Tuesday, 5 November 2013
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the appointment as Ombudsman of Mr. Peter Tyndall, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the appointment as Information Commission of Mr. Peter Tyndall, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1 without debate; No. 3, motion re the report of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications recommending the communication of a reasoned opinion to the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2 without debate; No. 4, motion of referral to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality regarding the European Parliament and Council regulations on jurisdiction, recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters and the European Parliament and Council adoption of the treaty on regulatory procedure with scrutiny, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3 without debate; and No. 5, Social Welfare Bill 2013 - Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 4 with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed six minutes. I hope to conclude the debate at 6 p.m. with the Minister for Social Protection to reply at 5.45 p.m. It was agreed that more than three hours would be sufficient for Second Stage but, as I stated previously, I have no intention of guillotining this Bill on any Stage during the week.
I welcome the Leader's strong commitment to allowing a full, fruitful and, hopefully, constructive debate on the Social Welfare Bill. This shows that these matters deserve our scrutiny and attention and the fact that the Leader has not imposed a guillotine on this legislation will help the debate. I hope colleagues opposite realise clearly over the next few days what they are voting for if that is their intention. They will vote for cuts to maternity benefit, the household benefits package and payments to jobseekers aged under 25. The House has an opportunity to stand up for itself. There will be an opportunity on Committee Stage for Government Senators with some conscience to support some amendments. I look forward to the debate.
While I acknowledge we are dealing with that Bill this week, it would be important for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to come to the House as well to discuss the water shortages and the curtailment of water supplies in the greater Dublin region. We all know the effect this has had on householders and, in particular, on businesses and rate payers in Dublin city. This was an unforeseen incident and I welcome the fact that the Minister saw fit to visit the plant in Ballymore Eustace yesterday but why is he sitting on €141 million in capital expenditure, which is to be used for the capital programme? That money could be put to good use in advance of bringing forward a new water tax to improve the water services infrastructure. I would like an opportunity to ask the Minister about this and about what future contingencies will be put in place to improve the State's water network and not just the network in Dublin.
It was a shame that neither House sat last week. I listened with great interest and occasional incredulity to the confusion arising from the letters issued by Revenue in respect of the local property tax. I remind Members opposite that the legislation introducing the property tax was guillotined by the Government, with only four hours of debate permitted. What was particularly striking last week was that members of the Labour Party, including the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, were hysterical, acting like they had nothing to do with the introduction of this charge. Moreover, the impression was given that the Revenue Commissioners were a completely separate arm of the State, which is not the case.
I support the call by members of the Labour Party for an extension of the deadline for payment. Nobody should be paying a tax in a year in which it is not levied. The confusion arising out of this issue is immense, with people waiting 35, 40 or even 50 minutes to get through to the Revenue helplines.
I do. Did the Government know the Revenue Commissioners were issuing these letters? Was the date on which they would be issued to 969,000 households known, as well as the contents thereof? Why were the letters sent out just as the budget was finished? Were the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, aware of what would be done?
I am proposing that either the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform make a statement in the House as to whether the Government will extend the deadline for paper returns in respect of the property tax. It is not acceptable that some people should have to pay a tax this year for next year. That debate would give us a chance to ask the Tánaiste and other Ministers whether they had any idea these letters were being issued and to discover why in God's name members of the Labour Party have been jumping up and down in recent days as though they are in opposition.
If the Government did not know these letters were about to issue, then there is a larger issue. We are talking about a tax that will bring in some €500 million next year. I am tabling this amendment to the Order of Business so that we can get some answers.
Any confusion arising out of the letters sent by the Revenue Commissioners is unfortunate. Clarification is certainly required, and the Government has moved swiftly to provide it. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, has already met with the head of Revenue. The Oireachtas is moving on the issue, and rightly so. Deputy Ciarán Lynch has called representatives of the Revenue Commissioners to a meeting of the finance committee to establish the reason the letters were issued.
It is very clear from what the Minister, Deputy Noonan, has said that there is no obligation to pay the money due in 2014 by the end of 2013, nor was that the intention of the Revenue letter. The Fianna Fáil Party is simply scaremongering on this issue.
Any responsible legislator on either side of the House should be calling for clarification, which is exactly what the Labour Party and other parties are seeking. To try to muddy the water and stir up even further confusion, as Fianna Fáil has been doing, is irresponsible and unhelpful to ordinary citizens who are seeking to understand their tax obligations.
I support Senator Darragh O'Brien's call for a debate in the coming weeks on water infrastructure, which has become a matter of pressing concern to householders not just in Dublin but throughout the country. The current situation, where Dublin City Council is imposing restrictions on supply, is causing enormous problems, particularly for night-time industries such as restaurants, bars and clubs. The restrictions are an inconvenience for householders but a severe difficulty for those types of businesses.
It is currently a severe difficulty for many in the Dublin region and it is true that there has been years of under-investment in water infrastructure, which is what appears to be giving rise to the particular problems we are experiencing at the moment. It is a real concern if we cannot guarantee proper water supplies in our capital city. We need to have a debate on this issue and on water infrastructure, the coming changes with Irish Water and whether we will see an improvement. I know the Government has been seeking to make improvements and undo the damage that has been caused by years and years of neglect, including during the boom time when we should have been investing in the sort of modern infrastructure that is required to bring water to residents of the capital.
