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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 25 Sep 2013

Vol. 226 No. 4

Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, address to Seanad Éireann by Mr. David Begg, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business in accordance with the arrangements set out in the motion agreed by the House on 18 September; No. 2, Protected Disclosures Bill 2013 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 4.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed six minutes in each case; No. 3, statements on Pathways to Work, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes in each case, and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 6.50 p.m.; and No. 46, motion 9, Private Members' business, to be taken at 7 p.m. and to conclude not later than 9 p.m, with a Government amendment to the motion to be circulated this morning.

I look forward to seeing the Government amendment to our Private Members' motion regarding cuts in the provision of services for people with severe disabilities. It will be interesting to see how the Government can even attempt to stand over its disgraceful record in this area in the past two years. Will the Leader indicate which Minister will respond to the motion? I hope it is the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly.

The Minister was in the House yesterday.

Yes, but it is very important that he should be here this evening to deal with this particular motion.

It is an important debate and no Member wants to see a reduction in services to people with severe disabilities but the Government has made these choices. The cuts were first raised in this House, specifically the cuts to St. Michael's House. In advance of the debate I advise colleagues that, since the cuts were introduced by the Government, some four respite care beds have been closed. They had been used for children with severe disabilities. In a number of houses, medical attention to adults with severe mental and physical disabilities is not available between the hours of 10.30 and 2.30. Major changes have taken place since the Government cut the funding of €1 million to St. Michael's House. I look forward to the debate and I will be interested to see which Minister will be in the Chamber.

This House has played a significant role in highlighting the issue for thousands of home owners throughout the country, predominately those on the east coast, which is the worst affected area. The first and only item of published legislation debated in either House of the Oireachtas is the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) (Home Remediation-Pyrite) Bill 2012. It remains on the Order Paper. We have done a job on this and some progress has been made but many home owners are concerned at the delay in publishing the enabling legislation to establish the pyrite resolution board and, most important, to allow the board to take applications from affected home owners. I ask the Leader to inquire of the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, when legislation will come before the Houses to enable the establishment of the pyrite resolution board in order that affected home owners can make applications to the board for remediation. My colleague, Deputy Barry Cowen, is the Fianna Fáil environment spokesperson in the Dáil and has tabled a written parliamentary question that should be answered tomorrow. The Seanad has led on the issue and I would be grateful if the Leader can get an answer for me.

I welcome the announcement today that the early years sector will be greatly strengthened. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, announced that she will strengthen the registration, regulation and enforcement powers relating to regulation of preschool services. We had a good deal of debate earlier this year on the issue, particularly after the shocking "Prime Time" programme about standards of care in preschool services. The announcement that there will be a statutory basis for the registration of preschool services and a new range of enforcement powers for inspectors is welcome. Draft legislation will be brought to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children next week.

In that context, I ask the Leader to debate the provision of school-age or after-school child care. This will be covered in new legislation proposed by the Minister but requires different consideration. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, had previously worked with the Minister to ensure the rolling out of places for after-school provision in school premises. There has been a disappointing take-up by primary schools. I ask the Leader for a debate on provision of child care for children in school, which is a major issue for working parents. It requires different considerations and measures, and the provision of places on school premises seems to be an appropriate way of moving on it.

I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, of a major reform of the Irish Statute Book and a programme of repealing obsolete regulations and laws. It is very welcome. The Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality will debate the fourth programme of law reform with the Law Reform Commission. I hope we have the opportunity to debate a number of matters on its agenda, including making legislation more accessible. Part of the programme of making legislation more accessible and making laws easier to access for people generally is ensuring the legislation is kept up to date and that we do not have large amounts of obsolete and archaic laws on our Statute Book. I hope we can debate at some point the issue of access to law.

I am pleased to inform the House that the literary and debating society in NUI Galway last night voted that the House should be retained. Senator Naughten and I were the Members of the House who spoke. The university has a superb tradition of oratory, not least the fact that President Michael D Higgins was the auditor in 1965, then came to this House and went on to the Dáil and Áras an Uachtaráin. Based on what we heard last night, many people can follow in his footsteps.

One of the points in which the audience and students were most interested was the reform carried out by the Seanad, with its 42 new Members. I ask the Leader if we can put the innovations on the website of Seanad Éireann. I am sure the Leader has a longer list than I do, including the invitation to the European Commissioner, the invitation to the UN Deputy Commissioner, the Irish MEPs showing the best level of co-ordination between the European Parliament and this House, the human rights appearances of former Senators Manning and Robinson, the appearance by the Orange Order, which was a real hit with the students, the Nobel Prize winner Christopher Pissarides, and the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. I am sure the Leader has more than just these seven because he has been at the forefront of it. Putting this information on the website will be useful in the debate people have in the coming ten days.

