Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. a1 on a Supplementary Order Paper, Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014 - all Stages, to be taken at 12.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons on Second Stage not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, the Minister to be given five minutes to reply to the debate on Second Stage and Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter; No. b1, motion for earlier signature of Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. a1; No. 1, Employment Equality (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2013 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 3 p.m. and adjourned not later than 4 p.m.; No. 45, Private Members' business, motion No. 9 re end-of-life care and bereavement, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 6.30 p.m.; and No. 2, motion re Commission of Investigation (Certain Matters relative to An Garda Síochána and other persons) Order 2014, to be taken at 7 p.m. and conclude not later than 8 p.m., with the contributions of all Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Taoiseach to be called on to reply not later than 7.55 p.m.

Yesterday's Irish Independent had a headline, "Loneliness, cash woes push elderly to phone for help". The article stated:

Eamon Timmins, head of advocacy at Age Action Ireland, [...] said that many elderly people in society were feeling more isolated than ever before. "We have just finished a national consultation and it is a listening exercise where we go around the country. There is a lot of anxiety out there. Anxiety about the future, new charges, and people's ability to pay them on fixed income and fixed pensions.

A schedule of expenditure released by the Irish League of Credit Unions for 2013, entitled What's Left, outlined the average spend of an individual per week. With a weekly State pension of €230 per week, older people have an average residual amount of only €34 for other items after their living expenses, taking into account cutbacks and other new charges.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, has started a discussion on the easing of austerity, saying he intended to widen income tax bands to take more people out of the higher tax bracket as soon as the State could afford it. Immediately after Deputy James Reilly became the Minister for Health, he promised to abolish the 50 cent prescription charge. Three years later, he has increased it five times from the original 50 cent to its present value of €2.50. Surely to God our priority for the elderly should be to restore the telephone allowance, reduce prescription charges and waive property tax and the future water tax that is coming down the line. That would prove we were a decent society.

In the Visitors Gallery are seated good friends of mine, Nancy Moran, Mary McEntaggart and Imelda Harding from Sandymount. Also seated there are senior citizens from the Lucan-Palmerstown area who are led by the local election candidate Caitríona McClean. I have heard their stories and I am disgusted that the sickest older people in our society are being targeted. The people do not realise that approximately 55,000 people over 70 years have had their medical cards taken away by the last two budgets of the Government. Common sense would tell one that the removal of medical cards from older people will not save money in the long term. Instead, it will stop older people from taking vital medication and going to the doctor. If they end up in hospital as a result of this measure no money will be saved; quite the opposite. These cuts have been made by a heartless Government.

I wish to refer to the serious issue of how older people are treated in society. The subject has been spoken about by the revolutionary Pope Francis who felt compelled to intervene. Last November, he said at a mass:

We live in a time when the elderly do not count. It's awful to say, but they are discarded. Because they are a nuisance to us.

He also called on the faithful to remember those elderly who live in retirement homes, especially those who have been abandoned by their families. I reiterate that these cuts were made by a heartless Government.

I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Oisín Quinn, to the Visitors Gallery. He is here as a guest of Senator Sean D. Barrett and it is good to see him. He might be one of our nearest residents, or one of the people who lives closest to Leinster House. Last night I was a guest of the Lord Mayor in the Mansion House. I attended an excellent event to celebrate the village of Ranelagh which formed part of his Vibrant Villages series. Other colleagues from Dublin may have attended other events. The events are an excellent means of updating traders, local business people, local residents and people involved in community groups on the work that Dublin City Council is doing to improve amenities in particular areas. It is also an opportunity for officials from Dublin City Council to hear the concerns of local people and the improvements they seek for their areas. Last night's event was excellent and I thank the Lord Mayor for the invitation. I did not think I would have an opportunity to thank him publicly in the Seanad today, but I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.

I ask the Leader for a debate on penal reform. I have mentioned previously the report of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality of 2013 on penal reform and measures to reduce the use of imprisonment. I seek a debate to address the concept of introducing an independent prisons authority since we have the very welcome commitment by the Government to introduce an independent police authority to act as a buffer between the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána. It would also be worth considering the establishment of an independent prisons authority. The director general of the Irish Prison Service, Mr. Michael Donnellan, is doing an excellent job. Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Dóchas Centre, the women's prison, in north Dublin to see at first hand the improvements which had taken place. Conditions have greatly improved, as they have in Mountjoy Prison and in other prisons, which is welcome. However, we should look at the governance of prisons in a debate in the House.

A strong debate took place yesterday on the Merchant Shipping (Registration of Ships) Bill 2013 with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, in which he outlined that the new legislation would provide for the first time for a centralised online system of registration of all shipping craft, including small pleasure boats, jet skis and small fishing boats. We heard also the very worrying statistics for maritime accidents and the need to improve maritime safety measures. Clearly, central registration will greatly assist enforcement and in the prevention of accidents. What was of great concern was that at the end of the debate the Minister said it might take a couple of years to roll out the new registration system, even when the legislation was in place. We should urge him to take all possible steps to ensure the system of registration is introduced more swiftly. In this House we can ensure the legislation goes through quickly, given that it was welcomed by all parties. It is very important legislation, but it is a matter of concern that the Minister said it could be a couple of years before the system was in place to enable the legislation to be fully implemented.

