The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re report of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction — referral of papers to the Joint Committee on Health and Children, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; and No. 2, Petroleum (Exploration and Extraction) Safety Bill 2010 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of all Senators not to exceed eight minutes and on which Senators may share time.
Order of Business.
More than 800 experienced gardaí retired last year and hundreds of vacancies in the middle ranks of the Garda, for example, for sergeants and inspectors, have not been filled. More than 40% of members of the force have less than five years experience. Those involved in organised crime are taking over our streets and criminal gangs are running riot as our under-resourced force struggles to respond to the crime epidemic. The numbers of knife and gun offences and murders are on the increase and such offences are now almost commonplace. The Minister has failed to come to the House to respond to questions on the issue.
As I stated last week, dissident republicans pose a serious threat to the institutions of the State. They are recruiting young people throughout the country. We need to be satisfied that gardaí have the necessary resources to tackle them and have full co-operation with their counterparts in the PSNI.
The Garda uses outdated systems and practices. Many gardaí believe Garda management and the Government have failed them. We need new and advanced systems and structures and technology to combat crime.
I call on the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come into the House to discuss these problems, as he has failed to do so on a number of occasions. All last term I asked for the Minister to come to discuss these problems but we never managed to get him into the House. I am, therefore, proposing an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform come into the House today to debate these issues.
I hope Sinn Féin and the DUP will sort out their problems as a matter of urgency. Any vacuum in the political system would allow dissidents to prosper. It is in all our interests that they get together to sort out their problems.
Earlier this week Senator Fitzgerald raised the issue of special needs assistants in schools, with many Senators mentioning the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and the lack of support from the Government. This is a constitutional issue. Therefore, I invite schools and parents to take a constitutional case against the State to assert the right of children to primary education, including children with special needs. The idea of reducing support to a level that prohibits access to the curriculum for children with special needs is in clear breach of their constitutional rights. It echoes the debate we had during the discussion of the Disability Bill and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill, both of which went back to the question of rights. All groups around the country wanted the right of children with special needs to primary education to be enshrined in law. That was not provided for them but there is enough in both Acts as passed by the Houses but not commenced by the Government to give this right to them. It is an absolute disgrace.
We are giving money to Haiti for all the best reasons while depriving special needs children in this country without an outcry from the media or anyone else. As public representatives, we have a responsibility to do something about this and to take the strongest possible line against it, making our views clear to the Government. The Leader said yesterday that the Minister for Education and Science would be happy to come into the House. There are a number of issues he should explain, of which this is one. What do we say to parents of children with special needs who are already dealing with a burden, a difficulty and a huge extra level of responsibility above and beyond what might generally be expected of a parent? We should be pulling out all the stops to support them rather than pulling back and leaving them without support.
I also agree on the points made about support for the Garda. Before our eyes we can see the polarisation of the North once more and extremist terrorists coming in. Those who are terrorists have no relationship whatsoever with the privileged description of "republican". Republicanism, established in this country by Wolfe Tone, is a clear common community of Catholic, Protestant and dissenter together. People who take up guns to shoot those who disagree with them, be it for religious or political reasons, have no place in republicanism. That is one side of the argument. The other side is that none of us thought we would ever see again a senior political party in the North playing the Orange card straight up for electoral reasons. I thought we had moved beyond that stage. It is shameful that the DUP is taking this line. There are problems on both sides and I cannot see how the Government or that of Britain will solve them. It was stated here yesterday that matters would have to be taken into the hands of the parties in the North, whereby groups such as the DUP would have to recognise they were dealing with the entire community all of the time. In that regard, it is good to hear Mr. Martin McGuinness saying he sees himself as responsible to the whole community. We need to see more of this.
I agree with those who have said they hope to see an agreement reached tomorrow in the North. It is in everyone's interests that agreement be arrived at through negotiations and talks this week. As we view what is happening in the North, it is appropriate to note the passing this week of a great Irish public servant who did much to shape our policy towards the North, Mr. Paddy McKernan. It is important for the House to note the death of this great Irish public servant, a man of considerable erudition and culture. It is a great loss to Ireland and reminds us of the importance of public servants in our system. People like him are, as some politicians know to their cost, broad-shouldered and independently-minded.
