Thursday, 10 May 2012
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, "Looking forward to Ireland's Presidency of the Council of the European Union: January to June, 2013" - statements, questions and answers, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, the contribution of one Sinn Féin Senator not to exceed three minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed one minute when asking a question of the Minister; No. 2, Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 2 p.m. and conclude not later than 3.30 p.m.; and No. 3, Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and adjourn at 6 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed six minutes. Business will be interrupted between 1.30 p.m. and 2 p.m. We have arranged a debate on the referendum for next Thursday afternoon as requested by speakers yesterday.
I welcome the announcement today from Aviva that an additional 200 jobs are to be created in Galway and that fewer jobs will be cut than the numbers announced before Christmas. In early autumn Senator Darragh O'Brien was aware that there were some issues in Aviva. He raised that issue many times and called on the Department, as I did, to engage directly with Aviva and all major employers in Ireland to ascertain if there were any issues that could be worked through to ensure we limited any potential need to scale down the numbers of jobs. If that was done we can see the benefits now. There was not a need for the scare-mongering that took place about some 950 jobs and the fear generated in families throughout the country about the loss of those jobs. Notwithstanding that there will be job cuts, I welcome that those cuts will be minimised and the creation of additional jobs in Galway. I ask the Deputy Leader that the Government would engage with all major employers on an annual basis through IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland and that all possible actions are taken to ensure that at least the current employment levels are not only maintained but expanded upon.
I ask for a debate as early as possible with the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, on the issue of mental health funding. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, has line responsibility in this area but I am concerned about the amount of the health budget being allocated to her. In the mid-1980s, spending on mental health constituted 13% of the overall budget and it has consistently dropped since then to just 4.5%. This week a number of the nursing organisations will hold their annual conferences, and psychiatric nurses are calling for an increase in this spend. A total of 9% of the total health care workforce is in the mental health area but 20%, or 1,500, people in that workforce were lost through the moratorium.
The silent crisis facing this country is suicide, which is touching many families in every corner of Ireland. We must be prepared to highlight that crisis which effectively is wiping out the equivalent of the population of a small village on an annual basis. If it was happening in Syria we would be sending in the United Nations. If it was happening in Northern Ireland we would be calling for the UN to come here and take action against us. Last year less than €9 million was allocated for the prevention of suicide. That is a piecemeal approach to what is a silent crisis and one about which we cannot do enough in the context of raising awareness of it. We agree to the Order of Business but I ask that mental health funding be debated here, with the senior Minister present, within the next few weeks. I reserve the right to call votes on that issue if it is not raised by the Deputy Leader.
I commend the young people of Davis College, Summerhill, Mallow, on winning the Young Social Innovators award yesterday, which was presented by the President. These projects deal with homelessness, mental health, poverty and so on but I particularly liked their winning project which was on raising awareness of missing people, and their campaign for a national day for missing people. I ask the Deputy Leader to encourage those of us in this House to support that campaign because many people are cynical about that in the sense that when one is gone, one is gone.
I raise the issue of the chariot racing, which is an unusual description, that took place on the main Mallow-Cork road recently and ask the Deputy Leader to bring it to the attention of the appropriate Minister. Chariot racing is a glorified name for it. What occurred was far from what went on in the glorious days of the Roman Empire. That was a popular sport, as portrayed in films like "Gladiator". I was concerned to hear somebody from Pavee Point make the case this morning that better facilities should be made available to Travellers for the sport that we know in west Cork as sulky racing. For those Members who do not know what happened, last Saturday morning between 11 a.m. and 12 o'clock, on one of the busiest roads in the country, the main Mallow to Cork road, which is also the main Limerick to Cork road, some people from the Traveller community, and this is admitted by Pavee Point, drove their horses and sulky cars or chariots, as someone called them - I would not call them chariots - up that main road against traffic causing mayhem. The gardaí were involved. I am not sure whether there was drink or drugs involved in this incident but to do that in the middle of the day is crazy, and there is no excuse for somebody from Pavee Point saying that better facilities should be provided. We have a sulky racing track in west Cork which is under-used. Lack of facilities is no excuse in this regard. What was done was madness and I want to condemn it in this Chamber.
Many people in the constituency I represent have those sulky cars and there are byroads, culs-de-sac and lanes on which they can exercise their horses. Cork County Council regularly closes roads to facilitate that type of racing to ensure there is no danger to the public. It was a lame duck excuse from the Pavee Point representative that better facilities should be provided for the Traveller community because this is a minority sport. It is a minority sport but it is not exclusive to the Traveller community, and what happened in Mallow should be condemned outright. I do not accept that there is a lack of facilities in the Cork County Council area for such activities. What happened was madness. I am amazed by it. It was like something one would see in the excerpts we get from Australia or America of unusual events that happen on motorways. What happened must be condemned at the highest level and I hope it will never happen again. It is beyond belief that someone was not killed or injured in that incident.
