Order of Business

The Order of Business is Nos. 1, 2 and 3 on the Order Paper and No. 1a on the Supplementary Order Paper. No. 1, motion regarding the proposed Commission of Investigation into certain matters relating to the Cavan-Monaghan division of the Garda Síochána, is to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 1a, statement by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport regarding the possible sale of Aer Lingus, is to be taken at 2.15 p.m. and to conclude no later than 2.45 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed four minutes each and the Minister to be called on to reply no later than 2.42 p.m.; No. 2, Gender Recognition Bill 2014, Second Stage (resumed) is to be taken at 2.45 p.m.; and No. 3, Universities (Development and Innovation) (Amendment) Bill 2015 is to be taken at 4.30 p.m., with the time allocated for this debate not to exceed two hours. Tributes to the former Senator John Carty will be heard on the conclusion of No. 1.

I thank the Leader for facilitating the statements on Aer Lingus. It is only half an hour, but it is a start, and I will talk about that in a minute.

On my own behalf and on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group in the Seanad, I condemn the protest, for want of a better phrase, that President Higgins was confronted with and the abuse that was hurled at him.

It is a disgrace. President Higgins is our Head of State. These people, who were, apparently, protesting on behalf of workers, what they said to him and the manner in which they went about their protest was disgusting and despicable. The President represents all the people of Ireland, as a custodian of our Constitution. He had no choice but to sign the water services legislation. That is his role. Even more galling is the fact that Members of the other House, Deputy Paul Murphy included, would see fit to justify that behaviour.

No, they did not.

He did not. He condemned the language.

Order. Senator O'Brien without interruption.

The only language he condemned was the use of the phrase referring to the President as "a midget". That was it. He did not ask anybody to withdraw calling him "a parasite" or anything like that. If Senator Norris was Uachtarán na hÉireann today - fair play to him for standing in the election campaign - I would expect the same respect and courtesy to be shown to him, or to whoever the President might be.

I just want this on the record, but am not here to debate the issue with Senator Norris, for whom I have great regard. What is happening in this State is a disgrace. I am talking as someone who voted against the Water Services Bill. All of us have different views on this issue, but that is not the way to protest. Certainly, crossing a line through that type of protest against the President and Head of State is a dangerous line to cross and is not acceptable. The Seanad should say with one voice that it is not acceptable.

We discussed Aer Lingus on the Order of Business yesterday and I welcome the fact the Minister will be in the House for half an hour today and welcome the contributions made by Members from all sides yesterday. This is a serious situation for the company, the country and for Ireland in general in regard to our connectivity with Heathrow and job security. I agree with what Senator Whelan said yesterday, that the Seanad should speak as one voice on this. It should state that as far as it is concerned, the Government should not sell its stake of 25.1% in Aer Lingus and should protect Ireland's strategic interest. With that in mind, I ask Members to look at my motion, which does not condemn the Government or anything like that. No. 60, motion No. 14, proposes:

That Seanad Éireann calls on the Government to reject the IAG/British Airways bid to purchase Aer Lingus and believes that the Government should retain its 25.1% stake in the company so as to protect Ireland's strategic interests and to support job retention in Aer Lingus.

I intend to move an amendment to the Order of Business to have this motion taken before No. 1. It would be advantageous if the Seanad accepted that motion in advance of the Minister coming to the House, because it would show that the Seanad stands as one against the sale of the 25.1% stake the Government holds in Aer Lingus.

To clarify, is that to come before No. 1?

Yes. In regard to the new Central Bank rules published on mortgages, I welcome to some degree the slight change the Central Bank has made in regard to a 10% deposit on mortgages up to €220,000. However, I believe that 20% for mortgages above that is far too restrictive, particularly in urban areas. In Dublin, for example, look at what we are asking first-time buyers to save, although I acknowledge it is less than the full 20%. Look for example at people who are trying to upgrade, such as people stuck in apartments who want to buy houses. These people are not deemed first-time buyers and the full 20% requirement for them is far too much. I ask the Leader to schedule a debate on this issue. I understand the Minister will bring forward legislation to copper fasten the proposal and that is probably the time for debate. Does the Leader have any indication of when that might be?

I concur with Senator O'Brien in his condemnation of the nature of the protests against President Michael D. Higgins. Any democrat should join in condemning those protests, which are clearly unacceptable. As Uachtarán na hÉireann, the President represents all of the people of Ireland, at both national and international level, and should be above politics. Most fair-minded people recognise this. To my memory, there has not been a protest of this nature against any President about any aspect of Government policy, nor is it appropriate there would be. People have a right to protest, but to protest peacefully. This protest did not fall within that realm and should be condemned.

I welcome the change in the Order of Business to enable a debate today on the potential takeover offer for Aer Lingus. I have made my position clear, that I oppose any sale of the Government's 25% stake in Aer Lingus. As the record would show, the Labour Party opposed the privatisation of most of Aer Lingus by Fianna Fáil in 2006.

