Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on Seanad reform, to be taken at 2 p.m. and conclude not later than 4 p.m., with the contributions of all Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Taoiseach to be called on to reply not later than 3.50 p.m.; No. 2, statements on the Common Agricultural Policy, to be taken at 4 p.m. and conclude not later than 5.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 5.20 p.m.; and No. 48, Private Members' business, motion No. 9 re system of direction provision, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 7.30 p.m.
Although it is not customary to do so, I express my deepest sympathy to the family of Councillor Gary Wyse who, being from his area, was known to the Leader. He died yesterday prematurely at the age of 50, leaving behind four children. He was an exceptional councillor and would have had a bright future in politics.
No doubt he would have served in the Dáil after the next election. I offer my sympathy and that of the Fianna Fáil Senators on the loss of an excellent colleague well before his time.
With regard to the statements on Seanad reform, I understand the Taoiseach will respond at 3.50 p.m., but will he also be the first to speak?
Can we have a debate on health insurance and the reduction in tax relief for private health insurance policies? When the Minister introduced this measure in the budget, he used the phrase "gold-plated health insurance policies" and led everyone to believe that the measure would only affect a minority. He suggested it would only affect a minority of gold-plated, high net worth individuals who could afford these exorbitant policies. However, we now know that the Department of Finance has stated that 577,000 private health insurance policies will be affected, with increases in premiums. The insurance industry says the figure for those affected is closer to 1.2 million.
This measure has already come into effect as it was voted on in the Lower House to take immediate effect. Health insurers will now write to all policy holders telling them what the increase will be on their policies. I remind Members on the other side of the House that we have raised this issue over the past two years. In the past two and a half years, more than 300,000 people have given up their private health insurance. This year alone, 110,000 have given up health insurance policies and many of these are young people with young families. This drives the cost of health insurance higher. I would like the Minister for Finance to come to the House to debate this issue so that he can explain to us how he came to believe this measure would only affect gold-plated policies.
Perhaps he was mistaken on the day of the budget. I take it he was mistaken and was misinformed. He obviously acted on information that was incomplete. Otherwise, he would not have stated that the measure would only affect a minority. His Department says the measure will affect 600,000 people. What will happen now is that tens of thousands more of policy holders will give up their private health insurance. Perhaps this is the drive towards universal health care and to getting rid of our two-tier health system. However, what this measure does is put further pressure on a health system that is completely broken. I do not understand how the Minister could implement this on the basis of the information he had. Therefore, I request the Leader to arrange a debate on the issue in the next couple of weeks.
I remind the House that yesterday almost 10,000 people demonstrated outside Leinster House. It was interesting to listen to these people, mainly old age pensioners and senior citizens, speak about the cuts made in the budget and the attacks made on them in the past two and a half years. I looked back over the record to see what happened in 2008 when a similar protest against a Fianna Fáil measure - which was wrong - was held. I found it really interesting that in 2008 the current Taoiseach said he rejected the then Government's proposal to remove the right of people over 70 to a medical card. He said: "The cheek of them, shame on them". The current Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, said those people had worked hard all their lives and paid high taxes and only wanted the peace of mind of having a medical card if unwell. This is what the two heroes said in 2008. However, they were not outside yesterday. They did not even go out and meet the protesters or discuss the issues with them. No wonder there is such cynicism in politics.
No wonder there is such cynicism when these two most powerful men in the country were able to go out and court political favour in 2008 and have now completely changed. If anything, they are making the situation much worse.
No wonder there is such cynicism in politics when Fianna Fáil accuses the Government of presiding over a broken health service, when it was a Fianna Fáil Government that presided over the formation of the HSE and the establishment of its bureaucratic structure which is proving extremely difficult to dismantle - a structure which has had a very negative effect on our health care system. Therefore, it is hard to accept this sort of criticism from the Senator. I am aware we had a robust exchange on the issue of the health care system yesterday. I am sure the Leader will respond to the Senator.
I call for a debate on a specific aspect of health policy, the minimum alcohol price policy. I understand a decision was made on this at Cabinet yesterday. A range of measures is required to tackle the problems associated with alcohol abuse and it appears a package of measures was agreed at Cabinet. It would be good to have a debate in the House on the issue. We have had debates on the issue previously, but if there is to be a genuine move towards minimum alcohol pricing and more restrictions on alcohol advertising, it would be good to have the opportunity to debate this here, particularly in light of the constructive report we produced in the public consultation committee on lifestyle factors that affect cancer. Alcohol was a significant factor in those hearings.
