The Order of Business is No. 1, Social Welfare Bill 2007 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, earlier signature motion on the Social Welfare Bill 2007, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1; Nos. 3 and 4, motions re appointment of chairperson and ordinary member of the Standards in Public Office Commission, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 2; No. 5, Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2007 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of Nos. 3 and 4 and, if not previously concluded, to adjourn at 5.30 p.m. and resume on the conclusion of No. 13 at 7.30 p.m., and with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and the contributions of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes, and Senators may share time; and No. 13, Private Members' motion No. 33 re substance abuse, which is an all-party motion, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. and to adjourn at 7.30 p.m., and with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and the contributions of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, and Senators may share time. The business of the House will be interrupted between 2 p.m. and 2.30 p.m.
Order of Business.
Fine Gael is opposing today's Order of Business because two of the Government's proposals demonstrate a lack of respect for proper democratic procedure and debate in this House. The Government's decision to push through a sensitive appointment to the Standards in Public Office Commission without any consultation with the Opposition, despite the legislative requirement to do so, is a serious issue. The Tánaiste has apologised for the oversight, but I do not think that is enough. This proposal should be withdrawn from the Order Paper to allow the Government to engage in proper discussion with the Opposition. Given the sensitive nature of this appointment, it should ideally be the subject of all-party agreement.
This is about ethics, standards and the way we do business with regard to this body. The desire for all-party agreement on such appointments is there for a good reason. The process should not be rushed or conducted without consultation. The last time such an appointment was made, there was consultation. There are also issues regarding the appointment of someone who has recently held ministerial office.
I ask the Leader to withdraw this item of business from the Order Paper so that proper procedures can be carried out and a proper approach taken to the appointments to this important body. The Leader might reply to us on this issue. I will oppose the Order of Business based on Fine Gael's concerns about the way in which this is being handled.
The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2007 is being introduced today, leaving very little time for debate. This Bill has three sections. One of these amends the Medical Practitioners Act, which was only passed last year and, it would appear, was not handled properly. Again, this is an example of rushed legislation which now needs to be corrected. The Bill also provides for a transfer of powers from the Minister for Health and Children to the Health Service Executive. We have had many discussions in which Senators on all sides have expressed concern about the balance of accountability and responsibility between the Department of Health and Children and the HSE. Finally, the Bill provides for the placement of agencies on a statutory basis. We appreciate that this must be done but we suggest that it be dealt with in a separate Bill. We also request that the Government publish the advice of the Attorney General on why the Bill must be rushed through. Why now? Are other bodies affected by this? The legislation in this area was originally passed in the 1960s. We want to know the reason for this urgency. Is it a cover to obtain proper legal status for co-located hospitals? Is that what is really going on?
We have many concerns about rushing this three-pronged Bill through Second Stage in the Seanad today and through Committee Stage tomorrow. We do not think it is a proper way to do business. There is no reason this cannot be dealt with differently and more effectively. On these two grounds Fine Gael will oppose the Order of Business today.
There have been U-turns from the Government on learner drivers, the ministerial pay debacle, the child care subvention scheme and now on water charges for schools. We all heard the Minister speaking on this issue this morning. Is it possible to obtain some clarity on the Government's approach to this issue so that schools are not left over the Christmas period and into the new year not knowing the bills they will face? What will happen to the schools who have received bills and what will happen to those who have paid? What exactly does the Minister mean by a transition period? All these questions were raised this morning and the answers were unsatisfactory. Will the Leader ensure schools are given clarity on this issue as soon as possible?
I remind the Leader that I raised with him last week the difficulties I anticipated with the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill before we saw it. I accept he was not aware of some of these difficulties at the time, but it is important to note this.
It is also important to note the Government has done a U-turn on water charges for schools——
——and that is a good thing.
Schools should be advised that rather than holding the bills for the next two years, they should send them straight to the Taoiseach and let him deal with them because he is the only one who knows what is happening at this stage. I congratulate my colleague Senator Jim Walsh, who was the only person to get a clear view of the whole thing and managed to blame the schools for the water charges. A man such as he shows a great sense of analysis and perceptiveness in dealing with the problem. I look forward to this matter being dealt with later on.
On the question of the appointment of a person to the Standards in Public Office Commission, I do not want this to be a debate on the former Deputy, Michael Smith, who used to be a Member of this House, although that is not the issue. This is a simple matter. This person represents Members of the Houses on the commission. We need someone on it to represent us. We have had discussions and engaged with the commission every single year and have tried to obtain clarification on issues. This is important and it must be above and beyond party issues.