I also ask the Leader to provide for a debate on the new Central Bank rules on mortgages, which I expect will be forthcoming in the near future. I welcome the relaxation of the 20% deposit requirement for first-time buyers. As Patrick Honohan said yesterday, first-time buyers were not the problem. It is also worth welcoming the additional restrictions on buy-to-let buyers and investors, whose investments have been seen as more of a problem in creating the bubble. It is good to see the Central Bank distinguishing between categories of buyers taking out mortgages. However, many of us still have concerns about overly onerous restrictions, particularly on first-time buyers in Dublin where the €220,000 limit is low. I accept they are subject to only 10% on that. It is good to see some flexibility built into the system, but perhaps we could debate whether there should be more.

I welcome the passage yesterday of the motion on the establishment of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes. More Senators, including myself, wanted to speak on that issue, but the debate finished somewhat prematurely. The way that happened was unfortunate, that through nobody's fault, there were not enough speakers in the Chamber at the time. The appointment of Judge Yvonne Murphy to chair the commission is welcome and I welcome the other eminent commissioners, Professors William Duncan and Mary Daly. I wish them well with their important work of inquiring into this scandal from our past.

This is European cervical cancer prevention week and Cervical Check and the IFPA have joined together in launching a campaign to make women more aware of the need for cervical checks. All the women Members have been sent some information on this issue and I hope the male Members have too. The campaign is entitled the Pearl of Wisdom campaign and the social media campaign can be accessed via the hashtag #ShareTheWisdom. I wish to support this.

I would like to raise the issue of the situation that obtained in the past few days in a school in south County Dublin, Coláiste Eoin, where a group due to talk about homophobic bullying was given half an hour's notice that the session would not take place, despite the fact it had visited the school for a successful visit previously. Apparently, on this occasion, the school management was contacted by a group of parents who wanted to know why the other side was not represented. I find this extraordinary. The other side of a group talking about homophobic bullying is a group of people in favour of homophobic bullying. What is going on here? This is utter lunacy.

This, in my opinion, is the pernicious effect of the McKenna judgment. We need to look again at this judgment, at this requirement for balance and for 50% representation from each side, no matter how absurd the situation becomes. This House should take on the job of considering amending this legislation. The situation reminded me of the time when Joe O'Toole and myself were pilloried by conservative elements for campaigning for the Stay Safe programme in schools. We were told we were infringing parents' rights, as if parents had a right to interfere with their own children. I remind people that the group in question in regard to the school was a non-political, non-lobbying group which had nothing to do with the marriage equality amendment.

Another matter raised here had to do with Deputy Paul Murphy and what was stated on the radio as incitement by him. I heard him plainly and unreservedly condemning both the language and the tone of the protests against the President and do not see how this could possibly be construed as incitement. He sustained people's right to protest and people might have different views on that. I would not protest against the President and think he is doing a good job. President Higgins is not a shrinking violet. I remember him in the 1980s interrupting a conferring in Galway university by-----

We are not discussing the President in this House.

-----shouting at Ronald Reagan. The President is a mature balanced man and I doubt he was as outraged as people suggest in order to score political points on this issue.

I wish to raise the issue of the consequences of patients in hospital beds being unable to transfer to nursing homes.

One of the reasons for this is not the most obvious one that the fair deal scheme is delayed by 11 weeks, which is also a factor, but the fact that general practitioners, GPs, in areas that have nursing homes are limited by the number of medical card holders they can have on their list. They are unable to take on new patients who have medical cards because it would exceed their prescribed number. I am aware of one instance where the nursing home cannot fill its beds, the GPs the patients currently have are too far away from the location and the local GP is unable to take the patients onto their list. What is happening, in effect, is that beds in hospitals are being tied up, the nursing homes are not doing the job they should be doing and the patients are caught in the middle. This must be brought to the attention of the Minister for Health. It makes no sense. I am aware the crisis has abated a little but we still have trolley watch on a daily basis and there are still many people on trolleys at night, including in my local hospital in south Tipperary.

With the use of a little common sense there is an opportunity in the situation I have outlined. GPs could be allowed to take on extra people on their lists, which means the people who are in hospital beds can move to the nursing homes in the relevant areas, free up the hospital beds and decrease the number of people on trolleys in hospitals. I ask the Leader to bring this to the attention of the Minister for Health. It is not the full solution but it is certainly part of the solution to the problem of people on trolleys in hospitals.

The bomb attack on the office of Deputy Michelle Mulherin is a very worrying and sinister development. It could easily have resulted in loss of life or very serious injury. It is not just an attack on the office of a Member of this Parliament, but an attack on the Oireachtas and on everybody in public life. It is also an affront to democracy. This country has a proud record of respect for democracy. There are many opportunities for people to express their views if they disagree with a Member of the Oireachtas or a particular policy. On several occasions in this House issues have been raised regarding the manner in which protests have taken place. Some were mentioned again this morning. Deputy Mulherin is a young woman who came into public life to serve her community and her country, and it is not right that she should have to do it in the shadow of fear or with the feeling that she must stay silent. I do not know what the issues are, but we must deplore what has happened and nip it in the bud.

