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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 2 Oct 2012

Vol. 217 No. 6

Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012 - Second Stage to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes and the Minister to be given ten minutes to reply to the debate. The content of No. 19, a motion, can be discussed in conjunction with the debate on Second Stage. Obviously, this motion will not be moved until the Final Stage of the Bill has been passed.

On foot of the Government's own report on pyrite, the stakeholders' report was due with the Minister by the end of September. I do not want this to drag on for months again. I would be most grateful if the Leader would find out whether the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, has that report and when he will publish the real actions that will help homeowners across the north Leinster region, in particular.

It is crucial that this House has a series of debates prior to the budget in different policy areas and I am glad we will have that. Today, however, it is crucial that we have an urgent debate on the social welfare area, in particular child benefit. Thousands of others across the country and I want to know where the Government stands on child benefit and the retention of the universality of that benefit. Many of our Labour Party colleagues might remember the pre-election poster stating that families needed the Labour Party in government. I suppose that has proved not to be correct. The Labour Party said it would protect child benefit. I listened to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, in the past few days and it is not very clear that she will protect child benefit. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to allow the Minister to clarify for this House and the people whether she intends to see through at least one Labour Party promise. One pre-election promise that should be kept is the retention of universal child benefit, which assists thousands of families across the country. My amendment to the Order of Business proposes that the Minister come to the House to clarify the position on child benefit and confirm that she will see through the Labour Party's commitment to protect child benefit at the current rates and the universal nature of that benefit.

A colleague of mine, Councillor Jim O'Callaghan, raised a very serious issue with me, namely, the removal of funding for a south inner city post with the CYC. The post concerned is that of education officer dealing with adult education and all the voluntary groups dealing with drug abuse and anti-social behaviour. This is in the constituency of the Minister for Education and Skills, Dublin South East. We should schedule a debate on foot of the information I have received from Councillor Jim O’Callaghan. How many other posts across the city of Dublin and the country have been removed by stealth? This individual has worked for 17 years as education officer, on drugs task forces and youth schemes across the south inner city. With one letter from the City of Dublin VEC, that post has been removed. All of us will agree that education for young people and young adults, some of whom may have strayed from their path, is crucially important. To have a situation where in the south inner city, some of which is very deprived, the post of education officer is removed without any consultation is disgraceful. We should have a proper debate on this to see whether these posts have been removed in other areas of the country. Is this not a front-line service? Will the Leader organise a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills, which would be preferable, or a Minister of State in his Department?

I congratulate Senator Hayden on her election as the new Whip of the Labour Party Seanad group. I wish her well in her endeavours.

I share Senator Darragh O’Brien’s concern about pre-budget speculation and consternation.

I thought we had ceased the leaking of pre-budget proposals so as not to upset unnecessarily families already put to the pin of their collar. I agree with Fr. Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland who said it would be unacceptable and unjust to cut child benefit for needy families. Can anyone honestly say everyone who receives child benefit requires it? It is time we came to terms with the reality - that we need to help those who most need our help. Since I was a boy, we have been told that one cannot means-test children’s allowance because the computers in the two Departments do not talk to each other. Someone will have to start talking to someone because we need to make the best use of resources in order that those most in need benefit. We should await the decision before rushing to make rash judgments on what the outcome will be. I know families that require child benefit to pay for groceries and dress their children, but we all know families also that draw it down and give it to a boy or girl at 18 years of age to go on an around the world tour. That is not the purpose for which it was intended.

It sticks in my craw as much as anyone else’s that yesterday the State, on behalf of the taxpayer, parted with another €1 billion to AIB in an unsecured bond. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Finance to come to the House to tell us how we are holding the banks to account for the support we have given to them? There has been no quid pro quo in terms of support for mortgage holders, home loans and businesses. In three weeks time AIB will close 54 branches across the country, despite the supports it has received from the State. One branch is located in Portarlington which has a population of 8,000. It is not a village; rather, it is the sixth fastest growing town in the country according to the previous census. I ask the Minister for Finance to intervene, not to overturn the decision - he cannot micromanage AIB - but to ask it to defer the closures at least until January and in the interim to carry out a socio-economic analysis of the impact of the decision.

I commend the wholehearted support in a statement of Dr. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, for the children’s rights referendum. He has always been a courageous and fair-minded man. I refer also to the efforts he is making to curb the excesses at First Holy Communion time, the €45 million industry that has sprung up around it and the pressures, because of the burden put on families. I welcome this because there is nothing as unseemly and unsightly as young boys and girls in their outfits running around pubs at all hours of the night on their First Holy Communion day.

I agree with what Senator Darragh O’Brien said on child benefit. We need to hear from the Government what its precise intentions are. I, for one, am worried. Universality has always been an important principle. There must be another way by which more privileged members of society can be taxed. Given the importance of the principle involved, I would be sorry to see universality go.

I, too, welcome what Archbishop Martin had to say. He is right about the balanced proposal to be put in the children’s rights referendum. As Members will be aware, I have tabled amendments which I wish to explore with the Minister to see whether they could offer an improvement; nonetheless, I restate what I said previously, that, overall, I am happy with the balance struck. The children’s rights referendum cannot be separated from the debate that needs to happen on the issue of child benefit. Many are going to see the proposal on children’s rights to be put in the referendum as a cynical PR exercise if, at the same time, they see no progress being made in dealing with the failures relating to children, whether it be the HSE’s ongoing performance, the resources available to children in situations where there is danger or deprivation, the actions and failures of social workers and the resource issues surrounding all of these areas.

