Seanad debates

Thursday, 3 October 2013

10:30 am

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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The Order of Business is No. 1, Statements of appreciation of the life and work of Seamus Heaney, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, with contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; and No. 2, County Enterprise Boards (Dissolution) Bill 2013 [Seanad] - Second Stage (Resumed), to be taken at 2.15 p.m.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Are we leaving No. 1 open ended?

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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That is fine. It is an important debate. We have all been contacted by our respective county enterprise boards, CEBs. Undoubtedly, improvements can be made. Some CEBs perform better than others, but their dissolution and subsumption into local authorities will remove local focus. CEBs support start-up and existing businesses in specific areas. It is flawed legislation that my group will oppose. We look forward to the debate.

I commend Senators Quinn and Barrett on the passing of Second Stage of the Upward Only Rent (Clauses and Reviews) Bill 2013 yesterday. It is not easy for the Government to lose a vote in the Seanad, but the debate in which I participated yesterday was a good one in which many good points were made. Successive Governments have failed to tackle this issue. I include the most recent Government. I hope that this Bill will show the Government a way forward. This matter must be tackled urgently. Businesses are trapped in upward-only rent review leases, most of which are held by landlords that are institutional investors. We have a two-tiered commercial system. The last Government abolished upward-only rent reviews from 28 February 2010 onwards under the 2009 conveyancing Act.

I seek a commitment that the Minister responsible for this matter be in attendance next Tuesday when Committee Stage is held. I am not casting aspersions on the Ministers of State, Deputies Tom Hayes and Ring, but this matter does not fall within either's portfolio. In the middle of yesterday's debate, one Minister of State left and another replaced him. This is an important issue for business and we all agree that it must be tackled. There are disagreements as to how that can be done.

It is important the line Minister is in the House to listen to the debate and to set out the reason the Government now believes it is unconstitutional to pass this Bill given the unambiguous commitment in the programme for Government and, as I stated yesterday, the Fine Gael and Labour Party manifestos to abolish upward only rent reviews. This is clearly set out in the programme for Government. I ask the Leader to ensure that the line Minister is in the House for that debate.

Earlier in the week, I raised the issue of discretionary medical cards. Has the Leader had any success in ensuring the Minister for Health will come to the House to answer questions on the reason more than 22,000 discretionary medical cards have been withdrawn? I instanced a case with which I am dealing of a seven year old child with severe mental and physical disabilities and no mobility or speech whose medical card has been withdrawn. This is only one of thousands of cases across the country. This issue which has been raised by Senators from all sides of the House needs to be addressed. Has the Leader made any progress in regard to the setting of a date on which the Minister can come to the House to answer questions in relation to his portfolio, in respect of which his performance to date has been poor?

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I am delighted time has been set aside for statements of appreciation on the life and work of Seamus Heaney who was hugely respected and loved nationally and internationally.

I, too, commend Senator Quinn on the introduction last night of the Bill on upward only rent reviews, which is a hugely important issue. While I did not speak at length on it, I did contribute to the debate.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator did well.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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She voted against it.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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The Senator voted the wrong way.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Bacik without interruptions, please.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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As acknowledged by Senator Darragh O'Brien, this is not the first Government to face difficulties in tackling this issue. I acknowledged in my contribution last night that the previous Government had tried to tackle it. There is an underlying problem, which should be debated in the Seanad, namely, the elevated protection of property rights in the Constitution. I would welcome an honest debate on the issue in the Seanad, including on the hampering affect this has had on Government policy not only in the area of commercial or retail leases but in the area of levies on development land and land being sat upon by speculators and not used. We have had reports in the past on actions that should be taken by Government to penalise those who own land and are allowing it to remain idle. Often action is not taken because of a fear of the constitutionality of doing so owing to the courts protection of property rights, which is not an ungrounded fear. As I pointed out last night, there have been significant examples of progressive legislation that has been struck down by the Supreme Court in the past because of the property rights Article. I would welcome a broader debate on the issue in this House.

