Wednesday, 2 October 2013
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, County Enterprise Boards (Dissolution) Bill 2013 [Seanad] - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to be adjourned not later than 2 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes; No. 2, Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) Bill 2012 - Report Stage, amendments from Dáil Éireann, to be taken at 3 p.m.; No. 3, Private Members' Business, Upward Only Rent (Clauses and Reviews) Bill 2013 [Seanad], to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7 p.m.
As we are in the midst of Positive Ageing Week I wish to raise the issue of Ireland's growing number of older people. Irish people are living longer and enjoy more years of healthy, active living than previous generations. The world is ageing so fast that most countries are not prepared to support their swelling numbers of elderly people, according to a global study issued yesterday by the United Nations. The report ranks the social and economic well-being of elders in 91 countries, with Sweden coming out on top and Afghanistan at the bottom. It reflects what advocates for the old have been warning with increasing urgency for years, namely, that nations are simply not working quickly enough to cope with a population growing faster than ever before. By the year 2050, for the first time in history, senior elders older than 60 will outnumber children younger than 15. Our Scandinavian neighbours, Norway and Sweden, are leading the way with the most important issues of income security, health status, employment, education and providing an environment where older people can continue to develop their potential and contribute to society. The fact that Ireland ranks 12th is encouraging but why are we doing so poorly with regard to income security, employment and education? Currently, Ireland is ranked 24th when it comes to income security and 32nd when it comes to employment and education, making us among the worst in Europe.
Less than half of Irish people aged 50 to 64 are currently in employment. This means a large section of our population with valuable experience and expertise are being under-utilised. As a nation, why is Ireland not aspiring to be as good as countries such as Norway and Sweden when it comes to caring for and respecting its older population? That people are living longer is a testament to advances in health care and nutrition and our older people should be seen as a resource, not as a burden. I call for a debate on Ireland's inability to adequately care for our older generation. It is simply not good enough that so many over the age of 50 are having such difficulty finding employment and contributing to Irish society in a meaningful way.
Some months ago I introduced a Bill ending compulsory retirement and the Minister, Deputy Shatter, stated:
I have a great deal of sympathy on this issue and would like to emphasise my continued commitment and that of the Government to promoting good employment and equality practices by all employers in Ireland. Many in their 60s and 70s have the alacrity and mental capacity to make a continuing and substantial contribution to their lives and those of others and to remain in the workforce and be innovative.He further stated, "This is a useful and valuable debate."
I ask the Leader to ask the Minister, Deputy Shatter, the reason he is so slow off the mark following up on the Bill I introduced and that was received very well by the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, who on that day stated, "I do not normally agree with Fianna Fáil policy but I am glad this one has been put forward." The Leader might let me know when this issue will be pushed forward to ensure the human rights of our older citizens and that people will be allowed work after the age of 65 if they so wish.
I commend Senator White on her work on this matter. She has shown a long-term commitment to the issue of rights of older people. We had a session with the public consultation committee in the Seanad on that very issue but I would support her call for a debate to further that work in the future. Yesterday she mentioned that it was United Nations International Day of Older Persons, which I had intended mentioning. It is a huge issue. I see reports in Britain of greatly increasing numbers of people living to over 100 in Britain, a new category which demographers there are describing as the older old for whom provision has to be made. We need to be thinking of people not as being past their point of usefulness when they reach their late 60s but having plenty to contribute for many decades after that.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the Middle East. The Minister, Deputy Shatter, was before the justice committee this morning where he spoke about the justice and home affairs agenda in the European Union. In the course of our discussion with the Minister he stated that next week Lithuania, which holds the Presidency of the Council of Europe, will host a meeting of the home affairs committee at which the crisis in Syria will be discussed and in particular the implications for the EU in terms of the refugee crisis. The numbers are appalling. More than 6 million people are now displaced as a result of the Syrian war, with huge consequences for the neighbouring countries that have taken in many.
In the course of our debate the Minister pointed out that Ireland has given €10 million to alleviate the suffering of the refugees who have had to flee the conflict but he also said it would be useful to have a more general debate on the Middle East in the near future to examine the implications for countries like Lebanon of the overspills from the war in Syria. He suggested that debate might be had at the justice committee but it strikes me that it would be more appropriate to have it in the Seanad to ensure a wider range of colleagues could contribute. As the Minister said, it is an issue that goes beyond justice or even the Defence portfolio. This is an issue much more generally about human rights and our obligations to our neighbours elsewhere.
I ask the Leader for a debate on gaps in legislation. It has struck me, particularly this morning while canvassing for a "No" vote, that the strength of the Seanad in the past and currently has been to identify failures to legislate. I refer to areas such as contraceptives rights in the 1970s where Mary Robinson's Bills in this Chamber paved the way for subsequent Government change, Senator David Norris's Bill on civil partnership and the Bill on climate change first introduced here in the Seanad. We have identified areas where the Government has previously failed to legislate and it would be useful for us in this House to identify further gaps on which to legislate and play a role, therefore, in trying to improve the state of governance in this society by putting forward legislation.
An area on which I know former Senator Mary Henry did great work was that of assisted human reproduction. There has been a good deal of litigation on that issue before the courts, most recently on the issue of surrogacy. There is an excellent report from the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction. The Seanad should be putting forward legislation where there is clearly a vacuum currently in terms of legislative or regulatory policy, and we should be looking to fill that gap. I would like us to have a debate on other such areas where the Seanad could play a useful role.
