The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re regional fisheries boards, back from committee, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Foreshore and Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Bill 2009 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] — Report Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 and to adjourn not later than 4 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 3, Criminal Procedure Bill 2009 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 but not before 4.20 p.m.
Order of Business.
In recent days the Government has shown nothing short of endemic incompetence. We have a divided Cabinet and the pattern of failure seems to go on and on. The Government failed to manage the boom and now is failing to inspire confidence. Families and parents want nothing more than to have confidence in the country. They do not want to see their children emigrating. If the Government were to inspire confidence or show leadership, the people would row in behind it but we are not seeing this.
I refer to Mr. Peter McLoone's article in today's edition ofThe Irish Times. He lists the reforms that were on the table last week and refers to “Long-sought changes like the extended working day, which would deliver more flexibility” in the health service. We read in the newspapers today about a man in Beaumont Hospital who did not receive the treatment he needed when in the hospital, with tragic consequences. I wonder what his family thinks about the lack of reform in the health service.
Mr. McLoone refers to "increases in day care, community health services, outpatient and diagnostic capacity" and lists all the reforms discussed. Why were these reforms not on the table in the past 12 years? Why are they being discussed at the 11th hour, given that they are so badly needed to provide the front-line services we need in health, education and every other sector? It is an absolute disgrace and a complete indictment of the way the boom has been managed by the Government. There was a lack of focus on reform which is clear for all to see considering what was on the table last week. It has left those in front-line services in a very distressed state and means those trying to access services are getting less than they should.
People are very frightened and upset about what will be in the budget tomorrow. I reiterate my call for the protection of child benefit and services for the vulnerable. There should be a focus on creating and maintaining jobs because this is critical to the thousands who are now unemployed and the companies trying to retain staff in employment. I ask the Leader to respond to these points.
Will the Leader state whether we are to have a debate on the budget tomorrow? I have been in this House for 16 years and, to the best of my knowledge, we have had a debate on every budget within an hour of its announcement. It seems unusual that we are to debate the expiry dates of gift vouchers, an issue which I am sure is very important. However, if the House is to receive the recognition it needs, we should not be debating gift voucher expiry dates within an hour of the announcement of the budget. I urge the Leader or the Labour Party to address this. This is not a day on which to talk about the budget because I hope we will have plenty of time to do so tomorrow.
I was impressed to read in the newspapers today that the President had recognised the female gardaí — the term "bean garda" is no longer acceptable — of 1958. What impressed me more was the high standing of the Garda Síochána over the almost 80 years of its existence. In a worldwide survey of the levels of trust and confidence in police forces the Garda had the highest rating, at 83%. However, this level of trust and confidence in the force is in serious danger of being lost if the Garda decides to lead the way in the difficulties it is forecasting on foot of tomorrow's budget. I urge it to ensure it does not stretch the law too far. Let some other body lead the protest. If the Garda wants to follow, it may then make a decision on so doing, but it worries me a great deal that the Garda could take action of questionable legality. I urge it not to do so.
The report by Dublin Friends of the Earth, entitled Through the Roof, refers to the energy certificates that are obliged to be displayed in every public building. They are displayed in only 20% of public buildings. It is hoped they will be displayed in 33% by the end of the year. Acting on this policy could save a substantial sum of money. On the day after the commencement of the climate change conference in Copenhagen it seems we are slipping up in this area very badly. I urge the Minister responsible to ensure we take the steps necessary to certify our public buildings both to save money and set standards that will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We are setting a standard way below what is expected. If the United Nations conference in Copenhagen sets new standards, we will not even reach the old ones. Let us make sure we act on the matter immediately.
I remind colleagues, including Senator Quinn, that the Labour Party does not order the business in this House, that is a matter for the Leader.
While I have no objection to having a debate on the budget tomorrow or any other day, we have probably the same likelihood of being listened to on the budget as we have on the issue of gift vouchers, that is, somewhere approaching zero. However, if there is to be a debate, let us have it. At the risk of returning to what is sometimes described as "navel gazing" on our part in the Chamber, it again raises the issue of the farce we have had in the House in recent weeks. There have been calls for Opposition Members to come in and bring forward their budgetary proposals in order that they might be listened to and that the Government side can respond. There has been a parade of so-called debates on the budget in the past six weeks which, in fact, do not constitute debates.
Senator Fitzgerald quoted from an article inThe Irish Times today. The newspaper contains another interesting piece by Ms Elaine Byrne on the question of what the Parliament is doing and its role in the budgetary process which approaches nil. Ms Byrne describes what will happen in the other House tomorrow as a theatrical exercise in parliamentary voting fodder. She is correct. If the Dáil is being rendered irrelevant regarding the budget, what can we say about this House? What expectations do we have for ourselves as politicians that we can make any difference to the future of the country when there is no serious attempt to ensure scrutiny of budgetary matters in this House or the Government does not provide for a proper debate or engage with Members of both Houses? It is no wonder people see the Houses of Parliament as amounting to no more than an opportunity for Members to vent a particular prejudice such as whether they are against or in favour of the public service. That is what the House has been reduced to by the actions of the Government in failing to engage with Members on the budget. In the past 24 hours there has been leak after leak, which is the manner in which the budget is being communicated to the people. The Government wants to see where the lines of resistance are through the media, write the final speech and then announce the budget in the Dáil tomorrow. I am sorry if I sound cynical about debates in this House. As the Leader knows, every time there is a debate I participate in it and have no difficulty in doing so. However, such debates are not taken seriously. It is a case of the emperor’s clothes, in terms of this and the other Chamber because people are starting to wonder what is the point.
