Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 6, motion from the Seanad Select Committee on Members' Interests, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 1, statements on Ireland's inland waterways, to be taken at 11.45 a.m. and to conclude not later than 1.10 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply to the debate not later than 1 p.m.; No. 2, Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013 - Second Stage, to be taken at 1.10 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 3 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the contributions of group spokesperson not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; No. 3, Upward Only Rent (Clauses and Reviews) Bill 2013 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 3 p.m. and to conclude not later than 3.50 p.m.; No. 4, Parental Leave Bill 2013 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 4 p.m.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Conversely, we had raised the issue, and I had raised the issue, of the potential sale of the IBRC mortgages and also our concerns. In fairness, as did many people across the House, we had concerns regarding that fact that the sale was not subject to the code of conduct on mortgage arrears should any bidders from abroad be successful.
I was pleased to see last night's statement from the special liquidators that said, effectively, that the bidders for these mortgages will sign up to the code of conduct on mortgage arrears. That is a good thing and I acknowledge that. Such a scenario came about because many people, from all parties and none, raised concerns about the matter. It is important that such concerns were listened to. That is good, it is progress and it is better than it was last week.
I wish to ask a further question. I understand from reports, whether correct or not, that the loans will be sold at a significant discount and those in arrears will be sold at a discount of approximately 50%. I again call for the option to be given to those mortgage holders to purchase restructured mortgages or to allow a restructure of up to the discount amount, even if it is not the full discount amount and I want parameters to be set. That means if there is a 50% discount then we should allow the mortgage holder to have a restructured mortgage at minus 30%, subject to them meeting certain conditions. If they do not meet the conditions then the deal is off. That is something we can look at.
I have met people, and people have corresponded with me, in the area where I live who have IBRC mortgages and are very concerned about the CCMA. That issue has been dealt with and I acknowledge that fact. That is good. Let us see if something else can be done prior to the sale with regard to offering those mortgage holders some type of significant restructuring of their mortgage debt.
Today heralds the start of a process for thousands of homeowners, particularly on the east coast. The Pyrite Remediation Board has opened and applications for funding can be submitted by individuals to remediate their homes. This is a very significant day. I want to acknowledge, as I have done in previous debates, the work done by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and his Department in that regard. They have done a very good job.
I have been critical of aspects of the scheme and I do not think that it goes far enough. During the Committee Stage debate here, the Minister gave a commitment to report every three months and to keep the scheme on review which is a sensible approach. I have met hundreds of residents in the north Dublin area and, at least, the scheme will act as an avenue for them. They have been let down by HomeBond, in particular, and by the quarries who do not have to pay a levy towards the fund. The taxpayer is picking up the tab but the scheme is a start. I encourage all of the people who have been affected by pyrite, whether they are classed 1, 2 or 3 in terms of damage, to apply to the remediation board at pyriteboard.ie.
Last Thursday in the Customs House a briefing was given by Mr. Noel Carroll and other members of the pyrite board to interested Oireachtas Members that proved very useful. That is the way things should be done. A proper briefing means Members can inform their constituents and neighbours on how to apply for the fund. We will keep the matter under review which is important. The scheme is a good start and I acknowledge the work done by the Minister and his officials in that regard.
I agree with Senator Darragh O'Brien and welcome the announcement that the sale of the IBRC mortgages will be subject to the code of conduct of the Central Bank. Last week I gave responses as Deputy Leader and thank the Senator for raising the matter last week. As was announced last night, the fact that the matter was raised by so many Members of the Oireachtas from different parties, both Government and Opposition, was a factor in the decision to ensure that the sale would be subject to the code of conduct. We all very much welcome that move and it is a real relief for the 13,000 mortgage holders, in particular.
I congratulate Senator Conway and his colleagues on tabling a motion on community courts last night which was accepted by the Minister for Justice and Equality. I hope, as we all do, that we will see a community court set up in Dublin city centre, on a pilot basis, in the very near future. We had a really good debate and there was strong support for the concept across the House. It built on the work done by the Oireachtas justice committee and the National Crime Council. It is welcome to see such a scheme going forward. It was a sign of the Seanad's strength that it was here that the motion was tabled and agreed to by Government.
