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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 12 Feb 2014

Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, Health Identifiers Bill 2013 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 12.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 1.45 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 2, statements on recent flooding, to be taken at 2 p.m. and conclude not later than 4 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply to the debate not later than 3.50 p.m. Private Members' business will be No. 43, motion No. 8, to be taken at 4 p.m. and conclude not later than 6 p.m. Immediately following the Order of Business we will have tributes to former Senator Tom Fitzgerald.

Which Minister will come to the House to take statements on recent flooding? We had a debate on the matter two weeks ago-----

It will be the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes.

Excellent, the Minister of State with responsibility for the issue.

In recent weeks I have asked the Leader to arrange a debate on what the Government calls the local property tax which, as we all know, is not a local property tax because any local authority which has worked out its budget for this year knows that zero euro of the money collected in each area will go to the local authorities. I gave the example of Fingal County Council, in which area €40 million will be collected from citizens but zero euro will go to the council. Will the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, come to the House in due course to explain why this is the case and the tax was sold as a local property tax when it is not?

There has been criticism, although not of the Leader, of the business we have conducted in the House since the start of the year in terms of legislation. There has also been a lack of legislation in the Dáil. It seems the wheels of government have ground to an absolute standstill. How many items of legislation has the Government introduced in either House or published since we returned in early January? I hope there will not be a glut of legislation at the end of the session coming up to Easter. The Leader was very helpful in this regard towards the end of the last session. It may be useful for a message to go from the Seanad to the Dáil and the Chief Whip's office to examine what has been done so far this year, which is precious little. Only one item of legislation has been introduced in either House since January. Will the Leader confirm that this is the case? If it is, we are obviously not ordering or scheduling business correctly in either House.

The Irish Independent carries a report this morning on Irish Water. Yesterday the Leader responded to the call made by Senator Fidelma Healy Eames for a debate on Irish Water, on which we had a very decent debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, although it was only one hour long and each Senator only had five minutes to speak. I asked a number of questions. but the question every citizen is asking is how much he or she will pay. I have learned from the report in the Irish Independent today that the Government will receive a consultation paper in April which will outline the proposed structure of the tariffs and the charges per household and apartment and the details of the proposed charges. The paper will be with the Government in April, but, according to the report in the newspaper, it does not intend to let the people know what the proposed charges will be until June. Is this true? I have a conspiratorial mind and it occurs to me that the local and European elections will take place on 23 May. Is this why the Government will receive a report and know the proposed charges in April but will not let the punters know until June?

If the Government will have the report in April, it should bring it to both Houses in April, after the Cabinet has seen it, and allow us discuss it, transparency in the process, the general public to budget for the rest of the year and have an idea how much water will cost. I understand the Leader cannot tell me today how much it will cost-----

The Senator is correct.

-----but I ask for a commitment from the Government that when the report is given to the Cabinet in April, that immediately after the Cabinet meeting it will be published for the general public and debated in the Seanad and the Dáil. I am certain it is not the case that the new reforming Government will hold onto the information until after the local and European elections. I am sure that cannot be true.

I thank the Leader for responding yesterday to my call and that of many colleagues for a debate on the bugging allegations in the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. A little more information has been forthcoming since we spoke yesterday on the Order of Business, but it is important that we wait to see what is stated today before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions by members of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. We all hope clarity will be cast on matters. It is clear that there was no obligation on GSOC to make a report of the matter to the Minister, as has been clearly established by anyone who has read section 80(5) of the Garda Síochána Act. This matter is of much less importance than the key question of whether bugging was carried out and, if so, by whom. The Minister in his statement yesterday referred in some detail to the three identified issues or anomalies, at least one of which appears to have been ruled out but, according to one member of the ombudsman commission, another was of much more significance and much less likely not to have been as a result of tampering or bugging. I note that some security experts have pointed out that some of the allegations relate to activities which could have been carried out by individuals not connected with any State security apparatus. We all know about the very extensive bugging carried out by journalists in Britain from the News of the World. We need more information on the nature of the bugging. I would like to see published the report of the private security firm given to GSOC and which has now been furnished to the Minister. I know that GSOC is concerned about some of the items included in it, but the report could be redacted - we have seen this done before - to ensure it would not disclose any matter which might compromise the security of GSOC. It is a matter of great public interest to learn exactly what the anomalies were. It would help in trying to investigate who carried out the bugging, if it was carried out. It is important to have more detail and I know we will have more this afternoon. I hope we will have a debate on the matter very soon.