I welcome the reports that the Cabinet has agreed today to hold a referendum on marriage equality some time in 2015, and certainly within the lifetime of this Government and arising from the Constitutional Convention recommendation. It is very welcome. I was one of the many legislators who attended the convention this weekend, where a majority voted in favour of a removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. I hope we will see other referenda also taking place on similar recommendations of the convention.
I thank the Leader for ensuring that the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013 will not be guillotined. We need to have a very important debate. I have put down three amendments to the Bill and I tried to be constructive. I have also been in touch with the Minister's office over the past week with several questions, so I look forward to the debate over the coming days and will make my decisions based on what we hear on the floor of this House.
I echo the calls for a debate on water supply in the Dublin area, especially with regard to the quality of the water as well as the communications issues involved. Communications issues also apply to the local property tax and medical cards and I wonder whether the State should use organisations such as NALA in communicating to people in plain English exactly what is happening and when it is happening.
The major issue I would like to raise is about what took place yesterday in the Hague in respect of child exploitation material. We have had some good debates in this House on the issue, and I have issued a report on it as well. I believe Ireland needs to bring in a system of filtering for child exploitation material. I do not believe that will be a panacea, but it has been proven to be a deterrent and that is what we need to do. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to clarify to the House the steps he will take in transposing the European directive into Ireland. That was one of the recommendations in the directive. We have had a considerable debate in the House, but we should continue to play a role in leading the debate and calling for action on behalf of children in Ireland who are being exploited in order to have images to upload to these horrendous sites.
I join with my colleagues in welcoming the fact that the Leader has undertaken not to guillotine the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013. This is extremely important. It will pose some difficulties for my colleagues on the other side, and I hope that on this occasion, it will be possible to defeat some of the worst aspects of this Bill, because I feel they are very damaging to the fabric of Irish society. I hope they will find it possible to vote against it. I am sorry I was not here two weeks ago. I was otherwise engaged.
Thank you very much. I would not have been in the position to join in the slurpfest that greeted the Taoiseach. I would have felt a moral obligation to strike a discordant note because that is what Independents are for. They have to ask the awkward questions. We have won the referendum, but we have a huge job in front of us. That is illustrated for us today because I did not agree with everything in the Quinn-Zappone Bill. I only saw it the day that it was presented, and the same thing happened with Senator Crown's Bill. I was asked to second the Bill five minutes before the debate began and I was delighted to do so, but I do not agree with everything in these Bills. For example, I do not agree with the gathering rush towards the general overview of European legislation. That cannot be accomplished without a bureaucratic support and perhaps people do not realise there is a huge volume of stuff that comes out.
Today, we are taking a rake of stuff, some of it from the European Commission, without debate. Are we serious, if we are going to allow this very significant amount of material through without debate because that would be too troublesome and cumbersome? These are only two or three instruments. What if there are a couple of hundred? We must look at this.
I also do not agree with half pay. Half pay is essential in the Army where if one is reduced in rank, one is given half pay. I do not agree, unless somebody produces argument, not sentiment. I know it is very popular, and that some people have said we should work for nothing. That will create a real aristocracy of the elite. It is remarkable that at least two Members of this House came from the unemployment register to play distinguished roles in the House. I doubt that they could have done that if they got nothing. Suggesting we are worth nothing means we might as well have abolished ourselves. Quite a lot must be teased out and we must do it straight away.
I also do not agree with 50% women; I do not agree with 50% for anything. I want the best. I supported the Electoral (Amendment) Act because it provided that at least 30% of the party candidates should be women, but the people should have the choice. We cannot choose for them. I do not know how it would apply to the university seats if they were to be split up, for example. I suppose I could play both sides against the middle and be regarded as a kind of honorary joker, so I could go in with either side.
The other issue is the tax. This is a serious matter. The Revenue Commissioners have made a total bags of it. One is presented with options, but they are not equal because if the person selects one, which might be the only possible one for the person, or one of two, the person is penalised. It is a violation of natural justice to ask people to pay for something before the debt is incurred. That is just plain wrong and it should be resolved.
My final point, which I will try to raise as a matter on the Adjournment, is related to this. The Revenue Commissioners decided two years ago in 2011 not to issue receipts. One can get an online, unsigned acknowledgement, but how will that hold up in a court of law? If people wish to sell the house 30 or 40 years later, they cannot do so without the tax receipts but they do not have them. That is a major error. There should be something provided, but I will raise it as a matter on the Adjournment.
Will the Leader schedule a debate on the Grid25 situation, which affects 19 of the 26 counties in this country? It affects people in respect of health issues, farm production, property values and tourism. I am very disappointed that the matter I tabled for debate on the Adjournment this evening was ruled out of order, because it is a repeat of a matter raised on the Adjournment by Senator Cullinane. However, the Department has been in contact with me and told me that Senator Cullinane's matter referred to a Waterford issue. I now seek a general debate on this because it is affecting 19 of the 26 counties. This country and the Minister have a chance to set a policy of undergrounding these cables. Since 1992 Belgium has put no cable of 400 kV overground and Holland is putting all such cables underground. Why should we suddenly blight our landscape? This year was a major success for The Gathering and tourism. When people are asked what is the major attraction for them in coming to this country they say it is the scenery. However, now we going to put these pylons overground and blight our countryside.
