The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re earlier signature of the Central Bank (Amendment) Bill 2014, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Gender Recognition Bill 2014 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to be adjourned not later than 7 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 3, the Irish Collective Asset-management Vehicles Bill 2014 - Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
Order of Business
I want to indicate to the Leader at the outset that we agree with the taking of the earlier signature motion to facilitate the banking inquiry. My colleague, Senator Diarmuid Wilson, took that Bill last week and while we still believe an independent, Leveson-type inquiry would have been a better way forward, we want to ensure that the inquiry can get on with the work it needs to do.
There have been many discussions in recent weeks on the potential sale of Aer Lingus. I am pleased to hear the soundings from Government that it appears at this stage that it will reject the IAG offer. I believe it should be clearly rejected. My colleague, Senator Barrett, informed me of the goings on at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications this morning. People from all parties and none are concerned about the future of our airline, and I welcome the fact that some Government Senators and other Members have been more trenchant in their views than others. They have stood up and said they do not want the strategic interests of the country diminished in any way by the sale of Aer Lingus. However, it is important that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, provides certainty as soon as possible and confirms that we will not be selling our stake to British Airways.
The irony is that this is happening when many of the thousands of deferred members and pensioners who had their pensions cut in Aer Lingus and in the airport superannuation scheme will have received their first pay cheque showing that the retired members have lost six weeks' pay while others have got confirmation now that they are losing 50% or 60% of their salary. Is the Leader aware that the deferred members and the retired members have been issued with a waiver to sign? It states that if they accept the terms of the reduction and the restructuring of their pension, they are waiving all future rights to take any legal action against the company or the trustees of the scheme. That is a further kick in the teeth in that they must decide whether they will accept that and if they do accept it, they are waiving all future rights. That is wrong. What is the Government's view on that?
On more than 20 separate occasions since last year I raised the issue with two Ministers for Health of the multiple sclerosis drug fampridine or Fampyra. I spoke to another gentleman last week who now is no longer working and who cannot get out of bed because his mobility is so bad, but the drugs programmes and policy unit, DPU, and the Department of Health have rejected the revised submission from the drug company, Biogen. We are talking about a cost of €270 per month, and there are approximately 1,500 MS sufferers. I do not know what else to do with this because we debated it for half an hour with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, who basically said it was nothing to do with him. It is to do with him because the Government is responsible for the health of the citizens of this State.
It is about a year since I first flagged this issue. There are hundreds of sufferers who cannot get the drug that is helping them improve their lives. Will the Leader raise this issue through his good offices and perhaps through the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party? I ask my Labour Party colleagues to raise it in their parliamentary party meeting. What is happening is wrong. Next week I will be inviting Members here to a briefing by some of the senior neurological consultants to speak on this specific drug and why it should be made available again to MS sufferers in this country.
I refer to the discussions about the potential sale of Aer Lingus. Of course, matters are at a very early stage and there is no offer, but I have already put on the record my opposition to the sale of the Government's 25% stake in Aer Lingus. Indeed, I opposed the sale of the rest of what was the Government's much larger stake in 2006.
I welcome the good news today of the Accenture jobs announcement. Those jobs are a welcome mix of positions for experienced individuals and positions for people straight out of college. It was welcome to see such a big announcement. Many Members last week asked the Leader to arrange a debate on jobs and job creation in light of other good news announcements about jobs, and I understand he will facilitate that.
I also welcome that there are 100 new recruits to the Garda. There are some good photographs of them in the newspapers today. They have completed their first day of training in Templemore. It is very welcome to see the Garda open to recruitment again. It is another piece of good news.
There is a debate on overseas development scheduled for tomorrow, but I hope there will be time during that debate or at a future date to debate issues around human rights compliance and overseas development. I note, in particular, the issues regarding human rights protections in Egypt. I am sure all of my colleagues will join me in welcoming the release from prison in Egypt of the al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, but will note with concern that two of his journalist colleagues are still in detention in Egypt. Members will join with me in calling for their release.
There is another very pressing human rights issue for women in Egypt and in a number of other countries. We have debated it previously in the House and, indeed, have led the way on criminalising female genital mutilation, FGM. Last week in Egypt there was the first ever conviction for performing an act of FGM. It was on foot of legislation passed in Egypt seven years ago. It was the first conviction despite the fact that an estimated 91% of women and girls in Egypt have been subjected to FGM. I am glad Ireland has legislation in that regard, but we should note with concern the fact that FGM remains a prevalent abuse of women's rights worldwide.
It is good to hear all the good news. Unfortunately, there is some bad news. More than 1,000 children became homeless in Dublin last year, according to Focus Ireland. This indicates that the housing crisis has escalated to a homelessness crisis and a child welfare emergency. A total of 90% of these families had never experienced homelessness previously. These are families that have been priced out of the monopolistic market which operates on the landlords' terms and not in market equilibrium. The rental market must be regulated and I call on the Government and many others to move on this sooner rather than later.
The current rent supplement allowance is not adequate to protect families from losing their homes or becoming homeless. Many people who avail of it cannot access properties on the private rental market for two documented reasons. First, the vast majority of properties that are rented on the market are significantly above the threshold for rent supplement, as we have often heard. Second, some landlords are refusing to accept rent supplement payments. This is blatant discrimination against those in receipt of rent allowance and is simply unacceptable. Our existing equality legislation includes several grounds for protection against discrimination, such as gender and family status, but it does not provide protection from discrimination based on poverty or socioeconomic status. In light of the ongoing and unconcealed discrimination against people who are in receipt of social welfare payments in the private rental market, I ask the Leader to invite both the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to the House to debate this matter jointly.