I refer to a little spat that has been ongoing about writers, on whether they are Irish or British. I notice, for example, that great offence was taken when James Joyce was listed as a British writer in The Telegraph; unfortunately, the plain fact is that he was. He was born in and wrote about nothing but pre-revolutionary Ireland. He received a grant from the privy purse during the First World War which kept him going. He steadfastly refused to take an Irish passport and until the day he died was a British citizen with a British passport. That might have had something to do with his quirky nature, but it is a fact. On the other hand, of course, Myles na gCopaleen is probably spinning at 98 rpm in his grave at the idea of being described as Irish, but it is important that we look at these subtleties.

I am a big fan of the health service with all its defects. I would not be here today without the excellent service I receive from the staff and surgeons at St. Vincent's University Hospital. I cannot speak highly enough about them, as without them, I would be dead. Again, we have to face facts. There is a very worrying report on MRSA, of which there are 50 strains. We know that a certain amount is being done. Every time one visits somebody in a hospital or goes into hospital there is fuzzy material with which to wash one's hands and so on. The problem is that once one gets in to the hospital, having rinsed one's hands in foam, everything changes. The corridors are usually spotless, but once one gets into the rooms, whether private rooms or public wards - I have had occasion to visit people in both and be in them myself - they are not spotless. I remember one case in which a male patient was admitted and for a full day the sanitary bin provided for the previous female occupant which was full was not removed. Recently I came across another case in which somebody was in hospital for a major operation and put in a ward in the public hospital where another patient had become incontinent. The floor was mopped with a towel which was left sopping in urine and hanging behind the door the entire night. There was lavatory paper on the floor, the walls were scuffed, the shower seat was badly stained, wrappings from various medical instruments were all over the floor and post-operative patients were going to be brought to this ward. To my mind, the risk is probably greater inside the hospital. I would like to know about all of the highly paid administrators in hospitals. I am not against administrators, as they are necessary in a modern hospital to chase up patients if they do not attend their appointments and, by and large, they do a very good job, but what are they and board members paid? Why can we not have proper hygiene standards inside hospitals and, particularly, lavatories? It is outrageous that this should happen. I am aware that there are terrible staffing problems and do not like being critical of any aspect of a hospital service with which I have reason to be not just satisfied but delighted. In the old days there were nuns in the Roman Catholic hospitals and there was a matron in the Adelaide Hospital, of whom people were terrified. If there was some dust in it, there would be murder. In every hospital there should be a hygiene supremo responsible for dealing with hygiene issues. If it means getting rid of an administrator or a board member, so what? Hygiene is the most important issue, as otherwise people will die and hospital bred infections will continue to spread.

I join in the welcome to the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Oisín Quinn, as well as to Senator Mary White's visitors whom she introduced. In her contribution she mentioned the cuts that had to be made in the past three budgets, but she forgot to remind the House of the reasons all of those cuts were necessary and the appalling mess left behind for the Government to tidy up. I welcome the update published yesterday on Ireland's stability programme and ask the Leader for a debate on it after the Easter break. It contains some encouraging figures which indicate that GDP is expected to grow by 2.1% in 2014, increasing to 2.7% next year and 3.5% by 2018. Employment is projected to grow by 2% every year to 2018, which would see unemployment levels falling to below 8%. Given that 61,000 jobs were created in 2013, we hope that figure will continue to increase. Inflation is likely to remain low and projected to be at a figure of 0.5% for 2014. We need the Minister for Finance in the House to tease out some of these figures in early course. While the signs are encouraging, we need to remain cautious in our budgetary planning for the coming year. It is projected that €2 billion will have to be cut from our expenditure in budget 2015; therefore, it is a case of a lot done but still a long way to go. We need to discuss the roadmap with the Minister for Finance after Easter.

On behalf of Fianna Fáil, I welcome the Lord Mayor of Dublin. In my 12 years I think it is the first time our nearest neighbour and resident has come to visit us. It would be appropriate for me to say that, having been at school with him, I know him very well. It is good to see him here. His contribution and that of his family to enterprise and public service is second to none and one senses there is an air of inevitability about his participation in the Houses.

