Thursday, 5 February 2015
Order of Business
Fianna Fáil agrees with the Order of Business as outlined by the Leader. This week marks a momentous occasion in the lives of the people of both Dún Laoghaire and the island of Ireland because of the decision by Stena Line to shut down its ferry link with Holyhead. This will bring to an end a 204-year history - going back to 1811 - of ferry services in which it was the main ferry port for embarkation to and arrival from the United Kingdom. Like many of my generation and those before and since then, I had occasion to use the boat to England that went from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead and then the train to Crewe, at which one changed for the train to London. It is a very sad day and I am sure the Leader and Members will agree that we should mark the passing because of the significance of the occasion.
From listening to representatives of the chamber of commerce in Dún Laoghaire, I understand that because cruise line business into Dún Laoghaire has been growing, this has helped considerably to minimise the impact of any potential job losses. I was also interested to discover that originally Dunleary was the name of the area and it was only on the arrival of King George IV in 1820 that the good citizens of Dunleary decided to rename the town as Kingstown. The Irish Free State then of course reverted to the original Dún Laoghaire. I worked in RTE for a long time and when I was there first, it had a pronunciation unit. To this day, RTE people are the people who refer to that area as "Dún Laoghaire", whereas most people refer to it as "Dunleary". There is a similar situation in Portlaoise, where most people who live there call it "Portlaois" but, according to RTE, it is "Portlaoise".
In addition, I wish to praise the Minister, Deputy Reilly, for holding firm against what seems to be an onslaught from Europe - I am sure the Leader will comment on this - in respect of standardised tobacco packaging. The Seanad passed that legislation last year and I understand it is due to come before the Dáil later this month. I am glad to note the Minister is holding firm, despite what appears to be unprecedented opposition from at least ten European Union member states. It goes to show what Senator Crown, a leading advocate of that legislation, said at the time it was introduced here to the effect that the tobacco industry is the enemy and is very well resourced. It is obvious that the tobacco industry's lobbying skills have managed to have a great impact in a number of member states. However, the fact that the United Kingdom and France are moving towards adopting similar legislation will strengthen our resolve.
Finally, I wish to bring up again an issue I raised earlier this week to which the Leader had responded positively, that is, the possibility of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, coming before the House. As Members are aware, over the past 48 hours, he has been referring to the strong relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland and about the fears people in this country have about the possibility, on foot of the holding of a referendum after the elections in the United Kingdom, of the United Kingdom exiting from the European Union. I am particularly pleased that the Minister is visiting Scotland today because I believe we have somehow undervalued the historic relationship between Scotland and Ireland. As the North of Ireland is in one sense a shared jurisdiction in terms of a shared interest in which Scotland has a strong historical role, that visit is particularly significant and I welcome it. My original request was about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which has been escalated even further by the US Defence Secretary-in-waiting saying he is "inclined" towards supporting Ukraine with arms. I consider that to be an escalation that is not helping in any way towards a peaceful resolution in that troubled area. However, when the Leader is communicating with the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, in this regard, it would be an opportunity for the Minister both to give an outline of the Irish position on the Russian sanctions and about the impending referendum on the European Union. It would be an opportunity for the Minister to restate Ireland's position in this House - which I believe would be supported overwhelmingly by the Irish people - namely, that we would support continuing membership of the European Union by the United Kingdom if for nothing other than purely selfish reasons.
I join Senator Paschal Mooney in marking the Stena Line decision to close its Dún Laoghaire-Holyhead ferry link. I think all of us have memories of taking that boat from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead. Certainly the growth of the cruise market in Dún Laoghaire has been very positive but it is none the less worth marking the end of an era in terms of that particular route.
I ask the Leader for a debate on EU developments in light of what appears to be an increased escalation of tension between Athens and the European Central Bank following the ECB decision announced last night after the meeting between Mario Draghi and the Greek Finance Minister on Greek bonds. This is a situation that is developing day by day and I would like if we could have a debate on what it means for the European Union and Ireland. As Senator Paschal Mooney has said, there are other developments in terms of the British referendum which would have a potential seismic change within the European Union. In the coming weeks it would be good to have the Minister with responsibility for European affairs come to the House to debate these and other issues around the development of the European Union.
