Thursday, 20 June 2013
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Further Education and Training Bill 2013 - Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 1.45 p.m. if not previously concluded, the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; and No. 2, Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill 2001 - Second Stage, to be taken at 1.45 p.m. and adjourned not later than 3.45 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
Yesterday I raised the prospect of another savage attack on children who require special needs assistants and additional resource hours in schools. It has been confirmed that the Government is effecting a 10% reduction to children who have special educational needs and require assistance in schools. I remind colleagues opposite that since taking office that is a 25% cut since 2011. Yesterday the Leader mentioned that we are retaining the same number of hours and teachers. I am aware of that. However, there are 4,000 extra children in the system seeking assistance. Whatever language the Government uses, it is a 10% cut. The Special Needs Parents Association described it as a direct attack on the provision of services which are essential for children struggling through mainstream.
My party can be criticised for many things but in the area of education and mainstreaming children with special needs we have a proud track record. The Fine Gael and Labour Party Government is cutting the resources provided to children with special needs and dismantling the mainstreaming policy before our eyes. Given that the cut is 25% in two years, what will it be after five years? I remind the Government of what it stated in the programme for Government, namely, that it would support diversity in education of children with special needs, recognising that both intensive education and mainstreaming can be seen to work for individual children. How does that statement in the programme for Government marry with the fact that yesterday the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, effected another cut of 10% for our most vulnerable children who need this support to move on in live?
What is even worse is that the Minister hid behind the National Council for Special Education and let it announce it. He was not man enough to announce it himself. That is absolutely despicable. He is a Minister for whom I have much regard in many areas but this is nothing short of disgraceful. Not one Member opposite should stand over this cut in any shape or form. How can one stand over removing supports from children who need them?
It is also stated that if the cuts are assessed independently and a child needs five hours per week, that child will get only 75% of what is required. That is outrageous. How much is the Government expecting to save by this cut? I put it to the Leader that the saving will be minimal in the context of not giving young children a start and mainstreaming children with special educational needs. I do not want to hear the nonsense that is being peddled by Government that the number of hours will remain the same. I understand that but there are more children in the system which has been cut by 25%. The Minister for Education and Skills should come to the House and explain it to those of us who care about children with special needs, unlike the Government.
That is not true. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, come to the House and explain to me and my colleagues the reason it is acceptable to remove supports from children who require them.
I welcome the Government decision yesterday to retain in State ownership the harvesting rights of Coillte. This is a good decision and it proves that the Government makes decisions on the basis of merit and on the basis of views expressed by others. The Government also confirmed that there will be no fire sale of any State assets. The predators across the globe who were looking at Coillte will be disappointed but the people of Ireland will be very pleased. I am happy that it allays the concerns of the public who use the State forests for recreational purposes. I compliment and congratulate the IMPACT trade union which was to the fore in proving that the sale of this particular State asset was not a viable proposition. It set about acquiring the Bacon report into this whole area which proved categorically that the proper course of action was for the State to retain ownership of the harvesting rights of Coillte.
Yesterday the Alzheimer Society launched its pre-budget submission. Currently there are 41,000 people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease and it is anticipated that the number will increase to 67,000 by 2021. I support the society's call that the Government publish the national dementia strategy. This will ensure a timely diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease with a view to proper intervention and support for carers who care for sufferers of Alzheimer's disease.
I ask the Leader to intervene with the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Canon, in respect of school transport for children, given the ruling last year that a child had to attend the nearest school to his or her home.
Due to the late notification a number of children throughout the country were unable to change school buses and currently have to be transported to school by their families. I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, to provide for a once-off amnesty for these children. There is proper notification for the start of the 2013 school year, but there was no such proper notification in 2012. Several hundred children are caught in this trap. Senator John Kelly has been championing this cause for a long time and I support him. I ask the Leader to raise this issue with the Minister of State on behalf of the children concerned.
I draw attention to proposals from the European Parliament for legislation relating to infant formula, which would forbid pictures of smiling infants or anything else that would idealise the use of infant formula. To deal with the trivial aspect first, at least children in Europe are allowed to smile. Between 25% and 30% of them will be unemployed if the European Union continues with its policies and then they will inherit a massive national debt. This is just silliness in the European Parliament. The serious point is that we have built a major industry in this area. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, have drawn attention to the fact that Ireland is one of the major producers of infant formula in the world; therefore, our smiling infants must have had a big impact. Is this an attempt by competing countries in Europe to restrict the highly successful business we have built with the aid of these same smiling children? We should invite the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to address that problem and alert our Members of the European Parliament to the impositions this would mean for the economy.
