Wednesday, 7 May 2014
Order of Business
The Order of Business shall be No. 1, motion re EU scrutiny work programme, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, Friendly Societies and Industrial and Provident Societies (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 2.45 p.m. and to conclude no later than 4 p.m.; and No. 47, Private Members' business, motion No. 9, to be taken at 4 p.m. and to conclude not later than 6 p.m.
As we were not sitting last week, I have a number of issues I would like to raise on behalf of our group. The record should show that the Government Chief Whip in the other House is determining the business of this House. That is why we did not sit last week. The Government wants to make sure we are the Taoiseach's subservient little lap-dog. It is unfortunate that the opportunity to discuss an amount of business, including Private Members' Bills, was lost. We could have considered a number of items on the Order Paper, but for some inexplicable reason we were unable to do so. I am sure it is no fault of the Leader or the other Members of the Seanad on the Government side. It is the fault of their masters in the Dáil.
Will the Leader agree with me that, after two years of calls from this side of the House and the Opposition in the other House, the Taoiseach has conceded there is an issue with discretionary medical cards? Finally, he is beginning to listen to his own backbenchers. He certainly did not listen to us over the past two years when we highlighted day after day, week after week, month after month, the individual cases we all have come across. These are cases of blind people, people with cancer, long-term illnesses, multiple sclerosis and a wide variety of other illnesses who have been coldly and callously stripped of their discretionary medical cards in a very inhumane way. In the other House yesterday, many examples of this were given. All Members here have examples too. It is time something was done on this. Accordingly, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, comes to the House and highlights in detail what will be done to help these families in question.
There is plenty of pre-election rhetoric to garner votes such as the Minister for Finance’s indication of tax cuts on the never-never, the Minister for Health’s indication of a third-tier of medical cards for discretionary card applications and the airy-fairy, woolly proposals we have heard on Irish Water. We do not want these kinds of empty promises. We need the absolute detail that will answer the question for the blind person whose home I was in last night when they expressed their fear their medical card review will take away their discretionary medical card. This issue has not just arisen in Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal and Cavan but in every county and city. Answers are required.
I will not call for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to come to the House on Irish Water today because he is engaged in a Private Members’ motion on the issue in the other House. It is vitally important, however, we have him in here soon. Let us have a quick recap on events. In November, the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, lied to the Deputy Barry Cowen by saying the cost of the establishment of Irish Water-----
The Minister lied to Deputy Barry Cowen last November. There was an untruth, a porky pie, a lie or whatever way the Leader wants to put it. The reality was the Minister was asked how much the establishment of Irish Water would cost. He answered - you can check the record, a Chathaoirligh - €10 million although he personally, with his Cabinet colleagues, had sanctioned €180 million three months beforehand.
We had a whole week off last week. That was not our doing on this side of the House. There are points the people are telling us on the doorsteps that they want made. One of these points is how much water is going to cost.
I hope my language will be a little more respectful of the Chair and this House.
I welcome the Government’s decision yesterday on water charges. We have seen a fair deal on them and the recognition that this is a conservation measure. The principles agreed at Cabinet will encourage sensible use of this important natural resource. I welcome the fact that the Labour Party position that there should be no standing charge was adhered to and achieved because that would have militated against the conservation aspects of the charge. I welcome the fact that water for children will be free, there will be a cap on charges for people with particular medical needs and that vulnerable groups such as pensioners, people with disabilities and carers will get an allowance through the household benefits package. I also welcome that there will be hardship fund, a free allowance and an accelerated metering programme.
As this programme develops, we will see a much more efficient and effective use of our water resources, a much better delivery of water services and much less waste. We must be conscious that through the boom time, we allowed a fragmented system to evolve where water services were delivered through 34 local authorities, thousands of people are still on boil-water notices or restrictions and there have been significant supply shortages in the Dublin area over Christmas holidays.
I welcome the debate on the Labour Party’s Private Members’ motion on personal assistance services for people with disabilities this evening. We drafted the motion with the assistance of the Centre for Independent Living, members of which will be present in the Visitors Gallery for the duration of the debate which will be taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. Many Members will have received communications from people with disabilities or their families who want to see this motion pass. I believe it has cross-party support which I welcome.
At the weekend, the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, spoke coherently and persuasively at the Burren Law School, a school in which I am involved as one of the directors this year, about the need to establish an office of guardian of the public interest to ensure practices such as extraordinary rendition are not allowed. While it may seem a technical point, will the Leader organise a debate on this matter as it could develop into a very important safeguard of the public interest. An office such as this would be a different function to that of the Attorney General. We would see ombudsman offices taking on part of this function - hence Emily O’Reilly’s interest. It would be worth exploring this specific point of having an office of the guardian of the public interest.
While I am greatly saddened that such services are necessary at all, I welcome the opening this evening of Ireland’s first FGM, female genital mutilation, clinic at the Irish Family Planning Association’s clinic on Cathal Brugha Street. The clinic will provide treatment to an estimated 4,000 women who have suffered FGM in or outside Ireland. FGM, as we know, is an abhorrent practice and a grave violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. It is classic example of gender-based violence, perpetrated against women and girls all over the world.
