The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council repealing certain Acts in the field of police co-operation and judicial co-operation in criminal matters, referral to committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; and No. 2, Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015 - Second Stage, to be taken at 2.15 p.m. with the contributions from group spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes.
Order of Business
I want to once again raise with the Leader the issue of the MS drug Fampyra, or fampridine, which I have been raising in this House since February 2014. I gave the Government advance notice that, from June of last year, people would have to pay for that drug. Since then, I have raised the issue here on numerous occasions, including directly with the Minister for Health in this House, with other colleagues. Everyone seems to agree that a drug which costs no more than €270 per month should be available under the drugs payment scheme but there is still no answer from the Department.
I remind Members there are 1,500 people with MS who are dependent on this drug, which has improved people's mobility and allowed them to go back into the workforce and lead a full life. I have met people who can no longer take the drug and who have regressed. Some are back in wheelchairs, they can no longer work and their mobility has disimproved greatly.
I was a little concerned when the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, came to the House. I got a sense from him - perhaps Senator Craughwell will agree with me - that he actually did not believe in the merits of this drug, even though he said he has no particular role in it. I know of people who are willing to come here to meet Senators of all parties to tell them how important this drug is to them. I again ask the Leader to try to use his good offices and I ask him and all other colleagues to continue to push for the release of this drug that is greatly assisting or had greatly assisted 1,500 people up to now. At 2.15 p.m. today I am meeting MS sufferers who have given their own testimonies about how important this drug is. We are talking about €207 a month, not €3,000 a month.
I will conclude by asking the Leader to arrange, as a matter of urgency, a debate with the Minister for Justice and Equality in regard to policing and crime across the country. In my own area, both in its urban and rural areas, crime is now rampant. Gardaí are so under-resourced that they cannot do the job they are charged to do. In the town of Rush, there is not a shop that has not been robbed by armed robbers over the past year. Garda stations have been closed in both urban and rural areas. It is not just the station closures, however; it is the level of resourcing. In the Dublin metropolitan area, the drugs squad in R district is down 50% in numbers, from having 32 gardaí focusing on the scourge of drugs two years ago, to 16 now. The same type of figures apply in every other unit across the city and county, and across the country, with 40% to 50% reductions in Garda resources.
It is not acceptable. The situation is now at crisis point. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate in the House next week with the Minister for Justice and Equality in order for her to tell us whether the Government is happy to leave the streets of the towns and villages of this country to thieves and burglars. That is what is happening. People are not safe in their homes.
I am sure all colleagues will want to join with me in expressing our condolences on the plane crash that occurred just this morning, with some 150 people reported to have been killed in a crash over the French Alps on a flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. It is very sad news indeed.
I ask the Leader for a debate at some point on the issue of undocumented migrants. It was very good to see how successful the St. Patrick's Day events around the world were and how well received generally were the Irish Ministers and visitors. However, as the Taoiseach was raising the very important issue of the undocumented Irish in the US with President Barack Obama, the Migrant Rights Centre was highlighting the plight of undocumented migrants living in Ireland who may have been living and working here for many years, but who are undocumented to the extent that they do not have legal papers and legal permissions. A proposal was put before the justice committee in February by the Migrant Rights Centre to regularise the position of the undocumented migrants here in Ireland. This is something we could usefully debate in the House, perhaps while also debating the plight of the undocumented Irish living in the US, for whom we all hope there will be some resolution.
I would also welcome a debate on child care which, along with a number of other colleagues, I have called for on a number of occasions. I note in today's edition of The Irish Times an article regarding a study which makes some important findings around child care, particularly the high levels of child care provided informally by grandparents, which will be of great interest to all of us. According to that study, 42% of child care is being provided by grandparents. The study also shows the relatively low level of women's participation in the workforce and the relatively high levels of women who remain in the home, which is another issue we might usefully debate. This is particularly notable in Ireland as compared to our European neighbours.
I commend all those who took part in attempting to view the solar eclipse on Monday. I was one of the thousands of people who gathered in the front square in Trinity College hoping to catch a glimpse of the sun being almost entirely covered by the moon. We were not so lucky on the east coast. I think west coast viewers were luckier. It was a remarkable event. What was really remarkable was the level of public interest in the science, physics and astronomy around the event, which bodes well for the future of science and science research in Ireland.
I support the calls by Senator Bacik for a debate on undocumented migrants in Ireland and on child care, both of which issues deserve the attention of the Seanad.
I rise today to raise an issue I have raised in the Seanad on several occasions, namely, the Diageo "Stop Out-of-Control Drinking" campaign. I welcome the additional resignation from that campaign. The first resignation was by Dr. Ciara Kelly. Some ten days ago, the organisation, MyMind, withdrew from the campaign and I have recently received confirmation that St. Patrick's Mental Health Services has withdrawn from it. I call on the other organisations who are lending their credibility and reputations to a Diageo campaign to withdraw from it. We know from the World Health Organization and from experience in Ireland provided by the substance misuse group that the drinks industry has no role to play in public health campaigns. I believe that is a view which this House should stand over.
This afternoon and again on Thursday, the Joint Committee on Health and Children will hold hearings on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. I call on all Senators to fully support that Bill which provides us with an opportunity to do something about the drinking culture in Ireland and alcohol related harm. I also call on my colleagues to sign up to and support the Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland, which comprises the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and Alcohol Action Ireland and calls on Members to ensure they have no links to the drinks industry. I ask Senators to check out the Alcohol Health Alliance and give it their full support.
