Wednesday, 20 January 2016
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on flooding, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to conclude not later than 2.45 p.m., with contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be called on to reply to the debate not later than 2.37 p.m.; No. 2, Heritage Bill 2016 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 2.45 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; and No. 3, Private Members' business, the Competition (Amendment) Bill 2016, to be taken at 5 p.m., with the time allocated to the debate not to exceed two hours.
It is now 11.45 a.m. With respect to all our colleagues, we should try to commence the business of the House on time. It is only right and proper that the second Chamber of the Irish Parliament should meet on time. I ask the Leader, the Whips and everybody else to try to do better.
Maybe the Leader will consider, perhaps in the next term, reverting to taking the Order of Business at the start of the day, with the Commencement debate after that. It was more efficient and effective. I am not speaking on behalf of Fianna Fáil. The Leader could consider it in light of the current situation and the fact that an election is pending, which makes it more difficult to keep the House going than in normal times.
Regarding the review of the powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, the appointment of the former Chief Justice and Attorney General, John Murray, will bring great experience to the field. However, the scope of the review has been restricted to access to the phone records of journalists, and does not include politicians. Why would a politician's phone be tapped? Why has the situation been left in doubt? I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to extend the scope of the review. It has been brought to my attention that some legal firms are very concerned about client confidentiality. A solicitor who feels his phone is being tapped has contacted me. I ask the Minister to extend the remit of the review to politicians and members of the legal profession, whether barristers or solicitors. Confining it to journalists is an inadequate response to the situation. Approximately 6,000 phones were tapped in 2014. It is a terrible infringement of human rights that confidential phone calls can be interfered with and listened to and the information distributed around GSOC and whoever else is involved.
The Minister has taken the issue seriously by appointing the former Chief Justice, John Murray. The remit of the review could be extended further to allow for the concerns expressed to me by members of the legal profession to be dealt with. The relationship between a solicitor or barrister and a client is very special. It is like a confessional situation and should not be infringed by the State, GSOC or any other agency of the State.
As promised, I have circulated to all group leaders and to Senator Craughwell, as per his request, an alternative text of a motion seeking access by cystic fibrosis patients to particular medications. I look forward to replies from colleagues. I hope that by the end of the week, if I have agreement from all group leaders, we can table the motion as an all-party motion from all Senators on this very important and pressing issue for so many people across Ireland.
I welcome the fact that former Chief Justice, John Murray, is to conduct a review of the legislation allowing access to journalists' phone records. I note that the review is somewhat circumscribed and limited in its remit and that there is a time limit of three months on it. It is important that we have a tight timeframe. It might be difficult to expand its remit and still expect a report within three months. Clearly, there are concerns that are broader than the issue of access by GSOC to journalists' phone records. I note the revelations in The Irish Timestoday that 62,000 requests or applications were made, mostly by members of the Garda, for access to phone and Internet data over five years to the end of 2012, so clearly there is a bigger issue here.The impact of the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 needs to be considered in more detail and I welcome that the Data Protection Commissioner has announced an audit of Garda and GSOC access to phone data. There are other reviews ongoing or which will be put in train apart from the review announced yesterday. I welcome the assurance of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, that she has not personally authorised tapping of journalists' phone calls. It is important we know that. I also welcome the news that the new chairperson of the GSOC, the eminent former High Court judge, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring, has said the ombudsman acted within the law at all times. A number of issues are being brought to light around surveillance, access to phone records and Internet data which deserve further consideration.
I also welcome the approval for publication of the statute law revision Bill 2016 which the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, announced yesterday. This Bill will repeal 300 pieces of outdated legislation and is an important tidying up or codification of our statute law, which is an issue about which I have spoken many times.
