Tuesday, 26 March 2013
Order of Business
I want to raise a number of points. Today, Pieta House launched the Mind Our Men campaign, which is its latest initiative on suicide prevention and, in particular, promoting what all of us can do easily in looking out for the men in our lives, be it wives keeping an eye on their husbands, sisters on their brothers, work colleagues on their work colleagues, friends on their friends and so on. It involves some simple steps, and I ask that Members take a minute today to go on to the Pieta House website today and view the Mind our Men page, which gives some important points people can usefully embrace in what is a challenge that all of us are anxious to meet.
As the Leader is aware, we launched Actions Speak Louder Than Words some weeks ago. I hope time can be made available after Easter for all Members to debate the merits of that campaign, which was welcomed on either side of the House. It is important that we adopt such a strategy, which could be improved in some ways if people see fit.
I am sorry to take an adversarial line but this issue must be raised. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, would come to the House today and explain to the House, and ultimately to the people, in particular the people of Meath East, the reason the opening hours of the polls for tomorrow's by-election have been manipulated in such a way as to ensure a low turnout. This is especially so in the case of areas such as Ratoath and Ashbourne, which in recent years have had the highest increases in population for towns anywhere in the country, and given that the opening time of the polls have been reduced from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and, incredibly, from 10 o'clock to 7 o'clock in the evening, which will disenfranchise the many young families and many of the people who may wish to exercise their democratic right to take a view on the fact that nothing is being done to help them with their negative equity mortgages or to enhance what they are trying to do to mind their children, and that nothing has been done to allow them have their voice. Instead, it would appear to any objective commentator that what we have is a cynical attempt to manipulate the electoral process to ensure those in the most populous areas, those people who are suffering the most, will not be in a position to cast their vote for whatever candidate, be it the Government candidate, the Sinn Féin candidate or our own colleague, Senator Thomas Byrne. One thing is certain. All of the candidates were entitled to an even playing field, and that has not been afforded to them, which frankly appears to be cynical tampering with and rigging of the electoral process by the Minister, Deputy Hogan.
That is very appropriate. I thank the Leader for making that time available. All of us would appreciate that. I know Jimmy Walsh will appreciate it also.
I am sure every Member will join me in expressing relief that an agreement has been made in resolving the issues in Cyprus. It is welcome that deposit holders who have deposits of less than ¤100,000 will no longer be levied in the way originally proposed, but it is a matter of grave concern that it took so long to achieve the apparent resolution we all hope has now been achieved.
I hope that, when the banks open on Thursday, some modicum of stability will return to the Cypriot economy. Senator Norris and others have spoken eloquently on this matter in the past week or so.
I wish to express my great relief that the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, has ordered the HSE not to destroy the Guthrie card records, or newborn heel-prick blood samples, a matter that other Senators and I raised in this House in recent weeks. On the basis of data protection concerns, the HSE adopted a policy under which these invaluable records would be destroyed on 31 March. I am glad that the Minister has set up an expert group to review how best to retain these records while complying with data protection laws. It is worth saying that other EU countries have similar laws under EU directives but have not been required to destroy such important health records. Professor David McConnell in Trinity College Dublin, the Irish Heart Foundation and many other groups and individuals expressed strong concerns in recent days about the vandalism, as Professor McConnell put it, of destroying the cards. Will the Leader arrange for a debate on this matter when the expert group reports? It raises broader issues of data protection and the retention of health records. The Minister's decision was right, given the serious concerns expressed.
Labour's candidate in the Meath East by-election, Councillor Eoin Holmes, has been receiving a strong and positive reaction on doorsteps.
I draw the attention of the House and anyone listening to an independent consultancy company that has expertise in winning parliamentary support and has been travelling the corridors of Leinster House and throughout various communities lobbying for - guess who - Camelot. For those Senators who have forgotten, Camelot is the gaming company that runs the British lottery. The independent consultancy company is brilliant. Its clients include asset managers, fund administrators, hedge funds, banks, accountancy firms, lawyers, consultants and insurers, everyone and everything that the poor and the socially excluded who play the lottery are not about. The company prides itself on below-the-radar intelligence. It is in the right place because the sale of the Irish lottery is happening below the radar.
The company also makes sense of legislative environments in which its clients find themselves. It crafts its messages to senior decision makers, that is, Members. Hence, it is wandering the corridors of Leinster House. The company builds and uses political support with other like-minded organisations, for example, Camelot. In its own words, it knows exactly where its clients need to be to influence decisions in its favour. It represents one of the world's largest gaming companies and is crawling around our corridors.
Will any Senator who has been approached by this company let me know by e-mail? It is extraordinary that a company with such below-the-radar intelligence does not realise that Senators are sometimes outside the influence of select committees. It is picking on the wrong people in this House.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to attend the House to explain to me how this company, which represents gaming consortia from around the world, can lobby Members to sign off on their great profit margins when the poor and disadvantaged who play the lottery and pay for the licence are not given the same courtesy, swag men or introductions in the Houses?