I congratulate the Irish men and women's rugby teams. Last weekend was a very proud weekend for Ireland. It was great to see sporting success on the field. On that note, I ask that Irish women's rugby be given greater prominence and support by all, including our national broadcaster.
I would like to recognise the death yesterday morning of the founder of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. This was a man who founded one of the most successful states in the world, Singapore, and did so without any violence or war. I got to know Lee Kuan Yew some 30 years ago. We kept in touch and communicated a great deal. Singapore, although tiny, is now one of the wealthiest nations in the world. This was achieved by Lee Kuan Yew. I take this opportunity to express our sympathy to his family and to the people of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew was a wonderful man. When I was in touch with him some time back I expressed my disappointment that according to him he ate only half of the plate of food served to him because he was trying to stay healthy and do his bit for world hunger and told him that that was not good for the grocery business. He later responded that he had changed his mind and would in future only order half a plate of food. I wanted to express my sympathy on the death of this man whom I got to know well over the past 30 years.
There is another issue I would like to raise today, which I have been raising twice a year for 21 years now.
I refer to the brighter evenings campaign. This coming weekend we will get an extra hour of daylight in the evening, which we will lose in October. The problem would be easily solved by moving to Central European Time. There is quite a movement in Britain to do so and I believe it would be possible for us to do so too. One benefit to more daylight hours is a reduced number of road accidents. There are also huge benefits to be gained in the sport, entertainment and tourism sectors. We should urge the British to do the same, because it is unlikely that we will find it easy to make a move on our own without Northern Ireland joining us at the same time.
I wish to make one last point. People from Spain have told me they were impressed by our social welfare system, because in Spain they get the dole only for one year, and after that they must do social work. Therefore, in Spain one will see people cutting grass, cleaning streets, sweeping roads and doing similar jobs, because they do not get the dole forever. If a person has received the dole for a year, he or she must undertake social work to retain the payment. We should consider a similar scheme here, because it would encourage people to do a world of good for the area in which they live as well as helping the nation.
I join with colleagues in extending sympathies to the families of those who have lost loved ones in the horrific airplane crash this morning.
Since we met last, this country has had a fantastic week in many ways, including on the sporting front, with the fantastic achievements of the Irish men's rugby team in winning the Six Nations Championship, and our fantastic ladies who emulated and went one better the following day with their sensational win over Scotland. Coupled with such wins, we had significant St. Patrick's Day parades throughout the country and the world, with Ministers going out into the field to sell the country. They promoted business and enterprise and represented the country well. I wish to pay particular tribute to the fantastic St. Patrick's Day committees at home, who laid on fantastic parades throughout the country. I had the pleasure of attending two of them, one in Ballinasloe and another in Ahascragh. On both occasions I saw at first hand what community groups working together can achieve. It was a fantastic coming together of business, community and sporting organisations and schools. The general feedback from around the country was that the parades this year were bigger and better than ever before. They show that the country is vibrant and prove that rural communities are alive and well. We need to encourage communities to build on what was achieved over St. Patrick's week and weekend. We can revitalise many of the communities that have felt a little neglected. I was delighted to see the work that has been done by the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan. We should invite her to the House again to have a further discussion on the revitalisation of rural Ireland. We need to discuss how we can all work together to make this country better as we attempt to attract more visitors here, given the launch of the plan for tourism for the next ten years.
I ask the Leader for an urgent debate on medical card assessments and anomalies in the system. I will briefly mention three cases. Two of the cases concern farmers in receipt of farm assist who are being forced to get an assessment from the Revenue Commissioners because they are not in the tax net. The Revenue Commissioners have told me quite clearly that they do not want to know these people. The most they can do is issue a statement of affairs written on official Revenue Commissioners paper, which the HSE, at a top level, will not accept.
The Leader might say to me that this is an appropriate matter for a Commencement debate, but I have raised it here before. In one other case I got Deputy Kelleher, who knew the family concerned, to table a question in the Dáil, but he received the same response. I was spurred on to raise this matter today following a call the other day from a man about his 93 year old uncle, who is a retired priest but is currently in hospital.
This elderly man received a letter stating that if he did not reply within six or eight weeks, his medical card would be withdrawn. He did not respond in time because he was very ill in hospital and did not know the letter was at home, and now he has lost his card. This type of approach is appalling.
I have spoken to various Ministers about this, and after a number of inquiries I have established that the Revenue Commissioners are not at fault. In fact, I am told, Revenue has been inundated with telephone calls from elderly sick people inquiring about these issues. These are people who were never in Revenue's net and do not want to be. It is appalling that one branch of the State, the HSE, will not accept an assessment by another branch, the Revenue Commissioners. These assessments should not be taking place in the first instance. Many of these people have spent €300 or €400 going to an accountant to prove they owe nothing. In one instance, a farmer in his late 50s lost his card even though he was diagnosed by a consultant as having severe arthritis and advised to seek disability benefit. In another case, a person suffering from high blood pressure is no longer taking his medication because he cannot afford it.
I am asking that the Minister for Health come to the House to debate this issue. I have tried all other avenues to get it resolved. It is unacceptable that the elderly and most vulnerable in our society are being affected by this practice. Nobody at the top of the HSE dealing with medical cards can get a handle on it. Under the old system, the officer in the locality would know about the priest in his 90s being in hospital. Lives may be lost because people cannot afford their medication. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister come here today to debate this issue and undertake to get a handle on it. I was blaming the Revenue Commissioners, but after several telephone calls it became clear that the problem is that the HSE does not accept what Revenue issues in these circumstances. The system is like a revolving door, with information going in one way and out the other. We must ensure people who are entitled to medical cards actually get them. It is appalling that a man in his 90s lost his medical card because he was in hospital for several weeks and unable to respond to the letter he received. When I complained on his behalf, the response was that he would be sent a new application for an over-70s medical card. That is not good enough.
