The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the Croke Park agreement, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 2 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments and to take questions from leaders or spokespersons; No. 2, statements on the organisational review programme and its second report, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 but not before 3 p.m and conclude not later than 5 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and all other Senators for eight minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for concluding comments and to take questions from spokespersons or leaders; and No. 34, Private Members' business, motion No. 18 regarding national advocacy services, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m. The business of the House will be interrupted between2 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Order of Business
Many Members will have attended the briefing this morning, at which the Carers Association spoke about the value of the contribution its members make to the economy, namely, €2.5 billion, as listed county by county. This makes me think about the very difficult decisions that will have to be taken in the coming weeks on the budget and the public finances and, in that context, how we will protect our social capital. This is a very important question, one that does not receive much attention. How we support organisations such as the Carers Association is critical. How we can help to develop and support community organisations and a community spirit at this very difficult time is an issue we need to address in the current context. People believe they are being thrown back on their own resources, which is the truth in many cases.
That brings me to the call for national consensus and the current state of play. This morning it is clear that there is no agreement between the Government parties on the need for national consensus. This became clear yesterday from what the Taoiseach said. We are now trying to understand precisely what is on offer from the Government. I want to make it very clear that Fine Gael is engaging with the Department of Finance and accepts the parameters set of needing to reach the figure of 3% by 2014. We accept the degree of adjustment that is needed and that very tough decisions will have to be taken. Of that there is no doubt.
Last year we presented a very detailed budget proposal, outlining how we would approach the difficult decisions. We will be taking a very responsible attitude to the serious decisions that have to be taken by the country. The public want to see leadership and people are worried about their mortgages and whether they will be able to pay them. They are worried about their incomes and how to meet their bills. People are very concerned at the moment at the evident paralysis when it comes to support for mortgage holders, for example, and cutbacks in their income. The country faces a really difficult period in the next few weeks. I asked yesterday how we might best work in this House to begin to reflect some of these public concerns, to talk about the difficult decisions that have to be taken, and to begin to address them.
We on this side of the House are certainly up for that. We want to show leadership because the public is demanding it from the political system. People want to see the political system responding in a very responsible way. They want answers on the key questions facing them, whether they are going to get the type of supports they need, and where the cutbacks will take place. I still say it is not good enough that the Minister for Finance is in the United States talking about cutbacks in social welfare and pensions but not discussing this here. I call for those meaningful debates in this House over the next critical three to four weeks.
I would also like a debate on the national children's hospital because it is unclear where the approximate figure of €200 million that is outstanding will come from. Will the Leader arrange that debate in the House as soon as possible?
I thank the Cathaoirleach for ensuring there was no problem with the Order of Business. I thank the Leader also for accommodating my colleagues by allowing a debate on CIE to take place during the discussion on the national spatial strategy tomorrow. That certainly will be very helpful.
One of the issues we have discussed many times in the House in the past 20 years is the democratic deficit created by the existence of social partnership. I have always argued that the elimination of social partnership would not create any greater involvement of the political parties, mainly because they were afraid of their lives to get involved in something that would require them to compromise, lead, take risks and establish timing. The current debate on consensus proves that to me. There is no appetite in these Houses for people to fill the gap created by a lack of social partnership. Rather, the appetite is for having a go at whoever happens to be in power by whoever happens to be in Opposition at any given time, and there is no change to that. There is a lack of leadership on this issue and a fear of risk taking. I have never sat at a negotiating table but that the majority of letters and phone calls were telling me not to do so, to walk away and not to get involved. I spoke to John Hume when he started his opening talks with Sinn Féin, and he had the same experience of being told not to do it, the timing was wrong, he would be destroyed, etc. These are the risks of leadership and they are not being taken. Now that we have reached this pass, let us hear all the great chat, proposals and so on from the parties in both Houses.
We discussed many issues yesterday and my colleague, Senator Eoghan Harris, raised the point of making the Croke Park agreement work. He also went on to talk about the public sector. I take issue with one aspect of this. He is completely right in saying we have to reform the public sector, but it should be remembered that more than 1.8 million people go to work every morning, only 500,000 of whom are public servants. The idea that we can deal with the economic crisis through addressing the public service is a distraction. The public service has to play its part but we must ensure those with wealth, assets and high salaries, wherever they are, pay more than the people on the other side. No one can argue with that. Before we get carried away with the productive sector, let us recognise it was not the public sector that got us into the mess we are in, although it had a part to play because, along with the Government, it was responsible for creating the economic circumstances that allowed the productive sector to grow. It failed, in the event. There is no question about this and the Croke Park agreement debate should look into that.
Before we get carried away with what the business community could do, we might look back to three to four years ago to see what might have happened had we taken such an initiative then. We might have had Seánie FitzPatrick as Minister for Finance and "Fingers" Fingleton running enterprise and employment. This is the reality. We need to be calm about these things and ensure everyone plays his or her part and allow no one to get off the hook in order that people on high salaries are pulled down and pay their share, while also ensuring a quality public service is in place that does its business of allowing economic growth to take place.
I would appreciate it if people would reduce their use of Christian names and not use other names for people outside the House.
I call on the Leader for a debate on the need for unity in Government. The news from yesterday shows that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, might have been looking for consensus with the Opposition parties, but he cannot even achieve it within the Government with his Taoiseach. It is now very clear that the Government lacks any type of coherent direction and that there is a marked lack of unity and a difference of purpose. This is yet another reason we need a general election urgently because it does not bode well for the budget. In this House we could usefully debate the need for unity in Government and the lack of direction we currently have.
