The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the report by the Commission of Investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin (resumed), to resume at the conclusion of the Order of Business, on which spokespersons may speak for 20 minutes and all other Senators for ten minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, and with the Minister to be called upon not later than 1.15 p.m. for closing comments and to take questions from spokespersons and leaders; No. 2, statements on farming and the agrifood sector, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 3.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, on which spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, and with the Minister to be called upon not later than 3.20 p.m. for concluding comments and to take questions from spokespersons and leaders; and No. 3, Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Bill 2009 — Second Stage, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 7.30 p.m. The business of the House shall be interrupted between 3.30 p.m. and 5.30 p.m.
Order of Business.
It is clear the Government has created a climate of fear and anxiety about the budget in bringing the country to the edge of a financial precipice and I do not believe the people have confidence that it will bring us back from it. I want to raise questions today — we will be discussing the budget tomorrow — about the values it will foster. I point to one issue about which serious questions must be asked. It appears, for example, that the price of alcohol will be reduced but what values will be fostered in terms of job creation and competitiveness?
I point to another issue, the welfare of children. We will discuss the Murphy report later. We have had the Ryan report and an implementation plan for it from the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews. The implementation plan is excellent but will resources be made available for it? We have heard so much talk about the need to protect children in the aftermath of the Ryan and Murphy reports but are we only paying lip service to the issue? Will resources be made available, despite the financial difficulties we are facing, to protect children and implement the recommendations made in the reports? That is the critical question.
It looks as if the Government will attack children by cutting child benefit which, I have no doubt, will have a dreadful effect on families and children. Families are extremely worried about the cut and the implications for their weekly budgets and children. We will watch the budget very carefully today to see what values it espouses and if resources will be provided to ensure more than lip service will be paid to the protection of children.
Cutting back the work of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is not the way to proceed, in the same way as getting rid of the Combat Poverty Agency, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority was not the right direction in which to move at this time of difficulty. We will have a debate in the House tomorrow and will see how the budget plays out.
I note that the Garda Commissioner has written to the Garda representative bodies to say members of the force will break the law if they take strike action. I do not know about that and would like to have the matter clarified in the House. I do not know what law they would be breaking, but they might be in breach of secondary legislation. It seems the Constitution clearly states people have the right to withdraw labour, associate and use these rights as it suits them. The House should be aware that police officers in many European countries are members of trade unions or similar associations. One may consider it is a given that gardaí should not strike, but that is not the same as saying they do not have a constitutional right to strike. I do not know whether a specific prohibition is provided for in law, but it may be provided for in regulations. I question whether people can simply decide gardaí will be in breach of the law if they engage in industrial action. Therefore, certain constitutional issues need to be addressed.
It seems every person, including members of the Garda, has the right to withdraw his or her labour. The exercise of this right is guaranteed by the Constitution. I would like to debate this point with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who has commented on the issue. I am not talking about whether gardaí might go on strike in the current circumstances, as that is not the issue for me. I am talking about a much broader issue. People are reinforcing the view that gardaí cannot strike without breaking the law. Everybody has a constitutional right to withdraw his or her labour as he or she sees fit. I would like the matter to be discussed and to hear more about it.
I support Senator Fitzgerald's call for additional resources to be allocated to implement the recommendations made in the Ryan and Murphy reports. I hope child benefit will not be affected in today's budget. I have been contacted by many people who are concerned about what they will hear today. Child benefit is particularly important to them as one of their vital weekly resources as they manage their family budgets. They are awaiting what might be ahead with fear and trepidation.
I welcome the announcement that €2 million is to be provided for farmers as part of the fodder aid scheme. There is a chronic crisis in cattle farming. Farmers had to meet the additional cost of moving and rehousing cattle during the extraordinarily wet spring this year. They had to keep cattle housed and fed over the summer. Beef prices are at their lowest level for 20 years. An IFA study has found that farm incomes have decreased by 40% in the last two years. I appreciate that we will have an opportunity to contribute to a debate on agriculture later today, but we need to listen to those who are on their knees and finding it difficult to manage because their grounds are waterlogged.
More than half of the approximately 1,000 people surveyed on their blood pressure by the Trinity Centre for Health Sciences which is based at St. James's Hospital were found to have high levels. In turn, just half of these were found to be on medication for hypertension. There is a need for a national information campaign on the effects of high blood pressure which can include stroke or death, at worst. If people are screened, they will know whether they need to take medication and be treated at an early stage. They need to know what the normal level of blood pressure is and what the standards of care should be.
