Thursday, 10 April 2014
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 9 of No. 44, motion re the annulment of SI 105 of the Building Control (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2014, to be taken at 12 noon, with the contribution of the proposing Senator not to exceed six minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed four minutes in each case and the Minister to be called on to reply no later than 12.50 p.m.; and No. 1, Statute of Limitations (Amendment) (Home Remediation-Pyrite) Bill 2012 - Second Stage (resumed), to be taken on the conclusion of No. 9 of No. 44.
I join the Cathaoirleach in thanking Ms Jody Blake for her dedicated service to Seanad Éireann. As the Cathaoirleach noted, she is and always has been a proud Tipperary woman. She leaves after more than 30 years of dedicated service in Leinster House, 23 of those years having been spent in Seanad Éireann. She certainly is a treasure and one we will miss dearly. Many of us come and go through this House, whether on the Government or Opposition side, but Jody has been a constant for more than two decades, serving the daily administrative needs of the Seanad and keeping the wheels in motion. She has always carried out her duties in a very efficient, competent and professional manner. I am sure I speak for all Senators in saying that she was always helpful and obliging to each and every one of us. On behalf of the Members, I would like to make a small presentation to Jody as a token of appreciation for all the help and assistance she has given us over the years. We wish her many years of happy retirement.
On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, I wish Ms Jody Blake all the best in her retirement. The Cathaoirleach and Leader have highlighted what she has meant to this House and its Members over the years. I hear some of her utterances from time to time because I am seated very close to her. She has kept me in line on several occasions. My first proper dealing with Jody was in the aftermath of the trauma of being kicked out of government by colleagues opposite, when I had lost my seat in the other House. I had to sit through a Seanad count in the restaurant without having a clue how the whole thing worked. I could see Jody and Deirdre working away and putting the scores on the board and, in due course, I got a wink to say I would be all right. I was relived, but it may have been an unhappy outcome for some of my fellow Senators.
Jody has been brilliant to us on this side of the House and we really will miss her. She is irreplaceable. After 30 years in the Seanad, she definitely deserves a break to enjoy her life without having to worry about the House being recalled in the middle of August or sitting until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. Her professionalism, courtesy and friendliness have always shone through in everything she did. She kept us on the straight and narrow and ensured we did our job efficiently, with a sense of humour and always knowing we could not overstep the line or we would get a slap from her. I hope she enjoys the next phase in her life, which I am sure will be not so much a retirement but rather a moving on to enjoy the next 30, 40 or 50 years. As my colleague, Senator Diarmuid Wilson remarked, Jody must have started in here when she was ten years old.
I welcome the allocation of time today to discuss the statutory instrument relating to building regulations. We have tabled several statutory instruments for debate in recent weeks. It is a useful exercise for the Seanad to tease these issues out, whether we agree or disagree on the specific issues. I thank the Leader very much for allowing an hour to debate this important statutory instrument.
I wish to express my grave disappointment and that of my colleagues in Fianna Fáil at the non-attendance at the meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts today of Ms Angela Kerins and Mr. Frank Flannery. Both of those individuals should know very well the importance of that committee as effectively the ranking committee in the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is the watchdog for the public in terms of how the moneys they contribute in taxes are spent. I encourage Mr. Flannery and Ms Kerins to attend a meeting of the committee at the earliest possible opportunity, where they can be assured of receiving a fair hearing. Mr. Flannery has stated his view that the committee is behaving in a partisan fashion in carrying out its functions and is going beyond its remit in this matter. He further stated that the committee is in "pursuit of a partisan political agenda designed to damage the Party I have been associated with". That is not the case at all, but it is very similar to what the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, said a few weeks ago when he tried to discredit the Committee of Public Accounts in regard to its efforts to have Mr. Flannery appear before it.
I remind colleagues that the Committee of Public Accounts has a majority of Government members and has been unanimous in its call for Mr. Flannery and Ms Kerins to give evidence. For Mr. Flannery to claim he is being brought before the committee in order effectively to damage the Fine Gael Party, in which he has been heavily involved for the past 30 years, is a spurious charge. He should reflect on his decision not to come before the committee to answer the very valid questions that committee members of all parties and none wish to put to him. It is a pity that neither Mr. Flannery nor Ms Kerins will take the opportunity today to answer those questions and put forward their own case. Will the Leader reaffirm that it is the Government's wish that Mr. Flannery and Ms Kerins appear before the Committee of Public Accounts to answer the questions the elected Members who make up that committee wish to put to them on behalf of the taxpayers of this country?