I also note the abolition of the National Pensions Reserve Fund, with the money to be put into a stimulus package. That was a rainy day fund and as it has been raining for about five years, it was probably time to call it into play. However, serious problems could arise and there are serious dangers unless we do this properly. The multiplier effect of a stimulus in Ireland is small, as the Fiscal Advisory Council has stated. Unfortunately, we have inherited a political culture of clientelism and lobbying, which means that people will be seeking to have their favourite project paid for out of this money, regardless of whether it is of any use from the point of view of the national economy. As bureaucracy always expands its budgets, it will be an opportunity for that to happen. We have very weak definitions of capital in the traditional capital programme and appraisal of projects became a branch of the public relations, PR, industry. We need a central office of project evaluation, COPE, and independent project evaluations published approximately one year in advance in order that we can see what they contain. There is a danger this could seriously add to waste and inefficiency and we could end up where we started, with useless projects and a mounting national debt. I hope the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, or the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, will address the issue of spending the National Pensions Reserve Fund moneys efficiently.
I join my colleague, Senator Denis Landy, in welcoming the decision not to sell the harvesting rights of Coillte. It is the right decision. I call for a debate on the future of Coillte. In some parts of the country some of the land has been felled but not replanted. In some cases, some of the logs have been left and not removed. There is a great deal of work to be done in this regard and I seek a debate on the issue. Also, it is very important to develop the walks through forests. Some of them have fallen into decline and become overgrown in recent years. They have not been maintained properly. This is an opportunity to develop them for the future.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by our party leader in the House, Senator Darragh O'Brien, and wish to expand a little on his very trenchant and accurate comments on the most recent savage cut introduced by the Government. Why is it that it always seems to go for the soft touch? This comes just 24 hours after reading in the national media that the Minister for Finance is indicating "an easy budget". What does "an easy budget" mean? Does it mean that it will provide more resources for those from whom the Government has been taking them away in the past couple of years? I refer not only to special needs but also to single parent families. We had a debate in the past couple of days on the manner in which they are being treated with regard to jobseeker's allowance. The Government has introduced a range of initiatives under the cover of austerity which really only affect those who are most vulnerable in our society. This is one example and it is time it stopped.
I also wish to raise an issue that arose at the transport committee yesterday. I endorse the comments of Mr. Pat Hickey of the Olympic Council of Ireland which have been widely reported in the media this morning and in which he criticised, correctly, comments made by Diageo at the weekend. Who does this company think it is? It even has the Government of the day siding with it whenever leading celebrities come to this country. The first place they are photographed is at the Guinness Storehouse drinking a pint. That is a terrible image of the country to convey and it is time it stopped. In the future the Government should be advised that it is the last place to which anybody coming to the country should be taken to sip pints, sending pictures around the world showing the country to be nothing more than a place where people drink. It is time that stopped and I hope it will.
The reason Mr. Hickey was present at the committee meeting yesterday was to provide a debriefing on the Olympic Games. We also strayed into the area of alcohol and sport. The transport committee is in the process of discussing a final report in this regard which will be presented to the Government. There is a draft report which was leaked to the media last weekend. Regardless of the spin put on the report by RTE and every other media outlet, no final decision or conclusion has been made on what the committee will do about the link between sport and alcohol. It is a draft report and a sub-committee has been set up to investigate it further. I call on all Members of this House to respond to an e-mail sent by the clerk to the committee yesterday inviting submissions on this very important issue in order that we can obtain a comprehensive response from all Members of both Houses in this regard. Will the Leader consider inviting the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Michael Ring, or the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to discuss this very important issue and allow the House to have a debate on the link between alcohol and sport?
I wish to raise an important issue, but, first, I support Senator Denis Landy's call on the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, on the issue of school transport. It is only right that an amnesty be given to those families who inadvertently picked a school that might be one metre further away than what was perceived to be their nearest school and, as a result, are deprived of school transport. What has irritated me about this issue is that I fought for two families last year on the basis that there were empty seats on a bus, but I was refused point blank. However, I subsequently discovered that discretion did prevail in other parts of the country where children who had picked the school that was furthest away secured school transport because there was availability on buses. The Minister must deal with this issue.
The issue I wish to raise concerns a report I read in the newspaper this morning - it is no surprise to me - that the rate of sick leave in the Department of Social Protection outweighed that in any other Department. For me, this is an exact science because for every action there is a reaction. If one piles enough pressure on people, in this case employees in the Civil Service, something will give. Since the end of the so-called good times no extra resources have been put into the Department of Social Protection, although the floodgates opened with regard to applications for social welfare payments. To compound the issue, we have medical referees who have decided to refuse everything, be it disability allowance or invalidity pension, despite the fact that one of the conditions for receiving disability allowance is that one must be unavailable for work for at least 12 months. I have encountered so many cases-----
I do. I have dealt with many cases in which the person applied for disability allowance and was refused. They sought a medical reassessment and were refused. They appealed and six months after appealing the decision their file was sent from Longford to the appeals office. When one asks when the appeal will be heard, the office cannot state whether it will be in three, six or 12 months. Therefore, cases are ongoing for almost two and a half years. The bottom line is that we are dealing with faceless medical referees and appeals officers who are making decisions to frustrate people.