I thank all the colleagues who attended the briefing I hosted yesterday with the Irish Penal Reform Trust on spent convictions. We heard some very eloquent testimonies from individuals whose criminal record has been a real difficulty, no matter how long in the past or how minor, because we still do not have spent convictions legislation in place in Ireland. The Bill passed through the Seanad. It was commenced in the Dáil and completed Committee Stage there but is awaiting Report Stage due to Government amendments being drafted to ensure it is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights, following a decision in a UK Supreme Court case. I will certainly renew calls on the Minister for Justice and Equality to ensure the Bill completes its passage through the Dáil without delay because there are many people in Ireland who are affected by this and who, due perhaps to very old and very minor convictions, are hampered in employment, education and travel prospects. This is a matter of real concern and I thank colleagues who attended the briefing.
I commend the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who yesterday launched a new anti-bullying resource for primary schools. Given the events of recent weeks at Coláiste Eoin, which Senator David Norris and I raised, it is great to see a national resource being rolled out for primary schools to tackle homophobic bullying and bullying generally. It is an issue we have been speaking about this week in the House in the context of the Gender Recognition Bill. I am sure we will return to it when speaking on the Bill next week, but I just want to mark the launch of that document.
I wish to note that tomorrow is international day of zero tolerance against female genital mutilation, FGM. I spoke on this issue earlier this week in the House and noted that in Egypt we have seen the first ever conviction. For many women and girls worldwide this remains a serious abuse of human rights issues. I note the great work that organisations such as AkiDwA and the Irish Family Planning Association are carrying out in Ireland to tackle FGM.
I am appalled by the action of the ECB in issuing moves and statements that are directly intended to intimidate the Greek Government. The people of Greece have spoken and they should be listened to. It is utterly disgraceful that countries like Ireland and Portugal are not standing in solidarity with Greece but are actually doing our best to sabotage them because they know that if the Greeks get a deal, Ireland and Portugal and other countries like us would have been proved to have been wrong in their approach to the ECB. We should be very careful of these institutions that are not democratically accountable. It is appalling that Germany is ruling the roost in Europe and dictating to everybody what should happen. We have forgotten about the people of Europe. I said many times in the House that the mistake made by the European Union was to set out primarily to protect the interests of financial institutions when they should have been protecting the interests of the people of Europe. The people have spoken in Greece, they will speak in Spain and I believe they will speak also in this country.
With regard to the mail boat from Dún Laoghaire, I feel in a sense that Senator Paschal Mooney has stolen my clothes as I intended to raise this issue. I was very struck and very disappointed to hear this news. I have known this ferry for well over 60 years. I know that it moved from Howth to Dún Laoghaire because of questions of the draught for the boats in the 1830s and now it is moving back into the city of Dublin. The transport service is by boat but there were strong literary reverberations there. In the opening of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus looks out over the parapet of the tower at Sandycove and watches the mail steam packet rounding the harbour, and at the end of Brendan Behan's triumphant novel, Borstal Boy, when he comes back to Ireland, the first thing he sees on the mail boat are the seven fingers of the chimneys of the old Pigeon House sticking up over the horizon. I remember the old boats, long before Stena, when it was the Princess Maud, that relic of the 1920s, the Cambria and the Hibernia.My late uncle used that regularly and always had the same cabin 1A reserved for him. I remember after Beeching's cuts in England my uncle wrote ahead to the crew to ask for his usual porters and the station master wrote back and said: "Dear Colonel Fitz-Patrick, I am afraid that due to Dr. Beeching's cuts there is only one porter at crew." My uncle wrote back and said: "Due to the deprivations of my household and the fact that I no longer travel in the style to which I used to be accustomed, one porter will be quite sufficient. I will expect him at the door of my carriage."
I wish to comment briefly on the question of Portlaoise and Maryborough and Dún Laoghaire and Kingstown. Dún Laoghaire is Dún Laoghaire. That was its original name and it was perfectly appropriate that it would go back to it after the British left here. But Maryborough was built as a defensive force by bloody Mary, the Catholic queen, wife of Phillip II, and that was its original name. I always think of it as Maryborough. It is in my ancestral county of Laois.
