Wednesday, 12 June 2013
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 1, European Union (Accession of the Republic of Croatia) (Access to the Labour Market) Bill 2013 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; No. 36, motion No. 9, Private Members' business, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 4.30 p.m.; and No. 2, Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) (Amendment) Bill 2013 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eights minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
Before I call Senator MacSharry, a number of Senators indicated their wish to speak yesterday but due to time constraints they did not get in. I will call on those Senators first today.
Irrespective of the subject matter of contributions or the strength of views held by any Senator in the House, I ask every Senator to show respect at all times to the House and to the Chair and to conduct their contributions in an orderly manner.
As the Leader will be aware, there was a protest by carers at the gates yesterday in respect of the respite grant. The 20% cut to that grant takes effect today. I ask the Leader to investigate whether anything will be done to repeal this savage cut of 20% or more to these people. These are people who live on meagre incomes, and something should be done about this cut. In addition, we learned in recent days that the mobility grant, to which it seems there is still no solution, was savagely cut. Dealing with that has been deferred further to October at which time these people will be discriminated against again. No new applicants are being permitted. Surely it is within the capabilities of the Oireachtas to deal more quickly with this issue. We are talking about the most vulnerable people who face challenges that most of us in this House do not have to overcome. It is incumbent on us to take action urgently, and I would be grateful if the Leader could address this issue and raise it with the relevant Ministers without delay.
I call for a debate very specifically on the issue of securitisation in the banks. A very brave housewife, Miriam Freeman, succeeded in recent days in the courts as a lay litigant to gain full discovery against a bank with regard to her loan. Are the loan books being sold on through third party companies? Does this occur in the banks which the State, as shareholder, owns? Will the small borrowers of Ireland, the people struggling in mortgage arrears, be under additional pressure from a bank calling in these loans and trying to repossess homes which it no longer owns? Is this legal? We have seen the leadership shown by a very brave housewife from Dublin who took on the might of the huge legal team of Bank of Scotland Ireland and succeeded in gaining full discovery. Unusually but thankfully, here is a bank which must tell the truth. I call for a debate in this regard because it is of the utmost importance that the small borrowers of Ireland struggling with the market know whether the banks which, we as people own, sold their mortgages to third-party companies. At the same time these banks are increasing the pressure to recover their loans and threatening repossession in many cases.
I echo the words of the Cathaoirleach. Yesterday, I called for a respectful debate on the referendum on the future of the Seanad, and it was unfortunate that later in the Order of Business there was some conduct-----
It is relevant to how we conduct our debate in the House. It is important that we conduct ourselves with decorum and be respectful of the House. This is all that needs to be said on the matter.
I call for a debate on the issue of domestic violence and violence against women and children in the home. The figures released by Women's Aid today show a very worrying rise in the abuse of children in family settings. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, has promised comprehensive reform of the law on domestic violence. It has been reformed over the years and important reforms have been introduced by the Government, but we still lack overarching or codified legislation in the area. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House to update us on the progress of his work on law reform in this area? We need to ensure our legislative responses are adequate. Legislation alone is not the answer to this and a good deal of other work must be done with regard to policing and education.
Yesterday, I asked the Leader for a debate on prison policy and sentencing. I support Senator Paul Coghlan who called for a debate on a related matter concerning the Law Reform Commission report on mandatory sentencing which was published yesterday. It recommends reversal of mandatory sentences for drugs offences, which it pointed out have only been applied to couriers rather than to those organising the trafficking. We could incorporate a debate on this into a general debate on prison and sentencing policy.
A survey conducted in The Irish Times on the lives of women working outside the home shows interesting results, which are published in today's paper, on the views of women towards paternity leave and seeking the introduction of a measure of paid paternity leave. I have called for a debate on this issue and to consider the introduction of paid paternity leave even for a short period of time. In Britain two weeks' paid paternity leave was introduced a number of years ago. I renew my call for a debate.
I share my colleague, Senator Bacik's view on the need for our debates to be decorous at all times. However, sometimes challenging things must be said and I would not like to see freedom of speech curtailed, not too much anyway. I must confess to occasional feelings of enjoyment at the drama which can take place. What really bothers me about the coalition's behaviour is how it treats people, facts and language. I was very disappointed at the tone of the Taoiseach's public comments on the proposed referendum on the Seanad. Several people with no particular axe to grind told me they wondered how statesmanlike such language actually was. There was a tendency to denigrate and apportion blame which I do not think was appropriate.