Will the Leader contact the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine regarding a crisis? Last year was our wettest summer. It had an effect on farming in terms of the lack of quality forage produced.
I ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to contact EU officials and apply for funding from the solidarity and hardship fund as farmers are not able to let stock on the land because the grass is not growing. Grass does not grow until we get some sunshine and warm weather but today we can see snow falling outside. Farmers cannot access credit from merchants if they have reached their limit and they cannot get credit from banks, as we know from debates in this House on credit for small business and farming. I ask the Minister to apply to the EU solidarity and hardship fund because this is a crisis.
A headline in the newspapers indicates that 20% more animals have died in January and February this year compared to last year - that is nearly 9,000 more animals - and this shows that something is wrong. The quality of forage is low because of the weather effects of last summer and people are not able to let cattle out on the land. What choice do farmers have? I will not compare this to famine in Africa but it is a crisis and unless the weather turns, it will be a major problem. It is important that the Minister applies for the fund so that people can look after their animals, as they do not want to see them dying.
I have often spoken of my frustration at the length of time it takes to get something done through the Government and the State. Next May it will be three years since the introduction of the Construction Contracts Bill in this House, with Committee and Report Stages completed in this House in March 2011. There is frustration that this has not yet become law, although the good news is that I gather the legislation was considered by the Cabinet this morning and any Committee Stage changes will be approved by the Cabinet today. I assume a number of worthy changes will take place, meaning it must return to this House after going through the Dáil. I urge the Leader to ensure this happens as soon as possible.
That is not the only Bill delayed over the years. Another Bill relating to organ transplants has also been delayed, and I know Senator Mark Daly has views on that also. There was some interesting news in the papers this week indicating that patients are being given livers that machines keep alive. It has only been announced in the past few days and instead of having to transfer body organs immediately, they can be kept alive for a few days, providing a real opportunity to do something about human body transplants. This is a serious issue, as so many delays have taken place that we have dropped the number of transplants in the past year. We can do something about it and the new development should urge the Minister to reintroduce this Bill or similar legislation to ensure that we can see action.
Senator Katherine Zappone and I have invited all Senators to a short meeting tonight at 6 p.m. Those who are worried about a later football match should know that I am sure they will be able to get to it or watch it on television but this meeting is much more important, as it concerns the future of this House. We are seeking suggestions and ideas for what this House wants. The meeting will not be very long but I urge as many people as possible to come to the audiovisual room at 6 p.m.
I will raise the burning issue across the country which concerns every householder; this is the vexed issue of the property tax. We must have a property tax and broaden the tax base, as there must be a fund to provide local services. Residents around the country cannot believe what is happening, as bills are emanating like confetti from the Revenue Commissioners. They are being sent to children and people who do not live in or even own the house to where the bill is sent. Moreover, people have a reasonable expectation that if the house in which they live is below standards and has structural faults or if the housing estate is incomplete, there could be a continuing exemption or waiver as seen under the household charge process. Nevertheless, last week such people woke up to the shocking news that they were being served with notice from the Revenue Commissioners about the property tax.
This needs to be revisited. It is unfair and it is important that if the public are to pay the tax, which they should, and if they are to embrace the tax, which is needed to fund local services, it is seen to be fair.
There was a great deal of publicity last week amidst speculation and media reportage that granny flats would incur a separate property charge. This issue was raised by one of my constituents from Mountmellick. Granny flats are used by people to look after an elderly relative. They are usually housed in a converted garage or an annex or extension to a home. However, having contacted the Revenue, officials have confirmed unequivocally that such flats will not incur a tax in their own right and this, at least, is some relief for householders.
Local authorities will receive 80% of the tax raised and there must be a direct link between the tax and local services. Thatched dwellings form part of our unique culture and heritage. There are fewer than 1,000 left in the country with only 30 in County Laois. Before long there will be none because they are costly to maintain and repair and it is difficult to secure insurance for such dwellings. However, if ever an exemption from the property tax was necessary, it should be for preserved heritage houses.
I welcome the suicide prevention strategy for men, Mind our Men, which was published earlier by Pieta House. It is an important initiative, which should have the full support of all Oireachtas Members. It is a multi-platform training and education programme. As the people rolling out this campaign say, men do not engage with services and, therefore, any initiatives that will help men and others at risk of suicide and heightens people's awareness of the services that are available should be supported and welcomed. I draw the attention of the Leader to a suicide prevention strategy in place in Waterford. It was recognised by the Department of Health as a best practice model, yet the funding for the staff has been cut. There is a need for a discussion on mental health services funding. There is an issue about outstanding money, which had been earmarked and was to be put to one side for suicide prevention. The amount was supposed to be ¤30 million. Where is the money? How will it be spent?
