Thursday, 19 December 2013
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Friday, 20 December 2013, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, Appropriation Bill 2013 (Certified Money Bill) - all Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, earlier signature motion on the Appropriation Bill 2013, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 4, Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill 2013 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3, without debate; No. 5, Protection of Children's Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012 - Committee Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 4 and to be adjourned no later than 1.15 p.m.; and No. 6, Local Government Reform Bill 2013 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and to be adjourned no later than 3.15 p.m.
That is fine.
As I pointed out last year, the Appropriation Bill is effectively a cheque for €47.5 billion which we are being asked to sign today, just as the Dáil was obliged to sign it yesterday. In the past, however, debate was permitted on the Appropriation Bill, which is a practice that should be restored. It is a dereliction of our duty simply to sign a cheque for €47.5 billion without debate. I realise that the vast majority of the money has already been spent and there is little we can do about it. That is why the Fianna Fáil Party abstained last year when a vote was called by Sinn Féin.
That is the reason Fianna Fáil abstained last year when a vote was called by Sinn Féin. We did not wish either to endorse the Government's spending plans or to take the money back from the people who got it, which would be the effect of a "No" vote. However, it deserves far more scrutiny. The Seanad does not have a great deal of power over the spending of money, but the obligation on it to pass the Appropriation Bill provides us with an opportunity to have an influence on it for the benefit of society. On that basis, I oppose the Order of Business. There should be a formal debate. We will assess the position with regard to the Bill when that vote arises, but I am not inclined to oppose it. Unfortunately, however, I am not inclined to support it either. It is a difficult choice.
The Seanad should have a full debate on the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, allegations. The Seanad has been central to the statements made, particularly by my colleague, Senator Darragh O'Brien, and, in the past, by Senator Mark Daly and Senator Lorraine Higgins. The allegations Senator Darragh O'Brien made yesterday are so serious that he went to the Garda fraud squad. They also involve a political question which he raised yesterday, so it would be appropriate to invite the Minister to the House to discuss the conduct of the Department of Finance and of NAMA. We should have a full debate on the issue rather than simply pass the buck to the Garda, which has a very important role. I compliment Senator Darragh O'Brien. He received some criticism to the effect that he was just another politician grandstanding but, unlike some politicians who have gone to the Garda in the past, he refused to be accompanied by photographers or the press. Such was the seriousness of his duty he was accompanied by his solicitor. That was the right approach and I compliment him on doing this properly and in the privacy of the Garda station. He did not go to his local Garda station with photographers but went straight to the fraud squad which has seisinof this matter.
The main issue that will affect the people of Ireland this Christmas is the HSE service plan. It is shameful that this fraudulent document is being presented to the Oireachtas immediately before Christmas and is to come into effect in January. It is the same on-the-hoof approach that the Government adopted with the health plan in the budget. The spin doctors have been busy portraying the reduction in the amount of money to be saved from medical card cuts as a huge victory, but the reality is that 100,000 people will lose their medical cards under the service plan. That is a shame and a disgrace. It is a shame that the Labour Party and Fine Gael are vying to claim the credit for that cut.
A person in a wheelchair and a cancer sufferer came to my office this week about it. Two weeks ago I met a child who has an illness that will end the child's life in a few years, and that child had to battle with the Government and the HSE to get a medical card. That is what is happening.
The health plan for next year was published yesterday. We are due to have a briefing session in private this afternoon, according to an e-mail we all received from the Minister. We should have the debate and the briefing session in this House so the Irish public can know the full details of it and so the Minister and his officials can be questioned in full view of the public, online or in the news programmes. It is unacceptable that we are to have a meeting about this in the AV room. The Leader is obliged to organise a full debate on this service plan before Christmas so we can get the truth about what is happening. I have not even mentioned the accident and emergency department closures that are promised. I sincerely hope that Navan's accident and emergency department will not be among the closures that were announced yesterday.
It is admirable that Senator Darragh O'Brien went quietly to the Garda to give the evidence he has, although a cynic might say he should have gone to the fraud squad in the first place.
To give some good news, there has been a reduction in the number of calls to the Samaritans, which they say is because of increased hope in the country. It is worth noting that. We all feel for people who find themselves on the brink of despair and it is good to know we are turning the corner in that regard.