This is piling pressure on the civil servants trying to administer the scheme, in respect of which no additional resources have been put in place. I call on the Leader to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Social Protection for no other reason than to ensure the pressure is taken off the families who have made these applications and are being frustrated by the system.
I wish to again raise the savage and unacceptable cuts in the area of special needs. On the Leader's statement in the House yesterday that there have been no cuts, I met yesterday afternoon with staff at a school in Killinarden, Tallaght, who told me the school had applied for 90 resource hours and was granted only 33 hours and that its special needs assistant staff has been reduced from seven to six despite that it will be taking on four new special needs students this year. Clearly, there are cuts in this area which, as I stated earlier, are savage and unacceptable.
Senator Mooney referred to the constant reference to softer budgets and that green shoots have at long last appeared. Why then in God's name are we attacking the most vulnerable?
As I demonstrated yesterday these so-called special needs people could be the next Thomas Edison, Steven Spielberg or Richard Branson. Let us assist and educate these people. Why should we educate normal children and not special needs children? I call on the Leader to provide time for a debate on this issue, at which time the Minister, Deputy Quinn, will hopefully climb down from the pulpit he has climbed by mistake and reverse these cuts.
The debate on Senator Quinn's Bill last night is a clear demonstration of how the Seanad should work. I am a little disappointed that the Minister for Health, following much deliberation, has decided to conduct a technical survey with the assistance of four HSE personnel who, as stated by Senator Barrett, will cost €75,000 each. Senator Quinn has conducted all of the research. While some amendment of the Bill is required, it is ready to go. What a great idea to have defibrillators available all over Ireland.
I welcome the Government decision on forestry. I would welcome a debate on this matter. I recall during the first meeting of the agriculture committee with Coillte that I was a little concerned about its business practises. When I asked the Coillte representative to outline its gross margins the response was that it does not do margins. I am concerned about Coillte's commercial activities. I welcome the proposed merger. There is a great deal of money to be made for the Government and State. I welcome the superb business-like approach being taken in this regard. We all need to know our margins if we are to move forward and make money.
I rise to condemn the immoral move by the banks to remove tracker mortgages from homeowners in difficulty. One of the conditions of the mortgage arrears resolution process, MARP, is that a person's tracker mortgage cannot be touched. I would like to know from the Minister for Finance what such homeowners will get in return. What is next? How safe are other people's tracker mortgages if this precedent is being set? It is critical that the Minister, Deputy Noonan, intervene and make a statement on how homeowners with tracker mortgages are to be protected.
On the special needs issue, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, is faced with an enormous challenge. We must work together. The Minister will have to find a way of meeting the needs of special needs children within existing resources. We must ensure that all children get a fair crack at education.
Yes. We need a real debate on this issue. A huge amount of money is being spent on special educational needs in this country. This is critical to ensure a level playing field for children. We must find a new way of managing resources to ensure all children are treated fairly. This may require expert additional training for our resource and classroom teachers and, in particular, special needs assistants the current remit of whom is around the welfare needs of the child. We must consider whether they should also be required to care for the educational needs of such children. Having engaged in supervision of classrooms, I know they do so in some cases. We have a crisis on our hands and must face up to it. These children matter.
I draw the Leader's attention to two related health issues, which I ask that he bring to the attention of the Minister for Health, and to another issue which needs to be discussed. I will start with the third matter. I was unable to contribute to the debate on the HSE report into the Savita Halappanavar tragedy. In this regard, I would like to repeat a point I made a number of months ago. The number of obstetricians per head of population in the western region of this country is the lowest in Ireland and western Europe. Ireland is firmly anchored at the bottom of the league table in terms of the number of obstetricians per head of population. The next lowest is the Netherlands, which has approximately twice as many as Ireland and has a lower birth rate than we have.
Without attempting to conduct our own private inquest on what was a personal tragedy thrust into the public light, I ask Senators and Ministers to reflect that every time they read the account of a case like this in which reference is made to the words "registrar", "specialist registrar", "senior house officer", "house officer" and "intern" they should replace it with the word "trainee" and then consider how much sense what they read makes. Every major decision about a sick person should be made by a fully-trained specialist. This is not possible because of our current staffing levels. Lest anybody will say this is because of the exorbitant salaries of Irish consultants, I would remind them that the system began at a time when Irish consultants effectively worked for free, making their money in private practice and donating their public service. This was the type of system that tended to apply before the common contract era in many of our voluntary hospitals. It is a structural problem dictated not by doctors but by the permanent government of the Civil Service and is something that needs to be fixed.