I wish to return to the topic that I raised yesterday, namely, the inquiry into the allegations of the Garda whistleblower. It has been confirmed that Mr. Seán Guerin, senior counsel, shall conduct a scoping into the dossier or files provided to the Minister. I welcome the move and wish to say again - and I know that the Minister for Justice and Equality is on his feet in the Dáil now saying the same thing - that we do not rule out a commission of investigation under the 2004 Act being set up subsequently, depending on what Mr. Guerin finds.
It now appears as if the dossier has been known about for some time and there have been a number of internal investigations into same. All of us should welcome the fact that an independent senior counsel will conduct a review and that it has not been ruled out that we will see a further investigation set up, if necessary. It is similar to the scoping inquiry carried out in the past by the senior counsel, Mr. Shane Murphy, which led to the establishment of the Morris tribunal and the subsequent very serious findings of Garda misconduct in Donegal.
I ask the Leader to arrange another debate on the Constitutional Convention and the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights, particularly the right to housing. At yesterday's Cabinet meeting, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, secured approval for a policy to end homelessness - a housing-led policy. Senator Hayden, and those of us in the Labour Party group, put forward a motion on the matter recently in the House. The Minister of State has worked on the issue for some time and it is very welcome to see the policy adopted by Cabinet yesterday.
Recently, at the Constitutional Convention, we approved the idea of a right to housing or a home being inserted into the Constitution. A huge majority supported the notion. It would transform the legal framework in which our statutory provisions on homelessness and housing are formulated. It would be very welcome to see the Government take up the recommendations and move forward with a referendum on the right to a home.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on hospital services in light of a number of factors. First and primarily, the report that was discussed this morning on radio by Professor Anne Scott of Dublin City University which is a Europe-wide survey that covered the past 14 years. It showed that there can be up to a 30% difference in patient mortality depending on the number of nurses assigned to a ward and whether they have university degrees. The matter should concern us, particularly in Ireland. A couple of years ago I remember seeing a photograph of the entire class of nursing students, for a particular year, who studied at Galway university boarding a plane for London. This matter is now a question of life and death.
We ought to look at the other side of the equation that nobody is prepared to mention, namely, patient responsibility. I spent part of yesterday in St. Vincent's Hospital and I cannot speak highly enough of the private and public medical services available in this country, both of which I and my family have used. They are splendid in the circumstances. The noticeboard in the hospital had a notice which stated that there was 27,000 no-shows for appointments in 2012. That means 27,000 people did not bother to turn up or let the hospital know that they would not arrive. The hospital has reduced the number of no-shows to 15,000 but 15,000 is too much. Yes, there are people on waiting lists but 15,000 or 27,000 other people could have been seen. In addition, the situation in accident and emergency departments at the weekends is a disgrace because they contain people who have dosed themselves with drugs and alcohol. Such people should be shoved into a padded room and left until they are able to be looked after properly.
The second matter I wish to raise is the question of Aer Lingus. I am a strong trade unionist, I am a member of three trade unions and I believe in the trade union movement. I understand and acknowledge the serious worry of people, as they get older, concerning their pensions but we need consistency and integrity. I find it profoundly shocking that SIPTU has called on its members to strike on St. Patrick's weekend. I understand pressure points and all of the rest of it but put in the context of the fact that SIPTU is taking exactly the same action against its own workers with regard to pensions and pension cuts, it has completely undermined its moral case. The House should seek an explanation from SIPTU on its position.
I always like to end on a bit of good news so let us hear it for the northside of Dublin. They are wonderful people. TV3 dropped five wallets on the southside, five wallets on the northside but only one wallet was returned on the southside.
Four wallets were returned on the northside and only one of them had the money taken but the cards were still inside.
That is a hell of a tribute to the people on the northside of Dublin. This is a serious point, every single administration at local level and Government level has neglected the north side in terms of transport, employment and housing. That is a real tribute and it should be acknowledged in this House that the people of the north side of Dublin, despite the difficulties, are a fantastic group of people.
I agree with Senator David Norris in respect of people not turning up for appointments. Having spoken recently with people working in hospitals even people who turn up knowing their appointment will take up half an hour of the time of doctors means there are people sitting around doing nothing. It is quite common for that to happen. A more proactive approach should be taken to ensure that if people cannot turn up for appointments that hospital authorities are notified.