Tonight in the House I look forward to introducing a very important Private Members' Bill in Labour Party Private Members' time which I will be proposing and Senator Aideen Hayden will be seconding, namely, the Competition (Amendment) Bill 2016 which seeks to expand the rights of collective bargaining for workers. It is a Bill that has been sought by trade unions for some years. I have been working on it for some years and I know the introduction of the Bill is being welcomed by SIPTU, the NUJ and Irish Equity, among others. Colleagues will be aware that the operation of the Competition Act 2002, in particular, restricts the capacity of unions to negotiate on behalf of freelance members, such as freelance actors or journalists, in setting pay rates. The Bill seeks to exempt certain groups of workers from the prohibition in competition law against price fixing. We are trying to take the middle ground to ensure there is no detriment to the consumer because the Competition Act is concerned with consumer protection. I am happy to provide a briefing on the Bill to any Members who wish to have one in advance of its introduction at 5 p.m. Members of the unions affected will be present in the Gallery tonight to see the Bill debated on Second Stage. It is an important plank of the Labour Party policy and it should receive a general welcome from across the House as well as from the Minister.
We see Members of this House make representations regularly on behalf of their constituents or those of Dáil geographic areas. I will make one for my constituency, which is also that of the Cathaoirleach and those in this House. No. 75, motions Nos. 7 and 10 under Private Members' business on the Clár deal specifically with the terms and conditions of employment for city and county councillors. We will all be out on the hustings in the next couple of weeks or months seeking the support of city and county councillors to re-elect us to this House and we cannot face them without at least doing them the courtesy of pursuing one of these motions. I suggest motion 10, tabled by the Government and with an amendment by myself and Senators Barrett, Quinn and Norris. It is the very least we can do, and if we are not going to do it, I ask the Leader to explain why. I have no fear of facing the country and standing up for the people I represent and who represent their localities. I have no fear whatsoever about fighting their corner for them. If we are not going to have the debate before the general election, I need to know why and I would like to be able to tell them why.
I welcome the recent Government announcement of €40 million in grant funding for gateway and hub towns in Ireland. It is from the European Regional Development Fund and the scheme will enable investment in sustainable transport and urban regeneration projects. The main aim of the ERDF programme is to improve urban environments and revitalise many urban areas throughout our country. I am very pleased to welcome the allocation of €2 million which will be used to enhance Clanbrassil Street and the area of St. Nicholas's in Dundalk. It will enhance the main street of the town and the church area and is to be welcomed.
I stand to welcome the news this morning from the Minister for Education and Skills that she plans to write to all schools telling them to cease allowing the drinks industry or Drinkaware to come into our schools, an issue I raised as a Commencement matter last May and which I am delighted to see come to fruition. It came as a result of a meeting with the Alcohol Health Alliance, which is spearheaded by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and Alcohol Action Ireland. If anybody wishes to look at the lobbying register, it will be very clear that the meeting was about Drinkaware, although in the newspapers this morning, Drinkaware was trying to distance itself from the drinks industry. Drinkaware is 100% funded by the drinks industry and is the drinks industry in costume. The announcement by the Minister for Education and Skills is about the work of any guise or costume the drinks industry chooses to wear. Will the Leader to convey our thanks and appreciation to the Minister for Education and Skills and to make this point clear?
Will the Leader also ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he would consider talking to the Road Safety Authority to ask it to cease its relationship with the drinks industry because it is absurd that it has any relationship with the drinks industry given the road safety issues we were discussing in this House yesterday? There is no place for the drinks industry to be using the bodies of the State to say it is doing their work while, on the other hand, blocking the essential work that is happening on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill which is currently progressing through this House. Will the Leader to take his example from the HSE, something we do not hear every day in this House? The HSE came out with a policy last year ceasing all relationship with the drinks industry. It has a role which is to make money for its shareholders and it should go ahead and do that but it should not be involved in public health or public awareness campaigns as it has no role to play in those.