I welcome the InterTradeIreland seedcorn competition which is run every year by InterTradeIreland, the all-island organisation that supports innovative companies to come forward, particularly young people coming out of universities or companies that have an international look to their business. They look for competitors across the provinces who initially participate in regional finals and then in the all-Ireland finals. They have been excellent at attracting interesting and exciting projects in recent years. They work closely with young companies and give them great support.
On foot of the session we had here some months ago when we came together to discuss ideas, and we spoke about having such a session again, I ask the Deputy Leader if we could organise another such session and invite somebody from InterTradeIreland to attend because it has experience in talking to young entrepreneurs in particular across a wide range of areas, particularly in the areas of medical devices, food and so on. It would be useful if they came into the House to add to our discussions. It is worth acknowledging the work they do in encouraging us to encourage people with small companies we may have come across to participate because there is €280,000 available from the seedcorn package they offer. It is given out in tranches to the various winners, some of whom I have met. I commend that to the House.
I welcome the statement from President Obama that he supports gay marriage. It is a significant move that the most powerful political leader in the world has endorsed that. It is pleasing to note we have at least one leader who has a prophetic vision and is prepared to take a risk. I was a little worried about President Obama but he has restored my faith. I hope my faith will also be restored by the synod of the Anglican communion which will meet shortly. It includes very conservative elements, as do the other churches, who seem to be making a move in their usual, behind-the-scenes manner. I encourage the brave group which is changing attitudes in the church. At least we, in the Anglican church, are having a debate, which is great. While this may not be a problem of homophobia, there is certainly a widespread practice of ignoring issues. I was ashamed to find when I raised the issue of 12 teenage boys who were castrated in a Catholic home in the Netherlands in the 1950s that no one other than Senator Cummins followed up on the issue. We would have heard a great deal about it if it had involved female genital mutilation. Why are we still despised in this manner?
I would like to be positive and state it was wonderful to hear a Deputy discuss the fiscal treaty with Pat Kenny. I use the term "pig in the poke treaty" to describe it because we are buying a pig in a poke. If it keeps changing, it will probably turn out to be Joyce's old sow which eats her own farrow. We simply do not know what we are voting on. When I made a similar comment in the House some months ago it was not picked up by any journalist. Things are picked up only when said in the other House. Perhaps Deputies are listening to us. Would it not be refreshing if the Dáil were listening to the Seanad? In that case, we could at least speak to the Dáil. This recalls the saying about the famous Lodges who spoke only to the Cabots who spoke only to God. If Senators speak to the Dáil, it will speak to the media for us.
I ask the Leader to reopen the nonsensical decision whereby it is purported to forbid the sharing of time on Second Stage. From where did this decision come? It landed on my desk without explanation. As the Government parties know perfectly well, it is totally undemocratic. The first thing the Government side did after making this rule was to break it, using the excuse that two Ministers were in attendance. That scenario is not covered in any of the documentation I saw. The Government used a fudge to get its own way. I insist that this matter be reopened. Let us have real democracy and allow Members to share time. The House rule its own business and inform the decisions of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
It is almost unprecedented for a Kerryman to be on O'Connell Street in Dublin in May - we usually visit in September - but I had reason to be on the main thoroughfare of the capital last evening. What I witnessed last night, between drunks, winos, people strung out on drugs and beggars, was shocking. We are trying to sell a tourism product. I met a couple from Australia who compared O'Connell Street to the streets of another European city they had visited recently where the lady had a gold chain whipped from around her neck. I was fearful walking up the street with a colleague at 9 p.m. last night. There is a Garda station on O'Connell Street and I saw gardaí in the vicinity who did nothing to address the problem. One could not travel 20 m. without meeting someone begging for money or strung out and lying on the footpath.
Next year, we will mark the centenary of the 1913 lockout. In recent months and years, we have had a number of high profile cases of workers engaging in sit-ins to demand their just entitlements. They included employees of Waterford Crystal and TalkTalk in my constituency, and Game and Vita Cortex elsewhere. While some of these cases have been resolved, many of them have left a sour taste in the mouths of those who support worker and employment rights. A small number of former employees of H. W. Wilson, which was taken over by the multinational company EBSCO Publishing, are seeking to have their rights vindicated. The company is refusing to implement a Labour Court recommendation. Similar circumstances pertain in CRH which is refusing to comply with a Labour Court recommendation and withholding the wages to which workers are entitled.
