The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the HSE national service plan 2015, to be taken at 4.45 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 6.40 p.m.
Order of Business
I welcome everyone back. It is good to see Senators back after the recess.
I wish to raise a few items with the Leader. In regard to the proposed new rules for deposits for residential mortgages which have not been formally announced but have been discussed and in respect of which Professor Honohan of the Central Bank seems set on sticking to a 20% minimum deposit requirement, Fianna Fáil has made submissions, as I imagine the Leader's party has, on the impact of the rules. We believe such a requirement would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and that we should be examining salary multiples and the affordability of mortgages. To take the example of a house in Dublin valued at €200,000 which would be below the market average in most parts of Dublin, this requirement would mean that the purchaser would require a deposit of €40,000, which would put people out of the market. It would be more reasonable for the deposit requirement to be 12%. People talk about the Central Bank being independent and it is, but it should live in the real world. Are we going to condemn people to paying exorbitant private rents? The rental market throughout the country is extremely difficult. We have seen rents increase by 20%, 30% and 40% and they are still increasing. If the Government proceeds with the introduction of a 20% minimum deposit requirement, home ownership will be put out of reach of the vast majority of young people. While we have discussed that issue, I would like to hear a view from the Government and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan. There should be a further discussion in the Seanad before a decision is made on it.
I wish to raise a specific issue with the Leader which I intend to raise as a Commencement matter. I am aware the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, will come to the House this afternoon. I alert colleagues to a problem with breast prostheses for ladies who have had mastectomies. They have an entitlement to breast prostheses and surgical bras. In parts of Dublin, in particular in area 8, people have been waiting since September for breast prostheses and surgical bras. A total of 91 women in area 8 have not even received approval for same. The cost of a mastectomy prosthesis is €68.50. In Cork, the application period for a mastectomy prosthesis os about two days and there are no waiting lists. Most of us understand that following such a severe procedure, it is important for those who are entitled to treatment to receive the service they need, regardless of whether they have medical cards. When my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, was Minister for Health, he introduced an entitlement under a HSE scheme to breast prostheses, surgical bras and swimwear, but that is not the case at the moment, although it is important for the many women concerned. In most areas in Dublin people are waiting three to four months. According to the HSE, it does not have funding for the service in Dublin, yet it has funding available in Cork. I cannot understand how that could be allowed to happen. It is another example of very poor management within the HSE. Surely it should be a standard process, but that is not the case. I will raise the matter in the Commencement debate, but I ask the Leader to raise the matter with the Minister for Health. My colleagues will raise it with him later this afternoon.
I join Senator Darragh O'Brien in wishing everyone a happy new year and welcoming everyone back. In particular, I welcome the new schedule, the new timings for Seanad sittings and our new procedures, especially Commencement Matters, as they are now to be known rather than Adjournment Matters. I was delighted to have the opportunity to raise one such matter earlier. We will see a more efficient and effective Seanad as a result.
I am sure others, like me, will want to express outrage at the heinous killings in Paris by extremists at the Charlie Hebdo offices and related killings in the Jewish supermarket and elsewhere. I know everyone wishes to offer sympathy to the families of those killed and injured in these awful attacks. These awful events remind us of how precious our freedoms are in a democracy and the need to ensure protection for such freedoms such as freedom of speech. In the Seanad we debated before Christmas the criminal justice Bill, which will introduce new offences designed specifically to target those who return from abroad having fought in Syria and other such places and who may be attracted to extremism and related issues. The Bill is going through the Dáil. I wonder if we could have a debate in the Seanad about freedom of expression because that is the other issue, apart from security and criminal justice matters, in particular about the way we legislate for them. Many people have pointed to problems with the offence of blasphemy. I was hugely critical of the offence provided for as it passed through this House and the Dáil in 2009 as part of the Defamation Act. We could look at amending the legislation to ensure it will not operate as an unjustifiable constraint on free speech in a democracy. I ask for a debate on blasphemy.
None of the newspapers will print anything.
I also welcome the extensive legislative programme for the spring and summer session until the end of July. I note that there are 41 Bills on the "A" list. I very much welcome publication of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill and the fact that the Gender Recognition Bill will commence in this House tomorrow. Some very important legislation is on the agenda. Will the Leader make efforts to ensure the Employment Equality (Amendment)(No. 2) Bill which will amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act and ensure greater equality for LGBT employees, in particular, in the areas of health and education will resume on Committee Stage and pass through Report Stage in the Seanad before the end of February in order that it might be passed into law by Easter? I am conscious, as we all are, of the marriage equality referendum which is to be held in May . I welcome the extensive support evident in opinion polls for such a measure, but it is clear that there cannot be any complacency about it. We need to lay the legislative groundwork for it, not only with the Employment Equality (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill but also with the child and family relationships Bill. I ask the Leader to ensure we will have time set aside for Committee and Report Stages of the Employment Equality (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill.
I wish a happy 2015 to all Members.
