Thursday, 17 October 2013
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Gas Regulation Bill 2013 - Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
I would like to raise again the very serious matter of the Irish-Russian adoption crisis about which I spoke last week. Last evening, Ms Lisa Fennessy and her husband Michael, and Ms Marie Hunt, representing the Russian-Irish Adoption Group, met with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to seek the Minister's help in resolving the Irish-Russian adoption crisis. Sadly, however, no progress was made towards resolving this crisis at the meeting with the Minister. Some of the Irish couples have already travelled to Russia, have bonded and fallen in love with the babies and were in the process of completing the adoptions when they were informed that the Russian Government had changed the rules of engagement for adoption. For the Irish families involved, time is running out and they are devastated at the lack of movement on the appropriate legislative amendment. I would like the Leader to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, for immediate legal clarity on the delay in this amendment.
As I said yesterday, the devil is in the detail of budget 2014. All the hurt and crisis and pain that this budget will cause everybody is surfacing today in the newspapers. Members on the other side of the House glowed with contentment yesterday because they felt this was a very special, soft budget. As the hours pass and the budget is exposed to the cold light of day, its illusions, I regret to say, become more transparent. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the much-trumpeted €500 million tax package with 25 new measures to support entrepreneurs and create jobs. It appears that the bulk of the €500 million comes from the continuation of the 9% VAT rate, which over the past few weeks I so valiantly and continuously pushed to retain, rather than being a new provision. The way to create a brilliant tax boost is to threaten an end to an existing tax benefit and then retain it and count it as a new tax incentive in the next budget.
There is no break down of the tax package in the 25 measures, many of which are illusory. The Government initiative is that discussions are taking place with the European Investment Bank to consider the feasibility of support being granted by the bank. That is beautiful bureaucratic language. How about that for a classic piece of non-action and gobbledygook?
I am greatly concerned by the measures in the budget that specifically affect the most vulnerable of older people, the house-bound and those living alone. The sickest and poorest of older people will be hardest hit. The abolition of the telephone allowance as part of the household benefits package will hit those who are most dependent on the telephone to remain in contact with neighbours and friends. It hits the house-bound, those living alone and those in remote areas who already feel so vulnerable to crime and break-ins. The telephone allowance played a huge role in keeping older people safe and in touch with friends and family. Many older people now live in fear that the alarm system linked to their telephones will be cut off. The cut to the telephone allowance will leave many older people unable to communicate with anyone. It will have a very detrimental effect, leaving many completely isolated and forced to fend for themselves.
On a good note, I compliment the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with responsibility for trade and development, Deputy Joe Costello, on his newly-launched initiative to assist Irish people to volunteer in the developing world. The initiative enables a greater number of skilled Irish volunteers to work overseas. According to an article in The Irish Times two or three weeks ago the Minister of State was looking for people up to the age of 65 years. I spoke to him about this yesterday and he said absolutely not. We in this Chamber are for the abolition of mandatory retirement and the Minister of State is giving great example by saying that any age group can travel and join the voluntary service.
I have great admiration for Senator White and she is generally a very fair commentator and has very fairly commended some aspects of the budget. I admire that and that is important. None of us said this was a soft budget. There are measures in it that we all regret deeply, particularly, as Senator White said, the cuts in the household benefits package. Personally, I find the cut in the top rate of maternity benefit most regrettable. In the circumstances in which we find ourselves, it was a very difficult decision for the Government to make and I do not see any other political parties offering any alternative way to achieve the focus on jobs. I do not think that any of us should apologise for this budget being focused on job creation.
I take issue with any criticism of the retention of the 9% VAT rate. This is a job creation measure. It has been proved that the reduction of the VAT rate in the hospitality and tourism sector creates jobs. We were lobbied very hard and very justifiably for that retention. I do not think anyone should criticise the retention of that rate or say that in some way it is not a job creation measure.
I agree, however, with Senator White and support her call for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to come in to the House to speak on the adoption crisis. As Senator White recalls, we have long had issues with this, not just with Russia but some years ago there were delays in the conclusion of an agreement between Ireland and Vietnam. Many families who were halfway through concluding adoption agreements in Vietnam were left in a very difficult, sad and traumatic position. That matter was resolved eventually but we do need now to consider resolving the issue with the Russian-Irish adoption agreements. I very much support Senator White's call to invite the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, to speak to us about that.
I would like also to ask for a debate on positive action for the promotion of women in business and in public life. We have a proud history in this House. We commenced the Bill which brought in gender quotas in political parties for the next general election, the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011. Senator White and others have led the way on the terms for promotion of women in business and in public life. This would be an appropriate time to have this debate given that two more women judges have just been appointed to the Supreme Court, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy and Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne. I commend their appointment and would like to see a broad debate on that issue.
