The Order of Business is No. 1, Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Bill 2010 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude at 3 p.m., if not previously concluded, on which spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for ten minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House; No 2, Merchant Shipping Bill 2009 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 3.30 p.m., adjourn at 5 p.m. and resume at 7 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 35, Private Members' motion No. 16 on environmental protection, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m. The business of the House shall be interrupted between 3 p.m. and 3.30 p.m.
Order of Business
I had the pleasure yesterday of being present at the reopening of Waterford Crystal which has given a renewed sense of belief and spirit to the people of Waterford. While the Government was prepared to see this iconic brand name relocate outside the country, the city manager and the city council put their money where their mouths were, made investments and negotiated with the holding company, WWRD. As a result, we now have Waterford Crystal back in operation in Waterford, with the creation of 70 jobs. I make this point not for parochial reasons but to reinforce the point that local authorities can and should be the driving force behind local employment initiatives. All of the quangos involved should be placed under the umbrella of local authorities because they contain the people with the knowledge and expertise required.
I read in the newspapers today that the Government is making plans to introduce a property tax and that people will be asked to pay between €250 and €3,000 in charges when the budget is agreed. At a time when there are 300,000 in negative equity, many of whom are in dire straits because of the policies of the Government, is it now the intention of the Government to crucify them?
It is almost one year since the McCarthy report was published. It provided detailed recommendations to streamline Government services, cut costs and achieve greater value for money. It now transpires from answers to parliamentary questions that only one of the ten recommendations made in the report has been implemented. The Government has avoided dealing with all of the difficult issues such as public sector reform and the multiplicity of organisations in operation. For example, in 2008 it announced a merger of the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority, but it has still not introduced a Bill in this or the other House to give effect to that decision. That is an example of the paralysis evident within the Government. It seems that it is prepared to take the soft option and hit homeowners — the typical response of this failed Government. It is time to wake up and introduce the policies which are necessary to bring the country back to prosperity.
I suggest we have a debate soon on local government to bring all of the quangos under the umbrella of local government. We would then see a better response by local government on employment issues. That is where we can make a difference.
Last week I referred to the decision-making process in the Department of Finance, the absence of records showing how oral advice had been given, the need for a paper trail in policy determination and the recording of the advice given by advisers. I am glad to recognise that yesterday the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said he was initiating an inquiry to establish exactly how that would be done. This is very much to be welcomed, as we are all aware of the involvement of senior civil servants in the decision-making process and policy determination. We also need a paper trail to check how something fits in with general Government policy. It would be very helpful if the Minister for Finance came before us to explain the terms of reference for the proposed inquiry which I welcome. We could also discuss with him the terms of reference for the banking inquiry, an issue raised by my colleagues in Fine Gael two or three times in the past month or two. The Minister indicated at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service that he was willing to discuss the issue, take advice, listen to views and consult on it, which would be very helpful.
I do not know if the Cathaoirleach has noticed that there is a time in the month when suddenly there is a surge of activity on the part of political parties, namely, on the Monday and Tuesday prior to publication of a Red C poll. This week we have seen a surge of activity on the part of the Green Party which is having a go on the issue of planning, at the Labour Party and other matters. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but we have seen how polling can be corrupted and perverted and exert a destabilising influence on parties, politics and the people. I wonder if we should have a view on this issue and communicate with The Sunday Business Post. It might be better if it published the findings of the poll at a different time every month because it is creating a problem for the apparatchiks and political parties——
——which are urging their bosses to say something more and more ludicrous on the third Monday or Tuesday of each month in order to hit the headlines and have an impact on polling.
Damn political pole-dancing.
No interruptions, please. We are taking questions to the Leader.
I am not having a go at the Green Party, as Fine Gael also does it. It is normal. The people are being undermined and fooled by it. A similar approach caused chaos in some parties in recent times. We should be aware of this and let the general public know what is going on.
It is welcome that the new accident and emergency department at Our Lady of Lourdes' Hospital in Drogheda is opening today. This is one of the most important hospitals in the north east and 7,000 children were born there last year. I believe one of our Members became the parent of a baby in the hospital just yesterday. The new extension, which cost €11 million, will be able to treat up to three times as many accident and emergency patients as it did previously. That is great news for the region and the hospital after the bad press it has received of late. Let us hope this new development allows the hospital to turn a corner and look forward to a bright future.
Yesterday the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, announced a review of the planning procedures of six local authorities, including Dublin and my county of Meath, perhaps with a view to increasing his party's position in the polls to 2% or 3%. The Minister's action is somewhat high-handed. We are all aware from our debate on the planning and development legislation that many councils are concerned about the way he enforces his opinions without attempting to include them.
It is a bit late in the day to be conducting a review given that many of the problems with planning in this country arose during the 1990s and the vast majority of counties have cleared up their acts since. We need to know what this review will comprise and whether it will merely be a paper exercise rather than invoking powers of censure. It appears to be a simple naming and shaming exercise by the Minister. I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the review but it is important that we have an opportunity to debate its findings.