On health insurance, as a result of the issue I raised yesterday other facts have come to light. Incredibly, several insurance companies have taken the decision not to pay for a potentially life saving proven cancer treatment, including an insurance company that pays for homoeopathy, which is right up there with leprechauns and moonbeams as a treatment for anything. The reason given for this is that the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, an agency of the Government, conducted a cost effective analysis on the drug and deemed it not to be cost effective. The Minister, wisely and humanely, chose to ignore that advice and to make the drug available. However, the State, its citizens and taxpayers are funding an agency of the State to generate data which is then used by private health insurers to deny people treatment, thrusting the cost of that treatment on the State which paid for the analysis in the first instance.
Perhaps things can get crazier, but I do not know how. I ask that the Minister ensure that assessments, which I believe are unnecessary - anybody with a computer can download these assessments which are available internationally - conducted on behalf of the State are used only by the State and are not put into the public domain where they can be used by others to deny treatments. Will the Leader ask the Minister, with his new health insurance commissioner, to look at the practices of the for-profit private insurance companies, some of which I believe are behaving extremely badly. As previously stated, I believe people should think carefully about signing up to insurance with Aviva, GloHealth and, possibly, Laya.
I welcome the news that the international congress of the European People's Party will take place in Dublin in March 2014. A total of 2,000 delegates from 40 countries will attend. It will be a great boost for Dublin and for tourism in the city. The European People's Party is the largest grouping in the European Parliament with 73 member parties in 40 countries. The conference will take place in Dublin ahead of the European elections next year.
I agree with the comments of Senator Mooney with regard to the pint of Guinness. Our relationship with alcohol runs a lot deeper and it is unfortunate that our international reputation for alcohol use is as a result of the behaviour instilled in people, including those who have been forced to emigrate in difficult circumstances. We should ask the Minister of State with responsibility for sport to come to the House to discuss the issue but as I have been requesting for some weeks and yesterday I think we need to have a really full debate with the Minister of State, Deputy White, whose responsibility it is to deal with the alcohol issue. I understand the strategy is to be rolled out in the coming weeks. I am assuming that the alcohol sponsorship issue will be debated in and around that strategy. I ask if we could have an update as to when the Minister of State will come to the House to discuss this very serious issue.
Oireachtas Members from all parties and none will meet today to again discuss the issue of the European Court of Justice ruling in respect of the former Waterford Crystal workers. The case was taken by former workers of Waterford Crystal to the High Court and the High Court sought advice from the European Court of Justice in respect of the EU 2008 Insolvency Fund. The EU Court of Justice found that the State was in breach of its obligations under the directive and that it would be obliged to rectify this. This means the possible introduction of legislation as happened after the Robins case in the UK. The failure to transpose this directive will have potential implications for other pension funds. The State will also need to rectify the situation by compensating the former Waterford Crystal workers. I am a bit angry about the responses from the Ministers, Deputy Michael Noonan and Deputy Joan Burton. A number of weeks ago, representatives of the workers' legal team, an expert in the area of pensions and members of the UNITE trade union, addressed Oireachtas Members. On behalf of the Members who attended that briefing we wrote to both Ministers asking that they would simply meet with those representatives and with the trade unions but they have refused to do so. They seem to be hiding behind the courts again, a bit like the previous Government. They need to face up to their responsibilities that these workers need to be properly compensated and the quicker the State does this, the better.
I ask the Leader to inquire with the Ministers why they are refusing to meet the representatives of those employees and if he will agree that those workers should be compensated as quickly as possible.
I commend the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources who yesterday announced 21 energy efficiency projects which will be supported by Sustainable Energy Ireland and three local authorities, Fingal County Council, the Cathaoirleach's county of Mayo and Kerry County Council. I ask for an urgent debate with the Minister in this regard. I can see the efficiencies involved and the savings they will achieve for the local authorities. I propose an extension of this type of project for the reduction of lighting times and lighting output at certain hours of the day such as at 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. This would reduce carbon emissions. Irish motorways are lit more than any other motorways throughout the world. I said it in the House that there are more lights on the motorway from Dublin to Dundalk than on any interstate highway in the United States. Phenomenal savings could be made. I ask for an urgent debate. In my view we could spend a couple of hours having a debate on the issue. Savings in money and in carbon emissions could be achieved. I urge the Leader to organise a debate. I have some statistics that will surprise people. I have a final suggestion. I tell Senators that the public lighting in Dublin's fair city is on for one hour too long every single day of the year. Hundreds of thousands of lights are lighting until five past six in the morning when they could be turned off at five past five at certain times of the year. This is what we must consider.