We have heard this morning that the Government has brokered a deal with Deputy Healy-Rae to develop a 40-bed hospital in Kenmare.
It is a 42-bed hospital.
It is a 48-bed hospital.
I have nothing against Deputy Healy-Rae; in fact, I quite like him.
The Senator can give him a No. 1 vote.
I have nothing against Kenmare either. The cronyism——
Senator Daly is in trouble now.
It is appalling that people are being encouraged in this fashion to support a tired and worn out Government. I asked the Leader last week to invite the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to come to the House to discuss this serious issue. I tabled an amendment to the Order of Business last Friday to try to get the Minister to debate the serious loss of 41 beds at the Midland Regional Hospital in Mullingar.
I ask the Leader to deliver this. It is extraordinary that when we ask the Minister to advise us on HSE matters, she says it is a matter for Professor Drumm. When support for this tired and worn out Government needs to be bolstered, however, it seems it is easy to deliver a 40-bed hospital in Kenmare.
It is time to deliver beds.
It is an absolute atrocity.
I hope members of the Garda Síochána will not go on strike. There is a war in the country. I am interested in knowing if there is any prospect of the Army declaring industrial action. It would be a little odd if it were to do so in the middle of a war.
That is also covered by the Constitution.
I understand that. I note that the Senator distanced himself from any suggestion he might be encouraging members of the Garda to go on strike.
Twenty years ago yesterday the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Gerry Collins, ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It was suggested it was an important move because it wiped a stain from Ireland's reputation. However, the covenant does not have any teeth. Since September the country has been coming under pressure to demonstrate its commitment to the protection of economic rights by ratifying an optional protocol to the covenant. The protocol creates a mechanism under which people can assert such rights. A distinguished former Member of this House, Mrs. Mary Robinson, has created an organisation called Realizing Rights. I ask the Leader to convey to the Minister the urgent necessity to ratify the optional protocol, which would help people to realise their rights.
I join others who have commented on the Government's extraordinary and lamentable decision which has apparently been leaked in advance to reduce tax on alcohol. That such a decision will do damage is made clear by a headline in one of today's newspapers, "Irish among top alcohol consumers in OECD — report". One tiny country, Luxembourg, is slightly worse than Ireland in this regard. We need to reflect on the damage to health and jobs being done by alcohol. I suggest that rather than addressing the leakage of alcohol sales to Newry in this way, the Government should approach Mr. Peter Robinson who is always bleating about his biblically based Protestantism to get the Northern Ireland Administration to co-operate in an all-Ireland effort to address the problem of alcoholism.
We should not increase the prevalence of alcoholism at Christmas time when it is particularly dangerous.
I agree with Senator McFadden on the decision made by the HSE yesterday. I ask the Leader to explain how the Minister for Health and Children can abdicate responsibility for matters relating to the HSE, while sanctioning the provision of a new hospital in Kenmare. I salute the efforts of Councillor Patrick O'Connor-Scarteen who worked very hard to secure the hospital in question.
And his father before him.
How was it possible for the new hospital to be announced by Deputy Healy-Rae yesterday? The Government is either responsible for the HSE and the cuts in the allocation and configuration of services, or it is not.
It is responsible when it suits.
I would also like a debate on the issue of alcohol. As somebody who takes a pint, I am genuinely concerned about and outraged by the possibility that the Minister for Finance will propose a reduction in the level of tax charged on alcohol products in the Budget Statement later today. The level of consumption of alcohol in Ireland is one of the highest in the world. As a nation, we have a serious alcohol problem. It has been accentuated, rather than addressed, by the Government's policies on the opening and closing hours of pubs and the operation of off-licences. The epidemic of alcohol abuse evident in off-licences and pubs in our cities and towns needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The funding given to rehabilitation and treatment centres by the HSE and the Department of Health and Children has been cut. A debate on these matters is urgently required.
A motion in my name on the Order Paper states "Ireland has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world" and mentions problems such as "alcohol related violence" and "anti-social behaviour" which are associated with alcohol. Given that a headline in one of today's newspapers reads, "Irish among top alcohol consumers in OECD — report", it is incongruous that the Government is proposing budget sweeteners to the effect that alcohol prices will be reduced. At the same time, however, one reads about budget sweeteners to the effect that alcohol prices will be reduced. A debate is needed in this regard. My motion pertains to advertising, an issue which has not been addressed seriously. It is an embarrassment that this country displays such a level of binge drinking of alcohol that causes such social problems. This is a matter the Seanad could address.