I wish to raise an issue that has arisen in the north side of Cork city, that is, the amalgamation and reconfiguration of four schools. One of those schools has more than 170 pupils and is in place for 203 years. The proposal is that it would amalgamate with a primary school which does not have adequate facilities such as playing pitches and recreational facilities for students. However, it is being dealt with in an unplanned manner and the Minister for Education and Skills should intervene. While there are adequate facilities in the North Monastery primary school in Cork-----
It may well be, but it is important the issue is dealt with. There has been no consultation with the boards of management or with the parents on the board of management.
On the issue of the contract proposed for general practitioners, there has been a ruling by the Competition Authority that the Department cannot enter into negotiations with the IMO and the other body that acts for general practitioners. That is a wrong decision. There is nothing to prevent the Department-----
-----from negotiating on all issues, other than the issue of fees that are payable. Given that there are more than 2,500 general practitioners who provide a fantastic service they should not be left in limbo. I ask that the Minister intervene and that negotiations would commence to deal with the contact issue.
I concur with Senator David Norris on the difficulties pertaining to nurses. Soon, we will have lost an entire generation of nurses to foreign soil which is something we will regret down the road. I concur with the remarks of Senator Colm Burke in regard to general practitioners. The proposal, as presented to them, is unworkable, will not succeed and will cause damage to service.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the fishing industry, particularly, in regard to inshore fishermen. These are the fishermen who go out in small boats of 18 ft. to 22 ft. For most of the past four months, given the appalling weather conditions, storms, huge tides and waves, they have been unable to fish. They depend on the weather for a window of opportunity. They are classified as self-employed. I met a met a group of the fishermen last Sunday, most of whom find it almost impossible to put bread on the table for their families. As they are classified as self-employed, I suggest they seek fish assist from the social welfare office. Having asked officials from the Department of Social Protection about this scheme, I do not think it has ever been utilised. These men were shrimp fishing, lobster fishing, crab fishing, scallop dredging and gillnetting for pollock, which is seasonal. There are 120 to 130 such fishermen in my constituency and many around the country who are not represented and are not in any association.
I ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, to intervene with the Minister for Social Protection, to ensure in the event of severe storms, when it is obvious the fishermen cannot go out to sea, a mechanism is put in place whereby they can short-circuit the system to get social welfare. At the social welfare office they are told, as they are self-employed, to come back in 12 months time with their account and to prepare a report. It is a crazy system and I am aware it is a system the Minister inherited. I raised the issue about ten years ago when my party was in government. Almost 12 months ago, in April or May 2013, the Leader gave a commitment for a debate on the fishing industry. I am aware we have had a debate on farming but a debate on the fishing industry generally is well over due. I will not push for a vote on it today but if, in the next couple of weeks, I do not have a commitment from the Minister to come to the House on these issues I will certainly seek to table an amendment to the Order of Business.
I thank Senator David Norris for his comments. It is wonderful to see Dublin being defended in the way that sometimes areas west of the Shannon are defended. The north side of Dublin contains some of the poorest areas in the country.
I wish to respond to the points made about people not turning up for hospital appointments. I will give a brief account of a personal story. In 2006, at the height of the Celtic tiger, my daughter was unfortunate enough to break both of her wrists and for a number of months was in casts. Eventually she received an appointment to go to Crumlin hospital to have them removed. We duly attended. There were 300 patients before us. Eventually she was seen and the casts were removed. When I arrived home that day there was a letter from Crumlin hospital advising me not to turn up for my appointment as it had been postponed for a week. I received another letter to say the appointment was postponed for yet another week. I waited because I was curious to see how many letters I would receive before the administration of that hospital realised that my daughter's casts had already been removed. It is a bit glib to blame ordinary people for sometimes very serious deficits in administration in our hospital systems.
I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, on getting approval from Cabinet for a strategy on homelessness. Some 84% of those at the Constitutional Convention last weekend voted for the inclusion in the Constitution of a right to a home. I am sure we are all in the same position. I have people calling to me day after day because their rent supplement is not sufficient for them to afford somewhere to live and they are moving into homeless services. I ask the Leader for a debate - perhaps two, the first on how to implement the right to a home in current circumstances and, second, to ask the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to address us on the emergency situation in rent supplement and how she plans to address it.