If there is one criticism that could be legitimately levelled at the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Administration up to 2007, it was that it significantly narrowed the tax base by significant reductions in taxation and hugely significant increases in social welfare payments. Narrowing the tax base and taking so many people out of it, even at a time of boom, came back to haunt that Government. The current Government has been putting forward the view, particularly in recent months, that it is going to manage the national finances prudently, but that seems to have been blown out of the water by the IMF report that is in the newspapers today raising serious concerns, which apply to all parties going into this general election, about further reductions in or erosion to the tax base. Deputy Michael McGrath, when launching the Fianna Fáil position on finance last week, made it clear that we were not going to engage in auction politics but would ensure we would act in the national interest in the matter of the financing of the State. Despite the fact we put forward proposals on easing the tax burden on those experiencing financial adversity through the USC, we believe we have taken a very prudent course. I do not believe the people will take well to the attempts by the Labour Party and Fine Gael to buy off votes in the forthcoming general election by further eroding the tax base. Who is going to pay for the services? Without a sufficiently coherent and viable tax base, who will pay for more schools, better hospital services and better services generally to help those with a disability and those who are unable to fend for themselves? I am putting this on the record because after the general election - and please God I will be back in this House - I hope I will not be saying "I told you so" in the context of a downturn in economic performance. We are on a knife edge economically. We rely on a weak euro and on dynamic UK and US economies, but international economic commentators are pointing out that the world is going into a downturn.In fact, some economists, particularly those attached to the Royal Bank of Scotland in the past few weeks, have advised investors to sell everything, including shares and bonds. They have put forward an apocalyptic scenario. I do not subscribe to that view but, then again, maybe I am something of an optimist and hoping that things will work out. I am merely putting it on the record. I would be interested in the Leader's response.
I refer to the news coverage on Monday and the programme by RTE on Monday night on emergency homeless accommodation to put one matter on the record. The matter relates to the 123 complaints that were made in relation to emergency accommodation. Those complaints and their outcome were made available to RTE under an FOI request. What perhaps was not brought into the public domain was the acknowledgement by all concerned that the complaints had been fully investigated and resolved in a timely fashion. It is important to acknowledge the professional role played by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, which acts on behalf of all four Dublin local authorities in what have been difficult circumstances over the past two years in the area of homelessness, and to say that the 123 complaints related not solely to private accommodation but to accommodation provided by statutory providers and NGOs as well. Those were 123 complaints out of approximately 9,000 unique placements in the Dublin region for homeless emergency accommodation and the Dublin Region Homeless Executive is playing a valuable role in homelessness in the city of Dublin.
I welcome a recent announcement by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government that mediation between landlords and tenants which is conducted through the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, will now be free. This is an important step forward in the landlord and tenant relationship. It encourages a non-aggressive approach in an effort to bring understanding between the parties which, quite often, is most needed between landlords and tenants when there are conflicts. It is important to bear in mind that most landlord and tenant relationships are happy and never end up in conflict. Encouraging the use of mediation is important because one is dealing with a home and ensuring that the relationship between the landlord and tenant goes forward in an amicable manner is best achieved by mediation.
I also welcome another issue that went slightly unnoticed. Mortgage interest relief has been increased to 100% for landlords who rent their properties to tenants who are in receipt of social welfare, whether it be rent supplement, housing assistance payment, HAP, or rental accommodation scheme, RAS, payments. As far back as 2002, fewer than 50% of landlords were willing to rent to tenants on social welfare. We really need to address that issue. The bottom line is it is difficult for tenants in receipt of social welfare supports to obtain housing and anything that can be done to encourage landlords in that direction is to be welcomed.
There is a real need for a new Government to tackle, honestly and upfront, all of these issues, not only housing but, indeed, the waiting lists in hospitals. It is interesting to hear Senators from the other side talk about issues surrounding homelessness and that type of thing. What did the Senators expect when the Government built no houses during its lifetime? I refer to five years where the housing stock throughout every local authority has been allowed to decline and does not meet the demand. The Government was bound to end up with this crisis, it was foreseen and the Government has not dealt with it. The same may be said of hospitals. In Wexford General Hospital, for example, I have experience recently of where young children looking for an appointment for routine issues with a paediatrician are waiting eight months.