On behalf of the Labour group I join with others in paying tribute to Jody Blake. We all wish her a very happy early retirement; I stress early as otherwise she would have had to be ten when starting. She served 23 years in the Seanad, as the Leader has said, which is a long sentence by any stretch and she definitely deserves to have a very happy life outside of here. We will all miss her very much. When I was first elected seven years ago, I recall the welcome she gave me and I came to depend on her kind words of advice and support and, indeed, those of Ms Deirdre Lane also. She brought always a great deal of professionalism and competence and a very high standard of skill and ability to her role, a sense of humour, a flair and, of course, an inimitable dress style which I will greatly miss. On behalf of the Labour group I wish her the very best and want to say how much we will miss her in her early retirement.
I too wish to join in the tributes to thank Jody for all her help. I am a Member for less than three years but I can still remember the day I entered the Seanad and met the formidable team between Deirdre and Jody who were very helpful in ensuring I had guidance and advice. Straight talking is a word that applies when one asks if something can or cannot be done as one is given the absolute advice on it. Jody has provided us with a fountain knowledge, individually as Members and collectively as a Seanad, for which I thank her. On my own behalf, she has always been there to answer questions and to give advice and guidance. Her immense experience in the Houses is obvious. On behalf of the Independent group of Members, each of us with our own agenda, I thank her for helping to steer us through the challenge we have in the Seanad and wish her the very best in her early retirement, as Senator Ivana Bacik has said. It is very much "good bye" and not a "farewell". I hope we will still see her around the Houses and that she will come to visit and continue to give us advice as she looks on from a distance.
Today is the 14th anniversary of the direct provision system, a system we should not have in Ireland. People have been in the direct provision system for many years. I urge all Members to look at the Human Rights in Ireland blogathon today. Every half hour, for 14 hours, it is putting up experiences of those in direct provision for asylum seekers and those from advocates who are seeking change.
This is Irish Heart Foundation, stroke awareness week. I remind Members that if they are looking for signs of a stroke to act fast. One should look at the person's face to see If it has fallen to one side, check the arms to see if the person can raise them and note if speech is slurred. If in any doubt I advise people to call 112 or 999. We need to be much more stroke-aware. If we can get in early with strokes, so much can be done for people. If we delay giving help to a person suffering from a stroke irreparable damage can be done. I ask everybody to promote stroke awareness week.
I had understood that the tributes to Jody would be after the Order of Business but it is quite appropriate that we give it primacy because this is the most important event that will take place today. I would ask for the indulgence of the House, since we have a rota, that after I say my few words on behalf of the Independents that I hand over to take the Order of Businesses with Senator Sean D. Barrett and then I will take my place to raise one issue later.
In a way it is an emotional day for all of us. I certainly feel that because Jody will be greatly missed in this House. When I was elected, the Clerk was another distinguished member of staff, Mr. Kieran Coughlan, who has recently retired from his position as Clerk of the Dáil.
Jody has been here many years. I will not mention the number of years but it is an alarming number which I would not be ungentlemanly enough to mention that she has actually served in this House, I simply could not believe it. With regard to the dress sense, I am very glad that Senator Ivana Bacik raised it, because I have frequently complimented Jody privately on this. I would be terrified to say anything in public because of the bourgeois PCbrigade in this House and they would tear me, limb from limb, if I dared to say anything so sexist, but coming from Senator Ivana Bacik it could not possibly be sexist. It is a lovely human compliment and one that is deserved by Jody, not that Deirdre is very far behind in the fashion stakes.
May I say, I think Deirdre will miss her terribly because they have been a wonderful team. I used to joke that it was good cop, bad cop, but I will leave one to guess which is which. Jody was always so helpful, decent, genuine, sympathetic - the French only use that word "sympathique" very sparingly of very special people. That is what Jody is. One could go to her with anything and she would give one the best professional advice.
We have been very lucky to have Jody. She battled some illnesses very bravely and came back to us. Now she is going to enjoy life. I hope Jody enjoyed life here with all the rough and tumble, even the late sittings, naughty Members like myself having to be occasionally told to behave themselves, always done in the nicest possible way and so civilised. I hope we will see her from time to time. I ask her, please, not to abandon us because it would be a great loss to us. I hope she will be in. There is a cliche as Gaeilge, that I think is appropriate on this occasion, ní fheicfimid a leithéid arís - we will not see the likes of Jody again. We will get somebody different and I am sure he or she will be excellent, as is Deirdre. I hope we get another team but nobody will replace Jody in her humanity, her decency and her extensive knowledge, but the principle thing is her good fellowship. On behalf of the Independent group, every one of us, including those who are not present, who have to go abroad on professional business, or electioneering or whatever they are at, unanimously wanted a full and appropriate tribute paid to Jody today.
We will miss Jody very much. I know that her dog, her garden, her friends and her family will be the beneficiaries of her time away from us. She has been more than helpful, particularly to those of us who are new not only to the Seanad but to the Houses of the Oireachtas. I greatly appreciate her kindness and common sense. We will miss her very much. We hope she will take the opportunity in both hands and have a great time and think of us just every now and again. When those long speeches are being delivered here and the little arguments break out, we will have her somewhere in our thoughts. I extend a big warm "thank you" to her for everything.