The House should at the earliest possible opportunity discuss the Budget Statement to be made tomorrow in the other House. It is important that the timing of the debate be such that it will allow this House to be heard to maximum effect. The tradition has been to speak on the budget on a Wednesday evening at a time which clashed with the speeches of Opposition speakers in the other House. Speaking on it early on Thursday morning would mean we would clash with the speeches of the party Leaders in the other House. The earliest opportunity outside these periods would be the correct time for the Seanad to have its voice heard. While I accept where Senator Alex White is coming from in terms of his own views on the matter, having such an opportunity will give the Seanad an opportunity to influence policy. We must remember that tomorrow the Budget Statement will be made and legislative effect to what will happens on foot of that statement through the Finance Bill will not be given until late January and early February. There is scope to contribute to that process, as the Seanad has shown itself capable of doing in the past.
That agreement has not been reached through the social partnership process is something of which we also need to be aware and return to at another opportunity. The issue has been raised on the Order of Business on a regular basis. However, it is not enough that short-term agreements are reached between the social partners and the Government. It is important that such agreements are credible. If they are not credible to the people from whom we are borrowing money, it will affect our ability to borrow money and the terms on which we borrow it, which means we would do the country a disservice. That is why decisions need to be made and hopefully will be made in the context of tomorrow's budget.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business "that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs come to the House to discuss the appalling social welfare fraud that was so well documented on last night's "Prime Time Investigates" programme".
I congratulate "Prime Time Investigates" for being able to uncover so much fraud. Why can we, the State and the Department in particular not uncover such fraud? It is estimated that €2 billion has been over-claimed. Some unfortunate families are about to lose child allowance. There has been an increase in the cost of briquettes and petrol, which will affect the ordinary honest to goodness person and yet people are blatantly working while claiming social welfare. What is being done about it? Fine Gael believes in having an integrated identity card to stamp out PPS number fraud. I cannot understand why that does not happen. The Minister must come to the House to explain to us as representatives of the people. I dispute Deputy Alex White's negative attitude to the Seanad.
We must represent the people who have elected us. We should use this forum to shout loudly about such things as social welfare fraud. I ask the Leader to take me very seriously and get the Minister here this evening. We should cancel everything else. If we can save €2 billion by putting our heads together, then it is worth it.
I am very disappointed at the reaction from the Opposition and from various commentators over the weekend to the intervention by the Taoiseach on the public service pay talks. As a former trade union activist, I have always subscribed to the idea of partnership. Where an acceptable deal cannot be agreed, somebody needs to lead. On this occasion the Taoiseach showed the kind of leadership the country was seeking for which the people applaud him. If it had gone the other way and we had come up with a half-baked agreement I am sure the Opposition would tell us that Peter McLoone was running the country. The Opposition looked for leadership and got it. They now know who is running the country and it can only get better from here on in.
Over the weekend I travelled to a function by taxi. I was so impressed by the taxi and its driver that I booked him for a return journey in the morning. His taxi was a spotlessly clean Mercedes and he obviously looked after it with pride. When I complimented him, he told me that unfortunately under a nine-year rule introduced by the Commission for Taxi Regulation he will need to get rid of that taxi at the end of the year and purchase a new vehicle. More than likely he will downgrade the size and quality of his vehicle. He asked me to raise this valid matter here. There should be an appeals procedure for a vehicle that is nine years old. There should be annual vetting of all taxi vehicles. It is possible to have a 2009 vehicle that is filthy and tiny or the kind of vehicle in which I travelled, which is even better than the Leader's vehicle. We should seek an appeals procedure to get fair play for our taxi drivers.
It is the last time he will get a lift home.
I was astonished to hear people on the Fine Gael side apparently praising the trade union proposals because during their discussion with the Government, Fine Gael consistently undermined and attacked them. This point scoring reduces politics considerably.
The Senator misunderstands. Trade union reform needs to be made.
Senator Norris without interruption, please.
It would make people cynical because the time for this type of point scoring is over——
It is not point scoring. The Senator misunderstands.
——as I hope is the time for the indecent spectacle we witnessed of allegedly Independent Members using their momentary leverage to secure local advantage for their own little parishes. I find that disgusting when the entire country is facing a difficulty.
I also wish to raise the issue of child abuse again. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform said that no church is above the law. That is factually incorrect. Yes, they are. The churches are above the law. They have been placed above the law by this Parliament and nothing is done about it at all. Let us first of all nail that lie. Let us then consider the consequence, which is that the Government is involved in the continuing, systematic, deliberate and knowing abuse of children. It is doing so by exempting the churches from the operation of equality legislation, inhibiting the anti-bullying programmes in schools and so on. It is also doing so in the terms of the partnership Bill, as proposed, in which the rights of children are specifically excluded, leaving them in a situation where they can be adopted by one member of a gay couple but left in limbo or returned to an institution when the adopting parent dies. That is a disgrace. I publically accuse the Government of knowingly, deliberately and cynically engaging in child abuse.