We have a chance to change this country's policy with regard to EirGrid. The cost was a major factor, at ten times the cost, but it is now only two and half times as expensive to put the cables underground. A cost-benefit analysis has been done and it shows that this can be clawed back over 40 years because the currents are different. It is an AC current overground but a DC current underground and an AC current overground loses a great deal of its energy. There are health, farming and tourism issues for the general public, so there should be a debate in the House on Grid25 because it is affecting 19 counties. I do not accept the Department's view about what was raised by Senator Cullinane as that dealt with his native County Waterford. The Minister should come to the House to discuss this because it is a national issue. There is a pylon group in every parish in the country at present and we are all being put under pressure. It is possible to invite the Minister to the House to have a full and frank debate on this and to put all the facts on the table. People are confused, because EirGrid is not telling the truth.
I second Senator Darragh O'Brien's proposal to seek priority for the property tax issue.
I reiterate my deep concern about the property tax and the manner in which the public at large have been treated. I am not sure if Revenue is to blame, if it is a cock-up by Government or who knew or did not know what. The fact is that 80% of the people who paid their property tax six months ago in 2013 did so by debit card, credit card or by cheque, as acknowledged by Revenue. I had a number of advice clinics over the weekend and most of the people who came to see me were elderly and deeply concerned, and some of them were outraged, about being asked again in the same year to pay another property tax. The letter that issued asks people to select one of the choices offered, choices which are incoherent and difficult for an ordinary person to understand. It is effectively telling 80% of the compliant, honest taxpayers who paid their property tax last year by debit card, credit card, cheque or cash that if they pay the tax by one of the methods offered, they will pay it five months in advance. That is an appalling vista. Either those at top level in Revenue should bow their heads in shame or the Ministers, some of whom have come out and hopped up and down saying this is all wrong, should come out and put this issue to bed on bed once and for all.
I support the call made by Deputy Darragh O'Brien but there is no reason these letters could not have issued on 5 or 6 January next year. They relate to next year's tax. This is an awful insult to compliant taxpayers. Most people paid the property tax this year and they are being hit a second time this year before Christmas, which is confusing for people. There is a great deal of confusion and hurt. Coverage of this issue has been widespread in the media over the weekend. It is like trick-or-treat at Hallowe'en; the people are being tricked about what is going on. What happened was premeditated, furtive and extremely nasty against the general public. Members of the public need an apology and somebody should make it sooner rather than later. This is festering sore that will get worse over the next few weeks.
This service is to be paid for by AIB and provided by the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation. I have said on many occasions in this House that it is inappropriate for banks to be acting as the sole judge and jury over their own borrowers. The fact of the matter, and we all know this from engaging with borrowers directly ourselves, is that many borrowers are intimidated in dealing with their lending institution and it certainly is not an equal relationship. Many borrowers do not feel that they are on an equal footing in dealing with their lending institutions. I hope this service will be effective and that it will be properly resourced by AIB and will lead to more sustainable mortgage solutions. However, the fact remains that many borrowers who are not with AIB or EBS need such a service. They need an expert to stand between them and the lending institution. I have proposed on a number of occasions in this House that an expert arm of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, which is an excellent service but unfortunately very under-resourced in dealing with the current crisis, should be established to operate on a regional basis that would be available for all borrowers, irrespective of the lending institution with which they are dealing.
There is no reason such a service should not be funded by the banks and the other lenders operating in the Irish market. In that context I ask the Leader to invite the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, to the House to give us a progress report on the work of MABS in the area of mortgage arrears and the way such a service could be enlarged to provide a national expert service to cover all the lenders in the State.
I have a comment to make and a question for the Leader but I do not know if it might be somewhat pre-emptive. I am sitting here waiting for an official announcement from the Cabinet that we will have a referendum on marriage equality. I acknowledge the comments by Senator Bacik earlier and I am delighted to hear her optimism which I share. Should that come, and I believe the announcement may be made in the next few minutes, I would welcome it wholeheartedly. I suppose I could wait a few more minutes; we have been waiting a long time have we not, Senator Norris? I acknowledge the Senator's leadership, the support of Senator Bacik and all the Members who supported the proposal up to this point.
I have a question for the Leader but I want to acknowledge the leadership of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, also and the thousands of people who have marched for marriage equality in the past five years.
Obviously, we are not there yet. I am looking forward to a very respectful and robust debate. I believe and hope the Irish people will say "Yes" in 2014 or 2015 to everyone having the human right to marry the person they choose to love. If this referendum goes ahead, perhaps the Seanad could take a special role in this regard. I ask the Leader to consider whether the Seanad Public Consultation Committee might ask for submissions on this issue.
I sometimes fail to understand my good friends opposite. Having listened once again with great care and interest to Senators Darragh O'Brien and Denis O'Donovan, I would urge caution and calm. There is no need to confuse anybody further. There is no need for confusion. As a learned counsel, Senator O'Donovan understands well the point that has been made by Senator Bacik - that Revenue is independent in pursuance of its functions under law. That is the situation. In any event, there is no need for excitement.
The Minister, Deputy Noonan, has made it quite clear that there is no legal obligation to pay a lump sum until March. The State does not need the money and does not want the money until next year. It is part of the 2014 budgetary arithmetic.
I welcome Senator Norris back to this House after a couple of weeks away. He is back with the same vigour, energy and enthusiasm. I talked to some people who heard him speaking in the Hugh Lane Gallery last night. They said the same thing about his vigour and enthusiasm. Senator Norris is very welcome back. I am glad to have him here.