I would like to support Senator D'Arcy with regard to an issue he raised yesterday concerning a change made in the budget to the one-parent family tax credit which is to be replaced by a new single person child care credit from January 2014. In recent days, quite a number of people have expressed concern about the unforeseen consequence of this. The proposal is to restrict payment to the primary carer only. This may cause great difficulties where separated parents have an arrangement for shared custody, where there are two primary carers. It is important we take another look at this measure to ensure it does not have the consequence of adversely affecting amicable, working arrangements for child care between separated parents. It is important to tease out the implications of this measure and, if necessary, to look at amending it.
Finally, will the Leader arrange for debates on two reports of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality which are on the Order Paper for debate? These are the report on penal reform which was produced earlier this year and the report on changes to prostitution law. The committee is currently engaged in drafting a response to the Minister for Justice and Equality on the latter so perhaps that debate cannot take place until the new year. However, it would be good to have the debate on penal reform before Christmas.
Yesterday, I pointed out that outside our gates were members of our older generation who had lost pensions, phone, light, heat, VHI and bereavement and funeral expenses. Individually, these were small amounts, but they add up. These people were outside protesting yesterday. Young second time mothers have lost money, young families and the jobless have lost money.
At the same time, and it is right to do this, we are giving €10 million to deal with the problem of Priory Hall and to help the families who have been out of their homes there for from two to three years. However, not one construction company, county council, architectural or engineering company nor any planner or builder has been brought to book over this. On the one hand, we expect people to take the budget measures on the chin, to understand and get involved in the fact the country is on its knees. We expect them to take all these cuts and decreases on the chin. On the other hand, these people see nobody being brought to book. A Senator spoke here yesterday about the banks. I would like to separate this issue from the issue of the banks and that ongoing investigation.
The construction, engineering, architectural, planning and building sectors have brought this country to its knees in the context of ugliness and homelessness. I cannot understand how we as Senators, even those of us on the Government side, can sit here and expect and argue that these cuts are necessary while there is no sense of justice or fair play for the people with no cuts being applied to the people who caused the problems. I want the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government or the Minister for Public Reform and Expenditure to come to the House to tell me what is being done about the construction companies, county and city councils, architecture and engineering companies, planners and builders who signed off on Priory Hall. It did not just happen as a fantasy. Somebody signed off on it, somebody said "yes" and okayed it. Somebody erected the building and then went home. We are paying for that.
It is right we should pay those people, but this is €10 million that could have been used for the jobless who are now almost criminalised for not having a job. I have traversed the country to talk to young people who are trying to find a way forward.
At the same time, on the cynicism the Senator is talking about, those young people do not see an example of fair play and justice. I just want to find out who is responsible. Could a Minister, or two or three, come in here and tell me that? I will keep saying this until something is done about it.
I brought a topic up here some weeks ago and Senator Mary White brought it up last week as well. It is becoming urgent. This is the question of Russian adoptions. It probably only applies to five adoptive couples. There is an anomaly that has occurred. These are couples who have been to Russia, have met their adopted children, have bonded with them, have spent time with them and have come home knowing that there was a six month delay before they could have the babies. It turns out that there is now a 12 month delay before they can have them. That is not a significant problem, except the Adoption Act 2010 states that any adoptions from non-Hague countries such as Russia would have to take place before 31 October.
These five couples - maybe there are more than five but there are at least five - have been in Russia and have bonded with their children. I have spoken to two of the families. They have met the children. They were waiting until the time came and the Russians have introduced legislation to say they need to wait until 29 December. We have a law which states we must get it done before 31 October. That is only a week away.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is sympathetic to this. She is understanding and she is made of stuff that would show that sympathy. She is having difficulty with the technicality of moving that 31 October deadline to a later date. It is easy to do. I gather, from the advice available, that all she need do is put down a motion stating that it is her intention to do that and that would be sufficient to enable the children to be adopted before the time runs out. I urge the Leader to use everything in his power to encourage the Minister to move on this without delay. The future of these children, and adoptive parents, depends on this to a large extent. It is almost like having one's own baby taken away, given that they have met the children, have bonded with them for days. It would be regrettable if, because of a technicality, they would not be able to proceed. There may be difficulties but I am sure it is possible. I urge the Leader to ensure the Minister understands the importance and the urgency of this.
I am concerned about reports in the newspapers yesterday where a major construction company working in the south of Ireland in Kerry is not paying its subcontractors. This construction company is carrying out public works. These are large jobs and the company is employing many subcontractors. If subcontractors will be left unpaid, it is worrying and serious. I wonder at what Stage is Senator Quinn's Bill to protect such subcontractors' payment. It is important that this Bill be enacted because we do not want to see a series of subcontractors getting into difficulty in the future.