Throughout the year the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has been issuing press releases on the savings made in the social welfare budget on foot of a crackdown on fraud. In July she claimed €250 million had been saved in 2008 and that an estimated €500 million would be saved by anti-fraud measures in 2009. However, she and the Taoiseach have rejected the suggestion highlighted in this week's "Prime Time Investigates" programme that there is fraud to the extent of €2 billion in the social welfare budget. The Taoiseach has stated one cannot extrapolate from a single case in which it was found that 10% of the budget was being lost through fraud. However, the Comptroller and Auditor General's report of last September pointed to the social welfare overpayments recorded in 2008 and he suggested extrapolating the results from a number of surveys. This report indicates there is a significant level of payments in excess of entitlements. These are highly significant figures. The Minister has claimed credit for saving €500 million by way of anti-fraud measures. What has been happening in recent years? Has the State been losing this level of budgetary resources through sheer incompetence on the part of the Government in controlling this area of public expediture?
I join other Members in acknowledging and welcoming the fact that this is budget day. It is good to see that it is a good, sunny day outside.
Not for long.
It is a good morning for a hanging.
It is going to rain later.
As Members contemplate the difficult, painful and severe decisions that clearly will be taken and outlined in today's budget, I hope they can be tolerant of that which clearly is necessary. I do not know what will be contained in the budget.
Neither does the Government.
However, I acknowledge that certain measures appear to have been suggested in the media regarding reductions in excise duties and child benefit. While I do not wish to pre-empt what Members may wish to say in the debate on the budget tomorrow evening, it is clear that it will be extremely difficult. Unquestionably, it will be the most painful budget in the history of the State. I hope and I am confident that the focus of the Government will be on ensuring the most vulnerable and the less well-off are protected to the fullest extent possible. Moreover, when the budget is announced, Members of the Houses must be vigilant to ensure the many extant schemes aimed at looking after the less well-off do not allow people to slip through the net.
On the suggested reduction in excise duties, it would be far too simplistic for Members to interpret it as pertaining to the promotion of alcohol. I am from one of the Border counties from which almost €500 million in revenue is haemorrhaging from the State. On the basis that some do take alcohol and that this is their primary objective in crossing the Border——
They take more than that.
They take more than alcohol.
On that basis, I would welcome any movement in excise charges. However, I agree with other speakers that not enough is being done in the prevention of alcoholism or in the treatment of alcoholics. More should be done in this regard. This does not suggest one should allow for one price in the Republic, while a less expensive one is on offer two miles down the road. I would welcome any moves in this regard.
Without wishing to be facetious, I congratulate my colleague, Senator Daly. It did not take him long to ensure work on the hospital first announced in 1979 is to proceed. I say, "Well done," to him and the other elected representatives, including Deputy Healy Rae.
There is a No. 1 for Senator Daly.
What about Sligo?
As someone who represents a county that borders Ulster, I also am highly interested in the suggested reduction in excise duties. I am unsure whether it will have the effect of reducing the level of cross-Border shopping. I would prefer to see the Minister calling in the various multinational retailers and inducing them to reduce the prices of goods. When Deputy Gilmore and I visited Northern Ireland last week, we brought up this issue with the First Minister, Mr. Peter Robinson. We spoke to people about issues relating to cross-Border shopping, policing and tourism. One subject that arose from discussions with party leaders in the North was a request that the board of NAMA include members from the Northern Ireland community. This issue was covered in this morning' edition ofThe Irish Times. Mr. Sammy Wilson, Minister for Finance and Personnel in the North, asks for such representation. I note that €5 billion of the NAMA package pertains to property in Northern Ireland where the authorities are concerned that were a fire sale of assets to take place, it would have a drastic impact on the North’s economy. This request is fair and could be accommodated without difficulty. I ask the Leader to request the Minister to include a representative from the Northern Ireland business community in the board of NAMA.
