Tuesday, 28 January 2014
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, an update on youth justice policy, to be taken at 3.45 p.m. and to conclude no later than 5.45 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes. The Minister shall be called on to reply to the debate no later than 5.35 p.m.
For the information of the House, I wish to advise that there will be a debate with the Minister for Justice and Equality next Tuesday on the charities sector. This is a debate for which many Members have called over the past number of weeks. I advise also that a motion will be brought before both Houses tomorrow concerning the extension of the reporting deadline for the Constitutional Convention to 31 March 2014. I will seek the agreement of the House that this motion be taken without debate tomorrow, as it is only a technical matter.
I have no difficulty in regard to the Constitutional Convention extension. On that issue, we had Tom Arnold in the House last week, but we have not had debates here on the individual reports. The Leader may correct me if I am wrong about that. We should have debates on them. The Dáil has had extensive debate on the issue, but it is our baby as much as it is that of the Dáil. We should take this up, but I will wait to hear the Leader's response.
I do not attribute any blame to the Leader, but the schedule for today is very light. We have an important debate, the update on youth justice policy, an issue which is close to the heart of many Members and which is an important national issue. However, there are other issues we could discuss today. One issue we could discuss, and I propose an amendment to the Order of Business in this regard, is that after the youth justice debate, the Seanad should discuss the situation in the HSE with regard to the lack of and vacancies for consultants. RTE's "Prime Time" programme made major revelations about the lack of consultants and the major gaps at the top of the health service. It seems the HSE is having huge problems. It appears the HSE has a secret report on this, outlining many of the dangers, risks and gaps in the service. That report has not been published. The Seanad should discuss this report and bring the Minister for Health to the House to provide some answers for people. There are huge gaps in the service and today Joe Duffy's programme is talking to many people who are on significantly long waiting lists.
People are complaining about the absence of the National Treatment Purchase Fund which used to guarantee service in nine months. It was abolished to make way for the special advisers and special delivery unit. These matters need to be cleared up. There are major gaps in consultancy and emergency services, as well as in services for cardiology, radiology, neurology and other specialties which affect people’s daily lives. Accordingly, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Seanad debate the health service. It has plenty of time to have such a debate. If the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, is not available to attend, I am sure Members would be satisfied with the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, who is doing a good job as spokesman when other Ministers are not available.
I thank my women colleagues in this and the other House who attended the Seanad Chamber earlier today at 1.30 p.m. for an event to mark the 95th anniversary of the 1918 general election, the election in which women first had the right to vote and Constance Markievicz was elected as the first woman MP-TD. We had a great turnout, with the Chamber half full of elected women. An official photograph of the event was taken which I hope will be displayed on the walls of Leinster House, just like the photograph to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1918 general election. I thank staff in the Houses of the Oireachtas, particularly the communications unit, the Captain of the Guard and the ushers, who helped to make the event so successful.
I support Senator Thomas Byrne on the Constitutional Convention. It would be good for the House to debate the individual reports the convention has already published. The recent debate with the convention’s chairman, Mr. Tom Arnold, was excellent because it provided for us, as legislators, an overview of the entire work the convention had done to date. I would also like a follow-up debate at the conclusion of the convention’s business.
I welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality’s referral of the issue of the nullification of penalty points to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, which is the appropriate forum to deal with the issue. It was always the place for the investigation that needs to be carried out into the serious allegations made. Many Members, including me, expressed some concerns about the appropriateness of the Committee of Public Accounts carrying out such an investigation, an investigation that is clearly required to uncover the scale of the nullifications. The Garda Commissioner’s language at last week’s committee hearing was unfortunate, but he did raise some issues of concern. It is welcome to see the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission taking on a role in this regard.
I am also glad that the Minister will seek to amend the Garda Síochána Act to ensure serving gardaí will have a clear forum in order that whistleblowers can be protected, as there is a flaw and a gap in the legislation to date. I look forward to that debate.
The Louise O’Keeffe judgment handed down by the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, today is welcome. One consequence of the Supreme Court's judgment is that it placed a heavy burden on voluntary boards of management of primary schools. I know there will be consequences from the ECHR judgment which is a lengthy document and which I have not read fully yet. However, I hope we will debate it, as well as how best the State can protect pupils who are, unfortunately, victims of sexual abuse in schools. We need to look further at the repercussions of the judgment for the State and survivors of abuse.
Recently the Minister for Education and Skills referred to the amount of time allocated to teaching religion in schools. I believe, however, he has been misquoted in many cases because he did not suggest the solution was to reduce the amount of hours allocated for the teaching of religion. We have a real problem in that over many years we have developed a shorter school time period than any other country in the world. In Japan schools have 16 days holidays per year; in Germany there are six weeks holidays in the summer. However, we got into a habit of having shorter school times. One of the reasons for this was children were needed to work during the summer on farms 60 or 100 years ago. The result was that the second level system ended up with three months holidays during the summer.