I welcome the announcement that the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, and his British counterpart, David Cameron, will visit the Irish war graves in France. It is a particularly welcome announcement given that this year is the centenary of the 1913 Lock-out and next year is the centenary of the start of the war in 1914. Many of the people who went to the front in 1914, particularly people from Dublin, did so because they were living in extreme poverty. Many families were touched by the fact that their loved ones could never receive the acknowledgement they deserved for the role they played in the First World War. Some families changed their names so they would not be targeted when their soldiers returned from the front. The announcement is a very welcome development.
It is something we must come to terms with as a nation. Both leaders visiting the graves will be a step in the right direction. Many people from the Dublin tenements found themselves in the British army because of their extreme poverty.
My question for the Leader is about housing. I do not wish to sound like the prophet of doom but I believe that at this time next year we will be tackling one of the most serious housing crises this country has ever experienced, including during the 1930s through to the 1960s. We have just received an assessment of housing need which shows 90,000 families on the housing waiting lists. Numerous organisations, including Threshold, say the number of people presenting as homeless has doubled, due to their inability to access appropriate housing. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate early in the new year on an overall housing strategy to tackle the issues of housing supply and how to protect housing for vulnerable and low-income families.
On yesterday's Order of Business there was reference to the procedures whereby distinguished people are invited to address Seanad Éireann. There are two categories of people - figures of international importance, who largely give an address but might engage in some degree of dialogue, and national figures, who are subjected to a more intense grilling. I have written to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges requesting that it put Pope Francis prominently on this list. This was unanimously supported by all my colleagues. I am an Anglican, one of my colleagues is an atheist and the others are Catholics of various degrees of belief. I ask the Leader to do what he can to advance this possibility and I ask my colleagues to support this in a few words this morning. I know some of the Members who have already spoken support it, as I have spoken to them about it.
Pope Francis is somebody who might engage in dialogue. He would certainly say something fascinating and there would be no cliches from him. It is important at this time to have international figures who give joy and hope. International political figures have unanimously and entirely let us down. They never think of values. This is somebody who is expressing values of economic justice. He is speaking about decentralising the Vatican, attacking power and of going to Lampedusa and celebrating mass on an upturned boat. The language of his document, Evangelii Gaudium, is very interesting. He uses the language of ordinary people. He speaks as a sinner, as he says, and he speaks with Christ-like humility not just to Roman Catholics but to all baptised Christians and the rest of the world. His message is one we should seriously heed, whether we are religious or not, because he speaks about justice. Without justice we will get nowhere. The language is very different. Previous popes always spoke with terms such as "the magisterium" and the like, which bespoke the imperial past of Rome and a type of moral authority that came absolutely from the top. This man speaks to all and has a Christ-like humility.
Would he come? I think he might. Nelson Mandela came to the Mansion House which is scarcely a location of any great international renown. This pope has an unusual background in that he spent several months in Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin.
He knows the country and this city. He also knows the special role Ireland has played throughout history in the development of Christianity and, in particular, the Roman Catholic Church. I hope to table a motion early in the new year to the effect that he should be invited to address the House. I would like all Senators to indicate their support for such a motion today. In fact, I would like it to become an all-party motion. I recognise that what I am suggesting could only be done as part of a State visit because he is both a religious leader and a head of state. He could, of course, enjoy the usual courtesies with the President and the Government but if he spoke in the Seanad, we could open the Distinguished Visitors Gallery to Members of the Dáil. I have represented Seanad Éireann on several occasions at joint meetings-----
I beg the Chair's pardon. I will end by stating that the members of the press could do what they always say they do, namely, watch proceedings on the monitors in their offices, and thereby leave the seats in the Distinguished Visitors Gallery free for others to use.
Senator Norris's proposal is a an excellent one. Pope Francis recently appealed to the Lord to grant us more politicians with integrity and courage in order that we might try to eliminate poverty. That leads me on to the request I made yesterday that the House should engage in a debate on poverty, particularly in view of the fact that this is a difficult time of year for many people. In that context, I wish to encourage and support the Samaritans on the work they do. The Samaritans have left an indelible mark on the hearts of the people. Indeed, they have helped thousands of Irish citizens. The care branch of the Samaritans is probably one of the busiest parts of the organisation in the context of the work it does. It is one of the branches selected to role out the new pan-European Samaritans freephone service. I wish the Samaritans well in this endeavour and I take this opportunity to congratulate the volunteers in the Clare branch who do wonderful work in providing a 24-7 service.