I think we all welcome the apparent resolution of the crisis in the US and of the stand-off between the Government and Legislature there because that would have been a very serious issue, with a very serious knock-on effect for international recovery generally.
I would like to bring to the attention of the Seanad the wonderful announcement yesterday of the creation of the Walsh distillery. The next Baileys or Guinness has hopefully been born. A total of €25 million has been attracted, mainly in Italian investment, to build this distillery in the Royal Oak region near Leighlinbridge in Carlow, a very rural area. Forty jobs in construction have been created and 55 permanent jobs will be created. If one thinks of the tourism in Midleton one can see that this will bring a wonderful boost to the local economy, and add value to Carlow.
Most of the sales coming from the new Irishman malt will be in the form of exports. In fact, the Financial Timesthis morning has a wonderful picture celebrating the launch of the new product yesterday.
It is often observed that it is not the job of parliament to create jobs but rather to create an environment in which entrepreneurs, like Bernard Walsh, can create new employment. Enterprise Ireland has done a wonderful job in assisting Mr. Walsh in building his enterprise, providing a grant of €25,000 per job created. It is instructive to note, however, that in the case of the last five distilleries opened in Scotland, the British Government provided grant assistance of £133,000 per job. Will the Leader bring this issue to the attention of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton? I am sure colleagues will join me in welcoming this announcement as a cause for celebration. I am confident that the new Guinness or Baileys has arrived.
I previously welcomed the extension of the Living City initiative to Cork, Galway, Kilkenny and Dublin and the broadening of the eligibility criteria to include all buildings constructed prior to 1915. This is an important initiative which is relevant to a subject we have discussed on numerous occasions in this House, namely, the decline of town and city centres throughout the country. It will assist in the regeneration of commercial districts and encourage families back to living in the centres of towns and cities.
In that context, I very much welcome the clarification last night by the Tánaiste that the scheme is to be extended to Dún Laoghaire. That town, despite its beautiful heartland of Georgian buildings, has suffered greatly in recent years through the loss of businesses to the peripheral shopping centres. I support calls by colleagues that other towns, including Drogheda and Dundalk, be considered for inclusion in the initiative. There are many beautiful buildings in towns throughout Ireland, but many of those towns are dying on their feet. Will the Leader arrange a debate on this and other initiatives relating to the construction sector that were announced in Tuesday's budget? It would be very helpful to have the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, in the House for that discussion.
I welcome Mr. Mark Rodger to the Visitors Gallery. Mr. Rodger is a partner in Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, one of Canada's largest law firms. As we all know, there are strong connections between Ireland and Canada, going back as far as the founding father Thomas D'Arcy McGee. The Leader will know that Newfoundland is merely a suburb of Waterford. Our guest is most welcome.
In the recent campaign to abolish this House we all stood shoulder to shoulder with the Leader. I am delighted the people decided in our favour. One of the main campaigners on the other side was a leading figure in the industrial relations sector. An bord snip nua, in its examination of that sector, found it had a 2009 allocation of €51 million and 517 staff. That is almost nine times the size of the Seanad. In fact, an bord snip nua found that the sector was overmanned by 58 people, which is almost equivalent to the membership of this House. On page 83 of volume II of its report, an bord snip nua recommends the merger of the Labour Court and Labour Relations Commission, transfer of activities such as the administration of joint labour committees and the functions of rights commissioners to the National Employment Rights Authority, a review of the role of other bodies such as the National Implementation Body, a consideration of the merits of merging the Equality Tribunal into a rationalised industrial relations structure in a context where many of the cases it deals with occur in a workplace setting, and a discontinuation of functions such as the industrial relations advisory service, workplace mediation service, industrial relations research, public relations and so on.
I wish the gentleman concerned success in reducing the size of the public sector, most especially in his own area, as recommended by an bord snip nua. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to the House to report on progress in this area? A retained and reinvigorated Seanad would welcome progress in rationalising the State's complicated and unduly expensive industrial relations structures.
The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, is set to publish the local government reform Bill today. The proposed reforms of our local government system are an issue about which many colleagues have called for a discussion in recent times. I hope the Bill will come before the House as soon as possible.
The Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 was debated in the House on 11 October last year. Will the Leader indicate when it will return to the House so that we can see it on its way to completion? Delays in the valuation process are causing problems for businesses, particularly small businesses, throughout the country. The sooner the legislation is debated, enacted and implemented the better.
