The Order of Business is No. 1, Legal Metrology (Measuring Instruments) Bill 2017, Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 4.45 p.m.
Order of Business
Today I wish to raise the tracker mortgage scandal. How the banks have treated those who were entitled to be on a tracker rate is absolutely horrendous and morally reprehensible. There seems to have been systemic abuse of customers by banks and this seems to have been endemic, across the board and nationwide. Banks seem to have been acting in an orchestrated fashion and collectively they have deprived thousands of customers of their contractual tracker rate and have placed others on the wrong rate. If customers treated banks in this way they would be trodden down with High Court writs and untold grief in the blink of an eye. It is not acceptable that banks can treat customers in this way. Thousands of families have been overcharged, many have lost their homes and immeasurable anguish and distress has been caused to them by the banks.
My party colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, has been raising this issue for many years now and has stuck with it.
It was only when customers who have been affected presented last week to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, and many radio shows were contacted that the Government Press Office decided to take this on board. We are only now seeing a response from the Government. The Government has been in power since 2011-----
-----and has done absolutely nothing-----
And the homeless.
-----to address this matter.
Please allow the speaker order and if there is somebody to be corrected that can be done at a later stage when the Leader responds.
The €5 million communications unit has taken heed of callers to "Liveline" and of victims who presented to the finance committee. What we really need to see now is action and not more rhetoric. We need to see action by the banks and we need to see the Government ensuring that pressure is being put on the banks to ensure that these customers are compensated and that they are given adequate redress.
I would like to welcome back Ibrahim Halawa who has been detained for four years without a fair trial. I would like to commend the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and his family, particularly his sisters who have been campaigning tirelessly over the past few years. I would like to give him a céad míle fáilte home. The Fianna Fáil group is delighted to see him home. Go raibh maith agat.
I call on Senator Craughwell.
Go raibh maith agat. I want to congratulate the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces on the publication of the 2016 annual report. Over the period the ombudsman received 82 complaints which is a reduction of 35% since the peak of 2012. Some 67 complaints came from enlisted ranks, with an additional 15 coming from the commissioned officers ranks. During 2016, 137 cases were under review and 24 of these were brought to a final conclusion.
While it is great to see a reduction in the number of complaints going to the ombudsman, I have to ask if this is because there is a real improvement in the Defence Forces. I find it hard to credit that it is, given the outcome of qualitative and quantitative surveys which were damning of the Defence Forces.
The time has come for the Minister of State at the Department of Defence to step down. He has presided over the wanton destruction of the Defence Forces. Please do not tell me that this was all about the financial crisis. When Ireland had nothing and citizens were faced with mortgage rates of over 18%, soldiers could buy houses. I know because I was one of them.
Renmore Barracks in Galway and Custume Barracks in Athlone, both barracks of the 4th Infantry Brigade which has since been disbanded, were hives of activity. Recruit platoons were constantly in training. The training depot in Athlone was a hive of activity for potential non-commissioned officers. The Army Ranger Wing was the envy of many countries. What have we done?
I recall muster parades in Galway where every morning every section had a corporal, every platoon had a sergeant, and every company had a company sergeant and company quartermaster sergeant. When the officers went on parade, every unit had its full complement of lieutenants and second-in-command and captain and a commandant in charge of the company. The battalion had an adjutant, a second-in-command and a lieutenant colonel. Today, we have units that are so grossly understrength that it is not funny. If we look at the 28th Battalion officers alone, there are two lieutenants out of 11, three captains out of eight and two commandants out of five. The 27th Battalion in Dundalk has three lieutenants out of 11, one captain out of eight and four commandants out of five. The 7th Battalion in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines has one lieutenant out of 11, three captains out of eight, four commandants out of five and one lieutenant colonel.
Last year, 72 commissioned officers left the Defence Forces. Of those, 57 left well ahead of their retirement age. The Minister of State often talks about the great recruitment that has taken place in the Defence Forces. Between 2013 and 2017, 2,496 young men and women were enlisted in the Defence Forces but a massive figure of 872 have already left service.
It seems clear that the Minister of State does not understand what is happening. It seems clear that he does not understand the difference between establishment and the number in station. He must step down. The Air Corps is 30 pilots short, three ATFs short, and 1,000 technicians short. The navy is short 25 engineering officers. Over the last couple of years, 2010 to 2017, 384 officers left the Defence Forces voluntarily, including one lieutenant general, one major general, one brigadier general, 15 colonels, 44 lieutenant colonels, 161 commandants, 136 captains and 25 lieutenants.
Losses in the other ranks were no different. Some 4,064 experienced servicemen left the forces, including 29 sergeant majors, 36 quartermaster sergeant majors-----
Senator, you are well over your time.
Thank you. I am just about finished, a Chathaoirligh.
That is more like a Second Stage speech, Senator.
The figures are 183 company sergeants, 133 company quartermaster sergeants, 603 sergeants, 547 corporals and 1,815 privates. The Defence Forces are in crisis and need rebuilding from the ground up.
Thank you. I call Senator Conway-Walsh.
He was bound to run out of breath at some stage.
I want to talk about the Leader programme. As Members will know, the Leader programme is an investment programme which is worth €250 million. The current programme runs from 2014 to 2020. In particular, I want to talk about the removal of €10 million from that programme for this year to be put into the local improvement scheme, LIS. I have no problem with money being put into the local improvement scheme - in fact, it is desperately needed for all the private roads in rural Ireland to be repaired. I remember working in Mayo County Council where the budget was cut over a number a years, by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, by €100 million. During all that time it was a challenge trying to get money for the local improvement scheme. We had hundreds of roads that desperately needed to be repaired and could not be because the budget was not there.
However, the way that this allocation was made, and its announcement at the National Ploughing Championships, gave the impression that €10 million extra was being given to rural Ireland for the local improvement scheme. What the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Michael Ring, omitted to tell people was that he was taking this money from the Leader programme's budget for this year and putting it into the LIS. In fact, what he said, when the LIS funding was initially announced at the National Ploughing Championships, was that it was only right and fair that some of the motor tax, excise duty on fuel and local property tax paid by people in rural areas be invested in the repair of shared laneways. However, what he omitted to say was that the true source of the funding was the Leader programme.