I wish to support Senator Landy's call for support for the national strategy on dementia. Together with Senator Landy and many other colleagues I attended the pre-budget submission of the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland. There are currently 41,700 Irish people with dementia and this figure is expected to double in the next 25 years. The current system cannot cope with 41,700 people and there is no sign that preparations are being made to cope with a doubling of that number in the next 25 years. The Alzheimer's society is pleading with politicians to support its campaign to make the Government present and develop a national plan for dementia. In the most awesome and inspiring speech yesterday, Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College's institute of neuroscience said that 20 years ago, hearing the diagnosis of cancer would lead us to fear, despair and hopelessness. He said that today, cancer is seen as a frightening diagnosis but as one for which there are options, possibilities and for some form for hope. Today, Alzheimer's disease and its diagnosis leads to similar reaction to the cancer diagnosis of 20 years ago - shock, fear and resignation. Professor Robertson said that the key to dealing with this condition is prevention. All of us at the Royal Irish Academy were in awe to hear that we could individually make an effort to prevent getting that awful Alzheimer's disease. He spoke about prevention at the outset of Alzheimer's by lifestyle changes in ordinary people and also by trying to delay the progression of symptoms in people already diagnosed. A lady spoke who one year ago was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She explained how she had become optimistic over some months and she then had to persuade her colleagues and friends that there is hope, that she will not collapse into this awful disease.
Professor Robertson said that the seven secrets of prevention are aerobic exercise; good diet; keeping stress under control; mental stimulation; social engagement; new learning; and a youthful and positive mental attitude. He said that the three main points are that each of us should challenge ourselves continuously, make changes in our lives and keep learning. The bottom line is that in 20 years time we should not look back and ask "why did I not do that?" That is why I have decided I will throw my hat into the ring to go for the Dáil in the new Dublin-Rathdown area. I do not want to be looking back.
My goodness, I was taken aback by that announcement. I am trying to let it sink in.
I share the concerns expressed by Senator Sean Barrett in regard to the National Pensions Reserve Fund which, as the Senator observed, was intended to cater for a rainy day. It has been raining for quite a while now and we are not out of the woods yet. Everything he said in that regard is true. The fund must not be plundered or raided for any individual's pet project without proper assessment and evaluation. To allow that would simply be codding ourselves and adding to our budgetary woes by further increasing the national debt. However, more power to Senator Mary White and her positivity.
I thank colleagues for their contributions to the debate last night on my Public Health (Availability of Defibrillators) Bill 2013. The Minister probably did not come into the Chamber intending to support the proposal, and his decision not to oppose it was most welcome. The strongly worded and unanimous support for the Bill from colleagues in this House was critical in that success. Our achievement in this regard is a testament to the Seanad which I hope will help to safeguard its future.
I am not a great supporter of State involvement in business affairs and, as such, I did not object to the proposal to sell the national lottery licence for €600 million. However, the announcement that the sale is likely to fetch only €300 million is more suggestive of a fire sale than a business operation. We must consider whether this is the right course of action. The argument we have heard is that a failure to sell the licence will lead to a reduction in the moneys available for good causes. The reality, however, is that securing such a low sum for the sale will damage the prospects for good causes in any case, irrespective of the identity of the successful bidder. I propose that the State should instead allocate €30 million of funds raised each year for good causes, which would enable us to build six hospitals in the next 12 years. It makes little sense to sell the licence for a price that is only half of what was initially indicated.
I share in the relief being felt in rural areas throughout the country today at the positive decision by the Government not to proceed with the sale of Coillte's harvesting rights. In addition, I very much welcome the proposed merger with Bord na Móna, which will create a substantial and streamlined State company operating in the bioenergy and forestry sector.
Senator Healy Eames raised an issue of grave concern to homeowners in her comments on tracker mortgages. There must be clarity from Government in this regard. I call for a debate on the activities of the banks in general and especially their treatment of customers. I raised the issue recently of how small businesses, particularly in rural areas, are being badly impacted by the failure of banks to top up ATM machines at weekends, thus leaving customers without access to cash.
We in this Chamber have had significant business to discuss in recent days, including Senator Feargal Quinn's impressive Private Members' Bill, with the House sitting until almost 9.30 p.m. last night. It is disappointing that RTE has not seen fit to cover even one second of that business. The people of this country will decide later in the year whether or not this House should be abolished. It seems, however, that the national broadcaster has already decided that Seanad Éireann is irrelevant. That is not good enough and I call on RTE to review its broadcasting policy as it applies to the Oireachtas in order to provide fair and accurate coverage of proceedings in this House in the coming weeks and months.
I join the leader of my party in this House, Senator Darragh O'Brien, and other colleagues in strongly condemning the reduction in support hours for pupils with special educational needs. Some 42,500 children will be deprived next year of additional teaching supports to which they are entitled. I absolutely condemn that decision.
I support the call by Senator Paschal Mooney and others for a debate on alcohol in our society, not only in terms of sponsorship of sports by alcohol companies but also the abuse of alcohol which is prevalent in all 32 counties of this island. I refer to the 32 counties because if we are to deal with the problem, it must be done on an all-island basis. I am aware, coming from a Border county, that if a law is introduced in this jurisdiction which increases the price of alcohol, one only has to go 7 miles up the road to avoid it. A lack of co-ordination in this regard between North and South will defeat the whole purpose of any initiative this State might introduce. The reality is that people will travel to the North from all over the Twenty-six Counties to avail of cheaper alcohol.
