The Order of Business is No. 1, Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006 — Committee Stage. It is proposed that it be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business.
Order of Business.
On the Civil Partnership Bill 2004, it appears that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, said the Bill would be delayed when he launched the "Pride 08" festival in Dublin last night. It seems the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is unable to confirm if the draft legislation will be available before the summer recess. There was a very good debate in the House on this issue and the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan promised that the heads of the Bill would be published before 31 March. What is happening with this legislation, why has it reached an impasse and will it be brought before the Dáil and Seanad before the summer recess as promised? This is important legislation as there is significant inequality here. It is important if a Minister gives a promise that the public see that he keeps it. The commitment was clear and I remember the Leader saying this too. I ask the Leader to clarify what is happening with this legislation, which has been promised for a long time. I hope it will not be delayed again.
I raise the issues of increasing costs for the consumer, consumer protection and what the Government is doing to protect consumers. Last week the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy John McGuinness, agreed on the Adjournment that consumers are being ripped off. He said that prices here for a wide range of goods have been higher than those in the United Kingdom and that, even after adjustments to take account of different rates of VAT, a basket of internationally branded goods cost 22% more here than in the eurozone. He then went on to say that Ireland is not a low-cost economy but there are justifiable grounds for scepticism about the claim that higher prices here are attributable solely to higher costs. The Minister of State agrees that consumers are being ripped off and that there is no logic to this. I would like to know the outcome of the meeting between the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the organisation concerned with this matter, the National Consumer Agency, following the request from the Taoiseach last week. What actions do the Government propose to examine the price rip-off affecting consumers here? The "Today with Pat Kenny" radio programme this morning carried out a survey of prices comparing a typical basket of food. The price of the average shopping basket has increased by approximately 20% since the end of last year. People are feeling this in their pockets. I wish to hear about the Government's role and its view of its role. It is one thing to tell consumers to shop around, which has been the response so far. That is fair enough but the responsibility does not rest only with consumers. What actions can be taken by Government? Has it talked to the retailers? What is the National Consumer Agency doing to tackle this issue?
Regarding the comments of the Taoiseach on the referendum campaign, I remind him of the work Fine Gael did in campaigning for a "Yes" vote since February.
I remind him of the public meetings, the distribution of literature and the national campaign. The absence of campaigning by other parties in several places is striking. We have to work together on this issue to highlight the benefits of Europe and the Lisbon treaty for Ireland. I do not think the attitude he took will be effective in that regard.
It would be helpful if the Leader clarified the status of the Civil Partnership Bill 2004, which my colleague, Senator Norris, has pushed from the beginning. It has been suggested to us in quiet conversations that all is not well in the serried ranks of Fianna Fáil on this issue and that the Government is stepping back from the policy end because its Members are not as comfortable as heretofore. We certainly noticed that on the vote we previously took on the Bill. Perhaps the Leader can reassure us that the Government has not changed its position on that issue.
An interesting but little noticed report issued last week on an incident which took place last year involving a helicopter in Athlone. According to this report, somebody landed a helicopter on a carpark in the Golden Island shopping centre in Athlone in order to get a key cut. This was clearly a dangerous manoeuvre and the pilot ignored orders not to land given by the carpark supervisor, who was injured while trying to get out of the helicopter's way. I raise the matter because the helicopter in question is registered in the US and consequently does not come under this country's safety legislation, which imposes stringent maintenance rules on aircraft. Given the growing numbers of helicopters in this country, I want reassurance that such aircraft, all of which are potentially dangerous, can be regulated and inspected in Ireland and are required to comply with our regulations. This is a gap in the market which needs to be investigated.
Last year and the year before that, we held long debates on the groceries order. It is ironic that, despite all the wonders its abolition was predicted to bring, nothing has changed and, as Senator Fitzgerald noted, even in respect of goods sold in the same supermarket chain on both sides of the Border, prices are unacceptably higher in the South than in the North. I would welcome a debate on the issue and an explanation as to why these differences exist.
I, too, would like clarification from the Leader on the Government's intentions in regard to the civil union legislation which was promised following several debates in this House and elsewhere. The frustration that the leader of the Green Party and Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government appears to display gives us cause for concern in that regard, and I would welcome the Leader's clarification of the matter.
I ask the Leader to communicate my views, and those of my colleagues, to the Minister for Foreign affairs on foot of the shocking report issued this morning by Save the Children in respect of what appears to be a significant incidence of abuse of young children by small numbers of peacekeepers and aid workers in various parts of the world. Early this morning, I listened to an affecting report on the BBC World Service about the matters which Save the Children exposed. The report described the case of a 12 year old child who had been gang raped by UN peacekeepers in the Ivory Coast. This was raised by the child's parents and other community leaders but nothing was done. Clearly, Save the Children is correct in calling for an urgent inquiry and, if necessary, the establishment of an international watchdog on this serious issue. I ask the Leader to communicate my views to the Minister and to consider arranging a short debate on the matter in the House.