What is the fate of the Bill on electroconvulsive therapy? I am sure Senator Boyle will have noticed in today's newspapers that the records of psychiatric hospitals show this practice is still continuing with a considerable percentage being involuntary. I know the Senator's Bill has gone a certain way with support from all sides of the House. When will it be completed?
The Garda Síochána is one of the finest police forces in the world, as I have said here on many occasions when we have had tragedies in which members of the force lost their lives. The Garda stood by the State from the day of its inception. Its members have put their lives on the line and their families have been threatened on many occasions. In the new order and with the excesses of more affluent times the Garda is at the forefront in the fight against crime, drugs and anti-social behaviour. Any Member who knows members of the force knows what they have to put up with. The State owes them a huge debt of gratitude. It would be a pity, therefore, if anything distracted from that proud record of the Garda Síochána. I hope gardaí will reflect on this, no matter what problems they have or frustration they feel in the current economic climate. Any distraction from or undermining of the record of a police force that cannot be compared with that of any other police force in the world because it is so good would be unfortunate. As I have so many friends in the force, I ask them to rethink about what is happening and avoid taking a collision course with the State.
Given the manner of the breakdown of the social partnership talks and what we have learned since, it amply demonstrates Senator Fitzgerald's point that the Government has consistently bungled public service reform over many years. It has professed its belief in social partnership which can be used constructively. We have made proposals to the Leader and through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges that the social partners be brought into the House to assist them in their role.
Is there a question? This is a Second Stage speech.
Senator Quinn is correct that the Leader is breaking with established practice. In the 12 years I have been a Member of the Seanad the House has had a debate a few hours after the making of the Budget Statement.
I second Senator McFadden's amendment to the Order of Business. It is a colossal blunder if the level of social welfare fraud is possibly €2 billion. Savings on such a scale would bring us half way towards what the Government will I hope achieve tomorrow.
A serious matter has arisen with regard to NAMA. It seems the valuers engaged by the agency are speaking out. I am not too sure about the appropriateness of this but they claim the discount will be much greater than was anticipated.
Senator Coghlan to continue without interruption.
This combines with the effects of rent reviews and flooding.
The Senator's time is up.
As the Minister for Finance will not attend the House today, by how much does the Leader envisage the figures being revised downwards? Does he envisage far greater public ownership of the banks resulting from these discounts?
I also compliment the Taoiseach on his stand last week with the stakeholders on how best we could move forward and the notion of the 12 days' unpaid leave. In view of my own past profession, I could not see how it would work out and I compliment him for taking the lead and stating that was not a runner.
Senator Alex White suggested today that we were not having debates here, and I agree with him. We have had statements, which will lead up to the final day tomorrow. What do we mean by a debate? A debate, to me, is a question and answer session. I have no difficulty if we can conduct it so that we will be able to draw conclusions, but we all know that no matter what way a debate ends there will be some in favour and others against, and that is the idea of the political parties. I am apprehensive about these new concepts on debate versus statements that we are trying to bring forward here. Neither is a good idea for the future. However, I am open to further discussion on this.
Today I read about the National Education Welfare Board, which is a new board set up to deal with school attendance. I am not so sure that board is working well. Perhaps in the new year we should have a discussion on how this board works, how it co-ordinates with the HSE, the Department of Education and Science, the teachers, the home-school link, and so on. I hope this is not another one of these quangos that do not fulfil their role. It was meant to integrate all of the other services dealing with students with absentee issues, students with discipline problems, and students who are being fostered and are just out of HSE care, and how all of that works. Perhaps in the new year the Leader would find time to have a full debate or — I hate to say the word — statements. Whichever way we want to work it, maybe we would have a discussion on that.
I ask the Leader for a debate on domestic violence in light of the fact that we are nearly at the end of Women's Aid's 16 Days Campaign to highlight the need to eliminate violence against women. We need a debate in this House on the way in which legislation, in particular, could be amended to ensure greater protection for victims of domestic violence and to ensure also greater applicability of preventive measures. I ask for that debate and I note others colleagues on both sides of the House have asked for it too. Such a debate in this House is long overdue.
There is a related matter on which we could have a debate, perhaps at the same time, that is, the treatment of rape cases in court. I was present yesterday at a conference run by the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland, which is to be commended on its commissioning of a study on rape and its treatment within the legal process, which was produced by Dr. Conor Hanly from NUI Galway and a team of researchers there. The shocking findings of this extensive study carried out by Dr. Hanly was that two thirds of rape cases reported to the Garda are not brought to trial, in other words, the DPP only prosecutes in one third of cases reported to him as rape. That is a matter of serious concern. We also need to look at the way in which it appears crude stereotyping of rape victims rules out in some cases the prosecution of reports of rape, and that also is a serious concern. Other matters highlighted during the conference included the drinking culture and the impact of binge drinking, in particular, on cases of rape. We need to look at the issue of rape and its treatment within the legal process, and at how we can improve legislation to ensure that the trial process is carried out in a better way and that we see a higher number of rape cases prosecuted.