As I have stated previously, the process must be one of full consultation and, if possible, full consensus. I recognise there will not always be consensus on these issues. This is certainly one reason the Independents should be consulted. It would be appropriate to appoint a former Independent Member, such as the former Senator, Maurice Hayes, who is someone with experience in this area. I am not proposing this, but we need to have a consensus. The current situation does not reflect well on anyone.
We need someone with experience.
I do not wish to cast aspersions on Michael Smith as he is an honourable person. That is not the issue. The issue is the process. I want a debate on this. I want everyone to go on the record, including the Leader's colleagues who, I am sure, feel the same as me, although when it comes down to it, they will be covered by the party Whip. There is a process that must be followed, and we must have full consultation.
This is an unusual week. Senator Norris and I, and probably the Leader, will remember that this is the anniversary of the week in which we tried to rush through the rod licence legislation many years ago. We said then it was wrong and it turned out to be so. The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill goes to the very core of what we do here as legislators. It is in the area between regulation and primary legislation. It raises the question of what a Department can do with regulations given to them under primary legislation. Nothing is more important than this.
I want to know the advice given by the Attorney General. Is there a flaw or a lack of safety in the decisions that have been taken to date under regulations? If so, we must also deal with the regulations and not simply correct the mistake. If I cannot have access to the written advice of the Attorney General, I want it explained in the House and I want to understand it. Every Member this House has the same duty. There are many people here who do not know the difference between statutory instruments, ministerial orders, regulations and so on. This is crucial to the way in which we do our work. If a Department uses a regulation to overstep the mark, it is doing something that was not contemplated by this Legislature. We need to know and understand the facts. We give the authority to regulate every single week and therefore we need to have a full understanding of the process. We need to be certain in our minds that we can deal with it properly.
I support the challenge to the Order of Business as referred to by Senators Fitzgerald and O'Toole. Senator Fitzgerald is correct in the position she has taken on both issues raised. The Standards in Public Office Commission, as other speakers have pointed out, must be entirely above controversy. That is the whole point of it. We have had enough difficulties to know that if there is even the slightest controversy, the body will be undermined. This is not a personal issue, as Senator O'Toole rightly pointed out, but we do not want a body as important as the commission to be in any way undermined by controversy. The Government at the very least should pause the process and allow us to avail of the opportunity to obtain all-party agreement on the appointment to this important commission.
I also support the call for a better opportunity to debate the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I suspect the Leader will tell us that every opportunity will be given to discuss the Bill in the House and that as many hours as Senators wish can be availed of.
The Senator is learning.
However, that is not enough. It is not just a question of the number of hours to be allowed for the debate today and tomorrow. The Oireachtas should not be a club. Senator O'Toole mentioned that people do not understand the difference between statutory instruments, ministerial regulations and so on, and he is right. If people in these Houses do not appreciate these differences, what hope does the public have? It is not simply a question of allowing more hours in the House. Sufficient time must be allowed between the publication of an important Bill such as this and the debate on it in the Houses of the Oireachtas, especially the final Stages.
How is the public to appreciate what is going on? They have no hope at all. Resolving this issue will require more than allowing the House to sit late or, as the Taoiseach said yesterday, sit all night to discuss the issue. It is not just a question of the time taken to discuss it in this House but the period of time the public has to appreciate such an important issue.
Regarding U-turns and so on, I listened carefully to what Senator Mary White said yesterday about the community childcare subvention scheme but we should consider what the Minister said. He pointed out that this was not a U-turn because it was what he intended to do all along.
It is not a U-turn. The Senator did not read the detail when he made his original statement.
I ask the Senator to listen to what I have to say.
Senator Alex White without interruption, please.
I listened carefully to Senator Mary White's contribution here yesterday and she might afford me the same courtesy. The Minister said it is not a U-turn because he intended doing this anyway. We are relying on the Minister and the Government to introduce a proper child care scheme but we are not obtaining much from him in that regard. If the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party, which was to deliver root and branch reform on this issue and change everything——
The Senator was not here——
I have been here for the entire debate, Senator White. They have achieved absolutely nothing.
——for the past five years.
In the Minister's own words, this is not a real change but something he intended to do anyway. It is too limited and too late.
The Senator does not understand. It was clear from the outset.
A Chathaoirligh, I am being barracked in the Chamber.
Get used to it.
I call on Senator de Búrca to speak, without interruption. If Members want to have a one to one conversation, they can do that in the ante room.
It is difficult sometimes being on this side of the House and having to listen to comments from the opposite side. It appears to me that to be in Opposition——
The truth hurts.
It is called flip-flop——
——one must be in a state of perpetual complaint.
Has the Senator changed her sandals for brogues?