I note from today's newspapers that the Government has finally decided to take action on below-cost selling of alcohol, which I welcome and, I am sure, all sides of the House will welcome. Speaking as somebody who comes from a Border county, the difficulty is that the recent increase in excise on wines and spirits will have a detrimental effect on cross-Border trade. Whenever an opportunity might arise, if the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Alex White, who is responsible for this area, is coming into the House, I ask that the Leader include on the agenda for discussion this matter and whether he is in discussions with his counterpart in the United Kingdom. According to the media reports, a basket of alcohol items, which costs €220 in the South, costs €160 in the North. That is a substantial difference, way above what would be the norm in terms of the North-South balance. With Christmas fast approaching, it is inevitable that there will be long queues going into Newry and Enniskillen coming out of my county and the north west as a result of this significant differential. I wish it were otherwise. I wish consumers were a little more responsible about the manner in which they consume alcohol but, unfortunately, the reality is the opposite.
It is a serious issue. It is not only serious in terms of the health implications of people consuming too much alcohol - it is a drug, the same as tobacco, and consumers do not seem to realise its potency. It is also about the impact it will have on cross-Border trade, particularly in counties all across the southern end of the Border which at retail level have been struggling in the recession over the past number of years. I would ask the Leader whether he would include that item as an agenda item in the context of the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, coming before the House.
I add my voice to that of Senator O'Brien in expressing sympathy to the family of Councillor Gary Wyse, whom I knew quite well. He always played the ball, and did not play the man, in politics. It is something I admired about him.
I join Senator Bacik, and Senator Jim D'Arcy who raised it yesterday, on the one-parent family tax credit issue. The proposal in the budget is to cut the tax credit by €1,650. Those who are affected by this cut will also see €4,000 more of their income being taxed at 41% instead of the normal 20%. The loss of both of these will mean a net loss in real terms of up to €50 per week.
On top of this, many parents in this position must pay maintenance. We all will have received correspondence over the past 48 hours on this matter, in particular, some of them showing maintenance of up to €900 per month. In a recent study in Trinity College, it was accepted that 97% of separation cases deemed the mother to be the primary carer. In real terms, this affects males more than females, but this is not the full picture. All in the Chamber will know separated couples. Many fathers take children for full weekends, pay the cost of weekend activities, pay the cost of family events, such as birthdays, holidays, Christmas time, etc., and on top of this they face this cut. This needs to be revisited. I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Finance, in the finance Bill, to have another look at this and, above all else, to bring fairness into the mix.
I welcome the free trade agreement announced on Friday last between the European Union and Canada. Ireland exports €2 billion in goods and services to that market. It is our 14th biggest export market. In April, we will have direct air services restored between Canada and Ireland by both Aer Lingus and Air Canada. There is much we could learn from contacts with Canada on the organisation of banking and the public finances. This could be the prototype for the big one, a free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, has drawn our attention to a valuable development in foreign trade from Friday last.
By contrast, this is a sad anniversary, the 20th anniversary of the Shankill bombing in which ten people died and 57 were injured. It was followed by retaliation in weeks subsequent, when 14 people were killed, including eight in Greysteel, where 13 were also wounded. A memorial service will be held today and I suppose, in spirit, we will all be there. It is an opportunity for us to rededicate ourselves to the peace process, to support the best efforts of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to deepen and broaden the peace process, and to support Ambassador Haass. My suggestion to the Leader would be that, if Ambassador Haass feels that in any way we can assist in the process, we might invite him to visit this House. It is important, as we remember sad occasions and sad retaliations, that the peace process brings together all the traditions on this island and we all have a duty to sustain, deepen and broaden it.
I support Senator Landy's call for a reversal of the proposal to take away tax credits from what will be, in the main, separated fathers. As the Senator noted, and as I am well aware, there are many separated fathers who provide as much care for their children as the principal carer does. This would be a retrograde step. In recent times some separated fathers were granted the child dependant allowance on top of their jobseeker's allowance, but recently that has been withdrawn. They are taking enough of a hit already.
I ask the Leader for a debate in the House about our critical infrastructure policy on energy needs. This affects the Cathaoirleach too - I refer to the pylons that are to come all the way from Mayo to Flagford in County Roscommon. This is an issue in many other parts of the country; Senator Cullinane raised the matter yesterday in an Adjournment debate. In 1927 the ESB was given the right to erect electricity poles anywhere it wanted to throughout the country because we needed the power. However, now we are discussing pylons that are 40 and 50 m in height yet all we have is the same legislation. It is time to revisit that legislation and make it more appropriate to deal with such pylons, as distinct from ESB poles.