Another glaring and incomprehensible incident of gender-based violence is the recent mass abduction of 234 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram. According to Time, the girls are being sold into forced child marriages, a modern form of slavery and an egregious breach of international law. I note the call to action of Walk Free, an online movement fighting to end modern slavery which is urging the Nigerian Government to act immediately on intelligence received by credible local services sources and to work with neighbouring countries, Cameroon and Chad, as well as other nations offering assistance to mount an effective search for these girls and to improve the protection of schools in north-east Nigeria so children can receive an education without risk of kidnapping, forced marriages or other abuses. I call on the Government to exert all of its influence at international level to ensure swift action is taken by the Nigerian Government. We have not heard much about this on the news but if this many Irish schoolchildren were taken, there would be uproar.
Last week, it was announced by a US company that it plans to return to Ireland on 20 September to hold a child beauty pageant. We had an excellent debate on 5 March condemning child beauty pageants and the wider question of the importance of protecting childhood. The Government supported my motion during that debate. We also asked the Dáil to pass a similar motion. Given the recent announcement by this US company that it wishes to return to Ireland, will the Leader call on the Dáil to have a similar debate so we send a clear message to the company that it is not welcome here?
We have many brilliant activities for children and young people in Ireland and child beauty pageants are not among them. I express my thanks to the Irish Hotels Federation which has continued to support the motion passed in the House and our work and it also condemns child beauty pageants.
I call the attention of the House to the failure of yet another insurance company, Setanta Insurance, which was put into administration on 30 April and on 1 May will leave many van drivers and motorists uninsured. We raised this issue with the Governor of the Central Bank, Professor Honohan, when he came before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform last week. His reply was interesting. He stated:
If the Central Bank knew in November and spoke to the Maltese, there should be no question that the Irish insurance compensation fund, which has already paid out €1 billion to incompetent insurance companies, should be invoked in this case. Will the Leader ask the Tánaiste what representations have been made by Ireland to Malta on the issue?
On the Setanta case, let me offer some points of information that might be of use. The company had a licence in another part of the European Union and started operating here in 2007. Although the Central Bank had no information about the company's balance sheet and finances, and the fact that it had grown to a sizeable scale, by November 2013 we had become concerned and had some concrete suggestions that there could be problems with this. We drew this to the attention of the Maltese regulatory authorities, and they took a series of actions over the following weeks
I wish to refer to the gauntlet thrown down by Jean-Claude Trichet to the Parliament of this country. He stated he will not appear before the banking inquiry. This is a parliamentary democracy and he is a public servant. Other people sought to defy Parliament and the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy McGuinness, gave them their answer. Mr. Trichet is criticised roundly in a book published yesterday by Philippe Legrain, who was President Barroso's economic adviser from February 2011 to February 2014. Mr. Legrain writes that when Ireland sought relief in November 2010 it was turned down and:
Instead, eurozone policymakers, notably ECB President Trichet, outrageously blackmailed the Irish Government into making good on its guarantee, by threatening to cut off liquidity to the Irish banking system - in effect, threatening to force it out of the euro. Thus, having exhausted the borrowing capacity of the Irish government, the creditors of Irish banks could now call on loans from other eurozone governments along with Britain's, Sweden's and the IMF. This was a flagrant abuse of power by an unelected central banker whose primary duty ought to have been to the citizens of the countries that use the euro - not least Irish ones. Bleeding dry Irish taxpayers to repay foreign debts incurred by Irish banks to finance the country's property bubble was not only shockingly unjust. It was a devilish mechanism not for safeguarding financial stability in the eurozone - which would be the ECB's defence for its actions - but rather for amplifying instability.Mr. Legrain's authoritative account of this affair indicates Mr. Jean-Claude Trichet cannot be allowed to defy the Parliament and if Deputy Lynch wishes him to appear he certainly has an awful lot to answer for.
I will not support the amendment to the Order of Business today but I call on the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Health to come to the House to discuss the issue of medical cards because there is much concern, in particular with regard to people with long-term illnesses. I would like this to be done as soon as possible. We are all on the doorsteps and we hear the stories. It is quite disturbing and very difficult to have any answers for people who find themselves in such a situation. There is also an issue with medical cards which have been taken back before their due date. I met somebody with a long-term illness who had a medical card which was due for renewal in July but it was withdrawn in March. This is very distressing for somebody with a long-term illness who all of a sudden finds this a huge financial difficulty and burden.
Will the Leader consider having an early debate on Northern Ireland? The peace process is a prize we had all hoped for so earnestly, but as I have stated many times, the process is very fragile. The recent debacle of the clumsy arrest of Deputy Gerry Adams and the loaded manner in which it was tweeted by a political source to the general public is not helping the process. It is particularly important for us to ensure we contribute to promote moderation with regard to peace and justice on the island.
Deputy Gerry Adams is an elected Member of Dáil Éireann. He is a significant leader of a constitutional political party. He is pivotal to the peace process and he enjoys a special international reputation. I do not believe for one moment that the histrionics of this episode have in any way helped to alleviate the suffering of all those people who lost loved ones during the recent Troubles. In fact I believe it has added to their suffering. It is interesting to note a television poll conducted showed that almost 50% of all respondents did not believe this arrest was in any way intended to help those people, the forgotten, with regard to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
All of this started with the Boston tapes, and in recent days Senators have possibly noted the Boston university in no uncertain terms has distanced itself from this to the point it intends returning these tapes to the people who were interviewed. If we do not continue to deal with the process in a way we have been dealing much that has been achieved will be lost.