The Leader programme is desperately needed across rural Ireland for investment in communities and in the start-up of small businesses to provide employment. It is not going to be done by things being shifted around. On the face of it, one might wonder, if it is not going to be spent here, why not have the flexibility to spend it somewhere else. However, the real problem, as we know, is that Leader has turned into a bureaucratic nightmare. It was taken from the development companies, politicised, and put into the local authorities. The Minister and the Government were told at the time that this was a wrong step by Europe and by the hundreds of people who gathered in community halls right across this country. The programme is desperately needed and must be run efficiently. There is a programme to realise the potential of rural Ireland with about 270 actions.
Forget about giving the illusion of investment in rural Ireland. We need investment in rural Ireland and not just the illusion of it, as in this case and many other cases. I would like the Minister to come to the House to explain why he was not upfront in telling people the source of this money and to give guarantees that the local improvement scheme will be funded properly in the years ahead.
Go raibh maith agat. I call Senator Grace O'Sullivan.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. Like my colleague in Fianna Fáil, I am delighted to be speaking today about the return home, at long last, of the Irish citizen Ibrahim Halawa, whose joyous welcome from his family, well-wishers, members of the Government and others made for really happy scenes at Dublin Airport earlier today. Ibrahim's strength in the face of such adversity and his evident joy at being united with his family and being back home in his country are testament to his character. Having been held captive myself for a tiny fraction of the time Ibrahim was, during my days with Greenpeace, I can only imagine what he has gone through over the past four years. He is home now and he has been declared innocent of any and all charges, as have his sisters. I raised the issue of Ibrahim's detention in my first speech in the Seanad last year, as part of a Commencement debate with the then Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan. In that speech, I questioned the Government's approach to securing Ibrahim's release after 1,046 days of detention without trial at that time.
Today we are celebrating the release of Ibrahim Halawa but there will be the temptation to see it as a vindication of the wait and see approach.
We cannot forget the sterling campaigning work of so many organisations, including but not limited to Amnesty International Ireland, the Union of Students in Ireland, numerous campus and secondary school groups, SIPTU, People Before Profit, the Green Party, including Deputy Eamon Ryan, who went to see Ibrahim during the summer as part of the Oireachtas delegation, the Labour Party and many others who campaigned and lobbied for Ibrahim's release. The Green Party was in touch with our colleagues in the European Parliament to help to publicise the case there. The hard work and relentless focus of Ms Lynn Boylan, MEP, cannot go uncredited. The approach of these groups was not a softly softly one but one that reflected a justified outrage that any foreign government would consider it acceptable to mass detain protesters without trial for years. Ireland, of all countries, should be first to decry this outrage, whether it involves Irish citizens or not.
I recognise the work of the Irish media, which fulfilled their duty in publicising the case of Ibrahim Halawa through the years. The patience, diligence and strength of Ibrahim's family, especially his remarkable sisters, Somaia, Omaima and Fatima, who I met on a number of occasions, bears a special mention. With their intelligence, empathy and decency evident throughout and their now considerable experience of politics, perhaps we will see them in this House.
We cannot forget the work of the ambassador and the Minister, Deputy Coveney.
I am putting it to the Leader that we formally welcome the return to Ireland of Ibrahim Halawa.
I join others in welcoming the return home of Ibrahim Halawa. There were very joyful scenes at Dublin Airport. I commend all those who played a part in securing his release. An Oireachtas cross-party delegation that included the Labour Party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, among its members went to Egypt at the start of the year. It is worth commending everyone involved in securing his release while noting that his detention went on for far too long. It raised all sorts of issues and questions around the Egyptian justice system. It is a very good day to see him released finally.
I join Senator Ardagh and others in speaking about the tracker mortgage scandal. Clearly this gives rise to very worrying issues around the dealings of the Central Bank of Ireland with the banks, in particular on the issue of the delay. I understand the Central Bank of Ireland commenced its investigation two years ago. However, there is a sense of urgency about dealing with the issue now because people saw at the public hearings of Oireachtas committees individuals who were deeply and prejudicially affected by the banks' actions. There is a concern that greater urgency must be shown in dealing with the banks. It is simply not enough to call them in and to expect voluntary compliance with codes. More teeth must be given, if necessary, to the Central Bank of Ireland in pursuing banks which are guilty of these types of behaviours towards their clients.
I commend the Irish Penal Reform Trust which launched an excellent report today entitled Progress in the Penal System: A Framework for Penal Reform. This is a groundbreaking report, setting up a series of criteria by which we must judge our penal system. I was glad to see the references to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality's report on the penal system from 2013 and the progress made since then. I commend the Irish Penal Reform Trust on its work and I recommend the report to colleagues.
I welcome the vote taken by the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution last week not to retain the eighth amendment in full. I hope the joint committee will go on to recommend full repeal of the eighth amendment. It is good to see the committee working in public. It is important that debate is conducted in a respectful fashion and that issues around abortion and termination of crisis pregnancy are dealt with in a respectful fashion. Unfortunately, we saw in recent days some very distasteful and offensive comments by a Member of this House, Senator Mullen, around the anniversary of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. I condemn the words he used which were condemned subsequently by friends of Savita's family.
Last night in Kinsale I was privileged to attend the launch of a publication, Doing Business in Kinsale, which is a joint initiative of 80 businesses in the town that want to highlight what it has to offer. At a time of uncertainty, with Brexit looming, this is an important step for Kinsale. I believe other towns can work on this initiative. There are many positive things in this publication, which shows exactly what Kinsale can harness in areas like education and tourism. Obviously, hotel and catering events are well noted in the publication. If we are to get over the outcome of Brexit, we need to band together and sell the product we really have, which is the actual people on the ground. This internationally floated publication is doing that and will, in many ways, ensure Kinsale thrives. More towns can learn from what has happened with this publication. I recommend to my colleagues in this House that they should promote this kind of interaction between communities. Publications like Doing Business in Kinsale could be produced in every town and village to promote County Cork and Ireland as a whole.