I wish to refer to an issue that is raisedad nauseam in the House. I will not request a debate on it because we will have the opportunity to discuss it tomorrow when it will be the subject of a Private Members’ motion tabled by the Labour Party. I refer to the future of the Health Service Executive. I invite all my colleagues on the opposite side of the House who have expressed their frustration regarding the operations of the HSE on many occasions to support the motion the Labour Party will be tabling.
I invite the Leader and the Deputy Leader not to put forward the usual amendment that is tabled in respect of such a motion and which essentially involves deleting everything after the term "Seanad Éireann" and replacing it with something anodyne. I call on them to genuinely support what we are proposing, namely, a serious set of reforms regarding the HSE. The motion is not a personal attack on the Minister, the Government or anyone else, nor is it a retreading of old arguments. It is comprised of a positive set of proposals regarding how the HSE can be reformed. This issue has been raised on numerous occasions by Senators on the opposite side of the House and I invite them to support the Labour Party motion.
I take this opportunity to respond to some of the requests made by the leaders of the other groups in respect of the current status of the civil partnership Bill. The position is largely unchanged. The Bill is being prepared and further discussion is taking place in respect of certain elements of it. The delay has occurred partly because of those ongoing discussions and also because there is a new Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who is in the process of reading himself into his brief. We had hoped there would be a full consultation period that would run from the end of March or the beginning of April until the Bill's eventual publication. It is likely that the heads of the Bill will be forthcoming by the end of the summer session but this will shorten the consultation period. It is still hoped that the Bill will be published in September or October. There is still a firm commitment to the legislation becoming law with the agreement of both Houses.
There was a definite proposal to publish it by September.
It was March.
It has been moved back slightly.
It would be useful to engage in a debate on pricing and the difference between prices in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Some of us attended the Mitchell conference in Belfast last week and I encountered one notable discrepancy in prices, namely, that charged in respect ofThe Irish Times. North of the Border, that newspaper costs £1 sterling. Under current exchange rates, this amounts to €1.20, which is a full 65 cent less than people in the Republic are obliged to pay for The Irish Times. These discrepancies in pricing appear to work both ways. It would be a good use of the House’s time to debate this matter.
That completes the contributions of the leaders of the various groups. I wish to advise other Members that they should put questions to the Leader. If they are not prepared to obey this direction, I will be obliged to cut across their contributions. A large number of Senators wish to make contributions and I want to afford them the opportunity to do so. In that context, I ask Members to be brief, to put questions to the Leader and to afford him the opportunity to reply to them.
Members on this side of the House warned last week that we are, perhaps, heading back into rip-off Ireland territory. I support everything Senators Fitzgerald and O'Toole said with regard to what is happeningvis-à-vis prices across a range of foodstuffs and, unfortunately, other goods. We would like to know what happened at the meeting that took place between the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, and the National Consumer Agency. In view of the importance of this matter, I wish to propose an amendment to the Order of Business in order that we might debate this matter today and hear the Tánaiste’s views on it.
I regularly travel to the capital by train. I did so again this morning on perhaps what was the only train to leave Mallow today. I was obliged to travel to Mallow by car to ensure I caught the train and I facilitated several Members of the Lower House by giving them a lift to the station.
The Senator should put a question to the Leader.
Of course. I will take the Cathaoirleach's advice in that regard. I am concerned with regard to the management of unions in this country. How is it possible to have this kind of wildcat unofficial industrial action in the first instance, which was allegedly caused by one person, and then have matters inflamed further by someone placing a document in front of workers when they had committed to return to work? People on both sides are in the wrong. I would like to hear the Leader's comments on the subject and perhaps we need a debate on it. This should not be happening. As we know, the Minister had to speak on it yesterday. It is disgraceful.
We will have an opportunity to discuss the Lisbon treaty next week. Perhaps we could discuss its positive aspects, including the enhanced co-operation of national parliaments. The public will understand very clearly the key role of national parliaments in the decision making process. I ask the Leader to facilitate that debate next week in order to clearly reinforce those points.
I would also like a debate on planning with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government put on the agenda at some future date. Perhaps planning legislation should be revisited, particularly the relationship between An Bord Pleanála and planners. The whole process must be reviewed because the public is uneasy about how rural life is developing, the role of An Bord Pleanála with regard to one-off housing and the role of the planners in the process.
I would like the Leader to put the matter on the agenda at some later stage in order that we can have a full discussion.
I join Senator Ormonde in asking again for a debate on the Lisbon treaty, although not quite in the light she wants it. I would like a more balanced debate and I look forward to an opportunity to provide some of that balance. We have not had a balanced debate on the matter in the House. I will say more about that later.
I am very grateful to my colleagues, including Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Boyle and others, for commenting on the absence of legislation about civil partnership. This is extraordinary, and the remarks of the Minister, Deputy Gormley, last night are very worrying. They at least prove I was right to remove my Bill as a mark of the distress I feel at the contempt with which this subject is being treated. The House was clearly misled.
It is not good enough to say we will now have it in September and it was affected by a change of Government. It cannot be just that as we were told the matter would be resolved by 31 March, which was well before the change. We have not got the heads of the Bill yet. We were told clearly and categorically that we would have them, and this is necessary for us to have the debate.