Despite having had a debate in Private Members' time last week, I join my colleague, Senator Mary White, in raising the care of the elderly. In response to Senator Michael Mullins, while there are good news items from time to time, as well as positive developments in respect of the statistics now available regarding economic recovery, what divides us politically is how these were achieved. There were choices, irrespective of troika involvement, the involvement of the European Union and so on. As was noted in the debate last week and as Senator Mary White has been highlighting clearly in her own work - she has produced a detailed paper on the matter - while going about these cuts, we have not covered ourselves in glory in respect of the care of the elderly. That is the key message. As was reflected in Labour Party policy, although it did not manage to get it included in the programme for Government, it is and was possible to have collected approximately €300 million from people earning more than €100,000 per year. However, we chose not to do that. The aforementioned €300 million could have left certain people over 70 years of age with their medical cards and could have retained the bereavement grant for families. It could have left in place a variety of measures. Despite the pride of Senator David Norris and all Members in the health professionals who work in the health services, the reality is that if one has an elderly relative, one should not put him or her into hospital unless one can be in there with that person for 24 hours a day, because there are not enough front-line staff available to take care of such relatives in a scenario where a single nurse must deal with ten people.

I will conclude with an example concerning a person who has since deceased. A vomiting bug prevented a lady from visiting her husband, who unfortunately was terminally ill and was going to die. When she was allowed to return to the hospital after a three-day absence, she found him in the same pyjamas, which were stained and to be frank, she found him sitting in his own urine, which was and is completely unacceptable. While the statistics and the bottom line may be coming right - of course all Members celebrate this - the reality is that choices were made in achieving it that were unnecessary. Choices were made that were not in the best interests of elderly people or the less well-off. That is sad and is something of which Members on both sides of both Houses can be ashamed. Members must begin to do something about it.

I also welcome the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Oisín Quinn, to the Chamber. I wish to put on record how much I enjoyed my most recent visit to the Mansion House, when the Lord Mayor launched a book written by our colleague, Senator Whelan, entitled The Buddha of Ballyhuppahaun. A most enjoyable evening was had with the Lord Mayor on that occasion.

I welcome the publication last Monday of the report on the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA. The commission was headed by former football great, Pat Spillane, and held 100 meetings across rural Ireland. The commission also met Oireachtas Members a number of times and I was privileged to be part of that process. The fact that this report was commissioned jointly by the Departments of the Environment, Community and Local Government and Agriculture, Food and the Marine is testament to the interest the Government has in tackling the difficulties of rural Ireland. It is a comprehensive and insightful report that has 34 recommendations on how to create employment and to revitalise rural Ireland.

I have outlined in this Chamber many times the problems faced by rural Ireland and how the brunt of the economic crisis fell on it. This has been highlighted in the report, which provides the grim statistic that unemployment in rural Ireland is at 192% of the 2008 figure, compared with an equivalent percentage of 108% for urban Ireland. Moreover, the Teagasc rural index report published last week also brought this issue to the fore. An opportunity has arisen for the Government to move on this issue. I welcome the comments of the Taoiseach at the publication of the report last Monday when he stated the Government will address this issue shortly.

Earlier this morning, I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, which was addressed by Mr. John McCarthy, Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. He indicated clearly that steps would be taken in the roll-out of the next Leader programme to incorporate part of the CEDRA report and to bring forward recommendations and actions to tackle this problem in rural Ireland. In view of the short time available to me today, I request the Leader to ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, who has direct responsibility for this area, to come into this House after Easter for a full debate on this important report that was published earlier this week in order that Members can have an input into how this problem in rural Ireland is tackled.

I congratulate everyone involved in the recent presidential state visit to the United Kingdom, which was an extraordinary success. I had the privilege of being a guest of the Lord Mayor of London at the Guildhall banquet and accompanied the President to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday morning. It was extraordinary and for everyone, the big winners were the Irish in Britain of all classes, successes and ages and of diverse backgrounds. An extraordinary, deeper connection has been made to the diaspora in Britain, thanks to our wonderful President's visit there and I congratulate everyone concerned.

Arising from that is a debate on commemoration and whether members of the royal family should visit and be a part thereof. I would consider this to be a constructive debate and irrespective of whether my views necessarily are in tandem with those of others in respect of such a visit, a debate should be held on it. I call on the Leader to have such a debate in this House and perhaps to invite the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht or someone who is in charge of the national commemorations - perhaps even the Taoiseach - to have a sophisticated, diverse debate on the commemorations. It is only two years away and one is reading about it more in the newspapers rather than actually having a debate in this House, that is, on how citizens should commemorate both the rebellion of 1916 and the Battle of the Somme on 1 July.

In one further point, Ialert my fellow Senators that the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill is coming before the House today. Senators Jillian van Turnhout, Katherine Zappone and I are proposing an amendment to the Bill that seeks a plebiscite for the citizens of Dublin to have their say on whether they wish to have a directly elected mayor of this city. We are making a proposal as it is an opportune moment to so do. The aforementioned Bill is timely because of the Godsil case against the Attorney General. This legislation constitutes swift action on the part of the Government and I believe there also should be swift action to enable the citizens of Dublin to have a say in whether they would wish to have a directly elected mayor. It is an opportunity for the Government to show leadership and to illustrate its stated appetite for political reform by having a debate-----

That will be the day.