I thank the Senator for his brevity.
As a result of the inequality in the present system of teachers' pay, young people who have qualified as teachers since 2011 are losing €6,000 per annum by comparison with those who qualified before that year and they have lost €30,000 to date. We learned yesterday that the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI, has joined the Irish National Teachers Organisation and the Teachers Union of Ireland in rejecting the public service pay agreement. In fairness to the ASTI, it has decided to stay on to work hard to find a resolution to this issue. We are beginning to see the effects of this problem in our classrooms. There is a shortage of teachers. Unqualified personnel are being asked to stand in to teach some subjects. Clearly, that is not on. It is affecting young children who are in dire need of proper teaching. We have been aware for some time that many younger teachers book flights as soon as they are qualified so they can teach in Dubai or somewhere else where they can get much better terms and conditions. I would like the Leader to invite the Minister for Education and Skills to chart out for us his plans to address this issue before it becomes more serious.
Tacaím leis an méid a bhí le rá ag an Seanadóir Gallagher. We have a huge crisis in education. If we did not have so many retired teachers coming back into the education system, it would be totally falling apart.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to this House to make a statement on the possible impending sale of parts of Galway and Foynes docks to private foreign investors. Who are the investors in question? What are their plans and objectives? How much are they paying for these assets? Who are their advisers in supporting this potential sale? Who else would benefit from it? How can the Minister ensure the public good is protected and maintained in the context of this impending sale?
I thank the Senator for his brevity. As Senator Conway is not here, I will call the next Fine Gael representative on the list, who is Senator Byrne.
I would like to highlight the EPA's report on all the raw sewage that is being pumped into our waters without being treated. It is alarming that some of the many treatment plants that have been put in place are not being operated properly. According to the report, over 500,000 tonnes of raw sewage is being pumped into the water on a daily basis. We should bring the Minister to the House to account for this serious problem, which is causing many people to become ill and to develop various ailments.
I join other Senators in welcoming Ibrahim Halawa home after four years of wrongful detention.
I wish him, his family, his friends and his community the very best for the future.
On Monday, Ireland was found to be in violation of European laws.
The European Committee of Social Rights found that this violation was the sub-quality of much of our social housing stock. Ireland is in breach, therefore, of Article 16 of the European Social Charter, which is legally binding. In essence, it is housing that is unfit for human habitation. We all know from various clinics, as councillors or just from talking to people in our local areas, how desperate it is as a result of problems with damp, mould and sewage. In particular, the people in Dolphin House in Rialto have been quite vocal and brought this case to Europe. The council official saying it is probably condensation and advising the person to open the window will not cut it anymore after this ruling. Will the Leader invite the Minister to the House to discuss this and the correcting of the failures of this Government and previous Governments to take sufficient and timely measures to ensure the right to housing of an adequate standard? A significant number of families are involved. The Government is obliged by legislation to act with haste to take steps to address this violation. I would welcome a statement on the matter.
As has been said, this weekend marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar. While I do not intend to deal with the eighth amendment here, as an Oireachtas committee is dealing with that issue, I ask you, a Chathaoirligh, to ask Senator Mullen to apologise for his recent comments in the media relating to the death of Savita Halappanavar.
I have received correspondence on this matter as Cathaoirleach. I did not hear what he said but it did not happen in the Seanad Chamber.
May I ask-----
I have made a rule that once it is outside my jurisdiction in this Chamber, I cannot interfere.
With the greatest respect, this individual has insulted the name and the family of a dead woman. He did so deliberately and in a callous manner. He also did so with a veil of Christianity which, for me, is quite repugnant to anybody who holds the Christian faith in any type of respect. I suggest that a letter be sent from you, a Chathaoirligh, to Senator Mullen regarding his comments and that he be asked to apologise in the Chamber to the Halappanavar family for what he said. Perhaps we can get back to debating the eighth amendment in a respectful tone, which is what Members of this House should be doing and not insulting a dead woman, particularly in the week of her anniversary.
In the first instance, I commend the Government on the work it is doing on the tracker mortgage scandal. It is time the State stood up to the banks, which we bailed out, and dealt with them in an appropriate, heavy-handed manner, akin to the manner in which the banks have treated people. What is good for one is good for the other. Given the way the banks have treated people over the years, they need to receive the same medicine.
When the Chamber first opened in this premises, I commended the fact that it was bright, airy and disability friendly. I regret, however, that the new temporary entrance to Leinster House is like an obstacle course. I found it extraordinarily difficult to navigate what I describe as a maze of steps, ropes, glass and prefabs. It is like a building site and certainly is not disability friendly. Perhaps the Cathaoirleach and the Leader would talk to the facilities personnel about making it disability friendly. This House has a responsibility to lead the way in terms of access, be it permanent or temporary.
I wish to raise the pyrite issue and to ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to the House to discuss it. More than 20,000 houses in Ireland have been contaminated with pyrite. Many of them are in north County Dublin but they are also spread across the country, including some in County Mayo. The pyrite remediation scheme has only approved approximately 1,300 homes for repairs and only about half of them have had the repairs carried out to date.
This is not acceptable.
Only the most badly-affected homes have been approved. There is a cohort of people in the middle and they have been in limbo for the past ten years. Their homes and lives have been badly affected by this but their cases are not being approved for repair work. Their homes are crumbling around them and are deemed worthless. They are unable to move on with their lives. It is putting a strain on their families. They cannot do renovation work on their houses. They cannot put on an extension. I have spoken to parents who have not had additional children because they have been unable to extend their houses to accommodate their families. Others have put off starting families. Some cannot do any painting work because they do not know if or when the call will ever come that their house will be repaired.