Having heard my alma mater being given such a hard time yesterday, I went there last night to attend a meeting addressed by the world renowned economist Mr. Jeffrey Sachs. Senator Ross was also in attendance. It was a most stimulating and interesting evening and reminded me that in all of the debates we needed to have about the future of the country and the financial system, all of the old certainties have to be set aside, on the right and the left. Many of these issues require us to come back to the table to look at our own views and policies. It is a debate that, unfortunately, passes over our heads in this House. We must consider how we can, as an institution, insert ourselves in a meaningful way into the debates taking place across the country and the world.
The damage done to roads by the recent frost is both extensive and dangerous. I am not talking about the normal damage from wear and tear; anyone who has travelled the roads realises that we are talking about a major operation being required to remedy the damage caused. It is difficult to see, however, how the manpower available to local authorities in the short term can remedy the damage; therefore, we must go outside the normal structures. We should involve FÁS in the repair work. As a result of the huge unemployment rate, there are many people with skills and experience participating in FÁS schemes. With one week's training, it would be possible for these thousands of people, under the leadership of the local authorities and backed up by their engineering expertise, to do something in the short term to remedy the damage. There is a danger that we will fix some high profile roads but 60% to 70% will not be attended to. Eventually we will have serious accidents. Those of us who have travelled through the country have experienced situations we have never experienced before. I ask the Leader to contact the appropriate Minister and the Taoiseach to ask for a new and radical approach to be adopted because of the seriousness of the problem. I have no doubt FÁS is ready and willing to enter into a partnership with local authorities on the issue.
I ask for a debate on regional planning guidelines as soon as possible. In most regional authorities the regional planning guidelines are on public display. We have seen the flooding fiasco in recent months due to poor planning. This is a golden opportunity for the Seanad to debate something relevant to local authority members and Senators. I ask for this debate because in most cases the closing date is around the end of March. When St. Patrick's Day and Easter are taken into consideration, we do not have much more than six weeks in which to do something. Will the Leader arrange a debate on this important issue urgently? As he appreciates, regional planning guidelines affect every local authority when adopting county development plans. More importantly, local authorities must vary their plans immediately once the regional guidelines are adopted. The House has an opportunity to have an input into regional planning matters. Since there are nine regional authorities and their guidelines probably differ, the debate would need to be lengthy and structured. I hope that the Leader will arrange for it immediately.
I support Senator Cummins's call for a debate on crime, the Garda and so on, as there are reports of many gardaí retiring. In this context, other issues should be considered. For example, the idea of promoting people based on seniority in the public sector generally and specifically in the Garda should be reviewed. Promotions should be based on merit. As is the case in private sector management, excellent gardaí in their late 20s and early 30s would be capable of taking on senior roles within the Garda. We should also consider the age of retirement, which is too low. There is no reason for someone in a senior position in the Garda, even at regional level, not being allowed to remain on after the current designated retirement age.
It is not fair to point fingers at the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and say he has not appeared in the House. He has been a frequent attender during debates and the passage of legislation designed to strengthen the fight against crime. It is good to see that the legislation introduced last year on extending some existing counter-terrorism measures is being rolled out by the Garda in the fight against gangland crime. How it will play out in the courts will be interesting to see. The legislation covering the DNA database, another important tool in tackling gangland crime, will be before the House shortly. I agree with the call for a debate.
I disagree entirely with Senator Alex White. He must have missed many of our good debates on economic issues. Some of the Oireachtas' better debates have been held in the Seanad. The tremendous contribution made by many Senators has been acknowledged by all sides, including some members of the media who would not normally be prone to making such acknowledgements.
I call for a debate on the proposed interest rate increase. It is untenable that banks supported by the taxpayer will impose significant interest rate increases that will adversely affect those for whom making repayments is already difficult. This issue warrants an urgent debate and Government action.
If the Minister for Finance responded to the suggestion I am about to make, there would be an outcry. He would be brave indeed. I want to draw attention to the tax amnesty in Italy. The last time we had a tax amnesty, the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance of the day received much abuse, but the Italian figures bear examination, given our tough economic situation. The Italian Government's tax amnesty has been so successful that it has been extended from 13 December to 30 April. Some €80 billion has been taken in and it has been estimated that there is as much as €500 billion in untaxed assets. The Italian Government has offered a 5% tax amnesty.
An amnesty here would be unpopular and heavily criticised, but it should be given some consideration. I can understand why there would be an outcry, as an amnesty suggests that those who have cheated on their taxes would be able to avail of something they did not deserve. However, our economic situation would clearly benefit from the sort of income we might receive, as we did the last time.
