Wednesday, 29 May 2013
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Margareta Wahlström, special representative of the United Nations Secretary General for disaster risk reduction and head of the UN office for disaster risk reduction, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, in accordance with the arrangements set out in a motion passed by the House yesterday; No. 2, Criminal Justice Bill 2013 - Second Stage (resumed), to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 3 p.m., with the Minister to be called on to reply to the debate not later than 2.50 p.m.; No. 3, Public Health (Tobacco)(Amendment) Bill 2013 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 3 p.m. and adjourned not later than 4.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 33, Private Members' business, non-Government motion No. 10, re students with special educational needs, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 6.30 p.m.
I am glad Senator John Kelly’s Adjournment matter has been accepted. On this side of the House we have argued vociferously for months against the cuts to home help hours. I note with interest some of the Government's plans to replace the Seanad should the people opt for abolition in a referendum. A missed opportunity for the Seanad, specifically on the Government side, was not stopping the passage of the Social Welfare Bill which was passed by only two votes. Senator John Kelly and two of his Labour Party colleagues, including Senator John Whelan, argued against most points of the Bill. However, they were assured by the Minister for Health, in particular, that the cuts to home help services would be reversed. The fact is that they have not been. What is the information of the Deputy Leader on the €8 million cut that was brought forward? My information is that no additional hours have been allocated. There are more people in home help services, with the same amount of funding, and the cut has not been reversed. I will be very interested to hear the Minister's response to Senator John Kelly. Effectively, the three Labour Party Senators were sold a pup on the basis of their support for a grossly unfair attack on the most vulnerable in the Social Welfare Bill. The Seanad could have stopped the Bill at the time, but did not do so because of Government Senators. If it had stopped the passage of the Bill, there would not even be a need to campaign for the retention of the House. There was a missed opportunity in that some Labour Party Senators supported the Bill on the basis of a lie. Has the cut affecting home help hours been reversed?
Another move by one of our great pillar banks, Allied Irish Banks, is the increase from next week in business charges of 165% for the lodging of money. We own the bank, yet the Government has consistently failed to bring it to heel. From 5 June, in the very same bank, the 0.4% increase in the variable interest rate for hard-pressed mortgage holders will come into effect. Not only is the bank crucifying variable rate mortgage holders, it is now also trying to crucify businesses by increasing by 165% the charge for the lodgement of money, not the charge for loans. I simply want to know what the Government will do about it, if anything.
Senator Darragh O'Brien has said banking is a serious matter, on which there have been repeated calls for a debate in the House. Perhaps the Deputy Leader will arrange it in early course. The Leader has given such a commitment already and the Deputy Leader might have something further to say on it.
As with most Members on all sides of the House, I continue to be concerned about the way parking charges threaten the vitality of town centres right across the country. This is not a new problem as it has featured for a while. Local authorities should be doing much more to save town centres from destruction. Counter-productive parking charges are crippling businesses, as we know, and unless we deal with the matter, it will affect the ability of many in business in town centres to pay rates. The system is counter-productive. The sooner local authorities realise that they must match in-town and out-of-town parking charges, the better. A standardised arrangement could give them much-needed additional funding, as well as helping town centres which face appalling prospects in many instances. All Members can refer to towns that have suffered greatly as a result of what I describe. We should take up this matter with Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. I suggest this is a suitable matter for an early debate.
Anybody who had the opportunity to watch the RTE investigation unit's broadcast of "A Breach of Trust" last night found it extremely difficult and disturbing. It was unimaginable for parents with children at the locations in question. I e-mailed the Cathaoirleach earlier this morning to invoke Standing Order 30. I seek the adjournment of the Seanad to deal with a motion on a specific and important matter of public interest that has arisen suddenly. Senators know their Standing Orders off by heart-----
The reason I have invoked the Standing Order is that it allows for a debate of up to an hour and a half. All Senators have concerns about this issue. I had hoped in the lead-in to the “Prime Time” programme that what would be described would be once-off bad practice. Having watched the programme, however, I noted several instances of maltreatment and emotional abuse at the three locations. For me, it raised some serious child protection concerns. The researcher in each case had reported to management, but no action was taken. Obviously, the programme focused on specific crèches, on which there had been bad reports. A serious question must be asked. Why did it require an RTE investigation unit to expose what was happening?