I call on the Minister to attend the House and discuss this issue. It affects 20,000 families throughout the country. Many lives have been destroyed by this. A person's home is his or her safe sanctuary. If their houses are falling down around them, it is difficult for these families to do anything else in their lives. It is affecting them badly. The Minister needs to allocate more funding, employ more people and extend the scheme. He should ensure that every house contaminated by pyrite will be remedied rather than the application process merely rubber-stamped and abandoned. I appeal to the Leader to address this issue.
Senator James Reilly is next. Sometimes it is difficult. Approximately 20 people raised their hands at the start of the Order of Business. I am trying to be as fair as I can to everyone and to pick them in the order I spotted them.
Your acuity of vision is legendary, a Chathaoirligh.
I wish to raise an issue relating to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. People will know that there has been a major problem in the country in the past ten or 15 years with building estates and housing estates being taken in charge. We have a situation whereby companies went bust during the recession. I am not here to score points about that; I am here because I want to have this issue addressed. I understand the Minister is in the process of addressing this by bringing in a taking-in-charge Bill.
Under Fine Gael much building work has taken place and far more is due to take place. There are people throughout the country who are looking at derelict sites in their estates. They can see roads that are unfinished and green spaces left untended and neglected. Yet, the council or local authority cannot or does not have the power to take the areas in charge. The interesting thing is that with many of these developers when a cash bond is involved they are given up to be taken in charge quickly. However, when the nature of the bond is a guarantee or an insurance bond there seems to be tremendous lethargy. I hope the Minister will examine that as he is formulating this legislation.
I call on the Minister to attend the House to tell us when the legislation will be ready and enacted. I emphasise that we need this in place before many of the new houses, which are so badly needed, are built. Our citizens should not have to go through years of living in half-finished estates not properly taken in charge.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, is this week in receipt of the report from the expert technical group on the mother and baby home issues in Tuam. The story has been covered by all the national media today. The Department has confirmed that the Minister is in receipt of this critical and highly informative report. The report is technical in nature. Clearly, the Minister is going to need time to reflect on it. I understand that the report is with the Attorney General as well. Therefore, it has not been dealt with or considered by Cabinet. Through my contacts I am led to believe this is the position today. It is an important report. We have debated the matter at length in this House.
Will the Leader facilitate a debate, when appropriate? Clearly, people need to discuss it. It is a sensitive issue and affects many people, including the extended families of those affected. Their considerations and sensitivities are of primary concern at this stage. When appropriate, will the Leader ask the Minister, Deputy Zappone, to attend the House and update us on the matter?
While I am on that point, it is also important to note that the Bar Council has today announced that the historian, Catherine Corless, who carried out all the work which led to this initial investigation is to be bestowed with its human rights award in recognition of her amazing work. It is a great honour that the Bar Council should decide to bestow that human rights award upon her. It is important that we in the House know that.
I thank the Leader for arranging for a slot on the Order of Business next Thursday to deal with the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016. Hopefully we will have a short opportunity to tease out some of the issues with the Minister.
The Irish labour market is a scary place for young people. It is a savage place. Young people are essentially being deprived of citizenship. The long-term outlook for the cost of precarious work to society is huge. People have an entitlement to citizenship and if we consider ourselves republicans we, as politicians and political activists, have to deal with it and have to listen to young people. Subsidised payments, the minimum wage, a living wage, punitive levels of welfare, collective bargaining and the access of unions to workplaces were all discussed during a National Youth Council of Ireland meeting in Dublin this morning. As it stands, the State is essentially subsidising employers by allowing precarious work, which favours the company against the worker. The full employment which we are moving towards cannot be like the full employment of the septic tiger. Now is the time to focus on the quality, not the scale, of labour market interventions. Surely we are best positioned now to determine what works best.
We also cannot ignore the links between productivity and job quality. A decent job pays well for both the employer and for the worker. The proposed Government legislation to deal with zero-hour contracts has been confirmed by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It would ban zero-hour contracts except in sectors which prefer casual work. This legislation will therefore fail to strike at the heart of the problem. In fact, it will enable the status quo and promote precarious work. I ask for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, to appear before the House to further discuss her proposed Bill.
I welcome the Minister bringing in the banks on the issue of tracker mortgages. I want to speak about the tourism and hotel industry and about keeping the 9% VAT rate in the budget for 2018. A rise of 1% would result in €70 million per year to the Exchequer. When I met tourism officials three or four years ago, they promised to keep their prices right if the 9% rate was maintained. We need to bring in the tourism and hotel industry officials around the Dublin area.
It is not good enough to see bed prices rising up to anything between €300 and €600 per night. The prices of drink and food are going through the roof. When beds cannot be sold for €300 to €600 the prices are dropped to absolutely nothing online to get rid of them. They are conning people. One sees bottles of Heineken for €6 and pints of Guinness for €7 to €10. There is a new aspect now, a famous stroke, where prices are put up when the bell strikes midnight because the proprietors are paying for extensions. They say it is the only way to get money. The price of a pint of lager can be €7 to €10.
Unfortunately, there is a huge urban-rural divide. There are rural hotels down the country which give great value. It is totally different in Dublin. Rural hotels are giving great value to try to keep their doors open, but here in the greater Dublin area there is a system of ripping people off. If the industry cannot behave and charge people proper prices, we cannot stand behind the 9% VAT rate in the greater Dublin area. I would like the Minister to come in here to discuss this issue because it gives us a bad name internationally when tourists from the United States and Germany come here and see these prices.
They must be horrified by what is taking place. Let us bring in representatives of hotels, as we did with the banks, and tell them they must play the game or we will increase the rate of VAT.
I rise in anticipation that His Holiness Pope Francis will visit in the third week of August, with the possibility that Croke Park will facilitate a celebratory mass on 26 August. I suggest we invite Pope Francis to address a joint sitting of the Houses.
I suggest the Senator write to the Committee on Procedure which will deal with the matter if it can be done.