This will be the final Order of Business of the current session. It is always important to end on a positive note. In that context, I wish all of the people who help us and work with is - the staff, the ushers and so on - a very happy Christmas. We have a great deal to be thankful for as 2013 draws to a close. Significant progress has occurred during the past 12 months and the Taoiseach has provided the country with very strong and courageous leadership. He has outlined what we have achieved and his vision for the future in his state of the nation address on Sunday night last. That address went down exceptionally well. The Gathering was one of the highlights of 2013 and it led to an increase in the number of tourists who visited Ireland. What has been achieved is significant. Many more people came to the country during the The Gathering than was originally envisaged. I am of the view that what is going to happen in 2014 will be even better. I would like a significant proportion of the €1.1 billion obtained through the sale of Bord Gáis to be invested in winter and summer tourism projects, such as those involving the provision of greenways.
I support Senator Norris's wonderful proposal and congratulate him on coming up with it. I am delighted the Committee on Procedure and Privileges also supports the proposal. I urge all Senators to indicate their enthusiastic support for it. Even just issuing an invitation would greatly increase the stature of the House. That stature is in our hands to a very large extent. Last evening, Senator Crown introduced the Protection of the Public Interest from Tobacco Lobbying Bill 2013. We had a very good debate on this legislation and I am of the view that the reputation of the House was enhanced as a result. A meeting took place with the Taoiseach yesterday in order to obtain his views on Seanad reform. I got the impression that the reform he has in mind is very limited in nature. There is an onus on us to ensure that any reform that comes about will not just be limited to changes relating to the university Senators' seats.
That is all we have heard at this stage. It is our responsibility to ensure that the Taoiseach, the Government and the Lower House understand that we cannot do everything ourselves and that we need the State to be able to support us. If we are going to support reform, then it must be real and must not be limited solely to the areas suggested by the Taoiseach yesterday. I get the impression that there is no enthusiasm on the Taoiseach's part to hold another referendum. I understand why that is the case, particularly after the wallop he received on the previous occasion. There is a great deal that can be done in the context of legislation-----
-----it is clear that much of what has happened was facilitated by the veil of secrecy surrounding the agency's operations. It must be remembered that the previous Fianna Fáil Government created NAMA at a cost of billions to Irish taxpayers and yet did not require any transparency or accountability from it.
The National Asset Management Agency Act, which governs the activities of the agency, is severely limited in scope and has helped to create this monster which is being run in a way that is contrary to the public interest. We do not know what deals are being done and nor do we know the identities of those who are buying properties from the agency. It is not right to vest control over private sector assets to a body which could be subject to influence in the absence of accountability.
NAMA has a critical role to play in Ireland's economic recovery. We urgently need to restore confidence in the agency. We could outline any number of allegations during the coming days but we need to do something constructive. We must begin by reviewing the draconian powers the agency possesses. In addition, we need to consider amending the NAMA Act in order to make the agency more accountable and transparent to the Irish people. We cannot have unsavoury practices continue and we must strive for better standards from the agency. For that reason, I request that the Ministers for Finance and Minister for Justice and Equality come before the House early in the new year in order to debate the possibility of amending the legislation to allow for accountability. The latter was not done when Fianna Fáil was in government.
Senator Higgins will be delighted to hear that the NAMA and Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Transparency Bill is on the Order Paper. In that context, I request that - by leave of the House - No. 17 be taken before No. 1. I would welcome a debate on NAMA and perhaps the House could take the Bill to which I refer tomorrow, the Second Stage debate relating to which was taken last year.
I wish to propose that No. 17 be taken before No. 1 in order to allow for publication of the NAMA and Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Transparency Bill. I am sure Senator Higgins and others who are seeking transparency in NAMA will support the Bill, which allows for all the properties being sold by or on behalf of the agency to be listed on a website. In the past notifications have been placed in the newspapers in respect of properties that were sold. However, nobody knew that these were for sale. How is that good for the taxpayer? I used to be an auctioneer and I am aware that there are various ways of selling property. Doing so by way of backroom deals is not really in the interests of the taxpayer. If Senator Higgins wants to peruse the Bill to which I refer, she will discover that it clearly states that NAMA should sell all assets in an open and transparent manner and in the same way that State assets are disposed of.