Yesterday, the members of the Opposition were saying the issue of the water charges in schools had to be dealt with and that a more lenient approach had to be adopted towards them. There is a lack of clarity and certainty about the exemptions that are allowed under the EU water framework directive.
There still is.
The EU Commission was not clear in terms of the direction it gave to the Government. The Government has come up with the best possible arrangement it can put in place for the time being.
Then it should not have issued them.
I am sure most schools this morning are relieved that these transitional arrangements have been put in place.
The Opposition is at least capable of acknowledging when positive steps are taken by the Government to try to address serious issues of concern.
People understand that.
On the community childcare subvention scheme, I ask the Leader to convey the support of certain parts of this House to the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, who listened to many of the concerns that came directly from the community child care providers on the subvention scheme. The tiered system that has been introduced is much more satisfactory. It will mean that low income parents will be able to continue to receive subsidised community child care even if they are not on the family income supplement——
Thanks to the Opposition.
——or social welfare. That is a welcome move and a quick response by the Minister. I ask the Leader of the House to convey the support of certain parts of the House to the Minister.
The Deputy has changed.
I ask Members to respect what other Members have to say, whether they agree with them or not. Time is being wasted and if Members continue to do that, we will name people and they will have to leave the Chamber. When Members are speaking I would expect that they would be given the same respect as others who spoke earlier. Members cannot continually interrupt other Members who want to make a contribution in this House. The point Senator de Búrca was making was important to her. Members should respect that and listen to her. They will have an opportunity to make their own points later. I call Senator Healy-Eames.
I ask the Leader for a debate in the new year on the serious underfunding and staffing of primary schools. It came to light yesterday at the Joint Committee on Education and Science that the capitation grants being provided to primary schools is meeting approximately 50% of the running costs, not including the cost of water, which increased them greatly. The summer works scheme has been ended, which is incredible when one considers the number of jobs, including the fixing of boilers and roofs, done under the scheme throughout the country. I understand the devolved scheme is under threat also and the supply of qualified primary teachers is uncertain, with 13,000 new pupils coming into the system next year. We are on the brink of primary education falling apart. Never was a debate on this issue more urgently needed and I trust the Leader will address that question early in the new year.
I want to make a cross-party call to all my colleagues in this House on the issue of drugs. I have not spoken on this issue heretofore but I am particularly concerned about the holiday period we are facing in terms of our young teenagers. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Education and Science to call on all schools in the days prior to the Christmas holidays to have one dedicated session——
The Senator should read this evening's business.
I am aware of that but it is urgent, with the end of the school year approaching, to have one dedicated session on drug abuse and substance misuse prior to the Christmas holiday period. I am concerned about copycat episodes and the dangers to our young people, particularly our teenagers. Our young people lack information and knowledge in terms of identifying and recognising signs. I ask the Leader to come back to me on the issue this afternoon or tomorrow morning.
Senator, an all-party motion will be moved in the House this evening on that issue and every Member will have an opportunity to speak on it.
I am aware of that and I will speak on the motion but it is urgent, bearing in mind that schools will close on Friday for the Christmas holidays.
I want to draw attention to a report published the day before yesterday, the Varney report on the review of tax policy in Northern Ireland. Since 1921, no issue has united politicians of all shades of Unionism, Nationalism and republicanism and the business people in the North and the South as the urgent need for a 12.5% corporation tax in the North, which is the case in the South. We need an urgent debate in the new year to try to put pressure on the British Government in this regard. Sir David Varney——
Ask Bertie. He did it for Shannon.
——produced this report and his committee was comprised of Treasury officials who live in the United Kingdom, rarely step foot in Northern Ireland and therefore do not know the position in the North. The Northern Ireland economy is mainly dependent on public sector employment.
It is not.
We need an urgent debate to spark an all-island economy. In the past few years politicians on both sides took risks with their careers and their lives to consolidate and get a peace process in place. Sir David Varney is the spokesperson for Gordon Brown. I knew in my heart that Gordon Brown would not go for this. Tony Blair inferred he would do so. We need a passionate debate here on consolidating the peace process and supporting the politicians in the North to ensure they get a 12.5% corporation tax. That will ensure that when an investor in the United States or elsewhere in the world looks to this island they will see one tax rate. People living in the Border counties in Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan cross the Border into the North to do their work on a daily basis and, equally, there are people in the North who cross the Border into the South. It is ridiculous that the fiscal policy is so disjointed in both areas. I am determined in my lifetime to get a united Ireland. We must bed down the peace process. If people have jobs, that will satisfy them. The number one priority is for a person to have a job that will develop their potential and give them a first-class quality of life.
On the U-turn of the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith——
If those on the other side would only listen to me, I will explain it to them.
No, not on the Order of the Business.