Friday, 4 October is not just the scheduled date for the referendum but the scheduled day of the meeting of the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association meeting. It is entirely inappropriate that we invite people from Northern Ireland to this House and extend the hand of friendship on the same day as we conduct a referendum to deprive people in Northern Ireland of votes for this House in the two university constituencies. The Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mr. William Hay, has written to ask that the meeting does not take place on that inappropriate day. It seems ham-fisted by the Government to combine the two events. I ask the Leader to support the speaker. It would be entirely wrong to have the referendum and the meeting of the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association on the same day. The two events are contradictory in spirit.

It is important to give recognition to the three students from Kinsale, Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow, who won the BT Young Scientist competition in Ireland and went on to win the European Young Scientist Finals. It is important to give recognition to the students and teachers for their commitment in preparing for the young scientist competition in Ireland and at European level. It is interesting that Kinsale community college has won the young scientist award three times in the past seven years. There is a major input by teachers and the school in preparing students for the competition. It is important to give recognition to students and also teachers and schools throughout the country who help students in preparing for that important competition and for preparing people for their future careers. It is a great to have it on a CV.

I refer to the report on absenteeism in the Civil Service. There has been a 13.5% increase in absenteeism or sick leave and we should have a debate on it. This is not a criticism of people who are on sick leave. The debate should be about whether the structures in some of our Departments and workplaces are not adequately dealing with the issues that arise. The total cost of sick leave, according to the report, is in excess of €449 million. This is a huge sum of money and we need to review constantly how people's workplaces and their work is organised. It is not just a matter of looking at the time people are away from work.

I am sure the Leader saw in the media that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, flippantly announced at the National Ploughing Championships that there will be no replacement for the rural environmental protection scheme, REPS. Some 13,000 farmers will exit the scheme at the beginning of next year. Some 40% of them are from the north west and west of the country. The Minister acknowledged that, in many instances, the lack of support constitutes up to 50% of the income of small farm families. I ask the Leader to ask the Taoiseach to intervene personally in this issue.

As the Leader and Members know, the Government was given a very large mandate to govern this country equally but the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, yesterday that there will be no scheme for these people, these 13,000 families around the country, is tantamount, in my view, to agricultural genocide for the small farming families of Ireland who depend on some €6,000 or less in income per year, which constitutes in many instances 50% of their income. More than 5,000 of those families are in the west of Ireland where smaller holdings, longer winters and fewer agricultural land use options are the norm. These are families that helped to build this country by harvesting the bounty of the land. This Government has shown nothing other than absolute contempt and disregard for them. I call on people like Senator Comiskey and those with a background in agriculture in the Fine Gael and Labour parties, to intervene. It demands the Taoiseach's personal intervention because the Government cannot just cast aside these 13,000 families. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, said flippantly yesterday that a new scheme will be developed in 2015. What are those 13,000 families to do in the meantime? Are they to starve? Surely common sense must prevail. The Leader is from Waterford and he will be able to relate to some of these issues. I ask him to see if the Taoiseach's common sense can be brought to bear so that something can be done.

I want to raise the issue of the withdrawal by the previous Government of child benefit to secondary school students on reaching the age of 18 years. This commenced on a phased basis in 2009 and the benefit was withdrawn completely by 2010. The removal of child benefit to students who are still in secondary school and are over 18 years, is unjust. The Minister at the time, Mary Hanafin, stated that the effect would be minimal. However, the opposite is the case. Transition year students stay in school an extra year. Over 30,000 students completed transition year in the school year 2010 to 2011. Practically all of these students were then over 18 years on leaving school but their parents were refused child benefit from the day the students reached 18 years. This situation is proving most difficult for families from disadvantaged backgrounds and many students are leaving school before completing leaving certificate as a result.