On the subject of the Committee of Public Accounts and the issue of charities, it appears to me that the confusion in regard to Rehab concerns the role of private business and charities combined. Behind Rehab is an extraordinary network of companies that defies belief. Who are all these companies? Who are the directors of them? Some of them are names we already know. How is it that they are able to build up such a network of private business while having charitable status? In this day and age, is that the correct way for charities to function? I would have very deep reservations particularly when I see extraordinary crossovers between those companies, not only here but in the UK, and the closeness of a particular group of people within those companies and those directors. I ask the Leader if the House could assist in that issue. The Committee of Public Accounts has its own role in scrutinising public expenditure but we too have a role in regard to future legislation in respect of charities. I ask the Leader if we could have a debate on the issue.
I note President Higgins' remark when he addressed the UK Joint Houses of Parliament this week that he remembered Constance Markievicz was the first woman MP. In so doing, he acknowledged the great role of women in politics and in public life.
I hope to see more women elected in the forthcoming local elections. This is something we need to strive towards in the future. We got off to a great start with Countess Markievicz but we need to do more. I thank the President for making that remark.
Mar chomh-Thiobraid Árannach, is mian liom mo bhuíochas a chur in iúl do Jody Blake. Níl aon amhras faoi ná gur thug sí an-chabhair agus an-tacaíocht dúinn anseo i gcónaí. Is cinnte nach mbeidh a leithéid arís ann.
As a fellow Tipperary person, I would like to express my appreciation of Jody as Clerk Assistant of the Seanad. I have often marvelled at her demeanour and stamina when the House sat for long hours and the courtesy she showed us at all times. Her lack of arrogance was immensely important. There is no doubt that Jody and Deirdre are an exceptionally dynamic duo, both of them with Tipperary connections. In a way, they underline the calibre of people who come out of Tipperary. It has been often said to me by people looking back on the records of others, including the background from which they came and so on, that an ounce of breeding is better than a tonne of feeding. In this case, that is particularly true. I believe that Jody in many ways epitomises all that is best in public service. It is important to reflect on that also. Very often the spotlight is on the Oireachtas and both Houses. Even in the most exciting or over energetic debates held in this House, there was always a sense of calmness at the top table, which permeated down to Members of the House.
I was not a Member of this House during all of Jody's 23 years here. Twenty-three years in terms of look-back on bóithrín na smaointe seems like a short period. All of the service provided during that time was given in a quiet way. That one could seek and be given advice at any time helped to bring cohesion into the House. It is understandable in a House of Parliament that things can become somewhat confrontational. We always need people to throw oil on troubled waters. There is no doubt that Jody Blake did this. As a virtual neighbour in Tipperary, I have no doubt I will meet her many times in the years to come. Go raibh rath Dé uirthi i gcónaí. Táimid uilig go mór faoi chomaoin aici. Go raibh míle maith aici.
I join colleagues in wishing Jody well. I discovered early on following my election to Seanad Éireann three years ago that we had mutual friends. I will always appreciate the sound and solid advice provided by Jody to me when Acting Chairman and the help, support and courtesy she extends to all Members. I wish her a long, happy and healthy retirement to do all the things she has not had time to do in recent years. I wish her well and thank her for her outstanding service to Seanad Éireann and to Ireland.
It goes without saying that we are immensely proud of the impact on Ireland and Britain of the President's State visit to the UK. President and Mrs Higgins have made a huge impact on the British people and have made us all aware of how highly regarded the Irish people in England are and the great successes so many of them have achieved. In my view, the success of the State visit must be built on. Politicians must take the initiative in this regard. We all hope that trade, commerce and tourism will be positively impacted in the years ahead. In my view, the real objective must be a strengthening of the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland by dealing with the issues that remain unresolved from the failed Haass talks. As we head towards the month of July and the marching season, all the goodwill currently out there must be harnessed. For this reason, I ask that the Leader organise at the earliest possible opportunity in the next term a debate with the Tánaiste on how this historic event can be built upon and how politicians can make the next positive moves to cement the work being done in Northern Ireland and to resolve the outstanding issues causing difficulty there.
I echo all the sentiments expressed about Jody Blake. When she left Golden in Tipperary she ushered in a golden era in the Seanad. I thank her very much for all her kindness to us all.
This week, most generous tributes were paid by Queen Elizabeth in her speech at Windsor Castle to Daniel O'Connell as a parliamentarian. This parliamentary tradition is extremely important in this country. On Sunday, the people of Carlingford will honour Thomas D'Arcy McGee, one of the founders of the Canadian Parliament. This is a notable tradition which Irish people have brought to Australia, South America, Canada and the United States and which has, as stated by Her Majesty during the week, also enriched the democracy of the United Kingdom. It is a proud parliamentary tradition that should be included in all our centenary celebrations.