Regarding the comments by Senators Fitzgerald and Alex White, the Minister of State informed the House he had sent out information leaflets asking the community child care crèches for information on those participating in them. He wanted to know the economic status of those using them. He informed the House on numerous occasions that he examined the scheme with this information to hand. Up to 80% of respondents said they wished to participate in the scheme. He was able to fast-track his changes that he said from day one he was going to introduce.
They are not listening. They should pay more attention to detail. I am a person who pays much attention to detail.
Senator O'Toole is behind you.
The Minister of State informed the House he would change it when he had the information.
The Senator has made her point.
Senators White and Fitzgerald heard the same. That is it — end of story. Stop talking through your hats.
I endorse the objections to the procedures followed in the appointments to the Standards in Public Office Commission. I believe they are slipshod. We have had issues regarding standards in public office and the Tribunals of Inquiry Bill. This is the wrong way to do business. There should be consultation and agreement on this issue.
The Government has a tendency to take refuge in U-turns on matters such as provisional driving licences, Cabinet pay increases and water charges.
The Senator means consensus.
The latter is a complete and ignominious U-turn. What is important is what these U-turns indicate about the Government: total confusion and lack of policy direction.
They indicate a sheer incompetence and an arrogance that goes with it. It has fallen——
Has the Senator a question for the Leader?
Yes, I have. It has fallen on Fine Gael and the Opposition to point out to the Government the direction in which it should go——
God bless us.
Where would we be without them?
——and map out the appropriate course of action. We have welcomed all these U-turns. It characterises a Government that has no policy and no adherence to the commitments made before the general election.
The general election is over.
The Senator is lucky it is not being held this week.
The issue is how these U-turns have arisen. They have come about because the Government has been found out by a vigilant Opposition.
The big lie.
One issue comes up for decision this week. The Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, has been found out in his stories of fictitious dig-outs and whip-rounds.
Let the tribunals do their work. The Senator is sounding like a broken record.
Senator Regan should check the brief.
Does the Senator have a question for the Leader on the Order of Business?
We will do the Order of Business.
The general election is over.
Did the Senator check his brief?
I suggest to the Leader that the Taoiseach does another U-turn and that when he comes to give evidence to the tribunal this week, he comes clean on his explanations.
This is not relevant to the Order of Business.
I suggest he does not persist in the childish stories he has given the tribunal.
This is not relevant to the Order of Business and I ask the Senator to respect that.
The Senator should check the brief.
I ask the Leader, given this affront to democracy and the destruction of all trust in politics, to address that question to the Taoiseach.
I call Senator Leyden.
What about John Bruton addressing that?
He is an honourable and decent man.
I do not know whether it is the time of the year but I have never encountered so many people interrupting others who wish to make a contribution on the Order of Business.
It is all the U-turns.
If it continues, I will adjourn the House. Senators might quieten down then. Senator Leyden without interruption.
I support Senator Mary White's call for a debate on corporation tax in Northern Ireland which is at the high rate of 30% compared with 12.5% for the rest of the country. Sir David Varney's report to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer is unhelpful because Northern Ireland is separated by sea from the rest of the United Kingdom and it is a much more disadvantaged area. We can make a strong case in these circumstances for a debate in the new year on the benefits of an all-Ireland economy. I commend Senator Mary White on her consistent support and long-term ambition for Northern Ireland.
And for the Colombia three.
I also welcome the decision on community child care subvention by the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, arising from the debate in this House. I conveyed to the Labour Party at the time that we would sort out the problem in a positive way.
The Senator should speak through the Chair. He is seeking interruptions when talking across the floor. He should speak through the Chair.
It is on the record that Fianna Fáil would work this out as a party. We did so at a parliamentary party meeting.
When the Greens and Progressive Democrats were absent.
When the information came from the child care workers, we came up with a decision. That is positive and pragmatic politics.
It was because they frightened Fianna Fáil into making a decision.
Is the Senator seeking a debate?
It is fortunate that we, Fianna Fáil, the Progressive Democrats and the Greens, are in Government together.
Is the Senator looking for another debate?
No, I am not.
What are you speaking on?
I am congratulating the Minister of State.
That is not allowed on the Order of Business.
Senator Fitzgerald was allowed to criticise the Minister of State.
She was opposing the Order of Business. She was making a point on it and was entitled to do so.
I support the Order of Business.
Senator Leyden should respect the Chair.
I would welcome a debate on water charges. The wise decision by the Taoiseach and the Government——
I would like the debate to be extended to water charges for nursing homes. The benefits that individuals bring to a nursing home should be shared by it. Nursing homes should be exempt from water charges.
What about farmers and trade unions?