Senators Cummins and Walsh have discussed the difficulties pertaining to the Garda. The debate could be held during the discussion on the interesting report of the Garda Inspectorate, which has just been published. When comparing Garda operational management with the private sector, as Senator Walsh has done, the real difference is the lack of information technology. Ireland has one civilian in the Garda for every 11 gardaí. In the rest of Europe, the figure is one civilian for every three police officers. Those civilians do paperwork so that the officers have time to go out and do the work they should be doing. In the private sector, there would be an investment in technology. The inspectorate's report is worth consideration and debate and we would learn much from it.
I support strongly the views of Senator Ó Murchú. It is true to say that, with the economic downturn, many people with accomplished skills are no longer in gainful employment. This is a waste of resources, as those people could be devolved into the schemes outlined by the Senator. For example, all of us would be aware of the worthy housing aid for the elderly scheme. The most expensive component of such schemes is labour. Highly skilled people could be utilised through the medium suggested by Senator Ó Murchú to carry out repairs and install alarms. Recently, the House discussed the grants for alarms awarded by the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, and his Department. As the workers would be in receipt of an income, the savings in labour costs would mean that more alarms for the elderly could be installed.
The House needs a debate on crime, in particular knife crime. Indeed, I called for it last week. The situation is unacceptable. If a person puts a pen in his or her pocket in the morning, he or she intends to write with it. If a person puts a knife in his or her pocket in the morning or at night, it is a fair bet that, if challenged, he or she intends to use it. It is time to hold a meaningful debate on knife crime. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is a frequent visitor to the House, as has been stated. However, this is a crisis. Hardly a week goes by that does not see one, two or, sometimes, three murders arising from knife crime. The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has shown himself to be proactive when it comes to dealing with crime and we would benefit greatly from a meaningful debate.
I join Senator Cummins in asking for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to attend the House. It is extraordinary that 40% of gardaí have less than five years experience and that more than 200 senior management positions remain unfilled. This is a sad indictment of Government policy not just towards the Garda, but towards tackling crime. As Senator Cummins stated correctly, gangland crime is rampant. The threat of dissident republicans attacking and killing people is extending from Dublin to the regions. When will the Government get serious and give the Garda resources? When will we see proactive policing? The Garda's hands are tied by the lack of Government commitment.
Will the Leader arrange for a debate on the North? I join Senator O'Toole in wishing that the North's political parties would put aside partisan politics and place the collective interests of the people first. The peace process has a dividend for everyone on the island, not just people in the North. It behoves all of us as politicians to espouse peace and collective government in the North. The DUP, Sinn Féin and other political parties will not gain anything by the short-sighted politicking in which they are engaging. If they are serious about their constituents and communities, we will never go back to the bad old days when murder was rife.
I second the amendment which has been proposed.
I raise, first, a matter concerning education which I would like the Leader to raise with the Minister for Education and Science. As a result of a decision by the HEA, there is a proposal to phase out by 2014 the plastering course in the Dublin Institute of Technology. We are privileged to work in this beautiful Chamber, Mr. Michael Stapleton's masterpiece. There is a tradition of European importance regarding Dublin plaster work and as such, it is astonishing that the course is to be phased out. Currently, there are three lecturers, one of whom is the only person to obtain a gold medal for plastering at the skill Olympics, another is working full-time towards a doctorate, while the third is on secondment from the Office of Public Works as he is an expert in restoration. Courses are being continued in Cork and Athlone and I do not begrudge them. Those involved in Athlone have been doing this work for the past four years in response to the building boom. The DIT on Bolton Street has been doing this work since its formation. I seek clarification of the matter.
I also seek clarification of another issue concerning a nonsense. Beckett Bridge is a superb piece of architecture and almost a part of the art infrastructure of Dublin. It is, however, completely redundant and pointless because the turning systems are restricted. There is a no left turn restriction which forces traffic directly into the centre of the city. This means residents in East Wall cannot use it and although one can use the car park at the Point, people cannot be dropped off at the venue. That was one of the reasons for building the bridge. It is a complete farrago of nonsense. I have investigated the matter and been told that the reason the system is in place is that some years ago the Government made an agreement with National Toll Roads that nothing would be done to decrease the flow of traffic on its toll roads. It has made enough money and bled motorists hard enough. The issue should be looked at. If that is the case — I am assured that it is — we must revisit the matter in order that the citizens of Dublin can have a bridge that is not only beautiful but also works.