I predict that this could be an extraordinary year for Ireland, not just because we will be casting our eyes towards the horizon of the iconic year of 2016. As the scientists and guru meditation experts remind us, the best way to live - the way that provides the most happiness and creativity - is to stay in the now. There will be so much extraordinary opportunity for the Irish in 2015 and it has already started. For example, 2015 could be the year in which we revolutionise the way we do politics in this country. We have heard about the possibility of new political parties, new political movements and a re-imagining of traditional political parties. There is a lot of political fluidity, which is great for innovation. What is dangerous in some of this debate, though, is the suggestion political movements or parties do not have to be rooted in social and economic ideologies of the right or left. I say yes, they do. What really needs to happen in 2015, as we head towards a general election, is that political parties and movements re-imagine what left and right mean and be clear to the public where they stand. Some of this clarity and re-imagining should be embedded in the key economic and social debates that are raging.
I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate with the Minister for Finance on the issue of quantitative easing. As Members are aware, the ECB is supposed to be laying out its plan this Thursday. There are two central questions in this debate, one of which is what form quantitative easing will take in Europe. Will the ECB print money to buy bonds in Europe's banks, insurance companies and pension funds, or will it be the case that each country's central bank is the primary source of money? From today's newspaper reports, it looks as though it might be the latter. I agree with the Minister for Finance that this will not help us much. Second, whatever form quantitative easing takes, will the average taxpayer feel its benefits? Some economists argue that if the ECB buys assets only rich people will gain, because poor people do not own assets. There are ways to implement quantitative easing in order that lower income folks benefit more directly. That is why a debate on such a key issue would be timely and welcome. It would also help us to begin to re-imagine what it means to be on the left or the right in 2015.
In the past few years we have been witness to an extraordinary transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. This is a moral issue, but it also has practical consequences for even the most market-oriented economy. It is astonishing that, as Oxfam has pointed out in the run-up to the Davos conference, the richest 1% of the planet's population controls more than the remaining 99%. That is an extraordinary distortion. The 85 richest people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 50%, or 3.5 billion people. I do not think that distortion is sustainable in the long term. I hope the Irish representatives at Davos will bring this to the attention of that international audience.
Some of my colleagues have mentioned the killings in Paris, including the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which I unreservedly condemn. However, I have to say there is a great discrepancy between the way in which we treat these appalling murders and the situation, for example, in Nigeria, where a Roman Catholic cardinal asked for the world's attention to be focused there as much as on Charlie Hebdo. In addition, devastation has been wrought on Iraq, where many people have been murdered or wounded by the Americans and their allies.
When I look at the demonstration in Paris - "Je suis Charlie" and all that kind of stuff - the representatives there would turn one's stomach. Saudi Arabia was represented. That country sentenced a blogger who had sought greater freedom of expression to 1,000 lashes. After the first 50 he was so ill that the government had to grant an extension in order that his wounds could heal in order that the remaining 950 lashes could be administered. These are the people who are protesting against the events at Charlie Hebdo. Therefore, we need to keep a balance.
We need to keep matters in proportion. One human life is just as valuable as any other, whether in Iraq, Nigeria, the United States or Europe.
This morning, on "Morning Ireland", we heard Mr. Cian McCormack talk to representatives of the EPA and Irish Water about the latest drinking water survey, which states 121 supplies need remedial action. Let us hope Irish Water is working on this issue in order that people will see a difference quickly.
On a related matter, a report in the Sunday Independent by Mr. Jim Cusack highlighted that fuel smugglers were pumping massively toxic waste linked with cancers and abnormalities in unborn babies into water supplies in the Republic. A sample of water taken by the Sunday Independent last week was shown to contain 8,000 times more chemical pollution than clean drinking water. This toxic waste is being pumped directly into streams that feed directly into the River Finn drinking water system. The issue was discussed at Louth County Council yesterday, when a motion put forward by Councillor John McGahon condemning such activity was passed. It is a pity that Sinn Féin councillors did not feel they could support it.
That is not a surprise.
Thankfully, tests by Louth County Council-----
Is the Senator seeking a debate on the issue?
I ask the Cathaoirleach to give me 30 seconds more. Tests by Louth County Council indicate that the water supply for Dundalk is not yet affected, but surely it is only a matter of time before it is. As people, particularly children and young babies, are at risk owing to this contamination, I ask the Leader to invite the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Simon Harris, to come to the House as a matter of the greatest urgency to comment on these happenings and the issue of diesel laundering in general. I also ask the Minister of State, in his role as Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, to commission and produce a report on the level of toxicity in the streams and shucks of south Armagh and north Louth in conjunction with the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland.
