Thursday, 8 November 2012
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, address by Professor Christopher A. Pissarides, School Professor of Economics and Political Science at the London School of Economics and Nobel Laureate, to commence at 1 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed five minutes and the contribution of one Sinn Féin Senator not to exceed two minutes, at the conclusion of which Professor Pissarides will reply to questions from others Senators which shall not exceed one minute in each case - to facilitate a prompt start for Professor Pissarides' address, I ask all Senators to be in their seats before 1 p.m.; and No. 2, statements on public expenditure and reform, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and conclude not later 5.30 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 the contributions of all other Senators not to exceed two minutes when asking questions of the Minister. Members may share time.
We are just a few days away from the referendum on Saturday and we should use the opportunity today to encourage as many people as possible to come out and vote. Most Members of parties - and those of no affiliation - are supporting a "Yes" vote, believing it is very important and in the interests of our children. It is important that the turnout is high on Saturday and that there is a resounding "Yes" vote.
Will the Leader raise the issue of student support grants with the Minister for Education and Skills? There are just under 50,000 grant applications for this education year and some 46,000 have not yet been processed. Students do not know whether they will receive a student support grant. I understand the Minister has set up a hotline but it is not intended for students who might be able to telephone to ask about the position of his or her application. The hotline is for Oireachtas Members. While all of us would welcome this facility and would wish to assist students in getting word on where their grant application stands, the Minister should not restrict this hotline to Members. There should be a proper hotline which students can use to ask about their application. This is the end of the second week in November and 46,000 students still have no word on their third level student support grants.
I need not remind Members that the Minister for Education and Skills signed, on 21 February 2011, a pledge with the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and students in general, stating he would oppose and campaign against any new form of third level fees, including student loans, graduate taxes and any further increases in student contribution. We knew that was a blatant lie at the time, and continues to be so given that this Government has stated it will increase the student registration fee to ¤3,000, having already increased it by ¤250 last year. Not only is the student registration fee being increased but now students cannot access their grant applications. It is very serious. There is a minimum of 46,000 applications pending; there has already been a very high refusal rate and the Government has also abolished postgraduate student grants.
Will the Leader schedule some time for discussing this matter? It will not be fixed in the coming week, as is patently obvious by the numbers outstanding. The Minister should attend the House and explain what is being done. Let us not forget it was the Government which decided to remove the grant application process from the local authorities in order to streamline the process. Obviously this streamlining has not worked. We need to give some certainty to our students as to when their applications will be processed. It appears to me that applications for 2012 will not even be looked at before the turn of the year. Most of us do not see that as an acceptable situation. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House in the coming weeks and outline how his Department envisages working through this self-created backlog of 46,000 outstanding applications?
We are only two days from the children's rights referendum and I reiterate how important it is to see a high turnout on Saturday and strong support for the "Yes" side. Many of us have spent a lot of time canvassing. I was canvassing outside schools only this morning. There is strong support for the "Yes" side, recognition that the referendum wording is carefully balanced and that it is very important to place protection of children's rights into the Constitution. However, given how much support there is, it is important not to descend into complacency and that we continue to urge people to come out and vote. It is also important to have a high turnout because this is the first time a Saturday vote has been tried for a very long time. This is something we have been seeking for many years in order to enable more people to vote, allowing students in particular and others living away from home to return and vote where they are registered. It is really important to have that high turnout and I welcome the high levels of canvassing for a "Yes" vote by colleagues from all parties.
I, too, would like a debate on education issues. The Minister for Education and Skills was very clear on radio that the streamlining of student grant application process through SUSI should lead to great improvements in the system. There used to be enormous delays in the old system run by the councils. The Minister pointed out that although it is regrettable that many people are still waiting for their applications to be processed nonetheless there is an improvement on the old system where considerable delays were built in.
There was encouraging news this morning that all colleagues should welcome, indicating that increasing numbers of young people are staying on in secondary schools to leaving certificate level. The increase is important and very significant. The number of students staying in school to complete second level is at the highest ever rate, at more than 90%. The percentage of those who sit the leaving certificate is at 90.2%, and in DEIS schools there has been a greatly increased retention rate, from 68% in 2001 to more than 80% in 2006. It is very welcome news and we should be cognisant of that when we have a debate on education.
