The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children on extension of deadline, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion re commercial fishing licenses, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 3, motion re formal sitting of the Joint Committee on the Constitution, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 4, Dog Breeding Establishments Bill 2009 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 3 and adjourn not later than 6 p.m., if not previously concluded, on which spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time; and No. 5, statements on banking which shall commence at 6 p.m. and conclude not later than 8 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and all other Senators for eight minutes and Senators may share time.
Order of Business.
I am sure Senators will join me in wishing for the best in the talks in Northern Ireland. It is a tense and difficult situation but we all hope the efforts will be successful. No one ever said power sharing would be easy but there is no way back for Northern Ireland to its bloody and violent past. We all want to see progress being made in today's critical talks.
There have been reports that hundreds of special needs assistants will finish work this Friday, leaving classrooms without help. The children who need them will no longer have them. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for Education and Science appear in the House to outline how he intends to ensure these children will survive in mainstream schools and how we will continue a policy that provides for their inclusion in classrooms if they do not have available to them, as the majority do, special needs assistants. There is a gatekeeper-type situation where resources are not being given to young children who need the services in question if they are to survive in mainstream schools. We need clarity on the policy being followed. Senator Boyle may have something to say on the matter, as we were told after the renegotiation of the programme for Government that there would be a rowing back on the education cuts and that there would be protection of vulnerable children. Two events will occur this week. First, special needs assistants will be withdrawn from classrooms in which they are badly needed. Second, substitute panels of teachers in disadvantaged areas will be done away with. Once again school principals will be put under considerable pressure if substitutes are not available to replace missing teachers. In my area of Clondalkin, for example, where this system was in place six teachers were looking after 12 schools. The substitute panels have been done away with. These are education cuts. I do not know what else one could call them. I would like the Minister to attend the House to explain how he will protect these children's futures if they do not have the supports they require in the classroom.
I am delighted Senator Fitzgerald has raised this issue, as it is one I have raised time and again. It all reverts to the non-implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. The sections which deal with the matters mentioned by Senator Fitzgerald have not been commenced. It is crucial that the Minister discusses this issue in the House. The Act passed through the House with support from all sides. However, we have been sold a pup in that the relevant sections have not been commenced. Various sections could be commenced at a very low cost. I ask that this be done.
Last Thursday I drew the attention of the House to the motion proposed by Senator Norris and seconded by me, which read: "That Seanad Éireann urges the Government to introduce legislation aimed at regulating the sale of dangerous, non quality controlled and indeterminately compounded substances through so called ‘Head Shops' ". The Leader kindly agreed to take the motion if there was all-party support for it. I have spoken to every party in the meantime and the motion now has the support of Senators Cassidy, Fitzgerald, Alex White and Boyle. Therefore, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that motion No. 21 be taken first today without debate. It is fair to say that what we are discussing is high street drug peddling. While "head shops" might not be breaking any law and are,de jure, legal, de facto they go against everything contemplated in the control of substances. As someone who worked for many years in Irish and European anti-drugs structures, this is appalling. In order that people will understand, we are discussing circumstances where minor changes are made to substances which are then made freely available on the high street. There can be psychotic and damaging consequences for young and old people of all descriptions. This not only leads to difficulties for society but also to deaths. It is beyond belief and totally unacceptable that such substances are not controlled. I have studied this area again during the past week. The substances in question are far more dangerous than some of the items outlawed by legislation. This is exactly like the development of LSD and other psychedelic substances in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that were then named and outlawed. There are substances now which are equally as damaging. As well as approving the motion today, it would be very helpful for us to have a debate on the issue at an appropriate time as it pertains to all counties throughout the country.
The Garda drugs squad is trying to deal with drug peddlers but this creates the same human and social difficulties, although there may not be crime involved. The issue must be dealt with, regulated and controlled immediately.
There is clearly a very serious issue in the North in the context of the ongoing talks which, it is hoped, will continue this afternoon and this evening. It is perplexing for people to realise that on the substantive devolution of policing powers to the North, there seems to be a roadblock. We do not want to say anything here that will in any way interfere with or make life even for a moment more difficult for the people engaging in negotiations in the North at the moment but it seems strange that if there is a strong basis for the devolution of policing powers to the North — which there is — it should be made contingent on a specific issue, albeit important for the DUP. That is the question of the Parades Commission.
Many people find it perplexing that there is a constant trade-off. None of us is naive and we understand that negotiations often involve trade-offs. This is an issue of historical substance regarding the devolution of policing powers. If there is an argument and case, which many people seem to have come around to supporting, the issue should proceed and not be made contingent on the issue of the Parades Commission. Having said that, I join Senator Fitzgerald in wishing all the parties in the North, including our Government, well in an attempt to resolve the issue.