If there is a fear that the budget will impinge on families we can expect a degree of scepticism, if not cynicism, from families about what is behind the children's rights referendum. I make that as a political point and am not happy about it but I believe it is something the Government will have to take very seriously.

I also note - I am sad to do so - it is being proposed, rightly but sadly, that teachers should receive specialist training in how to manage disruptive behaviour in schools. The National Council for Special Education has made recommendations in this area, as people know, recommending that a teacher in every school would attend a three-day seminar. Already €200 million of additional teaching resources was allocated last year to deal with behaviour issues. That is a real tragedy. We should be asking what is going on in our society. However, I wonder why it is always about trying to address the problems and why there never seems to be an enthusiasm to ask why they are happening. When are we going to have a debate about issues such as family breakdown, the negative effects of family instability on children and behavioural issues? We have to be courageous about encouraging stable family life and having a debate that would lead to that if we are ever going to solve some of these problems, the symptoms of which we are seeing now.

I note that the Labour Party members of the Government are not going to ask for clarification about the criteria used by the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, in regard to the primary care centres. I do not understand that. If one thing is clear it is that what we saw in this entire issue was old politics, not the new politics that were performed at the election. I wish our former colleague in the Seanad, Deputy Alex White, well in his new role as Minister of State with responsibility for primary care. I would like to know whether he will be in charge or be subject to the whims of his senior Minister. It is a bad day for transparency and accountability and new politics when the Labour Party Ministers of Government are not willing to ask the questions they obviously should be asking about the criteria employed in the decision around the choice of Swords and Balbriggan.

We have had several discussions in this House on alcohol and drug abuse. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children which has spent several months in discussions with organisations, alcohol companies and supporting agencies that deal with people who have problems with alcohol and use drugs. Will the Leader ask the new Minister of State, Deputy White, to the House as a matter of urgency in order that he can inform us as to the timescale in which we can start to deal with this problem? The former Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, had plans and the Government is committed to introducing minimum pricing in regard to alcohol and to other aspects of dealing with the problem. All the work has been done and the committee has submitted a report. If the Leader can bring the new Minister of State to the House within the next week or so we would be very grateful to hear what he has to say on this issue.

I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Darragh O'Brien and support him in the views he expressed. If there is one thing the Government has focused on, correctly in our opinion, it is jobs and job creation. It has also put forward the view that confidence is an important element of building the new economy. However, yet again the Government has decided to have a kite-flying exercise in advance of the budget, scaring the living daylights out of the vast majority of people. This is so much the case that a survey of consumer confidence published in recent days shows such confidence has gone through the floor. People are so concerned about all that is being said about the budget that they are not spending money. Where is the confidence on which the Government places so much importance? Everybody accepts there must be confidence in the economy in order to get people to spend, yet the Government is achieving the complete opposite by means of another leak, one relating in particular to that most vulnerable part of society, those in receipt of child benefit.

I would be grateful if the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, would respond to Senator Darragh O'Brien's request and attend this House. In addition, the Minister has more to answer in that, despite Government spin about saving money, the Comptroller and Auditor General's report has excoriated her Department, contrasting its lack of effort and action in recovering money that has been paid out fraudulently with the Revenue Commissioners, who managed to deliver some €34 billion in taxes to the Irish economy.

The Department of Social Protection has managed to leave over €100 million - some €35 million of which relates to fraud - unrecovered. There is no indication of prosecutions being pursued or action being taken to recover money which, effectively, was stolen from the State and its taxpayers. The Minister for Social Protection has a great deal to answer for, not just in respect of the kite-flying exercise in which she and her Department are engaging in respect of her plans with regard to child benefit, but also in the context of the action she proposes to take to recover money which should never have been paid out in the first instance and which her Department seems incapable of trying to recover.

I wish to raise awareness of the fact that the period from 1 to 7 October has been designated as both Simon Week and Positive Ageing Week. Simon Week is now in its fifth year. As Members will be aware, the Simon Community continues to do excellent work in tackling homelessness throughout the country. This year it is asking people to "Take a Step for Simon to help tackle homelessness", which can include taking part in a fund-raiser, volunteering or donating time or a service.

Age Action is celebrating ten years of Positive Ageing Week. There is no doubt that in working with and on behalf of older people it is achieving its aim to make Ireland a great place in which to grow older. County Louth, where I live, is setting the pace in the context of recognising the value of older people in society. Last year, for example, it was the first recipient of the award of most age-friendly county. Dundalk, County Louth, is to the fore with regard to the development of products and services for older people. The latter are designed to ensure that those to whom I refer can continue to live full and independent lives for as long as possible. The people who live in the town are very proud of the Netwell centre, which is based in Dundalk Institute of Technology, DKIT. The latter is a world-class facility and it assisted in putting Louth on the map as Ireland's first age-friendly county. Last night I had the pleasure of launching Positive Ageing Week in Dundalk. One of the great success stories in the town - this could be replicated throughout the country - involves Mrs. Ann Egan, who last year organised computer classes at DKIT which were attended by 112 people.

Does the Senator have a question for the Leader?

Yes. Mrs. Egan's efforts resulted in DKIT becoming the country's first age-friendly third level campus. I ask the Leader to ensure that the House will continue to engage in lively debates with regard to the issue of how we can improve the lot of older people in this country.