I welcome the positive news yesterday in terms of the reduction in the live register figures and in regard to tax returns. As I have previously stated, it appears that the adjustments to be made in the forthcoming budget will be of the order of less than €3.1 billion, which is welcome. The drop by more than 20,000 in the live register figures released yesterday by the Central Statistics Office was welcomed by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, who pointed out that every 10,000 drop in the live register saves approximately €95 million, which has a hugely significant impact on our public finances. The positive move is an indication that the Government's Action Plan for Jobs and Pathways to Work programme being led by the Department of Social Protection are having a positive affect. The Minister, Deputy Burton, has spoken eloquently in this House and elsewhere of the need for social protection to be a springboard as well as a safety net. She is a genuinely reforming Minister in this area. I commend her on her work. I hope we will have further debates in this House with her on the Pathways to Work initiative and measures to tackle unemployment, which is the most pressing issue we face in this country today.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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Last night's debate was very valuable not because some members of the Labour Party went missing or spoke in favour of but against the Bill but because of the serious issues raised therein. Property bubbles are threatening to destroy many economies worldwide. We need a system that favours entrepreneurship and enterprise over finance and banking. Many countries have been doing the exact opposite. This is Wall Street versus Main Street. How we deal with property rights is subtle. It is up to us as legislators to go review all of that. Previously, people in the city had the right to burn whatever coal they wanted to burn. This was changed. Changes were also made in regard to tobacco smoking, which damages people's health. The taxi licence value of €130,000 was also changed. Recently, a farmer whose family have owned in a historic house near Carton House in north Kildare for hundreds of years was required to move because the IDA wanted the land for expansion. Property rights are subtle. This is what should be emphasised in our future debates on this issue.

I take it the Leader has had no communications from the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, which means his allegation that he was bribed by a Member of this House is now null and void. The Minister of State is in Istanbul and is not using his telephone. When we said the prayer earlier we did so with more fervour than ever given today is, if the Taoiseach gets his way, the day before this House is moved to death row. It is appalling. I am a member of the North-South Interparliamentary Association, which cannot meet tomorrow because it would mean we would be meeting with Northerners on the same day as a partitionist Taoiseach was abolishing the two all-Ireland constituencies in this Oireachtas, TCD and NUI, which is a shameful way to treat our Northern brethren. I will ask Mr. Haas to take up the matter with the Taoiseach.

I call on the decent people in the Fine Gael Party, in that parliamentary tradition from Griffith to Garret FitzGerald, to vote "No" tomorrow. I hope that the Fianna Fáil votes loaned to Fine Gael during the last election will be returned, that the Labour element of Conor Cruise O'Brien will assert itself and that Sinn Féin will not vote with the partitionist Taoiseach tomorrow. We need this House. The cowards mark the patriots fate who hangs his head in shame. We have been mocked from every lamp post in the country. We cannot have "Alas, that might should conquer right" on this issue.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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Following on from yesterday's debate and Senator O'Brien's contribution this morning, I call on the Leader to raise the following matter with the Minister for Finance. Yesterday, I raised the issue of it not being possible to apply legislation retrospectively, which is an issue in the context of the upward only rent reviews legislation which we debated last night. I would like to suggest a solution to the problem, namely, that the Government would introduce a tax payable on the difference between the market rent and what is being charged by the landlord. This would not make the legislation retrospective. It is a proposal that could be considered in the context of the forthcoming budget and would not require amendment of current law in this area. It is a different way of looking at the issue. I ask that the Leader bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Finance.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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A "Yes" vote tomorrow is not certain at this stage given that according to the debates on RTE and TV3, many people have changed their minds. I commend the Leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, Deputy Martin, on the very good case he put to the people.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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The Leader of the Government refused to debate with him, which is extraordinary in a democracy. Never before has a Taoiseach been afraid to debate an issue, which seemingly is close to his heart, with the Leader of the largest Opposition party in this country.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Do you have a question for the Leader?

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Has the Leader worked out a strategy in terms of getting legislation through this House in the event of a "Yes" vote tomorrow? Will the Government consider dissolving the Dáil following the vote tomorrow, regardless of the outcome. If it is a "No" vote, this will result in a vote of no confidence in the Government. In terms of the setting up of an appeal court, which is close to the heart of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, the Government has lined up Fine Gael and Labour barristers and solicitors for these plum jobs. It will cost more to establish the appeals court than it will cost to retain this House.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator must put a question to the Leader.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Senators on this side of the House will be very responsible. We will vote against any legislation that is not in the interests of the people-----

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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The Senator votes against all legislation.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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-----or relates to social welfare cuts and the closure of hospitals.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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That is all speculation. Does the Senator have a question for the Leader?

