The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re European asylum support office, referral to committee, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; and No. 2, statements on gangland crime, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1, to conclude not later than 1.45 p.m., with spokespersons having 15 minutes' speaking time, all other Senators ten minutes, on which Senators may share time, and on which the Minister will be called ten minutes from the conclusion of the debate for concluding comments and to take questions from leaders or spokespersons.
Order of Business.
I wish to correct the record of the House. Reference was made in the House either yesterday morning or possibly on Tuesday to the availability of BreastCheck in the north west and west. A statement from the Irish Cancer Society makes it clear there is no BreastCheck service at present in counties Donegal, Leitrim or Clare. It is not available and there are no plans for it in the future because of the current recruitment embargo within the BreastCheck screening programme. This should be put on the record of the House because although Senator Feeney clearly shot down Senators Coffey and Buttimer in this regard when Senator Buttimer raised this issue, it is not the case. I refer to what is going on with the HSE, which is now taking on celebrity advisers to generate PR. The Government should put a stop to this nonsense. A Bentley driving solicitor giving advice to the Government on how to run the health service cannot go further than recommending a glass of Chablis for patients before they go to bed.
It is a total joke.
There are more than enough experts in the HSE to advise it. If they did their jobs we would not have to listen to this rubbish on the airwaves. I ask the Leader to write to Professor Drumm and tell him to get a grip of himself and his communications director.
Or else get him out of there.
They are belittling the problems.
It is an insult to the people of Ireland.
Reference was made to patriotism and shopping north of the Border. I ask the Leader to write to all State agencies. I hear that a major number of State agencies and State bodies are giving contracts to businesses outside Ireland.
So are political parties.
This is an important issue and we must debate it. This business is going outside the island of Ireland. Often Irish businesses can do this work.
Senator Callely's crowd went east as well. They went to Poland.
Am I embarrassing Members on that side?
We know where Senator Callely's crowd put its money.
Where did parties on that side of the House get their posters?
Those in glasshouses should not throw stones.
There should be no interruptions. I will ask Senators to leave if this continues.
I accept that Senator Callely likes to make light of the issue that Irish people are losing their jobs at a rate of 13,000 per month. Businesses in Ireland can do jobs for local authorities and State bodies and the contracts are being given to companies in Europe that are entitled to apply for them. They are getting these contracts even though Irish businesses can do the job, but are not getting the contracts because they are out by one or two points on assessments of contracts. We must give positive discrimination to Irish businesses on these issues. British and German Governments are telling their local authorities to do likewise. Senator Callely should not make fun of a serious issue.
I am not making fun of it.
Questions to the Leader should be raised through the Chair, not across the floor to other Members.
Senator Callely is part of the Government under which unemployment doubled in the past 12 months. That is the sense of isolation here. Unemployment has doubled in the past 12 months and it is not a laughing matter. Laboratory technicians who are highly trained and skilled in carrying out smear tests are being laid off in the health service——
Why would they not be?
——because the contract was given to a company in the USA by the Minister for Health and Children.
This is the same Government that told us to be patriotic. This is where contracts are going and it must be examined. We are rapidly losing confidence in the Government, the Taoiseach and his Ministers. The talk of national unity and working together is nonsensical because clearly Government Members have not a clue what is going on and are refusing to sort out major problems in this country. I would like these issues discussed at length.
Senator Twomey should go into discussion with Senator Regan to have explained to him the rules on tendering and procurement in Ireland and the EU. Local authorities cannot hand out work willy-nilly without going through procedures. If Senator Twomey is correct, we need to have a debate on it. I am not sure that is the point he is making.
The House should acknowledge the launch of the election campaign of the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, to be the first directly elected mayor of Dublin and should wish him well. I note that he welcomes this. Can we look forward to early legislation on the issue of directly elected mayors? Is there an indication from the Government that there will be an agreed candidate? We understand it is a dress rehearsal for the next step, running for the park. We are aware that Senator Mary White is considering this and on these benches we have hopes for Senator Norris, who may look in that direction. We could discuss where this will finish up.
Is there a transfer pact?
I refer to the cost of unemployment, raised by Senator Twomey. We hear the narrow perspective of people talking about the cost of the dole and redundancy, without any attempt to meet it with a positive, reflective and creative response. The costs of unemployment versus employment must be examined. In certain places, such as Germany, a company with long-term viability but with current difficulties that is forced to lay off workers gets support from the State on the basis of a grant per worker retained. That is cheaper than the cost of the dole or redundancy. It keeps people in employment and is a stimulus for the economy. It is something I have not heard discussed by the Government.