Will the Leader try to convince the Government to intervene in the situation relating to Clerys department store, which is located in an iconic building in this city and which has a very special place in the hearts, not just Dubliners but also of people from all over the country who traditionally come here on 8 December each year to do their Christmas shopping? What is happening at Clerys is a national matter. I understand the company has been taken over by a US group, Gordon Brothers, which seems - I hope I am not doing it an injustice in this regard - to be acting in the best traditions of American vulture capitalism. Clerys, which owed €26 million to Bank of Ireland, was bought by Gordon Brothers for €15 million. This means that Gordon Brothers has been absolved of a debt of €11 million. In other words, it has basically been given a gift in that amount by the taxpayer. Gordon Brothers has now liquidated the Guineys store on Talbot Street and the Clerys outlets in Naas, Leopardstown and Blanchardstown and is not paying redundancies to the staff affected. These people have been referred to the social insurance fund in respect of their redundancies and that is wrong because the taxpayer will again be obliged to foot the bill.

The staff at Clerys are extremely apprehensive. People with almost 40 years service are not going to receive proper pensions. This is horrible. I understand that only €700,000 - a relatively small amount - would be required in order to rectify the position in respect of pensions.

Will the Minister intervene in order to try to show some degree of humanity towards the people concerned? I hope this very important business will be supported.

I agree with my colleague who spoke for the Labour Party. Leaving aside the question of the children's allowance which is a matter for another day and I have always said every allowance should be means-tested, but scarce resources must be directed at the people who need them most because that is socialism. However, it defies belief that we are incapable of co-ordinating the various Departments and have one national income census. We have it for income tax. I have expressed this view over many years.

The Senator is over time.

I welcome the pupils and teachers of St. Josef school in Rheinbach-Bonn, Germany, who are visiting Ireland. I hope their stay will be enjoyable.

As Senator Rónán Mullen said, the NCSE yesterday released its report recommending that teachers receive further training in order to provide behavioural support for students. The report recommended that each school should appoint one teacher to have special responsibility for behaviour management in the school. I welcome the report but I have been contacted by teachers in Dundalk and Louth. The learning support and resource teachers in particular are not in favour of responsibility for behaviour in schools falling to one teacher. They favour a whole-school approach and that the appointment of this teacher should occur solely in conjunction with whole-school training in appropriate management of challenging behaviour. In my view this should include ancillary staff and special needs assistants.

I read recently about children's behaviour and refer to a view that children today are unruly and badly behaved, resentful of authority and aggressive at times in their behaviour. That was written in 400 BC by a man called Plato. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

I hope the Senator is not pilloried for using the word, "Plato", in this House.

More than 75% of 1,500 nurses who will become registered nurses this month will be forced to emigrate in search of permanent work. A permanent recruitment pause in place since 20 July 2012 has made it virtually impossible for new graduates to find employment in the health service. The moratorium on the filling of permanent posts in the health service has seen a reduction since 2008 in nursing posts from 39,000 to 34,300. In recent weeks the provision of primary care centres has been in the news and in particular the announcement of the 35 new centres. I ask if the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, or the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, whichever is the most relevant Department, will come to the House to discuss the plans for the hiring of additional primary care staff, given the increase in the number of new centres from 20 to 35. We must ensure that the best primary care service is available. The lack of sufficient staffing levels in the primary care centres means they would become white elephant projects and would be of little benefit to the communities in which they are located. Highly qualified and skilled personnel are available. I ask if we can find out how these new primary care centres will be staffed and if those who are forced to leave can be retained to work in them.

Senator Darragh O'Brien and other Senators spoke about the leaked report on the proposals for changes in child benefit. When will the Minister bring that report to the Cabinet and the Houses of the Oireachtas? More important, when will the House discuss that report in detail with the Minister rather than under the heading of general statements or being included in a broad-ranging debate?

Instead of leaving it as media fodder, we in this House, as public representatives, must have an opportunity to discuss it.

I fully support the eloquent case made by my colleague, Senator John Whelan, in regard to the provision of child benefit. There is a general acceptance among the public that wealthy people should not be in receipt of this payment or, at the very least, that it should be means-tested.

How does one define "wealthy"?

I remind Senator Darragh O'Brien, for whom I have great respect, that the social welfare budget is costing taxpayers €21 billion per year. The reason it is so high is that the Senator's former leader prepared for three general elections by increasing social welfare provision, including child benefit, year on year. He even promised to increase the State pension to €300 per week.

In all those cases, members of the Senator's party complained that what we had provided was not enough.

In 2007 the cry went up from members of the parties now in government for more and more.

How much worse would our current situation be if the State pension had been increased to €300?

The Senator should read his own party's election manifestos.

Does Senator John Kelly have a question for the Leader?

Yes, when I am finished making this point. I also remind Senator Darragh O'Brien that his party in government chose to deal with the issue of increasing child care costs by way of the provision of a €1,000 payment per child under six years of age. While this sounded like a good idea at the time, within two days of the announcement it transpired that there was an obligation to make this payment to all working parents in the State, even where their children were residing in another country.

What about the free preschool year we introduced? What does the Senator have to say about that?

It was soon discovered, moreover, that such workers were also entitled to child benefit payments even, once again, where their children were not living in this country.

That is in accordance with European Union law.

Does the Senator John Kelly have a question for the Leader?