Many colleagues in the House spoke yesterday on the topic of family planning clinics, with some looking for an inquiry. Allegations concerning certain family planning clinics were published in one newspaper and there is an ongoing investigation into those. Clearly, if any practice was engaged in that was against the law or damaging to women's health, that is a very serious matter. However, there is a broader context. Clinics operating entirely outside the law, meaning those that do not offer non-directive counselling and are therefore not regulated under the Regulation of Information Act, have in the past been the subject of both allegations in newspapers and of High Court proceedings. These last concerned practices that sought to use very forceful tactics to bully women into taking certain courses of action, in one case to enter into an illegal adoption. In this country we have had a history of failing to recognise our responsibility, as legislators, to women in crisis pregnancy. I am very hopeful that when the ABC group reports we will finally face up to our responsibilities, at very least to those women who face a life-threatening condition as a result of their pregnancy, and to women whose pregnancies show fatal foetal abnormalities. Currently these women are not treated with any compassion.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Darragh O'Brien regarding SUSI, the third level grant application computerised system which is effectively run by Dublin VEC. If SUSI is an example of what centralisation will mean in this country we have a problem because it simply does not work. Some 12% or 15% of grant applications have been dealt with. Those people who apply for grants are under financial pressure. Some 88% of students who have started first year in college, which can be a traumatic time in its own right, have applied through SUSI. The difficult and challenging experience they are having in college as they try to adjust to a new life is being compounded by what is, at this stage, a complete fiasco. Will the Leader ask the education committee to summon the chief executives of SUSI and Dublin VEC to attend, as a matter of absolute urgency, in order to find out what in hell is going on?
I refer to our discussion yesterday regarding banks. I was very troubled recently to discover that banks have taken a step backwards in dealing with families where couples are facing separation. There was a time, believe it or not, when banks did the right thing when it came to assisting couples to come up with a reasonable settlement. They facilitated moving a mortgage into a sole name in order to expedite a separation agreement. Now, however, they are not playing ball and families who are going through a difficult and challenging time as a result of marital splits and separations, and where children are involved, now find their situation is totally compounded by the incompetence of banks.
I reiterate my call for a banking inquiry. This is the only way we can unravel the absolute scandal in the banking sector in recent years and, one hopes, come up with proper procedures and protocols to ensure that the like of what happened will never occur again.
I join colleagues in remarking on the fact that this is the first day of voting in respect of the children's rights referendum. People who live on the islands off our coast are voting at present. It is appropriate that both sides of the argument should be presented and I hope that, regardless of the way in which citizens vote, there will be a very high turnout. All those agencies that have been involved in the protection of children and their welfare - Barnardos, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Roman Catholic bishops - have all adopted a very positive stance towards the referendum. I am of the view that the virtually unanimous support for the constitutional amendment among all parties in both Houses of the Oireachtas should be noted by the people.
I was absolutely horrified by last Monday night's edition of "The Frontline" on RTE. During the programme, a person representing the "No" side made three claims that are utterly false. The first of these is that the doors of the homes of loving and caring families will be battered down by what he described as the "austerity police" and the unfortunate children found therein would be carted off to a revived Letterfrack. That is simply and grossly untrue. Not only that, it is an attempt to create hysteria and to terrify and confuse people. There is a need for a full turnout on Saturday. We cannot be complacent and presume that the referendum will be passed. The second claim made by the individual to whom I refer was even worse. He suggested that foster parents are in it for the money, which is a disgraceful slur on decent, good citizens who take responsibility for children who would otherwise not have access to either proper parental influence or a home. I demand that the person in question withdraw the charge that these people are only taking on foster children in order to obtain ¤325 per week in respect of them.