----- and by proposing that the citizens of the Dublin metropolitan area should have a direct say in whether they should have a directly elected mayor.

I also welcome the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Oisín Quinn, to Seanad Éireann. He has made available his home in the Mansion House to Members many times for different events. I attended the function for Senator John Whelan's book launch, at which people had a most enjoyable evening. Consequently, it is only proper that Members would welcome him to Seanad Éireann.

I am sure the Lord Mayor and other Members will agree with me that the racist attack that took place recently on O'Connell Street, Dublin, against staff working in a Spar shop was absolutely appalling. It is reflective of racial attacks on non-national workers, better known as the new Irish, which are taking place in the city and around the country. I call on the Leader to make known to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Members' displeasure at these attacks and that something effective must be done to deal with them. It is completely unacceptable to think something like this could happen on O'Connell Street, the main street of the capital. I seek an end to such behaviour which does not belong in a modern society.

I hope the people who were victims of this assault are making a recovery. Racial discrimination and attacks are totally unacceptable. It is not the type of message we want to send from modern Ireland and the great city which Dublin is.

I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the Lord Mayor of Dublin. The post dates back to 1229, which is 15 years short of 800 years. I welcome the Lord Mayor's interest in programmes such as the vibrant villages series, to which Senator Ivana Bacik referred, and his support for a plebiscite for a directly elected Lord Mayor. I thank him for being a generous host to Senator John Whelan and other Members of the House. It is appropriate we should return his hospitality today.

Some Ministers may be interested in meeting the Lord Mayor. One of his predecessors, Mark Rainsford, was the founder of St. James's Gate Brewery. The Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, is tackling the problem in that area and he may want to know if there are any files covering that area in the Mansion House. The Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, will undoubtedly want to talk to the Lord Mayor about Bartholomew Ball who was Lord Mayor from 1553 to 1554. We can read from the history of the office that his widow was martyred by their eldest son, Walter. There should be some exciting files covering that in the Mansion House and the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, might like to take a look at them.

I welcome what Senator Michael Mullins said about the economic report launched last evening. We are creating 50,000 jobs currently and 61,000 were created last year, which was a bonus. There are some warning signs in the report. On the view that inflation would erode the debt and that a little more inflation would be good, I point out that inflation would also erode jobs. Therefore, it is a route which should only be embarked upon with caution. Table 7 in the report shows that tax revenue between now and 2018 will go up by €10.3 billion and the expenditure reductions will be €3.3 billion. There is a very heavy tax burden coming down the tracks which we hope will be covered by economic growth.

The section on the reform agenda was not published last night. It comes from the Taoiseach's Department and it might be a topic for debate in the House. There is also the suggestion, with which I believe most people would agree, that income tax is too high and that it can be solved by increasing the universal social charge, but the universal social charge is a form of income tax. That would be a bit of a three-card trick and such an approach would need to be very carefully analysed before we go down that road. There is a problem with people on an income of €32,000 a year going to the 42% tax band, as the Minister said, but it should be tackled without any secret routes about reducing income tax and increasing the universal social charge.

I join others in welcoming the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Oisín Quinn. It is great to see him here.

I would like to raise some concerns that have become increasingly more prevalent and have received increasingly more representations concerning people with an intellectual disability being refused medical cards or having their medical cards taken from them. I firmly believe that people with an intellectual disability should have an automatic entitlement to a medical card. It is well known that people with an intellectual disability and a physical disability will have greater medical needs both in terms of medical care and appliances. In some cases items as simple as a pair of shoes can cost more than €900. I have had representations recently from parents who have had no additional aid or grant to help them adapt their houses or part of their houses, or to cover any apart of the medical costs for their child because their medical card has been refused. Free GP care is being introduced for those under the age of six - with which I do not have a problem - regardless of their parents' income. We need to examine that area. I call on the Leader to arrange for an urgent debate with the Minister on the entitlements of people with an intellectual disability to address this situation which is becoming more urgent on a daily basis.

Despite the very cheerful articulation of where things stand in the economy by Senator Michael Mullins, it masks a different reality altogether in that we have far too many people out of work, people are still emigrating, people have been faced with an increase in taxes with the universal social charge, a property tax and they will face the introduction of water charges shortly. There have also been major cutbacks in spending in the area of health and education, which have impacted on front-line services in hospitals, primary care centres and schools across the State. We have fewer services and front-line staff across the board. We are paying more taxes than ever before. If we learn anything from the lessons of the Celtic tiger years, it must be that an economy has to be there to serve the citizens, all of the people, not the vested interests, the elites, the wealthy and the bankers. If there is economic growth, we need to see that used to benefit the people of this state. We have not heard a whimper from a single Government representative in this Chamber in about a year about the fact that we had the biggest transfer of wealth in the history of the State when we transferred billions of euro of taxpayers' money into the banks to pay back the debts of bondholders, speculators and gamblers. We were promised by the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach that we would get a retrospective deal on banking debt but we have not got it. We still have not got back a single cent of all that taxpayers' money that was poured into the banks to again benefit the wealthy, the speculators and the bankers, yet the citizens of this state are being faced with more cuts, taxes and the introduction of water charges. I take the opportunity to call on the Leader to again ask the Minister of State with responsibility for the Irish Water, Deputy Ferjgus O'Dowd, to come into the House to discuss the whole issue of water charges. What we are getting from the Government at the moment is leak after leak, pardon the pun. That is all we are getting. We were told the standing charge will be €100 and now we hear it will be €50. The citizens of this State deserve to know the truth and to know it in advance of the local and European elections in order that when they go to the polls they will know exactly who they are voting for, what they are voting for and what charges will be in store for them after the elections.