I support my colleague on the mortgage issue. The suggestion of a 20% deposit is certainly not fit for purpose. It is a reaction that shows an extraordinary lack of knowledge and ineptitude in the context of trying to nurture a market that is healthy and not overheating but that facilitates normal trade where people can buy and sell houses in the normal way. Naturally, in order that there is no misunderstanding, being involved in that sector, I have an interest to declare in that regard.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Minister for Health will be here later in the afternoon, I seek a specific debate on the nursing home sector. The leaked HIQA report shows that the authority suggests the level of non-compliance requires an investment of €300 million. As I stated, this is a leaked report, but it is worrying when one considers that the HSE is making available only €7.3 million to facilitate the necessary upgrades in that sector. This puts under threat 7,000 residents throughout the country in nursing homes. As we are all aware from our constituencies, there is a waiting list of 2,000 persons for these nursing home beds under the scheme. A debate is needed urgently. There is no Government plan, with a stated budget of €7.3 million, with the investment necessary, according to HIQA, only to remain safe, being €300 million. It is far too important an issue to bury in a broader debate on budgeting within the health service, an issue on which we will be able to touch in the afternoon. It requires a specific debate.
Earlier today I had the absolute pleasure and honour of visiting Showcase: Ireland's Creative Expo in the RDS, which celebrates all Irish design. It was a truly impressive exhibition and I recommend everybody pay a visit to it in the next couple of days. It is the largest international trade fair in Ireland, welcoming buyers from over 26 countries. The 2015 showcase marks an exciting start to the year for Irish design. It is expected that over 5,000 people will attend, from both Ireland and abroad, and the expo will showcase everything that is good about Irish design. It would make one very proud to be Irish to see the wealth of talent and products which are made and designed in Ireland. I was delighted to hear that new buyers have been attracted to the exhibition this year from China following the recent state visit of President Higgins in December, with sales orders in excess of €20 million expected in the next four days. There are almost 500 exhibitors unveiling their latest collections and opening order books. I am delighted to showcase some wares today from Corona Silver and Orla Barry, both situated in Dundalk.
I wish to raise the serious funding issue for the WALK PEER programme which was announced as part of the disability activation project in 2012. Unfortunately, the funding for it is due to run out in a few months in April, with the loss of five staff who work on the project. If it goes, 120 young people in County Louth will lose this vital and excellent support. It provides a service for people with a disability and encourages them to enter work or supported employment. I will take up the issue again as I understand time is flowing. We really need a debate on the matter.
I have three questions for the Leader. Will he bring the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to the House in order that he can let us know what progress has been made in the appointment of the lottery regulator? I do not know who it is. We were promised a lottery regulator, but I do not know if one has been appointed. If somebody has, will he or she make himself or herself known to us? When will the regulator appear? I hope it will be soon, as we have had a major debacle involving lottery machines. I said it would happen and it was well documented in the Daily Mail over the weekend, which included an excellent article on what was happening with machines, particularly their inability to read tickets, etc. Where is the lottery regulator and when can we hope to have one? Will he or she be made known to us?
Will the Leader bring the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, to the House to tell me about the progress of the public water forum we were promised? Some of us put our heads on the line on the water services Bill. We were happy to do so, as I believe we should pay for water, which should be metered-----
We were sold a pup.
It is my personal opinion. What is the status of the public water forum? When is it to be established and when can people start applying to be on it? It is very important.
If the Senator has a friend, she can be on it.
Senators might agree that the next matter is a burning issue. Some of us are paying property tax from salaries or in lump sums, but we have all paid it. Exactly how much of it is going to Irish Water-----
All of it.
I ask the Fianna Fáil Senators not to answer, as we are in this position because of its-----
It is all of it.
Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell to continue, without interruption.
I will ask the appropriate Minister to answer the question.
The Senator took-----
We would not be looking into water meter holes, as Senator Paschal Mooney stated, if it had not been for Fianna Fáil.
That is rubbish.
The Senator has shown her colours. She was sold a pup before Christmas.
In common with others, I welcome the beginning of Commencement Matters. It will make us more efficient than we were when we had the former practice of engaging in Adjournment debates.
I agree with Senator Darragh O'Brien on the proposal that mortgage applicants provide a 20% deposit. That is unrealistic and not related to the market. A figure of 10% to 15% would be much more appropriate, with a cap of 3.5 times the combined salaries of applicants. I also agree with the comments of my colleague, Senator Jim D'Arcy, about Mr. Jim Cusack, whom I met about another matter at a lunchtime meeting in Leinster House today.
What has happened as regards fuel smugglers dumping waste into streams-----
I do not know what they were. I very much agree with the motion tabled by Councillor McGahon which was approved by Louth County Council.
I compliment Mr. Duffy who, unfortunately, is leaving AIB. I wish him well with Clydesdale Bank. I am sure he will do an excellent job, as he has done in the major transformation he has undertaken at AIB. He has made the bank into such a valuable asset for the taxpayer such that it has returned to profitability and is going places. It is always a team effort - just as people here are a team. The strength of the combined team in AIB is going places. It is all very positive and I wish Mr. Dufy well. Please God, he will stay on until his replacement is found and, no doubt, he will have a hand, with the chairman and others, in finding that replacement. It augurs well for the banking strategy which has been in place under the tutelage of the Government.
I second what Senator Katherine Zappone said about the conference held yesterday in Dublin Castle. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, expressed serious concerns that we were creating in Europe a dangerous political vacuum as a result of the economic policies being pursued from Brussels and Frankfurt. I hope that after the elections in Greece, some of the people concerned might stand up and say they made a mistake and that they will reconsider some of their policies.