The third claim made by this individual is one which really hits me in the heart. He cited the Roscommon incest case as a classic reason for voting against the proposed constitutional amendment. That case is the best possible argument for voting in favour of the amendment. The children in the Roscommon case were routinely sexually abused by both parents - which was highly unusual - and they were also starved, beaten and physically abused. Their welfare was threatened by the fact that - to put it in the most charitable terms - a misguided group of extreme fundamentalists incited and funded the parents involved to harass the agencies of the State by means of court action in order to prevent the children from exercising their rights. Those children suffered years of additional horror, hell and misery because there was nothing in the Constitution to protect them. If people believe in the rights and welfare of children and if they are of the view that the State should intervene and not just leave children dangling in circumstances where parents act in the unspeakable way to which I refer, then they should come out and vote in favour of the constitutional amendment.
Notwithstanding the genuine answer the Leader provided yesterday in respect of the obscene pensions of the order of ¤500,000 and ¤650,000 that are being paid to bankers, I remind him and the Government that this issue is not going to go away. His reply was accurate in so far as he replied to the question that was put to him, namely, that one cannot single out a particular small section of society. We are not saying that. We are of the view what we are suggesting should apply to everyone. What would be wrong with placing a cap of, for example, ¤65,000 - the amount which Senators are currently paid - on publicly provided pensions? Would such a cap be unfair? If the cap fits, one should wear it. This country cannot afford the excessive and inordinately generous pensions that are being paid out of the public purse. The public will not stand for that, nor will it stand for the Government unless it takes steps to deal with this matter.
I was brought up to believe - as I am sure were many other Members - that if one minds the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves. In that context, the Minister of State at the Department of Finance has decided that the Government Publications Sales Office on Molesworth Street will close on 23 November next. The saving that will result from this action will be ¤300,000. I suppose this is part of the rationalisation which must take place. I request that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, come to the House prior to the budget in order that we might have an input and suggest where savings could be made. Senators could make a valid contribution in this regard. There is one suggestion I would like to put forward. I call on all Senators and Deputies to desist this year from the thoughtless and vulgar practice of posting out 250,000 Christmas cards at taxpayers' expense. What is the point of sending out such cards? In the current climate, it is thoughtless in the extreme to send someone a Christmas card for which he or she is actually paying in the first instance. If Members want to recognise and mark the goodwill of the festive season, I strongly suggest that they purchase charity Christmas cards from the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation, the Irish Cancer Society or the Irish Hospice Foundation. In view of the times in which we are living, it is wrong to squander taxpayers' money by sending them Christmas cards for which they are paying in any event. That is absurd.
I see that Scrooge is alive and well. It is a wonder the Senator does not want to abolish Christmas. It is a matter for each individual to decide whether to send Christmas cards or use the facilities that are at his or her disposal.
Of course. I wish to support Senators Darragh O'Brien, Bacik and Norris who was particularly passionate in his contribution in their comments on next Saturday's referendum. An all-party committee appointed by the previous Government brought forward the first wording in respect of this matter which was agreed by all of the parties. That committee was chaired by Mary O'Rourke, who did an excellent job. The previous Government brought forward a particular wording and the current Administration has put forward its own wording. I commend the latter on putting this issue to the people in a referendum in such austere times. This matter is being dealt with approximately 40 to 50 years too late. During that period, young people have been deprived of the right to have responsible parents and to be adopted in the appropriate circumstances. The necessary safeguards are in place. I commend all those who are supporting the constitutional amendment.
The comments and statements made on Monday's edition of "The Frontline" were bizarre and completely outrageous. I concur with Senator Norris in that regard. I resent continued references to the "Roscommon case". The way in which this case is referred to infers that people in Roscommon ignored what occurred.
In the context of that to which Senator Norris refers, it was the very people who are campaigning for a "No" vote on Saturday next that went to the High Court in order to prevent social workers in Roscommon from carrying out their duties. Those are the facts.
I also resent the outrageous allegations that have been made in certain newspaper articles, etc. The constitutional amendment will be good for children and Ireland. I will do my utmost to ensure that the referendum is passed on Saturday next. As Senator Bacik stated, they could be-----
Like Senator Bacik, I welcome the report compiled by the Department of Education and Skills on retention rates for pupils in second level schools. This country has fantastic retention rates in comparison to its European counterparts, particularly its nearest neighbour Britain. We should remember the strength and quality of our education system. Retention rates are increasing all the time. In the current economic climate, it is most important that we should continue to educate young children. Kilkenny has the highest retention rate in the country at 94%.