The Civil Partnership Bill, which was introduced in the other House last week, will be debated in this House in due course. I welcome the introduction of some measure of legal recognition for same-sex couples but, in my view and in the view of the Labour Party this falls far short of equality for same-sex couples. A number of us, Senators Hannigan, Norris and myself, were involved with the civil partnership train from Belfast to Dublin which highlighted the inadequacies in the Civil Partnership Bill.
Many couples, young and not so young, are having difficulty paying their mortgages. I am sure my colleague Senator Butler will be aware of what I am talking about. Perhaps early in the next session there might be an opportunity for Senator Butler to put his innovative and helpful views to the House on this matter.
In co-operation with our spokesperson on health and children, Senator Feeney, I ask the Leader to organise a debate on diabetes. On the car radio earlier today, I heard Pat Kenny interviewing a well known personality who is in hospital with a condition related to diabetes. In the previous Seanad I spent two years trying to get a debate on this subject. As everybody knows, diabetes is one of the major contributors to hospital time and drawing down health services. Everything must be done to heighten public awareness of this condition. People must realise that, in the main, life-style and diet contribute to it. I would welcome such a debate if the Leader can arrange it in co-operation with the responsible Minister.
I ask the Leader to arrange for an urgent debate on public service reform. I was taken aback recently by the tone and content of some of the public utterances from union leaders. It was my understanding from the benchmarking process which began many years ago that, to address the gulf that supposedly existed between private and public sector pay levels, the unions would row in behind a programme of modernisation and reform across the whole public sector. Late last week, however, one got an indication of how badly skewed and unbalanced the relationship had become between the Government and the unions when union leaders effectively told elected representatives to "butt out" of the negotiations, and that we had no role to play in offering any opinions or comment on those talks.
Over the weekend there was another indication of how badly skewed and unbalanced that process had become when the unions began to say they had a comprehensive and worthwhile package of reforms on the table, but that it was not accepted by the Government. That package of modernisation and reform was the very same one we agreed many years ago as part of the benchmarking process. It galls me to think that the unions somehow consider that this package is now in their gift to give to the Irish people, or not as the case may be. That is why we urgently need a debate in this House on that matter. It is not in the gift of the unions to decide whether they want to provide taxpayers with the public service they deserve. It is an absolute entitlement and right of every single taxpayer to have that reform now, not later.
I ask the Leader to provide time for the House to discuss public service reform, including efficiency, productivity and staff mobility. It might also be appropriate to discuss what progress and savings have been made on procurement, which was an issue that was to be addressed this year, as well as ICT standardisation and curtailment of the decentralisation programme. I would greatly appreciate it if the Leader could first obtain the information concerning the latter part of my question, as well as arranging time for a debate on public service reform.
The one lesson that can be learned from Mr. McLoone's listing of the reforms that were on the table last week, is that we did not successfully negotiate the benchmarking process a few years ago. It is clear from the list of reforms that Mr. McLoone set out last week that the Government flunked benchmarking. It is also very clear that on successive occasions since the benchmarking process, the opportunity to achieve public sector reform was missed. This now needs to be addressed. For that reason I support the calls for an immediate debate in this House on the whole subject of public service reform.
Similarly there is need for a real debate on the issues raised in last night's "Prime Time Investigates" programme, on social welfare fraud, because there are significant media leaks today and yesterday that suggest we may have a lowering of children's allowance. Children's allowance was the one direct payment to children. In many problematic homes it ensured that children at least got fed and clothed. It should be sacrosanct and preserved. The way to preserve it is to address social welfare fraud. My colleague, Senator McFadden, has brought this issue succinctly and clearly before the House today and it is an extraordinarily serious matter. If, on the one hand, we ignore fraud and fail to competently address it while on the other hand proceeding to take from children a direct payment that provides food and clothes for them, along with their basic needs, that is a travesty of justice. It does not follow that because a home is middle class or a family appears to be well off, on the surface, that the children are getting their rights. Children are often abused in what might appear to be a "well off" home.
It is wrong to attack children. It is certainly wrong, when a bit of administrative competence could otherwise resolve the problem.
I read in the health supplement ofThe Irish Times this morning an article on bullying in schools. I was shocked to see that boys as young as six to nine years of age are being bullied in the most horrific manner. In many cases parents are not even aware of what is going on. I raise this because I again want to ask the Leader not to forget about having a debate on mental health when we come back in January, particularly mental health in adolescents and young people and the lack of ringfenced beds. What starts with the bullying of a six or nine year old in a school classroom or a playground can often lead to much more difficult problems.
I support my colleague, Senator Glynn, in seeking a debate on diabetes, particularly now that this is again in the media. It is sad that we only talk about this when our attention is drawn to it by someone in the public eye who is suffering, while nonetheless, wishing that person well. I recall a debate in the last Seanad, perhaps three and half years ago, and I was astounded at the information shared during that discussion. Many men tend to put diabetes-related ailments down to other factors and do not have it attended to quickly enough. However, as Senator Glynn has said, a little knowledge is a good thing. In a situation such as this, knowledge is king.
Senator Quinn queried whether the introduction of the Labour Party Bill tomorrow night on gift vouchers, might not, perhaps, be too trivial. We would like to see the debate widened to include consumer issues in general, which is very relevant coming up to the Christmas period when many people will spend a great deal of money. It is very important that we highlight the whole issue of consumer rights.