As we approach the centenary of the 1913 lockout, it is important that we do not commence 2013 without strengthening workers' rights. There is little point in any of us crying crocodile tears for workers who are suffering or being forced to engage in sit-ins and protests to secure their just entitlements. As legislators, we have a responsibility to legislate to protect workers and enhance their rights and entitlements. In addition to the high profile cases of which all of us are aware, there have been many cases outside the media spotlight involving workers in small businesses who are having their rights trampled on by unscrupulous employers. While most employers are fair, legislation is needed to deal with the large number of them who are not fair. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on employment rights, including the right to collective bargaining and trade union recognition and, more important, the need to strengthen and enhance the rights of working people as we approach the anniversary of the Dublin lockout.
I welcome the third round of grant applications under the disabled access and energy upgrade scheme for local authority swimming pools. Under the scheme, which is overseen by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Dundalk Town Council was allocated grants of €192,000 and €207,000 in 2011 and 2012, respectively, giving a total of €400,000. These moneys must be spent this year and will greatly enhance the magnificent facilities available to the many disabled people who use the town's swimming pool daily.
I apologise for arriving late for the Adjournment debate last night through my own fault. I am grateful for every opportunity to raise a matter on the Adjournment debate which is one of the most important opportunities available to Senators to elicit information from Departments. On that basis, I was disappointed to note that the Department of Education and Skills issued a factually incorrect reply when I raised schooling in Ashbourne during the Adjournment debate last week. While I am not accusing the Minister of misleading the House, I am accusing his Department of not knowing what it is doing in respect of education in the commuter belt. Given the various crises we have experienced in education in recent years, one would expect the Department to have learned a few lessons and know how to do things. I was informed in the House last week that there would be seven junior infant classes in Ashbourne in September. It came as news to the Minister when I informed him that there should be at least eight junior infant classes in the town in September. This discrepancy caused considerable confusion on the ground in Ashbourne and as a result of the Seanad debate, the issue was covered on local radio. On the programme in question, Deputy Regina Doherty of the Fine Gael Party agreed with my analysis of the position and expressed disappointment with the reply provided to me in the House. When the local radio station sought a response from the Department, it became obvious that officials had listened to the discussion and were aware of the information I had provided because the Department's press statement differed from the information it provided in the Chamber last week. I hope this does not mean officials treat the Seanad differently from the media.
I hope it means that they listen to what I said in the Seanad last week and change their tack. It is part of a continuous attack on the commuter belt by the Labour Party and Fine Gael. They do not know what they are doing in respect of education, and in County Meath they have just merged the two Garda districts in the commuter belt, namely, the Ashbourne district and the Laytown district, which cover half the county, and left three other districts in the other part of the county.
We must have a debate on the commuter belt where the population is still increasing all the time but the resources are not being allocated in line with that. The Labour Party got a lot of votes in the commuter belt this time, but it has let the people down in those areas through education, health and now the Garda district arrangements in County Meath. We need a full debate on that matter.
Senator Cullinane raised the interesting and admittedly important topic of workers' rights. It would be very useful to have a broad spectrum debate on that subject, if the Leader can arrange it. We can never get away from the fact that the most important right for every worker is the right to have a job. Our entire political and economic debate must be about getting people back to work and keeping people at work. When we look at the strong economies of Europe, especially Germany, where the unemployment rate is low, wages are strong and pensions are very secure, we have to concede that they have a certain flexibility in the labour market that does not exist in many other EU countries. The debate must not be simplistic. It must look at the fact that some countries are better at job creation than countries such as Ireland. We must have an in-depth discussion on that, because our political purpose in this House must be to assist people back to work.
I also agree with the call from Senator Sheahan that we discuss what he reported last night from O'Connell Street. We can find that in virtually every town across the country. Senator Noone has raised on several occasions the need to tackle the issue of "chugging"------
That issues needs to be reflected upon. The fact that many of the people begging on our streets receive social welfare benefits needs to be examined. The fact that people are drinking and are drunk on the streets needs to be examined. The answers to Senator Sheahan's worries are difficult, and perhaps not politically popular. However, the problem can be solved if we are willing to solve it. It is not rocket science. The answer is in front of us and it is for us to do it. I ask the Leader to respond to Senator Sheahan by having a debate so that not just our tourists but the ordinary citizens of the country can walk on the streets of our towns, cities and villages day and night feeling safe. The concept of law and order has gone a bit out of fashion with some of the chattering classes, but it is important that we have law and order on our streets and that the citizens can walk in our towns and villages at ease and at peace.