I also second Senator Fitzgerald's comments and second the amendment to the Order of Business which she has proposed on special needs. Will the Leader arrange, as a matter of urgency, for the Minister to come in and explain why it appears that within the next few days, the system is to lose 1,200 special needs assistants? This has not been denied or confirmed but can we have an indication that the report is wrong? Will Senator Boyle tell us if it is wrong as his colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was on radio no more recently than at the weekend again emphasising the importance of education to the Green Party?
Will the issue be clarified to this House if it cannot be clarified on radio or to anybody else? Special needs assistance is one of the small number of things we have achieved in the past ten or 15 years of prosperity. It is a genuinely progressive step that has occurred in our schools. It would be a most serious backward step for people who are genuinely needed in the system, special needs assistants, to be made redundant at the end of this week or anytime soon. That appears to be what is contemplated by the Department.
The Department's evaluation paper on these matters, submitted to the Department of Finance, stated in a rather prescient manner that there is a redundancy scheme in place. The document states:
However, removal of SNAs, even on a moderate scale, is likely to result in significant rearguard action by schools. It may result in schools refusing to continue to retain pupils with special needs and will undoubtedly attract significant adverse public and media reaction. Previous experience in the special needs area indicates that even where criteria are not met, removal of resources can be very contentious.
This is a genuinely contentious issue and it should be dealt with in this House. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister to come in at an early opportunity so the issue can be debated.
I share the good wishes that Senator Fitzgerald has expressed for the talks in Northern Ireland. Everybody in this House believes the process of government and ongoing administration in Northern Ireland must be deeply embedded and the current crisis must be overcome. We wish all participants in the talks well.
Senator O'Toole spoke on motion No. 21 on the Order Paper. I hope the Leader is in a position to take it without debate in order that the House can show its collective belief as regards the need to control properly the sale and use of synthetic drugs in Ireland. It is a topic that needs a great deal more scrutiny to ensure greater levels of control.
There is no doubt education spending has to be reduced, with spending in other Departments, owing to the current economic climate. However, the reductions made have been rolled back in several areas. In the latest Estimates the smallest reduction is in education. With the return to additional expenditure in education, we will see the hiring of additional teachers at primary and secondary level, with the partial implementation of the EPSOM Act through the hiring of a number of psychologists for the National Educational Psychological Service. This will go some way towards remedying the situation with special needs assistants, a process that needs to be reviewed. Even in schools where children with special needs have moved on, the special needs assistants remain and have been asked to carry out other duties. We should have a debate on this issue, but I am sure the Leader believes we have enough to do today.
We adopted legislation on NAMA in this House on 12 November, at which point I indicated that this did not mean it was a done deal in that it had to be approved by the European Commission. I also asked the Leader if we would be kept informed in respect of the notification of the scheme to Brussels and whether it would diverge from the business plan of which the House was informed in October. I raised the matter again on 19 December with the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, when I asked if the NAMA legislation had been notified to the Commission. The Minister of State gave such an ambivalent answer that I had to inquire about the matter with the Commission. At that point there had been no such notification. It was made on 23 December and the legislation is now the subject of examination by the Commission. I met with it yesterday in Brussels, following a submission I had made in a statement of objections to NAMA in its current form. That submission will be presented to the Government by the Commission for its comments. I will be submitting further information to the Commission.
There are reports in the newspapers every day about valuations and changes in valuations. There are reports today about new legislation that may be required to facilitate banks participating in the operations of NAMA. We have made special arrangements to ensure NAMA will make money on the properties it will acquire. There have been reports about haircut budgets and whether the figure will be 30% or otherwise. The Leader indicated that the House would be kept informed. What scheme has been notified to the European Commission? There has been total secrecy about the decision last October to give a guarantee to the banks. There has also been secrecy about the banking inquiry. A €54 billion gamble on NAMA is too important to remain a secret. I, therefore, ask the Leader to inform the House what is happening with the scheme.
I would like to start the week with some good news. I know the Leader believes there have not been enough good news stories in the media. Colleagues read the reports in last week's newspapers about the success of the dublinbikes project and how additional bikes were required and additional bays were being provided. The project is making a huge contribution to easing traffic flow in the city. It is also making a positive contribution to reducing our carbon footprint.
Does Senator O'Sullivan use them?
As it was part of the Green Party agenda and all of our green agendas, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and his colleagues should be congratulated.
A Labour councillor introduced it.
I have subscribed to the scheme and I travel to work most mornings using dublinbikes. It is an exhilarating way to travel and it is safe. The bikes are sturdy and there is a bay beside Leinster House. I recommend to the Leader and all my colleagues to leave the Mercedes at home in the apartments or hotels and to travel to Leinster House using dublinbikes from now on.
Senator O'Sullivan might take us all for a ride.