There is another month at Christmas, another month at Easter and another month at mid-term as well. It seems to me that part of our problem is that we have not allocated enough time for education. I know it will not be easy to convince teachers to work a lot longer. It appears to me that with the challenges we have, it is not so much that too much time is allocated to religion but that not enough time is allocated to such subjects as languages, maths, English and history. The question is how we find time to do that. The only way to find is a solution is by devising something novel. I urge that we consider that. It would be worthwhile having a debate on education, not just on the question of religious education but on how we will manage to solve the problem with education, because there is a real challenge to our country in the future in terms of how to educate the next generation. We cannot fit it into the limited number of hours we have. To the best of my knowledge, we have the shortest number of hours devoted to education in the world. That is worthy of discussion in the near future.
I know we debated Irish Water last week and on occasions in recent weeks but what has come out since last week is worthy of mention. I refer to 4,500 local authority employees being taken on when Irish Water already has 1,700 employees. It does not need 4,500 staff. I do not know how we can solve this. I am not sure what the solution is. It has been said that the issue will resolve itself within 15 years but we cannot wait that long. If there is a scandal waiting to break, similar some of the scandals we have had in recent times, this is the one. We really need to debate it now rather than wait until it is too late to do something about it. We need a debate again on Irish Water, particularly in light of the new figures coming through. I would especially like to see a debate on education, particularly on the amount of time allocated to education for children.
I welcome the major job announcements for the Cork area in the past three to four days. Yesterday, we heard that Tyco would employ 500 additional people. A project involving the Tyndall Institute in Cork is taking on additional people in its research facility. BioMarin is also taking on additional people. I hope that numbers there will grow from 40 to more than 200 in the next 12 months. That is a welcome development and long may it continue as regards new jobs being announced.
I wish to raise the issue of dementia. A very detailed report was published today involving research in 33 hospitals across the country. Some interesting figures emerge. The issue is worthy of debate in terms of future planning in the area. A conference on the matter will be held in Cork on Friday. The figures on the lack of training for staff dealing with patients in this area are frightening. It appears that we are not approaching the issue in a structured manner. We should examine that. An interesting figure indicates that 18% of all acute beds in hospitals are occupied by patients with dementia. The average stay in hospital before a person is discharged home is 22 days, whereas the average stay for a person who is discharged to a nursing home is 59 days. That is something we must examine. The matter is worthy of debate because the number of dementia diagnoses is growing and we must tackle the issue and plan for it.
I rise today to ask the Leader for a debate on the Louise O'Keeffe case, the result of which was a ground-breaking one in Europe today. As politicians, we should feel great shame at what happened to this citizen. This lady approached me when I was a Deputy some years ago and I felt frustrated because, first, my representations fell on deaf ears and, second, I was told the matter was sub judice and that it was a matter for the courts. I admire her tenacity and courage in pursuing this case over nearly four decades.
While I congratulate her on her success, I believe the State has failed her. I call on the Minister for Education and Skills to today make an appropriate and abject apology to her on behalf of the State. She was frustrated in her attempts to get justice and the High Court and the Supreme Court let her down. She eventually found solace elsewhere in Europe. I have been troubled for some time about the situation which is developing in the State where we have a David and Goliath battle whenever a citizen takes on the power of the State. The State has the power of the Attorney General and free access to legal aid. I am aware of another similar case where a farmer became so frustrated in his efforts to find justice that he gave up. In such situations the State should be more forthcoming and where there is a liability and a responsibility, somebody should own up to this. The court costs in this case will be astronomical, but that is not the issue; it is a matter of principle. As I said, I feel ashamed that the State and I have let down this woman, but the State is bigger than me. Somebody needs to come forward to make an open apology to her, whether it be someone from the previous or the current Government, the Taoiseach or the Minister for Education and Skills. They need to make an open apology to her before she looks for it. She deserves an apology and we owe it to her for her perseverance since 1973. The most frustrating aspect of the case is that two years prior to her being abused, reports of abuse were made from the same school of abuse, but they were ignored. Shame on all of us for allowing that to happen. If the woman in question is correct - I heard one interview given by her in which she expressed her concerns - the laws needed to protect children and prevent a repeat of what happened to her 35 or 40 years ago are still not in place. If that is the case, it is a source of serious concern for us all. I hope we can ensure this will never happen again in our lifetime. This is a very sad case and I feel ashamed to speak about it because we have all failed the woman concerned.
I am in complete unison with the comments of Senator Denis O'Donovan. The State needs to act on the outcome of this case and must ensure we will no longer be embarrassed by the way the woman in question was taken through the courts. Much of the time the European Union is criticised, but every now and then it does a good job, certainly in the area of human rights.