Senator Quinn might recall that we tabled this Bill a few weeks ago, but gave way to allow a debate to be held on flooding, which was then a major problem. We are certainly happy to postpone tomorrow night's debate if the Leader can get the Minister for Finance into the Seanad to discuss the budget. We shall give way and have the debate on gift vouchers another night.
However, there is a fundamental point to be addressed on the relevance of this House and how trivial we are. I saw inThe Irish Times this morning that of all the Private Members’ Bills introduced in the Oireachtas since the foundation of the State, only about 40 were accepted by the Government, compared to several hundred in the UK over the same period. There is, therefore, an issue with how relevant the Government regards not just this House, but the Dáil, as regards Private Members’ Bills. The Seanad can be more relevant if the Government would take on board some of the Bills that come forward. Tomorrow night’s Bill on gift vouchers should not be contentious. It makes sense and protects the rights of consumers. I ask the Leader to find a way to allow his party to support the Bill tomorrow night.
I seek a debate on benchmarking. Senator Norris has raised the issue of upward only rent reviews which has led to the anomaly of high rents, in particular in city areas, which has resulted in many premises remaining vacant. Despite the fact that landlords would have preferred to have tenants in occupation, the law provided for upward rent reviews only. This law has since been amended. Similarly, in regard to benchmarking, we cannot allow a situation where there is an upward review only. Where the State is moving forward in togetherness, that is fine but where there must be retrenchment to ensure all citizens do well, there is a case to be made for a downward review in benchmarking. In that respect, I am conscious that there are people who are availing of tax and pension breaks and various reliefs, even though they are earning significant sums of money and paying no tax. In other words, the State is facing a tax wedge in respect of wealthy individuals. Surely, it is wrong that there is such a wedge in respect of people who are earning large sums of money. They can well afford to do without it in this difficult time. We must ensure we protect those who need protection. There is no point in Members saying — it is wrong to use this expression — the Government is making an attack on children. That is simply not true and it is not anybody's intention to do so.
That is what it is.
The State does not lack compassion; it lacks money.
I join Senator Quinn and others in asking the Leader to arrange a debate on the budget tomorrow night following its announcement in the Dáil. In my seven years as a Member of this House we have always had such debate. I do not believe it is particularly fair to ask the Labour Party to suspend the debate on its Private Members' Bill for a second time. Members will be aware it suspended the discussion on the Bill a few weeks ago to allow statements to be made on the flooding. There is no reason we cannot have a debate on the budget tomorrow following completion of Private Members' business at 7 p.m. I do not agree with Senator Boyle that we should have a discussion in January or February. However, we should discuss the budget following its announcement tomorrow to allow Members to give their views on the proposals announced by the Minister for Finance.
I join colleagues who have expressed regret at the announcement made yesterday by the Garda Representative Association of its intention to ballot its members. I respect the role played by the Garda Síochána. It is a fine force and an important part of the State set-up. However, I appeal to union leaders to pull back from the brink whereby the force would effectively be breaking the law. I do not believe that position can be squared with its role as enforcer of the law. It should reconsider its position.
I join Senator Fitzgerald and others who have raised the issue of public service agreement and express my shock at what I heard from the Government side today. Everybody in this Chamber, the Lower House and people on the street knows that the Taoiseach was prepared to do a deal at any cost last week. However, following the return of the Minister for Finance from elsewhere in Europe, a number of backbenchers developed a backbone and a large number of members of the general public expressed the opinion that the deal on the table was not worth agreeing to at any cost. In terms of rewriting history, namely, that it was the Taoiseach who put it up to the public sector unions, nothing could be further from the truth. The real position should be spelled out.
The Senator has made his point.
Is the Leader aware that people are under severe emotional and financial pressure as a consequence of the mismanagement of the economy by the Government to which his party belongs?
It is the Senator's Government, too.
The budget tomorrow is about the protection of the people and the creation of jobs. It is a disgrace that we will not have an opportunity to discuss it tomorrow evening. I appeal to the Leader to amend the Order of Business tomorrow morning to allow time for a debate on the budget.
I echo the call made by Senator McFadden that the Leader invite the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to appear before the House. We are talking about the misappropriation of €2 billion of taxpayers' money. It is not the developers or the bankers but ordinary citizens who are defrauding the State of that amount. The Minister should come to this House to answer Members' questions on the matter.
Why has the Minister for Finance not come to the Seanad to discuss social partnership despite repeated requests that he do so by Senator Bradford, myself and others? This is a House of the Oireachtas but we have had no opportunity to have an input into the talks that ended in catastrophic failure last Friday. The Government has failed to protect the worker and the citizen. It has put citizens who work in the public sector at war with those who work in the private sector. We now have war in our society which has been created by bad leadership from the Government.
With regard to the Minister for Foreign Affairs being denied access to Gaza, will the leader invite him to the House to discuss the issue of Gaza? Irish taxpayers' money is being given to the Palestinian authorities in overseas development aid to rebuild Gaza's infrastructure, water and sewerage system, which are in dire condition. Many people are suffering there at present. For the Israeli Government to deny access to Gaza by the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs is lamentable, to say the least, and a disgrace, particularly after its invasion 12 months ago and killing of up to 3,000 people.