On a different note, yesterday Mr. Justice Peter Charleton made some strong remarks about stockbroking in this country. This follows insurance levies in which business people were trading insolvently; the €64 million bailout for the banks; the bailout of the credit union in Newbridge and others elsewhere; the bankrupting of all our building societies; pension funds which are hundreds of millions in debt and accountants who, in many cases, do not appear to be accountable. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Finance to the House to discuss the problems caused by the unsatisfactory regulation of financial services in Ireland. The Minister can be assured of our support in any attempts to get some order into this sector which regularly brings itself into disrepute. The question one must ask is what on earth they are teaching in business schools these days that seven sectors cause so much annoyance and grief to the remainder of society and the economy.
I, too, would like to be associated with all the tributes paid to Jody, all of which are well deserved. I, too, found her ever helpful, particularly when I was Acting Chairman. Whenever Jody was there when one was in the Chair, one could not go wrong. I am extremely grateful for her help. I am sure we will get together again outside this House.
Reference has been made to the state visit. I agree that the President and Mrs. Higgins, in terms of all they have done and what the President said, have done us proud. Along with Deputies McHugh, Feighan and Wall, I had the pleasure of being in the Royal Gallery to hear the President's speech, which was very powerful. As has been said, good things will flow from the visit. Perhaps, as has also been said, we can mark it by an appropriate debate in this House. I was delighted by the references in the Queen's speech to Countess Markievicz and the liberator, Daniel O'Connell. As stated by Senator Barrett, that practice is a proud Irish tradition. Perhaps the Leader would arrange for an appropriate marking of the occasion by this House.
I, too, would like to be associated with the tributes to Jody and thank her for all her work on behalf of this House.
Senator Darragh O'Brien referred to the Seanad count. As a new Member, I found the counts of parcels and sub-parcels and the inside and outside rules all very confusing.
It was very confusing and a lot tougher than the old tallies that happened in count centres at a general election. This is my first time in an elected position and I have been fortunate to have the benefit of Ms Deirdre Lane and Ms Jody Blake who assist us and try to keep manners on us at times. I wish Jody well in her early retirement.
Three other matters of note have also happened this week. Youth Work Ireland week runs until 13 April and many of us attended the briefing in Buswell's Hotel yesterday. EU Commissioner Andor held a high level conference on the youth guarantee in Brussels on Tuesday, and President Higgins addressed the Guildhall banquet in London last night. In his address, the President said:
... it is the ordinary people of Ireland, and generations yet to come, who have borne and continue to bear the cost of the painful decisions that have been taken ... In the end, it is how our respective peoples experience the result of our action or inaction that is the test of the quality of our decisions ... The human cost of the financial crisis has been enormous. While unemployment is receding in Ireland, it remains too high and the emigration of our young people is a challenge to our future prosperity. It is clear to us in Ireland that providing opportunity for our young people, and harnessing their talents, will be the true measure of our recovery.On 5 February, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, addressed this House on the youth guarantee. She requested the Cathaoirleach to arrange another discussion on the issue a few months later to get an update on the progress made by the European Commission. In light of the conference held in Brussels on Tuesday - which I was fortunate to attend and heard a presentation by the youth guarantee policy co-ordinator for Ireland - it is important to schedule another debate with the Minister on that issue as soon as we can.
Some of the outstanding issues remaining include the starting point for young people who are not registered with public employment services. Essentially, those young people are effectively disengaged from the mainstream. As many of us pointed out in the last debate, and as Youth Work Ireland indicated yesterday, the youth guarantee implementation plan does not mention a role for youth organisations. A footnote on page 15 merely states that the idea could be explored, but that is not acceptable.
A number of weeks ago, I travelled to Brussels to meet the youth guarantee policy officer in the Commission. It was made clear that the editing and alteration of the implementation plan is at the Government's discretion and the Commission will not be making recommendations on it. It is therefore up to us, having listened to the concerns of those who will be affected by this plan, to lobby the Minister for changes to improve the plan for the young people of Ireland.
As it stands, the plan will not be evaluated until the end of 2015. Funding for the guarantee is for the period 2014 to 2015, so the evaluation will only be made at the very end which is far too late. Some of the glaring deficiencies should be remedied now before funding is committed, spent or has expired. Leaving it until the end of 2015 or beyond is akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The youth guarantee will not be as sexy as the PAC, so media outlets will not flock here to listen to the debate. However, if we do not get this right now there is a danger that it could be a damp squib. We could have worse social repercussions in future when there will be no point in Members of the Oireachtas scratching their heads about what they could or should have done, when they have the opportunity to do something now. I ask the Leader to take up the request of the Minister, Deputy Burton, for us to schedule a further discussion on the youth guarantee.