I could not believe the rate was so high. Sligo is next and then Waterford, county and city. Retention rates in Border counties, including that in which I live, Louth, are generally lower than the national average but I am pleased by the fact that the report shows them to be increasing all the time.
As Senator Bacik said, we must look at the good aspects of education when debating it. It is traumatic for students to be waiting for their grants to be paid. I know from experience that some of them will be able to survive until Christmas but it is tough on them if grants are delayed until after Christmas. The new system must be given a chance. However, I ask that SUSI pulls out all the stops in order to support students.
I echo what Senator Conway said about the need for a debate and a report on banking in Ireland. Financial scandals are revealed on a daily basis such as Anglo Irish Bank today and AIB and the people who so little impressed the finance committee last week. Massive pensions are being paid to the people who, as Deputy Olivia Mitchell said on radio this morning, brought this country to ruin. I refer to ghost estates, the activities of NAMA, Anglo Irish Bank, AIB, the bailout money lining the pockets of bankers, their solicitors and their accountants. It is pulling the entire country down. The budget is, no doubt, occupying the Ministers, Deputies Noonan, Howlin and Hayes, but I hope that once the budget is dealt with that they will turn their attention to banking because it must be reformed and it needs a different kind of regulation. There is a significant lethargy and this is noticeable when trying to elicit a response when we proposed here that the Danish system of financing house purchase might be considered. Before it does any more damage, the financial sector needs to be debated and needs a shake-up.
I welcome the publication of a report yesterday entitled, Doing Business. It is a study of different countries which shows that Ireland has moved from No. 14 to tenth place as a country where it is easier to do business as defined under a series of indices. This is welcome and it highlights the structural reforms implemented by the Government. Senator Barrett has touched on a point I wished to make. We could consider many of the issues he has suggested in any examination of structural reform in this country. I refer to our level of regulation and the apparent shoddy standards we are happy to stand over and to which Senator Whelan referred in his contribution. I acknowledge that the Leader has addressed in many ways our concerns expressed yesterday about bankers' pensions and the pensions of other top earners. However, with respect, the Leader may have missed my point. I may not have made it clearly and I apologise to him if that is the case. The perception that is allowed to arise by the Government not tackling this issue leads to the risk of people becoming quite alienated from the State. This cannot be over-estimated and it demands our attention.
I was astounded at the response from the colleague across the floor to Senator Whelan's excellent suggestion that if people want to send Christmas cards they should pay for them. The idea that 250,000 Christmas cards are sent out from here and paid for by the very people who are receiving them seems to me to absolutely absurd. Perhaps if the reformed wing of Fianna Fáil would like to have a chat with the unreformed wing, we might be able to make some progress.
I support the call by a number of Senators this week for a debate on banking. There is no doubt that the people are outraged because of the pensions being paid to retired bankers who were the architects of many of the problems this country is facing. These people were responsible for very sharp practices in the banks which led to the collapse of the banking system and forced the Government - against its will - into a bank guarantee that we now know was a disaster for the people. We are still picking up the pieces, yet these are the people who are walking away with Rolls-Royce pensions over and above what most average workers cannot even imagine ever getting.
It is not only bankers who are given these massive pensions because politicians also get such pensions. Senator Whelan made a very important suggestion about capping pensions at ¤65,000. He will remember that the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, brought forward proposals to reform pensions for senior officeholders. Sinn Féin supported some of these proposals. It was proposed that pensions would be calculated on career earnings rather than on final salary. Sinn Féin proposed a number of amendments seeking to cap pensions at ¤65,000 and those amendments were rejected by Senator Whelan and everyone in this Chamber who voted against them. We have to be consistent on these issues.
I make the same argument with regard to the banks. I understand why Senator Conway would argue for a banking inquiry but really what this country needs is for the Government to take control of banking policy. We saw what happened with the Personal Insolvency Bill in that we are still giving the banks a veto. We saw what happened with the recommendations in the Keane report, such as the mortgage to rent scheme and short selling. The finance committee was told by senior bankers that only 230 out of 10,000 people in mortgage distress with Bank of Ireland availed of those schemes because some of the banks have not signed up to the mortgage to rent scheme. We do not need inquiries into what is happening; we need the Government to take control of banking policy and to ensure that we, as legislators, rather than the banks, are driving and setting the agenda.