It has also been suggested that the problem may be due to changes in the Cabinet, particularly in the post of Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is more than a decade since we had a debate in this House which led to decriminalisation in this regard. The then Fianna Fáil Government distinguished itself, and in particular the then Minister, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, in her strong cry for liberty and equality. This was reinforced subsequently by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern.
The remarks of Deputy Bertie Ahern on that subject in that debate were recently resurrected. A group of people from various parties came out with equally regressive attitudes. I will say without naming anybody that one of the most vociferous people there subsequently approached me and told me he had revised his opinion in light of the fact that his son told him he was also gay. There is not a single Member whose extended families are not touched by this. We should show a little human decency in this regard.
The Senator has made his point.
The majority of my colleagues on that side spoke very well on that.
The Senator has made the point to the Leader.
The other person suggested was Deputy Coughlan, a very intelligent person. Let it be remembered that within the course of the last Government, she had the unenviable distinction of being the only Minister in Europe to have introduced legislation discriminating against the social rights of gay citizens in this country. That is why people like myself are worried.
The Senator has made his point.
I acknowledge that we will be discussing Thornton Hall on Thursday, which I welcome. It would be foolish not to acknowledge the document, Patients, Not Prisoners, produced by the Central Mental Hospital carers' group, the Irish Mental Health Coalition and Schizophrenia Ireland. I ask other Members to acquire it. It discusses co-location of the mental hospital, which is very worrying to many people.
We should consider Burma again in light of the appalling fact that the junta has extended by six months the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Senator's time is up.
It has also refused to allow non-governmental organisations to travel beyond Rangoon.
I want to raise the issue of the public private partnership position regarding Dublin City Council and developments proposed in recent years. It is time the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government called in the developer and the people in question regarding that development. This has been going on for four or five years. The public private partnership can play a major part in the development of our city but not under the current process because of the way it is being handled. It is taking far too long. There has been four years of debate on St. Michael's Estate. That project was ready to proceed, but because the other part of the agreement was not reached it cannot proceed. Having reached agreement on the PPPs, planning permission must then be applied for. I suggest we ask the city council to use the paragraph VIII provision, which means that planning and the PPP could be agreed together, instead of waiting a further two years.
That is a reasonable proposal.
We cannot change horses in mid-stream when it comes to the PPP and the council changing building regulations. That is what happened in this case. The regulations have changed in terms of bigger apartments, in some cases by 20% to 30%, and we have had the energy increases. How can we have a PPP in place and then change the regulations? The whole process is a mess and the Minister must either come into the House for a debate or call together the parties in question——
I have not heard any good solid proposals from the Senator or from the Labour Party regarding housing.
The Senator has not been listening.
Senator Butler, please.
When I consider that the Senator's party and the Fine Gael Party have led the city council, it is a poor reflection——
On the Order of Business, please.
What about the Galway Races——
——on the regulations they have stood over for many years.
If I were you, Senator White, I would not be so smug. You have not delivered to the people on housing.
Through the Chair please, Senator Butler.
Luxury hotels and tents.
No wonder the tent is gone.
It is meant to be going back up again.
He has not delivered to the people on housing in Dublin city. There are 4,500 people on the housing list. I ask that this situation be expedited immediately.
Is the Senator calling for a debate on PPPs?
Not only do I want a debate, I want the Minister to get together with Dublin City Council and the developer because I believe this problem could be sorted out. There will not be a problem if a reasonable approach to the PPP is taken. When we consider that the development of Ballymun has an overrun of €0.50 billion, it is important we get the PPPs right.
On one of the points Senator Butler raised, Dublin City Council is controlled by a group containing Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party, not Fine Gael. He should check that matter.
I want to ask the Cathaoirleach a procedural question about the leaders of the groups in the House. Perhaps I misread Standing Orders and the rules of the House but I was not aware that Senator Boyle is the leader of a group as outlined under the procedures of the House. The Cathaoirleach might correct me on that issue.
He is Deputy Leader of the House.
He is not the leader of a group.
He is leader of his party but he is the Deputy Leader of the House.
He is not the leader of a group.
He is leader of the Green Party and Deputy Leader of the House.
That is not a group. They are not a group within the House, which is what you said they were.
It is part of the Government side.
It is just a technical question but I accept the Cathaoirleach's point.
I agree with Senator Butler. Virtually every day in the House Members of the Opposition raise the issue of public private partnerships and the apparent collapse of such initiatives in respect of social housing in Dublin. Will the Leader explain why this debate is not on the Order of Business this week? Since it is not scheduled for this week, will he do his utmost to have it on the Order of Business for next week, or at the earliest possible opportunity?
I second the amendment of my colleague, Senator Coghlan, to the Order of Business to the effect that the House should discuss the area of rip-off, with particular reference to the National Consumer Agency and the sterling price difference, which has spiralled out of control in recent months. Before finishing, I want to echo the calls of other Opposition Senators who have expressed disappointment at the words attributed to the Taoiseach at the weekend in terms of his criticisms of the Opposition campaign on the Lisbon treaty. In my constituency it is the Fine Gael campaign alone that has any presence on the ground. The Taoiseach attended a public meeting organised by his party in a neighbouring village to mine last week, where he barely referred to the Lisbon treaty. That turned out, in effect, to be a Fianna Fáil party meeting.