I note an issue being discussed here, namely, upward-only rent reviews. Some 140 people will shortly lose their jobs in Bewley's around the corner from here. We were heavily influenced by the death of a man who had died near Leinster House. I ask about 140 people losing their jobs. Senator Feargal Quinn has asked that this issue be raised. We ought to seek the Attorney General's opinion on why there can only be upward-only rent reviews. What about the property rights of people other than developers, bankers and so on? What about the property rights of workers?
I share Senator Martin Conway's concern about the costs of the banking inquiry. I am happy to serve on the committee. The lawyers are being paid €264 an hour, which amounts to €528,000 a year. These are costs which Senator Martin Conway has rightly condemned and on which we need to keep a close eye.
I congratulate Mitchel McLaughlin on being the first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly elected from the Nationalist community and supported by the DUP. That is the kind of Northern Ireland we wish for.
They implemented €800 million worth of cuts.
Senator Sean D. Barrett to continue, without interruption, please.
I congratulate the new Canadian ambassador to Ireland, Mr. Kevin Vickers, who has Cork ancestors and about whom the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament in Canada wrote to thank us. I have copied the letters to the Leader and the Cathaoirleach. They are grateful for our interest when Mr. Vickers defended the Canadian Parliament against those who had invaded it on 22 October. I am sure he is a person we would very much welcome here.
I wish to speak about the proposed increase in registration fees for nurses and midwives. It is an 80% increase over two years, from €88 two years ago to a proposed €150 this year. If costs had risen as a result of legislative changes, there might be a case to be made, although it would be a very poor one. There is a growing and deepening suspicion that a figure of €4.7 million will appear in the accounts of the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland which has not published accounts in two years. These accounts are to be published in the next few days and might show a figure of €4.7 million due to impaired loan repayments. A spokesman for the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland seemed to confirm yesterday that this was the case. Therefore, we will be in real trouble.
That is because we are of the view that we can solve our problems within our profession, which is probably as it should be. In the past week or so, the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, called on nurses to go the extra mile or make an additional effort to ensure the crisis in accident and emergency departments was resolved. I contend that they have gone an extra two miles in this regard. In fact, they go the extra mile every day in order to ensure accident and emergency services and the health service in general operate properly. The response from the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland has been to prevent the same nurses the Minister has called on to make the additional effort from working because they will not pay the registration fee. I do not believe nurses should pay that fee, particularly if it is connected to the increased costs in paying off impaired loans. The Minister needs to become involved in dealing with this matter. He made a statement in recent days, but he needs to take a more proactive approach and discover what is the exact position. If the board has incurred debts of €4.7 million in respect of property speculation, this indicates that the malaise within it is even worse than previously thought. Will the Leader ask the Minister to take the approach to which I refer in the interests of resolving the dispute?
It is Senator Gerard P. Craughwell's intention to propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government come before the House today to discuss health and safety issues in the installation of water meters. I take the opportunity to propose the amendment and the Senator will expand on the reasons-----
The Senator cannot propose an amendment to the Order of Business on behalf of another Member.
I am proposing the amendment and Senator Gerard P. Craughwell will second it.
That is okay.
As the Senator may not have someone to second the amendment, I am taking the opportunity to propose it in the first instance.
The other issue to which I wish to refer is the housing crisis. We raised this matter on the Order of Business on several occasions in the run-up to Christmas. I commend the Leader for the range of issues on which the House will take statements in the coming days. These are all matters in respect of which Senators previously sought debates. However, there is also a need to debate the position on housing in the short term. There is a difficulty because a lack of supply and rising rents. In addition, there is a major problem in the context of rent caps and their impact on many people. I do not believe lifting them would constitute a solution. Such a move might have the unintended consequence of increasing rents, thereby making matters more difficult for those in the private rented sector who do not receive rent supplement. However, we must examine the possibility of controlling rents which comes within the powers of the Government. Any of the measures it has put forward to date does not go far enough in meeting people's needs. This matter is increasingly becoming one of concern throughout the State. It began as a major issue in Dublin as a result of rising rents and is now such an issue in Waterford, where the Leader lives. Those Senators who deal with ordinary individuals on a regular basis will know that the problems relating to housing and rent caps are becoming massive. People simply cannot find accommodation and they are finding it difficult to get access to either the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, or the housing assistance payment, HAP, on foot of rent caps. While lifting thoe caps might not represent the solution, there are other actions the Government could take and interventions it could make to help families. I, therefore, request a debate on housing and the supports being put in place to meet people's needs.
Senator David Cullinane has asked for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, to come before the House today. If the Minister is at a location 150 miles from these Houses and there is no way he can get here, does the Senator propose to proceed with a nonsense vote that will be of no relevance in this matter?
Does the Senator have a question for the Leader?
That is my first question.
Where is the Minister?
The Senator is entitled to ask.
He is 150 miles away.