I will follow through on the calls for a debate on the health service, nurses and patients. I was chairman of a hospital on one occasion and tried to have the patients called customers. The more we can remind hospitals and the health service that the patients are actually customers, the better. The issue that bothered me about patients not turning up was the tradition of calling everybody at the same time. In other words, if the consultant was coming in from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. he told everybody to come at 3 p.m. which resulted in a large number of people arriving at the same time. The administration of the health service will have to change in some form or other. It has changed a great deal and people are now given ten or 15 minute slots. That people do not turn up for their appointment is extremely frustrating for the hospital administrators. I understand there will be an opportunity for a debate on the issue and the sooner we have it, the better.
I welcome the announcement the IBRC liquidators have made that all the bidders accept the Central Bank code of practice. We should not be surprised.
As far as the Minister for Finance and the Government were concerned, this was a sine qua non.
In any event, moving to another matter, I was sorry I was not here to contribute yesterday on the matter of community courts, which I welcome and which this House welcomed even in advance of passing the motion yesterday. It was a worthwhile debate. This is something Judge Michael Reilly, the Inspector of Prisons, has been advocating for quite some time. It is highly meritorious. I am delighted that the Minister for Justice and Equality has accepted it and that there will be a pilot scheme in Dublin in due course.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Darragh O'Brien, and others to an extent about the code of conduct on mortgage arrears applying to the loan books that will be sold. However, I have a concern, which I have mentioned on many occasions here, that the code of conduct is not worth the paper it is written on. In practice, organisations, particularly those that are withdrawing from the Irish market, are forcing borrowers into repossession or voluntary sale situations. I had a case yesterday in which a family farm of 100 acres, which had been in one family for generations and was probably worth in the region of €1 million, was being forced to be sold to repay borrowings of €480,000. That is fundamentally wrong. It is not necessary, but it is the quickest way for the bank, which is leaving the Irish market, to extract its funding from it. That is not the spirit in which the code of conduct was established. It is not the way business should be done. The fact is that the fox remains in charge of the henhouse. Is it any wonder that they would openly sign up to this?
In another case, in which I myself was the mediator between the borrower and a sub-prime lender, I went several times to the lender to ask for a mortgage-to-rent arrangement, which it trumpeted as a solution that it was offering to customers. They refused it and last week sent the papers for a voluntary sale, on which they insisted and which is not in the spirit of the code.
The reality is that the Government has washed its hands of this and the banks are in control, and now we are saying we will get the vulture funds to sign up to the code of conduct, which puts them in control anyway-----
-----and let them at it. As my colleague Senator Darragh O'Brien correctly pointed out, if we are prepared to do the deal at a knock-down price for some unknown vulture fund in Invercockaleekie, why can we not do the same for the borrowers themselves? Why can we not offer them 50% write-downs and keep them in their homes or family farms where they belong rather than throwing them to the wolves?
On another issue that has been mentioned by Senator Colm Burke - that the IMO will be in town today to give us some advice on free GP care for children under six, the contract which it described as unworkable in its entirety - there is one minor point I want to bring to the House's attention. Despite the fact that the new contract is completely unworkable, it includes a clause which states that service providers - that is, GPs - will not do anything to prejudice the name or reputation of the HSE.
I compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, on the heads of the Bill published yesterday to ensure there will be an after-care service for children in care who reach the age of 18. At present, there is an ad hoc service, but under the new Bill, such children will be afforded a statutory right to a care plan. We all will be aware of the suffering and anguish that many parents face when they do not know what will happen to their child, who perhaps has been in care all of his or her life through one need or another and is not able to cater for himself or herself. This will put many minds at rest with the assurance that there will be a statutory care plan. I am not saying there is no plan for children when they reach the age of 18 - more than 1,000 children were facilitated last year - but the ease and peace of mind that putting it on a statutory basis with the family agency will give to parents must be welcome.
In talking about scams, we all heard about the Bank of Ireland scam in Kilkenny and where else, but I want to bring to attention today a scam that is waiting to happen. A website is offering Garth Brooks tickets for sale. I heard that a quarter of the population was going to these concerts, but the tickets, which cost €65, are sold out. People should be wary of buying tickets online because they are now going for up to €800. If there are such a large number of tickets around, I would urge everybody to ensure that consumers are educated on a scam that can happen. Concert-goers will not know until they turn up at the gate that it is a scam and they should be aware.