I join colleagues in paying tribute to the national men's and women's rugby teams following their Six Nations victories. I pay particular tribute to Larissa Muldoon, a member of the women's team whose father went to school with me. I was glad to see there was Rossie blood on that team. I also take the opportunity to congratulate the Roscommon football team, whose members are playing out of their skins at the moment. They will have an awful job to avoid promotion.
Will the Leader agree to a debate on the future of psychiatric services? Back in the 1980s, the strategy, as set out in a document called Planning for the Future, was to establish hostels and day care centres while we still had a good community-based psychiatric service. When the elderly people concerned were no longer able to avail of those services, they were put into long-term care due to their age and conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and paranoid schizophrenia. Now the HSE is looking to move these people on. In Áras Naomh Chaoláin in Roscommon, for example, residents who have lived there for 25 to 30 years are being vetted with a view to discharging them either into the community or into the private nursing home sector. There is a serious threat hanging over the future of our day care centres and hostels. Effectively, we seem to be going down the road of privatising mental health services, and the word "care" has been taken out of any consideration when dealing with older people. That is what I am hearing from psychiatric nurses across the board. Elderly people are being tossed around like rag dolls just to save money for the HSE. It is totally unacceptable and I will not stand for it. We must have an urgent debate on the matter in this House.
I note the publication of a petition last Wednesday by 51 eminent scientists, including Boyle medal winners, arguing that the new strategy for science should reconsider balancing the funding of science to strongly support not only applied or oriented basic research but also basic research across the full range of scientific disciplines. There is a view that knowledge cannot be trapped into the categories that Science Foundation Ireland funds and there should perhaps be some free-range allocation of funds, which might be made possible by dropping projects that have ceased to be of relevance.
It is very difficult to predict where the return can be. Let us have some degree of flexibility there.
I compliment Michael Longley, our great poet, on being made a freeman of Belfast last night in the presence of President Higgins and the Lord Mayor, Councillor Nichola Mallon. On the day before the referendum on the future of this House we had poets on every side of the House paying wonderful tributes to Seamus Heaney. So, with our great tradition of poetry, I am sure we welcome the elevation of Michael Longley, CBE, to be a freeman of Belfast.
I express concern at a report in The Irish Times today that a senior official in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has written to the UK Competition and Markets Authority asking it to force Ryanair to divest itself of its shares in Aer Lingus. This is a case that is pending before the UK courts. I know many of the officials in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport cannot wait to get Aer Lingus into the possession of British Airways. I wish they would come in here and debate the issue instead of operating behind the scenes.
Let us assess this from the point of view of the country, not what suits the officials in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, who have a long tradition of allowing cartels to operate between airlines, with huge fares and so on. They are so keen to have Aer Lingus absorbed into British Airways. It is not in the Irish national interest that it should do so, and we need a debate in the House on it. I regret very much that a senior official is reported to have sent that correspondence to the UK authorities in the way in which it is reported.
I too wish to congratulate the men's and women's rugby teams on their success in the past week. It shows that leadership was provided in the work they have done in achieving successful results at the weekend.
The week beginning 28 March is organ donor week. One of the problems in Ireland is that more than 600 people are waiting for kidney transplants. The number of medical consultants manning the national renal transplant programme is four, half the number it should be, which is eight. There is a need to focus on the recruitment of suitably qualified personnel to bring the number up to eight. In the past two to three years we have faced major problems in dealing with this issue. The cost of having a person on dialysis is approximately €70,000 per annum. When that amount is multiplied by 600, it gives one an idea of the net cost to the Irish taxpayer. The cost of performing an operation is of the order of €30,000. Obviously, the cost of care thereafter is considerably reduced. There is a need to focus on this issue during organ donor week - the importance of organ donation, the recruitment of suitable staff and the upgrading of this facility. The day of cutbacks is over. The day of expanding the service is here, and let us not miss that opportunity by failing to recruit people with the required expertise who can perform these transplants. Let us reduce the number of people who are on dialysis. That is something we should strive to do in the next two to three years.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Denis O'Donovan.
I commend the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets on Saturday in protest at the Government's unfair water charges. This is the fourth occasion on which record numbers of people have come out on to the streets to campaign not only against unfair water charges but against many aspects of Government policy. It was clear to those of us on this side of the House when we debated the water services Bill mark three that at some point we would come back with the water services Bill mark four, because the Government has not learned from the lessons of the last three Bills and the mistakes it made in regard to the creation of Irish Water and all the difficulties it brought upon itself in respect of water charges.
We now hear from Ministers that the carrot approach has not worked. The Government is therefore moving to the stick approach - namely, as the Government has put it, to fast-track people through the courts. How in God's name will that be done? It is unworkable. It is smoke and mirrors. It is more hot air from the Government and it is simply a strong-arm tactic to coerce more people into signing up to Irish Water. It is clear that a significant number of people have not registered and many people who have registered will not pay these charges. I call for a debate on the issue of water services. The issue has not gone away. The Government has not listened to the people. It is stumbling from one crisis to the next. Here it is again, threatening and coercing people into registering for a service they already pay for and for which they do not want to pay. I commend those who took to the streets on Saturday, and I call for a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government as soon as possible. I am not tabling an amendment to the Order of Business on that issue, but I second the amendment tabled by Senator O'Donovan.