The Senator is way over time.

The response from people on the doorsteps to those who are canvassing is that people have given too much already. The water charges and the water tax is a step too far. The Government should come forward and let the people know exactly how much they will have to pay in water charges and how much it is will cost them.

The European Union should give back €200 billion for our fish and €100 billion from the banks. That would be €300 billion and we could do a lot with that.

I join in welcoming the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Oisín Quinn. As a former Lord Mayor of Cork city, it is a huge honour to hold that office, whether one is Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cork or Belfast. Those are the only three local authorities that have and office of Lord Mayor. It is ten years ago since I was Lord Mayor . One of the programmes we have in Cork city is that the Lord Mayor visits every school in the city, of which there are 102, during his or her term in office. That was the tradition in Cork dating back to when Tomás Mac Curtain was Lord Mayor back in the 1920s, and he died in office. The Lord Mayor gave a half day to the schools on the day they called to them. The then Minister for Education, the former Deputy Noel Dempsey, wrote to tell me that I could no longer use my role as Lord Mayor to grant that half day. I want to thank the former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, because as a result of the letter I got 15 television and radio interviews and a huge petition was taken up by the students in Cork city to tell the then Minister that we do not take diktats from Dublin down in Cork.

With respect to some of the issues that were raised, especially in regard to medical cards, there is a good deal of misinformation. It was sad to see a newspaper carrying a headline that there has been a 30% reduction in medical cards. That is not true. The correct position is that there has been a 12.5% increase in the number of medical cards issued, available and being used since January 2011. The total number of additional medical cards is 218,000.

Some 1.95 million people have medical cards or GP-only cards. However, there is misinformation. Alarm is being raised about the review of medical cards. When Fianna Fáil was in government, it gave medical cards to persons earning €5,000 a week. Anyone over 70 years of age and earning €5,000 a week was entitled to a medical card.

A question for the Leader, please.

That was the kind of thing Fianna Fáil did, which was totally unfair and not the way to run a health service. Likewise, in regard to-----

We looked after older people in society.

Fianna Fáil gave medical cards to those earning €5,000 a week.

I refer to the lack of planning in the health service. Currently, there are 1,800 people going into hospitals every day for dialysis, while 250 transplant procedures are carried out each year. In Norway there are only 370 people on dialysis because it has a higher rate of kidney transplants. For ten years Fianna Fáil engaged in no planning, which is the reason we have a dysfunctional health service.

The Senator is way over time.

We have to engage in long-term planning. I have no difficulty in having a debate in the House on the health service.

The Senator should talk to the people whose medical cards have been taken from them and to those on the waiting list. He would then review his comments on the health service.

I agree with Senator Mary Moran. It is a shame that people with disabilities and others are being deprived of necessary services, for which they cannot afford to pay. I mention the ludicrous position of the Government, which it has taken for purely propaganda purposes, in providing free GP care for those under six years of age, while removing services from elderly people who are in difficulty in trying to meet the increased costs being imposed on them by the Government, including for health insurance. I cannot understand why members of the Government parties criticise these moves in the House but do not raise them at their parliamentary party meetings. When we were in government, backbench Deputies and Senators constantly raised issues of concern to the public and created quite a fuss at parliamentary party meetings. That is what needs to happen.

Fianna Fáil gave medical cards to those earning €5,000 a week.

Will the Minister for Social Protection attend the House for a debate on pensions? It is essential we have a strong, analytical and informed debate on the issue. Recent reports have shown that young people who have the opportunity to pay into pension schemes because their employers are making contributions are not doing so. As a consequence, they will find themselves disadvantaged in later life. Last night I spoke to somebody who was in receipt of a pension from the Houses of the Oireachtas and paying tax at 53%. There is a need to look at this issue. Part of the debate should revolve around the appointment of a Minister or a Minister of State with responsibility for pensions because somebody should focus on pensions solely. It is clear that the Minister for Social Protection who covers a wide-ranging area with many challenges cannot put the focus that is necessary on this area, especially if we are to meet the huge demographic challenges which will arise in the coming decades. I appeal for a debate on this issue. The State pension will be inadequate to provide for people in old age because of the fiscal position. We must, therefore, encourage and incentivise people to participate and providing for themselves in old age, which means having a proper, well thought out and coherent pension policy, which is not in place.