I support the call of Senator Cummins for a debate on crime, as the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is getting away with murder on the issue. If politics is to be results-based, the Minister has failed. Senator Quinn referred to a very important report from the Garda inspectorate on resource allocation within the Garda Síochána. It outlines various recommendations on how we can better allocate resources and have more effective policing. The response of the Minister is that the report is about the core service provided by the Garda Síochána, in particular, uniformed gardaí patrolling the streets and our communities. It is not just about that, however; that simplistic view shows that the Minister does not understand his brief and has not read the report. The reality is that in all other jurisdictions proactive policing involves the gathering of intelligence and targeting crime wherever it takes place and allocating resources accordingly. That is what the report is about and what the Minister must look into. I suggest he come into the Seanad to account for his stewardship of this brief. He is very good at coming here to rush legislation through but on which he then fails to act. The issue has been alluded to of hundreds of senior gardaí retiring. How will we use the intelligence gathered in tackling gangland crime? The Minister has set down a mandatory retirement age of 60 years for chief superintendents and in the High Court resisted changes to this. It is a ridiculous policy which should be reversed. The Minister should come into the House to account for his stewardship.
I asked a question of the Leader two days ago and expect a reply. Perhaps he has not had time to receive advice on the matter. What is the NAMA scheme being notified to the European Commission? Is it a secret at this stage? We have the framework legislation but need to know what the scheme includes. What are the valuations and the haircuts etc? This House and the Lower House has received no information on the NAMA scheme now being notified to the European Union for scrutiny and approval. We deserve to have this information. The NAMA scheme should not be dealt with in secret.
I am not sure this House is the proper place to have a debate on where we can turn left or right in central Dublin but I will take up Senator Norris's point. I assume the reason for not allowing traffic to turn left on Beckett Bridge was the need to reduce traffic flows into the city centre and make it more attractive to use public transport. If the reason relates to an agreement made with a toll company, that would be wrong. The Minister for Transport should investigate the matter and perhaps make a statement on the reason for the ban.
I will also pick up on the point made by other colleagues on the Garda Síochána. The recently published report of the Garda inspectorate is a source of good news overall in that it praises the professionalism of the Garda, as we have all seen in practice. We are aware of the dedication of gardaí on the street and are grateful for the work they do in daily putting themselves in harm's way. However, questions must be raised about some issues. The lack of technology in the force must be addressed. There is also the lack of involvement of civilians in the management of the force. We would all benefit from a debate on the inspectorate's report. I, therefore, ask the Leader to arrange one at an early opportunity.
I seek a debate on community volunteerism. We all recall vividly the great fanfare in 2005 when Robert Putnam was present at a Fianna Fáil think-in.
The Senator was with us at that stage.
There should be no interruptions.
It gave me great hope for the future——
One would never think it now. The Senator is looking very comfortable.
Increasingly so. I recall a speech made in 2006 by the Taoiseach on the future of community and volunteerism. He stated:
I believe that the quality of life in society and the ultimate health of our communities depend on the willingness of people to become involved and active. Happy the society that has people who act. Happy the society which has people who organise rather than complain, who accept a personal responsibility rather than walk by on the other side, those people who act rather than lament.
A significant number of those who choose to organise rather than complain were standing outside Leinster House yesterday evening complaining that they were not being allowed to do so and that the funding which allowed them to do so was being withdrawn. The cuts imposed in the budget are trickling towards community development and youth projects. To withdraw such funding at this time is appallingly short-sighted. I was told by those present that the level of investment, predominantly in the north inner city, was in the order of €12 per week per young person. That is a wise long-term investment that should pay significant dividends in the future. I remember reading an article in The Irish Times last August and I retained a quote from one such young person who was operating from Summerhill in the north inner city. He stated:
I wanted to give something back. There is a stereotype that people my age are not into volunteering, but my friends say to me "fair play" ... Young people can get into trouble around here, with stuff like drugs, vandalism, joyriding. But it is not just getting young people off the street, it is teaching them new skills ... I get a lot of praise in school now. It has changed my attitude, I am much more reasonable ... I think I would like to go to college and become a full-time youth worker.
That is the real long-term value to be achieved in continuing to invest in our young people.
Notwithstanding the fact that we had the opportunity to debate some banking issues on Tuesday, will the Leader arrange a debate specifically on regulatory reform of financial services in Ireland? As part of my ongoing work towards the prevention of family home repossessions we have delved into the area of personal debt. I mentioned in the debate the other day that a collector for Provident plc had confirmed to me off the record that its senior staff actively encouraged collectors not to mention the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, as a possible way of helping people in debt. It is reprehensible that a licensed financial services provider in this country is telling collectors that they should not encourage people to engage with MABS for fear that it might contact it to make a payment proposal. Permanent TSB, which is not under NAMA, has regrettably moved to increase rates. There is an air of inevitability that the EU will raise interest rates. We require legislative reform immediately, along the lines I have already outlined, to protect people against the repossession of primary family homes.
