Wednesday, 27 May 2015
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 1, National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Bill 2015 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 4.30 p.m., with contributions from group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each and all other Senators' contributions not to exceed five minutes each; No. 2, statements on health services for people with intellectual disabilities, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 6 p.m., with contributions from group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each, all other Senators' contributions not to exceed five minutes each, and the Minister to be called on to reply to the debate not later than 5.55 p.m.; and No. 67, motion 14, to be taken at 6 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
All of us are aware of the Government's decision last night to sell the 25% stake in Aer Lingus. Just to remind Members before the usual "75% was sold" is thrown back at me, the reason for the retention of the 25% was to protect the strategic interests of the State and Aer Lingus as an independent entity and, in particular, to ensure connectivity for this island nation and control over what happened to our main airline.
In the past 12 months, and particularly the past six months, this situation has been choreographed towards a sale. I will remind people of how I debated the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2013 in this Chamber with the current Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, when she started the attack on airport and Aer Lingus's pension scheme. That was the beginning of this process. The reason was to find a mechanism to wipe out a €740 million deficit in the pension scheme so as to make the company and the taxpayers' stake in it more attractive. For €340 million, the Government has effectively sacrificed Aer Lingus and airport pensioners - those who have taken 60% cuts in their pensions and 12-week cuts to their pensions in payments - and the 5,000 current workers who have been placed in an inferior pension scheme against their permission. This has all been done to facilitate a Labour and Fine Gael sale of the Aer Lingus stake for a grubby €340 million. Where is Labour in all of this? What of its seven Deputies who stated a short couple of months ago that they would not under any circumstance support a sale, including Deputies Ryan, Costello and so on? Where are Labour's principles on this matter?
The 25% stake was retained to protect the strategic interests of the State and the airline. That is a fact. What the Government is proposing to do is to sell that stake to IAG. It has received false and non-binding commitments on the retention of the Heathrow slots. If the 25% stake was retained, we would have influence over those. Now we will not. Cork and Shannon appear to have been thrown to the wolves. Let us not forget about them in all of this. Consider what has happened in other major airline takeovers. This will lead to a pooling of services and job losses. Aer Lingus's sphere of influence will move from Dublin to London.
From the word "Go", Fine Gael has been about selling State assets and privatisation. That does not surprise me. Fine Gael is not a party of the working person and never has been. It has always been interested in profit. What of Labour and the last vestiges of standing up for the working person and the airport as some of its members have pretended to do down the years and as others have done with distinction, including former Deputy Seán Ryan?What will he and his brother, Deputy Brendan Ryan, do now in this regard?
I am asking for a proper debate on this. Will the Leader arrange such a debate? I flagged it yesterday with the Deputy Leader. It is appropriate we get an opportunity to read the report which, by the way, was only circulated this morning.
A Chathaoirligh, just two seconds and I will be done. Rather than me proposing an amendment on the Order of Business to have the Minister in today, as he will be in the Dáil for most of the day, will the Leader schedule a debate for tomorrow to deal with this issue? It will give us an opportunity to look at the report laid in the Library this morning. Why was the Committee on Transport and Communications bypassed? Why has the Government seen it fit not to give this report to the Committee on Transport and Communications to ask questions of IAG and all other stakeholders? How come it has gone directly to the Dáil?
Will the Leader schedule a debate on this issue with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, preferably for tomorrow? This will allow us the opportunity to ask several other questions of the Minister.
I would appreciate the opportunity to speak on this matter. Personally, I would have preferred for the Government to have retained its 25% share. However, I note the agreement made is significantly improved on what was offered before. IAG has agreed to an indefinite Government veto on the disposal of the Heathrow slots which guarantees State control of connectivity. According to Senator Darragh O’Brien, that is why Fianna Fáil so righteously preserved the 25% share. He has his answer there.
The Senator was also in favour of selling off 75% of the airline. Now that the Government has secured an agreement from IAG that there will be an indefinite Government veto-----
A group of eight Labour Deputies has been committed to ensuring as good a deal for the workers and the travelling public was achieved. Last night, the group published a statement pointing out not only IAG’s agreement to the indefinite Government veto and, therefore, the guarantee of the State control of connectivity but also the commitment given on the registered employment agreements.