There has been considerable debate about the quality of child care and investment in child care. We should also focus on child protection. I want to be assured that action will be taken by the HSE and the Garda, where appropriate. The HSE should publish the inspection reports without delay. We need to ensure child care places that have not been inspected within the past 12 months will be inspected immediately. The Children First Bill was launched in April 2012 and the Joint Committee on Health and Children considered the heads. The legislation needs to be published and enforced to ensure there will be a statutory obligation to report a child protection concern. We need to invest in workforce development. These are just starting points for debate. The HSE child and family services have answers to give to us, not just on quality assurance. For me, what has occurred is not good enough and is unacceptable. I hope we can have a debate on this matter of urgent public interest.
I support Senator Jillian van Turnhout and hope a debate will be granted. I secured such a debate on the economy; therefore, what the Senator desires is possible; it has been done during this session. The welfare of children is a very important issue.
Has the Deputy Leader an update on the question I have raised repeatedly for many months, namely, the registration of various lobbying groups with the Standards in Public Office Commission. I instance, in particular, the Iona Institute which has consistently given inaccurate and misleading information. It has been disowned on at least three occasions by the scientists whose papers it purported to quote. What I propose should apply right across the board. People on all sides should be registered if they are lobbying in this way, as we need to know who they are. This matter has become more urgent since the commission has expressed concern about this issue and the cavalier attitude with which various organisations treat requests for registration. Apparently, it has no power of sanction or enforcement. This matter cannot be allowed to go away because it is part of our democratic process, as is the question of the survival or abolition of this House of the Oireachtas. If the Seanad is abolished, the Oireachtas will effectively be abolished, as it will only be left with the Dáil. I continue to raise the subject because of the massive concentration of power in the Government. The reports in yesterday's newspapers were alarming. The Taoiseach has, apparently, decided to toy with the idea of establishing a super-Dáil committee, although the Minister for Finance said it was impossible when this House wanted to use such a mechanism for information gathering purposes. This issue was raised excellently yesterday by Senator Sean D. Barrett.
Today we are to discuss the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill which will give the Government power to cancel contracts. That is an extraordinary and swingeing power. There are massive cutbacks in local democracy. The Government has been intent on preventing discretion as far as it can. The members of the super-committee or yellow-pack Senate to replace the House would, apparently, be nominated by the Taoiseach. It would have various experts, a new kind of golden circle, precisely the kind of phenomenon from which we are trying to get away. It would have a cost. One should consider the cost incurred already, including that of ministerial advisers, which amounts to more than the cost of the Seanad. What is proposed is a complete tissue of lies. As part of the proposal, the Government is tinkering with the Presidential election process which would make it more difficult for anybody to be nominated.
I managed to raise this issue, despite attempts by the Government to frustrate me, with the Constitutional Convention. In a vote, 97% said there should be greater public participation. This is a Government that ignores the wishes of the people. If the Irish people want to put a bit of restraint on the Government and show their dissatisfaction with politicians they should not vote in favour of the abolition of the Seanad. Rather, they should vote in a way that will teach the Government a lesson - namely, that the people of Ireland are tired of the whittling away of democracy in every aspect of our lives by the Government that they voted in because they thought it would be more democratic than Fianna Fáil.
I would also like to raise the issue of the "Prime Time" programme last night on crèche care. I express my sympathies to the parents of the children featured in the programme and those whose children were being cared for in the various crèches. I can fully understand why the programme is not being rebroadcast on the RTE Player website.
I raised this issue in the House last week. While I have every respect for the investigations unit of RTE, it is entirely inappropriate that a matter that is being investigated by the Garda has to be brought to public attention by RTE and not in the manner in which it ought to have been - namely, via proper and appropriate supervision by the HSE.
I found the statements made by the HSE spokesperson today disturbing and unacceptable. Some of the justifications it gave were insufficient, to say the least. I support the call for the Minister to come in to the House, a call that I made last week. I am not aware whether that could happen today. If it could, it would be most welcome. It should be done at the earliest possible opportunity.
