Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Order of Business
I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming everybody back for the new term. The Order of Business is No. 1, Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Bill 2012 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 5 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 21, Private Members' business, motion No. 8, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m.
The House will consider legislation dealing with the children's rights referendum during the course of the three sitting days in the week after next. I am prepared to give as much time as is needed to debate this very important Bill and trust Members will be satisfied with the allocation.
This morning it was agreed by the group leaders that Mondays and Fridays were to be considered exceptional sitting days for the purpose of dealing with specific legislation and that there would be no Order of Business on those days. It was further agreed that in the lead-up to budget 2013 I would endeavour to arrange debates with relevant Ministers across the major spending portfolios. These debates will form part of the Seanad's contribution to the overall budgetary process. The first debate will take place with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, on Thursday, 18 October.
I welcome the Cathaoirleach and all of my colleagues back for what I hope will be a very productive Seanad session. I hope we will play our part in the budgetary process and thank the Leader for agreeing earlier today that we would have proper and reasoned debates in advance of budget announcements. Up until now, to take the example of the proposed property tax, there have been no proper discussions. There have been soundbites on radio and rumours as to what the rate of this tax will be, how it will be charged, who will pay it and how much they will pay. During the course of the debates it would not be unreasonable for the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, to introduce the actual proposal of the Government on the property tax. Is the rate to be 0.25% of the valuation of the property? If that is the case, for the standard house in Dublin one will pay in the region of €750 per annum. We are asking people to do this in a context where more than one in five mortgages is in arrears, 50% of households are in negative equity and disposable income for more than 1.8 million people is less than €100 per month. This is the type of property tax the Government seeks to introduce, but we should be looking at alternatives. The only way in which they can be looked at is if a proper and reasoned debate takes place in advance of the budget. My party colleagues and I will use these opportunities to bring forward reasoned and costed alternatives to the measures the Government wishes to introduce. In particular, I put the House on notice that we will vociferously oppose the property tax as it appears to be constituted, namely, as an anti-urban, anti-Dublin tax. People will not have the ability to pay it.
I welcome the announcement today by the Minister for Children, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on the 31st amendment to the Constitution, the children's rights referendum that will be held on 10 November. Following my party's meeting earlier today, I confirm to the House that we will support the referendum. We await the publication of additional documentation in due course. I thank the Leader for allowing an appropriate amount of time next week to debate this very important issue. Within this and the other House, we can make all the laws we want to protect children, but unless the resources are available to protect them, laws mean nothing. As part of this debate we must consider how we can better structure State services in order to better meet the needs of all children. Laws are one thing but action is another.
In the context of the matter to which I refer, I use the example of the 75 social workers who were supposed to have been appointed under the programme for Government in order to deal with issues relating to children. All 75 posts remain vacant.
I hope the Cathaoirleach will indulge me, as I have not been able to say anything for two months.
I accept that. I ask the Leader to raise with the Minister for Health a very important issue about which all Senators will be concerned, namely, Temple Street Hospital, Dublin. The post of cystic fibrosis physiotherapist is vacant. The authorities in Temple Street Hospital have not received a response from either the Department of Finance or the Department of Health on whether the post is being filled. Some 94 children with cystic fibrosis use the services of the cystic fibrosis physiotherapist at Temple Street Hospital, but the post remains unfilled. I have written to the Minister for Health and the HSE in respect of this matter, but I have received no response. In such circumstances, I ask the Leader to use his good offices to ask the Minister to intervene and have the post filled without further delay.
Like my colleagues, I welcome everyone back after what, I hope, was a pleasant summer break. I look forward to a busy and productive term in the Seanad in the months ahead. We are aware that it will be busy, particularly in the lead-up to the budget. I welcome what the Leader said about organising pre-budget debates. Such debates will be extremely valuable. It is most unhelpful of Senator Darragh O'Brien to start scaremongering in such a premature fashion about the budget and, in particular, the property tax. As the Senator well knows, the Government has not yet made a decision on the rate that will apply.
It is premature to start suggesting anything about the rate that will apply to the property tax, particularly when the Government has not yet made a decision on it. It is extremely important that we seek to move the burden of taxation away from income and onto property or to at least move some of it onto it. That is a principle which everyone in this House should be capable of supporting.
On a more constructive note, I welcome the announcement of the referendum on children's rights. I particularly welcome the fact that the referendum will be held on 10 November, a Saturday. This is the first occasion in a long period on which a referendum will be held on a Saturday. This should enable greater participation by young people and students in particular. I also welcome the announcement that Fianna Fáil will be supporting the referendum. That is good to hear. What is proposed will be of immense practical significance for the many hundreds of children who are in care and cannot be adopted by their foster parents as a result of the existing wording in the Constitution. As a result, the referendum is going to make an immense difference to the lives of children in a very clear, practical and concrete way. There will also be significant improvements to the child protection system. Had such improvements been made previously, judges would have been able to apply very different criteria in the Baby Anne case, the Roscommon incest case and other cases in order to ensure earlier intervention in the best interests of children. The country has an abysmal record in child protection. Recent reports have highlighted the failure of the religious orders and the State in this regard. What is proposed in the referendum will be another step in the direction of providing better protection for children.
