Wednesday, 25 February 2015
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Workplace Relations Bill 2014 - Committee Stage (resumed) to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to be adjourned no later than 5 p.m. if not previously concluded, and No. 59, motion 17, Private Members' business, to be taken at 5 p.m. and the time allocated to this debate is not to exceed two hours.
I congratulate the Irish cricket team on a fantastic victory this morning. It was very hard fought and follows its win against the West Indies last week. The Irish cricket team has not received any capital funding from this Government. We need a few extra quid to finish our ground in Malahide. This is the perfect time for the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ring, to announce a bit of capital funding because in the worst of times, I delivered €450,000 for it. That is coming to fruition now. It is a fantastic result for Phil Simmons and the Irish team. I hope they will get out of the group but I think they will. We have a couple more games to play to get into the quarter finals.
I thank the Senator. Later today we will have a debate on the health service, tabled by my party. I hope the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, will take it. Some of his comments on Tony O’Connell’s letter about-----
I refer to the letter from the HSE on the report of the number of wards taken up because there are no proper step-down facilities in place. Last September, there were 703 delayed discharges from hospitals. That is equivalent to 30 wards remaining unavailable to people who need those beds, many of which are acute beds. We have discussed this time and again over the past three and a half years. What surprised me this morning is that the Minister said there was nothing in the letter that was a surprise to him. He is the Minister for Health. What is he doing about it and what did his predecessor do about it? I know additional funds were given to the fair deal scheme this year but that is on the back of cuts last year and the previous year. We must also consider step-down facilities-----
We will not have a debate specifically on this issue. I suggest to the Leader that we have a public consultation session in the Seanad on this area. That has worked very well before. The local authorities have a role in this with regard to housing adaptation grants and various things that can be done and fixed very quickly without much money. It is important. We are not getting leadership from the Minister for Health on this matter. I await his answers here this evening.
Will the Leader confirm that the Minister for Health is coming to the House to take that debate later today? I hope he is. There will be some good suggestions from this side of the House as I am sure there will be from the other side. The system continues to lurch from one disaster to another, regardless of who the Minister is. There does not seem to be any difference between this Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and his predecessor, Deputy Reilly. This Minister continues to be a passenger. He does not appear to want to take control or make decisions or do anything more than tread water. That is not acceptable to me or my colleagues.
I join Senator O’Brien in congratulating the Irish cricket team, which has been doing so well. We would all like to join in the congratulations. I suspect Senator O’Brien is on a sticky wicket when he tries to look for additional funds for Malahide Cricket Club.
It is a beautiful cricket club. I am joking. I do not think the Senator is on a sticky wicket.
I welcome good news from the quarterly Central Statistics Office, CSO, household survey figures this morning which show a strong increase in employment. An article by Deputy Joanna Tuffy in The Irish Timestoday points out this Government’s record on job creation has been well ahead of the target set in 2012 with the job creation programme, which was at that point criticised for being over ambitious. The Government’s creation of 80,000 jobs since then looks set to exceed the target. We all welcome that.
I also welcome the fact that the cost of borrowing for Ireland has today dropped below 1% for the first time in many years.
When will the Children and Family Relationships Bill 2014 come to this House? I welcome the fact that it started Second Stage in the Dáil yesterday and there were some very strong speeches in support of the Bill, not only by the Minister for Justice and Equality but also by members of the Opposition. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality held pre-legislative hearings on the Bill and it was broadly welcomed by the front line groups working with children and family support, and by stakeholders. That broad welcome was reflected in the Dáil debate yesterday. I hope we will see a similar debate in this House when it comes before us.
Will the Leader arrange for a debate on child care provision? Some colleagues have already asked for that. The high level group on child care, convened by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, is to have its first meeting today and is to report to the Minister by the summer. We might have that debate when the report is produced. The report will consider new models of funding and measures such as the extension of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. It must also consider tax relief for child care which is a huge issue for working parents.
I condemn the actions of Islamic State, ISIS, in northern Syria, which has captured close to 200 Christians and is continuing a despicable campaign of slaughter and abductions in that region.That organisation is continuing a very despicable campaign of slaughter and abductions across the region. I add my voice to those of other Senators who are seeking a debate on this matter.
I join colleagues in congratulating the Ireland cricket team on its remarkable victory. The team has enjoyed wonderful success in recent years, including defeating England, the home of cricket. What the Ireland cricket team is doing is indicative of a remarkable cultural change in this country. There used to be quite a bitter antagonism here in respect of sports such as cricket and rugby. The latter is flourishing, particularly in the context of working-class teams in Limerick, etc., but cricket is only just coming out of the shadows. This is very welcome because it shows the cultural diversity that exists in this country.