Continuing Senator Mary Ann O'Brien's good news theme, the Taoiseach is in Limerick today to launch a €55 million project at the University of Limerick which is the first of its type in the world. It brings together philanthropy, education and government and will avail of the expertise of ten leading professors in the biomedical, pharmaceutical and research fields from all over the world. I congratulate the university on its success in creating such an impressive hub for education, research and product development.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, to come to the House as a matter of urgency? In recent days we had a commitment by the Minister to savings and cuts of €666 million in the budget for health services provision next year. At the same time, however, he is not in a position to tell us the deficit for this year. That does not inspire confidence. It is particularly worrying in a context where, as I have pointed out many times in recent weeks, increasing numbers of people are losing their medical cards following review. The Minister's Department is expected to find €113 million in savings according to the budget data of recent days, yet nobody is prepared to explain how that figure was reached. Yesterday on radio the Minister gave a vague indication that he got the figure from the Government. It seems to be somewhere in the middle of the €60 million to €200 million predicted by PricewaterhouseCoopers as being the required saving.
The Minister must indicate what impact the required saving of €113 million will have on medical card provision, with specific reference to eligibility criteria. If that saving is not achieved over the course of the year, what is the budget deficit likely to be at the end of next year? We know very little other than the number of the beast - 666 - in terms of the bottom-line figure for savings in 2014. We do not know where those savings will come from or which services will be cut. In fact, we do not even know whether this year's deficit is €100 million, €200 million or €300 million. If the shortfall is larger than currently projected, could we potentially be looking at a savings requirement of up to €1 billion next year? If so, where will the cuts be focused?
Despite the positive editorials and the view that this was a fairly soft budget, the reality is something very uncertain indeed. Even as a relatively healthy person, I am not looking forward to the year ahead in terms of the cuts that will have to be made. There has been clear mismanagement by this Minister, who, by his own admission on radio yesterday, does not know where the figures are coming from other than that he got them from the Government. Is it any wonder the Taoiseach is getting all his other Ministers to look over this particular Minister's shoulder and help him out with his budget?
I take the opportunity to welcome certain aspects of the budget, including the retention of the VAT rate for the tourism sector, as referred to by colleagues. The investment in research will be extremely important and valuable, particularly as it is targeted in very specific areas. The provision for additional teachers and resource teachers is also very welcome, as is the retention of the pupil-teacher ratio. The development of the Wild Atlantic Way, which will stretch from Donegal to Kerry, is an excellent way of tying together the wonderful assets we have on our Atlantic coast and offering a more attractive proposition to the international market.
There is much confusion, fear, anger and hardship with the medical card situation we are facing. Can we ask the Minister for Health for some clarification? I listened to the remarks of the Ministers, Deputies Howlin, Noonan and Reilly, as well as those of the Minister of State, Deputy White, and the message seems to be that the people who are entitled to a medical card will have one. Despite this, fear, confusion and anger are being created within the media and the Opposition. We need clarity. It cannot be given on the health budget because it is a 24-7 service and there are months of the year left to run. Perhaps somebody needs to be put in charge over the next month to figure out why certain people appear to have lost their medical cards when they had them until last week or last month. Such clarity would bring comfort to those who need a medical card and who appear to be eligible. Mistakes can be made in a system in which more people than ever have medical cards. Bringing some clarity would take away the fear, confusion and anger. It would help if that could be done as soon as possible for the medical card system.
Táimid ag suí anseo inniu go breá sócúlach. Tá daoine eile, ina measc na haostaigh, a bhfuil an-imní orthu mar gheall ar chuid de na ciorraithe atá tagtha isteach sa bhuiséid. Many elderly people are very worried about some of the cuts that were introduced in this budget. One of the particularly cynical cuts has been the cut to the telephone allowance, which in itself is not going to make a massive saving for the Government. It needs to be examined and reversed. It will affect 390,000 people and is part of a composite picture where elderly people are seeing an increase in prescription charges and some are losing medical cards. An issue in rural areas has been the huge cutback in rural transport. We need to think about the fact that the telephone line is almost like a lifeline. People use their pendants for personal security, and the line also connects people to their families, friends, health services, communities and so on. In rural areas in particular, the telephone line is essential if people want to have broadband, so it is not just telephone lines that are being taken away from the people who need them, but also their connection to their communities. It is a draconian cut.
I call on the Leader to arrange a debate not just on this specific issue, but also on the impact of austerity cuts on the elderly. It is important we hear how this will affect them. The composite nature of these cuts, with small cuts here, there and everywhere, will come together to make them fearful for the future, worried about how they will connect with their families and how they will cope on their diminishing means.
I support Senator Keane's call on the Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012. It is very important for towns and cities. We need to get this Bill in place to enable local authorities to address the valuation of properties. Will the Leader inquire about the progress of this Bill and why it has stalled?
I do not understand where Senator White is coming from. The 9% VAT rate has been established as being very important for job creation. It has been widely welcomed and it is not the only measure in the Bill-----
The reduction of the airport tax to zero will bring in 1 million passengers, according to Ryanair, and we look forward to that. I hope many of those will come through Cork Airport. The stimulus initiative provided to the construction sector has been welcomed, and it will kick-start that sector. It was sought by Tom Parlon and others. The VAT rebate to be provided to householders is very imaginative and certainly will support jobs. In the past 12 months, 3,000 jobs per month have been created in the private sector.