I am sure Members will all want to join with me in welcoming the good news this morning of the rescue of the first few Chilean miners and the extremely and well thought out rescue operation that is under way. We wish them very well in taking out the remaining men. It reminds us, again of the unrelenting grimness of the economic news here, the lack of any good news in this country, while highlighting yet again the need for a change of Government, a change of direction and a new unity of purpose in a unified Administration, which is clearly not what we have at the moment.
I also call for a debate on third level education, as I have done many times before. We need a debate, and not just on the financing of third level education, which is critical with universities and colleges being seriously underfunded. We see our colleges and universities sliding downwards in international rankings and losing competitiveness at a time when these need to be maintained. We also need a debate on the future for graduates in Ireland. The Government said last year it would offer graduate placement programmes and training schemes. There was even talk of internships within Departments for graduates, but we have not seen any of those. At what stage are those proposals and can have a debate in the House in this regard? On a day when the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, is organising a national lobby, we need some clear answers from the Government about its plans for third level education. Otherwise, as USI has said, our graduates will just have two choices: emigration or the dole. Those were the choices we faced when I was in college in the 1980s and it is a very dark day when we see that time returning again for graduates and for young people generally.
Ratings agencies have had an overall malign influence on the state of the international economy in recent years. In Ireland we have suffered recently from what seems to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy of negative reviews from ratings agencies, yet today there is a positive indication from one such agency, Standard & Poor's, to the effect that our economic situation can be resolved in the short term, and if the necessary action is taken, this can be achieved more quickly than in other economies in Europe.
I am not surprised that this has gone unmentioned by the Opposition. I suspect that if a commentary to the contrary were on offer from Standard & Poor's, we would hear all about it. If we are discussing the lack of consensus and the need for such a debate in this House, we should start by having a common approach to the international commentary on how Ireland is perceived in terms of its economy and its politics.
What sort of nonsense is that? How can we have that?
My contribution was preceded by precisely this type of negative commentary which ignores a positive indicator of Ireland's present position and where we can get to. We lack that proper debate. I do not believe there was any contribution yesterday in the other House which disabused my party leader of the initiative he has undertaken. The words of the Taoiseach were adequate as an acknowledgement of where we need to go. Too many people are looking at body language and relying on false displays of enthusiasm and emotion to convey where we need to get to from here. If we do not do this as a collective political body and see a general election as being the only alternative, where the main Opposition parties have no common platform and no areas of agreement as to how we should move forward economically, how is this supposed to offer any clarity? That is why we need such a debate in this House.
As well as the big issues being discussed in the House, there are other matters we need to deal with urgently. I am struck by the fact, mentioned by a previous speaker, that 75% of the workforce at Google are from outside this jurisdiction. It is amazing that we, who pride ourselves on having a modern economy driven by information technology, are not actually able to provide enough graduates for one of the most forward-thinking companies in the country.
That is an issue we must consider urgently.
Another problem cropping up is the quality of junior doctors. I have raised this issue in the House before. A number of junior doctors have been placed under extra supervision by their consultants because their English is not of the required standard. I am not talking about the quality of their medical education. However, there are concerns about the standard of their English. What hope do these doctors have of conversing with sick patients from a culturally different background when they cannot speak English to a sufficient level?
When we talk about consensus in the House, we should be careful not to settle for a bar stool consensus. We should not have a knee-jerk response to narrow discussions. There is a need for us to think this through. There are issues in that consensus goes against what some consider to be our democratic set-up. There are also concerns about the agenda behind its promotion. We on this side of the House will take a pragmatic approach to how the country should be run. We have stated, as Senator Fitzgerald said, that we agree with many of the parameters suggested; I see this as consensus. However, we will not be railroaded into a silly little grouping such as a HSE forum to discuss the future of the country.
I support Senator Bacik's view about graduates and the possibility of seeking internships.
I thank the Senator.
We have given a lead, under the leadership of the Cathaoirleach and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, in establishing internships in the Seanad. I compliment the commission, the Captain of the Guard and the Superintendent for their co-operation in this regard. It is a good example of what can happen here and should be spread to the rest of the public service. There is much room for the people concerned. We should not be afraid of bringing in graduates because they might show up certain things.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the proposal made by the Minister for Education and Skills to reduce the number of VECs from 33 to 16. This would be a major rationalisation which has been talked about for a number of years. As I said at the parliamentary party meeting last night, we could end up in a situation similar to that which resulted when we amalgamated all of the health boards, which was not a great success. Perhaps rationalisation is not always the best way to go, although there is certainly a need for improvements in the system. It would be worthwhile for the Minister to come to the House for a debate on the issue.
As someone who has been in the House for a while and a former Minister of State, I am concerned about the lack of legislation before the House. There should be far more legislation before us.
I cannot understand why the parties involved will not deal with the matter. The Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill 2008 was passed by Dáil Éireann but has not yet been dealt with in this House. It is an important Bill and the Minister concerned should bring it before the House. Another Bill with which we should be dealing is the Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009, transposing European legislation, which was passed by the Dáil in 2009. That is what this House is meant to do. It is a separate Chamber from the Dáil, from which we are not under instruction. We can initiate and process legislation. I am suggesting to the Leader of the House and whoever is involved——
We will have to get a consensus on that issue also.
——that they communicate with the relevant Ministers to find out exactly why these Bills are not being processed in the Seanad. We have the time, the opportunity and the expertise and the Bills will be dealt with well here.