I wish to raise an issue to which I and Senators John Whelan and Denis Landy have made reference on many previous occasions, namely, wind energy. Planning permission with conditions was granted to a particular company for a development in the south east. An issue arose afterwards in the context of noise levels and the local community spent 18 months liaising with Wexford County Council in the interests of bringing about a resolution of the matter. The company involved has stated it is not and will not be compliant with the conditions attaching to the planning permission. The council appears to be hamstrung on the matter. Is it acceptable that a massive industrial development relating to a wind farm can be proceeded with and that the company involved can decide not to comply with a planning condition?
I ask that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government be invited to the House as soon as possible in order we can have a broad debate on wind energy. It is laughable to see that SSE Airtricity has expressed an interest in developing wind farms all over the country, as I saw on RTE yesterday. Part of its advertisement shows an ape running around between wind turbines. I do not know what the significance of that is, but if the company thinks the people of this country are apes and will buy into this, it is completely mistaken. People can see the nonsense of this wind energy project.
It ate Cadbury's chocolate very well.
Will the Leader convey a unanimous vote of sympathy to the remaining Charlie Hebdo staff and the families of 17 people who were murdered in Paris? It was a terrorist attack on the satirical magazine and we must clearly state this House condemns the actions of the terrorists who carried out this cold blooded murder of the journalists involved.
On Senator Ivana Bacik's remarks about freedom of speech, there are also responsibilities in regard to the production of provocative cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. The Koran makes it very clear that any depiction of Muhammad in any shape or form is not acceptable to the 1.3 billion Muslims throughout the world. The Koran also rejects murder and all such acts. Senator David Norris made the very wise point that murder was murder, be it by a Christian or otherwise. However, to put matters in context, the abbot of Glenstal Abbey, Mark Patrick Hederman, said a few days ago that the cover of the most recent Charlie Hebdo featured a tearful Muhammad holding a sign which said "all is forgiven". That is provocative. It is very strange that Air France-----
Is the Senator seeking a debate on the matter?
I am. I also want the Leader to convey our sympathy to the people of France and the families involved. It is quite extraordinary that Air France purchased 20,000 copies of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo-----
It is a secular society.
Air France is an international airline and it bought 20,000 copies with the satirical depiction of Muhammad. It circulated it in the Middle East and beyond. I regard this as highly provocative.
They do not care.
In this world one must be very balanced and fair in how one operates. Freedom of expression is definitely freedom of speech, but it is not to attack or debase any religion, be it Islam or Christianity. It is provocative.
The Senator is over time.
I cannot understand why a company such as Air France would risk being so provocative to the extreme Islamic gunmen who are prepared to take any action required in this regard.
It is exercising freedom of speech.
I congratulate Senator Catherine Noone for the courage she showed recently following a serious attack on social media. As it was not easy, I take my hat off to her. I am extremely proud to see her back in her seat today.
She is not alone.
Unfortunately, I am at odds with my colleagues in Fianna Fáil on the 20% deposit issue, but there should be a debate in the House on the percentage requirement for the purchase of a private dwelling. There are ways around the figure of 20%, but I hope it will be kept in place.
I visited Showcase Ireland at the weekend and was extremely proud to see some of the work produced by Irish designers. However, the tax system is killing the industry. One can design something in Ireland and have it manufactured in China for a fraction of the cost. It is killing the manufacturing industry.
I circulated an e-mail this morning containing photographs of the work practices being engaged in by contractors for Irish Water.
Anybody who looked at the photographs clearly saw that there was a serious health and safety issue with every aspect of the work in which in they were involved. Ramps were poorly stacked up against doors and fencing was placed across people's front doors. It is no way for any organisation to operate. I understand the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is 150 miles away, but I am sure the Minister of State is not that far away. I ask that we amend the Order of Business to take a debate on this most important issue. I second the motion proposed by Senator David Cullinane.
Senator Jim D'Arcy has referred to an article which states fuel smugglers are pumping toxic waste which is linked with cancers and abnormalities in unborn babies straight into water supplies in the Republic. Toxic waste, the result of fuel laundering, is being pumped into the main reservoir that supplies Dundalk and surrounding areas, as well as Crossmaglen in County Armagh. That is how serious the situation is regarding the fuel laundering being carried out, predominantly in Border areas, by gangsters who claim to be representatives of the ordinary people. That is the reality of what is happening. On a number of occasions, with Senators Terry Brennan, Jim D'Arcy and others, I have raised this serious matter. While I commend An Garda Síochána and the Customs service on this side of the Border for the major efforts they are making to discover these illegal operations, the article written by the highly respected security correspondent of the Sunday Independent, Mr. Cusack, highlighted some other very serious concerns, one of which was that a blind eye was being turned to these activities by the security forces and PSNI in the Six Counties. If that is the case, the matter should be addressed as a matter of urgency. The health concerns are extremely serious and should be addressed by the authorities on this side of the Border. The financial loss to the State is estimated at €150 million per year, which makes this a very serious revenue issue. Some £80 million is being lost to the Northern Ireland Assembly. In addition to the call by made Senator Jim D'Arcy for the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris, to come before the House, an urgent meeting should be sought by the Taoiseach with the British Prime Minister and by the Ministers for Finance, Justice and Equality and the Environment, Community and Local Government with their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is an extremely serious issue which raises its head from time to time and then tends to be forgotten about, but there are some very serious questions to be answered by the so-called security forces in the Six Counties.