We know that following the Haddington Road and Croke Park agreements, there is a moratorium on recruitment to many areas of the public sector, so that sector will not provide jobs. None the less, the Government will create the environment in which jobs can be provided. The County Enterprise Boards (Dissolution) Bill 2013 was before the House yesterday, and the Senator was part of those discussions. This Bill will bring great value, with the expertise of Enterprise Ireland and the knowledge of the county and city enterprise boards being made available in a one-stop-shop to would-be entrepreneurs and individuals who want to start their own business. That is where the focus is being placed and that is why this budget is about jobs. It encourages those who are in business and those who wish to start their business.
I would like to compliment you, a Chathaoirligh, on your re-election as Cathaoirleach with the will of the people. They have ratified you and your work as Cathaoirleach and the standard you have brought to the office. Well done.
When Charles Haughey, as Minister for Finance, brought in the household benefits package, the then Secretary General of the Department, Ken Whitaker, pleaded with him not to bring in free travel and free electricity. Charles Haughey told me this in 2003. He resisted that pleading and it was one of the best decisions ever made by a Minister for Finance. It is regrettable that this Government and this Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, is withdrawing the free telephone service. That service is a major boost to the elderly, especially those living alone. I ask the Government to reverse what is a very mean cut.
It was said that it will ensure there will be no more calls to "Liveline" and that Joe Duffy will not have the opportunity of listening to the people if the telephone allowance is cut. That is a major blow. It is also a major blow to the elderly people who use pendants for safety and security. This will cost more to the safety and security of the elderly than anything that is saved. I recommend strongly what Senator White said in her very good contribution. This cut should be examined and reversed very quickly. It will be introduced in January 2014 and it is causing great concern.
I would like the Leader to use his great influence. He certainly influenced and succeeded in bringing about the retention of this House when he opposed the Government's view. Do not tell me that the saving of €20 million which was to have come about by the abolition of this House will be made in the form of a cut in the telephone allowance of the elderly. That would be a savage cut and a vindictive approach.
I commend Senator O'Brien's point on job creation and the distillery operation that has been proposed. The Government has delivered a major blow to the on-licence trade, and while I must confess a certain vested interest-----
-----it is a major blow to the licensed trade which is under great pressure at the moment. Below-cost selling of drink in supermarkets is causing a significant competition problem for the trade. Supermarkets are buying alcohol at a lower cost than the publicans are buying it from major suppliers such as Irish Distillers. That is a serious blow to any industry and is creating considerable difficulties. There should be a ban on below-cost selling of alcohol in supermarkets. That would ease the pressure on the industry.
We are disappointed the telephone allowance had to be taken away. If that measure had not been taken, some other equally harsh measure would have to have been taken. I welcome the fact the two Ministers are discussing allocating money to a senior alert scheme, which will be a comfort to anybody who lives in a rural area and is dependent on the telephone.
The telephone companies have a responsibility in this area and I call on them to bring forward a suitable initiative. Those companies did quite well in the past because they were able to draw down this money in respect of telephone services they provided to older people. They should now put a package in place for those individuals who depend on their telephones in order to remain in contact with family and friends. The telephone companies will recoup the money involved - it is only €2 per week - in the long term.
I am not going to discuss the budget. I will, however, discuss the case of a young man who could not obtain employment here and who was obliged to emigrate. He worked abroad for three years before deciding to return in order to pursue a degree in engineering, only to discover that he is now deemed to be a foreigner and will be charged €12,000 in fees by the Dublin Institute of Technology as a result. There cannot be too many cases of this nature. However, that does not take away from the fact that there is still an anomaly whereby young people who have no choice but to go abroad in search of work and who return here to study after a short period are treated as foreigners. I am sure that if his attention is drawn to this anomaly, the Minister for Education and Skills will be able to take action in respect of it.
There have been news reports in recent days regarding the ongoing negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme. Iran is claiming that this programme is only being pursued for peaceful purposes. However, it has been in train for 20 years and it is being used to produce uranium and plutonium. The latter are not needed for the generation of energy. Indonesia and Canada have nuclear programmes but they do not produce nuclear weapons. Neither country produces plutonium or uranium. On that basis, there is a need to ensure that pressure continues to be exerted on Iran. The situation in the Middle East is extremely dangerous and if one of the countries there develops a nuclear weapons programme, then in my view others will be encouraged to do the same. I urge the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure that the pressure being exerted on Iran to only use its nuclear programme for peaceful purposes is maintained.