I strongly welcome the fact that the yield on ten-year Irish bonds has fallen below 1% for the first time. Some years ago the yield stood at 14%. It is a remarkable turnaround. I disagree strongly with the Government in respect of its economic policies and analysis and am of the view that we need a far more radical approach than that which is currently being pursued. All the financial institutions should be scrutinised and the ratings agencies should be disestablished and publicly discredited. However, we are now so far embarked on the process relating to this matter it seems that the best and wisest course for the country is to leave the Government in place. I say this with some reservations but it seems that having gone so far down this avenue and reaped success within the limits of the financial system which circumscribes the Government's actions, it would be foolish to change horses in mid-stream. I hope, therefore, that this Government is returned to power at the next election. I also hope that here will be a very strong Fianna Fáil-led Opposition.
I wish to raise the issue of greenways in the aftermath of a meeting which took place this morning with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, in respect of the greenway from Loughrea to Galway. While there were few difficulties regarding the part of the route from Dublin to Athlone, with land being provided by Waterways Ireland and the public transport authorities, the proposed route from Loughrea to Galway traverses through private lands. At this morning's meeting I raised the concerns of landowners and farmers regarding the consultation process, particularly their view to the effect that it has not been adequate. Farmers are particularly concerned with regard to the potential devaluation of their lands and the fact that such lands will be bisected by the greenway. They would experience huge difficulties in terms of moving animals across the greenway on multiple occasions each day. There are also concerns with regard to insurance and the fact that insufficient protection may be provided in the context of farm animals entering the greenway and causing danger to the public. The latter could give rise to a high potential cost for farmers. All of the concerns to which I refer were raised with the Minister at this morning's meeting. Farmers and farming organisations are very much in favour of greenways and realise their potential as a tourism amenity for the western region. However, they are calling for proper consultation and community consent. The latter will be key if we want the greenway project to be successful. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has committed to providing a response to the concerns that have been raised in the coming weeks. I ask the Leader to invite him to come before the Seanad in order that he might do so here.
Yesterday, I raised with the Deputy Leader the withdrawal of services by Bus Éireann. I am pleased to say that at its meeting this morning, the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport, of which I am a member, has agreed to invite representatives from Bus Éireann and the National Transport Authority to come before it in the next two weeks in order to discuss their policies. I wish to raise with the Leader the role of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in respect of this matter and the fact that it is responsible for providing funding for transport in this country. Such funding includes the subsidies provided to CIE and the money invested in the rural transport programme, which has been significantly cut in recent years. It appears that the proposal I made yesterday - I also made it at this morning's meeting of the committee - is being increasingly embraced by those who are following the debate on this important issue and its impact on rural areas.
The matter which the Department now needs to address is that which relates to connectivity. The Department should open up particular bus routes through towns and villages and allow private operators to apply for licences in respect of them under the public service obligation, thereby ensuring that any services provided would be subsidised. There is no question that in light of the small populations living in such towns and villages and their environs, the services to which I refer would not be commercially viable. This problem in this regard is increasingly circular because if services continue to be withdrawn, fewer people will live in rural areas. As a result, rural Ireland will effectively shut down. I ask the Leader to communicate to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport my suggestion that it issue a statement in respect of its policy on rural transport. I also ask that he encourage it to give urgent consideration to carrying out a review of that policy in the context of its impact on rural Ireland in the aftermath of Bus Éireann's decision to withdraw services from certain towns and villages.
At a meeting of one of the joint committees yesterday, the Minister of State with responsibility for rural development, Deputy Ann Phelan, indicated that - contrary to what the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White previously stated some months ago - the Government is not going to be able to roll out high-speed broadband services. This is another issue that is of pertinence and great importance to those who live in rural areas. I ask that the House be given the opportunity to debate the issue of the expansion of broadband services. Not only is it incumbent on the Government to provide such services to rural areas, it is also incumbent on information communications technology, ICT, companies to do so. I would like to discover the current state of play in respect of this matter, not just in terms of the Government's role but also regarding those of Eircom and all other service providers. If one considers the decline in rural transport services and the lack of proper broadband services in rural areas, one must reach the conclusion that the future for the people in these areas who are trying to engage in entrepreneurship and attract industry and employment is bleak.