The Senator should address the Leader on the Order of Business.
Virtually no reference was made to the Lisbon treaty during his entire contribution. Perhaps it is possible that the remarks attributed to him at the weekend were misquoted, and the Leader might give the House his opinion in that regard. However, it would be more appropriate for the Taoiseach to lead the Government campaign rather than concentrating on what the Opposition is doing.
I have a couple of questions for the Leader. Given my nice colour from the good weather in Donegal, I want again to ask about the co-ordination of marine activities. Because of the good weather in the past couple of weeks we have had jet skiing, fishing, swimming, yachting and various other activities in the same patch of water, which is quite dangerous. Some of those activities come under the remit of the county council and others come under the remit of various Ministers, such as the Minister for the Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister of State with responsibility for fisheries and forestry, Deputy Tony Killeen, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, and perhaps one other Minister. It is vital that all activity to do with the water should be brought under the remit of one Department. The Leader might bring this to the attention of the Taoiseach, as it might be his responsibility to examine this issue.
Perhaps the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, might be invited to address the Seanad, since he announced today that €61 million would be made available under the equality for women measure of the national development plan, which will actively support women. One of the four strands is to improve women's participation in decision making. We have talked often in the House about the numbers of females involved in politics. Perhaps the Minister might outline to the House details of the four strands targeted under the effective doubling of the money allocated and how it may impact on female participation in decision making at the political level.
The HSE has announced no further embargo on the number of employees who are trying to return to work, following leave of absence, but whose jobs no longer exist because of budgetary constraints. These highly qualified professionals are in limbo because, although technically they have jobs, they cannot work. The fact that most health areas are now overspent on their budgets leaves these people in the invidious position of not knowing to what they can have access in terms of getting back to work.
I also want to raise the issue of psychology services, which are now at a critical level within the health service. Many individuals with serious but treatable psychological or psychiatric disorders must remain untreated or go on waiting lists for excessively long periods. We need to have a debate on vital services that might not be measurable in discrete terms. Proper early intervention, as we all know, can have positive effects for people suffering from such conditions, which cannot always be measured in a budgetary context. In cutting front-line services one is not seeing the full picture. One is certainly doing those concerned a disservice. I would be grateful if we could have a debate on this issue.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House to address the issue of planning enforcement? I raise this because there is a report in the national newspapers today on a case in County Wicklow involving an unauthorised development beside the N11. It has been unauthorised for many years and is to be the subject of a material contravention procedure on the part of Wicklow County Council next week. This is extraordinary because the same site was the subject of High Court proceedings on the part of the local authority which at the time deemed it to be unauthorised. The High Court ruled in favour of the local authority and the owner of the business in question was ordered by the court to close it by the end of April. Having taken legal action successfully and invested time, money and resources in doing so, the county council has now changed its mind and decided that the site which is in breach of the NRA's rules on direct access to the N11 merits planning permission. It is recommending to its elected members that they support the application. I would appreciate it if the Leader invited the Minister to the House to debate this matter. It is very important that the public see local authorities enforcing planning legislation, as they are supposed to, and not being selective in the sense of pursuing small people over seemingly unauthorised developments while allowing larger operators who seem to be flouting the law but are well connected to receive permission for retention, despite the strong arguments against it.
I share the concerns of Senator Butler and others who referred to the apparent collapse of the public private partnership arrangements for social and affordable housing on St. Michael's estate in Inchicore, Sean McDermott Street and a number of other areas. It is of concern because the position is so unclear. The impression was created initially that the developer in question had pulled out of the public private partnership arrangements but it now appears he has not and that there are changes afoot. Whatever happens, the residents in the affected areas who legitimately expected the projects to be delivered will have to be reassured in this regard. I ask that the Minister be invited to the House to address the issue.
The House should address the issue of public private partnerships. My colleague, Senator Boyle, produced an excellent report, on behalf of the Committee of Public Accounts, that considered many of the disadvantages of such partnerships in certain instances, in addition to the advantages. We need a full discussion on the issue in the House.
I wish to talk about the Lisbon treaty as an advocate of a "Yes" vote. Like many others, I have spent considerable time coming to terms with the treaty and, on balance, believe it has much to offer Ireland. It is worth debating in the House. That said, there remains a lack of understanding and considerable confusion, which are feeding into a "No" vote. The Leader knows that if voters are in doubt, they sometimes vote "No". In this context, I was very disappointed to witness what I considered to be the unnecessary and unhelpful sidetracking by the Taoiseach to the effect that Fine Gael had not been campaigning vigorously for a "Yes" vote. It was the Government which was late out of the traps due to internal leadership problems. Some 91% of the people I surveyed in Galway just ten days ago felt the Government had not explained the treaty adequately. As a Member of the Oireachtas, I am asked on the doorsteps in Galway whether Fianna Fáil is engaged in any campaigning. I ask that we work together on the treaty. What is required is not bravado or coercion by the Taoiseach or the President of the European Commission, Mr. Barroso, but a calm, consistent presentation of the facts that will increase dramatically people's understanding of the treaty by 12 June to ensure the electorate will make an informed choice.