Some issues are not so routine. I refer to girls who had the HPV vaccine where the HSE is in denial of the consequences, with many suffering chronic fatigue and other issues and having to wait eight months when they are having difficulty in attending school. It may well be past the start of the following school year, in September, before they will be seen by a consultant to get treatment for their condition. It simply is not good enough.
We have seen issues in the bankruptcy area and in the banks, where those on mortgages are at the mercy of the Judiciary. On the banks, it is simply not good enough. This Government has failed to stand by the ordinary person, whether he or she is in need of housing, whether he or she is in need of some sort of fairness from the system with regard to his or her borrowings, or whether he or she needs medical attention. It is an area of dereliction over five years.
I will comment on the point made by Senator Leyden with regard to GSOC. We all realise that we are living in times where our security and safety was never more challenged. This applies right across the western world, and particularly in Africa and the Arab world. The Garda must be equipped to carry out surveillance within a defined area to protect people's safety, and there should be no exclusions from that for politicians, journalists or anybody else. That should be prioritised. It will be too late if we have a number of people killed because of a failure of intelligence to be able to introduce precautions or protect us against this. Given the times in which we live, we need to circumscribe the area where phones can be tapped and the type of information that can be obtained, and then ensure that applies evenhandedly and fairly and is subject subsequently to review.
I too welcome the €40 million European Regional Development Fund grant for the gateway and hub towns. No doubt this will further enhance the improvement of the urban environment and further revitalisation. This sustainable development recognises that our towns are the engine of the regional economy and are very important for our further growth. When there was a scheme for urban backlands regeneration 20 years or more ago, it did considerable good but it was not fully taken up in many towns. It is important at this time that this grant aid is coming from the European Regional Development Fund and I greatly welcome it.
As regards our electorate, the Leader will be aware that my views, and perhaps his own and others' views, are very well known to the Minister. Now that so many have found that matters are improving for them, and they have greatly assisted in many ways, it may be past time that segment of our electorate saw improvements too given the cutbacks, etc., that they suffered in recent years when we were going through such a recession. They continue to make a valuable contribution. I would urge the Leader that we deal next week with that all-party motion, No. 75, motion 10, which is on the Order Paper.
Tomorrow I will launch a report that I wrote for the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection based around the role of the special needs assistants, SNAs, in schools. I have been working on this for the past year and a half. I consulted comprehensively with the SNAs, trade unions, principals, school boards of management, the Department of Education and Skills, disability groups, children's groups, students and parents. Indeed, I was delighted that more than 2,500 SNAs responded to an online survey I undertook. In all, I make 13 recommendations in the report. The first point that struck me was that the minimum qualifications required at present to be an SNA in school are a mere three Ds in the junior certificate. In fact, when I looked at the survey, 99% of the SNAs in schools at present have far in excess of secondary education. Indeed, some have degrees, some have master's and a few who responded had PhDs. The level of qualification is far higher. One of my main recommendations is that we apply standardisation and demand a level of qualification to be an SNA in a school.It is striking that throughout the whole survey and report there is evidence of different standards and expectations for SNAs in schools throughout the State. Many SNAs report that they do feel respected in their work, but there were some who had concerns which will need to be addressed. I will be asking the Department of Education and Skills to take stock immediately of the recommendations in the report. One area of particular concern is the primary role of the SNA and the care needs of children. In some cases SNAs are being asked to supervise children when the teachers are out, to take the classroom and undertake duties that are not part of the SNA role. Other concerns are SNAs reporting that they are carrying out medical procedures, including catheterisation, for which they have no training. This is an urgent measure which will need to be addressed.
I welcome to the House the civic, social and political education, CSPE students and their teachers from St. Louis secondary school in Dundalk. I praise the ushers also for the excellent work they do in facilitating tours and ensuring people get in to the Houses of the Oireachtas to see its excellent work. I give a warm welcome to the CSPE class from St. Louis.
