Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 29 Mar 2007

Vol. 186 No. 18

Order of Business (Resumed).

I support the calls made by Senator Brian Hayes and Senator O'Toole seeking the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, to attend the House. I was disturbed when I saw the programme on letters sent to victims of sexual abuse regarding their legal situation. I do not doubt the Minister is working on this matter and will come to the House during the next week, if she can find time, to discuss the issue fully. I was unhappy with the manner in which the letters were sent out, according to the programme, and we must get a clear picture on what is happening.

I share the concerns of Senator Brian Hayes on the Criminal Justice Bill. After all, 140 eminent barristers made their views known to the Minister yesterday. I do not suggest that these barristers are automatically right, but we should give credence to the their views and we must, as Senator Brian Hayes suggested, weigh things up properly to ensure the correct balance is struck.

We have learned that long-term credit card debt has reached a new high and half of consumers do not know the interest rates they are being charged. The Financial Regulator published proposals two years ago aimed at prohibiting credit card providers from increasing credit limits unless requested to do so by the customer. This measure has not been introduced and is crying out for redress, so I call on the Acting Leader to take up this matter with the appropriate Minister. An essential measure in the consumer protection code is the banning of such actions unless requested specifically by the customer.

I add my voice to calls for a debate on the letters sent to victims of abuse. I welcome the Taoiseach's statement at my party's Ard-Fheis on the appointment of an additional 4,000 teachers. Given that the Green Party has indicated to INTO that it is committed to recruiting an extra 2,400 teachers, I am sure Senators from all parties and the Independent Members will support proposals for more teachers.

Having attended many meetings on class size, I find it difficult to understand the reason teachers are still being appointed on the basis of enrolment figures for the previous September. This is a frustrating practice for schools, some of which will have lost a teacher because the number of enrolments declined by one pupil over the previous two years but increased above the threshold in the current year. This issue should be debated in future partnership talks.

Will the Deputy Leader ask the Taoiseach to come before the House to debate whether democracy is an overrated concept? I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's views on this matter in light of Senator Fitzgerald's experience of democracy, courtesy of the leadership of Fianna Fáil.

As the Senator will be aware, the issue is not relevant to the Order of Business.

This is a democratic House and this topic would make for an interesting debate.

Well said.

I regret the Government decision not to reduce the fees for lawyers involved in the tribunals, which will continue to be paid at a rate of €2,250 per day for senior counsel and €1,500 for junior counsel. While I fully understand that the issue would probably have become a major political football in the lead-up to an election, I call for a debate to be scheduled to discuss it. The scandalous rates paid to lawyers must be tackled by an incoming Government. Senators have raised the issue of rape but allowing these fees to continue is professional rape of taxpayers. They should be halted as a matter of urgency.

The more serious issue arising from the letters sent by school authorities to people who have been abused is the low rates of reporting and prosecution of those who have abused children. Obviously, people other than teachers are involved and many of them continue in their functions. The House should hone in on this issue. While it may be difficult to legislate in a manner that ensures innocent people are not unjustifiably prosecuted, none the less it is a miscarriage of justice that so few cases — the figure is in single figures in percentage terms — are successfully prosecuted.

This week, on the Order of Business and during the debate and on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007, Senators raised the issue of children who go hungry. I ask the Deputy Leader to request that the Minister for Education and Science come before the House to allow me an opportunity to highlight a policy adopted by one school on lunches and the breakfast club, which is unacceptable and not in the best interests of children. Breakfast clubs are for children who, for whatever reason, come to school without breakfast. The meal should be provided before lessons start but in the school in question, which is in a designated disadvantaged area, breakfast is served at 10.30 a.m. The children have been told they may no longer bring packed lunches to school and those who, until recently, brought packed lunches were required to eat them at 10.30 a.m. This means the children have breakfast at 10.30 a.m. and have nothing else to eat until they go home.

That is outrageous.

Even before the breakfast club started, children were told to eat their lunch at 10.30 a.m. and did not have anything else to eat for the rest of the school day.

The Senator should telephone the school.