On this day a few years ago, I was born in Portlaoise General Hospital. My own children and my granddaughter were also born there. It is a fine hospital with dedicated staff. Now its reputation and the public's confidence in the hospital are being dragged into an unsavoury row between the HSE and HIQA. I commend the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, on the forthright, common-sense approach he has taken in saying that neither of these agencies, under the auspices of the State, should be taking lumps out of each other in public and threatening legal action to prevent the publication of the independent HIQA report into past shortcomings at Portlaoise General Hospital. The report apparently confirms our worst suspicions: that Portlaoise Hospital, under successive Governments and Ministers for health, was underfunded, understaffed, under-resourced, and subsequently undermined, to the point at which the staff could not safely carry out their duties, work and responsibilities. Now that HIQA has investigated this, the agony and trauma for the families who lost their children are being unnecessarily prolonged, due in particular to the HSE's attempt to prevent the publication of this independent report.
I am calling on the Minister, and I ask all colleagues here to call on the Minister, to knock heads together so that HIQA can get on with its job and put into the public domain its full, unvarnished report. Then we can see for ourselves what went wrong, why it went wrong and what the shortcomings were, and establish for certain that they have been addressed. I commend the Minister for putting additional staff, a new management team and new consultants into Portlaoise so that the public can have confidence. Hundreds of families go there each year to have their babies. It is not acceptable for the HSE to attempt to dilute or to change the contents of an independent HIQA report. It should be ashamed of itself for causing additional trauma to families that have suffered enough. I ask the Minister to immediately bring this unsavoury row to a close and have the HIQA report published in full.
It would be remiss of me to let it go without wishing Senator Whelan a happy birthday.
I want to raise the important issue of the alleged mis-selling of whole-of-life assurance policies, which was raised in the Dáil in the last week or two by my party colleague Deputy Michael McGrath, who received a lengthy answer from the Minister for Finance. Whole-of-life assurance is where an individual purchases cover that would provide a lump sum for his family, usually his spouse, in the event of his death. It is different from most other types of insurance in that it contains no investment benefit, or only a very minuscule one - there is no surrender value, as such.
The problem is that whole-of-life policies are subject to review after ten years and subsequently every five years. The review is carried out by the insurance company. It has all the cards and the customer has no cards. The policyholder has to cough up the additional premium. I am not talking about a normal investment whereby every year we are given the choice of coming up a little extra with the cost of living or the price index or whatever. Some of these jumps in premiums are extraordinary.
I offer one example involving a person who took out one such whole-of-life policy when he was 50 years of age. His premium was €90 per month. The cover for his wife in the event of his death would have been €250,000, a good substantial consolation for the spouse. Some 12 years later, the amount payable to the spouse has risen to €300,000, in other words, by the sum of €50,000. Yet, the premium has gone from €90 to €700 per month, an absolutely shocking swingeing increase in the premium for this unfortunate. There are many others like him. According to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, the Financial Services Ombudsman has received 836 complaints of mis-selling that he can be sure of. There are probably many more but he is certain of that number. These people are trapped. They have invested so much money after ten or 12 years, upwards of €80,000, €90,000 or €100,000 in premiums. Moreover, the premium could jump up next month or next year by a further couple of hundred euro per month. Where does that leave the customer? Most of them have to give up, bail out and stop paying. There is no recompense whatsoever and no lump sum for the spouse in the event of policyholder death. There is something radically wrong here. The ombudsman seems to be wary of getting involved. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, should take a personal, hands-on approach in this matter. Hard-working individuals, middle-class people in the main, who have worked all their lives, probably have a small pension and are keen to ensure a little comfort and something to look forward to for their families when they depart are being trapped into throwing away investments of €100,000 plus with nothing to show for it.
Senator Cullinane referred to the tens of thousands of people who marched down O'Connell Street to protest over one thing or another on Saturday afternoon last, but 750,000 people tuned in to RTE to watch the Irish rugby team win the Six Nations Championship. Millions of people throughout the world tuned in to watch a series of games that took place on Saturday afternoon.
The march should have been a lot bigger.
I congratulate the team, the staff and in particular my dear friend, Joe Schmidt, for the tenacity and sportsmanship they displayed in winning the Six Nations Championship. The day was filled with drama and excitement. It was nail-biting stuff all the way to the end and there was a real cliffhanger ending. Then, on Sunday, the ladies followed the men. It was a wonderful display by the ladies. The athleticism they displayed and the passion to win was exemplary. The positive image of the weekend sporting endeavour of Ireland that has been brought throughout the world is the type of publicity for Ireland that cannot be bought.
It is another example of the Government's investment in sports through the Irish Sports Council. The Government has invested in recent years in the women in sports programme. The results are evident now, particularly with the great win of the ladies. This is going to encourage more and more young ladies to participate in sports. It is going to be a wonderful inspiration for all these young women coming through, whether they are on our boxing, soccer, GAA or athletics teams. Women in sport in Ireland is alive and well. It brings out the best in people and a very positive attitude in life.
Senator van Turnhout's commented on RTE and encouraged the broadcaster to show more women in sports. Believe it or not, RTE was the only national broadcaster in Europe to show the rugby this past weekend.
That is true.