Will the Leader indicate if, in the remaining weeks of this Seanad, it would be possible to have a wrap-up meeting with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, on the Action Plan for Jobs in light of the plan's launch on Monday, 18 January 2016? When the country was on its knees in 2012 and we were haemorrhaging jobs, the first Action Plan for Jobs was launched with a target of helping to foster an environment in which to create 100,000 jobs between then and 2016. Thankfully the target was reached and surpassed and we are seeing the growth of 135,000 jobs created since 2012. The ambitious targets which have been set in the fifth annual plan, the first phase of this new action plan for 2016 to 2020, are for 200,000 extra jobs by the year 2020.
There are some interesting concepts within the plan which are to be welcomed, including a commitment that by 2017 all Government transactions with businesses will be available online. This will impact on 370 Government transactions with 185,000 businesses throughout the State. Following the roll-out of the regional plans, further actions to support regional growth will be supported by €530 million in funding.
Despite all the good news and the 1,200 new jobs announced today by various companies in the State, there are still problems in parts of the State and we need to accelerate measures to spread the recovery into the regions and into the more peripheral towns and villages. In this context it would be appropriate to invite the Minister to the House for a final debate during the lifetime of the Seanad to discuss the €150 million in new funding to be made available for research and development. The debate might also give us all more guidance on how we can assist and help companies in our regions to draw down and leverage these funds.
Some years ago I introduced the topic of how Europe could arrange to have a fixed date for Easter. I approached Mr. Barroso and he said "No", that he was going to stay away from that issue. However, an interesting development occurred during the past week. The disadvantage of Easter falling on a date which could change in range by 35 days from one year to the next has resulted in the Archbishop of Canterbury calling on the different European churches to get together on the matter. This year in particular, from Ireland's perspective, with St. Patrick's Day and Easter falling so close together, the school holidays are stretching to three weeks. I understand it cannot be dealt with in this House, but it is a matter on which the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could approach Europe, or indeed the Minister of State with responsibility for Europe could initiate the discussion. It could be asked if there is a future on the subject and if something could be done. Engagement would be needed with churches, such as the Coptic Church and the Church of England among others, and with the Pope. There would be many benefits to fixing the date of Easter and it would be a shame to just ignore it and not do anything about it.
I turn now to the ban in the United States of America on soap body washes and toothpastes which contain microbeads. I did not know a lot about microbeads but they do not get filtered by wastewater treatment plants. The beads are discharged directly into rivers, lakes and the oceans. Microbeads are highly damaging to the natural environment and its wildlife. Natural alternatives exist and banning the use of microbeads in personal care products makes sense. The Wildlife Conservation Society has called for this and we should also consider a ban. The United States of America has banned their use but we still allow microbeads and we should consider what might be done about the situation.
I am pleased to see that, following a meeting with Traveller community representatives, Louth County Council has come to some solutions relating to the Woodland Park situation and what has been called an illegal halting site. The situation is very complex and, after the Carrickmines tragedy, there are serious health and safety issues relating to Traveller accommodation which must be addressed. Louth County Council, of which I was a member for many years, has an excellent record on Traveller issues. The director of services, Joe McGuinness, is an excellent liaison officer. It is almost 40 years since I worked on Traveller education schemes with my brother and the late, great Bill Cantwell.
The Acting Leader of the Opposition, Senator Leyden, raised a question on procedure relating to Commencement debates. This is certainly an issue for consideration by the next Seanad.I would agree to going back to the former situation where we would have Adjournment debates rather than Commencement debates, but that is something for the next Seanad. Perhaps some of us may be back, but that is in the lap of the gods.
The Senator also raised, as did Senators Walsh and Bacik, the review of GSOC's access to telephone records. There is genuine concern about the balance in our law between the important freedom of journalists to pursue legitimate matters of public interest and, indeed, the basic right of persons not to have their personal information improperly disclosed. While bodies investigating crime need to have the appropriate statutory powers available to them to carry out their duties, we need to examine the balance in respect of the integrity or the legitimacy of the journalistic activity being carried out in the public interest. The Senator has welcomed, as have all Senators, the appointment of the judge to look into this situation and carry out a review. The matter needs to be reviewed. I hope the judge will have sufficient time to come back with a report that will be acceptable to all.