I raise with the Leader, and the Cathaoirleach, a decision made by the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, yesterday to cease allowing Members to invite non-governmental organisations to host briefings in the AV room. I learned of this not as a member of the Seanad CPP.
I learned it from Deputy Thomas Pringle's tweet. He tweeted, "Dáil CPP closes down presentation room to NGOs too embarrassing it seems to see effective cuts inside Leinster House". I have verified that information with the CPP.
Yesterday, I organised a briefing on the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013, which everybody says is a significant Bill. We had cross-party and group representatives at the meeting. I invited the Children's Rights Alliance, which brought in Barnardos, EPIC, Empowering People in Care, Pain, Lifestart, the Irish Association of Social Workers, Focus Ireland, Young Ballymun, Start Strong and the Association for Criminal Justice Research and Development. They gave their collective views to Deputies and Senators on the Bill. The Bill has been delayed and will have significant changes made to it which I know were advocated by the NGOs.
The situation asks serious questions of us. I have visited several parliaments around the world and NGOs have much greater access. For example, last year I visited Wisconsin - in case any reporters are tuning in I add that I did so at my own expense - and there is a round space where NGOs can protest inside the Parliament. That allows members to have direct engagement with and the NGOs are not kept beyond the gates.
We often talk about the use of the guillotine in this House. I wonder whether this situation is an example if its over-use. I have some serious questions to ask about this matter: does the Dáil CPP have ownership rights over the AV room? Is it pre-empting a forthcoming vote? Are we only in favour of representative democracy or do we not also agree in participatory democracy? If decisions are made, we need to be involved. The rules in this House about the use of the AV room are ever changing. I would therefore welcome written guidance on what is and is not allowed. The development is a serious one and I seek urgent clarification.
I second Senator van Turnhout's proposal. The civic engagement policies of the Leader are deeply appreciated outside the House if not by the leadership of his own party. He deserves credit. We need to involve civic society more. Will the Dáil shut off itself from contact with NGOs? Is that what will happen if the Seanad is abolished?
To follow up on yesterday's discussion, I understand the conference the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon said he was attending begins at lunch time today. I have the invite from the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which says that the event will end with a working lunch tomorrow. The Minister of State should have come into the House yesterday. His Department told the Leader that he had already left. He made a serious allegation without any validation at all in the reports of the Standards in Public Office Commission in the period since 2007. Deputy Cannon said that he was bribed in 2009. There have been six investigation reports since that time, none of which refers to a Senator. One refers to a Deputy and four to local government officials, two of which were in Mayo and one each in Donegal, Kerry and Dublin. Deputy Cannon made a serious allegation against this House and senior members of Fianna Fáil and then left the country somewhat early for a conference that begins at lunch time today. It is incumbent on him to contact the House because he is not due back until after the House rises and his allegation is left hanging, doing damage to the referendum on Friday and the credibility of this House, which is what he used the article for. Indeed, in the article he wrote - it was not an interview - that the Seanad is a relic of a bygone era. The main reason he gives for that view is that he met somebody in here who tried to bribe him. He must come back before tomorrow to confirm or at least explain why he never referred the matter to the appropriate authorities and why he decided that it was only important to make the allegation in last week's Connacht Tribune. It is a serious matter that merits telephone calls or some contact from Istanbul.
I note that all Irish universities are in the top 15,000 or 4% of world universities. Trinity College Dublin is No. 61 in the world and ninth in Europe. We use those standings to promote Ireland as an attractive destination. It is completely incongruous that a Government doing that wishes to expel the university Senators from Parliament, which is what it is doing in trying to get rid of the six people on these benches. The inclusion of those six Members is called elitism apparently. However, 47% of under-35s and 70% of 18 and 19 year olds have received third level education. That is a lot more than the percentage of people who go to Clongowes. The two leading Ministers who are criticising the universities for being elitist are old Clongownians. The old Clongownians against elitism - that must be the most exclusive group that one would find anywhere.
Another damage that other Clongownians are trying to undo is the relationships between the North and South. I commend the college on its links with Portora. Those are the areas that the two old Clongownians are attempting to sunder by calling for a "No" vote. Their criticisms of Irish universities are garbage and they should be rebutted by the university authorities. We are delighted to play our role here. I bring the wisdom of 64 departments. People from those departments give that wisdom to me to bring here because I am elected by them. No committee system will replace that, particularly one that is not allowed to meet in the AV room or one in which people are kicked off it because the Taoiseach does not like their views. The two old Clongownians against elitism should recognise the presence and value of the university Senators. Their approach is an affront to the entire community and I hope that it takes the appropriate action at Friday's referendum.
Following on from Senator White's point about positive age week, I had the pleasure last Monday to open the Ballymun Whitehall Area Partnership positive ageing week to more than 200 enthusiastic elderly people. Somebody at the event said that 60 is the new 40, so when I told them that it would be only six years before I got the bus pass, they were a little bit shocked when they noticed my slender body.
On the other end of the scale of aging, two years ago I brought my motion on the physical fitness and education to the Seanad under the points for life initiative. That day I got a round of applause from my colleagues here, as well as receiving a considerable amount of media coverage. There have been many years of debate in here, the Dáil and the media on the health of the nation and particularly the physical state of well-being of the youth. However, when such debates and motions are brought to the Dáil or the Seanad people often ask where the reports are. Most of them are on shelves. However, behind the scenes, I have worked closely with the Department of Education of Skills over the past two years. We have overcome roadblocks and hurdles and I know that many more are to come. However, I am very pleased to announce that the points for life pilot programme commences in schools today. Under the leadership of Dr. Mary O'Flaherty, the Professional Development Service for Teachers has a management team and a delivery team in place where teachers, students and parents will be skilled. In addition, having an evaluation team in place means that by next June we will know what the results are of this delivery of physical education. I do not want the programme just to be a one-year pilot; I want the programme to be continued because it needs to be sustained beyond the one year.