A review of child payment provision would be worthwhile and timely. There is a great deal of money tied up in that payment which should not have been lost to the economy.

I fully support Senator Darragh O'Brien's proposal, as seconded by Senator Paschal Mooney, for a debate on the forthcoming budget. In fact, I propose that we have a series of debates on a variety of expenditure areas, as agreed by the party leaders. A week should not go by in this House between now and December without a debate on some aspect of economic policy in the context of the budget.

All expenditure decisions for the coming year must be underpinned by the overriding criterion of fairness. In this regard, I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to the House as soon as possible. The Minister's complete capitulation in regard to public service allowances astounded us all. While he predicted in his Budget Statement that the review would secure savings of €75 million this year and next, the outcome of that lengthy process was a saving of a mere €3.5 million. As a businessman in the Leader's home city commented to me last week, if he had been responsible for a failure of that magnitude he would have been fired without time to pack his bag. The Minister must come to the House to address this issue.

I hope to take the opportunity presented by that debate to raise with the Minister the possibility of undertaking a new benchmarking exercise. The Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, recently announced the results of a survey his Department had conducted of hospital consultants' fees across various countries in Europe. It is little surprise to find consultants in this country at the top of the table. I am confident that corresponding surveys would show other high level workers at or near the top for a variety of positions across the public service. A benchmarking exercise would ensure we were informed as to our position in these league tables and would back up efforts, if we wish to be fair, to address disparities. We cannot keep going back to those who are not in a position to take more pain than has already been inflicted on them by the Government and, I acknowledge, the previous Government.

In regard to social welfare, we have a choice between taking a small amount from a large number of people or a large amount from some of them. In the case of child benefit, the Government is proposing the latter option. The changes introduced in last year's budget by the Minister for Social Protection regarding the criteria for qualification for the State pension have a disproportionate adverse impact on women, many of whom are obliged to vacate the workforce periodically in order to undertake parenting duties.

That issue cannot be discussed on the Order of Business.

Will the Leader agree to a series of debates on all of these issues? Such debates would help to inform a more enlightened Government policy in respect of the budget in December.

I agree with Senator Jim Walsh on holding a series of debates. The Leader gave a commitment to hold a number of pre-budget debates, which could be very useful. In other European countries parliaments debate the budget process some time before budget day, which means the budget speech of their respective Ministers are effectively a summation of what has been decided by parliament. A move towards this type of system would be a positive development.

I am concerned that a report on child benefit has been leaked to the media. I am fed up with such leaks taking place, irrespective of the source. Someone should be disciplined for leaking information because it is unhelpful, a form of scaremongering and causes unnecessary upset to vulnerable people. I do not agree with paying child benefit on a universal basis. A millionaire should not be able to claim the payment. At one stage, a facility was in place in post offices for child benefit to be lodged in a savings account over a period. If someone can afford to save child benefit, he or she does not need it.

We need to have a mature debate on universal payments. They are not necessary because those who can afford to shoulder the burden should be required to do so. It is wrong for people to expect a payment on the basis of their citizenship. Child benefit should be provided only to those who deserve it.

Spoken like a true Tory.

I request a debate on this issue. Perhaps we should bring some of the relevant stakeholders before the House. With the referendum on children's rights imminent, this is an opportune time to examine the issue of payments to children.

Yesterday, the Irish Independent carried a story on its front page which indicated that health insurance premiums would increase by €200 this year to cover the costs of looking after old people. I ask the Leader to raise with the Minister some of the efficiency issues Senators discussed with him last week. The Milliman review, which examined the issue of ageing by comparing data for 2010 and 2008, produced findings that contradict those published yesterday. The average age of VHI members has increased from 38 years to 38.5 years, the percentage of VHI members aged more than 65 years has increased from 13% to 14% and the percentage of those aged more than 80 years has increased from 2.8% to 3%. These figures are presented as justifying very large increases in premiums. However, the evidence presented on page 21 of the Milliman report suggests that while the ageing of the portfolio was a reasonably significant factor driving claims, it was not the most significant factor.

The Milliman review also found that VHI and hospitals have major efficiency issues. The Minister, in re-ordering the Health Service Executive, is starting out to make an efficiency gain. To achieve efficiency gains we must ensure the increase in premiums of €200 sought yesterday is not approved. Major issues arise with regard to VHI's monopoly. These problems and the high costs of Irish hospitals alluded to by other Senators should be tackled first. The basis for arguing that premiums are increasing as a result of the number of old people should be questioned. I hope the Leader takes up the matter with the Minister for Health.

I concur with the comments made by Senator Conway on the report on child benefit. An expert group was commissioned by the Department to make proposals in respect of child benefit that would be cost-effective, improve employment incentives and achieve better poverty outcomes, especially in the area of child poverty. It is astonishing, annoying and typical that the group's report has been leaked. The Opposition and media are engaged in the type of kite-flying they accuse the Government of practising.

It is all our fault.

As the report in question has not been published and is not in the public domain, I should probably not refer to it in the House.

I was about to say that.

Let us have a mature debate on child benefit, as suggested by other Senators.

Let us have the Minister in the House in advance of the budget to have a helpful discussion about the proposals. However, one can well understand why the Minister would not be willing to engage when any report that is commissioned is put out into the media in such a negative light. It frustrates efforts in many ways.

I also want to raise the issue of cyber-bullying. There were disturbing events recently with regard to a child, Ciara Pugsley, who took her own life.

