Tuesday, 7 October 2014
Order of Business (Resumed)
I join in the welcome to our distinguished Austrian colleagues.
The longer the McNulty affair continues, the more everybody, particularly in political life, is negatively affected. I have been trying to understand the Taoiseach's position. I am sure this will be an issue of curiosity and interest to our Austrian friends. Apparently, the Taoiseach sees no discrepancy at all between sustaining a rotten borough election in which there are 225 votes involved to elect somebody to this House and the national Parliament and his attempts to dilute the independent university seats, of which there are six, and expand that electorate to 850,000 votes. Somebody should take note of this.
Another issue is that Mr. McNulty has withdrawn from the election. He announced his withdrawal and that announcement was repeated in the Dáil. However, people are still voting for him and it is said that he can be elected. How can somebody be elected if he has withdrawn from the election? It is said his name remained on the ballot paper. He could have died and remained on it, but would he be elected then? Would he take his seat in the House as a corpse? This is nonsense. His name could have and should have been withdrawn and those votes cast for him should be discounted.
Last week, when we dealt with the Freedom of Information Act here, the Government prated about the importance of letting a prurient press pore over all our taxi receipts and receipts for a sandwich here and there. "Freedom of information" is a buzz phrase that is all over the place, yet Deputy Heather Humphreys, the Minister for Arts-----
Deputy Humphreys, as Minister, is apparently prohibited by Fine Gael rules from telling us who tipped her the wink to appoint Mr. McNulty to the IMMA board. Square that with freedom of information. There is nothing to impede Mr. McNulty's withdrawal from the election. I will look with great interest at the result of the election. The longer this issue goes on, the worse it gets. This week, some 60 political appointments to the Judiciary are being made. Let us look at that too.
In regard to standards in public office, I find it astonishing that our President, Michael D. Higgins, should be denied the opportunity to visit and take questions in an asylum centre in Athlone.
He was denied by a discredited Department of Justice and Equality and the commercially motivated sponsors of the asylum centre, who take the responsibility. They took onto themselves the right to refuse the President of Ireland - some standards to have in public life.
I am amazed by the halos I see glowing on the Opposition side, especially Senator Mark Daly's on hearing his comments about the Government and the HSE. I remind the Senator that Deputy Micheál Martin was in charge at the time of the establishment of the HSE.
Do I have the floor? I will put my question to the Leader. First, I congratulate the Commissioner-designate, Mr. Phil Hogan, on his magnificent performance in Brussels last Thursday. I warn the Irish people to beware when looking at the voting pattern after that meeting of who Sinn Féin voted for. It voted for the Greens - look at where they put the country - and the communists. People should beware of what Sinn Féin stands for. Its members stood against an Irishman and they got their answer on the day.
I am grateful to the Cathaoirleach for allowing the matter to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, on the Adjournment today. We all look forward to hearing what she has to say. Everything that has been done has been done in private and behind closed doors. It has been very unsatisfactory.
I want to raise a very important issue affecting nurses, one I have raised before and on which we should have a special debate. An Bord Altranais - the nursing board - has been given full power to set fees under recent legislation and almost doubled them. While the matter was discussed here last week, we should have a special debate on it. I highlight it again, as there will be a protest this week. Uniquely among PAYE professionals, nurses are obliged to pay their own registration fees. The vast majority of professionals who pay registration fees can deduct them from their tax, but that option is not available to nurses. We should, therefore, have a special debate on the issue because nurses do so much work. While I raised it last week, I raise it again as it has not received the attention it deserves. Nurses need a break. We should question bureaucracies at all times about what they need money for and how it is being spent. There does not appear to be any avenue for us to question the board which has full power to set these fees. I call for a special debate with the Minister for Health and reject saying it is not our responsibility. It is the responsibility of the Oireachtas because we gave An Bord Altranais the power to do this and must check that power by asking why exactly it is increasing the fees. It is not fair to a particular, hard-pressed section of society and public life whose members do so much good.
The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner was established under 1989 legislation. Given recent developments involving Irish Water, concerns about people having to offer up their PPSNs to agencies, banks and authorities, including Irish Water, and matters before the courts involving the improper dissemination of private and personal information, is the legislation underpinning the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner fit for purpose any longer? Is it sufficiently robust? Do we need to revisit it to allow the Legislature to catch up with the many developments in computerisation since 1989?
We must address whether the deterrents for the wrongful use of individuals' data are sufficiently strong to prevent the misuse of personal private information such as PPS numbers. While the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has provided a great service, it operates with as few as 30 staff based, following decentralisation, in Portarlington.