The small group of loyalists who came to the gates of the jail do not represent all the loyalists in the North. In any contact I have had with loyalists there has been plenty of dialogue and we respect each other, and many of us have a common cause. It would concern me very much if this entire episode was in any way exploited for political gain North or South of the Border because if we did this we would be exploiting the suffering of all those people who must live out this whole matter to the end of their lives. This is why I request the Leader to arrange a debate, because the debates we have had in the past have been balanced, reasoned and very moderate. I hope this will continue.
Earlier today I heard calls from the INMO for the lifting of the moratorium on recruitment. It is now time this is done. I have raised this issue ad nauseamin the House in the past. Why do we have all of these problems with people losing their medical cards as Senators Henry and MacSharry have mentioned? Apparently there has been absolute bedlam at the primary care reimbursement service, PCRS, in Finglas for the past two years. People who work there are absolutely stressed out and cannot cope. What did the HSE due to address this? It brought in the Germans. Angela Merkel is now reviewing medical cards in the PCRS. It is as simple as that. This has not been mentioned in any debate on medical cards we have had so far in either House. Because of the moratorium on recruitment, the HSE has employed a German company called Arvato to review medical cards on behalf of the Irish people. This now overrides the recruitment process. It is quite obvious the company has absolutely no expertise in assessing or reviewing medical cards.
They have no compassion, which is obvious from the process of reviewing medical cards. Germans do not do compassion. The company has no knowledge of people's circumstances, particularly in rural Ireland, it thinks that a farmer with ten acres of land is a millionaire. In the past, medical cards were administered locally and people knew one another. People were granted a medical card by right if they were entitled to it and there were no problems. I ask the Leader to relay to the Minister, but I will mention it to him when he takes the matter I raised on the Adjournment, that there would be no need to create a third tier medical card if eligibility for the medical card was assessed locally by people who know the circumstances of the clients and none of these problems would have arisen in the first place.
It is outrageous for Senator Bacik and for the Labour Party to claim that the water tax is fair. It is anything but fair. The vast majority who will have to pay the water tax will see it as unfair. In spite of all the so-called concessions to Deputy Eamon Gilmore and other Labour Party members, the average cost per household for water tax will be €240. That same Government recently introduced the property tax, where the average cost is €316, bringing the combined new charges on ordinary householders to an average of €560 per annum, yet the charges are not based on an assessment of income.
If the Senators wish to have a debate on the North of Ireland on any aspect of what happens in the North, let us have that debate. We have called for such a debate on several occasions but the Leader has not arranged it. We would be very comfortable with having that debate with anybody. We are discussing what this Government is doing in this State.
The new charges will come to some €560 and let me remind the Labour Party that those charges are not based on income or ability to pay. It seems clear to me that the Labour Party has abandoned the principle of progressive taxation. These two measures are about raising revenue for national finances. None of the money that is being raised is going towards local services. We all know in our individual constituencies that the local authority's budgets have been slashed year after year. This is about raising revenue to plug the hole in the national finances. If that is what this is about there are fairer ways to achieve it, such as by having fair and progressive taxation. I will table an amendment to the Order of Business, calling on the Minister or Minister of State from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to come to the House. We spent nearly 16 hours debating the Water Services Bill. It has taken up to now for the Government to tell the people what they will pay for water. Let me remind people outside this House that after 2015, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour Party councillors will have the power to increase the property tax, which they will do and after 2016 they will have the power to increase water charges.
I think people will understand that clearly when they go to the polls in two weeks. They will be very conscious of the people who brought in those charges and the impact that those charges are having on ordinary working families across the State.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that either the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, or the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, will come to the House to discuss the Cabinet decision to set the charging mechanism for water.
Like Senator van Turnhout I wish to raise the kidnap and sale into servitude or marriage of 276 Nigerian girls. This is not news. One year ago, the leader of Boko Haram announced to the world a new policy in an attempt to enforce militant Islamism in Nigeria. He told the Nigerian Government and the international community that this group would begin kidnapping children and selling them. Human Rights Watch estimates that they have already kidnapped 25 children this year in addition to the recent kidnap of 276 children. Added to this slavery is the message from Boko Haram that girls should not be receiving an education but should, while minors, be married off. Indeed one translation of this group's name is "western education is sinful". Nobody paid any attention to the group until now and if this had happened in the developed world, there would have been absolute outrage. Borders would have been shut and defence forces mustered and a vigorous campaign launched to bring the members of Boko Haram to justice. Instead, the Nigerian Government has until recent days turned a blind eye. Boko Haram developed from an original Nigerian Taliban and is equally as cruel and barbaric as its Afghan counterparts. We need to wake up to the threat they pose to the international community and to women in particular. Perhaps the Leader could organise a debate on the matter in the presence of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business tabled by Senator Marc MacSharry. Senator John Kelly is so concerned about the medical card issue that he could support the amendment and have the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, come to the House. It is quite outrageous that a German consultancy firm has been brought in to weed out the applicants and refuse medical cards. The system is being run badly. I am dealing with a case, where the documents provided by the applicant have gone missing and the constituent was informed that the documents were never received, even though the applicant had sent the documents in a registered letter. I am advising all medical card applicants to register and have recorded correspondence with the HSE. I think the documentation is being lost on purpose to delay any approvals in the future. It is a serious situation and is causing great distress.
