The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re referral of Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund Regulations 2012 to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, statements on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of Seanad Éireann, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and conclude not later than 1.45 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed five minutes each; No. 3, Health and Social Care Professionals (Amendment) Bill 2012 - Second Stage, to be taken at 1.45 p.m. and conclude not later than 3 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes each and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 2.55 p.m.; No. 4. Credit Union Bill - Committee Stage, to be taken at 3 p.m. and conclude not later than 5.30 p.m.; and No. 5, Personal Insolvency Bill 2012 - Report Stage, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 8 p.m.
Order of Business
Last week, I asked the Leader for a debate on perinatal care and I have got a commitment for such a debate. Perhaps it could be scheduled early in the new year. Many Senators across the House have sought this debate to inform us further on that issue.
The Leader has outlined the business for this and next week which is crucially important for the future of the country in the sense that it gives the Oireachtas an opportunity to rectify mistakes made in the budget. They have to be seen as mistakes because I cannot believe the Government would consciously make some of those decisions when one looks at the small print. I mention specifically the cut of €350 per annum, almost 20%, in the respite care grant paid to 75,000 families throughout the country. I do not see how that is fair. Nobody can explain how that is a justified cut. In the social welfare Bill next week we will get an opportunity to vote on each of the measures. Senator Paschal Mooney, the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on social protection, and I will table specific amendments on that issue. Will the Leader explain how it is fair that the back to school allowance is being cut by €50 per child?
Again, for the second year.
Will the Leader or Deputy Leader explain how that is fair? How is it fair that child benefit has been cut across the board, not just by the announced €10 which was hidden in the small print? Neither the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, nor the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, mentioned that the cut gets worse depending on the number of children, up to a cut of €20 per month? How should people accept those cuts? I do not specifically blame the Labour Party. It has a greater responsibility in this regard but both Government parties have agreed this cut. On the basis of the pre-election commitments given by the Labour Party specifically in the area of child benefit, a vote for the Labour Party was supposed to protect child benefit. Will someone explain to me whether it is like what the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, said at the weekend that they were only election promises and they do not really matter? It appears to be same with the increase in third level fees, which seems to have been forgotten, and the property tax. The Government is not seeking to exempt those with pyrite affected houses but will ram through an anti-urban property tax.
Following the weekend, I understand many Senators and Deputies took the time to lobby the Ministers. Perhaps Senator Bacik can tell the House the progress of that lobbying and if the Labour Party will back a cut in child benefit, the respite care grant and the back to school allowance. Next week, Members will have a better opportunity to vote against those cuts in the House because of the numbers issue. The Government does not have the majority it enjoys in the other House to be able to ram through these disgusting cuts. I ask Members to examine the cuts carefully this week and I ask Labour Party Senators, in particular, to look at the effect of these cuts that their constituents are telling them about. They will have the opportunity to vote against many of the proposed cuts. I seek clarification from the Leader and deputy Leader as to the success or otherwise of the lobbying to the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Social Protection at the weekend.
Before I call Senator Bacik, I am sure Members would like to join me in welcoming to the Visitors Gallery Mr. Bob Brolly from the BBC and Mr. Patrick Williamson who is involved with the National Federation of Demolition Contractors. They are both welcome.
A happy combination.
As Senator Darragh O'Brien said, we will have an opportunity next week to debate the social welfare Bill and I do not want to pre-empt that discussion. I find it very hard to take lectures from the selective amnesiacs across the House who have conveniently forgotten that they got us into this mess.
As they signed us up to a property tax, that was their commitment.
Can we not deal with the specific points raised? Are they fair?
I believe it is fair that we move to a system-----
We are about fairness.
-----where tax is also imposed on property. I do not have a difficulty with that. We need to ensure it is imposed fairly and we will have an opportunity to debate that issue when it is brought before this House. I will not take lectures from Senator Darragh O'Brien or his colleagues-----
It is not a lecture. The Senator asked me questions.
----- about the inequities of a property tax they signed us up to in the first place-----
What about child benefit and respite care?
----- and the inequities of a troika programme into which they got the country.
Child benefit is not mentioned in the memorandum of understanding.
I did not interrupt Senator Darragh O'Brien.
Senator Bacik to continue, without interruption.
I apologise, a Chathaoirligh.
On the specific issue the Senator raised, it is no secret that the Labour Party wanted to impose higher taxes on higher earners. That was clear from our manifesto. We were not elected into a majority or single-party government. It is a coalition Government and this budget is, of necessity, a compromise. Many of us are most unhappy with the cuts to the respite care allowance and the cuts to child benefit. Again, that is no secret. However, we recognise the incredible difficulty in which we find ourselves as a result of the mismanagement of the economy by the Fianna Fáil-led Government over many years. All of us, including the Senators opposite, should welcome the comments about the promissory note the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, made over the weekend. Something that will really stick in people's throats in March-----
-----is if we see more money being paid over in respect of promissory notes, again signed up to by the previous Government in respect of the former Anglo Irish Bank.