Whether they are loans or property, they should be sold as if they are State assets. The Office of Public Works sells all State assets by tender or public auction. The banks, which manage loan books on behalf of the National Asset Management Agency, should sell these assets in the same manner at the OPW as that would create full confidence in NAMA and its activities.
I support Senator Norris's call to invite the Pope to visit Ireland. He is a living example of the church he leads. He not only speaks about how people should act but acts in accordance with his words.
The House will soon rise for Christmas. I, like other Senators, find it important to be aware that Christmas can be a lonely time, rather than a time of celebration, for many people who are experiencing difficulties. I refer to the launch yesterday of the Samaritans Impact report. I am especially conscious of elderly people who have fallen victim to elder abuse. The House should send out a message to alert people that supports are available. We heard yesterday from representatives of the Samaritans that the organisation's hotline is extremely busy between the hours of 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. when other support services are closed. If people are in distress, anxious or need to speak to someone, the Samaritans are available 24 hours per day, 365 days of the year. It is important that people ask neighbours and local communities to be vigilant on behalf of older people who may be experiencing a difficult time or in distress. People are often too embarrassed to speak about elder abuse, which can take various forms, from physical and verbal abuse to subtle intimidation. It is important that support services are available for people experiencing this problem. In Galway alone, the Samaritans received 33,000 telephone calls in the past 12 months. The increase in the number of adolescents calling the Samaritans indicates that the problem extends across society. I commend the work of the Samaritans.
I also support the call made by Senator Norris to issue an invitation to Pope Francis to visit the House. As a party that is not represented on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, it is important that I indicate Sinn Féin's support for the Senator's call.
I was interested to hear a number of contributions made by Government Senators. We should be cognisant that many of the difficulties with housing people are experiencing are the result of budgetary decisions made by the Government.
It is easy to wring one's hands in the House or describe the problem as terrible in the media. I am aware from interactions with many Government agencies that most of the problems people are experiencing are the result of cutbacks in services. I agree with previous speakers that a serious debate is needed on housing. It is astounding that 90,000 people are on housing waiting lists. I do not lay the blame entirely at this Government's door as the housing crisis started a long time ago. A process of privatisation has been under way in the housing sector for some time and the sector has been subjected to serious cutbacks. Since 2008, for example, €1 billion has been cut from housing budgets. This is in addition to cuts in basic social welfare and rent supplement payments. The housing stock is also in rag order as local authorities do not have the funds needed to carry out repairs. Waiting times for housing are the longest in recent memory. As such, when Government Senators vote in favour of budgetary cuts they should bear in mind that this is what they are voting for. Let us not kid ourselves in that regard.
A survey by EUROSTAT, the European statistics agency, has found that only 67% of Irish households had a broadband connection in the second quarter of 2013 compared to a European Union average of 76%. In response, industry spokespersons noted that when one includes satellite broadband and 3G services, the figures are worse. Moreover, some 3G and satellite broadband services are barely fast enough to book a flight. We have a serious problem with broadband, which must be addressed if we are serious about creating jobs, especially in rural areas. The Government lags behind its European counterparts on this issue. A debate on broadband in the early new year would be welcome.
I congratulate the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, on decisions taken at yesterday's ECOFIN meeting on bank resolution measures, banking union, security of deposits and so forth.
I understand the nature of politicians as much as anyone else does. In that context, I refer to serious allegations made about the National Asset Management Agency. Nothing has been proven and much of what has been alleged may be unfounded. We are not judges. The Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, which is independent of Parliament, is involved in this matter, which is also one for the Director of Public Prosecutions. Senators should not say anything.