I welcome this morning's announcement from the European Commission's winter economic forecast which predicts Ireland remaining as the fastest growing economy in Europe, with an announcement of a GDP growth of 3.5% which will exceed expectations this year. This is very positive news for Ireland and shows the recovery which is continuing here. I welcome also this morning's announcement of more than 150 jobs, with 50 new jobs being created in Galway by the leading health care company Lifes2good. It has invested €5 million which will go towards the creation of 50 new jobs in the Galway region alone. This is proof that the Action Plan for Jobs is working given that these figures are commended in the European Union and nationally.
In an article in today's edition of The Irish Times, the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, who has responsibility for data protection, was asked - I think it was before the recess - about the revelations by leaked documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden that the British spy agency, GCHQ, routinely spied on Irish communications passing over the major subsea telecommunications cables that link Ireland and Britain. This in itself was highlighted by a number of groups such as Digital Rights Ireland as mass surveillance given that essentially every transmission by the Internet in Ireland has been monitored. When asked about this the Minister of State said the Government had not made any comment and was not going to make any comment.
That is an outrage. This is a serious issue. We do not want this issue swept under the carpet with no Government comment. I raised this issue before the recess and it was raised as a matter on the Adjournment with the Minister for Justice and Equality who stressed the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in bilateral relations. A letter from the Secretary General of that Department to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs stated that it was generally understood that friendly relationships between the states, including between Ireland and Britain, include acceptance of the principle that the privacy of communications must be respected. Essentially what these revelations show is that the principle of privacy of communications was violated. Therefore, it is important that we get some further comment on this issue. I do not think that what is attributed to the Minister of State in The Irish Times is adequate. I support calls for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to come before the House to discuss this issue in terms of the bilateral relationship between Ireland and Britain, to outline what discussions are taking place and whether the Government will make further comment on the fact that this mass surveillance is taking place.
Two weeks ago, the Cathaoirleach was kind enough to permit a Commencement debate in this House on access to expensive drugs and medicines for people who urgently require them. I also the acknowledge the role of my colleague, Senator Thomas Byrne, in that debate. I thank the Taoiseach for yesterday's intervention, as he phoned Ms Mary Gorman in Ballinakill and confirmed to her that the Soliris drugs she requires for her rare blood disorder will be provided by the HSE. I am delighted we have had some role in achieving that outcome in a relatively short space of time - in the course of a fortnight - as the issue has rolled on and impeded the good health and quality of life of Ms Gorman and others for more than two years. I acknowledge the interest and intervention of the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, in the matter, as he took our representations very seriously.
There is a broader policy issue and we cannot have cases where people's personal health and medical requirements must be politicised and require representation or lobbying - in essence, being turned into a political football - before we can achieve a positive outcome. I note Senator Colm Burke's role in the matter, as he pointed out that the cost of medicines for the HSE has skyrocketed over the past decade from €500 million to in excess of €2 billion. I welcome the soundings emanating from the Minister for Health that if the drug companies and large pharmaceutical corporations do not cop on and pull in their horns before achieving realistic and fair pricing for their medicines, he is willing to introduce legislation to force them to do so. It is the only way we can solve the problem and we cannot do that on an individual basis. It is a policy issue.
I request that we invite the Minister for Health to the Seanad for a full discourse on the issue. It should not relate to a single individual but the entire problem of the cost of drugs to the Irish taxpayer and the people who require them.
I stand to relay a bit of very good news. We have a lottery regulator, Mr. Liam Sloyan. Although he exists, I cannot find him because he has not yet taken up his position. He exists in the ether. I am delighted he exists because he has much to answer for and to look after with the lottery, which was taken out of Irish hands and sold in order to build the children's hospital.
Yes. He was very kindly going to answer the question yesterday and I now have the answer. The Irish lottery has seen much debacle and I just wanted to let Senators know that although the regulator exists, he has not yet taken office. It is being dealt with by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
There is a second issue which is not such good news. Will the Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, before the Seanad to tell me about the people's forum on Irish Water? We had a wonderful people's forum called the Constitutional Convention, so we have a template, and we need a people's forum very quickly before we start billing people for their water. I would like to see that initiated and put in place in order that people can monitor Irish Water in all the ways it needs to be overseen, especially with regard to the idea that it should never be privatised.
I will follow up Senator Whelan's comments and there was a welcome development yesterday on the matter. The Senator is correct in that the cost went from €560 million or €570 million in 2000 to more than €2 billion by 2010. The good news comes from more recent figures. In the past year or perhaps 2013 - I an awaiting clarification on that - the cost has decreased from €2 billion per annum to €1.8 billion. Every other country in the European Union has also reduced its budget, despite having far lower costs for drugs. We have seen a 10% reduction but it is not enough, so we have much work to do. I agree with Senator Whelan that we need a debate on how to tackle this issue in future.