I join colleagues in extending our sympathy to the people of Paris and all of the families who lost loved ones in the Charlie Hebdo killings. It brings home very clearly to us all how vulnerable we all are. It would be appropriate for the Minister for Justice and Equality to come before the House to update us at an early stage on any potential security threats in this country. I agree with what Senator David Norris said about human life and that many innocent people lose their lives every day in war-torn parts of the world. We should be deeply concerned about eports on young children dying from the cold in refugee camps along the Turkish border close to Syria.
During this term I would like a discussion with the Minister for Foreign and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, on the situation in Syria and associated conflicts.
I strongly support the actions called for by Senators Jim D'Arcy and Diarmuid Wilson on the pollution of watercourses, the loss of revenue to the State as a result of fuel laundering and petrol stretching and the damage inflicted on vehicles on an ongoing basis as a result of this criminality. This is a very small island and it should be possible to put a stop to it. I am deeply concerned about something I read in some of the newspapers over the weekend, which is that as part of the peace process there may be an understanding the authorities should go easy on paramilitaries now involved in criminality.
The Senator is way over time.
If that is the case, we certainly need to have the meeting called for by Senator Diarmuid Wilson between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to sort out this issue once and for all in order that the criminality raised as an issue in the House on an ongoing basis and perpetrated by republicans is stopped.
I call for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to come to the House at an early stage. I am not looking for him to come today, but we need an urgent debate on home ownership. It is something to which many of us aspire in our lifetime. In the past it was possible for many of us to achieve it, as we had a home ownership rate of more than 80%, which was one of the highest in Europe, but this figure has fallen to below 70%. I join my colleague, Senator Darragh O'Brien, in having serious reservations about the imposition of a requirement for purchasers to provide a 20% deposit. When we bought our first houses, we decided we would live in a caravan to save on rent ino rder that we would have a deposit. Many people would not have got on the housing ladder if they had needed a very high deposit. Protection of the banks continues to be put ahead of the interests of the country. I can understand people on six-figure salaries of €200,000 or more may not be able to see the difficulties of those earning between €30,000 and €70,000, but it would be a great saving to the State if we could assist the people concerned in achieving this aspiration held by many. It is right that the extent of the loan should be decided having regard to income ratios but, having said this, a more modest deposit of 10% would be adequate. We need an urgent debate before the Governor of the Central Bank gets carried away with his own thinking on this issue.
The tribunals which were such a scandal in the country have come back to haunt us. Those who were here in previous Seanad terms, dating back to 2000, have heard me say this before. The manner in which they were run, the huge and exorbitant costs and the pedantic approach taken by the chairmen have led to a situation where their findings are being successfully challenged in court. At the time, I remember quoting Mr. Justice Adrian Hardiman of the Supreme Court-----
I ask the Senator to refrain from naming people in the House as they are not here to defend themselves. The Senator well knows the precedent. On top of this, there is the separation of powers.
I applaud the fact that a Supreme Court judge did, during the currency of the tribunals, point to the deficiencies and the manner in which people were not getting fair play. It is high time those involved took responsibility for their actions and they know the honourable course to take. We should have a debate in the House on the issue of legal costs. In the basement of Leinster House a banking inquiry is taking place.
The Senator is way over time.
Members of the legal profession are being paid seven times more than the legislators for sitting at these inquiries and no Government has tackled the issue.
I refer to the debate in the media during the past two weeks regarding accident and emergency departments. There is a shortage of real information on the services provided by the dedicated staff in these departments. For instance, it is projected that there will be 451,000 emergency admissions in 2015. Information on what is happening should be made available. That figure equates to an average of approximately 1,239 people per day. People need to be advised urgently to use all other health services before resorting to accident and emergency departments. If the average weekly number attending departments is more than 8,600, any sudden increase could see that figure increase to 12,000. The HSE, the Department of Health and all of the agencies and people involved in providing health care need to get the message across about the other services available.
That matter is No. 1 on today's agenda.
Yes, but it is important that we get the information across and that we have a debate on this issue.
We closed our Christmas session with the water services Bill and are opening our 2015 session with quite a number of concerns about the quality of drinking water. Senator Diarmuid Wilson referred to reports on fuel smuggling and dangerous and possibly carcinogenic residues flowing into rivers. Senator Gerard P. Craughwell referred to health and safety concerns about water installations. Today's report by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is quite damning. According to it, 20,000 people cannot drink their water because of boil water notices and there are 121 at-risk supplies on its remedial action list. Various schemes in Galway, including in Connemara, have problems with lead, cryptosporidium and E. coli. What is the plan and when can the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, attend the House to report on the remediation action plan? We understand progress has been made, but everyone deserves clean, safe drinking water. It is clear from today's report that many people are being disadvantaged and that their health is being put at risk. There can be no slip-ups on this issue. Will the Leader also explain whether the Minister will always answer to the House on behalf of Irish Water? This is an important question. We need to know who is accountable.