The costs for nursing homes will be prohibitive. There is great concern in the farming community with water metering.
It will be introduced in a year.
The House could have a serious debate on the costs of water charges for the public, nursing homes, the farming community and schools.
The Senator can make all the changes when he is back in the Government.
We have heard much about U-turns. The difference between a U-turn and a climbdown is as clear cut as the difference between a statutory instrument and a ministerial order or the difference between a whip-round and a dig-out. All these terms are vaguely defined.
The decision on water charges for schools is a welcome U-turn by the Government. There has been another welcome U-turn for the funding of subvention for community child care schemes.
That is not true. You do not have your information, professor.
Is Senator Bacik seeking a debate?
It is the same money. I cannot put up with this lack of attention to detail.
Senator Bacik, without interruption.
I am seeking a debate from the Leader on the need for another U-turn on the policy on children. There is a need for the removal of the habitual residence condition on child benefit. I have raised this before in the House and Senator McFadden has an amendment on it to the Social Welfare Bill. It is supposed to be a universal benefit but is denied to the children of asylum seekers in direct provision. A small number of children, the most disadvantaged in our society, are denied universal child benefit.
The Government needs to do another U-turn on this matter.
For Senator Mary White's information, the chair of the Irish Childcare Policy Network stated the new announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, does not go far enough to meet the needs of the community child care providers. Further U-turns are needed in this area.
The point is made.
Can the Minister change her political allegiance?
We can discuss that in the debate.
Would the Senator cop onto herself?
I am not sure whether Standing Orders allows for votes of confidence but it seems that the Opposition's litany of complaints today should be tested by such a measure. Government exists to perform in several modes, it can impose decisions, or propose them for public debate and consideration and react accordingly. I am glad to be part of a Government that on two issues, the water charges and the child care subvention, responded in such a way because that is how a Government should respond.
The Senator changed his tune fast.
Someone will be leaving the Chamber shortly.
We might remedy the lack of consultation on the Standards in Public Office Commission by proposing Senator Regan as a member of the tribunal in which he is excessively interested.
That is not relevant to the Order of Business.
It is in the national interest as the Senator himself said until he went onto the Government benches.
According to yesterday's ComReg report on the communications market, the average Irish person pays €44 per month. People might say that we talk more than other Europeans but the French talk more than we do and they pay €100 less every year. It is not a case ofc’est la vie because there are four providers in the market and there has been increased usage so we should expect to have lower costs. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Communications Energy and Natural Resources and ask him to produce an action plan to bring down the costs?
The latest decision regarding water charges for schools comes on the back of U-turns regarding provisional driving licences and Ministers' pay. I heard the Minister for Education and Science on the radio this morning and was less than impressed. On her watch there was a school accommodation crisis in September, a problem regarding the summer works scheme last month and now the water charges are at issue. The Minister is no longer the star pupil and, in teaching jargon, her past performance has been less than perfect, her present performance is continuously tense and her future performance is ever more conditional.
That is the Labour Party's performance.
I join the call for a debate on the regulation of the mobile phone market, especially because we are paying so much more than other Europeans. I raised this several times during the last session when I noted that there was a duopoly and no competition in the market. That has changed and the Government should take strong action, just as it has recently on issues of concern such as deferral of pay for the Ministers, school water charges and the provisional driving licences. The Government has acted correctly and it won the election. In light of all that was said about it and put before them the people decided this was the best Government.
There is a certain level of hypocrisy abroad today. Senator Mary White for example will not advance her avowed aim of helping to consolidate the peace process by describing Northern Ireland as a colony. It would be interesting to see what would happen if interest rates were reduced in the North of Ireland and we lost investment here when international business investment travelled North. There would be about as much rejoicing as there was when the Heathrow run was relocated from Shannon to Belfast. There was not much all-Ireland sentiment on that day.
Hear, hear. Absolutely.
I am glad that Senator Frances Fitzgerald has proposed to oppose the Order of Business. If we are serious about ethics we must make sure that everything is done in a proper, transparent, above board manner. The message of this manoeuvre is that we can bend the rules and fudge things. It is astonishing that this should happen in the very body that is supposed to supervise standards in public office.
There are two aspects to the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. There is the tidying-up operation, about which the Minister for Health and Children says she believes the position is safe but she has been advised to make sure, which is fine. One understands that. She has, however, added in co-location, an ideologically driven matter, which should be separate. I call on the Government to remove that section and let us get through the Bill.
The whole business is rather confused. The explanatory memorandum is not exactly a masterpiece of clarity. It would be useful to ask our excellent research unit in the Library to do what is done in some other Parliaments, prepare an agnostic view, without taking sides but explaining the technical points and the context of the legislation to make it easier for us to consume.