I am glad the motion I proposed on head shops has been given all-party support. There was some misunderstanding between myself and Senator O'Toole because I asked him to get agreement on this. I do not like the idea that we will pass the motion without discussion. I will not accept this and I will vote against the Order of Business unless we get a clear commitment and a firm date for this discussion. The debate has been started in a fine way by Senator O'Toole but there is much to be said about this matter. Drugs are sold uncontrolled, are highly addictive and can create at least medium-term psychotic episodes. The people selling them do not know what is in them. They are selling highly addictive drugs, one of which is cocaine with one molecule changed. This gets around the law. I heard a doctor make a couple of very good points this morning. In a restaurant everything is quality controlled and food and safety people monitor it even though the produce is only going into one's stomach. These drugs go directly to people's brains but there is no regulation. I must ask for a firm date on the debate.
Is Senator Norris seconding Senator O'Toole's proposal?
No, I am not. Not unless we get a commitment. Someone else can second it but if I did I would be contradicting what I said.
I am glad to see the motion on Haiti, in the name of the Government. It is very important that we do this. I was interested to hear an Italian earthquake expert noting that one of the difficulties is the number of groups trying to create what he called abella figura. They are performing for the world stage. That happened tragically in Haiti before, after the typhoon or the tornado hit it. World leaders were queueing up to promise hundreds of millions of dollars but none of that came true. The Irish people have contributed magnificently and Hollywood has contributed an enormous amount of money. Thank God for that but we should bear in mind what was said by those two remarkable Irish women, Dr. Louise Ivers and Ms Gena Heraghty. I was proud to be Irish when I saw what they were doing. This was a film shown by RTE but recorded before the typhoon struck. They talked about the appalling conditions and the human solidarity with the suffering people. They were cradling children in their arms and saying that every human being has the right to be protected and to be shown solidarity on the difficult journey through life. It was only by accident that it was not them in that place. We must examine the history. I did not realise that after the revolution in 1804 the French crucified them for daring to throw off the yoke. They made them pay reparations until 1949.
I welcome the fact that part of the Oireachtas is moving out of here down to another noble institution, Trinity College. There will be an important debate involving Members of the Oireachtas. We have all been invited and I hope many will go. It is an important opportunity to make our case to the public. It could not be a more auspicious day. As the Cathaoirleach knows, that day, 2 February, is not only the day of the historic meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution in Trinity College, it is also James Joyce's 128th birthday.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the upcoming Privacy Bill and in particular the fact that many Ministers find their private lives have been intruded on in an unacceptable way. This goes across the political divide. I am conscious that this is a relatively new phenomenon. It is sad that it is a British paper,Daily Mail, that is the worst offender. It seems to be applying the same policy as applies in the UK. There was serious intrusion in the UK, including the tapping of certain politicians’ mobile telephones, and large settlements have been made in the courts as a result. Given that the Daily Mail employs independent stalker journalists abroad, is it reasonable that they should know the intrusive techniques they use are in breach of the law? The information they supply could only be gained through illegal activity. This has become a serious issue. We cannot allow these unacceptable practices to continue but it is a pity we are forced to introduce a privacy Bill. I am reminded of the cartoon published in the Daily Mail of a turkey ostensibly pretending to be an Irish pig and saying: “Top o’ the mornin’ to yis. Begorra and bejabers...oink, oink...to be sure...”. In my 49 years I have never heard an Irish man or woman speak in that manner. The Irish Daily Mail is the worst offender.
It must be stopped. We want standards but unfortunately they are not being implemented by newspapers.
I second Senator Fitzgerald's proposed amendment to the Order of Business. I share her hope that progress is made in the ongoing talks in the North.
I hope the Leader would agree that now is an opportune time to hold a debate on waste policy, in which regard confusion has arisen between what we thought was Government policy and recent ministerial comments. I ask how the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government proposes to annul the contract between Dublin City Council and Covanta to prevent the incinerator at Poolbeg proceeding. There is concern in the city about it. At a minimum, the matter needs clarification. Given that he represents the Government in this House, perhaps the Leader can offer his preliminary thoughts on how the construction of this incinerator can be halted. I think we would agree we should have a debate on waste policy and I hope the Leader can arrange for Members as soon as possible to allow the Minister to make a statement to the House.
One hopes that the extension of time which has been granted to the Northern talks augurs well for a possible solution. The mere fact that the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister are attending alongside representatives of the various parties is an indication of how far we have come. We have overcome many historical and political obstacles to reach our current position. If the current stalemate continues it will produce a very dangerous vacuum. Political commentators have suggested that extremism is on the rise. This morning, I heard a Unionist representative use pre-Good Friday Agreement terminology. We need to be particularly careful in this regard. I understand that it was a given from the St. Andrews Agreement that policing and justice would devolve to Northern Ireland. All the spokespersons from the main parties, including the DUP, have indicated their support for the devolution of powers. I hope the forthcoming election in the North is not casting its shadow on the issue because if we enter that election without a solution, we will see the emergence of a completely different grouping which will set us back ten or 15 years. What a vacuum of that kind can do does not bear thinking about. We spent years discussing this in this Chamber as did the Dáil and the media. We have heard it everywhere. We have gone through the blackest days in the history of Ireland and anybody who would endanger the progress we have made would want to think twice of the responsibility which is on his or her shoulders.