I agree that the findings of the review announced by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should be discussed in the House. Given our recent history and the role that planning played in the problems we are facing in this country, I am amazed that people, particularly the Labour Party, would question the need for a review or——
That is not what I said.
No interruptions, please.
——an exercise in accountability.
I suggested it sounded like a paper exercise.
The Senator had an opportunity to speak.
No Labour Party member has ever been found guilty of any issue in regard to planning.
No interruptions, please.
The fact is that people who have questioned this exercise are those, such as city and county managers, who——
I question the benefit of it.
——until now have not had their decisions questioned by wider authorities. It is the function of a Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and his or her Department to ask these questions and put reviews in place. It is our function as Members of the Oireachtas to review these decisions. I am amazed that any Member would question this process.
We should ask questions.
I question what the Minister is going to do with the information.
The Senator had his opportunity to speak.
It is merely a paper exercise.
Why is the Minister appointing people from outside the country?
Senator Boyle is speaking. I want no further interruptions or I will have to suspend the proceedings.
If people want to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the Minister's announcement, I advise them to read the editorial in today's Irish Examiner, which clearly sets out the need for a review.
In regard to the article in the Irish Independent on the prospect of a property tax, a budget will be introduced in December and this will determine whether such a tax is introduced. I refer Senator Cummins to the report by the Commission on Taxation and Professor Honohan’s report on the banking crisis, which noted that tax stability brought us to our current position in respect of public expenditure.
What about the McCarthy report?
If proposals are instantly knocked down for the sake of opposition, we will never emerge from our public expenditure crisis. I advise those who intend to be in government in the near future to bear that in mind.
I agree with Senator O'Toole that the holding of regular opinion polls distorts political debate. I would like the right to say ludicrous things at any time.
He does not say, he tweets.
We are on the Order of Business and Senators should address questions to the Leader. We will not get involved in polls.
The problem is that by having a debate on this issue, we will return to a previous debate on whether opinion polls should be held.
As a Member of the Oireachtas, I welcome scrutiny of local authorities and State agencies. In many of the debates we have held in the past I have noted that local authority executives, including county and city managers, should be subject to the same scrutiny as councillors. However, I have a problem with the cynical way in which the Green Party is using this announcement to make political capital. That party openly criticises local authority members in a cynical and unfair way. Local government reform is the proper vehicle for improving scrutiny and accountability of both executives and council members.
Senator Cummins correctly described the positive role that local authorities play in our community. The opening this week of the Waterford Crystal Experience in Waterford city is a good example of how public private partnerships can work. If local authorities have the vision and gumption to step out from their traditional role of service provider, they can get involved in areas that create jobs. Surely our efforts should be devoted to creating jobs and stimulating economic development in our cities and counties. I would like to see other authorities following the Waterford example, which led to the creation of 70 full-time and 30 temporary and part-time jobs. This is a positive development in the heart of Waterford, which has been neglected by the Government despite its designation in the national spatial strategy as a gateway city.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on housing. Thousands of people are on waiting lists, even though thousands of houses lie vacant, including local authority houses. We are told local authorities do not have the resources to renovate their houses. It is a scandal that apprentices and construction workers remain idle when schools, local authority houses and community halls need to be constructed or refurbished. Unlike Waterford City Council, the Government is not thinking outside the box to get these people off the dole queues. They have the skills required to renovate houses. I call for a debate on housing at the earliest opportunity in order that we can find new ways of employing construction workers who have been made redundant.
When we enter this House, we bring with us a variety of views, philosophies and experiences. The system allows us to express our views freely and, while they do not have to be accepted by other Members, it is important that we feel we have the right to express them. We must protect this system because otherwise the people who expect us to represent them will be denied their rights. Without warning during a recess yesterday, I was subjected to unruly verbal abuse and name calling because of a view I expressed in this House. My colleagues around me were shocked by what they heard. I do not take issue with the personal offence but the fact that inherent in it can be intimidation intended to prevent us from expressing our views on some subject in the future.
I do not like the idea of controlled or contrived debate on any issue because that is anti-democratic. We must be allowed to express our views, irrespective of whether they are accepted by others. Yesterday, without warning, I was shocked for my first time in this House. I hope it will never happen again and that nobody in this House will feel he or she must not put forward views for fear of being subjected to the same treatment. I do not say this for my own comfort but in defence of the democratic system. That is the only way any of us should feel involved, responsible and answerable in this House.
It is sad that any Member would be subjected to interference in expressing his or her opinions in this House.
I gather the incident took place somewhere in the precincts of the House rather in the Chamber.
I will take up the matter on behalf of the Senator, as such incidents should not occur.
On a point of order, Members opposite have given out to me in the antechamber on many occasions and I have never done anything about it. We are mature politicians and grown men and women.
We will not discuss the issue.