We have debated suicide prevention in the past and it was accepted across the house that we cannot just talk about suicide prevention if we do not provide the resources and funding and make sure services are available for people. Given the positive announcement and campaign being rolled out by Pieta House and given the bad news for Waterford that the funding for the staff of the local suicide prevention strategy, which is supported by the local development programme for Waterford city, is being withdrawn, it would be timely to have a discussion on suicide prevention, funding of strategies and mental health services funding generally to make sure funding is available and is properly used.
It is important to note that voting will take place between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. tomorrow and not between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.
I refer to the Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012. It presents an opportunity to undertake innovative reform of our commercial rates system. A levy on multiples was introduced in April 2012 in Northern Ireland, which has become known colloquially as the "Tesco tax". The change introduced brings about a re-evaluation of rates on commercial premises with a rateable value in excess of £500,000.
I raised the matter on the Adjournment in early February. At that time the Minister and the Department were not for moving. We all can play a part in influencing policy. This is a welcome policy-decision change and it is the right decision. I also thank the media for giving space to highlight the issue and showing that there is a significant advantage in retaining this valuable information of over 1 million heel-prick test or Guthrie cards. A proper structure should be put in place to ensure that the data is properly protected. I welcome the change by the Minister and the Department.
While on health issues, I would ask that we have a debate on the issue of the cost of medication and drugs. We have already seen two comprehensive reports on one of the national newspapers. It compared the cost of drugs in this country and in other countries and reported they were 25 times dearer here than in the UK. It is time we had a detailed debate on this issue, particularly now that we are seeing a difference in price not only between this country and other countries, but between different areas of the country such as Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, and even within cities and towns. The cost of drugs in this country increased from ¤574 million in 2000 to ¤1.894 billion in 2010, a 230% increase. They will cost us ¤2 billion this year. It is time we had a serious debate on this issue and worked towards bringing down the cost of medication and drugs in this country to make them affordable for citizens and to ensure that there is a proper pricing system.
On the occasion of the Irish soccer match tonight against Austria, this morning I attended a seminar of Irish supporters' clubs from throughout the world. One group I met from west Belfast asked me to raise this issue which it felt was in breach of the Good Friday Agreement, that tonight RTE will scramble its signal to any viewer north of the Border so that, unlike us, they cannot watch the match tonight in the comfort of their homes. The west Belfast supporters' club stated it had asked the company Sky and it does not know why this is happening. I would ask RTE to clarify why it is stopping the signal going across the Border. I refer to those living in places such as Strabane who cannot watch it whereas those living across the Border in Lifford can watch it on RTE. Perhaps we could have a debate on this.
Mr. Murdoch does not yet own RTE. It is an issue that concerned them and many fans who follow both the Republic of Ireland soccer team and the Northern Ireland soccer team - it is not exclusive. They said that many families up there then have to go to the pub to watch it at a cost. I would ask that we get clarification on it from the Minister or have a debate.
As we saw on Thursday last, the Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Brian Hayes, have an immense task and are two of the hardest working members of the Government. They stated that they have had to do so much fire fighting that some of the basic functions have been overlooked. Some of the statements they were asked to read to the House by their officials on the day-to-day functions of the Department of Finance made sorry reading. The Department, claiming a monopoly on wisdom, refused to do regulatory impact analysis of anything that was in the Finance Bill last week. They refused to refer it to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. Even where documents were sent to Teagasc, the food development authority, they refused to ask Teagasc what it thought of the documents. The regulatory impact analysis which the Department refused to do is, according to the Government's website, a tool used for the structured exploration of different options to address particular policy issues. The role of the fiscal council, which they also refused to consult on Thursday, is to independently assess and comment publicly on whether the Government is meeting its stated budgetary targets and objectives.
Teagasc has a major role to play in developing Food Harvest 2020. As a result we got a whole series of tax breaks for aircraft hangars, commercial premises, land dealers, developers, hoteliers, large farmers, research and development, self-catering, a particular form of stamp duty on health care and inadequate measures to deal with the growing tax avoidance industry with no costings and no measures of benefit.
Ireland needs a reformed Department of Finance and we really saw the need for that last week. There must never be a Finance Bill put through the House as the one was last Thursday. I support the reform of the Department by the Minister, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes. I know they have been pre-occupied with their work in Cyprus and elsewhere, but the presentation of a finance Bill by the Department as was done here last Thursday does Ireland's financial reputation no good at all. It should stop its monopoly of wisdom pose and carry out regulatory impact analyses and consult the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, which was set up precisely for the purpose of providing advice. There is no monopoly in the Department of Finance and it that showed last week.
On the basis of what Senator Barrett has said, I would like to see a totally new approach to adopting a budget and Finance Bill. We should take a leaf out of what is happening in other European countries where a budget is debated substantially in advance of the Minister's address. Effectively, the Minister's address is a summing up of what has been decided by parliament. The Seanad has made an effort to hold significant debates ahead of the budget, as we did this year and last year, and I commend the Leader on arranging same. There should be a significant policy re-calibration whereby Parliament discusses the budget in detail, brings in whatever expert groups necessary to advise accordingly, and then supplies a budget recommendation to the Minister for Finance. That would be a sea change in the approach to the budget which has traditionally been the starting point of the discussion on the Finance Bill. A change merits consideration under a whole new era of political reform. I suggest that the Leader arrange a debate on changing the budget process and how we can do our business better as a parliamentary democracy. Perhaps other Senators will have useful suggestions but this is worth considering.