There is an air of anarchy in the country. Members are aware of this in their own communities. Luckily, it has not gained momentum. However, a firebomb attack is so serious that if Members of the Oireachtas do not make their position clear about it, the signal or message might well be conveyed that it is acceptable. It is not acceptable and we should not let the matter lie without deploring it.

We must be very careful about the requirement that a purchaser have a 20% deposit for purchasing a house. One of the current problems in this country is that a huge number of people in the 25 to 40 year old age group have not had the opportunity to acquire their own property. I accept the reason the Central Bank put forward this proposal of a 20% deposit once the property is over a certain value, but we are not doing anything at present to help people who wish to get on the property ladder. I can give a simple example. If I own a house and I carry out renovations, I can claim back the VAT. Why can we not consider giving a small amount of help to people who are purchasers? Why can we not consider introducing something similar in respect of a first time purchaser, whereby they could get some type of contribution towards the risk they are taking? If we can encourage more people to buy their own property, the demand for the provision of social housing will be reduced.

I recall when I was working in a legal capacity an occasion when somebody with four young children came to my office to pay a deposit on a house. The deposit required was £100 and the cost of the house was £21,000. They did not even have the £100 deposit at the time but were able to borrow it from the bank. They bought the house and were able to service the loan. That was when the interest rate on loans was 18%. Now the interest rate is under 5%, so we should be giving some further assistance to people. We must also fast-track planning for housing development. We are not doing enough on that. There should be a debate in the House on the housing issue, where the delays are occurring and what we can do to eliminate them.

I wish to raise the motion on the investigation into certain matters relating to the Cavan-Monaghan division of An Garda Síochána to be taken without debate today. There was a ruling by the Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil that the motion would have to be taken without debate. That is not good enough. The excuse given is that this matter could become sub judice, but I do not accept that. We are talking about a hearing that will be heard by High Court judges and I do not believe one could make the same argument regarding High Court judges being swayed by arguments or debates taking place in this House on an important motion-----

The ruling has been made and it must be adhered to.

We do not accept that ruling. We oppose the proposal, first and foremost.

The Chair has ruled on that matter.

I accept that, but I am entitled to offer my opinion. I have just put it on the record of the House, which is what I sought to do.

The second issue I wish to raise is the debate on Aer Lingus. Obviously, a debate is welcome but a half hour debate on such an important issue is not good enough. Only a small number of Senators will get an opportunity to speak. The issue is of fundamental importance to the people of this State and, indeed, of the island. It is a massive issue that must be properly discussed and debated. Having a token debate for half an hour just for the sake of it does not do the issue justice. I oppose that. Any debate is welcome but it should be for much longer than half an hour.

My final point is about issues that were raised yesterday regarding a possible debate in the House on a debt conference. Next week, the Taoiseach will meet the President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, and the President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. When he does so he must put a debt conference on the agenda and not leave the new incoming Greek Government isolated in making demands for restructuring of debt or dealing with states' levels of indebtedness, especially when one considers that the debt to GDP ratio in this State is 111%. If any country should be demanding a debt conference and seeking movement on the debt, much of which is not ours in the first place but private banking debt, it should be this country. It is regrettable that the Taoiseach has ruled out a debt conference, but we should have a debate on it in this House. The Dáil should have one too but we can only seek a debate here. I reiterate the call I made yesterday that, if possible, the Leader afford us the opportunity to have a debate on that important issue next week.

Back in 2008, at the outset of the banking and financial crisis, I said the fear of losing one's home was even more traumatic and stressful than the prospect of losing one's job, even though the two often go hand in hand.

I understand the Taoiseach has wisely chosen to meet the practitioners from the insolvency services which is welcome and long overdue. Unfortunately, the insolvency services, as set out under legislation, are not working. At the time that the legislation was put through I regarded it as a bankers' charter. Unfortunately it has turned out to be a bankers' charter because the banks can veto everything that happens. The so-called resolution process for mortgages in distress, under the same legislation, really is a long and winding roadmap to repossession. That is where it ends up and that is where it always ends up.

For us to move, assist and facilitate any repossession of family homes, where people are doing their best to meet their repayments, is tantamount to eviction. These are people who cannot pay; it is not that they will not pay. The Government should not have any hand, act or part in such endeavours. We must revisit the legislation and the insolvency provisions because the banks cannot be allowed to carry on like this. We have a ticking time-bomb because between 25,000 and 40,000 mortgages - a conservative estimate - are in serious distress and deficit of over two years so it is an unsustainable debt. All that will happen, one way or the other, is that it is the taxpayer who must pay. If these people's homes are repossessed who will have to rehouse them? It will be the taxpayer. The bank will write-down the value of the property and then sell it to someone else which is not a solution. The banks must be stopped in their tracks. This social time-bomb will explode this year unless the Government intervenes.

I second Senator Darragh O'Brien's amendment to the Order of Business.

I wholeheartedly agree with his comments on the President. It is totally unacceptable that the highest officeholder in the land, who is totally independent and represents all of the people regardless of their political background or persuasion, should be treated in such a bad manner. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable and I add my name to the list of people who condemned the attack.