I have a problem with the consultation processes put in place by EirGrid. These were probably designed by the Government to tick all the boxes. People will be called in, told what the proposals are and asked for feedback. This is "liaison" with the people. There will be many hundreds of submissions from the public but none will be published and the Government will not act on any of them. When these power lines are introduced in the west of Ireland there will be "sensitive" areas. One such area is in my neck of the woods where a family with an autistic child lives. A proposed pylon may be erected within 40 m or 50 m from her home, which would seriously impact on her health. Will EirGrid listen to that point? It will talk about all the reports it has commissioned that say powerlines are-----
I am not looking for an Adjournment debate because there was one yesterday and I did not learn anything from it. I am looking for a broad debate in the House, with the Minister. All Senators present can contribute. What EirGrid is doing-----
-----is a tick-boxing exercise. The sad thing is that when one comes to Dublin the place is alive and there is plenty of work but there is no work in rural Ireland. All rural Ireland is being used for is wind farms and pylons - nothing else.
I join my colleagues in offering condolences to the family of the late councillor, Gary Wyse, who was a friend of mine. I served on Waterford City Council for a number of years with Gary, sitting beside him for two of them. I was devastated yesterday when I received a telephone call from the city manager in Waterford informing me that Gary had passed away suddenly. He was one of the hardest working and most genuine public representatives I know and though he will be sadly missed by the people of Waterford obviously he will be most missed by his family. The Wyse family has lost a son, a father and a husband. I pass my condolences to his wife, Michelle, his children and the extended Wyse family. It is a terrible loss for them and also for the people of Waterford.
I raise the very sad fate of the Dublin-Derry economic road corridor, speaking as a member of the committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and as a passionate supporter of economic development North and South for the peace of the country. The reallocation of £115 million that was due to be spent on upgrading the Northern Ireland section of the Dublin to Derry economic corridor is another blow to the economic prospects of the north west and the Border counties along the route. The reallocation of £115 million, announced on Monday by the North's Minister for Finance, Simon Hamilton, MLA, was made without any reference to a target date, or date of expectation as to when the long-awaited upgrade of that strategic road corridor will commence.
It is a far cry from the commitment given in the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement when the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government committed to jointly funding the upgrade of the road from the Border at Aughnacloy to Derry. The Irish Government's lack of commitment to upgrading the N2 road section between Aughnacloy and Clontibret on the southern side is appalling and reflects in turn a lack of commitment to the all-Ireland economy and the economic plight of the Border counties and the north-west region of Donegal and Derry. Monaghan County Council is seeking €1.5 million for pre-planning applications for the road but neither the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, nor the National Roads Authority will authorise this funding or the necessary preparatory work. In consequence, the road journey from Dublin to Derry takes three and a half hours, more time than it takes to travel from Dublin to any other city on the island, including Belfast, Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork or Waterford.
As a result of the lack of action by the Northern Ireland Government and the Irish Government, the completion of this crucial economic corridor between Dublin and the Border counties and the north-west region of Donegal and Derry remains firmly in limbo.
I fully agree with Senator White's comments but not with her analysis. The record shows that this Government has the commitment but not the money, while the Northern Ireland Government has the money but not the commitment. I am sick and tired of listening to commentators from Sinn Féin telling us what this Government has not done for the A5 while its party is in power in Northern Ireland with its hands on the purse strings.
I agree that the money should be spent. Obviously this Government does not have £500 million to complete the project. I have heard Sinn Féin complaining about this Government and the previous one, saying the money is there for the project. However, when it had the chance in Northern Ireland, being part of the Government and unable to run from the issue as it usually does and saying it is the fault of the DUP or the Unionists, Sinn Féin signed off on the reallocation of this money for the A5. As Senator White stated, rightly, counties Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Sligo are involved. I drive that road twice or maybe three or four times a week. It takes me three hours and 15 minutes from the port tunnel. I would love if it took me two hours and 15 minutes but I expect to be travelling for that time for many years, whether I am in Seanad Éireann or otherwise.
We must be aware there is a party in government in Northern Ireland that is also in opposition here - with a different story. Last week its members spoke about the pensioners' telephone allowance and issued a postcard campaign. As often happens in "Dragons' Den", there is a big flaw in its project. It has not called for the pensioners across the Border to have a telephone allowance. The Administration of which it is part refused to sanction this in Northern Ireland. The pensioner in Castlederg in County Tyrone is different from the the pensioner in Castlefin in County Donegal, according to Sinn Féin. This is another part of the party's hypocrisy in Northern Ireland to which we must point.