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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It is important.

I am simply letting the Cathaoirleach know were we stand. Fianna Fáil Party Senators will vote against any legislation that is not in keeping with party policy and take a responsible approach to other issues that are in the best interests of the country. The Government should dissolve both Houses and go before the people as quickly as possible to secure a new mandate based on truth and facts, rather than the austerity it has imposed, including cuts in mobility allowance and the closure of the accident and emergency department in Roscommon General Hospital. I hope people vote "No" tomorrow.

10:40 am

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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As with many other Senators, I am conscious that today is a momentous day. We stand at a crossroads.

I congratulate Senator Quinn on the Bill he introduced yesterday. In my contribution to the debate, I set out both sides of the argument. Unfortunately, some of the issues arising from the Senator's Bill will create difficulties from a constitutional perspective. To be fair to both sides, a number of the proposals made by Senators on the Government side would make the Bill more sustainable from a constitutional perspective. It should be understood, however, that the Seanad has placed the issue on the table of the Government. However, responsibility for this issue does not lie with one of the Labour Party Ministers. Dare I suggest that if that were the case, legislation probably would have been introduced by now, although that is neither here nor there.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul announced this morning that the annual cost of energy for families has increased by €500 per annum and the society has increased spending on helping families with energy costs from €3.8 million to €10.4 million. Fuel poverty is a serious issue and one which I have raised on a number of occasions. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has made a number of positive proposals on how to assist families in this area, including by rolling out pay as one goes meters, which give families more control over their energy costs. The bottom line, however, is that thermal efficiency is the answer to this problem.

I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, on making additional finances available to local authorities. From my time on Dublin City Council's housing strategic policy committee, I am aware that the measures being rolled out for local authority housing will save tenants on average one third on their energy bills in a short period. The answer is not so easy for the many people in poverty who live in the rented sector and depend on rent supplement. A strategy is required to improve thermal efficiency in rented homes. I ask the Leader to raise this matter with the relevant Minister.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I thank Senators for the very useful and, I hope, helpful debate in the House last night. As Senator Hayden pointed out, this is a momentous day given what will take place tomorrow. I hope last night's debate will be useful to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, as he seeks to develop tactics and policies on the issue addressed in my Bill. I do not agree with Senator Colm Burke's suggestion that taxing rental income for larger companies and landlords could provide a solution as to do so would not benefit tenants. I thank speakers from all sides for their contributions to last night's useful debate.

I ask the Leader to raise with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, an urgent problem that has arisen with regard to adoption. The law on adoption has been changed in Russia and Ireland. As a result, at least four families who had adoptions approved and had the babies in their hands have suddenly found that certain steps must be taken before 31 October, which is only three or four weeks from now. The problem can be resolved and I gather the Minister takes a sympathetic view of the case for doing so.

While I am aware that the House debated energy recently, a number of developments are under way in this regard. It has been brought to my attention that marine energy systems have great potential for development. A considerable amount of energy is produced at the Ardnacrusha power station for the ESB. If we had half a dozen rivers similar to the River Shannon, we could have many more facilities similar in size to Ardnacrusha. The waters off our cost hold out the same potential, however, but technology and Government investment are needed. I ask for a debate on this issue because such an investment would be worthy in the long term as it would pay for itself and reduce energy costs in the years ahead.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I am sure the Cathaoirleach will indulge me if I extend my good wishes to people in east County Galway who were devastated last night when a mini-tornado came in over the River Shannon and struck Clonfert. Many farm buildings were demolished and trees uprooted in the area. Headstones in the historical Clonfert Cathedral were also uprooted and farm animals lost, although thankfully lives were not lost. Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected. The Coughlan family in Clonfert is particularly traumatised as the family home was severely damaged. It puts everything into perspective to learn of the devastation that took place in a period of four minutes.

The House should debate a number of emerging scams, particularly online. People are being conned out of significant amounts of money.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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The Fine Gael manifesto is the greatest scam of all.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Leyden has already spoken.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I would like to speak again. It may be the last chance I have to do so.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Please allow Senator Mullins to continue without interruption.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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One of the newspapers reports today that an Oranmore man lost a significant amount of money when he responded to an advertisement for a job in Scotland. He incurred costs of several thousand euro for insurance, flights and legal fees in what was a scam. All of us receive e-mails daily which offer us ways of getting rich quick.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Is the Senator seeking a debate on the issue?