Of O2’s 1.7 million customers, 70% have switched to on-line or paperless billing. Vodafone has a similar number of customers and is now taking the same steps. That is a reminder of how easy it is for companies to save money with the consent of their customers. Sir Philip Green, when he identified the costs of running the United Kingdom at Government level, found that the amount of wasted paper was huge. I draw attention to what each Senator received in his or her box today. Not only did we receive the Order Paper which contains 18 pages of text, most of which has been repeated every day for a long time, but also we received it in an envelope. It is sent to each one of us and I assume the corresponding Order Paper is sent to each of the Dáil Deputies. There seems to be no understanding in the House and perhaps in Government circles in general of a modern way of communicating. We can all communicate in other ways. There is no one who cannot use a laptop, a mobile phone or some other system. We cannot afford to sit back and let somebody else do something about it. Let us do it ourselves. Apart from anything else, it would help the environment, lower costs and save us from having to carry things around. I, therefore, urge the Leader to draw attention to the opportunity to make savings and the benefits that might result from this. Let us make sure we no longer ignore opportunities to engage in paperless communication, methods we are all capable of using.
I welcome the positive news on the front page of one of the national newspapers today about the economy turning the corner. It is important that we talk up what is happening because the world's media are watching to see how confident we are about ourselves. We must not talk ourselves into deeper problems.
I wish to raise in road safety week the issue of visibility on the roads. We should have had a debate on road safety this week; perhaps it might still be possible to have one. The evenings are becoming shorter and many are out walking, running and cycling, but few wear reflective vests and few pedal bikes have lights. This poses a danger to those involved. In addition, we see cars, the lights on which are not working, or perhaps are not clean. Whether in urban or rural areas, people are getting the message and participating in exercise — on that subject, I wish myself and the Oireachtas team well in the Dublin Marathon which will take place in the next couple of weeks — and are out and about on the roads, but many do not seem to be aware of their own safety or the fact that drivers often do not have enough knowledge of or respect for other road users. A debate on road safety, therefore, is important. I have mentioned before that traffic islands on roads into many towns are lit high up or sometimes not at all. A simple reflective band around the cement base would be a major step forward in ensuring road safety. There are many such issues. I come from an area in which there have been many tragedies on the roads. It is important, therefore, that we keep this issue to the fore.
I refer to the serious problems in Cavan General Hospital. Medical outpatient services were suspended last Friday, while surgical elective admissions were deferred on Saturday and Sunday. All elective cases scheduled for Monday, Tuesday, today and the rest of the week, as well as medical clinics, have been deferred. Effectively, one could say there is no functioning hospital in Cavan as of today, although the region it serves is large. The assessment and rehabilitation unit is closed, except for the assessment of inpatients ready for discharge. Things are very serious. I ask the Leader to state he will convey my concerns to the Minister for Health and Children as a matter of urgency. I also ask him to request the Minister or a Minister of State to make a statement to the House because we need to respond to people's needs. There is major fear and patients are not undergoing the surgery planned. It is dreadful, the result of an administrative bungle, and cannot be allowed to continue. I, therefore, ask the Leader to make an unequivocal and non-partisan statement in this regard.
It should be celebrated in this country and heralded internationally that we have a consensus to the degree that we have an agreement between all the parties on limiting the deficit to 3% by 2014. Fine Gael has been distinctive in putting forward issues such as fairness, waste, cutting at the top first, and maintaining essential front line services like Cavan General Hospital. Democratic debate in the country needs that. Are we turn opposition out to the streets? The fact that we have consensus on the essential deficit figures is the essential consensus. That should be heralded internationally and the Government should admit this publicly for the sake of the country.
I endorse the comments of Senator Boyle and Senator Keaveney on the Government's budgetary strategy. I refer Senator Bacik to the editorials ofThe Irish Times and the Irish Independent this morning, neither of which has been very disposed towards the Government over the years.
That is not true.
We are not getting a cheer from the ranks of Tuscany, but certainly we are getting polite encouragement at last. We should play up the good points and not talk down the economy the whole time.
It is a bit late for that now.
I have often raised the issue of the gas terminal at Ballylongford on the mouth of the Shannon in north Kerry. This project will create 500 jobs per year for four years. It has gone through the planning process. That was an interminably slow process, which made a complete mockery of the so-called fast track process. We are now being held up again over relatively minor quibbles, and I am very frustrated at how this is being managed. We are crying out for jobs and a new gas terminal and power station three miles away in Tarbert will create a further 500 jobs. The Minister is quite concerned about it at this stage, but I have not seen a hands on approach by the Government to bring this project across the line.
I call on the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to brief us on this important project. It is not a parochial issue. It will ensure energy security for the entire mid-west region for our lifetime. It is clean and safe. It is not renewable, but perhaps our Green Party colleagues have put too much focus on renewables. This is important. It represents jobs and the future. I ask the Leader to make a serious effort to get the Minister to come in here and answer questions about this important project.
The forthcoming budget and the thought of more cuts is certainly focusing people's minds. How will the Government help people to keep their homes if it continues to cut away at their ability to repay? We can say there should be 20% more cuts in the public service. We know that 200,000 jobs have been lost in the private sector since this recession took hold. What real solutions will the Government put forward while we sort out the public finances to help ordinary people keep their heads above water? Real solutions involve them keeping their homes.