In recent days, a report from the Referendum Commission was referred to in the other House. It would be useful if the Leader were to arrange a debate on this matter. The Referendum Commission has a statutory obligation to publish a report after each referendum and its report on the Seanad referendum contains a number of interesting recommendations. One of the most interesting findings related to the reasons people voted in the referendum or chose not to vote. The commission expressed concern that younger people did not turn out in significant numbers and referred to confusion concerning the ballot paper. It made the interesting point that 13% of those who voted to abolish the Seanad wanted to retain it, while 6% of those who voted to retain it wanted to abolish it. There was, therefore, considerable confusion surrounding the ballot paper on which universal best practice does not appear to have been applied. It may be of interest to the Leader to arrange statements on the Referendum Commission's report at some point in the new year. Perhaps the matter comes within the ambit of the Department of the Taoiseach. Such a debate would give Senators an opportunity to obtain an insight into Government thinking on the report and the wider issue of Seanad reform.
I endorse the unique proposal made by Senator Norris to invite his Holiness, Pope Francis, to address Seanad Éireann. It is an innovative and interesting idea which has garnered cross-party support and should be pursued by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in the context of a State visit.
I have not heard of any decisions being taken on Seanad reform. I have heard, however, that the large number of reports on Seanad reform will be studied by the relevant group. Everything is open for discussion, provided it falls within current constitutional parameters and does not require a further referendum. The Constitutional Convention has proposed that graduates of Queens University Belfast should be included in the electorate for university seats. This could be done without a referendum.
I would like to put that on the record of the House. That would be a request of mine. That was one of the proposals in one of those reports in 2003 when a presentation was made by the National University of Ireland to the Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform and when Senator Maurice Hayes was in the House. Mary O'Rourke might have been Chairman of the committee at the time.
It included the University of Ulster at Coleraine. I wanted to ask the Leader a question I raised here previously concerning the clocking of cars. I watched a television programme last night and discovered that 10% of the cars sold are clocked. It is not an offence to clock a car in this country but it is an offence to sell a clocked car. How does one find them? I know the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport made some changes with the NCT so that every time one goes for an NCT, the mileage is registered. However, one can come out from the NCT, buy a hand-held computer, put it on the top of the car, clock one's car and sell it the following day. It is that easy to do it. I would like to see clocking a car made a crime. I would also like spot checks and a national register of mileage on cars. They have them in other countries and it is the only way to go. With all the computer technology available, it is possible to do that. I hope and look forward to something like that.
I make this statement with somewhat of a heavy heart but I would like in the first instance to express my support for the Committee of Public Accounts in its investigation into the activities of State-funded institutions, including my own hospital, St. Vincent's Hospital Group. It is a matter of record that I have long been troubled on many fronts by the way in which the boards of hospitals, and the board of my hospital in particular, do their business. I would like to personally dissociate myself, and any research organisations I have the privilege of running, from any connection with St. Vincent's Hospital Group or the St. Vincent's Hospital Foundation. It will become apparent that the board of St. Vincent's Hospital does not enjoy my confidence.
This began in 2002 when I discovered that members of staff of the hospital had been deliberately and fraudulently charging private health insurers in respect of cancer drugs which had been provided to that institution for free. I notified the relevant authority - the Irish Medicines Board - at the time. An investigation began, inexplicably stopped and was reformatted several days later. Documents have recently come into my possession which I am quite happy to discuss and share with the Minister for Health, because they refer to money that was fraudulently taken from the VHI, of which the Minister is the sole shareholder, and from other private health insurers. The documents would show conclusively that there was a cover-up conducted by the management and board of St. Vincent's Hospital in respect of this. Substantial intimidation was brought to bear at the time that the whistle was blown on this ten years ago but I believe in light of these new documents coming my way, and the increased scrutiny by the Committee of Public Accounts, that it is now time for this matter to be further investigated. I am asking the Leader to bring this to the attention of the Minister.
I want to respond to Senator Ó Clochartaigh's concerns about rural broadband. Eircom is investing €400 million in delivering fibre-optic broadband to 1.2 million homes. It recently announced that it is extending that to 1.4 million homes - an extra 200,000 homes. It will be extended to 562 communities around the country. An extra 22 communities in my county of Roscommon are included, including Ballaghdarreen from where I come. That is being rolled out in 2015 and 2016 and possibly earlier if Eircom can deliver on the 1.2 million homes first. I advise Senator Ó Clochartaigh to look up the Eircom website where all those towns and villages are listed, including all the Galway ones.