I do not know if the Leader saw a totally biased and one-sided article by Kitty Holland which appeared in The Irish Times today. Ms Holland argues for abortion on demand regardless of circumstances and criticises the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution for taking a vote last week recommending repeal of the eighth amendment but not in full. I would argue differently. Ms Holland wants total repeal and full abortion with no regard for the life of the unborn. I regard the article as disgraceful and I am surprised and disappointed that a responsible and respected newspaper such as The Irish Times has allowed such a lack of balance and objectivity.
On a point of order, that is not what Ms Holland says in the article.
Please allow the Senator to continue without interruption.
I read the article and I am giving my interpretation. I hope The Irish Times will act immediately to correct this appalling and outrageous situation.
I am minded to make a ruling on this issue. A committee has been established and to the best of my knowledge it is all-party. It is not appropriate to raise similar issues in the House day in and day out. I will consider the matter. I may decide that, while the committee is sitting, ably chaired by one of our colleagues, and until it completes its report, Senators should not debate or comment on the issue in the House. We should have the common sense to allow the committee members, whichever side they are on, to do their work. Perhaps the House can have a debate when the report has been completed. I will inform Senators of my decision tomorrow. As someone who has chaired a number of committees in my time, I regard it as inappropriate for comments to be made in the House on a committee that is actively doing a certain job. It is wrong that some people are trying to take two bites of the cherry.
I refer to today's protest outside the Oireachtas by the trade union, Unite, relating to English language teachers. I was unable to join the protest because I was attending a committee meeting but I understand the concerns of the protestors. I ask the Leader to request that the Minister come to the House to debate this issue. The protest was called to raise concerns about the qualifications and quality assurance (amendment) Bill, the scheme of which was published this week. According to the Unite trade union, the Bill leaves English language teachers behind. Members of the union are angry but not surprised that the draft legislation does not make a single reference to teachers and focuses instead on facilities.
It is disgraceful that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, declined an offer to meet Unite to discuss its concerns. The message from Unite activists is simple: they are asking that the Minister and his officials engage with workers, listen to their concerns and ensure these concerns are reflected in the forthcoming qualifications and quality assurance legislation. They want the Department to stand up for workers and regulate employment standards in the English language teaching sector.
I am especially bothered by the Minister's response that this matter is one for the Workplace Relations Commission because it is a private sector issue. I am sorry but the Oireachtas regulates the private sector in all sorts of ways and the Minister's comment is an abrogation of his ministerial duty. I know the Leader is a passionate trade unionist and perhaps he will comment on the Minister's refusal to meet Unite on the issue. This decision seems to follow a disappointing pattern given that the Taoiseach, in his previous ministerial role, also refused to meet trade unions regarding the Workplace Relations Commission or accept representations from them.
Bogus self-employment is a major issue for the workers in question. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come to the House for a badly needed debate on this issue.
I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Butler's comments on the 9% VAT rate, which is an issue I have raised numerous times.
There is an issue around potentially extending free GP care to children aged under 12. We should have a discussion on any potential changes in that regard with the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, before it becomes an issue. It appears that GPs are struggling to deal with the cohort aged under six. We need to examine the issue and come up with some solutions so that the system works for patients and doctors.
When will the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill come before the House? I am tired of hearing rumours about when it is coming. There is intense lobbying. As politicians, we have to stand up to big business and implement policies which look after our citizens. Big business does not have any interest in ensuring the health of citizens when it comes to our harmful relationship with alcohol. Businesses are interested in profits. They have no place in health care policy and should not pretend to care about it because they care about profits.
There was a helpful briefing from Alcohol Action Ireland today. I will not go in to all of the details. A poll was carried out by the industry which showed that a certain number of people do not support or are not concerned about the Bill. An alcohol group has done some research which found 74% of people support Government intervention to reduce alcohol consumption, 92% agree that alcohol consumption in this country is too high and 78% are concerned about children and their exposure to alcohol.
I will not say any more about that, other than to say I want the Bill to come before the House soon. I do not accept any of the excuses I have heard. I do not care whether something is going on between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. We will get used to the fake news and everything else.
If people have issues with the committee it might be helpful were they to write to it, and that will be entered into the committee's correspondence. There is a lot of grandstanding going on inside and outside the Houses. It would be helpful if people communicated with us directly.
I thank Senator Noone for the suggestion. I certainly will not allow grandstanding here.
I welcome the release of Ibrahim Halawa. I also support my colleague on the Fianna Fáil benches who suggested that His Holiness Pope Francis should be invited to address the joint Houses of the Oireachtas. I say this as the person who initiated the invitation, and got the invitation unanimously through both Houses and the Committee on Procedure.
With regard to the banks and tracker mortgages, I have to laugh when I hear Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael squealing about it now. Where were they when I tabled a motion condemning the Bank of Ireland for unilaterally, at the instigation of the state of Israel, closing down the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign's bank account? It neutered it and it has gone nowhere. Since then I have discovered that the same bank, namely, the Bank of Ireland, has unilaterally, at the instigation of a foreign power, closed down the bank account of a diplomatic mission accredited legally to this country. Where are we going? To whom are these people accountable?
I listened to and watched them as they came out smugly from Government Buildings. Where do they come from? There was an English person, an Australian person and a Dutch person. 1916 how are you. We are being ruled from the colonies. It is absolutely laughable.
The chief executives of these companies should be in jail. They are robbers. They are thieves. They have engaged in an exercise of mass theft against the people of Ireland who rescued their bloody banks when their improvidence brought them to their knees. Some time ago I listened to a Minister say, "At least nobody died." Of course they did. People were driven to such harassment that they took their own lives. They became seriously ill. They lost their homes. They lost their families. How could this go on for ten years? It is unspeakable.
The question of looking after individuals should be taken away immediately from the useless, pusillanimous Central Bank which has shown itself to be toothless and useless.
They have a clear conflict of interest. They have been looking after the welfare of the banks and citizens. Its power should be taken away and given to an independent group to specifically look after the welfare and rights of the citizens.