I wish to raise a matter that I have raised previously in this House. However, on this occasion I would like to ask the Leader if he would write directly to the Minister for Justice and Equality asking for clarification about the fate of Fitzgibbon Street Garda station.
I raised this previously and I was given information that was inaccurate. I was told it was being refurbished for use as a police station. This is not the case. Great secrecy surrounds it. It is indeed being refurbished, but the people refurbishing it have been told to say nothing about what they are doing it for. Once again, it is another hostel, as if Dublin 1 had not played its role in this area. We are stuffed with such institutions and it is time for another area of Dublin to take on some of the responsibility. I have great empathy with people who are homeless and I do what I can to assist them, but there is no information about this and we are being lied to. We do not know what follow-up services will be provided or whether the hostel will be wet or dry. We do not know what monitoring there will be. As I said, this is not a "not in our backyard" argument. Our backyard is full and the authorities are doing nothing for the central area of Dublin.
I would also like to refer to what was said about the Diageo campaign. Of course it is a farce. A drinks company is there to increase its sale of alcohol. It is not there to restrain any damage being done to young people. There is only one way of saving this committee. I have great respect for Fergus Finlay; I do not know what led him astray on this issue. Diageo should immediately turn its funding into a donation, pure and simple, with no strings attached. The Diageo member on the board should be withdrawn immediately, thereby ensuing that the committee is properly financed and seen clearly to be independent. Otherwise, it should be shut down.
I agree with Senator Norris. I could not agree more that it is inappropriate for Diageo to be involved in a campaign entitled "Stop Out-of-Control Drinking" and it is somewhat cynical, to say the least. His suggestion is a sensible one and would bring some credence and credibility to the campaign. Perhaps he would make his suggestion directly to Diageo because it is positive and would give it some credibility for a campaign which, if it was independent, would be extremely welcome.
I commend Diageo on a recent initiative it has taken, namely, to put information on calories on all of its beverages. We have an absurd situation in this country whereby a food producer must put every detail known to man or woman about the food it produces on its labels. I am in favour of this, not least the information on calories and everything else, but we can consume drinks without knowing what is in them. The fact that calories would be shown on Diageo's products is very welcome and I hope other drinks companies would follow its lead. It is one very small measure which will help with the obesity crisis in Ireland. Nonetheless, it has been shown to have a significant effect in other jurisdictions.
I also join Senator Coghlan in acknowledging the tremendous achievement of the men's and women's Irish rugby teams at the weekend. It gives us a great lift and I congratulate all involved.
I join others in congratulating the fantastic performances of Irish sporting teams, from hockey right through to rugby. I take this opportunity to once again offer my commiserations to the Kilmallock senior hurlers who have had a fantastic year which ended in heartbreak on St. Patrick's Day. It was another heartbreak for Limerick teams in Croke Park and things do not become easier the more often they happen.
I wish to propose an amendment to the Order of Business. A matter was brought to my attention last week by a concerned customer of the post office network. The person received a letter from the Department of Social Protection encouraging him or her to abandon collection of a payment in a post office in a local town and instead have it transferred electronically into a bank account. The Department is trying to take customers away from using the post office service and make them fork out for bank charges for welfare payments.
We are hearing platitudes from the Government. The establishment of the post office business development group, the aim of which is to examine how to further develop the post office network, was well heralded by the Minister of State with responsibility for rural affairs. At the same time, another Department is trying to pull customers away from the post office network. As the Leader knows, there is tremendous fear in parts of rural Ireland that have lost certain services, including banks, Garda stations and creameries. It seems that the post office network is being undermined by one Department at a time when another Department under the same Government is committed to it. One hand does not know what the other hand is doing. The Government seems to be talking out of both sides of its mouth on this issue. We need clarity. We need to hear a response from the relevant Minister. I am not even too sure anymore who that is supposed to be. He or she needs to come in here and express support for the Irish Postmasters Union, which has said that no further transfer of post office transactions to the commercial banks should be pursued-----
The Senator has clarified the amendment.
-----until a longer-term solution which includes the use of post offices is found. The Government needs to stop undermining the post office network and start supporting it.
I would like to be associated with what has been said about the successful rugby weekend that was enjoyed by the Irish ladies and gents. The whole sporting weekend was a truly magnificent occasion that put our country on the sporting map of the world and will also enhance our bid to host the Rugby World Cup in this country in 2023.
I want to refer briefly to the new tourism strategy, which was launched yesterday by the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, in the absolutely spectacular setting of Kilkenny Castle. I have never been in anything like it. I have to add that Kilkenny is a spectacular city on a beautiful day. The new tourism strategy, People, Place and Policy – Growing Tourism to 2025, sets out a range of objectives and aims to grow tourism over the next decade on a phased basis. It is envisaged that the number of overseas visitors will increase to 10 million, from last year's figure of 7.6 million, and that they will spend €5 billion in our country. It is also envisaged that the number of people working in the industry will increase from 200,000 to 250,000. As I have said on a few occasions, we have witnessed four years of growth in the number of overseas visitors.
Is the Senator looking for a debate on this issue?
I just want to conclude now. It is important to continue this positive momentum because in the long term, it can directly benefit those involved in tourism and the economy as a whole.