There is widespread concern that the coalition is engaging in spin about its proposed abortion legislation, starting with the title of course, which mentions protection of life during pregnancy. There is widespread concern this is about directly targeting innocent human children. It has nothing to do with the sad facts of the Savita case. It is all about how the suicide ground will be exploited and turned into abortion on request. People like to have rows about church and State, but it is interesting that the language of misleading the people has come into the debate. This is the feeling out there. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people gathered for the national vigil for life in Merrion Square on Saturday and they feel the Government is seriously misleading the people and proposing something very harmful. This was the largest gathering in this year of The Gathering as far as I am aware.
Yes. I have asked previously for a debate on the abortion issue before it comes before us in the form of legislation. I also call for a debate on the quality of engagement by the Government with the public, the facts and the language. With regard to the national vigil for life it is worth stating the pro-life movement is growing.
It is young and it is growing. This will not be the end of the matter if the Government seeks to use overwhelming force of numbers to push through the legislation. It will be beginning of things. A sad new chapter will open in Irish life if the Government forces abortion through in the way it plans. Things will never be quite the same again. The pro-life movement will grow in strength and this much is clear.
I support what my colleague, Senator Bacik, stated about a debate following publication of the Law Reform Commission report on sentencing. I would welcome a move away from mandatory life sentences.
We need Judicial Council guidance on sentencing. We need to move away from the Executive's role in determining precisely how long a person spends in prison. This should be a matter for the Judiciary when sentencing and there should be sufficient discretion. A statutory-based parole board is vital in this area also. I call for this debate and I hope it takes place.
I welcome the decision by the Minister for Education and Skills to approve construction of a number of new schools throughout the country. My area is privileged to have two new building projects, both of which have been in the pipeline for more than ten years. I welcome the decision to allocate funding for these educational facilities. I also welcome the decision by the Minister on the programme announced this week to replace prefabs. Instead of renting prefabs, we will build permanent structures. A number of schools have other small issues. A group of 31 pupils from my old primary school visited Leinster House two weeks ago. I was astonished to find the school still has single glazed windows, which was the same as when I was there a long time ago. I call for a debate with the Minister on the re-introduction of a programme of remedial works. It would not cost a huge amount but such works are necessary. I call for it to be included in the education budget for this year if at all possible and certainly for next year.
It is interesting to hear the debate on pro-life and the protection of the unborn, but we must also need to debate the maternity facilities and services we have.
The Government announced the National Maternity Hospital will be relocated from Holles Street to St. Vincent's hospital. There is an urgent need to put in place a ten year plan for the Coombe hospital and the Rotunda Hospital. Both facilities are outdated and do not have adequate capacity to deal with the numbers for which they cater.
We are in the middle of the annual carer's week, 10-16 June. Ironically, the savage respite care grant cut of €325 has come into effect. This represents a 20% cut in respite care grant aid, which carers may use at their discretion. There are more than 77,000 carers, many of whom work more than 100 hours per week without break. This savage cut proves that carers are overburdened and underappreciated by the Government. The Carers Association, many carers and others protested outside Leinster House yesterday. I attended that protest and spoke to carers and their families. They expressed their heartbreak at this disappointing Government decision.
We should discuss the budget before it is drafted. We talk about being pro-life while cutting a grant to the most vulnerable in society. It is ironic that a senior Fine Gael adviser has been given an annual salary of €174,000 as a member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD. This is some €174,000 for a gentleman who already has a large pension as a former senior civil servant-----
It is estimated that there are approximately 700 voluntary housing bodies in the country, of which 282 are registered with the Irish Council for Social Housing. Last September, the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, introduced a voluntary code of regulation for the sector, but the uptake has been poor. Regulation is required to ensure those involved carry out their functions properly under a system of governance and provide proper services to the tenants of social housing.
The voluntary code has been in place for almost nine months. It is not working. Will the Leader ask the Minister of State to review the voluntary code and, if necessary, introduce legislation requiring all approved housing bodies to register? In this way, they could be assessed and overseen by a regulatory body and we could ensure tenants receive proper services, for example, repairs, maintenance, etc.