I would like to echo Senator Davitt's sentiments. It is a wonderful idea that the Pope could address the Houses of the Oireachtas if he comes to this country. We have been very successful in this Chamber. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish Nationalist Party, addressed us recently and she was like a rock star. It sends out a signal from the Seanad that we welcome leaders of countries and groups into the Seanad. It would open up the debate that we need.
Last night I followed the progress of a car-jacking on social media. It started in south Dublin, where a man armed with a gun car-jacked three cars. I commend the professionalism and bravery of the Garda. A very confusing situation, where an armed man was in a shopping centre in Citywest, was handled very seriously. I felt that it was wonderful that these men are there to protect the people and the country. I was very impressed that at a very difficult time, when no one knew what was going on, they were so professional, brave and focused in sorting out what looked like a very difficult situation. I hope that we do not have situations like that in the future. The Garda deserve every resource that we can give it.
Today the Taoiseach met Mr. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, for the first time in an official bilateral meeting. It was a wonderful opportunity to establish a very strong Franco-Irish alliance in the post-Brexit era. A number of key issues were discussed. There are a great number of areas where Ireland and France continue to work strongly together, both internationally and also within the European Union, such as reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and trade.
One area that is crucially important to this country is energy security, and I am asking the Leader to bring this up with the Minister for Housing, Community and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. There is a requirement for a foreshore licence for the Celtic interconnector coming from France to Ireland, which would give us a level of energy security post-Brexit. Once the UK leaves the EU we will have no direct source of energy coming into the country apart from through the UK. Our best opportunity to resolve that will come from our next nearest EU neighbour, which will be France, so I am therefore asking the Leader to take this issue up with the Minister to ensure that this process is expedited and resolved as soon as possible.
On the issue of the tracker mortgages, I am the Vice Chairman of the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. There are four Senators on the committee: Senators Conway-Walsh, O'Donnell, Paddy Burke and myself. The committee has done great work in the last number of weeks, particularly in exposing this issue and allowing people to come in and tell their personal stories. While I accept the point that committees do their own work and that we should let them get on with it, equally we have had statements in this Chamber on everything from flood prevention to Catalonia to the Irish language. We should ask the Leader to arrange statements on the tracker mortgage issue to allow the wider Seanad membership to contribute. We can make statements and ask questions of the Minister because it is a scandal. I am not going to go over the points that other Senators have made. People have lost their homes and their lives. Thousands of people have been affected. The banks are saying that everything is fine and that it will all be sorted. I believe 40 out of 3,500 have been sorted with Ulster Bank. There is still a lot of work to be done. It would be timely if the Leader could arrange for the Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform to attend the House so that we can have a debate about this issue, which is so important for so many people.
I support Senator Horkan's proposal that there be a debate in this House on tracker mortgages. We need to expand that debate.
Of the 13,000 people affected, 3,300 have been repaid to date, while a further 7,000 plus need to be repaid post-haste. We need to look not only at tracker mortgages but also at the wider group of those impacted. We need to look at the mortgage interest rates being charged vis-à-vis those being charged elsewhere in Europe and whether we need to update the regulation of banks. There is a sense of déjà vu. The public is outraged. The issue has touched a raw nerve because in 2008, when the public was putting money into the same banks to rescue them, they were coercing people to go off tracker mortgages. In effect, they were expecting them to go out the back door and not to be able to come in the front door once the fixed rate had run its course. As a House, we need to make a firm statement. We should have statements on the issue with a view to looking not only at resolving the tracker mortgage issue but also the wider matter of regulation of banks in Ireland. The banks have gone native again and we cannot allow that to happen. This is something about which everyone feels strongly. We must have a functioning banking system, but we must also have a system that is fair to the consumer.
I thank the 26 Members who contributed on the Order of Business. I join Senators Grace O'Sullivan, Catherine Ardagh, Ivana Bacik and David Norris in welcoming Ibrahim Halawa home. I pay tribute to all those who campaigned, whether they were Members of the House, NGOs, Members of the European Parliament, the previous Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the current Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, as well as Ibrahim's family and friends for their unwavering support for him in the quest to bring him home. We all recognise that the time from the release date to today was inordinately long, but we welcome him home and hope he can be afforded the privacy to spend time with his family, acclimatise to being back in Ireland and get his life back together. The issue was placed into context this morning when it was outlined that some of his colleagues were in college, while others had graduated and that he had to restart his life. I wish him well and hope he will be given the time to do that. I commend everybody who has been involved in the effort to have him released and returned to his family. I hope and wish he can live a normal, happy and contented life. I certainly hope he will be afforded the opportunity to do so.
Senators Catherine Ardagh, Ivana Bacik, Martin Conway, Ray Butler, Gerry Horkan, and Kieran O'Donnell raised the issue of tracker mortgages. It is one about which we can all speak with one voice. Senator Kieran O'Donnell perhaps hit the nail on the head; we cannot allow the banks to go native again. They cannot be allowed to go back to their old ways. They have a duty to work with people. We all know people who have been affected. That is why the Government lost patience. I commend Senators Gerry Horkan and Kieran O'Donnell and other members of the finance committee for their work. Many of them raised the issue and it is now critical that people be recompensed and can get their lives back. In that context, last week I referred to the importance of mental health and quality of life issues, in addition to the loss of money, a family home or an investment property. The banks must be held to account. Senator David Norris is correct that we need to see people being held to account and I hope we will see that happen. The Government had lost patience and called in the banks. It is acting and the banks will now be held to account.
I remind Senator Catherine Ardagh that it is her party leader who was the Minister for spin. In the four years he was Minister for Health and Children he spent €30 million on 115 reports.
Is it €5 million a year?
He ran out of the Department with his tail between his legs and consigned Mary Harney there for years.
No new funds-----
I will repeat it for the Senator again. Her great leader, her guru, spent €30 million on 115 reports and created the HSE, the bureaucratic quango that her people now have to say is in charge of the health system.
Five million euro on PR.
That is outrageous.
Where we have agreement collectively-----
There is no agreement on that.