I support the call by Senators van Turnhout and Naughton in regard to the outrageous situation in Nigeria. The Boko Haram organisation has kidnapped 276 bright intelligent young women. That is a crime against humanity. I know the Americans are sending support to try to locate these young women but I think the world should be mobilised to find them and return them to their families. The issue has dropped from the main headlines. There is more concern in the media about internal party political issues than about this issue. The kidnapping of these girls should be highlighted every day. Furthermore, I condemn the Egyptian Government and the judicial system for condemning 500 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death by hanging. That is an outrageous proposal. This will set Egypt on a course of conflict worse than has been seen before. The Egyptian Government must have no regard for a proper judicial system to allow a judge to convict more than 500 young men to death by hanging. I hope the Government will take action in this regard.
The issue I wish to raise has been raised by Senators van Turnhout, Naughton and Leyden, namely, the kidnapping of the girls by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. I do not know how we can keep this issue on the agenda other than by raising it in this House. There was a rally this morning at the Nigerian Embassy from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. It is important to try to make an input. I am aware that President Barack Obama announced this morning that he will deploy satellite technology to find the location of the girls. We should call on NASA and anybody else with the technology to use it. If girls were kidnapped in a European country, the matter would be high on the agenda. It is time to use all the available technology for tracking people. I do not think it is beyond the realms of possibility that this technology should be used. Another nine girls were kidnapped last night. Boko Haram is bold and brazen enough to state it has sold some of the girls it kidnapped into early marriages. We need to keep the kidnapped young girls on the agenda.
Water is important to everybody and Senator Bacik has outlined what has been done - and I am not going to repeat it - for the groups that cannot afford water charges.
I wish to mention the opening of the clinic for victims of female genital mutilation because my maiden speech here was on the subject. I welcome the initiative. I congratulate Senator Bacik on the work that she has done on the issue, on the Bill she brought through and on the opening of the clinic this morning.
I welcome the further much-needed step forward towards a new system of charity regulation that has been put in place by the Minister for Justice and Equality and his Department. The development is essential for the restoration and maintenance of public trust and confidence in our charities whose work now, more than ever and across many sectors, makes such a crucial and highly valued contribution to society, the economy and the less well-off.
Following the putting in place of a CEO last March, the Minister for Justice and Equality has announced a new board for the charity commission whose chairman will be Conor Woods, a young man who helped me put a report together in 2012. He is an accountant, chairperson of the Chartered Accountants Ireland's charity committee and a senior statutory auditor. Also, he is a dynamic, dedicated and driven individual who is passionate about the charity sector and wants to get things done. He will lead a magnificent board whose first board meeting will be in two weeks' time. He wants to get things up and running in a timely manner.
Speaking of welcoming appointments, while we were on our break the banking inquiry committee began to come together. I wonder which Senator will represent us on the banking inquiry. As we all know, one of our Independent Senators happens to be one of the most expert economists in Ireland and sits on the other side of the Chamber. I refer to Senator Barrett. I am not on the CPP and I hope that it is not too late to ask that Senator Barrett represent Seanad Éireann on the committee as he is an independent expert. God knows we need experts on the committee.
First and foremost I apologise for aiming to dress well today because Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan has said that is the reason I decided to run for Europe. He would say that given that there is no hint of colour or style in his wardrobe and God knows he needs a little bit of help in that department. However, he can pay for such advice.
I wish to raise the serious issue of the lack of change in the culture of banking in this country. I am sure many of us in this room watched last night's "Prime Time" debate. It featured a young couple who were forced to sell their family home for €60,000 having been left with an unsustainable debt of €190,000 and they were made bankrupt which is most regrettable. I acknowledge that people have a duty to pay their debts and that banks have a right to recourse for any of their loans. However, the extremities of the couple's situation raised more questions than answers. It is not the only example of shoddy practice by Ulster Bank against its Irish customers. In the past the bank had IT glitches that were caused by its outsourcing of IT positions to India.
In the past number of weeks I have become aware of another issue that conveys fully the depravity of the banks when it came to lending during the Celtic tiger era. It acts as an example of the way they induced people to take out investments. One such issue that was brought to my attention related to a man who was forced into taking out a financial product. He was a long time customer of the bank but he was put under excruciating duress to invest in a property that was owned by Ulster Bank's parent group in England - RBS - a fact that was not disclosed to him. He resisted the investment in the strongest possible terms and did not give his consent. However, the bank told him that he was lucky to be included in the offer and that he would regret not proceeding with the investment. There was also further misrepresentation on the loan to value ratio. That shows Ulster Bank was funding its asset sale and explains why it engaged in such predatory practices. Essentially, it helped the English arm of its bank at a cost to Irish customers. It is not only me who had a problem with the practice. The Financial Regulator found that there were serious flaws and failures in the bank's sales practices. Not only did Ulster Bank fail to satisfy its regulatory requirements, pursuant to the consumer protection code of 2006, it failed in its overall duties to its clients.
I have given an example of how people suffered due to the practices of banks in this country. It is time for banks to put their hands up and stop prolonging the pain for people. I ask the Minister for Finance to come in here to discuss what sanctions can be imposed against the banks who have behaved appallingly. Concealing the information that I outlined while putting people under duress to buy property is a serious matter which needs to be addressed.
Last summer the Fianna Fáil Party was privileged to have many young people from Boston College take up an internship. I was honoured to have a young lady called Ms Kate Moran as an intern who played a very important part in the production of my policy paper on women entrepreneurs. She is an example of the calibre of the young people who came here as interns so it is no surprise that Boston College is one of the most revered universities in the United States.
