Seanad debates

Thursday, 15 May 2014

11:30 am

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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The Order of Business is No. 1, Central Bank Bill 2014 - Second Stage, to be taken at 11.45 a.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport come to the House. I will give the wording in a moment or two, but it refers to media reports, last night and this morning, on the head of the Labour Relations Commission. I express the admiration the group on this side of the House has for his work in designing the Haddington Road agreement, his contribution to labour affairs during the years and his work on the Croke Park agreement. That said, media reports in the past 24 hours are extremely concerning for all citizens and certainly the group on this side of the House.

It has been alleged in a publication today that the head of the Labour Relations Commission ideally captures the phrase "do as I say but not as I do". It seems that when the Government, rightly, introduced in October 2012 the ban on double jobbing and double payments for civil servants who served on boards, the head of the Labour Relations Commission, in his capacity as chairman of the Irish Sports Council, directly lobbied the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport for an exemption. He asked to be permitted, on top of his salary of €168,000, to keep the additional €9,000 for his chairmanship of the Irish Sports Council. It also seems that the Minister, with the Government, agreed that this could be done and that the leading labour relations guru in the country, the champion of workers' rights and deal maker in all things difficult between the Government and unions, wanted to make an exception and secure an additional €9,000 for himself. At this juncture I will quote the letter. It reads: "The fee involved is quite small, being the lowest category of board fees." He also said "The chairmanship involves a considerable out of hours commitment both at evenings and weekends." The Government agreed to make an exception for this man, a man paid only shillings less than the Taoiseach of the day. Is this the only exception to the rule? Why was an exception made for somebody earning €168,000 of taxpayers' money? Why was he given an additional €9,000 when the Government, rightly, decided in October 2012 that no double jobbing was to take place?

On 13 July 2013 the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, on behalf of the Labour Party, spoke about the success of the ban on double jobbing. It seems that there is one rule for one person and another for everybody else. That means that the higher up the chain one is all sorts of side deal can be done. Why was an exception made for Mr. Mulvey? Was it because of his support for the Government's desire to have only one House and to abolish this one?

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I wonder whether it concerns the report we received yesterday or the other day.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Marc MacSharry to continue, without interruption, please.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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Was the exception made because of Mr. Mulvey's support for the abolition of this House? It was a most unusual stance to adopt for a public official who earned a salary of €168,000 and a further €9,000, sanctioned by the Government, and was against the rules that applied to everyone else. Was he rewarded for his loyalty to the party? Was he rewarded for his loyalty to Government policy? Was he rewarded for taking a stance? I can recall him arguing and making valid points on "Prime Time" about the big salaries earned by Members of the Seanad and the expenses that they claimed. It is only one third of his salary of €168,000 that he managed to have topped up by an additional €9,000 from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

My amendment to the Order of Business is in the public interest. I want the Minister to make himself available to come to the House today to explain to the people why the rules were twisted to give a man earning €168,000 a year of taxpayer's money another €9,000 in petty cash. It is a piece of twine for working outside normal hours in the evening and at weekends.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I welcome the decision made by the Joint Committee on Health and Children to visit the centre which deals with medical cards this morning. Like everyone else in this and the other House, as public representatives, we are not at all satisfied with what has happened and the way people have been treated. There has been a bizarre policy decision that directed that strange telephone calls be made and medical cards be removed. I welcome the committee's intervention in the matter and trust that we will see a speedy fix. The Minister for Health, while working very hard, needs to work harder on this matter because what has happened is certainly not satisfactory. As a public representative, I am not happy and my views are shared by many Members on all sides of the House.

I take the opportunity to welcome the announcement made on Tuesday by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.on the allocation of €22 million for commemorative projects of national importance. Much of the money is capital funding. The projects will mainly be in Dublin, including Kilmainham courthouse and gaol, the National Concert Hall and the National Archives. It is very welcome expenditure with a view to commemorating events in 2016.

I also welcome the announcement by the Government that the project Yeats 2015 will proceed next year to commemorate the birth of William Butler Yeats 150 years ago. It is a project in which others and I have invested time and energy because it presents an opportunity to showcase Ireland's cultural wealth and heritage. We can do this through the voice of William Butler Yeats who believed in finding a voice for the Irish nation at the turn of the 20th century. In particular, I commend the Western Development Commission for its support of the project led by its chairman, Mr. Paddy McGuinness.