I support Senator Jim Walsh's proposal for a Minister or a Minister of State solely responsible for pensions. This is a time bomb. We have some time, but we need to start to plan because the demographics speak for themselves, as the Senator said.

The time bomb about which I wish to speak and which I mentioned yesterday is home repossessions. We know from the banks, the representatives of which attended the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform last week, that thousands of home repossessions are imminent. One's second highest right after the right to life is the right to property. Currently, the Government provides €250 for a person in difficulty to visit an accountant. I have been talking to MABS, the staff of which essentially are accountants, and its service is free. It would be better if the €250 was given to a legal person, a solicitor, because people are worn down as a result of having to deal with huge difficulties, for which we all know the reasons. Many of them are in difficulty not because of anything they have done but because of the recession, job cuts or perhaps a family illness and they need legal advice. Let us not disable them anymore. I would like the Leader to convey my recommendation to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, that the €250 being provided for accounting advice be provided for a solicitor to advise before people relinquish their family homes, if they have to do so. We must protect the people concerned. We need the Minister to come to the House to consider more creative solutions to enable people to hold on to their family homes rather than have them repossessed. If that means the State has to take an equity stake in the family home to allow a family to rent at local authority rent rates, let us do it. We know there is a housing crisis; therefore, what is the point in putting the people in question, for whom we cannot find homes, out on the street and having them draw rent allowance? I will continue to raise this issue until we find a solution because to lose one's home is the last straw for a family. It causes stress for everybody, including children. One cannot parent properly when one has to endure such stress in one's life.

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, come to the House to clarify the position on water tax. I am not naive; water is not free and, ultimately, comes from nature. The provision of infrastructure to deliver it safely to people's houses incurs a cost and society must tackle the issue. Currently, directly or indirectly, the cost is met from the taxes we pay to central government and the money is given to local authorities to arrange for water to be delivered. We are, therefore, paying for it from the public purse. Reports in the past few days suggest there will be a large fixed charge of between €250 and €500 per household to meet the infrastructural costs of delivery, with additional costs being based on usage. That is fine and I have no problem with it, if there is a complete 100% write-off of the fixed charge against the other taxes we already pay. If we are now paying the money to the Government and it is using it to provide water for us and if we will now provide it directly for whatever water authority will provide water, what will happen to the money we pay in tax which is going to the water authority? I can tell Members right now that unless we have some clear-cut evidence that some part of the redundant public service - I am not referring to essential public services - will actually be curtailed and that the money will be saved, to me the logical conclusion is that whatever one will pay in water charges, there should be a 100% write-off against tax. That is the only fair way to do it and the debate needs to be started.

Similarly, in the case of universal health insurance which I have been espousing for 21 odd years - sometimes very odd years in this country - I was delighted that the Government parties had assumed the mantle of reform prior to the last general election when they stated they would bring forward such an initiative. However, I am troubled by some of the ways it is being described. There is talk about a new system which will prevent people from skipping queues, but under that system there should be no queues. There is a matching of resource with demand which will have to be policed or appropriately regulated. In systems which provide for this kind of health insurance people do not face queues anymore. Similarly, having regard to what I said about water charges, if there was a mandatory insurance charge, the money currently given to the central Exchequer to fund the health service should be written off 100% against whatever one would pay for universal health insurance. That would mean that there would be redundancies and people in the Civil Service would seek alternative employment because currently they are channelling money from the general Exchequer into the health service. The vast bureaucracy which does this would instead find the money going directly to insurance companies, I hope in most cases to not-for-profit social insurance companies but in some cases to private insurance companies.

The idea that people would pay twice for the same service is absolutely irrational and it shows me that this process is not being thought through at the highest level.

I had occasion recently to hear a number of presentations from Indian cancer specialists and I was horrified to hear that the second largest cause of cancer death in women in India is cancer of the cervix, a disease which is almost completely preventable - 80% preventable with the widespread application of a vaccine - but they cannot provide it because of cost. I did the arithmetic and there is an exact, neat correlation between what we paid every year to bail out Anglo Irish Bank and what it would cost to eradicate cervical cancer for one year in India.

In answer to Senator David Cullinane's query about the water charges being announced before the local elections, I am sure the Leader will also have read the Irish Independent, which gives a figure of €248-----

I have not had the luxury of reading it yet.

I am providing the Leader with the information in order to inform his response to Senator David Cullinane's question.