I join other speakers in the hope there will be a large turnout of voters for the children's rights referendum on Saturday. Like others, I was appalled when watching "The Frontline". I raised this as a potential issue at the beginning of the campaign. The McKenna judgment leaves us in a situation where a referendum debate was stifled because of the judgment and gave a voice to people and organisations who came out with all sorts of scare-mongering and ridiculous statements advocating a "No" vote. I urge people to exercise their vote on Saturday. I advocate a "Yes" vote but the main point is that people should vote in numbers in order that a good percentage of the population will fully endorse this measure which is so significant for children and Ireland.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, has indicated an intention to bring the enacted Charities Act into being in the near future. It was delayed because of the cost attached to it and the fact that a charities regulatory authority was required. I am pleased to note that the Minister has decided on a consultative process with all stakeholders, including charities, in advance of the enactment. It will lead to best practice and allow the public to have trust and confidence in charities.
I had not intended raising this matter again because it has been widely aired yesterday but as Senator Bacik saw fit to introduce the issue of the illegal practices carried out by family planning clinics it is important to reiterate that all the contributions made yesterday have not gone away. It is important that either the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Minister for Health should make a statement to the House about the investigation carried out. Senator Bacik suggested that just one newspaper raised this matter and she also introduced extraneous matters. This seems to be another attempt by the Senator because of her own views to deflect from the core issues of this important issue which needs to be raised continually in order to get to the bottom of it. If is it happening in that particular area, how many other places is it happening where crisis pregnancies are being affected?
In common with my colleague, Deputy Frank Feighan, I am sure Members will join me in acknowledging that at the weekend we are commemorating the 94th anniversary of the ending of the war to end all wars. We have often spoken about acknowledging the Northern Unionist tradition. We now have a shared tradition of the experience of the horrors of the First World War. Over the decades, many families have silently grieved for those who died in this war. In recent years, the Government and civic society in general have allowed them to come out into the sunlight and publicly acknowledge the contribution that was made by Irishmen who believed they were fighting for Irish freedom. I think it is now accepted that the subsequent events of our history should not diminish the ultimate sacrifice they made in the belief that they acted in the interests of Ireland's future. It is only right and proper that the House should acknowledge the commemorative activities taking place this weekend. I am honoured to be a member of the newly formed North-South parliamentary tier. It is incumbent on us as elected representatives to ensure that the sacrifices Irishmen made at that time continue to be acknowledged publicly.
Today we have good and bad news on the education front. The good news is the increase in the retention rate of students at second level. The figures have improved and now only 10% of students do not complete the leaving certificate. I was the rapporteur for the Oireachtas early school leaving study two years ago on the factors influencing students to leave school early. At that time the percentage of students who left school without completing the leaving certificate programme was 16%. It is of major significance that the data is showing a 6% improvement in the space of two years. That is very welcome.
The news for the students who are waiting for their third level maintenance grants is not good. It is not acceptable that they have not been paid. As a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection, I support Senator Conway's request that the chief executive of SUSI, the board with responsibility for awarding education grants, come before the committee. We need as a matter of urgency to find a means of sorting out these delays, which are affecting students and their families. This should be viewed against the exorbitant pensions paid to retired bankers who ruined the country. That is not acceptable. Such inequality sticks in the craw of ordinary people.
I remind Senator Bacik that the allegations made by a newspaper were not against illegal clinics but clinics of the Irish Family Planning Association. The staff in some of these clinics may think they are helping pregnant mothers, but they were working outside their remit and outside the law. Only an independent investigation is fit to determine what went on in these clinics. Anything else is a whitewash. We do not need that, given that the expert group will deliberate on this issue shortly. Let us stand up and ensure that the standards we want apply in every case. This is about life and the right to live.
Last Friday, an honourable and decent man was jailed by the High Court for contempt of court. I do not want to interfere with court decisions, but I think it is important to ask that Ministers refrain from making public comment on Seán Quinn or members of the Quinn family. This is a delicate situation that involves not only the Quinn family but many thousands of ordinary workers. I ask the Leader to convey the request that Ministers refrain from commenting on this matter and leave it to the courts.