I completely agree with Senator Leyden regarding the below-cost sale of alcohol. Yesterday, and also on a number of recent occasions, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has indicated that as soon as case taken by Scotland to the EU in respect of below-cost selling is favourably resolved, action will be taken here. I welcome the commitment in respect of this extremely serious issue, on which I have campaigning.
I also welcome the announcement by Ryanair, which is very positive in nature and which represents an immediate response to the abolition of the travel tax. I understand that there will be an announcement in the next two weeks in respect of the specifics involved, namely, in the context of the provision of additional routes or on how extra passengers will be coming into and leaving the country. There will also be news on the number of jobs that will be created.
I support Senator MacSharry's call to the effect that the Minister for Health should come before the House to debate the position with regard to medical cards. This is a very confusing and complex matter. I understand that people who are entitled to medical cards generally receive them. However, one does hear about certain high-profile cases which attract the attention of the media. I am of the view that there are certain anomalies which exist and to which the Taoiseach alluded in recent days. We do not want to be paying GPs in respect of people whose names are on lists but who may be out of the country, who may not longer be availing of their medical cards or who may be deceased. The HSE is responsible for issuing death certificates and medical certificates. Consequently, the HSE must engage in joined-up thinking in respect of this matter. When a death certificate is being issued, surely it must be possible to strike the name of the deceased person off the medical card list. This would be a sensible step to take in the short term in order to make the system somewhat more transparent. I am sure the Minister would be willing to come before the House in the coming weeks in order to engage in a debate on this matter.
Will the Leader indicate whether he is aware of how the recommendations from the Constitutional Convention will be dealt with by the Government? Will there be a timescale involved? Will the Seanad have an opportunity to debate and, perhaps, put its weight behind some of these recommendations? The House could play a very important role in this regard.
There is one issue to which very keen consideration must be given. On many previous occasions the Seanad has discussed matters relating to the diaspora and the fact that there are 70 million people of Irish extraction throughout the world. Most of us believe that the Irish abroad should have some input into elections here. The understanding is that this may now happen in the context of presidential elections. This should be a very joyful occasion for the Irish in Britain and it should encourage unity and cohesion. There is, however, immense hurt among the members of the Irish community in Britain regarding the suggestion that if our citizens abroad are given a vote in presidential elections, that vote will be confined to those who emigrated in the past 15 years. One can imagine how divisive this could prove to be among the Irish in Britain. Imagine the position with regard to two people living next door to one another in some part of Britain, one of whom emigrated 14 years ago and the other who went 25, 30 or 50 years ago. One could state that a policy of apartheid is being introduced in respect of this matter. Those Irish people who have been living in Britain for a longer period must be given the same recognition as those who only emigrated in the past 15 years. They went during the most difficult of times and they often sent money back to their families in Ireland. The money to which I refer was often used to help in the running of small businesses. I do not know how much credence has been given to this recommendation but I am of the view that it does not give the correct recognition to those who emigrated from Ireland.
I request that the Leader pursue this matter with the Government as a matter of urgency. If possible, perhaps the recommendation in question could be discussed in the Seanad. I have in my possession a file of correspondence which is filled with people's expressions of hurt and stained with their tears. Those who wrote the correspondence in question are very disappointed by the fact that what I have outlined may actually prove to be the case.
I support the calls for a debate with the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, on medical cards. It beggars believe that there could be such inaccuracies in the system. Unfortunately, however, these inaccuracies are indicative of the difficulties which arise in the context of schemes operated by the State. In many instances, benefits and allowances continue to be paid long after people have exited the system. I look forward to a time when some of the cuts that have been made in recent years can be reversed. However, this will only happen if the economy grows and if we create sufficient numbers of jobs. We have made a good start in this regard in the three most recent budgets. We must not forget the position from which we started out two years ago. The Government has brought the country back from the verge of bankruptcy. When it came to power in 2011, some 7,000 jobs were being lost each week. People cannot be allowed to forget this fact when they call for all sorts of things to happen now and which are just not possible to achieve in light of what we have been obliged to do to clean up the financial mess we inherited.
One good measure contained in the budget - and to which reference has not been made since its introduction - relates to the area of justice. I refer to the fact that the number of gardaí will be maintained at 13,000 and that €9 million is to be made available in respect of the force's fleet of vehicles. Some €5 million of the latter will be spent this year. It was also announced in the budget that Garda recruitment will recommence in 2014, that €26 million will be made available for prison refurbishment and the construction of a new prison in Cork and that the allowance paid to members of the Garda reserve will be exempt from tax. These are significant issues which must be highlighted. These are tough times and the Government has been obliged to make some difficult decisions.
However, it has brought forward some very positive measures. When these are combined with the various measures relating to job creation, I think people can see that the budget is balanced and that we have done our very best to try to protect the most vulnerable in society.