Yesterday the Leader promised a debate on competitiveness in the economy. I respectfully suggest this is probably too little too late and that today might see an opportunity to address competitiveness, whereby businesses could begin to compete and create and protect jobs again. Today the people will pay the price for what essentially has been incompetent and misguided leadership in the past ten years. All the indications are that a cut, slash and burn approach will be taken, which will inflict obvious further pain on families and those who are most vulnerable. There appears to be no hope for the unemployed, no stimulus measures and no packages or incentives to create jobs. This Christmas families are fearful and worried about their futures and those of their children. They seek a focus, confidence building measures, as well as job protection and creation. I suggest these should be the strong messages that should be heard around both Houses today.
I agree with Senator McFadden that the Government has engaged in an obvious display of contempt for the people in the manner in which it is prostituting deals with Independent Members such as the deal on the hospital for Kenmare. While all Members have examples from their own districts, people in Waterford have been promised a hospital for the elderly for more than ten years at St. Brigid's Hospital. However, wards were closed there this year. Such side deals display pure contempt because throughout the year the Minister states this is a matter for the HSE. This simply is not good enough and is the reason people are so angry. They do not see true, proper and fair governance and are tired of the cute hoorism that has been evident for the past ten years. Members simply are reflecting their views. It is about time there was proper, true and fair leadership. Perhaps today's budget might provide an opportunity for it to commence but I greatly doubt it.
As my colleagues are aware, I produced a document on suicide levels in the new Ireland last year which examined the numbers and provided an analysis of the reasons for and causes of suicide on the island as a whole. Last October theEuropean Journal of Public Health launched a document by Dr. Paul Corcoran of the National Suicide Research Foundation in Cork.
I ask my colleagues to desist from speaking. It is simply pathetic on the Opposition benches and resembles school.
It really is very poor. They should all be separated and should not be sitting beside one another. Then they would not be tempted to talk.
The Senator should direct her questions towards the Leader.
Members are being distracted.
I never said a word.
The matter I am raising is serious. Every year 10,000 people — men and women — are widowed. The harsh reality revealed by this new study by Dr. Corcoran is that a widowed person is twice as liable to die by suicide. This is the first time a study of this nature has been conducted in Ireland. It would be a simple matter for the local community or health nurse to visit a person who has been bereaved. Widows and widowers are more liable to have an accident or endure death, including by suicide. This is a highly serious report. The official suicide figure is approximately 500 a year. We know, because of the many unreported suicides and different autopsy reports, we are not hearing about the true effects. A very simple solution to this problem would be for the community nurse to call to a widowed man or woman to assess the state of his or her mental health.
In the name of God.
It is not me.
How many times have I asked people not to bring phones into the Chamber or to leave them turned on? If it continues I will adjourn the House for a period until the phones are removed. It is not Senator Bradford's phone.
On a point of order, I ask the Leader of the Opposition to control her group.
Who is in control of the House is a matter for me.
It is absolutely appalling.
Your own crowd is as good.
Senator Bradford to continue, without interruption.
The Senator is not bad at it herself.
No interruptions, please. Senator Bradford is in possession. His time is passing.
I am being interrupted by my colleagues. Like everybody in the country I am looking forward with anticipation and some degree of trepidation to the Budget Statement to be made in the other House this afternoon. I hope I have been consistent in what I have said in this House in the past two years on matters pertaining to the economy and the political situation.
I am convinced, from the politics of the situation, that there is no redemption for the current Government. I am equally convinced that, come the election in January 2010 or 2012, Deputy Enda Kenny will be asked to lead a new Government.
It will be 2012.
I hope, arising from this afternoon's Budget Statement, there will be economic redemption for Ireland, which is what today must be about. The public has already cast its verdict on the politics of the situation.
Questions to the Leader.
There is a huge demand for the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and the Government to do the right thing economically for Ireland this afternoon. Senators on this side of the House are also up to that challenge.
I ask the Leader, for the umpteenth time, to use this House to focus on genuine economic debate in the next few months, if we are still in existence. It would be very useful if each of the Cabinet Ministers would come into this House, make a statement on their respective Departments' policy for the next few months and years ahead and to engage with us. It is a request I have previously made. I was promised it would happen six years ago in this House by another Leader. It would be a useful forum.
I cannot answer for my predecessor.
The Leader could have a quiet word with her. It would be a useful vehicle for debate. I ask the Leader to put that proposal on the agenda after Christmas because there is a huge amount of work to be done in every Department. Every Minister could benefit from hearing the views of the Members of this House. I look forward to a positive reply and some action on the subject.