Opposition Members have raised the issue of welfare fraud and quoted the headline figure of €2 billion. That is a sensational and fantastic figure, and I hope they all feature on the front of theIrish Examiner tomorrow as a result.
The Senator is a good hand at it himself.
They are trying to extrapolate from the 10% or 15% who are fraudulent in high risk categories, such as child allowance to non-nationals. We have all encountered such cases. However, one cannot say there is a fraud rate of between 10% and 15% among pensioners. That is not the case.
We never said that.
The Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin, was quite clear this morning on "Morning Ireland" that the Department is looking at a 10% to 15% fraud rate in some high risk categories of social welfare. In other categories, such as pensions and fuel allowance to pensioners, there is not that level of fraud. The "Prime Time Investigates" programme was excellent and we applaud it, but there is already huge investigation of fraud. There have been huge savings of up to €500 million so far this year through the Department and the Minister improving investigation. Most importantly, the headline figure put forward by "Prime Time Investigates" was extrapolated incorrectly. It is incorrect to suggest that €2 billion can be saved.
I agree with Senator Daly's request for a discussion on Gaza at some stage in the future. However, I wish the situation there was as simplistic as he has presented it. The issue of Gaza and the Middle East in general is very complicated, to put it mildly, and there are two sides to the story, both historically and politically. The idea that bashing one side will somehow solve the problem is very unrepresentative of the real situation. However, we will return to that issue on another occasion.
I agree with my colleague, Senator McFadden, about the urgent need for a debate on potential social welfare fraud. As a people, the Irish have a very uneasy relationship with both paying taxes and claiming social welfare. Let us be honest; there has been a traditional view that if one can get away with something, so be it. It is a type of gold medal in cute hoorism if one manages to evade taxation or claim social welfare fraudulently. I hope in the current environment of genuine economic distress, with the country on the verge of bankruptcy, the nation will be more mature in its response to taxation and social welfare issues. I am not sure of the figures for social welfare fraud or whether last night's programme indicated the correct figures. If social welfare moneys are being claimed fraudulently, it amounts to theft from those who need them more urgently — the elderly, children and those in need. Therefore, I support Senator McFadden's call for the Minister to address the matter.
I support the call made by my colleagues for a debate on public sector reform. Last week union representatives highlighted the areas in which they considered progress could be made, but I must ask why it has taken 20 years of partnership to reach these conclusions. I hope they were being genuine and that the reform options put on the table last week are still on it. As Senator Cannon expressed so well, the people deserve no less. With the Leader, we should champion that debate. I am tired of requesting that we lead it. If the Leader wants the House to be relevant, he should allow us to take on board the issue of public sector reform. Let us talk and listen to the stakeholders and debate the issues involved. That should be the role of this House in the next few crucial months.
Senator Norris spoke about other Senators speaking for their parishes. I do not know much about that, but one payment we should all support is child benefit. Last week I met the group Protest Against Child Unfriendly Budget and spoke to Treasa Dovander. I believe most sensible people recognise the folly of attacking child benefit. In 1986 the report of the Commission on Social Welfare clearly pointed out that child benefit was the State's way of recognising children as a public good and society's willingness to transfer resources from households without children to those within which children were being reared. The Government — led by Fianna Fáil I regret to say — attacked——
It was not in government at the time.
It attacked families through the introduction of tax individualisation at the beginning of this decade. It should not now attack families by attacking child benefit.
Does the Senator have a question for the Leader?
I would like to refer briefly to a point raised by Senator Norris who wastes no opportunity to suggest the church is somehow above the law in certain areas. That is not true. The legislation on equality in employment has been drafted to allow organisations in the health and education sectors to protect their ethos. Nothing could be more consonant with reason than this. For that reason, there is good reason to ask that the civil partnership legislation that will be brought before this House be examined closely also. It would facilitate an inclusive society in which rights would be provided. People with conscientious difficulties would be accommodated as far as possible. This is about tolerance and a genuine spirit of liberalism which I hope will prevail in the debate on the subject in the new year.
I support my colleagues who have called for a debate on the budget. I make this call in reference to what happened in Greece today. For the second day in a row Greece has suffered huge losses in its stock market and seen the price of its government bonds and the cost of borrowing rise again. This is very relevant to what is happening in Ireland. If the bond markets and hedge funds get what they want from Greece or if the Greek Government shows the necessary resolve to sort out the national finances, the next country at which everyone will look will be Ireland which is next on the list.
We need to see strong leadership on the part of the Government tomorrow. We also need discipline. I support the comments made by Senator John Paul Phelan. Other colleagues praised the Taoiseach earlier, but the dogs on the street know he was rolled by the Cabinet on the issue. They know that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste wanted to implement a deal that neither reflected the wishes of the people nor those of the Cabinet. That is the backdrop to the budget which will be announced tomorrow. Not only will the people be listening to the budget but people outside the country who will have a huge effect on our economic security will be watching too.
We hear Member after Member talk about the need for better coverage of the proceedings of the Seanad. An exciting initiative is being taken in that regard in which a live blog is being made featuring all the contributions of Senators today. It is being done as I speak and is available to all of us in real time onwww.scribblelive.com.
We are not in the advertising business here. We are on the Order of Business.
