The Order of Business is No. 1, Dublin Transport Authority Bill 2008 — Report Stage. It is proposed to take Report Stage of the Bill on the conclusion of the Order of Business.
Order of Business.
Last night the House had an extensive debate on the economy. Will the Leader ask the Taoiseach to come to the House to explain a matter? Since the Health Service Executive was established four years ago, the number of senior managers has doubled, if not tripled. This morning we have learned that the HSE wishes to get rid of 200 of those senior managers. That is not the way to reform a health service. Getting rid of a large number of recently appointed managers will impose a huge cost on taxpayers.
I would also like the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to explain a matter which I raised last night. The Government claims it wants to establish centres of excellence in order to benefit patient care. It is also Government policy, pushed very strongly by the Minister herself, to set up small private hospitals in every village. These hospitals provide exactly the service which the Government tells us would be dangerous for patients if provided in a public hospital. This is contradictory, hypocritical and a misleading of the people. Is the public service fit to provide this service or are private hospitals simply a means of cost cutting? This policy discriminates against patients who do not have access to private health care. I would like the Minister to explain this matter.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Finance to comment on the Government's counter motion to Fine Gael's Private Members' motion last night? The counter motion acknowledged that house building output had reached unsustainable levels. At what stage in the past 12 months was it no longer unpatriotic to acknowledge that house building output had reached unsustainable levels? It is less than a year since the last general election. For at least 12 months before that we were being told it was unpatriotic to talk down the construction industry or comment on its unsustainability at the time. The people were misled for electoral purposes. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Finance to explain when the Government changed its views on the unsustainability of the housing market?
In recent days the Taoiseach raised issues regarding the delivery of public service. These comments have been interpreted in the newspapers as anti-public service or anti-public service unions. I do not see them in that way. The issues raised by the Taoiseach are genuine. How we deal with them is the question. No one in the leadership of the trade union movement would have a difficulty with the Taoiseach raising issues. However, it is timely to look at the matter in the context of what happened today. I ask Members, particularly on the Government side, to concentrate on this issue. A couple of thousand people in the health service are wondering about their jobs this morning. They will worry all day and go home tonight and meet another couple of thousand spouses or partners, all of whom will look at their mortgage arrangements and their futures. By the time the issue reaches the public domain it will have built up a head of steam. It will then eventually, belatedly and laterally come to the trade union movement. Trade union leaders will have to explain this to upset union members who do not know the next step. This is a classic example of how change should not be managed. It could be put into a textbook of what not to do.
What I am now saying will be forgotten and the next time the House will discuss this matter will be in six months time when the problem re-emerges at another level. The problem created today is that people will take up positions before the matter is explained to them. One will be on the back-foot trying to deal with it and the changes will never be managed. I would appreciate if Members on the other side of the House would raise this matter with their parliamentary parties, asking how we get ourselves into these situations. I want a debate on the public service, the service we need from it and the changes and modernisation processes it requires.
Four weeks from today we will be voting on the Lisbon reform treaty. I am glad the level of engagement on it from other Members has increased. The Labour Party launched its campaign last weekend and I canvassed in Kentstown, County Meath. People were happy to engage on the issues but some confusion exists on taxation, for example. It will not be affected by the treaty as an article in this week's The Economist magazine makes clear.
There is also a desire among people to give the Government a bloody nose for its mismanagement of the economy. We must respond that the only people who lose from a "No" vote are the Irish people. I am asking people to hold their anger back until next year's local elections when they can then give the Government a bloody nose. I will be canvassing for the treaty later today. I hope Members on the Government benches will do their bit too.
There is growing concern about the impact of fuel price increases. Due to the downturn in the economy, people are finding it more difficult to pay their fuel bills, particularly those on low incomes, the elderly and lone parents. Action needs to be taken on this. My party has drafted a fuel poverty Bill and will hold a consultation later today in Buswells Hotel. I encourage Members of the Government side to come along. The VAT returns on fuel bills have risen significantly in the past several years. Is it possible to reduce it? The utility companies also need to address this matter. Last year Bord Gáis made a profit of €160 million but now is seeking a 20% increase in its bills for next year. Does it not know how much money it has in its accounts? I am beginning to wonder if a Fianna Fáil cumann treasurer is in charge of the company.
They would know how much money there is.
I support the call for a debate on fuel poverty. The Government's mechanism for tackling it is through the fuel allowance payments. Commitments should be given to not only increase the amount of the fuel allowance payment but also to extend its duration. A small effort was made in this year's budget and will continue in the lifetime of the Government. This is the best mechanism for dealing with the increases in energy costs.
The price of a barrel of oil now stands at €126. Whatever the Opposition may think about the Government's management of the economy, this is one increase for which the Government cannot be accused. There must be a policy of energy efficiency, better energy management and better insulation of housing. Those on low incomes deserve a debate on their real needs from this House rather than the scoring of political points.