I remind colleagues that the Private Members' motion tabled by the Labour Party Senators relates to the regulation of charities. It calls for the full commencement of the Charities Act 2009 which was introduced by the previous Government. I hope everyone in the House will be in a position to support it. Representatives of stakeholder groups will be present for the debate.
I recall stating, when I was first appointed to the Seanad, that I looked forward to working with colleagues to make this House a place to which citizens would look for inspiration, reassurance and encouragement. During the summer I reflected on the extent to which we had achieved this goal. In that context, I asked myself what the House had done to be innovative and imaginative and improve its sense of connectedness with ordinary people.
To make that assessment, it is necessary to consider our record of innovation in the past year. The Seanad Public Consultation Committee was established and its first consultation, on the rights of older people, successfully concluded with the presentation of a report to the Minister. A similar consultation process is now under way on cancer and lifestyle issues. A former President, Mary Robinson, and former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning, addressed the Seanad, as did a representative of the Orange Order last July. These are welcome developments but are they enough? Is the standing and relevance of this House any better in the eyes of ordinary people than it was at the commencement of this Seanad in May of last year? At this challenging time in our country's history, have we made a genuine effort to ensure this Chamber is an open space wherein people from all walks of life can be drawn into public discourse - people whose experience makes them well placed to assist us in framing formative and pioneering debates on a range of issues?
It could be argued that such debate is the role of the various committees of the Oireachtas, but I do not accept that point. Committee meetings can be adversarial and, rightly or wrongly, attending delegates often feel they are being asked to justify or defend their position. By contrast, the Seanad affords an opportunity for an expansive, reflective and informative exchange which creates a sense of involvement and empowerment for those who engage with us. To clarify, I am not saying this type of engagement should be an opportunity to petition. That would be entirely wrong. Rather, it is an opportunity to inform.
This and more can be achieved without a requirement for any legislative change. At most, it would require minor changes to how we do our business. Facilitating this type of engagement would allow this House to make a more valuable contribution to public debate while also creating a cohort of ambassadors and advocates for the worth of the Seanad at a time when its future is uncertain. I commend the Leader on the welcome initiatives already taken. As we resume business, I ask him to invite all Members to make suggestions as to how we can bring further innovation and imagination to bear on the business of the House.
Ba bhreá liom mo dhea-mhéin a chur in iúl do mo chomhghleacaithe freisin agus muid ag teacht ar ais. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh muid tairbhe as an téarma seo agus ár ndualgais á chomhlíonadh againn. As we begin a new term, there are mixed messages coming from the Government on the issue of reform. The proposed wording for the referendum on children's rights is a positive development. We have work to do in the coming weeks in examining that proposal, and I hope we all do so with open minds. It is a welcome initiative which seems to me to contain much that is good. The Government's text represents a major improvement on the wording produced by the all-party Oireachtas committee. In particular, it strikes the required balance in its recognition that the State ought to intervene in exceptional cases but should always do so in a manner that is proportionate. That is a rich word - I acknowledge that it was included in the draft produced by the committee - and it is right and proper that it should be in our Constitution. Here is a real and welcome effort to honour the position of children in our society. Moreover, there is innovation in the specific reference to the need to consult with children in an age-appropriate manner in order to ascertain their views. We are set for a very positive debate.
I consider it appropriate to take the opportunity in this Chamber, just as I took the opportunity in the media today, to voice my hope that the Government's commitment to the protection of children will prove consistent in the coming weeks and months. I say this with specific reference to the work of the expert group that is considering our response to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the A, B and C case. It is vital that we cherish and protect children at all stages of their lives.
A good step has been taken today with this proposed referendum wording. I expect to see consistency from the Government in the commitment to protecting children's welfare at all stages.
I would be grateful if the Minister for Justice and Equality could attend the House for a debate in early course on prisoner releases. There is much talk, rightly so, about the release of one particular notorious murderer from prison after serving a term of 30 years. It is very unsatisfactory if the notoriety of a particular convicted person is a significant contributory factor, or a factor at all, in determining precisely how long that person spends in prison. That is the situation that we are in, however. It is one of two areas of reform that are needed and concern the role of the Minister for Justice and Equality. There has been talk of putting the parole board on a statutory basis but the decision-----
I am coming to a conclusion shortly. The decision should not be one for the Minister or the Department. We need to put an appropriate body in place which will make such decisions in an impartial manner.
Another area where we need reform, also concerning the role of the Minister for Justice and Equality, is the appointment of judges. There is no doubt we have high quality judges. When they are appointed I have no doubt they serve without fear or favour and protect their independence jealously-----
I welcome the publication of the children's referendum Bill by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs today. It is a great step forward for children's rights. Children will be visible in the Constitution. The new proposed Article 42A will express the rights of children. Like Senator Bacik, I commend the Minister for holding the referendum on a Saturday. It will mean children will not miss school which is a great statement on the day we have a children's referendum.
As it is linked, will the Cathaoirleach allow me to congratulate former President, Mary McAleese, on her appointment as the chair of the body which will examine the future of higher education in Europe? It was launched yesterday at the European Commission by the European education Commissioner and Mary McAleese. There is no better person to judge what is needed and to lead the process into examining it. We should reflect on what is needed in our third level education system and submit proposals to this European body, particularly for second language teaching in secondary schools and universities. Without being parochial, half the jobs created by PayPal in Dundalk cannot be filled by Irish people because they do not have the necessary second language skills. I hope the next generation of workers will be Irish and will have such language skills.