I commend the courage of Sharon McCarthy who spoke on "Prime Time" last night about her experience as the mother of a baby who had died in hospital in Portlaoise. The deaths of a number of babies in the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise were exposed on "Prime Time" in recent weeks. There are still questions to be answered about why reports were not acted on and recommendations not followed up to ensure no further deaths occurred. It is welcome that HIQA will investigate and I hope we will have a debate on the matter when there are clear findings.

I welcome the move forward on the expansion of the university franchise for the six university Seanad seats. The matter was before the Cabinet yesterday and the heads of the Bill will be published shortly. I very much hope - I know my colleagues share this hope - we will see retention of the principle that graduates resident outside the jurisdiction who are Irish citizens are allowed to vote. It is a hugely important principle and it would be a retrograde step if it were to be changed, particularly as the Constitutional Convention has recently recommended expansion of the franchise for citizens resident outside jurisdiction to vote in presidential elections. We will debate the issue further later, but I welcome the announcement made by the Cabinet yesterday.

I note that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has said there is no justification for an aviation strike at present. This would do serious damage to the country as Cork, Shannon and Dublin airports would be affected. We are trying to revive tourism and business in the country and we are more dependent on air transport than any other member state of the European Union. The basis for the strike is a €780 million deficit in the pension funds of the airports and Aer Lingus. The way out of this is that the trustees should submit a new funding proposal to the pensions regulator.

The pensions regulator should report to the Oireachtas on how these deficits have arisen, such as added years, early retirement schemes which are not properly funded and excessive administration fees, which has been an issue in the United Kingdom lately. There are also poor investment policies, where the investment managers are heavily rewarded but invest badly. Inexplicably, there has been a failure to anticipate increased life expectancy. It has been no secret for well over 100 years that life expectancy is increasing. The pensions regulator should report to Parliament and the trustees should submit a new funding proposal, but we should not damage the economy - I support the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, in that regard - by having an aviation strike at this vital stage in our economic recovery.

I congratulate the woman who is ranked number one in the world in the Union Cycliste Internationale, UCI, track cycling championships. We rarely hear anything about women in sport. Men always take the limelight. Caroline Ryan is ranked number 1 in the world track championships and I wish her the best of luck in her pursuits. She was an accomplished oarswoman with the Garda rowing club and went on to represent Ireland in that sport in 2005 to 2007. Five years ago she changed to cycling. Top ranking in the UCI world track championship is no mean accomplishment. Hopefully, she will get all the help she requires from the Irish Sports Council and, indeed, every other council here.

We regularly talk in the Chamber about youngsters drinking. I am a great fan and supporter of the GAA. It is in every community and does great work. However, there are children who do not participate in team sports. Cycling, mountain biking, mountaineering and so forth are also good for them. We should have a debate, with representatives of Coillte present, about ensuring that we are using our mountains for mountain biking and to facilitate other sports. There are groups of cyclists who are willing and able to draw up tracks for their sport. Indeed, they have done it without help from anybody. In England, the associations of cyclists have come together and volunteered to do this. Cyclists in Ireland have done it as well without much help. The idea is to get children interested and assist them in participating in sports that are not discussed as much as football, rugby and so forth-----

Senator Keane without interruption.

There should be a general debate. Coillte, in particular, should ensure that the mountains, particularly in the Dublin area, and the facilities there are used to the full. I was up the Dublin mountains last Sunday evening and they are well used by walkers, but small areas could be cordoned off for other individual pursuits.

Yesterday, we received the news that Honeywell Process Solutions in Waterford is to close, with the loss of 27 jobs. That is sad for the 27 workers and their families who will be devastated by this news. It is also devastating for Waterford city to experience more job losses. The unemployment crisis in Waterford city and county at present is unsustainable and has reached a dangerous level. It simply should not be tolerated. I fully accept that we cannot blame the Government every time there is an announcement of job losses in a company, but we can blame the Government for failing to act on the very high levels of unemployment in Waterford city and county.