I welcome the comments yesterday by the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, in which he encouraged people who want to take a drink to do so in a pub setting. When one is drinking in a pub, one is at least subject to opening and closing hours. Spirits are provided in standard measures and there are only so many pints one can drink, no matter how large one's stomach. I join the Minister in encouraging people to do their drinking in the pub. Moreover, I urge the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, to be brave by forgetting about adding a few cent to the price of alcohol in pubs and instead impose a levy of €5 on a bottle of wine. The evidence suggests that wine often features where there is problem drinking in a home setting.
I conclude by asking whether the Leader would agree that we have a very well balanced Government in terms of the number of promises that have been broken by both Fine Gael and the Labour Party.
I recall participating in a radio discussion in 2002 with a Fianna Fáil election candidate who informed listeners that 2,000 additional teaching posts were to be created in schools throughout the country. I went back to school delighted to be able to inform my colleagues that we would be getting extra teachers. It seemed it was all over and I could pull out of the election with an easy conscience.
I am obliged to respond to some of the nonsense we have heard this morning from the other side of the House. This is the third year in a row that the number of special needs assistants and resource teachers has been protected by the Government.
As regards the 10% reduction in support hours, the National Council for Special Education has asked schools to use theme teaching where possible. I visited Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál in Kilsaran, County Louth, last week with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and my constituency colleague, Deputy Gerald Nash. There are 18 SNAs in that school, all doing a wonderful job for the pupils in their care. Anybody who visited it could not fail to be convinced of the Minister's commitment to special educational needs.
He is working, however, within the limits imposed upon him as a consequence of the squandering of moneys that went on under the previous Government. Money was thrown about like confetti for years and now there is nothing left in the pot.
There are more than 10,000 SNAs in the system. I am surprised that a person of such integrity as Senator Darragh O'Brien will not acknowledge the work being done by the Minister to retain resources and funding in the area of special educational needs.
Apologies, a Chathaoirligh, I do not often get hot and bothered. Senator David Cullinane said he was a bit angry this morning; I am very angry at what certain colleagues have said. The Minister has asked the NCSE to establish a working group to begin developing a proposal for a revised allocation mechanism.
I would like that process to be fast-tracked and a report on the matter provided sooner rather than later.
I feel sad rather than angry about the latest cut in provision for children with special needs. That is what it is. The officials say it is a case of doing more with the same rather than doing the same with less. However, when it comes down to it, there is extra demand. If a child needs five hours' attention in a week then that is what he or she needs, not the four and a quarter hours proposed for this year or the three and three quarter hours proposed for next year. It is this intervention that enables many children to participate in mainstream education.
A few weeks ago, I tabled a Private Members' motion on the implementation of the report of the National Council for Special Education. On that occasion, credit was given to the Government for what it had achieved, including the 10,000 special needs assistants currently in place and the degree of commitment to provision in this area. However, I thought on that occasion that the Minister looked a little sheepish. I now know why. This is an unacceptable cut. Senator D'Arcy said the Minister was doing the best for his Government. He will forgive me if I am more inclined to believe the statement of Patricia Griffin of Down Syndrome Ireland that the cuts are utterly unacceptable. I think this is an understatement.
Education is extremely important to every parent and family. Ireland is traditionally known as the land of saints and scholars. For many years, the education system has, unfortunately, deprived people with disabilities of a proper education. If it were not for the good graces of special schools, such as those for the blind and deaf and special schools in general, people with disabilities would have been deprived of a basic education. I always believed that the introduction of the special needs assistant and resource hours structure was a positive step forward in creating equality in education. However, that system is now broken. The announcement made yesterday is not acceptable, including the manner in which it was announced, because of the confusion it has caused. I call on the Minister for Education and Skills to immediately clarify the situation and make a statement to let the parents of the 42,500 vulnerable children in this country know that this State does care and that what is proposed is an administrative change rather than anything else.
I believe that not all of the 42,500 children concerned need resources. I welcome the announcement of a review of the methodology used in this regard. I support the calls made in this House that that process be fast-tracked. If there is waste within the allocation of special needs assistants and resource teachers then let us address that rather than introducing a universal cut, the result of which will be the provision of 25% fewer resource hours as compared with those available in 2008. Let us deal with the system and not introduce a universal cut. Universal cuts as a rule do not work. I want every primary school teacher in this country to have the skills of a resource or special needs assistant.
We must improve the skills of our teachers to such a degree that they can provide the necessary supports. A statement from the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn - not his Department - is an absolute priority at this point.
I also wish to raise the issue of special needs education. We all subscribe to the fact that we are in stringent times and that money is not as readily available to the Exchequer as it was previously. That is a fact. However, the Government must govern and make decisions on how money is spent. The decisions being taken are not protecting the most vulnerable in our society. Two specialist preschools in County Donegal, one in Letterkenny and the other in Donegal town, will close by 2015 as a result of the Government's policy to mainstream specialist preschool education for children who require nurses and medical assistance. These children are now being asked to attend mainstream preschools. Mainstream preschool professionals have stated that this is not possible. Therefore, the decision being made by the Government will affect children who can hardly walk or are blind or unable to feed themselves, which is a disgrace. No Government in any State should stoop to that level of attack on the most vulnerable.