The Leader should ask the Minister for Education and Skills to come before the Housefor two reasons. What initiatives will she put in place to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit among our second level kids? The over emphasis on exams at second level means that an important piece of creativity is being lost. Entrepreneurship is the key to our recovery. Senator Leyden pointed out that the number of VECs will be cut in half. How will that pan out in practice? Will programmes will be cut? Who will lose as a result? VECs have been there for the weakest in society. The Minister needs to come in here to address those issues as quickly as possible.
From what I have heard this morning, the Opposition parties are speaking out of both sides of their mouth, when they assess how we can deal with our deep financial crisis yet continue to be all things to all people.
We have not said that at all.
Can the Senator explain that?
Questions to the Leader, please.
There is no sign that the Opposition understands just how critical is the current situation. There is a huge gulf on consensus on that issue. This is an absolutely critical situation. Our public deficit is running at €19 billion per annum and this has to be borrowed. This means the markets have to place some faith in this country in order that we fill that enormous gap. This requires us to believe in ourselves.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government stepped out last week and tried to seek some form of consensus. The response from the Opposition has been depressing.
From the Taoiseach.
Fianna Fáil is in power with the Green Party.
The Taoiseach continues to work on the concept. There are many voices among our partners in Government who see merit in the idea, but I see no indication from the Opposition parties that they are willing to take the offer seriously or that they understand the serious situation in which the country finds itself right now.
On behalf of the Green Party, I commend the Garda Síochána for its discovery of ready to use bomb making material at Togher woods yesterday. It was very significant. I wish the Garda well in its continued work to stifle this threat. There are people in our towns who are using the current economic crisis as a cynical recruitment tool to draw young people back into ways we thought we had left behind. I saw this with my classmates and I have seen it since. People were led down the path to the supposed glory of an illegal army. It is horrendous on families and on individuals, and I think we need to maintain our vigilance and our efforts in this regard.
As we speak, a cylinder is ascending through solid rock carrying the seventh or eighth of the Chilean miners, and I know that all of us who have followed Chile and its struggle to establish over the last 30 years will salute the epic achievement of the Chilean people, and the Chilean and other engineers who have achieved this. I do not think I have to labour the point about co-operation.
I would like to clarify what I mean by consensus and the public sector. I understand why Senator O'Toole would be protective of front line public sector workers like teachers, firemen and so on, as Senator Buttimer was yesterday. I have included myself in that list by mentioning librarians, and have been mocked for it. When I say that I believe in consensus, it is not that I start with some sort of obsession about consensus, but because I know there is a problem in getting political cover for the kind of reforms needed in the largest single area in which we can achieve those reforms. That area is the public sector as a generality. I am talking about the great mass of the HSE, the great mass of waste, the huge salaries paid out to semi-state employees in the ESB, the huge salaries paid out to politicians and that vast gudge of stuff in the public sector. To achieve savings in this area, we need political cover.
There is no way to reform the public sector in that broad sense except by parties getting together to give each other political cover. That is the be all and the end all of it.
There has been much discussion about achieving consensus. There was a need over the last two years for much greater cohesion in the political system to tackle the situation in which we find ourselves. Nobody really believes that any area of expenditure will not be put under the microscope if we are to extricate ourselves from our fiscal difficulties. The forthcoming budget will be essential for the future economic life of this country. It will obviously impact on all sectors. The public sector has to be examined in the same way as every other sector. I am glad we will have a debate this morning on the Croke Park agreement.
The challenge for the political system is to come together and display to the public that it can put party political interest second to the national interest. That message is far from clear at the moment with some voices in all parties that are beacons in expressing it, but it is far from comprehensive as it needs to be. It will take courage, but if we do not do it we will be betraying those who have gone before us and will be imposing on those to come after us a legacy of which we will not be proud.
I ask the Leader for an immediate and urgent debate on the tourism sector, a sector in which he has much experience. The sector is dying on its feet following a €1 billion drop in revenue since 2007. There has been a catastrophic drop in the number of people coming from Britain, which has reduced by 30% since 2008. There are now 75,000 fewer seats each week on planes coming into this country than there were two years ago. This disaster cannot be totally attributed to the global downturn because even though our visitor numbers fell by 12% last year, Britain with a similar climate managed to increase its visitor numbers by 4.6%. The only response from the Government has been a heart-sinking knee-jerk reaction of committees and taskforces. When it set up a tourism renewal group, it chose to ignore that group's advice to remove the travel tax immediately. We now have the renewal implementation group which was set up to implement the recommendations of the tourism renewal group. Meanwhile numbers are dropping on a daily basis. We need some innovative thinking and a new approach. The first thing we need to do is to call Michael O'Leary's and Christoph Mueller's bluff. As they claim the air travel tax is an impediment to growth in the tourism sector, let us scrap the tax for two years and challenge them to produce the numbers they claim they can bring to this country on their planes every year.
We should kick off the 2011 tourism season with an innovative approach. The budget for tourism promotion each year is €155 million of taxpayers' money. We should take €10 million of that and have an auction across all the airlines serving this country and buy 100,000 free seats into Ireland to kick off next year's tourism campaign. On average each tourist to this country spends approximately €600 here and we would reclaim that money in VAT alone. We need to offer a genuine céad míle fáilte to all our neighbours in the EU indicating that Ireland is open for business at the beginning of the next season. We need to be the land of 100,000 welcomes — a reputation we have always had and which should stand in the future.