Several steps are being taken by the Government that seem to be working in the direction of job creation, something to which Senators O'Keeffe and Bradford have referred. Another step was yesterday's announcement of Springboard's plan for this year. Springboard is a scheme whereby the State allocates a considerable sum of money to develop people who already have qualifications, but not those needed at the moment. For example, people in the construction industry may have a degree in engineering or in architecture, but now they find that what they need is skills in pharmacy, food or whatever. The allocation has allowed a substantial number of people to go on to higher education to make them suitable for that.
This morning I met a man who has just come over for the jobs fair this weekend in the RDS. He is from Canada and he is looking to employ 200 people in the construction business, but he wants very specific skills, because people are only allowed into Canada with those specific skills. He is not looking for anybody who can work in construction; they must have particular talents.
The Government has recognised tourism once again by extending the lower 9% VAT rate for tourism for another year. That is good news and is a recognition that this creates jobs. However, it is 7% in Germany and 5.5% in France. When France brought the VAT rate down for hotels and restaurants in 2009, it actually increased jobs by around 10%. We can do something. We have to get across to those making the decisions that sometimes a lower percentage VAT rate can actually increase the amount of money that we take in. That is not fully understood by many people who have never had the experience of business. We must keep saying that. When Mr. McCreevy enacted legislation to reduce the gambling tax from 20% to 10%, there were howls that this was outrageous and that he was looking after his friends in Kildare in the horsey business. He came back the following year and said that he took in more money at 10% than he did 20%, and decided to reduce it to 5%. He then took in more money at 5% than at 10%. It is a real reminder that by reducing the tax rate, we can actually create jobs.
Like Senator Brennan, I wish to acknowledge the grant allocations made and the €350,000 made available to the swimming pool in Lahinch, which will ensure its survival. Along with Senator Coghlan, I would like to congratulate the pupils from Mallow on their achievement with the Forget Me Not project. The Deputy Leader will remember that they made a powerful presentation to the Oireachtas justice committee. We can think of them, what they have achieved and how they conduct themselves, and then compare it with what happened on O'Connell Street yesterday according to Senator Sheahan. I urge the Senator to walk O'Connell Street on a Saturday night, because what he saw last night compared to what he would see then. As a society, we need to have a debate on the drinking culture of young people and on how they behave themselves on the main street of our capital city and most towns across the country. What one sees on Friday and Saturday night is absolutely appalling. What one sees the night the junior certificate results come out is absolutely appalling.
We may need to take drastic action, like banning the sale of alcohol to people under 21 years of age. Aside from the damage it does to our image and to our tourism product, the chronic abuse of alcohol is doing serious damage to our young people. It all feeds into the mental health problem, and I support Senator MacSharry's call for a debate on mental health and suicide. He is absolutely correct. If it was in Northern Ireland or Syria, we would be calling on the UN to intervene. We need to have a serious conversation with ourselves about the future of our young people-----
I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to the House as soon as possible to discuss the internment without trial of 4,700 political prisoners in Palestine by the Israeli Government. It is called administrative detention. There are currently 1,600 political prisoners on hunger strike and two of them have gone over 70 days. This is a dangerous situation. These prisoners are basically being interned without trial. It is similar to Northern Ireland and these places are like concentration camps. Thanks to the Internet, somebody is able to recognise their plight in this House. Their demands are quite minimal in respect of visiting rights, education rights and so on. They are detained in nine centres throughout Israel. This is not adding to the peace process in the region which is making no progress owing to the refusal of the Israeli Government to enter into meaningful negotiations and the growth of illegal settlements on Palestinian land. I call on the Deputy Leader to arrange an early debate on this issue to appeal to the Government of Israel to concede minimal rights to these political prisoners who are being detained without trial, as was the case in Northern Ireland and we know what happened there. Unless there is a settlement, this situation will create further problems and even lead to deaths in the region.
I welcome the announcement yesterday that the rate of VAT on tourism products will remain at 9%. I have received feedback from the Restaurants Association of Ireland and employers in the industry throughout the city of Dublin that this announcement gives them certainty in planning prices and menus for the next year. It is to be welcomed and is helping employment in the industry.
I support the comments of previous speakers on society in general and the drink culture. While Senator Tom Sheahan was shocked to see the carry-on on O'Connell Street, with people taking drugs, the problem is not confined to such persons. Ordinary respectable people - I cannot think of a better word - are drinking to excess on a Saturday night and behaving in a totally unbelievable manner on the streets, with individuals being sick and doing things I do not want to discuss on the Order of Business. In Dublin 4 and the surrounding area we see girls dressed in very scant clothing and boys in tracksuits and jeans. They are drinking and their parents do not know they are going out dressed like this. It is a huge societal problem, to which Senator Paul Bradford alluded, and it is not confined to young people, beggars and people taking drugs on the streets.