I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator John Crown. I ask the Leader to give consideration to inviting the Minister for Finance to the House because, yet again, in his own way as a blunt and straight speaker, he has dismissed the notion that has been growing among government candidates knocking on doors that somehow there will be a tax break for middle Ireland. The Minister has disabused them of that notion in recent days. He has made it quite clear that there will be at least another €2 billion taken out of the economy, and that loss of €2 billion will filter down into people's pockets. The word coming from our side of the House is that people can give no more. I hope everyone entitled to vote will vote. I was disappointed to hear this morning on "Morning Ireland" some people in Galway saying they had no interest in voting. I wonder if they are living in the real world. People should vote when they have the right to vote. There are people dying as we speak because they are looking for the right to vote. I hope that those who do vote will take account of the reality of the situation - that we are far from being out of the woods, economically speaking. In that context, I ask that the Minister for Finance come to the House to give a statement on the true economic situation, not the spin that is being put out by the very efficient government spin doctors, but the reality of the economic situation and his plans for the forthcoming budget.

I ask that the Tánaiste or his Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, come to the House to give a statement on the continuing, evolving and dangerous events in Ukraine, which are beginning to have an effect on business. Ireland is a trading nation and we have a real interest in the situation. Some people might ask why we should care about Ukraine. It reminds me of the quote about Czechoslovakia prior to the Second World War, that it is a far-off country of which we know little. That is not the case in this instance, because Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Russia are key components in our continuing struggle to increase our export markets. I ask the Tánaiste to come to the House to provide an update on the situation and the Government's position. Such information would be very useful for this House and for the country in general.

Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an méid atá ráite ag an Seanadóir Landy. Fáiltíonn muid roimh an tuarascáil atá déanta faoi CEDRA, mar tá muid á chuardach le tamall fada.

I welcome the publication of the report by CEDRA, the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Ireland, but I am disappointed that it is quite general in its thrust. We had expected the report a number of months ago. I would have expected more concrete proposals as to how to deal with the issues affecting rural Ireland. There seems to be a great deal of hullabaloo about the publication of the report but very little detail and substance in its recommendations. I spoke to rural communities during Sinn Féin's consultation process about the cutbacks in post office services, the closure of Garda stations, the need for revitalisation of rural towns and villages, tackling the issue of emigration from rural areas, youth unemployment, cuts in the provision of health services, the decimation of the fishing and farming industries and the lack of infrastructure.

People came in their thousands yesterday to demonstrate in Molesworth Street about the wind farm issue. They believe the creation of wind farms is privately driven, without input from local communities. It is disappointing that the report does not deal with these issues. The report recommends that more research is needed on how Leader funding might be used. This issue has not been raised. Every rural community I visited was concerned about the changes in local government and how the local development companies will have their powers taken over by the county and city councils. We need an urgent debate after the Easter recess on the CEDRA report and its recommendations. If it is to have any impact in rural Ireland it needs to be amended and to be more specific. Resources need to be provided. All Ministers with a rural remit must be asked what they will do to revitalise rural Ireland and save it from the decline resulting from the economic disaster into which the previous Government led us. It is also the case that this Government is not doing enough for rural Ireland.

I refer to the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator John Crown with regard to the lack of clarity about water charges. When the House debated the legislation to introduce water charges, we questioned the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, about the proposed cost. If the economic cost of the water charges was to be borne by every house in the country, the average charge would be in the region of €750, but we learned this morning in the media that our worst nightmares are coming true, with the proposal for an introductory charge of approximately €240, together with a standing charge that every household will have to pay. The Commission for Energy Regulation is responsible for the charges and it is inevitable that in time the full cost will be brought to bear on every household. The House must debate this issue this morning. Clarification is required. The local elections are imminent and Ministers are saying the charges will not be that bad. That will not wash with people after 24 May. Fine Gael and Labour Party candidates are looking for votes and telling people on the doorsteps that the charges will not be that bad because their Minister says so. The promise that the charges will not be that bad will not pay the water charges when the bills are sent out in the latter half of this year. We need a debate on this issue which is affecting people across the country. The Government pressed ahead with water charges without any allowance for ability to pay, and many households will be unable to pay them. The Government has failed to make a submission to the Commission for Energy Regulation under the consultation process. We may learn more this morning after the Cabinet meeting, but this House should have a debate on the issue today, given that it is a matter of national importance.

Senator Mary White spoke about Age Action. I agree that the organisation does excellent work on behalf of the elderly. The House had a consultation group on the elderly and a very good report was commissioned. I will not discuss what Fianna Fáil did for the elderly as opposed to what the Government is doing. The reason for the cutbacks over recent years was the state of the country after Fianna Fáil's time in office.

There was a world recession.

As Senator Colm Burke pointed out, medical cards were granted to people over 70 years of age who had an income of €5,000 a week in some instances-----

That is a neo-conservative approach. The Government stated it would abolish fees.

Please allow the Leader to respond to the questions.

People talk about taxing those earning over €100,000-----

Abolish prescription charges.

-----when they gave medical cards to people earning that amount.

Members should allow the Leader to respond.

There was no resort to income. Members opposite cannot have it both ways. They had it that way for so long and had it every way.

We were kind to older people.

They wanted to have it every way and controlled it every way, but they cannot have it any longer.

We will have it every way again.

The people know the facts.