I wish to draw my colleagues' attention to a science article in yesterday's edition ofThe New York Times about a paper by two economists entitled “Mental Retirement”. We recently had positive ageing week. Senator O’Toole was correct in what he said this morning in that when somebody proposes something different, new and visionary, 99% of people say it cannot be done. People should have a choice over their retirement age and if they do not want to retire at 65, they should not need to do it. I do not want that to be confused with people being forced to work until 67 or 68 because of the pension crisis. I am talking about the human rights of a person to stay on in a job if they so wish. Laura L. Carstensen is the director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University.
I wish people would refrain from talking when I am speaking. I am not going to speak anymore in this room. I do not talk when other people are speaking, unless it is an emergency.
There are people moving in the Visitors Gallery which is creating noise.
I am not going to speak.
I would like Senators Ross and Harris not to speak——
——in loud voices when I am speaking on a very serious matter. I did not do it, Senator Harris, when you were speaking.
The Senator should address her remarks through the Chair to the Leader. I ask Members to refrain from talking when someone is speaking.
I am not saying that I do not occasionally talk, but I do my best to do so in a low voice. Those Senators were speaking at the top of their voices.
Some are more equal than others.
I think it is the huge egos they both have that are driving them to that.
Actually, I know I am right.
I do not know which one has the bigger ego.
I do not want to hear that type of comment about anyone. We are taking questions to the Leader on any pressing matter.
I want an urgent debate on positive ageing. It is very detrimental to force people to retire at 65 and it should be a choice. Forcing people to retire at 65 suggests they are beyond it or can no longer contribute to society.The New York Times reports on the health retirement study, which is a survey of more than 22,000 Americans aged more than 50 years every two years. The study proves that the longer people stay in work, the longer they retain their cognitive ability.
If we get the debate on the matter, we can discuss that.
It is a very important point.
I understand that.
May I have one last sentence?
It is important to keep one's thinking matter going, which we all need, as Senator Healy Eames said. It is entrepreneurs who have new ideas and take action who will get this country back on its feet. I put myself in that category, having been an entrepreneur in my previous life.The New York Times article states that doing crosswords, Sudoku, etc. simply allows people to become good at crosswords and Sudoku, but does not improve cognitive skills. The best way to retain cognitive ability is to remain in work.
I agree with Senator Harris and others who spoke about how wonderfully exciting and heartening it was to listen to the radio broadcasts about the Chilean miners. They were in a very dark place, but their community with courage, determination and ingenuity got them out of it, which is a lesson for us. We are in a dark place and can certainly get out of it. I was astonished to hear Senator Boyle suggest that those of us on this side of the House never criticise the ratings agencies and even gloat when they come out with bad news for us. I have consistently and scathingly attacked the ratings agencies from this side. Senator Dearey said we did not understand the depth of the recession. Everybody on this side, including myself, has a pile of e-mails and letters from people who are terribly agonised. We need to reply to them immediately because some of them state they are on the point of taking their own lives. None of us underestimates the scope of the crisis we are in.
I ask for a debate on the siting of the new children's hospital at the Mater hospital. At the beginning of the process I made a request, which had been passed on to me from consultants, that there should be an international peer review, which would have taken only a week; that should have been done. There were many suggestions about the politicisation of the decision given that it was in the constituency of the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. While I do not know about the rights and wrongs of that, we should have looked at it. The site is in my area and it is in my interest to have it there, but I believe it is the wrong place because the site is not appropriate. I heard a distinguished doctor mention that they will now need to expand with great ingenuity what is there even though it looks pretty on the drawing board.
Is it realistic in this climate to expect funding of €110 million from philanthropy? Yesterday when I asked somebody, who is involved, what this philanthropy was, I was told that most of it would come from national lottery funds, which is not philanthropy. There is a significant funding gap and I believe the taxpayer will be landed with the bill. I believe the site is inappropriate for access reasons. We do not know whether the metro north will proceed — I hope it does. I have always supported it, but it may well not proceed.
Yes, it will.
That is great news. My final point is——
I call Senator Cummins.
On the radio this morning a woman spoke about access. Her son had an appendix which ruptured before he was operated on because he could not get into the place because of car parking, closed roads and all the rest of it. It is a disaster and we should really examine it.
I join Senator Dearey in complimenting the Garda on its recent arms find near Dunleer. I also compliment it on its efforts in curbing the activities of these dissident republicans. They will need to be rooted out and we should support the Garda in that effort.
Department of Justice and Law Reform figures indicate that more than 400 convicted criminals are at large at present. They include persons convicted of attempted murder, sexual assault and weapons charges. According to the figures from the Department, 161 were convicted of theft, 50 of attempted murder, assault and harassment, 32 of organised crime offences and 31 of weapons and explosives charges. These are dreadful figures. The Minister's prison system is dysfunctional when one looks at the number of convicted criminals at large. Senator Bacik and I have been asking for a debate on prisons for over 12 months——
——but without success. When we see the figures we have secured from the Department, it is no wonder the Minister does not want to have the issue debated in the House.
I join Senator Cannon in asking the Leader, yet again, to seriously consider arranging a debate on tourism, a matter raised prior to the summer recess. While I understand the difficulty of finding time for such a debate, as I have repeatedly said in the House, tourism is our second most important indigenous industry. It is as important as discussing the Croke Park agreement——
——perhaps even more so because it impacts on every town and village. However, I take Senator Cannon to task to some degree in that we now have an innovative and creative Minister in that portfolio, as evidenced by the numbers putting together plans to encourage more people to visit the country While I appreciate what the Senator said about the figures for the numbers who come here from England, the reality is that we are suffering from an economic downturn internationally, as a result of which people are not travelling to the same extent.