Could the Leader facilitate a debate through the Office of An Taoiseach, who has line responsibility for this service, and the Data Protection Commissioner so that we can be sure the legislation supporting the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner is adequate, sufficiently robust and relevant in this day and age and also that we have a full commitment from the Government to the decentralised office in Portarlington, the staff there and its resources?
I welcome the announcement this afternoon by the Central Bank that it will be insisting upon a 20% deposit on residential house purchases and the maximum loan being limited to 3.5 times income. We proposed that in No. 33 on the Order Paper in the spring of 2012. It has been on the Order Paper for over two and a half years. I am delighted that it has finally reached the echelons of the Central Bank because it is the rational thing to do. I also suggest that this must apply to commercial property because in the madness of the Celtic tiger property boom, commercial property such as the veterinary site not many miles away was even worse than what was done by the banks in the domestic sector.
I also wish to express the sympathies of the House to the Reverend Colin McKibben, the minister of Convoy Presbyterian Church, which was attacked by fire bombers last Friday. I commend the local priest, Fr. Phillip Kemmy, for expressing his sympathy. The Orange Hall in Convoy was also destroyed. When the Orange Order visited here through the invitation of the Leader and the Cathaoirleach, it praised the former Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, for a previous programme of restoring Orange Order properties which had been burned out in the Border counties. This is something we do not want to go back to and I condemn that burning unreservedly.
What the former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, now describes as the disaster of Irish Water was forecast perfectly on these benches. We asked him to provide for consumer representation. The former Minister of State called for the introduction of new board members with a consumer advocacy background. The Ombudsman has said this week that nobody has explained why statutory and independent redress was removed and that there was no consultation with his office or the public. We have the recruitment of staff without open competition, the long-standing statement by Professor John Fitzgerald that this organisation should have 1,700 staff, not 4,300, and a watchdog where 59 staff were paid €1 million in bonuses. We badly need a debate on water in this country because this House was right. All our amendments should have been accepted by the former Minister of State. I am sorry he is now in the political wilderness but he did have the way to deal with the problem if he had accepted what we said at the time.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh Uachtarán na hOstaire, Aire Oideachais, Ealaíon agus Cultúir na tíre sin agus na daoine eile atá anseo ón tír stairiúil sin. We have a lot in common with Austria and agriculture is one of those areas. Last night, I attended a meeting in Dundalk organised by Louth Macra na Feirme in connection with farm safety. Senator Daly referred to statistics. This is one case where the statistics and the facts come together. A total of 6% of the occupational population accounts for over 50% of occupational fatalities. This means that farming makes up over 50% of occupational fatalities. This year alone, there have been 25 fatalities on Irish farms when there have been fewer than 50 in total. For example, I think there have been six fatalities in construction. We need to do something about that in terms of education. There is a disproportionate number of young and elderly people suffering fatalities on farms. The main reasons are tractors, machinery and drowning. There are varying accounts for 17% of farming in terms of the working population and 57% of accidents and fatalities.
I would like the Minister to be invited to the House for statements on farm safety to see if we can improve the current situation and prevent the needless loss of life on our farms.
Ba mhaith liom "Wilkommen in Irland" a rá leis na toscairí as an Ostair.
Earlier Ms Catherine Seeley, a candidate in the Seanad by-election, was in the Visitors Gallery. She had to leave early, although it was not because of the ding dong------
I am not canvassing. The ding dong contributions did not deter her because I am sure she would love to come back to the House and take part in a fruitful debate. Anybody who would like to vote for her can still consider that.
Senator Norris raised a serious issue relating to the potential visit of the President to a direct provision centre. Will the Leader seek clarification from the Minister for Justice and Equality as to why the President was not allowed to visit the Athlone centre and whether that issue can be overcome in the future? It is ironic given that last Friday he opened the new offices of the Irish Refugee Council. He has a serious interest in these areas.
It is frustrating to hear the former Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O'Dowd, in radio interviews and to read what he has said in newspaper articles when, as Senator Barrett said, we had long, heated and detailed debates in the House about the setting up of Irish Water during which we in the Opposition pointed out the unmitigated disaster it would be. It is unfortunate that, belatedly, he is admitting it is an unmitigated disaster.
The bonus culture in the company is galling to the people who are being asked to sign up for water charges, water meters, etc. We need another debate about what is going on in Irish Water. County councils and local people have no idea where water and sewerage schemes that were to be done by the councils now stand. The Costello regional water scheme in Connemara was to proceed before Christmas but we have been told that the second part of it is under review. All this was instigated by our incoming EU Commissioner, Deputy Phil Hogan.
Senator O'Neill praised Deputy Hogan and questioned the way Sinn Féin voted. We have no issue about how our members voted. They voted for the rights of the citizens in Europe and if the former Minister's record on property taxes, Irish Water, etc., is anything to go by, we should judge him by how he proceeds in Brussels.