Now that a referendum is taking place on Friday, many people in the past couple of weeks and months have criticised Senators attendance at the House, and they have looked at our attendance and voting records. I may have missed a number of votes because I was in meetings with various Departments to get the programme off the ground. That example makes clear the work of Senators is not just about their voting or attendance record but what they do behind the scenes.
I have referred on one or two previous occasions to the plight of abandoned horses. We have all read the horror stories about and seen the terrible pictures of animals in distress. I was disappointed when I learned at the weekend that the Government has withdrawn grant support for one of the voluntary agencies which is responsible for most of the great work done in this area. Will the Leader bring this matter to the attention of the appropriate Minister in the context of discovering whether the grant in question can be reinstated?
On a number of occasions I have asked that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, come before the House to engage in a debate on the horse racing industry, which is very important to the economy. Horse Racing Ireland does a tremendous job in general but on occasion it makes some very serious errors. I wish to draw the attention to a very serious error the organisation has made in respect of the Listowel Races, an event which is very dear to my heart and which, along with Galway and Punchestown, is one of the top festivals of the year. It is a seven-day meeting and the attendances achieved this year were phenomenal. This race meeting contributes huge amounts of revenue every year through the tote. However, Horse Racing Ireland has decided to arrange a gala horse racing festival involving the Curragh and Leopardstown which will be held during the early days of the Listowel Races next year. The festival in question will include five group 1 races. This will put it into direct competition with the meeting held at a small race track in the south west. The latter has been battling away for 150 years and has made a major contribution to the economy of the region. Horse Racing Ireland did something similar before but what it is doing now is absolutely crazy. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine should arbitrate on this matter.
I commend Senator Eamonn Coghlan on the work he has done during the past year. As the Senator indicated, he went away and did this work quietly. Ireland currently lies 23rd in the league of nations regarding the amount of physical education children receive on a weekly basis. I have no doubt, in light of the work being done by Senator Eamonn Coghlan, that we will begin to move up the table and eventually enter the top ten.
The other issue to which I wish to refer is carers. On 3 July last the Carers Association made a pre-budget submission to Oireachtas Members in the audio-visual room. A number of issues arose as a result of that submission. I met carers from Tipperary, led by their manager, Richie Molloy, last week in order to discuss those issues. The main matter of concern to them is that despite the HSE instructing GPs not to charge for blood tests, in some areas patients with medical cards are still being charged €20 for such tests. I request that the Leader ask the Minister for Health to issue an instruction to the effect that this practice should be brought to a halt immediately. It is not HSE policy and it should not be done. There is no transparency whatsoever with regard to how home-care packages for carers are being assessed. There are no criteria available to carers and, therefore, whether a package is approved depends on the humour of the person making the assessment on the relevant day.
My final point in this regard relates to the fact that, as matters currently stand, people with medical cards are being charged €1.50 per item on each prescription they bring to their pharmacists. Carers are requesting that a flat rate should apply. Many carers bring prescriptions listing up to seven or eight items required by the family member for whom they are caring to their pharmacists. Some may be required to go to the doctor twice a month in order to obtain repeat prescriptions. They are requesting that the existing system be scrapped and that a flat rate should apply in respect of all prescriptions. I ask the Leader to pursue these issues. We are in pre-budget mode but that which I have requested is not too much to ask for carers throughout the country who look after loved ones.
Senator Barrett again raised the allegations made by a former Member of the House who is now a Minister of State to the effect that a senior Fianna Fáil Senator allegedly offered him a bribe to stay "onside", as is stated in the relevant newspaper article. As I stated yesterday, the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, is a friend of mine and I like him. However, this is a very serious matter. The Minister of State has alleged, in a newspaper published in his native county, that a Member of the previous Seanad who is also a member of my party offered him a bribe to remain onside. The Minister of State did not report this matter to the Standards in Public Office Commission or the Garda. This is the first occasion that anyone in the Seanad has heard the allegation, which forms a substantial part of the relevant newspaper article. I am of the view that the article is slanderous of all of us in this House. Basically, it implies that we are only here for the money and jobs for life.
The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, previously served in this House and was appointed as one of the Taoiseach's 11 nominees. Perhaps someone might examine his voting record during the period in question because, as I recall, he spent more time paired with another current Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly, than he did as a Member of the House.
With respect, he was previously a Member of this House and he has made an allegation in respect of his time here. The matter should be clarified by the Minister of State before the day is out. There is no point in proposing an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that he should come before us because he is out of the country at present. Tabling an amendment would only place the Leader in a difficult situation in any event. It should not be beyond the Minister of State to lift the phone and contact the Leader or the Cathaoirleach in order to clarify the position. He could also contact members of the media. I am of the view that it is no coincidence that the latter have not mentioned this issue in the newspapers for which they write today.
The Minister of State is a member of the Government and this is a very serious matter. He should clarify the position, particularly as what has been said is a reflection on every Member of the House.
I did not have time to do so yesterday so I take this opportunity to congratulate the Cavan women's Gaelic football team who won the all-Ireland intermediate football final on Sunday last in Croke Park. I was very glad to be present for the occasion. The game, in which Tipperary also took part, was excellent.