I joint colleagues in congratulating the Ireland cricket team on its remarkable win this morning. Cricket has a long tradition in Ireland. It is remarkable that in areas where hurling is particularly strong, cricket was also very strong in the past. It should be noted that the competition for the Ashes, which involves England and Australia and which is played every four years, was begun by Ivo Francis Walter Bligh, the eighth Lord Darnley, who had his estates in Athboy, County Meath. Indeed, County Meath would be known as a hotbed of Irish cricket.
I am sure Members on all sides will agree with Senator Norris that the current Government should be returned to office. The Senator also referred to the yield on ten-year Irish bonds falling below 1% for the first time. Four years ago, that yield stood at 16%. The yield on ten-year bonds reflects the level of risk involved. The fact that the yield on Irish bonds has fallen to 1% shows that the risk relating to this country defaulting on its debt is extremely low. The yield also reflects the economic and political stability in Ireland at present. The reduction in our bond yields is attributable to the sound - often tortuous - policies the Government has introduced. There is no doubt these policies have inflicted a great deal of pain on Irish people but it is important to note that the country is recovering, that unemployment levels are falling and that all the indicators show we are doing well. If we had stated that we would be in this position only four years ago, no one would have believed us. Perhaps the Leader will arrange a debate in the near future on the direction our economic policy is taking.
I join everyone else in congratulating the Ireland cricket team. It is a great day for the country.
I wish to raise concerns regarding plans to reduce the number of firefighters by one or two per fire appliance.Members of our fire service place themselves in peril daily to serve the needs of their communities. Reducing the numbers on fire appliances places communities and the firemen themselves at risk. The Leader will be aware that members of the Dublin fire service marched yesterday from Parnell Square to the Dáil to raise their concerns. I am told that a typical fire crew consists of one commander, one operator, two firemen who engage in rescue service and two who remain outside the building for standby purposes. I trained in the use of breathing apparatus many years ago and I am acutely aware of how important it is that firemen can get in and out of dangerous situations without placing themselves at risk. Reducing the size of fire crews on appliances places not just the firemen, but also communities, at risk. Members of the fire service have been asking for details of a risk assessment that has apparently been carried out to support this reduction and no such assessment has been made available to them. There is evidence from the UK that reducing the number of active firemen on an appliance has caused serious injury and loss of life among firemen. This concerns the firemen in this country. I spoke to representatives of SIPTU this morning. It will be conducting a ballot of its members in light of the fact that the memo from the Department is about to be executed. Will the Leader either bring the Minister before the Seanad to outline what risk assessment has been carried out and what the results of this assessment are, or will he bring a copy of the assessment to the House himself, so that we can pass it on to the relevant fire services? This is a matter of great urgency and I ask him to deal with it as quickly as possible.
I join Senator O'Brien and others in congratulating the cricket team. I come from Kerry, and as the Senator rightly pointed out, there is no history there of cricket that I am aware of. We have a cricket field in Killarney, but all I remember being played down there was rugby. It was forecast to me that Senator O'Brien would certainly raise this matter this morning, that Malahide was the home of Irish cricket.
I read in the newspaper this morning that Deputy Mícheál Martin stated in the other House yesterday that the authorities are turning a blind eye to fuel laundering, cigarette smuggling and so on. He admitted that it may be an anecdotal view. Certainly there is that anecdotal view and we also met it recently in our study, before we compiled the report. The truth is that co-operation between the police forces, North and South, is excellent. They have everything short of hot pursuit, which I would not recommend as they do not need it. In the Dundalk region there are 34 Border crossing points and it is difficult to police it all. Our gardaí in that area have received threats from some of these people in the past. Some of these people have obstructed and driven through road blocks. North of the Border, in south Armagh, policing is even more difficult. There is a personnel shortage. One will not find any policemen on the beat or near on the beat. They have armoured vehicles for when they leave their barracks. The place is a fortress.
It is not tolerable that 17 years after the first peace agreement, we have certain crime overlords and drug smugglers openly flouting the law. In this House yesterday some of our colleagues called for debate on the matter. I agree with them on that. It would be useful. I know, following discussion with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, that the Government is pursuing these matters with its counterparts in the North and in London. This is subject to ongoing discussion at the level of the British-Irish Ministerial Council, but we should have a debate in this House.
I support the call by Fianna Fáil for a debate on healthcare. We have called for that several times over the past few weeks.