Furthermore, the escalating crisis and its devastating impact on families and children provides yet another reason for guaranteeing economic, social and cultural rights in our Constitution. On 23 February last, the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of amending the Constitution to strengthen these rights, subject to the maximum available resources. Unfortunately, however, the Government has not committed to a referendum based on the convention's recommendations. I am perplexed by that decision. By offering a referendum to the people that would strengthen the enforceability of economic, social and cultural rights in Ireland, the Government could give people a chance to guarantee everybody in Ireland a life of dignity, including access to an adequate standard of living, which includes adequate housing. Will the Leader organise a debate with the Taoiseach or the appropriate Minister on why the question of economic, social and cultural rights is not being put to the people?
I welcome the record level of applications to the Central Applications Office for third level courses which are to begin this autumn.
I wish all the applicants every good fortune. This will be an exciting period in their lives. We are certainly excitedly looking forward to seeing them all when they enter as freshmen in the autumn. Think of that optimism and beware the prophets of gloom who seem to surround this, describing it as an ordeal. This is an exciting period in any young person's life and we look forward to seeing them.
I also welcome the moves by the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, to reduce the cost of drugs in this country. Those costs are excessive, particularly by comparison with Spain. In wishing the Minister every success in his endeavours, I also commend Ms Susan Mitchell and Mr. Pat Kenny, the journalist and broadcaster, who have made this an issue for a long time.
On the issue of the British Airways takeover of Aer Lingus, I attended a meeting organised by the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, Deputy John O'Mahony, this morning. It emerged at that meeting that the British regions are completely neglected by British Airways. There is one route only - into Heathrow. All of the other routes have had to be developed by other airlines, including easyJet and Ryanair. That also applies in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There is only one route in each case - George Best Belfast City Airport to Heathrow and Dublin Airport to Heathrow. At Derry Airport, Belfast International Airport, Knock airport and the airports at Cork, Kerry, Shannon and at Dublin for most of the day, one will not see British Airways flights. How British Airways has come to be seen as the saviour of Irish aviation when it has shown so little interest in the market heretofore is quite remarkable.
The committee received a note from the Secretary General of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport who did not give evidence at the meeting. The note states:
The Irish Takeover Panel has ruled that Aer Lingus is now in an offer period and under Irish market abuse law, the relevant officials are deemed to have access to inside information on this issue and are obliged to ensure that such information remains confidential. In these circumstances, it is not considered appropriate for officials to attend the committee at this point.
The application of jurisdiction of the Irish Stock Exchange to this Parliament is unacceptable in my view.
This is a major policy issue. The Irish Takeover Panel which advised the Department has two nominees from the Central Bank. I support the Leader today with regard to the Governor of the Central Bank, who wants to be in this House more. We are speeding up the legislation to allow him to appear. Also on the board of the Irish Takeover Panel are nominees from the Irish Banking Federation, the Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies, the Irish Stock Exchange, the Irish Association of Investment Managers and the Law Society. This issue is bigger than any of those bodies and Parliament should not have to kowtow to the Irish Takeover Panel. We should debate this issue fully because the other side - those who are pro-takeover - have no such compunction. They are leaking information to the media on a daily basis while Parliament is not allowed to discuss the issue fully. I am afraid that I have to say to our friends on the Irish Takeover Panel and the Stock Exchange, "Back off; this is a parliamentary democracy".
There is grave concern in my part of the world at the shooting down of Heather in the Waterville area prior to the weekend. This female hen harrier, as we know, was tagged with a satellite tracking device shortly after she hatched in 2013 in east Kerry. She quickly became a star as her travels were followed by thousands of people on an online blog. The hen harrier project has been run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and a local community group, IRD Duhallow. As we know, the hen harrier is a protected species under the Wildlife Act. Thousands of people have followed the bird's progress from Kerry to the Wicklow mountains through a satellite tracking device.
Is the Senator seeking a debate on the issue?
The bird visited Meath, Monaghan, Armagh and rested on the shores of Lough Neagh before making the long journey to the Atlantic sea cliffs of south Cork. She then returned home to Kerry, possibly to breed there this summer. Now, sadly, she is no more.
This is a matter more suited to a Commencement debate.
There are only 100 pairs of this bird left in Ireland. Sadly, in that same area, one of the Killarney-reared white-tailed sea eagles was shot a few years ago.
No, sea eagles, but on that point, if there is someone who is trigger happy in that area, maybe he or she could lend some assistance to my colleague, Senator O'Sullivan, who could point out some screeching seagulls near his Dublin residence which, as we know, are not a protected species.
Senator Coghlan made a very powerful case about the loss of the hen harrier. Not to be flippant, but I agree with him on our nomadic breeds of Kerry birds and Kerry people, as during Seanad election campaigns he can be found in very quare places and is well able to make his way around.
I wish to raise the issue of problems with medical cards and the fact there is no cross-checking between the Department of Social Protection and the HSE. It is ridiculous in this day and age that subsistence farmers in long-term receipt of farm assist are compelled when seeking a medical card to get a tax clearance certificate from the Revenue Commissioners. It is obvious to anyone that a farmer or any person in receipt of a long-term social welfare payment has gone through the hoops and has been checked every second year to ensure he or she meets the criteria to receive farm assist, but these recipients are compelled to go a step further and get a tax clearance certificate from Revenue.