I ask for a response and to examine creative methods to deal with unemployment other than the dole or redundancy. We can look for companies that will work their way out of difficulties and get support for retaining those workers.
Every Member is concerned about unemployment and the increase in the number of people without work but for Members to blame it on EU legislation is not acceptable. Members cannot speak out of both sides of their mouths. We are either in the EU or we are not, and if we are in it, we must abide by the legislation we have signed up to. The statement we have heard will serve the opponents of the Lisbon treaty. If we are to get through the recession we must get the help of Europe and must be involved at the heart of Europe. In regard to the statements such as the one made, the Senator needs to think again. We have gained significantly from the EU legislation that is in place. Our companies are winning jobs and contracts throughout Europe. To ask for a recall of that does nobody good.
I refer to the Freedom of Information Act. It is time to consider reforming that Act. The original Act was very successful but, because of changes made to it, we have seen a reduction of 50% in the number of requests made in the past five years. At a time when we are introducing organisations such as NAMA, which will be the recipient of significant amounts of money, it is vital that organisations such as that are at the heart of the Freedom of Information Act and that the remit is broadened to include NAMA. I seek a debate on reform of the Freedom of Information Act.
I refer to the further doubt and confusion raised about mortgage relief. We know that times are hard and sacrifice must be made. This is not about whether people are entitled to relief but removing it from those who qualify by law for relief. Families do not know whether their incomes will decrease, they do not know how much their budgets will be reduced by and they are trying to plan paying household bills, paying for food and taking a short summer break. Now they do not know if they will lose €100 or €150 per month.
We are told that an assessment will be done quickly and that the Government is setting up a website to enable people to enter their details. With the Government's history on technology projects, that could take an age. In the meantime, a quarter of a million families could be without this relief even though they qualify for it. We understand that this relief will be removed from many but while the assessment is being carried out, rather than suspend the relief we should give it to them and then claw it back at a later stage if necessary.
I ask for a debate on rural planning, particularly the role of An Taisce. Over the past 20 years I have always been clear that I have no problem with An Taisce, which has an important function in protecting heritage and buildings. When it was set up in the 1980s it was never intended that An Taisce would have a role in objecting to rural once-off housing. I was contacted by a couple who received planning permission after three years negotiating with the local authority. Yesterday was the last day for objections and, lo and behold, An Taisce lobbed in an objection. That is grossly unfair. Having been with a local authority for nearly 20 years in the area I represent, my experience has been that planners were very sensitive to rural landscapes and scenic routes, etc. There should be a debate in this area and I ask that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government come to the House to debate the focus of An Taisce's efforts.
I have never attended a meeting in west Cork where An Taisce had a transparent and open annual general meeting. The body seems to lack transparency and it galls me to see somebody from Donegal or Mayo objecting to an issue in west Cork orvice versa.
Why does the Senator not join An Taisce?
There should be no interruptions.
That is a valid point but never in my experience in west Cork has there been an advertisement or an open invitation to join An Taisce or to raise a view. The body lacks transparency. It has a role but not in——
The Senator could fill out an application form. I will send it to him today.
——one-off rural housing. With all due respect to An Taisce, the experience of Senator Norris would differ totally from my experiences, which would be similar to the majority of public representatives across the political divide in County Cork.
Senator Twomey raised a very important matter, which I support. The Health Service Executive, HSE, has been responsible for much waste and it has gone on a joke of a trip with this celebrity forum, or whatever it is called.
It is disgusting.
It is flippancy gone mad at a most serious and difficult time for our country. I will leave the matter at that but I look forward to the Deputy Leader's reply.
The issue of having a directly elected mayor of Dublin has been raised by my eminent colleague, Senator O'Toole. I wish all prospective candidates well. There is a serious national issue so will the Deputy Leader indicate if this is a pilot scheme for Dublin? We are a small country but Dublin would not be the best example for the entire country. Surely we cannot proceed on the basis of a lack of uniformity. I would like to hear the Deputy Leader's thoughts on this as he is a man with insight, given his close contact with the Department and his general knowledge in any event.