I would like the Cathaoirleach to address the following issue with the Oireachtas ICT section. There is a problem, apparently, with the online publication of debates for external users.
I would like to have it sorted out. It is a misunderstanding and there is no deliberate attempt to stop people from looking at the transcript, but as there is a lot of confusion, perhaps the Cathaoirleach might use his good offices in that respect.
I am sorry to have to say to the Cathaoirleach and the Leader, "I told you so." On the last day the House sat I stated that if the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Bill was not passed in one day, we would have cutbacks and hospital ward closures. I also said it was a chance for the Seanad to do what the Minister for Health had failed to do. I warned the House, but it happened and the Bill is back before us today. Unfortunately, it is too late, given the many cutbacks because of the Minister's inaction. Shame on the Seanad and those Senators who shouted me down from Fine Gael and the Labour Party benches at the time. Shame on the Leader and the Deputy Leader, Senators Maurice Cummins and Ivana Bacik, who rejected my proposal out of hand on the day. It is important that we do our job today by looking at the Fianna Fáil amendments. I am unsure whether any of the other parties has tabled amendments. It is important that we pass the Bill, try to make some savings and remove some of the embarrassment for the Government parties. I am going to help to do this in the interests of patients.
The Labour Party is going to have to make a choice with the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly. Senators Marie Maloney, Denis Landy and James Heffernan regularly drive by the Minister's mansion in County Offaly and are going to have to decide whether they are with the rich man in his castle or the poor man at his gate. There is a stark choice facing the Labour Party.
No effort is being made to put patients first. We had partisanship in the Chamber before the summer break. We decided that we would not accept an innovative proposal from Fianna Fáil to pass legislation in one day and that we would delay it until after the summer break. The cutbacks that we predicted happened. That is unfortunate, but it is a lesson for the Seanad that we must not remove ourselves from our duty to help the people.
I, too, welcome the setting of the date for the children's rights referendum and the fact that it is being held on a Saturday, something for which I have been calling in the case of numerous elections. I hope this will set the trend for the future. It is being held on Saturday, 10 November, the birthday of Pádraig Pearse who, in reading out the Proclamation in 1916, urged us to cherish all the children of the nation equally. Let us hope that is what will happen on his birthday.
During the break it emerged that the Department of Social Protection had overpaid people one week's fuel allowance to the value of €20. I have said it in the House before and reiterate it today that while Members and former Members of the Oireachtas still owe money to the State which cannot be taken off them, I do not see why people on social welfare should be pursued for a miserly €20. It is grossly unfair that the Department is going to deduct it.
I have told the House that I will take up the matter with the Minister. It is unjust that the money can be taken directly from people's social welfare payments. This was an administrative error made by the Department and the loss should lie with it. I am happy to debate the issue in the House any day with anyone.
It is great to be back in session with all of my honourable and eloquent colleagues. As Members of Seanad Éireann, we hold a significant responsibility - some Members have referred to this - to work side-by-side with the Government and Dáil Éireann to provide the laws, policies, ideas and programmes that will generate new hope and confidence for the people to grow the economy in an equitable manner and face with a sense of urgency the many social and ethical issues of our time. The Taoiseach and his Ministers, while apparently committed to abolishing one of the institutions of governance in the State, nevertheless have a responsibility to ensure the people get value for money by utilising this Chamber as much as possible to deliberate on the most creative and robust ideas to transform Ireland. That is why it is great to hear that the Leader has already organised three debates, among many others, especially on the financial front. Will he arrange as part of one of the budgetary debates for a member of the Economic Management Council to examine the policies for growth that it hopes and intends will become integral to the upcoming budget?
In his book, End This Depression Now!- some of my light summer reading - Professor Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, outlines extensive economic research that demonstrates how austerity policies in advanced countries were followed by economic contraction and higher unemployment. While we are all painfully aware of the requirements of the bailout programme for the upcoming budget, this does not relinquish the Government of its responsibility to bring forward a number of ideas for a fiscal stimulus to add jobs to the economy, encourage and support financially a creative entrepreneurial spirit and lead us beyond the dominant negative culture in banks and financial institutions which is strangling opportunities for growth.
I ask the Leader to confirm the date on which the Minister for Social Protection will come to this Chamber for a debate on the long overdue gender recognition legislation. I will conclude by asking him about political reform. Will he raise with the Taoiseach the question of when the chair of the constitutional convention will be appointed? When the Government came to power, it promised fundamental reform. Although the agenda for the convention is a considerably constricted version of what was originally indicated, it continues to offer great potential for people and politicians to work together to reignite this living document. Why is it taking the Government so long to made good on this promise?
I welcome the Cathaoirleach and the Leader back to the House. This is an extremely sad day in Hillsborough and Ballynahinch as three members of the Spence family are laid to rest. I hope the Leader might communicate our condolences to the bereaved. Perhaps the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Simon Coveney, and his opposite number in Northern Ireland might develop and publicise alarms to measure the toxicity of odourless substances which caused the great tragedy over the weekend.