I am. I suggest we have a debate on our attitude in general to drinking and matters such as how young people dress. The need to clean up the city is not confined to O'Connell Street. I suggest we have a debate similar to the one we had on older people. We would not need to have a Minister present, but we should invite representatives of interested bodies, including Dublin City Council and the Garda, and have a discussion on how the Seanad could create an initiative to clean up the city.
I join Senators Paul Coghlan and Martin Conway in congratulating the students from Davis College in Mallow who were the overall winners of the Young Social Innovators competition, the finals of which were held yesterday in Citywest which were attended by thousands of young people from all over the country. The Davis College students' project was on missing persons. They have called for a national missing persons day when friends and the families of missing persons can remember their loved ones who have gone missing. It is interesting to note that more than 4,000 people go missing in Ireland every year. I commend the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality which this morning will launch a report on missing persons. I look forward to its recommendations being considered. I support the students from Mallow in their call for a national day of commemoration and propose to the Deputy Leader that an all-party motion in support of the students' call go from the Seanad to the Minister. Colleagues in the Dáil might do the same.
I also commend the Cavan Youthreach students who reached the final of the Young Social Innovators competition with their project on the dangers of alcohol, a topic that has also been raised this morning. On Tuesday last I was honoured to attend the presentation in the Mansion House of the ECO-UNESCO Young Environmentalist Awards by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The event was attended by hundreds of young people from all over the country. Again, a Cavan Youthreach project was highly commended. It was called Trash for Trees and involved the sale of old clothes for recycling and using the money to plant trees. Excellent work is being done by young people throughout the length and breadth of the country.
I share the sentiments of Senator Tom Sheahan, not on his right to walk down O'Connell Street in September but on what he sees on it. I raised this matter in the Seanad on a previous occasion. It is embarrassing to be Irish and view what is happening on O'Connell Street. For every beggar, wino and druggie there is one tourist. The ratio seems to be 1:1. In walking down the street a person will be approached four or five times for money. It is like walking through a pack of zombies. It really is that serious. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister to insist on Dublin City Council introducing by-laws to cover situations such as this. It is a bad sign for our capital city. One could go to many other capital cities, but one would not find what one finds on O'Connell Street. To a degree, therefore, I agree with Senator Tom Sheahan.
I support what was said by my colleague, Senator Marc MacSharry, on the issue of mental health. In the current economic climate when everyone's focus is on the economy, the EU treaty or household and septic tank charges, we may forget the real issues affecting many people such as mental health. Last week in my constituency a young man took his own life. It was a very sad occasion and I know his family well. Mental illness affects very many people, young and not so young, who are under pressure which is not exclusively financial, but the financial climate is adding to it. A cut of 3.7% to this year's mental health budget by the Government was a step in the wrong direction. It targeted the most vulnerable in society. Disabled people who are living alone and depending on a personal assistant are having their service cut and the HSE is hounding them to cut their personal assistants' hours substantially. Although the cut was only 3.7%, its effect on the ground is much worse. The Minister for Health needs to come to the House to discuss this issue and the cross-party report on mental health among young people in schools. If the Government implemented the recommendations made in the report, it would be a major step in the right direction. The report recommends that teachers and pupils be given advice, support and assistance on mental health issues. There is already a template in County Meath. People are often afraid to speak or to open up about mental illness. Before the recession ends, hundreds will die as a result of mental illness. What is the Government going to do about this? It will be too late after the recession ends.
There is a common theme running through many of today's contributions. In the midst of our concerns about our economic situation we are at risk of ignoring the social, mental and emotional fall-out, especially among young people. I was shocked and amazed by what the chief executive officer of TV3 said recently. He said the programme "Tallafornia" reflected real life in our society more closely than Seanad debates. Let that not be said because this House is concerned about social issues, judging by what has been said this morning. It is important we would have a debate on parenting because the family is the core unit. So much starts with the parents. It is not an easy job being a parent. It is time we had such a debate, including all the issues around alcohol and lifestyle habits. I wish to say to the CEO of TV3 that we are concerned about where our country is going economically. That is why we are having debates of this nature in the House.