Like other Members, I am also reading through the details of the agreement. There is a commitment to 600 new jobs by 2020 and a net 150 new jobs by the end of next year. The 50 job losses that are being projected will be catered for through voluntary severance or deployment. Accordingly, we are going to see significant and enhanced growth in jobs as a result of this deal, should it come about.
We must also remember Ryanair controls 30% of Aer Lingus shares. Since Fianna Fáil sold off the Government controlling share in 2006, the Government has lost the ability to veto the sale.
Will the Leader arrange for a debate on this matter in due course? Will he also arrange for a debate on bringing in a ban on corporal punishment of children? I am glad the Council of Europe is making a decision against Ireland on this. It is long overdue. We should now do away with the continued defence of reasonable chastisement which is appalling and goes against the principle of children’s rights which we enshrined in our Constitution. Senator van Turnhout has spoken on this many times before. I echo her words on this and we need to introduce legislation on this without delay.
On a point of order. For the record, the Government’s share of Aer Lingus is 25.1% which prevented any takeover without the support of the Dáil and the Seanad, as well as that of the board. The 0.1% was particularly significant and was introduced by a Fianna Fáil Government.
I back the call by Senator Darragh O’Brien for a debate on the issue of the sale of the Government’s shareholding in Aer Lingus. I hope the Leader will look at it favourably and organise it at the earliest opportunity.
Ireland has been found in violation of the European Social Charter by the Council of Europe’s European Committee of Social Rights. It clearly stated the corporal punishment of children should be expressly and comprehensively prohibited in law. When we look at the defence of reasonable chastisement, many people think it refers to rebuking or reprimanding severely. However, the dictionary states it includes corporal punishment, beatings and inflicting punishment, such as by whipping. The fact that anyone would have this defence against children is inexplicable. Over 100 years ago, one could beat one’s wife, dog or one’s child. We have removed this for domestic abuse and animal welfare but this defence is acceptable in cases involving children. The Council of Europe has repeatedly asked for it to be removed.
Up to 28 member states of the Council of Europe have prohibited corporal punishment of children in all settings, including the family home. Almost one year ago, I forwarded an amendment to the Children First Bill to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I hope it will be accepted before it comes to the Seanad. I know I have the backing of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Children’s Rights Alliance and many other children’s rights organisations. If we want to children to be seen as rights holders, we need to remove this defence of reasonable chastisement. For the past 12 years, the Council of Europe has repeatedly told us to remove this defence. Will the Leader arrange a debate on this matter? Will he also urge the Minister to bring forward the Children First Bill to the Seanad? I know it was stalled for 18 months but it has now passed Committee Stage in the Dáil.
We need to bring this into law. I know it has not been used in the courts but the very fact that it remains on our law books speaks volumes about our perception of children as rights holders.
I would like a debate on this issue of corporal punishment as I am not convinced about it. I would like to be convinced. It does seem to me that this is political correctness gone wrong. It is interfering in the home. There are many impolite, brassy children around. I think a bit of a slap would not do them the slightest bit of harm. I agree with Pope on that. I know it is an unpopular view but that is what I think. That is the way I was treated and look at me. I am not psychologically damaged.
I could not hear what Senator van Turnhout asked but I will discuss the matter with her later. It is for that reason that I would like a debate on the matter to clarify things in my own mind. There are many people throughout the country who feel as I do, namely, that giving a child the odd slap if it is badly behaved is very good for it.
That is what I think. I am prepared to listen to the debate and perhaps change my mind on the matter. Of course, I am not a parent nor, despite recent developments, do I ever intend to become one.
With regard to Aer Lingus, can I reiterate in a slightly different form what Senator Darragh O’Brien said yesterday?If Aer Lingus is sold and we get €340 million or whatever for it, part of the proceeds should be used to defray the pensions of Aer Lingus employees who were defrauded of their pensions.