I also welcome the word that was received the other day regarding adoptions from Russia, a topic that has been raised by Senator White and me in this House. There was a real problem with such adoptions. There is probably still something of a problem. I gather that the Attorney General is now working on it. While the 31 October deadline might not have been removed, I gather that new legislation can be made retrospective. This appears to hold out hope for potential adoptive parents of Russian children. There was a huge problem in this regard. The prospective adoptive parents did not hear until 30 October that it was possible for this to be made retrospective. Why did they have to wait until the very last moment? If we had known this a month or two ago, all of the challenges and problems in this area would have been removed.
I think we should find time on some occasion to debate a €175 million scheme that was launched by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, in May of this year. The scheme in question was aimed at those starting up entrepreneurial companies, particularly in the technology sector. It seemed like a great scheme when it was launched in May. All of us welcomed it at the time. We are now in November, and not one penny from that fund has been accepted at this stage. It seems to me that start-up companies which have the potential to create jobs need money to get up and running.
It was announced in May and launched at the end of May. Even at this late stage in November, none has been accepted. I do not understand how we can allocate such a sum of money and then not do something about it. Perhaps it will happen but why does it take so long to get things done in this country?
I congratulate Senator MacSharry on Sligo Rovers' fine victory on Sunday in the FAI Cup Final. Those of us who have played in the Aviva Stadium - Senators Gilroy and Moran and I - know how it feels to win a match there. Other Members of the House were there as well. We hammered the journalists who I hope are listening in. I welcome the appointment of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane as manager and assistant manager. Press conferences might be more exciting than the matches themselves.
I join with other Senators in calling for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to come to the House to discuss the water situation. Dublin's problem this week could be Donegal's problem next week and all counties are concerned about the future water situation with Irish Water coming on board. It is an urgent debate that needs to take place.
"The Disappeared", which was shown on television last night, is a stark reminder of where we are. I am not alluding to Senator Cullinane because he is an intelligent Senator. Last night was the first time that people could put families to names. Names were read out over the years, which meant nothing to most people. When people saw the mothers, sisters and grandchildren of these people, such as the mother who held the shoes of her son who she says was put into a shallow grave, they had to face up to the reality. It is very useful for Senators to listen to BBC Radio Ulster. When I listened to the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster as I drove through Northern Ireland this morning, the only thing that was missing today was Sinn Féin which had disappeared from the airwaves. That is typical of what happened last night. Somebody said this morning on the BBC that the programme by Darragh McIntyre should be shown in every school throughout the country because it is probably the most petrifying and upsetting programme I have seen in the many years.
I second the call made by Senator O'Neill for a debate on the Grid Link project that affects the south east, west, midlands and north east with the North-South interconnector. We need a constructive debate. The Adjournment debate on the matter, which was taken by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, was anything but productive. He was very party-political and defensive and did not deal with the issues at all. I have attended public meetings along the length of the route from Waterford to other locations. I attended a meeting last night in Stoneyford in County Kilkenny attended by around 600 people. Meetings are taking place in Meath and other counties tonight. There is cross-party support in opposition to these monstrosities - pylons 43 metres high with 15 sq. m. bases running along 1 km wide routes where no development can take place and where development is sterilised along the entire route.
The Leader knows that in the south east where there is high unemployment, tourism and agriculture, including food production, are two areas that are seen as critical for the economic development of the region. EirGrid plans to put these pylons through the heart of County Waterford, into County Kilkenny and potentially up into counties Kildare, Wicklow or Laois depending on the preferred route. There is very clear opposition to that and growing support for the underground option. EirGrid seems to be setting its face against any alternative and opting for the cheapest option rather than the best and most environmentally sustainable option, which is underground. New technologies are emerging all the time in this area. The reason I am looking for a debate is because we can have a constructive debate with the Minister about those alternative options because that is what we are elected to do.
The meetings we are attending involve people in communities who have real concerns. It is our job to bring these concerns directly to the Minister and I ask the Leader to arrange that debate at the earliest opportunity.
I concur with Senator O'Neill, Senator Cullinane and my colleague from Roscommon, Senator Kelly, who has been raising this issue until he is blue in the face. A grand deception has been visited on the people and EirGrid has sucked Government policy with it on the basis of its assertion that we need to double the capacity of the grid. It wants to erect a further 800 km of high voltage power cables throughout the country. I have just come from a hearing by An Bord Pleanála in County Laois, where the company is trying to erect 17 new lines in the scenic area of Ratheniska, with which people will be familiar from the ploughing championships. It says the lines are intended to support energy supplies to Kilkenny and Carlow, despite the fact that another 400 kV line is being laid from Cork to Kilkenny. The purpose of the lines and the substation is to facilitate wind farm developers. We need an urgent debate on and review of the policy because the emperor has no clothes. EirGrid is the emperor and it has gone rogue. It must be brought to heel and held to account.
I am calling for that. We have been raising the issue of water in this House for the past three years. It is not the fault of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government that Dublin has no water this week. It is the fault of the previous Government, which for years looked on and did nothing about vital infrastructure. It wanted to build the Bertie bowl instead of a reservoir. That is the problem. Fianna Fáil Members are now crying enough crocodile tears to fill a reservoir.