Sadly, a dark shadow has been cast over the college as can be learned from an article in this morning's Irish Independent entitled "University historians distance themselves from 'Boston Tapes'". The article refers to historians in Boston College who have distanced themselves from the controversial Boston tapes project where interviews held by Boston College were used by PSNI officers last week when interviewing the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams. Speaking on RTE radio this morning Mr. Jack Dunne, spokesperson for Boston College, said that the two interviewers on the tapes showed incredible bias. He also said they failed to observe normal academic procedures into projects of oral history and used leading questions with no visible attempt at balance. The fact is that the Boston tapes were never meant to be part of current affairs but were intended to remain as an oral history project.
Professor Weiler, professor of history at Boston College, said that the project had "tarnished the reputation" of the college's history department. Professor Robin Fleming, the current chair of the college's history department, said press reports referring to the tapes as their project were "fundamentally inaccurate". Both Professor Weiler and Professor Fleming have vehemently stated that neither of the two interviewers heard on the tapes were employed by the college's history department. I believe it is extremely unfair that the actions of two people, neither of whom was employed by the college, can tarnish the reputation of Boston College.
The Governments of Ireland, the United States and Britain and hundreds of people have invested time and energy into keeping the peace process stable. Last week many boundaries were crossed that could lead to a breakdown of peace. Most people on this part of the island do not realise that the peace process is at risk and that many elements of society - both loyalists and extreme republicans - are dying to get back into war again. Therefore, I support Senator Ó Murchú's call for an immediate debate on the Northern Ireland peace process.
Finally, I second the proposed amendment to the Order of Business tabled by my colleague, Senator David Cullinane. Go raibh míle maith agat.
I join with colleagues in deploring the awful situation in Nigeria. It is true to say that Boko Haram is one of the worst terrorist organisations to emerge in recent times and that this is a major issue that needs an international response. We can only imagine the distress being experienced by the parents of all of the missing children in Nigeria. It is incumbent on all democratically elected governments throughout the world to intervene and help in this situation. I support the call for the Tánaiste to get involved and to involve the European Union at the highest possible level in order to bring the girls safely back to their families and distraught parents.
I support the call for the Minister for Health to come here, in due course, to discuss the emerging problems with medical cards. We all know that medical cards are granted in line with existing legislation and are based on income but there is an element of discretion.
Obviously, this is where the difficulty arises. When the election is over and in the cool calm of normal politics-----
-----a wider debate is needed on the entire medical card system and whether there is a need for a change in the legislation. It is wrong and I believe it would be appropriate for every child and person with a long-term and incurable disability to be granted a medical card as a matter of right-----
-----irrespective of the parents' income levels. However, a change in legislation is required to bring that about. This is why the Minister should come into the House and have a wider debate on the entire medical card issue, on how it could be made fairer and to ensure that situations such as those outlined on "The Late Late Show" broadcast the other night simply do not happen again.
I dtosach, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh na ráitis atá déanta ag na Seanadóirí White agus Ó Murchú agus a rá go dtacaím leis an méid atá ráite acu. Sílim gur labhair siad go stuama agus go ciallmhar. We might be closer to a Sinn Féin group in the Seanad than was previously thought.
It is obvious that there is only one true leader any way in the republican parties in these Houses.
Is there a specific Government policy regarding the music that is played in State cars? It seems to me that Tammy Wynette must be one of the CDs going around in the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste's car, because it seems that "Stand By Your Man" is one of their favourite tunes when it comes to the Minister for Justice and Equality.
The Leader could tell Members that. I am sure he would know all about that and ours certainly are not. However, it appears that the Minister, Deputy Shatter, has taken on some of the Teflon left behind by Bertie and the boys because he appears to be totally impregnable when it comes to the calamities and debacles that have ensued in his ministerial role. There has been the GSOC affair, the whistleblowers, the way in which he dealt with former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and now the statements by the Data Protection Commissioner with regard to the Deputy Wallace affair, which was totally inappropriate. However, the Government stands behind and defends him all the way, which is completely inappropriate. I believe the Labour Party in particular must consider its defence of this Minister once more.
The reason I make this point again is because the Seanad Public Consultation Committee had a very good set of hearings yesterday. I note that a recurring theme that arose throughout that debate was the issue of direct provision, which Members have brought up many times in this House. I note that Professor Michael O'Flaherty, Dr. Liam Thornton, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and a number of others addressed the issue of direct provision in the context of international human rights. Professor O'Flaherty offered his opinion that this State and the Government are more than likely to get their hands rapped on this issue because it is very much in contravention of international human rights. Moreover, with all the debacles going on in the Department of Justice and Equality, it is quite clear that putting Bills such as the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill on the long finger and telling Members they cannot be dealt with is all because the Minister is putting out fire after fire within his own Department and is not focusing on the job of work that must be done. While it is well and good and proper for Senators to raise issues abroad of international human rights violations, human rights violations are happening on their watch on Irish soil that must be dealt with. Moreover, Members need a Minister who is competent and able to do that and who will bring forward the proper legislation that will deal with these issues in a forthright manner.
The Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill in particular is needed and debate on that legislation must be brought forward in order that Members can address the violations of international human rights that are happening in Ireland today.