I am aware of a farmer who has serious health issues. He is in his early 60s and has severe arthritis, blood pressure and other problems. He has not taken his medication for the past 18 months because he went to a tax adviser accountant who told him if he paid €500, the accountant would prove he did not owe anything to Revenue. This is ridiculous. Why does the HSE not look at the bona fides of this man's application and state that as he has been in receipt of farm assist for the past eight or ten years, it will accept he is a very poor surviving farmer with a family and forget this extra requirement?
I have written to the Minister about this issue. It is an absolute disgrace. This is one of several instances I can describe. It is an attempt by the Department of Health through the HSE to deprive people in so far as possible of medical cards. I was under the assumption listening to the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, that young children with special needs were automatically entitled to medical cards. Alas most of them do not receive one, which is ridiculous. I ask the Leader to check both of these issues. If what I come across in my area is prevalent throughout the country, it is an absolute disgrace the Department of Social Protection does not look over its shoulder to check with the Department of Health on these issues.
I agree totally with Senator O'Donovan. There is far too much red tape involved in the acquisition of medical cards, particularly in very straightforward cases such as that described by Senator O'Donovan.
We need a broad debate on the future of the ambulance service. We need to know the plan for the ambulance service in rural Ireland. Following the closure of the accident and emergency department in Roscommon things have got much worse. We were promised we would have an advanced paramedic at almost every crossroads to prove to us a better service would be in place than the accident and emergency department. In rural Ireland the average waiting time for an ambulance is between 40 and 50 minutes. Unfortunately at the weekend we had a tragic situation where a 19-year-old waited 40 minutes for an ambulance and when it arrived it appeared the poor young fellow had passed away. The ambulance arrived with no paramedic on board, giving him no chance of survival.
We then had the disgraceful scenario whereby someone from WestDoc could not come until an hour and a half later to pronounce the poor young man deceased. I do not blame the ambulance staff or the paramedics. The simple reality is we do not have enough of them. There is a very simple way to improve the situation. We need to train our first responder firemen to emergency medical technician, EMT, level. Every fire station has nine or ten personnel and three or four of them could be trained. We would then have first responders with EMT training who could be at a call in a matter of minutes. If we get cross-party support for this we can convince the Minister of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister for Health to see the logic in it. I call for a serious debate on this issue.
I call Senator Barrett.
The Cathaoirleach has had Senator Barrett. Would he like Senator Norris?
I agree with Senator O'Donovan that this country is smothering in bureaucracy, for example, the HSE looking for tax clearance certificates from small farmers and so on, but what about us? I am nearly 30 years in this House. For the majority of that time, we did not have to fob in, produce receipts for this, that and the other or keep them for six years and employ public accountants, whatever those are. We are being treated like schoolchildren. I was elected in a constituency of 65,000 voters. They trusted me. I do not give a damn whether the rest of the people trust me. I hope they do and have every reason to. Before my illness, I was in this building every single day of the week. I campaigned to have it opened on Saturdays, so it closed down on Saturdays because I was just about the only person who used it. I find it grossly insulting that we have to fob in. The people are the deciding element in this. They will know when Members are not representing them, are not working or are passengers, and they will get rid of them.
I will raise a further matter. I have received a communication from Fr. Shay Cullen, who is well known to many Senators and has worked in the Philippines for many years and has been an heroic Christian. He sent an e-mail that I am sure other Senators also received concerning the recent visit of the Pope. The Pope is a remarkable man who wanted to meet the poorest of the poor, the street children and so on, but the authorities in the Philippines took them all off in a bus for a seven-day holiday to get them out of the way. The Pope never actually saw them. Fr. Cullen made the point that street children in the Philippines are routinely jailed, where they are subject to sexual assault by older boys, jailers and so on. There are examples of eight year old children being forced to perform sex acts on older boys. The Philippines Government stated that Fr. Cullen was seeking publicity just to get donations, which was a scandalous claim to make about someone who has spent 30 or 40 years working there. I wish to put on record the fact that the Pope was denied the opportunity to meet these people. We should keep an eye on the situation.
I join Senator Bacik in her remarks regarding the sale of Aer Lingus. From Cork's point of view, it is important that the connection to Heathrow would not disappear. No matter what agreement is reached, we will have no control over that connection if we no longer hold the 25.1% shareholding.
Even with 25.1% we do not control Aer Lingus, but our chances of retaining that connection will be considerably reduced if the 25.1% is sold. Following the sale of Irish Sugar to Greencore, the country lost its sugar quota and an entire industry disappeared. I hope that the same will not happen in terms of Aer Lingus.
I wish to raise a further matter of concern to me, namely, the provision of funding for local authorities where children with intellectual or physical disabilities are living in local authority housing. In Cork, 47 families are waiting for houses to be adapted to accommodate their children. Some have been waiting since 2008. No funding has been provided to the local authority. A further 30 families need changes to be made to their houses if their children are to continue living at home. When parents work 24/7 to look after their children, it is wrong that they do not get the support and accommodation they need and is otherwise only available in full-time care centres. The parents are providing the care, so we should be able to fund facilities for them in their own homes. We should debate this matter. The issue should be given priority, particularly in light of how little funding has been provided in the past six years. I request an early debate on the matter with the Minister.
Last week on the Order of Business, I proposed that the motion to set up the terms of reference for the commission of inquiry into the findings of the Guerin report into Garda malpractice in the Cavan-Monaghan area should not be taken without debate. I also sought to debate the matter in this House and suggested that there should have been a debate in the Dáil as well. Since then, of course, we have had claims from the Ceann Comhairle that the Opposition were out to undermine him. He has withdrawn some of that and clarified his remarks somewhat, but it was still a serious claim for him to make on national radio.
