Wednesday, 21 November 2018
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund Regulations, referral to committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, European Investment Fund Agreement Bill 2018 - all Stages, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to adjourn no later than 2 p.m. if not previously concluded, with contributions from group spokespersons on Second Stage not to exceed six minutes, or four minutes in the case of all other Senators, the Minister to have not less than four minutes to reply, and Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter; No. 3, Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 2 p.m. and to adjourn at 6 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 4, Private Members' business, Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland) Bill 2018, Second Stage, to be taken at 6 p.m., with the time allocated to the debate not to exceed two hours.
I raise the very serious issue of sports capital grants, as discussed in the media this morning. There are shocking reports that senior Ministers and figures in the Fine Gael Government lobbied extensively for the allocation of sports capital funds to private golf clubs in their constituencies. The sports capital programme is primarily designed to fund local sports groups and clubs with a particular emphasis on areas of deprivation. The message from the Government on the sports capital programme states that it is the primary means of providing funding to sports and community organisations and that grants are designed to prioritise the needs of disadvantaged areas and groups in the provision of sports facilities. However, it emerged a number of months ago that large amounts of last year's funding went to private golf clubs and fee-paying schools in various constituencies. It is very serious that senior figures in Fine Gael, including the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Keogh, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, Deputy Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy and, in particular, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, lobbied the Department on behalf of private golf clubs in their areas.
Large amounts of funding which should have been given to more deprived areas and the clubs serving a broad cross-section of the community which should have had priority were allocated elsewhere. I ask the Leader to address this issue. It shows the ideological leanings of Fine Gael when private clubs are prioritised ahead of deprived areas and clubs providing sporting-----
Frequently, we get the Leader's infinite wisdom on topics. This morning, I would like him to discuss something and perhaps organise a debate on it. We are about to head into a winter of discontent in the public service. That is clear from what we have seen with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, teachers, the Army and gardaí. In fact, all of the public service is in crisis. Nevertheless, the people who caused the problem, namely, the bankers, will operate tax free for the next 20 years. How is it that we could introduce financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation to put our hands in the pockets of public sector workers and the pockets and wallets of pensioners but cannot introduce legislation to change the tax laws which allow the banks that broke the country to continue to trade back into healthy profits and in turn to go back to trading on the Stock Exchange? I would like a debate on that.
I have just returned from Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, COSAC, at which the forthcoming European elections were discussed. An issue raised during that discussion was the use or misuse of social media. I made the point, which is one we should debate in the House, that the misuse of social media is only allowed because we have failed to regulate it. The Leader has an interest in this area. Perhaps he will consider organising a debate on how we might regulate the use of social media. In particular, we should discuss how to do away with the right of people to anonymity. While they can certainly use nicknames if they want, there must be a way to track them down and take action against them when they libel others. This is a matter worthy of debate and I am sure many Senators have something to say. I ask the Leader to organise such a debate at his earliest convenience.
I again wish to raise the matter of drugs that are used to treat rare diseases. There are two main issues here and the first is the lack of transparency within the current system.There is no way of finding out what cost-benefit analysis model is used for these drugs and what negative or positive externalities are used to make an assessment on whether the drugs will be approved. This process must become more transparent. The protectionism in the system stopping this from coming to the fore must be tackled. The only person who can tackle it is the Minister. I know it is the HSE's statutory obligation but the Minister is allowing it to have that protectionism and lack of transparency. Where we have a lack of transparency we have a lack of trust. The Cathaoirleach knows the two main drugs I have been following for months are Translarna and Spinraza. Time is of the essence in these situations for children to have the optimum benefit from the drugs in the case of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Translarna is effective only between certain ages. Children admitted to intensive care units in hospital do not have the time to wait for Spinraza. They do not have the time for the obscure processes to work their way through the system.