I am concerned about the escalating action by teachers, who are members of the ASTI, in secondary schools. The most valuable resource any child has at school is teacher contact time. As those teachers voted against the Haddington Road agreement, which they had a right to do, they will now have parent-teacher meetings and perhaps CAO information sessions during school hours. This will rob our children of a great deal of important school time. I have talked to some of those teachers and I was surprised by what I learned - other Members may have known this but I did not. The capitation grant per child in a VEC school is €140 higher than in a second level school and it is €90 higher in a community school than in a second level, or ASTI, school.
My question to the Leader is why there is not an equalising capitation system across all State schools given that everyone is paid by the taxpayer. What I have heard from those ASTI members is that they are willing to take pay cuts but not condition cuts, and I believe there is something in that. That is a reasonable point. If the conditions under which education is delivered are lower in a second level school, ultimately that affects the quality of the education delivered to my child, other Members' children and everyone else's child. We are looking down the barrel of a gun here if we do not move. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, wants to bring in a reformed junior cycle in September 2014, which I support. How will he do that without the goodwill of the teachers? I ask the Leader to ensure the Minister engages because I do not want my child or anyone else's child losing any more teacher contact time. Let us grab this one by the scruff of the neck and sort it out.
I would like to raise the important issue of medical cards. This Chamber could do a service to the people of the country by asking the Minister to come in here for a non-partisan debate on medical cards where we could put information into the public domain in order that people would realise the circumstances and the criteria on which medical cards are or are not allocated. There is a great deal of misinformation and a lack of knowledge and by putting such information into the public domain, we could do the public a service. There is no point having such a debate if we are all going to have a go at the Minister. I have major concern about the savings figure that has been given to the Minister by the Government, which, as we note from reports, is €113 million. It will become obvious early in the analysis whether that €113 million in savings will be achieved. If it will not be achieved, it should be recognised and that figure taken off the page. In terms of whatever savings figure is achieved in the analysis, account must taken of people who will not have medical cards who should have them and those who do not meet the criteria but are very close to doing so. The discretion that was available to grant cards on what were described as "humanitarian grounds" should be used. I refer to people who are sick or unwell who are close to but just exceed the income thresholds. If we go down the route of being cold and objective in determining that an applicant either meets or does not meet the criteria, it would be a retrograde step for the delivery of health care in our society.
Despite the spin that is being put on this budget in a variety of quarters, one category of people has definitely been singled out, namely, the elderly. We have heard contributions on all sides regarding the cutbacks. If one takes them in isolation, they do not seem like much but they are when one examines their cumulative effect under the budget. For example, elderly people in general are savers. DIRT has been increased which will make it almost a disincentive to hold on to savings. The telephone allowance is being abolished. As Senator Leyden said, there is a security dimension to that measure, particularly in rural areas, of which I do not believe the Government has taken account. People over the age of 70 will find they will not have a medical card. It is heartrending to read some of the stories in today's media coverage of the impact of increasing the prescription charge from €1.50 to €2.50, or increasing the monthly cap for prescription charges by almost another €6 from €19.50 up to €25. Those increases may not seem much to those of us in this Chamber or in the other House, but they are when we hear from people on the ground who are on a fixed income that the loss of €1, €2 or €3 makes a difference and the loss of €7 or €8 makes a significant difference. It is all very well to say, and for the Labour Party in particular to point out, that there has been no change in the basic social welfare payments, but all these little hidden stealth taxes, when accumulated and borne by an individual, have a real effect - I am not talking about the collective. When the reduction in the fuel allowance is also taken into consideration, coming into the winter, when all those cuts are accumulated-----
I welcome the fact that there is no change in the pupil-teacher ratio in schools. This is one of the big successes of this Government. It has been said, and it is true, that the number of pupils in small schools has increased. I am open to contradiction on this but I think the number of pupils in classes in small schools is still below the respective number in larger schools.
Yes, but that is the point I was making and someone said it was not true. I do not like being accused of untruths. I also welcome the extension whereby the pupil-teacher ratio in fee paying schools, particularly our little Protestant schools, is not going up. A stop has been put to that, which is important. In the early years of this State there was a lack of trust among the Protestant community regarding their future within this State. We protected that and that needs to continue. The Protestant ethos in schools needs to be recognised and respected. I am glad there has been no increase the ratio and I hope that will be the end of it.
I have a particular question for the Leader.
Recently the UK Government announced changes to the UK visa application process for visitors from China and the Far East.
This is good news for Ireland as it will help to boost the Irish tourism and business sectors. The new visa arrangement will attract more visitors to the UK from China and the Far East. As a consequence, it is likely that more visitors will come to this country from those areas. This announcement complements the Irish visa initiative, which was announced last year by the Minister, Deputy Shatter. This pro-tourism and pro-business initiative has already proven to be a tremendous success and has led to an increase of 30% in the number of Chinese visitors to Ireland in the last year. The announcement made by the UK Government is most welcome. I believe this initiative will help to attract many thousands of Chinese visitors to this country. It will also help to cement our global position as a top tourism and business destination. It is good news all round.