I ask the Leader for a debate on cycling. I join with a previous speaker who commended the dublinbikes scheme which has been a resounding success. However, it is rather extraordinary to hear Fianna Fáil members attempting to claim credit for it, given that it was the initiative of Labour Party councillors, particularly Councillor Andrew Montague on Dublin City Council——-
——who brought about this scheme. It would be ridiculous for the Green Party to seek to claim credit for it, given it has no councillors on Dublin City Council. We should commend the dublinbikes scheme and I hope we see it extended and I congratulate Dublin City Council. It is notable that Senator Alex White and myself are the two Senators, to my knowledge, who cycle to Leinster House every day and we do not use dublinbikes but rather we use our own bicycles——
Questions to the Leader, please.
——but I am sure others do too. My apologies to Senator O'Malley.
I also ask for a debate on the university sector. In the past week some issues of great concern which deserve more thorough and comprehensive debate in this House have been raised. I refer in particular to the announcement of the abolition of the National University of Ireland, NUI. This is a rather extraordinary announcement and we need to hear more about the rationale behind it and the justification for it.
I refer to the comments of Peter Sutherland widely reported last week that there should be fewer universities and that university heads should be paid more. I could not agree with this view and I ask for a debate on it. We are seeing a real undermining of the research activity in universities with the announcement by Science Foundation Ireland that it can no longer fund on-line journal access. This is a vital resource for academic research and teaching. I will be writing to Science Foundation Ireland, the Higher Education Authority and the Minister asking for an answer. Academics in Trinity College and librarians across the universities have raised this issue with all the university Senators because it is such a serious matter. A denial of access to on-line journals will have a crippling impact on the ability to research effectively. I am aware that librarians are in negotiation with publishers about this but we need an answer from the Minister on this issue.
I remind Senator Bacik of the one cohort of people she forget to compliment when she was talking about the success of the dublinbikes scheme. The good people of Dublin have made the scheme a success and also visitors such as Senator Ned O'Sullivan who have become members of the scheme and without this support the scheme would not be the success it is.
I wish to echo what Senator Bacik said about Mr. Sutherland's comments on third level funding. The House should use the opportunity to have a good, rigorous and honest debate about university funding. I pay tribute also to her party colleague, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, who has a very interesting article in one of today's papers about the future of the Catholic Church in Irish schools. This is another debate we should have. I would welcome the Minister for Education and Science but I would prefer if he were to come to the House under these separate headings because they all deserve particular attention rather than the Minister coming for one audience with the Seanad.
I do not wish to strike a discordant note on the question of what is happening in the North but we need to think about what is happening up there. Every time there is a crisis, the British and Irish Governments and the Taoiseach and Prime Minister go there to try and sort it out. How are people ever going to face up to their own responsibilities as elected representatives if this continues to happen? It exposes the inherent problems in the system of governance in the North of Ireland, the D'Hondt system, in that it rewards people from the extremes and does not reward people who bring together communities and serve all of the people within their communities. While we continue to prop up a dysfunctional system, frankly it will never work and there will be crisis after crisis because everyone knows the upcoming Westminster elections are foremost in the minds of politicians in that area. In one sense it is a matter for themselves, but frankly the dual and triple mandates show how the North of Ireland is over-governed. It is an opportunity for both Governments to consider how we need to build in a system of governance with a true Opposition because until we do, we will never have independent and successful governance in the North of Ireland.
I second Senator O'Toole's amendment on "head shops". I ask the Leader to outline to the House when we will have the debate on that topic, whether it will be later this week or next week.
I agree with Senator Fitzgerald and previous speakers on the proposed cutbacks, in particular that involving special needs assistants. I have personal family experience of their work. It is a bit rich to be told by Members on the Government side that extra teachers are being hired. That is all well and good. While it is welcome and important, if one does not give a child who needs a special needs assistant access to such provision, one denies his or her basic right to an education. One cannot stand over any cutback in that regard as a revenue saving measure or for any other reason.
I also raise with the Leader pensions for the spouses of farmers. I did not hear the issue raised in the House last week, although it might have been. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, has launched what can only be described as an attack on a particularly small segment of the population, namely, farmers' wives, for the most part, who a little more than a year and a half ago became eligible for the State pension. Now the Minister has indicated that the pension payment will cease and that moneys paid might be taken back from those who have paid their PRSI contributions and contributed greatly to society. They are to be hung out to dry by the Government. Perhaps the Leader has a particular stance on the issue that he would like to disclose to the House.
Media reports over the weekend indicated that locum doctors were to be brought into the PAYE system by the Revenue Commissioners. It was indicated in some of the reports I read that back taxes going back four or five years would be sought from locum doctors who up to now have been treated as self-employed persons. Perhaps the Leader has a view on that subject. I consider this as a very unfair proposal.