Last year, on behalf of the jobs committee, I published the South East Economic Development Strategy, which set out a vision for the south east. It called for action on all fronts and a multi-agency response, but that has not happened. The main priorities in that document have not been implemented. That is a real worry for people in the south east. We are still waiting for the establishment of the university. There is still no joined-up regional plan, regional IDA office, regional director or regional strategy to create and sustain jobs in Waterford city. We still have a situation where companies that wish to locate in Galway receive far more attractive regional grant aid than is available in Waterford city. There is no level playing field. The Leader will share some of my concerns.

Action by both the Government and its agencies is required across a range of areas. There is great concern in Waterford city about the very high level of unemployment and I call on the Leader to ensure that every effort is made to create and sustain jobs in the area. Promises were made to create a level playing field for the people and businesses of Waterford city and county and across the south-east region. They should be delivered and implemented as quickly as possible, before it is too late.

I wish to raise the issue of closed circuit television, CCTV, cameras in rural towns. In 2004, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform provided funding for 21 systems across the country. That number was increased nationally to 49 and included cities. A new system was then introduced whereby communities could apply for funding. A sum of €4 million was made available to 45 communities. In addition, RAPID - revitalising areas through planning, investment and development - areas throughout the country were able to apply for a maximum of €100,000 in funding.

The system has been very successful in the towns where CCTV has been installed. It was installed in my home town of Carrick-on-Suir in 2007 and the town experienced a massive decrease in street violence and vandalism. However, those who insist on perpetrating damage to people's property, carrying out violent acts and attacking elderly people now know where CCTV is not available, so it is time that towns in rural Ireland are provided with extra funding to install extra cameras to prevent such occurrences. I ask the Leader to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality so further funding will be provided to upgrade, enhance and improve the existing CCTV systems in rural areas, particularly in Carrick-on-Suir.

Following what Senator Bacik said regarding the so-called bugging scandal, I am none the wiser after the various statements in the last couple of days. I still have concerns. Were these people bugged or not? According to the spokesman, Mr. Kieran FitzGerald, last night, the chances of these anomalies being benign were remote to zero. That clearly indicates there is an issue. There is also the issue that it appears this sweep was not routine. The GSOC does not routinely check its offices or routinely have such security checks. There was a series of events or incidents which influenced and determined the GSOC to seek out an independent security firm, Verrimus, from the UK to check this out.

There was none.

I am sure Senator Coghlan will regale us with his wisdom in due course.

I will do my best.

There are questions to be answered. To correct something that was said yesterday, Senator Jim D'Arcy must have misunderstood me when he implied that I was trying to implicate the Garda in some way - far from it. I am sure the Garda had nothing to do with it and I wish to have the Garda completely vindicated in this regard. However, clearly there is something here and we must find out about it. Questions must be answered and I do not believe the Minister is treating it with the level of seriousness it requires.

Second, I agree with Senator Darragh O'Brien regarding a debate on Irish Water.

I am very concerned about today's headlines, as Mr. Tierney has indicated that the repair of the network could cost up to €10 billion. That is hardly surprising with the kind of costings and overheads he seems to think are reasonable to create in a bonus-led culture. I am concerned that somebody flippantly presiding over these salaries and who gets all his buddies from the local authorities to come in, although they already have pensions from the State, is now saying this will cost €10 billion. Before we set up Irish Water, the correct action would have been for each local authority to do an audit of what the costs would be in certain locations. This could have been done with local contractors. Instead, a major multinational will be engaged to fix the network at a cost of €10 billion or €15 billion, instead of creating employment in national or indigenous companies.

I know we will have a debate later on flooding and I thank the Leader for organising this very quickly after the last debate. If possible, will the Leader convey to the Minister of State ahead of his presence in the Seanad this afternoon that we would like a breakdown of the €70 million that will be allocated county by county? There is some uncertainty about that. There has been a breakdown that details funding for roads and other areas but we need details of county funding.

To be honest, €70 million is not enough. I am most disappointed that we have been told that the country will not qualify under the European solidarity fund. The notion of European solidarity is that others would be with us in a time of crisis but, unfortunately, that is not to be. The €70 million will only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is required. Clare has seen the most structural damage of any county and it is estimated by Clare County Council to require €34 million for repairs. The €70 million is a national fund, meaning Clare will only get a small fraction of that amount. There will be important questions to be answered this afternoon, and I sincerely hope the Minister of State will have much specific detail to give the Seanad when he comes here.