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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Yes.

I hope the outcome of tomorrow's referendum will be that the House will continue in existence.

I seek an update from the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, on the Action Plan for Jobs. The Minister will be welcome in the House.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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He will never again be welcome here. He should be banned from the House.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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The Leader usually has the Minister come before the House to provide a quarterly update on the Action Plan for Jobs. While progress is being made, action on this matter must be escalated because the high levels of unemployment we continue to endure are the main challenge facing the country.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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Tomorrow is an important day for the future of the House. Now that academics, campaign groups, political parties and the rest of the political classes have completed their debate, the people will have their say tomorrow. I hope they will come out in large numbers to vote in the referendums on the future of the Seanad and the establishment of a new court of appeal. Whatever they decide in both referendums, we will accept the outcome.

I suspect that, outside the four walls of this Chamber, people are more concerned about what the upcoming budget will entail for them and their families. I welcome the news that the adjustment will be less than €3.1 billion. The previous two budgets introduced by this Government and the previous four budgets introduced by its predecessor have forced more people into poverty and out of work. As a result of the poor decisions that were made in those budgets, many people have been forced to emigrate. In the past two years, I have called for genuine, proper discussions and debates on the alternative budget proposals of Opposition political parties and groups outside the Houses which make submissions on alternative budget measures.

We have not had that and that, to me, would be real and genuine political reform. We must move beyond arriving at budget day and being presented with a fait accompliand not having the genuine robust debate that we need to have on budget day.

Our party was asked to submit our alternative budget to the Government and we did so. It has been fully costed. Again, we will present a fairer way to deal with the economic crisis and address our deficit by giving working families a break, the families who have disproportionately borne the brunt of the last number of budgets, protecting public services and, more important, getting people back to work.

We need to have the debate on unemployment and emigration again. While it is welcome that the live register figures have fallen, the reality is that three times as many people have left this State during the past three months than have come off the live register. That is the reality. It is a fact and we need to have a debate on that issue.

10:50 am

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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That is not true. It is absolutely not true.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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Perhaps Senator Cullinane should check his figures before he puts them forward. I wish to respond to Senator Leyden's remarks about wanting to dissolve the Government and so on and so forth. That is a pretty useless thing to be saying at this point. I do not believe anyone would thank us for calling for such a thing at a time like this and Senator Leyden knows that perfectly well. He is simply looking for a headline.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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There was a discussion at the Labour parliamentary party meeting about it yesterday evening.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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This Government knows it.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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There is work to be done and that is what we will do.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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The Labour Party will be wiped out at the next general election.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Leyden, please. Senator O'Keeffe, without interruption.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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They should call a general election.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Yes, call a general election.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator O'Keeffe, without interruption, please.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I do not believe that the future of the Labour Party is what people are interested in.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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That is for sure.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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What people are interested in is having a country that is better than the country Fianna Fáil left in 2011.

I thank the Leader, Senator Cummins, for organising the tributes to Seamus Heaney later today. Seamus's wife, Marie, will join us in the Gallery, and that is important for the Seanad on this day. I can think of no finer way for the Seanad to end its career. Whatever happens tomorrow and whatever the outcome of the referendum, the Seanad will be different next week and this day is a different day for that reason. I can think of no finer way then for all of us to pay tribute today to one of the finest voices and poets of this and the last century.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to speak this morning about the lack of balance in the running of our country. We have a four man economic council running the country and I do not believe that any one of them has any commercial experience whatsoever.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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What has that to do with the Order of Business? Has the Senator question for the Leader?

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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It is very much to do with it. Has any one of them ever created a job or ever tried to start up a business? I am raising the issue. The Minister for Finance had better not dare increase the VAT rate on the hospitality sector up to 13%. This morning I was at a meeting in the Dundrum town centre, where there are 40 restaurants creating employment and giving jobs to the people there. If there is an increase in this VAT, I assure the House that jobs will be lost in the hospitality sector. The people who own the little bistros, restaurants and coffee shops throughout the country will not increase their prices. They will not do that. Unfortunately, however, people will lose their jobs or there will be a reduction in their hours. It is a state of anarchy that we have with the four men up there. We do not have any women on it and they do not have an ounce of commercial experience. If they did, they would not be increasing the VAT rate from 9% because they would know that jobs would be lost.