I certainly welcome the comment made yesterday by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, that the WTO is presenting an unbalanced and unacceptable deal for European agriculture. I call on the Leader to ask the Cabinet and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to step up their response another gear by providing a clear ruling that the Government will use its veto if an unacceptable deal for Ireland——
The Senator has made her point.
——emanates from the WTO talks. We do not need any further hardening of farmers' attitudes against the Lisbon treaty. They have always supported Europe. Neither Members nor farmers should be strung out any longer and such clarification should be given.
Is the Leader able to provide an update on the organ donation proposals I suggested some months ago? Perhaps he recalls that in France all citizens are on the register automatically unless they opt out. Moreover, I understand such a proposal is being given serious consideration in Britain. This matter is worthy of discussion, debate and consideration by the Minister and I seek clarification on whether it is receiving serious consideration.
A number of people await organ transplants and as matters stand, one is unable to use an organ unless the person involved has given consent. The position in France, which is now under consideration in Britain, is that everyone is on the register automatically unless one opts out. This proposal is worthy of consideration and Ireland should be ahead of the field in this regard instead of always following. Objections can come from a family member or from an individual who directs that in the event of his or her death, the organs should not be used. Otherwise, the organs would be used automatically. I believe this might save lives because it would avoid the long delays that sometimes occur in this regard. I would like to believe that serious consideration is being given to this matter.
I second Senator Coghlan's proposal to amend the Order of Business to discuss consumer issues. This is a highly important matter both in respect of consumer protection and of the competitiveness of our economy.
I also refer to the Civil Partnership Bill because I was involved in the debate in this House attended by the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan. Whatever one's views on this legislation, a promise was made last October that the heads of the Bill would be published before the end of March in a joint statement by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. I understand this was included in the programme for Government at the insistence of the Green Party. A debate was held in this House and although the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, confirmed the heads of the Bill would be published by the end of March, it appears this will not happen until September or October.
Either Members can trust what they hear in this House from Ministers or they cannot. I do not understand the purpose of Members' debates if such a response is received and no follow-through takes place. Will the Leader address this issue? For example, in respect of the issue concerning the WTO and the Lisbon treaty, while Members received confirmation that this would be clarified by the Minister, it did not happen. As for the aforementioned Bill, it is important that debates in this House should be frank and a firm commitment should be met. This is what destroys trust in individual Ministers and in the Government.
I question whether the Government can be trusted on this and other issues.
I wish to make one point on the statement made by the Taoiseach on the failure of Fine Gael and the Labour Party to pull their weight on the Lisbon treaty. This was a most unfortunate comment. The Taoiseach had an opportunity to be a statesman in respect of the Lisbon treaty. For some months, Deputies Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore have stated emphatically and repeatedly in public meetings throughout the country that they want their supporters to vote for the Lisbon treaty and should not allow domestic political and partisan issues to get in the way. This was done in a statesmanlike fashion and the heavy work has been done by both parties in recent months.
It was an unfortunate comment by the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, and I urge Fine Gael voters to ignore him and vote "Yes" on the Lisbon treaty. It is important that we deal with what appears to be a holy alliance of Sinn Féin, the CIA and Opus Dei in the arguments put forward regarding the treaty. The Government and the Opposition should pull together on this issue and I ask the Leader to address this matter because he has made similar comments in this House. Fine Gael and the Labour Party are doing their work on this treaty and it is important that, at this late stage, we work together.
I, too, support calls for further debate on the Lisbon treaty. We are now on the run-in to the referendum and in the next few weeks there must be renewed focus on the treaty and its contents. We must encourage balanced and informed debate, not only in this House but everywhere else.
I, too, was disappointed to hear the Taoiseach engage in the blame game. He should focus on the ball rather than take his eye off it. In this regard I commend the National Forum on Europe on the role it has played in engaging the public in informed, balanced debate around the country, under the chairmanship of Maurice Hayes, a former Member of this House. I participated in a National Forum on Europe event with the youth of Ireland almost six months ago and I can assure Members that the youth of this country are well informed and interested in hearing what the future and the Lisbon treaty hold for them. I encourage renewed focus in the coming weeks on the Lisbon treaty. Let us have balanced debate and let the leader of the country give a balanced and objective view, rather than engage in the blame game.
The Leader of the House mentioned posters and I also noticed "No" campaign posters that did not mention the organisation behind them. I seek the Leader to clarify whether these posters are legal or illegal. I think they are illegal and should be taken down because they are sensationalist. Some claim the Lisbon treaty threatens our freedom and I feel that putting such information in the public domain is scandalous. These posters are misleading, grossly unfair and insulting to the intelligence of our citizens.
Senator Norris suggested a debate on the proposed relocation of the Central Mental Hospital from Dundrum to Thornton Hall and I support this. More than 29 organisations on the front line promoting issues relating to mental health are seriously concerned by this issue. They say patients are not prisoners and I fully support that statement.