This matter raises long-term and short-term issues. Senator van Turnhout referred to a difficulty in the formal child care sector, but there is also a sincere and serious difficulty in the informal child care sector, which is subject to little or no supervision. In the current environment, where parents are very stretched, many children are being cared for informally, including increasingly by au pairs. There is no vetting or supervision whatsoever. A lot of children in formal situations are being cared for by people who are earning the minimum wage with no training to speak of. This is an important issue and it behoves us to take it seriously. Nothing will suffice but for the Minister to come to the House to answer questions.
I also support Senator van Turnhout's call for the Minister to come to the House and hope the Cathaoirleach will look benignly on a request that rarely succeeds. In this instance, we are facing a crisis of enormous proportions.
I want to put on the record my appreciation of RTE's investigative unit, which has done itself and the country a great public service in highlighting what many of us involved in child care - I am chairman of the county Leitrim child care committee - suspected was happening in some parts of the country but were not sure to what extent. It amazes me, in the immediate aftermath of the report, that the Taoiseach and, more pertinently, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald - a former Member of the House - as well as the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, have not rushed to bring in the heads of the HSE to ask them to account for what has been going on. Why have they not brought them in? I could not help but reflect on my way in here that if the much-maligned former Taoiseach of the country, Charlie Haughey, was in office, not only would he bring in heads but he would ensure they rolled. It is time the Taoiseach and the Ministers, Deputy Reilly and Deputy Fitzgerald, came out from whatever cover they have been under over the past 24 hours, brought in the people concerned and asked them to account for what has happened. What we saw on television last night was shocking and appalling. As a parent and as someone who is involved in child care I cannot understand how something like that can happen in the country. We have lauded the development of our child care services over the past 15 years - in many cases, rightly so - but things such as this have been going on.
Yesterday I raised a matter on the Adjournment based on a report carried out by the Leitrim child care committee. Since 2004, 234 child care workers have taken FETAC courses to level 5 in child care but cannot continue to university standard because they cannot afford the part-time fees, which amount to €12,000 for a four-year bachelor of arts course at Sligo Institute of Technology. The people concerned are mainly women working in the home or in part-time occupations and are looking for some support from the Government. It should get its act together and not be crying crocodile tears over what happened and what we saw on television last night. Let us see some real action in this case. I was reminded of a Nazi concentration camp when I saw some of the things that went on and the abuse that was meted out to innocent children. The people concerned should not only be brought to account but be brought before the courts and charged with child abuse. I want to hear something from the other side on this. I do not want to hear any more platitudes or crocodile tears. I want some action, and it is past time something was done.
I have a significant good-news story for the House. On several occasions since I first came to the House two years ago, Members have heard me speak about the Narrow Water Bridge between Omeath and Warrenpoint. I first spoke about it 35 years ago, when I was less than half the age I am now. Yesterday the Northern Ireland Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr. Sammy Wilson MP MLA, announced the final allocation of funding to ensure the bridge goes ahead.
The project came from humble beginnings, with a committee that was not recognised by any government, North or South. It is an historic day for me, some of my colleagues and some of those who have gone to their eternal reward. When one has an ambition, one must keep going. It is unbelievable news for Newry, Mourne, the Gullion region, the Cooley Peninsula and the north-east of the country. The tourism and jobs benefits are unbelievable. Some €21 million is involved. The job started today.
I would like to extend a welcome to those from Galway in the Visitors' Gallery, who are campaigners on behalf of people with disabilities. They are welcome to Leinster House and it is good to see them here.
I concur with Senators who have spoken about the "Prime Time" programme. It is a great example of public service broadcasting by RTE. We should commend it for raising issues of such serious concern. I am a former chair of Galway city and county child care committee and director of a community child care facility in Connemara. I was appalled by the programme, which highlighted breaches of regulations. Some 75% of crèches have inadequate staff numbers and records. There was an over-emphasis on business interests, and the current regulations and HSE inspection regimes are totally inadequate. These problems did not start today or yesterday; they are historic. There has always been light-touch regulation from the HSE in this area because such sectors are grossly understaffed. I remind Senators that the same happened under the previous regime as well as this one. When cutbacks to health services are introduced, this is the kind of result one gets. It is about time we got real about this issue. It is time the Minister came to the House. I wholeheartedly support Senator van Turnhout's call for an immediate debate on this issue. It is a hugely important and distressing issue for parents. I also recognise the many health care and child care workers who do a fantastic job every day and earn very little money. They mainly do such jobs because they love them, and they have to be praised. This matter must be taken very seriously. What we saw last night was very close to abuse and we need a wholehearted and serious debate on the issue immediately.