Fianna Fáil left a lot of IOUs on our plate.
It certainly did.
The Senator forgot about the back-to-school allowance. Perhaps she might address that while she is at it.
We would be in a bigger mess if we had to listen to Senator Paul Coghlan and his colleagues.
I am sure colleagues on both sides will agree that we should all join in condemning the violence in Northern Ireland which got worse over the weekend. I know other Senators raised the issue last week. In particular, yesterday's appalling attempted murder of a police officer by throwing a petrol bomb into a car brings back dreadful memories of the worst days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At a time when it seemed that society in the North was coming back to normality and people were looking forward to the Christmas season there, it is very hard to see that happening again. We might have a debate on Northern Ireland in the new year.
There is also the related issue of the recently released missing chapter of the report of the inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane, the Belfast solicitor, in 1989. It is clear we need to see fuller facts about the circumstances outlined in that chapter which give rise to serious consideration about collusion. Many of us have always sought more clarity on the circumstances of Mr. Finucane's murder. His family have been to the fore in seeking that and we need more information about it. We should debate that matter if we are debating Northern Ireland.
Together, with Senator Norris and Deputy Conway, I will be hosting a briefing on the expert group report on the judgment in the A, B and C v. Ireland case at 4.30 p.m. in the audio-visual room. I urge those who are interested to attend. We have had our debate on the matter in this House, but the debate in the other House is ongoing and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children will hold hearings in January. We will hear from Professor Veronica O'Keane and Dr. Peter Boylan, among others.
I will save my comments on the budget for next week, but I am very concerned about the cumulative cuts. We cannot just consider this year's budget but must also consider previous budgets and how they affect children and families directly. Our group has tabled a motion for debate tomorrow on the value of youth work. Youth work organisations are being affected by the cuts and I hope we will have our colleagues' support in that debate.
This morning the Supreme Court has handed down its full judgment, which was unanimous, in its ruling that the Government acted wrongfully by spending €1.1 million on its information campaign in the recent referendum. I call for this House to have a debate on how we hold referendums to ensure we have a fair and balanced debate.
While I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record, last week's budget announced €546 million for the new child and family support agency. The task force report was published in July. Nobody in this House could say what the remit and scope of the new child and family support agency entail, yet we have allocated a budget of €546 million. We urgently need a debate. We cannot wait for the legislation to be placed before us and then fine-tune the legislation. If the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is not available, I have suggested to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges three individuals of high calibre who could come before this House and discuss the new agency with us. I do not understand the reason for the delay.
I repeat the call I made during the debate on Senator Quinn's excellent Bill on employment permits. We should have a debate on forced labour in Ireland.
I asked that the Minister for Justice and Equality publish the International Labour Organization's report on criminalising forced labour in Ireland. This report needs to be published, we need to criminalise this and there needs to be urgency on this issue. I repeat my call for that debate.
I thank Senator van Turnhout for referring to the Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill 2012. I am not sure that the Bill will go any further because the Minister intends to introduce his own Bill next year. I suppose what frustrates me about that is it will take at least eight or nine months to be introduced and enacted whereas the Bill initiated here could have done something much more quickly.
Although it is not really the work of this House, there is something we could do for the family of an Irish citizen who has been jailed, without trial and without even the suggestion of what he has been arrested for, in Sri Lanka since September 2007. Last week family members appeared before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade to make a plea whether anything be done. I believe there is an opportunity during Ireland's Presidency of the European Union for the Taoiseach to make an approach. We could ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, to come to the House to explain what the Department is doing. I say this not as a criticism of the Minister as I believe he is doing what he can and the Irish ambassadors there over the years have been doing their best, but because here is an Irish citizen, whose wife lives here in Ireland with their three daughters and who has been detained without trial or any explanation of why he was arrested and who has been left in solitary confinement to a large extent. I believe something can be done. The Tánaiste is supportive of what should be done on that basis.
I asked recently for a debate on shale-gas fracking. We should now consider it because there has been a change, announced in the past week, in Britain where they intend to go ahead, with tight controls on fracking. The reason they are doing this is because they recognise that there has been no disadvantage in America over the years. There has been a huge impact on fuel costs in America because, for a number of years, they had been using this technology successfully and Britain does not want to be left behind. We should not be left behind. We should at least be debating this and we have been remiss in not allowing the debate to take place. There are a number of Senators, particularly Senator Mooney, who expressed deep concern. I am pleased to hear such concern because we should bring this out into the open. In Britain, they have brought it out into the open and they have made a decision to go ahead with shale-gas fracking but under tight controls. We should have the debate in this House.