I also welcome the delegation to the Visitors Gallery and I hope they will have time during their stay to visit Kerry, the nicest part of Ireland. I would love them to visit.
I refer to the Central Bank's announcement earlier regarding new mortgages. I agree with the proposal to ensure mortgages are no more than 3.5 times the earnings of the applicant. As Senator O'Donnell said, all of us were restricted to 2.5 times our earnings when we went to buy our family homes. Unlike Senator Brennan, I have a problem with the requirement for a 20% deposit, in particular for young couples who rent private accommodation prior to purchasing a home. They are not in a position to come up with, say, a €50,000 deposit for a €250,000 house because they have spent their money on rent.
That should be taken into consideration in lieu of a deposit for people who have spent years renting private accommodation.
We do not want to go back to the era of reckless lending by the banks, giving people loans they could not reasonably or realistically pay back. However, we need to keep in mind young couples wanting to buy their first family home. Incentives which were in place such as the first-time buyer’s grant should be brought back to encourage young couples to buy and build modest sized family homes, not the mansions that sprung up across the country during the Celtic tiger. I await with interest to see if the forthcoming budget will have some incentive which will give some help to young couples to start a family home. If not, will the Leader organise a debate on the issue at the earliest opportunity?
I join with the Cathaoirleach in wishing a warm welcome to the President of Austria, the Minister for Education, Arts and Culture and their colleagues. Austria and Ireland have enjoyed a tremendous trade relationship, as well as great respect between both countries. I was there on many occasions when I was Minister with responsibility for trade.
To my recollection, this is the first time a president of any country has come to the Seanad Chamber as a guest. This is a step in the right direction. A year ago, the Government tried to abolish us, so I am sure the President is delighted to be here, showing proper regard for the Second House.
I know he has already met with our President and will enjoy his visit to Ireland. I wish he could come to see the real Ireland, namely, Roscommon. It might be a bit insensitive, however, for him to visit there now considering there is a by-election there. When he does come back to Ireland, I hope he will travel around the country.
I thank the President for showing regard for the Second House.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the controversy of petrol-stretching and diesel-laundering? We have known about the latter for a long time and the activities of certain people in Border areas in this regard. I have never understood why there is not a greater detection of this fraudulent activity which is causing mayhem. Many people’s car engines have been destroyed by petrol-stretching, a process that sees kerosene blended into petrol. Last night there was a public meeting in Hannon’s Hotel in Roscommon town on the matter.
Coming to Dublin today, when I needed to get diesel, I would not get it at an under-cost outlet. Distributors of good quality fuel should erect signs outside their premises stating they have guaranteed quality petrol and diesel. They should check the supplies they are getting in to ensure they are above reproach and are from national fuel companies with international reputations.
This will let people know the suppliers are not engaged in any activity which will destroy their cars. The insurance companies have washed their hands of any responsibility in cases of third-party cover while in cases of comprehensive-----
This is an important and current point which must be tackled. The Revenue Commissioners and the Garda must activate themselves in ensuring this practice is stamped out once and for all. A good question to ask is why the people involved are being let away with this fraudulent activity.
I welcome yesterday’s announcement by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the new requirements for the management of grant funding provided out of public moneys. These new rules will ensure transparency, accountability and value for money. It should be noted the new requirements apply to all funding received out of the Exchequer, no matter how that money is distributed. Four important principles will guide the bodies, namely, clarity, fairness, governance and value for money.
Most significantly, bodies that receive grants will have to publish details of their employees’ and executives’ salaries exceeding €60,000 per annum. This will apply even when the salaries are not funded by the Exchequer. While I hope these new rules will not have a disproportionate impact on smaller bodies, I welcome the Minister’s action in moving to ensure proper standards of accountability for these bodies and public moneys are in place.
I am very glad that my colleague Senator David Norris raised the issue of the Department of Justice and Equality vetoing the possibility of a visit by President Higgins to an asylum centre in Athlone. It is understand the President's office was positive about the request and invitation. I think we should hear from the Minister for Justice and Equality on this matter. In the context of preparing for the recent Private Members' motion on the direct provision issue I visited several centres, and I know the Department of Justice and Equality facilitated my visit on one occasion. I cannot understand the reason the Department and the agencies involved should not do everything necessary to facilitate a Presidential visit. It would be highly appropriate for the President to visit. It is such a part of the symbolic office of the Presidency. By being present with people and groups, particularly those considered to be marginalised, the President is sending out a powerful message. By vetoing the visit, the Department appears to have interfered with the President in doing what a president ought to do. We should hear from the Government on this issue. I would like to think President Higgins would visit such a centre very soon and that there would be ample media coverage of such a visit.