The 25% reduction in the provision for special needs assistants is another glaring example of this. There are other choices and alternative ways of governing and raising money. We are currently spending almost €650 million on foreign aid to fund abortion clinics in Ethiopia and so on. Is this the right thing to do at a time when cuts are being made to special education facilities for the most vulnerable children in our own country? The Constitution states that all children should be cherished equally.
I was somewhat disturbed by the misrepresentation in The Irish Times this morning that I had questioned the value of investment in sport in Ireland. That is not true. The statement that I had referred to Ireland as a Third World nation when it came to sport was also not true. As we all know, sport has done an incredible amount for Ireland. We have been represented in golf and ladies' and men's rugby all over the world for many years.
I wish to put on record that yesterday the Olympic Council of Ireland and Irish Sports Council appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications to discuss a review of the London Olympic Games. We were told at that meeting that we were represented at the 2012 Olympics by the greatest ever Irish Olympian team. We won five medals - one gold, a silver and three bronze. I applaud all of the great athletes who participated in the 15 or 16 sports in which Ireland was represented.
During the meeting I put a particular question to the Olympic Council of Ireland and Irish Sports Council representatives, which I am entitled to do as a Member of the Oireachtas. When one strips out boxing and equestrian sports, Ireland was represented in 13 or 14 other sports. My question was whether the representatives believed, given the millions of euro invested in these sports in preparation for the London Olympic Games, that the performances of our participants had been rather poor. My comments were not about sports in Ireland but about the Olympic Games and the performance there of our athletes. I know how difficult it is to qualify for the Olympic Games and I give credit to all of the sports people who achieved qualification. However, I believe, given the amount of money invested in these sports, that we have a right to question poor performance.
Senator Darragh O'Brien and several other Senators again raised the issue of special needs, which was addressed on the Order of Business yesterday. I will repeat some of what I said yesterday. The number of SNA and resource teachers is being maintained at current levels. That is a fact. Owing to budgetary and staffing constraints, the cap on SNAs and resource teachers cannot be increased. The number of valid applications for resource teachers has risen by 12% in the past year. However, the number of posts available cannot be increased. It has been necessary to reduce the allocations to each school and child in receipt of resource teaching hours by 10% compared to the level of support provided last year.
This means a reduction from 85% to 75% of the recommended teaching allocation per child. This is regrettable and hopefully it can be reversed when we restore the national finances to an acceptable level. We are coming from a situation where the country was bankrupt under the previous Government. We are trying to restore our national finances which we are doing quite successfully but it will take time-----
I have addressed that matter as best I can. Hopefully when the economy improves sufficiently more resources can be given to that area and also several other areas. Members have asked questions about a myriad of other areas. We simply do not have the money to fund everything that everybody wants. The hand is out from many areas with genuine needs but we are unable to provide the money we would like to provide. This Government is acting in a fair manner and doing the best it can in order to manage this country, a country which was bankrupt and was managed very poorly over a long number of years.
Senator Landy and other Senators asked about Coillte. The Government has decided that now is not the appropriate time to proceed with the sale of Coillte harvesting rights. The current focus must be on the restructuring of Coillte overseen by NewERA and the relevant stakeholder Departments. It was also decided that a robust analysis be carried out to evaluate how to give effect to the beneficial merger of Coillte with Bord na Móna to create a streamlined and refocused commercial State company operating in the bio-energy and forestry sectors as committed to in the programme for Government. It was further decided that the Government will consider all options to maximise the value from Coillte when the restructuring is complete in 18 months' time. This decision has been welcomed by all Members present. I am sure the restructuring will result in a better and stronger Coillte and Bord na Móna and possibly an amalgamation of both.
Senator Barrett spoke about the proposed restrictions on the information provided on infant formula milk tins. It is a ludicrous situation and like Senator Barrett, I would be worried whether it is a result of the Irish success in providing one third of the world's infant milk formula that these restrictions are being imposed. We should liaise with our MEPs and the Ministers on this very important matter for the Irish economy. I note the Senator's comments and those of Senator Coghlan about the pension reserve fund. I am sure those recommendations and suggestions will be taken up by the Government.
Senator Mooney asked for a debate on the joint committee report on the sponsorship of alcohol. I understand it will be a number of weeks before that report will be published and we will have a debate on that matter at that time.
Senator Kelly and Senator Landy asked about school transport. I will raise the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. I suggest this topic could be addressed as an Adjournment matter next week for further clarification.