Following the 2002 general election, the Government made certain decisions regarding the management of the built and natural environment heritage. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was given responsibility for policy on heritage matters whereas the operational role and management of built heritage was given to the Office of Public Works. In fact it always had been with the OPW as it had the acknowledged expertise and competencies in this regard. Some confusion has arisen in some areas, however. Ross Castle and Muckross Abbey are managed by the OPW while Muckross House, Killarney House and Glenveagh Castle are managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I understand there will be a clarification of ministerial responsibilities in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism.
What is the question?
I will come to that in one second.
There seem to be different stories in this morning's newspapers regarding the intended roles of the Minister of Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Cullen, and the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh. It might be time for the Government to tidy up the anomalies in the management of the built heritage.
On the Adjournment recently, I raised the issue of the lack of enforceable legislation for dangerous dogs. I have been made aware of various cases of loose dogs on other's private property. On Highland Radio yesterday, I commented on a case where a child was badly bitten by a dog on another's property but it did not fall under a dangerous dog category. The answers I am receiving do not indicate whether there is a gap in legislation. The Garda and the dog wardens in County Donegal claim they do not have legislation to deal with certain cases of dangerous dogs. Can the Garda and dog wardens have the existing legislation clarified? Publication of the animal welfare Bill is 18 months away but I do not want a case of a child being badly injured by a dog before then.
Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur as Béarla. Yesterday the Seanad was interested in devoting three days to debating the Irish language and culture. Will the Leader consider moving the Seanad for a week to the Donegal Gaeltacht to experience immersion in Irish?
The Senator can address that to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
If we are evaluating immersion in the language for schools, then we should lead by example and see how immersion works for us.
Would the bean an tí put up with us?
I agree with Senator O'Toole about the manner in which the proposed changes in the HSE have been handled. It has been done in a clumsy and unfeeling fashion. There is a human context to the proposed changes with people facing mortgage repayments and so forth and it must be managed sensitively. On the other hand, it is appropriate that we examine whether there is excess fat at managerial level that can be cut out.
Before Christmas I was informed of a case where a woman lobbied for a form of treatment for her child and others who suffer from a particular syndrome. It was agreed upon and two managers were appointed. However, the recruitment embargo in public health then came up, leaving two managers being paid, no medical personnel employed and no delivery of service. It is insane. If this is widespread in the HSE, I would be glad if some surgery were performed.
A Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in several weeks will discuss economic partnership agreements. These operate very significantly to the disadvantage of Third World countries, particularly in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. These countries have been bullied and browbeaten. Mr. Mandelson in particular has been accused very widely of bullying these people. The Foreign Minister of the Cook Islands accused him of throwing tantrums to force them into a position of accepting a situation that was inimical to the well-being and financial prospects of his country. The Minister for Trade in Samoa said they suffered the indignity of the rudeness of Commissioner Mandelson to all the Pacific island ministers who were present.
They are trying to force the reduction or abolition of tariffs on a scale that is far beyond what is required by the World Trade Organisation. It is sheer economic selfishness and neoliberal economics, and is one of the reasons I have spoken out against the intensification of this policy under the Lisbon treaty. We already have it. If the Government wants to prove to the Irish people that we have a humane streak and we will stand out, as we did in the past——
Is the Senator calling for a debate?
Very clearly, I have something to ask. For example, the west African ministers said they deplored the pressure exerted by the European Commission and the African Union said that the process leading to the conclusion of interim economic partnership agreements did not build on what was negotiated earlier and was a result of pressure being exerted.
I want to make three points. First, the Government should clearly and specifically ask for independent evaluations and impact assessments of what has been agreed already because this will impact on education, health, social welfare and infrastructure in these countries. Second, there should be renegotiation of any aspect that is found unsatisfactory and a reduction to the minimum necessary to comply with the WTO. Third, flexibility should be granted to these developing countries. We have already colonised them. The European countries colonised these areas in the 19th century and raped them of their natural resources. Now, we are continuing this process and using the European Union to drive them further back into economic slavery.
I wish to raise a matter that the Leader might refer to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Since my appointment to the Seanad, I have noticed that the Leader is inundated with a large number of requests daily. Indeed, I have also tabled numerous issues for him. I wonder what level of support and structures are in place to come back to the Members of the House with regard to their requests.
This issue was brought to my attention recently. I asked the Leader on 24 April about the suggestion that smear testing in our public laboratories was to be outsourced and that the public hospital laboratories had been turned down for reporting on smear tests under the national cancer screening programme. I indicated that this information should set alarm bells ringing and that the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland had serious reservations about the outsourcing of smear tests, which would have many negative consequences for patients and future pathology training. I asked whether the Leader would clarify the position and, while I have no doubt he has endeavoured to do so, I have not received any clarity since 24 April.
I understand from today's newspaper that a US company, Quest, has been awarded the contract for testing cervical smears, although the same company is alleged to be at the centre of a fraud probe in the US in connection with billing of unnecessary tests——
Is the Senator seeking a debate on this matter?