Rulings made in the other House are irrelevant.
We are discussing the Order of Business. I am calling for the Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil and you as Cathaoirleach in the Seanad to reconsider having a debate on this issue, because it is of such fundamental importance.
Senator, that is not a matter for the Cathaoirleach.
It is, because-----
It is the Leader who orders the business in the House, not the Cathaoirleach.
And I can speak to the Leader of the House - whoever has responsibility.
The Cathaoirleach has no role in the matter.
It is the Taoiseach who has responsibility as well, because-----
The Ceann Comhairle is considering the matter with the CPP.
-----the information in regard to the letter that was sent by a former Minister and a sitting Member of Fine Gael had to be dragged out of him in the Dáil. So he must take responsibility for this mess as well.
Senator, that is a matter for the other House.
What we are calling for, given the seriousness of the issue-----
That is a matter for the other House.
It is a matter for the Order for Business-----
It is a matter for the other House.
-----because we had a motion last week that was taken without debate. What I am asking for is that the motion be brought back to both the Dáil and the Seanad so that all Oireachtas Members can scrutinise the terms of reference. It is a serious issue and there was a disturbing development in regard to what happened.
The House made a decision in relation to this matter.
The House can reconsider, which is what I am asking. I am asking the Leader to reconsider the decision that was taken last week in light of the clarification given by the Ceann Comhairle-----
The House has made a decision on this matter.
-----so that the Seanad can have a debate on this issue.
We are not reopening last week's decision.
On a point of order, can the Leader and the Cathaoirleach clarify whether the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, wrote to them about this matter in the same manner as the Dáil? In fairness, the Seanad has the same jurisdiction as the Dáil in this matter.
We are not discussing the matter.
It is an important matter that has caused considerable debate in the Dáil over the past week.
I call Senator Whelan.
The Cathaoirleach should answer that question.
It is last week's business and we are not discussing it. I call Senator Whelan.
Respectfully, I remind the Leader of a few debates that we have requested here in the House over recent weeks. I know he does his utmost to get the relevant Minister to attend. I ask him to reconsider the following matters and put them on the schedule at the earliest juncture. The first matter is what I believe is the abuse of our bail laws and the ongoing issue of reoffending and serious criminality by people out on bail. It is an issue that needs to be addressed. We held a referendum on the matter but its outcome has not been adhered to. The second matter is the future of library services across the country. The third, as other colleagues have mentioned, is the exorbitant cost to the HSE and the taxpayer of medicines and drugs, which in some instances are prohibiting seriously ill people from receiving the medicines they require. Those issues could do with an airing and a robust debate here in the House.
As a primary issue, I support Senator Sean Barrett in his ongoing concerns regarding what is really an attempt to impose a gagging order or have a chilling effect on public discourse and parliamentary debate with regard to the proposed sale of Aer Lingus to British Airways. It is wrong for officials of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to decline to attend a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. The officials have a lot to offer in the debate. We are not asking them to disclose anything confidential. We are not asking them to show their hand. We are not asking them to show any bias or preference in the matter. We merely want them to make available to the elected members of the committee the factual position, the legalities and the various technical details of the proposed sale.
This House spoke with one voice on at least two occasions last week. We are unanimously opposed the prospect of selling off Aer Lingus. The fact that British Airways has told us it is now willing to afford the chambers of commerce of Cork, Shannon and Dublin a veto on the Heathrow slots-----
Is the Senator looking for a debate on the issue?
I am looking for a debate. We should discuss this at every opportunity because the more information we have and the better informed we are, the better.
I remind Members that there is already a veto in existence. This Parliament has a veto on any sale of the Heathrow slots, and we do not need British Airways to have any fanciful notion that it could extend such a veto to the chambers of commerce.
I share the concerns of my colleague, Senator Paul Coghlan, on the reprehensible shooting of that rare bird in Kerry and to assure the Senator I had no hand, act or part in it.
It was an outside job.
I am generally a bird lover but I have an attitude towards the city seagulls which was ridiculed some time ago-----
That was sensible.
-----but has been given a post hoc validation by the decision of the Department of Health which invests quite an amount of money in seagull controls on its building in Hawkins House. I understand a number of other high rise buildings in Dublin are considering doing likewise. While I am in flight I would like to speak about the recent activities of the Russian airforce and its manoeuvres with its planes which have nuclear capacity playing hide and seek around the west coast of Ireland with the RAF.
Maybe it shot down the hen harrier.
Some of the articles on the issue in the Sunday newspapers were quite alarming. I know there are two sides to every story but Mr. Putin is adopting Cold War, ridiculous and quite dangerous and threatening activities, ag cur bagartha ar a chéile, mar a déarfá, and I think something should be done about that.
Still on defence matters, I read with interest, as I do every Sunday, Eoghan Harris's excellent article. He proposed that the 1916 celebrations should be primarily based on the Defence Forces. I do not necessarily agree with that proposal, I am not a militarist. However, I was shocked when he stated that were we to adopt that policy we would not have enough soldiers to maintain a presence on the particular day at the various locations - the GPO, Ashtown, Wexford and wherever else people mustered on that famous day. I am concerned about that. We are very proud of our Army, both commissioned officers and enlisted men. It is time the Minister for Defence came to the House to explain the reason our Army has been reduced so much. I know the Provisional IRA has gone out of action, hopefully for good, but there are other elements that are not, the Continuity IRA, Real IRA and other IRAs. One only realises the value of the Defence Forces when one needs them. I want the Minister for Defence to give an audit on our Army numbers and also an audit of Army property around the country.