There is an important debate taking place in the Dáil on the future of the post office network in the State and I understand a protest will take place outside Leinster House today organised by the Irish Postmasters' Union and the Communication Workers' Union. Over the past week a number of Senators called for a debate on this issue and I echo those calls today. The Grant Thornton report, which is a good report that sets out clearly the challenges faced by the post office sector, also makes a number of recommendations, many of which my party would support. It is important that we hold a debate in this House as well as the debate in the Dáil, because I am sure Members, especially those of us who live in rural areas, have much to contribute on the importance of post offices. The Leader will be aware that in his constituency there were post office closures in a number of villages. This has a big impact on those small villages and towns where the post office is a core social gathering point for the community. When the post office is lost, it has a big impact on those who live in rural areas, including older people.
The big issue seems to be the contract with the Department of Social Protection for social welfare payments. It is important that the contract be protected and in my view, An Post should get the contract for it. Equally, the community welfare officers and those who work in the social welfare offices should not be directing clients to have their payments put through the bank rather than the post office. That is a source of contention as well with the trade unions that are involved. I support the protest which is taking place today, but I ask that we have a proper debate in this House about the future of An Post and the postal service over the next number of weeks.
We have learnt that there will be a voluntary sign-up to the CCMA by the foreign bidders for the Irish Nationwide Building Society loan book, which is progress, but to have this on a voluntary basis is not adequate. It must be mandatory. The second highest right in the Constitution is to property. That is how high that right is. There must be mandatory protection for homeowners. The question that nobody asks is: who is protecting the homeowner whose performing loan will be sold abroad? Nobody will. Guess what? The code is only for borrowers in mortgage arrears. If one's loan is not in arrears, one has no protection at all. I have tabled a matter on the Adjournment for the past two weeks and I look forward to its being taken this evening. I am looking for the first right of refusal to be given to the Irish homeowner.
I certainly will.
I agree with Senator Colm Burke. I met the GPs this morning. The contract for free GP care for those under six is flawed and unworkable. All of the GPs I met this morning are not signing up to it. Is that what we want? It could take six weeks or two months for one's child under six to be seen because there will be a clustering of GPs in certain locations who may sign up to it.
There is one other really serious aspect, and I ask the Leader to bring the Minister of State for Health, Deputy Alex White, or the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, in here to discuss it.
It is that with this contract, the Health Service Executive, HSE, is enforcing the release of patient records without the patient's consent. Give it up. Patient consent is critical and protecting the patient is at the core of the professionalism of any doctor. Moreover, the HSE is not even giving the doctor a reason it might seek those records. This is corporate bullying in the extreme and is unacceptable. Therefore, I ask the Leader to bring the Minister into the House for a debate on this issue.
I wish to raise the issue of the apparent non-co-operation of both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality with the Omagh Support & Self Help Group, which is headed up by Michael Gallagher in Omagh. It commissioned a report approximately 19 months ago on what occurred on that dreadful day in 1998 when so many lost their lives as a result of the Real IRA's bombing of Omagh town centre. The group has requested a meeting with the Taoiseach numerous times, which to date has been refused despite the Taoiseach's public utterances to the contrary on live television. However, he has not lived up to the commitments he has given in this regard.
The second issue concerns the report that was provided to the Minister for Justice and Equality on 19 July 2012 and to which he has not even responded. Answers from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality are required, as well as a clear commitment to engage in a public inquiry into the atrocity of 1998. I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate in this House in the presence of the Taoiseach. While another debate could be held in the presence of the Minister for Justice and Equality on a separate occasion, the Taoiseach certainly should be called before this House to answer some valid questions from the families of those who lost loved ones on that dreadful day. The Leader should see to this, as this House could play a meaningful role in this regard.