I welcome everybody back to the House after a restful summer period. I hope we are all energised, enthusiastic and ready for the forthcoming session. The summer may have been one of the wettest on record - the rain was unrelenting throughout Ireland from May until August - but it was spectacular for sport and it is not over yet. If I get two tickets for the all-Ireland final, I will be cheering for Donegal. In the final week of our last session we wished our Olympians and Paralympians the best of luck in London. They and other sportspeople made the summer of 2012 a spectacular one. We are familiar with the exploits of Rory McIlroy, for example. Having spent some time in the United States over the weekend, I know that everybody there is talking about Rory. I congratulate our Olympians and Paralympians and will mention a few obvious names. Senators do not need to be reminded of the exploits of Katie Taylor who won a great gold medal in boxing, double gold medalists like Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop and the inspirational Darragh McDonald and Catherine Walsh. The recent games marked a turning point for the Paralympic movement, not just in Ireland but all around the world. London pulled off a spectacular games. The police, the organisers, Sebastian Coe and the volunteers were all tremendous.
Many of our young athletes have dealt with setbacks in their careers. I recall an event at Athlone Institute of Technology at which Mark Rohan and I spoke. When I introduced myself, I mentioned that one had to decide whether to turn right or left when one faced a crossroads in one's life.
He got up after me, when he was being inducted and said he was honoured to be there with myself, Sonia O'Sullivan and Barry McGuigan. He said that I had talked about turning right or turning left but that he missed both the left and right turns and ended up hitting a tree and was paralysed from the waist down for the rest of his life. The inspiration these athletes are to themselves, their families and to Ireland has to be admired. I asked during the last Seanad session if we could bring some of these inspirational people to the House so that we can hear their stories. I call on the Leader to congratulate these wonderful athletes who represented Ireland and to invite them to the House, if appropriate.
I join previous speakers in welcoming everybody back after the summer break. I also welcome the publication of the wording for the children's rights referendum, which my party will support.
Senator McAleese made a profound contribution when he spoke about the relevance of this House and the role we can play. There is no doubt that over the past year or so, this House had done a lot of positive work. In my view, however, the most important thing this House can be is relevant on the issues that are affecting people in the here and now. In that context, there is no doubt that access to core public services, unemployment and emigration are the key issues facing the State at this time. Recently, we got a glimpse of the two Irelands. In one, the services to people with disabilities, older people and those being cared for were cut back. The unemployment figures indicate that there are more people out of work now than when the Government came into office. We also had the threats to young people that they will not receive their third-level grant if their parents have not paid the household charge. That is what is happening to the citizens in one Ireland. Then there is an entirely different Ireland where wealthy people are still not paying their fair share and where a bond of €1 billion will be paid out next week on an Anglo Irish Bank debt. People see the unfairness in what is happening whereby taxpayers' money is being wasted and squandered right across the whole system while core public services are not being delivered to people who need them.
I welcome the fact that we will have a number of debates on the formulation of the budget, which I called for consistently in recent months. However, we must go further than that and analyse all of the ideas that are circulating with regard to how we can turn the economy around. I agree with Senator Zappone that we need to see ideas on how to grow the economy and encourage investment. They are the key issues affecting the country and will assist us in the dealing with the unemployment crisis. Once again, I take this opportunity to welcome the fact that we are going to have a number of debates leading up to the budget.
I welcome all of my colleagues back to the House and also welcome the beginning of a session during which we can make a major difference to many people's lives in this country. I am referring to the forthcoming referendum on children's rights. Right now there are 1,500 children who have been in care for more than five years. Children of married parents who are in care for various reasons, including neglect or abuse, cannot be adopted in this country. This referendum, if passed, will give such children, for the first time, access to a family to which they can belong. Approximately 95% of children in care are in foster care but as the law currently stands, they must be approximately 17 years old before they can prove abandonment by their birth family in order to be able to be adopted. I welcome the publication by the Leader of the dates for the debates in this House on the referendum and the proposed adoption legislation. I call for a sensitive and caring debate on these matters in order that all our children can be treated equally as they try to have a happy childhood. They have a right to a happy childhood and a right to feel protected and safe. I compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on publishing a wording which shows that the rights of the family and the rights of the child can coexist. That is highly commendable.
I ask the Leader for an urgent debate on sick pay. We have just had a very useful briefing by small and medium sized businesses which showed that if the proposals from the Minister for Social Protection on sick pay go through, with the payment of sick pay for 28 days becoming the responsibility of the employer, it could cost 20,000 jobs.
We cannot stand by and let that happen. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister into the House as soon as possible.
I support Senator Thomas Byrne's point on kildarestreet.com . The service is provided by a public person, namely, Daniel K. Sullivan and it is very useful and it is colourfully presented. I hope the Editor of Debates is listening in and that this matter is resolved straightaway. I hope the Cathaoirleach will ensure this is done because we need that type of outlet. I do not see why this complication has arisen and I hope it will be resolved today because they provide pen pictures of each Member and then the dialogue is very good. It is a very good service.
I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, for publishing the wording for the referendum on Saturday, 10 November. It is an excellent piece of work. It is based very much on the work of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, chaired by the former Minister, Mrs. Mary O'Rourke. The Minister was previously a member of the committee. She was generous in her recognition of the work done by the committee and by the former Minister of State, Mr. Barry Andrews. It is a good start to the campaign. We are very pleased and delighted on this side of the House. We had a parliamentary party meeting this morning and we have endorsed the wording of the referendum. The party leader and spokespersons had a briefing this morning on the referendum wording. The campaign has got off to a very good start. I am delighted that Sinn Féin is also on board in this regard because it is very important that no party would for some reason or other try to come up with a reason not to support the amendment.