The Western Development Commission has spent considerable effort encouraging the creative industries of the west and it is its stated intention to continue supporting the creative industries in the region. It is doing so in collaboration with other regions, including in Sweden. The Western Development Commission now has a website mycreativeedge.eu. That aspect of western life on the western seaboard, attracting people who are inspired by living there into the creative industries, is something I support, as do most people. The project, Yeats 2015, gives a further opportunity to showcase the activity, work and creative skills that those who live there are lucky to enjoy. It is more than luck, as most people are earning a living from their creative talents. I trust and commit that Yeats 2015 will support these people and others. We will have an opportunity to showcase Ireland around the world across that year in a way that has not been done before. I commend the Minister on his assistance on the matter.

11:40 am

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I draw the attention of the House to the National Competitiveness Council, which urged us last week to avoid pay increases at this stage because we are losing competitiveness in the economy. It is an important point when we have strike threats coming from different areas. As soon as there is good news into the newspaper that the economy is doing reasonably well, there are demands for pay rises and strike threats in the case of Aer Lingus at a peak period coming up soon.

I asked the Leader to ask the Minister for Finance how many people availed of the offer he made to people, which was a great step in the right direction, to reclaim 30% of additional voluntary contributions, AVCs, in the most recent budget. The benefit is that it puts money into the economy. The money people put into AVCs went in without tax but it is taxed when they take it out. This is a win-win situation for the Government, the Minister and the economy. It puts money into the economy and it gives the opportunity to create more jobs. There are cash-strapped families who could avail of this. They have put money aside but they cannot take it out until the time comes. The Government could do this and the Minister should consider increasing it from 30% to 100% so that people can avail at to benefit the economy.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I would like to remember the people in Soma, Turkey - those trapped in the mine and dead. There are 182 people and the figure is increasing. The House should write a letter to the embassy to show that we are thinking about it. Health and safety comes into this matter.

A report published by the World Health Organisation yesterday revealed that Ireland has the second-highest rate of binge drinking in the world. The global status report on alcohol and health 2014 found that 39% of all Irish people aged 15 and older had engaged in binge drinking. Austria was in first place with 40% and Ireland was second out of 194 countries. We must do something. Members may be surprised that binge drinking is defined as drinking at least six standard drinks. Many people drink more than that. The report says men are more likely to indulge in binge drinking than women so maybe the women should lead the education process.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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It is because of women.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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The report refers to 62% of male drinkers aged over 15 and 31% of female drinkers. We must look at the effect of normalisation and acceptance of binge drinking and we must look at an education process. It is no harm to put it on the agenda, ask the Minister to come to the Chamber and ask where is the public health (alcohol) Bill. A health impact study is being done by the Minister and is due for publication, although I do not know when. The global status report on alcohol and health 2014 has much of the information and perhaps we can get the matter on the agenda again.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I refer to the report on maternity services. I read it thanks to Senator Marc MacSharry making it available to me. While it deals with the western and north-western region, the principles that underpin it refer to units with fewer than 2,500 births.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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It is a consultation document only.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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It is looking for rationalisation of the maternity hospitals in the north west. That is clear from the report. By extension, this feeds into a national survey of maternity hospitals and my concern is our local hospital in Wexford. Over the years, there has been tremendous investment and it has a very good maternity unit. There have been discussions in the past and the unit was under threat. From this document, it looks like the agenda continues to be pursued and should be out in the open. The document should not be classified as a strictly confidential draft because the only reason for that is to conceal it from the public that will be affected by it. That is not how any Government should operate when it advocates for transparency but injects none into what it does. The Leader has promised a debate.

Can we have a debate on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings? On Saturday, the 40th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings will be commemorated. It was the single largest terrorist atrocity in the 30 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which affected here and the neighbouring island. At a subcommittee over a period of a few years, the Leader and I and six other sub-committee members were present at hearings and reports from victims and expert groups into what led to the atrocity and others. It was clear to us, as starkly reflected in our final report, that there was collusion at high levels from the British authorities in this bombing that killed 34 people, including one unborn child.

It is absolutely a sad reflection on the State that the victims must sue the British state in order to get access to the documents to get to the truth and be able to find some closure for all those affected by it. This was British state-sponsored terrorism and it should be condemned. How can anyone stand up in either Chamber and say that we can have normality in our relations with Britain while it continues to conceal the documents at the core of this? This went to the heart of Whitehall. The evidence we received make it obvious that people at a high political level were well aware of the dirty war being conducted and of the consequences of it. The report of Mr. Justice Barron says that he received co-operation from the RUC at the time of his investigation but all co-operation ceased when the Northern Ireland Office, which is politically led, took over from the RUC.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I welcome the announcement on Tuesday by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, of funding of €5 million for a new centralised Special Olympics Ireland facility at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown. The new centralised headquarters will bring together the Dublin, Leinster and eastern region of Special Olympics Ireland offices. I have been working closely with the Minister and Special Olympics Ireland over the past two years to see the project come to fruition. Locating the Special Olympics Ireland offices at the National Sports Campus, alongside the FAI, the Institute of Irish Sport and the Irish Sport headquarters, makes it part our finest sporting facilities. It is a mark of equality for Irish sport and a good day for disability.