The Senator should refrain from naming individuals in the House.

I apologise as I should not have named her. It is public knowledge as it was raised on television last night, however.

That is not the issue.

The Internet is an invisible tool for the bullying for children. It is a significant concern and parents need to be educated about its dangers as well as the methods to ensure their children are safe when using the Internet. It is an issue we could usefully debate in this House.

Various speakers have spoken about the contrast between people in society who have problems and there is no doubt there are varying degrees of deprivation. There is no greater deprivation, however, than not to have a home, a roof over one’s head and, accordingly, not to have any sense of self-worth. There can be nothing worse than having to take refuge in a derelict building or having to throw oneself down in a doorway or a ditch at night. This is happening in society as we have new homeless people coming on stream. Very often, it is virtually impossible for the official services to do anything for these people. That is why a body like the Simon Community is important.

I am always inspired by the many young people attached to the Simon Community. They go out at various hours of the night to do what is not exactly nice work with no monetary gain or obvious appreciation. There is even a danger to themselves seeking out these people who are outside the mainstream of humanity and who are not even regarded as a statistic. We should salute and support the Simon Community, as well as those other charitable bodies working away quietly, not looking for any spotlight for their work. If those bodies did not exist, the absolute intolerable suffering that would be inflicted on these human beings could not even be imagined. As the Simon Community is coming somewhat centre stage, as legislators it would be good for us, in the midst of all the other big issues we have, to take a little time to acknowledge the work of Simon and support, help and encourage it in whatever way we can.

I join colleagues who have called for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to attend the House. One issue I would raise in a debate with him is the waste of public moneys. Recently, the Dublin Airport Authority, for example, painted a fire tender and then after six months repainted it to its original colour. This cost €7,000. The Department of Social Protection made welfare benefit overpayments of approximately €100 million to more than 63,000 claimants. The Department of Education and Skills overpaid teachers for nine months at a cost of €1.2 million. Up to €4,200 was paid by Waterford Institute of Technology to charter a plane to take a Department of Education and Skills consultant from Waterford to Dublin. By the time they had got through airport security, they would have been half way up the Waterford-Dublin road by car.

This is an example of wasteful spending. We should get the Minister in and allow Members from all sides point out constructively and positively what they see as wasteful spending. If he can tackle that, perhaps the forthcoming budget will not be as severe as expected.

Maidir leis an liúntas leanaí, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil Sinn Féin i bhfábhar go gcoinneofaí an íocaíocht uilíoch. We are in favour of retaining universal child benefit. We would much prefer if Government Senators and Deputies focused on exactly where the wealth is, because the principle of the payment of child benefit is a payment to the child. That has always been a long-held view of the Labour Party in the past and it is a shame to see it doing a U-turn on it or talking about that at this stage. We would much prefer to see Labour Party members focusing on where the wealth of the country is and we will put forward proposals in our pre-budget submission on that issue.

I would like to mention the matter I wished to raise on the Adjournment, which has been ruled out of order. The matter relates to fire services in south Connemara, but I have been told this does not relate to the powers of the Minister. I call for a debate with the Minister to ask him to explain who is in charge of fire services. When we asked the director of services in Galway County Council the question I wanted to raise, we were told we would not get the information. The director of services is working for the county council, which is under the direct responsibility of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. This is an important and serious issue and there are concerns about it.

Last week was the fifth anniversary of the dreadful fire in Bray, where two fire fighters were tragically killed. Relatives have said that in the five years since that tragedy, nothing has changed with regard to how fire services are run. The issue in Connemara relates to the fact that there is no fire service based in south Connemara. We have been campaigning for that for a long time. I know a national strategy is to be put before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It would be pertinent if the Minister could come in and tell us who is in charge of the fire services in the country. Is it the Minister, and if not who is it? We should debate whether the fire services we have are suitable for our needs.

We all commend Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for his support for the children's rights referendum. He correctly pointed out that it clearly balances rights and obligations. That sets it out properly. I also commend him on his advocacy of uniformity of dress and a more simple celebration for children on the occasion of their First Holy Communion.

With regard to child benefit, I am always struck by the tongue in cheek performances of Senator Darragh O'Brien, when he knows perfectly well this is a budgetary matter, whatever about the leak. Senator John Whelan set out a view to which we would all subscribe. Child benefit was clearly designed for low income families, not the well off, particularly at this difficult time for the country. It was never intended for the well-off. Senator Whelan gave examples of people being able to save it.

It is a payment to the child.

With respect, I think Sinn Féin is totally wrong.

The Senator should speak through the Chair.

Senator Whelan said it well when he said it was something for low income families, to support their children, not for the well-off who can always support their children.

I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on the ongoing plight of the trainee airline pilots. After much toing and froing over the summer, they have found that the pilot training college in Waterford has gone belly-up, into liquidation. These trainee pilots have paid in something between €5 million and €10 million for their training and there are different accounts of what has happened. I am deeply concerned about this as the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has decided to abdicate his responsibility in this regard.

If this type of service or treatment was delivered to any other education facility on this island, whereby almost 300 students were out of pocket for substantial sums, there would be a hue and cry about it.

I raised the matter in the first week of July last, supported by colleagues such as Senators Keane, Whelan and others. While I am not making a political point, something is radically wrong. Substantial sums were paid earlier this year to this training college, which is affiliated to and accredited by the Irish Aviation Authority and supported by the Department. All of a sudden, the money and the company seem to have gone wallop. The Minister made a big play of bringing some, though not all, the pilots back from Florida at a cost of €400 or €500 each, and had he not done that, they would probably have been sent home by the American immigration authorities.