I second Senator Daly's amendment to the Order of Business. In respect of NAMA, for a Member of this House of the stature of the Government Chief Whip to suggest that somebody raises a matter of national importance that is in the public interest merely to milk it for publicity, is outrageous. He should withdraw that remark, which is outrageous.
I genuinely support Senator Norris's request that Pope Francis be invited to address this House. He is a world leader as well as leader of the Catholic Church to which I belong. In the short time since he became pope, he has been a breath of fresh air to many people throughout the world, not just Catholics, and I wholeheartedly support the suggestion by Senator Norris that he be invited to address this House.
The information Senator Crown brought before the House this morning is deeply troubling. It indicates that there is much cleaning up to be done in many institutions in this State so the Government will have a busy schedule in 2014. I join in supporting the call by Senator Norris that an invitation be extended to Pope Francis, a man of justice who is promoting peace and equality. Given the fact that he spent some time in Dublin, it would be nice to extend that invitation. It would be particularly nice if his visit could coincide with the re-opening of the Irish embassy to the Vatican.
Many of my colleagues here this morning have spoken about the Samaritans and the wonderful work it does, but it is appropriate that we pay tribute to all volunteers - the many people who give very generously of their time, efforts and resources to help those who are less fortunate. The Samaritans is a case in point. All of its members are volunteers. They get very minimal support from the HSE and depend totally on voluntary subscriptions and people helping them. It is a similar case with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and organisations like that. They are people who are doing an amazing job. I ask the Irish people not to take it out on those organisations because of what happened in the Central Remedial Clinic and urge them to be generous over the Christmas period in supporting those wonderful organisations that do so much for those who are less fortunate. That is the message we would like to get out from here today.
I note that the Referendum Commission's report referred to by Senator Mooney shows that the majority in favour of the retention of this House was larger than was shown in the poll because of the confusing nature of the way the question was put. Support for the House is stronger. If, as I requested, the commission had included in its literature the fact that this was an invitation for people in the Republic of Ireland to deprive people in Northern Ireland of a vote, the margin would have been larger. The fact that this opinion poll conducted by the commission shows the result we welcome again calls into question the role of opinion polls before the referendum, which showed that on the Monday before the referendum, only 27% of people favoured the retention of this House. It came in at 52% and now it is even larger.
The Referendum Commission should look at how the opinion polls were conducted because the unfortunate aspect is that the newspapers commissioning the polls then feel obliged to have their political correspondents write articles supporting the polls. They could have seriously demoralised those of us in the "No" campaign and distorted the result. Given that the "No" people were out-spent by about 1,000:1, that spending limit should be examined by the Referendum Commission. The fact that 140 Deputies in Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and People Before Profit campaigned to abolish this House shows that they are out of touch. One of the aspects people voted against when they voted for us was the way the whip system is applied.
It is a shame on the House that the Whip system was applied last night to vindicate the rights of spin doctors for a very evil industry.
I have come from a meeting of the health committee at which the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald announced that the Family Support Agency will commence its work in January. This is a welcome development. More than 4,000 staff will transfer to the agency. The establishment of the agency is a significant child care reform, considering that the annual birth rate is 75,000.
I have raised on other occasions the matter of funding to agencies and organisations in the health sector. It is time to debate the system of governance in these agencies. Senator Crown raised a very important point about the boards of agencies and to whom they are answerable. The Department is funding eight of these organisations amounting to more than €1.69 billion but that Department does not have any nominees on those boards. It is time we debated this matter and it is time to consider restructuring these boards to ensure that they are directly accountable to the HSE and to the Department and ultimately to this House. Those boards are not directly accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas or to the committees. We should debate the fact that 25% of the health budget is going to agencies whose boards do not have departmental or HSE representation.
As there is no Order of Business tomorrow I wish to compliment from the bottom of my heart the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald for her courage, conviction and compassion in introducing the Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2013 tomorrow. Senator Quinn and I raised many times the issue of these families who had been guaranteed babies from Russia but the arrangements had been disrupted by the Russian legislation. The Minister is a real politician. I know Frances for many years. I spoke to her on this issue two weeks ago. I said, "Frances, your name will be carved in stone as a politician who changes things". We are not here to talk, waffle and spin; we are here to make changes in society. I wish to declare my regard for the Minister, whom I have known for many years.