Special Olympics has long deserved this form of recognition and I am delighted that after many years of hard work it has received the go-ahead to complete its build-out in Abbotstown. The timing is appropriate, just ahead of the National Special Olympic Games in Limerick next month.

This Friday is national time to talk day where everyone is encouraged to make time, at some point in their day, to discuss mental health with family, friends and colleagues. Positive mental health is a topic we often discuss in this Chamber. I encourage everyone to take this discussion tomorrow outside of this room and to promote it in their own communities, not only on Friday, but throughout the coming months. The national time to talk day is taking place against the backdrop of the annual green ribbon campaign which promotes discussion of mental health issues during the month of May. In recent years we have reduced the stigma attached to mental health issues and have witnessed an improvement in discussions on the issue, but we have a long way to go. Promoting discussion on mental health should not just be between families and friends, it is equally important to discuss it with workplace colleagues.

Recent research by See Change has discovered that more than half of Irish people would not want others to know of their mental health problems. Some 28% of us would delay seeking professional help for fear of others finding out that one might have a mental health problem. One in four people experiences mental health problems and we should be able to speak about it. Recently I spoke with a person who took up a new employment but due to having stated on the application form that he or she was on anti-depressants, is subject to restrictions in terms of illness benefit. That is wrong. If we want to have a discussion we need to be open and not afraid of repercussions. If a person has a physical ailment there is no problem, the same should apply to mental health issues.

11:50 am

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I second the amendment proposed by Senator Marc MacSharry.

I have risen in this House in recent months to rail against Government plans, either intentional or aspirational, for rural Ireland. I am sad to have to report to the House again firm evidence that one of the most successful rural schemes, the rural social scheme, is under threat. Despite pleas to the contrary, I have come to the sad conclusion that when it comes to rural Ireland the Government does not give a toss. This initiative was introduced by our colleague, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, one of the most visionary Ministers in an admittedly discredited Administration in recent years. He introduced many visionary schemes, particularly with a focus on rural Ireland but also on the urban poor, through the Clár programme and its urban parallel. He introduced the rural social scheme at a time when the European Union wanted to dismantle the social employment scheme in its entirety because it said it was not leading to upskilling of its participants who, in turn, were not prepared for work. One should try telling that to people in my part of the country, particularly elderly, single farmers, for whom there are no jobs because there has been no industrial development and because the State agencies have continued to ignore the north west when it comes to the location of industry. How in the name of all that is good can one expect people coming off a social employment scheme to pass effortlessly into the area of work when no work was available? These schemes had, and still have, a strong social dimension. This is not exclusive to my part of the country but wherever there are large rural populations particularly on the western seaboard and other parts where there is a high rural density. That the Government should now propose to take away yet another part of that social scheme is totally off the wall. I do not understand the thinking behind it. It will not save anything. I call on the Leader to ask the relevant Minister the reason the Government is doing this, when it will do it and what it will put in its place. What future will it offer to rural Ireland and, particularly, those farmers who do not have sufficient farm income to sustain rural families, which has been a bedrock of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil policy for decades? I do not know what is the Labour Party view of rural Ireland as I have never been able to figure it out. I hope this is nothing more than a rumour.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I hope what Senator Paschal Mooney has outlined is a rumour. We all know the tremendous work being done by the various schemes in rural Ireland. I am confident that it is the Government's intention to continue those schemes, even if revamped.

I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on our return, on the innovative Government strategy, Construction 2020, launched yesterday. It is a worthwhile strategy designed to help families find affordable, good quality, homes throughout the country, particularly in Dublin. In 2006, at the height of the property bubble, 93,000 units were built while in 2013 only 8,300 homes were built, a reduction of 91,000. The aim is to treble the housing output to about 30,000 units per year up to 2020, which would provide 60,000 jobs in the construction sector. The Government is intent on supporting a recovery of the construction sector based on the highest international standards.

Members will agree that we never want to see another Priory Hall or more pyrite housing estates. The new building regulations introduced on 1 March set out the minimum standards required for building a house. This is a welcome development. I hope many thousands of construction workers who are on the live register will return to gainful employment as this address the housing crisis that is beginning to emerge, particularly in Dublin and other cities throughout the country.

