators Keane, Mullins, Mooney, Conway, Healy Eames, Ó Clochartaigh, White, Harte and Bradford. I will try to address some of the points raised. I agree with Senator O'Brien on the need for individual members of the parties supporting the "Yes" vote to get out and canvass. His point about the scheduling of business is important and I will raise it with the Leader.
As colleagues are aware, the House is not sitting tomorrow due to difficulties with the scheduling of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. We are sitting on Friday and Monday. We should use the time to go out and canvass. If anybody is interested in joining me I will be canvassing for a "Yes" vote on College Green with members of the Trinity College branch of the Labour Party. Many of us will be using the time to canvass.
Many speakers referred to the Government's information campaign. Clearly, there is an obligation on the Government to inform the public about the text of the treaty in a neutral manner. That is what is being done and the Government is committed to sending copies of the treaty to every household, which is very important. As we know, the Referendum Commission is also engaged in an information campaign.
I have gone on the record as saying that I hope ICTU will support a "Yes" vote or will not campaign for a "No" vote. I agree with Senator White it is patently in the interests of trade union members that the treaty is passed for job retention and creation. Large numbers of jobs have been created through foreign direct investment, as she pointed out, including 1,000 jobs in PayPal, 500 in Apple Computers, 500 in Eli Lilly in Cork and 500 in Mylan in north Dublin. There was a $130 million investment by Microsoft, 280 jobs were created in Galway and Kildare by HP and 175 jobs were created by Abbott Pharmaceuticals in Sligo. A large number of job announcements in recent months are a direct result of our continued involvement in Europe and the eurozone. That is why the referendum is so important.
A number of Senators referred to growth. We are all in agreement on the need for a commitment to a growth agenda within the terms of the fiscal compact. Ireland was at the forefront of the countries seeking to prioritise growth in the treaty. It is on the first page of the treaty, where there is a reference to ensuring growth and taking growth enhancing initiatives. Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to the position taken by SIPTU on the treaty. On Monday I spoke on Second Stage about that and said I thought it was an unhelpful position for it to take. I understand it has imposed a condition of an EU package of €10 billion which is not within the power of any national Government to deliver on. I cannot speak for the SIPTU position. Later today we will hear what position ICTU has taken. Public sector and teaching unions have taken a decision not to press for a vote for or against the treaty.
A number of Senators referred to the Institute of Directors report on the appointment of directors to State boards. The issue was raised by Senators Feargal Quinn and Susan O'Keeffe. I would be very willing to ask the Leader for a debate on that. Some of the issues raised in the report were important and deserve a debate.
Senator Burke sought a debate on absenteeism in the health service. We can consider facilitating a debate on that.
Senator Quinn referred to defibrillators, which are important. Incidents occur regularly which highlight the need for defibrillators.
Senator Landy referred to the availability of credit for small businesses, which was raised in a Labour Party motion in the House recently. He called on the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, to bring the two lead banks to the audiovisual room for a question and answer session with Members of both Houses. That would be very helpful and I am willing to assist the Senator in seeking to do that. We have had banking representatives in before committees but it would be very useful to have a more general forum where banking representatives could meet Members of both Houses. We should seek to progress that.
Senator MacSharry called for a debate on repossessions and the issue of those dealing with mortgage arrears. I will follow the Leader's example in not answering colleagues who are not present. Senator Paul Coghlan raised the issue of the contribution that out-of-town stores should make to in-town regeneration, which is an important issue we might debate.
Senator Norris raised the issue of absenteeism in the House. Senator Moran pointed out that quite a number of Senators who may not be present in the Chamber are, of course, engaged on Oireachtas business or engaged on business elsewhere in Leinster House. We are sitting five days this week and on Monday of next week. Many of us are here in the Chamber on what feels like a-----
On the issue of "Oireachtas Report" not being broadcast by RTE when the Seanad alone is sitting, I understand the Leader has already raised that issue in writing with RTE and I will see if we can take it up again.
I have dealt with the issue raised by Senator Keane, who spoke about the referendum. Senator Daly sought a debate on social welfare payments and we will have the Minister for Social Protection in the House on Friday and Monday.
Senators Mullins, Mooney and Conway also raised the issue of the referendum, with which I have dealt. Senator O'Keeffe called for a debate on State boards, with which I have dealt. Senator Healy Eames dealt with the referendum and the issue of growth, which I agree is an important issue which we must stress in the campaign.
Senator Moran raised the issue of Seanad coverage, with which I have dealt, and asked for a debate on the Irish Prison Service in light of the immediate news that there have been further escapes from Loughan House. We had a debate on that issue in the justice committee when we called in the head of the Irish Prison Service in the context of the most recent escape. It would be useful to have a fuller debate in the House on these issues.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien called for a debate on the domiciliary care allowance. I was concerned to hear of the delays of which she spoke and the difficulties recipients have experienced. It is an issue on which we might have a debate. Equally, it might be worth raising as a matter on the Adjournment directly with the Ministers concerned. As the Senator said, the issue cuts across a number of Departments but might be appropriate to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of the referendum, with which I have dealt. Senator Sheahan called for a debate on tourism and I point out we had a debate recently in the House on that issue. I have already responded to Senator White. Senator Harte raised an issue within Donegal County Council which, again, might be raised as a matter on the Adjournment.
Senator Power raised the issue of Priory Hall, which she has raised in the House on many occasions. I was glad to hear of the resolution process. I believe we would all agree we want to see a coherent and co-ordinated response to the dreadful position of the residents.
Senator Bradford raised the issue of the referendum. Senator D'Arcy raised the issue of small schools, although he did not call for a debate.
Senator Darragh O'Brien called for an amendment on the issue of water charges, to which a number of Senators referred. I am not willing to accede to that. We have raised this on the Order of Business on a number of days.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 12 (Mark Daly, Marc MacSharry, Paschal Mooney, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Darragh O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Averil Power, Mary White)
Against the motion: 31 (Ivana Bacik, Sean Barrett, Paul Bradford, Colm Burke, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Fiach MacConghail, Marie Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Mary Ann O'Brien, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Feargal Quinn, Tom Shehan, John Whelan)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paschal Mooney and Ned O'Sullivan; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe..
Amendment declared lost.