I join with colleagues who have called for a debate on the report of the Garda Síochána inspectorate. Many colleagues have touched on the role of technology in the force, but another point in the report that would merit debate is the role of rostering in the Garda Síochána. Much evidence in the report showed that despite the fact the number of gardaí has risen, in some cases when they are needed most, they are not rostered and available for duty. This is a very important point that should be debated. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will come in here and proudly trumpet the fact that the number of gardaí available for community policing and other tasks has increased. However, we can see from an independent report that the increased resources are not being used in the most effective way.
I want to lead any potential outcry that might be prompted by Senator Quinn's call this morning for the need for a tax amnesty to be revisited. By chance, I happened to be reading an account of the circumstances in which the last amnesty was created and that alone is reason not to do it again. If we look at what is happening in Italy at the moment, I would be pretty confident in predicting that the tax yield after the tax amnesty will go down, as people would be confident that another amnesty will happen in the near future. We really have to avoid that happening.
On a lighter note, I want to extend a welcome to Senator Paschal Mooney. I was not here last week when he arrived. I am sad to be losing my status as the unique Paschal of this Seanad, but from one Paschal to another, I welcome Senator Mooney.
I am glad to know we both spell it the right way.
I also support the call for a debate on the report of the Garda Síochána inspectorate. Many of the challenges that are faced by the Garda include issues of seniority. There is a different standard applying to well run sections of the force than to those sections that are not so well run. Across the different stations we find a different standard of garda, sergeant and inspector. That is something we need to examine, as well as recruitment. Many people might enjoy a career in the Garda Síochána but perhaps might not like to go in at the lower levels and work their way up. That is something we need to examine in a modern society.
We need to acknowledge that the gangland legislation that was brought in last summer has had some gangland members running scared. Most of us get our information on gangland criminals from Sunday newspapers, but if people like Paul Williams are to be believed, it would appear that gangland criminals are scared of this legislation. It will be tried and tested in the courts in the near future when we are dealing with the spate of recent killings in Finglas and in north Dublin. I look forward to seeing how it works out, but I do not think it is fair to say the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not in control of his brief. He most certainly is in control, and he has been very effective. We are always going to have gangland criminals and new gangs replacing old gangs, but it is important to keep breaking up those gangs. They will reform and there is nothing much we can do about that, but we must do our side of things as legislators and I believe we have done so. The Minister continues to control that brief.
The Civil Partnership Bill 2009 was debated in the Dáil yesterday. I was hoping that we could debate domestic violence and how the Bill will affect this. We have been calling for this for some time and it is important we have the debate prior to the Bill coming before this House on Second Stage. There are issues that will be affected by the Bill and we need a total examination of the area, rather than dealing with it in a piecemeal, typical Irish fashion. We then end up with a series of loopholes and a nonsense is made of the law. We have been asking for this debate, as we have been asking for a debate on women in politics for some time. Most women in this House have stood up and asked for that debate, and I do not want a response from the Leader about the brilliant women in Mullingar and Westmeath. I am not being cheeky, but I do not want that response.
The biggest problem we have at the moment is stagnation and the fear of stagnation. Business is being choked because lending to business has virtually ceased. I am talking about very necessary working capital. Small and medium sized enterprises throughout provincial Ireland — no doubt in the capital as well — are being consistently refused working capital by all financial institutions at the moment. The State gave great assistance to the banks, which was necessary to revive our economy. We all recognise the banks have a huge role to play in reviving the economy. However, we need to remind them that they have a very important role to play in serving the economy if we are to get things moving again. Lack of capital leads to stagnation. The Government needs to be more assertive in getting credit flowing again, as it is in a dominant position vis-à-vis our banking institutions, due to the great assistance rendered to them. However, the assistance is receiving no response. The Tánaiste spoke of a scheme being put in place, but if it is necessary, we need it today rather than tomorrow. Let us do it now and get things going again.
Senator Burke raised an extremely important issue. The regional guidelines are governing so much in respect of our individual counties, as we all appreciate. I echo the Senator's words as we need that debate very soon.