I have taken up the Leader's suggestion from yesterday and I have written to both the chairman of the public services oversight committee and the broadcasting committee asking them to examine the completely unjustified and profligate payment of €85,000 to people who were not libelled and against whom RTE should have made a case for justification. I am very much prepared to supply further information to the committees in that regard. I will say no more about the issue at this stage but it is extraordinarily important for this piece of lunacy to be put back in its box.

Later this evening the Independent Members' time will see a debate about reform of the Seanad and so on. It strikes me that although people have raised the issue of us not meeting on Thursdays and so on, Senator O'Brien mentioned the number of Bills that are to be heard. There are 36 Bills on the Order Paper so why are we not dealing with them?

Could we please have a debate on the banking system and banks, and particularly the relationship with customers? They do not want ordinary people polluting their nice, clean banks. They were very happy to pick our pockets when they were caught gambling with money that was not theirs and we all had to cough up and pay for them. They are now behaving in a cavalier fashion by dispensing with cheque books and directing people to machines. I have accounts in two branches in the centre of Dublin, one of which has been open for nearly 70 years. In one branch there are seven machines and two human beings. Last Friday at No. 2 College Green, the old Parliament house, the queues went right through the entire banking hall into the vestibule and into the colonnade. There were three queues, and it was the same in a branch of AIB across the road. That is absolutely intolerable. On another day last week I tried to cash two cheques. I tried to cash a small cheque from the prize bonds and although I brought along my passport, the staff in the post office would not cash it. It had to be lodged to an account. No bank will cash the cheque; when it is lodged, the banks will sit on it for three or four days so they can get the interest. That is theft by banks from private individuals.

Is the Senator lodging a complaint?

Yes. I would prefer to lodge a complaint and cash a cheque. I do not want to cash a complaint and lodge a cheque. I got a cheque for €450 for a recording of Anna Livia Plurabelle by Joyce for Deutscher Rundfunk in Berlin. It was a beautiful recording. When I brought the cheque to the bank, not only would they not cash it for me but the staff would not give me the money. Although it was a euro cheque the bank staff told me they had to buy it because it is drawn on a bank in Berlin. They wanted to take €17 from it. I kicked up such hell that a senior staff member whispered to the teller that I should be let off at €10. They are stealing money from us left, right and centre, and they are as arrogant as hell. I wanted to see a manager and I told him that I did not blame him and I had the greatest sympathy for him, as by next Tuesday he would be a machine.

The Senator is now stealing time.

I am sorry. They will not allow a complaint to be sent as they put them into a box. One must write to Mr. Richie Boucher and hope the complaint attracts his attention. Could we have a debate on the banking system? The Government is just as bad. They will not allow people to buy their own mortgages but they are selling them to scumbags of vulture capital funds.

The Senator is overdrawn.

I will finish on that. We need a debate about the entire system.

I note that the UK has now introduced a ban on smoking in cars where children are present.

We discussed that yesterday at length.

I apologise for missing the discussion yesterday. I welcome the UK's introduction of such a ban. Senator Crown has a Bill before the House and I understand the Minister is supporting it. We must really get our act together in moving that along.

The sooner that happens, the better. There is a report from Savills which indicates that industrial space in Dublin is much sought after, and in the past year the amount of available industrial space has decreased greatly. Sales figures for retail space in the Dublin market in 2013 were 45% higher than the 2012 total and 87% higher than that of 2011. This shows that conditions are improving in Dublin with regard to commercial activity. There are many other industries and sectors which will benefit from this, including logistics and distribution services, as that type of space is much sought after, according to the report. It is a positive indicator of how things are improving in the economy.

I have heard from councillors around the country that Dublin seems to be seeing improvement at a greater rate than the rest of the country. Although Dublin is my area, we should focus on smaller towns and villages around the country. The idea of a junior Minister responsible for rural development should be considered if there is to be a reshuffle or any changes in ministerial positions or Departments.

We will certainly invite the Minister for Justice and Equality here to discuss the local property tax, funds from which will go to local authorities from next year. That is the case.

Perhaps the Senator will allow me to reply. I will do the best I can.

Gabh mo leithscéal. Tá brón orm.

It will happen after the election.

The Leader please, without interruption.

It will happen from next year and 80% will go to local authorities.