I would like to bring to the attention of the House an issue that was mentioned to me yesterday by a couple of old people. It appears that electronic panic buttons are connected through landlines. If this is the case, perhaps the Leader might suggest to the Minister for Finance that the forthcoming Finance Bill should provide for some sort of financial assistance to be given to older people who live alone to enable them to retain their landlines. Given that the vast majority of Irish people now have mobile phones and are able to get very good deals on them, I believe it was correct to look at consolidating the household packages. If it is the case that landlines are necessary for panic buttons to be installed, perhaps something can be done in the Finance Bill to assist old people who live alone.
I warmly welcome the announcement by Ryanair that it intends to bring an additional 1 million passengers into Ireland and to create 1,000 jobs. I hope many of those passengers will come through Shannon Airport. The fantastic facility at Shannon is probably one of the best airports in the world. I expect we will see further growth in the tourism sector next year, following on from the retention of the 9% VAT rate, the success of The Gathering and the dropping of the passenger travel tax. I look forward to the detail of the announcement. Michael O'Leary is putting his money where his mouth is. He said he would bring in an additional 1 million passengers if the tax was scrapped. He is moving very quickly to deliver on that.
The acting leader of the Opposition, Senator White, spoke about the Irish-Russian adoption crisis. I know the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is doing everything possible to try to resolve this sad and regrettable situation. She has met her counterparts in Russia with a view to finding a resolution. I know her heart is in the right place. I am sure anything that can be done in this case will be done.
Senator White highlighted the need to support businesses and create jobs. She suggested that the 25 new measures we are introducing to support entrepreneurs are practically non-existent. I tried yesterday to outline some of those supports to businesses, but I was shouted down by Senators on the other side of the House. I will try to do so again now. The 9% VAT rate that applies to the tourism and hospitality sectors has created jobs and will continue to do so.
Members of the Opposition and people from various sectors of society asked us to retain that rate and we are doing so. It will provide meaningful support to small businesses, hotels and those involved in the hospitality sector. As has been mentioned, the air travel tax rate has been reduced to 0%. We have heard that Ryanair plans to increase the number of passengers who come to Ireland. We have also heard about the wonderful airports in Shannon, Cork and Knock. I hope my own little regional airport in Waterford will gain some business as a result of this measure.
Under the other home renovation schemes, incentives of up to €4,050 will be made available in respect of renovation and maintenance work. The Living City initiative has been mentioned by several Members this morning. The capital gains exemption on commercial property has been extended to 2014. The trade finance initiative will support Irish exporters. The farmers' flat rate addition is being increased to 5%. The farmers' retirement relief is also being extended. It has been decided to include non-EU talent in the film relief scheme. Small and medium-sized enterprises will benefit from a mentoring programme and from seven anti-fraud measures.
The threshold that applies when making appeals to the Credit Review Office has been increased to €3 million. The Build Your Own Business initiative will promote entrepreneurship and support small and medium-sized enterprises. The long-term unemployed will be able to avail of a two-year income tax exemption if they start businesses. The VAT cash receipt threshold is being increased to €2 million. The higher earners restriction that applies under the employment and investment incentive is being removed. Improvements are being made to research and development cash credits. I have listed some of the 25 new measures that are being introduced to help entrepreneurs and small businesses. I do not think we will take any lectures from Fianna Fáil in that regard.
Senator Bacik spoke about the promotion of women in business and political life. She complimented and congratulated the two new Supreme Court judges who have been appointed. We would all like to join her in congratulating the two ladies in question.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien congratulated those involved in the new Walsh distillery that is to be developed on the banks of the River Barrow near Leighlinbridge. She spoke about the differences between the financial grant arrangements offered by Enterprise Ireland and its counterpart in Scotland. We are coming up against such difficulties with regard to grant aid, etc., as we fight with other countries to get jobs here. That is why it is of paramount importance that we maintain our corporation tax rate of 12.5%.
Senator Hayden called for a debate on the Living City initiative. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to come to the House for such a debate.
Senator Barrett referred to the merger of the industrial relations agencies that was proposed in the report of an bord snip nua. He called on the Minister, Deputy Howlin, to give this House an update on whether that merger will happen. We will certainly correspond with the Minister on that matter.
Senators Keane and Clune spoke about the valuation Bill. It had been indicated that the Bill would be with us next month, but I understand there are further delays in that regard. I cannot say for certain that it will be here next month. I hope the problem will be rectified. I understand that other amendments will be made to the Bill before it comes to us. I hope it will be introduced next month, but I am not confident in that respect at this stage.