This morning Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and I met Dr. Myria Vassiliadou, the EU anti-trafficking co-ordinator. Her job is to promote ways in which EU member states can target trafficking, not just for prostitution but to deal with the problem in general. Ireland has notified its compliance with EU anti-trafficking laws, but we await her scrutiny on how well we are doing.
In June 2013 the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality submitted a report to the Minister for Justice and Equality on prostitution. There was unanimous support for criminalising the user. Canada has joined the list of countries taking steps to criminalise users of prostitutes.
It is high time we got a commitment from the Minister for Justice and Equality that this critical issue will move up on her agenda. It is not on the autumn legislative agenda. However, she could deal with it in the context of the new sexual offences Bill that is being introduced before Christmas.
I wish to raise an issue that is quite prevalent during the recession in Ireland; that is, the dependency of some families on moneylenders. Recently in the UK, one moneylender firm was ordered by the regulator there to refund £220 million in debts to 330,000 customers who took out loans that they clearly could not afford to repay. While the scale may be somewhat lower in Ireland, comparatively speaking, the issue remains the same - that is, that there are unscrupulous moneylenders operating in Ireland who lend money to people without knowing or caring whether they can afford to pay it back. Many of these lenders give out money without asking people about their personal finances and their income. Often, they give money to multiple applicants in one household, where the loans are far from affordable lending. There is a need to tighten the lending criteria for customers of moneylenders, because a lack of restrictions for lenders is setting a debt trap for borrowers. Checking whether a person can afford to repay a loan should be at the heart of any application that is submitted. If a moneylender has failed to satisfy the basic responsibility, the Central Bank should take action. That is why I believe it is important that we should clean up this whole industry and the reason I am calling on the Minister for Finance to come to the House to discuss the issue and what steps he will take to address the reckless lending that is taking place.
The Seanad by-election has shone a new light on State board appointments and whether they are crony appointments. Last Saturday I read a report in the Irish Independentabout appointments to the board of Galway Harbour Company. The extension of Galway Port is a really important development for Galway.
We have been waiting on this for years and the application for planning permission is about to be submitted. I was shocked to read about the appointments, however, and see the gender balance on the board, namely, of eight appointments only one is a woman. That amounts to 12.5%, yet the Government made a commitment in 2011 to adhere to making female appointments at a rate of 40% - on merit, of course.
The new Minister of State with this responsibility, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, recently restated this. How can we believe anything, however, if it has not been implemented up to now?
At the weekend, I was reminded of two fine women with extensive qualifications and background that would be relevant to the harbour board. One is an auditor and accountant, while the other is a legal person. I cannot confirm if that expertise is on the board.
Why have the gender guidelines not been adhered to so far? I am not talking just about gender without merit. Why were the women who applied - perhaps others applied as well - not appointed, given their immense relevant experience in both the legal and financial areas that could develop and advance the Galway Harbour Board's project to extend Galway Port? It is so relevant to Galway.
I seek the Leader's guidance as to whom I should address these questions. Let this be the end of cronyism. Cronyism without merit serves nobody well.
In light of the fine contribution made this morning by Senator O'Donnell on the banking situation - few people in this House would disagree with her - it would be highly appropriate to have a major debate in this House on the banking system, post-bailout. We should also include in such a debate the new mortgage limits announced this morning. It would be timely and appropriate to have that debate. Members of the business community, whom I meet regularly, tell me they are being treated with absolute contempt and disdain by the banking system.
The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, should attend the House for a debate on mental health issues. I am repeating the call for such a debate because of a letter I received today from Councillor Liam Brazil in County Waterford. He has written quite openly about the fact that his family has been impacted by suicide. He pointed out, as we know, that over 600 people commit suicide in this country every year. Those are the numbers that are reported but there are possibly a further 150 to 200 cases that go unreported as death by suicide.
Some years ago we had a major crisis with road deaths reaching 450 per annum. The Government and the NRA put in place a road safety campaign that has thankfully reduced those numbers to 225 last year, although that is still much too high. We need to put mental health at the centre of our health system and must aggressively address the suicide issue. There is no more significant issue for the House to discuss than suicide levels. As the matter is impacting upon so many families and communities throughout the country, I ask the Leader to put suicide at the top of the list for the Seanad's consultation process. We should invite groups working in that area, as well as the families affected, to make contributions here. For once and for all, we need to put in train a plan to address this issue as a matter of urgency.
While I do not doubt the previous speaker's commitment, of the last three speakers on the Government side we have heard about illegal moneylending, suicide prevention and banking issues, including mortgage arrears and businesses. Why do we need to bring people in to tell us things we already know?
The Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Fund Bill 2014, was non-political and non-adversarial. We ran after each other to vote against it, which is doing precisely what Senator Mullins wanted. The Family Home Bill 2011 proposed to make the family home sacrosanct from repossession. The Debt Settlement and Mortgage Resolution Office Bill 2011 would have put a veto on the banks to prevent them treating people with the contempt to which Senator Mullins referred. A previous speaker referred to the Criminal Justice (Unlicensed Money-Lending) Bill 2013. I suggest it is not the Minister for Finance but rather the Minister for Justice and Equality who should deal with this legislation. There is no political appetite to deal with these issues. There is no shortage of proposed legislation. Senator Mullins knows well that we do not want to waste our time nor do we wish to create the facade that something is happening just by bringing organisations into this Chamber so that they can tell what we know we need to do.
These are just three Private Members' Bills that I presented to the House and which could have dealt with those issues. I am not interested in pontificating. The Leader should not go about organising a group to come to the House and then we do nothing.
I ask the Leader to organise a debate as soon as possible with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan. A series of suggestions to assist the housing market have been made during the past week. I declare my interest in that I am an auctioneer. There is talk of a tax on unused sites. I agree with that if finance is available. This plays into previous points because if finance was available for developers to use land, I would agree that we should encourage them to build houses. However, this is not possible because most of the land is under the control of NAMA and local authorities so it is fantasy and nonsense from the Minister, Deputy Kelly.
I agree wholeheartedly with a previous speaker with regard to a deposit of 20% for buying a house. Who are the people working in the Central Bank? My God, it concerns me that we might have the same kind of muppetry we had that led us into the crisis if they think that a person could actually save €50,000 for a purchase price of €250,000. There is a little boom going on in Dublin districts 2, 4 and 6, where prices are going up.
Outside Dublin there is a serious supply issue, there is no money and no lending unless one has a double income and has at least 30% of the price in cash. The Government should stop making announcements either in the Central Bank or in Government Buildings, about a nonsense policy that cannot be implemented.
Yesterday the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, together with the United Kingdom Home Secretary, Theresa May, formally launched the British-Irish visa scheme at the Irish Embassy in London. This scheme will facilitate foreign nationals requiring a short-stay visa to travel freely within the common travel area using a single visa issued by either Ireland or the United Kingdom. This will mean that tourists, business visitors and other eligible visitors will, for the first time, be permitted to visit the UK and Ireland, including moving freely between North and South, on a single visa. The Minister and the Home Secretary announced that from later this month, China, followed shortly thereafter by India, will be the first countries in the world to benefit from the British-Irish visa scheme.
The Minister and the Home Secretary have also agreed to review the operation, and depending on the success of the scheme in China and India, it is intended to extend it to all countries by the end of next year. A few years' ago the British-Irish visa scheme would have seemed impossible. The scheme will boost tourism and business travel to both islands and no doubt will provide a clear and powerful message that the British Isles and the island of Ireland are open for world-wide business and tourism.
This scheme augurs well for tourism. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, are to be complimented for completing this historic agreement for both countries.
It is a truly good news story for tourism-----
I want to record my appreciation of the efforts of my local authority, Leitrim County Council, and the elected councillors in advancing the development of a caravan and canoe facility at Lough Rynn estate near Mohill, in County Leitrim, which was officially launched last Friday by the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Michael Ring. Almost €1 million was invested in this state-of-the-art facility which will attract international rowers and those from Northern Ireland due to its central location. However, there is a need to complete the project and I call on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and his Department to ensure that does not remain on the back burner, so to speak. It is vitally important that the remaining amount of money be made available in this year's budget. I am sure we will have an opportunity to debate issues such as this with the Minister who indicated that the sports capital programme would be continuing. The Leader might have a view on it.
I raise an issue which I believe is of public importance. Members on all sides of the House are familiar with the scamming of e-mails. We have all seen e-mails stating that if one does not respond, one's bank account will be shut down, and they want one's private details. However, it has become much more insidious in recent weeks in that there are now scam e-mails circulating. I have received a number of them, and perhaps other colleagues, which purport to come from the Revenue Commissioners. They state that unless one fills in the relevant details, which is one's personal information, one will be denied tax refunds.
I have spoken to the Revenue Commissioners about this and they tell me that they have made it clear on their website that people are not to respond to these e-mails but I am taking the opportunity in this House of Parliament to put the issue on the record. I hope the general public might pick up on it, and the Leader may have a view on it also. It is vitally important that people not respond to these e-mails but, unfortunately, people do respond to them and lose money as a result. It is just one of a number of scams but it is particularly invidious in that it now purports to come from the Revenue Commissioners. I advise the members of the general public that when they get an e-mail requesting personal banking details it is not from their bank or the Revenue Commissioners because that is not the way they do business.