We had a most important debate yesterday concerning the proposed national asset management agency, NAMA. I do not want to go back on that but there are two serious and important questions. Timing is important with this issue and delay is our enemy. When will the agency begin operations on an interim basis and when will we have legislation for it? Is there anything definitive in this regard?
I join my colleague, Senator O'Donovan, in calling for a debate on planning. Many times over the past seven years I have called for such a debate, especially regarding the right to object. While there is no doubt that the contribution of An Taisce has been very valuable over recent years as a prescribed organisation, one would certainly query the timing with which it tends to lodge objections to particular developments.
There certainly have been cases when people have tried to join An Taisce and they may have been seen as the wrong types of members. Wicklow springs to mind as a place where people were not being taken in because it was felt they would have views more consistent with rural development than An Taisce with regard to trying to object and block rural development. As somebody who is from regional Ireland, I would like to see our areas develop as something other than just the exclusive reserve of weekend commuters who wish to go to the west in search of Peig Sayers looking out over a half door. More goes on in such areas.
They would be in the wrong county. They should go to Kerry.
It was a lovely image.
She was on the Blaskets.
I ask for a debate on the issue of unauthorised moneylending. We are experiencing economic difficulties and there is a potential for people to default on mortgages. There is a need for the House to have a discussion on innovative ways to cater for those who are under pressure at a particular time. It is also giving rise to illegal moneylending which can lead to a serious amount of criminality. We need to focus on such issues in a non-partisan debate to come up with innovative ways for the Cabinet to address issues relating to illegal moneylending and how we might best help those most under pressure to meet mortgage payments at this time.
I ask the Deputy Leader to provide for a debate on freedom of speech, particularly in light of the apparent proposals to introduce into law the offence of blasphemous libel. Unfortunately, I was in hospital and was not able to be in the House yesterday but I would have raised it had I been here. It is very important that we consider the issue.
Certain forces abroad are trying to get this done. The Vatican, in conjunction with the forces of Islamic fundamentalism, has been using international fora to try to establish an offence of defamation of religion, and this was rightly resisted by our international representatives. To find that the Government is acting in a contradictory way is very disturbing.
I was close to a case of blasphemous libel some years ago, which was very damaging, whenGay News was banned on foot of the publication of a poem by the late Professor James Kirkup. That had serious repercussions here as an entire edition was seized and other editions were subsequently seized. It was a serious infringement.
The matter of blasphemous libel and blasphemy was raised and dismissed by the Law Reform Commission in 1991. The Supreme Court decision in 1999 held the same way. I understand exactly how offensive these matters can be. That is why some weeks ago I raised the matter of a blasphemous performance in a Wexford nightclub where they re-enacted the Crucifixion. I felt that to be contemptible and I said so. The matter was taken up by the radio and other sources. As a result, not perhaps of my intervention but the popular moral disapproval, this was cancelled. That is the way to do it. God, if he or she exists, requires no defence from Irish law.
We would be far better off introducing civil partnership legislation and if we are looking for legislation to introduce we should achieve something we promised rather than kowtow. Where did this come from? I am a little disturbed to discover that sources close to one of the most reactionary religious-political groups here are circulating newsletters containing selectively edited highlights from these kinds of debate in Seanad Éireann. I deplore that and any Member of the House who co-operates with it as that is not freedom of speech either. That is the reason we need a debate on freedom of speech.
I listened with interest to Senator Twomey who seemed to be on thin ice.
I am looking for questions to the Deputy Leader.
On one side there appears to be an anti-Lisbon treaty and anti-Europe argument and on the other there appears to be a policy favouring protectionism. I am not sure where the Senator is coming from.
One issue raised by the Senator was unemployment which is a cause for concern. The only message I can give to the House is that the growing problem of unemployment cannot be resolved by taking sides. Too often we spend more time fighting about methods and assigning blame than taking action. Usually there is anger without action and we become bitter rather than better. There are a couple of messages for Senator Twomey in that.
There are some for Fianna Fáil as well.
Perhaps we will have the opportunity outside the House to tease out those issues.
The Senator should provide issues for the Deputy Leader rather than people on the other side.
I rose to mention the money advice and budgeting service, MABS, which I have noted in this House on a couple of occasions, along with the good work it does. Its caseload has increased greatly and there is a significant percentage increase in the demands on its services. I concur with Senator MacSharry about the black market of unauthorised moneylending. Will the Deputy Leader try to assess for me and other Members the level of increase in additional supports made available to MABS to meet the particular demands of this time? It is very important as the body does tremendous work. It is appropriate for this House to ensure the correct supports and funding are in place for it.