Patients, especially those involved in rehabilitation, need support and should not be put in isolated areas like Thornton Hall. A certain stigma is already attached to mental health and mental health patients and we should not exacerbate it by putting such people in a facility adjacent to a prison. That would amount to criminalisation by association and I feel mental health patients need better support from the State. The present proposals amount to a policy of "out of sight, out of mind". I ask that the Minister responsible for these proposals come before the House, before it is too late, and give mental health patients the proper treatment they deserve. I request the Leader to ensure this happens.
I join Senator Coghlan in asking the Leader to bring the relevant Minister before this House to ensure the commuters of Munster, in particular Cork and Kerry, are not forced to further endure the hardship they have experienced in recent days. It is crazy and unacceptable that a wildcat strike has disrupted thousands of commuters. As an advocate of trade unionism I subscribe to the need for unions to negotiate on behalf of their members. However, to discommode many thousands of commuters from Cork and Kerry is farcical.
I join Senator Fitzgerald in asking the Leader to bring the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the House to give an account of the Government's plans to reduce the shopping basket cost for the ordinary citizens of Ireland. The 20% increase in prices cannot be blamed on fuel costs and currency exchange rates alone. We need answers from the Government. We do not need soundbites from other Chambers but real action. Citizens today are enduring hardship and making sacrifices on behalf of their families. That is the legacy of the Fianna Fáil Government whether we like it or not. Let us have this debate urgently.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Martin Cullen, to the House to make a statement about the Irish Open golf tournament. This is an important part of our sporting calendar and I am concerned, as I am sure is the Leader, who is a keen golfer, that it could be lost due to a lack of sponsorship from corporate Ireland. Perhaps the Leader would organise a debate on this issue.
I join other Senators in asking for legislation to be introduced on civil marriages. We were promised the heads of a Bill on this issue some months ago but we have still not seen them. I look to the Green Party members in particular as it is up to them to deliver on this one. They made a commitment and we will make sure they honour it. We seek the introduction of such a Bill as soon as possible.
It will be delivered.
I also join the calls for an emergency debate to be held on the issue of prices, particularly diesel prices. We have raised this issue in the House in the past. Diesel prices have risen excessively and somebody is making enormous profits. Suppliers are riding on the back of the fact that many people have switched to diesel cars because of the perceived environmental benefits and are making unhealthy profits as a result. We need a debate on this issue.
I ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism to the House to discuss how the Arts Council awards grants. I will give one example of an incident that is causing concern. The Upstage Theatre Project in Drogheda saw its grant reduced in the last year. It appealed this and an independent assessor who reviewed the appeal found in favour of the said arts company. Yet the Arts Council chose to ignore the result because it did not like it, and refused to give the full grant. We need to have a discussion on the acceptance of decisions of independent arbitrators by the Arts Council.
I did not think I would get a chance to speak and I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence.
I would like to raise the issue of primary care teams and services. We all saw "Prime Time Investigates" last night and heard Professor Drumm clarifying his position this morning. If one were to listen to Professor Drumm one would think everything was hunky dory in this country. A number of primary care centres have been set up and teams put in place, but sadly there are two — in Ballyfermot and Athlone — which, according to a document I have read, are still in the planning stage. Since I became a Senator I have raised this issue on the Adjournment and on the Order of Business about ten times, but nothing has happened. In 2002 a site was purchased for a primary care centre in Athlone at a cost of €1.2 million, yet now, in 2008, all we have is a site with nothing on it.
Yesterday in my constituency I dealt with a patient who has a brain injury. He was in hospital for many weeks and after his release a primary care and rehabilitative team was put in place for six weeks. He received excellent care. However, after that, everything was cut. He now has almost no access to services. His family are rallying around and doing the best they can. He has two hours of services per week. This does not represent a primary care team working as it should. We also heard about the number of therapists who leave college with excellent qualifications but have no jobs.
There is no joined-up thinking here. In providing services for patients, the key factor was that the discharge of patients from hospitals would create a greater throughput — I hate that word, but that is what we are trying to achieve. We have got the throughput but the patients are being left high and dry with no services.
I join other Senators, particularly Senator Butler, regarding the role of public private partnerships, PPPs, in housing projects. During the debate, which I hope the Leader will arrange soon, I will stress the point that the process did not collapse because the apartment standards were changed. The change may have been a contributory factor, but greater factors were at play, many of which fall within the remit of the Government. They must be addressed, particularly given the further housing and infrastructure valued at €12 billion to be delivered under PPPs. Even if the change in design standards played a role in placing the process under pressure, we must apply the new energy conservation and housing quality standards to new housing, even in respect of people who are in desperate need. There is no point in delivering new housing only to discover that it does not meet the targets applied to everyone else.
The point is made.
The belief that the process collapsed because new standards were applied to deliver good quality housing is the reason a debate is necessary.
I join with Senators who argued cogently that the Taoiseach should be leading the nation and seeking to create a consensus on an important issue for Ireland's future instead of engaging in divisive party politics in terms of the Lisbon treaty.
Questions to the Leader.
Will the Leader appeal to the Taoiseach to become a statesman for the next three weeks for the sake of Ireland?