I support my the proposal by my colleague, Senator David Norris regarding an invitation to the Pope. On Tuesday of this week, Pope Francis celebrated his 77th birthday in his humble guest house rather than in the palatial rooms of the Vatican. He is exemplary in his compassion and his breadth of vision and is an inspiration for the 1.5 billion Catholics in the world. In July this year when he was asked by a journalist for his views on gay priests, he replied, "Who am I to judge?". He is a human being of 77 years of age and he is an example of the wisdom of older people who can cease to be judgmental. Their experience tells them that but for the grace of God, go I.
Senator Thomas Byrne questioned why the Appropriation Bill is being taken without debate. This has been the procedure in this House and in the other House for quite some time. I have requested the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to send somebody. I will try to have the Bill debated today but I understand the Minister is away. The Department is looking for a substitute and we will have a debate if possible. On a point of clarification, there was some confusion about No. 4 on the Order of Business, the Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill 2013 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3 and to conclude no later than 12.15 p.m.
Senator Byrne also asked about the health service plan. I am sure we will have a comprehensive debate on that Bill in January. Senator Hayden asked about the visit by the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to the Irish war graves. This visit is to be welcomed. As she rightly pointed out, many people from Dublin joined the British Army at that time because of poverty or perhaps in a sense of adventure and to fight for the rights of small nations. People in many parts of the country joined that war, in particular, from my city. It is only right and fitting that the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister would visit the Irish war graves.
Senator Hayden also raised the matter of the housing crisis, as did Senator Ó Clochartaigh. I have requested the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to come to the House in January for a comprehensive debate on housing.
Several Senators supported Senator Norris's request to invite Pope Francis to address this House. That matter will come before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Pope Francis is a man whose humility and humanity resonates with people all over the world. I would welcome such an invitation although protocol may require it to be a State visit. I am sure this matter will be discussed at length at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Senator Norris can be assured of my full support on that matter.
Senator Conway asked for a debate on poverty which other Senators have also sought previously. Senators Conway, Naughton and Mullins complimented the work of the Samaritans in particular. We must support organisations such as the Samaritans who do such wonderful work throughout the country. It would be regrettable if charities and organisations such as the Samaritans and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, were to suffer in any way because of the activities of other charities which are under scrutiny.
Senator Quinn asked for a debate on Seanad reform. I am sure all aspects will be discussed in the new year such as procedures for upgrading Standing Orders if necessary, for example, which the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will debate in the new year. I do not think there is an appetite for another referendum but I agree that aspects of Seanad reform possible under legislation should be investigated.
Senator Higgins asked for a debate on a review of the powers of NAMA and the need for transparency in its procedures.
That takes me on to Senator Daly, who has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that No. 17 would be taken before No. 1. This relates to NAMA's transparency. I am agreeable to leave being given to print the Bill. I am acceding to Senator Daly's proposed amendment to the Order of Business.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh called for debates on housing, a matter to which I have referred, and broadband coverage, a matter to which Senator Kelly also referred. They noted the more than €400 million to be invested by Eircom in fibre-optic broadband during the coming year.
Senator Paul Coghlan raised the issue of NAMA. I note his points in that regard.
Senator Mooney discussed the report of the Referendum Commission. I take his point and we may debate the report. Senator Barrett also referred to it and the role of opinion polls. I do not propose to repeat last evening's business.
Senator Crown expressed concerns about the workings of certain hospital boards and an alleged cover-up at his own hospital regarding certain practices. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister. If the Senator wishes to provide me with paperwork or the like, I will furnish it to the Minister.
Senator Burke referred to the systems of governance in organisations funded by the State and called for greater accountability and a debate on the subject. He has raised this matter three times in recent weeks. I will certainly request the Minister's attendance for a debate.
Senator White raised the issue of the Adoption (Amendment) Bill a number of times, as did Senator Quinn. When doubts were expressed and the Minister was castigated in the House, I always had faith in her and expressed the sentiment that she was doing everything possible to address this matter. It is to be hoped it will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion tomorrow through the Bill's introduction.
In light of Senator Byrne's request, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that at 3.15 p.m., we will debate the Appropriation Bill 2013 for 30 minutes. Speaking times will be five minutes for each Senator, with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, to respond after 25 minutes. We will debate the Bill as requested.