I raised the issue on 24 April but I have not received a response. I have raised other issues and I know many other Members have raised issues. It is a matter for the CPP that supports and structures should be in place so that when a Member raises an issue, there must be some measure of communication with the Member, perhaps not directly from the Leader as we cannot put everything on his desk, but from the relevant authority with which the issue is being raised and within an appropriate number of days, as agreed by all Members. In this case, the relevant authority would be the Department of Health and Children. I put this to the Leader and he might take the opportunity to respond.
There is a second issue I have raised on a number of occasions, including yesterday. I asked that an all-party motion be agreed, with or without debate in the House, on the humanitarian issues that pertain in both Burma and China. I expressed my concern that the aid agencies and diplomats working there to assist people who are being struck — I gave a figure of 1.8 million people homeless for Burma——
Many other Senators are offering to speak.
I would ask that the leaders do something to progress an all-party motion. The picture in today's newspaper of one innocent child tells the story in its own way.
On a point of order, Members should wait for the Leader's reply. The Leader in the past two days has told the House there is a debate and an all-party motion on Burma next Tuesday. It happens all the time that Members raise issues on the Order of Business, do not wait for the reply and then raise them again two days later. It is just——
That is not a point of order. I call Senator Alan Kelly.
In the recent past, we have listened to various Members of both Houses raise the issue of public sector reform. It has been raised again in the House today, as it has been on most days recently. I agree that the House should have a debate on public sector reform although I am not sure I would go along with some of the views of other Members. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator O'Toole on the issue of how the Government is going about managing change from a public sector perspective and its mismanagement of the area. However, I disagree with his acceptance of the views the Taoiseach has expressed in recent days.
Public sector reform is the buzz phrase being used lately. We need to define what we are talking about because we can be talking about many different issues. I am not sure whether there is a consensus on the focus of the reform that is needed. I found it extraordinary that the Taoiseach was able to stand up yesterday and blame everyone bar his Government for the fact thousands of people are waiting for speech and language therapy. Half the posts in my area of north Tipperary are not filled and have not been for a number of years. After 11 years in Government, it is extraordinary and ridiculous that he can blame everyone but his Government.
In considering public sector reform, we cannot allow employers to target the administrative and clerical grades alone. A discourse seems to be emanating from many employers in a certain tone, which is not acceptable. We must look at the management, the quangos, the boards and the level of their performance. There are a number of questions——
Is Senator Kelly supporting the call for a debate?
I have already said I am asking for a debate. I will conclude. As well as looking at this from the bottom up, we need to look at it from the top down. We also need to consider the level of management and its performance. I do not believe the performance level in many areas is up to scratch and it therefore needs to be examined. To give an example, I have raised on a number of occasions the fact there are a number of tourism agencies in this city. One of these, the national tourism development authority, Fáilte Ireland, vacated a building 16 months ago but is still paying rent for it. Is this acceptable?
As one who worked for the public service for many years, I support the remarks of Senator Joe O'Toole. I do not believe anyone with even a scintilla of fair-mindedness would accept that what is happening today and has been happening for some time is the right way to do business. At the end of the day, we are talking about public service. The operative word is "service", which is or is not being provided.
It would behove the media to support this. They have been calling for reform ad nauseam but when there is a proposal to do it, everything is wrong. For example, statistics on the National Treatment Purchase Fund show there is a gap as wide as the Grand Canyon between the number of cases taken by consultants referring patients through the fund and the number of other cases.
I am. There is a lot to be considered, including better local government. Anyone who is a member of a local authority will know very well that the number of people doing certain jobs has been reduced greatly. In some cases there were twice as many doing these jobs some years ago. This must be taken into consideration.
I ask the Leader again to invite the Minister responsible for fisheries to the House to have a debate in the presence of Senator Carty, our spokesperson on fisheries. There is chaos on our rivers and lakes. Not only are stocks being depleted, they are being eliminated. In one case in Westmeath, an individual came upon the people responsible and was threatened. They tried to throw him into the water. That is a very serious matter. Those responsible are not locals; they are non-nationals.
People are very welcome to these shores, but when in Rome, one does as the Roman's do. Everything is taken out and nothing is being put back. What is happening is a disgrace.
In this week's Irish Farmers’ Journal, a poll shows that 78% of farmers are concerned about the WTO talks. This is largely due to the Government playing games with the issue. It has not clarified its position on the veto. As discussed in the House, the veto does not apply in the case of international agreements on agriculture per se. The WTO talks pertain to a mixed agreement on goods and services in respect of which the Government does have a veto. Is this the Government’s understanding of the matter and is it prepared to exercise the veto? Until the Government makes a clear statement on this issue, farmers will remain concerned and will make a link, however false, with the Lisbon treaty. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to clarify his understanding of the exercise of the veto in this round of WTO negotiations and state whether the Government is prepared to exercise it.