At European level, the Benelux countries have approved them but we need to see the benefit of being part of the EU and we need to know when this will become apparent to the people who are most impacted by the lack of transparency and decision-making. If a medicine is approved by the European Medicines Agency in terms of it being effective and safe surely we do not have to make the same judgment again. We need to stop reinventing the wheel in these situations. We also need to have greater clinician involvement. This country has some of the most fantastic clinicians and we need to take their advice and guidance on board with regard to the assessment of these drugs. We also need to have patient advocacy. It is hugely important in terms of patient input to the decision-making process that the patients are not chosen by the agency. They need to be from a range of backgrounds and put forward in ways other than being selected by the HSE. I would like a debate in the House on the issue.
I join with others in seeking a debate on sports capital funding. What was outlined in recent days in respect of Ministers lobbying heavily for private golf clubs is quite disturbing. That fund is deliberately to benefit children in disadvantaged areas, in particular to enable them to access sports facilities and compete on a level playing field. A debate is necessary and I call on the Leader to facilitate it with the Minister who has responsibility for sport. In this regard, I pay tribute to Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane who left their positions as manager and assistant manager of the Republic of Ireland soccer team by mutual consent this morning. Many of us have had a difficult time following the Irish team in the past year but we need to look back to the great wins over Germany and Austria to get us to the European Championships. The best half of football I have probably ever seen an Irish team play was during the match against Sweden in the European Championships. I also saw the team getting a one-nil win over a great Austrian side in Vienna. They lifted the expectations of the Irish soccer side for a number of years. Things have not been great in their most recent period. Whoever takes on the job, be it Stephen Kenny, Brian Kerr or whoever, it is important to give credit where it is due even though the past year or so has been difficult.
I also want to raise the issue of the Government's response to our Private Member's Bill that will be debated this evening. Our citizenship Bill would give effect to citizenship rights for children born in Ireland who have been resident here for three years. The Government has decided to oppose the Bill and I find this quite outrageous.
The Minister for Health can go around his constituency of Wicklow to advocate for a child who may be deported and the Minister for Justice and Equality can go around his constituency of Laois to advocate for a child who may be deported but when it comes to an overall system to improve the situation for all children who may not be their constituents they are against it.
I find it absolutely unbelievable. I appreciate we will have plenty of time to flesh this out this evening but I find it very disturbing that it is fair enough to get stuck into a campaign as a constituency issue for a child who is clearly identified but when the Government has a chance to regularise the situation for children who do not need to be deported and who may be deported it turns its back on them in the most callous fashion. It backed the referendum in 2004, which was wrong. The Labour Party along with Sinn Féin, the Green Party and others campaigned against the referendum.
I raise the report that was published this morning on the 51 private water connections where E. coli was found. This is very serious. I realise that at this stage many houses and group schemes are on the main connection but Irish Water will have to investigate all of the connections. The report states that more than 700 connections were not assessed. This is very important because E. coli is so dangerous, particularly for younger children. A family not too far from me had to leave their home recently because of E. coli in the connection to the water system in the new house they bought. They had a private system but the entire connection was in a very bad state. I ask the Minister to call on Irish Water to investigate every connection.
The fourth estate is running policy for Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance. Yesterday we had the headline "'Tax grab' on workers follows FG cuts pledge" and today we have "Donohoe in climbdown on loss of tax breaks as Taoiseach accused of 'clobbering workers'". Yesterday we had one headline and today we have another. Who is running the show? It is Independent News and Media and very active journalists. I compliment Senator Nash who highlighted this issue yesterday.
The fourth estate, or the fourth power, refers to the press and news media in explicit capacity of advocacy and implicit ability to frame political issues. What we have is a very astute propaganda unit in the Government, which is supposed to have been done away by the way, and when it views these stories all of sudden the policy mooted at the weekend with the Revenue Commissioners has been dropped until after the next general election to ensure the Taoiseach returns to power with Sinn Féin. That will be the make-up of the next Government the way it is going at the moment.