Like Senator Darragh O'Brien, I would like the Leader to arrange for a debate on the sale of Aer Lingus with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in attendance. Unfortunately, I cannot be here tomorrow, but I would like that debate to go ahead as I am sure my views will be articulated by my colleagues on this and the other side of the House. I agree with Senator O'Brien that something will have to be done for the Aer Lingus pensioners and deferred pensioners. I suggest that a portion of the proceeds of the sale be used to provide for them.
I am not convinced about the reassurance with respect to the 1% golden share. I confess I have not gone through the detail of the report which was provided to the library, but I will read it. Any sale of Aer Lingus would have significant implications for my constituents in County Clare. I would love to know how many of the 600 new jobs committed to by 2020 will be in Shannon. I welcome the fact that there is a seven-year commitment to retain the Heathrow slots. I do not know in the long term if any golden share could prevent the sale of slots were there to be a worldwide economic recession in the aviation industry and a company's existence was dependent on restructuring, part of which would involve the sale of slots. I remain to be convinced of how powerful any 1% or one golden share would be in those circumstances. Further clarity is needed on that. The Minister could provide that clarity if he were to come to the House to debate the matter.
I believe the commitment to retain existing services for five to seven years can be honoured. If IAG, a world conglomerate, makes such a commitment in writing on that, surely to God, unless the sky falls in on it, that commitment can be delivered.
In terms of the company's potential future growth, I would like that spelt out in much more detail. I have heard plenty of comments over the years to the effect that we will explore the possibility and we will enter negotiations with our international aviation partners to explore potential growth, but that does not represent a tangible or real commitment in terms of growth - it only represents potential growth. The only tangible, real commitment is that IAG will retain the existing winter and summer services in Shannon. That is a very welcome development, because we have seen a 30% increase in traffic.
As deputy leader of the Irish delegation to the Council of Europe - I note that other Members present are on the Council of Europe - I am delighted the Council has made a ruling that the lack of a clear ban on the slapping of children is a violation of young people's rights. Europe's top human rights body today ruled that Ireland's laws on corporal punishment are in breach of the European Social Charter, whose signatories promise to protect children and young persons against negligence, violence or exploitation. While legislation which allowed parents to use force against children was repealed almost 15 years ago, the defence of reasonable chastisement still exists in common law for parents or child carers. In response to the ruling, the Minister for Children, Deputy James Reilly, is expected to pledge later today to explicitly ban the smacking of children in foster or residential care through new regulations. It is not good enough just to ban that; those in foster homes or anywhere else should not be allowed to physically slap or beat children. That was the issue with abuse in the Magdalen homes, by the brothers and elsewhere in the past. They used corporal punishment to attack young children. This is a great ruling. As a member of the Council of Europe, I am delighted it has made this ruling. The Government should follow up as quickly as possible. There is no justification for such abuse - for slapping a child. Children should be cherished. I hope the Government will move quickly in this regard.
I would like to add my voice to yesterday's comments on the success of the "Yes" vote in the marriage equality referendum. It was a great day. The celebrations in my home town of Dundalk were wide and vast that day. I would also like to express my condolences to the family of Bill O'Herlihy on their loss. People referred to the atmosphere in Ireland on Saturday as being similar to that of Italia '90. Nobody signified, appreciated and brought Italia '90 better to our television screens than Bill O'Herlihy. I would like to express my sympathy to his family on their loss.
I would also like to welcome students from a school in Dundalk to the Visitors Gallery. I recognise the uniform. They are very welcome here this afternoon.
I call for a debate on the issue of medical cards with Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, at the earliest opportunity. I have received ongoing representations, but in recent weeks I received representations from two people regarding their applications which gave rise to concern. One person had been in possession of a medical card for five years, while the other person had had one for more than 15 years, and that person had received no notice of a review. In one case, the person had had a very significant diagnosis, yet he or she had no notice that a review was to take place. The medical card office had to be phoned, it was discovered that the forms had never been received, and in the meantime the person's medical card had expired. In that case, the person was fortunate in that the doctor and pharmacist were still working on the understanding that the person had a medical card, but with six months now having elapsed, the card has expired. Both of those people who called to me will be left without a medical card. The lack of communication in the Department is unbelievable and unacceptable, particularly when these people had previously been in possession of a medical card. They have long-term illnesses that will not go away and their medications and condition are not going to change. What has happened has inflicted an undue level of stress on these people. I request a debate on this issue with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, in attendance at the earliest opportunity.