In light of yesterday's debate on the national asset management agency, NAMA, will the Deputy Leader seek clarification on the toxic debts in banks? How will they be assessed? The concern in light of yesterday's debate was that the banks would be very anxious to dispose of their toxic debts so we need to know what mechanism will be used.
Senator O'Donovan speaks so much sense, whether it be in respect of fishing or rural planning, that I sometimes believe he should be a member of Fine Gael.
The Senator has a lot of sense. That is why he is a member of our party.
What I said was meant as a compliment.
I wish to highlight the new OECD report on labour policy in Ireland. I am of the view that this report is worthy of debate, particularly in the context that it outlines the small gap that exists between social welfare payments and declining wage levels. I am not necessarily stating that social welfare payments should be reduced, but it is obvious that workers are bearing a great deal of pain. Consideration must be given to this matter. Regardless of whether people are on social welfare or working, the Government must remember that they have commitments and debts to pay. At present, we are paying the State's debts and, as a result, people are being placed under a great deal of pressure.
There is a great deal of merit in the suggestion that the Government should offer an allowance or a stipend to companies where jobs are at risk. We should pay such a stipend instead of allowing people to go on the dole at a cost to the State, taking into account social welfare payments and the loss of tax revenue, of €20,000per capita per year. I surveyed companies in Galway with regard to this matter and I was informed that a stipend of even €5,000 per worker would allow them to retain employees and ride out the hump of the recession. There is need for a serious debate on labour policy.
In Killarney last week I chaired a conference on rural planning which dealt specifically with the issue of one-off housing. We will be making a grave error if we do not realise the palpable anger that exists in respect of this matter. Those who live in rural communities are of the view that they are being treated in an inferior manner. Five cases were highlighted at the conference and these indicated the contradictions that apply in the planning code. I am of the view that the Government's guidelines in respect of this matter are not being implemented as intended. In one instance, the reason given for the refusal of planning permission was that it would have been possible to see the house from the sea. When five councillors visited the site, they could not see the sea from their vantage point. Who would be out at sea looking at the house in any event?
The councillors were all at sea.
The example I have highlighted provides Members with an idea of the bizarre situation that obtains in respect of the planning code. An Taisce, in preparing to take its place in history, stated in recent months that the work done by its members during the past 60 years is that of giants. I presume it is suggesting that the remainder of the people will be seen as other than giants. This matter has become completely outrageous.
The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, addressed the conference to which I refer and put forward a new concept — I believe it is very good — namely, that there is a need for a body to monitor all these issues, including those relating to An Bord Pleanála. People who live 50 miles away from sites in respect of which applications are being made are submitting objections and are placing information regarding the private circumstances of the applicants in the public domain. That is a grave matter and one worthy of serious consideration.
I welcome the concept put forward by the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív. I hope this matter will not be left on the long finger and that we will not be obliged to raise it on the Order of Business as the occasion arises. This is one of the gravest injustices visited upon people in this State for a long period.
Senator Ó Murchú should also join Fine Gael.
Like Senator Hannigan, I am seeking a debate on the Information Commissioner's report which was issued in recent days. This matter is particularly relevant. We debated NAMA last evening and I do not believe anyone stated that the latter will not be subject to the freedom of information legislation.
That point was made.
That is fine. The Information Commissioner referred to certain organisations that are not subject to the freedom of information legislation. These are the same organisations that are under public scrutiny at present. That is why it is so important for the House to debate the report.
I do not know if any Member of the House has ever tried to procure information from the Financial Regulator. Doing so is similar to approaching the Masonic Order and asking what is the key to its handshake.
The Financial Regulator is outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.
The Financial Regulator will not supply information. I do not know if any Member has sought information from the National Treasury Management Agency. I inquired this morning as to what its chief executive is paid and I was told it does not supply that information to anyone. That is extraordinary. Even the banks tell people what their chief executives are paid. This organisation is funded from the public purse and it is at the centre of public focus at present. It has responsibility for managing up to €16 billion or €17 billion of public money that is now being used to rescue the banks. However, under the Freedom of Information Act we cannot find out anything about its activities.