It has been asked whether the veto will remain after the passage of the treaty. The reality is that the treaty states expressly the Council shall act unanimously for the negotiations and conclusions of agreements in the area of social, educational and health services. This is the link that enables a veto to apply in the present case but if there is a similar mixed international agreement in the future, this provision would apply and a veto could be exercised. It is important to recognise that the Government has a veto on a mixed agreement and will continue to do so.
The farm organisations and others, including political parties, have made a link between the WTO talks and the Lisbon treaty. The reality is that there is no legal link although there is a political one. Farm organisations must be aware that if they make the political link and persist in doing so, there will be consequences. It is incumbent on the Government to clarify the position.
The medium-term economic review published this week by the ESRI pointed out the importance of services to our economy. Agriculture is very important but, according to the review, services now account for 43% of our exports and will account for 60% by 2015. Therefore, a balanced agreement is important. We need to achieve a good agreement for agriculture and also for services.
He wants the Leader to clarify the position.
I ask that the Minister be specific on these issues. It is only by his doing so that we can persuade farmers there is no link between the Lisbon treaty and the WTO round and that the Government will act in their interest in the negotiations.
Many opinions were expressed on public sector reform. If one analyses Members' views, one will note that each may have a different definition of what is meant by the term "public service reform". Public service reform should be geared specifically towards the delivery of public services in an efficient, cost-effective manner. Rather than devoting sound bites to the matter the Order of Business, it probably merits a full debate.
Without doubt there are excellent people in the public service and there are also those who operate sufficiently to justify their positions. There are also under-performers, as there are in every sector, including the private sector. The big difference is that, in the private sector, the under-performers do not survive. Unfortunately, they do in the public service and this needs to be addressed.
Cost-effectiveness is an issue. I was surprised recently by the psychiatric nurses dispute. I do not want to comment on the issues in question because I believe they should not be raised in these Houses. There is industrial relations machinery in place that serves as an effective mechanism to address them.
I noticed in some reports the sickness benefits that apply within the psychiatric service and, I am sure, in many other categories of the public service. When staff become permanently ill, they receive five sixths of their salary. There is no way one would buy permanent health insurance in the private sector such that one could obtain 50% of one's salary, not to mention five sixths. There has been very little highlighting of this issue and it needs to be addressed. All such practices and unsustainable systems in the public service need to be examined, but in a way that is fair on those who devote their lives to working in the public service. I request a debate on this subject.
Will the Leader allow a debate on inflation? We had a good debate last night on the economy. Disparate views were expressed on a range of factors affecting it but we would be better to focus on specific factors that are essential to our economic success. Perhaps we can influence policy by focusing on them specifically.
Major price increases are being sought in the energy sector. Oil prices are affected internationally, as we know, but the prices of electricity and gas are also increasing rapidly. This will have an adverse effect on people if this continues. The problem needs to be addressed and I ask that there be a full debate thereon.
Senator Keaveney suggested that for those of us learning Irish, the Seanad should meet in the Donegal Gaeltacht. There are a number of us studying French and I propose that a small delegation consider going to Provence or the Riviera. We would not have any difficulty with that.
Senator Walsh referred to the cost of energy. An interesting lecture was given on energy policy last week by a Cambridge professor as part of the RDS The Irish Times lecture series. The lecture was entitled “Nuclear Energy — Why is it on the Agenda?” It should have been entitled, “Nuclear Energy — Why is it not on the Agenda?” We have not discussed nuclear energy because we did not need to in the past. I was in France recently and noticed the French do not need to worry about it because a large proportion of their energy is derived from nuclear sources. I am not advocating nuclear energy because we have not even had the debate. However, it is clearly worthy of debate.
An article on China in today's The Irish Times states China is building a coal-burning unit every six days. Moreover, in a single year, the amount of new coal-burning units they are developing equals the total output of the British national grid. We must find a solution under energy economics, energy saving and climate change to ensure Ireland has the ability to handle this issue and the debate on nuclear energy should not be excluded. Members should consider holding a debate on energy. Although debates on energy have been held previously, this time Members should include the possibility that nuclear power should be on the agenda.
Yesterday Members had a helpful debate in respect of rural development. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, was very forthcoming on issues under his remit. He also suggested that Members might invite him back to the House a number of times because the portfolio under discussion is multifaceted and very comprehensive. Although yesterday's debate had been allocated a reasonable amount of time, Members found they were unable to get to the nitty-gritty of some of the issues in which they were interested.
Obviously, the news that the Minister will announce details next week of the Leader programme with a budget of €425 million is welcome. However, Members would like to discuss many issues that fall within that budget. I refer in particular to the need for diversification into non-agricultural areas of employment, social issues and so on. While many issues may apply to both urban and rural areas, rural Ireland undoubtedly has specific issues and challenges. As more than one third of the population lives in rural Ireland, it requires a considerable amount of attention.