I commend the Minister for Justice and Equality for the action he has taken in the past couple of days to refer the issue of penalty points to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. That is the appropriate forum in which to deal with the issue and the Minister was wise to refer it to it. I appeal to everybody involved to keep a cool head and allow the process to continue. I have no doubt An Garda Síochána will co-operate fully and speedily with the ombudsman when his office carries out its investigation. We should all now refrain from comment and discussion and allow the ombudsman do the important work the Minister has tasked him to do.
Concerning all the problems we heard repeated over and over on television and radio this morning regarding the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Committee of Public Accounts etc., one of the greatest problems facing the country is that of youth out of work, with no work, not in training and with no possibilities. The scale of that challenge is enormous. We are talking about the provision of services, training, work placements and education. I congratulate the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton; the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, on the launch of Pathways to Work. It is most important that young people have access to training, education, work and possibilities. This programme sets out how in the next three to four years we can provide this access. It sets out how we can bring together all the different elements, including Pathways to Work, Intreo services, the new employment services, SOLAS, Tús, Gateway, JobsPlus, JobsPlan, Momentum and Springboard. No matter what our problems are with each of these individually, it is the policy to bring them to fruition in the next two years. The OECD action plan commended Ireland for the fact that so many of our young people stayed in education. We have a wonderful education structure, about whcih we should speak more positively.
I congratulate the three Ministers and everyone involved.
I just met 60 young people looking at portraits of ex Taoisigh in the corridor. They are all from Sheriff Street but are not in school or work but are trying to get training. They are where we need to start with this. This is where this plan starts. It is different for college graduates because they are going into the jobs market with far more ability than those who left school early and did not have educational opportunities. Education is everything. I congratulate all involved.
Over the weekend when I was in Dunnes Stores, at the checkouts I saw large collection buckets for Temple Street Children’s Hospital. While I believe people should give money for this cause, it should not be through open buckets in supermarkets. I thought we were past that.
The report on the fatal air crash at Cork Airport on 10 February 2011 was published today. It made strong criticisms of the Spanish authorities as the plane that crashed was licensed there. The report referred to inadequate command training, as well as inadequate checking and oversight of the operation by both Flightline, the Spanish airline involved, and the Spanish aviation authorities. The report also highlighted systematic deficiencies in operation, organisation and regulatory levels. The deficiencies included inadequate pilot training, scheduling of flight crews, maintenance and oversight of the operation by the operator and the state of regulation.
The report is so serious that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, should take it up with the Spanish authorities. A free trade area in aviation depends on all aviation authorities involved being equally assiduous in matters of safety and regulation. Six people were killed in this crash. Unless it is corrected, it will be recorded as an Irish air crash when the report lays the blame firmly on Spain. The Minister should intervene on behalf of the Irish industry.
It was announced today that we are to spend €25.6 million in setting up a national postcode system, €16 million to develop it and €1.2 million a year to maintain it. This was discussed on 4 July in this House with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte. At the time, concerns were expressed about the cost to which the Minister replied that one should not believe what one reads in the newspapers. He also said, "They [the figures] did not come from me and I am happy that the CBA, cost-benefit analysis, that will accompany the postcodes will show that there is considerable advantage to the State." Can we have this analysis published, particularly in light of the problems with Irish Water? We must investigate such projects before money is spent on them. In 2003, An Post stated a national public postcode system was unnecessary, a 1960s solution to a 21st century problem, would be expensive and that the existing system was superior. I have a constituency which is on both sides of the Border. I can never remember the postcodes for constituents in Lisnaskea, County Fermanagh. Before we embark on this project, can we see the cost-benefit analysis? Are the benefits worth the €25.6 million for which we signed up yesterday?
I just want to acknowledge the young people from the Sheriff Street CDC in the Visitors Gallery whom I met earlier. I referred to them earlier when speaking on the youth guarantee. They were just a moment too late to hear my contribution.
I welcome the Government’s announcement today that it will set up an independent commission to assess whether the electricity transmission system will consist of pylons or undergrounding. It is to be welcomed because, as we know, communities across the country are mobilising against EirGrid and its plans. It is important this independent commission gets to the truth and involves all stakeholders.
This includes the people affected by pylons and those whose lands and dwellings have been devalued. It is a welcome move. It is time it was done and EirGrid's plans were halted until we see the outcome of the investigation.
I join Senator Ivana Bacik in commending those who held the event in the Seanad Chamber today to commemorate the anniversary of the 1918 general election. I look forward to the day when we have a similar result. The Leader might know Waterford was the only constituency in 1918 which did not return a Sinn Féin Deputy. I hope to rectify this in the near future.