Ba mhaith liom cuidiú leis an leasú atá molta ag an Seanadóir Heffernan ar Riar na hOibre maidir leis an díospóireacht faoi chúrsaí oifigí poist. Tá géarchéim ann i gcúrsaí tuaithe. It is important that we ask the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, to come back to the House to discuss the Leader programme and particularly the chaos that is happening at the moment in the rural development area. I have heard many Government spokespersons lauding the amount of money that is being allocated under the Leader programme. While every penny provided under that programme is welcome, the budgets in some counties are being cut by up to 70% compared with what was there previously. I think the centralisation of the whole rural development programme under the county councils is a detrimental step. In my own area of Connemara, we are seeing threats to organisations like Forum Connemara and Comhar na nOiléan, which have been delivering the Leader programme and previously delivered the local development social inclusion programme. The future of such organisations is very much in question.
I ask the Leader to call on the Minister for Health to come to this House to debate another issue, namely, the fact that the HSE in the west of Ireland owes approximately €7.5 million to approximately 400 social care workers in counties Galway and Roscommon in respect of unpaid wages stretching back over a decade.
The HSE has acknowledged that it owes the money to workers and has been directed by the Labour Court to pay the debt, but it refuses to do so. The people in question are social care workers and leaders who have been working with the Brothers of Charity Services and Ability West - those who were formerly known as house parents. This issue affects 400 workers. The HSE has paid in full other categories of worker, including managers, nurses and care assistants, but have withheld these so-called twilight payments from social care workers. In regions such as Dublin, their peers have been reimbursed, as is only right and proper, but it is unacceptable that a Labour Court recommendation has not been upheld by an organisation such as the HSE. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Health to come to the House to debate the issue with us and to explain to us what he will do to make sure these workers' rights are vindicated, as they should be. It is unacceptable, and I hope other Senators agree with my call.
Following on from what colleagues said, I hold no brief for the drinks industry and I have frequently called for restrictions on advertising by the alcohol industry and the curbing of links between drinks companies and sporting events or events involving young people, but I am not impressed by the moral posturing of people in these Houses and outside the House regarding the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign funded by Diageo. I do not agree with many comments made by Fergus Finlay, but it was clear that there was a written memorandum of understanding from Diageo that this group would act independently. What I am concerned about is a certain bullying tendency to try to turn groups and individuals in our society into pariahs and not even allow them on board when it comes to assisting them to do good in some way. My approach to Diageo would be to accept their money and then stun them with my ingratitude in proposing all sorts of policy measures that they would not like. That would be the more mature approach to this initiative. Let all companies be involved in helping to promote a culture that avoids out-of-control drinking, and let us decide separately on stringent measures to restrict their activities. It is the same with tobacco. Let us ban smoking or not ban smoking, but if we do not, we have to allow companies to do business in our society. What should we say to a young woman working in a public relations firm that works for a tobacco company? Should she be ashamed of herself-----
That is a different argument.
-----or she should be complimented on trying to earn a living in order that she can help bring up her family? We have to stop the moral posturing and look at issues on their merits.
Has the Senator a question for the Leader?
Perhaps there is evidence that Diageo is in some way trying to call the shots on this and prevent hard statements from being made or prevent good initiatives to get people to drink less, but I find the moral posturing repellent. We have a massive problem with underage drinking and drinking to excess in our society. We should focus on the issues and work with anybody who will help us to do that. Let us stun the company with our ingratitude as we propose measures it will not like.
I compliment the Seanad Public Consultation Committee on its excellent dialogue and engagement yesterday with different groups on the issue of farm safety. It is a vitally important issue. Although I am not a member of the committee, I took part in the meeting, and it was impressive to hear from young men such as Patrick Duffy and Peter Gohery, who is a farm accident survivor. They have things of tremendous importance to say to us about how we need to provide resources for education in our schools and across society about farm safety and to assist those who have survived. I compliment everybody involved. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to update the House on farm safety the next time he is here? Will he also ask him to examine the initiatives that have been taken and to consider the report that will follow from this public consultation about what needs to be done now?
Like previous speakers, I compliment both Irish national rugby teams on their victories, but I was saddened to see such a small turnout on Sunday for the excellent display of rugby by our female team. I congratulate them, given that it must have been difficult for the players to experience such a small turnout following the hype surrounding the men's team. They deserve great credit.
However, it is what happened on Sunday at lunchtime that has me on my feet.
I found out that 23 meetings took place between the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Bord Gáis Éireann, for 13 of which there are no records. This is outrageous. If one was a member of a residents' association and one of one's officers went off and had meetings and there were no records of them, there would be outrage among the community. There was a call this morning to bring the Minister in here. I believe it is time to bring the chief executive of Ireland to this House to explain and put clearly on the record what has taken place regarding these private meetings because I have no doubt that at some stage in the future, we will find this country in front of the courts explaining some verbal agreement made at these meetings. It is simply not good enough.
Have we learned nothing in this country? To have private meetings between the supplier of a service and a Minister is simply not good enough. I am sorry for standing on my feet and calling this into question but I have received phone calls from friends and relations. It is all over social media. People talk about the demonstration on Saturday. I had never attended a demonstration until the water issue arose. I go because I am interested in what people have to say. I meet ordinary decent working people. It is not about water in many cases. It is about their total frustration with the way the world has gone. I am calling for a debate with the Taoiseach so we can put on the record of this House exactly what took place between the then Minister and the chairman of Bord Gáis Éireann.
In response to Senator Mullen, probably the greatest example of moral posturing is Diageo's posturing regarding its faith in not drinking. I never heard a contradiction like it.