I also wish to pay tribute to Ms Jody Blake on her early retirement, which has to be emphasised. I also want to echo the comments on her dress sense which is something we have had a good few chats about. In fact, I think we have a dress or two in common. She is very quirky and cool and I really enjoy her from that point of view, as well as her calm and lovely manner. She has made me feel extremely welcome and has been a great help when I have been in the Chair. That was certainly the case at the beginning when I did not have a clue and I still need assistance. Ms Deirdre Lane will miss her, as we all will. The Seanad staff in general are a pleasure to work with, but we will especially miss Jody. I thank her for everything and wish her all the best.
Senator van Turnhout said she hoped Ms Blake would come back to provide advice. I hope she goes off to have a great time, enjoy life and make the best of things. I hope to see her every now and again, nonetheless.
I want to echo what others have said about the President's state visit to the United Kingdom. He has given thoughtful and eloquent speeches there and I am personally very proud of him. The results of the visit have been better than I expected and, as others have said, I hope we can build on this in terms of trade. From an EU perspective I noted the Taoiseach's comments during the week when he gently tried to encourage the UK to think in terms of staying in the EU. Many of us accept that it would be disastrous if the UK were to leave the EU. I support Senator Mullins's request for the Leader to ask the Tánaiste to attend the House to discuss how we can build on this state visit. Even though it is an EU matter, from a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade viewpoint, we should also discuss the UK's intentions vis-à-visthe EU.
I stand solely to pay tribute to Ms Jody Blake. I wish to express my gratitude to her, as others have done. She was the first professional in the Seanad to give me a telephone call after my appointment. It was her call and she shared her mobile number with me as well, which I was so impressed with because it was over a weekend. From that moment on, I have consistently felt both her personal support and her extraordinary professional expertise. She was always at my disposal for the things I needed to learn as a newcomer to politics. I wish to express my extraordinary gratitude to her for that.
Together with Ms Deirdre Lane, Jody has also lent her support to the innovation which is the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. I note her work in that regard which was extra work with no extra resources, yet she rose to the occasion every time as we went about our business. Only yesterday, Jody was sending out letters to invite organisations to attend our next Seanad consultation process. Up to the very last moment, she demonstrated her willingness and support in that regard.
I salute Jody's courage in her recovery. As I witnessed her return to work, I learned a lot about recovery and one's approach to that, in addition to the healing process and being well. Once or twice, we shared the great expression from a 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich, that all will be well and all manner of things shall be well. That is what I wish Jody the most. I shall miss her, as we all will.
I would like to join with the tributes to Ms Jody Blake. It is hard to believe that she will be leaving here. I remember before our first day's sitting, when I was new and quite nervous about the Chamber, I was trying to figure it out. Jody very kindly brought me in and showed me around, so we figured it out. Ever since then I have always found Jody to be a lovely person apart from being a great source of strength, advice and common sense. She will be missed here but I certainly wish her all the very best in retirement.
I wish to welcome the staff and students of Kilrush community school who have just come into the Visitors' Gallery. They are very welcome.
My timing is impeccable for once. I hope they have a wonderful experience. Ms Jody Blake has been very good to other schools coming up here, so it is fitting that this school visit occurred today.
Today is International Human Rights Day and many human rights issues need to be addressed, including the area of direct provision in particular. It is 15 years to the day since the direct provision system was established here, but it is broken and is not working. The Government has failed in its human rights responsibilities concerning this issue. Millions of our ancestors emigrated around the world and made an indelible contribution to many countries.
There are people who find themselves in difficult situations, who are coming to our country now and who, if given the opportunity, I have no doubt, would make an indelible contribution to this country. I believe these people chose to come to Ireland for refuge because Ireland is a country that prides itself in human dignity. It is something that needs to be addressed. I have great hope and faith in the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, because I know the fundamentals are right in terms of where he is coming from on this issue. I appeal to the Minister to make this a priority. It is not a vote-winning priority and it is possibly not even a popular priority but it is a right priority and we have responsibilities in this area. Perhaps at some stage the Leader might be kind enough to organise a debate on direct provision with the Minister in order that we can get the latest up-to-date position and apply the necessary pressure.
Like other colleagues I join in the good wishes to Jody Blake on her early retirement. I was saddened to hear last week that she would be leaving us today. As colleagues have already said, when one attends the count in the Members' restaurant Jody and Deirdre are two of the most prominent people one can see. They conduct their business effectively and efficiently. In particular, if a candidate is successful it is a very pleasurable experience. Then, when a Senator comes into the Chamber he gets to know both Deirdre Lane and Jody very well and he soon realises that he is only a Member and that he has absolutely no say in what goes on in the place. I wish Jody well in her early retirement. All I can say is that she is a pure lady having worked with her. I wish her well in whatever she intends to do with the many decades she has left. As a treat for her I am tempted to call a walk-through vote, if only to see that expression of disapproval on her face one last time. Perhaps we will do that for her.