I welcome the referral of the penalty points issue by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. It took 14 months for this to happen and the Minister must explain why it took so long for the issue to be referred to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. In the past 24 hours a number of Ministers have attacked individual members of the Committee of Public Accounts and the committee itself, which is very unhelpful in its handling of the penalty points issue. The Minister for Justice and Equality and the Ministers, Deputies Pat Rabbitte and Brendan Howlin, the three Ministers who have been most critical of the committee, need to realise the only reason it was investigating the issue in the first instance was the Comptroller and Auditor General's report which pointed to clear systemic problems and abuses in the system. He stated it had cost the State a considerable amount of money. The Committee of Public Accounts is seen, rightly, by citizens of the State as one of the few checks and balances on the Executive where one of the arms of the Oireachtas can hold to account people who spend the public's money. I find any situation where its work is undermined by the Commissioner of the Garda Síochána or any Minister to be unhelpful and I caution against it. We all welcome the fact that the issue was referred to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, but I call for a wider debate on whistleblowing in the State and the need to introduce legislation to protect whistleblowers. People looking in from the outside at the way these two whistleblowers were treated and some of the comments made by the Commissioner at the hearings of the Committee of Public Accounts last week and by the Minister for Justice and Equality know they will not make it easier for us to encourage whistleblowers in the public or private sector to come forward. It was a clear failing in what happened in the banking sector where people did not cry "Stop" and come forward because of a fear of doing so. The shameful way in which the two whistleblowers in question were treated flies in the face of what the Government states about wanting to introduce legislation. I call for a debate on this issue in the coming weeks.
I acknowledge the tourism figures issued this morning from the Central Statistics Office. There were 7 million visitors to Ireland in 2013, an increase of 7.2% on the figure for the previous year. There were 1.2 million visitors from North America, an increase of 13.9%. These exceeded the record figures in 2008. I am glad to relate all of the main overseas markets grew last year. The number of visitors from Great Britain increased by 5.6%, while the number from mainland Europe increased by 4.9%. The number of visitors from long-haul destinations increased by 15%. To compare the last three months-----
We will have a debate, but the figures are so welcome they should be mentioned during Seanad business. Decisions taken by the Government such as retaining the 9% VAT rate, on the Irish visa waiver scheme introduced by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, The Gathering initiative and achieving value for money all helped to encourage more visitors to come to the country. I hope the momentum will last for the coming year.
In view of the comments of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, at the principal's conference, I call for a debate in the House with him on how teachers can manage an already overloaded curriculum of 11 subjects within an overcrowded day which includes the teaching of religion.
His comments are regrettable. When he answered a principal who asked how one could teach more literacy and more maths, he took a swipe and said take it off religion. If that is to be, that is to be, but that is a decision that should be made by parents. He needs to go through the same consultative process with parents on this issue as he did on the issue of patronage, because making an education policy on the hoof is not good enough; it is not professional. If the Leader could facilitate that debate it would be welcome.
I beg the indulgence of the Cathaoirleach to raise the issue of Irish Water. As Senator Feargal Quinn said, what we have learned in the past few days, since we had the debate here, is outrageous. We have to stop Irish Water proceeding until we have an independent investigation on what are the real costs and the real numbers of staff needed before creating another monster. This is public money we are talking about. We are talking about billions of euro and a job of 1,700 staff now being done by 4,500 staff. We are talking about a transition company which has been set up about which few of us knew little. We are talking about recruiting people already paid by the public purse and pensioned off. Irish Water has the potential to be another HSE if we do not say, "stop, and let us investigate it." Will the Leader tell the House what is being done to address these very real concerns about Irish Water at this point in time? Can we have an independent verification of what is really needed?
I refer to Sean D. Barrett's comments on the postcodes. For me, it was a case of putting the cart before the horse because I think the postcodes should have been introduced before centralisation of ambulance dispatch stations. There have been too many cases of ambulances going to incorrect addresses with terrible consequences for those in need of an ambulance.
I welcome the youth guarantee scheme launched today by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. A very good press statement was issued at Government Buildings where a question and answer session took place. Given that we have more details on how it will work, this would be a good time to debate it in the House where any questions Members may have would be answered. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister, Deputy Burton, to come to the House for a debate on the youth guarantee scheme.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business by my colleague, Senator Thomas Byrne.
I call on the HSE to publish its report on the recruitment of consultants. Two weeks ago, the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, denied at the Joint Committee on Health and Children that the recruitment of consultants was more difficult at the moment. Since then, he has back-tracked on that statement and has admitted that the HSE is having difficulty in filling some very important consultant posts. The public has a right to know what the report contains.