Most small towns had their own Slua hall, many of which are lying empty and in a state of disrepair. Some have been got rid of but we should have a look at them in light of the article to which I have referred.
I welcome the announcement today by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, that €294 million is to be invested in the regional and local roads infrastructure which will enable the maintenance and strengthening of almost 2,000 km of roadwork nationwide. Investment in our road infrastructure is critical for future economic growth and securing job creation projects in the regions. This investment allows a number of key projects to go ahead, a case in point being increasing the vehicle head room at the Lough Atalia railway bridge in Galway city which is an important access for Galway city and Galway Port. Out of the €294 million, a total of €23.5 million is being spent in Galway city and county. The investment also includes the rehabilitation schemes for 175 bridges throughout the country and 211 low cost safety projects as well as significant investment in footpaths in the interests of public safety.
I welcome the reopening of the Garda College at Templemore and the fact that 100 new entrants have commenced their training there. I welcome a comment made by the Taoiseach who said he hopes the college never closes again.
Most of all, I welcome the advice given by the Minister to the new trainees that they must stand up at all times to wrongdoing in the force as well as wrongdoing on the streets. She said officers need the courage to stand up against bad conduct in the force and the courage to cry "Stop" when old practices which have served the force so badly are continued. We must never again have situations such as the penalty points scandal or others highlighted by whistleblowers, which have occupied so much air time in recent times. I also welcome the plans for the new DNA database-----
-----which will transform how crimes are investigated. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice and Equality to the House to discuss the various aspects of crime detection in this country.
I thank the Leader for the swift action he took before Christmas in respect of a debate on homelessness in this House. I promised at that time that I would keep an eye on the homelessness situation, particularly here in Dublin. Today, I received an e-mail from a representative of the Peter McVerry Trust to tell me that the 271 beds supplied by the Minister were not all used initially, but that they are all being used now. Every night of the week, people are being turned away from hostels around the city due to insufficient capacity. We now have an increase in the number of people homeless and on the streets sleeping rough, even though the beds provided by the Minister are all in use and still in place. I thank the Minister for these beds.
We have a serious issue with respect to homelessness, leaving aside those sleeping rough. I ask the Leader to look into this for me. However, quite aside from this, over 40,000 houses were sold on the buy-to-let scheme during the Celtic tiger era. Those houses are now in distressed mortgage situations. Banks, as they are repossessing these houses, are evicting the tenants because they have no commitment to them. Today, Fr. McVerry told me of a single mother with a three-year-old child who last night arrived at his place looking for accommodation. She was going to sleep rough with the child last night. This woman will return tonight. She has been told - by the HSE I believe but I may be wrong and I do not want to say necessarily that it was the HSE - that tonight, in order to receive accommodation, she must report to a Garda station by 8 p.m. so they can call a social worker and for her and the child to be taken into care. This is urgent, so I ask the Leader to look into this straight away and see that this person is provided with accommodation.
I know I am running over time.
Not as over time as other people.
I would differ with the Senator on that.
On Senator O'Sullivan's issue regarding the Army, there is no point in us increasing the numbers in the Army when we cannot dress the ones who are there, have no uniforms for them, nor career structures.
I wish to raise an issue regarding Bus Éireann. It has come to my attention that Bus Éireann intends to discontinue the Dublin service to Carrick-on-Suir which operates six times per day. Despite my best endeavours to contact Bus Éireann, by e-mail and by phone, I have got no response from it. However, I am reliably informed by SIPTU, one of the unions representing the workers, that it is proposed to remove this service in the first week of March.
Members will be aware that Bus Éireann is subsidised and has a public service obligation. It gets millions of euro per annum from the Government to provide exactly what is being provided to Carrick-on-Suir and other such towns, namely, a public service. This service brings people from the town not alone to Dublin but also to all of the places along the way, including Kilkenny and Carlow. It allows people who do not have their own transport to visit loved ones in hospitals, carry out business in Dublin and attend social events. It is unacceptable that Bus Éireann is doing this without any proper negotiation or any proper information being provided to public representatives in the area. There will also be, as I understand it, job losses as a result of this decision.
As Members read in the media and are informed that the number of people using transport has increased and is increasing on a daily basis, it is something of a mystery as to why this is happening. I ask the Leader to contact the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to intervene on this issue. I also ask the Leader for his support. I understand there are also difficulties in the Leader's own city in respect of Bus Éireann and the changing of routes. Perhaps he and I could combine on this issue and sort out the problem together.
I seek a debate in early course with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on public sector pay and specifically regarding pay for gardaí. I note the Labour Party leader in the House has mentioned the new recruits in Templemore and all Members of course welcome that. However, I wish to quote briefly from an e-mail I received from one of them. It states that each of the 300 new recruits is proud to be doing what most of them always have wanted to do. It notes they battled through a tough recruitment process, which started off with 25,000 people, but goes on to state they deserve better than the pay scale that is being recommended at present. An Garda Síochána stresses the slogan "a fair day's pay for a fair day's work". However, following on from a 10% decrease in 2009 and a further 10% later for new entrants, the rent allowance of €4,000 per year pensionable is also to go. Were the rent allowance to be included, the pay would be approximately €27,000, which is hardly a high salary.