If Senator Conway-Walsh is claiming Pearse Doherty is responsible for this, I am claiming the fourth estate, and particularly the Irish Independent and its top journalists are responsible for the change in policy. All I can say is whatever the composition of the next Government it should govern and it should not come in one day and state these are its policies and what it stands for but if one does not agree with them it will change them. That is not leadership.
Fianna Fáil was asleep but it has woken up with the threat of an election in the air and good for it.I want to talk about air pollution and climate change. A poor whale was washed up in Indonesia with 6 kg of plastic - including 25 plastic cups, 115 plastic bags and flip-flops - inside it. I do not know if there was a human attached to the flip-flops. Our air, sea and land are exposed to stuff with which they can no longer cope. We see what is happening and it is up to us to change it. I commend Deputy Thomas Pringle on the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill. It is a brave step and I commend all Deputies who voted for it on Second Stage. Tomorrow, the Bill will proceed to Committee and Remaining Stages and I hope it will go through smoothly. We are not great in this country but the Bill leads the way globally in the context of fossil fuel divestment. What is proposed in the Bill will cause problems for people who burn fuel on a regular basis and who depend on it but it is a great step for us. I wanted to welcome the Bill because I will not be available for the debate tomorrow.
On the Order of Business, we normally refer to the passing of colleagues from the Seanad or the Lower House or distinguished politicians. It is also important that we recognise the significance of cultural voices. I was very saddened last night to learn of the death of Sandy Harsch. She had a most distinctive, velvety midnight voice and I used to listen to her every Saturday on "Country Time". I never met her but I felt she was a friend. RTÉ has a great talent for finding people with distinctive voices like Gay Byrne, Val Joyce and Sandy Harsch. Sandy had an encyclopaedic knowledge of country music and won for Ireland a series of international radio awards of which we can be very proud. I would like to mention her passing and send my sympathy to her family.
I wish to speak on the topic of loneliness. As Members are aware, I founded the loneliness task force in association with Seán Moynihan from ALONE. We sought submissions from all over the country and these prove that loneliness crosses all demographics. Loneliness is a problem for young and old, urban and rural, and rich and poor. We all know it is corrosive in terms of people's mental and psychological health. The task force published a report, a copy of which Senators will have received, entitled A Connected Island: An Ireland Free from Loneliness. This report highlights the problem that loneliness is for our health, our social well-being and our economy through lack of productivity, absenteeism from work, over-attendance at GP clinics and overuse of prescription medication. This is a real problem and we need to address it. The report identifies some fundamental, solution-driven and achievable targets. Unfortunately, these have not been implemented. I have forwarded the report to all Members of the Oireachtas. I contacted the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, but I have received no response. I hope the Leader will agree to arranging a debate on loneliness in the coming weeks or in the new year. This is a real issue and it is gaining traction among people. We need to treat it as a serious problem.
I thank the Members for their contributions to the Order of Business. On my behalf, on behalf of the Fine Gael Party and on behalf of the House, I join Senator Norris in extending our deepest sympathies to the daughters, brother and sister of Sandy Harsch. Coming here from Rhode Island, she brought an encyclopaedic knowledge of country music to our airwaves. Like Senator Norris, we were all impressed by her wonderful voice and her ability to communicate a love of music, particularly in the genre in which she specialised. I pay tribute to her and thank her for opening our minds and hearts to music. I thank Senator Norris for making his remarks this morning. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.
Senator Clifford-Lee referred to the sports capital programme. I remind the Senator that her own constituency benefited as a result of this Government and that which preceded reopening that programme. This year, €40 million will be allocated to improve sporting and community facilities. If we engaged in a trawl of the record of members of Fianna Fáil or those of any other party - Senator Ruane also made a contribution in this regard - I am sure we would find great variety of representations.
I will be very happy to have a debate on the sports capital programme and we will go through the record entirely. That would be no problem at all. I am quite happy to make representations on behalf of the sporting and community clubs in my area as the Senator does in his.