The school, which is located in a disadvantaged area not far from the House, is engaging in unacceptable sharp practice. It is a matter of teachers not being willing to give up some of their lunch time to supervise the children while they eat lunch. The children are not allowed to eat in the playground during lunchtime and will go hungry as a result of this policy, which will have a cost to the State. Other schools may have similar policies in place. I ask that the Minister for Education and Science address the issue.

As my party's spokesperson on finance, it gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to note that the list of tax defaulters for the final quarter of 2006 does not feature any names and addresses of persons from three county council areas, namely, Leitrim, Longford and south Tipperary.


Tipperary abú. Senator Bannon should have been in the House at this hour.

The list did not feature any teachers either.

I am not one of those who believes that when a body is established, the Minister in charge of the relevant area automatically loses responsibility. If one reads legislation such as the Health Bill 2006, which will come before the House today, or the Pharmacy Bill 2007, which came before the House last week, one finds that when a Minister appoints people to a new body he or she retains a significant amount of control over the relevant functions. To give them their due, many Ministers believe they should retain certain powers.

I return to an issue I and many other Senators raised last week, namely, water pollution in the Galway and south Mayo area. The Deputy Leader realises the gravity of the situation, which has worsened since it was acknowledged that the form of cryptosporidium involved can be spread not only by water but also from person to person where hygiene is poor. Given that the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs have not said anything useful on the issue, I ask that the Minister for Health and Children come before the House to discuss the deteriorating problem. I do not believe she would shirk from a debate. It is possible the problem will continue for at least six months. I would like to know how the Minister proposes to address this difficult issue.

Senator Glynn raised the issue of mental health services. When I first entered the House almost 15 years ago, I requested a debate on the report of the then Inspector of Mental Hospitals. These reports had not been discussed previously. As I prepare to leave the House, I find that the report of the Inspector of Mental Health Services, while not as bad as previously, indicates that the necessary improvements have not been made. The House should discuss the most recent report with the Minister for Health and Children, either before Easter or during the short period in which it will sit after the Easter recess.

Overnight developments regarding the capture of British sailors allegedly found in Iranian waters are a cause of great concern. Will the Deputy Leader convey the concern of the House to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has made a public statement on the matter? International opinion is becoming increasingly critical of the unilateral action of the Iranian Government. Evidence conveyed by the British Government in the past 24 hours suggests the sailors were not operating in Iranian waters but in Iraqi waters.

I am concerned not only about the specific incident but also the fundamental human rights dimension. According to available evidence, the sailors were operating under a United Nations mandate and were not in Iranian waters. It is particularly disturbing that the Iranian authorities have produced images of a female English sailor wearing a Muslim veil in what appears to have been a choreographed television performance. This resonates with similar images we saw when Saddam Hussein shook hands with a young boy when a group of people were taken hostage during his regime and the horrific images portrayed throughout the world of unfortunate hostages who have been——

Is the Senator seeking a debate?

There is a concern that Ireland should be seen to be as critical as the international community has proven to be. In that context, I ask the Acting Leader if he will convey our concerns to the Iranian authorities, with whom we have very strong trade links, as we have a unique opportunity to do so.

Given the Acting Leader's experience of agriculture, will he press the Minister for Agriculture and Food to put pressure on Greencore to drop its case against the beet growers? I note the company has resolved its difficulties with the former workers, in particular in Mallow, which is welcome. It is time to take this matter a step further. The beet growers are due to receive compensation in June this year but, through no fault of their own, will not receive any because of the pending court case. The Acting Leader knows far more about this area than I, so I ask him to use his experience to put pressure on the Government in this area.

I agree with previous speakers with regard to the pupil-teacher ratio. I could never understand why a school which had a walking principal who did not teach was considered as part of the equation, given that it distorts the figures. We need to get real. I agree with the Senator who stated that to base class numbers on the figures for the previous September is nonsense. We need to examine the pupil-teacher ratio and not include walking principals as their inclusion distorts the figures.