I have often raised the issue of fuel laundering. At the time it related to the question of the number of containers of sludge being deposited on the roads of north Louth and Monaghan, but the problem has grown into something more serious. We do not know the quantity of sludge being dumped into the tributaries, rivers and lakes that, as Senator Jim D'Arcy mentioned, comprise the main source of water for Dundalk town and the area surrounding Cavan Hill in Knockbridge. This is a serious issue. While it was always costly to dispose of the sludge being dumped on the roads and scenic areas of north County Louth and County Monaghan, we do not know what quantity is being dumped into the tributaries. This activity must be stopped forthwith. Continuous monitoring of the tributaries is required. I call for an independent body to assess the water supply.
If this activity is allowed to continue, it will be injurious to the water supply for Dundalk and the surrounding area.
I commend my colleagues in this House who are participating in the banking inquiry. They come from all sides of the House and are doing an exceptionally good job. I also commend the economists and others who are advising and are prepared to advise the banking inquiry committee free of charge because they realise the importance of the work being done by it. I regret, however, that some members of the legal profession who are providing advice at the banking inquiry see fit to charge the State for their work at an hourly rate. They are extremely capable and their expertise is required and essential to ensure the banking inquiry committee receives the best possible legal opinion that the State can provide. I call on them to reduce and, if possible, waive their fees in the public interest because the inquiry is important. As referenced, other inquiries have cost hundreds of millions of euro. The Oireachtas banking inquiry has the potential to set a precedent and create a model for how this type of inquiry can take place in the future. Members of the legal profession, with economists, accountants and others, should do the State some service and make their expertise available to the committee free of charge. We are lucky to have Members of the House like Senator Sean D. Barrett and others, as well as Members of the other House, on the inquiry team. I have no doubt that they are going not just the extra mile but also the extra miles to ensure the inquiry will unearth the truth. I hope we will have the correct narrative that will go into the history books and benefit future generations, thus ensuring we will know what went on during those days.
Senator Darragh O'Brien and other Senators mentioned the Central Bank's rule of having a 20% mortgage deposit. The Central Bank Bill will be brought before the House on Thursday and I know that it will deal with a specific matter. Personally, needing to have a 20% mortgage deposit is a little unrealistic, particularly for young people who are trying to get on the first rung of the housing ladder. Obviously, other Members of the House will disagree with my viewpoint, but I hope sense will prevail and that a progression over a number of years towards a figure of 20% will be contemplated by the Central Bank. I am sure this is not the last time we will have words about it and that we can debate the matter. I am also sure submissions have been made by the public and groups, but we must await what the Central Bank has to state on the matter.
I note the point made by Senator Darragh O'Brien about breast prosthesis and a request that funding be standardised the length and breadth of the country. I agree with him and the subject can be raised with the Minister when he comes into the House after the Order of Business.
Senators Ivana Bacik, Terry Leyden, David Norris and Michael Mullins, among others, mentioned the Paris killings. They were reprehensible acts. Senator Ivana Bacik called for a debate on blasphemy, while other Senators, including Senators David Norris and Michael Mullins, pointed out that one human life was as valuable as another. Such points will be taken into consideration. I am sure we will have a debate on blasphemy in the not too distant future.
Senator Ivana Bacik called for us to proceed with the Employment Protection (No. 2) Bill. I will find out the current status of the Bill and whether the Department is ready to take Committee Stage.
Senator Katherine Zappone mentioned the right-left divide and the need for clarity in political policies. She also called for a debate on quantitative easing. As Senator Sean D. Barrett mentioned, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, commented on the matter at yesterday's conference.
Senator Jim D'Arcy mentioned Irish Water. Senator Fidelma Healy Eames raised the same point which I will address in my final comments.
Senators Jim D'Arcy, Paul Coghlan, Diarmuid Wilson, Terry Brennan and Michael Mullins referred to the toxic waste and sludge being dumped into rivers in the Republic, especially in north Louth, as a result of diesel laundering. Those engaging in this practice are former subversives and gangsters. It is affecting not only the economy but also the health and safety of people in north Louth and on the other side of the Border. I agree that the matter will have to be dealt with firmly. The Garda and the Customs service on this side of the Border take it very seriously and I hope this is also the case in the North. There is a doubt about whether the PSNI and others on the other side of the Border are dealing with it properly, but I can assure the Senators that it will be dealt with. I will certainly raise it with the Taoiseach with a view to having it raised with the British Prime Minister. It is very serious and I know that it will be discussed. There is an item dealing specifically with it on the agenda of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in February. Senator Paul Coghlan is chairman of the relevant sub-committee. I assure the House that the matter will be raised very firmly at that meeting. From a health and safety and an economic perspective, the practice in which gangsters are involved is reprehensible and the sooner they are brought to justice, the better for everybody in the State and those on the other side of the Border.