I welcome the Government Whip, Senator Paul Coghlan, back from representing us during part of President Higgins's successful visit to England.
I join all my colleagues who have said that it was a very successful visit. We were indeed proud of our President and country and I hope there will be many more such visits.
I wish to ask the Leader two things briefly. I have mentioned on several occasions in the House that mobile telephone coverage has disimproved in recent months. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House to find out what exactly is going on? The coverage has been reduced but the cost of making a call or using a telephone has not. It is nothing to do with more masts being needed because where there was excellent coverage there is now appalling coverage. There is some reason for that and I would like to know it. It is causing considerable difficulty for ordinary citizens and businesses and I am keen to get to the bottom of it once and for all. I call on the Leader to make another attempt to get the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, into the House.
Will the Leader use his good offices to impress upon the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, the need for him to intervene personally in the dispute that started last Monday between the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, and the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, regarding the proposed changes to the junior certificate? This dispute is not going to go away and it must be resolved. I am keen to see it resolved sooner rather than later before the people to whom the teachers, the unions and the Minister are there to facilitate and to impart education, namely, the young people, become embroiled in the middle. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister to intervene at an early stage in this dispute in order that it can be resolved.
They are not quite unbeatable but there are almost unbeatable. I had not realised until today that between Golden and Rathcabbin we have a Tipperary team in the House. We are losing half of it today but I hope we are not losing it permanently. I imagine Jody will keep in touch with us after all those years.
I have been here for 21 years and she was one of the first people I picked up the telephone to when I came to ask for advice. Between herself and Deirdre we have had great advice and we have heard about it today. However, it is not only that; it is the sense that she talks and the style that she has shown, and not only the style referred to by Senator Bacik. Anyway, she adds colour to the Chamber.
The other thing I have found about Jody is that she was always able to steer us through the difficult times. Whenever we had challenges, whatever they were, we could go to her for advice. She gave us advice and she did so with sympathy because she recognised the challenges we had as well.
I am using this opportunity to thank Jody. I know her health has not been wonderful in the past year but she seems to be back, healthy and well, vibrant and full of energy. I do not believe she will retire in the sense that some people use the term. She has too much vigour, energy and enthusiasm to actually retire. Whatever her plans are I hope she enjoys them, that she will keep the happy memories that she left here with and that she will have them when she looks back on her days here. I thank her for those 23 years.
Nuair a bhí comhrá fada agam le Jody inné, chuir mé in iúl di an méid measa atá agam uirthi. I wish to be associated with all the words of good wishes to Jody. We had a great chat yesterday between Adjournment matters. I expressed to her my considerable pride having worked with her and my sense of gratitude on our behalf being a smaller grouping in the Seanad. One thing Jody always did was look out for the Independents and smaller groupings as well as the big parties, such that everyone got a fair crack of the whip. It is fair to say is bean uasal amach is amach í Jody. She is a quintessential lady and she will be sorely missed. I, for one, am certainly looking forward to her memoirs once she has left. I imagine they will be a fantastic read and I hope that they make the bestseller list.
I join with the statements made by Senator Conway and Senator van Turnhout this morning around the issue of direct provision. It is an appalling situation that these people find themselves in. Today is the anniversary of the setting up of direct provision. I note that the humanrights.iewebsite is hosting a blog carnival on direct provision with input from many different people. I encourage people to have a look at that.
Several Senators have been doing work quietly in the background on the issue simply to educate ourselves on direct provision. We have a cross-party Seanad group on the issue which includes Senators van Turnhout, Conway, Moran, Power, Zappone and Barrett. We have decided to mark the anniversary today by trying to open up the group as an Oireachtas cross-party group and organise some presentations and information sharing on the issue and try to educate ourselves even more.
A related issue concerns a group who find themselves similarly marginalised, namely, the Roma community. I noted yesterday that I was appalled by some recent journalistic pieces on the Traveller community. This morning Pavee Point launched three reports on the Roma community in Ireland and the situation they find themselves in. The reports include an examination of the Roma community from an international aspect, particularly across Europe. It would be good to debate the situation that the Roma community find itself in from a health perspective, an integration perspective, etc. Some of the findings of the reports would certainly alarm people in respect of the situation they find themselves in. A debate around the Roma community, their situation, how we can help to support them, how we can ensure they make the best of their lives in Ireland, how they become fully integrated and how they share with us their great wealth of knowledge, music and culture would be a good thing.