I understand that the local government Bill will be introduced in the other House. It will certainly be with us before Christmas.
Senator MacSharry and many other Members called on the Minister for Health to come to the House to discuss medical cards and the service plan. I am sure the Minister will accede to our request in that regard.
Senator O'Keeffe spoke about the many positive measures in the budget, including the investment in research and the development of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of the telephone allowance. It has not been an easy budget, given that €2.5 billion has had to be taken out of the economy. If anyone says it has been an easy budget, I will refute that. Many cuts have had to be made. People on this side of the House would have preferred it if we had not been required to make such decisions. We must get the economy back working and we must deal with the deficit that exists. That is our intention.
Senators Ó Clochartaigh and Mooney spoke about the elderly.
For example, as the Senator noted, the State pension, the carer's schemes, free travel and the free television licence have not been touched. Recognising that fuel poverty is a big issue for the elderly, the fuel allowance has not been changed. The excise rate on fuel has also been left unchanged. The tax treatment of the elderly remains unchanged with no change in net income for pensioners as a result of this budget. Those aged 65 and over will continue to be treated more favourably under the tax system than all other taxpayers. This favourable treatment of pensioners has been protected in the budget. While there have been negatives such as the withdrawal of the free telephone allowance, all these matters still remain the same. One would think that it was all one-way traffic in that regard. It is not.
Senator Clune spoke with authority about supporting businesses and called for a debate on the new jobs action plan. We have asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to come to the House to debate this.
Senator Leyden spoke about the withdrawal of the free telephone allowance. When one sees what Fianna Fáil had planned in respect of social protection - the €1.5 billion in cuts - far more than the telephone allowance would have been deducted if that had come to pass. He also spoke about the plight of the vintners, as did Senator Henry yesterday. We note those points.
Senator Comiskey spoke about the seniors alert scheme. Senator Conway also addressed the problems vis-à-vis landlines. I hope they will be addressed as a result of the seniors alert scheme that will be announced. Senator Comiskey rightly called on telephone companies to take some initiative in this regard.
Senator Quinn pointed out an anomaly in the third-level grants scheme for a particular individual, which I am sure can and should be addressed. He also outlined the dangers of the nuclear programme in Iran and the need to keep pressure on that country.
Senator Noone spoke about below-cost selling of alcohol and pointed out that the Minister for Finance will take action on this as soon as the Scottish case is dealt with in the EU. She pointed out the lack of joined-up thinking in the HSE, which was a very good point. The HSE has people who deal with death certificates and registration of deaths. Surely it should be in a position to marry those with medical cards.
Senator Ó Murchú spoke about the Constitutional Convention. The convention held a session on votes for Irish citizens outside the State on the last weekend in September and recommended by a large majority that votes be extended to all such citizens in presidential elections. A report is being submitted to Government. I hope that we would have a debate here on the question of the convention. Perhaps we might be able to get the chairman of the convention to update us on the report.
Senator Mullins spoke about the importance of growing the economy and jobs and pointed out the money allocated for the Garda fleet and recruitment to An Garda Síochána and the money for Cork Prison.
Senator Healy Eames spoke about action by members of the ASTI and capitation grants for schools. I am sure we will have a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills on that matter.
Senator Michael D'Arcy spoke about the need for an informed debate on medical cards. A figure of €113 million that has been mentioned. At a time of increasing demand for medical cards, it is the responsibility of the HSE to ensure that all those who need medical cards receive and retain them and that those who are no longer within thresholds allow their cards to be passed on to somebody in need. Let me set out what the review of the 365,200 cards in 2013 concluded. This must be set in the context of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report published last month. Of the 365,200 cases that were reviewed, over 301,100 or 82% of all the reviews confirmed existing eligibility or upgraded the person from the GP visit card to a full medical card so 301,100 people kept their medical cards or were upgraded. In the cases of 7,100 cases, death notices were received. A total of 5,400 of all cases had eligibility downgraded to GP visit cards,12,700 people lost eligibility and 38,900 or 10.6% did not respond. What this demonstrates is that the vast majority of people in receipt of medical cards keep them. It also showed that there are medical cards not in use when the HSE is paying approximately €1,000 per card.
This must be addressed. I am sure everybody on the other side of the House would like to see medical cards being issued to the people who need them and I hope that this matter would be addressed. That is what the Government is about.
Senator Jim D'Arcy spoke about maintaining the pupil-teacher ratio and protecting the Protestant ethos in schools. I am sure the Minister for Education and Skills will come to the House to discuss that matter with us.
Senator Brennan spoke about the new visa arrangements for Chinese nationals in particular and argued that this could be a catalyst for us to increase tourism figures. I would certainly agree with those sentiments.
Senator Conway spoke about the seniors alert scheme and the problems vis-à-vis landlines and argued that this could be addressed by that scheme.