I have been examining the "No" posters on the stability treaty. I am impressed with one word that is used that is accurate, namely, austerity. If we vote "No" it is certain that we will get austerity, and more of it, because it will bring uncertainty and affect confidence, not just among investors but among the people living in this country. We know already we have a very flat economy. Could one imagine what it would be like for the next 18 to 20 months if we had to wait to see whether we had a credit line in this country? Let us think of the effect a "No" vote would have in the interim period. It is time we looked at the stability treaty in terms of a confidence measure and a growth promoter. I am pleased we are to have a debate on this issue later today in the context of Ireland's Presidency of the EU next year. It will be an opportunity for this country to give leadership across Europe. I look forward to the debate.
Will the Deputy Leader consider having a debate on house insurance and the insurance industry? It has come to my attention in the past year to 18 months that the insurance industry operates on a rebuilding obligation cost when it comes to the renewal of one's annual insurance. Currently, that is worked out at €1.20 per square foot. The problem arises in that the insurance companies, in association with the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, value rebuilding costs on just four areas of the country. Where I live in County Leitrim, we are part of the Shannon tax incentive scheme which has led to an enormous number of ghost estates and overbuilding, yet anyone living in the area who seeks an insurance policy renewal is told the rebuilding costs are based on the cost of rebuilding a house in Galway. That takes no account of the downturn in the construction industry or the fact there is an oversupply of houses in the area. From talking to brokers in the region, they say the rebuilding costs are between €0.90 and €1.00 per square foot, yet the insurance companies insist on operating a cartel.
What happens is that not only are consumers being penalised by paying a higher premium than is absolutely necessary but also if they put in a claim, the insurance company will then insist that they seek the lowest possible competitive tender, which is way below the rebuilding cost and what they initially charge the consumer. In other words, we are in rip-off territory.
Insurance companies must be called to account in this regard. Can one imagine that in this country the insurance industry is operating on the basis of just four areas? It does not matter about the variations in rebuilding costs throughout the country as a result of the downturn in the past four years. It is vital from a consumer point of view that the Deputy Leader would facilitate a debate on the insurance industry and the Minister would come to the House. Perhaps she could bring to the attention of the Minister what I believe to be a silent rip-off. Brokers are operating in unison on the matter.
On the problem of begging, I bring to the attention of the House that new legislation passed in February 2011, the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2011. More than 500 people have been arrested under the legislation since the Bill was enacted. The information was published in a report to the Dublin Regional Authority in the past month. I highlight the matter lest people think nothing has been done. There was a breach in the legislation dating from the 1800s which was found to be unconstitutional in 2007. No law existed between 2007 and 2011 when the new legislation was enacted. I bring it to the attention of the House that steps are being taken. However, it is obvious that not enough has been done. Perhaps we must examine the new legislation because under its terms it is not a criminal offence to beg unless it is accompanied by aggression or involves the intimidation of people standing at a bank machine, for example. The legislation is very new and was only published in February 2011. Perhaps we could ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to re-examine it. There might be constitutional reasons the legislation cannot be made any stronger.
Will the Deputy Leader ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to comment on the statements made in the House today? We have heard much about culture in this country but a report has found that it is the culture of Roma gypsies to beg. Buses leaving the country have been raided and people have been found with thousands of euro. It was found that people bought runners for one person who was begging on Grafton Street without shoes. The comment was made that he had more pairs of runners than one would find in a top runner shop. I ask the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to examine the matter.
On missing persons, a journalist is missing in India for the past month. I encourage all Members to tweet about it or mention it on Facebook. Oireachtas Members should do something positive for missing people. I agree that people should be congratulated by Members. However, a young journalist, Jonathan Spollen, is missing in India for the past month and his family, which is from Ranelagh, has made an appeal. I call on all Members to tweet his name and put it on Facebook. Another 16 year old young man, whose name I have forgotten, went missing in Dublin on Friday as well.
I have been listening all morning to incidents that have taken place on O'Connell Street but I wish to speak about another incident that took place. I wish to highlight what happened on the Mallow to Cork road last Saturday where a sulky race was taking place. Those involved had the audacity to put it up on YouTube. The race was so dangerous that hundreds of lives were put in danger. They were racing down on the wrong side of the road and all the traffic coming against them had to swerve. It was being recorded from a van going down the wrong side of the road with a child in it. The Garda was there and what took place was a pure defiance of its presence. In fairness, a spokesman from Pavee Point has criticised the incident and described it as a reckless endangerment of lives. This is part of Traveller culture and it can take place but it must be done in a safe environment. I call on the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House for a debate on the issue. We will examine whether it is safe to have such a practice on our national roads. Perhaps it could be accommodated by a road closure. When a running or cycling road race or rally event takes place, the roads are closed for the day. If Travellers want to proceed with such events, they should make a legal application to the Garda to have a road closed in order for the event to take place. What is happening at the moment it is a danger to lives. I ask the Deputy Leader to invite the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House to inform Members whether something could be done under road traffic legislation.