While I would have liked to have spoken on the matter of employment creation yesterday, I was frustrated by the chaotic manner in which business was ordered. I understood the debate would take place much earlier than it did and it was not possible for me to speak later in the evening. For this reason, I missed an opportunity to speak about a case I encountered outside the gates where a young man from County Clare, Mr. Paul Connellan, was launching a new product. It is a biodegradable plastic bottle, which is highly significant and could have Europe-wide application. I regret I did not have an opportunity to salute the company and its Wellness brand.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on taxi regulation, as something chaotic is also taking place. Yesterday, owing to problems with my back, I had to travel a short distance by taxi. The vehicle, a Mercedes, was in perfect mechanical order and had a beautifully maintained interior. However, the driver must sell it in a couple of months because taxi vehicles may not be ten years old or more. This rule makes a complete and utter nonsense of the national car test. If vehicles pass the NCT and are deemed by the State to be worthy and fully competent mechanically, why should they not be driven and used as public service vehicles? I do not understand this rule.
A further serious problem is that some taxi drivers — they are not Dubliners — have a serious difficulty in negotiating their way around the capital because they simply do not know the basics of the street network. The knowledge requirement appears to be patchily applied. I, therefore, call for a debate on taxi regulation.
A debate on taxi regulation would be useful. Senator Norris has raised the anomaly of perfectly fine vehicles having to be struck off, as it were, for use as taxis. The national car test should address this issue, especially as it is permitted to grant limousine licences for vehicles that are much older than ten years. I concur with the Senator on that point.
In the light of certain matters raised in the media today in the context of a property tax, I ask for a full debate in the House on what measures Senators believe should be included in the budget in the context of the requirement to save €3 billion. It would be useful to have such a debate before the session concludes to enable Ministers and officials to reflect on the views of Senators and any innovative ideas they may propose on how to achieve the necessary savings. There can be no absolutes as to what can be included or excluded from the budgetary measures. I include in this the possibility of introducing a property tax. I was taken by the welcome words of Senators from Waterford on the role of their local authority in getting Waterford Glass up and running again. Would it not be wonderful if local authorities were properly resourced on a sustainable tax base, as Senator Boyle stated, such as that which was in place prior to 1997? This would enable them to mount their own capital programmes or provide grant schemes to assist companies to create employment. A debate on what measures Senators believe should be included in the forthcoming budget would allow the House to play a useful role on behalf of members of the public.
Like Senator O'Toole, I strongly welcome the external review initiated by the Minister for Finance of the structures, systems and processes of the Department of Finance, as well as its management or mismanagement. The current crisis has created the worst mess the country has ever experienced and done significant damage to the economy. I compliment the Minister on his decision in this regard.
On another matter raised by speakers, it is disturbing that complaints have been made of such a serious nature as to prompt the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to initiate an examination of six local authorities. If there is substance to these complaints, the review should proceed. The country is too small to lack uniformity. Regrettably, however, there are differences in how local authorities handle matters such as zoning and the scale and height of developments. If I understood correctly, the review is to be completed within four weeks. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the matter once the review is concluded.
I welcome the comments of Senators Cummins and Coffey on Waterford Glass. It is wonderful that it is back in action, if only in a limited capacity. The Senators made valid points about local authorities and Senator Cummins made a good point about the lack of action on quangos on foot of the McCarthy report.
Will the Leader confirm that the Dublin mayoral Bill will be published this week and that it contains a key section to right the position on the town of Dingle?
The Pensions Board's annual report published yesterday raises a number of issues which are causing concern, particularly the combined deficit of in excess of €25 billion in defined benefit pension schemes. This deficit is causing serious anxiety and concern for a large proportion of the population. Given current demographic trends, I ask the Leader to arrange a broad ranging debate on what the future holds for the social welfare pension system and private and defined benefit pension schemes. In this regard, I repeat my old mantra of asking the Leader to ensure there is a structure to the debate and to have the appropriate briefing documents made available to Senators.
I appreciate the Leader's indication that he will arrange a debate on carers. Having asked a question some days ago about the date on which the debate will be held, I had hoped he would set a date. I ask him to do so now and use the debate as a model for future debates. By this I mean we should ask the Carers Association and other voluntary, charitable and community care providers, as well as representatives of the Health Service Executive and Department of Health and Children, to provide us with the briefing material required to have a meaningful debate.
I support Senator O'Toole's call for a debate on regular opinion polls and their potential to have a distorting effect on the political process. Senator Norris described them as the political equivalent of pole dancing. I found the antics of the Green Party akin to political lap dancing, given that it is a lap-dog of Fianna Fáil in government.
The Senator should put a question to the Leader.
Are we lap-dogs or lap dancers?
I will leave that to the Senator to decide.