Yesterday, I contacted the head usher in order to book the audio-visual room for a presentation from the Irish Deaf Society prior to a Private Members' motion on Irish sign language which I have tabled and which is due to be taken next week. This is an extremely important issue which affects thousands of deaf people throughout the country who find it very difficult to communicate at the best of times. I was informed that it would not be possible to avail of the audio-visual room because the CPP has decided that NGOs are no longer allowed to use the facility. The latter is another example of the constructive removal of the voice of democracy in this country.
It is absolutely disgraceful that NGOs can no longer come to this complex in order to brief Members of Parliament in order to enhance their knowledge. Furthermore, my office received a telephone call from the head usher approximately 30 minutes ago in which he indicated that a briefing on restorative justice, which was due to be held on 15 October and arrangements in respect of which were made weeks ago, cannot proceed and that the relevant stakeholders have been informed.
This makes a mockery not just of the Seanad but also the Houses of the Oireachtas. What should I say to those who were due to brief us on restorative justice and who had made arrangements to take time off work? Should I inform them that a committee comprising Members of this House and the Lower House has decided to prevent the key, important and democratic voice of NGOs from being heard in the Seanad? What is happening is nothing short of appalling.
I appreciate that clarification. I would have been surprised if Members of this House had been involved in it. I call for an urgent meeting of the Seanad CPP to reverse this appalling situation and I want the Cathaoirleach to facilitate that.
I intended to raise a different issue but I must support the comments of the previous speaker. I was completely unaware of that situation. I also have organised a number of events and meetings at which NGOs were to come in and brief Oireachtas Members on different issues, as I am sure have other Senators and Deputies. It would be appalling and bizarre if Oireachtas Members were prevented from inviting NGOs, voluntary groups, community groups and other groups to address Members of this House, which is exactly what we are paid to do. We are paid to legislate and to listen to people who are experts in their field. If a decision was made by whoever that this is no longer allowed to happen for whatever reason, it is a retrograde step and it needs to be reversed. All political parties need to work together to have decision reversed.
I commend the Leader and the acting Leader on arranging the address last week by the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It was a very good discussion. It is important to follow that up with a debate on workers' rights and to address many of the issues that were raised, primarily the need for collective bargaining and trade union recognition but also the issue of zero hour contracts and issues affecting working people. The Leader will know that the Government is preparing to streamline and improve the employment rights bodies through the workplace relations Bill. It would be an opportune time for Senators to have a discussion on how we can help shape that legislation in advance of the Bill being introduced because the trade unions have concerns. There is also the issue of the reform of the joint labour committees, JLCs, and a potential Bill on collective bargaining or something happening in that area. A debate on this area would be constructive. We would be able to bring to it the views of the trade unions and of working people in terms of what they would want. I ask the Leader to arrange such a debate. I strongly support the views expressed by Senator Conway.
I would like to comment briefly on what Senator Eamonn Coghlan said, and I agree with him. I am not aware of a single Senator in this Chamber who does not work behind the scenes, championing causes and reform. I can point to legislation where my intervention caused an amendment to be made to a Bill. I know that every Member of this House is in the exactly the same position. Just because an amendment does not go down as an Opposition amendment and is accepted by a Minister does not make it any less valid. I am convinced that irrespective of what the people do on Friday, every Member of this House will continue to work and champion the causes they have championed up to now.
One of the most regrettable aspects of the campaign has been the failure to discuss the merits of voting for or against the abolition of the Seanad on the basis of the merits of the Seanad, as well as a move - as I perceive has been done in the public domain - to undermine the valid work that has been done by this Chamber, not only by this Seanad but by previous Seanaid. That is disgraceful. It is also disgraceful and regrettable, and this is my personal perception, that this House has been starved of business over recent weeks deliberately to make us look ineffective.
I await to see what will happen after the referendum is done and dusted and what level of legislation will suddenly appear in this House.
I am disappointed that we have had not had a debate on the upcoming budget in this House. One issue which I would like to have raised is the fact that we spend €60 million dealing with the direct impact of diabetes, directly linked to obesity, and yet some children in this country go to school hungry. One of the proposals made by a number of organisations was for the imposition of a nutrition tax. I would like to have had the opportunity to have had that proposal seriously considered in this House and the revenue it would yield ring-fenced to delivering food to needy children in schools. I ask the Leader to bring that proposal to the attention of the relevant Minister.
The situation regarding the NGOs addressing Members of the House is a serious one and it should be addressed. To whatever extent this House can influence the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of the other House, that needs to be done. One wonders, with the abolition of the Seanad on Friday what is next - the abolition of protests on Kildare Street? I agree with Senator Hayden that despite the best efforts of the Leader of the House - who as I have said many times previously, is the best Leader we have had in the 11 years I have been a Member of this House - the Government has manipulated a scenario to guarantee the abolition of the Seanad by starving it of business and by allowing Ministers to write reckless articles in the newspapers, such as the one written by the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. No doubt, to write that article he did not have to sit in the office of The Connacht Tribune and, regardless of where he is in the world, presumably he has access to a phone in Istanbul or wherever he is. He should comment on this because that article is nothing short of reckless.
As one of the only two members of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission in this House, I have not said this previously but it needs to be put on the record, and I sure Senator Whelan would agree with me. As somebody who presides over the costs of the Oireachtas and is on the finance committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, I wanted to put on the record that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission at no time said that the cost of running the Seanad was €20 million or anywhere near it. Anybody who stands over that figure and persists in stating it as a fact is telling lies. That is the plain truth of the matter, and I say that as a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission.