It is recorded that this country has eight billionaires - it is probably more now - and more than 20 millionaires. During discussions on this matter recently, one well-known business person suggested that the money could be given back by those who did not need it; just three families have returned child benefit to the State. Nothing will happen unless this money is withdrawn from those who can afford not to receive this money and it is provided to those who need it. I call on the Government to address this issue in the forthcoming budget and allow child benefit to be paid to secondary school students until they complete their leaving certificate.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation released figures yesterday which show that one quarter of all primary school students in Waterford - the Leader's county - are in so-called super size classrooms. The union is right to raise this issue. It is organising public meetings across all cities and counties in the State, including in Waterford. The union points to the problems for pupils created by super size classes. It has been proven that larger class sizes have an impact on the education of children and on educational outcomes, not only for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and children who are challenged but also for some of the better students. The Government needs to consider this issue in the budget. We are not hearing good news from the Minister for Education and Skills who is talking about increasing class sizes from 28 to 30. There needs to be a debate in advance of the budget. We should listen to the parents, students and teachers at those public meetings and take those concerns directly to the Minister by way of organising a debate in the House during which we can challenge him on spending in the education sector and in the primary level sector. There is no doubt that if the Minister goes ahead to increase class sizes again, it will have an impact on the education of children and will have a negative impact on many teachers who are already under pressure. I appeal to the Leader to arrange a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills as quickly as possible so that we can discuss all these issues in advance of the budget.

I join with Senator Burke in congratulating the three young scientists, young women from Cork. I congratulate their teachers. The prize was presented by Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn and she commented that women were excelling in science. She encouraged women to consider careers in science and technology. Congratulations are due to the teachers and Ireland for winning the competition three years in a row. We listen to bad news stories day after day in this Chamber but when a country as small as ours is up against 37 European countries and comes first three years in a row this is no mean achievement. I congratulate the winners and also the science teachers and all teachers in this country who are doing their job for the country.

Like Senator Bacik I ask for a debate on child care. I compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on her initiative in ensuring that the registration of preschool and after-school child care is put on a statutory footing. It is important to debate this important issue of child care. I refer to an article by a man who is very well versed in the subject, Fergus Finlay. He wrote about all the things he would do for education in Ireland. He said if he were only allowed to do one thing it would be to ensure that preschool places were available to all children. I worked in that area. The agess from birth to three years and from three to six years are very important in child formation. The seeds for growing the country are set at these ages. I congratulate the Minister on legislating for the first time for the regulation of child care qualifications. I ask for a debate on child care as soon as possible on the subject of preschool care, after-school care and home child care. The range of child care is very important for our country. We hear about jobs but if we do not get the basics right we will not get anything right.

On a final point of good news, I congratulate the Garda Síochána on the national text alert service in conjunction with Muintir na Tíre and the community service which was launched yesterday.

I also support the call for a debate on child care and welcome the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald's statements on regulation. My concern is that 70% of child care is in the informal sector which is entirely unregulated. I would like any debate on child care to cover the informal child care sector. There has been much focus on crèches and the formalised sector. I am concerned that we are creating a two-tier child care system.

I ask the Leader about progress made on having a pre-budget debate in the House, given that the budget is imminent and there is not much time before 15 October. One of the issues I would particularly like to see addressed is the significant increase in the numbers of people presenting as homeless. The number of homeless people in the eastern region has more than doubled in the past year alone and a significant number of those are families. A different type of person is presenting as homeless. The lack of affordable housing is a cause of homelessness in many cases. I ask if the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, would come to the House to explain her plans for the rent supplement budget. I am more than aware that cuts to that budget over the past number of years have proved incredibly damaging to very vulnerable families and have contributed to the increase in the number of those presenting as homeless.

I welcome the announcement this morning by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade that €200,000 is being provided for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. That follows from the agreement brokered by the US and Russia on how to deal with the stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons. Personally, I would like to see all weapons decommissioned in Syria but at least this is a start, and I am glad Ireland is contributing in making this possible. Ireland has already provided €11 million in humanitarian aid to Syria.

Hardly a day goes by in this House without us hearing very strong criticism of banks and financial institutions in general, so it is encouraging to see the very comprehensive Amárach Research findings into credit unions which come up with very positive results. Credit unions remain popular and trusted, with convenience and community ethos being the key drivers of this view. Key highlights of the research indicate that half of the adult population of Ireland are active credit union members, with almost 80% of adults believing that credit unions are becoming more relevant. Almost all people believe that service levels have improved. Credit unions have over three times the number of people recommending them compared with other financial institutions. They are seen as being stronger and are a preferred choice for personal and car loans. Of non-members surveyed, 32% indicated that this year they are quite likely to join the credit union.

I ask the Leader to organise a debate in the House on the future of credit unions, as there is a significant appetite to increase the type of services provided by these unions. It would be appropriate to have a discussion with the Minister about the stability of the credit union movement and examine how the movement could be expanded in future to provide more service for the community and help drive economic recovery, particularly in rural parts of the country.