Will the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport come to the Chamber to talk specifically about the A5 road and its future? We want the facts and a timeline, The chambers of commerce and business people in Donegal were told by both this and the previous Governments that this road would be completed. The people who are preventing this are not in this Government; they are in government in Northern Ireland.
I thank Senator White for raising the issue of the A5 and Senator Harte for commenting on it. It is a deep regret that the Minister for Finance in the North of Ireland has decided, having had no consultation, to reallocate funding for a major road project which would link Dublin to Donegal. I would disagree with Senator Harte about the reason for the reallocation, in that it has been assisted in no small way by the decision of this Government not to allocate money to the A5 project. It was a political decision by this Government to play into the hands of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Given the commitment by the previous Government to the project to open up the north west, the ball was hopped. All the North had to do was jig it over the bar, so to speak. That is exactly what it did because there has been a total lack of commitment to a project that was so important to the north west of this country.
We can and should blame the North. However, the Government cannot go without blame regarding the loss of €400 million-----
-----in respect of a project which would open up County Donegal and the north west. What has happened in this regard is outrageous. I hope the Leader will be able to facilitate an early debate on this issue, regional development and job creation. One of the reasons IDA Ireland only facilitated four site visits to the north west and County Donegal in the past 12 months primarily related to the lack of suitable road infrastructure in the region.
My final point relates to medical cards. This issue is a source of grave anxiety for elderly and disabled people. These individuals are concerned about the threat that they might lose their medical cards. There is a need for a debate, at the earliest opportunity, with the Minister for Health on the health budget and, more particularly, medical cards. There are other alternatives to cutting services for the most vulnerable. I hope the Leader will facilitate a debate on this matter.
Many of the problems relating to medical cards have arisen as result of incorrect information being given and a great deal of exaggeration. I highlight the fact that over 1.9 million people have medical cards and that 254,000 additional medical cards were issued in the past two years.
I refer to an issue which has arisen with increasing frequency in the past four or five weeks. I have spoken to people who are considering running in the local elections, many of whom have asked me about the powers of local authorities. There is a general lack of knowledge of the real powers these authorities and the councillors who serve on them possess. It would be appropriate for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, to come before the House to discuss how we might impart information to the public on the role of councillors, their responsibilities and the contribution they can make at local level. There is a need to get across a message in this regard because there has been a great deal of negative coverage on the part of the media for the past ten to 15 years of the role of councillors. As a result, those who are good leaders in their local communities are reluctant to go forward for election. This is resulting in a loss for our system of democracy and also for local communities. The House should engage in a debate on how to disseminate information on the exact role of councillors.
There is another issue with which we must deal, namely, commercial rates. There is a lack of knowledge of the amount of money being collected from the business sector through rates. People who are not involved in business appear to have a lack of knowledge of the contribution the sector is making towards funding local authorities. Information on this matter must also be made available to the public. We should engage in debates on both of these issues between now and the local elections.
The proposed introduction of minimum pricing of alcohol might make it seem that the Government is serious about combating the problem of drinking. However, this only seems to be the case. In reality, the Government is taking a very half-hearted approach to the issue as is evident from the fact that the proposed ban on the sponsoring of sports events by drinks companies appears to have been shelved. That is not a sign that the Government is taking this grave issue seriously. I was concerned to read earlier that there was a possibility that the European Commission would block the introduction of minimum pricing on the basis that it would be a barrier to trade. Many Irish people will be extremely concerned that the European Union, on the basis of its concerns about trade, might interfere with what is, in effect, a decision relating to public health in Ireland. This is a classic example of "competence creep" on the part of the Union and it should be resisted in every way possible.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business in order that the House might engage in an urgent debate on the state of credit unions. I am particularly concerned about the position of Newbridge and Maynooth credit unions. As people are aware, both institutions appear to be having mergers forced upon them without any discussion with their members or boards. In recent days Maynooth Credit Union and the Irish League of Credit Unions took the Central Bank to court. People throughout the country are concerned about the state of credit union finances and reserves. An older person from Newbridge whom I met recently expressed concern about her life savings, which are held in the local credit union. She asked me whether they would be safe. She wants to leave her money in the credit union because she believes in the concept behind and values espoused by credit unions. Her local credit union has helped her out in the past, but she is now concerned about the safety of her savings. I would be gravely concerned about the situation at Newbridge Credit Union, particularly if Naas Credit Union decides not to merge with it. Will the Minister for Finance come before the House to inform us whether, in the event that Naas Credit Union declines the merger, Newbridge Credit Union will face liquidation or whether the proposal from the Newbridge Credit Union Action Group will be taken up? The Minister needs to outline what is going to happen in the event that the merger fails. We must ask whether the Central Bank is on a mission to undermine the community credit system in Ireland.