The Leader could make the appeal in his own best statesmanlike fashion.
Senator O'Reilly, without interruption.
I second Senator Coghlan's proposal for a debate on prices. It is necessary given the cost of energy. Will the Leader arrange a debate on energy during which we could consider the cost of oil and our carbon emissions reduction target of 20% by 2020?
We should develop a network of co-operative wind farms. Farmers should be brought together in groups to set up co-operative wind farms, as other co-operatives have served the country well. The wind farms should be given State support, the relevant Minister should lead the initiative and access to the grid should be provided to allow us to avail of the electricity generated. This initiative has the potential to reduce energy costs, to provide farmers with a local income during difficult times in the agricultural sector and to reach our carbon emissions target.
The point is made.
I appreciate the Cathaoirleach's indulgence. Will the Leader arrange an urgent debate on solutions to our energy situation and on prices?
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Boyle, Norris, Regan and Hannigan made their opinions on the Civil Partnership Bill known. It was correctly stated that the heads of the Bill will be prepared and ready in a maximum of three or four weeks. I will do everything possible to have the Bill initiated in the Seanad, as it would be important to do so.
The deputy leader of Fine Gael, Senator Coghlan, proposed an amendment to the Order of Business in respect of consumer issues. Senators John Paul Phelan, Buttimer, O'Reilly, Hannigan, Fitzgerald and O'Toole expressed serious concerns regarding consumer issues, such as prices exceeding equivalent prices in the eurozone. There are issues in this regard. There should be an emergency meeting of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment to discuss this issue. Members on both sides of the House should make the case for such a discussion at tomorrow morning's meeting. I will certainly do so. The meetings of that committee take place at 10 a.m., which is not convenient for the Order of Business. Nevertheless, I will attend tomorrow's meeting to request that this discussion take place.
When I was Chairman of that committee, as Senator Coghlan will recall, we had a thorough discussion of all the economic challenges facing the State. As an island economy, all goods must be transported by land and sea. Senator Quinn knows this better than anybody in the House. Another factor is the cost of wages. Thankfully, our minimum wage is at a level which ensures everybody a decent remuneration. However, in other eurozone countries, such as Spain and Portugal, the minimum wage is as much as 150% below our rate. We must confront the challenges facing those who are generating and providing employment. Some of these issues are unique to Ireland. They are not in business for the good of their health but in order to make a profit. Nevertheless, they have a responsibility to provide value for money to customers.
Energy costs are an important factor. Like myself, Senators O'Reilly, McFadden, Glynn and Wilson are based in the same midlands area. It is a question of access to the grid by the ESB. The potential for wind farming is one of the natural advantages available to us. I have no difficulty in agreeing to a debate on energy. However, legislation must take precedent as we approach the end of this parliamentary year. We must deal with legislation on those days we are requested to do so by the Government. However, a debate on energy is one of my priorities and I will do all I can to allow it to take place.
Several speakers referred to the all-party commitment, with one exception, to a "Yes" vote in the referendum on the Lisbon treaty. In the midlands, one sees posters from only one group. The Taoiseach sees the same. He is travelling the same roads as the rest of us in the midlands. Anyone in the area who has not been active up to now — there are a few — must do more. Representatives of Fianna Fáil will be in Kilbeggan next Sunday, along with the "Yes" bus. I ask members of all parties to join us on the campaign trail instead of stating things in the House. In the midlands area, all the posters have been put there by one party, with the exception of those erected yesterday by Mr. Jim Higgins, MEP, to advertise a meeting in Mullingar this week. One meeting has taken place in Athlone. I know of only one party that is knocking on doors.
That is a ridiculous claim.
Where was the Taoiseach last Saturday?
The Leader is taking the same old approach. It is ridiculous.
The Leader never learns his lesson.
The Leader should be allowed to reply on the Order of Business.
He is propagating untruths.
Challenges have been issued to the Taoiseach on behalf of the Opposition. I am responding on behalf of the Government side. I am allowed to do so.
The Taoiseach issued an appeal for us to work together to secure a "Yes" vote.
I can only refer to the roads in the midlands on which the Taoiseach and I are travelling. Where are the posters of colleagues who are supposed to be supporting the campaign?
The posters are there.
They are not there.
Our posters were up before those of Fianna Fáil.
I am stating the reality.
The posters are up.
If the Leader is not allowed to continue without interruption, I will have to ask Members to leave the House.
I welcome the appearance of colleagues' posters yesterday.
What about the posters calling for a "No" vote?
On that point, I have seen three posters calling for a "No" vote in my area which give no indication of the party or individual making that call. I call on the Deputy Leader of the House to seek clarification from his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and the Referendum Commission as to whether this is legal.
Let us be fair about this. Senator Norris might be able to assist the House.
I assure the Leader those posters are not mine. My comments have not even been reported when I have spoken against the treaty.
The Leader should be allowed to continue without interruption.
Let us have some balance in this Chamber.
I know the Senator did not climb any poles.
Unlike some of the Leader's colleagues.
My point is that those campaigning for a "No" vote might like Senator Norris's assistance in clarifying the position.
I would welcome a debate on the Lisbon treaty. That would be excellent.