Senator MacSharry says that practice makes perfect and I acknowledge that no one has had more practice than he in regard to bluster and so on in this Chamber. I find myself in agreement with the comments of my colleagues, Senators Mullins and Henry, on this medical cards issue. Senator MacSharry probably was prompted by the Taoiseach's humane approach as regards discretionary cards but more about that anon.
I wish to raise the comments made yesterday by the credit controller, Mr. John Trethowan, before the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation when he voiced his concerns regarding the exiting foreign banks leaving the Irish market, namely, Danske Bank, Bank of Scotland and ACC-Rabobank. This is an issue I addressed myself at the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform last week. It seems as though these people are not concerned about the strategies they are employing against their customers, which in many instances are very unfair. I raised these last week with the Governor of the Central Bank at the aforementioned committee and since then a number of cases have been brought to my attention directly that I intend to pursue further with the Governor. In fact, I have written to the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform asking that the chief executive officers of the aforementioned three banks be brought before it to be questioned because their winding-down strategies are showing scant regard for customers and particularly for small to medium-sized enterprises, SMEs. While they may not be concerned about any wreckage they are leaving behind them in their wake, Members must be concerned. We cannot afford to have inflicted any further structural damage on SMEs or to impede their recovery. I have been given instances of breaches of contract and of agreements, over-willingness to appoint receivers to viable trading companies and unnecessary demands as regards refinancing with other institutions. While I do not seek an immediate debate, this is an issue that Members might review following the further hearings by the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform on the matter.
First, I join Senator van Turnhout in welcoming the opening of the female genital mutilation, FGM, clinic in Ireland. Interestingly, an Irish person opened the first such clinic in the United Kingdom approximately 21 years ago. The reason it was opened was because a huge number of Somali woman came into United Kingdom and into London in particular and suddenly hospitals there had a new problem with which to deal. It was interesting to raise that issue with a senior politician at the time, 20-odd years ago, to be told this would never be a problem in Ireland. Senator van Turnhout has mentioned a figure of approximately 4,500 women who now require the facilities of this clinic, which just shows how one should never think that change will not come. New issues arise on a day-to-day basis and one should be prepared to deal with them.
I wish to touch on the medical card issue because I wish to repeat what I have said previously. Medical cards are issued to people who could earn up to €5,000 per week and the Government now is obliged to trawl back from that scenario. Since coming into government, an additional 217,000 medical cards have been issued and 43% of the population now have medical cards. At present, 1,950,000 people either have a medical card or a GP-only card and the taxpayers are paying for this. I do not agree with the manner in which it currently is being reviewed, whereby people are being written to unnecessarily, which is causing unnecessary alarm. I already have asked the Minister that the current procedure in place regarding how the review is carried out be stopped and a new system considered. This must be done urgently because unnecessary alarm is being caused to people and this issue certainly must be considered. I ask that the Leader would convey these views and if the Minister comes into this House, I certainly will convey those views to him myself.
Finally, I will touch on an issue raised by Senator Paul Coghlan regarding the banks and a situation I recently encountered. ACC Bank currently is closing down current accounts but one is entitled to hold onto one's loan account. However, the problems for farmers is that when they seek to arrange an overdraft account with an alternative bank, the security is held by ACC Bank. If, for example, someone has an 80-acre farm, the easiest way to deal with that is for 20 acres to be released to be used as security for the overdraft facility in the alternative bank. However, ACC Bank is not accommodating farmers in that regard. I ask that the Minister intervene, as unnecessary hardship is being imposed on people. They are being obliged to transfer everything, even when they have very good conditions and loans at present. They now are being forced to walk away from those conditions and are being put into further financial difficulty. The Minister should intervene on this issue.
I ask the Leader to raise the matter with the Minister for Finance at the earliest possible date.
I welcome the statement made by the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, in Dundalk last week that he expects the June meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council to support and be involved in the next round of applications for funding for the Narrow Water Bridge project. This breaks the impasse that existed where support from the Northern Executive was not forthcoming. I have spoken to a number of people in that regard since and they fully expect that the North-South Ministerial Council will indeed do that and that the funding application can be made in 2015 through the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB.
I agree with Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú that it would be timely to have a debate on the North in this House but we could talk until the cows come home in that there is that much to talk about, and, by the way, it does not make us Sinn Féin to be talking about the North.
Yes. I would like to start the ball rolling on that. I ask for a debate with the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, in attendance to discuss not only Narrow Water Bridge project but the A5 and that he would outline North-South transport issues which we could then debate.
I welcome all my colleagues back; it is good to see them all again. I am fairly upset about two health administration related issues which have come to light during the break. One was the announcement that the HSE was sponsoring a symposium by Professor Kaplan of Harvard for 300 assorted HSE employees on the question of value for money, and paying the professor, it is rumoured, €50,000 for his seminars with untold other expenses involved in the setting up of the meeting. There was a vague promise that sponsorship is being obtained from extra statutory sources, perhaps from people who have contacts to provide services and goods to the HSE. I did an MBA in health care many years ago pretty much with the express interest of finding out why professional bureaucrats kept telling people like me that we knew nothing abut running the health service and I found out that perhaps we knew a little bit more than they thought we did. I am appalled by this. I am also appalled a the sheer scale of the lack of proportion in hosting an event like this, which may cost several hundred thousand euro, at a time when we have lengthening waiting lists, when medical cards are being plucked out of the hands of people who have had them for many years, when deaf children are waiting for a year to hearing tests, when patients in hospitals are waiting for weeks to get scans done which are delaying their treatments, delaying the release of beds and clogging up the system is appalling.