I support the call for a debate on the proposed alcohol strategy. It is welcome that the Government is considering tackling the issue of below-cost selling. Alcohol Action Ireland is not particularly happy about the fact that the issue of sponsorship is not being dealt with at this time. I understand it will, however, be addressed during the next couple of years when sports organisations have had the opportunity to make alternative arrangements with other sponsors.
Will the Leader arrange a debate with the Minister for Health in the coming weeks on the ambulance service? I am particularly concerned about media reports this morning to the effect that ambulance response times in the west are much worse than those in other parts of the country and that only 49% of ambulance call-outs meet the HIQA standards for response times. This is a matter of some concern, particularly to people in the west. There is a need for the Minister and the director of the ambulance service to provide an update on this matter and their plans to improve the service in order that the HIQA standards will be achieved as quickly as possible.
I support Senator Feargal Quinn with regard to queries about Russian adoptions. I am aware of one case where the family involved is under extraordinary stress. If anything could be done from a legislative perspective - even at this late stage - it would be extremely useful. The clock is certainly ticking and we must use every possible parliamentary device to try to find a solution to this problem.
Senator Darragh O'Brien referred to health insurance. I appreciate that we will be able to address the tax relief issue in this regard in the debate on the Finance Bill. What is required - I have called for this on previous occasions - is a debate on the broader matter of health insurance. There is an aspiration that universal health insurance will be introduced at some point in the next number of years. If health insurance premia and medical costs continue to increase at the rate at which they have been rising in the past four or five years, it will be impossible to have a sustainable system of universal health insurance. We listened, almost until we became weary, to the argument to the effect that we should follow the Dutch health insurance model. I invite colleagues to examine what is happening in the Netherlands, where the system of health insurance is literally being dismantled because it is not affordable. We need to address in a mature fashion the matter of where we intend to go in the context of health insurance. The concept of a universal health insurance scheme sounds very nice when presented to a focus group. However, as we discovered recently in respect of another issue that was addressed via a focus group, the reality can be very different. I reiterate for the benefit of Senator Darragh O'Brien that we will have the opportunity to discuss the tax relief issue relating to health insurance during the debate on the Finance Bill.
We need to address the bigger issue of the cost of health insurance and the possibility, or otherwise, of having a universal system.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Ronán Mullen.
I refer to what was said by Senator Colm Burke and the need to improve, enhance and empower local government. There are many fine exponents within the local government system who are hard-working councillors. With regret, I join Senator Darragh O'Brien in commiserating with the family of Councillor Gary Wyse who epitomised everything that was best about public representatives. I was with the Leader when he received word at lunchtime yesterday of his very sad passing and the thoughts of everyone were with his family. The respect people had for him as a councillor and the fact that Waterford city which needs champions has lost one of its most eminent and genuine public representatives make his death a cause for regret. He worked assiduously in the interests of the citizens of the city of Waterford by whom he will be missed, but more so by his family.
I agree with the comments of Senators Darragh O'Brien and Paul Bradford on health insurance. The haemorrhaging from the private health insurance market must be a worry. Most are leaving from the younger age groups up to 55 and 60 years. Out of necessity, the older age groups do not show a decline in numbers, but it has a consequence for the sustainability of the health insurance business. There is no underlying vision or philosophy behind taxation policy in this area. Of concern is the issue of pensions. Less than half of the population have pension provision and only a small proportion of women have private pension provision. There will be a major challenge in the area which policy should be underpinning. In fact, it is moving in the wrong direction. In the budget last year the Minister for Finance gave a clear commitment that the pension levy would be phased out in 2014, but now he has gone back on it.
Yes, absolutely. Everyone is familiar with the phrase "lies, damn lies and statistics". Now we have "lies, damn lies and broken promises". The country is being run by headless chickens and bean counters. It is a serious issue. I ask for a debate on the deficiencies of our governance system and in the structures of the Houses such that we can hold these people to account.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Finance to examine the possibility of every citizen over the age of 18 years with a PPS number being required to make a tax return, even if it is a nil return? This works in other countries and would reduce the temptation to operate in the black market if people had to make a statutory declaration at the end of October every year. It would also create a system under which we could effectively means-test individuals. I have a major issue with universal measures such as universal child benefit for everyone, no matter how wealthy they are, or medical cards for children under five years, no matter how wealthy their parents are. Perhaps the Leader might arrange a debate on universal payments. All Governments are responsible for creating situations where they grant entitlements, irrespective of how wealthy an individual is. Some people are extraordinarily wealthy and do not need universal payments such as child benefit. To channel our limited resources effectively, we must move away from that type of content.