It is incredible in the extreme to hear the Labour Party congratulating new recruits who are to come in on a salary of €23,171. That is a full 36% below the average industrial wage. This is unthinkable and while Senator Mullins rightly quoted that officers must have the courage to stand up to their colleagues, I hope they are not in particular need of money. At 36% less than the average industrial wage, how dare we tell new recruits - who arguably are the brightest generation of recruits with university degrees and second level education many before them would not have had - that they can operate at €23,171, while, incidentally, they will be expected to be above reproach, better than their predecessors and to have the courage of which Senator Mullins and the Government spoke? Far be it from the industrial relations champions about whom Senator Landy talks in the context of Bus Éireann, but gardaí are expected to operate - Senator Bacik may leave the Chamber - as new recruits for 36% less than the average industrial wage. These are the people we expect to do a good job on our behalf.
I wish to raise an issue related to one raised earlier by Senator Zappone. I believe renting must become a viable alternative to home ownership and tenants should not be treated as second-class citizens in the housing market. The recent attention on the Central Bank's mortgage regulations obscures the fact that for many young people, home ownership is a long way off and their reality, for the foreseeable future, is renting. Moreover, for some people renting is also a choice and this must be recognised and supported. Members have a responsibility to make renting a viable alternative to ownership, as it is in most comparable cities across the world, and not merely a stop-gap measure to bridge the gap between leaving the family home and buying a home.
Tenants need more security, including making long-term tenancy attractive for landlords. They need rent certainty and the possibility of increases linked to a specific index or capped at a certain percentage of the original rent agreement over a number of years. Landlords also need incentives to make this happen. Most importantly, being a landlord should be treated and supported as a legitimate business or career and this can only be to the benefit of tenants. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, has indicated that the Government is considering ways to increase tenants' rights through incentives for landlords. I believe this is the correct approach but it must take into account that renting can be a long-term choice and an alternative to home ownership. Solutions must take into account this fact and not be merely a short-term solution to the current shortage of housing supply. Therefore, I call for a debate together with Senator Zappone, albeit perhaps a wider debate than that for which she had called, in respect of renting in general in Ireland.
I have a great deal of sympathy with Senator Landy in respect of Bus Éireann. Although he did not spell it out, I assume this might be an expressway service that operates between Dublin and points further south. Unfortunately, we had a similar situation in the north west, where Bus Éireann withdrew the service and when the issue was raised about subsidisation, I was informed there is no subsidy for expressway services.
It was not an expressway service.
No. I simply am making the point that there is no subsidy for expressway services, which I could never quite understand-----
It is because it is a commercial business.
-----and as a result, what is happening in Carrick-on-Suir has happened in several places in my own part of the world.
I would like to expand slightly on, and ask the Leader a question about, the remarks of my colleague, Senator O'Sullivan, about the Russian overflight. We face an increasingly serious and potentially dangerous stand-off between Russia, the EU and now the United States with hawkish elements in the Obama Administration in recent days calling for the arming of the Ukrainian army or for the supply of arms to the Ukrainian army on the basis that it is using outdated weaponry, in particular anti-tank weaponry dating back to the Soviet-era. Following on these reports, several European Union leaders, including the German Chancellor, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, whose country refuses to supply arms to Ukraine, and others have said there must be a diplomatic solution to this stand-off. I would like to know exactly where Ireland stands in this regard. I know we are adopting a multilateral approach when it comes to foreign affairs matters but this situation is getting out of control and the militarists in NATO, in the Obama Administration and perhaps in other parts of Europe are beginning to flex their muscles, which could have a potential downside for the future peace and security of Europe.
I would like to know precisely what the Irish position is in regard to the continuing sanctions regime, in particular in light of the newly-elected Greek Prime Minister withholding Greek support until the last minute for an extension of the sanctions regime for a further six months. The Greeks obviously raised issues and asked questions. As a small neutral country on the periphery of Europe and in a situation where a common foreign policy position has not been taken on this, I would like to express my serious concerns about Ireland adopting a position which other larger countries with a militarist tradition might wish to pursue. It is a very serious issue for the Irish people and the continuation of sanctions and of the stand-off, without any form of diplomacy being seen to be engaged in - at least on the surface - between President Putin and the European Union, is not in our best interest nationally.
I join with my colleague, Senator Michael Mullins, in welcoming the allocation of almost €300 million for the maintenance and upkeep of our roads infrastructure, in particular the allocation of €1.5 million for the rehabilitation of the bridge in Lough Atalia, which is in the heart of Galway city. This is critical funding for the future development of Galway Harbour and the surrounding area. The bridge was not built to deal with the modern traffic issues we face today. At the recent oral hearings for the proposed development of the harbour, the issue of traffic came up and was discussed in great detail. Therefore, this allocation of €1.5 million is to be greatly welcomed.
I also wish to refer to reported comments of the sponsors of the working abroad expos. These expos were held in the RDS each year. They were hiring fairs, targeting our most skilled, young and highly educated workforce who had to find jobs abroad during the recession. This is the first year there is an expo in Perth where Irish companies are now targeting our young highly skilled workforce who had to emigrate. The Irish global recruitment firm, CPL, has indicated that it has 2,500 full-time positions waiting for our young Irish abroad. This is a great sign of the economic recovery and I commend the Government on the work it has done over the past few years.
Again, I raise the issue of the very serious motion before this House last week, which Senator Cullinane rightly raised. It was thrown in at the last minute to be taken without debate. I would like the Leader to clarify - I suppose he has already given an answer - whether the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, was in touch with him. In light of the precedent set in the Dáil - this is no reflection on the Cathaoirleach and I am not casting aspersions on him - I would like to know if he was in receipt of correspondence or communications from the former Minister, Deputy Shatter. We have to know why the motion for this commission of investigation was, unusually, to be taken without debate. The motion on the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes was taken with debate the day before.