Reference was made to the Department of Education and Science sending letters. Will the Minister for Health and Children come to the House to update us on the progress in the case of those taking actions against the State who could not get a public bed in a nursing home? I understand there has been some movement on this issue and that the State has settled one case with a person who, through no fault of that person, ended up in a private nursing home. If so, this has huge implications in terms of cost for the State. Perhaps the Minister for Health and Children could come to the House before it rises to indicate whether this is the case.

Will the Acting Leader ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to debate the report of the independent watchdog on the mental health sector, which does not make for good reading? The report stated that despite Government pledges to improve community-based treatment, the inspectors found that in most parts of the country there was a lack of staff, poor management and resource shortages. Also, the necessary staff were in place to provide multidisciplinary procedures in just two of the 32 catchment areas.

In my area, there was a resistance by HSE management to provide funding for a mental health centre, which would have provided value for money. The HSE has much to answer for. It seems to treat mental health as the poor relation of the health services. Senator Henry has on many occasions in this House highlighted that the mental health sector has not got the resources it needed. We need to examine this area more carefully.

The report stated there is no coherent plan for the next five years. The ad hoc nature of the provision of mental health services by the Government, and successive Governments in the past 25 years, needs to be addressed. If one measure is needed, it is the introduction of a five-year plan to address the serious deficiencies in mental health services.

In reply to the Senator of the year——

Senator Dardis will not get around me that easily.

——Senator Brian Hayes, together with Senators O'Toole, Ryan, Ormonde, Kitt, Jim Walsh and Browne, raised matters relating to the Department of Education and Science. The Senators referred to the correspondence to the families of the victims of abuse and the matter of class sizes, and called for a debate on these issues. I am sure both issues could be encompassed within a debate. I will attempt to get the Minister to come to the House.

As I said last week, it is important that we would have clarity on the issue with regard to the victims. The person who can provide that clarity is the Minister. I agree that legal advice, which I am sure is given in good faith, can sometimes lead people to make decisions which, on a humanitarian basis, they possibly should not make.

I do not believe there is any question of property being put at risk. All of us who were members of local authorities can recall times when we were told our property would be put at risk if the local authorities were sued. To my knowledge, it never happened. It is obviously a very serious matter and one that deserves to be clarified. I am sure the Minister is anxious to clarify it. If we can find time for her to come to the House, we will arrange it.

Incidentally, I reject the proposition that religious orders are somehow more important than children. That is not the case. Children are of course more important.

Why will we not compensate the children when we are compensating the religious orders?

Irrespective of one's political perspective, there is no debate about that. The matter of the pupil-teacher ratio, as raised by Senator Browne, for example, can be dealt with within the scope of that debate.

Senators Brian Hayes and Coghlan raised the matter of arrangements for the Criminal Justice Bill. As I understand it, the Bill will not come to the Seanad until after Easter. It will stay in the Dáil until we rise and will be taken during the week we resume after Easter. It is important — I am sure the Minister will agree — that there would be adequate time between Second Stage and Committee Stage. The Minister is on record as stating he is amenable to amendments in the Seanad and that he will bring back the Bill to the Dáil, so obviously it will not be rammed through, if I can use that phrase.

The Dáil will not have dissolved.

It will not be guillotined.

Order, please.

The Minister has said that and repeated it. All I can do is repeat what he has said.

The Acting Leader will vouch for his honour.

As to the opinion of 140 lawyers, they are a tiny fraction of the Law Library and the solicitor's apprentices. I noted the spokesperson for Fine Gael was also of the view this morning that the Bill should not be withdrawn and should proceed. If the lawyers want to legislate, let them stand for Parliament and come here to legislate.

Senator Ryan referred to Israel and the Arab commitment that if the 1967 borders were respected they would recognise the State of Israel, which is a move forward. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Senators Glynn, Henry and Feighan referred to mental health services. Over a long period, Senator Henry has repeatedly called for the report of the inspector of mental hospitals to be dealt with and the Senators also referred to the report mentioned in this morning's newspapers. These matters warrant debate in the House and within the time constraints, we will endeavour to arrange a debate.

I note the director of mental services of the HSE stated an additional €25 million is available this year for mental health services, an extra 250 staff will be employed within the service and there is an ambitious capital programme, which relates to Senator Feighan's call for a five-year plan, which is a reasonable suggestion.