I heard some beautiful words from one of the Senators this morning about another discussion on Action Plan for Jobs. Stop codding me about Action Plan for Jobs. It is pathetic. We are getting very excited about a 0.4% growth in the economy. God Almighty.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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It is better than the zero growth when Fianna Fáil was power.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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They speak of 0.4%. They should stop speaking through their hats.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Today is like the parliamentary form of the last supper. We do not know whether we will be executed or survive or what will happen, but either way it is a significant exercise in democracy whereby the people have their say on the future of this House. People may well be surprised by the outcome. I have engaged with the people. As a Senator, I feel as if I am somewhat in a glass bubble because I am talking about something associated with myself. However, from talking to people, I have gathered that they are well engaged and informed. They are a good deal more informed about the work of the House than people might think. The only fear I have is that not enough of them will turn out to vote. My appeal is to those who have studied the Chamber and who have seen and admired the great people who have gone through the Chamber over the years. They have been well documented at this stage and include Mary Robinson, Gordon Wilson and others. When people are reflecting tomorrow in the polling station, they should reflect on the positive as well as the negative.

We have seen a significant dirty campaign, probably the dirtiest campaign we have ever seen in a referendum in the history of the country. It demeans the profession of politics and the Oireachtas and there was no need for it. Certainly, there was no need for the misinformation, which has been clearly demonstrated as misinformation. It is regrettable that politics must be brought down to the lowest common denominator. If anything makes people cynical it is what I would describe as cheap yellow pack politics. We are better than that and certainly this Chamber is better than that. I sincerely hope the Chamber has a reformed future. Going on the example of the debate we had last night on Senator Feargal Quinn's Bill, which is an excellent Bill, a great deal could be achieved for the betterment of the people.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I call on the Leader to arrange a debate over the course of the next number of weeks with regard to the ongoing Middle East situation, in particular the plight of the Palestinian people and the refugees. During the past year I visited a number of refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere. The appalling conditions in which those people are living, particularly the Syrian and Palestinian people, is nothing short of a reflection on the entire world and its failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There has been a good deal of discussion on the referendums. My perspective is that both referendums are absolutely premature. The fact that we would seek to dismantle some of our democratic institutions without any meaningful attempt at political reform is strange, especially at a time when people are suffering as a consequence of the economic crisis we have experienced during the past five years. Any fair-minded person would acknowledge that a major contributory factor was the failure of these Houses to fulfil their obligations to the people effectively over a period by not being set up in a sufficiently robust or open manner. During the summer we saw in a debate the authoritarian bullying of members of a particular party who took a particular perspective on a Bill from a conscientious position. They were totally dismissed and thrown out of that party as a consequence. That has no place in a modern civilised constructive democracy.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Has the Senator a question for the Leader on the Order of Business?

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I call for a debate on the issue of political reform. In the same way, I am keen to see a debate on the other referendum because it is totally premature as well. I am well aware of the backlog in the Supreme Court but to think of setting up an appeal court without first tackling the antiquated hours our court systems work makes no sense. There are well-paid people at all levels, including the Judiciary. They should be putting in a much greater stint for the taxpayers' money they are receiving. We also have a situation whereby legal costs mean that only the elite of the country are in a position to access our courts. Those are the priorities and they should have been attacked. Only then, by all means, if there are structural issues to be dealt with, let us deal with them.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator is over time.