There is no doubt that the first steps towards the privatisation of Aer Lingus were taken by the previous Government, when 74.9% of the stake in the company was sold off. This Government, and the Labour Party especially, opposed that move at the time - they opposed privatisation - yet they can come in today and stand over the selling off of the remaining stake. By selling off the remaining stake, we are fully privatising Aer Lingus. We are surrendering our national airline to a foreign company with so-called legal guarantees which have no standing whatsoever. Again, this Government is asking the Irish people to buy a pig in a poke. We were asked to do exactly the same with Irish Water by the same Government, and on three occasions they had to come back with their tail between their legs with three different Bills to get the same process through because of the mistakes they made. I think we are making a monumental mistake by selling off this stake.
Aer Lingus is a profitable company. It is a vital body which maintains connectivity for Ireland internationally. As a small island nation, for us to be without a national airline, or at least to have no democratic control of that airline, is wrong. There will be concern about the Heathrow slots, because the CEO of IAG is on record as saying that the airline is desperate for extra slots to serve the very profitable and expanding Asian and South American markets from Heathrow. That is the reality. Despite whatever commitments the Government says it has received from IAG, everybody knows they are not worth the paper they are written on. Fine Gael and the Labour Party know it, and we on this side of the House and the Irish people know it.The Government has, again, sold off a very profitable State-owned company, which is in our national interest to maintain, own and manage for the people, to a foreign company to do with it what it pleases. It is an absolute insult to tell people this is about job creation when everybody knows that when airline companies are consolidated, job losses ensue. It has happened in other airlines taken over by the same company, so please do not try to pull the wool over people's eyes and pretend this is in the interests of the Irish people and is about creating jobs when the Senators sitting over there know-----
The private business sector employs many people in this country and it is important that it gets support. I will not comment further on the Aer Lingus takeover.
The figures just announced in respect of medical services and the review for the month of March show that collective inpatient admissions are up 2% and outpatient attendance is up 3.8% ahead of target.
For the month of March alone, there were 12,911 attendances for BreastCheck. The target is 140,000 for the year. We are ahead of target and, while it is important that there is criticism where issues arise in the health service, it is also important that where there are good results, they are put out there in the public domain. We have a good health service. There are difficulties in some areas that need to be improved and we must continue to work towards that. The Minister and the HSE should be thanked for the work that is being done and it must be recognised that there is positive news in a number of areas.
I want to join the other Members of this House who have spoken on the sale of Aer Lingus this morning. I travel around Europe like most of us, and arriving in new cities, one sees tram systems. What did we do with the tram system in Dublin? We pulled it apart about 100 years ago and now we are paying a fortune to put it back together. I look at Irish shipping, which was mentioned here yesterday, and it is destroyed; it is gone. I look at Aer Lingus now. The media is full of stories this morning of conflicts of interest by senior members of the board of Aer Lingus, who were advising the country and the Government. There seem to be conflicts of interest in the financial institutions that are advising the country and the Government. It is an extremely serious issue. To go back to what Senator O'Brien said earlier, we robbed the pensioners, the poor unfortunate pensioners, who gave their lives to build that company. We took their pensions off them, and we are now going to hand over approximately €560 million to IAG. We must get real about where we are going in this country. I know people on the other side of the House feel exactly the same way as I do. We need a debate in this House on Aer Lingus and we need it tomorrow. I second Senator O'Brien's call for that.
I also want to speak about the issue of humanity in our health service. I visited a neighbour last night who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He told me there are a number of different forms of the disease. This man was at the top of his profession, one of the most competent men I know, who worked for several multinationals. Six weeks ago, he was diagnosed. Three weeks ago, he was told he needed further tests-----
Two minutes, please, a Chathaoirleach. He was told he needed further tests to determine what form he has. We all know the sentence of motor neurone disease. Nobody in the health service will pick up a phone and tell him when he can have the appointment.