I ask for a debate on extending the protection of the domestic violence legislation to cover a broader range of victims of domestic violence. This morning, with other Senators, I attended the launch of the Women's Aid annual statistics for 2009. Some of the issues the organisation highlights are the increased incidence of the use of technology in abuse, including stalking and harassment by mobile phone, the Internet and so forth, and the serious issue of domestic abuse during pregnancy. When women are pregnant, they are more likely to be abused in some relationships. Women's Aid is doing important work and I welcome the debate the House had on domestic violence which was kindly facilitated by the Leader. We should advance the debate to discuss how we can better strengthen our legislation to ensure categories of victims not currently protected can achieve protection under our laws and adequate resourcing is provided for the Women's Aid helpline.
I support the request made by Senator Ó Murchú yesterday for a debate on a missing persons helpline. Senator Ó Murchú had been contacted by the same person who has been in contact with a number of us whose sister very sadly had gone missing many years before and who is selflessly campaigning for a national missing persons helpline. It is a matter of urgency. It is simply not good enough to say that we cannot afford it when it is being rolled out in other European countries. We need that debate in this House as a matter of urgency.
I echo the sentiments of Senator Ó Murchú. In the context of the right to have and encourage full participation in debates on issues that are often seen as contentious, I seek a debate on education. At this time of the year people make choices about what schools their children will attend in September. In a cool environment we need to look at what kinds of schools we have, who are running them and whether there is a plurality of schools. We need to provide a system which is not exclusively catered for by one faith or another. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills should come to the House for a debate on the future of the education system. We are at a crossroads and the country is no longer a unified singular Catholic state. In the light of reports concluded in the past academic year even, we need to review who runs our schools and have a debate outside the context of anything else apart from trying to decide what kind of education system we would like for our children for the future. We need to invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills for a debate on the future of education and in no other context.
The different reports on banking and the economic crisis have clarified some issues as to how we got into this mess. I refer to the report by Professor Patrick Honohan on the failures of financial regulation and the report of Messrs. Klaus Regling and Max Watson on the failure of the banks and, in particular, the budgetary and fiscal policies pursued by successive Governments. I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, of an external review of the Department of Finance. The Regling and Watson report highlighted the failures of budgetary and fiscal policy, particularly in the area of property tax relief and breaks which fuelled the property bubble. They came to the conclusion that it was largely a home-made crisis, primarily the responsibility of the Taoiseach when Minister for Finance.
The problem is that there is no investigation of the Taoiseach because the Government has blocked any investigation post-29 September 2008. The Taoiseach should clear the air about the influences on him over decision making at the time. What advice did he follow? Whose advice did he take? It is important to have transparency on this issue. Was he influenced by Mr. Seán FitzPatrick? Was he influenced by the go-between, between Anglo Irish Bank and the Government, Mr. Fintan Drury who is a close personal friend of the Taoiseach and who was on the board of Anglo Irish Bank up to June 2008?
The Senator should not name people who are not here to defend themselves.
It is important for the Taoiseach to make a statement on the matter.
The Senator has made the point.
By whom was he influenced? What were his relationships at the time? We need to clear the air. We need to agree the terms of reference of the inquiry into the banking crisis and the economy.
The Senator is seeking that debate.
I would also welcome an external review of the Department of Finance and the processes of decision making. However, I am very cognisant of the context in which the decision was taken. In 2004The Economist had an article with the housing bubble depicted as a balloon, which was right because three years later it burst. We were told internationally, by no less a person than Alan Greenspan of the US Treasury, that by the use of the interest rate mechanism it was possible to manage the external flow and management of credit. In addition the former British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown, MP, told us that we had reached the end of boom-bust economics. To imagine for some instant that the economic view of this nation was very different from any other model, with a few rare exceptions, is misguided and that will be proved. It was a process undertaken internationally. Undoubtedly, we were part of that process, but had it not been for the international downturn we would have managed that process well. However, the most important question to be answered is whether it can happen again. Do we need EU regulation to curb the financial practices that have created these difficulties? We certainly do. We need a debate on that issue in the House.
Like other Members of this House, it is welcome that the Minister for Finance is initiating an investigation into what happened in the Department of Finance in recent years. Further to what Senator Regan said, it is inconceivable that this could happen without the Taoiseach being a key witness and being investigated. Provided this is a genuine investigation into what happened — I believe it is — the important thing is that people are involved. I became a little suspicious when I read the supposed terms of reference and came across the words "structures" and "processes". So many key people were involved in making key decisions that not only should the Taoiseach be subject to investigation and scrutiny and accountability, so also should the mandarins. A light needs to be shone on the activities of the individual officials in the Department. We do not know what happens in the most powerful Department in the State. We do not know who makes what decisions about what and what sorts of guys they are. While I do not want to persecute people or be vindictive, we should be able to see the people concerned in public answering questions on what happened to ensure it never happens again. These are very powerful people — they are more powerful than most Ministers. It is important that individuals are put under pressure, as well as having processes examined. I do not want to just see the report come out with a map of how the structures work and suggest moving a few things around and everything will be resolved. Accountability is important; mandarins should be answerable.