I bring to the attention of the House a NAMA auction due to take place tomorrow at the Clarion Hotel in Lucan, County Dublin. It concerns 274 acres of land adjoining St. Edmundsbury near Lucan in County Dublin. The Liffey Valley Park Alliance believes this land should form part of the green belt stretching from Islandbridge to Straffan in County Kildare. This could be a social dividend from NAMA's activities. I support the alliance and call for the Government to secure this land at St. Edmundsbury to be used as the Liffey Valley natural park. These lands are of great importance in terms of heritage and there is a great eco-tourism opportunity, providing a major amenity not just for Dublin but for the country as a whole. It would be a place to welcome not just domestic tourists but visitors from overseas.

Mechanisms could be used to secure the land, and the National Lottery Bill amendments allow for environmental interests to be included in the list of causes that the national lottery can support. I am aware that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has been a prominent advocate for the protection of the site and was successful in getting restrictive land zoning for the Liffey Valley area included in the 2010 county development plan. If the State cannot secure these lands because of the possibility of legislative amendments being required, I ask that tomorrow's sale be called off to allow time for the matter to be dealt with.

The land comprises 274 acres along the River Liffey Valley and the area is protected by a special amenity area order. I call on the Leader to ask the Ministers for Finance and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to act now and protect this valuable undeveloped land holding for the benefit not just of the people of Dublin but the people of Ireland.

I support Senator Hayden's comments on the homelessness issue, which could be usefully debated in this House. A new report indicates the number of people on the streets has increased by 88% since last year, which is alarming. One night in September, 85 people were found sleeping rough, which is incredible. There is no question that there is an upsetting and urgent need for accommodation and assistance for those with nowhere to go, and for whom living has become harsh and dangerous. Something must be done in this regard. The Simon Community has warned that figures could be much higher if we take into account the so-called hidden homeless, who stay in hospitals, Internet cafés and squats. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the matter, as we must put some effort into finding a solution.

I have stood mainly to raise the issue of defibrillators, which was raised by Senator Keane last week. I have been examining the matter, and city councils should consider working with Eircom, perhaps under the guidance of the Minister for Health, to retrofit existing telephone boxes with defibrillator machines in towns and villages around the country instead of simply destroying the boxes. This would be a sensible move in two ways. It would allow us to find a useful purpose for the existing boxes and the location of those boxes, which would otherwise revert to pavement when they are demolished in the coming years. It would also allow the public to know exactly where the nearest defibrillator is. People in towns and villages know where the telephone boxes are and they are always easily recognisable. It would be a very good way to make a defibrillator a very obvious part of the landscape in towns and villages. The process has been used in some towns and villages in the UK, and to help prevent vandalism, anybody with a potential heart problem who calls 999 from a village would be given an access code to a vandal-proof steel box. We could follow the example of the UK. Although I do not know if we necessarily need a debate, I hope the Leader might bring the issue to the attention of the Minister for Health, as I will do.

I will follow up on Senator Noone's comments on defibrillators, and she has described a perfect example of what can take place. We have passed First and Second Stages of the appropriate legislation in this House and I ask the Leader to urge the Minister to see if there is any reason we cannot move on with that Bill. There are many other issues that have been mentioned by Senators Keane and Noone, and defibrillators in other parts of the world - particularly in France - are placed outside every town hall and building. The difficulty here is that although we have defibrillators and even if the Bill goes ahead, many office buildings close for the weekend. If somebody needs a defibrillator on a Saturday, Sunday or a bank holiday Monday, there may be a case where a defibrillator is in a building but cannot be obtained. Using telephone boxes is a perfect example of what could be done, and if we use our imagination, we can find other innovations as well. We can save lives and it would be a shame to lose that opportunity. I urge the Leader to encourage the Minister to accept the Bill that has been moved, and we could see improvements on Committee Stage. The suggestion of using old telephone boxes is just one that could come out at that time.

This morning the Federation of Irish Sport organised an extremely interesting briefing on the benefits of sport to society, job creation, leisure and health, etc. During the course of the briefing it emerged that Croke Park has just been landed with a rates bill in the region of €1.5 million more than would have been paid last year. We all know Croke Park and the indelible position it has in Irish society. We certainly know the benefit it brings to the business community of north County Dublin and the entire city. Not alone has Croke Park been used successfully for matches like the Mayo and Dublin match last week and next Saturday's hurling final replay, but it is used for conferences all year. It makes a phenomenal contribution to the finances of north County Dublin and it plays a key role in sustaining businesses. If it did not exist, I would like to see how the hospitality industry on the north side of Dublin would survive.