I reiterate what Senator Heffernan said about the post offices and the general secretary and president of the Irish Postmasters Union. I spoke about this in the media last week and I call on the Minister for Social Protection to come in here and tell us how many of these letters are being sent out and who they are being sent to. They are being sent to pensioners to get them to transfer their pensions and social welfare payments to banks. Once I hear that word, I know we are once again capitulating to the banks. I know it might involve only a certain section of social welfare recipients because many people, including many single mothers, would not have a bank account. However, I thought the post offices were going to be the heartbeat of our villages and towns and that we were looking at ways of making them the heart beat of our villages and towns. Capitulating to the banks is not the way to go because most people who come into the post office to get their small pensions use the physicality of money to pay for their gas or electricity, buy their vegetables or go to the chemist so an element of community service is being offered by the post offices. Instead of capitulating to the banks to give them tranches of money they can then bet on the markets with, we were supposed to be developing the post offices electronically so that they would be able to receive money and put it into accounts or process motor taxation. This is very serious because it is a form of chipping away that happens under the radar. Senator Heffernan is right about this. Could the Minister come to the House to tell me the extent of this, who the letters are being sent to, who thought it up, who thinks it is a good idea, what banks will receive payments and why we are taking potshots at the very core of what we believe villages and towns to be, namely, the post office? The post office carries out community service that is unparalleled across our country. This is a very serious question so could the Minister come in here to answer it realistically?
Senator Darragh O'Brien raised the issue of the MS drug Fampyra, which costs no more than €270 per month. I will certainly ask the Minister for Health about the current situation. There is no doubt that the benefits of this drug are clearly evident from many people who receive it so I will try to get an update from the Minister.
As the Senator will be aware, the company provided this drug free of charge initially, but it now costs up to €270 a month. I will try to get an update from the Minister on that matter.
The Senator also called for a debate on the under-resourcing of the Garda. The Minister for Justice and Equality has given a commitment to come to the House as soon as her diary permits following the passage of a number of Bills, some of which will go through the House later this week and next week. The Garda network had been unchanged since 1922 before the closure of some Garda stations but we still have 564 stations, which is significantly more than in comparable jurisdictions such as Scotland and Northern Ireland, and there will be no further closures. A total of 94% of the stations that were closed were open for only three hours or less a day. Closures did not result in a reduction in Garda numbers but they facilitated 61,000 additional man hours for front-line services. The force was given capital allocation of €42 million and €27.5 million will be invested in the Garda fleet between 2012 and 2015, including €10 million for 370 new vehicles this year. The Government has provided the force with at least €414 million more than Fianna Fáil proposed for the same period. Templemore training college has reopened with 300 new recruits entering. They are the first since Fianna Fáil stopped recruitment in 2009.
Tackling crime and burglaries is a top priority of Government and the Garda will shortly publish an anti-crime strategy. The civilianisation of many functions has begun, ensuring more gardaí are on the beat. The Government is also examining a law to deal with repeat offenders, including repeat burglars. It is unfair to suggest the force is under-resourced because the data indicate that this is far from the case.
Senator Bacik referred to the horrific plane crash in the French Alps, which we only learned of in recent hours. Our hearts go out to all the families affected by the crash. She also called for debates on undocumented migrants in Ireland and on child care. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has agreed to come to the House for a debate on child care and I hope to have a date for that soon.
Senator van Turnhout and many others raised the issue of Diageo and the Stop-Out-of-Control Drinking campaign. Some Members urged people to step down from the campaign committee or called for the committee's abolition while others, such as Senator Mullen, suggested different ways to deal with this issue. It will be addressed by the Oireachtas joint committee dealing with alcohol abuse and I am sure there will be many more comments on this.
Many Members, including Senator van Turnhout again, complimented our sporting heroes on the Irish rugby teams. I am glad a Waterford lady, Niamh Briggs, captained the Irish women's team. I am also glad our national broadcaster covered their game on Sunday. These players are an example to all and I take on board Senator Eamonn Coghlan's comments on the work of the Irish Sports Council regarding the funding of women in sport, which is bearing fruit.
Senator Quinn mentioned the death of the founder of the state of Singapore and he highlighted his meetings with him.
Senator Quinn also raised the brighter evenings campaign, as he has done on many occasions. As he said, if it is to happen, it must happen in conjunction with our counterparts in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. I know there have been ongoing negotiations in that regard. I think Deputy David Stanton and the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality have been favourably disposed towards this move to join central European time.
Senator Mullins complimented the St Patrick's Day committees and the great voluntary and community effort by all involved. I think we would all agree with that. Senator Mullins also called for a further debate on the revitalisation of rural Ireland.
Senator O'Donovan spoke about medical cards, the anomalies in the system and the need for more joined-up thinking between State agencies, in particular the Revenue Commissioners and the HSE. I know the case in question is totally unacceptable. Obviously, the solution to it will be giving medical cards to everybody over 70 but that does not solve the problem. If we get the details from Senator O'Donovan, I will take it up with the Minister for Health today. If we do not get a satisfactory answer, the Senator might proceed in respect of an amendment to the Order of Business but I will take up this particular case. It seems ludicrous that the HSE does not look at a person's date of birth when it is looking for this type of information. The person is 93. Common sense obviously does not come into it when one hears of cases like that.
Senator Kelly called for a debate on the future of psychiatric services. I will try to arrange that with the Minister.
I note Senator Barrett's points relating to the strategy for science. He congratulated poet Michael Longley on receiving the freedom of Belfast city. I know the issue of Aer Lingus has been debated at length in the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications and I am sure it will continue to be debated in that forum.