That was last week.
It was last week but-----
We cannot re-open last week's business.
It is extremely important. It is on the tip of everyone's tongue today in the country. I believe the Cathaoirleach would agree that the idea that we cannot discuss it on the Order of Business is not a runner. We need to know if the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, was in touch with the Seanad office on this issue and, if so, what was the reply. I assume that if the Cathaoirleach received a letter, he dealt with it in the same way as the Ceann Comhairle - he had no role in it - but we need to know the pressures that he was put under, if any. We also need to know the pressures the Leader was put under not only by the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, but also-----
-----did the Government in this case specifically request that no debate would take place?
The Chair has no role in it because the matter did not come before it.
I know the Chair has no role in it; I said that.
The Chair did not make any ruling on it because the matter did not come before the Chair.
That is not the question I have asked the Cathaoirleach. The question I asked him was if he was in receipt of correspondence from the former Minister, Deputy Shatter. That is casting no aspiration on the Cathaoirleach. It is asking if there was an attempt to put him under pressure-----
It is not relevant to today's business. The Senator is re-opening last week's business.
-----as was attempted in the Dáil. Did the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, write to or contact the Cathaoirleach about this, and-or did the Government or the Department of Justice and Equality ask him specifically to do this without debate? The motion, which came under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the previous day was taken with debate. Why was this very similar motion on a very serious issue taken without debate?
Senator, that was relevant to last week's business.
It is extremely relevant to democracy and debate in this country. A change was introduced in this House, facilitated by the Leader, to the effect that there would be no more, or very few, guillotines on debates. Unfortunately, one was applied to the debate on water services legislation prior to Christmas but there are far fewer now than there were in the past. This is a House of Parliament and one of debate. There was a serious and wrong attempt to shut down that debate in Dáil and I want to know what pressures were put on this House to do that.
Like many more, I wish to raise the proposed purchase of Aer Lingus by IAG and the strange offer that is on the table concerning the Heathrow slots involving the chambers of commerce. I have huge regard for the chambers of commerce in the country, particularly the Shannon chamber, which is a long-running chamber that does fantastic work. The Taoiseach addressed a luncheon organised by the Shannon chamber only a few months ago. Is it appropriate that the slots would be entrusted, vetoed or whatever by chambers of commerce? I do not believe it is. This sale is ridiculous.
The best thing that can happen at this stage is for the Government to bring clarity and a finality to what has become a media circus. The Minister needs to get his working group to speed up its discussions. We all know what the inevitable outcome will be. The slots and the company will not be sold. It is as simple as that. There is far more work to be done in government than to continue on with this charade. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has enough on his plate dealing with issues related to deregulation and ensuring that some of our public transport companies could start operating more efficiently as opposed to having to invest so much time in something the outcome which we all know. I ask the Leader to organise a debate with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, in attendance on this and other issues in the transportation area, the outcome of which we do not know and which require some input, energy, discussion and deliberation. We all know what the outcome of this charade will be. It will not be sold.
I am a little surprised that other Members across the House did not raise the issue of the fear that is mounting around the new proposed special educational needs model. My inbox is full with e-mails since last Wednesday or Thursday. There was a large meeting in Galway prior to Christmas with about 100 teachers and parents in attendance who are very concerned that the new proposed model by the Minister will reduce the amount of resource hours and learning support that their children with special educational needs will get from September 2015. My request is simple. The Minister should slow down this process.
Much more debate and consultation needs to happen with the schools, who are the guardians of these children with special educational needs, in co-operation with their parents. I ask the Leader to urge the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, not to start this model by September 2015. In the meantime, she must reassure parents, teachers and the children themselves that their learning support and resource hours will not be cut. Let us face it; if any one of us has a child with special learning needs we want to give them a level playing field with their peers. We support a policy of inclusion in this country whereby we include children with special educational needs in mainstream classrooms. The only way to guarantee that, according to the education Act, is to provide learning support or resource teaching hours to bring such children to the required level. When one pulls that away, one disadvantages such children and that is the fear teachers, parents and children have currently. We do not want a minefield in this area. I had a very good debate with the Minister earlier on the junior certificate. She has done everything to allay fears on the matter. The issue has not gone away but we do not need a new problem in special educational needs to emerge without proper consultation.
It was a solid week for job announcements with 590 jobs announced this week for Limerick, Dublin, Cork and Galway.
There was none for Waterford.
I assure Senator Cullinane that Waterford will be next. It is worth reminding the House that 1.93 million people are currently at work and there was an overall increase in employment of 1.5% in the past 12 months. The current unemployment rate is 10.6% which is down, thankfully, from 15.1% in February 2012. The long-term unemployment rate is 6.4%, down from 8.1%. A total of 245,500 people are unemployed, which is down from 300,700.
Is Senator Brennan seeking a debate?
I welcome the continued reduction in the unemployment figures. It would be worthwhile to have a debate on the matter. I encourage the Leader to provide time for such a debate to see how we could further reduce the unemployment rate.
Senator Darragh O’Brien referred to IAG. No formal bid has been made. The Minister has said he will examine all the details and the Government will make a decision on the matter at that point.
The Senator also raised the issue of Fampyra, the drug for sufferers of multiple sclerosis. As Senator Darragh O’Brien mentioned, he raised the matter on several occasions. I have raised the matter with the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, and he came to the House for a debate on 25 November to discuss the matter. I assure the Senator that I will continue to raise the issue with the Minister. As Senator Barrett indicated, the Minister is making tremendous efforts in order to reduce the cost of drugs, which is very important. We all compliment him in that regard and hope he has success. I will again raise Fampyra with him.