I support what Senator MacSharry said about the crisis in house repossessions. It will be one of the major political and social problems in the coming 12 months. I read documentation from the Senator and from Senator Butler, but we need an urgent debate with the appropriate Minister on how it intends to deal with the growing number of repossessions. We are all meeting constituents whose houses are at grave risk. I had the unfortunate occasion to meet with two such couples on the same day. One couple's house is on the verge of being repossessed, while the second couple were just about to hand back their house to the financial agency and apply for a local authority house. These problems will become commonplace. At a time when Senator Regan and others are discussing the NAMA plan before the European Commission, we need a similar kind of project to deal with the tens of thousands of householders who are genuinely worried that their houses will be repossessed. That needs an urgent debate.
I support the hopes expressed by my colleagues that there will be progress in Northern Ireland in the very near future. Notwithstanding our desire for good news at an early stage, we must try to keep things in perspective. It is only in the last ten or 15 years that we have had a genuine peace and political process in place. When we contrast that with the generations of strife, trouble, mayhem and murder, then we have to appreciate that we cannot get permanent overnight solutions to a problem that stretches back along the ages. There is a line by Yeats about peace dropping slow and politics also drops slowly in Northern Ireland. Patience is required. Gamesmanship is going on and we must recognise that. Our desire must be that policing, justice and broader problems are resolved in the immediate future. We must try to see the bigger picture. For 15 or 20 years in the Oireachtas every time we spoke about Northern Ireland we were discussing the previous night's atrocity. At least we are now talking about the broader picture. There is hope and with a little patience and understanding, we will see progress in the near future.
I add my voice to Senator Alex White's tribute to the very distinguished public servant who died this week, Mr. Paddy MacKernan. He was a former Secretary General at the Department of Foreign Affairs and I knew him personally. He was a remarkable man, warm and generous, with a distinguished public service career serving as a diplomat in many Irish embassies and as Secretary General. I note his passing and extend my sympathies to his wife Caitríona and his family.
I seek a debate on the report of the Garda Inspectorate and the concerns arising from the commentary on it. Senator Hannigan has also asked for this debate. Yesterday at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights we examined the important issue of self-defence for householders in the context of burglary. We are preparing position papers on this. It was interesting to note that both the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Irish Rural Link, who made presentations to the committee yesterday, agreed legislation is only part of the way we should deal with isolated householders concerned about the limits of their protection in law. We should also examine policing. In the context of a proposal for a reduction in the 24-hour cover at Garda stations, this is of great concern. It is interesting that groups seen as coming from very different places are in agreement that increased policing cover is crucial.
I also seek a debate on domestic violence, taking up Senator MacDonald's point. The Civil Partnership Bill, although welcome in many respects, will make the position worse for cohabitees through its amendments to the Domestic Violence Act. It may lessen the protection for cohabitants at risk of violence, for example, by requiring that they prove they have been cohabiting immediately before the application for the safety order. There is also a serious omission in the legislation in that it does not cover a couple with a child in common but who are not cohabiting. Women's Aid has been doing great work on this but we could have a useful debate in this House on domestic violence and legal protections particularly because the Civil Partnership Bill will be before the House shortly.
I support my colleagues who raised the issue about depressed mortgages. Before Christmas I went to the EBS and Bloxhams and they have a report that supports what we are suggesting. We should have legislation across the banking and financial sectors to ensure we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. The banks we control are behaving themselves reasonably well but outside that there is a major problem with those who are in trouble with mortgages. More than 35,000 people have not paid their mortgages for at least six months. They find themselves in difficult situations where the bank is not part of the group we control. This is where a large number of cases coming to court originate. I went to the EBS because it is a very good lending institution and is the least troubled of all our lending agencies. Interest rates will rise in the near future and unless we put this in place many people will lose their homes. The Finance Bill is the place to deal with this legislation. This must be legislation rather than a measure that applies to the six banks we control. If we do that we will be seen to do a good job. It started in this House. I did not make this my own document; I distributed a copy to every Member. I raised this matter at the parliamentary party meeting and we will see some movement on this. When discussing the Finance Bill we should examine the legislation in this regard.
I congratulate Senator Butler on what he has done and Senator MacSharry on the MacSharry proposals. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that people should not be losing their houses because there are mechanisms such as interest only and community welfare officers to assist people in difficulty. I apologise for the interruption; I thought I had my telephone switched off.
There will be a fine on people bringing telephones into the Chamber to use them.