I dtosach, ba mhaith liom tacú leis an moladh atá déanta ag an Seanadóir Bacik go mbeadh díospóireacht againn maidir le foréigean baile. Sílim gur ábhar an-tábhachtach é sin.
In light of the histrionics witnessed in the Chamber in recent days, I suggest to the Leader and the Committee on Procedure and Privileges that we instigate the Seanad Oscars.
Members had the same level of sincerity as some pantomime dames. There might have been too much ham for the stage at the Abbey Theatre, though.
The G8 summit is coming to Ireland. It will be a large event, a great deal of money will be spent on it and many of the world's leaders will stay in swanky and wonderful hotels. That is how these events work. However, Oxfam Ireland has asked many of us to raise a number of issues on the agenda, for example, preventing companies from dodging taxes in poor countries so that millions might be freed from hunger; stopping poor farmers from being forced from their lands to grow fuel crops rather than food crops; providing aid to stop people dying from hunger; helping the poorest to have enough food on which to live; and ensuring governments and companies are honest about their role in the food system.
We should use our Presidency of the Council of the EU and the Taoiseach's role at the G8 summit to raise these issues. The Seanad should also debate the serious issue of poverty. It is not just found in developing countries but also at home, where 22% of children cannot concentrate in school because they are hungry. A report has shown that a growing number of primary school pupils go to school tired and hungry. Poverty is an important issue. We have debated it but we should keep it on the agenda, particularly as it relates to the developing world.
I will stick to positive notes, given the sunshine. I commend United Airlines on its launch last Friday of a Shannon-Chicago service five days per week. This is another incremental step in developing a business model for Shannon, one that was instigated by the new independent airport authority. This proves that the policy of an independent Shannon Airport that has severed its links from the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, is working. I wish United Airlines and the Shannon Airport Authority well in this initiative and I look forward to the further announcements that will be made shortly.
When I finish speaking today, I will go to Croke Park-----
-----to speak at the European Union supported employment conference. More than 550 delegates from 22 countries will attend this important conference on the future of people with disabilities in terms of supported employment. I commend the Ministers and Ministers of State who have attended events relevant to the conference, including Deputy Hogan, Deputy Burton, who is at the conference as I speak, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who attended yesterday, and-----
Yes. The Gathering has been successful. The conference is associated with it as well as the EU Presidency. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, to attend the House at the Minister's convenience-----
I welcome the Cathaoirleach's decision to accept Senator Clune's motion on the Adjournment regarding the leaving certificate problems encountered yesterday and discussed thoroughly in the House. This is the second morning in a row that the State Examination Commission, SEC, has declined to appear on "Morning Ireland". The damage done to young people by the mistakes in the mathematics paper in particular and the further mistakes in today's Irish paper requires an apology. If the SEC gets a third invitation to appear on "Morning Ireland" tomorrow, I hope it appears. Doing so would be important. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the Adjournment.
As Ms Katherine Donnelly wrote in today's Irish Independent on foot of the Education Research Centre's report, and as mentioned in an editorial entitled, "Stop the foot dragging on science and maths", the report shows that we do not have sufficient training in these subjects at primary level, which is the foundation for later development, and our teachers are younger but not trained properly in science and maths, which means that this problem will persist for a long time. The main universities are running down teacher training. It is divorced from science and mathematics departments and is becoming a branch of sociology. Research funds are being used to buy out teaching, the most important function in teacher training and universities as a whole. We have a great deal to do if we are to remedy this situation.
In light of the mistakes, the SEC's disregard for the hundreds of thousands of young people doing examinations shows that we have much to do. The Minister may need to insist that the SEC account for what it did yesterday as well as its declining of two successive invitations to speak on "Morning Ireland".
No matter what one thinks about the various exchanges that have occurred between Members of this House and members of the journalistic profession, an important issue has been raised, namely, the lack of coverage this House receives for the serious business it conducts. I again pay tribute to the former correspondent of The Irish Times, Jimmy Walsh. At least when he was here we got some credit for the work we do.
I raise the matter of violence against women. In May 2011, the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence opened for signature. Out of the 47 states of the Council of Europe, Ireland is one of a minority of 18 countries that have not signed the convention. The sad fact is that one in five Irish women have been subjected to domestic violence. Safe Ireland reports that in 2011 alone close to 8,000 individual women and more than 3,000 children received support from domestic violence support services. Today, at the launch of its annual report, Women's Aid announced there had been an increase of 50% in the reporting of child abuse to its helpline. This is a very serious matter. Thousands of Irish women and children are experiencing violence on a daily basis in this country. It is unacceptable that Ireland has not ratified the convention. I ask the Cathaoirleach and the Leader to communicate with the higher echelons of this Government, in particular the Minister for Justice and Equality, to ask him to sign the convention before Ireland's EU Presidency ends within the next month.