I join wholeheartedly in the tributes to Jody Blake. I thank her for her professionalism and courtesy to all of us over the years. Present company excepted, it is sometimes the fate of politicians around here to be forgotten but not gone. The opposite will be the case with Jody. Certainly, she will not be forgotten and we hope to see her as much as possible. I wish her good health and happiness in the many years ahead. She became the temporary custodian of a book that was destined for me about the Camino de Santiago de Compostela some years ago.
I hope she has an opportunity to explore the delights of that walk at some point. In the meantime, there is a large 15 county constituency of Midlands-North-West, which has some great walking. If she has any interest in walking around with me in the coming weeks, I would be delighted and honoured to have her by my side.
At some point, it would be good to hear from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, about the operation of the local authority septic tank inspection regime, which is a function of the Environmental Protection Agency. The deadline for registration was February 2013. Now that the inspection regime has commenced and many septic tanks are failing the inspection, I have received a number of queries from people who missed the deadline and are concerned they may not qualify for the means-tested grant aid. Given that a significant number of people missed the deadline, is it possible to extend an amnesty to them? Many people have crippling financial commitments and face the burden of debt and worries as to how they will meet mortgage payments as new taxes accumulate. Such persons do not wish to incur expenses of several thousand euro for the remediation of their septic tank facilities. We should also recall that local authorities were glad to approve planning applications for once-off housing as they could avail of the development charges associated with such houses. As a large amount of money has been raised through the septic tank registration system, it would be only just to extend the amnesty, should that be needed, to prevent people from being deprived of a grant in cases where they need to repair septic tank systems. Perhaps the Minister will update the House on the number of inspections that have taken place, the failure rate of such inspections, the average cost for people to adjust and fix their septic tank facilities and whether it would be possible to provide an amnesty to those who missed the first 2013 deadline.
Senator Bacik is correct. Fianna Fáil Senators are smiling wryly because our party has been fighting this issue for several years. The latter day conversion of Senator Mullen to the issue may have something to do with his tramping through the highways and byways of 15 rural counties. I am sure that has been a new experience for the Senator, coming as he does from the leafy suburbs of Dublin 4.
I wish Senator Mullen well and welcome him and his new-found enthusiasm for septic tanks on board. I hope he will continue to follow in the footsteps of the Fianna Fáil Party in protecting those who are financially impoverished. I welcome much of what he said on this issue.
I am sure Senator Diarmuid Wilson and I speak for all sides in complimenting President Higgins and his wife, Sabina, on their extraordinary performance in the first couple of days of their visit to Britain which will continue until tomorrow. Their visit has given a morale boost to Irish people in Britain and at home. I also compliment Senator Paul Coghlan, who represented the Seanad yesterday. I presume he was in the Long Gallery listening to the President's speech. I had the pleasure of listening to the former Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, when he spoke there. Incidentally, he did not give me a ticket, which I obtained through my contacts in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. The then Taoiseach was not one bit concerned whether I was present.
I found it to be an historic occasion and I am sure Senator Coghlan enjoyed the occasion yesterday. President Higgins lifted the morale of the diaspora, including the Irish in Britain, and those of us who are at home. I pay particular tribute to the President's wife, Sabina, who has done an extraordinary job in promoting Irish fashion. Sometimes the consort is left to one side in these circumstances, but it should be placed on record that she has promoted Irish fashion. I read yesterday in one of the newspapers that she has been meticulous in ensuring everything she wears is the best of Irish fashion. It is a wonderful tribute to the President and his wife. They have done a great job for Ireland and fair play to them.
On Tuesday, the European Court of Justice issued its judgment on the EU data retention directive, No. 2006/24/EC. The court struck down the directive on the basis that it is incompatible with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and stated that it entailed an interference with the fundamental rights of practically the entire population of Europe. This is a significant statement. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the ruling because the Seanad Chamber is an ideal setting to debate such an important issue pertaining to European law.
Having been distracted by septic tanks, I completely forgot to join my colleagues in wishing Jody Blake every happiness in future. While it may be a cliché, the saying that one's health is one's wealth is true. I am aware Jody has taken the decision somewhat reluctantly on medical advice. We are all sorry that is the case and this is a sad day for us. I have served with Jody over a long period and have always found her to be courteous, co-operative and friendly. She brings many qualities to her office and I wish her every happiness in future.
I appreciate the flexibility shown by the Cathaoirleach in this matter. I welcome the Supreme Court judgment in the Callely case, which vindicated the honour of the Seanad. When there has been time to examine the case, more will be said on the matter in the House. Yesterday was a good day as it vindicated the Seanad in this matter.
As it is human rights day, I propose to raise a serious human rights issue which pertains to the Department of Defence. The Department instituted a ruling in 1994 that recruits had to reach the rank of sergeant in their 21 year term of service or, failing that, they would be automatically removed from the service. This was an attempt to create efficiencies in the Defence Forces. The ruling was completed and confirmed in 2006 just before the bubble burst. An embargo on recruitment introduced almost simultaneously made it very difficult for Defence Forces personnel, even those with 15 or 20 years service, to attain the rank of sergeant. This was no fault of their own as an embargo was placed on promotion. The measure amounts to appalling discrimination, particularly as officers have been shown flexibility in this area.