I share the Senator's views on Mr. Michael O'Leary. As I have often said in the House, I have tremendous admiration for Mr. O'Leary and Ryanair for what they have done, which we should not forget. However, the reality is that he has now taken it upon himself to continually attack the Government on the issue of the airport tax, as has Aer Lingus to a lesser degree. I share the Senator's view that Mr. O'Leary should either put up or shut up, as he has stated publicly he would bring over 600,000 people into the country over a number of years if the travel tax was abolished. I do not believe this is about the travel tax and agree with what the Senator said. The Government and the civil servants in the Department, while they might be losing €70 million or €80 million in these troubled times, should think about the potential financial gain to the Exchequer and the wider community. I ask the Leader of the House to give serious consideration to arranging a debate in Private Members' time in the immediate future to allow the Minister to give us an insight into her plans. I do not want to reveal too much, but there are wonderful plans to bring more people into the country in the next 12 to 18 months. I would be grateful if the Leader considered my request.
I, too, strongly support Senator Cannon in his call for a debate on tourism, an issue on which Senator Mooney expanded further. Jobs initiatives are vitally important. We are aware of the scope for such initiatives in the tourism sector if it was properly harnessed, but, sadly, this year — I do not understand the reason for this — over 6,000 non-EU workers received work permits to work here. I do not understand the criteria used when one considers we have over 450,000 people unemployed. There is something wrong in that respect. We are shooting ourselves in the foot and the matter must be addressed, perhaps in conjunction with a debate on tourism. As Members are aware, many of the workers concerned are working in the hospitality sector in hotels and so on. With no disrespect to any of them, they have received no training and have no skills. They do not represent the Irish hospitality brand. They are lost in the circumstances in which they find themselves. I have heard complaints from many Members from the country who stay in Dublin hotels. The Government must do something about the issue.
I wonder if we are getting carried away on the call for consensus. Everyone wants to be positive. We all want to wear the green jersey and do what is best for the economy. We are not stupid. It is part of our business in this House to go about that work properly, but I am concerned because, while Members opposite have a slight problem which I hope they can surmount, there is a suspicion that the Government is not at one. It must come to the table with clean hands. I, therefore, ask Members opposite to clean up their act. We will then proceed in a positive way.
That is for you, Terry.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the retail sector as part of the ongoing debate on the budget. Those commentators who are talking down the economy are doing it harm. The sooner we receive a direction on budgetary strategy, the better for the retail sector which is a major employer in the economy. As part of that process I suggest we examine DIRT on savings which should be payable at the top marginal rate. Anyone dependent on a fixed income would be able to claim back, but the purpose would be similar to that in Japan where a zero interest rate is offered to provide an incentive in this regard. We have a problem here, about which we hear consistently, that too much is being saved. If that is the case, we must incentivise people and the best way to do so would be to increase DIRT on savings which should be payable at the top marginal rate.
I support my colleagues who spoke about Standard & Poor's which has finally cottoned on to the fact that this is the third most open economy in the world. If the world economy was to pick up by even 1% or 2%, we in this country would benefit significantly in terms of increased employment and exports. Standard & Poor's has seen the light, but, unfortunately, there was a comment made during the week by Fitch which was unacceptable, that the Irish banks were not putting a sufficient number out of their homes. That would be bad business and I spent a long time working in that business. It would be uneconomic in terms of auctioneering and security costs and legal fees, not to mention the hardship it would impose in terms of the medical costs people run up in such a crisis. It would be bad business to put people out of their homes and for rating agencies to tell us that they want to see more pain being endured is unacceptable. I agree with my Opposition colleague, Senator Norris, who came down strongly against the rating agencies which got it totally wrong when sub-prime lending was rated as triple A when it was nothing more than junk.
I am reluctant to address Senator Mary White in response to what she had to say to me.
Questions to the Leader, please. The Senator should not mind any other Member.
No interruptions, please.
I am reluctant to address the matter because——
If the Senator is reluctant, there is no need to do so.
I make a declaration of interest. I am worried about addressing the subject and responding to Senator White. I have an interest in that I might have received enough chocolates from her to put me above the threshold for making a declaration in the Houses.
If I were the Senator, I would not worry about that matter, but what I am concerned about is questions to the Leader.
I think I have come very close to the €500 limit. I do not know if anybody else——
Do not expect them this year.
It will be a smaller box.
In that case the Senator might give out a few books.
I do not know what Senator White expects from these benches of the ballooning egos and, if we are not careful, ballooning bellies, but I am grateful to her and she is right. We were talking during her contribution and it was probably inappropriate and out of order. In that sense I am sorry. I will still regard her presidential campaign in the same light as I did previously.
A question to the Leader before I move on to the next speaker. I will call Senator Buttimer if the Senator does not put a question to the Leader.
I am in a forgiving mood this morning.
No interruptions, please.
I thank the Leader for allowing us to debate the Croke Park agreement. That is both constructive and helpful and I am delighted to hear it will continue after today because the matter is relevant.
I was a little disappointed because when I heard Senator O'Toole say there would be a debate on CIE, I thought he was being serious; I should have known better. As far as I am aware, there will not be such a debate. There is a cover-up going on within these Houses in regard to the investigation taking place in CIE. The Joint Committee on Transport has been frustrated, CIE has been protected by the Government on several occasions and the investigation has been frustrated by the absolute refusal, supported by the Government, of the non-executive directors to come to give evidence about what happens in corporate governance at CIE.