I also join with Senator Ó Murchú in condemning the attack on Deputy Michelle Mulherin's office yesterday evening. The circumstances of the attack remain unclear. However, the attack is unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances.

I heard the Taoiseach's being interviewed on "The Pat Kenny Show" on my way here this morning. He said something that we should all be aware of. He said that in his 40 years in public life he had become aware of how to judge the expression on people's faces and he upheld the right to demonstrate against Government policy. I would like to add to his comments. I do not blame people for demonstrating because we can all list the unnecessary promises the Government made prior to the election which it has since broken.

The Taoiseach continued in the interview by saying, although their number is very small, that one can observe the hatred in people's faces. That is a very dangerous situation in a democracy. Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Hatred created that camp and hatred is the furthest thing away from democracy. We are only a small step away from those depths if we do not realise what democracy means to this country.

I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Education and Skills to the House to give us an update on the ongoing talks about the proposed reforms of the junior certificate.

I agree with Senator Darragh O'Brien's condemnation of the disgraceful attack on the President. Michael D. Higgins is a most respected first citizen, he is doing an excellent jobs and is above politics. As Senator Wilson has said, he should be regarded by everybody in this democracy. Some dangerous forces are afoot so we must guard against democracy sliding into anarchy.

This morning I want to give a general welcome to the Central Bank's relaxation of mortgage requirement rules. We understand its reasoning for doing so as wanting to prevent any further creation of a property bubble. I welcome the 10% first-time buyers' requirement.

As Senator Darragh O'Brien has said, the €220,000 limit for Dublin is far too restrictive. As the Governor has said, Dublin means everything in the housing property situation. One would hardly get a bird's nest in Dublin for €220,000. If one were lucky one might get a one bedroom apartment for that sum. What about couples starting off? They would be lucky to even find a one bedroom apartment for that amount. This issue needs to be re-examined. Therefore, I agree with other Senators that we should debate the matter. I would appreciate if the Leader could arrange a debate in early course. We should debate the matter as it urgently needs to be revisited.

I welcome the fact that the Leader shall bring in the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, in early course, to discuss the potential takeover offer for Aer Lingus. Let me remind Senators that there is no formal offer as of yet. However, we can discuss the matter when we are dealing with it.

I am a proud former sergeant of the 1st Infantry Battalion in Galway. Therefore, I am distressed to find PDFORRA, the organisation which represents rank and file members of the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps, has had to lodge a case in Europe for official recognition. The case has been lodged under the European Social Charter because PDFORRA has been excluded from national wage negotiations. As many as 20% of PDFORRA members are on such low pay that they are in receipt of the family income supplement. We have heard stories of Defence Forces members having to sleep in their cars because they cannot afford the petrol it would take to go home. Recently, we learned that Defence Forces members assigned to provide a guard of honour at the funeral of the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, had to borrow uniform parts in order to participate.

The Council of Europe upheld a ruling by the ECSR to allow AGSI members to participate in trade union action. The ruling followed a complaint by the AGSI against a Government ban on their participation in trade union action. Why is PDFORRA being asked to fight the same battle when it has already been won? What is it about this country that we force people to go down the same legal route in order to get recognition for something they are justly entitled to?

I want the Leader to ask the Minister for Defence to come here, at his earliest convenience, to debate the current state of the Defence Forces in Ireland. Our soldiers and sailors stay up at night to guard this country, and our sailors put their lives in peril keeping this country as drug free as possible. To think that we are treating them in this way, to my mind, is abominable. I ask the Leader to organise the debate.

With the Cathaoirleach's indulgence, I shall raise an urgent issue that came to my attention this morning. I refer to the fact that people who lost discretionary medical cards and subsequently had them returned, have received solicitors' letters for their hospital visits during the short period they were without a medical card. I ask the Leader to investigate the matter and to report back, if he can.

I understand that people are very angry after enduring eight years of austerity imposed to get the country back in recovery. First, I join in condemning the recent protest, if that is the correct word, against the visit of President Higgins to Coláiste Eoin in Finglas. It is fair and reasonable to attack ideas in a democracy but it is totally unacceptable to make a personal and vindictive attack. We have seen this as well with the attack on Deputy Mulherin's office which must be condemned, and also with the outrageous treatment of the Tánaiste some weeks ago in Jobstown. We can also point to the almost forgotten incident some months ago when the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Riordáin, was daubed with vile graffiti.

There is a certain level of nastiness creeping into politics which is totally unacceptable. It has to be denounced unambiguously by all democrats. I have heard the use of clever words and phraseology to qualify this abuse in the other House. There has been a silence among some parties in this House too with regard to condemning this awfulness. It is said that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to stay quiet. It could not be more apt or timely to remind people of that. As democrats we must remind people to unambiguously denounce every instance of this kind of thuggery when we find it.

I support the comments made on the attacks of the Office of the President. It must be remembered it was not an attack on the person of Michael D. Higgins but an attack on the institution of the presidency. That is something that should give pause for thought to the members of the public who have increasingly become disillusioned with party politics. Perhaps we have a responsibility collectively in that regard. At the same time, however, it is incumbent on us as democrats in the Chambers of the national Parliament that we take each and every opportunity to condemn outright any attempt to undermine the democratic nature of our society. That is essentially what that attack was about. Whether those people thought about it or believed it, that is fundamentally what it was about.