I join colleagues in hoping that we will have a large turnout for the children's rights referendum on Saturday, 10 November. I pay tribute to every Member of the Oireachtas who has canvassed for a "Yes" vote, and I compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on the major role she has played in the campaign. I also commend the party spokespersons, particularly Deputy Robert Troy and Senator Terry Leyden. I ask Members to do everything between now and Saturday to ensure there is a large turnout and that the referendum is passed by a significant number of votes.
I join my colleagues in urging a strong vote for the constitutional amendment in the referendum on Saturday. This is a real opportunity to make a strong statement of our commitment to children and to righting the wrongs of the past. I do not think the "No" side has put forward a coherent argument as to why people should vote other than "Yes" on Saturday. I condemn some of the outrageous comments that were made on the "Frontline" programme on Monday night. I had great respect for the journalist John Waters, but on Monday night he lost the plot and what he said did a grave disservice to foster families. He should certainly withdraw his comments. Foster families have given a valuable service to the State and to vulnerable children over the years. Mr. Waters should consider what he said.
We will vote on Saturday, which is the first time we have had Saturday voting for a long time. It will be an opportunity for students and those who work away from home to vote. This is probably the most significant referendum we have held for many years. I applaud the work of the all-party committee and compliment everybody for his or her contribution to the wording of the amendment. The Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is to be commended in particular for pulling all the threads together and for achieving a wording that was acceptable to all sides. Saturday is a crucial day for our country. It is important for the lives of future children and is an opportunity to show we have learned from the mistakes of the past and will never allow a recurrence of the awful things that happened.
We have had comprehensive contributions on the malpractice that was discovered in a number of family planning clinics. I was glad that Members from different sides of the House made contributions. I am disappointed by the view that this issue will be swept under the carpet in the hope that it will be forgotten. The difficulty with that course of action is that it will be revisited as a precedent on some future occasion when another issue of malpractice arises in a different area of society. I do not think that is good for the body politic or for democracy. Where malpractice is underpinned by taxpayers' money it must be investigated. That must be conducted in an open and accountable manner. What is more difficult for us to accept is that lives may have been put at risk as a result of the advice that was being provided. As I understand it - one newspaper seems to substantiate the claim - people were being told to tell a lie in particular cases. That could be life-threatening when it comes to a doctor or some other medical adviser. It behoves all in public life to be consistent in requesting an open, transparent and independent inquiry into the information that has been revealed. If that information is not correct, so be it, but it does seem that many allegations can be substantiated. I hope this issue will not be pushed aside with a view to not offending somebody else. If we do that, we will be the victims subsequently when it is used as a precedent in some other case.
I support the call for people to come out in large numbers on Saturday to vote "Yes" in the referendum. It is responsible to make such a call. I have seen a number of e-mails and Twitter messages calling on people to vote "No" in order to settle scores with the Government on other issues.
It is irresponsible of people to look for a "No" vote for reasons which are not in any way connected to the referendum. I would ask people to act in a logical way by voting "Yes" because it is in children's best interests that we vote "Yes".
On an issue related to children, I wish to refer to an award of ¤11 million in a medical negligence case made in the High Court yesterday. I have raised the issue of the making of phased payments in cases previously and the urgent need to introduce periodic payments in respect of the settlement of claims such as this one. In this case ¤2 million was awarded in 2009 and the final determination was to be made at a later date. There is no procedure in the courts for the making of periodic payments. I have raised the Quirke report here previously and this issue seems to have been put on the long finger. I ask the Leader to ensure this matter be brought to a head and dealt with in a logical way and that legislation to deal with it would introduce it at a very early date. All such cases take seven to eight years before they come to conclusion. There is uncertainty and people are left in limbo for a long period when it is the very time they need help and support. I ask that legislation to deal with this matter be brought forward at any early date. It is like the children's rights referendum in that we have been talking about it for a long number of years. It is time to bring it to a head and deal with it at the earliest possible date. I ask the Leader to bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality and that legislation be brought forward as soon as possible.