I commend all involved in achieving an agreement on Cyprus.
It is a stark reminder of where Ireland was three or four years ago. We should be proud that we have steadied the ship, regained our international reputation and that Ireland now is viewed as the people we are - fighters, survivors, creators and people who will get out of this mess successfully and with dignity.
I preface my remarks by saying that everyone in the Chamber and in Ireland is in favour of health and safety legislation. However, a discussion took place in the chamber of Cork County Council yesterday, which is reported on the front page of the Irish Examiner today, about three outdoor council staff who have found themselves suspended after a report was made about them by a health and safety inspector. Nobody is denigrating the work of the Health and Safety Authority but an over-emphasis on the rules and an implementation of the harshest sanctions associated with health and safety, along with a lot bureaucracy, is crazy. There is no common sense in this issue. The men filled a pothole but find themselves suspended from their place of employment for doing so. It seems to me that there is a stifling bureaucracy at work in this country that squeezes the good out of any innovation or innovative thought. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate in the Chamber. If this country is going to recover its prosperity, then we will have to examine the red tape, rules and regulations that we seem to be in a frenzy to implement.
The case of the three outdoor staff in Cork County Council is merely an example of what I am talking about. I am therefore asking the Leader to arrange for a debate on this matter. The Health and Safety Authority and Cork County Council should have a bit of cop on and reinstate these men as fast as they can.
I wish to raise an issue that I spoke about enthusiastically on 16 October last year, which is almost six months ago. At that time I welcomed the decision the day before by the Northern Ireland Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, MLA, when he granted planning permission for the Narrow Water Bridge project across the mouth of Carlingford Lough. The decision was welcomed by all political parties at the time. It is a significant project costing in the region of ¤20 million and not many projects of that magnitude have taken place across Europe.
I acknowledge what has been done in the meantime and the fact that a significant amount of money has been spent by Louth County Council and Newry and Mourne District Council. I also congratulate the co-operation to date between both governments, North and South, but the bridge order has yet to be signed. There has been a delay and I am deeply concerned that the bridge order should be signed soon. This is a 20-month project which must be completed by 2015 and it is due to start.
The Leader should arrange a meeting between the Minister for Transport, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, and their ministerial counterparts in Northern Ireland. This bridge will be a tremendous boost to the north-east region, both North and South. I would be grateful if such a meeting could be arranged by the Leader at an early date.
I would like to compliment Senator Mary-Louise O'Donnell for alerting us to a rather insidious situation that this House has been penetrated by subversive agents. I would like to ask how they got into the House. Did somebody sign them in and, if so, who was it? This is acting against the whole morality and decency of this House.
Persons like that should be vigorously vetted before they are allowed in. We should be alerted to their presence, particularly since they boast about their devious programme.
I welcome the judgment of Mr. Justice Peter Charleton in the High Court yesterday upholding a claim from the proprietors of Bewley's that they should not be tied into the upward-only rent review. I have been raising this subject for many years and I think this is a significant judgment which blows a hole in the Government's argument that there is nothing they could do about it for constitutional reasons. It will be interesting to see if there is a challenge.
Turning to the question of Cyprus, Senator Conway is right - we do stand revealed, but not in the heroic way he thinks. We stand revealed as forelock touchers to our new masters in Europe. I notice that the head of the Eurogroup, Mr. Dijsselbloem, says that the Cyprus plan provides a blueprint for-----
It does not matter a damn. One cannot put the genie back in the bottle. He said what he meant and we all know it damn well; that this was a blueprint for the rest of Europe. I repeat it again for the assistance of the Senator. Of course it is - crucifying the ordinary, innocent, decent citizens who have done absolutely nothing wrong. Let us put the history straight; Cyprus invested massively. The reason it is in the current situation is that it invested massively in Greek bonds because it was told by the EU that they were absolutely inviolable, and then the EU turned around and blamed Cyprus for it.
I salute the Cypriots as a courageous, decent, wonderful people. There is no principle in what the EU is doing. It is a reversal of what was said to this country. We were bullied and blackguarded into a shameful, disgraceful betrayal of the people-----
-----and we did it because we were told we could not possibly interfere with the creditors of the bank, including the senior bondholders. That is now what they have told Cyprus they have to do. There is not a principle between the blackguards in Europe. The only thing about the situation from this country's point of view is that it gives us an opportunity to blow the morality and the legality of the situation sky high and go back and demand that the deal we were forced into should be re-opened.