Last week, a much more serious development arose with a key witness not being allowed to give evidence in public. Why is this? A vote was called at the Joint Committee on Transport to allow him to come in. It was frustrated initially under the guise of there being a court case but that court case is completed. The Green member, Deputy Trevor Sargent, to his credit, withdrew — he disappeared. Fianna Fáil voted down——
The Senator is well over time.
Wait a minute, a Chathaoirligh, I am just finishing.
No, the Senator is well over time. I cannot allow that. The Senator spent too much time on another issue.
Fianna Fáil voted down a request that a key witness should come to an inquiry into CIE when people on the other side had already been heard in public. What is going on? Now, we are not being allowed a debate on the same semi-State organisation. Something very murky is going on here. I want the Leader to respond, not by saying we can discuss it under this, that and the other but with a specific debate that gets the Minister in to answer questions because another part of these Houses is being frustrated.
That is consensus.
The point is made. I call Senator Buttimer.
In seeking a debate on consensus, I remind the Leader and Members opposite that for the past 13 years we had no consensus when there was money to be doled out, jobs to be awarded and benchmarking to be negotiated. Why now, when there is a majority Government, does the Government want consensus given it has made a complete hames of the country? That point needs to be addressed. If the Minister, Deputy Gormley, is so serious about consensus, why did he do this in the way he did? Surely he should have said to the party leaders "Here is the time of the meeting, let us get there and talk." He did not even talk to the Taoiseach, his so-called partner in crime — his consensus colleague.
I welcome Senator Harris's clarification this morning regarding the public sector. We agree there must be reform of the public sector. Fine Gael has always said that and I believe it personally. However, we must go after the fat cats, not the small guy or the ordinary worker who is working hard but the guys who are creaming it. I have no problem with that.
If the Members opposite want consensus, the Fine Gael Party has said quite clearly that it agrees with the 3% target and the four-year fiscal plan, and that there must be austerity and reform of the public sector. That is consensus. We have given leadership, although the other side of the Chamber and the members of Government, who are getting paid far too much, are bereft of such leadership. Perhaps we can have that debate and then we can have consensus. Let us not have a phoney war with the Greens and Fianna Fáil, who are trying to save their political hides. The reality is the Irish people do not care what we say in here; what they want is action. As Senator Healy Eames said, they want their homes protected and jobs created. That is our task, not having phoney wars about consensus when the Government has made a mess of the country.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Bacik, Boyle, Twomey, O'Reilly, Healy Eames, Dearey, Harris, Walsh, Coghlan and Buttimer raised the issue of consensus.
I agree with Senator Fitzgerald in regard to the massive contribution carers have made and continue to make. Some €2.5 billion is a huge amount. The support for communities, as Senator Fitzgerald said, must be centre stage. I often find that during a downturn in the economy, voluntarism and support for the community is much stronger than when the economy is buoyant. We fully support the sentiments expressed this morning by Senator Fitzgerald in this regard.
On the economy, we have statements on the Croke Park agreement immediately following the Order of Business today, and there will be statements again in four weeks and again before the Christmas recess. We want to ensure the support of the Upper House of the Oireachtas for the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, and his Department in light of the special responsibility given to him by the Taoiseach. We want accountability and we want to see that everyone who has given an undertaking in the Croke Park agreement is doing what they said they would do.
I take Senator Buttimer's point in regard to the Greens and Fianna Fáil being in unity but what about Labour and Fine Gael? I know Fine Gael's bona fides but I hear nothing in regard to consensus from the Labour Party. I say that in good faith and I look forward to hearing it clarified tomorrow on the Order of Business by Senator Alex White.
I spoke about it in the House last week. I will not be speaking when the Leader tells me to.
The Leader to continue without interruption, please.
Senator Fitzgerald called for debate on the national children's hospital. I gave a commitment on this yesterday and I have no difficulty with it taking place.
Senator O'Toole referred to social partnership and its leaders. I was in the Houses at the time social partnership was born and I always gave the credit to the late Taoiseach, Mr. Charles J. Haughey, and Mr. Michael Mullen, who were the pioneers of that partnership. They were courageous and far-seeing, and laid the foundation stone, as we have all said, for the Celtic tiger part 1 and part 2. I wish everyone well in this regard. As Senator O'Toole said, 1.8 million people go to work every day, which is the big difference from the last recession 30 years ago in that almost 800,000 more people are working today than at that time.
Senators Bacik, Leyden and Healy Eames called for a debate on education, with Senator Bacik focusing on third level education. Senator Leyden and Healy Eames called for a debate in regard to the VECs and the proposed reduction from 33 to 16. The Minister will have a broad consultation with both Houses in this regard. I have no difficulty in allowing a long time for colleagues to make their points with the Minister present.
Senators Boyle, Keaveney, O'Sullivan and Hanafin raised the issue of the rating agencies and the recent comments of Standard & Poor's on Ireland returning to growth and how it is perceived from outside as a nation. There is a serious responsibility both on Deputies and Senators and on the media to tell the story as it really is, and not to overstate it, particularly when it is overstated in a negative way. In saying that, I am not referring to Oireachtas colleagues.
Senator Twomey referred to the success story that is Google which, as we know, has its headquarters in Ireland and makes a massive contribution to the Exchequer. I understand the concern relates to a language skill problem in Ireland, rather than anything else. It is an issue we must address urgently in the context of developing employment in the future. In regard to second and third languages being taught in our schools, I understand we have one of the lowest levels in Europe at present.
Senator Quinn noted the possible savings in regard to the use of paper and the amount this costs the Exchequer. I will pass on his views following the Order of Business.