To begin on a positive note, I, too, welcome the final tranche of funding for the very important bridge in Northern Ireland. I commend Senator Terry Brennan for his 35 years of campaigning to see that project through to fruition. It proves that, although it might take a long time, if one sticks with it, anything is achievable.
On a much more sombre note, I was truly appalled by last night's "Prime Time Investigates" programme. I commend RTE for exposing the issue because, unfortunately, the apparatus of the State did not do so. Senator Jillian van Turnhout's proposal should be given favourable consideration and I look forward to the Cathaoirleach's ruling in that regard. I feel sorry for the thousands of mothers and fathers going to work this morning with a heavy heart, wondering whether one of them should give up his or her job in order to stay at home and mind their children. These parents are working to provide a stable financial future for their family and are relying on the State to ensure their children are safe while they are in the crèche. It is appalling should even one child's safety be compromised, never mind numerous children in numerous facilities, as we saw last night. It was not an isolated or once-off incident. Unfortunately, this is happening in crèches at various locations in counties Dublin and Wicklow and elsewhere. The "Prime Time Investigates" team secretly filmed what was going on in these facilities and went through the inspectors' reports filed on many more crèches which were found not to be up to standard. I have sympathy, too, for the many child care workers and crèches that are doing their jobs properly. However, we are facing an emergency. The children being cared for in the identified facilities must be protected and the State must intervene immediately to ensure that is done.
In the past ten years I have raised the case of Volunteer Thomas Kent, the proud Cork patriot who was executed during the War of Independence. Sadly, his remains are still lying in the grounds of Cork Prison. This is not appropriate and is a black mark on our national record. As we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising, it would be timely and proper to do the right thing, even at this late stage. Volunteer Kent is due national honours and his remains should be re-interred at a much more respectful and appropriate location. Members will recall what happened some years ago when the Forgotten Ten Volunteers buried in Mountjoy Prison were eventually given national honours and had their remains re-interred in an appropriate place. There was a huge welcome throughout the country for that action, with thousands lining the streets of Dublin as the remains of Kevin Barry and the other Volunteers were brought to their final resting place. It is a pity we are waiting so long to ensure Thomas Kent will be granted the same honour. His remains could easily be re-interred with those of his family. I appeal to the Deputy Leader to bring this matter to the Government. No more time should be allowed to pass before we do the right and honourable thing, not just for the memory of Thomas Kent but for that of all those who sacrificed themselves for our independence and sovereignty. I hope there will be action in this regard in the very near future.
Like Senator Terry Brennan, I welcome the approval for construction of the Narrow Water bridge. both he and Senator Mary White have been great advocates for this project. I note in the submission on the bridge order that the mussel men of Kilkeel are looking for the bridge to be manned 24 hours a day. If we have no alternative employment at that stage, Senator Terry Brennan and I, and perhaps even Senator Mary White, might fulfil that function.
The "Breach of Trust" programme broadcast by RTE last night as part of the "Prime Time Investigates" series showed a disgraceful and unacceptable level of abuse, intimidation and neglect of the children in the facilities concerned. We should bear in mind, however, that the vast majority of crèches are run professionally. The vital element is the system of inspection in force. In County Louth, for example, where the Health Service Executive is rigorous in its inspections, there are very few problems. The difficulty is the lack of standardisation throughout the country.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout will be aware from her work on the referendum on children's rights that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is wholly committed to the welfare of children.
The Minister is treating this issue with the utmost seriousness. While there are undoubtedly problems, I have full confidence that the Minister and her officials, working with the HSE, will tackle them. We must not tolerate a situation where conditions in a small minority of crèches are such that they could be considered to be the industrial schools or Magdalen laundries of the 21st century. We are, however, talking about a small number of facilities.
There has been much discussion recently of the issue of suicide. There are many people throughout the country, both male and female, who are experiencing financial difficulty, which is a factor in the increased level of suicides in recent years. The pressure being brought to bear on families by financial institutions that were bailed out by the taxpayer is wholly disgraceful. Members on all sides of the House have spoken about this issue, yet we have had no proper and meaningful debate. What is to stop us from bringing the directors or chief executive officers of the financial institutions before the House? If we want to ensure the survival of the Seanad, we will have to do it ourselves. Let us give this Chamber teeth by bringing in the people in question to answer our questions.