We should focus on this issue and work with the financial institutions. We should let the financial institutions know that the market has changed and what was entered into some time ago does not apply today. They need to play ball with the new market. They cannot hold a rigid financial position.
I ask the Leader to check out the following issues for me. I understand there is a difficulty in the current capacity of the maternity hospitals in Dublin and a delay in required scans for the early stages of pregnancy. This is causing difficulty throughout the maternity hospitals. I ask the Leader to get clarity on this point.
I listened with interest to the debate on Haiti in the Chamber last night and participated at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. Many Irish aid agencies are working in Haiti but there is no effective emergency response and therefore there is no effective co-ordinated response to the situation. I have received some e-mails from members of Dublin Fire Brigade, paramedics and qualified personnel who want to assist but cannot be accommodated. One of the e-mails refers to an agency based in Miami that will accept them. It is very sad that there is the Irish Red Cross, Concern and others and yet people who want to go and help cannot be accommodated.
The point is made.
Aside from paramedics and medics, civil servants are also required. I have no doubt people in the Irish Civil Service would help if we had a co-ordinated response. I ask the Leader to raise this matter with the Minister for Finance.
I support Senators MacDonald and Bacik in their requests for a debate on domestic violence. A high-profile campaign was run before Christmas by Women's Aid and the Leader attempted to facilitate a debate in this House. However, pressure of business did not allow it to take place. Unfortunately, domestic violence does not end with that 16-day campaign. Everyday in houses throughout our country, women and children and some men live in a state of fear in the one place people should consider their refuge and sanctuary. Senator Bacik referred to the role we can play in terms of legislation. To have a debate on domestic violence would allow us to show solidarity and reassure people that they can have the confidence to come forward. Women's Aid does excellent practical work but I know from personal experience prior to Christmas, when I had to contact Women's Aid on behalf of someone, that not everyone is aware of the work it does, not everyone is aware they can contact Women's Aid and not everyone with the need to contact Women's Aid has the confidence to do so. In addition to legislation, this House of Parliament should send the message to people that they are not on their own, that they should have the confidence to come forward and that we would support them in so doing.
Senators Cummins, O'Toole, Walsh, Buttimer, Regan, Hannigan, Donohoe, McDonald, Bradford and Bacik called for a debate on the Garda Síochána and the recently published report of the Garda inspectorate. Contrary to a claim by a colleague on the other side of the House, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has one of the best attendance records in this House. When Bills pertaining to his Department are brought before us, he takes every Stage in person. He has been fully supportive on every issue I have ever raised with him as Leader. I commend him on his determination to co-operate with Senators.
More than 800 gardaí took early retirement last year. These officers put their lives on the line every day they went to work. It is now the case, however, that 40% of gardaí joined in the last five years, which is a major advantage because they have lots of energy and enthusiasm and are totally committed. In regard to the filling of vacancies as a result of retirements, I understand the Minister has received approval from the Department of Finance to promote 170 officers, including 117 to sergeant rank. The Minister's determination is demonstrated by the fact that at a time when funding is tight, he has included in his budget a sum of €4.1 million for a state-of-the-art DNA technology centre in Kildare. Today's Order Paper lists two new justice Bills which will be initiated in the Seanad. I will have no difficulty in arranging a debate on the report of the Garda inspectorate.
In regard to the talks in Northern Ireland, I acknowledge the commitment of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the British Prime Minister, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. Hope will remain as long as they continue to negotiate. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Shaun Woodward, are currently chairing meetings to avail of the 48 hour window of opportunity. I hope and pray that common sense will prevail. Everyone in the North and South wants peace. The days of the gun and bullet are long past, thanks be to God.
Senator O'Toole raised the issue of special needs and the legal rights of children. The Minister of State in the Office of the Minister for Children, Deputy Barry Andrews, has agreed to attend a debate in the Seanad and our personal secretaries are liaising to find a suitable date.
Senators Alex White and Bacik paid tribute to the late Mr. Patrick MacKernan who made an outstanding contribution as Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and ambassador in a range of missions. On behalf of the House, I extend my sympathy to the wife and family of this great Irishman.
Senators Ó Murchú and Glynn called for a debate on the cost of maintaining roads and the shortfalls which local authorities will face because of flooding and frost damage. Westmeath County Council alone faces a budget shortfall of €2.6 million. The Senators made a worthwhile proposal in regard to using highly skilled unemployed persons who could make a contribution on a one-off basis under the supervision of local authority staff. I will pass on their proposal to the relevant Ministers.