I agree with other Senators who have asked for a debate on the issue of Aer Lingus. I am sure the Leader will facilitate that. Like many people, Aer Lingus to me is "Look up, it's Aer Lingus". I have huge emotional attachment to it. A very interesting case has been made by the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, in the past 24 hours relating to the future of Aer Lingus and the fact that it may not have a future if it does not have an investment of the type that IAG can put into the company.
However, I want to be sure that the workers in the company are protected, whether those workers be the former workers, the deferred pensioners, the pensioners or the existing workforce. Legally binding assurances must be given on outsourcing and compulsory redundancies. Until SIPTU is happy with what is on the table there, I personally would not be happy. On the comments that have been made by Senator van Turnhout regarding children and slapping and so forth, there is no need for a debate. There is no debate to be had. It is a statement of the obvious. My question is what we are going to do about implementing the law that is required to ensure that smacking children is outlawed and, indeed, treating them in any way that takes away from their dignity should also be illegal.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the Commission's country-specific recommendations for Ireland. In that context, one of the leading recommendations on labour market activation and the number of lone parents, in particular, living in poverty and so forth, related to the lack of child care in Ireland. In the context of the country-specific recommendations, could the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs come to the House to discuss how Ireland intends to respond to the Commission's recommendations and what measures this country is taking in respect of recommendations that were made last year on the same subjects?
I join my colleagues in calling for that debate on the sale of Aer Lingus. It should probably have happened yesterday, but I support calls for that debate to happen tomorrow. The justification for many decisions in this country seems to be that it makes good economic sense and a few bob can be made out of it. That is not a good enough reason for many decisions.
I was interested to see a debate that happened this morning, one year on from the implementation of the amalgamation of Limerick county and city councils, and how that has affected people. It really came to my attention last Monday night, when I attended a public meeting behind in Shanagolden to do with a proposed gasification plant on the site of the old Gortadroma landfill. That project is of major significance to the area. It has the potential to have knock-on effects on human health, animal health and the valuation of property and land in the area. That project was supported at municipal district level by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and Independent Fianna Fáil and no debate whatsoever took place at county council level on such a significant plant. In fact, the disposal notice, which was signed on Monday, before the communities could have any input into something that will have a massive effect on-----
Where does the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government stand on all this? Where do gasification and incineration fit into Ireland's waste management strategy and where does that fit into our 2020 targets? It will not help at all and other waste management strategies would be much more appropriate. What we are opening up here is a monster gasification plant that will be importing all types of waste from everywhere else.
A debate is needed on children, but the debate on spanking children is over as far as I am concerned. It was over long ago. A survey carried out last year and the year before by the ISPCC and the Children's Rights Alliance found that two thirds of the adults surveyed thought it was already banned. To think smacking a child would be acceptable is like saying assault on an adult would be acceptable. One does not inculcate respect by the heavy hand of authority, which is the old-fashioned way of doing it, and which went out the door long ago. I call for a debate on positive parenting.If one does not have positive parenting and parents are not helped in terms of how to help their children, problems will arise. Parenting classes are included in the child care model. Tusla is considering the matter currently. It is important for a child to observe the parent solving problems in a creative way rather than by force. Might is not right in any society. If a child does not observe the parent doing it properly, it inculcates unskilled parenting and that can continue from one generation to the next. It does not encourage learning, independence or other positive skills. There is a lesson to be learned. One speaker said there was no need for a debate but I seek a debate to ensure we help parents to help themselves and in turn help children in future years.
I second what Senator James Heffernan said about the proposed waste management gasification, which is a new word for me, instead of incineration. It makes one feel better to use "gasification" instead of "incineration". He referred to the old Gortadroma landfill site to which tyres from all over the world will be imported which we will incinerate. Goodness knows, the environment will once again be destroyed. I welcome Nuala and Pat Geoghegan who are in the Visitors Gallery and who are from Askeaton, County Limerick. The Aughinish plant and Moneypoint are near their farm. If the EPA allows this new waste management business to go forward the area will surely compete for being the most polluted small area on the planet. We will become a global player. We need a debate on the matter, on environmental pollution in this country and on the EPA and on what it is not doing-----
I find it somewhat amusing that a number of speakers have called for a debate on the sale of Aer Lingus. I am just trying to figure out how much more time we can spend debating the sale of Aer Lingus. This has been going on for five if not six months.