I could not miss that after our last exchange the other day. I wish to raise the court case ruled on by Mr. Justice Charleton. It opens the debate again on upward-only rent reviews. The judgment in the case specified that there was not an upward-only rent review clause but the agreement stated that the rent should not be lower than it was in 1978, which is a bit different. A debate on the subject will be required again in light of Mr. Justice Charleton's ruling. He made it in a commercial construction. Heretofore, the decisions on upward-only rent reviews were not taken on a commercial construction on which a judge ruled but on signed contracts. The debate should be re-opened. I accept that arguments exist relating to commercial property, breach of covenant, bank loans and pension funds being jeopardised but we must discuss the matter and ascertain the facts on whether it is good for the country. We should review and debate the matter.
I was in the North of Ireland recently and we spoke about the variation between the jurisdictions in property-related issues such as tax and rates. In the North there is a scheme to allow for businesses starting up being exempt from rates for one year if a similar business is not located on the street. Senator Noone raised the 15% levy. We should examine the matter. Such a levy would raise ¤5 million, which is a lot of money. Ikea and Sainsbury's have come out against it - why would they not - on the basis that it would limit job creation and scare people away from investment. We must analyse whether upward-only rent reviews and rates valuations are a good idea. We must have a full debate on the issues in the Seanad. I thank Senator Norris for raising the matter as well.
Today, and on other occasions, I have heard Senators refer to this country's reputation being restored. The clear inference is that in some way the economy has turned the corner. Unfortunately, many in Government believe that. It is a travesty because we are far from out of the current difficulties. Anyone who has been out canvassing will have got first-hand experience of the difficulties people encounter around the country, if they were not aware of it through their clinics. Some people who are unemployed and others who have jobs find it difficult to make ends meet. We must face up to the significant challenges we have. We have made marginal progress since 2008. I have said in this House previously - it gives me no joy to say it - that I do not see us getting out of this mess before 2020, and we would be lucky to be out of it at that stage.
We failed to cut public expenditure and I would ask for the Minister to come into the House for an open and honest debate on this. Public expenditure in 2013 is not much less than it was in 2008, when all this occurred.
I had lunch with a former Minister for Foreign Affairs today and we discussed the Baltic states in particular. She told me that in Estonia, the growth rate is over 3% and in Latvia it is over 4%, but those states cut their expenditure. We have been extracting more and more from the productive sector to the stage where we are squeezing it dry. I do not see that as the way to extricate ourselves from our difficulties. Events in Cyprus are only the start. We will see this in other countries and if it happens in one of the larger economies, which I think it might do, it will be disastrous for the whole of Europe. Unless we get our house in order and balance our fiscal budget quickly and in the right way, we will be exposed to another serious recession on top of the difficulties people are encountering. We should not allow that to happen.
If we are waiting for the courts to make decisions like they did yesterday, we are in dereliction of our duties as politicians and the Government is in dereliction of its duty. We should be dealing with these issues in a straight up way that can be communicated and explained to people. Let us do that and let us not pander to party political advantage. The people will see through that.
I want to extend the good wishes of the House to Fr. Pat O'Brien, the parish priest of Caherlistrane in County Galway, who had a horrific experience over the weekend when his home was broken into and trashed, while he was tied up. Those who broke in were looking for cash or gold to pay significant drug debts. This raises the issues of the size of the drug trade, the resources available to track down these unscrupulous people and the operation of the cash for gold shops. A major question mark hangs over these shops as they make it easy for the unscrupulous to offload stolen goods. I would like the Leader to arrange a debate on that with the Minister for Justice and Equality.
I would also like to raise the issue of illegal moneylenders. They are operating with impunity throughout the country, using intimidation and threatening behaviour. Many are involved in criminality and they are abusing vulnerable people and charging exorbitant rates of interest. There have been no prosecutions for this illegal activity to date. We must strengthen enforcement by the Garda, the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Department of Social Protection. This House should promote the credit unions as the appropriate lending agency for small borrowers. It seems ludicrous these people can prey on vulnerable people with impunity.
I welcome the remarks by Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell on the group of people canvassing on behalf of the Camelot group. It is an important issue for this House and the Lower House because it has always been a useful facility for Members to be able to bring in groups, particularly groups in the voluntary sector, to put forward issues and to brief Members on matters that are coming up. It is important we do not end up with that facility being abused so we should have some sort of protocol in the Houses as to who can and cannot come in and the circumstances under which they can come in to speak to Members.
It should be done in a way that does not discourage people with whom we genuinely wish to have an exchange of views and who would not otherwise have access to Members of the Oireachtas.
My weekend activities included attendance at a cross-Border housing conference in Derry. The most notable part of the weekend was not the conference but the dreadful weather which left 14,000 people in Northern Ireland without electricity. I was struck by the decision of the annual congress of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which also met in Derry at the weekend, to allow GAA facilities to be used by the Irish Rugby Football Union to facilitate its efforts to host the Rugby World Cup in this country. We have moved on in a way I would not have anticipated 15 years ago, which is to be welcomed.