In my opening remarks this time last year, perhaps on this day last year, when I stated "Britton conquered Europe," I was referring not to economic affairs in Europe but to young Fionnuala Britton who happened to win the European Cross Country Championships for Ireland. It would be remiss of me if I did not mention this young lady again today because on Sunday last, she won the European Cross Country Championships and did something no other European lady has ever done, that is, retain the title. Not only did Ms Britton win the championship, but mná na hÉireann came through on the day when they became the first ever Irish women's team to win a major international cross-country event. When I look at these young ladies, who were not expected to win a medal of any colour, let alone gold, it is a reflection on the wonderful volunteers and coaches who they have had from the time they were young children all the way through to being European champions. I commend all the coaching that has taken place in Ireland.
In 2012, there has been much doom and gloom - cost-cutting and budget reductions - but when we reflect on the year, I think we will find that the highlights came from the men and women who represented Ireland in sports around the world, from Ms Katie Taylor to Ms Britton, Ms Annalise Murphy, Mr. Rory McIlroy, even Leinster, and the Donegal team which won the all-Ireland football championship. I welcome that there was only a 2.5% reduction in the budget for sport this year. Despite the cuts affecting all of these athletes, they never complain about them. They get on about their business and do the hard work to see can they represent themselves and Ireland proudly. I want to ask the Leader about the grants which were announced last week where some €26 million went to sports.
GAA, soccer and rugby, which are the big three sports, receive the majority of the funding. In future we should consider not giving the money to where it already is, but to start looking at smaller sports which need as much help as possible.
At the weekend we had a trenchant response from the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, that she would stand by the cuts in the budget. I hope she was listening to and looking at Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on "The Frontline" last night. With the Cathaoirleach's permission, I would like to draw attention to what he said. He stated the budget is to serve the common good and over a certain period one must be able to look at where there have been positive consequences and unforeseen negative consequences and to have the courage to stand up and state one got it wrong and be big enough to admit it.
The archbishop also stated caring for people in the home, particularly the elderly, is important and is an investment in humanity. Last week, I participated in the protest outside Leinster House against the cut of €325 to the respite care grant. At the protest were people in wheelchairs who are carers. The Minister should go out at 1 p.m. and meet the people and listen to their stories. She has been too long in the bubble in Leinster House.
I call on the Minister for Finance to come to the House to discuss the situation with Liberty Insurance which was formerly Quinn Insurance. I have been contacted by many people who run small businesses who are insured with Liberty Insurance but the insurance company is refusing to re-insure them and has given them 30 days notice. If they cannot get their businesses insured they will close. I suspected when Liberty Insurance entered the market in this country that it would try to get the clean and risk-free business. The Minister for Finance must ask Liberty Insurance what are its intentions in Ireland. It has already let 200 or 300 employees go. I was contacted by a company with ten employees which will have to let them go if it does not obtain insurance by next week. It will then have to seek insurance in Europe or the UK and will be at the mercy of companies such as Lloyds which can charge any rate. Small businesses must not be allowed close down because they cannot get insurance at reasonable rates in this country. The rates they would receive in Europe would ultimately put them out of business.
I support my colleague Senator Quinn in asking that we take notice of the situation regarding the Sri Lankan citizen. I am aware of this case and Members of both Houses have taken this matter on board.
I also watched with interest the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin. I thought he was in an awkward position and dealt with it reasonably well. I was surprised he repeated something that was said in this House, which was that the judgment of the Supreme Court in the X case was a flawed judgment. It was inappropriate in this House. It is the entitlement of any citizen to make whatever comment he or she feels whether it is judicious, but I ask all those who feel this was a flawed judgment, particularly those in authority, to specify the precise flaws in the judgment to better inform the debate which is taking place. I reiterate what Senator Bacik stated about the information meeting at 4.30 p.m. which will be held in the AV room. I attended such a meeting held by people with whom I do not agree and I found it informative and helpful.
I hope that those who attend this afternoon will not all be of the same mind and that some of those with a conscientious difficulty with the position taken up by Senator Bacik and me will also make themselves available.
I agree with Senator van Turnhout that following the Supreme Court decision on Government spending on referenda, the issue needs to be examined. We should have no further referenda until it is sorted, however long it takes.
As regards cuts in education, while I have great respect for Senator Darragh O’Brien, I remember the Government being re-elected in 2007 partly because of a promise of 2,000 extra teaching jobs. The returning Government was not in a wet day when the pupil-teacher ratio increased. The current Minister for Education and Skills has performed the greatest miracle since water was turned into wine in that he has not increased the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools.
He deserves the utmost credit.