I also support the call by Senator Craughwell for a debate on the Defence Forces. They have always been the Cinderella section of government, despite the fact the majority of the people supports their peacekeeping efforts and the need to have them in all their various facets.

I support Senator Paul Coghlan's call for a debate on the whole housing issue. The Construction Industry Federation has been quoted in the media recently as stating new housebuilding effectively stopped over the last several months because of the uncertainty surrounding the whole issue of mortgage requirements. I do not think that is acceptable. Maybe because it is a lobby organisation, it is spinning a certain story. Essentially, however, if there is a real problem with housebuilding, particularly in the greater Dublin area, then there is a need for the Government and local councils to intervene legislatively, or otherwise, to ensure builders build those houses because the demand is plainly there. I welcome the initiative by Senator Coghlan in this regard and hope the Leader will respond positively to it.

This morning the Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, announced €17.5 million for sustainable transport measures for Galway, Cork, Limerick and Waterford cities. This is very much to be welcomed, particularly in Galway, a city grappling with traffic congestion. Up to €2.2 million has been allocated for Galway to help deal with traffic congestion, including road upgrades and improvements, more visible variable-messaging and parking signage, pedestrian crossings and bus stop operations. This is crucial for the development of tourism and local business. As the economy is improving, more people are now commuting to and from work across the country. This funding is critical to improving access and safety on our road system.

I join in the condemnation of two recent serious incidents, namely the fire-bombing of Deputy Michelle Mulherin's office and the verbal attacks and assaults on the President. To echo the concerns of Senator Diarmuid Wilson, we need to be careful that there is a fine line around the growing movement which could be considered incitement to hatred. I understand people are angry, disappointed and struggling. We have to be able to communicate, however, without putting lives and property at risk, as well as the office of the President.

I welcome yesterday's measured attempt by the Governor of the Central Bank to strike a balance between giving access to first-time buyers at the 10% deposit level while, at the same time, ensuring we do not reignite another credit bubble. This was a responsible move on his part. While I know it is not ideal and may need tweaking, we must give the Governor credit for listening and for regulating, something a previous Regulator did not do.

Will the Leader organise a debate with the Minister for Health on the recent euro health consumer index which showed Ireland has slipped eight places from 14 to 22 in its ranking after its waiting list data was found to have lost credibility? Ireland got a red score for hospital-acquired infections like MSRA, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, the vomiting bug and waiting lists. Last week, on waiting lists, the Minister told the House he would not get involved in individual hospitals because his job is policy. This index clearly stated our waiting list data has lost credibility and that the health system must now listen to patient organisations. We must take in the qualitative as well as the quantitative data. The Minister needs to take that on board as Ireland is now on a par with Romania when it comes to patient empowerment and with Sweden for terrible waiting lists. We have slipped way down in the rankings.

The Minister must have targeted interventions that will make a difference. Some services are working like the advanced nurse practitioner scheme. We need to look at good practice. My colleague, Deputy Denis Naughten, has pointed out that one in eight hospital beds is taken up by COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. If there were targeted community intervention on this condition, up to 57% of beds would be saved. That is smart thinking. We need to bring the Minister into the House to discuss interventions.

The Senator can make those points during the debate. I call Senator Eamonn Coghlan.

I will raise an issue which might have been more appropriate for me to raise several minutes ago when there were two dozen primary school children and their teachers in the Gallery. Yesterday, Mr. Sean Cottrell, the chief executive officer of the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, called for a mandatory two hours of physical education in primary schools per week. In his words, “A healthy mind in a healthy body captures the essence of a holistic education”. He said something needs to be done urgently in this regard.

Three years ago, I brought my Points for Life initiative to the House in a Private Members’ motion. As a result of that motion and debate on it, the PDST, the Professional Development Service for Teachers, and PE PAYS, Physical Education, Physical Activity and Youth Sport, research centre at the University of Limerick, conducted a pilot programme in north Wicklow schools. The results were poor, which we knew then. However, as a result of the pilot programme, there were significant improvements in this area. Where has the programme gone from there? Nowhere. It has been kicked to touch by the Department. I have written to the Minister for Education and Skills on several occasions since last July and only recently last week about this issue calling for a meeting. Will the Leader organise a debate with the Minister? Once and for all, we have to do something about this issue. I want Seanad Éireann to be the leader in ensuring something happens in this regard. Up to 85% of 1,000 teachers surveyed said we need urgent reform in this area from the Department of Education and Skills. We are running out of excuses and we can no longer put it on the long finger. Physical education, which is a core subject in primary school, must be taken as seriously as other core subjects such as mathematics and Irish. I would like to have the Minister for Education and Skills in the House to see a way forward and something positive done in the area physical education. This is not just about obesity but the overall future well-being of our children and our youth.

I, along with the majority of my colleagues, give general support to the proposal on mortgage lending made by the Governor of the Central Bank. It is not perfect - no public policy ever has been or will be - but the Governor made a reasonable attempt to strike the right balance. Perhaps some further tweaking will be required but that can be worked on as we see the impact of the policy.