Why is it not possible to obtain information regarding Anglo Irish Bank? I am not seeking commercially sensitive information. In any event, people are sensible about such information. Why can we not discover how these organisations are run? What prompts them to make decisions? I would love to know what Dr. Michael Somers thinks of the Government's decision to give to the banks all the money for which the NTMA was previously responsible. I would be interested in discovering whether Dr. Somers is of the view that that is a good or a bad investment.
At present, many of those important Government-run or Government-owned organisations which have access to massive amounts of money are being run as if they were part of the secret service. It would be useful if time could be made available to debate the extremely useful report to which I refer. That report should not be allowed to just gather dust. There are vital questions to be answered. Freedom of information is a particularly useful mechanism. However, the process relating to it was obstructed and made overly expensive by the previous Administration. The Government should take steps to facilitate a restoration of the freedom of information process to its previous incarnation because the organisations about which we require answers are those that are being protected.
I again call for a debate on the economy at the earliest opportunity. I am cognisant of the fact that calls have been made this morning for positive discrimination to be exercised in respect of contracts within the State. This would run against EU rules and could not be allowed. However, there may be a system whereby we could examine the weighting given to companies of which local authorities have knowledge — that is, those within their own areas — while still remaining within EU guidelines.
The Government is not allowed to instigate a "buy Irish" campaign. However, there must be something the House can do to highlight this issue and ensure that, where possible, people exercise positive discrimination towards and purchase Irish goods and products. This would assist in retaining jobs.
There is a need for a debate on a particular aspect of the economy, namely, unemployment and competitiveness. The private sector is taking radical steps to adjust to the new economic circumstances by making dramatic changes to the organisation of companies and to employees' pay and conditions. On a daily basis, unions are accepting changes to circumstances within particular companies. This is having an effect and there has been one extremely positive signal in that the figures for February show that exports have increased. We are fortunate that we have industries such as those relating to pharmaceuticals, information technology and services. There is no doubt that we are heavily dependent on the exports that emanate from these industries.
Adjustments are being made in the private sector and competitiveness is being restored. Let us contrast this with what is happening in the public sector, particularly in respect of matters for which the Government has responsibility, such as meeting the various costs in respect of electricity charges, commercial waste charges, water charges and commercial rates. These costs can be controlled by the Government but we do not see any reductions. Nor do we see progress in the restructuring of the public sector in which costs can be cut and efficiencies improved. This is what makes the resumed partnership talks irrelevant. In current circumstances the private sector is trying to restore competitiveness. If we are to find jobs for the 300,000 unemployed, it can only be done by increased competitiveness in the economy. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment should come into the House to tell us what the Government is doing to restore competitiveness in the economy. Tough medicine has been taken in the private sector but there has been no movement by the Government on this issue.
Like Senator Ó Murchú, I am interested in the revival of vibrant rural communities. There was an interesting conference on the subject in Kilkenny that, unfortunately, I could not attend owing to the death of Senator Tony Kett. It is an issue we must discuss because we must strike a balance in society. There has been too much movement to cities and towns; we are leaving rural Ireland in a dark alley. When will the amendment to planning legislation be brought before the House? It presents a golden opportunity to discuss our planning laws and the issue of one-off housing at length. We need a new forum, in which all stakeholders — An Taisce, planners, councillors and county and city managers — can examine how we might shape the future and change society. We have a golden opportunity to discuss the issue, as the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs pointed out at the conference. Will the legislation be brought before the House before the summer recess? Now more than ever we must discuss the future of society. Who watches the planners? From where do they get their guidelines and how are they implementing them? How knowledgeable are they about local development plans? I would like to put these questions when the Bill is introduced.
I am calling for a debate as soon as possible on local government in advance of the local government elections. Senators Ó Murchú and Ormonde mentioned planning; we should debate the matter in both rural and urban areas. We should examine An Taisce which is demonising Ireland with its carry on. Let us also look at An Bord Pleanála. How can it go against the report of its inspector? How can it overturn the decision of an inspector who carries out a study and makes a recommendation?
We should have a debate on the role of directly elected mayors. Will this role be the same as that of the city or county manager? If so, do we need a county manager? Will there be a power struggle? We need a debate on real local government.
I join Senator Twomey in asking the Deputy Leader to change the record of the House. Last Tuesday or Wednesday — I cannot remember which day — we were told by Senator Feeney that BreastCheck was available in the north west. A press statement issued by BreastCheck on 28 April stated the national cancer screening service had confirmed that its plans to commence first-run screening in counties Clare, Donegal and Leitrim later this year were temporarily on hold. BreastCheck is not available in the entire north west.