Members should allow the Leader to continue without interruption.
Senator O'Toole correctly stated that the aircraft which landed in Athlone was registered in the United States. I understand the Department and its counterpart in the United States are examining this matter to see how the legislation and regulations in this area can be changed.
Senator Alex White called on the Minister for Foreign Affairs to respond to the Save the Children allegations regarding the abuse of children by peacekeepers in various locations. I fully support the Senator's call for a debate on this issue and I will endeavour to have it take place at the earliest possible time.
Senators Alex White, Prendergast and McFadden highlighted their serious concerns regarding matters pertaining to the Health Service Executive. I intend to invite the Minister to attend a debate on this issue before the end of this session.
Senators Coghlan and Buttimer expressed their disappointment at the current disruption to train services, particularly for passengers in counties Kerry and Cork. Such disruption is unacceptable, particularly when it is difficult to understand what the problem is. I wish everyone involved in today's talks well. Some of us thought the days of these wildcat strikes were over. Why should there be a need to strike when all concerned know an agreement must be ultimately negotiated? I wish all concerned well and look forward to a speedy resumption of the excellent service that both employees and employers are providing. There has been a significant increase in rail travel as a result of improved services and comfort for passengers. It is encouraging to see the comfortable, air-conditioned carriages now operating on the Sligo line. We were previously used to seeing such comforts only in other countries.
Senators Ormonde and Norris called for a debate on the implications of the Lisbon treaty for the role of national parliaments within the EU. I have tabled this to be considered for inclusion in next week's schedule. Senators de Búrca and Ormonde asked for a debate on planning enforcement and other planning issues. I agree with the sentiments expressed forcefully by both Senators.
Senators Buttimer, John Paul Phelan, de Búrca, Butler and Donohoe referred to a man of great experience in the area of public private partnerships. I listened with great interest to what Mr. McNamara had to say on Marian Finucane's radio show last Sunday morning. I do not normally refer to people by name who are not Members of the House.
I would prefer if persons outside the House were not named.
I did so reluctantly. This situation is causing great difficulties for the residents of St. Michael's estate and elsewhere. I understand meetings took place yesterday and further meetings will take place on Thursday. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should, as a matter of priority, discuss the outlook for the public private partnership projects in which the group I mentioned was involved. Dublin City Council was fortunate to secure the involvement of a group that is held in such respect. Having listened to this person speaking on the radio, I was enlightened as to the difficulties that exist. It seems the problems are not just on one side, as was clearly stated for most of last week. It was unprecedented to hear a private person of his calibre stating what he did, the amounts of money, tenders and so on. There is great hope that these projects can get up and running soon. He outlined the various scenarios whereby it could and would happen. I wish everybody well in that regard.
Let him go and build them.
Senator Keaveney called for a debate on the marine. I have no difficulty with organising such a debate. Five Departments have responsibility for marine activities and there was good sense in the Senator's suggestion that marine issues be brought together under a single Minister of State. The Senator also suggested that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform be invited to the House to discuss his announcement of the allocation of €61 million to support women's equality issues and where this money will be spent.
Senator Quinn sought a debate on organ donation proposals, particularly the concept of their automatic use. As time is limited towards the end of this session, perhaps it could be debated during the Independent Senators' Private Members' time. That would ensure the matter is discussed during this session. It is an important proposal and I fully agree with the Senator's sentiments with regard to automatic use of organs. If people do not wish their organs to be donated, they should clearly state that, otherwise the organs should be automatically used.
I can assure Senator Coffey that Thornton Hall will be debated on Thursday. Senator Buttimer asked that the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Martin Cullen, come to the Seanad to discuss the Arts Council and tourism matters, particularly the Irish Open. I look forward to inviting the Minister to the House to discuss this issue. The Irish Open is a huge tourist attraction. It generates up to 30 hours television viewing throughout Europe when it is being held and it shows Ireland at its brilliant best in the month of May. It was a great honour and privilege to be present in Adare this year to see the effort and planning that went into holding the event.
Senator Hannigan asked for a debate on how the Arts Council allocates its funding. He mentioned the Drogheda group which appealed its grant but was still given the same funding. I will convey his views to the Minister.
Senator Paul Coghlan has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate on rising consumer prices be held today." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Fitzgerald, Frances.
- Hannigan, Dominic.
- Harris, Eoghan.
- Healy Eames, Fidelma.
- McCarthy, Michael.
- McFadden, Nicky.
- Norris, David.
- O’Reilly, Joe.
- O’Toole, Joe.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Regan, Eugene.
- Ross, Shane.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- White, Alex.
- Boyle, Dan.
- Brady, Martin.
- Butler, Larry.
- Callely, Ivor.
- Cannon, Ciaran.
- Carty, John.
- Cassidy, Donie.
- Daly, Mark.
- de Búrca, Déirdre.
- Ellis, John.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Glynn, Camillus.
- Keaveney, Cecilia.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- McDonald, Lisa.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O’Brien, Francis.
- O’Malley, Fiona.
- O’Sullivan, Ned.
- Ormonde, Ann.
- Phelan, Kieran.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.