I would appreciate if the Leader and Members would support a call made yesterday by Amnesty International for the release of an Irish citizen, Ibrahim Halawa, who is imprisoned in Egypt since 14 August, without referral of his case to court for trial. He was a minor when arrested from the Fateh mosque on 17 August and is accused of violence that took place on 16 and 17 August in Ramses Square. He is one of thousands held in prison for broad and vague accusations, including attacking security forces and hindering the work of public institutions. Thousands of people are facing the same accusations without the Egyptian authorities establishing individual criminal responsibility in these cases. I call for access to a fair trial, including an independent, fair and impartial investigation, and his release if nothing is proved against him. I am sure Members would support the call that the Egyptian authorities refer his case to trial or release him. I ask the Leader to convey our concerns to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore. As this issue was raised at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday we would like further support from this House.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Senator Marc MacSharry raised the question of a newspaper report, the truth of which I cannot verify. Personally, I believe it is wrong that anybody on a salary of €164,000 should get additional funding, irrespective of what it is, from the State. I have asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to come to the House to address the matter but he is not available today. I will certainly pursue the matter with him.

Senator O'Keeffe make some comments regarding the medical card situation, which is being examined by the Department and the Ministers involved. I hope it will be addressed in the near future. Senator O'Keeffe also welcomed the allocation of funds by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, for many national projects. She also lauded the Yeats 2015 project, which is supporting many creative projects in Sligo and the west of Ireland.

Senator Quinn commented on the possibility of people reclaiming their pension additional voluntary contributions. He asked how many had availed of the scheme. I will certainly put it to the Minister for Finance and try to get back to the Senator. Senator Quinn also asked about the possibility of increasing AVCs from 30% to 100%. That is a budgetary matter and will be addressed, if it is to be addressed, in the budget. I will make inquiries with the Minister.

Senator Keane remarked on the plight of the Turkish miners. Our hearts go out to all their families. I hope more people will be saved in the ongoing efforts.

Reference was made to the report on binge drinking and the fact that Ireland is the second in the world on this regard. It is a shocking statistic that Ireland is second in the world where binge drinking is concerned. No wonder we witness such shocking violence after pubs close in the evenings and no wonder accident and emergency departments are full at weekends and during the day. Most of this is fuelled by alcohol. It is certainly a matter requiring ongoing debate. I will try to have the Minister come to the House and address the matter. The abuse of alcohol is a national problem and a serious problem that will have to be addressed. Several measures are in place and the Government has taken further steps but we need to know about them and we need support for those efforts from everyone involved.

Senator Walsh referred to the report on maternity services. There is a national examination of maternity services under way and several reports will feed into that. However, nothing has been decided and this point has been relayed by the HSE and the Minister. I am unsure who else needs to clarify that these reports will feed into the examination of maternity services, which are needed. Senator Walsh also commented on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the need for closure for the victims' families. I agree totally with him in that regard. The Government has made representations to the British Government on the matter. The reports are available for everyone to see. It is clear from the reports that the committee felt there was collusion in those bombings.

Senator Moran commented on the funding announced yesterday for Special Olympics Ireland and the fact that it will now be based in Abbotstown. That is a welcome development and the Minister should be commended on it. Senator Moran also adverted to Time to Talk Day which is tomorrow highlighting mental health issues, which is important as well.

Senator Mooney remarked on the review of the rural social scheme. A further debate on rural Ireland and rural economic development is overdue. Perhaps we could have that debate in conjunction with the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, report. I will ask the relevant Minister to come to the House to debate the matter.

12:00 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leader.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Senator Mullins commented on Construction 2020, an exciting scheme which the Government announced yesterday. The strategy is about helping families to find affordable quality homes and getting highly-skilled construction workers back on-site. It is not about a return to the non-existent regulation and developer-driven agenda and the dangerously unbalanced tax base we have seen in the past. It is about getting people back to work and providing affordable quality homes for people who need them. The sooner we can move on to that and build the number of houses that are necessary, the better. The central aim of the strategy is to provide homes for people, tripling housing output by 2020 and adding 60,000 jobs to the construction sector in the same period. As we know, the construction sector has been hit more than any other sectors where unemployment is concerned. I note Senator Mullins's points in respect of the release of an Irish citizen in Egypt. The Department of Foreign affairs and Trade is fully aware of the situation. It has made representations and I imagine it will continue to do so in that case.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator MacSharry has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to explain why the Government reportedly sanctioned an additional salary allowance of €9,000 for the chairman of the Labour Relations Commission for his role on the Irish Sports Council be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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While I appreciate the efforts of the Leader to try to secure the Minister, and it is no disrespect to him, we must push the matter to register the House's disgust at the situation.

Amendment put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 11; Níl, 17.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.

Amendment declared lost.

Order of Business agreed to. Sitting suspended at 11.25 a.m. and resumed at 11.55 a.m.