I have a particular criticism to make of one bank in particular in terms of the manner in which it handles its customer relations. I refer to Bank of Ireland. If anyone wants to talk to their local branch of Bank of Ireland using the number it provides, they will now get an automated menu, which it changed in recent weeks, that will keep them on the phone for a considerable amount of time and at considerable cost. I plead with Bank of Ireland to please get its act together in this regard. It says it has a customer service facility.
Yesterday the Government came under increasing pressure from various bodies to ban below-cost selling of alcohol, an issue I have raised on a number of occasions. It was indicated that this is costing the Exchequer approximately €21 million per annum through lost VAT and excise duty. That makes sense to me. It is as much a public health issue as it is an Exchequer issue, and it is clear that the main multinational supermarkets are benefiting from this to the detriment of smaller retailers as well as bars.
Allied to that is the campaign by the vintners association to get the Government to consider reducing excise duty in pubs ahead of the budget. I believe that an end to below-cost selling of alcohol in supermarkets would in turn provide a boost to our pubs without reducing the excise duty. I would much rather see people drinking in the pubs, as happened here for years, in a controlled environment where the publican can have some concern for the welfare of those consuming alcohol on the premises.
It is interesting to note that while the cost of consuming alcohol in pubs has risen by an astonishing 300% since 1990, the price of alcohol in off-licences halved. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that any rise in alcohol consumption is likely to have taken place outside the pubs and is driven by cheap alcohol sold below cost by large multiples.
This is also reflected by the sixfold increase in the number of off-licences in the past ten years, against a backdrop of 20% fewer pubs in the same period. It is time that the Government worked to change this and a ban on below-cost selling would be a boost to public health and the Exchequer. I would welcome a debate on the issue in the House at the earliest possible opportunity.
I too would like to support calls for a debate on banking. It is an essential part of our economy. Not having a functioning banking sector means we do not have a functioning economy. Despite the awful things which went on the in past, we should engage in such a debate in a positive way.
In addition to the positive news from Shannon Airport, Ryanair today launched its 2015 schedule. I welcome the fact that it has again committed to further increase its traffic to Shannon by 125,000 in 2015, an increase of 18%. I also welcome the announcement of the new flights to Manchester and Lithuania. It is a further indication of the fact that Shannon Airport becoming an independent airport was a game changer. We have seen the results, with more than 1 million people visiting the Cliffs of Moher visitor experience in 2014. Those figures will increase next year.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by colleagues today about the fact that RIA and the Department of Justice and Equality refused permission for the President to accept an invitation to attend a direct provision centre in Athlone.
I support the comments of Senator Mooney on e-mails. What is far more sinister are those who receive phone calls on their mobile phones while on the Internet from those who tell them they will hack into their computers unless they pay money over immediately. I know of people who had such an experience. It is part of a new trend. It is quite frightening when it happens. If it happens people should disconnect their phones immediately and shut down their computers before any action is taken, and not transfer any money as happened in one case.
I refer to Irish Water. Now that it has been established it is important that it is functioning and we have a regular review of the procedures it introduces. One issue which came to my attention in the past week concerns the fact that it is part of the Bord Gáis group. When it deals with housing estates it insists, and rightly so, that it puts in place the gas pipeline servicing all houses in entire estates. I understand it is now floating, to pardon a pun, the idea that it would also be responsible for installing water and sewer pipes in housing estates. That will cause legal complications because if engineers certify the building and make sure there is full compliance with planning, there will be a dispute regarding who is responsible for what. It is something about which the construction industry is concerned. Builders are concerned that there could be two or three different contractors in one building estate at the same time without anyone being in overall charge. It is causing concern and needs to be resolved at a very early stage. We should have a debate on the current procedure in Irish Water.
I also received a letter from our good friend Mr. Liam Brazil, of Lemybrien in County Waterford, regarding mental health awareness.
There was a time when perhaps none of us knew about suicides, but now we all know somebody - perhaps even close to us - who could be affected. I do not understand the apparent growth in the number of suicides, particularly the sad increase in rates among young people. I am not sure what the answer is, but more needs to be done. Could we encourage the Minister for Health to set up a special task force to examine the matter with experts? I do not understand depression, but perhaps we might consider practical ways to reach out to those suffering from this frightful condition. I do not know if I should call it a disease; perhaps Senator John Crown might be of assistance in this regard. I heard him being prayed for at mass yesterday, although it was not in connection with a suicide; he had given great help to somebody else. This is a matter for consideration by a special task force and perhaps the Minister for Health might be involved.