Gabh mo leithscéal-----
Five million euro per year. It will probably be twice the amount next year.
The Leader should not engage in argy-bargy with Senators.
I would remind Senator Wilson of his leader's famous list for the 2011 Seanad election before he comes back to me with anything.
That is an outrageous comment. The Leader should withdraw it.
I agree with all Members of the House that we must ensure-----
If there are any more interruptions, I will suspend the House for 15 minutes. We have a very busy meeting of the Seanad CPP this evening. This is outrageous. Sometimes the Leader actually draws fire from the other side because of his remarks. I ask him to continue and to try to direct his remarks through the Chair.
I will. Senator Wilson knows I meant no ill-will towards him in my remarks. He knows well what the list was about, however.
On a serious note, we must ensure the banks are held to account and that there can be no return to them going native. They must recognise that they are dealing with customers, people, or citizens of our country. Their actions affect customers materially and in health-related, personal and social ways. They must be held to account.
They could not care less.
The point is that they have to care now, and they will be held to account.
That is the bottom line. Senator Craughwell never ceases to amaze me. He is a firm advocate of the Defence Forces and is nominated by one of the unions, which is his prerogative. There are issues in the Defence Forces being addressed by the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe. I realise Senator Craughwell is seeking election to other positions, and if he is successful he will have a key, pivotal role regarding our Defence Forces, as he knows well. I commend him on his service in the past. We have had many a fine discussion on that. The Minister of State, to his credit, has been a very fine Minister for Defence.
Giving out medals.
He has engaged in the reform of the Defence Forces.
He has introduced revised pay scales for general service recruits and privates. These initiatives have been implemented. Newly qualified three-star privates and their Naval Service equivalents will see an increase in their pay to €27,000, representing an increase of over €5,000.
The Minister of State has also announced a range of measures relating to contracts, promotions and the working time directive, aimed at further increasing the attractiveness of the Defence Forces as a career option, as the Senator knows well from his engagement with him. It was the Minister of State who got Cabinet approval for ongoing, evolving recruitment of naval and defence personnel.
Some 30% are walking out before-----
Further to that, bearing in mind that some Members of the House do not like to hear good news, there is additional funding of €25 million in budget 2018-----
-----and €98 million for capital projects, including major equipment that the Senator knows well is very important to the work of our Defence Forces.
This is grossly unfair because the Leader knows I cannot respond.
He did contribute and I did not interrupt him.
With all due respect, Senator Craughwell had three minutes of Independent group time and he commandeered four. He should let the Leader respond. He may raise the matter again in another way.
I am surprised the Senator did not mention or commend to the House the increase in the number of personnel in the Defence Forces under this Government and its predecessor. Let us have a fair debate on the issues. There have been issues over pay and there was the effect of the FEMPI legislation, which has been reversed. There have been issues over the recruitment and retention of personnel but the Minister of State and key people in the Defence Forces are addressing them.
I would be happy to have a debate on the matter in the House. However, the Senator should not call on the Minister of State at the Department of Defence to resign when the opposite should be the case. He has been one of the most prominent and proactive defence Ministers in modern times. I do not like the fact that Senator Craughwell called for his resignation today. It does not to do anything to further the debate about improving the terms and conditions of, as well as the recruitment to, our Defence Forces.
I am shocked.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of funding for the LEADER programme. I could not hear from what she quoted.
I quoted from the Minister's press release and from that of the communications unit.
The amount of funding for Leader between 2014 and 2020 will be €250 million. It is a multi-annual programme and the €250 million will be drawn down over that period. The Senator is correct that the local improvement schemes are important to rural areas. That is why there is a stand-alone Ministry at Cabinet level under Deputy Ring. That is why there will be investment in the Leader programme and projects under it approved across the country. In County Mayo, the Minister will work closely with the Senator to ensure projects are delivered. If she has a list of them, I would be more than happy to go with her to have those projects prioritised. I know it is an important matter for her and her local community. I commend her on her volunteerism and work in the community. It is an example of what we should all be doing.
The Minister is committed to the Leader programme and the Government is committed to ensuring the local improvement schemes are in place and funding for them is available. If the Senator has a particular issue, I would be happy to bring it back to the Minister's attention for her.
I want to respect the rules of the House but the Leader missed my point. The point I made was that we need new investment, not the illusion of new investment, in rural areas.
The Senator has made her point.
We are not delusional about the Leader programme. We have actual budgets for Leader and the local improvement schemes being approved and implemented for every community in the four corners of the country. If the Senator has an issue, I would be happy to raise it with the Minister. I agree with her that we need investment in rural areas. That is why we created a stand-alone Ministry for rural areas and there will be investment across areas outside of Dublin.
Senator Bacik raised today's report from the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the eighth amendment. I agree with the Cathaoirleach that there is a committee under the chairmanship of Senator Noone who is doing a good job. There are divergent views on the eighth amendment. I have not seen the article to which Senator Coghlan referred or heard the remarks of Senator Mullen. It is important, no matter one's viewpoint, that we have a temperate debate on the matter.
The members of the committee take their responsibility seriously. The Cathaoirleach's earlier comment that we should not have a discussion on it was fair. We should allow the committee to do its work. Whatever the committee brings back to the Government will be a matter for it in the fullness of time. Equally, the Government has said a referendum will be held on the eighth amendment. Ultimately, that will be a matter for the people. They will make their decision in a calm and reflective manner that befits a modern society in deliberating and, ultimately, voting on a matter. I trust the people. I trust Oireachtas Members at the committee in question to do their job seriously. However, as the Cathaoirleach said, we should allow the committee do its work and then we can have a debate on that again.
Senator Lombard commended all involved in last night's publication of Doing Business in Kinsale. Like Senator Conway-Walsh, he said it is about prioritising areas, promoting business and providing jobs. That is the important point.