The second issue I wish to raise concerns the new building regulations that come into effect next Saturday, 1 March. Effectively, this means that only registered contractors can build new houses, which means those who wish to self-build will be precluded from so doing and on average, it will push up the costs of building a home by at least 25%. This is unrealistic, people cannot afford it, the banks are not lending money and it also will have an impact on the property market. While these regulations are due to come into effect on Saturday, there has been little or no discussion in respect of them. I ask the Leader to arrange, if possible tomorrow, to have a debate on this issue with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing or the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
I wish to raise an matter on which I ask the Leader to arrange that Members pass a motion, lobby Ireland's MEPs or write to Mr. Hammond, who is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport in the United Kingdom. Since 1999, various European Union directives have set common rules on distance-related tolls and time-based user charges for heavy goods vehicles for the use of certain road infrastructure. It is open to any member state to introduce road user charges if it wishes and the road user levy, which is being introduced by the United Kingdom's Parliament, applies to all heavy goods vehicles weighing 12 tonnes or more for the use of United Kingdom roads, including those in Northern Ireland. This levy is due to come into effect on 1 April 2014.
The reason I seek the passage of a motion or for Members to write to Mr. Hammond is this measure will have serious implications, particularly around Border regions, in respect of haulage companies, which are struggling to make ends meet. In a meeting with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, Mr. Hammond has agreed that approximately 7 miles of cross-Border roads between the Republic and Northern Ireland would be exempted. I suggest this is not enough. Ireland is treated as one island for CAP reform, its rugby team and the Olympic boxing team-----
I thank Senator Norris. I refer in particular to the A5, which is the road that is mainly used for transport from the Republic through Northern Ireland, especially in the case of counties such as Donegal. I ask that Members support the Minister on this matter by writing to Mr. Hammond or else by passing a motion calling for the exemption of the A5 from this toll in England.
Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an méid atá ráite ag an Seanadóir O'Donovan maidir le cás na n-iascairí beaga. Tá géarchéim ansin and tá géarghá leis an díospóireacht a lorg sé. I note the case of the inshore fishermen and support the call for that debate. I note further that the Minister in the North who deals with the fishing industry, Michelle O'Neill, has set up a new fishing industry task force in the North, which might be looked at as a model that could be followed.
There is an interesting report in today's edition of the Irish Examiner on the presentation given by Professor Cathal O'Donoghue of Teagasc to Galway County Council about rural towns witnessing the highest jumps in unemployment and emigration rates. He undertook a particular study that considered locations such as Gort, Carnmore, Clifden, Craughwell, Oranmore, Clarinbridge, Barna and so on in County Galway, which demonstrates statistically what Members already know, which is that rural towns are witnessing a huge increase in emigration, as well as having very high unemployment rates. However, to me it brings to mind the launch by the Government in November 2012, to great pomp and with great style, of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, which the Minister, Deputy Hogan, is leading. When I saw the aforementioned newspaper report, I decided to check to ascertain what is being done by CEDRA. I could not find much information on its website, which contained a schedule of meetings for 2013 but none for 2014. It appears as though the notes, minutes and notifications for the last meeting was for 19 November 2012. At the time, press statements indicated that the report of CEDRA was due in October 2013.
I seek information on the current status of CEDRA, which is headed up by Pat Spillane? Have they all emigrated? Are those who were updating the website now unemployed? What is the position with CEDRA, because it appears as though there is no coherent policy on rural development in the Government's plans? In fairness, there was not much of a coherent plan before that either but it is of huge importance for people living in the west and the north west to have in place a proper economic development plan for rural areas. One was told that CEDRA would go some way towards sorting this out and consequently, I seek a debate on the CEDRA initiative. What actually is happening in this regard and is it going anywhere? While I am sure it is possible that much work has been done behind the scenes, I seek a debate on its future direction, on what is the Government's plan and whether it has a strategy on rural areas, as opposed to merely having big press launches and setting up websites only for very little to happen thereafter.
I believe Senator Ó Clochartaigh is more right than he knows when he suggests much work has gone on behind the scenes in respect of CEDRA. Several people have spoken to me about the work they are doing in this regard and it would be a welcome debate, because they have been working. The Leader might be able to find an opportunity to include a debate on rural development.
I wish to raise the issue of the meat found by the Polish inspectors last year at the time of the horsemeat scandal. It is impossible to think otherwise but that this report is highly disturbing. It is not sufficient for anyone to suggest the Poles would say that anyway or that they came to Ireland to inspect our plants merely in order to state it had nothing to do with Poland. On coming here, they found a variety of highly disturbing things, not least of which were the boxes some people will have seen in the newspapers. Those photographs show clearly meat of mixed origin, some of which was very old and very rotten. It appears in this case that it was the horsemeat that was added to this old meat to disguise the latter. In fact, this was not horsemeat mixed with beef but was old, disgusting rotten meat that had horsemeat added to it to make a better. This appears to be what happened. That therefore is what is called in the trade category three animal by-product meat, which should not be used for human consumption and the clear suggestion is that this possibly was there to be used for consumption by humans.