I am also confused about the water charges. I heard the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dick Roche, say this was not a response to a European directive but he was equivocating. He was not being honest because he said it was decided by politicians which I take to mean that one of our Ministers was represented at the meeting where the decision was taken. That still leaves it coming from Europe but France got a derogation, so it is not universal in Europe. The problem raises a question of fairness, some schools have paid and some have been charged €20,000. We need prudent water management but what is the rush? The place is littered with European directives which we do not implement until the last minute. We have often been reprimanded for our tardiness so why move on this because it is beginning to look like a stealth tax?
Senator Déirdre De Búrca was very engaging when she said that people do not quite understand what is proposed. Why is the Government implementing something it does not understand? That seems absurd.
Will the Leader schedule time for the Minister of State with special responsibility for disabilities to come into the House? In the budget, €50 million has been allocated to people with disabilities. This House should make it a priority to discuss the allocation and expenditure of that money, having seen what happened to the moneys allocated to the mental health services in the previous budget. It has not yet been decided how the money for services for those with disabilities will be spent. Members of this House have identified many worthy areas where that money could do a great deal of good.
When the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brendan Smith, discussed the new child care subvention here he said that when the returns were completed he would evaluate and amend the subvention on the basis of the information he received. He returned last week and said the Department had received an 80% response rate. This reached 90% by the weekend. We should congratulate him on doing as he said he would.
The writing was on the wall.
I strongly support Senator Frances Fitzgerald's opposition to the Order of Business for all the reasons she has advanced and for all the proper reasons outlined by Senators O'Toole and Alex White. We must admit that the appointment of a political personage to the Standards in Public Office Commission shows no regard for due process and appears high-handed. When the former Deputy and Minister, Liam Kavanagh, was appointed we had consultation and debate and reached agreement in both Houses. It will be sad if that is not attempted this time.
Regarding the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and the question of ministerial orders, we all like to hear the advice of the Attorney General when it is considered right that it be given. I have no doubt his advice is correct but if there is a legal flaw, as appears to be the case, can the Leader tell us how this affects boards and agencies set up in other Departments? For example, those under the auspices of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government may also be at risk.
The transition period on the deferment of water charges seems to be somewhat indefinite so the Leader might give an indication of how long it will be. Are these charges retrospectively illegal? This is a serious legal matter that affects local authorities that have already levied and issued charges to schools and so on. Local authorities are currently debating their budgets; what position will this leave them in? I would like the Leader to address this.
I wish to reiterate my call for a debate in this House on the economy, especially the housing market and its impact on the construction industry, which hosts many small and medium enterprises. Last week I made the point that financial institutions should participate in such a debate.
We are all aware of the impact the global slow down has had on the Irish economy in 2007 and the likelihood that this will continue in 2008. The availability of funds will be very important in stimulating industry and assisting those small and medium enterprises in construction for the housing market. Recent media coverage has exposed the sins of one or two people regarding certain financial institutions and I am afraid that the regulations that may ensue because of this may not assist the entrepreneurs who have been so successful in this area of industry. I ask for the participation of financial institutions in this debate to give them the confidence necessary to continue to fuel what has been so successful over the past number of years.
Two Senators indicated some time ago that they would like to contribute and I will allow this because other speakers overran their allotted time.
I join my colleagues in requesting a debate on education matters as this week saw the publication of the feeder school list and regardless of one's view of such lists some strong points emerged. Almost all of the so-called free schools in Ireland now deliver better academic performance for pupils than the so-called grind schools. This is particularly relevant to this morning's discussion as the schools delivering superb performances are the very schools being let down by the suspension of the summer works programme, the U-turn on water charges that we are discussing this morning and the inability of this Government to deliver the necessary capitation funding. When we debate this we must be clear on the extent to which these schools have been let down despite the superb performances they delivered.
Regarding admissions policies, the feeder school list sadly indicates that many schools continue to refuse to admit some people because of their backgrounds and the difficulties and challenges they face. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, said she will initiate an admissions policy review but, while this is welcome, we need action on this matter. I was very fortunate in the school I attended and believe I learned as much from my fellow students as my teachers. It is crucial that we ensure a mix of pupils exists in every school in the country.
It is not acceptable that the Minister merely recognises that there is a problem and then gives money to the schools that perpetuate it.
The amount in question is €80 million.
Many Senators on the other side of the House have vigorously welcomed the Government's change of mind on some of the issues we are discussing but surely the mark of a good Government is that such policies are not introduced in the first place.