Second, we must have a debate on mental health in general and the failure to provide resources for the prevention of mental illness. Despite the increase in the number of suicides across the country, there has been no comparable increase in services to support those who are experiencing mental health difficulties. I call on the Deputy Leader to facilitate a debate on this issue and reflect on what I said about the banking crisis. I am sure the Labour Party, of which the Deputy Leader is a member, would agree that the individuals concerned should answer questions in this House. That is certainly what its Members were calling for when they were in opposition. I hope the Deputy Leader has not changed that tune since entering government.
I join colleagues in supporting Senator Jillian van Turnhout's call for a special debate on the issues highlighted last night in the "Prime Time Investigates" programme. I take exception, however, to Members seeking to use this issue as a political platform. To claim that the individuals in question are abusing children because of cutbacks in the Health Service Executive is unacceptable. The problems highlighted have absolutely nothing to do with funding and it is despicable to make that connection.
The abuse of children is a personal choice. The individuals who engaged in the mistreatment highlighted did not do so because they were not being paid enough or because State funding for these facilities was insufficient.
I support Senator van Turnhout, but I call on Members not to use this as a political football today. They are saying that because we do not have funding and because of funding cutbacks in the HSE it gives people an excuse to abuse children.
I wish to take up briefly the point well made by Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill. As Chairman of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee I have been contacted by several Members, including the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, and our leader, Senator Darragh O'Brien, who believe we should look at this in our next tranche of investigations. We are having a meeting the week after next and it would be an appropriate topic. Subject to approval by the committee we might look at the whole area of adult mental health and the knock-on effects.
I wish to support a strong point made by Senator Paul Coghlan about town zoning and the negative effects on town planning with regard to the doughnut effect. It is becoming a problem in this country. I am surprised because we have had a tribunal into planning difficulties. Yet in 2013 town planners and planners throughout our country are still allowing incredibly poor and bad zoning of out-of-town shopping centres or whatever. This is doing considerable damage to the centres of our towns. Youghal is an example of where considerable damage has been done in Cork. An example of where this has not occurred is Kinsale, a wonderful town where the people are conscious of the beautiful streetscape. They are building the town as the epicentre of what it should be. I am concerned that other towns in Cork and Kerry are being damaged. It is an area worthy of debate.
I fully support the call by Senator van Turnhout on the whole area of the appalling "Prime Time" programme we saw last night. I was talking to an international journalist who rang me looking for a restaurant in west Cork. He was tuned in to the programme last night. He cannot believe the fact that we have a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and we have had profound problems with abuse of children in the past, nevertheless here we are in 2013 when a situation is unfolding that our crèches are unsafe. It is an incredible and appalling situation and one that must be addressed. I have great respect for the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald. She was the Leader of the Opposition in the last Seanad. I wish her well in her role but she needs to roll up her sleeves. It cannot be allowed to go on.
Like other Senators, I congratulate Senator Terry Brennan. The former President, Mary McAleese, spoke about building bridges. Senator Terry Brennan is a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and is involved in North-South relations. Senator Mary White was mentioned as well in this regard. Building bridges between North and South is of great importance for the country.
I rise today on the child care issue. I go back a long way with Montessori education. I was not involved in the actual child care section but in the Montessori section. I was on the expert working group on child care set up in 1991 or 1992. For years a cry has been going out from the child care sector for proper education and training for staff in child care. This is a serious issue. There is absolutely no excuse for what happened last night. I was crying last night watching the television. I was absolutely upset. No one could look at that programme and say what was happening to those poor children in the crèches was acceptable. It was absolute abuse. There is no excuse for that at all and there can be none.
Yes, that was the one in Malahide. The HSE was in there. I have a problem with sanctions. It has been found that the crèche was grant-aided after being found to be in breach of regulations. I support Senator Jillian van Turnhout. This is such an important issue. Our children are our most precious beings. Fully 80% of their intelligence is developed before they are three years of age. The period between nought and three years is the most important time in a child's life. We have to talk of society as well as an economy. I want the debate to turn to children, the family, society and how we treat the whole family.
Some person mentioned the formal and the informal setting and the lack of regulation. We must consider supporting the informal sector and those who wish to care for children in their own homes.