Senators Gallagher and Ó Céidigh raised the issue of pay equality in the education system. I accept their points but I must remind the House that last year the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, concluded an agreement with the teachers' unions which included a 15% to 22% pay increase for newly qualified teachers. Under the agreement, the starting point for a new entrant coming out of college in January next year will be €35,600. I accept the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation cuts had an adverse effect.
We are now beginning to restore pay. I remind Senator Gallagher that it was his party in government that caused the country to go into chaos. The policies that they started, under a Taoiseach of his party, left us where we were. Now we are back appointing more teachers and recruiting more staff in schools, and the Senator will welcome that.
I have not got the information for Senator Ó Céidigh regarding Shannon-Foynes and Galway ports. The Senator might be best advised to seek a Commencement matter where he might get the answer faster, but the issue the Senator raised is an important one.
Senator Byrne raised the issue of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, report today on sewerage and the need for investment by Irish Water in public wastewater services. That report today illustrates the need for Irish Water, and those who opposed Irish Water should read that report and explain how they can now pay for the required investment.
I have not seen the issue Senator Devine raised about the European Union finding Ireland in breach of Article 16, but the issue of social housing is one that was also raised on the Order of Business. I would be happy to have the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, come to the House on the matter.
Senator Ó Ríordáin referred to Senator Mullen's comments. No matter who one is, one should not use the death of Savita Halappanavar for one's own end, and I am not saying Senator Ó Ríordáin is doing so. It was a tragedy and we all mourn her loss. We remember her on the eve of her anniversary. I hope that her family will be left to grieve and to get on with their lives. We should always remember her. I have not seen Senator Mullen's article and I cannot comment on it.
In response to Senator Conway, the issue of the new Chamber and the new entrance is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, or the Office of Public Works, OPW. I am sure the Cathaoirleach and I can raise it at the CPP on the Senator's behalf. It would be disappointing if it was not disability friendly and accessible for those with disabilities.
I thank Senator Clifford-Lee for raising the important issue of pyrite. The previous Government and this Government have done work on the issue but obviously there is more to be done. I would be happy to have the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, come to the House. The matter the Senator raises is critical, especially for families with young children who in some cases have had to leave their homes or who are uncertain about their future in them. The Senator is correct to raise it but she might be quicker raising it as a Commencement matter. The point the Senator makes is a good one and I will make a list to give to the Minister.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of unfinished housing estates and the issue of bonds and developers and taking in charge. I would be happy to have the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, come to the House.
Senator Boyhan raised the important report that is with the Minister, Deputy Zappone. Whereas Members will be aware the report is with the Department, it is going to Cabinet. When it comes back from Cabinet, having been cleared by the Attorney General, I would be happy to have a report on the matter of what it contains. I congratulate Ms Catherine Corless on the well-deserved accolade being paid to her for her work on human rights.
Senator Warfield raised the issue of young people in terms of both the proposed zero-hour contracts legislation and the issue of quality and the future labour market. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House in this regard.
Senators Butler and Noone referred to the issue of the 9% VAT rate. Some Members of the House did not want to see it kept in its entirety. I am glad it was kept. It is about the retention of jobs. It is about promoting Ireland. Equally, it is about ensuring that we have a competitive retail and hospitality sector. Both Senator Noone and Senator Butler are correct in raising the issue of a two-tier country. Certainly, the value in Dublin is a lot different from that outside of the M50 or the Red Cow Inn. It is a matter that should be addressed by the stakeholders in the sector.
Senators Davitt, Feighan and Norris referred to the invitation to be extended to Pope Francis. It is a matter for the CPP and the Dáil. I am happy to lend my support to his visit. Certainly, the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to Ireland is a welcome one. On a personal level, I certainly hope that he will travel north and meet both unionists and nationalists, Protestants and Catholics, in the North of our country. The symbolism and the importance of that trip north would be huge in the history of our country. Today, Fr. Tim Bartlett visited the House. I happen to be a former seminarian colleague of his in Maynooth. He is working hard on the visit. I hope that Pope Francis comes to Ireland, that his visit is a positive one and that he communicates a positive message to all of us on the island of Ireland.
Senator Coghlan raised the matter in regard to The Irish Times and I would be happy to defer to him on that.
I was not aware of the protest today to which Senator Paul Gavan referred. There is a need for quality control in training and the teaching of English as a foreign language, TEFL. On the Senator's point, I hope there will be engagement and dialogue to enhance the legislation. I will be happy to ask the relevant Minister to ensure that will happen.
I thank the Leader.
Senator Catherine Noone raised the issue of free GP care and related matters. The potential challenge has been well documented and I will be happy to have the Minister for Health come to the House to discuss the matter. According to my schedule, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill to which the Senator referred will be before the House in November, although I cannot give Members an exact date. Certainly, this side of the House is not holding it up. Yesterday I attended the policing forum in Cork at which Mr. David Lane of the local drugs and alcohol task force made a very strong presentation on the need for publication of the Bill. As the former Chairman of the Oireachtas committee that dealt with the Bill during the pre-legislative scrutiny stage, I very much want to have it enacted. As I said, this side of the House is not delaying it, rather it wants it back in the House as soon as possible. My information this morning was that it would be before the House in November, but I will have to return to Members on the issue.
Senator Frank Feighan raised the issue of social media and referred to the car-jacking in Dublin yesterday. I commend all emergency service personnel, including first responders, and An Garda Síochána for the way they handled the car-jacking and the chase that ensued. It was reckless behaviour that put people's lives at risk. It illustrates the importance of An Garda Síochána and the support we should give it.
Senator Neale Richmond raised the important issue of energy security following the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union. He also referred to the issuing of foreshore licences. I hope we can have a debate on the matter of energy security and welcome the meeting today between the Taoiseach and President Macron. It illustrates the need to build new alliances. As the Senator said, the Franco-Irish relationship is one that must be progressed. As a country, we must make sure we are at the heart of Europe, which is what today's visit was very much about.
Senators Gerry Horkan and Kieran O'Donnell referred to the work of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach.
I welcome Ibrahim Halawa home and thank all Members of the House for their co-operation this afternoon.