I would like to tackle the issue of opinion polls. I cannot for the life of me understand why we need a debate on opinion polls. I am staggered at why politicians always want to talk about opinion polls. Opinion polls are merely a flash of opinion at a time. They provide entertainment, which is not a sin by the way, and information. If members of a party from any side want to get their knickers in a twist about opinion polls and do what they want them to do, that is up to them. It is their rather immature reaction to an individual poll.
For us to say we should not allow them is paternalistic and censorship. Where does one go from there? We would be taking the attitude that we knew better and we knew the issues on which people should vote.
It is only one sentence.
Not a paragraph.
There is nothing wrong with people being influenced in their vote by opinion polls. If they want to get on a bandwagon, let them do so; it is up to them. I cannot understand what we are talking about.
I join Senator Coghlan in calling for a debate on planning. The Planning and Development Bill will come before us in the not too distant future. Senator Coghlan spoke about the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government carrying out a study of particular local authorities, including Galway County Council. I understand it is based on the empirical evidence of planning decisions approved by local authorities but refused by An Bord Pleanála. The councils selected have particularly high incidences of refusals by An Bord Pleanála after they had granted planning permission. The Minister is rightly looking at an independent expert review of these decisions. We need to get planning right and the Planning and Development Bill will help to move things in the right direction. While we have consistent talk about the banks, people seem to be very reluctant to talk about planning issues. Planning is as much a part of the difficulties as the banking crisis. If we do not get it right, we will face another problem in future. It is important that all parties in the House look carefully at the planning process, get to understand the difficulties in the issue and accept that there are such difficulties, particularly with regard to community facilities, schools and other matters.
I refute the argument made by Senator Bacik that Green Party Members are either lap-dogs or lap dancers. We are standing tall——
They are lapping it up.
——and not paying any attention to opinion polls.
They are lapping it up in the corridors of power.
They are not even poodles.
How could one follow that poodle?
There should be questions to the Leader.
Is Senator Buttimer the Rottweiler?
Senator Coffey made a very relevant contribution on the Order of Business. We need not only a debate on housing but real action on the issue. Thousands of people are living in housing secured with rent allowance or in council housing and they are up to their eyes in debt. At the same time thousands of houses are idle because councils across the country do not have the money to refurbish them and the Government does not have a plan to bring about reform of the housing stock it has available. A debate on housing would be worthwhile and I would like to hear the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Finneran, detail a plan for action that would help the thousands of people in Cork city and county who are on the housing lists.
I ask that the debate on opinion polling be widened. I agree with Senator Ross that there is no harm in opinion polls. I am not in favour of censorship by any stretch of the imagination but there are some opinion formers in newspapers and it seems it is only their view that matters. With one Sunday newspaper, if members of Fine Gael walked down Grafton Street giving out €5 notes or baskets of fruit, they would be wrong. It is about time we stood up to this Sunday newspaper and took it on because it seems only its view matters. Others do not appear relevant.
Will the Senator name the newspaper?
I would like to have a debate on journalism, public discourse and how columnists influence what is happening in the world.
The Senator could name the newspaper.
There should be no interruptions.
Senator Hanafin is gone but I should clarify that Mr. Alan Greenspan was the chairman of the Federal Reserve, not the Treasury in the United States.
Some weeks ago I said we should have more good news in this House. The good news I have from yesterday comes from EUROSTAT and is published in The Wall Street Journal. It details how Ireland’s purchasing power standard was the second highest in Europe last year. It experienced quite a drop and is at 131% of the average spending power in Europe, down from 148% two years ago. For what we earn, we can buy 31% more than the average in Europe, which is good news that we should recognise. In spite of problems and challenges, we have got some good news and we should ensure to draw attention to it on occasion.
Another interesting piece of good news comes from the other side of the world. New Zealand is now considering the reinstatement of the Senate. It was abolished in 1950 but a report on its reinstatement has been published. It states:
One of New Zealand's constitutional problems is that it is too easy to pass laws quickly and without proper scrutiny. The senate would provide a publicly visible role for senators to review legislation and those deciding to block or support certain laws would be politically compelled to explain their decision to the public.
It is time we drew attention to this as some are questioning the need for the Seanad. New Zealand abolished its Senate in the past and is one of the few countries which had the Westminster form of Government to do so. It is now reconsidering the issue.
Senator Regan made a point on the commission of investigation. If we are to have such an investigation into the banking crisis, we should ensure we learn from it rather than look back and cast blame. We must understand what went wrong to ensure we do not face such problems again.
I express my disappointment at the events outlined by Senator Ó Murchú and empathise with him. I am disappointed that he was offended by Members of this House. We should treat each other with dignity and respect, and I would expect that from each and every Member of this House. I am disappointed to hear he was treated in such a way.
I concur with the comments of Senators Coffey and Cummins on county councils taking an active role. I commend Westmeath County Council, the county manager, Mr. Danny McLoughlin, and all councillors for the wonderful tendering job they are doing for a world trade commercial centre for the Athlone area. It is an amazing facility on the outskirts of the town covering hundreds of acres an hour and a half from Dublin and 40 minutes from Galway. There is a rail network and many other facilities. We are actively tendering to China for 10,000 jobs over a period.