I wish to raise another matter, which is the major shortage of nurses in nursing homes. I got a note this morning from Nursing Homes Ireland indicating that there is now a requirement for overseas nurses to be used again because we cannot fill posts. In fairness, the HSE is recruiting again, which is a very welcome development that is long overdue. The problem is there are 325 people from overseas waiting to go on adaptation courses to get appropriate training for working in the Irish system. My understanding is there are not sufficient places and these nurses cannot be accommodated, despite the major shortage of trained nurses in nursing homes in both the private and public sector. I raised the issue in 2012. There are nurses specially trained for the maternity, psychiatry and intellectual disability areas but we are not specifically training nurses for elderly care. We need to change the focus and develop a course which accommodates this. I ask for a debate with the Minister on the matter. The elderly population of the country is growing at a phenomenal rate, with 20,000 people per annum reaching 65. It is an urgent matter to be dealt with.
I also raise the issue of the loss of the ferry service from Dún Laoghaire. I thank Senators Norris and Mooney for raising it. It is "Dunleary" to the people living there and I have lived there since I was 12. I used to listen to the sound of the foghorn from the boat as I went to sleep at night. It is a very sad day for people living in the area. I point out the work done by some of the local people in Glasthule to recognise the plight of the forgotten Irish, the people who left on the mail boat, as it was known, some of whom never returned. Last year we had a very poignant reunion in Dún Laoghaire of people who came back from London, some from the likes of Cricklewood, who had never returned to Ireland. It was a moving and evocative meeting of people whose first sight of Dún Laoghaire after all those years was Pigeon House and the Spire. Dún Laoghaire is a wonderful and very beautiful place.
When Stena took over the service in Dún Laoghaire 20 years ago there was great hope it would put in resources. Initially we had the Seacat and the main ferry service but, over time, this reverted to the main ferry service, which became seasonal. Now, we have nothing at all. That is because the service was completely neglected.
The facilities and infrastructure were not put in to preserve the service. We now have a very good and modern building, which came from the resources of the people in Dún Laoghaire, but we have no ferry service. Not to put too fine a tooth in it but the ferry service in Dún Laoghaire was neglected not just by Stena but by successive Governments which did not put in the roads structure to allow cars to use the service.
Senators have mentioned the potential sale of Aer Lingus. Stena has rationalised the loss of the service in Dún Laoghaire on the basis that it has another service just ten miles up the road. It is not too much of a stretch to say that if the national air carrier was sold, it would suddenly seem more convenient to locate everything in Dublin, for example, than to have regional centres. It would not take too long to think about rationalising everything to London thereafter. There is a need for a task force to examine the removal of the ferry service from Dún Laoghaire and see what can be done. The answer does not lie with a cruise service and it is not just about the idea that Dún Laoghaire can become some sort of grandiose-----
-----marina for the rich. The bottom line is that the ferry service was bringing in much-needed resources to the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company and it was critical to the infrastructure of Dún Laoghaire which has suffered a lot of poverty and neglect. The establishment of the task force is critical. I ask the Leader to bring the matter to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe.
I agree with Senator O'Donnell about the appointment of the lottery regulator which I welcome. The sooner he takes up his position, the better. Unfortunately, yesterday, 3,500 outlets - many of which depend on the income from selling lottery tickets - lost their service when it collapsed. These difficulties have been happening for quite some time, since the lottery changed hands a number of months ago. It has not been running smoothly at all. It is time that we had a discussion in this House on the operations of the national lottery. I understand it will cost the franchise-holder over €150 million to upgrade the IT facilities. I worry as to who will be paying for this upgrade. Will it be the charities that depend on allocations from the national lottery? We were told the reason for the establishment of the national lottery was to fund charities. We need to examine the situation and hold to account those who have the franchise for the next 20 years. The Irish people are buying the lottery tickets and they deserve to see where that money is being spent and that charities will not suffer as a result of the need to upgrade the IT system which should have been built into the proposal before the franchise took over the lottery.