Following on from what Senator Healy Eames said, when one thinks of the number of children that have been deprived of the option of being adopted since the 1937 Constitution, it is frightening to conclude that at this stage approximately 2,000 children born in wedlock cannot legally be adopted. There are many who want to be adopted and who have been fostered for years by loving foster parents but they have been deprived of the chance. That is the most fundamental part of the amendment. One would wonder why it has taken so long to address the issue, not just in recent years when much detailed work was done, but since the measure was first included in the Constitution. It was a different world and Ireland was a different country then and if people knew then what they know now they would not have allowed such a measure to go into the Constitution.
It is important that the financial resources are provided to ensure it is not just a case of fine words but that action is taken to implement the referendum when it is passed. I have no doubt the referendum will be passed on 10 November. I do not think the wording prepared by the former Minister of State, Mr. Barry Andrews, was published because it was at the end of the previous Government. The previous Government had the intention of bringing forward this constitutional amendment but it was involved in such a crisis in the financial services that it must have been pushed aside for a few months.
The main change is that instead of the word "may", the word "shall" has been inserted. That is very important. It is a factual statement that something "shall be done". I am very pleased and I will campaign in any way I can on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party and this House. The House will fully endorse the wording of the amendment and give leadership in the campaign.
I too welcome the setting of a date for the referendum and the fact that it is on a Saturday, for all the reasons that have already been mentioned. I also welcome the fact that Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have confirmed in the House today their support for the referendum and the proposed wording. One aspect of concern to me relates to the media. Because of the McKenna judgment, various media organisations must give 50% coverage to both sides of an argument. I hope that editorial discretion will be used in this instance so that an opportunity is not given to various nay-sayers or people who wish to raise their profiles in the media. The McKenna judgment would allow them a voice.
I hope RTE and other media organisations will use editorial discretion to ensure that this campaign does not give a voice to "No" campaigners whose main motivation is to raise their own profile.
Last night I attended a meeting in Athlone organised by employers in order to learn what facilities were available and what efforts were being made by the Government to help create employment. I was very impressed by these efforts and the number of programmes the State supports, such as Springboard and JobBridge, to help people find work. The main concern people have is uncertainty. We should do everything we can to avoid uncertainty for the person who is thinking of investing. In the middle of all this, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, stated that her sick pay scheme, as referred to by Senator Healy Eames, may not apply to employers who employ fewer than 100 people. That was great news for the SME sector until, a week later, the Department stated that was not what the Minister meant. This is uncertainty and it causes great concern for all employers. If we are going to switch to a sick-pay scheme whereby the employer must pay the first 28 days for anybody who is sick, it will be an enormous imposition and one that had not been anticipated. Potential employers who are thinking of investing in employment will hear there is uncertainty in this regard. I accept the suggestion of Senators Healy Eames and O'Brien, namely, to call on the Minister to make the situation very clear. A debate in this House would be the right thing to have in this regard.
It was announced yesterday by Eric Pickles, a British Government Minister, that in order to encourage the building of conservatories outside homes, small conservatories will not need planning permission. The Minister appears to be trying to remove some of the municipal red tape that has been around for a long time. There are steps we can take to encourage smaller builders back to work and we should try to make it easier for them to do so, on that basis. This example is merely one step; many more of a similar kind can be taken.
Like other speakers, I am glad the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has announced the wording of the proposed amendment to the Constitution. It is an important day. We will be asked to insert the new Article 42A which will ensure that children will be visible and will be afforded the protection of the State. It is important to state at this point, as will be repeated in the ensuing debate, that this measure applies particularly to children who are in exceptional situations. It is not for every child or every family. Families will be recognised equally with children in the Constitution. This Article will refer to children from birth to the age of 18 and will be the sole focus of the referendum. I am glad there will be political support from all sides for this referendum, which is very important, and I look forward to the debate. It is an opportunity for this country to stand up and recognise children. The former Supreme Court judge, Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, called for such a constitutional change almost 20 years ago. It is a very important day for us.
Will the Leader speak to the Minister for Education and Skills about the possibility of having a debate in this House? Yesterday at the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, we heard a number of submissions on employment, how to increase it and how to ensure that individuals are prepared for it. Forfás and the expert group on future skills needs gave a very interesting submission in which they called for the development of a foreign language education policy within a five to ten-year period, across all levels of education. Senator D'Arcy also mentioned this point when he referred to the PayPal issue. The teaching of languages across the education system is a matter on which we should focus. I speak regularly on the importance of mathematics, science and engineering but equally, time and again, we come across the fact that we have a problem with foreign languages and the teaching thereof. I include in this Mandarin, Spanish and a range of other languages.
There is a problem in the context of the teaching of languages and in respect of the language capabilities of Irish students who are seeking employment.
After a long summer it is nice to be back here with the Cathaoirleach, the Leader and colleagues. I could have waited a further week before returning, particularly as the Listowel races are in full swing However, life is not perfect.