Will the Leader invite the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to come to the House at the earliest opportunity in order that we can prioritise the construction of the Garryhinch reservoir? If this problem were to arise in January, Irish Water would be blamed. It is not to blame because this is a legacy issue. We have three CEOs, three Ministers and three State agencies with responsibility for water. We need to put one person in charge and build the Garryhinch reservoir. The only way we can do that is through an intervention from the Minister, Deputy Hogan.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House for a debate on funding for professional sports in this country? Senator Harte kindly mentioned Sligo Rovers' win in the cup. Anybody who attended the match or watched it on television would agree that the players from Drogheda and Sligo gave a fantastic spectacle which would give pride to any manager or fan throughout the world. It is worth noting that in winning that game, Sligo Rovers will receive a mere €50,000 and Drogheda will receive €30,000. Approximately €170,000 was taken at the gate. The winning players from Sligo Rovers will be on the dole today because they are only on 40 week contracts. The esteem in which our national league is held, even by our national association, is not that high when one considers that the medals given to the winning players spelled Sligo as "Silgo". These players, who gave so much over the season, are now on the dole with misspelled medals, against a backdrop where €2 million is being made available for a new management team for our national sport.
Will the Leader invite the Minister to the House to discuss these matters because our priorities are wrong? I wish John Delaney and the new management team well and we all want to see success, but it is fundamentally wrong that the people who provide entertainment week in, week out in clubs are unemployed today with a mere €50,000 to share between them after winning a cup final. It is something in which we should take an interest in light of the support the Government provides to all our professional associations.
I support the calls by Senators Whelan, O'Neill and Cullinane for a broad debate on the Grid25 project. I have raised the issue on numerous occasions. Does the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and EirGrid have a sense of the feelings that exist among people who are opposed to these pylons being erected within 50 m of their homes?
People across the country are ready to rebel on the issue. I know that people are prepared to go to prison and resist these unless EirGrid consider underground cabling. If that is the legacy that EirGrid wants to leave, it will be a shocking indictment of the company.
EirGrid's defence mechanism is that underground cabling costs two and a half times more than going overground. If it goes underground, however, it will not have to compensate farmers. Farmers are happy if the cabling is out of sight and out of mind, and they will not seek compensation. I doubt very much if EirGrid has told people that this should be built into the figure it is trying to convince people it will cost.
The main issue I want to raise is that of discretionary medical cards. The matter has been widely discussed in the media and the Oireachtas, yet medical cards are still being withdrawn. At the weekend, I had a call from the distraught father of a young child in Crumlin Hospital. The PCRS or primary care reimbursement service was refusing to give the child a medical card. For the past week, the child has been ready to be discharged from hospital but Crumlin will not discharge her until she has a medical card. She has had six months of treatment at a cost of €1,200 per month.
Worse still, he acknowledges that his child is holding up a bed in Crumlin hospital. I was also told of another child, who happens to be related to me - a newborn baby - that has been waiting for ten days to get into Crumlin Hospital. The actions of the PCRS in refusing medical cards has a wide effect. Young children and babies are being affected and cannot get into Crumlin hospital, because the PCRS is denying somebody else a medical card.
During the recess, our party lost two former Members of the Oireachtas, the late Denis Foley and the late Noel Davern. Mr. Foley was a Member of the Oireachtas for 21 years, including a term in this House. Mr. Daven was a former Deputy, Minister and MEP. I wish to extend my sympathy to their families. Denis Foley was a very good friend of mine and we were colleagues on Kerry County Council for many years. He was an outstanding public representative who did great work for people. He was popular on all sides of the political divide, as was evidenced by the huge turnout at his removal, funeral mass and burial in Tralee last week. Suitable arrangements will be made for tributes to be paid to him in both Houses in due course. In the meantime, however, I want to extend my personal sympathy to his wife Anna, his son Billy, his daughters Councillor Norma, Margaret and Denise. Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
As regards the property tax, from my training in business I have always believed in paying a bill as soon as I got it, otherwise one is forever paying it. I went online to pay my property tax and as I clicked off on the credit card I said to myself that was a very short year. I think I am computer literate but I did not see the catch when signing off on it. Many people like me did the right thing, although I am not seeking any credit for that. It is a huge disincentive for me to start paying bills promptly in future, which is bad for the country. People who did pay online should get some form of tax credit against their tax liability for the coming year.
I welcome the scheme announced last week by the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, whereby HIQA will take over the registration and inspection of all residential services for children and adults with a disability, including those in respite care. This is a great scheme and heralds a new era for those with disability. It is the first time that services will be subject to an independent inspection by HIQA.
People with disabilities are among the most vulnerable in society. This scheme, however, will protect and safeguard them in a residential setting while also holding service providers to a set standard.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, on her work in this area. I was delighted that last week saw delivery of a promise contained in the programme for Government.
I also commend RTE and BBC on last night's programme dealing with the missing people who have never been found. It is said that a picture is worth 1,000 words. The harrowing images and the descriptions portrayed the sadness of people whose lives were ruined through no fault of their own. Major questions remain to be answered. The people named in the programme should answer the questions. Allegations have been made about an Oireachtas Member and the Minister for Justice and Equality should call on him to make a statement on the matter. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I have previously met the families of some of those who disappeared. As Senator Harte said, they conveniently disappeared today.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, to the House to explain Government policy in the spatial context. This request comes in response to ongoing announcements of job creation, which is taking place almost exclusively in Dublin. To emphasise the point, recent statistics indicate that IDA Ireland organised in excess of 250 visits to sites in the Dublin region in the past 12 months, whereas in Leitrim, Sligo and many other counties in the north west and elsewhere, there was no more than one IDA Ireland visit.
We all welcome job creation. I am very much aware that multinational companies tend to decide where they wish to locate. I have no wish to reflect adversely on the work of IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland in bringing jobs in a global sense to the country. However, unquestionably the country is developing into a two-tier economy, which is a cause of great concern. It is time for the Government to decide what it wants to do about the rest of the country outside Dublin, with Cork, Limerick and to a lesser extent Galway getting the odd titbit from the table as these announcements are made. I do not single out Waterford because that is where the Leader comes from. The number of visits is small as is the number of jobs created there, with the exception of Eishtec, an indigenous company and not a multinational, which recently announced the creation of 250 jobs.