I make the following points to the Leader. First, were the Garda authorities contacted in this regard? Second, has the Director of Corporate Enforcement been asked to look at what happened in the six months leading up to the collapse of this company and the loss of this money? Third, the Minister and his Department should take a more hands-on approach, take off the kid gloves and tackle this issue head on.

There is a serious issue which is worthy of a debate in this House. The Leader suggested to me on a previous occasion that I should table a motion on the Adjournment. However, this is a broader issue that affects many people who are dealing with education facilities which are similar to third level facilities. As I said, if it was any other college in any other part of Ireland where students were left out of pocket and left half-trained or untrained, there would be a hue and cry. Given this was the House where the matter was first raised, it is a dereliction of our duty not to have a proper debate on it. With all sincerity, I again urge the Leader to consider asking the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to come to the House for a one or two-hour debate to find out whether we can get to the bottom of this debacle.

I support the call for a debate on child benefit. I give the example of two young men from the same townland who were educated together and who both qualified from UCD. One family togged the son out in all the gear to do his interviews, having been so successful, whereas the other family bought a Renault 21 for their successful student. My point is that both families were receiving children's allowance but one family needed it and, in my opinion, the other did not. Both mothers came together and stated that most of the cost of the car was from saving the children's allowance. Something must be done.

On another issue, maps were drawn up at the beginning of the last century, about 1907, indicating areas of the country liable to flooding. In recent times we have had flooding, the overflowing of rivers and so on. I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, to initiate an up-to-date mapping of the country indicating the areas liable to flooding. Parents built houses 40 years ago in designated areas where there has been no flooding-----

Is the Senator calling for a debate on this issue?

-----but their sons and daughters are being refused in the same areas. I call for an urgent debate with the Minister of State.

I join Senator Whelan in congratulating Senator Hayden on her appointment or election - I am not sure which - as the Whip of the Labour Party group. I pay tribute to the former Whip, Senator Susan O'Keeffe. It is not an easy job being a Whip and it is certainly not an easy job being an assistant Whip to a Government Whip, particularly when that Government Whip is Senator Paul Coghlan. I wish her well.

Is the Senator looking for a debate on this issue?

No, I think there has been enough debate within the Labour Party on that issue and I do not want to go any further.

With other colleagues, I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on child benefit.

During that debate we need to define who the less well-off are, because from the point of view of optics, somebody may look wealthy and affluent but in reality, he or she may not be.

I join colleagues in commending Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for his initiative in banning fancy dresses and outfits and designer clothes from First Holy Communion and confirmation ceremonies in the Archdiocese of Dublin. I call on other bishops to do likewise. As this is something which puts huge pressure on families - that is, keeping up with the Joneses - I very much welcome this initiative and call on other bishops to follow suit.

Like many other speakers, I deplore the leaks from various Departments about what might and might not be in the budget. Many Members have called for a debate on child benefit and universal payments but I would like that debate to be widened. The Minister for Social Protection has a budget of €21 billion and we need a debate on the social welfare budget. There is much wisdom in this House and many Members would like an opportunity to have an input into how we can best target that large budget to the most deserving people in our communities. We all query whether child benefit should be a universal payment. There are arguments for and against that and we would all like the opportunity to make our views known.

Our friends from Sinn Féin are always talking about taxing the wealthy. I wonder who the wealthy really are. Is it the small business person who, a few years ago, employed maybe five or six people but is no longer in a position to earn money and cannot get any benefits? Is it the public servant or the person who worked in industry who got a retirement lump sum and was encouraged by the bank to invest it in bank shares but is now penniless as a result? I ask the Leader organise a debate on the social welfare budget to give us an opportunity to have an input into how we believe that budget should be best targeted and to give the Minister the wisdom of this House before she announces it, because we all want to see the best outcomes for people who are most vulnerable and need assistance from the State.

Will the Leader arrange a debate on some of the parades taking place in Belfast? I pay tribute to the Catholic community in Carrick Hill in Belfast, who organised a dignified protest against the Orange Order parade that went through their area at the weekend. Over the summer months there has been serious tension in Carrick Hill because of the triumphalist nature of the parades and the anti-Catholic and sectarian songs being played by the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys and the Royal Black Preceptory as they went past St. Patrick’s Church in Carrick Hill. I pay tribute to the women of Carrick Hill, who held a silent and dignified protest outside their church, and to Mr. Frank Dempsey, the community organiser who ensured the protest went off without incident. I witnessed it with other Members of the House and civil servants from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and it was quite a sight to behold. There were 100 PSNI Land Rovers and hundreds of PSNI officers around this church with only 50 of the Carrick Hill community allowed to protest and with thousands of bandsmen and women passing this church in what can only be described as an intimidating manner, but it went off peacefully.

The head of the Orange Order spoke in the House about debate. We called for talks between the communities, which they want, with the Orange Order so as to ensure that the parades pass off peacefully.

If the Cathaoirleach will bear with me, I wish to raise two other issues; one is social welfare on which the Labour Party was giving out to Fine Gael about proposed cuts to child benefit prior to the previous election. The Labour Party was castigating Fine Gael for putting forward proposals on changing child benefit.

The Senator is over time. I have a number of Senators offering.