At this time of year it is important we raise the issue of Irish emigrants in London and other parts of the United Kingdom. It has recently come to my attention that those returning after 30 or 40 years in the UK are experiencing difficulties with the social welfare system here because they did not make contributions while living there. It is not good enough that those who cemented this country through their earnings in another country, who fed, clothed and educated generations of Irish families and are now returning to retire in an Ireland they know little about are facing major difficulties in receiving social welfare assistance from the State. In some cases individuals have been refused payment because insufficient contributions were made but surely the Minister could examine this matter with an element of compassion, taking into account what they contributed to the Irish economy in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when there was no money and there were no jobs for these people. It is not acceptable that we should refuse them an element of financial assistance in their retirements.
I congratulate Senator Jerry Buttimer on his recent publication and wish him the best of luck with it. He has excelled in the 261 page edition of his bookThe Candidate and I advise all Senators to get a copy for Christmas.
Those friends on local authorities who have not yet received a present might appreciate a copy.
This is the Order of Business, not the "Late Late Show".
I congratulate the Senator, wish him luck and hope his book is widely read by young people so they might understand the challenges that face those considering entering public life.
I wish to respond to Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Regan, Norris and Coghlan on the Standards in Public Offices Commission. The decision was taken by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Cowen and in my opinion there is no more qualified person than the individual proposed. I had the opportunity to serve on two occasions in Seanad Éireann with Mr. Michael Smith and he is exceptional in that he was a member of a county council, a Senator, a Dáil Deputy, a Minister of State and a Minister. He served in this House with great distinction and did what few could do in topping the poll in two different panels in two Seanad elections.
In all fairness, please do not say this as it is not relevant.
The Leader is missing the point.
It seems to me that what is a gesture today is a right tomorrow. This is a Government decision and on two occasions it appointed an eminent member of public life, namely, the former Minister, Liam Kavanagh and a member of the Opposition.
There was consensus and discussion.
I have served for 26 years and I have never seen this gesture being returned by Fine Gael. In 1973 the Labour Party took the Chair and Vice Chair of this House.
We were not here.
I was not born.
The sins of the fathers will be visited.
We have a man in Washington.
It has been always Fianna Fáil policy to give the position of Leas-Chathaoirleach to the Opposition of this House.
That is true.
We have led by example.
We would not give that to the Senator's party.
We have highly qualified people available from this side of the House and this person can make an immense contribution as a former Minister responsible for the environment, which is directly relevant to this appointment.
Senators made many points on the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is certainly not being rushed by the House, as has been the charge by the Leader of the Opposition this morning. Senator Alex White may not want long or late sittings.
That is not what I said. That is disingenuous.
The Leader is twisting everything.
That is disingenuous.
We can go on all night.
When a charge is meant against the Leader——
That was not the Senator's point.
——by the Leader of the Opposition——
That is dishonest and disingenuous.
——that legislation would be rushed through the House, the Leader must respond. The Leader of the Opposition has made the charge to the Leader of the House, but no legislation will be rushed through. I do not mind sitting on Friday or Saturday of this week if time is required.
With respect, we have offered to sit on Friday.
We discussed this last week.
The Leader is not taking Senator Alex White's point.
I discussed the matter last week with the leaders of the various groups in the House.
We offered to sit on Friday.
We offered to sit on that day.
We are endeavouring to allow as much time as is necessary for all Stages of the Bills to be discussed.
The issue is they are being discussed together.
That is not an issue and it should be noted that in the next five years of this House, as much time as is needed will be——
The public needs to understand.
A week is not sufficient.
A week is not enough.
——given to facilitate Members in making known their views. There is no guillotine, as far as this Leader is concerned.
Will the Leader address the issue?
Anyone in a rush home for Christmas or to do his or her shopping should do it later.
That is not the point.
That is disingenuous.
The Leader deliberately misrepresented what I said.
It is not the point.
Senators de Búrca, Leyden and many others also expressed their views on a listening Government and a caring Minister with regard to water charges. The Government listens and because we are a consensus Government, nothing is set in stone. As Shakespeare once said, "To discuss is not to agree." If the Government puts forward certain proposals at certain times, surely it is our job as legislators to amend.
It is not a case of listening to ourselves and nobody else. The reason we are in Government so long is that we listen to the people. The Opposition is included in that.
Without the Opposition there would be nothing.
I am glad the Senator said that.
That is helpful
Senators de Búrca, Bacik, White——
I thought we were a chocolate button factory.
Many Senators this morning congratulated the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, on the child care subvention.
As I have stated on many occasions, our Ministers or Ministers of State are listening when proposals come from the Houses or a particular sector of industry. As Senator Corrigan, Mary M. White and others stated this morning, the Minister of State should be congratulated on his direct communication with the people affected by the legislation. I hope all portfolio holders take this great example of speedy action and decision.