Absolutely. He should make amends before people go to the polls. In line with other colleagues, including Senator Norris, I call on him to do so before Saturday as it is a very important referendum.
In regard to family planning clinics, which was touched on again today, nobody should have anything to fear, as Senator Ó Murchú said, from the carrying out of a proper and fair investigation. Let the pieces fall where they will. Where there are such serious allegations of malpractice and where public funds are allegedly involved, no one should fear a proper and thorough investigation.
Many Members have spoken about the children's rights referendum and its importance. We all agree that this is one of the most important referendums that we have had. I hope that the fact that it will be held on a Saturday will lead to large numbers coming out in support of it. It is very important, as Members have stated. Quite a number of Members have spoken on the issue this morning.
I agree with the comments of Senator Norris and others in regard to the "Prime Time" programme. The suggestion that foster families take children for financial gain is ludicrous and outrageous. It has caused huge damage, hurt and upset to many foster families the length and breadth of the country. The gentleman in question should withdraw those outrageous comments which were certainly not correct, to put it mildly. I urge people to come out and use their vote to protect children in the referendum on Saturday.
The question of family planning was mentioned by a number of Members again this morning. As I stated yesterday, if there was malpractice involved - I understand that the Garda has been informed - I have complete and utter confidence in the Garda in upholding the laws of this country. The Garda should not be hindered in any way in conducting its inquiries - I do not believe it will be - and I am sure that will be carried out. It is the duty of the Garda to investigate any allegation. If malpractice has taken place, I am sure appropriate action will be taken.
Senators Darragh O'Brien, Conway, Healy Eames and others raised the issue of the streamlining of student support grants. It is a serious problem, of that there is no question. To have students waiting for their grants for an inordinate amount of time is not acceptable. We know that all student grant applications are being processed by Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, instead of the 66 local authorities and VECs which were previously responsible for processing them. SUSI has received in total just over 66,000 completed applications for student grants for this year which can be broken down into three categories. Some 18,000 applications are now complete and have either been provisionally awarded or refused. SUSI is awaiting documentation on 21,000 of the applications. There are 21,000 applications on which further information is required and which were not filled in properly. The remaining 27,000 applications are in hand in SUSI for processing. I agree with Members that while it is an improvement on previous years it is still not good enough. The whole system will have to be fine-tuned to address the needs of students and ensure they get their grants faster than they do now. This facility is only up and running this year. Like the centralisation of medical cards and other areas where services have been centralised, it is obviously not working as had been intended, but I hope we will see significant improvement in that area in the coming weeks and months.
Quite a number of requests have been made for a debate on banking and the economy. Since this time last year we have had eight debates on the economy, finance, budgets and mortgages. In reply to Senator Whelan's call for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to come to the House, as I mentioned on the Order of Business, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, will be in the House later today. I hope all those who asked questions and want to ask questions on public expenditure and reform will be here to ask those pertinent questions of the Minister when he will be here this afternoon. I hope we will have a full Chamber because at least 30 or 40 Members in recent weeks have requested the Minister to come to the House to address issues and this is the opportunity for the House to have them addressed. I hope I will not see three, four or five Members here from 3.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. Let us put up or shut up.
Ministers are being requested to come into this House and when they come only a handful of Members are in the Chamber. The Members who have called for the Ministers to come into the House are not in the House when they come. It is not acceptable. If we want this House to work properly, we will all have to work together and live up to our responsibilities and be here to ask the questions and challenge the Minister rather than mention the matter on the Order of Business and walk out of the Chamber after it.
On the matter raised, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will be in the House this afternoon. We will also have statements on the economy next week with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, in attendance, and the Minister, Deputy Noonan, will be in the House to deal with the Fiscal Responsibility Bill. There will be ample opportunity to raise questions on banking and other financial matters, which many Members have raised.
Several Members spoke about the strength and quality of the education system and the report on retention rates in Irish schools, which is definitely to be welcomed.
Senator Mooney rightly commented on the 94th anniversary of the First World War. It is only right and proper that the Irish people who fought in it should be acknowledged and commemorated. I agree totally with the Senator on that issue.
I believe I have covered most of the items raised.