I join other colleagues in commenting on the revelations that have emerged in recent days in respect of Irish Water. We had a detailed and comprehensive debate here prior to Christmas and myriad amendments and questions were put to the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd who, in fairness, did his best to answer them. Since then, we have had amazing revelations. When the eminent Professor FitzGerald says that Irish Water will be overstaffed by more than 4,000 people we should sit up and listen before it is too late. I agree with Senator Fidelma Healy Eames that the merger and establishment of Irish Water should cease until such time as we know all the facts. Please excuse the pun, the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, may want to wash his hands of this situation as he may be departing for a plum job in Europe.
He owes it to the Members of the Oireachtas to answer the questions that have been put to him time and again, and he should not be shoving out the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, and putting him in difficult circumstances. The Minister is fully responsible. Senator O'Neill may not like to hear that the Minister is washing his hands of the matter because he can disappear in a few weeks. We want him in here to answer the questions.
I strongly support the words of wisdom uttered by Senator O'Donnell this afternoon. I call for an early debate on the youth guarantee. Youth unemployment must be tackled. There is much wisdom in this House that can help feed in to the action plan. I would like the Leader to arrange an early debate on Action Plan for Jobs 2014 with Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton. We have him here three times per year and I would like our first meeting with him in 2014 to be held pretty soon.
I welcome the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the O'Keeffe case. For the life of me, as a non-legal person, I could never quite understand how the State could have washed its hands of this issue and claimed it had no responsibility to protect vulnerable children. Ms O'Keeffe is certainly due an apology. I am very concerned that there could be a recurrence of what happened, as alluded to by Senator O'Donovan. We need to be satisfied that every loophole has been closed and every safety measure has been put in place to prevent any repetition. Those who were intimidated by the State into withdrawing their claims also require an apology. The European Court of Human Rights has delivered an extremely wise judgment today.
Given all the discussion over the weekend on penalty points and committees of inquiry within the Oireachtas, it would be appropriate to have a debate at some stage on the appropriateness of members of committees of inquiry briefing the media and writing newspaper columns. As we approach the setting up of a banking inquiry, we need to set out very clear guidelines on what is and is not acceptable. If some of the actions of the past week are repeated, we will find ourselves in the courts.
Ach an oiread le Seanadóirí eile, tá imní Shinn Féin léirithe maidir le Uisce Éireann agus an fiasco ar fad atá ar bun faoi sin. We share considerable concerns about the way in which the Irish Water debacle is being handled. It is an absolute fiasco at this stage. Many of the difficulties we raised in the debate in the House are coming to the fore. We never expected them to arise so quickly. It is quite obvious that it is an absolute disaster at this stage.
I am very grateful to the Leader for arranging statements on storm damage last week. However, there are more questions than answers after the debate. I was at a meeting on Thursday night with people who suffered from storm damage. What is the position on those whose private property has been damaged? What is the chance of compensation for them? We asked these questions during the debate but the answers were not very clear. The Leader might be able to clarify the matter with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. One man I encountered estimates that damage of the order of a quarter of a million euro was done to his home and business and he does not know where he stands. The position is not clear. The councils are saying they are washing their hands of the matter so we certainly need verification.
Like other Senators, I welcome the ruling in favour of Ms Louise O'Keeffe in the European Court of Human Rights and I call on the Government to respond appropriately. Her bravery and tenacity must be commended in that she was able to stay with it fighting against the might of the State. Going as far as the European Court of Human Rights was an almighty achievement for her.
Even after having suffered terrible abuse as a child in school at the hands of a school principal, unfortunately the Supreme Court saw fit to decide the State was not responsible. Today however, Members have learned the European Court of Human Rights has found differently. There is no doubt but that the State has a role and as my colleague, Senator Cullinane, mentioned, the role of the individual against the State may be an issue Members should debate. While whistleblowers have been mentioned, this again is an example of one person against the machine in the David and Goliath scenario. It is such a shame the State fought this case tooth and nail all the way. I call on the Government to address the issues in respect of this case as a matter of urgency in order that victims of child abuse may be spared an ordeal similar to that experienced by Louise O'Keeffe.
I also welcome the referral by the Minister of the inquiry to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. I refer to the DIRT inquiry chaired by the late Jim Mitchell, the Abbeylara inquiry chaired by former Deputy Seán Ardagh and the fine way in which they were handled. While Deputy McGuinness as Chair is handling this issue well, I believe Standing Orders must be changed in respect of committee members running off to the media. It would be a pity were committees to be damaged through a lack of Standing Orders and procedures. While committees, inquiries and openness all are needed, further Standing Orders also are required to ensure members of committees, through no fault of the committee Chairs, are not expressing views and perhaps prejudicing themselves - or at least their views - before findings are made. I ask that this issue be considered.