-----not the sentiment of losing the brand of Aer Lingus, which we will not lose. I believe that is really good for Ireland. After all, one must remember that in the big picture Aer Lingus is only a tiny little operator on the world scene and an IAG takeover of Aer Lingus will be good for Ireland.
However, I will get to the point I wish to make, which would also be somewhat inclusive of Aer Lingus. I refer to the stunning reports from the CSO this morning on the growth of tourism alone this year. Between January and April, the numbers are up by 13.5%. A total of 1.8 million more visitors have come to this country in the period. There is an increase in visitor numbers of 20% from North America. Visitor numbers from Europe have increased by 14.7%. Visitor numbers from Great Britain alone have increased by nearly 10% and visitor numbers from the rest of the world have increased by 23%. That is all part of the Government's economic strategy of investing in tourism and it has proven to be an enormous contribution to economic recovery, in particular in rural areas where jobs have been on the increase. Initiatives such as the Wild Atlantic Way and now Ireland's Ancient East are adding to that, and we expect further growth. I expect the growth of Aer Lingus and tourism-----
It would seem on the face of it that the sale of the national airline to a foreign company is now a fait accompli. That is why so many people are confused and stunned about what is happening. With hindsight, the debate which has taken place in recent months was disingenuous because we did not have any information to debate. It is now that the debate should start. The matter should go before an Oireachtas committee in order that the report which is available to the Government could be examined. Then we could come back to the Seanad and have a proper debate. Aer Lingus is a good national brand. It is a PR brand for us as well.
It is also a brand for many of our emigrants, and a symbol of who we are as a people and the manner in which we developed and were able to take on board independence and to sustain sovereignty. They are all big questions. One must ask whether the recession has killed that sense in us as a people. Are we frightened by the prospect that there might be greater competition in the aviation business? That is what is being said. I find it very difficult to understand that people who were capable of setting up a national airline and who showed the strength of character and commitment to ourselves as a people in control of our own destiny could after all of that arrive at a situation where we no longer have that tenacity of character. I suggest that if we are going to debate this issue, which we should debate because people want us to debate it, the first thing that should happen is for the report to go before a committee and that ample time should be given to examine it. I think when we start to unravel the report we will not be happy with the legal guarantees.
I do not believe they are enforceable, and with the passage of time, in three, four or five years, we will forget about them. The problem is that we will then be at a point of no return. As Senator Darragh O'Brien has already stated, as an island nation it is an absolutely vital imperative for us to have an airline of our own over which there is democratic control and at the same time that we can act in the best interests of the people.
I commend and welcome the report published yesterday on farm safety which was compiled by the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. I commend in particular Senator Martin Conway and Senator Denis O'Donovan and the other Members who were involved in it. There is a farm-related death practically every week. Last Sunday a two-year old child died in Cork in an accident with a horse box. I read the report yesterday evening. Simple solutions and safety precautions can help to avoid many accidents. I ask the Leader to put on the schedule a debate following the publication of the report.
I also support Senator Heffernan on the issue he raised relating to Limerick. Other Members referred to the use of the word "gasification". It brought all sorts of terrible connotations to my mind when I heard it being used. I never heard it used in an environmental context previously. The proposal for Limerick must be investigated. I spoke this morning in the Commencement debate about the first anniversary of the Putting People First document becoming legislation and then being used at local government level. This is a case in point of policy not working. What has happened is that officials are informing councils in certain municipal areas of issues and measures are being rubber-stamped by councillors without a full debate in the council. This is wrong and we must put a stop to it. We must open up the issue and have a proper debate. We must question the EPA on what it is doing. Currently, we are questioning the EPA on many issues in this House, including the issue Senator Whelan raised concerning Portlaoise.One of these days, it will have to appear before us to provide answers. When its representatives appeared before the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, they spluttered rather than answered members' questions.