Senator Colm Burke spoke about organ donor week and the need to focus on the recruitment of consultants in that area to bring the complement from four to eight. There is obviously a need to focus on the recruitment of consultants in many disciplines because we are so short of consultants.
Senator Cullinane referred to the Right2Water campaign and said that it was good that so many people took part and that it was a peaceful protest. I think everybody agrees with peaceful protest. Certainly, we will have another Bill relating to Irish Water and penalties and I am sure we will have ample time to debate that when the Bill comes before the House. Over 1.3 million people - over two thirds of the population - have registered with Irish Water. I am sure many others will register in the future.
Senator Whelan spoke about Portlaoise General Hospital and outlined the differences between HIQA and the HSE and the need for the Minister to intervene to ensure the publication of this report. Senator Whelan also outlined the significant increase in investment in the hospital in recent times. The Minister has outlined his disquiet at two State agencies threatening to take legal action against each other, which is not acceptable. I am sure the Minister has his finger on the pulse in this regard. When the report is published, we may be in a position to debate it in this House.
Senator O'Sullivan outlined the difficulties and anomalies relating to whole-of-life assurance policies. If he puts this topic down as a Commencement debate topic, he might get a clear message from the Department of Finance about those policies.
Senator Eamonn Coghlan spoke about the Irish rugby teams and complimented the Irish Sports Council on its work.
Senator Norris spoke about Fitzgibbon Street Garda station. Perhaps the Senator might table this for a Commencement debate in order to get the full details of what is going on. I do not think we should have secrecy relating to this station or any place where hostels are located. The public should be consulted in areas where such developments are taking place. I suggest that a Commencement debate on that matter might give the Senator more answers than I can give.
I thank the Leader.
I also note the Senator's argument, with which I agree, about the Diageo campaign. Senator Norris argued that Diageo should turn its funding into a donation and withdraw its nominee from the board. This may assist in clarifying the situation.
Senator Noone also spoke about drinks companies, and mentioned calorie counting. Diageo intends introducing this and urges other drinks companies to do likewise.
In response to Senator Heffernan, they say all politics is local. The Senator commiserated with the Kilmallock senior hurlers, who lost on St. Patrick's Day. Senators Heffernan and O'Donnell spoke about An Post and about the Department of Social Protection sending out letters asking people to have pensions and social welfare payments paid into bank accounts. It is despicable for the Department to send out such letters when we are trying to encourage people to use post offices the length and breadth of the country.
Will the Leader support my amendment?
I certainly agree that the Minister should investigate that, and I will bring the matter to her attention today and try to get answers. I would point out that 288 post offices closed down between 2005 and 2011 and that 22 post offices have closed since this Government came to power. Those statistics speak volumes for the efforts of the Government to retain post offices. However, I do not think the letters going out from the Department of Social Protection are doing anything to support that effort.
Senator Brennan spoke about the tourism policy of the Government and the need to maintain the momentum. He spoke about the 7.6 million visitors last year and the increase in jobs over the years because of this increase in visitors.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh spoke about HSE social care workers. He suggested that many of them have unpaid wages and that people in similar cases have been paid in Dublin but not in the west of Ireland. The Senator might put down a topic for the Commencement debate. If people have been paid in Dublin, I see no reason they should not be paid in the rest of the country.
Senator Mullen spoke about how he differed from colleagues in respect of the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign, dubbing comment from some Members "moral posturing". That is his personal opinion.
He would be the one to recognise it. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile.
I agree with Senator Mullen about the Seanad Public Consultation Committee, which met yesterday to discuss farm safety. The committee sat from 2 p.m. until 6.30 p.m. It was an excellent day's work and I compliment the Members who attended. I had hoped there would be more, but I compliment other Members who joined in as well. When the report is complete, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine will come to the House to comment on it.
Senator Craughwell spoke about meetings between Bord Gáis and the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, and the fact that some minutes were not recorded. The Senator might put down a topic for Commencement debate to get the full details from the Department as to why the minutes were not recorded.
I referred previously to the point made by Senator O'Donnell about post offices. The Senator sought information about the extent of the notifications that have gone out from the Department of Social Protection.
I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister.
Senator O'Donovan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Health on entitlement to medical cards and the circumstances pertaining to the recall of existing cards be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Barrett, Sean D.
- Byrne, Thomas.
- Craughwell, Gerard P.
- Daly, Mark.
- Heffernan, James.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Norris, David.
- Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor
- O'Donovan, Denis.
- O'Sullivan, Ned.
- Power, Averil.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Reilly, Kathryn.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Zappone, Katherine.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Brennan, Terry.
- Burke, Colm.
- Coghlan, Eamonn.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Comiskey, Michael.
- Conway, Martin.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- D'Arcy, Michael.
- Hayden, Aideen.
- Higgins, Lorraine.
- Kelly, John.
- Landy, Denis.
- Moloney, Marie.
- Moran, Mary.
- Mullins, Michael.
- Naughton, Hildegarde.
- Noone, Catherine.
- O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
- O'Keeffe, Susan.
- O'Neill, Pat.
- Sheahan, Tom.
- van Turnhout, Jillian.
- Whelan, John.
Senator Heffernan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection on her Department's policy to encourage social welfare recipients to switch from receiving cash payments at post offices to payments to banks by electronic means be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
I will not press the amendment in light of the commitment the Leader has given to hold a debate. However, if the debate does not materialise I will certainly propose another amendment to the Order of Business as early as possible.