On Friday fortnight, when all of us sit down to what I hope will be a safe, loving and caring environment to have Christmas lunch with our families, we should reflect on the fact that on the same day last year the ISPCC Childline centre received calls from 750 children throughout the country. Many of them were seeking protection from domestic violence and abuse on what should be the happiest day of the year. We should also reflect on the fact that another 500 children called Childline but their calls were not answered.
It begs a question. In this country we have a horrible habit of developing a collective amnesia every now and again. We spend a week or two debating the Ryan and Murphy reports, wringing our hands over the horrendous things which have happened to children in the past and continually promising ourselves that we will not let such things happen now or in the future. The very fact that on one day alone last year, on what should have been the happiest day for our children, 500 children called Childline, which should be available to assist them, and did not get an answer is a bad reflection on us as a whole.
While the budget today will test the Government's economic and fiscal skills in taking us back from the precipice, as Senator Fitzgerald described it, it will also test its set of values, what it truly values in our society and what it means to be Irish. In recent weeks, during our flooding crisis, we saw families and communities coming together to protect those rendered very vulnerable over a number of days. Despite this, the people at the helm of this country seem to have lost their value system. I ask that today we see a return to a situation whereby we value the most vulnerable and, despite the difficulties we find ourselves in, we afford them the protection they deserve.
I welcome the Taoiseach's announcement of a hospital for Kenmare. It is unfortunate that my Seanad colleagues on the Opposition complained about the new hospital being anywhere in the country at this time. The fact of the matter is that the hospital in Kenmare is not meeting current HIQA standards and has to be replaced.
It has been the same in Waterford for the past ten years. It is cute hoorism.
No interruptions, please.
Local public representatives such as Mr. Patrick Scarteen, and Mr. Mike Scarteen before him, Ms Breda Moynihan-Cronin and Deputies Sheahan, O'Donoghue and Healy-Rae worked hard.
Questions to the Leader.
I ask the Leader to bring the Minister into the House. We have been working on this issue in Kenmare since 1976, when the extra 12 beds were first announced and announcements were made in 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2008. The importance of this hospital cannot be overstated in an ageing community where many people need long-term assistance and care to recover from illnesses. I ask the Leader to arrange a monthly meeting between the HSE and the Kenmare community hospital group, led by Ms Una O'Neill, to ensure the hospital will proceed.
On a day when we are all awaiting the budget with trepidation, we see a carbon tax is likely to be introduced. We will have to see the format it will take. It would be an important component of any package aimed at reducing our carbon emissions. In that context, I note the Leader has scheduled a debate on Thursday on climate change. Can the Leader tell the House when the Government Bill on climate change will be introduced? When will it sign up to its commitment to ensure there will be a binding obligation on it and future Governments to ensure yearly reductions in carbon emissions. As the House will know, No. 18 on the Order Paper is my Climate Protection Bill which would have imposed such binding obligations. It is all very well having statements, but in a week when the Copenhagen talks are ongoing, we should know from the Leader when the Government Bill will be debated in this House.
I ask for a debate on a specific aspect of the Murphy report. I know the debate on it is continuing today and I contributed to it last week, but I have been re-reading subsections of the report. I have a particular concern about its criminal law implications. We need a specific debate in the new year on that issue. There has been a lot of talk about whether persons who knowingly concealed the incidence of crimes of sexual abuse could themselves be prosecuted for a crime. Such people could include the bishops who were described as being guilty of wilful inaction or inexcusable negligence in the report.
A view has been expressed that because misprision of felony was apparently abolished in 1997 it would be impossible to prosecute. I have seen legal advice which would suggest otherwise. I have also re-read the Murphy report's view on this which leaves open the possibility that persons could be prosecuted in the future for concealment of offences, many of which were not classified as felonies, but rather as misdemeanours, at the time. I ask for an urgent debate on how existing criminal law, despite the 1997 Act, could be used to ensure persons who knowingly concealed the incidence of child sexual abuse within the church could be prosecuted. There are ways of doing that. Mr. Pearse Mehigan's article inThe Irish Times on Monday suggested there are ways to prosecute the bishops concerned.
I too welcome the announcement regarding Kenmare hospital. Like the Shannon, it is not the first time it has been delivered. I hope there is follow through on this occasion. It is many years since I tabled an Adjournment matter on this issue in the House and I got a commitment. I know Deputy Healy-Rae got commitments before. With the Scarteens who have been mentioned, I have been campaigning on that matter since I entered this House in 1997. Kenmare is located at the head of two vast peninsulas, serving half of Iveragh and practically all of Beara. Upgrading of that hospital has been needed for years. I hope there will be delivery this time because we have all been shouting for it for long enough. The hospital in Kenmare is essential for that territory.