I welcome the publication this week by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, of legislation to deal with the validity periods for gift vouchers. Many people find they cannot use these vouchers because they are out of date. I have been calling for action on this issue. The legislation is, therefore, welcome as it will help people who find a gift voucher in a drawer six or eight months after receiving it only to discover it cannot be used because it is out of date.
I would be grateful to the Leader if he were to arrange a debate, at the earliest opportunity, to discuss with the Minister for Health the provision of general practitioner services in rural areas. I have raised previously the rural practice allowance, which is a statutory scheme that has been in place since 1972, having been provided for in the Health Act 1970. The allowance is paid to general practitioners in rural areas to help them defray the higher costs of running a rural practice. These costs include the greater number of house calls rural doctors must make to older patients than doctors in urban areas. As I have noted previously, some general practitioners must act as dispensing agents of medicines in rural areas where pharmacists are not readily available.
The rural practice allowance is paid where a general practice is located at least three miles from a town or village with more than 1,500 people. I do not need to stress the importance of general practitioners in rural areas. A local medical service is vital to older persons living in relatively isolated areas with limited or no rural transport. Access to primary care locally helps to reduce the number of people who present at hospital accident and emergency departments.
I informed the House recently that it had come to my attention that the Health Service Executive was revising by stealth the terms of the statutory scheme under which the rural practice allowance is paid and systematically withdrawing the payment from general practitioners in rural areas. I have spoken to doctors in east County Galway and other rural areas about their concerns. The effect of the withdrawal of the allowance has been to leave some general practitioners in east County Galway and elsewhere in the west without an economic basis for continuing to provide their services. It is common knowledge that it is proving nearly impossible to attract young doctors to establish general practices in rural areas.
Since I last raised this issue, it has been reported in the media that one general practitioner in the west took the HSE to court to compel it to pay the rural practice allowance. Other doctors have come forward indicating that their rural practice allowance payments have been similarly withdrawn. This is disgraceful. If the Government is serious about the provision of medical services in rural areas, it should call a halt to the withdrawal by stealth of allowances for general practitioners. The HSE is acting in a high-handed and arbitrary manner in the way in which it is administering and restricting a scheme the Oireachtas has laid down in law. I would be grateful if the House could hear from the Minister for Health on this matter.
Some of the negative comments on the Government's disposal of the State's minority shareholding in Aer Lingus are very much at variance with the positive comments we have heard from business and tourism interests in Dublin and the regions.
None of the critics stated that if the deal, with its commitments and guarantees, is not accepted, the alternative will be a hostile takeover, which would not include any such guarantees. I am glad the Aer Lingus brand will be retained and the company's headquarters will continue to be located in Dublin.
Will the Leader ask the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to make a statement on the industrial action being taken by psychiatric nurses in University Hospital Galway, UHG? Concerns about health and safety issues and staffing levels have been raised for some time. It has been reported that 36 staff in psychiatric services have been assaulted since January. Staff want an agreed complement on the wards at all times. Psychiatric services in UHG have been under constant pressure since the decision was taken last year to reconfigure them and remove 22 beds from the system in Ballinasloe. What progress has been made on the promised state-of-the-art facility? The Minister of State and Health Service Executive must honour the commitments they made at the time of the decision on reconfiguration. People in counties Galway and Roscommon are entitled to a world class psychiatric service. I call on the Minister of State to deliver on the commitments she made in the House more than a year ago.
Under the deal, 635 new jobs will be created by 2020, of which 150 will be created next year. Senator Cullinane described the guarantees as worthless. They will be written into the articles of association. One cannot have more than that.
Senator Craughwell need not worry. If the guarantees are written into the articles of association, they will stand up. In addition, four new transatlantic services are planned. All of the airports affected have expressed support for the deal. To echo the words of Senator Mullins, do opponents of the sale want a hostile takeover of Aer Lingus?
I raise an issue related to the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB. Landlords sign up every new tenancy with the PRTB but do not receive any protection. When a landlord has an issue with a new tenant he or she is given the run-around from the PRTB for 18 months and is eventually forced to employ a solicitor to have the tenant removed from his or her property. We hear horror stories daily about landlords having to pay tenants to leave their properties. I call on the Leader to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister of State with responsibility for housing because the legislation needs to be changed urgently.