This is the first Government to set up a dedicated Department. As another Senator said, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, is the first reforming Minister we have had that has brought together-----
I join Senator van Turnhout in the call for a statement from the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, a woman for whom I have the height of respect. I believe she is doing an excellent job given the resources she has. It is up to her Cabinet colleagues to back her in getting extra resources in order that these crèches can be properly inspected. It is not acceptable that quite a few counties throughout the country have no inspectors and there are no inspections, not even once each year. There has been none for the past four years or so and that is unacceptable. What we witnessed last night was horrific child abuse, to which my colleague, Senator Mooney, alluded. It included force-feeding children, shouting at them, tossing them around and tying them into chairs. It was totally unacceptable. This type of situation occurred in the orphanages in Romania some years ago and we were all horrified. It cannot be allowed to continue. Inspections should be carried out as a priority and published on the Internet, just as the whole school evaluations are published on a monthly basis.
Child care workers are all qualified at a minimum of FETAC level five, a very good qualification. It has been tossed around by some of the media as being irrelevant and useless but it is an excellent qualification. We should try to ensure that all child care workers in these crèches have this qualification. Crèches are only required to have 50% qualified people. I maintain a good start would be 100% of staff with the FETAC level five qualification. Let us be honest about it and start paying qualified people properly.
Some of them are on the minimum wage despite the huge profits that these institutions are making. It is not acceptable. That is the bigger picture. There should be a minimum qualification of level five FETAC for everyone, not only 50% of staff.
Like everyone else I was stunned to hear of the child abuse prevalent in some child care facilities in the country and it is not acceptable at all. I have been a mother who entrusted her children to child care facilities. It is obviously not the case everywhere. In condemning the abusive practices that "Prime Time Investigates" revealed we should be careful not to condemn all facilities. I know some facilities and one's own home would not be run as well as them. I know some facilities that are inspected frequently and those responsible are never notified of an inspection. Clearly what is coming out in the debate is that the practice is not consistent or standardised across the country. Above all, as some people have said in the Seanad today, it comes down to the integrity and character of the person in charge and the person minding the children. No matter how good our inspections, if the person in question is not properly background-checked and if she is not meeting the standards, there will be problems. No inspection regime can be in there every day.
I am calling on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to do two things. She must ensure that the people who have been found to be abusive are tried. That is an example of the standard that we want at a minimum for our children. I want to hear her address the issues raised today, including the issues that Senator Wilson raised relating to minimum qualification.
There is a major issue around pay.
While pay is an issue, corners will be cut. We are in grave danger today of painting everyone with the same brush. That is not fair or true. I look forward to a very open and inclusive debate on this topic.
I join with other Senators in expressing my horror at the mistreatment of children uncovered in the RTE "Prime Time" programme shown last night. It revealed 75% of crèches are in breach of regulations, a horrific statistic for us to face up to. One of the crèches in question received over €1 million from the State last year. As Senator Wilson said, these are organisations receiving moneys from the State in circumstances where they are actually abusing children. It is absolutely horrific.
As Senator Healy Eames said, it is quite right to point out the situation in eastern Europe but at least they have poverty as some sort of excuse. We live in a civilised society. Well, "civilised" may be the wrong word. We live in a-----
Yes, that is the word. We live in a very developed society. I thank Senator Healy Eames for that. It is more shocking in that context. I join with other Senators in asking for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to use all the resources she can get to sort out this matter. A debate in the House is worth having but it is a serious issue which needs immediate action.
We now have proof positive, if proof were needed, that Fianna Fáil and the Independents are not fit for political office. I do not mean Members opposite are not fit for political office individually as they are very fine. However, as a collective, they are not fit for political office for the very reason that they do not know what to prioritise and when to do so. We have banks shadow-handling people’s money, diesel laundering, unemployment, drugs issues and homelessness. However, Fianna Fáil and the Independents in the Lower House have followed an innovative, restorative and brilliant Minister for Justice and Equality around the country on an issue about a spot-check-----
I want to welcome the photography society from St. Mary's, Drumcar, and Drumcar Park Enterprises, who are visiting the Houses today.