Senator Bacik mentioned the motion on cystic fibrosis that we will table next week, hopefully with the support of all parties. That is the right way to go about dealing with the issue.
Senator Bacik also welcomed the announcement about a statute law revision Bill. We have had a number of such Bills over the years. The current Bill will bring legislation together. Always, when we deal with statute law revision Bills, we come across Bills that date back hundreds of years-----
-----many of which are very interesting to look back on. Such a Bill is to be welcomed.
Senators Craughwell and Paul Coghlan alluded to motions Nos. 7 and 10 under Private Members' business on the Order Paper. As the Senators know, the all-party committee has had several meetings with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, and with other Ministers on pay and conditions for councillors. Progress has been very slow. If I feel it is necessary - possibly, it is necessary now - we will try to arrange a debate on the issue next week if at all possible, and if we can get the Minister to attend.
Senators Brennan and Paul Coghlan raised the issue of gateway funding for towns and cities. This was raised by a number of Senators during yesterday's Order of Business, when they welcomed the allocations. I certainly welcome the €4 million allocation to my own city of Waterford from the fund.
Senator van Turnhout mentioned the Drinkaware campaign and the drinks industry. She welcomed the decision made by the Minister of Education and Skills to refuse access to schools for Drinkaware. The Senator pointed out that there is no room for the drinks industry in schools and when it comes to road safety.
Senator Mooney mentioned the narrowing of the tax base. Of course we look at what the European institutions advise in terms of narrowing the tax base. It is the Government's policy to create more and better jobs and to get more people at work. The more people we have at work, the more money we have for the services that the Senator talked about and for all our public services. The recovery is fragile; there is no question about it, as the Senator said. We need stability to make progress on work and the tax base, rather than instability and chaos, which is what we would have if some parties were in power. I note what he has said about the tax base.
Senator Hayden referred to accommodation for homeless people and outlined many relevant facts. She commended the Dublin Region Homeless Executive on its excellent work in this area.
Senator Walsh, who is not here at present, called for a new Government. That is a decision for the people to make and will happen fairly soon. I remind him that his party is still a party of high tax and high spending. The people will decide whether to return this Government to power or bring in a new one, as he suggests.
Senator Moran mentioned the report on special needs assistants. We look forward to reading the report and its recommendations. I do not know whether it will be possible to have a debate on the issue before the end of term, but I recommend that everyone read the report when it is published. Senator Mullins called for a debate on the Action Plan for Jobs and welcomed the new funding of €150 million for research and development.
There have been requests for a number of debates to be held in the House. We will have a full schedule next week in terms of legislation, so it will be difficult to slot in statements on various issues. I will do my best to see how we can facilitate that.
Senator Quinn mentioned the possibility of having a fixed date for Easter. It is an issue that I have read about and it was raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is right that we should initiate discussions in Europe on that. I will bring the matter to the attention of the relevant Minister. The Senator also mentioned microbeads in soap and toothpaste, which have recently been banned in America, and particularly their effects on wildlife. He has raised the matter at an opportune time, because we will debate the Heritage Bill later today. The Senator will have an opportunity to mention the issue to the Minister during that debate.
Senator Jim D'Arcy referred to the difficulties with regard to a halting site located at Woodland Park in Dundalk. He expressed his confidence in the ability of Louth County Council to solve the difficulties. I am unaware of those local issues. However, I note the point he made about people using the situation for photo opportunities. One will have that irrespective of where a problem arises. Obviously such opportunists are not welcome where Senator Jim D'Arcy and other Senators from County Louth are concerned.
Earlier, I stated that the discussion on the Heritage Bill would conclude at 5 p.m., but I wish to change that to state that it will adjourn at 5 p.m. if not previously concluded.