I would be very happy to have the debate that was suggested. The Senator's work with COSAC is very important and I commend him on it. The points he makes are very relevant and valid and I would be happy to have a debate with the Minister in due course.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to orphan drugs. This morning, the Joint Committee on Health is discussing rare diseases and the issue of the drugs in question. It is important to have that debate. To be fair, there is a level of transparency. Professor Michael Barry has been very open in his presentations to the committees. I chaired the Joint Committee on Health for five years and he came before it regularly. Deputy Ó Caoláin and I initiated discussion of rare diseases on 28 February and also on orphan drugs. I will be happy to ask the Minister to come to the House on the matter. We need to see how we can ensure that people are able to access drugs or treatment in a more expeditious manner and I accept that point totally.
I join Senator Ó Ríordáin in commending Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane on their stewardship of the Irish soccer team. They were probably working at a time when we may not have had the best of players but we have to acknowledge their contribution to Irish sport and the management of the team. We were unlucky on a couple of occasions when a number of decisions went against us and a few chances that could have come off did not.
On this evening's Private Members' debate, the Minister will outline the Government's decision. We need to find a way through and it should not be a case of our opposing the motion simply for the sake of doing so. The points made are relevant and I hope the Government will work with the Labour Party in reaching a compromise on the matter. I say that in a personal capacity. Ultimately, it is a matter for Government.
Senator Byrne made reference this morning's media reports on water treatment plants, sources of water and E. coli. This highlights the importance of inspections and of having a good water infrastructure. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House for a debate on water.
How do I answer Senator Leyden's question?
I am disappointed with the remarks of Senator Clifford-Lee because, in my time as Leader of the House, I have worked with colleagues on the Opposition benches, including the Independent benches, to bring people together rather than divide.
I am very upset. I enjoy the rough and tumble of politics but I have never in my 12 years in the Oireachtas been personal or made personal charges against people. I make a political charge and the Members of the House will vouch for that. I am very disappointed.
I can assure Senator Clifford-Lee that I have known members of her party for more than 30 years and we have never once had a cross word on a personal level. I work with Members every day. I compromise and work with people. I engage in the banter of political life but I never get personal. I am very disappointed and most upset-----
Senator Leyden raised the issue that was raised yesterday by Senator Nash. The Revenue Commissioners are updating their concessionary flat rate expenses practice. It is a review. Despite the comments of Senator Leyden, the Fourth Estate does not govern the country. Policy is set by the Government. The Revenue Commissioners are independent of the Government and they are in charge of the tax code. As I said yesterday, the changes outlined will also allow workers to be able to claim where they were unable to do so in the past.
Senator Devine raised the important issue of air pollution.
Senator Leyden is not supposed to display newspapers. He should not antagonise me. The display of newspapers in the Chamber has been disallowed for as long as I have been in the Oireachtas and I have been here for as long as, if not longer than, Senator Leyden. One can refer to them but not display them. It is out of order under Seanad decorum.
To make a final point to Senator Leyden, the practice he refers to is being withdrawn only where the Revenue Commissioners are satisfied there is no longer a legally valid basis to the issue. We should let the review conclude and then have a debate on it.
On the important point raised by Senator Devine regarding air pollution and climate change, that is the reason the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, outlined a whole-of-government plan to tackle climate change. The country is way behind its targets so we must step up to the mark in terms of our ability to respond to the central issue of climate change. It is the biggest issue this generation will face. Our task is to make Ireland a leader, not a follower, in responding to it. I will invite the Minister to the House in due course.
Finally, I commend Senator Swanick on the excellent report of his task force on loneliness. I thank him for what he is doing. We all have a role to play in dealing with loneliness and I am pleased the Senator has produced the report. I am happy to commit to scheduling a discussion on loneliness in the new year. Before Christmas he could use the opportunity of Fianna Fáil's Private Members' time to have the debate but if that is not possible, I will schedule it in the new year.
A Chathaoirligh, I wish to put it on the record that we were of a mind to vote against the Order of Business today but we do not wish to disrupt the work of the House. I ask the Leader to reflect on his comments and, perhaps, come to me later to discuss the matter.