Senator Coghlan made an interesting comment, which shows where the problem really lies. He correctly stated that, on house prices, it is all about Dublin. I suspect the reason for this is our failure down the decades to put in place a proper regional strategy. A new and dynamic regional strategy will be a bridge too far during the Government's remaining term of office or during the term of the next Government. However, it is something upon which we must reflect because the problem will continue to be about Dublin - whether it is a housing, joblessness or homelessness crisis - while we continue to focus on our one large city and do not put the resources, planning, development and structures into places such as Cork, Waterford, Kilkenny, Galway, Sligo and Tralee. This must mean building significant population hubs around the country while also looking at planning, development, housing and industry from a regional perspective.

While we have a long and busy session before us, I again ask the Leader to arrange a substantive debate on regional planning and development. A few ham-fisted efforts have been made to address this, including decentralisation, the creation of hub towns and gateways. However, these were nothing more than one-page electioneering stunts and inevitably did not work. There has to be scope and space for significant regional planning in the country, across the broad spectrum of development. I ask the Leader to set aside time for a debate on regionalisation at local government and industrial level as it is very much a part of the solution to many of the problems we have in this country.

I join with colleagues in condemning the outrageous attack on our President by the so-called water protesters. Deputy Paul Murphy would be well-advised to get his megaphone out again, to explain to his supporters the constitutional role and independence of the President and to work towards taking the nastiness we have seen recently out of these protests. It is not serving our democracy well. I also wish to condemn the attack on the office of Deputy Mulherin in Ballina last night. Not alone is it an attack on our democracy, it is also an attack on a woman politician. At a time when we are trying to attract more females into the political system, this is sending out the wrong message. I strongly applaud the Garda for the speed with which its members arrested someone for questioning on this outrageous attack.

I welcome the fact that in a recent ballot IMO members have supported the new salary scales for new entrant consultants. These new pay scales and improved salaries will, I hope, keep more of our graduates at home and persuade many experienced consultants working abroad to return to Ireland. We need to get the message out to medical graduates that pay and conditions are beginning to improve again in Ireland and that we want them to be part of the health recovery underway here. I hope the HSE will move quickly to advertise and fill the many consultant vacancies in our hospitals so that issues raised in this House, such as waiting lists and patient safety, can be addressed as a matter of urgency. It is very much to be welcomed and I hope it will be the first step in addressing the major issue of our young graduates emigrating in large numbers and that we will see movement in the opposite direction from hereon.

I wish to raise the issue, which I raised already last week, of the CSO survey on income and living conditions. I was surprised that it did not make the radio or the newspapers at the weekend. The survey has confirmed that child poverty has been rising sharply during the economic downturn. This means that many children in the country are living in consistent poverty, meaning they are living both at risk of poverty and experiencing deprivation. The figure has doubled, from 6% to 12% between 2008 and 2013. As I said last week, the Minister, Deputy Burton, is acting in a brutal manner in the cuts made to payments to lone parents and parents who are trying to work, and in what she is intending to do in July. We must put a stop to it. We should support the Spark campaign that is trying to stop this. I would like to know what my Labour Party colleagues have to say on the Minister's attack on lone parents. I request an urgent debate on the CSO income and living conditions report that was launched last week. We need to get this on the radar.

I am dealing with a lone parent who had to get out of her home in the Dublin south area because the landlord put up the rent. The family lost their home in September. They were sent to a hotel in Swords, miles away from their schools. Now they are back in the IMI building in Sandyford. However, they have no facilities for cooking or washing. They are nearer to their schools but they are living in deprivation. The CSO report, which is an outstanding report, should be the number one issue in the country.

I add my voice to those condemning the treatment of our President. The anger can be easily understood but the actions not. Likewise, I know my colleague, Deputy Mulherin, to be a hard-working and decent person. I am appalled at the treatment she has received. We are heading down a very dangerous road in Irish politics if we are going to see this on a weekly basis.

I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Coghlan. He has raised an issue which I had intended to raise. It relates to the issue of where certain activity had been banned in schools previously. I had called for that to be reviewed. I was glad to see Seán Cottrell raise the issue of two hours of PE being mandatory in schools. There is no question but that obesity is on a dangerously fast rise in Ireland. I have concerns about young people becoming increasingly overweight and obese. As Senator Coghlan said, this is not just about obesity. It is about the health of the nation at large. Two hours of compulsory PE was also suggested by the Irish Heart Foundation and the Federation of Irish Sport last October. Prior to this, I had suggested half an hour of PE a day, 2.5 hours or slightly more per week, to be made mandatory. About that time, a SafeFood Ireland survey showed 90% of parents believed 30 minutes of school time should be devoted to PE every day. We are at the bottom of the EU league in terms of time spent on PE in our schools, with Irish children getting just over half the EU average of 109 minutes of physical education. By making a half hour of daily exercise mandatory in the school timetable, we can move to the top of the table.

Is the Senator looking for a debate on the issue?