Senator Jim D’Arcy
Yes. I welcome the 22 new schools, including an all-Irish school in Dundalk, the Cú Chulainn community college. The legendary Cú Chulainn will have a school named after him in Dundalk.
It could have been named after the Senator.
Senator Jim D’Arcy
I ask that the Minister for Education and Skills attend the House to outline his views on the gap analysis of third level institutions’ submissions on third level reform.
I strongly concur with and support the call by Senator van Turnhout for a debate in this House on forced labour and the exploitation of workers, including migrant domestic workers. I recently attended a conference in UCC on this issue. It is an important issue on which we should have a debate.
We should also have a debate on parties’ election promises. Election manifestos are put before the people and the people vote for parties on the basis of the promises and commitments made.
Senator Jim D’Arcy
Like the hospital in Omagh.
When those promises are broken-----
Senator Jim D’Arcy
That was terrible. I agree with the Senator.
When those promises are broken, people become disillusioned with politics generally. It was suggested that Members might live in a bubble. Many people outside the House are not just disillusioned with politics, but feel betrayed by parties for which they voted in the hope that those parties would protect them. The clear pre-election promises made on child benefit and college fees have been mentioned, but promises were also made on banking debt and many other issues. When Senator Bacik states that the Government is a coalition of two parties and a compromise of policies-----
That is what coalition is about. That is democracy.
Senator Cullinane to continue, please, without interruption.
It is a compromise-----
The Senator might not like it.
I like it, but it is a compromise of broken promises, as both Fine Gael and the Labour Party have broken promises. The Sinn Féin Party will table a motion of no confidence in the Dáil against the Government. The Government has let down the people on the three critical issues that face the State: to have a proper and sustainable deal on the banking debt-----
-----to have a job strategy that will get people back to work - rather than the Minister for Social Protection cutting people's welfare in terms of secondary benefits such as back-to-school grants, footwear and clothing allowances and child benefit, the Government should be trying to get people back to work; and to have a fair budget. This was not a fair budget. I point out to the Leader that we need to have a debate in the House on the election promises and election manifestos which were put before the people of the State and have been torn up since the general election by the parties in government.
We are not flying the Union Jack over Leinster House.
Every year we have the reaction to the budget. No matter what Government is in office, be it Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and the Labour Party, the Opposition parties will always attack it. That is the way it is. As regards the respite care grant and other cuts, we may banter over and back depending on what Government is in office, but I am concerned that people are genuinely suffering. I have been deeply touched and am concerned about some of the cuts that have been introduced. We must weigh it up and we all have difficult decisions to make. Rather than bantering over and back, and accusing each other, we should stop to examine the real issues that have arisen as a result of the budget.
At least the Senator admits the Government got it wrong.
Senator Moran to continue, without interruption.
I echo Senator Bacik's concern on the recent escalation of violence in Belfast, particularly the attempted murder last night. I am a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I recently attended the opening of the Skainos centre in east Belfast on the Newtownards Road. It was opened by the First Minister, Peter Robinson, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. As someone who lives on the Border yet had never been to east Belfast in my life, I was struck by the symbolism on the day. It was brilliant to see the progress that we have made. Before we went in, there were people outside with drums, while a traditional Irish group was playing inside. It was a real merger of religions and cultures. It was a really good day for both sides of the community, which each side acknowledged. I was extremely proud to be there that day. That is why I would hate to see violent attacks recommencing.
I have been contacted by the Irish Epilepsy Association about the pricing and supply of medical goods Bill. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health to clarify if anti-epileptic drugs will be excluded from generic substitution, as recommended in the Moran report? As a parent of somebody who suffers from epilepsy I know the value of medication and how important it is to get one's epilim levels correct. We need urgent clarification on that issue.
I congratulate Senator Paddy Burke on being Cathaoirleach on the 90th anniversary of Seanad Éireann.
Will there be a 91st?
I thank him for arranging the ceremony this morning.
I hope the Seanad continues because it is a very important institution.
The Leader should ask the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, to attend the House for questions about SUSI. I have to declare an interest in that it concerns a godson of mine, but not a relation. On 19 November, he received a letter from SUSI granting him full fees in Queen's University in Belfast. Yesterday, he received a letter from Queen's University saying:
In accordance with general regulations of all university courses, I am writing to inform you that you have been suspended from the university. The suspension will apply until the outstanding balance of tuition fees and/or charges have been paid in full. The suspension means that you will not be eligible to enrol or graduate. The university reserves the right to withhold a degree, certificate or transcript from any student who is in debt to the university.
The letter is signed by Ms Orla Russell, income and student finance accounts. This is the legacy and commitment of the Minister. He should sort this problem out with SUSI and the VEC because it is absolutely unacceptable. I have cited this letter to a constituent who is my godson, and he is devastated. One can only imagine what is it like to be suspended from a university. He was doing his course and concentrating on his studies and this should not have happened.