I would like the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to make a statement on how it is possible for a sporting organisation to be landed with that type of an increase in a rates bill. The problem is that this will be repeated not just with GAA grounds but sports grounds for soccer, rugby, etc. throughout the country.

It just does not make sense to be funding sports, on the one hand, while taking money back, on the other. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul and bureaucracy gone absolutely crazy. We have a responsibility to deal with this issue urgently.

Senator Darragh O'Brien asked what Minister would be coming in to debate the issue of disabilities this evening. As he is aware, the Minister of State responsible, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, is in hospital. Therefore, the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, will be attending to take the debate.

I did not know that.

With regard to pyrite, I will find out the position on the Pyrite Resolution Board and the enabling legislation and revert to the Senator.

Senators Ivana Bacik, Cáit Keane and Aideen Hayden referred to developments in preschool services announced by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. They called for a debate on preschool services and after-school child care.

Senator Ivana Bacik referred to the law reform report which will be debated by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. When it has completed its deliberations, I am sure we will be able to arrange a debate on it in the House.

I believe there was a very exciting debate on the future of the Seanad in Galway last evening. Senator Sean D. Barrett played a very important role. I will contact the broadcasting unit or the IT unit to determine whether we can include on the Seanad website the matters the Senator has mentioned, namely, the positive developments in the Seanad in recent years.

With regard to the meeting of the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association, I understand the date may be changed, if it has not been changed already.

Senator Colm Burke and other Senators referred to the success of students from Kinsale community school in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists. We should all congratulate them and their teachers on the wonderful success of their school which seems to be exceptional in the area of science.

Senator Colm Burke called for a debate on the levels of absenteeism in the public service. We may be able to arrange such a debate at a later stage.

Senator Marc MacSharry referred to difficulties in agriculture. I hope to have the Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, in the House within the coming weeks. We can then debate the issues the Senator raised this morning.

Senator Denis Landy referred to the removal of child benefit for children over 18 years who are still in school. I note his points in that regard and also his point that child benefit should be paid to those who need it. Everyone would agree with him.

Senator David Cullinane referred to the pupil-teacher ratio and class sizes. I am sure the INTO has made significant submissions to the Minister on the matter and that the Minister will take them into consideration when framing the Estimates for his Department.

Senator Cáit Keane, in addition to raising issues associated with child care, complimented the Garda and the text alert scheme involving Muintir na Tíre, which is to be welcomed.

Senators Aideen Hayden and Catherine Noone mentioned the lack of affordable houses and homelessness. I am sure these matters were addressed yesterday when debating the residential tenancies legislation. The homelessness policy statement, published in 2013, outlines the Government's aim of ending long-term homelessness by the end of 2016. The statement emphasises a housing-led approach involving accessing permanent housing as the primary response to all forms of homelessness. It is now the focus of Government policy on homelessness. In 2012 in the Dublin region alone, 879 people moved from homelessness to independent living. We should all welcome this. The economic crisis has placed significant pressure on many individuals and families and the Government has supported work in this regard with a budget of approximately €45 million in 2013. This funding helped to maintain services across the country and is matched by a local authority contribution of at least another 10%. However, the bulk of the funding is provided by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and directed towards funding the services of voluntary providers such as Focus Ireland, Simon Communities and Crosscare and daytime drop-in centres.

Senator Michael Mullins has made the point that Ireland has contributed again to the elimination of chemical weapons and given some funding in this regard in the case of Syria. He also referred to the humanitarian aid the Government has given in this area. He further called for a debate on the value and future of credit unions. We will try to arrange such a debate.

Senator Eamonn Coghlan referred to the sale of some 274 acres by NAMA tomorrow. I will certainly raise the point with both Ministers, but I am sure the Senator will give details to them himself.

Senators Catherine Noone and Feargal Quinn mentioned defibrillators and their location. Senator Feargal Quinn referred to the Bill on this matter, Second Stage of which has been passed in this House. I will find out the status of the Bill. A very important point was raised by both Senators.

Senator Martin Conway raised the matter of a briefing by the Sports Federation of Ireland on the revaluation of properties and rates, and the question of Croke Park and the significant increase in rates that will be incurred as a result of the revaluation of properties. This can and will affect sports bodies throughout the country, but it will not affect sports bodies alone. The revaluation process has caused significant problems in Dublin and Waterford, in particular. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, should halt the increases pertaining to the valuations until the valuation legislation is in the House. We are assured it will be brought here next month.

Senator John Crown was in Galway last night and spoke well. It is hard to overlook the presence of the Senator at a meeting, but I am afraid I did so. The record should show he was present.

Order of Business agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.45 a.m.