I am sorry. It is very simple. I refer to the level of unemployment at present. How many young men or women would apply for this job if it had been advertised, thereby giving them an opportunity to raise their families in this country?
I wish to raise the issue of inflation in grocery prices, which must be addressed. We could usefully ask the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, to the House to discuss this. The costs of doing business need to be kept as close as possible to minimum at this stage. It was revealed this week in a survey by Kantar that grocery prices have risen by 5% in the past year. The survey highlights price rises across a number of categories, some of which have been magnified by global price fluctuations, which I accept. However, many of them point to the fact that the cost of doing business in Ireland is a contributing factor. This relates to an issue raised yesterday by Senator Mullen. We could have a debate in this House as to how we might help to reduce costs. Some of the Dublin councils have reduced rates which is helpful. The rate of reduction is not inconsiderable in that some have reduced by 0.5% but perhaps it is time for councils throughout the country to look at ways of emulating this model. For example, meat and fish prices are up by 6.2%, bakery goods are up by 4.2% and household products are up by 5.8%. While some of these figures, such as the 16% rise in the price of vegetables, can be explained partially by external factors there is no denying the underlying trend. I call on the Leader to arrange a debate along the lines of the debate we had on job creation.
I have raised in the House the need for the public service to be held to account, in particular with reference to the Committee of Public Accounts and the refusal by certain very senior officials of Departments to respond to the searching questions put to them. That is essential. The attempts to undermine the chair of the Committee of Public Accounts is something I regret.
I ask for a debate in this regard. I refer to a story which ran for weeks in one of our national newspapers concerning expenditure by the OPW on an office. We have a monument to OPW profligacy at the gates of Leinster House, a glasshouse which cost €1.2 million, an absolute disgrace that has been criticised in the House and, I hope, will be thus criticised in the future. We might have had a similarly costly monument on Leinster Lawn. Those who came before the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission proposed to spend €750,000 to restore the item but when a number of Members objected, eventually, after four attempts, we got it back with, I believe, a cost in the region of €40,000 for restoration. That is the kind of thing that went on, without politicians even being aware of it. Much of this behaviour comes from officials being instrumental in undermining people who are prepared to question them seriously.
I would like to have a debate on this, with the relevant Minister in the House.
This morning, the Cabinet is discussing the protection of life in pregnancy Bill 2013, a misnomer if ever there was one. Will the Leader convey to the hierarchy within both his party and others that people should not be forced to abrogate their conscience on this Bill? There is a substantial body of opinion in the Oireachtas opposed to it, people who will be forced to comply by a Whip. This is an intolerable abuse, a corruption of the consciences of many people in the House, and we should condemn it. I hope we will have the opportunity, perhaps with the Minister tomorrow, to make these points directly.
It reflects on the excellent contribution Members are making if some have to grandstand to feature in press coverage. I ask the Leader for a debate. I agree with Senators Bacik and Mullen on the law reform report on sentencing. This was brought home to all of us with the situation in Victoria, Australia, where the trial for the murder and rape of the Irish lady, Jill Meagher, has been taking place. A person who had raped 21 times was out on parole, something that could happen in our country, too. We need a debate on sentencing and parole. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House and debate this? I do not agree with Senator Mullen, however, that there should not be mandatory sentencing or that sentencing should be by an executive decision.
Ba mhaith liom tagairt a dhéanamh ar maidin faoi chinneadh An Bord Pleanála an tseachtain seo caite i dtaca le feirm mhuileann gaoithe i nDún na nGall. Dhiúltaigh An Bord Pleanála cead pleanála a chur ar fáil don fheirm mhuileann gaoithe sin, tar éis do Chomairle Chontae Dhún na gGall cinneadh a dhéanamh tacaíocht a thabhairt don togra sin. This relates to the debate we had in the House on wind energy, and the decision of An Bord Pleanála must be welcomed. There are multinational companies trying to develop wind turbines and local authorities are being forced to give planning permission for them because they want the revenue source, although it is not technically the right thing to do under planning law. That has been underlined in Donegal in the past week, as An Bord Pleanála overturned the decision of Donegal County Council to grant planning to 25 wind turbines that would be 64 m high.