I wish to raise the issue of Croke Park and rates. As the Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 is out there somewhere and has not been passed yet, I ask the Leader to try to bring it back before the Seanad because the rates for Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium have been doubled. I note the stadiums at Twickenham, Murrayfield and Cardiff are valued at £2 million, whereas Croke Park has been valued at €8 million. Croke Park at present is being charged €1 million in rates whereas under the 2001 Act, cultural bodies are exempt from rates. I do not suggest it should be exempt but voluntary sporting organisations, such as the GAA and the FAI, do much voluntary work, including on obesity, about which Members speak constantly in this Chamber. A rate of €1 million was set at a time of falling ticket sales and increasing costs and I ask the Leader first to inquire as to the present status of the Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill. As Members are aware, the Valuation Office is independent and it carried out an independent assessment but legislative change may be required to specify how sporting organisations should be treated. Perhaps this should be in the same way as cultural organisations but a rethink definitely is required in this regard because €1 million for any voluntary body such as the GAA or the FAI really must be evaluated. As for the valuation of €8 million, I note it was reduced to €4 million, just like that. Where did that valuation come from and how was it done? Members need to know this because simply plucking figures out of the top of one's head is not right.
Colleagues have raised the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the O'Keeffe case. It certainly looks like a very good decision but when one thinks about it, it is remarkable that the State would even have tried to defend itself from liability in such a case. It was truly bizarre to suggest that the State, if it is not in complete control of things, could then seek to absolve itself from responsibility for something as fundamental as child safety. Yet, this appears to have been the line of the State, in trying to erect, as it were, an artificial form of immunity for itself based on the constitutional mention of the State providing for education, as distinct from providing education. This decision is welcome.
One can predict it is connected in some way with the recent statements by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, in respect of religion versus maths in schools. One can predict that some people will seek to advance a statist view of education on the back of this decision, along the lines of stating that he or she who pays the piper should call the tune. However, the State must remember it is the servant of parents and families in this regard and when it comes to education, people are entitled to educate according to ethos and values. I for one think the Labour Party's vision of education is far too narrow and runs the risk of a value-free approach to education. Survey after survey from the Department's own consultation have demonstrated that broadly speaking, parents are extremely happy with the quality of education their children are receiving in schools and the ethos under which they are getting that education.
However, my colleague Senator Feargal Quinn has made a typically interesting point regarding the historical reasons for the length of our school year.
It would be welcome if the Leader could invite the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to the House to tell us about the progress of the IDA's Horizon 2020 strategy-----
-----and the 50:50 investment outside Dublin in terms of investor visits. Meath, with a population of 180,000, got only one investor visit last year compared to Dublin, with a population of over 1 million, which got approximately 180 visits.
It has not been raised but I would like to congratulate the Cabinet because it is important that an independent commission, to be headed by a retired judge and expert witnesses, is to be set up in regard to the EirGrid project. It will deal with issues about which communities are very concerned, namely, health, agriculture, tourism and property values. When this commission reports, however, it is very important that people accept the findings. It is to be an independent commission; therefore, I presume it will call in expert witnesses. It is important that both sides of this argument accept the findings of the commission.
Regarding the remarks made by Senator Wilson earlier, it is outrageous that he would speak about a man who is not in this House, the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan. He implied-----
I will ask the Leader a question in a moment. The Senator said, using his water puns, that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, was washing his hands of the situation. His Government had its head in a bucket when the country went down the drain.
The Leader attempted to facilitate us last week by having a further debate on Irish Water. It must be recorded also that, unlike in the Dáil, where the legislation on Irish Water was rushed through the House in a matter of hours, we had a substantial debate here in the Seanad over a number of sessions. Looking back, many of us would raise issues now that we did not raise on that occasion, and vice versa, but it is better to try to deal with problems as they emerge rather than in 12 or 24 months' time.
Interestingly - this is a point I made during my Second Stage contribution because it had been brought to our attention by Colm McCarthy in the previous week's Sunday Independent - there was one unusual aspect to this legislation. Uniquely in terms of the way all other items of legislation are presented to us, all of us got a copy of the Bill giving the legal details of what was being proposed, but the Explanatory Memorandum gave the detail of the transition body being set up, which is a combination of Government, Irish Water and unions. Some of us raised questions on Second Stage, which were not answered satisfactorily, as to the genesis of that approach. Notwithstanding the substantial debate in this House, which in fairness the Leader facilitated, it would be helpful if the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, who tried to be helpful when he was in the House last December, returned to answer the questions now emerging. It is nobody's fault that these questions are emerging but it will be the fault of all of us if they are not answered and dealt with. It would be very useful, and very wise in the long run, if the Minister returned to the House as soon as possible to allow the new questions arising be presented to him so we can try to resolve this problem before it becomes a serious mess.
In addition to the upward trend in tourism figures referred to by Senator Brennan, I recognise and welcome that retail sales posted a strong finish to 2013, with the volume of core sales up 1.4% month on month and 3% for the year as a whole. That included the motor trade, about which people worry, which thankfully was also relatively robust.