On a more serious note, the appalling weather conditions we have had, whether the rain last summer or the exceptionally cold weather we are currently experiencing, are having a serious and detrimental effect on poor people. This is not a laughing matter. Bord na Móna, for example, has not been able to maintain sufficient supplies of peat briquettes owing to the poor harvest of last summer. I spoke this morning to a woman on a very low income. She and her partner, who is also on a low income, leave their apartment first thing in the morning and do not return until last thing at night. They have their heating on for three hours each day, yet their electricity bill for two months was ¤300. Fuel poverty is a serious problem and those who pay most are those who can least afford to pay. Having raised this issue previously, I ask the Leader again to arrange a debate on fuel poverty with the relevant Minister in order that we can discuss the steps that need to be taken to eradicate the problem.
I, too, commend Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell on raising the proposed sale of the national lottery. I congratulate her on championing the cause of preventing the sale from proceeding, especially if it is to a hedge fund over which we would not have any control. The national lottery should remain in the ownership of ordinary people and should not be sold to foreign hedge funds. In that regard, while we should, as democratically elected politicians, be open to being approached by any citizen, approaches by lobbyists should be notified well in advance in respect of any matter that affects the country.
In that regard, I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on lobbyists. I also call on the Government to proceed with the introduction of legislation providing for a list of registered lobbyists. The proposal may not satisfy some Senators on the Government side but my party would welcome such a measure.
I join Senator John Whelan in calling for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, to come to the House to discuss the implementation of the property charge and the allocation of revenue from the charge.
I support Senator Catherine Noone's comments on rates, which is an issue I had intended to raise. The legislation in Northern Ireland to which she referred is worth examining and we should do so as a matter of priority. In the Twenty-six Counties, the weekly rent of premises is sometimes only one quarter of the rates charged by local authorities. We must urgently examine the issue of rates in conjunction with a general discussion of the property tax.
I welcome the success of plans to restore and recreate the historical 18th century layout of the front of Killarney House, which is the former seat of the Earls of Kenmare and was known as Kenmare House.
There is a plan for gardens and ornamental grounds covering approximately 35 acres. The plan is very extensive and involved an archaeological survey and, in particular, trial trenching in order to pinpoint the exact layout of the paths and certain other important features. This is a hugely important addition to Killarney National Park and, as many Senators will know, it is immediately adjacent to the town. It will be a town park within the national park and will be another St. Stephen's Green, in the heart of Killarney.
This is a huge gain for the nation and I would like to thank the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, for ensuring that this work was allowed to continue. When the first plan was published by the then Minister, former Deputy Noel Dempsey, in 1990, I welcomed it enthusiastically. Indeed, plans were made even before then. I have been campaigning and championing this cause ever since. Unfortunately, there were officials who wanted the plan to be buried or allowed to gather dust but it is almost completed now and I greatly welcome the development.
I would like to support Senator Brennan in his call for the Leader to urge the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, to ensure that the paperwork pertaining to the Narrow Water Bridge between south County Down and north County Louth is completed as soon as possible. Senator Brennan is being somewhat modest about his role as a premier community activist in Carlingford responsible, with others, for the premier Tidy Towns award. He was subsequently the Chairman and a member of Louth County Council, the Chair of the East Border Region Committee, a member of the British Irish Parliamentary Body and the North South Inter-Parliamentary Association. He has consistently supported the Narrow Water Bridge project, which, when constructed, will be of major economic benefit to the region. It will also be a major bridge, in terms of peace and reconciliation, between two parts of our island, namely south Down and north Louth. Places like Rostrevor, Kilkeel, and Carlingford will be able to join together in a new future in that region. In that context, it is very important that the pinch points that exist are resolved.
There is a time limit on this. It has been 18 weeks since the Special EU Programmes Body approved funding of over ¤15 million for this project. The Minister for Regional Development in Northern Ireland, Mr. Danny Kennedy, MLA, and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar must be congratulated on the progress that has been made on the project in the last six months. Now that we have reached the end game we must ensure that we do not falter. I ask the Leader to ensure that special efforts are made to complete this project, which is so important to the Border region. We must make sure that the last hurdle is jumped.
Senator MacSharry and others spoke about the Pieta House launch of its Mind Our Men campaign this morning. I compliment Pieta House on the excellent work it does in this regard. We will certainly have a debate after Easter on the issue of suicide. We have had several debates on the issue in the past and we will continue to keep it in people's minds.
With regard to the polling times for by-elections, I do not wish to get involved in by-election campaigning in the House today, but it is somewhat cynical for Senator MacSharry to raise the hours. He actually got it wrong. As Senator Noone, mentioned, the polls will not close at 7 o'clock.
It is ample time for people to cast their votes.