I ask the Leader if a Minister might be available to discuss the issue of social partnership. We are seeing the beginnings of serious unrest with the teachers' strike that has begun and a junior doctors' strike due to be held next week. Social partnership was a champion with which Governments were allowed to lead Ireland to recovery in the 1980s and at other times in our history. It is required now by whatever Government is in place. I ask that Ministers at these late stages would try to get people to sit around the table and try to find some middle ground because that would be in all our interests.
On my way into the House this morning I saw taxi drivers protesting. There is an over-supply of taxis in the city. That goes with a slump in the economy but there is a short-term problem. When there is an improvement in the economy, more taxis will be needed, but in the short term, something needs to be done. There is a huge lack of parking spaces in the city as almost all of the areas that were available for free parking after 7 p.m.are now being used by taxis. It is an issue we need to discuss with the Minister in the House to ascertain if something can be done. When I drive around the city at night I see taxis parked in all sorts of places and it is dangerous. Gardaí do their best to patrol it but this is an issue we could usefully discuss.
I support the call regarding the Listowel Races. It is a race festival that I have been lucky enough to attend on a few occasions. It is a fabulous, down to earth festival which differs from others that are more fashionable. The local economy needs this festival. It is the likes of this festival that keeps the economies of towns like Listowel and those of other rural areas going. A previous Senator called for a debate on the horseracing industry and that debate would also be useful.
The Joint Committee on Health and Children yesterday decided to accept a proposal to have presumed consent for organ donation. I mention it because we should urge the Government to move on that legislation as quickly as possible. That is a matter that was introduced in this House almost five years ago. It has come back on a number of occasions and is a reminder of the work that goes on in this House and that continues on that basis.
During the past week, France copied a measure that was proposed in House in regard to the origin labelling of food. It was contained in the Food Provenance Bill, which the Minister, Deputy Coveney accepted here was the right way to go but whose introduction he said he would delay, as I understand the French are also going to do, until they have a European decision in this regard later this year.
I mention those two items that were introduced in this House because they are becoming law elsewhere, not necessarily having come from this House. I suggest that when we come back next week, after winning the vote on Friday - the "Yes" side will be defeated and the people will have voted "No" to abolition - we should say as one body that we intend to reform the Seanad by passing a Bill to that effect. If all 60 Members agree to have this done before Christmas, we will show the rest what we can do when we are determined enough to do it and we will embarrass any Government that says it does not want to reform this House. I believe we can do it. We already have two Bills, but we do not need to pursue either of them to get this done. We might agree on a third Bill which might be entirely different. I believe there is room for reformation and I believe we can reform. We should proceed on that basis not as individual parties but as the Seanad as a whole. I think that should be done as early as next week.
I would like to say "well said" to Senator Quinn.
I join Patricia King of SIPTU in welcoming the publication of the report of the Labour Court's review of joint labour committees. I am delighted that the Minister has accepted the report's recommendations and is putting in place the legal steps necessary for their implementation, as this will offer protection to low-paid workers.
I wish to highlight an error in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on overpayments by the Department of Social Protection. The report said that 7% of the overall budget is accounted for by overpayments, but this is incorrect. He has corrected it now. The correct figure is less than 0.5% - 0.47%, to be exact. It is irresponsible of the Department of Social Protection not to take responsibility for errors that are made by officials in the Department. I will mention such a case. A young man who should have been receiving a jobseeker's allowance payment of €100 per week because he was under the age of 25 was given the full amount of €188 for a number of years. It is absolutely incredible that he has now been asked to pay back the additional amount from his current €100 payment. The mistake was made by officials in the Department after all the information was presented to them. I could understand the applicant being asked to pay the money back if he had withheld information or failed to submit all the documentation required. I believe the Department of Social Protection should take responsibility for the error, given that it was entirely responsible for it, and waive those overpayments. Perhaps the Leader will ask the Minister for Social Protection to come to the House to discuss this issue, which is causing financial difficulties for people who are trying to repay overpayments.
I want to join others in condemning the comments made by the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. During his term as a Senator, he used this House for his political advancement as a member of the Progressive Democrats, as an Independent and as a member of Fine Gael. Now that he has left this House and become a member of the Government, it appears he has started to engage in the lies that are coming from certain elements within the Government parties. To be fair to Senators from both Government parties, in particular, it is not the case that everyone in the Government parties is acting in this way. The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, needs to substantiate his claims or withdraw them today because they cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
I have listened to much of the debate that has been taking place in advance of the referendum on Friday. One would expect members of the Government to be looking for a "Yes" vote, particularly in light of the commitment that was given before the last general election. However, I suggest that the most cynical element of the "Yes" campaign is coming from the Sinn Féin Party, which prides itself on representing ordinary people but has no difficulty in accepting the Queen's shilling even though its MPs do not attend sittings of the House of Commons or represent the people in the North of Ireland on any occasion. By choosing not to accept Dáil Éireann at 31 Dáil elections and the subsequent Seanad Éireann elections, it can be said that Sinn Féin did not accept the voice of the people as expressed on 31 occasions. Therefore, it is a bit rich of it to refer to an element of Irish democracy as elitist. I remind the House that in advance of the 2007 Seanad election, Sinn Féin entered into a murky little deal with the Labour Party to ensure Pearse Doherty was elected to this House.