I, too, join Senators O'Toole and John Paul Phelan in their call for No. 21 to be taken immediately without debate as the first item on the Order of Business today. With other Senators on all sides of the House, on a number of occasions I have pointed to the dangers associated with "head shops" which are opening in towns and villages throughout the length and breadth of the Twenty-six Counties under various names and titles. Given the destruction they are causing, mainly to young people, this is outrageous and a disgrace.
The sooner we can do something to prevent them from selling their wares the better. Will the Leader investigate the possibility of using the expertise within the walls of this Chamber, legal and otherwise, to formulate a group to specifically examine this topic and make recommendations to the Minister responsible in order that legislation can be implemented as soon as possible to ban these shops from the main street? I accept it is a complex issue, one that it will be difficult to address. As Senators Norris and O'Toole pointed out, one only has to change one component to allow such products to be sold legally. It is so important that I urge the Leader to consider bringing together the expertise available in this Chamber to assist the Minister in bringing forward legislation as a matter of urgency.
Some years ago a Japanese businessman said to me that if the Japanese had a brand like St. Patrick's Day, they would use it well. I say this to highlight the value of a brand. Last week Senator O'Toole referred to the importance of the National University of Ireland brand which I believe must be maintained in some way. I am sure the Minister has every intention of doing this and recognises that something must be done in this regard, even though, as we know, he is taking steps to abolish the NUI. We must have the debate in the House because this is where it should take place, given that there is a mention of the NUI in the Constitution in regard to the number of seats allocated to it which I know the Minister will have taken into account. I am sure he would welcome such a debate because I know his intention is not to damage something as valuable as the NUI brand.
A point I often repeat concerns the giving of presumed consent for organ donation. We discussed a Bill in the House but the debate has been adjourned. For 12 months the Minister has been carrying out a public opinion investigation into what is the right way to proceed. Last week the Welsh Assembly announced its intention to introduce legislation on the issue of presumed consent for organ donation. The words used were that it was "a scandal" that so many people had to die while waiting for an organ donation when so many people were willing to donate their organs. We need to have such legislation put through because there are not enough organ donations.
The state of France has jointly developed a scheme with the Alzheimer's association to provide 14 hours training for family members and relatives of persons suffering from Alzheimer's disease. It is clearly a win-win. The matter is worthy of consideration in this country because such a scheme would reduce the cost to the State in the long term and also benefit the families involved.
Like other Senators, I would welcome a debate on the issues of cycling and recycling. Any time a Senator calls for a debate in the House on waste policy, I will absolutely support him or her because it is a crucial issue. I very much welcome the comments of Senator O'Sullivan on cycling. The legacy of Seán Kelly and Stephen Roche is certainly in danger. Cycling is not just a matter for the Green Party, it also a matter for all parties and Members of the House. It is a great way to get around and a great form of transport. I, therefore, call for a debate on the topic.
I also call for a debate on housing. There was a very interesting discussion on the subject last night and I have also heard various discussions in recent days on ghost estates throughout the country. Certain people have claimed that as many as 300,000 houses are empty, although the Minister has put the figure at slightly less than half that number. I call for a debate as a matter of urgency on the issue, particularly on the danger of ghettoisation.
As the father of a special needs child, I have campaigned long and hard on the issue and believe a debate on it would be welcomed in the House. I note, as Deputy Boyle said, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 forms part of the programme for Government. Like Senator O'Toole, I believe it is very important legislation. However, there is a danger in focusing purely on special needs assistants, as there is a range of issues which need to be debated, particularly those concerning occupational and speech therapists. If we were to have a narrow party political debate, we would not be able to reach the rights-based solution required. We need to deal with the rights of children. That is the key issue, not those working in this area.
I join Senator Fitzgerald in calling for the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to address this House as a matter of urgency. He is fast dismantling education such that the structure we will have in place will have no bearing compared with that which was in place five years ago. Those who need it the most, the most vulnerable with special needs, will have no recourse to assistance under our education system. The Green Party has cynically talked about the Education for People with Special Educational Needs Act but the Government has been equally as cynical in its implementation of that Act in terms of how it has applied it. I would welcome a debate on this issue and I challenge the Senators opposite to bring forward such a debate.
I agree with Senator O'Toole and other speakers and second Senator Wilson's proposal that we have an all-party committee on the issue of head shops, of which there are nearly 100, and which are now a front door for the selling of drugs. The Fine Gael Party tabled a motion on the Order Paper similar to and in support of the motion on this matter before the House. With such head shops, we have the unregulated selling of drugs by any other name. People are seriously ill, on the edge of death, families have been destroyed and young lives have been shattered. How long must be wait for legislation and action to be taken on this matter? There is a crying human need for the outlawing of head shops and it should commence immediately. A debate on this issue must take place and, on foot of it, action must be taken.