I am not making an issue of this but simply intend to appeal to the Leader through his good offices and, on leaving this Chamber, I will communicate with the Minister immediately. As this letter is only from 10 December, I have not had much opportunity previously. Unfortunately, our jurisdiction-----
Colleges gave assurances that this would not happen.
Senator Leyden to continue, without interruption.
There should be liaison between the Minister for Education and Skills and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as well as the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, to bear in mind the position that has arisen here and to allow for the fact that those students are providing very large fees from this jurisdiction for the Northern jurisdiction.
The Senator is over time.
Surely, in the run-up to Christmas, Queen's University would have the good grace not to impose this suspension on a young student in respect of a situation over which he has no control. I hope this House will be united with me in resolving this issue today.
First, I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the two renowned figures in the Visitors Gallery today, namely, Mr. Bob Brolly of the BBC and Mr. Patrick Williamson of the British National Federation of Demolition Contractors. They are in Ireland in connection with the promotion of our major festival to be held next year, The Gathering. I salute and thank them for their efforts and work in disseminating this information through the BBC and reaching all our people and others in Britain who I hope will all come and visit this country next year.
This is not the first time I have mentioned the brutal and savage murder of Patrick Finucane and, as Senator Bacik noted earlier, it is completely unsatisfactory that further information now is forthcoming in dribs and drabs. From a hitherto unseen chapter of the Stevens report, it now is known that one of the guns involved was stolen from the British Army and subsequently was returned to it, courtesy of the RUC. This points very clearly to the collusion that unfortunately was involved. While another report is forthcoming, I salute the Taoiseach as he has been completely consistent on this matter. Moreover, I look forward to his further meeting on this subject with the British Premier, David Cameron, which, please God, will happen shortly.
First, I take the opportunity to compliment Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on his contribution on "The Frontline" television programme last night, which I thought was very reasoned and compassionate. This was evident from the atmosphere in the audience and the decorum that existed. I also compliment Pat Kenny on the manner in which he handled it, because there were lessons to be learned from last night's programme. Members also have lessons to learn, which are that it does not matter what diverse views one may have in a debate or whether it takes place in a television studio, this Chamber or anywhere else but it should be possible to conduct any dialogue and debate without heckling and shouting. If one's opinion is genuinely held and strong enough, it should be sufficient simply to be part of whatever discussion is going on.
On another point, the current loyalist violence in the North serves as a reminder to us all of how fragile the peace process can be in certain circumstances. I acknowledge it is not representative of the views which are held throughout Northern Ireland but we have become a little complacent ourselves. A lot of time, goodwill and compromise was invested in the Good Friday Agreement and everyone has seen the fruits that have come therefrom. They have been historic and edifying in so many ways. However, I have formed the impression that there is a gap in the ongoing dialogue between our own part and that part of the country. The same applies when one turns a blind eye to glaring issues, such as the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane, because it always was understood that in time of conflict, anyone involved in the legal profession or anyone involved in the media generally were not regarded as targets in any sense of the word. Members have listened to the pleas of the family of Pat Finucane but have not responded sufficiently.
The day Britain did not agree to have a proper public investigation sent the wrong signal. We all believe there was collusion between the security forces and those who murdered Pat Finucane. The murder was condemned throughout the world. There is no doubt whatsoever now about murderous collusion between the security forces and the people who carried out the murder. If we do not strongly and formally, at the highest level, require what the Finucane family now request and deserve, namely, a proper public inquiry, we will always have the type of thing that erupts right in the middle of the peace process. I compliment Senator Paul Coghlan on his comments. I ask the Leader to bring the matter straight to the Taoiseach, who is an honest man and one who is committed on those issues. We cannot let it lie because it will fester and give us more trouble in the future.
A significant event happened 167 years ago that marked a watershed in the history of this country. Its effects have permanently changed the face of this island’s demographic, political and cultural landscape. Its impact and human cost at the time was colossal. Such was its effect that it not only left an indelible mark on the Irish psyche; it also led to 1 million people dying prematurely from starvation and disease and 1 million more emigrating. The event of which I speak is An Gorta Mór, the Famine. Now we are seeking to summon the Irish Diaspora from all around the globe to these shores to celebrate The Gathering in 2013, yet there has been no formal announcement of a date or venue for the national day of commemoration of the Famine. I submit that a decision must be made on the matter as soon as possible in order that those who have worked hard to secure a day for this event can organise festivities and link up with the estimated millions of people of Irish descent living throughout the world who would be interested in coming to the birthplace of their ancestors and as a consequence help give the economy a much needed shot in the arm. I would appreciate it if the Leader would pass on the message.