I am and I join with Senator Coghlan in seeking such a debate. A very worrying fact is that a percentage of our 15 years old teenagers are already showing signs of cardiovascular disease. In addition, a recent survey of almost 1,000 principals showed that 85% of them identified physical education-----

The Senator should make those points during the debate.

What does the Senator want to ban today?

I would like to impose compulsory education. It is clear that action must be taken. I seek a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills at the earliest possible juncture.

We had a very useful debate here yesterday afternoon with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White. It was perhaps too ambitious in that we dealt with almost his entire brief, from broadband to energy issues, communications, and post offices. Everyone made useful contributions. However, some of the important points were left out and the Minister did not have the time to answer fully all the points raised.

The Minister said that the closure of post offices has now slowed down to a trickle - he said there were five closures in the past 12 months - and we accept what he says.

However, I wish to highlight an equally serious situation, which is the wholesale movement of post offices from the traditional retail centres of provincial towns to the mega superstores and greenfield sites such as Lidl and Aldi which are out of town. Just like a church or a school, a post office was an integral part of community life in the traditional strong market towns with a good retail base, such as my own town, Listowel, for example.

Like every other town in Ireland we have witnessed more and more shops and traditional businesses closing. There are shops to let and shops for sale - everything but shops open for business. The only growth areas I see are in charity shops and, to a lesser extent, betting offices, which suggests a bleak future. Post offices have an obligation to the communities that support them. Many of the smaller businesses depended on the post office - the small shops and pubs especially on pension day and things like that. The Minister would be advised to come back to the House for a specific debate on that particular aspect over which he has control to a certain extent.

I support what Senator Landy said about the fair deal scheme. We should have a debate on that scheme, which should be renamed "a raw deal" scheme for the elderly people because that is what they are getting now. It used to be when people applied for the fair deal, once it was sanctioned it was granted from the date of application, but now it is not. Now people have to wait between 11 and 16 weeks before getting funding for the nursing home bed they are occupying, which costs the elderly person between €14,000 and €16,000 which they may not have. That is why we have bed blockers in hospitals. The patients simply cannot afford to go out to a nursing home because they do not have the funding to do so. However, it costs approximately €7,000 a week to keep them in the public hospitals. It is outrageous.

They are now being moved to public nursing homes in the region, but not close to where they are seeking nursing home accommodation. A lady in my county, who wants to get into a nursing home in County Roscommon, has been discharged to a public nursing home in Ballina, County Mayo, 60 miles away from her home. It is not fair on her because she knows absolutely nobody. Nor is it fair on family members who have to travel such a distance to visit their elderly relative.

It is time we had a debate in the House about the fair deal scheme. We need to go back to the way it was whereby when somebody's application for the fair deal is eventually approved, it is granted from the date of application.

This morning I listened to the Newstalk "Breakfast" show hosted by Ivan Yates. It contained an interview with Bobby Kerr, a proven successful entrepreneur, who spoke about the post office business development group. This body has been set up under the auspices of the Minister of State with responsibility for rural affairs, Deputy Ann Phelan. I commend the Government on having a Minister of State with responsibility for rural affairs to take control of such issues. In the interview the proposals were met with a certain cynicism and it seemed like shooting the thing down before it ever got off the ground. It needs to be given a chance to see how they can improve and modernise the post office network.

Rural Ireland has been dying for quite a while and it is high time it was well and truly supported. I hope this group takes on board the views of the Irish Postmasters Union, which wants to improve post office business and keep it going. We cannot underestimate the value of rural post offices, as Senator O'Sullivan has said. Even with social welfare payments, including pension payments, it gives people a social outlet - a place where they meet and can discuss the matters of the day.

The review group should be ambitious. The banking system is in a complete and utter mess. We have a network of post offices. I always said selling off ACC was a mistake. Perhaps that is the road it should go down - to increase the banking service in the post offices and maybe make it a State bank.

I am not sure if my colleagues are aware of this. I am glad to announce that our esteemed colleague, Senator Jimmy Harte, is making great progress and has regained consciousness, which is great news. He is still in hospital. I wish him further success and I hope he will be back with us and back home in the not too distant future. It is great news.

I also welcome the incoming secretary general of ICTU, Ms Patricia King. I acknowledge her contribution to trade unionism over many years. As was stated here last week, she is its first lady secretary general and I wish her every success. I also congratulate the outgoing secretary general, Mr. David Begg, and acknowledge his contribution to the trade union movement over many years.

I wish to be associated with those remarks.

The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Darragh O'Brien, and many other Members condemned the attacks on the President and indeed the Office of President. The President is the Head of State of the country and such attacks are absolutely reprehensible and should be condemned. I am pleased we have had condemnation from across the political divide here this afternoon. People also condemned the attack on the constituency office of Deputy Mulherin. They pointed out that anarchy is not too far from the surface in many cases and we need to look at that situation very seriously.