I welcome the fact that Dr. Pauric Travers is the mediator appointed jointly by the Department of Education and Skills and the teachers' unions to make recommendations on the impasse on the proposed changes to the junior certificate. He has made recommendations to the Department and to the teachers' unions. The teachers' unions are meeting tomorrow to consider these recommendations. I hope this situation can be resolved and that the young people of this country and the teachers are not subjected to a number of days of strikes.
Like my Seanad colleagues, I wish to bring a bit of good news to the Chamber this morning. There is no doubt that the town of Dundalk has the skills base and the infrastructure to support major industry. This is evident from the announcement this very morning by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, that SalesSense International is to create 100 new jobs in Dundalk.
SalesSense is Ireland's leading sales solution provider. Today, it opened a brand new state-of-the-art customer engagement centre in Dundalk. This will be the first fully cloud-based centre in Europe. It will create 100 new jobs for Dundalk, the surrounding area and the north-east region. SalesSense is an indigenous Irish company which has gone from strength to strength. This announcement is a great boost for Dundalk and the region. It adds to our reputation as a centre for technology and industry-----
No, I am the bearer of good news. As the recovery begins to take hold, the north east is attracting investment from many major companies. Many regions of the country are showing some increase in the number of jobs, although some Senators may disagree. The north east is definitely punching above its weight and for very good reasons, in my opinion.
I wish to be associated with the regrets expressed by colleagues at the ending of the Stena ferry service from Dún Laoghaire. My family and I have used it on several occasions. It is a big loss for Dún Laoghaire and for the tourism infrastructure of this country and it will have ramifications for the tourism industry in general.
Aontaim leis an méid atá luaite ag Seanadoiri maidir le cursaí Stena i nDún Laoghaire. It is a very disappointing turnaround that Stena is discontinuing the services from Dún Laoghaire. I think of the Irish people who have been forced to emigrate and work in the UK, in particular, and possibly in mainland Europe, who use the service regularly. It is unfortunate they will no longer have that option. The emigration figures mask the backslapping in Government circles about the increase in jobs because, on closer examination, more people would be unemployed in the west if it were not for emigration. It is a pressure cooker scenario in that emigration has let the Government off the hook.
I call for a debate on an industry that has huge potential, the greyhound industry. We debated this matter previously and we heard about difficulties in Bord na gCon which were to be addressed and rectified. We were told about an overhaul that was to happen in the organisation. It would be useful to have the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, come to the House to discuss how the work is proceeding, whether the targets set down have been reached, whether the debt restructuring has been adhered to and if the future is rosy for that industry on which so many people depend. A large number of charitable organisations and other fund-raising groups use the greyhound tracks as venues for events. The Irish Greyhound Owners and Breeders Federation is a significant grouping in rural Ireland. The future of Bord na gCon and the greyhound industry in general would be a good debate which may also be timely.
I support the comments of Senator Ivana Bacik that we put pressure on the Minister for Justice and Equality to progress the Spent Convictions Bill 2012. This Bill seems to have come to a standstill while the Government is considering amendments; three years have passed. I cite the example of a person who was 17 years old 18 years ago and was involved in a brawl at a disco. He is now 35 years of age and because he has a conviction for what I would consider to be a simple offence, he cannot get house insurance. That is just one simple example of the current situation. Until such time as the Bill is progressed, people like him and many others will be victims. I call on the Leader to put pressure on the Minister to progress this legislation. I know she wants to do so but I do not know whether it is a case that civil servants are holding up the show. There are victims as a result of inaction.
I support the comments of Senator Ó Clochartaigh with regard to the greyhound industry, an industry in which our Leader has an interest. We have briefly discussed the industry on a number of occasions but it might be helpful if we asked the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to come to the House to give an update on the developments on the proposals and plans, and, indeed, on the problems which apparently exist in some sections of the industry.
I refer to a motion which is No. 58 on the Order Paper in the Leader's name, that Seanad Éireann shall consider the report of the Committee on European Affairs on the matter of the voting rights of Irish citizens abroad. This was proposed last November.
It would be very useful to have such a debate in advance of the various ministerial visits throughout the world over the St. Patrick's Day period. Every Minister and politician who will be travelling abroad, be it to New York, Sydney or elsewhere, to do very valid work will come into contact with young Irish people, in particular, and perhaps second-generation Irish who are interested in the concept of having a vote in Irish elections. The Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, has made relatively strong commitments in this regard. I am not sure whether the thinking is fully in accordance with Government policy but I believe it would be useful to debate it.