It is important. The Leader correctly made the point that this Chamber needs more coverage. This is the day the Houses of the Oireachtas launched a new and much improved website containing new services. I hope that through the offices of the Cathaoirleach, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission will find its way to support an initiative that is trying to bring coverage of this Chamber to new people in a way the State broadcaster cannot do at present.
I support the calls for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to come to the House to debate social welfare fraud. The national broadcaster did a good job last night by throwing a spotlight on this area. We all agree that resources in that Department should be re-allocated to investigations. Indigenous industries such as agriculture and fishing are inundated with inspectors and some of these could be redeployed to this area and save the State an amount of money.
The Common Fisheries Policy will be re-negotiated at EU level very soon. It is important that this House should make a contribution to the general debate on this area. Most of the fisheries organisations have made their submissions to the EU already and this is a good opportunity to redress the many problems in the Irish fishing industry. Many of our coastal communities have been decimated. We are an island nation with considerable natural resources that could be exploited if managed properly. It is important that views should be heard from all sides of this House on this issue. Irish fishermen deserve and need to be heard. They feel they have been sold out by past Governments, among which I include my own party because it, too, has been in power since the formation of the European Union.
This is a genuine opportunity to redress the imbalance Irish fishermen and coastal communities are suffering. I urge the Leader to allow adequate time for a good debate on this very important issue of national importance. It will generate jobs and reinvigorate our coastal communities. I hope the Leader can make time for this important debate before Christmas or early in the new year.
No. 2 on the Order Paper, the Foreshore and Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Bill 2009, report from the Dáil, will be taken at the conclusion of No. 1. I apologise because I stated it would be taken after No. 2. It will adjourn not later than 4.20 p.m. to be followed by No. 3, the Criminal Procedure Bill.
Senators Fitzgerald, Quinn, Alex White, Boyle, O'Sullivan, Coghlan, Ormonde, Cannon, Callely, John Paul Phelan, Bradford, Mullen, McFadden, O'Reilly, Buttimer and Daly all expressed strong views regarding social welfare fraud, how talks with the unions are proceeding and how they finished last Friday. Most of the comments had their source in one publication. The journalist who wrote that article mentioned the presence of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, even though he was not even at the Cabinet meeting. That puts into perspective the detail and research that went into that article.
The Seanad calls on the leadership of the trade union movement and leaders and Members of both Dáil and Seanad Éireann to allow common sense to prevail at this very difficult time in our country's history. The eyes of the world, especially the financial world, are watching Ireland at this time. Strong leadership on the part of all political parties in the Government is needed. Most important, and as never before, it is needed on the part of the trade union movement. Confidence must come into play here.
After the Christmas recess, I will allow an all-day debate on the Forfás report on driving export growth, with statements on sectoral competitiveness. As Senators on all sides of the House noted, unless we deal with competitiveness, we will not get our economy back on track. That is where the future lies with regard to planning and growth.
Both Houses of the Oireachtas have a responsibility and a role before the Finance Bill comes into being. I will hazard a guess that a €4 billion correction will be put in place tomorrow to deal with the challenges facing our country and get it running on a day-to-day basis. The Finance Bill must address the driving forward of job creation and investment for growth in the future. It is in that regard that the Forfás report can be debated.
It is a long time coming.
It may be.
A long time coming.
We had growth for a long time.
Please, the Order of Business, without interruption.
We had growth for eleven years. Seven per cent each year may be hard to stomach——
The Senator's party made a bags of it.
It may be very hard to stomach when one is in Opposition.
It crippled the country.
We lost our competitiveness.
Senator Quinn, for whom I have the utmost respect, is a man who created hundreds if not thousands of jobs. He is an example of those people to whom we should look in the future.
Will the Leader not give the House a debate on the budget?
In 1997, when very many present were not Oireachtas Members, I took the decision, as Leader of this House, to offer a budget debate for the first time to the Independent Senators at that time, including Senator Ross. I was told it could not be done but we have started at 6. p.m. on every budget day ever since.
Will the Leader do it tomorrow?
Excuse me, I am speaking. Last week I deliberated and endeavoured to have this debate take place. It was not possible.
That is the way the Leader treats the House.
I extended the matter to the House today but in the event I cannot get agreement I now inform the House I will take statements on the budget from 3 p.m until 6.30 p.m. next Thursday afternoon. It would be unthinkable if this House could not discuss the budget. It is the most serious budget we have all had to deal with in our political careers.
Is it to take place this Thursday?
Yes, this Thursday. I offer the hand of co-operation to party leaders and Whips. They may wish to continue the taking of statements on the budget on Wednesday evening, which practice I initiated in 1997 and had it very successfully carried along by Senator Ross and other Independent Senators. However, because of the untimely death of one of our colleagues we lost one week in our rota. When I was devising the rota for the autumn-winter session, I allowed for the Independent Senators to debate, as usual, on the evening of the budget. It is not the Leader's fault on this occasion. Party leaders and Whips know they are pushing an open door in this House regarding anything the Leader can do. Consensus has been the order of the day in my leadership and I am proud of it.