This underlines the fact that the relevant Bill, spoken about by Senator Kelly and others, needs to be progressed by the Government. There should be no further planning approvals granted within the State to any wind turbine application until the Oireachtas updates guidelines. Why should the views of communities on a natural resource be ignored for multi-millionaire developers? It is an absolute disgrace and the Government is standing idly by in allowing it to happen.
The abortion Bill will be debated this morning. It is deeply regretable that the Government is using the smokescreen of Seanad abolition or reform as a means to evade the opportunity to give the people a real look at what is contained in the legislation.
It is very calculated and smacks of spin, and we know the Government is exceptionally talented in that respect. It is trying to muddy the waters between now and the summer recess by bringing in various pieces of legislation to try to disguise the fact-----
Many of my colleagues yesterday welcomed the G8 summit to Fermanagh, as it will take place next week, but I did not get a chance to do so. I acknowledge the part played by British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in bringing that world conference to that lovely town. It is a wonderful opportunity for Fermanagh and the Border counties. It will put Enniskillen on the world's tourism map for the right reasons this time, and it will be seen in every country in the world.
A debate on tourism was sought yesterday, including the contribution made by tourism to the country and the number of jobs involved, and I would welcome such a discussion in the Seanad. We cater for discerning visitors in the country, although we may not always have sun, sea and sand. We had sun last week and I made use of it but we have much else to offer. I ask the Leader for a debate on tourism as soon as possible.
I understand that in recent days the Minister for Education and Skills signed the commencement order for the new education and training boards to come into existence on 1 July. I welcome that act and the speed with which it was done. I ask the Leader to ensure everything is in place for the education and training boards to smoothly come into existence, as if a number of counties are amalgamating, we do not want to see IT systems not functioning, with the people employed by the new boards not being paid, etc. I welcome that these boards are coming into existence so swiftly but I hope everything is in order for them to run smoothly.
I ask the Leader to arrange as soon as possible a debate on youth work and youth services provided by the State.
I am glad to hear Senator Brennan refer to the area around Lough Erne and what will happen, please God. There will be a spotlight on that part of our beautiful country. I add my voice to those who spoke yesterday and again this morning in calling for a debate on tourism.
I very much welcome the confirmation from the HSE that it is now in possession of the new hospital in Kenmare, and the remaining phases of the development, including site works, etc., are ongoing. Registration with HIQA was achieved last week and the residents of the old hospital were transferred yesterday to the new facility, which is really beautiful and in a wonderful setting in Kenmare.
I thank a former local councillor, Mr. Michael Connor-Scarteen, and his son, for the commitment over all the years to securing the facility. There are many politicians in Kerry grandstanding in this regard but I do not intend to engage in any of that, although I spoke of it on an Adjournment many years ago. I compliment the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, for giving the go-ahead to the project after a long number of years. It has been a lengthy battle. I thank the councillors and all the people of Kenmare. This is a wonderful new facility and I look forward to its official opening.
I express my solidarity - and I hope that of the House - because of the extraordinary occurrences in Greece, where the Greek public television broadcaster has been shut. It is not necessarily an exaggeration to think there is a significant movement that has placed public broadcasting under threat. We can also see that happening in Ireland. I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on the future of public broadcasting and media in Ireland. We are currently at a delicate and vulnerable stage. We hope The Sunday Business Post will be rescued by restructuring and several daily newspapers are struggling with independence in the market. RTE is radically examining its functions, how it is funded and whether it should become more commercial and dependent on the market rather than the licence fee payer. I extend our solidarity to the public service broadcasters in Greece.
I would welcome Senator Ó Domhnaill to the renewable wind energy debate to be held in Dublin Castle on 21 and 22 June. I hope he will be there to put forward his views with other parliamentarians from across Europe. It would be a good forum to suggest ideal places where we can ensure in Ireland that we can produce sustainable energy.