I am delighted that Senator Paschal Mooney raised his issue today, as I referred to it some time ago. I did not go as far as he did in contacting the Revenue Commissioners, as I got in touch with somebody else. All of these scams are frightful.
I support the call initiated by Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell for a debate on banking. I sought such a debate before and there are many aspects to the issue that still have to be corrected. As has been mentioned, if we do not have a functioning banking system, we will not have a functioning economy. I am delighted that the Central Bank is taking steps to impose limits in the mortgage sector. As Senator Marc MacSharry noted, there may be an argument about the recommendation of a 20% deposit but having a limit of no more than three or four times a salary is correct.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister of Health come to the House today to deal with an urgent problem. It was urgent when the Members of this and the other House were elected three years ago and the issue remains unresolved, unmitigated, unpalliated and just as urgent as it was then. It concerns the scandalous state of waiting lists for public patients. I will not use any word that could seem judgmental, but it is now apparent that, collectively, we were, as a society and spectators of the health service, at least misinformed about the true trajectory of what was happening with waiting lists for several years. It appears that a number of "redefinitions" of what constituted waiting lists, particularly long-term waiting lists, were used. To put it politely, the net effect was to make the figures somewhat better than they had been.
In January I brought to the attention of the Oireachtas an internal document that had been brought to my attention on the standard operating procedure, SOP, for scheduling outpatient appointments requested by a general practitioner, GP. It was apparent to me at that stage that within the SOP there was an opportunity to engage in substantial obfuscation of the truth of the waiting list problem by counting those on the waiting lists, not from the time at which the GP applied for a clinic appointment but from the time at which an official made a request for a particular date. There is a waiting time built into the process before a patient is given a date. Although I was not aware of it, an extraordinary example has been reported in the past couple of days. Approximately one year ago waiting lists appeared to drop by 90% in one month and then rise again to where they had been some time afterwards. There was either an extraordinary epidemic of a very short-lived disease or else there was a major change in the accounting practices used.
This Government was elected on the two big promises of fixing politics and fixing the health service. The report card is not great on either one. As I indicated, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to allow the Minister to come to the House to tell us how he will address the waiting list issue.
The House should acknowledge the wonderful achievement of an Irish-American, Dr. John O'Keefe, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine. He belongs to a select group of people in the world of biomedicine and science. He is a first generation Irish emigrant, as his parents are from Cork. We should acknowledge this through correspondence or otherwise.
Senator Sean D. Barrett has raised this issue before, but I am very concerned about the fall of Irish universities in international league tables.
This is not a mystery; it is happening for a reason.
Senator Daly started where Senator Crown finished on the lack of transparency in the HSE. He also made serious charges about consultants operating on people without having their files. That should certainly be examined. As has been pointed out, Senator Daly's current party leader set up the HSE. Until 2012, no data were available on outpatient appointments and it was totally unmeasured. The previous Government preferred to live in denial of its failure to address the matter, and patients suffered as a consequence. This Government is putting patients at the centre of our reforms. We established the special delivery unit and, as a result, we have a clearer picture of the number waiting and how long people are waiting. The numbers and the length of time involved are unacceptable and must be tackled. That is exactly what is being done.
As regards manipulation of waiting list figures, as suggested by the Senator, the HSE has stated clearly that it has no knowledge of any memo that allegedly urges employees to do this. HSE policy is clear. All hospital managers are expected to efficiently manage waiting lists in chronological order, except where clinical need dictates that a patient needs to be prioritised. So far this year, the HSE has seen, diagnosed or treated 5% more patients at outpatient clinics than last year. It has also seen 10% more referrals to clinics. While huge progress is being made, there is more demand than supply for its services.
With regard to the removal of patients from waiting lists, patients can be removed as part of the HSE waiting list validation protocol. GPs and consultants are informed if the patient has been removed from the list and, if the GP or consultant considers the patient should be reinstated, this is done.
In 2013, a total of 500,000 people did not attend outpatient visits. The estimated cost of each unused slot is in the region of €200 or €300 depending on the specialty concerned. This accounts for the time of nurses and doctors as well as the preparation and administrative time in advance of the visit. It is a serious point. Let us think of all the patients who could be seen in these slots.
The HSE is working to reduce waiting lists. Availability, reminders and clinical need for appointment after waiting a period of time dictate the need for validation and verification of the list. Some 500,000 people not attending the slots given to them is causing a major problem and must be addressed. There should be a nationwide campaign and information on it. People should be reminded that if they are not taking up their slots, they should notify the consultant and the hospital well in advance to allow consultants and hospitals to add other people to the slots. This should be addressed urgently and can help the waiting list problem.