I want to pick up on what Senator Eamonn Coghlan said about voting. I was in the top five when our voting records were rated, but that does not put me above any other Senator. I am mindful of the valuable contributions made by Senators Crown, van Turnhout, Gilroy and Henry at meetings of the Joint Committee on Health and Children. It is totally inaccurate and unfair to judge people's performance in this House solely on the basis of their voting records. All Senators have made a valuable contribution to this House over the last two and half years. I know they will continue to do so over the next two and a half years.
I appreciate that we debated youth unemployment not so long ago, but we need to monitor it and perhaps bring it back on the agenda before Christmas. Last week, I had the privilege of meeting a 24 year old who was choosing between jobs in three countries. He does not have a third level qualification, but he happens to have the right qualification in the area he works in. His big dilemma was which country to take a job in. This case raises the whole question of whether our education system is focused on preparing people for where the jobs are. I understand that €150 million is available from the EU to alleviate youth unemployment. I suggest we should have a debate before Christmas to ascertain the extent to which progress has been made in accessing that funding, making sure we can get the best out of it for the young people of this country and ensuring youth unemployment is reduced and if possible eliminated.
I had planned to raise the important issue of welfare and work this morning, but I will postpone that until tomorrow morning because I need to comment on what I saw outside the gates of Leinster House as I was coming in. I saw the former Minister, Alan Dukes, and the former Minister of State, Liz McManus, carrying a poster that said "End this failure" in reference to the Seanad. I am disgusted by how dirty this campaign is getting on the "Yes" side. All of it is linked to the Government. What if I was to say "End this failure" in reference to Anglo Irish Bank?
Who bankrupted this country? It was Anglo Irish Bank. Over 1,000 of our young people are leaving our shores every week. We are all suffering cuts because of the negligence in Anglo Irish Bank. If I was to say "End this failure", I would be referring to Anglo Irish Bank rather than the Seanad. We need to be careful in what we say. I do not believe in dirty campaigning, but I am afraid this campaign has become very dirty. I hear people from the "Yes" campaign saying every night, including last night, that every one of us in this House is a failed politician. I reject that not on my own behalf, but on behalf of everyone here and on behalf of those who preceded us and made massive contributions. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, was a Member of this House, as were the Ministers of State, Deputies White and Cannon.
Are they are also calling themselves failed politicians? I doubt it. I support my esteemed colleague, Senator Quinn. Next week, I hope the people will have seen through the dirty campaign and will have read the subtext for a "No" vote to retain and reform the Seanad.
I ask the Leader to allow us to move No. 44, motion 8 on the Order Paper. It is a motion Senator Bradford and I have tabled which calls for a cross-party, all-grouping agreement on a reform package to be put before this House on which I know we will agree.
Following on from Senator Ó Domhnaill's assertions about Sinn Féin, I recently took part in a debate with Deputy Pearse Doherty on Highland Radio. He had the temerity to call this institution an affront to democracy and I challenged him on that. For anyone living in the Border areas, listening to Sinn Féin politicians refusing to condemn the murder of Irish citizens and innocent people was the affront to democracy, not the Seanad. Some former Senators, and we all know who they are, have really kicked this around for some reason. They see it as a threat to them. As Senator Ó Domhnaill noted, Sinn Féin has zero credibility when it comes to the issue of democracy. Nobody can contradict me on that.
I ask for a debate on the outcome of the Convention on the Constitution on Sunday where it was agreed that voting rights in presidential elections be extended to citizens of Northern Ireland. We need to be careful here because the President has power to refuse to dissolve the Dáil and to refer Bills to the Council of State. For citizens from outside the Twenty-six Counties to have a say in that is going down the constitutional route. I received an e-mail from a constituent yesterday who told me they had no problem with giving voting rights to people from Northern Ireland but queried why people in Donegal do not have voting rights in Northern Ireland because what happens in Derry affects Donegal. What the Convention on the Constitution is saying is that people in Derry can have a say in Donegal but people in Donegal cannot have a say in Derry. It is a two-way street. The convention should not be all about nationalism. There are two communities in this country and we should embrace both. The convention must be careful in making a populist and ill-judged decision.
I do not easily buy into conspiracy theories but in recent weeks, conspiracy is not far removed from the "Yes" campaign to abolish the Seanad. One should look at some of the people who have come out on behalf of that campaign. Some of them have been rejected by the electorate in the past while some of them have not been exactly successful as public figures. Others are beholden to Government while others are living in expectation of getting something in the future. When I see all those people coming together added to what we hear about two former Ministers involved in a very crude exercise outside the gates of Parliament, I must ask why. I am now coming to the conclusion that the drive for the abolition of the Seanad is not coming from within this country. It is coming from outside this country and the lid is being kept on it in case it might come out before the referendum. There can be no other answer.
I went on radio to debate this issue with one of the people involved in the exercise outside the gates. From his responses, it was more like he was on my side and agreeing with what I was saying. He agreed that the figure of €20 million did not stand up and that the reduction in the number of Deputies would be no more than eight. He was meant to be supporting the "Yes" campaign. I am convinced that in the coming weeks, we will learn how murky this campaign was and how we lost control over our destiny and sovereignty to influences who were not elected by the people. We are talking about democracy at a time like this. If there was any spirit left in us, we would all walk out to the gates of this building tomorrow during an adjournment period and stand up for ourselves, because if the media will not come in and cover the contributions, let the mountain go to the gate outside. What I have heard this morning about the activities in which those two former politicians are involved suggests we need more answers to the questions that have been raised. We have not received those answers. We are going to be celebrating and commemorating the centenary of the 1916 Rising in a couple of years. In the name of God, what will we commemorating and celebrating? If the sacrifices were worth anything, it was to give us control of our own destiny as it is enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation. We are not doing that. Are we fit for purpose?