Women's Aid is publishing a report on child abuse today, disclosing that child abuse is up 55% on reports last year, with 3,000 disclosures of child abuse made. It is a scandal. I also wish to raise the matter of signing the European convention on preventing and combating violence against women. Senator Hayden raised the matter before me. Ireland is in a minority of 18 states that have not yet signed it. Before we sign off the Irish Presidency I ask the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to prioritise the matter and send a clear signal that we are serious in Ireland about preventing abuse of women and children. It has been proven that the children of abused women are also abused. Some 82% of abuse is by male partners, with 49% by husbands. I ask for the convention to be signed and I have asked before for a debate about violence towards women.
By keeping it on the agenda we will raise awareness and, more than that, do something about it. Could I ask for a debate as well as for the convention to be signed?
I supported and commended the Government on the publication of the national carers' strategy. It is very important we take a holistic approach to caring and ensure people have access to training and have proper income and respite supports. There is a package of measures which are necessary to ensure those people who do a tremendous, difficult and demanding job in looking after people in their homes have proper supports. This week, as the Leader will know, the respite care grant cut comes into effect and more than 77,000 carers will see that respite care grant cut by one fifth. It is an appalling, cruel cut. We made these points during the last budget but I appeal to the Government that it is not too late to change its mind on this issue. The Government has continually refused to increase taxation at any level, including on those at the top, and has no difficulty standing over that, but it also has no difficulty standing over the cuts to carers who need respite.
Respite has an impact on the person who is being cared for, but it is hugely important for the carer who needs a break from a very demanding job. As we know, they do a very difficult job in very difficult circumstances for very low pay, so I call for a debate on the issue of carers and caring. We need to ask where the national carers' strategy is, what has been done since it was published, what additional resources have been put in place and what supports have been given to carers on the back of publishing the report, because publishing the report is only part of the solution. We need resources to support carers.
I thank Senator Ó Domhnaill for highlighting my Wind Turbines Bill again. Everything he says is accurate in that any wind farm developer who wants to proceed with a wind farm will get the support of the county councils because it is Government policy, and that is the simple reality. Then it is down to An Bord Pleanála as people's last hope of overturning a decision. It is clear from the Donegal decision this week that An Bord Pleanála wants legislation on minimum distances put in place and does not want to adjudicate in such situations. Everything in my Bill would go along with what An Bord Pleanála wants. I am very disappointed the Government is not supporting the Bill or even floating it in Dáil Éireann after it has passed all Stages in the Seanad with full, cross-party support. Senator Keane has told us we have a conference on wind energy on 21 June. I am well aware of it and there will be a big anti-wind farm lobby there to highlight what people are not listening to and what many other Senators and I raise regularly in this House. Nobody is listening to it so I hope they will listen on 21 June.
No one particular person admitted to the recent mistakes made in the compilation of the exam papers. I hope in the marking system that will apply later that those mistakes will be taken into account.
Like many others I regret that the respite care grant cuts Senator Cullinane mentioned had to happen. I have always campaigned on behalf of carers. We should not be touching them. We cannot put a value on what carers do for the country. I am glad to see in today's newspaper that common sense has prevailed and the mobility allowance is still in place. The sooner it is replaced by something on a long-term basis, the better, and I appreciate that move.
I welcome all the beautiful young faces who have just joined us in the Visitors' Gallery. I have a question on a topic that affects some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Last November our Independent group tabled a motion on the social welfare appeals system. During the debate we highlighted a number of concerns that are shared by Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, and raised in its well-titled report, Not Fair Enough. Our motion called for a social welfare application and appeals system that is transparent and independent. The social welfare appeals office, which makes quasi-judicial decisions, is not independent of the Department because the Minister has the responsibility to appoint the chief appeals officer. The social welfare appeals system is also inefficient, not because it is not managed well - from my conversations with the chief appeals officer it is managed well - but because of the pressures on the system resulting in a number of appellants being unable to access their fundamental rights due to delays.
During our debate we identified we need better decisions in the first instance. We outlined that 42% of original decisions are overturned on appeal. We have to raise questions about this. In May this year, the average waiting time for a social welfare appeal was 28 weeks - that is seven months - for a summary decision or 37 weeks for an oral hearing. I was recently contacted by a person representing a woman who has been waiting more than 25 weeks for her appeal to be processed. What must that feel like? More than 17,000 appeals are pending on the system. How can we expect people to wait this long without serious consequences to their families, lives and health? Things are still not fair enough. I understand the chief appeals officer will shortly publish her annual report. Bearing in mind the concerns raised by our Independent group of Senators, I ask the Leader of the House to debate the contents of this report.