I also support the call for a debate on cuts to rural bus services, which is very topical at the moment because of a decision by Bus Éireann to cut almost 100 rural bus routes. Under the changes, 15 communities will be left with no direct services and many more communities will experience cuts to their bus links. The plan is to remove route 5, from Waterford to Dublin via New Ross and Enniscorthy, which runs four times a day, and the route from Rosslare to Dublin via Wexford, Bunclody, Tullow and Tallaght is also to close. These routes employ seven drivers and service the major hospitals in Dublin as well as UCD, Trinity and DIT. It is inconceivable that towns like Bunclody, Castlecomer in Kilkenny and Ballyporeen will have no direct service to Dublin, while in the west Roscommon and Castlerea, among others, will be cut off from Westport.
It is interesting that the chief executive of Bus Éireann, Martin Nolan, said that if the Government wanted smaller towns and villages on commercial routes to be serviced, it would have to provide a subsidy. This is a bit like the HSE and the Minister for Health having a row about who takes responsibility for what. Will the Leader arrange a debate on this so that we can have a discussion with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, who must take primary responsibility for what is happening? There is an issue for the management of Bus Éireann as well, but the loss of bus services to rural towns, which have already lost post offices, Garda stations and so on, will be another attack on rural Ireland. We have had discussions in this House about the decline of rural Ireland. We must do our best to ensure that these services remain in place.
I welcome the good news that in the past few hours the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has signed an agreement for an €800 million peace programme for Ireland. It is very good news and must be welcomed. That will mean there will be €100 million coming into the BMW region. This will create jobs, growth and research and development, and it will help counteract long-term unemployment among young people. Having served at Leitrim County Council level over the past few years on the PEACE II and PEACE III programmes, I know full well the good that can be delivered when this money is brought in. It will mean a total of €2 billion between 2015 and 2020.
I also support my colleague, Senator Hildegarde Naughton, on the development of the greenway in her area. We are anxious to develop a greenway through Sligo, Leitrim and right into Cavan and Northern Ireland, but consultation must take place with the farming community there. It is vitally important that all the farming organisations get involved in this. I was to the fore when there was a debacle about hillwalking issues in the farming community. The only way to resolve that was by sitting down and talking to the farmers. Much good can come of it and it will develop the west of Ireland.
I am delighted about the attention being given in recent days to problems in the Border area, particularly the fuel smuggling that has gone on. I hope something comes of it. We have debated this before and have asked for debates on it before. It really is bandit country up there, both north and immediately south of the Border. It seems they can get away with it with impunity.
To what extent is this related to our sentencing policy? Senator Ivana Bacik has spoken in the past about the reason for jail sentencing. Is it rehabilitation, punishment, or some other reason? We should bring attention to that on a more regular basis than has been the case in the past. The area of sentencing needs consideration, particularly given that there are people who seem to be quite happy about going to jail. One of the suggestions the former Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter was working on was attaching fines to the income, whether it is one's dole or salary. I do not think that has come about. We found a way of doing that with property tax and water tax, that we can take money away from income, but we have not found it in regard to criminals. That seems like something we should be moving on. We should move with alacrity. We do not have to delay as it would be a comparatively simple piece of legislation.
I join my colleague, Senator Michael Comiskey, in welcoming the agreement which has been reached on funding. It is extremely important for the region.
I raise the matter of the decision of a legal practice in Dublin to act for the tobacco companies. The same legal practice has the main contract for the Health Service Executive. It is outrageous that two sets of rules are now applied by the Law Society of Ireland. There is one rule for large companies which talk about a Chinese wall separating one entity acting for the State from another acting against it. This is not possible in smaller legal practices, for which there is another rule. If a mother or a father transfers a site to a son or a daughter, the son or the daughter must use a different legal firm from that acting for the parents. There is no such thing as a Chinese wall in that scenario and it is wrong that we should have to put up with two sets of rules. As I said on a television show recently, this big company has its bread buttered on both sides and we should not tolerate this. When the contract comes up for review, it should not be renewed for this firm. The challenge to the legislation by tobacco companies will not cost the Government any money, but it will cost the taxpayer a huge amount. It is about time we stood up to this and ensured it is not the taxpayer who ends up picking up the bill. If the firm in question wants to act for a tobacco company, it should be given the option of walking away from the HSE contract, but it cannot have both options.
I join colleagues in congratulating the Irish cricket team on its result this morning. As a small nation of 4.5 million people, we fare extraordinarily well and today's performance by our cricketers against the United Arab Emirates was fantastic.