I would like Professor Kaplan if he watches "Oireachtas Report" tonight in the Merrion Hotel, or wherever he is staying, to be aware of a few things if he is trying to preach to us about value for money. We have managed to provide a health service with the smallest number of specialists per head of population in every single specialty known. We have the smallest number of physiotherapists and speech therapists who provide an extraordinary service often in Dickensian circumstances. We have a real priority problem if they think that we are not delivering value for money.
Second, I alerted this House before to the fact that the press PR spokesperson from the HSE was issuing threats to a medical journalist who took part, in a very reasoned fashion, on the contentious debate about discretionary medical cards and whether people were having their prior discretionary medical cards removed. It is completely inappropriate that the HSE can have money lying around to hire Mr. Connors to act as its press spokesperson so that he can then try to throttle debate in our democracy on issues that are of critical public importance. Again, it goes to the heart of a bureaucracy which is gone mad.
We are in an election period with the local and European elections being held on 23 May. The issue I raise now is one I raised when I served on a county council, namely, that something must be done about our electoral register. The issue of the register may not apply as much in a general election because it is more likely that people will be registered in a constituency and they may vote in a centre five or six miles from where they live but the issue applies in local elections where areas are divided and people may not vote in the area in which they are living. It is time that we had a review of the way our register is compiled and I ask the Leader to write to the Minister on the Environment, Community and Local Government and to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government about this. It is time the PPS number was tied into the electoral register in order that when a person reaches the age of 18, his or her name will automatically be put on the register. The PPS number will tie in with one's residence and address and one's name will appear on the register where one is living.
There is considerable duplication on the register and many people have moved out of areas and their name should no longer appear on the register in those areas. It is every citizen's right to vote in this county. Some people do not take on the onus of putting their name on the register. County councils have done their best over the years and have sent people around knocking on doors and written letters but suddenly at election time people will say that their name is not on the register. It is time we changed the way our register is compiled. The PPS number is the way to do it. I ask that the Leader to write to the Minister and to the Oireachtas joint committee about this. If we do not deal with the issue now, it will be 2016 when we will think about it again when the general election will be held. It is time to do it now while the iron is hot.
Senators MacSharry, Henry, Mullins, Coghlan and others raised the issue of discretionary medical cards. I am not agreeing to the amendment proposed to the Order of Business. The Minister has spoken on the matter and he is examining the situation. Senator MacSharry gave a wrong indication when he spoke about blind people, especially when we recall that Fianna Fáil completely cut the blind people's allowances but we will not go into that. Several Members pointed out that problems exist with regard to medical cards and Senator Leyden referred to documents having gone missing. I have come across that problem on several occasions. It is very frustrating for people who know that they have given in the required information to be then told their documents have gone missing. That is totally unacceptable, irrespective of what Department or organisation is involved. It is extremely frustrating for the people concerned.
Senators Kelly made the point that a German company is involved in reviewing medical cards and Senator Leyden also referred to that point. Those comments deserve a response and I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister.
Senator MacSharry also raised the issue of water charges. The Government has taken a brave stance, which the other side of the House said would not happen. The Government said it would give an indication of what the charges would be before an election. There is no cuteness going on here. We are putting the figures in a transparent manner to the people before an election, which is to be welcomed. I think people will welcome this. They certainly will not welcome having to pay more money but they will welcome the transparency of the Government in coming up front and putting these figures before the people.
In regard to Fianna Fáil, its original deal with the troika envisaged a €400 annual charge from last year with no allowances. That is what it signed up to. In regard to Sinn Féin, in Northern Ireland they already charge for water indirectly as part of the domestic rates regime, which includes a property tax.
Sinn Féin recently deferred the introduction of direct charging for water until 2016. At an average of €950 per household, domestic rates in the North are already far in excess of the equivalent in the South.
Perhaps that is something we can discuss at a later stage. Senators van Turnhout, Colm Burke and others spoke about the issue of female genital mutilation and the reopening of the clinic. That will be welcomed by everybody.
Senators van Turnhout, Naughton, Leyden, Keane and Mullins spoke about the abduction of children in Nigeria. This appalling event is not getting the international coverage it deserves. I agree that swift action is required by the Nigerian Government and pressure should be applied by all countries in that regard. I would welcome an all-party motion on the matter that might be discussed next week, and I hope such a motion is forthcoming. This side of the House would certainly be agreeable to raising the matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade at the appropriate time next week. I hope something will also be done in the meantime.
Senator van Turnhout also spoke about child beauty pageants. The view of this House on the matter is clear and unequivocal but the Dáil's view a matter for that House to decide.
Senator Barrett raised the issue of Setanta Insurance. I agree completely with his remarks in that regard. The lack of regulation is once again an issue in the context of insurance companies. I have been approached by a number of people in recent weeks regarding claims they had made and payments they were expecting. They do not know where they stand at present. If the Central Bank knew about the issue since last November, why did it not take action then? Policies were being sold as recently as the week before this company went into liquidation. Some sort of recourse must be offered to people who are in that situation. The Government of Malta, where the company was regulated, should not get off scot free in that regard. I will raise the issue with the Minister for Finance, who has also commented on it.