Senator Marc MacSharry referred to the nursing home sector and the need for major capital investment in some nursing homes in order that they will be safe and fit for purpose. I am sure the matter will be raised with the Minister for Health in the debate on the HSE national service plan.
Senator Mary Moran referred to the Irish design expo at the RDS, showcasing what was best in Irish design. We compliment all those involved. I note the Senator's points about the WALK PEER programme which may be the subject of a Commencement matter in the future.
Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell had a number of questions about the progress made in the appointment of a lottery regulator. I will certainly raise the matter with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
On the public water forum, the Minister will be in the House tomorrow to discuss the issue of water meters, the subject of the Private Members' motion tabled by Fianna Fáil. Perhaps Senators David Cullinane and Gerard P. Craughwell might wait until then to discuss their concerns. I ask them to consider withdrawing their proposed amendment to the Order of Business, as I am sure the matter they wish to discuss can be discussed during the debate on the Private Members' motion tomorrow evening.
Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell also asked about how much of the property tax would go to Irish Water this year. I will ascertain the position with the relevant Minister.
Senator Paul Coghlan complimented Mr. Duffy on the major transformation taking place in AIB and wished him well for the future.
Senator Sean D. Barrett raised a number of items. I have responded to what he said about the comments made by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, at a conference yesterday on the question of quantitative easing. The Senator called for a debate on upward-only rent reviews and costs incurred in that regard. He also welcomed the appointment of the new Canadian ambassador to Ireland, Mr. Kevin Vickers.
Senator John Gilroy lauded the work of nurses and asked the Minister for Health to become more involved in the dispute between the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland and nurses over registration fees. I am sure the Senator could raise that matter with the Minister in the debate we will have on health issues after the Order of Business.
Senator David Cullinane called for a debate on housing and rent caps. I understand the Labour Party intends to propose a Private Members' motion on that issue on 11 February when the relevant Minister will be present to discuss it.
Senator John Kelly spoke about wind energy and raised the question of people not complying with planning permissions. I suggest to him that the local authorities should have a role to play if people are not complying. It would be a serious matter if local authorities were not using their powers to deal with those who do not comply with planning permissions.
Senator Terry Leyden spoke about the Paris killings and suggested the actions of Air France in circulating Charlie Hebdo had been very provocative.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell raised the question of health and safety in so far as it pertained to water meters. He also suggested he was in favour of the retention of the proposed 20% mortgage deposit requirement.
I have dealt with the matter of fuel laundering which was raised by Senator Diarmuid Wilson.
Senator Michael Mullins called for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to report on the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council held in Brussels this week.
Senator Jim Walsh asked for a debate on home ownership. As I said, the Labour Party has tabled a Private Members' motion that it intends to move on 11 February when we can have a debate on the matter. The Senator also called for a debate on legal costs, with specific reference to the cost of tribunals. Senator Martin Conway advised us that some economists were giving advice to the banking inquiry free of charge and called for legal practitioners to adopt a similar course of action. I think we would probably be waiting a long time for that to happen, but one never knows, it might happen.
Senator Colm Burke praised the work of everybody involved in accident and emergency services. He said that, on average, over 8,000 people attended accident and emergency departments each week. I am sure other related matters will be raised during the debate that will take place after the Order of Business.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames, rightly, pointed out that the Environmental Protectin Agency, EPA, had published its annual report for 2013 on drinking water. It points out that while the public drinking water supply is of a high quality, 121 of the country's 978 water supply plants are on the EPA's remedial action list. The 121 plants in question affect almost 940,000 people. There is no question that 121 is a large number. There is a need for improvements to disinfection systems and better management of water treatment services. Further improvements are required owing to the introduction of more stringent requirements for lead.
There is a need for Irish Water to remove and prevent boil water notices, implement a national lead strategy, optimise a treatment process to reduce all contaminants in water and prioritise RAL schemes. The findings of the report reinforce the Government's policy of creating a single national utility to bring new levels of co-ordination, expertise and investment to managing Ireland's drinking water supplies. The findings relate to 2013, the last year for which the local authorities were responsible for water services. Irish Water assumed responsibility for them from 1 January 2014.
It is 2015 according to the EPA.
The reduction in the number of at-risk supplies, from 141 to 121, is welcome. However, the number of people affected by boil water notices and at-risk supplies remains unacceptable. The EPA states greater investment in drinking water infrastructure is needed. That is why a single national utility funded by domestic and non-domestic water charges is so essential. Water charges and the utility approach to water services provision will result in more investment to improve the water network. This year will see increased investment in water infrastructure. It is expected that more than €420 million will be spent in 2015 and Irish Water is beginning to address the problems affecting the system such as lead piping and all of the other matters which the Senator and other Members have raised. The issue is being addressed. It cannot be addressed overnight, but it shows the need for much capital investment in water infrastructure.
Senator Terry Brennan raised the issue of fuel laundering and sludge and the need for continuous monitoring of water supplies, especially in north Louth.
Senator David Cullinane has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on the health and safety issues arising in the installation of water meters be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
No, it is being withdrawn.