I seldom agree with Senator O'Malley but I wholeheartedly agree with what she said regarding the North. Extremism in this country can never be allowed to prosper and win. There is a responsibility and an obligation on us as representatives elected on behalf of the people to govern and to be part of government. In the North today the DUP, Sinn Féin and the other political parties must live up to their responsibility. I wish the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, well in their endeavours. Yesterday was an historic day when two Heads of Government travelled in a plane that landed in Belfast. We all aspire to have peace, but to have peace and devolution of power, minds must change and there must be a meeting of minds in the interests of the common good, which is the benefit of the people in the North and South, and ahead of any partisan political benefit.
I join others in sending good wishes to all the parties involved in the Northern talks. We have witnessed the resolution of many critical and sensitive issues during the past ten years or so. There are now problems regarding two areas, that of the devolution of police powers and that of the parades commission. I differ somewhat with what has been said by others in that I very much support the input of the most senior politicians and such continued determination. We have brought this process as far as we have now come because of the input of the most senior of politicians and the determination of all involved throughout the years. We need to continue to show such determination. While I do not want to point a finger at any of those involved, there are two political groupings, Sinn Féin and the DUP, where there are difficulties. Each of us who understands the message coming from our constituencies and from our political groupings must send that message to those groupings in the North, namely, that of a determination for a resolution and for them to stay at the table and to keep at it. We have found resolution on other issues that were far more sensitive and critical and we were able to get agreement to move the process forward. That is the message we should clearly send to all those involved.
I wish to refer to an issue I raised in this House some months ago, that of my objection to the proposal to centralise the processing of medical card and GP visit card applications and reviews. We set up the HSE to provide a service and it has now set up this centralised unit. We received a letter from the Minister indicating that a dedicated telephone line has been provided for Oireachtas Members inquiring about these applications and reviews, and we can go back with the list that has been provided to the local general managers. A mistake has been made in this respect.
When I last raised this issue, I indicated that medical card staff were idle. I ask that an immediate resolution be found because thousands of people are affected.
Before I conclude, may I say——
No. The Senator is way over time.
I support the amendment to the Order of Business with regard to head shops. The matter will need to be addressed and I hope the Leader will indicate that he is prepared to have a debate on this subject next week. The motion should not be taken without debate as is being proposed. We will need to discuss the matter as it is of serious consequence from the point of view of health, as I said last week and as has been stated by a number of Members this afternoon. We cannot allow the current situation to continue for much longer. It must be addressed, whether through legislation or otherwise.
The fair deal scheme for nursing homes is up and running in most parts of the country. In Waterford, however, there is a backlog of more than 200 applications, and not one has even been examined over the past nine weeks due to a lack of staff and resources. Many children and relatives of people in nursing homes have been put to the pin of their collars in paying nursing home charges and are under severe financial strain. When the Minister introduces a scheme through legislation, she must also provide the necessary back-up and resources to implement it. This is not happening in Waterford and many are suffering as a result. I ask the Leader to raise this with the Minister and ensure the situation is rectified as a matter of urgency.
I support other Senators who have concerns about head shops. In the last six to nine months these shops have mushroomed throughout the country. Wherever I go, whether I am out shopping or going for a walk, I am constantly meeting parents of children as young as nine or ten and up to 16, who are worried about their sons and daughters. They may not even be going into the shops but are hanging around outside them while their friends go in trying this and that. As Senator Wilson rightly points out, the products sold in these shops have torn families apart and caused considerable grief and heartache. I do not know whether the issue falls under health or some other area.
One could nearly write the script for tomorrow's Order of Business, because tonight's "Prime Time" will be doing a special on head shops, and I know that every single Senator will come into the House tomorrow morning asking that something be done. RTE is not even advertising the show very well but one can tell from the sound of it how shocking it will be. It is an issue that needs to be dealt with urgently. The motion tabled by Senator Norris is No. 21 on the Order Paper today, to be taken without debate. If that will move things on, I will certainly support it.
Finally, I remind the Leader to make time for an urgent debate, for which many Senators have asked, on domestic abuse.
I refer to the review of the Common Fisheries Policy which is due in 2012. The submission to the European Commission being prepared by the Irish Government in conjunction with all other member states is a timely opportunity for us to debate Ireland's submission and put our stamp on it. There will be a review period over the coming months. I ask the Leader to convene a debate on this issue and, if possible, invite the new Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs to the House to listen to the views of Senators, especially those from coastal communities given the difficulties experienced by such communities with the implementation of the previous Common Fisheries Policy.