Senator Bacik welcomed the announcement of the 250 jobs in Accenture, and the 100 extra gardaí who have commenced training in Templemore. That is to be welcomed also.
Senator Zappone spoke about homelessness and rent allowance. I understand the Labour Party Private Members’ motion next week will be on housing and the rental sector. We will have ample opportunity to discuss all such issues at the time.
Senator Zappone also raised the issue of the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. The Government has taken into consideration everything from the Constitution Convention but, of course, it is not bound by all the recommendations of it.
Senator Barrett outlined details on Aer Lingus and IAG, the discussions which took place at the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications and an effort to gag the committee. He called on the takeover panel to back off. That is something which has been reiterated by other Members of the House also. I am sure that the committee will continue to try to have officials from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport come before it on this matter.
Senator Paul Coghlan raised the plight of the hen harrier. He was raising the issue of birds' nests last week. We heard Senator O'Sullivan again on seagulls. We are gone for the birds there. However, the killing of that protected species, the hen harrier, is a serious matter.
So is a seagull.
They are not protected.
They are still protected.
Senator O'Donovan raised the issue of farmers on long-term farm assist payments and the red tape involved in securing payment and medical cards. I will certainly take the matter up with the Minister for Social Protection.
Senator Kelly raised the issue of the ambulance service and the need for firemen to get the necessary training to respond to accidents as well. We had a discussion on the health service and the ambulance service but we will endeavour to have a further debate on that matter.
Senator Norris questioned the necessity for Members to fob in and also outlined the plight of street children in the Philippines. As has been pointed out, the Pope was denied the opportunity to meet these children, which was most regrettable. Luke wrote that Jesus said, "Suffer little children to come unto me". Certainly, as has been pointed out by Fr. Cullen, who did such tremendous work in the Philippines, the children there were denied that.
Senator Colm Burke spoke against any move by the Government to sell its 25.1% share in Aer Lingus, which was mentioned by a number of Senators. His views were supported by Senator Conway in a later comment. Senator Burke also raised the question of the delay in providing housing adaptation grants in local authority houses. I agree with him. The medical officer has to come in and examine it and there are quite a number of delays where local authorities are concerned whereas those in private houses can get it done much more quickly and have their grants allocated to them. It is a problem. It is something that can be raised in the context of the debate on housing which we will have next week.
Senator Cullinane stated he objected last week to the taking without debate of the motion for the setting up of and for the terms of reference of a commission of inquiry into the findings of the Guerin report into Garda malpractice in the Cavan-Monaghan area. He left the House after that, he was not here for my response, there was no other objection to the matter at that time by any other Member in the House, and the Senator did not propose an amendment to the Order of Business. That was last week's business and I do not propose to go back over it.
Senator Whelan raised the issue of the bail laws. I agree totally with him. The level of crime committed by those who are out on bail is alarming. I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House to have a debate on that matter. I note the Senator's points on the takeover panel and the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, which Senator Barrett raised as well.
Senator O'Sullivan raised the 1916 commemorations and the role of the Army.
We have 9,019 people in the Defence Forces, with 7,270 in the Army, 755 in the Air Corps and 994 in the Naval Service. There are ample numbers of people in the Defence Forces to be involved in any celebrations, wherever they are.
Senators Mullins and Naughton spoke about the €294 million allocation to local and regional roads. This is very important for local authorities throughout the length and breadth of the country. I note the points made by the Galway Senators about the bridge at Lough Atalia and the amount of money allocated for that. Senator Craughwell mentioned the 271 beds for the homeless that have been provided and are now being fully used. He also spoke of the plight of tenants in buy-to-let properties that have been taken over by banks. That issue can be discussed in the context of the Labour Private Members' motion next week.
Senator Landy raised the issue of Bus Éireann's removal of a service from Carrick-on-Suir to Dublin. I will certainly liaise with the Senator about this but it is a matter for Bus Éireann and I am sure it will respond on it. Senator MacSharry raised the matter of salaries for new Garda recruits and I note his points in that regard. Senator Noone spoke about home ownership and making renting a home more attractive. We will have the housing debate next week. Senator Mooney discussed the stand-off between Russia, the EU and the US, as well as the need for a diplomatic solution to the issue. I note his points on the Greek opposition to sanctions, which puts another spanner in the works. I will ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come to the House and have a debate on what is a serious issue, as the Senator indicated.
Senator Naughton also spoke about the working abroad expo which has run in the RDS for a number of years. It is encouraging that Irish companies are targeting Australia to recruit people and bring them back to this country. It is something to be welcomed by everybody. Senator Byrne mentioned last week's business. I have pointed out the position to Senator Cullinane. I had no correspondence from the Deputy in the other House who was mentioned.
Did the Leader have correspondence from the Government about not having a debate?
Senator Conway raised the issue of Aer Lingus and I note his points. When the Minister and the Government have the necessary details, I am sure the decision will be expedited. Senator Healy Eames spoke about the special educational needs model and the requirement for further consultation between the Minister and all involved. The Senator had a very comprehensive Commencement debate with the Minister only today and perhaps she might put down another issue for discussion on the Commencement. Senator Brennan welcomed the announcement of 590 jobs in the past number of days. He pointed out that the unemployment rate has gone from 15.1% to 10.6%. Although that is still too high, I assure Senators that the Government will do everything possible in the Action Plan for Jobs 2015 to create another 40,000 jobs this year.