These people deserve support, which I know comes from all sides of the House.
It is a handbrake turn again.
We congratulate the Minister of State.
Senators Healy Eames and Donohoe called for a debate on education and there is no difficulty with that, as I stated yesterday. I will pass on the views of Senator Healy Eames regarding warning students in this festive time of Christmas.
I thank the Leader.
Please God, there will be no repeat of experiences from the past few weeks over the Christmas period.
Senators Mary M. White, Leyden and Norris called for an all-Ireland debate on the economy and I have no difficulty in this taking place. There have been various views on the 12.5% corporation tax, which is the one factor that makes Ireland seriously attractive. It has been a significant help to us on this part of the island.
Many of my colleagues from Northern Ireland, whom I know and work with, are working and operating down here, making the south of Ireland their headquarters. If this is so, they are obliged to pay only 12.5% corporation tax. The same applies to the multinationals now using Ireland as a base for right across Europe. Ireland forms the headquarters for many companies with regard to research and development, marketing and accounting. Such companies have to pay only 12.5% in corporation tax.
These Government initiatives, along with directives from Europe, help our economy significantly. This is one of the strong points for our fellow citizens in the North when seeking to set up here in the long term. If we all spoke from our hearts, we would love to see our island united in education, the economy and many other ways. I know we will see that day before we pass on to our eternal reward.
Senator Regan again pointed to the old chestnut, as he has an agenda which is being directed by colleagues.
It is an elephant in the room.
It is the pursuit of truth.
Colleagues seem to have an agenda. I wish the Taoiseach well in his deliberations over the next few days.
He is a hard-working, dedicated, decent public representative. It does not behove us well to say anything else. Nobody else is as committed to Ireland or has done as much for the country——
That is not fair. It is not true.
——as Bertie Ahern.
That is not fair.
On the Order of Business, please.
Once we go outside of Ireland we realise this. We may not like it but it is the truth. If we want to go down the road of who gave evidence, and who made U-turns in giving evidence——
We are not going that road this morning.
——we could speak about many others on the other side of the House. We do not act in such a way.
That is the great quality of being a member of Fianna Fáil.
We keep a level on this.
The Leader should speak to Senator Walsh.
The Senator has the facts of the matter over there.
On matters relating to the tribunal, it would have been better if the media and everyone else could have withdrawn and left it to the eminent judges appointed to make decisions. They are the professionals in the field.
Does the Leader wish to close down the media now?
Senators Hanafin and Hannigan called on the Minister to consider the issue of high mobile telephone charges. I will pass the matter to the appropriate Minister, and the issue is the responsibility of ComReg and the communications joint committee. Those who are members of that committee might take up the issue with the chair of that committee and see if they can get an urgent debate on the matter. The Minister and representatives from ComReg and mobile telephone operators could be all in the one room to discuss the matter, and major progress could be made.
Senator Corrigan requested that the Minister come to the House to discuss the spending of the €50 million allocation in the budget for disabilities and I hope this could happen. This might be mentioned by the Senator on Second Stage of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, as the Minister will be present.
Senator Callely called for a debate on the economy, particularly as it relates to the construction industry. I read in a newspaper this morning that a bunch of apartments in Ashtown were completely sold out because the price was reduced by €100,000 per apartment. It appears, therefore, that if there is value for money, the market is still sound. There is a serious challenge ahead for the construction industry, which was a major player in the first and second parts of the Celtic tiger. I have no difficulty in getting the Minister to come to the House after the Christmas recess for a debate.
Senator McCarthy called for the appropriate Minister to approach sympathetically our Irish emigrants who are now returning, particularly with regard to social welfare contributions. This is timely because the Minister will be in the House this morning to take the Social Welfare Bill. Perhaps this very point can be made to him at this festive time of Christmas. We are fortunate that we were able to gain employment and have a job in Ireland in our lifetime. I was at school in a class of 37, 31 of whom emigrated. I believe three came home at the end of their working lives to retire in Ireland. That has been the case in every village and town across the country up to the past 12 or 14 years. As someone who worked in the postal service, I know what it was like to deliver the registered letters with the money from the husbands being sent home to the wives to rear the families in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. What the Senator has said today is certainly true from my experience.
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- Keaveney, Cecilia.
- Kett, Tony.
- Leyden, Terry.
- McDonald, Lisa.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
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- O’Malley, Fiona.
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- Phelan, Kieran.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
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- Coffey, Paudie.
- Coghlan, Paul.
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- Donohoe, Paschal.
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- Hannigan, Dominic.
- Healy Eames, Fidelma.
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- Mullen, Rónán.
- Norris, David.
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- O’Toole, Joe.
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