Senator Darragh O'Brien and many other Senators raised the proposed sale of the State's stake in Aer Lingus. The neck of Fianna Fáil with regard to Aer Lingus never ceases to amaze me. As has been correctly pointed out, a previous Fianna Fáil-led Government sold 74.9% of the State's stake in the company in 2006. Senator Ó Murchú described the proposed deal as the sale of the national airline. The national airline was sold in 2006 when a 74.9% stake in the company was sold under Fianna Fáil's watch. Aer Lingus was privatised at that point, as even the birds in the trees know. Fianna Fáil Senators can try to twist this issue any way they wish to suit their political needs but it will no longer wash. As usual, we must listen to the prophets of doom.
That all the airports involved in the operation of the Heathrow slots have welcomed the proposed deal is an indication of the confidence they have in the guarantee. No such guarantee is in place at present. The Government has secured a seven-year guarantee on the slots. It has also been in contact with the European Commission on the legal mechanisms provided and has received indications that the Commission will not oppose any of the guarantees.The guarantees do hold and are written, as Senator Coghlan has mentioned, into the articles of association. Members have sought a debate and I have requested that the Minister come to the House, preferably today rather than tomorrow. He is debating it in the Lower House from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. today, so I have asked that he come to the Seanad when he has finished at 9 p.m.
Senator O'Brien and quite a number of other Members spoke about the ban on corporal punishment, calling for a debate. We will certainly try to arrange such a debate with the Minister.
While Aer Lingus and the issue of corporal punishment were the main issues raised here this morning, other issues have also been raised. Senator Burke welcomed the good results that have been published on parts of the health service. It is right and fitting that these results are published and that the good news stories within the health services are also highlighted.
Senator Craughwell spoke about a case of motor neurone disease, which specific item could perhaps be tabled for a Commencement debate. Senator Hayden spoke on the country-specific recommendations and called for a response from the Government. We will certainly try to arrange that. Senators Heffernan and O'Brien spoke about gasification, or incineration, in the context of a proposed project in Senator Heffernan's constituency. With that specific item in mind, a Commencement debate would probably suffice for the Senators to get the answers they require. In respect of the overall topic of environmental pollution, I will certainly try to arrange that the Minister come in for a debate.
Senator Coghlan spoke about the growth in tourism in view of the tremendous 13% increase in the first four months of the year. This can only be good for the economy, and highlights the role of the Government's economic strategy in respect of tourism, which has been very successful.
Senator Ó Murchú raised the question of the sale of the national airline. The Aer Lingus brand will be retained, and that is a very important part of the deal. Senator Landy spoke about the public consultation committee, whose report was published and launched yesterday by the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I will arrange a debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on that very important report. Senator Landy also raised the need for a review of the Putting People First document on local government. He also proposed tabling the issue for a Commencement debate, and I support him in that request. The Senator also welcomed the measures that the Government and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, have put in place in respect of gift vouchers. These are long overdue.
Senator Mullen has previously raised the question of GP services in rural Ireland, and rightly so. He might table a matter for a Commencement debate on this issue. I have requests in a number of areas concerning the health service, for which I am trying to get the Minister in. Senator Mullins spoke on industrial action being taken by staff in the psychiatric hospital in Galway; again, perhaps a Commencement debate should be tabled on that issue.
Senator Coghlan commented on the Aer Lingus deal, to which I have already alluded, and Senator Kelly spoke about the Private Rented Tenancies Board and the possibility of a need for further legislation to give it more teeth. This has been raised on several occasions in this House and elsewhere, and I will ask for the Minister to come in to address that matter in early course.
- Ivana Bacik
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- Aideen Hayden
- Imelda Henry
- Lorraine Higgins
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Marie Moloney
- Mary Moran
- Tony Mulcahy
- Michael Mullins
- Catherine Noone
- David Norris
- Mary Ann O'Brien
- Tom Shehan
- Katherine Zappone