They are lying in wait.

Is the Leader canvassing?

I will come to Senator Paschal Mooney in turn.

Out of respect for the Leader-----

Members should allow the Leader to respond to questions raised on the Order of Business, without interruption.

Senator Ivana Bacik sought a debate on penal reform, on which there is a report from the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence and on which I hope to have a debate after Easter, with specific reference to governance of prisons.

We had a very good debate on the Merchant Shipping (Registration of Ships) Bill yesterday. It is a concern that it will take almost two years to implement the recommendations made in the Bill, but I am sure we can tease out the matter on Committee and Report Stages.

Senator David Norris referred to the need for proper hygiene and cleanliness in hospitals. I understand there is a dedicated person responsible for hygiene in hospitals and the situations the Senator mentioned are totally unacceptable. I understand HIQA conducts regular hygiene audits in hospitals. I am sure it is very concerned if hospitals are in the position described by the Senator.

Senators Michael Mullins and Sean D. Barrett called for a debate on the stability programme. I will ask the Minister for Finance to debate it in early course. Senator Marc MacSharry makes the point that Governments have choices. We have had to cut back in every Department to get the country moving again and the economy in the right direction. The Government has made the right choices.

Senators Denis Landy and Trevor Ó Clochartaigh referred to the CEDRA report which was referred to yesterday by Senator Sean D. Barrett. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, is willing and available to discuss the report. He will come into the Chamber after Easter for a comprehensive debate on the topic.

Senator Fiach Mac Conghail called for a debate on national commemorations. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, was in the Chamber last year to discuss the ten years of commemorations. We had a good debate on the matter, but if there is a need for a further debate on it, we will arrange it. I am sure the Minister would be willing to come to the House to discuss it.

Coming from the oldest city in Ireland, Waterford, we are celebrating 1,100 years. I should have welcomed the Lord Mayor of Dublin, as other Members did. I note the amendment to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill. Something that should be dealt with in any electoral Bill is the amount of posters all over the country put up by candidates advertising public meetings.

That is democracy.

It is a way of promoting themselves and getting around the problem that they cannot put up posters before an election. My personal view is that the legislation should be amended.

That is interesting.

Senator Martin Conway referred to racial attacks on non-nationals on O'Connell Street. It is appalling to hear of these attacks and the Minister for Justice and Equality has spoken about the matter.

Senator Mary Moran referred to medical cards for people with intellectual disabilities. We had a debate on medical cards previously, but I will arrange an overall debate on health in order that such matters can be raised. I do not intend to reply to Senators who are not present in the Chamber. Senator Colm Burke referred to the 12.5% increase in the number of medical cards issued. Over 215,000 additional medical cards have been issued, which nails the lie that there has been a reduction.

Senator Jim Walsh called for a debate on pensions. We had a debate on the issue last year and legislation was introduced. I will try to arrange to have a further debate. We do not have as many leaks in the parliamentary party as the Senators opposite had in theirs.

That is not true.

The Senator is not aware of what is discussed at parliamentary party meetings.

The Leader is spinning relentlessly.

Senator John Crown has tabled an amendment to the Order of Business which I do not propose to accept. We had a comprehensive debate on water charges when the Bill went through the House. Everyone had an opportunity to make points at the time. Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill made the same point and talked about a figure of €750 or more per household. I remember him talking about a figure of €750 for the registration of a septic tank. The figure was reduced to €5 at the end. I cannot believe anything he says in that regard.

What percentage are failing? There is no grant available for them.

The Senator has gone overboard again. He does not believe what is in the newspapers, but then goes beyond it. I take his comments with a grain of salt.

I note the comments of Senator John Crown about universal health insurance. There is a White Paper on the topic and we will arrange a debate on that discussion document.

Senator Paschal Mooney referred to the statement made by the Minister for Finance. Any budgetary measure depends on revenue and expenditure. Later in the year we will decide what should be included in the budget and the Minister will say what will be in it.

With regard to the situation in Ukraine, if Senator Paschal Mooney looks at the schedule, he will see that there is a debate scheduled for tomorrow. I have already mentioned the CEDRA document.

Senator John Crown has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to clarify the position on water tax be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 24.

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Crown, John.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • Walsh, Jim.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Jim.
  • D'Arcy, Michael.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Mac Conghail, Fiach.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Keeffe, Susan.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Sean D. Barrett and John Crown; Níl, Senators Aideen Hayden and Michael Mullins.
Amendment declared lost.
Question put: "That the Order of Business be agreed to."
The Seanad divided: Tá, 24; Níl, 15.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Jim.
  • D'Arcy, Michael.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Mac Conghail, Fiach.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Keeffe, Susan.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.

Níl

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Crown, John.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • Walsh, Jim.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Aideen Hayden and Michael Mullins; Níl, Senators Sean D. Barrett and John Crown.
Question declared carried.
Sitting suspended at 12.10 p.m. and resumed at 12.30 p.m.