I commend my fellow Louth man, Senator Brennan, for his work over the past several years and that of others on the Narrow Water bridge in Carlingford. Yesterday, the Minister for Finance in Northern Ireland, Sammy Wilson, agreed to sanction funding for the bridge. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and a native of Dundalk, I have long campaigned for this project to come to fruition. I am delighted on the 15th anniversary of the agreement that the funding for this project has been secured. I have no doubt this will be a significant economic and tourism boost for north Louth and south Down. The building of this bridge has been alluded to on many occasions by myself and others. It will also be a significant symbolic significance and will be the first bridge to unify both the North and the South.
The excellent news is a tribute to the unified and concerted work by many people both North and South. I commend everyone involved in working together. It shows what a community can do and shows how far we have gone when we have the trust and work of both county councils and chambers of commerce both North and South. I look forward to this bridge being built with local jobs being provided. I also look forward to a lot more water flowing under this particular bridge.
Senator Darragh O’Brien raised the issue of the level of funding and services for home help hours. As the Senator knows, the HSE has responsibility for the delivery of home help services. The 2012 service plan provided for 10.3 million home help hours with a budget of €185 million. The HSE in its 2013 service plan has committed to maintaining the home help and home care package services at levels planned for 2012. This means that 10,870 people will be in receipt of home care packages and 10.3 million hours of services will be provided with 50,000 people receiving the service. I have some breakdowns on that if the Senator wants them. Senator John Kelly has also raised this matter on the Adjournment, so more details will be provided later.
Senator Darragh O’Brien also raised the issue of bank charges and AIB. Senator Paul Coghlan also asked for a debate on banking. The Leader did give a commitment before that we would have a debate on this matter as Senator Hayden and others had been looking for one. I will remind the Leader and see if we can get an early date for that.
Senator Paul Coghlan also raised the issue of local authority parking charges and asked for a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on this issue. This is a concern for many city and town centre traders and we will see if the Minister will attend the House for a debate.
Senator van Turnhout raised the issue that went on to dominate the rest of today’s Order of Business, namely, last night's RTE "Prime Time" programme, "Breach of Trust", which investigated crèches. Senators Norris, Hayden, Mooney, Ó Clochartaigh, Conway, Jim D’Arcy, Harte, O’Donovan, Keane, Wilson, Healy Eames, Noone and Moran also raised that issue. It is rightly the pressing issue of the day. I saw the programme myself and, as a mother of young children in crèches, it was deeply affecting. I commend the RTE "Prime Time" team for its excellent and superb work. It should not have taken a TV programme to do this. It was upsetting and harrowing to watch the abusive, inappropriate and harsh treatment of young children and to hear about the extensive breaches of the regulations taking place. This is unacceptable.
Other Members pointed out, however, that this does not reflect the experience the majority of parents of children in crèches. It is hard for decent and dedicated child care workers today to watch the programme. I spoke to one earlier this morning who told me she could not watch it as it was too upsetting. The majority of crèches provide an excellent service and the majority of parents are happy with the child care services they are getting. Of course, that does not excuse in any way the minority. We need to take action on this issue.
Many of us will have heard the statement by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs this morning. Both sides of the House paid tribute to her commitment to taking action to ensure these sorts of breaches and abusive behaviour do not go unsanctioned. It would be useful for the Minister to attend the House on the matter but I am not sure about today. It might be more helpful to have her attend in the coming days or weeks when we can hear what exactly is going on. There is a thorough and comprehensive investigation under way by both the HSE and, appropriately, the Garda. Those of us who saw the programme will have seen abusive behaviour towards very young children.
It is appropriate that the Garda should be involved.
Clearly, the Minister is conscious of the need to deliver improvements in the quality of the child care provided in the early years. She appreciates that improvements are particularly needed in the inspections and sanctions regimes. She has instructed the HSE to commence the online publication of HSE inspection reports shortly. The need for greater transparency about the HSE inspection reports came through strongly in last night's programme. Parents are entitled to see these reports, but they are not made available to them, unless they ask their child care providers to make them available or make a freedom of information request to the HSE. That is not transparent. It is impractical to require parents to make requests in respect of a number of crèches. Having a more transparent regime of publication would be much more appropriate. The Minister is standardising the reporting processes and formats to pave the way for publication. I understand from speaking with child care providers that there is a difficulty in this regard. There would have to be a standardised format for publishing not only the initial report, but also the follow-up letters and the engagement between child care providers and the HSE on compliance. Over 2,600 child care providers were subject to inspections by the HSE in 2011 and 2012. That represented an inspection rate of over 60% of all providers in each year. That overall figure does not reflect the discrepancy between areas, as we saw last night and which is a matter of real concern.