We should also have a debate on the proposed transfer of breast cancer services at South Infirmary Hospital to Cork University Hospital. I hope the Deputy Leader will join me in asking the Minister not to proceed with the transfer. It has not inspired confidence in the women of Cork. As the HSE launches a celebrity communications strategy, it is an insult to hear Mr. Connors on the radio defending the decision to canvass the views of celebrities on the health service.
I made this point yesterday and reiterate today that the people to talk to are the staff. The people the HSE should answer to are the members of the Joint Committee on Health and Children. As public representatives, we act as advocates on behalf of the people but we cannot get answers. That is not good enough. Does the Deputy Leader condone what the Health Service Executive is doing? Does he agree with its strategy? It is a failed strategy and it is time Professor Drumm came here to answer questions from us on behalf of the patients who are suffering. It is about time the HSE was put on a horse and ridden out of town. It has destroyed the health service. Government Senators might laugh at me but the people have suffered under the HSE and the Government parties condone it.
It is Fine Gael Senators who are laughing.
Does the Deputy Leader condone what is happening in the health service? Does he support it? Is it right? It is not.
I ask Senator Buttimer to resume his seat.
I will defend the ordinary people and not be sniggered at by the Deputy Leader for doing so.
In these difficult times it is heartening to see a small ray of sunshine coming through the dark clouds. In the last couple of weeks a small electrical contractor did a job for me. In the course of conversation he intimated that he had work for two qualified electricians. The same gentleman rang me this morning to inform me he now required four electricians. It is small but it is a step in the right direction.
I agree with Senator Healy Eames. We must look at the situation differently. Our people are our greatest resource. While I strongly support the concept of assisting people who have no income with social welfare benefits, there are talented individuals who have recently become unemployed and they could be used to upgrade houses for the elderly and provide homes for the homeless.
I have a sore point when it comes to planning. I am aware of a young man who was refused planning permission for a development on his own land. He was granted planning permission by Westmeath County Council but a photograph was taken from an aeroplane and used as a reason to overturn it. If that is how planning matters should be scrutinised, I am a Dutchman. I will not refer to the matter Senator Ó Murchú mentioned, where a house could be seen from the sea. Those who talk in this way are all at sea.
That one could be seen from the air, obviously.
I seek a debate on social housing and its management. Senator Butler has informed me that there is a training programme for would-be tenants of local authority houses to ensure they manage the resource in the appropriate way. We should discuss the issue as soon as possible.
Will the Deputy Leader ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come into the House for a debate on the funding of local authorities? As a number of outdoor staff from local authorities will be laid off after the local elections, we should debate the funding of local authorities, particularly the cut backs in road grants, the laying off of staff and the reform of structures in general. The local authorities must be reformed. The Minister has flagged his intention to reform them but he is as long in office now as the rainbow Government was in the 1990s and nothing has happened. It is all pie in the sky. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should be invited to the House as a matter of urgency, particularly in light of the cutbacks in local authorities and the strain they will be under over coming months to find the resources to keep a minimum number of staff employed.
With regard to Senator Buttimer's point about celebrities and the HSE, will the Deputy Leader inquire about that list of celebrities and how many of them have health insurance for private health care and how many do not? Do they have any genuine knowledge of what people must endure when they go through the system, in some cases due to HSE inefficiencies? It is craziness of the highest order to bring in these people to advise——
It is intended to be a public relations stunt.
——and ask questions about a system of which I suspect they have little knowledge.
Absolutely. It is disgusting.
Most of their time would be spent in the Blackrock Clinic, not in the accident and emergency departments of our hospitals.
They can fly in as well.
I support Senator Glynn's call for proper management of social housing and the anti-social behaviour that takes place in local authority housing estates. Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council found it necessary to introduce a scheme whereby people on its housing list had to undergo a course before getting a house. It is a management course on how a house is run, the equipment in the house and how to use it, where the water is turned on and off and so forth. It might sound simple but a house is a big resource to give to somebody. In Dún Laoghaire the average house costs €250,000 so when a house is rented to somebody from the housing list, it is a big investment in that person. Every local authority should do the same. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should examine this scheme with a view to extending it throughout the country.