Universal health insurance, to which Senator Paul Bradford referred, is a different matter. If such a system was workable, it would be great. I do not begrudge anyone under five years of age receiving medical care. The problem is that the Minister for Health will be challenged to find the further sums required for the health budget. We had the farce last weekend where the Minister for Health was disgracefully pilloried in the media. I do not know from where the spin and the leaks are coming, but it is worrying. They are trying to handcuff the Minister and prevent him from doing his job properly. We need a serious discussion on the idea of universal payments across the Government spectrum.
I welcome news that minimum pricing for alcohol is to be introduced. Finally we are dealing with the issue in a serious way. Full details are to be released tomorrow. We were awaiting the result of the Scottish case in the European court that dealt with many of the issues raised by Senator Rónán Mullen. The more potent the alcohol, the higher the price. That will act as a disincentive and a deterrent in the case of beverages with a higher alcohol content. Large multiple retailers are using below-cost selling of alcohol to get people into their stores. A startling statistic is that they spend more than one fifth of their advertising budget on alcohol advertising. In a country where children born in the 1980s drank alcohol for the first time at 16 years and those born in the 1990s at 14 years, something must be done. There is potentially a huge cost to society, estimated at €1.2 billion every year. A huge volume of alcohol can be purchased and still have change from €10. The sponsorship issue must be addressed, but it is welcome that we are implementing this effective measure to address a serious issue. This is a country where 54% of children admit to being drunk before the age of 16 years. Establishing a minimum cost of alcohol-----
I am always looking for a debate on it. I am looking for a debate in the context of what Senator Rónan Mullen said, that we debate the strategy. I know where the Senator is coming from, but it is welcome that we are clearly implementing a strategy.
We must face up to the fact that universal State provision of any benefit is a luxury. While it might be the ideal, in these times it is certainly a luxury. I listened to the debate on health service provision and free GP care for children under five years of age. We saw the folly of providing it for everyone over 70 years of age. Money should follow need, not the patient. If a child aged seven years has cancer or is in need, he or she should receive care, irrespective of the fact that he or she is older than five years. I support the call for a broad debate on the issue. Sometimes, it is not possible to have what is the ideal.
I agree with Senator Martin Conway that the Minister for Health was pilloried unfairly in the media last weekend. Let us think about the matter. Since the budget, a new report suggests maternity services must be benchmarked in a new way across every hospital in the country. That is right, but it is a new call on budgetary measures. There are also new measures for junior doctors. How could the Minister have planned for this? There is a call for extra money and, naturally, the budget will overrun. We must adopt a sensible approach to this matter, not just call for someone's head when something is different from what was expected initially.
I ask for a debate on universal State provision of benefits, in particular, health benefits for children under five years of age. I also want the wider issue of health insurance to be debated because the situation is getting out of control. It is very hard for families to afford health insurance. I was checking on the cost of health insurance and I find the only time one can get an improved deal is at the renewal date. That may not suit every family. They might have more time to do it at another stage. There should be flexibility from the health insurance companies.
Senator Darragh O'Brien and other Senators expressed their sympathy to the wife and family of the late Gary Wyse, a young councillor and a father of four young children who died suddenly yesterday. I join with those expressions of sympathy to Michelle and her family. His death was a deep shock and occasion of sadness for everyone. He was a young man going about his business and he was struck down so suddenly. It is a shock to everyone in Waterford, irrespective of their political leanings. Gary Wyse was an excellent, first-term councillor. He was working hard for the people of Waterford.
I refer to the issue of tax relief on private health insurance policies raised by Senator Darragh O'Brien. As he rightly points out, they have been voted in by the other House. The clear objective of the Minister for Health is to reform the current health system and to deliver a single-tier health service in which access to health care is based on need rather than on ability to pay. I believe all Members are in agreement with this objective. The Government is committed to the ongoing sustainability of the health insurance market as part of the transition to a market-based universal health insurance system. The tax relief given at source is the second most costly tax expenditure for the Exchequer, estimated to reach over €500 million in 2013. The cost has increased significantly in recent years, from approximately €400 million in 2011, to €444 million last year and €500 million this year. This is an increase of 24% in almost two years.