Senator Finucane referred to electricity costs. I agree with his point on the use of the grid and the separation of the service provider from it. The commission will move us in that direction, even if we were not mindful to do it ourselves, which we are. Obviously, the regulator has a role with regard to the electricity costs, which is an improvement compared to the system that operated previously.

I noted Senator Leyden's contribution on local radio. He has a point. Consolidation is also obvious within the print media at local level. I note that under one of the motions before us today, which will be taken without debate, we are referring some of these aspects to the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business. Perhaps that is the forum where some of these issues could be pursued in greater detail.

Senator Norris raised the matter of fishing. It is extraordinary that we operate a fishing policy that compels boats to put back undersize fish that will not survive. From a practical perspective, I do not understand this. Iceland has a system of fallowing whereby one does not fish in certain areas until the fish reach a certain size, which is preferable. That is something the European Union could examine. I agree it should be debated, but because of the constraints of time it will be difficult to arrange that. I noted what he had to say about the queen of the Shannon and I will relay his remarks. I am glad he is in correspondence with the Taoiseach.

Senator Coghlan raised the important issue of credit cards, which were discussed on the radio this morning. The interest rates are very high, well over 20%.

They can be as high as 24%.

American Express appears to be the most expensive for those in debt. Some 45% of people do not clear their debt each month. The Senator also pointed out that many of them are not even aware of the rate they are paying. There is a need for greater regulation and clarity. There was mention of a website this morning, but I cannot remember the address. It would be worth finding out and logging into it.

Senator Tuffy suggested we debate whether democracy is an overrated concept. I think not, but perhaps the Taoiseach might take a different view on the matter. If he comes to the House, he can clarify the matter for the Senator. Senator Walsh is right about the disquiet with regard to the feast of tribunals. I am not sure of the reason we must continue paying the exorbitant rates being applied other than the possibility that the tribunals might not continue. That, of course, was not represented as the threat of a strike. Lawyers would not do that sort of thing or threaten to withdraw their labour.

Senator Terry raised a matter related to but separate from education, namely, children going hungry. I cannot comment on the individual case because I do not know about it. It seems to me a matter for the school authorities. It is regrettable if the school acts as the Senator suggested it is doing. The broader question on the arrangements made in schools in general warrants further debate. I am sure the Minister would be cognisant of that and may discuss the issue if she comes to speak in the House.

I noted what Senator Mansergh had to say about the three county councils. In view of the low level of income in Leitrim, Longford and south Tipperary, the people do not have taxable incomes and they are all——

Yes they do, south Tipperary is quite a prosperous place.

They are all fairly compliant. I thought it was a well-known and universally accepted fact that farmers do not have a taxable income and, therefore, cannot pay income tax.

South Tipperary has a lot more than farmers.

On the basis of what Senator Bannon has been saying over the past few years, one would suspect that none of them anywhere has a taxable income.

Senator Henry raised the serious issue of water quality in Galway. It seems the only way to overcome the problem is to take a unified approach involving the local authority and the national agencies. I have been fishing on the Corrib for 40 years and until quite recently one could take a cup of water from it and drink it in the knowledge that it was safe. It is extraordinary that local authorities regard many of our waterways as both a source of water and a place to put waste. The two are incompatible.

Hear, hear.

It is glib and superficial to blame the farming community exclusively for this. The issue is broader and has to do with waste management in catchment areas. It is also extraordinary that the authorities cannot establish the source of the contamination. With science at the level it is at, it should be possible to establish the source. I hope the solutions suggested this morning will be implemented speedily and not bogged down in bureaucracy. The issue is far too important for that.

Senator Mooney raised the issue of the sailors in Iranian waters. I agree we should bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Senator Browne raised the matter of the case between Greencore and the beetgrowers. He has a point and the Minister should be made aware of the issue and encouraged to do what she can to help resolve it. Senator Bannon also raised the issue of public beds in nursing homes. Perhaps he will get the opportunity today on Final Stage of the Health Bill 2006 to raise his points with the Minister.

Order of Business agreed to.