The lowest paid, most vulnerable and weakest members of the Defence Forces have been treated in a highly arbitrary and callous fashion. Many of the men and women in question have served the country with distinction in peacekeeping forces, regularly pass fitness tests and are a credit to the country. They were not advised of this flaw in their contracts and have not been given any skills for civilian employment. In early middle age, about 500 of them are being forced out of the system, which is wrong and a reproach to the State, particularly given that the age limits were recently extended for commissioned officers.
I ask that the Leader write to the Minister for Defence requesting that the position be reviewed because it is a gross injustice on young and vulnerable people, many of whom have mortgages and families to support. They are being thrown onto the market without being provided with any skills by the Defence Forces. This is wrong and I hope the House will register a strong protest or have a short debate on the issue. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House and answer questions about the treatment of people who serve our country with great bravery and distinction?
It is appropriate that Senators have paid tribute to Jody Blake. We may ask her to retire a few more times as her decision has resulted in the Order of Business being a little less confrontational than usual this morning.
That is the Taoiseach's and the Government's position on the matter.
Senators van Turnhout, Conway, Ó Clochartaigh, Norris and Conway referred to human rights and the issue of direct provision, which has been in existence for 14 years. The Senators requested a further debate on the matter. Senator van Turnhout also highlighted the fact that this is national stroke awareness week.
Senator O'Keeffe referred to the role of private business in the context of charity and requested a debate on future legislation relating to charities. I agree that such a debate should take place.
Senator Mullins and others referred to the great impact of the President's State visit to the UK and to the need to resolve matters relating to Northern Ireland which remain outstanding. Yesterday, I issued an invite to the Taoiseach to come before the House in early course to address this matter. I hope a debate on it will take place.
Senator Barrett outlined the importance of parliamentary tradition in this country and referred to people such as Daniel O'Connell and Thomas D'Arcy McGee. He also highlighted the unsatisfactory position with regard to financial regulation and requested a debate with the Minister for Finance on the matter.
Senator Paul Coghlan was the only Member of the House to be involved in the President's state visit. I am sure he did us proud.
Senator Reilly referred to the youth guarantee and suggested that we invite the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, to come before the House to discuss it. I have invited the Minister to return to the Seanad to deal with a number of issues. I am informed that 28 May is the next occasion on which she will be available. On that date she will be before us to discuss the position regarding the rent supplement. I will try to encourage her to engage with us in a debate on the youth guarantee and she did previously indicate that she would be prepared to come before the House to discuss the matter.
Senator Noone referred to the importance for Ireland of the UK remaining in the EU. Senator Zappone referred to the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. The latter will be engaging in a comprehensive debate on human rights in this Chamber on 6 May next. I encourage as many Members as possible to attend that meeting. It is important that even those Senators who are not members of the committee should attend.
Senator Wilson referred to the fact that mobile telephone coverage has disimproved significantly in recent months. I will raise that matter with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte. It might be a good idea for the Senator to seek to raise it on the Adjournment in order that he might obtain an immediate reply. Senator Wilson also outlined his concerns with regard to changes to the junior certificate and the need for the Minister for Education and Skills to intervene in respect of the dispute which has arisen.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to the Roma community. I was invited by Pavee Point to attend a conference on that matter which is being held today. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to attend. I agree with the Senator that there is a need for a debate on the matter. One of the committees of the British-Irish Parliamentary Association has been tasked with dealing with compiling a report on the Traveller and Roma communities. Perhaps the House might debate that report when it is published.
I appreciate the fact that Senator Mullen is trying to recruit canvassers.
There were those who encouraged people not to register and pay the €5 fee. The number of environmental infringement cases taken against the State has decreased by 66% since the Government took office. As a result, a considerable sum of taxpayers' money has been saved. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, is to be complimented on his efforts in this regard.
Senator Naughton requested a debate in respect of data protection and EU law. I hope to be in a position to arrange such a debate.
Senator Norris welcomed the Supreme Court's decision in respect of the Callely case. The Senator also correctly highlighted the plight of members of the Defence Forces, whose service is confined to 21 years unless they attain the rank of sergeant. I have already made representations on behalf of PDFORRA in respect of this matter to the Minister for Defence, Deputy Shatter. The period of service was initially 12 years and it was later increased to 21. I agree that the soldiers in question have a legitimate case and something should be done for them.
I referred to the President's state visit to the UK because I hoped the Leader would convey the appreciation of this House to President and Mrs. Higgins on the outstanding work they have done on behalf of the nation.