It is not enough to say we are satisfied it was not going to be used for human consumption if there were 22 pallets of it, which is quite a lot. They are large boxes of frozen meat. Like myself, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has only one thing at heart which is to protect the Irish beef industry, to ensure its integrity and to offer assurance to farmers that their efforts and hard work are being rewarded with an industry that is properly policed.
We need to know the answer to a couple of questions. When the Polish inspectors came to Ireland last year, they would not have been allowed into Irish plants without being accompanied by people from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. I am sure those people who accompanied the Polish inspectors have a report to make, took photographs and have something to say about what happened.
It is not enough to say we have no jurisdiction over rotten meat once it arrives in Ireland. If a box of meat was filled with rats, we would be very quick to say this is not appropriate and is not suitable. We would deem it inappropriate and would have something to say about it. Clearly, we ought to have something to say about this meat. It is clear the labels were false, were photocopied or were old ones which were reused. This impinges on the business here and I would very much appreciate it if the Minister came to the House to explain exactly what happened when the Polish inspectors found these boxes of meat which clearly were not suitable for human consumption.
I support fully what Senator O'Neill said. I also support my colleague Senator Ó Domhnaill, who raised this matter on the Adjournment last week. As Senator O'Neill said, the HGV Road User Levy Act comes into effect on 1 April. This means lorries travelling from the Republic to Northern Ireland or to the United Kingdom will have to pay £10 per day, which is totally unacceptable. I agree with Senators O'Neill and Ó Domhnaill that to exempt a particular road or to say a seven-mile radius of the Border will be exempt is not good enough. This will have serious consequences for members of the Irish Road Haulage Association. It is already €5,200 cheaper to operate the same type of vehicle in the North than it is here. This levy will create further hardship for these people who are already struggling to make a living. I agree with my colleagues that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, must contact his counterpart in the Northern Ireland Assembly as a matter of urgency.
I am surprised by the deafening silence of Sinn Féin in this regard. We should fight at every opportunity to prevent this levy from being applied on this island and being forced on the hauliers of this country. The Six Counties, in the province from which I come, should be exempt from this levy and we should all fight hard to ensure that happens.
I saw some figures published in the past few days which showed obesity is 9% lower in schools that have a targeted health programme. A study was carried out by Trinity College on targeted health programmes operating in Tallaght. It showed that 16% of children in schools taking part in a healthy schools programme were obese compared to 25% in comparable control group schools. That is a difference of nine percentage points in the level of obesity. A further 10% of children in the intervention schools were overweight, compared to 16% in other schools. It is quite obvious that in schools that are making an effort to tackle obesity, the results are very positive. The Minister of State with responsibility for primary health care, Deputy Alex White, said the findings were very positive and should be considered by Government. Could we have a debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, or the Minister for Education and Skills on how we can ensure all primary and secondary schools take the issue of obesity seriously and on measures we can put in place in schools to tackle this problem, which is causing so many health issues and problems for young people and is adding huge costs to the overall health bill?
Senator Darragh O'Brien raised the question of the IBRC mortgages and welcomed the fact that all bidders will sign up to the Central Bank of Ireland's code of conduct, while Senator MacSharry said the code of conduct is not worth the paper it is written on. I do not know where to go in that regard, with one Senator welcoming it and other saying it is not worth the paper it is written on. I will not respond to that.
The other matters raised by Senator Darragh O'Brien will be addressed today by the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, which is chaired by Deputy Ciarán Lynch.
In regard to the pyrite remediation board, Senator Darragh O'Brien welcomed the fact Members had the opportunity to meet Mr. Carroll and others. He urged people to submit their applications as soon as possible, with which we would all agree.