Senator van Turnhout raised a serious issue regarding the use or non-availability of the audio-visual room which is important to us all, individually and as groups. This House has a proud record of engagement with civic society through the Seanad Public Consultation Committee and the efforts of our Leader, on which we are all agreed. I urge the Cathaoirleach to summon the Committee on Procedure and Privileges Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform to have a calm look at this matter.
I very much support Senator O'Sullivan's comments on that famous race meeting in Listowel, which is the literary capital of the kingdom. It is not just important to Kerry but to the entire south of Ireland. I do not know what to say about it. Perhaps it is shameful. I would like to go with the Senator to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine because it is an important matter.
Reference was made to statements made by my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy White. I want to put on record that regardless of whether we agree with what he said, he is probably the only person who has actually put up a proper argument in favour of abolishing the Seanad. He has published a very good paper on his website. We must disagree with it but at least we can engage with it, unlike most of the other arguments I have heard for abolition of this House. I disagree with him but at least it is a proper argument. In fairness to the Minister of State, he has taken the time to put his thoughts on paper, unlike everybody else in the debate.
Some Senators mentioned the closing of the audio-visual room to NGOs. I also tried to book it yesterday only to be told that it was only available to schools and committees launching reports. It struck me that this is the people's Parliament and we should strive to open rather than close it. It seems there is a move afoot to close down discussion, critical debate and even democracy in this country. Perhaps the Government's next move might be to curb the media. Perhaps we should reduce the amount of reporting the media is allowed to do. It would not surprise if that was the next thing.
Senator Moloney referred to the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Given the outlining of the misspent money and waste in the system, will anybody in this country ever be held accountable for wasting money?
Could the Leader bring in the Minister for Justice and Equality to comment on de facto applications? I have recently received representations from citizens looking for de facto applications. A reply to one parliamentary question to the Minister indicated it takes three months.
Since June, it now takes six months. The timeframe must be clear. I call on the Minister to attend the House to clarify the situation.
I wish to discuss a number of the issues that have been raised this morning.
I have noticed that several Senators were allowed to raise three issues. I beg the Cathaoirleach's indulgence.
Several Senators referred to the comments of Sinn Féin Senators. I will extend it further to Government Senators who have come out in favour of abolishing the Seanad and readily agreed that a Senator's job is not worth doing. There will be a lot of relaying of consciences next week. I am in the Seanad to do the job that I was put here to do,-----
-----to speak my mind and to raise issues about which I feel passionately. To call me or any other Senator worthless or to claim that our jobs are not worthwhile is offensive.
It is appalling that, once again, awful cases of child sexual abuse have hit the headlines in today's newspapers. I extend my commiserations to the families involved, including the lady who stood out, waiving her right to anonymity, to get justice for a heinous crime that was committed while she was aged between five and 11 years. Equally appalling is the fact that last night's television report that one of her relations had been well aware of the crime and that the defendant had admitted to raping his niece to a Member of the Oireachtas and the leader of a political party, has not been taken up-----
I support Senator Quinn's fine proposal. I hope that the Leader will flag our willingness after we win the referendum next Friday to work on a proper reform package. I am appalled that two former Ministers on fine, hefty pensions are outside the House today denigrating this Chamber's work as well as the fine Members elected to it.
I call for a debate on tolling policy following yesterday's announcement by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, of a one-month toll holiday in November on the M1, M3, M6 and the Limerick tunnel to encourage the owners of heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, to use the motorways that were built to carry heavy traffic. Large numbers of HGVs are using regional and local roads to avoid tolls, driving through towns and villages, causing damage to the roads and posing a serious hazard. In debating this issue, I hope that the House may be able to make the toll charges more attractive to owners of HGVs so that they might continue using roads for the purpose for which they were intended.
I hope that we will have an opportunity to examine the deals made in respect of public-private partnerships, PPPs, to determine whether we are getting good value for money and whether the State should consider renegotiations or making other arrangements.
I support my colleague, Senator Moloney, in respect of social welfare overpayments. As I watched her on the monitor, I was dealing with such a case. A lady who was widowed 16 years ago received a widow's pension and informed the Department when she got a job two years later. It did not act on that information.
We have had a marathon session. Senator White, the acting Leader of the Opposition, recalled that yesterday was the UN international day for older persons and called for a debate on people in care and the rights of older people. I will try to facilitate such a debate. As Senator Bacik mentioned, our public consultation committee published a report on older people that was well received by all. It would be interesting to see what progress has been made on the House's recommendations. This could form part of the debate.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on the Middle East, particularly Syria. I will ask the Tánaiste to debate the issue in the House. I have made several requests to the Department in recent months. He appeared before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, but I will endeavour to arrange for him to appear before the House as soon as possible.
Senators van Turnhout, Conway, Cullinane and others referred to a decision of the Dail Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, not to allow non-governmental organisations, NGOs, into the AV room anymore. At a time when we are discussing the inclusion of experts to assist Members in formulating policy, this is a retrograde step. This matter will be discussed by the Seanad CPP, although I am not quite aware of our position.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. That will assist us. Senators Barrett, Wilson, Ó Domhnaill and others raised the issue of the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, which was also raised yesterday. My office has been in contact with his office. I am told that he will not make further comment on the matter.
He is in Turkey. This is the reply that I received from his office.
Senator Eamonn Coghlan referred to positive ageing week and the points for life initiative, which he initiated. We are all glad that the pilot programme is starting today. It is another positive initiative that commenced in this House but went unnoticed.