I wish to follow up on the VAT reduction in the tourism industry. One of the proposals at European level in 2009 related to the construction industry. In this country the number of people working in the construction industry has decreased from 270,000 to 106,000. One of the proposals at European level in 2009 was about the introduction of a 5% VAT rate for construction projects under a certain cost, for example, work under a total value of €15,000. The current problem is that a significant number of people involved in small building jobs are forced into the black market where they do not collect VAT. The Government must examine the issue. Many people want small jobs done on their houses. Getting quotes from people who accept cash is causing two problems. The first is that it is pushing out those who are in the market who are trying to make a living by playing completely by the rules and within the law. The second is that people who are in receipt of unemployment benefit are, unfortunately, now taking cash in lieu of going back into the workforce legitimately. This is an issue that deserves serious consideration by the Government. The talk now is of a growth package for Europe as a whole, a prospect that was first raised back in 2009. In the context of Ireland's assumption of the Presidency of the European Union in January 2013, we should work towards the introduction of a stimulus for the construction industry, not only in this country but right across Europe. It is a small but important step which would have wide-ranging benefits.
I welcome the deal that will be signed today in Europe to ensure a reduction from July of this year in mobile telephone roaming charges in respect of both voice calls and data usage. Data services will be capped at 70%, with staged reductions to follow until 2014. It is particularly to be welcomed that customers will have the option, from 2014, of purchasing their domestic and roaming services separately from different operators.
I wholeheartedly support the calls by Senators Brian Ó Domhnaill and Martin Conway for a debate on mental health and suicide. I attended two of the briefing sessions at the County Meath school to which they referred at which school management outlined their excellent and successful mental health policy. I also take this opportunity to congratulate the cross-party mental health group and the Oireachtas Library and Research Service on the recent report on mental health in Ireland. The reality is mental illness remains a terrible stigma in this country. While more people are now willing to talk about it, and we have had several debates on the issue in this House, we must actively seek action. Debates and reports are useful, but it is time now to take action to improve the situation. Concern is constantly expressed about the rate of suicide, especially among young people. I ask everyone to be vigilant as we approach the junior and leaving certificate examinations, which are a highly stressful time in the lives of young people. The first step, which does not cost money, is to talk to people with mental health issues.
On a very positive note, I welcome the additional jobs for Galway announced by Aviva Ireland this morning. I also congratulate the Government on the decision to retain the reduced rate of VAT for tourist related activity until the end of 2013. This is an innovative and positive initiative which should have a significant impact on job creation.
I support my colleague, Senator Catherine Noone, in her call for a debate on attitudes to alcohol consumption in this country and on the damage it is doing to young people in particular and to society in general. That debate must include a consideration of the availability of alcohol and the dangers arising from below-cost selling. Rural pubs are struggling to survive and cannot compete on price with the outlets selling alcohol below cost. I understand one major multinational retailer is using the VAT system to manipulate prices by availing of large refunds on alcohol and subsequently subsidising its sale. We now have a ludicrous situation where pubs and other small businesses are purchasing alcohol from these large retail outlets because their prices are cheaper than those at the wholesaler. As Senator Marc MacSharry and others observed, there is a very close link between alcohol abuse and suicide. We are all concerned that the very significant investment the State is making in mental health is being properly targeted. A debate on these issues would allow us to examine the relationship between alcohol misuse, drug abuse and suicide and how the State's scarce resources can be most effectively targeted.
Before calling the Deputy Leader, I am sure Members will join with me in extending our good wishes to Tom McGrath, head usher, and Tom Hickey, deputy head usher, on their appointment. I am sure they will do an excellent job for the Houses of the Oireachtas.
In keeping with the Leader's practice, I will respond only to those colleagues who are present in the Chamber. Senator Marc MacSharry referred to the Aviva Ireland jobs announcement this morning. We all welcome the reduction in the number of redundancies and the additional jobs for Galway, as also referred to by Senator Michael Mullins. I absolutely agree with Senator MacSharry on the need for the Government to engage on an ongoing basis, through its agencies, with large employers. We would all commend the great work being done by IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland in this regard. We see the results of that in the numbers of job creation announcements in recent months, particularly through foreign direct investment, including from companies like SAP, PayPal, Apple and so on.
The Senator also called for a debate on mental health, to be attended by the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly. We all welcome the achievement of the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, in ensuring ring-fenced funding for mental health services. She attended debates in this House in the first and second week after Christmas on the issue. I am happy to facilitate another debate and will speak to the Leader in that regard. However, we might leave it for a little time given we have had one relatively recently.