I also welcome the CSO figures this morning which show very strong growth in employment which is likely to continue in the next few years. As we head towards full employment, we need to assess how well equipped we are with the skills required by the many companies now locating here. I ask the Leader to organise a debate in the Seanad with the Minister of State with special responsibility for skills, research and innovation, Deputy Damien English, to thrash out the skills requirement. In particular, we need to assess how well equipped we are in low-skilled trades. We pride ourselves on having a very well educated workforce, with very good skills in technology and IT, but companies also require other skills. I saw an interesting recent statistic which pointed to the freight transport and logistics sector as requiring a further 20,000 skilled workers by 2020. Therefore, there is a need to develop a structured career path for lower skilled employees. We need to have a full debate with the Minister for State on how the apprenticeship system can be enhanced to meet these skill requirements. I hope the Minister of State will make himself available in the near future to discuss this issue. We want to ensure the upward trajectory in employment figures continues and the last thing we want is a situation where we cannot meet the requirements of companies which wish to locate here.
I support Senator Gerard P. Craughwell, not in the search for his stolen Honda 50 but on the issue of the impending firemen's dispute which may end up in strike action. For a long time both the local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government have been cutting costs by reducing the number of firemen being sent out on calls. They produced a document entitled, Keeping Communities Safe, but all the document states is that there are going to be fewer people called out to deal with accidents and fires. I do not even think the Minister realises what is going on. I have brought it to his attention and will call on the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to defuse the situation. It is not the Minister who is driving this - it is driven purely by civil servants. He must realise that we need to at least keep the status quoand, if possible, improve the service. I told the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, in the House last week that not only should we value the work of firemen, we should also enhance their training to bring them up to first responder level. This would defuse the dispute and help to avoid the impending strike.
I also offer my congratulations to the Irish cricket team on its wonderful success today. It is one of only a few sports in Ireland that enjoys funding from both sides of the Border. Senator Darragh O'Brien said it had received no capital funding from the Government in the past few years. This year alone it received €487,760. The Senator will find that information on the website of the Irish Sports Council.
It is core funding for high performance sports. Cricket Ireland also enjoys the benefits of the Irish Institute of Sport. I was on the board of the Irish Sports Council before I came into the Seanad and cricket was one of the sports targeted for high performance funding. Since 2008, when the cricket team beat Pakistan, the Irish Sports Council has strategically supported cricket and the results are evident in its recent successes. We are accustomed to seeing people come out onto the streets to play tennis during the championships at Wimbledon and in the next few years we will see people come out to play cricket in the same way. It has arguably made more advances than any other sport in Ireland, particularly at international level. I congratulate the Irish Sports Council and the Government on giving their backing to Cricket Ireland.
A lot of Senators are batting for the cricket team today and I join them in congratulating the Irish team on its success. I hope they will get to the quarter finals, but they will need another victory. I am glad that Senator Eamonn Coghlan mentioned the grant aid of €487,000 to Cricket Ireland, but Senator Darragh O'Brien made a point about capital funding. If it applies for capital funding, I am sure it can be successful in securing it.
If the application is as good as others coming before the Minister, I am sure it can receive funding.
The Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, will be present in the House for Private Members' business. Senator David Cullinane asked for an overall debate on health and we will have that debate today. It was arranged before he even knew about it. The Minister is looking forward to being here for two hours for a robust debate.
Senators Ivana Bacik, David Norris and John Gilroy have welcomed the fact that bond yields are now at 1%, compared to 16% at one stage. This is of great benefit to the country and its economy. Senator Bacik asked when the Children and Family Relationships Bill will come before this House. While it has commenced and has reached Second Stage in the Dáil, I am not aware when it will be finish its passage there. I understand the Second Stage debate will take place this week with Committee Stage planned for next week and Report Stage scheduled for the following week in the other House. However, I have given assurances to the Minister that as soon as it is completed in the other House, Members will commence the debate on the Bill in this House. At this stage, it appears as though Members may get to deal with Second Stage on 12 March. It is hoped this can be done but it all depends on the other House and how it proceeds with the Bill. Senator Bacik also raised a question on child care provision and Members can have a debate on that issue when the report to which the Senator referred is published.
Senator Norris also referred to bond yields and I certainly welcome the Senator's support for the re-election of the present Government. As is his right, the Senator has been highly critical of the Government on many issues but I believe he realises - as I hope many other people will - that the Government has delivered for the country and is providing stable government. Let me not state his good wishes were just for the Government, as he also wished Fianna Fáil well and that it would return with many more seats. I do not wish to misquote Senator Norris in any way.