Senator Bacik referred to the objective and transparent appointments to State boards and the many reforms the Government has introduced in the past number of years.
Senator Ivana Bacik called for a debate on the democratic reform process. I will ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to come to the House to address the matter.
Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell and several other Senators commented on the banks choking the system for mortgage lending and through a lack of credit for businesses. She suggested there was a need for a further debate on banking. We have had several debates on the issue, but it is perhaps six to eight months since we last debated it. I will, therefore, try to arrange a further debate on the issue.
Senator Pat O'Neill commented on the European Commission and suggested we invite various European Commissioners to address the House.
Senator Thomas Byrne raised an issue that had been raised on several occasions last week and the previous week, that is, the increase in registration fees for nurses. Perhaps he might table an Adjournment matter to discuss it.
As I look around the Chamber, I am replying to Members as much as I can. I am trying to skip those Members who are not here but who did ask questions. Clearly, I may miss out on some of them.
Senator Sean D. Barrett raised the question of the Central Bank's position on requiring a 20% deposit and limiting loans to a maximum of three and a half times total income. He mentioned that this issue had been raised in the House several years ago. Senator Marc MacSharry disagrees with the Senator on requiring a 20% deposit and takes the view that it should not be introduced.
Senator Marie Moloney made several points about the banks, as well as raising the possibility of the reintroduction of grants for first-time buyers. We will have to wait for the budget next week to see if anything will be announced in that regard.
Senator Sean D. Barrett condemned the attacks on Orange Order halls, which were despicable. All right-thinking people will agree that they are absolutely outrageous and an attempt to raise tensions within both communities in Northern Ireland.
Senator Jim D'Arcy commented on the issue of safety on farms and outlined that there had been 25 fatalities. This matter was raised last week by Senator Martin Conway who requested that the Seanad Public Consultation Committee consider it when it next met. I have written to the Leas-Chathaoirelach to ask that we have it as a matter to be discussed by the committee.
Senator Terry Leyden commented on the issue of petrol stretching. The matter has been raised in the House on at least four or five occasions in recent weeks. It is an outrageous practice. The Senator referred to the fact that good quality diesel or petrol should be put up for sale by reputable garages.
What is preventing the rogues from putting up for sale something similar?
Senator Hildegarde Naughton spoke about the new procedures outlined and the reform of government grants. I imagine the matter can be addressed in the debate we will have on democratic reforms.
Senator Michael Mullins remarked on EU anti-trafficking laws and the criminalising of prostitution. This issue could be included in the sexual offences Bill to be brought forward. I will certainly raise it with the Minister.
Senator Lorraine Higgins commented on unscrupulous moneylenders. I gather she is referring to licensed moneylenders and the need to clean up the system. She called for a debate on the matter. It could probably be taken in conjunction with the issue of banking, on which we will try to arrange a debate.
Senator Mullins also requested a debate on banking. He and Senator Paul Coghlan raised the question of mental health and referred to a letter which they and many other colleagues in the House received from Mr. Liam Brazil, a councillor in County Waterford, where I live. At the request of Senator Gilroy, who raised that matter last week, I have already asked that the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, come before the House to engage in a debate on mental health. I am in a position to confirm that the Minister of State will be here to discuss mental health on 11 November.
Senator Brennan welcomed the establishment of the British-Irish visa scheme and outlined the benefits that may accrue from it in the context of tourism and business.
Senator Mooney referred to sports capital programme funding. I am sure the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ring, will provide details of the new programme when it is being introduced.
The question of e-mail scams, etc., has been raised by Senator Paul Coghlan and others on a number of occasions. The point to the effect that the public should be aware of what is involved with regard to such scams is extremely valid.
On the question of the banks and customer service, I am of the view that the banks are probably more interested in utilising machines rather than having people visit branches and deal with staff. That is unfortunate.
Senator Conway referred to positive news relating to Shannon Airport and the fact that its becoming independent has certainly proved to be a game changer, despite the warnings issued by Opposition speakers at the time.
Senator Colm Burke was another who referred to Internet and e-mail scams. He also requested a review of the position with regard to Irish Water and the legal problems which may arise as a result of the appointment of contractors.
Senator Crown referred to waiting lists, a matter I have already addressed. The Senator also complimented Dr. John O'Keefe, winner of the Nobel Prize. I am sure everyone will join Senator Crown in congratulating Dr. O'Keefe on his award. I do not propose to accept the Senator's amendment to the Order of Business.
Senator Crown has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Health on his plans to address the waiting lists for public patients in the health service to be taken today." As the amendment was not seconded in debate, it consequently falls.