There are very decent people living in social and affordable housing who cannot live their lives in peace because of anti-social behaviour. That is not good enough. It is important we do something about it now because this problem is leading to the gang warfare we see in Limerick, Dublin and other cities. The Minister must put some type of plan together on how people can live together more peacefully. It is important to bear in mind that a person's home is his or her castle and they should be able to live their lives in peace. The local authorities can play a major role in that regard.
I support the call by my colleague, Senator Norris, for a debate on freedom of speech. I am glad he raised the issue of the blasphemous libel offence being suggested by the Minister. I raised the matter yesterday. It is very dangerous to talk about creating an offence of causing outrage to somebody on grounds of religion.
There have been all sorts of difficulties in other countries where that has been done. It is very different from the careful legislation we have in place on incitement to hatred on racial grounds, although there have also been difficulties in prosecuting those offences. We must be careful about rushing willy-nilly to create offences in this way.
I did not get a satisfactory answer yesterday to my query to the Leader of the House about the arrangements for inter-country adoptions with Vietnam and Russia, both of which, I am told, have broken down recently. This has caused great concern and trauma to prospective adoptive parents in this country. The Minister of State with responsibility for children informed us on Committee Stage of the Adoption Bill that these agreements would be renewed or finalised but it appears this has not happened. I asked yesterday if the Adoption Bill would be before the House again soon so we can put these questions to the Minister. These arrangements are almost a side or parallel procedure to the Adoption Bill, and answers are urgently required about the agreements with these two countries, from which come the majority of children currently being adopted into Ireland. If the Deputy Leader cannot give me an answer, will he arrange for the Minister of State with responsibility for children to come to the House to answer questions about those arrangements, irrespective of when the Adoption Bill is before the House again?
Finally, what progress has been made with the civil partnership Bill?
Senator Twomey and Senator Buttimer asked about statements made in this House and their accuracy. I am not in a position to answer their requests but there are mechanisms in the House which they can follow if they wish to pursue the matter. Both Senators went on to discuss the communications strategy of the HSE. Senator Coghlan and Senator Daly also raised this matter. Undoubtedly, there is a degree of incredulity about what is being proposed in this regard. I received correspondence today for Oireachtas Members from the Cork and Kerry area which indicated that Professor Drumm of the HSE will speak to those Members on 13 May. I presume similar meetings are being held for Oireachtas Members from other parts of the country. The fact that I received the same letter twice from the HSE indicates the degree of over-administration that might be occurring in that organisation.
The second one might be due to the Senator's celebrity status.
Senator Twomey, Senator Hannigan and Senator O'Toole spoke about procurement issues. Senator Hannigan and Senator O'Toole raised the difficulties that exist with EU legislation. We are obviously constrained by that. However, the Government is committed, both in the programme for Government and in the framework document on a smart economy, to pursuing the concept of green procurement. The essence of green procurement is that materials are sourced as close as possible to where they are created. There is an opportunity to refine our procurement policies to ensure there is maximum employment impact in the national economy. That issue is being pursued as quickly as possible.
Senator O'Toole asked about legislation regarding a mayor of Dublin. There will be an announcement on this in a few weeks and legislation will be brought forward in the very near future. The same question was asked by Senator Coghlan and Senator Buttimer. On the question of who would be a candidate for that election, the Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, will definitely have a candidate in the field.
Will the party not consider supporting Senator Norris?
I am not interested in it.
I will also rule myself out of contesting that election. However, I am open to contesting any future elections that might happen in the cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, which will follow under subsequent legislation. The question of the balance between the elected mayor and existing city managers will be dealt with in that legislation.
Senator O'Toole and others spoke about the cost of unemployment, while Senator Healy Eames referred to the seminar being held today by the ESRI on the cost of welfare in relation to other labour costs. Senator Regan talked about unemployment and competitiveness, as did Senator Callely. We must have a debate on this issue. We had a start to such a debate yesterday with the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. Next year's Social Welfare and Pensions Bill will be vital in addressing these issues, as they go to the heart of what our policy is and what resources there are to pursue that policy into the future.
Senator Hannigan raised the Freedom of Information Act and pointed out that in the last five years the number of requests has decreased. However, the report of the Information Commissioner pointed out that the number of requests has risen in the past year for the first time in several years. That is encouraging. That is partly because the number of organisations——
Is the Senator disputing the figure I gave?
Over five years there was a decrease but over last year there was an increase.
She points out in her introductory letter that she is concerned.
The Deputy Leader, without interruption.