Senators Naughton and Comiskey spoke on the difficulties some farmers have with the development of greenways. As has been mentioned, consultation is the key in this regard and the Minister is well aware of the position. I am sure this issue can be resolved through consultation.
Senator Mooney raised the question of bus services to rural areas and Senator Cullinane also spoke on that issue. I am glad the Senator mentioned it will be discussed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, where I am sure there will be a fruitful debate. As the Senator is aware, Bus Éireann operates three types of services, namely, the provincial city services, the rural stage carriage services and the intercity services. Bus Éireann will receive public service obligation funding of €32 million in 2015 under a contract with the National Transport Authority. Bus Éireann receives no State funding for the commercial expressway intercity services and the company must also fund the purchase of buses for such expressway services.
There has been strong public concern expressed locally about the likely impact of reduced services in some locations and many representations have been made by Oireachtas Members and local representatives. At a community meeting held in Castlecomer last night, Bus Éireann agreed to postpone the changes to its licensed route 7 services until the summer. There is some movement on this issue and I am sure this also can be resolved through consultation.
Senator Mooney also raised the issue of the expansion of broadband services. It is of paramount importance to small businesses in rural areas in particular that broadband is up to speed. Members had a debate on 23 January with the Minister, Deputy White, in the House in which 12 Senators took part. Consequently, it probably is a little too soon to have a further debate on it but I will monitor the issue and keep it under observation.
As I noted, Senator Gilroy outlined the importance of low interest rates for the economy with stability being the key for the markets. Senators Craughwell and Kelly raised the proposed reduction in firefighter levels. Health and safety issues undoubtedly should be the primary consideration when dealing with this matter. I hope sense will prevail and that consultation will take place before any strike action takes place. "Talk-talk" is very important in these issues and I hope the relevant parties will get together and reach some agreement on that important issue-----
-----and in respect of the important service the firefighters provide for the public on a daily basis.
Senator Paul Coghlan outlined that there are 34 Border crossing points in the Dundalk Garda region and that 17 years after the peace process, there should be no perceived no-go areas. This is a point Senator Quinn also has mentioned. Fuel smuggling has been going on for far too long and as I heard someone say yesterday, if the intelligence services of the United Kingdom can find Osama bin Laden in a cave, it should be easy for them to find out where this diesel laundering is happening. I do not suggest that a blind eye is being shown to it but it has been going on for far too long. It should be addressed and tackled as a matter of urgency because it is clearly evident that the criminals who are involved in this illegal activity are living in houses and have a standard of living that far outweighs the income coming into their houses. Consequently, it should not be rocket science to tackle this problem.
Senator Quinn is correct to state that sentencing policy is not strong enough and the fines involved are far too low for this type of activity. I have asked the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Harris, to come into the House to address this matter. I hope he may be in a position to do so next week but if not, it will be very soon thereafter. I compliment Senator Paul Coghlan and his committee in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on the comprehensive report the committee prepared on this matter.
I believe I have addressed the two issues mentioned by Senator Cullinane, namely, the debate on health that is taking place today and the discussion by the Oireachtas joint committee on bus services. He also raised a question regarding post offices and I will reiterate a point I have mentioned many times. In the four or five years before the present Government came to office, hundreds of post offices were closed nationwide. Since the present Administration has come to office, fewer than 20 post offices have been closed. I believe these statistics are sufficient to prove that the Government is committed to the post office network and is doing everything possible to put business its way. However, there is competition and the post offices themselves must also seek and find ways to get extra business.
Senator Comiskey welcomed the announcement this morning on the €800 million in funding for the PEACE programme. Such funding is of great importance to rural Ireland and the rural communities in Border areas, particularly in respect of employment. I am sure it will be welcomed by all rural communities but particularly in those Border areas. Senator Colm Burke spoke on contracts for legal firms and the two sets of rules within the legal service. I fully agree with the Senator that companies that are representing tobacco companies should make up their mind on whether they wish to represent or compete for Government contracts while representing tobacco companies. The Government and the Minister for Children and Youth affairs, Deputy Reilly, in particular have been strong on this issue. He has suggested that companies which represent tobacco companies should not be getting contracts within his Department.
Senator Mullins welcomed the Central Statistics Office figures on employment in particular and raised the need to develop the apprenticeship system. That is very important at this time when there is a need to develop such skills and when so many people are unemployed.It is an issue which we should debate again.
Senator Eamonn Coghlan referred to the grant aid of €487,000 given to Cricket Ireland this year.