The Government is giving no priority to trying to encourage companies to locate in Sligo and the midlands, particularly high-tech companies. The nature of high-tech companies is that they do not need to locate in Dublin, but increasingly that is where they are going, to the detriment of the economy in the rest of the country.
I support Senator Mooney's request for the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, to come to the House to have a general discussion about the employment situation and in particular the lack of regional balance in recent job announcements. Having said that, we all welcome that figures published in recent days indicate that for the first time since 2009, the jobless figure has fallen below 400,000. We now have 1.867 million people at work, an increase of nearly 34,000 over the past year. The unemployment rate has dropped from 15.1% to 13.2%.
We have had more start-ups and fewer insolvencies in the past year. Start-ups are up by 17% and failures are down by 32%. Manufacturing has hit a two-year high and consumer sentiment has risen to a six-year high.
I welcome the fact that in the past 24 hours the Minister has announced €125 million under the first development capital fund which will focus on investing in small and medium-sized enterprises, but I share the concerns expressed by Senator Feargal Quinn earlier in that the €125 million announced earlier this year or last year has not been accessed by or is difficult to access for companies. While €2 billion is being set aside in a suite of measures for investment and job creation in companies of all sizes in the coming years, we need to have a discussion on how successful companies are in accessing that money. We need to have a general discussion with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, on the Action Plan for Jobs, its updating and how we can accelerate the level of job creation. What Senator Mooney said is quite accurate in that we are beginning to have a two-tier economy whereby many of the jobs are being created in Dublin, Cork and Galway city, while in towns such as my town of Ballinasloe, where we have lost 1,000 industrial jobs during the past decade, we are seeing very little to replace those jobs.
I urgently call on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to account for her tenure and her presiding over the cuts to maternity benefit to Irish women. As I have said numerous times, we have a very unbalanced four-man committee running the country. I would like to ask the Minister to account for herself. One week before the budget the expert group on the future of child care strategy recommended that maternity benefit should be extended from six to 12 months. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, said she would do all in her power to get this implemented. However, she has presided over cuts to maternity benefits to Irish women. Did Irish women cause this economic crisis?
It is under the radar how the women have been cut. I do not know how Senator Gilroy can laugh; I am speaking in the House today for the pregnant women of Ireland and the future pregnant women of Ireland, whose maternity benefit is being cut by €32 per week for 90% of those who receive it. This means that the Government has reduced the collective maternity benefit payment by €830 over the six-month period of maternity leave. How can Senators support that? How can my colleagues on the Government side support that?
I would like to ask it, a Chathaoirleach, if you will allow me. Irish men work. Irish women bear children, come back to work and look after children. They have a much more demanding role than the men of this country and that is why I am on my feet today, to defend Irish women.
I wish to add my voice of congratulations to Sligo Rovers, which won the FAI Cup final last Sunday, and to commiserate with Drogheda United. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the fact that another cup final took place on the same day at the same location, the women's FAI Cup final between Raheny United, which won after a thrilling encounter, and Castlebar Celtic. I congratulate Raheny and I commiserate with Castlebar Celtic, which put up a really good performance.
While I am talking about women's football, I wish to draw attention again to the fact that women's football in Ireland has a new league structure, which has been running for the past three years. There are eight teams involved, four from Dublin, one from Wexford, one each from Castlebar and Galway and one from ourselves in Cork. Perhaps Members might see whether they could do a little more to support their local clubs and perhaps the league in general and I encourage them to do so.
My first question pertains to the motions that are being decided on without debate. The Seanad is recommending Mr. Tyndall for appointment by the President to be Ombudsman and I have no difficulty with Mr. Tyndall. While I understand and hope his appointment was discussed by the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions-----
Has a report been laid before the House because if so, it has not come to my attention? Failing that, a member of the joint committee from the Seanad should report to Members on its deliberations because it is not appropriate to put anything through this House without debate. Again, some of the Seanad's dearly-held powers in respect of the European Union, which were enunciated during the referendum campaign, in which the Seanad has equal say with the Dáil, are being exercised today. However, this measure also is being taken without debate, which is unfortunate.
With regard to the issue of overhead pylons, I have been encouraging everyone in County Meath to attend the meeting being held at Trim tonight. I expect and hope to be there, provided that proceedings here are concluded on time and depending on how long debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill continues. If I am not at the meeting in Trim, I will be in this Chamber. However, this is an issue for the Government. While the support of the Labour Party Senators in the campaign to place underground these cables is welcome, the Government has issued a policy statement on transmission in which it endorses fully the strategy of EirGrid. That was a Cabinet decision, which I believe was published some time in 2012 and is available on the website of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Consequently, EirGrid is proceeding with the explicit approval and endorsement of the Government.
The single point in the Government statement that in some respects is welcome is a paragraph referring to gaining community acceptance. However, EirGrid has failed completely to gain any level of community acceptance or even community engagement. Nothing has happened and the community has refused to engage with EirGrid. Moreover, I believe those concerned are correct because of the heavy-handed manner in which this has happened. This has resulted in huge wastage of resources in County Meath because one should not forget this project started in that county in October 2007 but has not yet reverted to An Bord Pleanála. These things have a habit of dragging out for years. It has been five or six years since I attended a similar meeting in Trim, at which approximately 3,000 people attended. I would not be surprised were the attendance tonight similar or perhaps larger, because the attendees then all came from counties Meath and Cavan, whereas I understand people will be coming from all over the country this evening. It is important that the North-East Pylon Pressure Campaign, NEPPC, be supported in its meeting today and that a message be sent to the Government that it must change the marching orders it has given to EirGrid on this matter.