I request an urgent debate on carers. Some 161,000 people are caring for their elderly or infirm relatives in their homes at a time when home care packages and the numbers of respite hours are being cut, with too few public health nurses to do the job. We need a serious debate on how to support carers, the unsung heroes here. A commitment was given in this House more than nine weeks ago to have a debate on carers and considering there are so many people suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses, with elderly relatives trying to care for such people in their own homes, there is an urgent need for the debate.
I ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Finance to the House to discuss proposals which have appeared in the media and the report of an bord snip nua last year on the reintroduction of a property tax. There is currently a €200 charge on second homes, which is equitable and fair because if people have a second home, they should be able to afford the €200 to help infrastructure in the counties where holiday homes or investment properties abound.
The introduction of a property tax is a serious issue if we consider that people who bought a house in the past ten years, between paying for the services of solicitors and accountants, VAT paid on materials and PRSI for workers, have paid 50% in tax to the Government up front for the price of the house.
The Senator could take it up at the parliamentary party level.
To impose a property tax on people in negative equity seems to be highly unjust. I ask for the Minister for Finance to come to the House to outline his position on this issue because such an imposition in the budget would be a serious burden on people who already have mortgages. Half of what they pay in mortgages goes to a payment they have given to the Government up front.
The family home is certainly under attack today. Members will remember the floods of last winter and although the floods may have receded, the misery is not yet over for Galway families. Many of the home owners looking to return to the homes they left because of flooding cannot get home insurance. Government Deputies in Galway, with the former Progressive Democrats Deputy, promised that the Taoiseach would intervene with insurance companies to help home owners get home insurance but that has not happened. I ask the Leader to talk to the Taoiseach about the matter and come back to me directly. It would give much solace to Galway families at this time.
I cannot understand how the Government can possibly countenance a property tax at this time when families are hurting so much. Some 350,000 homes are now in negative equity and 30,000 home owners are facing repossession. How can we afford a property tax? The time to introduce such a tax was during the property boom, when it might have taken some of the heat out of the market. I call for a debate on the matter.
Will the Leader indicate what is the impetus behind the planning review instigated by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley? Is he in a position to indicate whom the Minister does not trust? It appears the Minister does not trust planners who are charged with implementing guidelines the Minister lays down. Is it the case that planners are not implementing such guidelines? Senator Ó Brolcháin made a comment in respect of Galway County Council which was not true. I am a former member of that council and dealt with its planners frequently. The individuals concerned state 30% of planning permission refusals they issue on behalf of the council are overturned by An Bord Pleanála, which is the exact opposite to what Senator Ó Brolcháin said. Will the Minister indicate in whom he does not have faith? On this occasion, it appears to be the planners. The Minister appears to be favouring An Taisce. If we allowed that organisation to run wild in County Galway, people would not have any homes. Why is the review being carried out by consultants from outside Ireland? Does the Minister not trust anyone in this country? He is trying to make political capital out of this issue.
The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill is due to be returned to the House for debate in the near future. I understand the version of the Bill that will be returned will be radically different from that which was originally passed by the Seanad. Prior to its being returned to the House, would it be possible to obtain clarification from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, of the prescribed limits relating to discharges from sewage treatment units? I am reliably informed that the EPA is not in a position to provide a definitive indication regarding acceptable discharge levels from sewage treatment units, which is ridiculous. The units to which I refer are installed in order that the sewage from one-off housing developments can be treated. It is not acceptable, therefore, that the EPA cannot indicate what should be the discharge rate or what level of bacteria is acceptable. Many of these units discharge what is known as "grey" water which is suitable for gardening or non-domestic purposes. Despite this, the EPA will not provide a definitive indication of what should be the acceptable level of discharge. Will the Leader request the Minister to ask the EPA to provide such a definitive indication?
Last November devastation was visited upon thousands of families and businesses as a result of the flooding to which Senator Healy Eames referred. Many places, including Bandon and Ballinasloe, were badly affected. In these areas, particularly those in west Cork, local authorities are making all possible efforts to put in place structures that would assist in alleviating the position in the event of future flooding.
Well done to them.
Cork County Council has undertaken to clean the bed of the River Bandon. At the beginning of the week the South-Western Regional Fisheries Board issued a letter preventing that work from proceeding. We are faced with a situation where one organ of the State is doing its best to try to ensure that in the future flooding will not inflict the same damage on businesses and homes as that which we witnessed last November, while another is, in effect, preventing this from happening. If one organ of the State is fighting for communities and attempting to ensure the misery experienced and damage caused will be kept to a minimum in the future, surely another should not be working against that agenda.
As stated on previous occasions, three or four Ministers and Ministers of State have responsibility for different aspects of marine affairs. That is not good enough. I request that the Minister with responsibility for the fisheries boards who, I believe, is the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, come before the House to discuss this appalling situation.