The issue of qualifications was raised by a number of Senators. Some 87% of all staff working in child care have a qualification that is equal to or higher than FETAC level 5. That figure increases to 98% in the case of core staff working in the preschool year. Some improvements have been made in that regard. Plans are being advanced to require the registration of all child care providers. This represents a move away from the current system which requires prospective child care providers merely to notify the HSE of their intention to set up a service. It is clear that improvements are in train. Senators will be aware that the Government has updated the Children First guidelines. Garda vetting of child care staff is required under the revised regulations. The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 has been passed. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has granted sanction for an additional 25 staff to be redeployed to the Garda central vetting unit from other Departments. We are seeing great improvements and great progress is being made. It would be useful if the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, were to come to the House to update us on the measures being taken to improve regulation and inspection facilities for the formal and informal child care sectors. The informal child care sector was mentioned by Senator Aideen Hayden and others. As parents and citizens, we need to ensure these improvements continue.
I appreciate the concerns that have been expressed which I think we all share. We have to be mindful of our language. It is not helpful to the parents of the children filmed to hear people speaking, for example, about "a Nazi concentration camp". Such language is inappropriate.
Clearly, there was abusive behaviour. We saw some desperately harrowing scenes last night. We should be mindful of the hurt being felt by the parents whose children were shown in the footage and who could be identified by those who know them. I commend RTE for its decision which was taken in conjunction with the parents not to put the programme on the RTE player and not to repeat it. The parents of the children shown were concerned about this aspect of the matter. They did not want the footage to be repeated endlessly or to be put on the RTE player. A sensitive and respectful decision was taken.
We need to be mindful of this in our response to the programme, which is one of absolutely justified outrage. I know the Cathaoirleach will make a ruling under Standing Order 30, but separately I will ask the Leader to arrange a debate at an early stage with the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on the measures to be taken in response to the concerns raised in the programme.
Senator David Norris referred to the registration with the Standards in Public Office Commission of lobbying groups such as the Iona Institute. I followed up the matter when the Senator raised it on a previous occasion when I was responding to the Order of Business and have not yet received a response. I will certainly pursue it again. I share the Senator's specific concern about the commission's lack of power of sanction. We need to look at that issue.
Senator David Norris also referred to the possible abolition of the Seanad. The Leader has said the Bill on the referendum which will allow the people to decide on the future of this House is likely to come before us in the next month.
I am afraid I am not privy to that information.
Senator Aideen Hayden and most other Senators raised the child care issue, which I have addressed.
Senator Terry Brennan spoke about the decision to provide funding for Narrow Water Bridge. It was nice to have a good news story. I pay tribute to the Senator, his colleagues from the Louth area and the other people in the local community who have worked on this issue.
It is great news for the Cooley Peninsula and the Mourne area. It is also great news for North-South relations. Senator Mary Moran put it well when she said it was a positive sign of North-South co-operation that this was finally taking place. The new bridge will bring enormous benefits, as Senator Terry Brennan has pointed out. It shows that 35 years of hard work can really pay off.
I am sure it does not feel that long to Senator Terry Brennan. Senators Jim D'Arcy and Mary Moran also raised the issue of Narrow Water Bridge.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú called for an issue relating to the remains of the patriot Thomas Kent to be brought to the attention of the Government. I will ask the Leader to write to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, who is probably the appropriate Minister in this respect.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill again raised the issue of the banks. I agree that we should try to have a debate on banking. I understand the heads of the banks are being called before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform in June. It is appropriate that the committee in question should have a direct role in questioning these individuals.
Senator Denis O'Donovan referred to the suggestion that the issue of adult mental health should be considered by the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. He also spoke about town zoning, a matter which had been raised by Senator Paul Coghlan.
I think I will refrain from commenting on what was said by Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell. I am not sure how to respond to it.
On a point of order, I do not particularly need a lecture from the Deputy Leader on the language I use. As a student of the period of history that I mentioned - obviously, the Deputy Leader is not - the parallels with the manner in which the people concerned treated those children are very stark.