I take issue with colleagues, who in good faith claim there is not a case for reducing the excise duty on alcohol. As an educator by profession and as a parent I am as concerned about alcohol problems as anyone else is. Those problems need to be addressed on an ongoing basis. However, we have a crisis along the Border with people going north to shop, which is threatening the entire retail trade. Second and third generation family retail outlets are closing down; it is not just the new lessees. It is a real crisis in all the Border towns. I favour the suggestion in the media that the Government will reduce the excise duty on alcohol. It is necessary to preserve the economy of the Border area. While it is disgraceful and wrong, people are buying €300 worth of alcohol at a time in the North. They are buying other goods because they are there to buy the alcohol. The issue needs to be addressed.
The proposed carbon tax threatens to put petrol stations all along the Border out of action. There is a crisis in the economy of all the Border counties, which is particularly noticeable in Cavan-Monaghan. With the best of intent people are talking about the alcohol issue, which is an important issue that needs to be addressed. However, this is not the way to deal with it. We need to preserve the economy and stop people going north to buy the alcohol, which they are going to get anyway.
More for Mr. Peter Robinson.
I take Senator Norris's point. Cross-Border initiatives on dealing with alcohol should be taken. That is something to which we should aspire. However, we have a crisis today with young people losing jobs in retail businesses right along the Border. It is very serious.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the use and misuse of figures by the media and the misuse of figures by groups that are agitating. In particular I refer to the wild claims of the Shell to Sea campaign that €540 billion — no less — was being taken by Shell in gas from off the Irish coast. It is amazing that 20% of the very same field was sold for €100 million. Somebody must be doing a very good deal or somebody is using wildly exaggerated——
Shell did a very good deal, getting it all for nothing thanks to the Senator's friend, Mr. Ray Burke.
Senator Norris, no interruptions, please. Each Member is entitled to speak on the Order of Business and I will have no interruption from anyone.
If the Leader's remark is for me, I cannot hear him.
Please, Senator Hanafin should be allowed to speak without interruption.
That is not the only group. Some groups claim that foreign fleets have taken €200 billion worth of fish out of the Irish seas since we joined the EU. It is also wildly exaggerated when €8 billion is the correct figure. A television programme in the past two days claimed that €2 billion was being defrauded from the social welfare system without any proof whatsoever. These figures will be used by people to misrepresent the situation, perhaps in the full knowledge that €2 billion is not being defrauded. There are questions to be asked on these issues.
I support Senator Mary White in what she said about suicide, especially as it refers to widows and widowers. In my experience that group is very vulnerable. There are many examples of what might happen if appropriate action is not taken by relatives and concerned members of the community, especially neighbours. A visit to those people at this time of year or at any time of year is of particular benefit.
I wish the people of Kenmare and Kerry in general the very best of luck. If they get their hospital I will not begrudge it to them. However, I am already on record in this House as saying I am far from happy with the manner in which the Midland Regional Hospital Mullingar is being treated. The people of Mullingar and those in the rest of Westmeath and Longford will not take it lying down.
The Senator's party is in government.
It is one of the top performing hospitals in the country and is a flagship of service of which I am very proud as is anybody with any dealings with it, including most people in Longford, Westmeath and further afield.
We have all heard talk of reform of this House, the Dáil, the public service and so on. The public service is being demonised by a number of people both inside and outside these Houses. One would swear on a Mass book that they were the cause of all the social and economic ills we have. The best people in the country are in this House, on local authorities and VECs. What has been said is not fair. They will be the first people to agree that we need reform but they are not the villains of the piece and deserve respect. Many people, young and not so young, in the public service have very serious responsibilities. I hope that in delivering his Budget Statement, the Minister will take cognisance of that.
He will not.
What is being said by a variety of people is unfair in singling out one section of the community.
I join my constituency colleague, Senator O'Reilly, in welcoming today's media reports that the Government is considering reducing excise duty on alcohol. I endorse everything the Senator has said on alcoholism and the problems faced by many people and more certainly needs to be done to address this issue. He and I know people who are in serious business trouble as a result of people going north of the Border from Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim to buy drink because it is substantially cheaper than it is in the Republic. While they are up there purchasing their drink they also do the rest of their shopping. I welcome the reports that excise duty is to be tackled and reduced in the budget.