Senator Bacik referred to yesterday's debate on community courts. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, is very supportive of them and I hope we will see action in early course. Senators Bacik and Hayden referred to the Constitutional Convention's findings on housing and homelessness. As I said previously, Mr. Tom Arnold will come to the House to discuss the final report of the Constitutional Convention but in the meantime, as Senator Hayden asked, I will invite the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, back to the House to address this point. She was here not so long ago for a debate on homelessness. There was also a call for the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, to come to the House to debate rent supplement.
Senator Norris raised the issue of hospital services and I note his point about the study on nurses. The point he raised about people who do not attend appointments is one I have raised on several occasions with the Minister for Health. There should be a national campaign to advise people that they should turn up. Admittedly situations can arise, such as those Senator Hayden mentioned, where there are some problems with administration in the hospital, but 27,000 people did not turn up to St. Vincent's Hospital in 2012, which meant that 27,000 who did not get an appointment could have had one. That should be highlighted on a national basis. Many hospitals give a second appointment, and if people do not turn up for that one they are put at the bottom of the list, but they should probably be removed from it. If there is a change of address, the GP or the patient should notify the hospital and the consultants. That is what is happening in some instances, but something will have to be done because we will never get rid of waiting lists if people do not turn up for appointments.
I also note Senator Norris's point on SIPTU. I admire and pay tribute to the people on the north side of Dublin, which the Senator normally does, and rightly so.
Senator Colm Burke referred to the amalgamation of schools in Cork city, which the Cathaoirleach said was possibly a matter for the Adjournment debate. The Senator mentioned that there had been no consultation with parents and boards of management, but I thought that day had gone. I find it extraordinary that there is amalgamation of schools without any consultation with parents and boards of management but, as the Cathaoirleach mentioned, it could be a matter for the Adjournment debate.
A number of Senators raised the issue of GPs and called for the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, to intervene. I presume that is because the GPs are in Buswells Hotel from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today.
Some Members have already gone there and are making the case in the House. The Minister of State, Deputy White, is available for negotiations with the GPs.
Senator Denis O'Donovan called for a debate on fisheries. I have asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, to come to the House to discuss the matter and I will renew those representations. With regard to the call for some mechanism to activate the fish assist scheme, I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton. Senator Paul Coghlan and Senator Marc MacSharry referred to the IBRC loan book, which I have commented on. Senator Keane advised people to beware of purchasing tickets on the Internet for concerts, referring specifically to the Garth Brooks concert. People should be advised of this in respect of scams on the Internet.
Senator Cullinane referred to the post office network, a matter raised yesterday. I gave a comprehensive reply on it and it was also the subject of an Adjournment debate yesterday evening during which the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, gave a comprehensive report on the issue. Yesterday I mentioned that over the past three years we have had 17 closures of post offices while in the previous three years 197 post offices were closed. The Senator should look at what was mentioned yesterday in the House and on the Adjournment debate.
Senator Healy Eames raised a point but is not present in the Chamber for the reply. In the Adjournment debate she has requested for this evening, she will receive a reply.
Senator Ó Domhnaill referred to the Omagh support and self-help group, which had a comprehensive meeting with the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Taoiseach, as requested.
Senator Pat O'Neill referred to the road user levy in Northern Ireland. It was first raised by Senator Terry Brennan and in an Adjournment debate by Senator Ó Domhnaill and others. I take his point that there are severe implications for the Irish Road Haulage Association and people who operate trucks doing business in Northern Ireland. The charges are excessive and the exemption of seven miles, which has been agreed, does not go any part of the way.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to the plight of rural towns and called for a progress report on CEDRA. I will ask the Minister for the report. He also referred to press releases. His office would certainly want to brush up-----
On a point of order, I regret interrupting the Leader but I must ask Senator Ó Clochartaigh to clarify another matter. The Sinn Féin people do not attend Westminster. How can they possibly attend anything if they do not attend the Parliament? The Senator can twiddle that on his telephone.
Senator Susan O'Keeffe referred to the report from Polish officials concerning beef products during the horsemeat scandal and false labelling. It is a serious issue and I suggest the Senator table an Adjournment debate to get the full facts and details on this important matter.
Senator Wilson also made the point about road haulage, which I fully support. Senator Mullins referred to levels of obesity among children in some schools. Some schools are successful in schemes operating in Dublin but there is a need for more physical education in primary and secondary schools. We will try to have the Minister of State, Deputy White, and the Minister for Education and Skills attend the Chamber to discuss these matters.