The good point is that there was a strong finish, with ten of 12 core segments recording growth. The data published today provide a further indication that the recovery in domestic demand is gaining traction. Taken together with the continuing momentum in employment growth, it augurs well for the future. We should not forget the positive trends throughout the economy.
I wish to raise two items with the Leader. I ask that he seek clarification from the Taoiseach on the comments made by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, in expressing his personal view of wishing to ditch religious education to the benefit of other subjects. From my perspective, these comments were uninformed, unwarranted and unhelpful. At a time when guidance counsellors have been substantially scrapped from secondary schools, the increased pressures children are under at school underline the need for an all-round education and not to over-focus on academia. Irrespective of one's faith, the time made available for religious education makes a great contribution in terms of pastoral learning and preparing children not only for the academic and business challenges of life but the spiritual ones also. It is important that the Taoiseach make it crystal clear if, in fact, this is a view he shares and if it the policy of the Government because it augurs very badly for our children's education if that is the case.
On a second issue, it seems that this afternoon the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, has pulled a rabbit from the hat in announcing that there are to be two satellite centres of the new children's hospital in Dublin. Does this in any way reflect the progress, or lack of it, on the new children's hospital? I ask the Minister to make a statement on the matter.
I was taken aback by comments made by Gabriel Byrne over the weekend on the commitment of the Government to the arts. He has not held back in the past in criticising the Government for its policies, not least when it came to the Gathering.
He did get it wrong and seems to be wrong in this instance also.
I concur with the figures mentioned by Senator Terry Brennan and that the CSO released today which indicate that there was a 14% increase in the number of visitors to this country from North America, a 5.6% increase from the United Kingdom and a 15% increase from other long-haul markets. Clearly, as the Senator said, the retaining of the 9% VAT rate which was Government policy helped in this regard. The abolition of the travel tax was also significant. The many tourism initiatives being promoted are also significant such as the Wild Atlantic Way, one of the world's best driving experiences. Events such as the Giro d'Italia which is to start in Ireland will greatly help our tourism product.
I was genuinely taken aback by Mr. Byrne's comments in questioning our commitment to the arts when one considers that in 2014 more than €2.3 million will be invested in arts, cultural and film projects. Additional funding of €17 million has been announced for the Limerick National City of Culture 2014 initiative, the decade of commemorations, 1912 to 1922, and works on heritage buildings. Provision has also been made for the restoration of the historic National Gallery of Ireland which will result in the creation of 300 jobs. We have introduced a new regime for film tax relief to 2015. It is remarkable that Mr. Byrne has said Culture Ireland has been disbanded summarily, given that it continues to exist with a permanent staff of nine and that its experts advisory committee is chaired by Professor Míchaél Ó Súilleabháin and its director is Ms Christine Sisk. Recently it had three funding rounds and spearheaded one of Ireland's-----
I am, but I ask the Cathaoirleach to bear with me for one moment. It spearheaded one of the Ireland's most successful stints at the Venice Biennale. Last year it funded almost 500 artists to represent Ireland abroad, including the United States, while Irish theatre companies had their most successful year ever in Edinburgh.
I will conclude by requesting a debate on the arts. The Minister is more than willing to come in to illustrate the amount of work that has been done. The Government has a sincere and ongoing commitment to sustainable arts funding. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence.
Senator Thomas Byrne called for a debate on the reports of the Constitutional Convention. Mr. Tom Arnold came to the Chamber and has also agreed to come back to the Chamber to discuss the final report of the Constitutional Convention. I anticipate the debate will take place as soon as possible after the completion of the report. I note the Senator's point in respect of the difficulties of the HSE with recruitment of consultants. I am sure the Minister is quite willing to address that point in the Chamber. He will probably be in the Chamber tomorrow to deal with the Health Identifiers Bill and he has also agreed to come in later in February to discuss the HSE service plan. We will see a lot of the Minister for Health in the coming weeks. I am sure these points can be raised during the course of the debates.
Senator Ivana Bacik referred to penalty points, a matter raised by a number of Senators. She welcomed the referral of the matter to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. The Committee of Public Accounts has also been mentioned in this regard. We all know the committee has a vital role to play in our democracy but so does the Garda Síochána. It is not in anyone's interest that a situation develops whereby one hampers the ability of the other to discharge its proper role. The vast majority of people who have spoken on the issue have welcomed the referral of the matter to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.
Senator Bacik and several other Senators raised the question of the Louise O'Keeffe judgment. I am sure the repercussions of it will be given time for debate in the House at a later time when the judgment has been examined. A number of Members have raised the point. Senator Denis O'Donovan mentioned the need for further legislation in this regard to protect children. I assure the Senator that if further legislation is required to protect children the Government will not be found wanting and will act in that regard.