I have mixed views on the matter. An old maxim implies there should be no taxation without representation. One must delimit how broad the franchise should be. The Leader is now considering for debate a report by the Joint Committee on European Affairs. It would be useful to have this in advance of the annual St. Patrick's Day period when there will be so much interaction between the Irish at home and abroad. Perhaps the Leader will try to facilitate it with the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, or the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. There might be a slight difference of opinion and emphasis between the two.
With regard to the early childhood scheme, and particularly the free school year, I am aware that representatives of the Association of Childhood Professionals will be protesting here next week. Senator Keane will be addressing them, as far as I am aware. The pay under the early childhood scheme is €62.50 for 15 hours contact work with children for 38 weeks, or 183 days, per year in the school calendar. That works out at €4.17 per hour. Those concerned do not get paid for the raft of compliance documentation they now have to fill out to adhere to some of the regulations associated with these schemes and services. Each member of staff must have a qualification at FETAC level 5. The majority of people running the schemes must have a degree or diploma.
Our councils have a role to play in this regard. There are many crèches and child care facilities operating in — dare I say it — the black economy that do not have the correct planning permission. The Minister, Deputy Reilly, should probably come to the House to explain how he is dealing with this issue, or how he intends to make progress on it.
The operators of a certain scheme who wrote to me stated the service currently has two children diagnosed with special needs. One needs one-to-one care at all times and was allocated only six hours per week. The scheme pays for one of its own staff for the other three days, covering the extra nine hours per week. The second little boy was allocated only three hours after Christmas and he was diagnosed as having special needs early last year. He gets one session per week from Enable Ireland. As a parent, I believe a significant problem is surfacing in this area and the Government needs to address it. I ask that the Minister, Deputy Reilly, come to the House to give us a presentation on it.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of emigration. Will the 20,000 public servants being let go in Northern Ireland be emigrating?
We should have a debate on debt, mortgages and home repossession. This is an ongoing issue that is raised in these Houses. Of particular concern is the manner in which the courts are dealing with personal debt and family home mortgages. The Personal Insolvency Act 2012 sought to address these issues by reforming bankruptcy law. I have criticised that Act in the past as ineffective. Concerns expressed by me and others in this House have been borne out by the low take-up of the debt packages of the Insolvency Service of Ireland.
Leaving aside that flawed legislation for the time being, I wish to focus today on those debtors who, for whatever reason, do not or cannot avail of a personal insolvency package under the provisions of the Act. For these people, the deluge has started, with banks pursuing mortgage defaulters with vigour. In Galway Circuit Court before Christmas, more than 70 cases were brought before the county registrar. For debtors who invariably cannot afford legal representation, being dragged into court is a deeply stressful experience to add to the stress they are already under. The court approaches debt and mortgage applications in the typical adversarial manner, with barristers in legal garb and with the county registrar and Master of the High Court seated on a dais sitting in judgment. The affidavits are opened and personal details are read out. Judgment orders, orders for possession and well-charging orders are moved. While the county registrar and the master have the power to adjourn matters for two months regarding applications to the Insolvency Service of Ireland, many cases are not amenable to debt arrangements under the Act.
There is or can be a more humane way of dealing with personal debt in our courts. The mechanism of less adversarial hearings that is found in the family law Act of 1996 should be used in personal debt cases. That Act provides for case-management-style hearings to be conducted around a conference table, not in open court and not in formal court dress. The county registrar presides over the hearing. Using similar provisions to deal with personal debtors would reduce their stress and allow the possibility of exploring settlement without having to air personal financial details in open court.
I am asking for a debate on this and would like to hear what the Government thinks about it. The proposal would not interfere with creditors' right of access to the courts or prevent them from claiming property that has secured a debt; it is aimed at debtors who are, in the main, unrepresented by lawyers and whose family home may be at risk. They deserve better than a 19th century Dickensian courtroom experience. There are humane ways of resolving personal debt without the humiliation of court hearings in public. I would welcome the Government's response to this and an early debate.