The second issue to which I wish to refer is one close to my area, namely, the stalemate in the ongoing talks in Northern Ireland. Having lived in the North as a student and knowing many people across the Border in Derry and Fermanagh, I am aware that large-scale dissident activity is occurring nightly across the North at present, particularly in Border areas. If the talks end in stalemate, it will only fuel the hardcore violence that these groups breed. Therefore, I hope the parties at the coalface in the North will reach some form of agreement, rather than allowing the current situation to continue into the future. I support fully the efforts of the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister and hope, in conjunction with the parties in the North, they can reach an agreement. While both sides may have to give, the focus should be on ordinary families trying to survive there in the long run. There is a responsibility on both sides to reach an agreement following the Good Friday Agreement, the subsequent referenda on it and the St. Andrews Agreement.
I support the call for an all-party motion on the banning of "head shops". As someone who has cared for the victims of these establishments for a number of years, it is time something was done but meticulous legislation will have to be introduced because those who peddle these products are clever. Legislation will have to cover not only the current range of products available in these shops but also substances that are not. In the normal course of events they are deemed legal. Therefore, we must be careful about what we do and how we do it. I am pleased the matter was raised. Members will display a responsible attitude by adopting an all-party approach, as this issue is above politics. It is about the welfare of the people. As Members of Parliament, we have an obligation to do whatever we can to take corrective measures in that regard.
I join Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Boyle, Regan, Coghlan, Ó Murchú, O'Malley, Buttimer, Callely and Ó Domhnaill in wishing the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and all party leaders well in the talks in Northern Ireland. We must stay extremely positive in this regard, as we have come a long way. There is a huge responsibility on all political parties taking part in the talks. Peace is precious. We have achieved so much since the Good Friday Agreement, in particular, and the people were given their voice, both North and South, in a referendum. The seriousness of the matter was highlighted when the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister arrived at the talks yesterday. I am sure people around the world said this would not have been possible 20 years ago but, thankfully, it has been brought to the stage it is now at. The most experienced parliamentarians are leading parties in Northern Ireland and they have given their lives to arriving at a resolution of the issues involved. We all pray that a positive solution will be reached in the coming days.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Boyle, John Paul Phelan and Buttimer called for a debate on special educational needs, the requirements of schools relating to teacher panels and other issues. I met the Minister for Education and Science last Thursday evening and he is prepared to come to the House not once but twice to address different issues that have been brought to my attention on the Order of Business. I will try to agree that date in the diary and inform the House later in the week.
Senators O'Toole, Norris, Boyle, Wilson, Buttimer, Cummins, Feeney and Glynn referred to an all-party motion on "head shops". I will accept the motion proposed by Senator O'Toole and, in reply to Senator Norris, will do my utmost to include it in next week's business. Senator Glynn and I, with the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Curran, attended the national regional drugs task force legal highs conference in the Mullingar Park Hotel this morning. There was not even standing room available with many young people present representing organisations dealing with the challenges posed by and the scourge of drugs. Three television crews covered the event, with numerous radio stations. There was huge interest among the national and regional print media. We must give the lead. I congratulate Senator Wilson who brought the issue to my attention a few months ago following difficulties he had experienced with constituents.
The Minister of State gave his full commitment to address the activities of "head shops" and substances presented as legal highs. He stated his concerns about:
substances represented as being legal highs and herbal highs centre on the potential health hazards arising from the use of these products and the possibility that their use may act as a gateway to the use of illicit drugs. I also have serious concern, in the light of the banning of a number of substances and groups of substances in the UK last December, about the possibility of Ireland becoming a dumping ground now for some of these products.
I will be in touch with the Minister of State later. He has been supportive of the House and there will be time in his diary to debate this issue next week when Members on all sides will be able to give him the benefit of their experience.
Those who have been associated with the medical profession all their lives have a huge amount to contribute. It is a serious challenge to the Government. I do not accept that young people can be offered these substances, even at 4 a.m., having attended night clubs and chippers late at night. It is absolutely disgraceful. Parents are being driven to breaking point when their young boys and girls come home at 4.30 a.m. and do not know where they are. It is as simple and as dangerous as that. Employers are also concerned, particularly on Monday mornings, about their workforce. Only a minute element of the workforce are affected but we must nip this problem in the bud and legislate in the strongest terms regarding how these shops can continue under licence.
Senator Regan raised issues relating to NAMA and the notification by the Government to the European Union regarding the agency on 23 December 2009. The valuation of properties is ongoing and being discussed at all levels of government and the property market. The Government, the banks and everyone else concerned with NAMA must be realistic. No more than a fair price must be set to be paid by the agency which is Government funded and backed and through which we have a massive responsibility to the taxpayer as legislators. I will do everything I can to update the House from time to time and to have a debate on how the agency is progressing. I will have no difficulty with such requests from Senators.
Senators O'Sullivan, Bacik, O'Malley and Ó Brolcháin congratulated Dublin City Council on the great success of the Dublinbikes campaign. The availability of bicycles means people can make progress in tough traffic conditions. It is an innovative scheme and everyone should be congratulated. It has been an outstanding success and I join colleagues in offering my support. I thank Senator O'Sullivan for highlighting the scheme in the House.