My information is that only one piece of new Government legislation has been presented since the beginning of this year. We do not have an explanation other than the fact that there is a high volume of Bills that are going through the drafting process in the Office of the Attorney General. I will have a meeting with the Government Whip and the Attorney General tomorrow afternoon so I will be in a better position to say what Bills will come down the line to us and when.

I thank the Leader.

With regard to the question on water charges, I understand that the report will be with Government by April and that the public will have a very good idea, before the local elections, as regards what the levy of charges will be.

Can we have a debate before the local elections?

That is not going down the same line as Fianna Fáil would do as it would bury the matter until after the elections. I can assure the Senator that people will have a good idea before the local elections.

Can we have a debate before the local elections?

Fianna Fáil needs every opportunity that it can get to gain extra seats.

That is for sure.

Excellent. I thank the Leader.

Senator Bacik mentioned GSOC. A debate on the matter took place in the other House yesterday. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission informed the Minister that after an investigation it concluded that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electrical surveillance of its offices was found and that its databases have not been compromised. That is what the commission told the Minister in its discussions with him. He has requested that he be furnished with the report that was mentioned by Senator Bacik, namely, the report that was received by the commission following the security check on its offices. The Minister awaits the response by GSOC to his request. I am sure we will hear further on the matter.

With regard to the tragic circumstances that occurred in Portlaoise hospital, we all welcome the fact that HIQA is now investigating the matter. I am sure we can debate the matter when the report is complete.

Senator Barrett mentioned the possibility of a strike at Dublin and Shannon airports. The workers should listen to the proposals before taking action. The pension scheme is effectively insolvent and the trustees need to produce a new set of proposals. I can understand the concern of the workers. It must be frustrating for them and the companies to pay into an unviable pension scheme. It is a very serious situation but I do not think that holding a strike at this point in time would serve anybody any good, especially the country as it recovers.

Senator Keane called for more co-operation with Coillte regarding the provision of cycleways. I am sure the matter can be discussed with the Minister responsible.

Senator Cullinane referred to the loss of 27 jobs at Honeywell Process Solutions yesterday. I know how the workers and their families must have felt on hearing such news. With regard to the points raised by the Senator, certainly Waterford city has been hit more than most where unemployment is concerned. With regard to his point about having an equal playing field in terms of regional IDA grant aid, I understand the matter will be addressed when the situation is reviewed in July. We will see a levelling of the playing field at that point in time.

Senator Cullinane raised a number of other issues. The IDA is investigating if tenders are complete for the advance factory in Waterford. The factory is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

With regard to locating a university in Waterford, there is a need for Waterford and Carlow to get their act together and work together on a merger process that will satisfy the criteria, as a matter of urgency. The Government is quite willing to upgrade the Waterford institute to university status but there is a need for WIT and Carlow Institute of Technology to get their act together at this point in time.

Senator Cullinane alluded to quite a number of issues and I can assure him that the Government is fully aware of them. There have been 3,000 extra jobs created in the south east since the Government took office. We need a hell of a lot more jobs in Waterford city and I could not agree more with him in that regard.

Senator Landy mentioned using CCTV to combat crime, the need to roll-out further schemes and to enhance the current scheme. I shall bring the matter to the attention of the Minister.

I noted the points that Senator MacSharry made about GSOC. He also made a number of points about Irish Water. We have had many debates on the matter in the House. Fianna Fáil's policy on water over the years left an awful lot to be desired and based the country's water systems on itself - unreformed, costly and wasteful. That has been the situation where water was concerned while Fianna Fáil was in power.

Senator Conway mentioned storm damage. We should await the Minister's response on the matter.

I note that Senator Norris referred the matters raised on yesterday's Order of Business to the relevant committees. He also mentioned that there are a number of Bills on the Order Paper. It is my wish that we would deal with quite a number of them. As he can see, many of them only had two minutes to go on Second Stage yet people held them back rather than voting on them. Perhaps we should get the votes out of the way, deal with the Bills and get them off the Order Paper.

Or extend the time.

I also note the Senator's points on banks. I do not think banks want anybody going into their offices now and instead want everybody to use the Internet but that is not what many people want. Many people want to speak to a person.

People want to do their banking as they normally did, in a civilised manner.

Hear, hear. Well said.

That seems to be out the door where quite a number of banks are concerned.

Finally, I note the points made by Senator Noone on smoking in cars. The matter was addressed yesterday and I agreed that Report Stage of the Bill would be taken next week.

Order of Business agreed to.