Senators Burke and Coghlan called for a debate on regional planning guidelines. I will have no difficulty in arranging such a debate.
Senators Walsh, Coghlan, MacSharry, Bradford, Buttimer, Callely and Butler sought a debate on the proposed increase in interest rates. Although permanent TSB does not come within the terms of the bank guarantee scheme, we do not want to see an increase in interest rates at a time when there are high unemployment levels. Everything the Government can do should be done in this regard. Financial institutions have to act responsibly, while the Government has a duty to help the thousands of unemployed young people who are unable to pay interest on their mortgages, at least for the next six months. It is no use if a forbearance merely increases the payments due on a loan. It must be added at the end of the loan period. Senator Butler and his colleagues have spent considerable time in preparing proposals in this regard. The Finance Bill 2010 will be brought before the Oireachtas next week, which will give us an opportunity to debate these issues.
Senators Quinn and Donohoe made proposals on a tax amnesty and referred to the success of an amnesty in Italy. Who better to represent our captains of industry than Senator Quinn? Their proposal is worthy of consideration. Tax amnesties were successfully implemented by Governments which comprised parties on both sides of the House. Everything should be done to collect revenue. I will raise the proposal with the Minister for Finance. I wish to inform the House that the initial debate and statements on head shops will take place next Wednesday afternoon. I have no difficulty in allowing the debate to roll over if there is sufficient interest and if Senators wish to express their serious concerns regarding this challenge facing all of us.
Senators Glynn and McDonald called for a debate on crime. Two new Bills will be initiated in the House and have been published today. This subject can be discussed along with the inspector's report and I have no difficulty in allowing time for such a debate.
Senator Norris asked me to raise the issue of the plastering course in the Dublin Institute of Technology, which is also available in Athlone and Cork. I will pass his views to the Minister for Education and Science.
Senators Norris and Hannigan expressed their concerns about the Beckett Bridge and I will pass their concerns to the Minister for Transport.
Senator Regan asked about the NAMA scheme. The Senator will be aware that 64 solicitors' firms were appointed to assist NAMA and this information was published in the newspapers yesterday. While progress may not be as speedy as some might wish, it is moving along pretty quickly. I will update the House on a weekly basis as soon as I know what is happening. This matter could be discussed when the Finance Bill comes to the House.
Senators McDonald, Bacik, Corrigan and Glynn asked for a debate on domestic violence. I had planned to have this debate in the week that the late Senator Callanan died and I have no difficulty in trying to rearrange the debate for next week. It would be a timely debate as the Civil Partnership Bill will be before the House. I wish to facilitate this long-standing request for a debate on the subject.
Senator Cannon asked for a debate on the future of community volunteerism. He complimented the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, one of the great community activists of all time, it has to be said.
He is less and less so.
If the Senator is half as successful as the former Taoiseach in getting himself elected he certainly will have a shining example of everything that is good about community involvement. The Special Olympics helped relaunch the notion of volunteerism and encouraged people to take up voluntary work in communities. The inclement weather of the past two months also brought many people back to the spirit of community in parish and social centres. Everyone had to go out and help his or her neighbour and long may this continue in Ireland. I support Senator Cannon's request for a debate.
Senator McDonald asked for a debate on women in politics and I have no difficulty in arranging it. I will endeavour to have the debate in February. Senator Callely expressed his serious concerns about maternity services in Dublin hospitals. I was not aware of the situation but I will pass his views to the Minister for Health and Children after the Order of Business. He referred to Irish aid agencies in Haiti and to the number of trained personnel who wish to travel to Haiti to play their part. He called for a co-ordinated response unit to support those personnel who wish to go there. I will pass his views to the Minister for Foreign Affairs after the Order of Business.
On a point of order, I asked the Leader about the NAMA scheme notified to the European Commission by the Government on 23 December 2009.
Senator Regan, I have no control——
I am asking the Leader and I will come back to this question. What is in that scheme?
That question was not allowed. The Order of Business is finished. I have no control over the replies given by the Leader.
We know the Cathaoirleach does not have control but he should have.
Senator Maurice Cummins has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate on law and order and crime be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Cannon, Ciaran.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Doherty, Pearse.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Hannigan, Dominic.
- Healy Eames, Fidelma.
- McFadden, Nicky.
- Norris, David.
- O’Toole, Joe.
- 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.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- McDonald, Lisa.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O’Malley, Fiona.
- O’Sullivan, Ned.
- Ormonde, Ann.
- Phelan, Kieran.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.