Senators Darragh O'Brien and Cullinane spoke about the proposed sale of Aer Lingus. I did my best yesterday to get the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come here for half an hour in his busy schedule. The Minister will come in for half an hour and explain the situation today. I am sure we will have many opportunities in the future to discuss the matter. However, since there was such urgency about it, I felt we could have a very brief debate during which the Minister can outline the current situation. I am sure we will have debates on the issue in the coming weeks and months. For that reason I cannot accept the amendment to the Order of Business as proposed by Senator Darragh O'Brien.

Senator Bacik and many other Members spoke about the Central Bank regulations and restrictions. I understand that legislation will be introduced and we can arrange a debate on the issue. I do not know about it costing €220,000 to buy a birds' nest - birds must have very expensive tastes in Dublin. As Senator Paul Coghlan said, €220,000, in Dublin figures, is quite small to purchase a home. I note Members' points on that.

Senator Bacik also spoke about the debate on mother and baby homes. I know that people wanted to contribute, but they were not in the House when that debate was brought to a conclusion yesterday. I understand that another amended motion may be coming, which would afford Members the opportunity to discuss that matter again.

I note Senator Norris's points on the cancellation of a talk on homophobic bullying in a school in Dublin. I also note his comments that the McKenna judgment should be discussed again in the House.

Senators Landy and Kelly spoke about nursing homes and general practitioners not being allowed to take on more patients. Senator Kelly spoke about the eleven week delay in accessing the fair deal scheme. We had a fairly comprehensive debate on that and on the Health Service Executive plan which the Minister for Health was here to discuss. We will invite him to come in again if necessary. A total of €25 million extra was provided for the fair deal scheme. I hope that delay will be significantly reduced this year.

Senator Ó Murchú deplored the attacks on Deputy Mulherin’s constituency office and on the President. Senator Colm Burke spoke about the need for greater incentives for first-time house buyers. We can have that debate when the Central Bank regulations legislation comes before the House. The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coffey, has indicated that he will come in to speak about the housing strategy.

Senator Cullinane spoke on the motion on the proposed Commission of Investigation into certain matters relating to the Cavan-Monaghan division of the Garda Síochána but the Cathaoirleach has ruled on that. It is to be taken without debate. Senator Whelan commended the Taoiseach on meeting with insolvency practitioners and outlined the serious situation which many homeowners will face in the coming year. In addition to condemning attacks on the President and Deputy Mulherin Senator Wilson called for the Minister for Education and Science to come in to outline progress on the junior certificate. I know that the Minister has dealt with that topic in the other House. We will invite her to come in again to debate it. We did have a debate on the subject recently but I understand the Senator is asking for an update on it.

Senator Craughwell spoke about union recognition for the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA. It is an excellent representative association and he is right in pointing out that many members of the Defence Forces are on low pay and in receipt of payments from the Department of Social Protection. I have the utmost respect for all the members of our Defence Forces. They carry out their duties in an exemplary manner on all occasions and I will ask the Minister for Defence to come in to have a debate on Irish defence policy soon. I note Senator Craughwell’s points on medical cards too and hospital bills. That is a matter he could raise as a Commencement Matter or directly with the Minister.

Senators Gilroy and Mooney spoke about how precious our democracy is, saying that we need to protect it. Senator Mooney also spoke about the need to ensure that land that is zoned for housing is built on urgently, especially in Dublin. Senator Naughten praised the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport for providing €17.5 million for sustainable transport initiatives in various areas around the country.

Senator Healy Eames asked for a debate on the Euro Health Consumer Index but we had a debate on the Health Service Executive plan for 2015. I am sure that Senator Healy Eames raised her points during that debate. Senators Eamonn Coghlan and Noone commended the president of the Irish Primary Principals Network on highlighting the need for two hours physical education, PE, per week in primary schools. As Senator Coughlan pointed out, there is a lack of progress on his proposed policies which were debated in this House some years ago. Obesity and the lack of exercise for schoolchildren is a ticking bomb. I will ask the Minister to come in here for a further debate on that issue.

Senator Bradford called for a debate on housing strategy and regional planning, which I hope to have in early course. Senator Mullins spoke on the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO’s, acceptance of the recent salary scales. I understand the HSE will shortly advertise the 200 consultant vacancies, which is welcome news and will assist in reducing waiting lists and other problems in the health service. Senator White reiterated her comments of last week on child poverty and lone parents and urged that the Central Statistics Office, CSO, report on income and living conditions be highlighted and that we have a debate on it. Senators O’Sullivan and Heffernan spoke about post offices. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources was here yesterday discussing that matter. There is no doubt that post offices are of paramount importance to communities and towns throughout the country. The Minister pointed out that there have been only five closures in the past 12 months. There were 170 in the four years prior to this Government’s taking office. Everybody has welcomed the setting up of the review group to improve the post office network. It should be given a chance. Hopefully it can make progress. It is important that people support their local post offices. Many give lip service to supporting post offices but do not do so themselves.

We join Senator Brennan in wishing our colleague Senator Harte every success and a speedy recovery.

Senator Darragh O’Brien proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 60, motion 14, be taken before No. 1." Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 14; Níl, 25.

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
  • Zappone, Katherine.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Michael.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Keeffe, Susan.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • Whelan, John.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.
Amendment declared lost.
Order of Business agreed to.