Car VRT also needs to be addressed as it has seriously damaged the motor industry not only in Cavan, Monaghan and other Border counties, but throughout the twenty-six Counties. People are able to go north, purchase a brand new vehicle, bring it in here quite legally and pay less than they would pay here in the Republic. That is another area I would like to see addressed.
On debating the Ryan and Murphy reports, as the weeks go along there will be no difficulty in allocating time to allow colleagues to give further comment. In particular, I accept Senator Bacik's point that she raised on re-reading the report which is a massive report. One of the great strengths of the House is that we will be able to allocate the time to revisit the report and perhaps enlighten the Government on the concerns of Members.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Prendergast, Coffey and Bradford all expressed their concerns and views on today's budget. I also hope that today senior citizens and those people who have made immense contributions down through the years are considered, even though it will possibly be the toughest budget in the history of the State. Only a few years ago, children's allowance was only €34 a month. Now five years later, child benefit is €166. It was great to see that happening when there was buoyancy in the economy. We need to put the figures into perspective. The Government cared for those who are marginalised and particularly the children — the next generation — who will become the men and women who will enhance the country and take it along from the point up to which we have played our part. The thought has crossed my mind in the last few days that if there had been a change of Government in the last general election, we would probably be having another general election now because the responsibilities the Government is taking on and the tasks it must carry out involve much courage and expertise.
We cleaned up Fianna Fáil's mess before.
It takes a lot of experience.
We would not be in this position if Fine Gael had been in government.
The Leader on the Order of Business, please.
It takes a lot of experience which is sadly lacking on the Opposition benches. Senior, experienced people——
My goodness; look at where that experience has brought us.
A Chathaoirligh, will you ask the Leader to address the Order of Business and stop making partisan, political statements on behalf of Fianna Fáil? It is very irritating for those who are not members of political parties.
I do not envisage an Independent Member being part of the Government, particularly Senator Norris.
This is the first time Fianna Fáil has had to clean up the mess it made.
Senator O'Toole correctly pointed out to the House——
Should we bring back Bertie?
We must have balance in the House.
The Senator has never provided balance in his life. He could not even spell the word "balance", let alone understand what it means.
None of that talk, please, Senator.
We cannot have the doom and gloom merchants of the Opposition taking over completely.
What about ordinary people?
They try, but it will not happen as long as I am Leader of the House.
The Leader is out of touch and he knows it.
The Leader is replying to the Order of Business.
He is out of touch.
If there was a vacancy here, the Senator would be in it.
We are not talking about elections.
The Leader should live in the real world.
Senator O'Toole and other colleagues spoke about the threats of industrial action. I support their calls. There will be no difficulty in allocating time to discuss the constitutional rights of individuals. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will make himself available for such a debate, as he has already done many times this year, including today.
Senator Prendergast spoke about farm incomes and highlighted the difficulties being experienced by the farming community. We all know the tremendous contribution those in agriculture have made. There is an old saying in rural Ireland: "If the farmers are going bad, the country is going bad." That is true. We have an obligation to farmers; political parties of all persuasions have done everything possible to help the farming community. There is a debate on agriculture from 1.30 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. and I know Senator Prendergast will express her points of view to the Minister when he is present.
I will pass on the serious concerns of Senator Prendergast about the dangers of high blood pressure and her call for a national information campaign. Members of the Oireachtas should have their blood pressure tested nearly every month because of the pressure we all come under in our day-to-day working lives.
Senators McFadden, Buttimer, Coffey and Glynn called on the Minister for Health and Children to take action on various issues. Senator Norris and other Senators, including Senator Daly, also spoke about health issues. Senator Coghlan welcomed the announcement to Deputy Healy-Rae that the building of Kenmare hospital was to go ahead. It is great news for the people of the area and I am sure Senator Daly is proud to be sitting here as the representative of the people of Kenmare.
He is not a representative of the people of Kenmare. He is a representative of county councillors.
It is good for all public representatives to be able to share in good news. It is not just in the city of Dublin and other well heeled areas that investment is taking place.
Many have worked long and hard on the issue of the Midland Regional Hospital Mullingar, including Senator Glynn, Senator McFadden's father when he was a member of the health board and the Cathaoirleach. We all welcome the €20 million given to us by the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, for the shell of a building standing for 12 years until I became a Deputy——
——but which is now, thankfully, fully occupied.