I called for a debate specifically on the financing aspect. In fairness, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has been fantastic. However, her budget is neither large enough nor sufficiently targeted. That is why I called for a debate with the Minister, Deputy James Reilly.
I am happy to facilitate such a debate, particularly if it can be focused as the Senator is suggesting. I will raise it with the Leader.
Senator Paul Coghlan commended the students of Davis College in Mallow on all the work they have done in publicising their Forget Me Not campaign in respect of missing persons. A presentation was made by the students at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on 28 March. Just this morning the committee launched a report on missing persons and what the State response should be. I will ask the Leader for a debate on that report, which should include an invitation to the Davis College students to attend in the Gallery. They were present this morning in the audio-visual room for the launch of our report. They have done tremendous work in putting forward sensible and practical ideas in regard to tracing missing persons, including a proposal for a national day for missing persons. The committee has adopted their recommendation in this regard and put it forward to the Minister for Justice and Equality for consideration. I hope to see it adopted in early course.
Senators Denis O'Donovan and Marie Moloney referred to the issue of chariot racing in Mallow. I agree that any danger for road users arising from this activity must be condemned. I am not sure how we can progress that through the House, perhaps through an Adjournment debate which would allow the Minister for Justice and Equality to give his view. It is quite a specific issue in terms of legislative responses. As such, there is a question as to how best we can address it.
We would all join Senator Susan O'Keeffe in welcoming the launch of InterTradeIreland's seedcorn competition. It would be useful to organise a briefing session on that.
Senator David Cullinane referred to next year's centenary of the 1913 lockout. It would be timely to mark that event in the context of a debate on the protection of employment rights. However, I concur with Senator Paul Bradford that the most important right for workers is the right to a job. The Government is seeking, in all of its policies, to focus on strategies for job creation and growth in the economy.
I join Senator Terry Brennan in welcoming the announcement of funding allocations from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Senator Paul Bradford joined others in calling for a debate on attitudes to alcohol in our society.
Senator Feargal Quinn could not remain in the Chamber for this response because, as he informed me, he will be attending this morning's debate in the Dáil. He is very much to be commended on his Construction Contracts Bill, which was introduced in this House as a Private Members' Bill and is now on Second Stage in the Lower House. I concur with the Senator's comments regarding the benefits for job creation arising from the Springboard programme.
Senator Terry Leyden called for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to attend the House for a debate on the Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israel. I entirely concur with his comments regarding the very dangerous situation that has arisen in terms of prisoners going on hunger strike and will be pleased to facilitate such a debate. The Senator might consult his colleague, Senator Paschal Mooney, who sought a debate on a similar issue yesterday.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill supported the call for a debate on mental health and suicide. We can arrange to hold such a debate, but we might frame it somewhat differently in order to focus on the funding issue. In that context, Senator Diarmuid Wilson suggested we might table an all-party motion on mental health funding.
An all-party motion would be extremely useful. Perhaps Senator Diarmuid Wilson might draft an appropriate wording for circulation among the leaders of the various groups. He also commended the students at Davis College, a matter with which I have dealt.
Senator Paschal Mooney called for a debate on house insurance. This is a most interesting topic and it would be good for the House to engage in a debate on it, particularly as it relates to consumer rights and insurance pricing.
Senator Cáit Keane referred to begging in the context of antisocial behaviour on O'Connell Street in Dublin and elsewhere. As the Senator stated, legislation designed to target aggressive begging was introduced last year. It is quite early to evaluate the effect of that legislation. The Minister for Justice and Equality will be in the House for two and a half hours later today and perhaps the Senator might broach the matter with him at that point. I agree with her on the highly publicised case of a missing person, Jonathan Spollen.
Senator Marie Moloney referred to an illegal sulky race which took place on the road between Mallow and Cork. Again, this matter might be raised with the Minister for Justice and Equality later in the day. I agree with the Senator on the dangers to which that race gave rise for motorists and other road users.
Senator Colm Burke welcomed the retention of the reduced VAT rate for tourism. This is a development we all very much welcome. The Senator also referred to the need for a stimulus for the construction industry.
Senator Mary Moran welcomed the deal that had been reached in Europe on roaming charges for mobile phones. I am sure we all welcome the deal, particularly as many of us have been the victim of extremely high roaming charges. The Senator also supported the call for a debate on mental health funding.
Senator Michael Mullins called for a debate on the drink culture and alcohol pricing. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Róisín Shortall, has been doing a great deal of work on that matter. She also came before the House for a debate on it in the recent past. However, we can certainly arrange another such debate.
I think I have responded to all of the points raised by Senators who were present in the Chamber when I commenced my reply.