Ba mhaith liom tagairt don méid a bhí le rá ag an Seanadóir Quinn ar ball. Ceist an-tromchúiseach é cead a thabhairt do fracáil ins an tír seo. I echo the sentiments of Senator Quinn on fracking. It would be a cause of serious concern even if it is allowed in a limited way. It is something we should debate as a matter of urgency.
I also agree with the sentiments of a number of Senators on the Pat Finucane case. I concur that the Taoiseach must use every opportunity to raise the issue and ensure a full, public inquiry is set up.
On a number of occasions I have asked that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the North would be invited to speak in this Chamber. It would be timely for them to come to the Chamber to talk about what has been achieved through the peace process and the ongoing situation in the North. It would also be pertinent given the number of issues that have been raised concerning the North, ranging from Queen’s University, Belfast, the Pat Finucane inquiry, and the ongoing violence there on the raising of the flag over Belfast City Hall. We would all have a chance to ask them various questions on those issues.
I also note that at a meeting of the joint policing committee in County Galway yesterday, the chief superintendent told us that there has been a 44% increase in burglaries in rural County Galway. That is an alarming figure, but it is even more alarming coming after a budgetary announcement that 100 Garda stations will be closed in rural areas - ten of them in County Galway, which is the largest number in any county. I do not see how it all adds up that one would close Garda stations at a time when there is an increasing number of burglaries or that the Minister would contend that is a better way of policing. He was backed up by the local representative, Deputy Seán Kyne, who said he believed it would be a better model and would work better for rural areas. We should have a full, frank and open debate on the issue. I do not consider it a positive step. The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors has said it is a retrograde step. Ordinary gardaí have said they do not feel we should close Garda stations in rural areas. I would like to know where Fine Gael and Labour Party Senators stand on the issue because I have heard many people express worries and fears about the decline of rural areas.
The Garda station is an integral part of the rural fabric and Sinn Féin will oppose all station closures. I call on the Minister to come before the House for a full debate. He should set out the reasons he believes this is a better model of policing and his proposals to technically upgrade rural Garda stations to enable gardaí to do their job in the best way possible and reduce the alarming number of burglaries.
I join colleagues in condemning the violence in Belfast over the weekend, in particular, the attempted murder of a police officer and appalling attacks on offices belonging to the Alliance Party, which has made a major contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland. All right-minded people will condemn this recent violence. The business community in Belfast is worried that irreparable damage will be done to their businesses as the Christmas period approaches. It is incumbent on everyone to help reduce tensions.
I support the call for an early debate on the peace process to ascertain how the Seanad could contribute to the good work that has been done in Northern Ireland over the years. I support the call by Senator Ó Clochartaigh to invite the First and Deputy First Ministers to the Seanad. It would be good if Senators could hear at first hand the progress that has been made and discuss the current fragile situation alluded to by Senator Ó Murchú. All politicians, North and South, have a role to play in ensuring the progress made in recent years continues.
While reference has been made to many of the negative aspects of the budget, it also contained many positive features. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate early in the new year on these positive elements, notably in the area of job creation and initiatives for small and medium sized enterprises, tourism and the agrifood industry. The budget was never going to be easy given the requirement to make adjustments of €3.5 billion. That is the real injustice and reason for the current hardship. However, unless we stimulate the economy and encourage small businesses to increase employment, the economy will never make a full recovery. I ask the Leader to arrange a special session to discuss how industry, small business and tourism can prosper in light of the likely boost The Gathering provide for tourism in 2013.
I support Senator Leyden's comments on third level grants and the operation of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI. It is scandalous and outrageous that as Christmas approaches, only 20,000 of 66,000 student grants have been awarded. I am not sure if the moneys have even been paid. I have been contacted by students who are threatening to withdraw from college. It is outrageous that Student Universal Support Ireland, in correspondence with the Minister, has blamed students for the delay by pointing out that it is awaiting further documentation in the case of 25,424 of the 66,000 applications for student grants. Last month, when I contacted my local vocational education committee and the grant section of Roscommon County Council asking how many grants had been paid by that stage in 2011, I was informed that 95% of grants had been awarded by this time last year. How can the new system blame students for the failure to pay out 70% of grants given that more than 95% of awards had been paid out by this time last year? Student Universal Support Ireland is clearly not fit for purpose. At this late stage, some of the files it holds should be sent to the vocational education committees and county councils because a failure to do so will guarantee that some students will still not have received their grants by next June. I refer to those who will be fortunate enough to still be at college.