The other issue relates to suicide prevention. I ask the Leader for a debate on why a director for suicide prevention has not been appointed after five months. We have more than 600 suicides a year-----

I call Senator Healy Eames.

-----yet we do not have action by the Government on the issue.

Fairness must be at the core of the debate on universal payments. We must face up to the question of equality. Since when were we all equal? We must take the approach of assessing each person according to his or her means. A balance must be struck in the debate because, currently, middle-income families are being squeezed as well. In fact, the evidence is that they are the ones paying all the taxes and charges. I agree with my colleague, Senator Mullins, who sought a wider debate on social protection and the social welfare budget. One could ask whether we have reached a time in this country when we must specify the income limit a family must get on social welfare. We must examine the issue if we are to be truly fair.

I seek a debate on social media. We have seen the worst excesses of that in the claim by a father last night on “The Frontline” that his young daughter committed suicide as a result of cyber-bullying. The debate I seek is not on education. While it is important, it is not enough. We must consider regulation. I call on the Leader to invite the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House to talk to us about the regulation that exists in this country on the identification of those who post information on various websites. Such people must reveal their identity and not hide behind pseudonyms or anonymity. How can we follow such people? How can the Garda be called in by parents if they are concerned about someone abusing or bullying their child if they are not known. What regulation is there on sites that have IP addresses outside of this country? The situation has gone mad and now we see it can be fatal. I urge the Leader to arrange such a debate as soon as possible.

I join my colleagues who have raised the issue of Simon Week. Last night I attended the launch of a Simon project by John Lonergan, former governor of Mountjoy Prison. During the course of his speech he was interrupted by someone who was complaining about the fact that they were locked out of the Simon Community hostel the previous night, which indicates the strain it is under as regards accommodating the number of people who are now living on the street. It would be appropriate to have more joined-up thinking between voluntary agencies such as the Simon Community and local authorities about moving people on from hostel accommodation if that is possible. I am not sure enough work is being done in terms of giving assistance to the Simon Community to help people to get off the street into a hostel and then move on to permanent accommodation. We must do more.

Much effort is made by the volunteers in Cork alone. They have to raise more than €1 million a year to keep the facilities there going. That is a huge contribution by people but the support they give is also a recognition of the work the Simon Community does. There is a need for much more to be done both by the Government and at local authority level in working with the Simon Community to deal with the problems.

Senator Darragh O’Brien asked about the pyrite report.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, had agreed to come to the House next week to discuss this entire issue, but as I understand the Senator is to introduce a Private Members' Bill dealing with the pyrite issue, all matters will be revealed during that debate.

Senators Darragh O'Brien, John Whelan, John Kelly, Rónán Mullen, Martin Conway, Catherine Noone, Paul Coghlan, Terry Brennan, Diarmuid Wilson, Michael Mullins and Fidelma Healy Eames - I hope I have not missed anybody - spoke about child benefit. The simple fact of the matter is that the Government has not yet considered any issue relating to child benefit and the budget; anything other than this is speculation. People complain about leaks and suchlike, yet they want us to deal with speculation.

There was speculation about the closure of Army barracks.

We need clarity on the issue.

The Leader to continue, without interruption.

The group set up to consider the issue examined options for the reform of child benefit, including taxation of the payment and having a two-tier system. I look at the Members opposite and consider the hypocrisy of Fianna Fáil on the issue.

Change the record, Maurice.

I know the Senators do not like to listen, but they will have to because we intend to say it.

Go on; we are ready for you, Maurice.

The options in question were first proposed under a Fianna Fáil Minister for Social Affairs, Mary Hanafin, in a policy review of child benefit and associated programmes which she initiated in 2009.

That was only a draft which was not accepted.

Structural reform of child benefit was also advocated by the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government in the 2010 national recovery plan. In that famous plan it was suggested structural reform of child benefit could include a rebalanced and integrated child income support payment system. This was to provide for a universal component, with one single payment rate per child, which would be supplemented by a further payment in the case of children of families in receipt of a social welfare payment.

If the Government does that, it will be doing okay.


Has the Senator heard that anywhere within the past couple of hours? It is the same proposal.

Let the Minister come and we will have a chat about it.

I announced on several occasions in recent weeks that the Ministerj for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, would attend the House on 16 October.

It is not that long ago when the Leader's party wanted to give child benefit to persons who did not even have children.

The Minister will come to the House and every Member will have the option of speaking. Again, I hope the Members who have requested a debate on the issue will attend the House when it is raised.

We are always here.

The question on the VEC in Dublin can be addressed in an Adjournment debate. It is really one for the VEC.

Senator John Whelan and other Members mentioned Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. His comments on both the children's rights referendum and the excessive amounts spent by families when celebrating a child's First Holy Communion and accompanying events such as parties and so on have been welcomed by the vast majority of people in the country. As Senator Diarmuid Wilson stated, I hope the archbishop's brother bishops will take on board what he said and will be encouraged to make similar statements in their own dioceses in this regard.

Senator John Whelan also mentioned the closure of AIB branches. We will bring to the attention of the Minister for Finance the fact that 53 branches are to close to see if anything can be done to prevent this. It is a matter for AIB, but we will raise it with the Minister.

I refer to burden sharing with junior and subordinated bondholders, a matter that has been raised since March 2011. Burden sharing measures with junior bondholders have delivered a figure of €5.8 billion, a sum that would otherwise have been provided by the taxpayer.