I listened to "The Late Late Show" the other night. Other Members also may have seen the programme. It featured Councillor Michael Healy-Rae who to an extent was representing rural Ireland. It struck me that the points he made regarding one-off housing, planning restrictions and so on struck a chord with what basically was an urban-based audience. While I was surprised by the good reaction he received, most fair-minded people will agree that a serious issue exists. One cannot have rural development without people and all Members will have encountered cases that are very difficult to explain. It is a matter neither of bad planning nor of having no respect for the environment. It is quite the opposite because the people——
Does the Senator seek a debate on the matter?
I do. The Minister should be invited to the House for a number of debates on different issues. However, an issue such as one-off housing can no longer be sidelined. Daughters and sons are not allowed to build houses near their families and no good reason is given other than something that is quite vague. Members must take the bull by the horns in this case and take a stand to help rural Ireland in a practical and proactive way.
Immediately after the conclusion of the Order of Business this morning, Members will complete their deliberations on the Dublin Transport Authority Bill 2008 by debating the Bill's Report and Final Stages. As Members are aware, this Bill was initiated in this House and in recent weeks, Members have devoted much effort to it. Many Members spent much time on the Bill, tabled many amendments and debated it at length with the Minister who accepted many of the amendments. Last week, Members spent several hours debating amendments without concluding Committee Stage, which Stage resumed on Tuesday and, after several more hours of debate, concluded at 6 p.m.
After the conclusion of Committee Stage, the Bills Office must then print the Bill as amended. Members were given a deadline of noon yesterday by which to have tabled Report Stage amendments. Senators Donohoe and Norris and I spent much time going through the amendments. Although Members had the opportunity to debate the Bill first in this House, the matter has been rushed at the end for no practical reason. Members have not been able to conclude it properly. They should be given time to research the issues, respond to the Minister's replies, take up and seek advice on the Minister's comments regarding his own advice and to respond. Yesterday morning, while Members were attempting to table amendments, the electronic version of the Bill was not available on the Internet, which is completely unacceptable. The Bill probably will sit on the Dáil Order Paper for three months. At a minimum, I ask the Leader to respond to this issue positively. Members must have at least a week between Committee and Report Stages to be able to do justice to legislation and in particular to legislation that commences in this House.
That is a good point.
I agree with Senator O'Toole's comments on the need for public service reform and the need for an urgent debate. Yesterday, in his contribution on the Private Members' motion, Senator Walsh referred to the fact there should be a pay freeze. Under no circumstances should a pay freeze be countenanced given the increase in inflation. In fairness to public servants, they deserve a minimum of a moderate pay rise.
I will provide one example of the need for urgent reform of the public service. Earlier this week I met a person who works in a key position in the Health Service Executive and who intends to take maternity leave. Her job was advertised, interviews were held, a candidate was selected and offered a job and was informed the start date would be 1 May. The successful applicant then received a telephone call to state that arising from the embargo on staff recruitment, the job would not be filled. This leads to a lack of service delivery. To borrow a phrase used yesterday, this constitutes a dereliction of duty to the people. Public service reform arises in the context of management. It pertains to the way in which it is being managed rather than to the front-line staff or the public servants who deliver great service every day.
It also pertains to the lack of political accountability and responsibility on the part of the Government.
Does the Senator support the call for a debate?
I do. The Government has funked the issues since it took office. Ministers come to this House, mouth off and then run off to do something else. Leadership and accountability is required from the Government. What does the Taoiseach mean by public service reform? To whom is he referring? The people on the front line should not be blamed. Rather, one should blame those who implement change and who created the quangos and agencies that are in place.
Members should have a debate on the number of agencies and quangos created by the Government, as well as on the number of political appointees. A real debate should be held in this regard.
The Senator has made his point.
That was a Second Stage speech.
The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has new proposals in this regard.
It is clear that public sector reform now means giving the Health Service Executive €30 million to sack 1,000 people who work under its auspices at present. This morning in the Dáil, the Tánaiste replied to questions from the Opposition by stating the Government was considering an application by the HSE for €30 million for the aforementioned 1,000 redundancies. According to Government sources, it is as though there is no connection between the HSE and the Government. However, the Government created the bureaucratic nightmare that is the executive. This body is almost impossible to deal with from a customer service point of view and is equally difficult to deal with from a public representative's perspective.
Members are being asked to believe it is a stand-alone authority. I revert to a point I have made in the House previously, namely, that body was created to shield the Minister for Health and Children of the day from criticism and this is not good enough. Moreover, it is not good enough to announce such plans on the airwaves without any consultation with the trade union movement. This is a disgrace.
I raised a point in this House approximately two weeks ago regarding the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and contracts it was offering in respect of ferry transport services from offshore islands to the mainland. I raised the issue regarding west Cork in particular, where the European TUPE regulations on the transfer of undertakings to guarantee workers' rights and protect their standards were removed from one such contract. However, the Northern Ireland Administration offered a contract in respect of the Rathlin Island ferry in which the same clause was inserted. Has the Leader given consideration to my request to allow Members time to debate this issue with the Minister in respect of ferry contracts?