The alcohol strategy planned by the Government has been put off until the new year. This matter is not being handled urgently enough. Recent figures show that the estimated cost of alcohol to the economy is €3.7 billion. I understand that matters related to the budget are very important and need to be sorted out but I must emphasise how urgently this matter needs to dealt with. There are complicated matters in the alcohol strategy that are difficult for us to deal with, for example, sponsorship of certain festivals and sports events. We need to take a measured approach to this because we do not have the funds to enable us to refuse money from commercial enterprises for such festivals and events. It warrants a debate in this House but, more importantly, we need to get sight of the Government strategy on alcohol and our relationship with it.
It is a very important time of the year for the Garda presence on the roads. None of us would disagree with the argument that the Garda needs to be vigilant in respect of drink driving. It is important that gardaí take a relatively measured approach when it comes to the work they must do at this time of the year in respect of burglaries. I heard of a case recently where the gardaí were pitched on the road at 9 a.m. hoping to catch people on their way to work or somewhere else for speeding or drink driving. Various burglaries had been carried out in the same area the night before. It is very important for the gardaí to be vigilant with regard to burglaries, which are becoming more prevalent in the difficult times we are in.
The fact that €3.5 billion will be taken out of people's pockets is hard and sore. It is for this reason that I compliment Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, for saying that the Government will do everything it can not to pay the promissory note due in March.
He did not say that. He said it would not be paid.
It would not be paid. I do not want to see all the hard work of this budget undone.
We are trying to roll over another of your IOUs.
Senator Healy Eames to continue, without interruption.
Like many others, I have taken soundings over the weekend. Everybody, including carers, feels that it has been very harsh. I have written to the Minister for Social Protection to see if that can be undone. Farmers, particularly low-income farmers and dry stock farmers in Galway, have not been mentioned much. I have received text after text saying that budget changes will cost the sender €4,000 when he or she adds in the suckler cow cut, which is €40 per head. If one has 35 cows, that comes to €1,400. When one adds that to the cut in child benefit and the property tax, they add to up huge cuts. I am speaking to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, who has always been very fair and who does his best to tweak everything. There have been many serious cuts in income for farmers at which we need to look in addition to the cuts that have affected everyone else.
The nation is experiencing a considerable amount of psychological stress because the recession is continuing and the cuts are getting deeper. I know we have done this in terms of job creation and we need to do it again in terms of promoting good projects but I would like a debate on the psychological stress the recession is causing our people in order that we can identify solutions in Departments that need to be promoted.
Will the Leader consider that issue for early in the new year? What else can we do as legislators? We must do our best to alleviate the stress and help Ministers to devise solutions.
I speak today for two reasons. First, it was appalling to read reports over the weekend that the Revenue Commissioners are yet again using a big stick against people who find themselves in financial difficulty, this time threatening to remove mortgage interest relief from people who unfortunately find themselves in arrears with their mortgage payments. That is unacceptable, unnecessary and retrograde. It gives people who are down on their knees a further kick. The Minister for Finance should immediately instruct the Revenue Commissioners to issue a clarification statement on their exact approach and to adopt a fair and reasonable approach to people who are trying their best but who are at the end of their tether.
Overall, many elements of the budget, although they are painful, had to be included. Personally, however, I would have favoured an extra 3% in the universal social charge for people earning not only more than €100,000 but on earnings over €80,000. When the Minister for Finance is drafting the Finance Bill perhaps he would consider introducing a 3% increase in the universal social charge for earnings between €80,000 and €120,000 and a 5% increase for earnings over €120,000. It is appropriate that taxes such as the capital acquisitions tax and capital gains tax are being increased from 30% to 33%. I believe they should have been increased to 35%. If people are earning such wealth in this country, they should pay their fair share of taxes. What is the difference between 33% and 35% to somebody who is selling a house at a reasonable profit or somebody who is making a great deal of money from dividends? It is an extra 2% but it would help people at the lower end as it means it would be possible to reduce the effects on them. Although it might not be agreeable to all members of my party, I believe in taxing wealth. During a recession, in particular, when people are struggling, the wealthy should pay over and above their fair share. They should suffer the same pain. I have no hesitation or qualms about saying that here.
Senator Darragh O'Brien called for a debate on perinatal care. I will try to arrange it in the new year. With regard to the budget and the elements relating to social welfare, we will have ample opportunity to discuss them next week during the debate on the Social Welfare Bill.
Senators Bacik and Moran, among others, raised the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland, especially the attacks on members of the police force and the Alliance Party, which has been the voice of moderation in Northern Ireland for many years. Last week I conveyed our sympathy and support to the leader of the Alliance Party, as was requested by Members of the House. Unfortunately, there has been further violence over the weekend. As has been stated, peace is a very fragile rose and we should do everything possible to ensure that peace reigns, especially over the Christmas period and throughout next year. Everybody should do what they can to support the police force and voices of moderation in Northern Ireland at all times.