I ask the Leader once again to invite the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Simon Harris, to the House to discuss diesel laundering and sludge, the waste product. I welcome the fact that Uisce Éireann has said there is no risk at present to the water in Dundalk but, that said, the little streams and tributaries supplying the water are polluted. This is damaging to animals in the fields in addition to humans. We need further reports. I welcome the fact that the leader of Sinn Féin, Deputy Gerry Adams, has called diesel launderers criminals who need to be brought before the courts. That is a welcome development after three years of talking about this until the cows came home. It is better late than never. Furthermore, I welcome the fact that-----
Deputy Adams praised the "diligence" of Irish Water in investigating this and bringing forward the report, in addition to its commitment to improve the water further. Perhaps he will be joining us; one would never know.
It is important that we have the debate because everybody seems to be talking now about the VAT rebate. We need a significant discussion on that and to hear the Minister's views on it. When Deputy Adams talks about this, he is well aware that since it is a Treasury matter, his masters in the North, Her Majesty’s Government, are responsible for it. Therefore, we need to get talking to them as well.
I wish to raise a health issue I raised in 2011 and on numerous occasions since. This is a good week for the Department of Health. I welcome the announcement that the Government has approved the heads of a Bill for calorie posting on menus. This does not seem like the most urgent or pressing issue in the world but, at the same time, the initiative could assist somewhat in combating the ever-increasing obesity crisis. Despite lobbying against the legislation by some food industry groups, it will bring about transparency and allow people to make positive healthy choices in their lives. The new law will require restaurants, takeaways and food service outlets to post calorie information alongside the price for all items offered on menus at the point where the food is ordered, be it at tables or counters.
The Government has listened to arguments from the food industry concerning costs.
The FSAI has developed an online calorie counting model known as MenuCal, which will reduce the cost of providing such counters. Cost is an issue and I urge leniency in the legislation for restaurants that have daily menus or complicated menus. It is not simply the case that if calories are posted on menus, there will suddenly be a total reduction in obesity levels but it is a further step that might help. While the Government cannot, and should not, interfere directly in people's choices, such transparency and disclosure will allow people to make better food choices as part of the action against obesity. Public consultation demonstrates that 95% of consumers want this and I look forward to the legislation. It is scheduled to be enacted in 2016, which would be a good move.
The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government made a significant announcement yesterday. He said he had secured agreement from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to recruit 200 new local authority staff to kick-start the social housing plan. These technical staff are required throughout the country to put together the ambitious plan to supply 35,000 social housing units at a cost of €3.8 billion over the next six years. We have a massive problem with housing waiting lists, which are lengthening. A total of 90,000 people are on the lists nationwide, with many of them in Galway city and county. I would like the additional architects, engineers, surveyors and planners to be recruited immediately and to put this ambitious plan together quickly. The Minister has given an instruction to the local authorities to act with haste to put the plan in place but it would be important to invite him to the House in the near future to give us an outline of the timescale for the implementation of the first phase of the social housing strategy. This crisis is serious. My colleague, Senator Hayden, raises on a regular basis the problem of the numbers on the housing waiting lists and the shortage of rental accommodation. It is critical that the construction of housing units commences at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps the Minister will inform us about the plan for the first phase.
Senators Mooney, Norris, Hayden and others raised the issue of Stena Line concentrating on expanding on its existing ferry service in Dublin Port having decided to terminate its services from Dun Laoghaire, which is a big disappointment to everyone involved. Following the withdrawal of duty free shopping, passenger and car volumes declined dramatically in 2014. Fewer than 150,000 ferry passengers travelled through Dún Laoghaire harbour and this represented a decline of more than 90%. Combined with increased fuel and operating costs, it made the route unsustainable but, as has been mentioned, services will be expanded in Dublin Port. It is sad for everybody involved. I like Senator Norris's literary references to the mail boat in Dún Laoghaire. The development of the cruise line trade has helped the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company with its finances. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is aware of the disappointment in Dún Laoghaire and he has received correspondence from the harbour company on the matter. He intends to meet the board in the coming weeks to discuss the implications of this decision and to engage with it on plans for the future. I hope Dún Laoghaire Port will have a bright future.
Senator Mooney complimented the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on the standardisation of tobacco packaging. The tobacco lobby is strong and we have seen what has happened in many European countries. The Senator also requested the attendance of the Minister for Foreign Affairs to update the House on his portfolio.
I will arrange a debate with the Minister or his Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy.
Senator Bacik asked for a debate with the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs as well and I will try to arrange a debate.