Senators Bacik, Conway, Norris and others spoke about the bailout situation in Cyprus. Last June European leaders agreed to break the vicious circle between banking and sovereign debts. With this aim in mind we also agreed that the European Stability Mechanism could be used to recapitalise banks directly. This remains the stated policy and position of the European Heads of State and Government. This is why Ireland is seeking further EU assistance to reduce taxpayers' exposure to our banking system as we hope to get back to the markets soon. We have been back already. We will continue this work with our European partners to ensure Ireland is in a position to avail of new recapitalisation tools that are being developed. A key priority for the Government has been to ease the bank-debt burden on Irish taxpayers and to clean up our banks in order to support the economic recovery. As I recently stated, the policy on socialising the cost of private bank failure by bailing out bank bondholders was in the first instance the responsibility of the previous Fianna Fáil Government, but the error was compounded-----
I ask the Senator to let me continue. The error was compounded when the continuation of this policy became, in effect, a condition of the 2010 bailout programme required by Brussels and Frankfurt. If the Senator had waited and listened he would have got the response. It was feared that allowing a bank in Ireland to default on its debts would unleash panic in the financial markets across the eurozone. This debt now weighs heavily on Irish taxpayers and in the eyes of investors remains an obstacle to sustained market re-entry.
In dealing with the bank failures in Cyprus and the unique circumstances there, there has been a change of policy at European level. In Cyprus it has been banks' creditors, including depositors with savings over ¤100,000, rather than taxpayers who are being asked to pay for the banking losses. This change of policy is no longer directly relevant to Ireland. We have already recapitalised our banks and there is no longer any rationale for imposing loses on any creditors to Irish banks. It remains the firm Government policy to protect depositors in Irish banks through strong prudential regulation and enforcement. That is the position on deposits, banking and the bailout for Cyprus.
Senators Bacik and Colm Burke spoke about the Guthrie cards - a matter raised by a number of Senators in recent months. I am glad the Minister has halted the destruction of these cards and records-----
----- and has established an expert group to examine the situation. When that expert group reports I am sure we can have a debate on it in this House.
Senators O'Donnell, Hayden, Wilson and others raised the proposed sale of the national lottery. The proceeds from that sale will go to funding the new national children's hospital. With regard to approaches by the Camelot group, I have not been approached by that company. It is wrong to bring these people in. We have a register of lobbyists now and we should implement it with regard to people who come to the Oireachtas. As was said by Senator Hayden, there should be a distinction between charities and groups such as Camelot coming to the House. Such people coming here to lobby for their own gain should be discouraged.
Senator O'Neill spoke about farming and the lack of quality forage. He asked that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and the Marine apply for access to the hardship and solidarity funds. I am sure the Minister will make every effort in that regard. He will be in the House after Easter to discuss Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, reform, labelling and the horsemeat situation, all of which are items Members have asked that the Minister come to the House to discuss.
Senator Quinn raised the Construction Contracts Bill. I assure him that as soon as it returns from the Dáil we will deal with it immediately. There will be no delay in this House on that very important legislation. I acknowledge the long delays that have occurred since we first dealt with the Bill. The Senator also spoke about organ donations and new developments in that area. I will find out from the Minister what the position is with regard to introducing legislation to deal with that matter.
Senators Whelan, Wilson and others raised the property tax. The property tax is being introduced to help fix the massive deficit in funds. It is being introduced as it is six times more job friendly than taxes on labour, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. The Government fully agrees that households in unfinished developments that are in a seriously problematic condition should be exempt from payment of the local property tax. However, there has been a general misunderstanding of some of the facts surrounding the local property tax waivers. They have been unfairly compared with the household charge waiver, which people claim benefited 43,000 households. In fact, 20,000 of these houses were neither complete nor occupied, so the waiver benefited nobody in those circumstances. In light of more accurate information, this anomaly has now been removed.
The regulations signed by the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, last week to prescribe estates that qualify for an exemption from local property tax are based on the 2012 national housing development survey, which was carried out over the course of the summer of 2012. That survey was based purely and objectively on the actual state of completion of a development. It expressly included estates that were deemed by local authorities to be in seriously problematic condition. This definition includes estates that have outstanding development issues in many areas. With regard to the differences between the local property tax and the household charge waivers, the experience of dealing with unfinished estates presented a need to redefine the criteria used, in particular a need to distinguish between housing within estates. Many estates are built in phases and serious issues might only apply to a small proportion of houses that were generally built or begun in the later phases. That clarifies the matter in respect of the household survey. The files have been updated. The original number of 43,000 waivers was quoted in the newspapers, but the actual number was 20,000. That is the situation.
Senator Cullinane raised the issues of mental health funding. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, was in the House and stated that the funding for mental health is ring-fenced.
Moneys that were not spent last year will also be part of the additional funding for mental health services this year.
Senator Noone referred to the interesting concept of the levy on multiples that is now in place in Northern Ireland and the prospect of reducing rates for smaller businesses. I am sure the relevant Minister will certainly consider the position in this regard.