I support Senator Brendan Ryan's point. While I do not believe the Leader intends any malice in this regard, it is neither good enough nor practical to take Committee and Report Stages within a 24-hour period when the deadline for amendments after Committee Stage is 12 noon and Members still do not have access to an electronic version of the amended Bill to deal with. This is creating all kinds of nightmares for staff, both in the Bills Office and in political parties, who have to deal with such a short timeframe. I am sure the Leader will consider this matter.
There has been much debate on the Lisbon reform treaty and today an article in the Irish Independent states that the “No” campaign will spend approximately €3.5 million in spreading its message. That campaign includes the Libertas group which will spend excessive amounts of money on the same errand. I am not sure where this group comes from nor how it is funded. Many people would like to know, however, how it is funded and to whom it is accountable. The message that Libertas is putting out during this campaign is confusing the electorate. I call on that group and on other organisations calling for a “No” vote to stop scaremongering and to tell the truth. One of the areas in which Libertas is raising fear is that of taxation, its message being that there is a threat to the taxation rate set in this country. That is untrue because unanimity is totally protected in all taxation matters. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, has addressed that issue correctly and he is the man we should be listening to, not to those who are scaremongers.
With regard to baggage charges in our airports, we are now in the summer season and many families and individuals may wish to go abroad on holidays. People travel more often than before and therefore they look for the best deals by booking on-line with airlines, travel agents and so on. The difficulty is that airport baggage charges are increasing. Last week Aer Lingus increased its charge for a bag from €12 to €18. These are hidden charges which consumers do not see when booking a flight. They are hit with excessive charges if they do not book on-line and so must pay at the airport. This is an area that affects very many families on low budgets across the country.
I call on the Leader to have the matter investigated in the House. The Consumer Protection Agency has a role but I believe that this House should invite the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to come here and that we should examine this issue in the next number of weeks. The Leader has an interest in this matter and I call on him to do this, given that it is a time when many people are considering booking flights. This morning a company advertised a seat sale that is valid until midnight tonight. There is indeed a seat sale but when a person gets to the baggage situation he or she is penalised for extra baggage and associated charges. This area must be investigated because consumers are being attacked and are walking blindfolded into those charges.
I support the calls by other Senators for debates on various matters. I entirely support what Senator Ryan said this morning about the lack of time allowed between the different Stages for the Bill on the Dublin transport authority. The thinking behind its current handling is that if it is done in this way its progress through the Seanad will be accelerated. This is counter-productive. What happens is that because of the lack of time between the different Stages, when it comes to putting down amendments the temptation is to restore all the amendments that were discussed only days before. This is because there is so little time, first to get the legislation and then to consider it properly. I suspect that the Stage of debate to take place in the House this afternoon will take a lot longer than it should because on this side of the House there has not been the amount of time needed to do what the Government and the people expect of Members. I am sure this does not happen because of any malice on the Leader's part but it is getting in the way of Senators performing a proper role regarding important legislation.
Senator Ó Murchú made reference to the debate on community affairs that took place yesterday with the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív. I took an opportunity to listen to some of this debate and it seemed to be a very interesting and productive discussion. I believe that when such debate is engaged in the future we should recognise that issues regarding community life are not exclusively rural. I would appreciate if, during any debates we set forth on community life, the terms of reference would permit Senators to raise issues that concern the other two-thirds of the population. I do not denigrate in any way what was discussed yesterday but there are many other topics and issues affecting community life in urban settings that merit discussion as well.
I call for a debate on the current funding of housing projects in the State. Most major public housing projects are being delivered through public private partnerships. There are four such in my constituency. Of late there are rumours that developers are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver this work because of the current credit crunch. Confirmation of this has appeared in some newspapers today. I would appreciate if the Leader scheduled a debate on how this country funds these projects and in particular, on the use of public private partnerships. The aim is to ensure that good use might be made of these in the changed economic environment. While this might appear to be a dry, technical topic——
Is the Senator calling for a debate on this matter?
I am. We should remember that the people who are suffering because of delays are those who have been looking for new housing, for years in many cases. The carpet is now being pulled out from under their feet due to circumstances beyond their control. I want to see how the Government will respond to this and I would appreciate a debate.
I ask the Leader to inquire from the relevant Department concerning the financial regulation of transactions taking place in the markets, such as those in France which were the work of one bank official. The interesting thing about that situation was that so much money was involved without any regulation and yet other matters are regulated to a high degree. These things affect us and this could happen again. It has happened concerning the re-packaging of loans by a couple of banks in the sub-prime lending market. In the ongoing Irish and European context there does not appear to be a system to regulate the very large amounts of money that are invested at high risk and thus ensure that the liquidity and the safety of banks are kept at a safe level.