11:00 am

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Leader for a substantial debate on political reform. The stranglehold on these Houses that not just the Government, but also the gang of four has really worries me.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator has gone way over time.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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In this regard, the Cathaoirleach, the Leader and those in this House who hold office should come behind the Ceann Comhairle in his campaign to assert the independence of these Houses.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator has gone way over time.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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If Members fail in that regard, no meaningful effective reform will take place under this Administration and regime. Such reform is absolutely essential if democracy in Ireland is to be as robust as one would wish.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I wish to echo the sentiments voiced this morning by my fellow Senators. This has indeed been an extremely dirty campaign, with false statements and misinformed posters that should have been removed. During my two and a half years in this House, I have witnessed excellent debates with fantastic contributions by many expert people in their field. This stands to the strength of this House, which is that Members are doing what they were elected - or in my case appointed - to do, namely, to discuss areas of concern and to scrutinise and strengthen the legislation. This I believe Members have done with more than 500 amendments. Were this referendum to be passed - I firmly believe and hope it will not - I would worry about the State and what will happen to this country, were power to be given to a smaller group of people. I would worry about the committees that will be appointed because they will be appointed by the Government of the day. As for this suggestion of an expert group of witnesses, expert groups of witnesses already come into Leinster House. I meet such expert groups every single week and I learn from the different groups from all sides and then use that information to bring it back to the Minister of the day. Having a second Chamber offers so much and it is needed. I hope that when the referendum is defeated on Friday, Members will have the opportunity to come back and have a better, reformed and more powerful Seanad. I wish to thank those people who have inundated me with telephone calls, messages, letters and e-mails, wishing all the Senators well in the forthcoming days. Such people appreciate the work that Members do and the job they can do, if allowed.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Tomorrow, two referendums will be held in which the people will be asked to vote, the first of which affects this House. While it does not particularly affect those Senators present today or the 60 Members of Seanad Éireann, it affects future generations and it affects our democracy. For 800 years, we struggled to obtain independence. For 800 years, we did not have a defined role in making our own laws for our own people. For 800 years, we struggled in a tyrannical situation. We now find ourselves in a situation in which Europe is playing an ever increasing role in our democracy and in the laws that dictate in our country but they are not being scrutinised in this Oireachtas in any way. Moreover, Senator Ó Murchú made reference to this yesterday, there may well be a darker side to the European and German influence in trying to reduce democracy and the voice of the people within Ireland's Parliament and to have more federalisation at a European level. This would be a step in the wrong direction. While the making of laws is important to our people and the implementation of those laws costs millions and millions, yet there is a refusal to debate the laws adequately by refusing to engage in real political reform at a time when it was never needed more. This is a false dawn and is a political consequence. When one considers the other House, in which the Fine Gael, Labour Party and Sinn Féin Deputies, that is, 127 Deputies out of 166, are advocating to get rid of this House, one must ask why.

As for the other referendum to be held tomorrow, I believe the Government and the commission, particularly the former, should have engaged with the electorate more substantially on the serious referendum on the appeals court. I believe it is an important referendum that affects the legal system. It is a dangerous referendum in the sense that it is not addressing the waiting lists or the legal costs associated with the court system and I believe the Government has done the people a disservice by not engaging in debate on that a referendum. How dare the Government ask the people to vote in a referendum on which it was not willing to debate? Then again, where is the Taoiseach?

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Much has been said about the referendum tomorrow and I find that the public is still confused. As I am sure are all the other Members, I still am being asked by people how they should vote. I believe it comes down to a single fairly simple message, which is vote "No" for the citizen and vote "Yes" if one wishes to put power into the hands of fewer people. This is what it is about for me. If we close down the voices, we will be closing down representation and diversity. We will be devolving power into fewer hands, which ultimately is a blow to democracy. Regardless of the outcome tomorrow, Members still have a duty to serve and a debate is needed on political reform. Moreover, Members have a contribution to make as they are being paid by the taxpayer and have a job to do. Whatever the outcome may be, they must accept it.

I also have grave concerns in respect of the second referendum and I do not believe it is sufficiently understood. On foot of the reading I have done on the subject myself, I am not convinced that a new court of appeal will solve the backlog. In fact, the lesson I have been learning is that reform of the court system is needed, as is better case management. Again, the answer is to have reform on both fronts and that is my request. Members need to get up and to get on with it. Next week is a new business week and whatever the outcome, Members should get involved and earn their spot here in the interest of reform for the citizens of this country.

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Doris and George Finlay and the group accompanying them to the Gallery. A large group of them has come from Germany to travel around the west coast and are here today for a tour. They have positive feedback about their experience in Ireland, which to be welcomed greatly. We would like to see them return, as well as more people from that country, and we are very happy to see them here. This pertains to Senator White's point about the VAT rate. I believe the VAT rate is crucial and I completely agree with her but one must remember it was the Minister, Deputy Noonan, who introduced it without being lobbied for it. It has been hugely influential in improving the tourism industry in Ireland. An important point to make in this debate is he is acutely aware of the necessity for it to be maintained and he is trying his level best to have it maintained or at the very worst, to have it increased slightly. Consequently, it is important to mention that he introduced the reduction at a time when he was not lobbied for it and credit should be given where credit is due in that regard.