On the point raised by Senator Ó Murchú, we all realise that people are experiencing grave difficulties and there is no question that they are finding it very hard to make ends meet. Fianna Fáil signed up to the property tax, however, and if it were in power, such a tax would have been in place since last year. Fianna Fáil seems to have undergone a Pauline conversion in respect of the property tax.
Senator Colm Burke referred to the cost of drugs and variations in price between pharmacies. According to the survey the Senator mentioned, it would appear that some pharmacies are not passing on the benefits of lower prices and reduced mark-ups to patients and customers. This is very disappointing. The public awareness to which the National Consumer Agency price comparison survey gives rise in respect of this matter is welcome. The Minister for Health is raising the issue of price transparency with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, PSI, the regulatory body for pharmacists in this country. While it would not be possible to display the prices of the approximately 7,000 medicines currently on the market here, the PSI has been asked to examine how greater price transparency can be achieved. The latter should happen and the price of a particular medicine in one part of the country should not be double that which is charged elsewhere.
Senator Harte referred RTE. I am not aware that coverage of this evening's match by the station will in some way be blocked from being broadcast in Northern Ireland. We all wish the Republic of Ireland soccer team every success in its endeavours tonight.
Senator Barrett referred to the reforms required at the Department of Finance. Last week, we debated the Finance Bill at length. I agree that reforms are necessary and that regulatory impact assessments should be available when we dealing with such legislation in the future. Senator Conway also referred to this matter in the context of discussing submissions in advance of the budget. Such discussions took place to a degree last year and I hope we will continue in this vein in the coming year. As Senators are aware, the budget is due to be introduced in October. This is earlier than in previous years.
Senator Gilroy referred to a matter of which I was not aware with regard to outdoor staff employed by Cork County Council and indicated that the sanctions imposed are too harsh and are the result of an over-reliance on red tape and an over-abundance of health and safety regulations. I invite the Senator to raise this matter on the Adjournment in order that he might obtain specific information in respect of it.
Senators Brennan and Jim D'Arcy referred to the Narrow Water bridge project. This is a very exciting project, particularly for those who live in north Louth and south Down. I understand that the order relating to the project has not yet been signed and that there have been delays in progressing it. I will certainly attempt to discover the up-to-date position from the relevant Minister and relay the information I obtain in that regard to the Senators.
Like others, Senators Norris and Keane referred to the situation regarding the Camelot group and the register for lobbyists.
Senator Noone referred to upward-only rents. The judgment handed down yesterday was specific to the case involved and to a particular clause in the lease. I do not know whether the judgment relates to any other leases but as far as I am aware it does not.
Senator Walsh stated that the Government is suggesting that the economy is on the upturn and indicated his view that it may be 2020 before such an upturn occurs.
I would be much more optimistic than the Senator in that regard. The Senator has been calling for more cuts in public expenditure when the majority of people, and members of his party on the other side of the House, are calling for more expenditure in almost every area of Government. What is Fianna Fáil's policy?
The Senator also called for greater regulation in the cash for gold industry. The Oireachtas Library and Research Service has issued a very good paper on that matter. The Senator also raised the issue of illegal moneylenders and the enforcement of the laws in that area. I will certainly raise that matter with the Minister for Justice and Equality.
Senator Hayden also raised the issue of lobbyists and praised the GAA for its decision to place its facilities at the disposal of the IRFU in its bid for the World Cup. That is to be welcomed and the GAA is to be complimented on it.
Senator Hayden also raised the question of the effects of the cold weather on older people and called for a debate on fuel poverty. We will try to arrange that debate for the Senator.
Senator Wilson raised matters, which I addressed, concerning lobbyists, property tax and rates.
Senator Paul Coghlan raised the issue of the development of Killarney House and the reconstruction of an old garden plan, which will be welcomed by all, not only in Killarney but throughout the country.
I do not propose to accept the amendment to the Order of Business as proposed by Senator MacSharry.
The record will show clearly that I did not argue against the household tax. The record will show clearly that I accepted that it may have been necessary, in the context of where we are now, but I would expect from the Leader to accept that I asked for a review after six months to determine the difficulties that might exist for people.
I do not think that is a point of order; it is a matter of opinion between the Leader and the Senator. It might be clarified tomorrow.
Senator Marc MacSharry has proposed the following amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on the opening hours for the polling stations in the Meath East by-election tomorrow be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Sean Barrett
- John Crown
- David Cullinane
- Marc MacSharry
- Paschal Mooney
- David Norris
- LabhrÃ¡s Ã“ MurchÃº
- Averil Power
- Feargal Quinn
- Jim Walsh
- Diarmuid Wilson
- Ivana Bacik
- Paul Bradford
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Deirdre Clune
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- Michael D'Arcy
- John Gilroy
- Jimmy Harte
- Aideen Hayden
- CaÃt Keane
- Denis Landy
- Mary Moran
- Tony Mulcahy
- Michael Mullins
- Catherine Noone
- Mary Ann O'Brien
- Marie Louise O'Donnell
- Pat O'Neill
- Jillian van Turnhout
- John Whelan