Will the Leader make time available for a debate on the PRSI system? Will he request that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, come before the House to discuss the dearth of information available to PRSI subscribers in the context of their entitlements, particularly in respect of what will be the ultimate level of their pensions? I do not refer here to what will be the amount of their pensions - there has been much speculation from the Cabinet with regard to decreases in this regard - rather my point relates to the fact that it is virtually impossible for an individual to discover, in the context of PRSI, what will be his or her pension entitlement at some point in the future. If an individual has a private pension scheme with any of the investment houses, he or she may contact the relevant organisation and seek an estimate - in view of the fluctuations, etc., it is only possible to issue estimates - of what will be his or her pension at age 65 or whatever. Such an individual can also seek advice on how he or she may further enhance said pension by increasing his or her level of investment, etc. It is not possible to obtain such information - on a one-to-one basis - in respect of one's PRSI pension. One will instead by referred to a multiplicity of websites. I have visited many of these and I am aware that one would need a doctorate in actuarial science in order to be in a position to understand the information on offer.
Last weekend, the Irish Mail on Sunday published a very good article by Mr. Colm Rapple in which this matter was highlighted. Given that people are so worried about both their futures and the amount of money they are going to have available to them, it is important that any individual who is paying a particular amount from his or her wages each week be in a position to know what additional contributions he or she should be making. It is possible to make such contributions. If a person loses his or her job or if he or she is self-employed, he or she can make payments on a form of credit basis. I have met a number of people who have retired and who informed me that if they had known they could have made X amount of additional contributions, they would now be in receipt of full rather than half-rate PRSI pensions. I request that the Minister for Social Protection come before us to discuss this matter, which is of legitimate concern to people.
Like previous speakers, I welcome colleagues back to the Seanad. I also welcome the forthcoming referendum on children's rights, which will be held on a Saturday. The latter is an important consideration for people who work away from home - in Dublin or wherever - and who will be able to return there to vote. I hope that we will continue to hold referendums, etc., on a Saturday in the future.
My main point relates to Revenue and the collection of VAT. During the summer, a national debate took place on radio in respect of Revenue and its attitude to the collection of VAT. It was stated that Revenue uses very heavy-handed tactics in respect of those who do not pay VAT. I have been approached by a number of people who owed what I would consider to be small amounts to Revenue and who were employing others. A very heavy-handed approach was taken to these individuals. In one case, the sheriff arrived and sought to seize certain things from a person's premises. That is unacceptable. In another case, a small company which employs ten or 12 people and which normally made its VAT return on a two-monthly basis was obliged to defer its payment. It did not make its VAT return for six months. For whatever reason, perhaps as a result of the fact that some companies went under in the past without making their returns, Revenue decided to take action. Where jobs are at risk, Revenue should take a sympathetic approach to people who may be experiencing short-term difficulties in the context of cashflow. These individuals should be given a chance.
As my party's spokesperson on agriculture, I join Senator Barrett in offering my condolences to the Spence family in respect of the terrible tragedy which occurred on Saturday evening last. There is a system for monitoring the gas in slurry tanks. In that context, we should consider making the relevant equipment available to those involved in farming who might have slurry on their premises.
Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an méid a bhí le rá ag an Seanadóir Zappone maidir le cúrsaí eacnamaíochta. Ní hé an tOllamh Paul Krugman amháin atá ag cur an chineáil sin comhairle orainn. Senator Zappone referred to a book by Paul Krugman. I wish to refer to a recently published report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development which should be debated in the House. The report to which I refer states that fiscal austerity and wage compression have damaged the potential for economic growth in many countries across the globe that are employing those types of economic policies. It also says that in many European states, including Ireland, austerity is not working and argues in favour of a different economic model which would reduce the gap between income and wealth.
This report justifies the stance taken by Sinn Féin in recent years and time should be given in the House to debate its findings.
I welcome the publication of the text of the referendum on children's rights as a positive move forward in our efforts to protect the welfare of children in this country. However, I take this opportunity to draw Members' attention to the plight of the scores of children currently residing in the Lisbrook direct provision centre in Galway, all of whom are facing a very uncertain future. Residents of the centre were told two weeks ago that they were to be moved without delay and scattered to the four corners of the island. Fortunately, following public pressure and a great deal of media attention, a stay of execution was granted by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. These children are living in what is essentially an open prison. They have no rights and face the threat of being taken out of their communities and schools and away from their support structures at any moment. With a few notable exceptions, public representatives have turned a blind eye to the issue. My party intends to organise a presentation on their behalf and we are calling for a debate in this House on the system of direct provision. Before the last election, the current Government parties were in agreement that it was an intolerable and disastrous way of dealing with asylum seekers. What we have seen is the privatisation of a system which should never have been introduced in the first place, yet, despite the fact that the Government has been in place for 18 months, there has been no change in this area and no indication that any will take place in the foreseeable future. Will the Leader invite the Minister to the House to discuss this issue without delay? The way these people are being treated is appalling. If our citizens abroad were treated in the same way, there would be a massive public outcry.
I wish to be associated with the comments made by Senators Sean D. Barrett and Michael Comiskey in regard to the tragic accident involving members of the Spence family in Hillsborough, County Down. As an active farmer, I am aware of the campaigns highlighting the dangers presented by farm machinery. I agree with Senator Barrett that there should be a campaign to raise awareness of the toxic gases which may accumulate in slurry tanks. The methane in these tanks is odourless, which was a factor in the tragic deaths in this case. I take this opportunity to convey my sympathy to the family.