I agree with Senator Kelly and I have mentioned it before that there is an independent appeals process in the Department of Social Protection. It is not acceptable for anyone to have to wait over a year for a decision on a disability benefit and other benefits. One could blame civil and public servants for delays in the past but there is now an independent appeals process which obviously needs a bit of a shake-up in order to ensure appeals are decided more speedily. The Minister for Social Protection was in the House yesterday and I hope those points were raised with her. She will be in the House next week. There is ample opportunity for Members to make those points to Ministers when they are in the House.
Senators O'Brien and Quinn asked about the Public Health (Availability of Defibrillators) Bill. I compliment Senator Quinn on bringing forward this Private Members' Bill. It has been accepted by the Government. It is an example of how this House can operate meaningfully. I presume the Bill will proceed to Committee Stage when the Minister can deal with amendments.
I note the points raised by Senator Healy Eames about tracker mortgages. Senator Mullen raised the same question. The Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill will be in the House today. I urge Members to make their points during the discussion of the Bill this afternoon.
Senator Crown raised the matter of the for-profit private health insurance companies. He has raised the matter with the Minister. I agree with him with regard to the number of obstetricians. I believe quite a number of positions have been advertised and it is hoped these will be filled before the end of this year.
Senator Noone referred to the European People's Party conference which will have more than 2,000 delegates in attendance and will be held next year in Dublin. It will certainly be a boost for tourism. I am sure any such conference will be welcomed by all Members. As soon as the alcohol strategy is decided, the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, has agreed to come to the House for a debate.
Senator Cullinane raised the matter of the Waterford Crystal workers and the EU Court of Justice ruling. This matter has been discussed previously on the Order of Business. Compensation will have to be given to the workers as a result of that ruling. I hope this will be done as soon as possible. I regret the Ministers could not agree to a meeting without prejudice with the representatives of the workers. The amount of compensation will be decided by the High Court. I hope payment will be expedited. These workers were treated very shabbily in the matter of their pensions. They had worked for 30 and 40 years and more in the company and they were left with little or nothing. The sooner the situation can be rectified the better. I urge the Ministers to liaise with the representatives, irrespective of what will be decided in the High Court.
Senator Brennan outlined the 22 energy-efficient projects which were announced by the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, yesterday. He also outlined the savings that could accrue from the use of such energy-efficient programmes. We will try to arrange a debate with the Minister on that matter.
Senator White and Senator Landy spoke about the Alzheimer's society. We all recognise the excellent work of the society nationwide. They asked for a national strategy which I agree is necessary.
I am sure the Minister will act on that as a matter or urgency. I wish Senator White well in her request for a nomination to contest the next general election.
I mentioned Senator Quinn's Bill yesterday and note his points on the lotto. The probability that the amount will be less than what had been suggested is because of the insistence that good causes will be helped. That is possibly the reason the value will been brought down. I will bring the Senator's concerns to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Howlin.
Senator Mullins spoke on banking practices and I refer him to make those points during the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill, which we will discuss this afternoon. I note the Senator's comments on "Oireachtas Report". There was no coverage of Seanad Éireann for the last two evenings. I do not think it is fair and appropriate coverage but it is left to the people in RTE to decide what they want. I have written to RTE previously at the request of Members of this House and I read out the letter from RTE. Whether we should write to RTE again, all I ask is that this House gets a fair and appropriate response from RTE in its coverage.
Senator Wilson called for a general debate on the abuse of alcohol. We had murder over the suggestion that we put €5 tax on a bottle of wine. We had blue murder when €1 was put on it last year.
Senators Jim D'Arcy and Conway called for the work of the working group on special needs to be expedited and I am sure that will be done. I have addressed the whole question of special needs. Senator Ó Domhnaill said the Government is here to govern and that is exactly what this Government is doing, trying to implement fair and compassionate policies. This is not the first time Senator Ó Domhnaill has said we should not be giving foreign aid to many agencies. We had a debate on foreign aid here and I do not think he contributed to that.
Senator Eamonn Coghlan clarified the comments he made yesterday at the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications regarding sport. The only thing we can say is that one can never believe everything one reads in the newspapers.
Senator Darragh O'Brien has moved an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate on the reduction and removal of supports in special needs education be taken today". Is the amendment being pressed?
- Sean Barrett
- Thomas Byrne
- John Crown
- Mark Daly
- Marc MacSharry
- Paschal Mooney
- Rónán Mullen
- Darragh O'Brien
- Mary Ann O'Brien
- Trevor Ó Clochartaigh
- Brian Ó Domhnaill
- Averil Power
- Feargal Quinn
- Jillian van Turnhout
- Jim Walsh
- Mary White
- Diarmuid Wilson
- Katherine Zappone
- Paul Bradford
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Deirdre Clune
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- John Gilroy
- Jimmy Harte
- Imelda Henry
- Lorraine Higgins
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Marie Maloney
- Mary Moran
- Tony Mulcahy
- Michael Mullins
- Catherine Noone
- Pat O'Neill
- Tom Shehan