Regarding the issue of social welfare fraud, I, too, compliment "Prime Time Investigates" on its magnificent programme. It may not have been correct in all details, as some Senators noted. The House will have an opportune time next week to discuss what is taking place in social welfare and the difficulties social welfare officers are experiencing. We will debate social welfare in the House on two days next week with regard to the forthcoming Social Welfare Bill. I invite all who called for this debate today, who had very good suggestions on PPS identity cards and other matters, to bring these points up on Second Stage of the Bill next week. Regarding points made by Senators Quinn, Boyle and Donohoe, I have already outlined the issues regarding statements on the budget.
Senators Quinn, Ó Murchú and Phelan complimented the Garda Síochána and its high standing in our community. A figure of 83% is a very successful percentage and I join the Senators in their view. The State owes a serious debt of gratitude to the Garda Síochána for the wonderful work it has carried out since the foundation of the State. I call on everybody responsible to look seriously at the challenges facing our country and consider the leadership required. I ask them to get around the table with everybody concerned. Nobody wishes to go on strike or out on the streets. I hope this does not take place. I would like to be associated with the call that everyone should rethink his or her position and value the contribution made by the Garda Síochána since the foundation of the State.
Senator Quinn referred to the talks taking place at the Copenhagen summit. We will have a debate on climate change in the House on Thursday.
Senator O'Sullivan raised the issue of the taxi regulations and the nine year rule. I will pass on the Senator's views to the Minister. The Senator highlighted his experience in the capital last Friday night and I will endeavour to have the Minister meet him in regard to his strong views on the issue.
Senator Norris referred to the Commission of Investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. That issue will receive further consideration in the House on Thursday from 11.30 a.m. until 1.30 p.m. On the Bill about which the Senator inquired, I understand it will be brought back to the House in March.
Regarding Senator Coghlan's views on the National Asset Management Agency and property values, I will make inquiries of the Minister on that matter also.
Senator Ormonde called for a debate on the National Education Welfare Board. I will have no difficulty in allowing time for a debate to take place. It is a worthy call and is made at an opportune time.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on domestic violence. I have already agreed with Senator Corrigan that there should be a debate on the issue. Senator Bacik also expressed strong views on the experiences of the unfortunate women who experience rape. I will have no difficulty in allocating time for a debate on this issue also.
The Civil Partnership Bill is before the Dáil and when it concludes all Stages, it will be taken in the Seanad.
Senators Glynn and Feeley called for a debate on the incidence of diabetes. I, too, heard the personality mentioned speak on the radio as I travelled here this morning. It was uplifting to hear him in such high spirits again because he has given us all a laugh from time to time over many years and I wish him well. I will have no difficulty in agreeing to a debate on the issue in the early spring session. As Senator Glynn said, it is one of the greatest challenges facing most of us. It is also a lifestyle issue. The Senator also raised the issue of mortgage debt management, a topic on which Senator Larry Butler has produced a worthy document. The House should debate the potential solutions. Therefore, I will have no difficulty in allowing time for a debate to take place.
Senator Callely looked for an update on the decentralisation programme. I will have inquiries made in that regard.
Senator Feeley outlined her serious concerns about bullying in schools and called for a debate on mental health. I will have no difficulty in allowing time for a debate to take place.
Senator Hanafin called for a debate on benchmarking and referred to the upward only rent review clause in legislation. I understand the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has signed an order which will come into operation in February to change this law by eliminating this clause. I will have no difficulty in allowing Members to debate the issue.
Senator Buttimer called on the Minister for Finance to come to the House to discuss social partnership. The Minister took Committee and Report Stages of the last finance Bill that was before the House for our consideration on the banking sector and the setting up of NAMA. I will have no difficulty in making that call to the Minister. Any time he has been asked to come to the House he has done so, if available. As we all know, he will be in the Dáil most of the day tomorrow.
Senators Daly and Bradford called for a debate on the situation in Gaza with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, present. I will have no difficulty in allowing such a debate to take place.
Senator Coffey called for a debate on the Common Fisheries Policy and the fishing industry in general. I have already given a commitment to Senator O'Donovan that this debate will take place. It did not take place due to the untimely death of Senator Peter Callinan. The issue was due to be debated on the Wednesday he was laid to rest. I will have no difficulty in allowing a long debate to take place because it is such a serious issue for the country. The potential for growth is huge and I want to allow as much time as possible for the debate to ensure colleagues can make a contribution with the Minister present.
Senator Nicky McFadden has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business that statements on social welfare fraud, with the Minister for Social and Family Affairs present, be taken today. Is the amendment being pressed?
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Cannon, Ciaran.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Doherty, Pearse.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Fitzgerald, Frances.
- Hannigan, Dominic.
- McFadden, Nicky.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Norris, David.
- O’Reilly, Joe.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Prendergast, Phil.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Regan, Eugene.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Twomey, Liam.
- Boyle, Dan.
- Brady, Martin.
- Butler, Larry.
- Callely, Ivor.
- Carroll, James.
- Carty, John.
- Cassidy, Donie.
- Corrigan, Maria.
- Daly, Mark.
- de Búrca, Déirdre.
- Ellis, John.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Glynn, Camillus.
- Hanafin, John.
- Keaveney, Cecilia.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O’Brien, Francis.
- O’Donovan, Denis.
- O’Malley, Fiona.
- O’Sullivan, Ned.
- Ormonde, Ann.
- Phelan, Kieran.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.