I wish to refer to two recent reports on the horse racing industry. The first is the annual report of Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, which is a pleasure to read and highlights the contribution horse racing is making to the economy. It also underlines the wonderful image horse racing presents and the fact that it is a major tourist attraction. It also highlights how Irish horses and thoroughbreds have been sweeping the boards in the various classic races in recent years, a matter on which I will not go into great detail. There is, however, a downside which is presented in the second report to which I refer and which was the subject of an article by Sean McConnell in The Irish Times last week. The report highlights animal abuse, particularly of horses which have finished their racing careers. In the light of the downturn in the economy, many owners and syndicates can no longer afford to keep horses in training. There is anecdotal evidence that horses are being removed from training stables, that they are malnourished and not properly cared for and are either wandering the roads or being left to starve in fields. This is shameful. Horses have always been central to the racing industry. However, the contents of the report to which I refer appear to contradict the image of Ireland as a country in which horses are loved. We must take action in this matter because Ireland is a country in which horses are loved. I ask the Leader to raise the matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in order to ensure horses whose services are no longer required will be either disposed of humanely or treated in a proper fashion.
Senators Cummins, O'Toole, Hannigan, Coffey, Coghlan and Buttimer congratulated everyone associated with the reopening of Waterford Crystal yesterday and the creation at its factory of 70 full-time and 30 part-time jobs. As Senator Cummins stated, the local authority and, in particular, its manager deserve credit for the initiative they showed in the matter. As everyone is aware, Waterford Crystal is a global brand name and it is vital that it be protected. I fully support the views expressed by Senator Cummins.
Senator Cummins also made a proposal to the effect that various agencies should come within the remit of local authorities. This proposal is certainly worthy of consideration by the Minister. Reference was also made to the future funding of local government. The House will be engaging in a debate on this matter which will present a major challenge to the Government, local authorities and public representatives, be they local authority members, Senators or Deputies. Everyone is aware that retail business interests are under serious pressure. High water rates, particularly for those businesses which are obliged to use large volumes of water, are becoming an issue of major concern. Some years ago insurance payments represented the second largest cost — after wages — on the balance sheets of businesses. Rates are now the second largest. As stated previously, the House should engage in an all-day debate on the funding of local authorities. I would like Members to be prepared to contribute to such a debate, for which I will make time available at the first available opportunity.
Senators O'Toole, Regan, Hanafin and Ross welcomed the announcement by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, in respect of the paper trail in the Department of Finance and the external review of its activities. As Senator Ross indicated, this is one of the most powerful Departments and it is crucial that individuals be held answerable for various aspects of its work. I fully support the Senator's views in this regard. The House will continue to debate and receive updates on the activities of the Department on a monthly basis.
Senators O'Toole, Ross and Buttimer referred to the importance of polls. Everyone knows that the only poll that really matters is that which takes place on the day of an election. However, Senator Buttimer raised a valid point about standards in journalism. Following the summer recess, the House will engage in a debate on various aspects of this matter and will be informed of how the work of the Press Council of Ireland is progressing.
Senator Hannigan congratulated the Minister for Health and Children for previously allocating €11.6 million for the new extension at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, County Louth. I am sure the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and Senator Carroll will take pride in this extension, the completion of which means that the hospital's accident and emergency unit will be able to accommodate up to three times as many patients in the future. This is a good news story and we join the people of north Leinster in celebrating this development which has been completed at a cost of €11.6 million in difficult economic times.
Senators Hannigan, Boyle, Coghlan, Ó Brolcháin, Healy Eames and Ellis referred to the independent review of planning issues commissioned by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. The House has engaged in many debates on the challenges facing the planning system, particularly in the context of one-off housing and in view of the fact that it is important that the areas in which we were born and reared do not become a wilderness. I hope common sense will prevail and that sons and daughters will be in a position to build houses adjacent to those owned by their mothers and fathers in order that they might assist them as they grow older. In that context, the importance of carers, etc., has been highlighted on many occasions. The best care one could ever receive is that provided by a son or daughter living next door. Grandchildren often care for their grandparents during the day until their parents return home from work. We were all raised in an Ireland in which people cared for each other and were part of their communities.
The Leader should tell the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, about the Ireland to which he refers.
I hope common sense will prevail in this matter.
That is a separate matter.
I will ensure Members will have an opportunity in the House to make all their points on that review. Senator Ellis, a long-standing and experienced Member of the House, spoke about the EPA and the definitive indications that should be available in this day and age. I will follow up this issue with the Minister and communicate with the Senator on the serious concerns raised by him in the House this morning.
Senators Coffey and Buttimer called for a debate on housing and the various challenges facing that sector, including funding for various projects. I will have no difficulty in providing time for a debate on this issue.
Senator Ó Murchú raised the issue of freedom of speech, for which our forefathers fought so hard many years ago. I support the Senator views as outlined. As long as I have been a Member of this House, there has been no finer contributor or orator than the Senator.
We should fully support and congratulate Senator Ó Murchú on all he has done as a Senator for this House. He is a shining example of all that is good in public life.