Senators Twomey, O'Toole and Norris have called for another debate on issues regarding the Health Service Executive, particularly its announcement of reduction of staff levels in management and front line staff. I have no difficulty in assigning time for this. Senator Twomey called for a debate with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, concerning housing levels and the 80,000 houses that were under construction over the past number of years and the 25% of the population who have moved into new houses over the past ten years. We can examine all of this. There is great value for anyone who is trying to buy a house and there will never be as good a bargain as exists on the market today.
It is my opinion and that of a large number of those I speak to in the business fraternity that a four-bedroom semi-detached house for €190,000——
The Leader will sell those houses yet.
A site could not be bought for that price two years ago, in the midlands, Mullingar——
——the beautiful lake district of Ireland.
The Leader should be specific.
These are good neighbours.
It is our duty to bring to the attention of the electorate and to our constituents that while all the doom and gloom may come from one side of the House, this morning the sun is shining on the Government side
The Leader should go out and talk to the ordinary people of Ireland.
We must give the truth in the news. Members who are only here a short time will learn. They should not give the House the benefit of their inexperience on a daily basis. Senator O'Toole, Senator Kelly, Senator Glynn, Senator Walsh, Senator Buttimer and Senator McCarthy——
The Leader is here too long. He is insulated from the truth.
——called for an urgent debate on the public service. I have no difficulty with allocating time for that. There is much merit in having such a debate at the earliest opportunity and I will facilitate the Senators' request.
Senator Hannigan and Senator Ó Domhnaill expressed their views on the Lisbon treaty, with Senator Hannigan correctly pointing out that the referendum will be held on this day four weeks. They also spoke about the tactics being used by various parties. There will be no difficulty in allocating further time for a discussion on the treaty so the public can be informed to the best of the Senators' abilities.
Senator Hannigan, Senator Boyle and Senator Quinn sought a debate on energy costs. This is a serious challenge facing the nation at present, and it is not of our making. All sides of the House realise this because energy costs were a major challenge when the Opposition was in Government many years ago. We can only learn from their experience. It has been painful, to say the least. We must focus on alternative energy.
When we have the debate on energy and energy costs, we should also examine the alternatives. I understand an advanced technological plan is being put together by the Mulcahy group at present. If that plan is feasible, it will solve Ireland's energy problems for hundreds of years. Being an island nation is a huge advantage with regard to wave power and if the plan comes to fruition, it will be a leader not only in Europe but the world in confronting the ills of the energy challenge. The energy challenge is serious because when energy costs increase, food costs also increase and the poorer sections of our community are badly affected. Nobody wants that to happen.
Senator Coghlan asked me to clarify who is the Minister for arts. It is Deputy Martin Mansergh, a distinguished former Member of Seanad Éireann, who was in the House last night. We are very proud of his new appointment. As a Deputy for the Tipperary South constituency he will look after the Munster area. Why should he not?
That seems to conflict with some of what we heard this morning.
Where is the one who does not love the land where they are born? The Senator, along with his friend, Deputy Healy-Rae, will be pleased to hear who will be looking after them for the next four years.
Senator Keaveney spoke about the problem being experienced in County Donegal. It is not possible to indicate at this stage when the animal health Bill, to update the animal diseases legislation, will be published. However, I will keep the House informed as the Bill progresses through drafting. The Senator also had a suggestion as to where the Seanad should sit. That is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. If the Senator wishes to pursue her suggestion, she should write to the Cathaoirleach, who is the Chairperson of the committee.
Senator Norris asked me to convey his views to the Minister for Foreign Affairs with regard to tariffs and the other issues he highlighted. I will do that.
Senator Callely again asked about questions he raised on the Order of Business and he also raised the issue of support. The Taoiseach has back-up in the Dáil, with civil servants sitting at his right hand side when he takes the Order of Business and Leaders' Questions. The job of the Leader in the Seanad is to order the business of the House and to take note of queries and urgent matters raised by Senators and pass them to the various Ministers, which I do each day through my secretariat. There is also the issue of urgent debates on matters of importance to the nation. We decide that on a weekly basis and I consult with the leaders of all groups for half an hour before the first sitting day each week. We do that in an orderly manner and try to secure consensus on an all-party basis. The system has been working successfully.
However, I will take Senator Callely's proposals to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Perhaps the Seanad reform proposals could address the matters which the Senator raised this morning. I accept the bona fides of his request and will endeavour to progress it.
We will consider Seanad reform after the summer recess. It is one year into the term of this Seanad and we have established the areas that need to be addressed. There is a new Taoiseach and Government in place, so it would be timely to consider Seanad reform in October and November and perhaps produce a proposal for Government before Christmas. It is a matter on which the assistance of all Senators will be required. We wish to make our presence more relevant and to help the Government, Departments and the various Ministers to ensure the country's future success. I look forward to receiving the views and proposals of all Senators on this issue.