Senator MacSharry raised the question of the respite grant and mobility allowance. As Senator Cullinane stated, we had a very comprehensive debate on the respite grant after last year's budget process, so I do not wish to get into it again. I note his points on the bank loans and perhaps the Senator could submit an Adjournment motion on that issue and get the relevant answers from the Minister.
Senators Bacik, Hayden and Keane raised the issue of domestic violence and the need to ratify the convention on violence against women. I will bring that to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Deputy Shatter. Senator Bacik and others called for a debate on both the report of the Law Reform Commission and prisons.
Senators Mullen, Walsh, Ó Domhnaill and others raised the protection of life during pregnancy Bill, which will be coming into the House next month. I have assured the House that ample and sufficient time will be afforded for all Members to take part in that debate.
Senator Colm Burke raised the issue of the new school building fund, and it is to be welcomed by everybody to see so many new schools commencing. Also to be welcomed is the replacement of prefabs, which is long overdue. The amount of money wasted over the decades on prefabs was a disgrace and it is good to see that being tackled. On remedial works, there is a scheme in place for schools to apply for small work schemes, and I suggest Senator Colm Burke contact the school he mentioned to apply under that scheme. We will have a debate with the Minister in the House tomorrow on the hospital groupings and the maternity hospitals.
Senator White raised the issue of carers' week. We all acknowledge the great work done by carers. Senators White and Leyden raised the issue of the appointment of a former civil servant. There were some probably ageist comments from Senator Leyden on the matter. The salary for the person appointed is €172,000, but all his pensions from the public service are frozen and he will not be receiving any of those pensions while in that position. The man is as qualified as, if not better qualified than, any other person in the country to take that job.
Senator Landy raised the review of the voluntary code of regulation in housing. We will have the Housing (Amendment) Bill coming into the House in the next week or two and that should be the time for Senator Landy to raise that point with the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. It is a very relevant point.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of the G8 summit.
Whatever about ordering the business of this House I have no input into ordering the business of the G8 summit, therefore I cannot organise that for Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh.
Senator Martin Conway welcomed United Airlines five additional flights from Shannon to Chicago which should boost tourism in that area. Senator Sean D. Barrett raised the issue of teachers not being trained properly especially in the area of science and mathematics. This is a very serious matter that will have to be addressed. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills who, I am sure, is well aware of it and will take action in that regard.
Senator Catherine Noone raised the matter of reducing the cost of business. We had a debate on that matter previously but I have invited the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, to come to the House for a debate on the overall issue in the near future.
Senator Jim Walsh raised the matter of the Public Accounts Committee. As the Cathaoirleach has mentioned, that is a Dáil committee so I have no intention of commenting on it in this House.
Senator Pat O'Neill called for a debate on the Law Reform Commission report on sentencing. I will endeavour to arrange that debate with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill raised the issue of wind turbines. We have had many debates on the issue. As Senator Cáit Keane has mentioned, a European conference is taking place in Ireland on 21 June and I hope Members who are interested in that subject will attend and give their views on the matter.
Senator Terry Brennan raised a matter we dealt with yesterday when he welcomed the G8 summit to Fermanagh. It is a showpiece for our country and it presents a great opportunity to promote the tourism product, not alone for that area but the whole country.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson raised the matter of the education and training boards. A smooth process to enable them start up in September is what we all want and I am sure the Minister will ensure that happens. The Senator also called for a debate on youth services.
Senator Paul Coghlan welcomed the announcement of the building of a new facility in respect of the hospital in Kenmare. He acknowledged the contribution of Mr. Michael Connor-Scarteen and his son on behalf of the people of Kenmare.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail called for a debate on the future of broadcasting. I will invite the Minister to come to the House for a debate on that issue.
Senator David Cullinane called for a progress report on the national carers' strategy. I agree we should have such a debate and I will try to arrange for it with the relevant Minister.
Senator John Kelly raised the matter of the European conference on wind energy and the examination papers, an issue to which I responded comprehensively on the Order of Business yesterday.
Senator Katherine Zappone raised the issue of the social welfare appeals system. I acknowledge there is great pressure on the appeals system. The delays experienced by applicants are unacceptable. In some cases people are waiting up to a year. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister to see whether we can have a debate on that issue again.