Senators Kelly and Bacik raised the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012. It has been held up on Report Stage in the other House. I understand amendments are being drafted to bring the Bill to a conclusion but I will inquire from the Minister for Justice and Equality when it is likely Report Stage will be completed in the Dáil. I am sure the amendments will then be referred back to this House.
Senator Naughton referred to the success of the Action Plan for Jobs and the creation of 50 additional jobs in Galway. On the same theme, Senator Brennan mentioned the success of SalesSense International Limited, which will provide 100 new jobs in Dundalk. These positive announcements are good and I hope they will be made on a daily basis this year.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of surveillance of communications between countries. She tabled an Adjournment debate on that last year. Perhaps she could seek an update through a Commencement debate on what is happening in that regard.
Senator Whelan commented on the availability of the Soliris drug to patients. It costs €450,000 annually per patient but it is essential. Senator Burke along with the Senator Whelan raised the issue of the cost of drugs and asked for the Minister for Health to come to the House to discuss what mechanisms he intends to put in place to reduce prices. I will invite him to do so.
Senator O'Donnell raised the issue of the lottery regulator and she pointed out that, on 9 October last, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform announced that Mr. Liam Sloyan had accepted the appointment as the first regulator of the national lottery, a position provided for in the National Lottery Act 2013 following an open recruitment process administered by the Public Appointments Service. Mr. Sloyan took up his appointment on 17 November. The functions of the regulator, a matter also raised by Senator Wilson, include ensuring the national lottery is run with due propriety, the interests of the participants in the lottery are protected, the long-term sustainability of the lottery is safeguarded; and revenues allocated to good causes should be as high as possible. I wish him well with his task.
With regard to the people's forum in respect of Irish Water, I gave a comprehensive reply on that matter yesterday. Section 7 of the Water Services Act 2014 provides that it is a function of the Commission for Energy Regulation to establish the forum. Departmental officials met CER officials to progress the establishment of the forum and the Department is preparing regulations to set out details of the forum. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will provide the draft regulations to the JOC for comment before finalising the composition the membership of that forum.
The Minister will be providing the draft regulations to the joint Oireachtas committee for comment before finalising the composition of the forum's membership. I hope I have answered the question.
Senator Burke discussed the need to develop courses specifically for care of the elderly. I noted his points on training for nurses overseas.
Senator Wilson raised points about the lotto as well as Dr. Travers and his recommendations on the junior certificate. In the past week or so, there have been long negotiations between the unions and the Department. I hope that this matter will be solved in early course.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to the future of the greyhound industry. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, attended the House last year on that matter, but if we need to hold a further debate on it, by all means we will try to arrange for one. Regarding the issue of emigration, which was also mentioned yesterday, it is good to see that companies are going to Australia to recruit Irish people to come back to Ireland. This should be encouraged so that other companies would do likewise. Unemployment has decreased to 10.5%, which is the lowest it has been in a long time. I hope that it will fall to 9% in the next few years. Obviously, 10.5% is still too high. Under the Action Plan for Jobs, the Government is doing everything possible to create new jobs for our people in the country and to attract those who emigrated in recent years.
Senator Bradford raised the issue of voting rights for people abroad. The Seanad reform group is also considering it. We will try to arrange for a debate with the Minister.
Senator Mulcahy asked about child care facilities, a matter that Senator Keane raised last week. He mentioned staff pay and educational requirements. I will ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, to update the House on the issue.
Senator Mullen called for a debate on debt and mortgages. We will try to arrange such a debate in early course.
Senator Jim D'Arcy discussed diesel laundering and the contamination of waterways. He referred to the cows coming home, but they might not do so if they drink water that has been contaminated by criminals, many of whom are former or current so-called republicans. The importation of cigarettes and so on is causing major damage to the economy, given the loss of revenue. These matters must be addressed and I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, to update the House on mechanisms to combat diesel laundering. Contamination from sludge is causing local authorities deep concern and additional costs. Due to an omertà, people are intimidated and will not give evidence against those responsible. It must be combated.
Senator Noone raised the issue of obesity, calorie counts on menus and better food choices. She mentioned legislation that will be introduced next year. We will have an opportunity to debate it comprehensively then.
Senator Mullins referred to the recruitment of 200 local authority staff to expedite the house building programme. The Minister will attend the House next week to debate a Labour Party Private Members' motion on social housing and private rented accommodation. He will update us on those matters.