Senator van Turnhout asked for a debate on referenda, how they can be conducted and so forth. That is an interesting subject for debate which we will try to pencil in for the new year. The Senator also asked about the child and family support agency.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, has agreed to attend the House in late January or early February to discuss a number of the issues that the Senator has raised in recent months. I also noted the request by the Senator and others for a debate on forced labour in Ireland.
Senator Quinn referred to an Irish citizen jailed in Sri Lanka. I suggest that the Senator table an Adjournment matter on the issue in order that he might get the up-to-date position from the Department, which he could relay to the family.
Senator Quinn has also called for a further debate on shale gas and fracking. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, attended the House on the issue. In light of the UK proposals, however, this may be an opportune time for a further debate.
Senator Eamonn Coghlan rightly complimented Ms Fionnuala Britton and the Irish ladies' team on their excellent result at the weekend. It was a proud moment for their families, their coaches and the country. It gave us a lift that we all badly needed. Of the 2,300 applications for sports capital grants, only 600 received moneys. I will take the Senator's comments about the non-major sports organisations on board.
Senator White called for a further debate on budget issues and Archbishop Martin's comments yesterday. The archbishop also stated that jobs comprised a key matter. The creation of jobs is one of the main issues that the Government is trying to address. Many aspects of the budget were geared towards job creation and helping small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, to prosper. I hope that these efforts will continue into the new year and that we will see a result from the budget initiatives.
Senator Harte mentioned Liberty Insurance, a private company. I am sure that many other insurers will make themselves available to take up the slack for the small businesses in question. It is important that small businesses receive insurance.
Senator Norris referred to a meeting in the AV room today. We all need to inform ourselves, but if people on the other side of the argument decide to attend that meeting, it is a matter for themselves. Pressure should not be placed on any Member to attend meetings. Pressure is not being exerted. I have been inundated with requests to attend meetings on both sides of the argument, but I have replied that I will inform myself on the subject.
Senator Jim D'Arcy referred to the education cuts under Fianna Fáil and called for a debate on the gap analysis report on third level reform. I will try to arrange one.
Senator Cullinane raised the question of the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition. As I stated last week, we do not share Fianna Fáil's belief in temporary little arrangements. We will work to restore our economic sovereignty.
Senator Moran referred to the importance of fostering good relations with communities in Northern Ireland. I also noted her point on epilepsy drugs. The Minister for Health will attend the House a number of times this week to discuss two health Bills. Perhaps the Senator could raise her issues with him then.
Senators Leyden and Kelly mentioned applications for third level grants. As of close of business on 5 December, from 66,827 student grant applications, there were 32,500, or 49%, complete and awarded, provisionally awarded or refused. Some 25,000, or 38%, are awaiting documentation from students. Some 13,024 people have not provided any documentation to date to support applications. We are still on track to ensure all properly completed applications can be processed by the end of the year. Additional staff have been allocated to SUSI and have made a substantial difference. As I stated previously, this is the first year the scheme has been in operation and I hope the teething problems can be solved before next year's grant applications. I am sure all the properly completed grant applications will be expedited and people will have their grants by Christmas.
Senator Paul Coghlan spoke about the savage murder of Pat Finucane. I assure him and other Members who raised the issue that the Taoiseach is consistent on the matter and fully supportive of the family. I am sure he will make the case to the British Prime Minister in early course on the matter.
Senator Higgins commented on the commemoration of the Famine. I will bring the matter to the attention of the relevant Minister, Deputy Deenihan.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh asked about inviting the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister from the Northern Ireland Executive to the Oireachtas. I have been involved in that process and when we get agreement from both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, an invitation will issue. There is no question about that, although a certain protocol must be followed. That is the way business is done. I also note the Senator's points on the closure of Garda stations and perhaps we can have a debate on the policing plan in the new year, which was also requested by Senator Noone.
Senator Mullins outlined the positive aspects of the budget, particularly with regard to small and medium enterprises. He called for a further debate on the issue in the new year.
Senator Noone raised the issue of below-cost selling of alcohol and the country's relationship with alcohol. I am trying to arrange a debate in the new year on the issue.
Senator Healy Eames mentioned the promissory notes. The Government is totally focused on avoiding the next payment of €3.1 billion, on which I am sure we will have news in early course. I note the Senator's points on the farming sector in her area. The issue should and will be brought to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Coveney.
Senator Conway spoke about the Revenue Commissioners, stating that mortgage interest relief cannot be given to people who are not paying their mortgage. It has been clarified that relief will and should be given on a pro rata basis to people paying part of their mortgage. With regard to the taxing of wealth, over €500 million will be applied in this budget as wealth taxes, including capital gains tax, capital acquisitions tax and deposit interest retention tax.