That is an aspect of this matter which people would do well to remember.

Junior bondholders were also burned by the previous Administration.

Senator Mullen referred to the universality of child benefit. It appears that he agrees with Sinn Féin's policy to the effect that millionaires should also be paid child benefit.

No; he stated that they should be taxed properly.

Senator Henry referred to alcohol abuse. We will endeavour to have the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Alex White, come before the House at the earliest opportunity. I did so last week but I again wish to thank the former Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, for spending so much time in this House and for always coming here when requested. I also thank the former Minister of State for her commitment to tackle alcohol abuse. She had agreed to come before the House later this month in order to discuss that issue. I am sure the new Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, will continue where Deputy Shortall left off.

Senator Norris referred to Clerys department store. I am sure all Members would express the wish that the staff who are being obliged to leave the company should receive their full entitlements.

Senator Jim D'Arcy referred to the NCSE report in the context of the recommendation it contains that responsibility for behaviour management in schools be given to one member of staff. I note the Senator's remarks and also the comments made by the many teachers who brought this matter to his attention.

Senator Reilly referred to primary care centre staffing. The House is due to take Committee Stage of the Health Service Executive (Governance) Bill next week. Perhaps the Senator might raise the matter to which she refers with the Minister when he comes before us for that debate. As stated, the Minister for Social Protection is due to come before the Seanad in a couple of weeks time.

Senator Walsh asked that I arrange a debate with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I have made a request in this regard and hope the Minister will accede to it.

Senator Barrett referred to the efficiency of health insurers, particularly VHI. I suggest that this matter might also be raised with the Minister for Health when the House takes Committee Stage of the Health Service Executive (Governance) Bill next week.

Senators Noone and Healy Eames referred to cyber-bullying. Last week the House engaged in a good debate on homophobic bullying, during which the question of cyber-bullying was raised. However, I agree that, as the Senators suggested, there is perhaps a need to ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, to come before the House to discuss the matter of control of the Internet.

Senators Ó Murchú and Colm Burke referred to homelessness and applauded the Simon Community and all other agencies that work with the homeless for their efforts. The Government is determined to find a better way to address homelessness and to prevent it. I am sure the Senators will agree that there are no simple or easy solutions to this complex problem. In the programme for Government we are committed to reviewing the current national strategy and to adopting a housing-led approach to homelessness. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government's funding provision for running costs in respect of homeless accommodation and related services for 2012 is €50 million. When added to the 10% provided by the Housing Agency from its own resources, this means that a total of €55.5 million in funding will have been made available this year. Funding at this level means that there will be no diminution in the provision of essential front-line services. I agree that we should applaud the efforts of and give every possible encouragement to all the voluntary agencies that are involved with the homeless.

Senator Sheahan raised a number of matters in the context of wasteful spending. I understand the Committee of Public Accounts is dealing with those issues to which he refers. However, I will certainly invite the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to come before the House for a debate on them.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh asked about the provision of fire services in Galway. This is a matter for Galway County Council and I suggest that is where it should be raised.

I have addressed Senator Paul Coghlan's reference to Archbishop Martin's comments.

Senator O'Donovan raised the matter of the plight of trainee pilots. Their training was licensed by the Irish Aviation Authority and a number of questions arise. The Senator referred to the Garda Síochána and the Director of Corporate Enforcement. I am aware that he wrote to the Minister who replied at the time. I suggest if the Senator writes to the Minister and includes those questions again, he will give him a comprehensive reply.

Senator Brennan asked about the provision of maps for areas liable to flooding. I will bring this matter to the attention of the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy Brian Hayes, who when he was in the House recently spoke about flooding.

I have addressed the points about social welfare which were also raised by Senator Wilson. He also raised the issue of the excessive use of the whip but I am sure he is quite used to that.

Senator Daly spoke about the parades in Northern Ireland. We are all delighted that they took place relatively peacefully. Matters relating to the parades have been addressed comprehensively by the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement which has maintained a good rapport with all involved. We thank all those involved in ensuring that the events were peaceful.

I wish to correct the inaccuracies mentioned in newspapers and by Senator Daly. The Government has increased the budget for the National Office for Suicide Prevention from €4.1 million to €7.1 million. This highlights the priority placed on the matter by the Government. I do not think it is correct to say that the position of director has been vacant for five months. The position has been vacant since 10 September when Dr. O'Keeffe was seconded by the Department of Health to work on a new national project on public health and well-being which will include a policy on early prevention of suicide. On 27 September 2012 expressions of interest were sought from the general manager, local grades and higher within the HSE in the position of director of the National Office for Suicide Prevention. The closing date for receipt of applications is 10 October. The interview process will be held on 22 October. In the interim, Martin Rogan, assistant national director of mental health, will take responsibility for the National Office for Suicide Prevention.

Senator Darragh O'Brien has proposed the following amendment to the Order of Business, "That the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, come to the House to clarify the position on child benefit and confirm that she will see through the Labour Party's commitment to protect child benefit at current rates and the universal nature of that benefit." Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 18; Níl, 30.

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Mac Conghail, Fiach.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Brien, Mary Ann.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.


  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Jim.
  • D'Arcy, Michael.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Harte, Jimmy.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • Heffernan, James.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Keeffe, Susan.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe.
Amendment declared lost.

Owing to Senator Norris omitting to vote "Tá", the result will be amended.

Question, "That the Order of Business be agreed to", put and declared carried.