The debate on Burma will take place after the Order of Business next Tuesday. Senator Callely suggested that the earthquake in China be included in that debate. We have seen the devastation being endured by the poor people of China on our television screens. It is appalling and one's heart goes out to them. It makes one realise how fortunate we are that this part of the world does not have the dreadful events being experienced by those poor unfortunate people. I will include China in that debate on Tuesday.
Senator Glynn sought a debate on fish stocks in the lake county and the abuses occurring there. I had put in a request to the Minister but as there has been a change of personnel, it will probably be a few weeks before the new Minister's diary will facilitate a visit to the House.
Senator Regan spoke about the World Trade Organisation negotiations. This is due to be discussed next Wednesday in the presence of the new Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith. Various points were made this morning by a number of Senators, particularly Senator Regan, about our veto. I am sure the Minister will clarify the issue on Wednesday. Senator Regan, along with Senator Jim Walsh, also sought a debate on the ESRI report on the medium-term economic outlook. That would be timely and I will allocate time for it.
Senator Ó Murchú and Senator Donohoe spoke of the successful debate yesterday with the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, on rural development. I can organise another debate on the subject. When one considers that one third of the population lives in rural Ireland while 50% of the other two thirds of the population are people from rural areas living in the cities and larger towns, most people can identify with this issue, although the success in our quality of life is due to people from all parts of Ireland, be they rural or urban.
Senator Ó Murchú raised the issue of one-off rural housing. It would be timely to examine this issue. We might consider the experience with the Westmeath county development plan. A new county development plan was produced for 2008 to 2013. The councillors had another look at it a month later, realised the definitions and terms might not be what they had intended, appointed a sub-committee with representatives from each political party and fine-tuned the plan and brought it in last Monday week. My dear colleague, the late Tom Cowley, who died last week, was one of those who popularised the idea that young people deserve to be able to live in the place of their birth. Most Members of the Seanad support that idea, regardless of whether they come from rural or urban areas. Given that local authority members elect us as legislators to this House, we need to support them when they put these plans in place. I agree with the request made by Senators Ó Murchú and Donohoe for a lengthy debate, perhaps a half-day debate, with the Minister on how best to meet the challenges we will encounter in this area.
Senators Ryan and Donohoe are 50% right and 50% wrong with the point they make about the Dublin Transport Authority Bill 2008. The first day of the Committee Stage debate on the Bill was a week ago. I have been impressed by the contributions made by all Senators, including transport spokespersons, during the debate on the legislation. The Minister accepted amendments on Committee Stage because he was impressed by the genuine proposals being made. When the Committee Stage debate did not conclude a week ago, it had to be resumed on Tuesday of this week. Senators Ryan and Donohoe have suggested that the timeframe that was set out did not afford them a chance to propose amendments, for genuine reasons. I remind the House that as the Bill was initiated here, it will return to this House after it has been considered by the Dáil. We are aware that the Minister has an open mind on the Bill. When legislation is being handled by a Minister with such an attitude, it is worth making proposals when it returns to the House. I ask Senators for their co-operation in this area.
Senator Ryan suggested that the Bill might stay in the Dáil for three or four months, but I understand that the Dáil is likely to conclude its consideration of it before the summer recess. It will return to this House in the first week of July, which is the final Seanad sitting week before the recess. I assure the House I will grant Senators Ryan and Donohoe any extra time that is needed at that stage. I thank them for their participation and co-operation in respect of this legislation.
I remind the House that another Bill, the Broadcasting Bill 2008, will be initiated in the Seanad next week. It will be considered by Senators on Second Stage next Thursday. It is uplifting that so much legislation is being initiated in the House.
Senator McCarthy asked me to invite the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to come to the House to discuss ferry services and contracts. I have no difficulty setting time aside for such a discussion.
Senator Ó Domhnaill called on the Minister for Transport to participate in a debate in the Seanad on the issue of airport baggage charges. There have been many changes in the travel industry over the past 20 years. Michael O'Leary of Ryanair has made an immeasurable contribution to Ireland in that time. Ryanair has added to the attractiveness of Ireland as a tourist destination. When Irish people living in other countries wish to come home, they can do so less expensively. If my local team was in a county final 20 years ago, people could not afford to come home for the replay if the match ended in a draw. We now have affordable travel, thankfully. I accept that certain companies are trying to get a little extra from passengers by imposing baggage charges. I have no difficulty setting time aside so Senator Ó Domhnaill can discuss this matter.
Senator Donohoe has suggested that the House should debate the issues of house funding, public private partnerships and long waiting lists. It is a very good proposal. We will set time aside for a discussion. Perhaps Fine Gael will use its one remaining Private Members' business before the summer recess to initiate a debate on these matters. It will be difficult to meet all Senators' requests before the recess.
Senator Hanafin highlighted the dangers which may result from the serious position in which banks throughout the world currently find themselves as a consequence of sub-prime lending. The Senator mentioned a particular example that was highlighted by a bank official. I have no difficulty with having a debate on this subject.