Senator Quinn outlined other initiatives that have been taken in this House. The health committee has rightly received excellent publicity for a decision taken yesterday on the question of organ donation, yet that decision was taken in this House five years ago. There was little or no coverage of it. This shows how slowly the wheels can grind at times. When initiatives are not reported by newspapers, it is difficult for people to understand what is happening in this House.
Senator O'Sullivan asked about a grant for dealing with animals in distress. The issue could possibly be raised as an Adjournment motion. Like Senators Noone and Senator O'Sullivan's fellow Kerry Senator, he also raised the question of the Listowel Races. They say that all politics is local, and it certainly is in this regard. It is unfortunate that there will be a clash between group 1 races at Leopardstown and the Curragh and the Listowel Races, a long-established meeting that is of paramount importance to the economies of the region and the town. I have endeavoured to arrange for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, to attend to House to debate CAP reform and Horse Racing Ireland.
I will renew my calls to him to come to the House to address those matters.
Senator Landy spoke about the plight of carers and in this regard and mentioned the €20 charge for blood tests, prescription charges and so on. These are matters which, as stated by Senator Landy, may be addressed in the budget and on which the Carers Association has made submissions to the various Ministers. I am sure they will be taken on board.
I have already addressed the issue raised by Senator Wilson in relation to the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Cannon. Senator Conway raised the issue of his being unable to book the AV Room for a meeting with the Deaf Society of Ireland. As stated by the Cathaoirleach, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will be convened today to discuss the matter.
Senator Cullinane called for a debate on workers' rights. As rightly pointed out by the Senator, a number of Bills on the matter will be coming before the House. However, I will try, if possible, to arrange for a debate on workers' rights prior to their coming before the House. I agree we had a very good exchange with David Begg last week.
Senator Hayden spoke about the contribution of Senators to legislation. It is important to again state that the role of this House is not to block legislation but to improve and enhance it. During my time as a Member of this House, practically every piece of legislation that has come before it has been improved and enhanced by Members of the House from all sides. On the request to invite the Minister for Finance to attend the House for pre-budget discussions, I can assure Senators that it is not for the want of asking that this has not happened. I will continue to ask but the budget is practically upon us.
Senator MacSharry is a member of the Oireachtas commission. He told the House that it has never stated that the operation of the Seanad costs €20 million. He also called for the intervention of the Minister for Health in relation to the dispute involving junior doctors. I am sure the Labour Relations Commission or other parties will intervene on that matter before next Tuesday.
Senator Noone spoke about the issue of parking spaces for taxis. We can discuss this issue with the Minister but it is primarily a matter for local authorities. Senator Quinn also raised the issue of presumed consent in relation to organ donation, which I have already addressed. He also spoke about the food provenance Bill which he introduced. Similar provisions are currently being put in place in France. On the Senator's question in regard to reform of the Seanad, this matter will have to be considered next week if the "No" campaign wins. This matter was also raised by Senator Healy Eames.
Senator Moloney spoke about the review of joint labour committees in the context of protection of low paid workers and about errors made by the Department of Social Protection, an issue also raised by Senator Kelly. While this should not be happening, it is happening. If the individual cases cannot be addressed by way of an Adjournment motion I am sure they can be discussed in the context of the social welfare Bill, which will probably come before the House before the end of this month.
Senator Ó Domhnaill raised an issue in relation to Sinn Féin. I do not propose to get into an argument between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. However, it is not so long ago that Sinn Féin did not recognise the courts or institutions of this State. I am sure it would by very happy to see one of the institutions go. That is its policy. As regards the vacation of seats, it is a matter for each Senator to decide following the referendum whether or not to do so.
Senator Burke raised the issue of youth unemployment and European funding for same. We have already had a couple of debates on youth unemployment. However, we cannot have enough of them. It is an important issue. I will try to arrange for a further debate during this session.
I note Senator Healy Eames's comments in regard to the Seanad abolition referendum. While I agree with much of what the Senator said, I do not propose to get into personalities outside or inside the House.
Senator Harte referred to former Senators of this House who used their position to further many causes, and rightly so, and are now condemning the House. However, that is their prerogative. They can change their minds if they wish. On the Constitutional Convention, I am sure we will have a discussion on the voting rights of Northern Ireland citizens in presidential elections. I note Senator Harte's point in regard to Donegal and Derry and whether Irish citizens in Donegal should also have a vote in Derry elections.
Senator Ó Murchú made some strong points in relation to the Seanad abolition campaign. As I said, it is difficult for people to know of the good work that goes on this House when it has not for decades been covered by the media. With the exception of a former journalist with the The Irish Times, Jimmy Walsh, the media has forgotten this House. It is no wonder then that people are not aware of the good work being done here.
I have already addressed the issues of the Listowel Races and the CPP meeting as raised by Senator Paul Coghlan. Senator Gilroy also spoke of the closing of the AV rooms to NGOs. I note the points made by the Comptroller and Auditor General in this regard in terms of accountability and transparency.
Senator Moran raised a number of issues, including the delays for de factoapplications. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality. The Senator also commented on a court case, on which I do not propose to comment at this point.
Senator Mullins called for a debate on tolling policy and the measures introduced by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, in relation to HGVs. I will endeavour to have the Minister come to the House for an overall debate on transport, including tolling policy.
Senator Kelly raised the issue of social welfare overpayments. The specific issue raised can be dealt with by way of an Adjournment motion. As I stated earlier, I am sure these matters will be addressed in the social welfare Bill when it comes before the House at the end of this month.