Senators Norris and MacSharry called for an update on taxi regulation, in particular NCT tested vehicles over ten years old which are no longer acceptable as taxis. Again, common sense must prevail given the downturn in the economy. The people trying to make a living driving taxis should be supported by all sides of both Houses of the Oireachtas at this difficult time. I will do all that I can to assist the view that a vehicle used as a taxi which is NCT tested and in perfect running be allowed to continue operating. There is not much money to be made in the taxi business any longer. Those of us who drive in by Heuston Station every morning will be aware of the queues of taxi drivers, men and women, waiting there for a fare. Often a taxi driver will get only one fare in four hours. We must support taxi drivers who are providing 24/7 a tremendous, dedicated service for their customers, constituents which we represent. It is our duty to support them.
Senators MacSharry, Daly and Healy Eames called for a debate on matters pertaining to the budget. The budget is six months away. We must wait to see what incomes will accrue to the Exchequer. We can debate the figures released from time to time in monthly or quarterly reports. However, conclusion of the Croke Park agreement will enable urgently needed savings for the Exchequer to be achieved. I will accede to requests from colleagues for a debate on the budget but it is still six months away. The matter will be discussed next week by the leaders of the groups.
Senator Callely called for a debate on the Pensions Board report. I have no difficulty in such a debate taking place. However, I do not believe it will be possible to have one prior to the summer recess as a large volume of legislation is expected to come before us and this must take precedence. I can give a commitment that the Pensions Board report will be debated at a future date.
Senators Callely and McFadden raised the issue of carers. I outlined earlier our total commitment to carers. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, will be in the House in the next two weeks to conclude and respond to colleague's queries in regard to the health portfolio. I suggest colleagues avail of that opportunity to make their points on carers.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on domestic violence, in particular the technology assisted crimes taking place. This will take place following the summer recess. The Senator, with Senator O'Malley, also called for a debate on missing persons. As I indicated yesterday to Senator Ó Murchú on the Order of Business, I fully support the House having a debate on the issue.
Senator O'Malley also asked that the Minister for Education and Skills be invited to the House to debate what type of education system Ireland requires and needs for future generations. This is a timely call for that debate and I have no difficulty in it taking place following the summer recess. The Minister for Education and Skills was in the House only three weeks ago and gave a full account of her portfolio. I support Senator O'Malley's request for a debate and will provide time for an all-day debate on education on the issue.
Senator Regan expressed his strong views on the banking reports and welcomed the review announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan. He also made statements with which I do not agree. Professor Honohan has made clear that there was no political interference in this area. There is much comment stemming from the banking sector reports, some of which suggest not everyone has read all of the reports. Any fair minded person would agree that Professor Honohan has been exemplary in terms of his views. We all acknowledge the great work being done to correct and tighten up bank structures here and across the world. I agree with the suggestions made by Senator Hanafin in regard to the need for further regulation in this area.
Senator Quinn informed the House that, according to EUROSTAT, Ireland's GDP was the second highest last year. There have been many reports in regard to the corrective decisions taken by Ireland and how they are affecting our performance on a worldwide basis.
Senator Quinn also spoke of the reinstatement of the Senate in New Zealand. There must be a watchdog of principal parliament. We are privileged to be the watchdog of Dáil Éireann. Every Bill that comes before this House is scrutinised section by section and line by line. I confirm to the electorate and anyone interested in the positive work being done in Seanad Éireann that the debate on no Bill is guillotined in this House. That is the difference between Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. This House provides value for the taxpayer in terms of the meaningful work it does.
Senator McFadden spoke of the possibility, through the involvement of China, of a world trade centre in Athlone. She also congratulated our county manager, Mr. Dan McLoughlin, one of the best managers in the country. I look forward to this development taking place. It will change the entire landscape of the midlands, whether one comes from Westmeath, Longford, Offaly or Roscommon. With representatives of the institute, including Professor Ó Catháin, I visited China as part of a trade mission. This development is bearing fruit thanks to the hard work and endeavour of everyone in Westmeath County Council during the past three to four years.
Senator Healy Eames raised the unavailability of home insurance for people whose dwellings are located areas prone to flooding. This is a serious concern. I will pass on the Senator's views to the Minister. Senator McCarthy also spoke about flooding issues in his area and stated that one State agency was preventing another from carrying out corrective measures to ensure there was no further flooding. It behoves all of us, given our experiences in terms of the flooding last year, much of which was man made, to do all we can to ensure this does not happen again.
Senator O'Sullivan called for a debate on the report on the horse racing industry. I support the Senator who has been a great supporter of the industry and ambassador for the country.
I am seriously concerned when Senator O'Sullivan brings to the attention of the House the abuse of starving animals. From time to time, we pass fields in which we see badly treated animals. We have a duty and responsibility to report such cases to the various agencies responsible. I thank the Senator for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. I will allocate time to allow the report to be debated in the House.
What about my query on righting the position on the town of Dingle?