As for the Seanad, this obviously is my first time in this House. I had a conversation with Senator Mooney yesterday evening on it and he made the point that a person starting out in his or her career will have a different perspective. For me, it has been heartbreaking because I really have enjoyed my time in the Seanad. I have been hugely impressed by the level of debate and with what can actually be done here. It is not all about the headline issues. While they are important and obviously the bigger matters catch everyone's attention, only the week before last Senator van Turnhout raised the issue of child pageants in the House and the very next day, that very competition was cancelled. I refer to her efforts in this Chamber and while it may seem like a trivial matter, it is very important. Consequently, it has been heartbreaking. The campaign has been very difficult and highly personal. All Members will welcome the clarity, if nothing else, that will be brought tomorrow but one must hope that the people will deliver a resounding "No" vote.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Darragh O'Brien, raised the issue of the Bill introduced last evening by Senator Quinn.

It was an excellent debate and I am sure the House will have further discussion on that Bill in the coming weeks and months.

11:10 am

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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What about discretionary medical cards?

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I have no indication from the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, that he intends to come to the House to address that issue.

Senator Bacik raised the issue of property rights and welcomed the reduction in the live register figures. A number of Members spoke about the budget and welcomed that the cuts involved will be less than €3.1 billion. The deficit target is 5.1% and, irrespective of the actual figure, I am sure that target will be met in the budget on 15 October.

Senator Barrett and many other Senators offered a passionate defence of this House, mentioning all the good things that have happened. This is a theme that ran through the speeches of many Members today. The campaign has been a difficult one for many in this House. Tomorrow the people will speak and it will be their decision. As democrats, I am sure we will all accept the wisdom of the electorate. Irrespective of the result, I assure Members that this House will carry on until the next Government is formed and I am sure we will carry out our duties with the same dignity and respect we have shown during the past two and a half years, acting as our predecessors did.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Irrespective of the result tomorrow, this House will carry out its duties in the exemplary manner it has shown to date.

We missed Senator Leyden's colourful contributions while he was in Europe in recent days.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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He got back in time.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I am here for the vote.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I addressed the Senator's points in my comments.

Senator Hayden raised the issue of fuel poverty, as she has done on a number of occasions, as well as the submission by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and called for moves for better thermal efficiency, in rental homes in particular. The relevant Minister will attend to discuss that issue soon.

Senator Quinn called for a debate on energy and related new technologies. He mentioned adoption legislation and the difficulties that exist for people adopting from Russia. I have met some of the people involved, who find themselves in a very difficult position. The Minister for Children, Deputy Fitzgerald, has contacted some of these people and is doing everything possible to solve that problem, which is very difficult for the families.

Senator Mullins spoke of the mini-tornado in east Galway yesterday and the devastation it caused to families overnight. We all express our sympathies to those families. The Senator also sought an update on the jobs action plan. We hope the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, will attend the House sooner rather than later to discuss that plan. The considerable improvement in the live register figures is welcome. I wish to remind Senator White, who said these figures were minimal and that there had been no improvement in job figures, that 250,000 jobs in the private sector were lost in the last three years of her Government's term. Already this year there has been an improvement of 34,000. Things are improving, thankfully.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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If one talks to people one hears they are not improving.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Senator Conway also spoke about the Seanad campaign. Senator Walsh called for a debate in the House on the Middle East, which has also been called for by others within the past two days. I will endeavour to have the Tánaiste attend to discuss the matter, Syria in particular. Such a debate in this House is long overdue although the issue has been debated at the foreign affairs committee.

Senators Walsh and Healy Eames called for a debate on political reform. The local government Bill will be introduced in the coming weeks and could be a platform for such a debate. I put Members on notice about the introduction of that Bill.

Senator Noone rightly pointed out that it was the initiative of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, to bring down the VAT rate of 13.5% to 9% for the hospitality sector. There is a charge to the Exchequer of €350 million for the reduction so that must be found elsewhere.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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In social welfare, from people losing their jobs.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Leader, without interruption.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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We will await the Minister's decision, and the budget on 15 October when all will be revealed.

Order of Business agreed to.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I propose the suspension of the House until 11.45 a.m. when we will have statements on the life of the late Seamus Heaney.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 11.30 a.m. and resumed at 11.45 a.m.