I also share Senator Barrett's concerns about Mr. Trichet, which no doubt will be discussed in the banking inquiry. Senator Mary Ann O'Brien asked about the make up of the banking inquiry. On behalf of the House, I made representations, as requested, to involve Senators in the inquiry and it has been decided that the Government will have one Senator and the Opposition will have one Senator. It is to be welcomed that the House is recognised when it comes to forming a committee of such importance.
Senators Kelly, Henry, Mullins and Paul Coghlan raised the issue of discretionary medical cards, which I referred to earlier. Senators Ó Murchú and White called for a debate on Northern Ireland. I have asked the Taoiseach to deal with this matter. As Senator Ó Murchú noted, this House has had balanced and reasonable debates on Northern Ireland and I have no reason to believe any other debate we might have would not be conducted in a similar manner. This House has always been to the fore in promoting peace and reconciliation, and we should continue in that role. One of the amendments to Standing Orders that the Government has proposed to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges is that Ministers who attend North-South ministerial meetings would report to this House in order that we can debate the issues arising. Senator D'Arcy referred to this issue in the context of transport matters. I expect this proposal will be accepted by the committee and the House and it should be welcomed by all Members.
I have addressed the question raised by Senator Cullinane regarding water charges. Senator Leyden referred to the decision of the Egyptian judiciary to hand down death sentences to more than 500 people. This is a most regrettable decision and perhaps the Senator can raise it on the Adjournment. Senator Mary Ann O'Brien welcomed the decisions by the Minister for Justice and Equality on charity regulation and the appointment of a new board. This is something which Senators have sought for quite some time. I compliment the Minister on making those appointments.
Senator Higgins spoke about the culture of banking, including Ulster Bank in particular, and called for a debate on sanctions against banks. I wish the Senator, along with Senators Clune, Byrne and Mullen, well in their quest for election to the European Parliament. It is a hard campaign and I wish each of them well.
Senator White referred to the views of Boston College on the tapes. I am sure that issue will be raised during our debate on Northern Ireland. Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to the Minister for Justice and Equality and the comments he made on several occasions. The Minister will be introducing the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Bill 2013, which people have spoken about for the last ten years, and other reforming legislation in the coming months.
In regard to direct provision, yesterday we had an excellent exchange of views between the Seanad Public Consultation Committee and representatives of human rights organisations. I thank Members who attended that meeting and contributed to the debate. The report of the committee will be published shortly. I thank Senator Zappone in particular for her excellent work in preparing for the meeting and compiling the report. Direct provision was one of the issues raise, and rightly so, but it was also noted that fewer than 4,000 people are currently in direct provision, compared with 8,000 when this Government entered office. It is to be welcomed that the delays in processing applications for asylum have been significantly reduced.
The Senator can read that in the report. I am trying to be balanced in my reply rather than take one side of the fence or the other. Senator Paul Coghlan referred to the comments by Mr. John Trethowan on foreign banks leaving the Irish market with scant regard for their customers, SMEs in particular. I am sure that matter will be examined by the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform in the coming weeks or months.
Senator Colm Burke said the procedure for the review of medical cards should be re-examined, which is exactly what the Minister is going to do. He also pointed out that 217,000 extra medical cards have been issued over the past two to three years. I noted his comments on problems between ACC Bank and farmers. I am sure he has raised that matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine but if he wishes to give me the details, I will certainly bring the matter to the attention of the Minister also.
Senator Jim D'Arcy referred to the Narrow Water Bridge and the fact that the June meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council will address this matter. Hopefully, as a result of the proposals made by Government in regard to reforming this House's procedures, we will be able to discuss that matter with the Ministers when they come back from that meeting.
I note Senator Crown's points in regard to the HSE, value for money and the question of a public relations person for the HSE allegedly issuing threats to people. It is certainly unacceptable if threats were issued. Senator O'Neill referred to the local and European Parliament elections and the compilation of the register of electors. That matter is discussed year after year and before and after local elections. The point he made that it could be linked to PPS numbers should be discussed by the relevant committee. I will certainly drop a line to the Chairman of that committee to ask that it be done in early course.
Senator MacSharry has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Health on what assistance will be provided to families from whom medical cards have been withdrawn be taken today". Is the amendment being pressed?
- Sean Barrett
- John Crown
- David Cullinane
- Mark Daly
- Terry Leyden
- Marc MacSharry
- Paschal Mooney
- Trevor Ó Clochartaigh
- Labhrás Ó Murchú
- Averil Power
- Kathryn Reilly
- Diarmuid Wilson
Senator David Cullinane has moved amendment No. 2 to the Order of Business, "That a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on the Cabinet decision setting the charges for water, be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Sean Barrett
- John Crown
- David Cullinane
- Mark Daly
- Terry Leyden
- Marc MacSharry
- Paschal Mooney
- Trevor Ó Clochartaigh
- Labhrás Ó Murchú
- Averil Power
- Kathryn Reilly
- Mary White
- Diarmuid Wilson
- Ivana Bacik
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- John Gilroy
- Aideen Hayden
- Imelda Henry
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Marie Moloney
- Mary Moran
- Michael Mullins
- Hildegarde Naughton
- Mary Ann O'Brien
- Marie Louise O'Donnell
- Susan O'Keeffe
- Pat O'Neill
- Tom Shehan
- Katherine Zappone