I support Senator Terry Brennan's remarks on the reduction in ticket prices for the forthcoming replay of the All-Ireland hurling final. On 9 September the Kilkenny and Galway teams provided outstanding entertainment and I wish them both the best of luck on 30 September. I remind the Galway people that the Cats are still on the prowl.
I am not quite finished, a Chathaoirligh. As Senator Darragh O'Brien said, we have been waiting two months to speak.
Senator Thomas Byrne made reference, in regard to the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Bill 2012, which we will debate this afternoon, to the existence of a two-tier health system. I remind the Senator that his party was in power for 14 years and had ample opportunity-----
Yes; I am getting to it. The Fianna Fáil Party was in government for 14 years. When the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, was in opposition, he brought forward various proposals on how savings could be made. Senator Byrne's comments regarding the Minister were uncalled for.
Yes. My question to the Leader relates to the revenues arising from the replay of the All-Ireland hurling final. I welcome the GAA's decision to make a contribution to both teams' holiday funds. These players provide entertainment to many thousands of people.
Although it is probably inevitable, my party regrets the note of partisanship that crept into the speech by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in introducing the text of the referendum on children's rights when she talked about neglect in the past 20 years. It seems the benchmark in this regard is the statement by the former Supreme Court judge, Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness. As an historical footnote, it is my understanding that at the time the latter made her remarks, the Children Act 2001 had not yet been implemented. The reality is that a large body of legislation was introduced by both the rainbow coalition Government and by successive Fianna Fáil Administrations in the past two decades.
In fact, four significant Bills were introduced which have gone an extraordinarily long way to protect children's rights. What is at issue in this particular referendum, which we will have an opportunity to debate, is specifically the question of adoption as well as the right of hearing in court. There is already a significant body of legislation in this regard.
I pay tribute to former Ministers with responsibility for children. Fianna Fáil introduced the concept of a children's Minister. Deputy Brendan Smith had responsibility for it in the early 2000s while the late Brian Lenihan was the first dedicated children's Minister. He initiated much of what we are debating today and was followed by Barry Andrews. As my colleague, Senator Leyden, who is our party spokesperson on this issue in the Seanad, said earlier the wording of the referendum with slight alterations was ready to go to Cabinet in January 2011.
While I welcome today's announcement about a children's rights referendum, it was churlish of the Minister's speechwriter – I do not believe it is her style – to be tempted into having a go at previous Fianna Fáil Administrations incorrectly and erroneously.
I am amazed at the deafening silence from the Government benches concerning the decisions taken by local authorities across the country to deny the right of those who want to send their children to university to access grants from local authorities if they have not paid the household charge. Earlier, Senator McAleese referred to the effectiveness of this Chamber and spoke in positive terms about parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy means the consent of the people must be there whenever legislation is passed. It is plainly evident that almost 40% of the people in this republic have withdrawn their consent to the payment of the household charge. It is incumbent on the Minister to clarify to the House what is going on with local authorities in this regard. The local authorities themselves have been put to the pin of their collars by the threat to withdraw moneys for essential front line services. Everyone on both sides of the House, particularly those who have served at local authority level-----
-----will know the pain and anguish that has been caused as a result of the withdrawal of budgets since last July and which will continue to happen. I am asking for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to attend the House to debate this matter.
I also urge a note of caution. If consent has been withdrawn by a significant portion of the population to household charges, what will happen when the Government attempts to introduce the property tax? Will the consent be there? I do not believe it will. That is why my party has already taken a public position on this matter. When one has 40,000 young people emigrating, half a million unemployed and the withdrawal of essential and front line services, how does the Government believe it will not just pass this legislation but get compliance with it?
I do not believe the Government will get compliance. I know we will be revisiting this in the future. I am sounding a note of warning that when the property tax legislation comes before the House, the Government side will need to see if the people will give their consent to the tax.
Senator O'Sullivan raised an important matter earlier. I have been in touch with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, with queries I received in that regard. Everything the Senator said about the matter is true. It is very difficult to get accurate information on contributions to PRSI and contributory pensions.
As everyone has said, it is good to be back. I compliment the Leader on taking on board Senator Darragh O'Brien's suggestion, agreed by the leaders this morning, to initiate a budgetary process, proposals, suggestions and so on in the House. Senator Darragh O'Brien, in his own imitable style, also put forward a suggestion on the property tax which will not be on because we will have to wait for budget day for the details. We will overcome that, however.
It was great to hear Senator McAleese provide a litany of the innovations started in the House last year. It can be useful and constructive that the Seanad will proceed in that regard. The Cathaoirleach has indulged me sufficiently and the rest of what I wish to raise can wait until tomorrow.
The vast majority of Members who spoke welcomed the announcement of the children's rights referendum. The purpose of the 31st amendment to the Constitution is to expressly recognise children in their own right within the Constitution. I certainly welcome Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin support for the referendum and the wording. It is important that the referendum be passed. It is the fundamental backdrop to the wider programme of change for children being pursued by the Government. As I have outlined, we will have the opportunity to discuss the referendum over three days in the week after next. Everyone will have ample opportunity to discuss the wording and any other matter relating to it. I note that many Members have welcomed the fact that the referendum will be held on a Saturday. I hope this will be a sign of things to come where elections are concerned and that many of them may be held on a Saturday rather than a Thursday, but that it a matter for another day.