Senator Hanafin referred to the Privacy Bill 2009 which is on the Order Paper to be taken this session. Last Sunday I read with keen interest the deliberations of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism last week regarding the pain and suffering he and his family had to go through. As legislators, we have a duty to ensure this carry-on, or conduct, is not allowed to continue.
Senator Coghlan called for a debate and an update on incineration. I have no difficulty allowing time for such a debate and the Minister will be very forthcoming in coming to the House to update it. Senators Bacik and O'Malley referred to the university sector, Peter Sutherland's statement and concerns for university funding in the future. I have no difficulty arranging for the Minister to come to the House to debate this issue.
Senator John Paul Phelan referred to pensions for farmers. I understand his concerns in this regard but I am reliably informed that 87 people in the farming community were refused the pension about which the Senator inquired. If the Senator needs further information, I would be only too pleased to help him in making further inquiries in this regard. Senator John Paul Phelan also raised the issue of doctors' payments and doctors making returns to the Revenue Commissioners. I am not aware of this matter but I will certainly make inquiries.
Senator Cummins raised the fair deal scheme, which has been well received. It is a help to some families, although not all families will avail of it. The middle class, in particular, will not become the new poor because a parent must be placed in a nursing home. The care and attention people get in our nursing homes is of the highest standard. It is something of which I am very proud when visiting nursing homes from time to time. I do not want families to be under pressure because their applications have not been considered and decisions have not been made. I will raise this issue with the Minister after the Order of Business with a strong reference to the situation in the Waterford area which Senator Cummins outlined to the House.
I could not agree with Senator Quinn more in regard to the value of Ireland as a brand name. I refer to St. Patrick's Day and Irish music and song. Very few countries can equal the brand name of Ireland and everything for which Ireland stands.
This side of the House has no intention of taking the three seats from National University of Ireland colleagues. We will do everything we possibly can to ensure that continues to be the case.
We are very grateful.
There is only one place where gratitude can be shown and that is in the ballot box. The Minister has already agreed to come to the House to discuss this issue and I am awaiting a date.
Senator Quinn referred to organ donation. It is hard to believe the donor card is not more commonplace. Perhaps some of our Sunday newspapers might promote this card. Each Sunday we receive promotional literature with our Sunday newspapers. This is one of the most serious issues and I call on the Sunday newspapers to promote the organ donation card and to try to ensure we have enough organ donors. When one moves on to one's eternal reward, anything which can be done to assist some man or woman in their fight for survival should be done. I fully support Senator Quinn's call. We should also look at the 14-hour training scheme in France for the families and relatives of Alzheimer's sufferers.
Senator Ó Brolcháin called for a debate on housing and the challenges facing first-time buyers, in particular. I have no difficulty arranging for the Minister with responsibility for housing to come to the House. In fact, he already agreed to come back to update us on his work as Minister with responsibility for housing. Senator Ó Brolcháin also called for a debate on special needs, in particular those of children. I could not agree with the Senator more and I have no difficulty arranging a debate.
Senator Callely outlined a serious issue. Most rural Oireachtas Members from all political parties were totally opposed to the closure of medical card centres, which were in the old health board areas. The centre is now in Dublin where one leaves a telephone message. We have had a race to the bottom but for what? Is it for the sake of a few cent? It is not good enough in this day and age and the matter must be revisited. Senator Callely, who was one of the most successful chairmen of a health board, knows what he is talking about.
What about Senator Terry Leyden?
I assure the House I will take this issue very seriously.
Senator Feeney called for a debate on domestic abuse. I have no difficulty leaving time aside for this. Senator Ó Domhnaill called for a debate on the Common Fisheries Policy. Senator O'Donovan has been consistent in highlighting what we can do for the fishing industry. It is the one great industry in which we can do something to create a large number of jobs. It has massive export potential. We want to assist the Minister any way we can, in the context of the Common Fisheries Policy 2012, to give opportunities to those living in coastal areas.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That statements with the Minister for Education and Science on the effects of the withdrawal of special needs assistants and the removal of panels of substitute teachers be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Cannon, Ciaran.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Fitzgerald, Frances.
- McFadden, Nicky.
- Norris, David.
- O’Toole, Joe.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Prendergast, Phil.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Regan, Eugene.
- Ross, Shane.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- White, Alex.
- 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.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O’Brien, Francis.
- O’Donovan, Denis.
- O’Malley, Fiona.
- O’Sullivan, Ned.
- Ormonde, Ann.
- Phelan, Kieran.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
Senator O'Toole has proposed a second amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 36, motion 21, be taken without debate before No. 1". The Leader has indicated he is prepared to accept this amendment.
I am withdrawing the amendment on the basis the Leader has promised a debate on this next week. I ask him to issue a formal statement that the House is taking this position and that we will discuss the issue raised by Senator Wilson next week.