Senator Keaveney raised the issue of road safety. I fully agree with her point, particularly as the autumn evenings close in. I wish her and her Oireachtas colleagues well in their participation in the Dublin marathon. They are to be wholeheartedly congratulated as they are courageous people who are making a huge commitment. We want to support them in all their fund-raising activities in this regard. If a further debate on road safety is needed, we will have no problem with it taking place. As I said, the decisions taken by the Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, which I chaired when I was a Deputy, have contributed to the huge reduction in deaths and the number being maimed for life on our roads that has taken place in recent years, as well as to the reductions on the insurance side.
Senator O'Reilly expressed his serious concerns about Cavan General Hospital. The HSE has said that the curtailments in services are necessary to allow the hospital return to what it described as a safe level of activity. It said that the cancellation of non-emergency services will continue until the end of this week. The number of patients presenting at the hospital's emergency department or needing treatment in the medical units has risen by a whopping 50% in the past week, putting the hospital and staff under huge strain. As a result, the HSE put in place a range of measures to reduce activity. It is hoped this will be addressed by the end of this week. An increase of 50% in the demand for services speaks for itself.
Senator O'Sullivan raised the issue of the gas terminal in Ballylongford, County Kerry, and the delay in the creation of up to 500 jobs. I will create a precedent in this House by allowing this issue to be discussed for one hour after the Order of Business tomorrow. I will seek the co-operation of the leaders of the groups in the House to arrange this. If someone or something is delaying the creation of 500 jobs, this House should lead on the issue. I will endeavour to have this debate take place for one hour after the Order of Business tomorrow to find out who is responsible and establish the up-to-date position in this regard.
Senator Deary and Senator Cummins congratulated the Garda Síochána on the arms find in Togher woods in County Louth. I wish to be associated with their remarks on the good work and vigilance of the Garda. Senator Deary pointed out the hardship being endured by families that are being plagued by the continuation of this type of activity. The Garda is to be commended.
Senator Bacik, Senator Harris and Senator Norris congratulated the President of Chile, the minister with responsibility for mining, the engineering staff and everyone associated with the happy return of the miners. It was compulsive television viewing and I congratulate Sky television on the massive coverage it is giving the operation. It is an uplifting experience. I stayed up late last night and was up early this morning to watch the coverage. It is an event we will never forget. What has taken place is an incredible achievement of engineering skills. The main thing that impressed me through all the broadcasts and in the words of the first miners to be brought up from the mining shaft after their 70-day ordeal was their great and strong faith. They believed in their faith. It is a shining example of how people who have a strong faith really believe in the art of the possible. It is wonderful to see the achievements that have taken place.
Senator Cannon, Senator Mooney and Senator Coghlan called for a debate on tourism. I have agreed to hold such a debate and it will take place in the next two to three weeks. They referred to proposals regarding the removal of tax, the provision of incentives and the challenge laid down by Michael O'Leary to the Government. We welcome those who can do anything to create employment and bring money into the economy. I have often congratulated Michael O'Leary on his achievements. He is one of the greatest Irishmen of all time, and what he has done for tourism has transformed Ireland as a tourist destination. Dublin is now the lowest cost city to fly into and in which to stay. It has a huge amount to offer. The new conference centre, the new stadium which has accommodated crowds of 50,000 for concerts and international soccer matches, and the new theatre have all opened the past 12 months. Major infrastructural investment is taking place in the capital city and throughout the country. Nothing should stop it. Senator Cannon put forward some innovative ideas while Senator Mooney referred to the planning for his constituency.
Another innovative idea is having our own television channel on Sky and broadcasting it across Europe. When the television programme "Dallas" was first broadcast, tourism to Dallas the following year increased fourfold while when "Hawaii Five-O" was broadcast, tourism to Hawaii increased by 11 times. There is huge potential for our tourism industry, which is one of the three fundamental planks for our return to growth. The industry is also a major employer; the hotels of Ireland employ almost 300,000 people. I have no difficulty in responding favourably to the Senators' request for a special debate on the issue. Our new dynamic Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Deputy Mary Hanafin, can update the House on the plans for the coming two years. As the Senators said, this industry needs support and assistance, and Members of the House certainly will not be found wanting in terms of having debates when they are necessary.
Senator Mary White spoke about choice in retirement age, positive ageing and keeping the brain active. That certainly will enhance the quality of life for people who have reached that age. As I have said previously, I fully support the Senator's great work in this area and I have no difficulty with doing what we can to help and assist her, be it by holding another debate or whatever else is necessary.
I am sure we will have the support of the long-serving Members on the Independent benches in that regard. Senator Norris asked about metro north. I will make inquiries on the matter.
Senator Cummins raised the issue of the 400 prisoners who did not return to prison and are at large. He called for a debate on prisons. I will allocate time for this to take place.
Senator Hanafin asked for a debate on the retail trade. The retail sector is on its knees at present. It, too, employs huge numbers of people. Perhaps it can be raised in the debate on the Croke Park agreement later today or we can hold a special debate on it, if necessary.
I accept the points Senator Ross made about the Croke Park agreement and his call for a debate on CIE. There is no difficulty with having a debate on CIE. Senator O'Toole was very observant when he pointed to the opportunity of the transport issue being discussed in the House tomorrow. Perhaps Senator Ross can express some of his serious concerns then——
No thanks. I decline the Leader's kind offer.
Whatever Senator Ross wishes to do in the future, he can discuss it with the leader of his group and we can deal with it at the leaders' meetings on Tuesdays.