---- they have questions to ask of their computer developer because it should have been possible to tick the box and outline how one intended to pay. The reason the letters were sent out was to ascertain how people intended to pay and not when they intended to pay. The computer developer obviously linked the box on the credit cards to automatically deduct the amount. This should not have been done and there are questions to be answered as to the reason it was developed in such a fashion. It was never intended that it should be so and I seek an answer to this question from whosoever developed the system. Systems do not develop themselves and I seek a full answer to the question. Everyone who has a bank card and a credit card has a bank account and consequently, one is not obliged to pay.
As spokesperson on the environment in the Seanad, I could not let this day pass without commenting on the water issue. I read a comment made by the former Dublin city engineer, the late Jim Fenwick, in 1997 or 16 years ago, that the water supply in Dublin was on a knife edge. Clearly this remains the case but I wish to go forward without being critical. One must learn lessons from everything that happens and I wish to find out what is being done in respect of rainwater harvesting. I seek a debate in this Chamber to ascertain how a comprehensive policy on rainwater harvesting can be developed. At present, all the expensively-treated water is used for flushing toilets and everything else and only 1% of the treated water is used for human consumption.
We could reduce the use of treated water by up to 70% by water harvesting. If we could introduce a system to give tax relief to those who would purchase rainwater harvesting systems, it would save money. That would automatically reduce the amount of water that is being used. We would have up to 70% extra in our tanks. I ask the Leader to allow a debate on this issue as a matter of urgency. It should have been included in the building regulations, but it was not. It is included in the city and county development plans.
I wish to comment on the proposed Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, as did Senator Thomas Byrne. The proposed Ombudsman acquitted himself very well and was recommended for appointment by the committee.
I know we have problems to resolve in respect of property tax and water issues. These are important issues, but I am deeply concerned about an unfair anomaly that has been brought to my attention in respect of the income ceiling for medical cards. A couple, whether married or in a civil partnership, are disadvantaged over a single person. The income ceiling for a married couple is €900 whereas it is €500 for a single person. In previous years, the ceiling for a married couple was double that of a single person. In 2012, the ceiling was €1,400 for a couple and €700 for a single person. Last year it was set at €1,200 for a couple and €600 for a single person. A couple with an income of €909 are just €9 over the limit, whereas a brother and sister living in the same house have an income ceiling of €1,000. There is a fundamental difference in how the HSE is looking at the criteria for a couple vis-à-vis a single person. I spoke to the Minister's adviser this morning, who defended this decision. I do not think it is fair. People have made the case that one cannot share medical treatment, or medication. It is not like sharing electricity or food. There is a difference. Will the Leader find out the reason for the discrepancy and why a couple is disadvantaged under the new criteria? Will he return to this House to tell us when it will be reversed? I do not think it is correct to discriminate against a couple, be they married or in a civil partnership as opposed to two single people living together.
I will not delay the House, but I too raise the question of the property tax. The message that should come out from this House is that people who have paid their 2013 property tax should not under any circumstances contemplate paying their property tax for 2014 until January or February of next year. It is as simple as that.
I congratulate those who sent out such letters. Nobody could understand it. I would like Members to support the message that anybody who has paid their 2013 property tax does not pay their 2014 tax until next year.
Senator O'Brien and others raised the issue of the water shortages in Dublin. The water shortages were caused by unforeseen circumstances and continue to be an inconvenience to householders and businesses. Senator Whelan, speaking on the same issue, was one of a number of Senators calling for a debate on water infrastructure. The development of the Garryhinch reservoir was also raised. We will endeavour to have a debate on the issue of water infrastructure.
Senator Keane mentioned rainwater harvesting. I will try to get the Minister to come to the House for a debate on the whole question of water. We debated the Irish Water legislation but, hopefully, we can have a more detailed debate in the coming weeks.
Senator Darragh O'Brien and several other Senators raised the property tax. I understand the Revenue Commissioners will clarify the situation in the newspapers and on the airwaves. Yesterday, the Minister for Finance clarified that nobody needs to pay the property tax before 2014.
Senator Bacik raised the proposed referendum on marriage equality. I have not heard the outcome of the Cabinet deliberations on the matter but I am sure it will be welcomed when the Cabinet decides on it. There have been a number of recommendations from the Constitutional Convention. Government and Parliament will decide whether to have referenda on those issues and I am sure that will be a matter for discussion in the House over the coming months. Senator van Turnhout raised child exploitation and abuse, especially the case outlined yesterday. As she mentioned, we had a very comprehensive debate on the EU directive. I will check the progress of legislation on that matter with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter.
We welcome our colleague, Senator Norris, back to the House. He mentioned Seanad reform and property tax, which I have addressed. Senators O'Neill, Cullinane, Whelan, Kelly and Byrne and other Senators raised the EirGrid proposals. It is a matter of concern to citizens in many counties who will be affected by the pylons. Many people are bringing questions of health, farming and tourism to the attention of all Oireachtas Members. There was an Adjournment debate on this issue with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, a couple of weeks ago but I will ask him to come to the House to debate the issue. However, it is entirely a matter for him to decide whether he wishes to come to the House having been here only a fortnight ago for an Adjournment debate. Senator Cullinane has attended quite a number of meetings in Waterford and County Kilkenny, where he lives, and I note his points in that regard.