Senator Darragh O'Brien raised the question of the new property tax. Given the economic damage inflicted on the State by an unbalanced tax system, the Government is committed to introducing a new local property tax to fund essential local services. This is in line with our commitments under the EU-IMF troika programme and was part of the original agreement signed up to by Fianna Fáil. A group under the independent chairmanship of Don Thornhill was established to consider the policy approach and modalities for a property tax. To date, the group has engaged in detailed work and an analysis of the submissions received. The report will feed into the Government's deliberations on the design and implementation of a property tax. At this stage the Government has not had an opportunity to discuss the report of Dr. Thornhill.
The new property charge will be fair. We need to carefully consider the various issues in introducing a property tax and the Government will not be rushed into making decisions on the matter. The only decision taken by it regarding the property tax is that it will be administered and collected by the Revenue Commissioners and that it will take effect in the middle of 2013. No further policy decisions on it have been taken by the Government.
I note Senator Darragh O'Brien's point about Temple Street Children's University Hospital, the cystic fibrosis unit and the lack of a physiotherapist there. Certainly, I will make representations to the Minister in that regard.
I welcome Senator Martin McAleese's suggestions and would welcome suggestions for future innovations. He has outlined the innovations that we have had to date. Of course, I would welcome suggestions for future innovations in the House within Standing Orders. I thank the Senator for his remarks in that regard.
Senator Rónán Mullen dealt with the referendum, but he also commented on the need for reform in the legal system and other areas and asked for the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House. I imagine we will have ample opportunity to discuss the items he raised on the Order of Business today.
We all join Senator Jim D'Arcy in congratulating the former President, Mrs. Mary McAleese, on becoming chair of the new EU body on higher education. I note the Senator's comments on language skills which were echoed by Senator Deirdre Clune. The Minister for Education and Skills will be here to discuss such matters on 16 October and there will be an opportunity for Members to debate the issues raised at that point.
I welcome Senator Thomas Byrne's offer of help in dealing with the health system and the overruns in the health budget.
It is a bit rich coming from a Senator whose party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, presided as Minister over budget overruns of €638 million and spent €14 million on consultants' reports which gathered dust in the Department for many years afterwards. That type of help is not welcome from the Senator.
Senator Marie Moloney spoke about social welfare matters. As I mentioned at the start of the Order of Business, the Minister for Social Protection will come to the House on 18 October. Senator Fidelma Healy Eames also called on the Minister to come to the House. She will address the matters raised on 18 October.
Senator Katherine Zappone will have ample time to relay her ideas on the economy in the weeks ahead. She also called for a debate on gender recognition. I can inform her that the Minister will come to the House for statements on the matter next week. I assure her that the appointment of the chair of the constitutional convention is imminent. The convention will be up and running by the end of October.
Senator Terry Brennan and other Members highlighted the shortage of tickets for the all-Ireland final, a matter which is not very relevant to the Order of Business. I can assure the House that I have no tickets. Like most others, I was turned down when I applied for tickets. That is the situation.
Senator Sean D. Barrett mentioned the sad events in Northern Ireland at the weekend, when three members of the Spence family died in such tragic circumstances. It reminds us of the dangers encountered on farms on a daily basis. Senators Pat O'Neill and Michael Comiskey suggested the Ministers on either side of the Border should work together to find some way of monitoring various gases and seeing what could be done to prevent such a tragedy from happening in the future.
Senator Eamonn Coghlan spoke about our Olympians and Paralympians. We would all like to join him in complimenting each and every one of them. The Paralympians, in particular, were an inspiration to us all.
Senator David Cullinane addressed a number of items. I welcome Sinn Féin's support for the forthcoming children's rights referendum. Senator Fidelma Healy Eames mentioned the referendum in the context of the adoption (amendment) Bill which is being published. I am sure her points will be taken into consideration when we discuss that legislation.
Senator Feargal Quinn referred to sick pay. I remind him that the Minister will be in attendance on 18 October as part of the budgetary process. I am sure the points made by various Senators can be relayed to the Minister on that day.
Senator Michael Comiskey spoke about the Revenue Commissioners, with which I do not wish to get involved. They have stated they will deal with those who have problems on a one-to-one basis.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh mentioned the Lisbrook centre. I know he has arranged for the matter to be discussed in the AV room. Perhaps he might table an Adjournment motion in order to highlight the issue.
Senator Paschal Mooney referred to Clare County Council. Section 7 of the Local Government (Financial Provisions) (No. 2) Act 1983 provides that "where a sum is due to a local authority ... under any enactment ... and, at the same time, another sum is due by that authority to that person, the former sum may be set off against the latter". Local authorities are thus empowered to set off moneys owed to them against moneys due to be paid out. However, no moneys have been withheld by Clare County Council in respect of higher education grants.
The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has advised Clare County Council to ensure that its treatment of such grants is appropriate in respect of any provision laid down by the Department of Education and Skills, and furthermore that the provision in the Local Government (Financial Provisions) (No. 2) Act 1983 is specific to the person who owes the money to the local authority. Any grant cannot, therefore, be partially withheld from a student because his or her parent or guardian is liable for the charge and has not paid it. That clarifies that matter.
I have dealt with the matters raised by Senators.