Senator Quinn referred to school holidays for children and pointed out that, in referring to religion, the words of the Minister for Education and Skills were taken out of context. I note his point about more time for the teaching of languages and other matters.
Irish Water was mentioned by a number of Members. I will endeavour to have the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, address the new points raised in recent days. The matter has been dealt with comprehensively at meetings of two of the Oireachtas joint committees and in this House. Some Members who did not know about the revelations of the past day or two should go back to the debate on Committee Stage and Report Stage of the Bill. Quite a number of Members asked that local authority workers be protected, that they all transfer and that pensions be protected. Members should read the debate and perhaps reconsider their attitude to the revelations. The debate on Committee Stage and Report Stage meant that Members saw some of the things that have come to light in recent days from Mr. FitzGerald.
Senator Burke welcomed yesterday's announcement of 500 new jobs, which is great news for Cork and the country, as this will provide great opportunities for young people. I also note his comments on the number of people being diagnosed with dementia and the challenges that presents for the health service and the need for a debate on the matter.
Senator Conway raised the Garda Ombudsman case and the Louise O'Keeffe case.
Senators O'Donnell and Moloney referred to the youth guarantee and the launch of the Pathways to Work document. I anticipate that the Minister for Social Protection will fulfil her commitment to the House to discuss the youth guarantee scheme next week. I hope the Minister will be in the House to discuss the matter on Wednesday next.
I note Senator Barrett's comments on the report into the fatal air crash in Cork and I am sure that when the full report has been published and examined in detail we may be in a position to discuss the matter. I will bring his remarks on the need to spell out the advantages of the proposed national postcode system and the cost benefit analysis of same to the attention of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources but, as Senator Moloney pointed out, the ambulance service will be one of the greatest beneficiaries of such a system.
Senators Kelly and O'Neill welcomed the appointment of an independent commission to examine the pylon issue and EirGrid.
Senator Brennan welcomed the tourism data that was published earlier. There were strong figures in the tourism sector, which highlighted the success of The Gathering and other Government initiatives in that regard. Since coming to office, the Government parties have taken a number of key decisions that have supported the tourism industry. The 9% VAT rate, which was initially a short-term measure, has been retained. The air travel tax will decrease to zero from April, which has helped secure additional airline routes and capacity to Ireland. The Minister for Justice and Equality's Irish visa waiver scheme, launched in July 2011, has also helped numbers in long-haul markets. Everyone will welcome the tourism figures and I hope they will continue to improve in the year ahead.
Senator Healy Eames called for a better consultation process where education is concerned. Perhaps we can have a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills on that matter, which was also raised by Senator Mullen.
Senator Wilson mentioned Irish Water, and I have referred to that matter.
Senator Mullins called for a debate on the Action Plan for Jobs. I hope to have the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in the House in mid-February. He has agreed to come to the House to discuss the plan.
I cannot answer the specific questions put by Senator Ó Clochartaigh regarding storm damage. If the Minister cannot give him an answer, I certainly will not be able to.
I am sure the matter will be raised when the Minister returns to the House.
Senator Keane raised the issue of the role of committee members. I note her comments on the Valuation Bill and the rates applied to Croke Park and other sporting stadiums. I will find out when the Bill is due before the House but the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform indicated it would be introduced in the first quarter of this year.
Senator Coghlan said the increase in retail sales indicated a recovery in this sector and the economy.
That is to be welcomed also. I have addressed Senator MacSharry's comment, and there is no question of the Minister for Education and Skills dictating about time for religion. With regard to the new satellite centres for the children's hospital, the relevant Minister will be in the House tomorrow. The development of satellite centres for the children's hospital should be welcomed. The need for services on the north and south sides of the city have been pointed out by Members, and they would compliment the national children's hospital. That should be welcomed by all in the House.
Senator Noone mentioned the comments of an eminent actor on funding for the arts. She pointed out the Government's commitment to the arts. The gentleman in question got it wrong about The Gathering and he may have got it wrong on this matter as well.
Senator Thomas Byrne has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate on the lack of consultants in the health service and the number of vacancies remaining unfilled be taken after No. 1."
- Sean Barrett
- Thomas Byrne
- John Crown
- David Cullinane
- Marc MacSharry
- Michael Mullins
- Trevor Ó Clochartaigh
- Denis O'Donovan
- Ned O'Sullivan
- Averil Power
- Feargal Quinn
- Kathryn Reilly
- Diarmuid Wilson
- Ivana Bacik
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Michael D'Arcy
- Aideen Hayden
- Imelda Henry
- Lorraine Higgins
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Marie Maloney
- Michael Mullins
- Hildegarde Naughton
- Catherine Noone
- Marie Louise O'Donnell
- Susan O'Keeffe
- Pat O'Neill
- Jillian van Turnhout