Senator O'Donovan raised the need for plain English in correspondence emanating from the Revenue Commissioners and all Departments and I could not agree more with him on that matter. Senator Hayden welcomed the setting up of a service for people in mortgage distress with AIB and called for an expert arm of MABS to deal with all lenders. We will raise that with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, as I am sure will the Senator.
I would say to Senator Zappone that I am not aware of the Cabinet decision on the referendum on marriage equality but I am sure it will be addressed in the coming days. Senator Paul Coghlan raised the independence of the Revenue Commissioners and the prudence of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, in managing capital funding.
Senator Quinn raised the issue of Russian adoptions. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, sought advice from the Attorney General and it is possible that retrospective legislation can address the matter.
I was contacted by the Minister on the matter. We would all welcome a resolution to the situation in which some families find themselves regarding Russian adoptions.
Senator Quinn referred to the €175 million allocated for start-up companies and how little progress there has been in the take-up of this funding. Senators have called on the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to be invited to the House to address the question of job creation. Hopefully, I will get him to attend in the coming weeks. However, legislation to deal with SMEs will be taken in the House in the next few weeks and that will give Members an opportunity to raise matters with him.
Senators Harte and Moran referred to the RTE programme "The Disappeared", which was broadcast last evening. It was an excellent production and our hearts go out to the relatives of those who disappeared. There are many questions to be asked of many people in this regard. Our heartfelt sympathies go to the families who have had to put up with this for many years. It is a dreadful situation.
Senator Whelan raised the matter of water infrastructure and the Garryhinch reservoir, which I have addressed.
Senator MacSharry referred to funding for professional sport. He mentioned soccer, in particular, and his emphasis was on the FAI. I share his concerns that players are hired on 40-week contracts and must go on the dole for the rest of the year, but I understand the funding for the new international team manager and his assistant will be primarily private funding rather than Government funding.
Senator Kelly raised the issue of discretionary medical cards. He should table the issue he raised as an Adjournment matter to get an exact response from the Minister for Health but I share his concerns about the withdrawal of such cards where they should not be withdrawn.
Senator O'Sullivan referred to the deaths of Denis Foley and Noel Davern. We would all like to convey our deepest sympathy to their families. I note the Senator's comments on a tax credit for people who have paid but I doubt that much attention would be given to that. They would probably not act on it.
Senator Moran also welcomed the announcement that HIQA will conduct independent inspections of residential homes and services for people with disabilities. Everyone involved will welcome that.
Senator Mooney called on the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to come to the House to address the issue of jobs and the need for greater balance in creating jobs in the regions. I agree that the vast majority of job announcements have related to Dublin, Dundalk, Cork, Galway and Limerick to a lesser degree and that there is a need for greater emphasis on the regions but, as Senator Mullins pointed out, 34,000 more people are at work now compared to this time last year, which is positive, and there are other positive aspects to employment issues.
I agree, however, that the whole question of regional balance where job creation is concerned should be addressed and debated in the House.
Senator Mary White referred to cuts in maternity benefit. We will have ample time to discuss that issue during the debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill, with three hours allocated for Second Stage and as much time as is needed on Committee Stage tomorrow. I am sure the Senator will raise the points she has made today with the Minister when we come to discuss the relevant sections of the Bill.
We would all join with Senator John Gilroy in emphasising the importance of supporting women in sport, particularly women's soccer teams.
Senator Thomas Byrne referred to the appointment of the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. As Senator Fidelma Healy Eames observed, that appointment was discussed by the relevant joint committee, the deliberations of which are available for examination by all Members. I note Senator Byrne's points regarding EirGrid.
Senator Cáit Keane spoke about water infrastructure, pointing out that the infrastructural deficiencies in Dublin were highlighted as a serious problem in 1997 but little happened in the intervening years. I hope we will see progress on that matter in the coming months and years.
Senator Healy Eames referred to anomalies in the provision of medical cards whereby the income threshold for a couple aged over 70 years is €900 while the threshold for a single person is €500. The Senator might table an Adjournment motion on that issue, which would allow her to discuss it with the Minister.
Finally, I note Senator Terry Brennan's advice on the issue of property tax payment.
Senator Darragh O'Brien has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the question of extending certain deadlines in regard to the local property tax be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Thomas Byrne
- David Cullinane
- Mark Daly
- James Heffernan
- Terry Leyden
- Marc MacSharry
- Paschal Mooney
- Rónán Mullen
- David Norris
- Trevor Ó Clochartaigh
- Labhrás Ó Murchú
- Darragh O'Brien
- Denis O'Donovan
- Ned O'Sullivan
- Averil Power
- Feargal Quinn
- Kathryn Reilly
- Jim Walsh
- Mary White
- Diarmuid Wilson
- Ivana Bacik
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Deirdre Clune
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- Michael D'Arcy
- John Gilroy
- Jimmy Harte
- Aideen Hayden
- Imelda Henry
- Lorraine Higgins
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Marie Maloney
- Mary Moran
- Michael Mullins
- Hildegarde Naughton
- Catherine Noone
- Marie Louise O'Donnell
- Susan O'Keeffe
- Pat O'Neill
- Tom Shehan
- Jillian van Turnhout
- John Whelan
- Katherine Zappone