If I am given the opportunity to speak Senator Norris will understand that I am not necessarily disagreeing with the Senator. As Senator Ross pointed out, there is a need for a debate in the House on the report, the nature of freedom of information and whether the legislation can be extended. The number of bodies covered by it has been extended and there is a belief among Members of the House that it should be increased even more. Examples were given on the Order of Business today of the bodies that should be included.
The position applying to mortgage relief was raised in today's news. Having heard spokespersons from the Revenue Commissioners, it appears every effort is being made to allay any fears that may exist. My understanding is that the Revenue Commissioners will be contacting the financial institutions and if information on whether the mortgage is longer than seven years is not available, then and only then will contact be made by letter directly with the mortgage holders. The advice is - the Revenue Commissioners are being matter of fact about this - for people to wait for such a communication and not react unnecessarily to some of the news stories in the press today.
Senators O'Donovan, MacSharry, Ó Murchú and Ormonde raised the question of rural planning. Senator Ormonde referred to the possible amendment of the planning Acts. Those Acts are to be substantially recast and the publication of such a Bill will take place in the coming months. It will be a major debate on the nature of planning, levels of accountability and democratic control within such a system. Many Members will have an opportunity to address concerns raised today during such a debate.
There are concerns about organisations needing to be more open and democratic but there is also a role for voluntary organisations to continue to play without State resources, and there is a need for a watchdog on both sides. I hope that when the debate takes place in this House, it will be conducted on such terms.
Senators Coghlan and Callely asked about the contents of the national asset management agency, NAMA, legislation in terms of the assessment of the risk, when the body will be established in shadow form and when the legislation will come to the House. My knowledge is that the legislation will be published within the next month, with debates in both Houses of the Oireachtas, giving Members an opportunity to examine those issues.
Senator MacSharry spoke about the need for a debate on unauthorised moneylending. That debate could be pertinent given the general constraints in lending by our financial institutions. Consideration will be given to having such a debate in the House.
Senators Norris and Bacik spoke about the proposal to include a crime of blasphemous libel in new legislation. My understanding is that this was considered as an inclusion from a Cabinet decision in 2005. I am also informed, being a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution, that the issue was examined recently. It was proposed to leave the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution but to suggest that it is impossible to legislate for it.
I hope that recommendation by the committee will be considered when the legislation comes to both Houses.
On a point of order, I was asking for a debate on the question of freedom of speech.
We cannot have questions to the Deputy Leader. He is replying to the Order of Business.
I would be happy to talk to Members outside the Chamber after the Order of Business.
Senator Callely spoke about the area of unauthorised moneylending and the need to provide resources for the money advice and budgeting service, MABS. We have had recent legislation to improve the effectiveness and administration of MABS. That request should be brought to the relevant Minister as being representative of views in this House.
Senator Hanafin also raised the question of procurement but asked for more particular debates on the economy, as did Senator Regan on the question of unemployment and competitiveness. Those issues might deserve a debate in the wider context with the ESRI seminar today and the recent publication of that agency's report. That could form the basis of a particular economic debate we could have in coming weeks.
Senator Buttimer asked about a debate on local government, as did Senator Burke, and on the question of local government funding. The Commission on Taxation has been given a particular remit on local government funding. It will report earlier than expected. I am not sure whether that report will be produced before the end of this session but while there would be value in discussing the role of local government before the local government elections, I suggest the debate on local government funding needs to be informed by the recommendations that will come from the Commission on Taxation in a number of months.
Senator Buttimer also asked me to respond to the application of breast cancer facilities in the Cork area. He may be surprised to hear that I agree with him in that regard.
Senator Glynn spoke about the appearance of small green shoots in terms of new opportunities in local communities and employment prospects. The dim light, in terms of the ever-increasing unemployment figures, is that the rate of increase in the figures announced yesterday was significantly less than in the previous month. We can only hope that is a sign of things changing.
Senator Glynn also raised the question of planning issues but also, more importantly, the need to have a particular debate on tenant training prior to social housing being allocated. In that he was joined by Senator Butler. I believe a debate can be organised to discuss such matters.
Senator Bacik asked about the current position on international adoption agreements with Russia and Vietnam. I am aware that 1 May is seen as a deadline but I am also aware that the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, is active in reaching a conclusion to this matter. There is ongoing activity and it is hoped that positive news can be reported to the House on that.
Regarding the civil partnership Bill, my understanding is that it will be published before the end of June.