How many were on trolleys last week?
That included €5 million for the refurbishment of Level 0.
How many were on trolleys there last week?
There were 93.
Ambulances were turned away.
I know Senator McFadden will share these good wishes when she is on local radio in the future and not just give one side of the story.
Ambulances were turned away. Forty-one beds were closed.
That is the other side of the story.
I have great regard for Senator McFadden as a young Senator and I am doing everything I can to assist her in her requests.
It is time the Leader went back to the Dáil where he had some influence.
No interruptions, please.
The Senator is heading that way and will appreciate his time in the Seanad when he gets there.
With regard to the value of Mullingar hospital, I share Senator Glynn's view that as Oireachtas Members we would not be worth our salt if we were not supporting the consultants in one of the best and most efficient hospitals in the country. The administrator, Mr. O'Callaghan, deserves a gold medal for what he is doing and all his encouragement, help and assistance. The Minister must recognise the achievements of the hospital and the commitment she gave in this Chamber that hospitals which come up to the mark will be rewarded. We are all in agreement in that regard and I intend to remind the Minister of this commitment. In fairness, she has been forthcoming in her support of the hospital.
Senators Norris, Buttimer, Regan, O'Reilly and Wilson expressed serious concerns about trading along the Border which presents a serious challenge. Not only is excise duty being lost, so also are large amounts of VAT. Alcohol should be consumed in moderation. As a Pioneer, I can fully understand people enjoying their evening out, but it is the abuse of alcohol on which we are in agreement on all sides of the House. Be that as it may, small businesses and everyone involved in the retail sector within many miles of the Border — we are not talking only about counties Westmeath, Leitrim, Longford and Cavan — are concerned about the issue. As two Ulster Senators have pointed out today, it is a serious challenge, but from what we see in dispatches in the media, the Minister is responding. We will discuss the issue again, possibly tomorrow morning, but I accept the views of Senators expressed today.
Senator MacSharry spoke about the budget and those who were less well off and on the margins of society. I fully agree with him.
Senators Regan and MacSharry mentioned social welfare fraud. Those unfortunate enough to be entitled to receive social welfare know and appreciate the importance of this small contribution. I speak with the vast knowledge of experience gained in this regard. PPS cards with photographs should be introduced.
For how long have we been waiting for them?
In other jurisdictions fingerprinting is used for the same purpose. All of these issues can be discussed with the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when she is in the House for two days next week and on Second Stage of the social welfare Bill.
For how long has Fianna Fáil been in government?
Senator Hannigan spoke about his meeting with the First Minister of Northern Ireland, at which he discussed various issues. The Senator indicates that €5 billion worth of property taken over by NAMA is in the North. This is a matter on which we can have a debate in the House. It is a challenge for NAMA — perhaps, in one way, an advantage — that properties outside the State may be of higher value than those within it. We will discuss NAMA and its operations on a monthly basis when we come back after the Christmas break.
Senators Mary White and Glynn spoke about the problem of suicide. Senator White who has been a champion of this issue in the House has mentioned the 10,000 people who are widowed every year. I had not realised the number was so large. As Senator Glynn who has much expertise in this area pointed out, we should discuss the matter in the House. It has been highlighted by the two Senators as we approach Christmas. We should all care for those who have been bereaved this year and last year and consider visiting them over the Christmas period. As Senator Cannon said, the recent flooding has shown us that community spirit is still alive and well in Ireland. Certainly, we should bear in mind at Christmas time what Senators Mary White and Glynn have stated.
Senators Buttimer, Glynn and Bradford raised Seanad reform. I am intent on making progress in this area early in February. We will see what we can do to make the House more relevant and how the necessary reforms will start to take place.
Senator Cannon raised the issue of the ISPCC, domestic violence and the 500 children who called the helpline on Christmas Day last year and had no-one to answer. This deserves a full debate here in the House and I have no difficulty in providing time for this.
Senator Bacik asked after the climate change Bill. I certainly can inquire when that is due in the House but I am sure that the debate and the deliberations taking place in Copenhagen this week will be taken into account in that Bill.
Senator Hanafin outlined to the House issues of gas, fish stocks and misrepresentation in costs. It is a serious issue where research has not been thoroughly investigated before it is published. I certainly will pass his views on to the relevant Minister after the Order of Business.