Despite the increasing costs of the relief, the numbers insured have reduced by approximately 170,000 over the same period while at the same time the level of medical cover in some of those policies has decreased. In 2008, the average premium paid by each insured person was €728.80 and in 2012 this had risen to €1,047, representing a 44% increase since 2008. The Minister has consistently raised the issue of these costs with the health insurers as a body and he is determined to address the costs in their sector, in the interests of consumers, in order to mitigate the need for any increases in premiums. By introducing an upper ceiling on this relief, it is intended to ensure continuing support by means of the tax system for those who purchase standard but good policies, while reducing Exchequer exposure to the more expensive policies. That was the point on which Senator O'Brien agreed to differ with the Minister for Finance.
Senators Bacik, Mooney, Mullen, Mullins, Noone and others raised the matter of the minimum pricing of alcohol or below cost selling of alcohol. I have invited the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, to come to the House. I understand that policy will be outlined tomorrow. I hope the Minister of State will come to the House to debate the issue with Members.
Senator Bacik Landy and Kelly also raised the question of the one-parent family tax credit. I am sure that can be addressed in the context of the Social Welfare Bill. If not, I am sure we will find another avenue by which it can be discussed in the House.
Senator O'Donnell spoke about the lack of enforcement of building regulations which was clearly evident over the period of the Celtic tiger years when regulations were swept aside and there was little or no enforcement. I certainly agree with the Senator that people are angry, not alone with banks but also with the people who were responsible for building substandard houses and apartments and the professionals who signed off on these structures. They should be held to account, in my view. However, there does not seem to be any movement in that regard. Local authorities have tightened up on the building regulations and on enforcement. However, the people responsible for many substandard homes, for which people paid large mortgages, are not being held to account. Action will have to be taken. The builders and the professionals who signed off on the buildings have a lot to answer for.
Senator Quinn spoke about the anomalies in Russian adoption cases. I have raised the question with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. She is very sympathetic. She has contacted some of the families in question and she is quite aware of the plight of these families. I am sure she will do everything possible and it is hoped the technicalities of the system can be acted upon. The window of opportunity is closing very shortly-----
Senator Comiskey asked about the construction companies and subcontractors. Senator Quinn's Bill on contractors has passed both Houses. I will find out whether it has been enacted. Senator Mooney spoke about the differential between the price of alcohol in the North and here and which is a problem for people on this side of the Border. This matter can be discussed further when the Minister of State, Deputy White, comes to the House. The minimum pricing of alcohol will further increase the differential between the North and here. An attempt to solve one problem may create a bigger problem elsewhere.
We will need to examine that problem also. Senator Barrett spoke about the trade agreement between the EU and Canada and the obvious benefits for Canada. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, is pushing for a larger trade agreement between the EU and the US. I note the Senator's points about the 20th anniversary of the Shankill bombings. We will assist Ambassador Haass and we wish him well in his endeavours in Northern Ireland.
Senator Kelly spoke on infrastructure policy and energy needs. As he stated, the matter was addressed in a motion on the Adjournment.
He is asking for a broader debate on the issue and I will certainly invite the relevant Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, to come to the House for such a debate. His attendance is a matter for the Minister but I will certainly issue the invitation.
Senators White, Harte and Ó Domhnaill spoke about the Dublin to Derry road and the reallocation of funding by the Northern Ireland Executive, which is certainly regrettable. The Government has stated the commitment to the project exists, although the required money does not. I am sure that when the money becomes available in the jurisdiction, the finance will be made available for that much-needed road project. Senator Ó Domhnaill also mentioned that Fianna Fáil had made a commitment of €400 million for that road. The party made many commitments but there was no finance to back them up.
Senators Colm Burke and Walsh referred to the powers of local authorities with regard to commercial rates, etc. The Local Government Bill will come to the House before Christmas and that will provide an adequate forum for every Member to comment on those issues. Senators Mullen and Walsh spoke to an amendment to the Order of Business facilitating debate on credit unions in Ireland. I suggest the issues raised by Senator Mullen could be raised in an Adjournment motion and he could get the answers to the questions. It could also be raised in Private Members' time as I have no intention of amending the Order of Business to address the subject this afternoon.
Senator Mullins spoke of the ambulance service and response times in the west of Ireland. I suggest that the Senator puts the issue in an Adjournment motion to get all the facts and figures relating to it. Senators Bradford, Conway and Healy Eames sought a debate on health insurance and universal payments. It would be a wide-ranging debate but I will bring it to the attention of the relevant Minister and invite him to the Seanad to discuss the matter. Senator Conway also spoke about combatting the black economy, and I note his points in that regard. Senator Noone spoke about the alcohol strategy, and I hope to have more news on that tomorrow.