Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, address to the Seanad by Dr. Mary Robinson, president of the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice, former Senator and colleague of some Members who were present at the time, former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to commence at 11.45 a.m. in accordance with the arrangements set out in the motion passed by the House on Tuesday, 22 November. To facilitate a prompt start to Dr. Robinson's address, Senators are requested to be in their seats by 11.35 a.m. On the conclusion of that business at 1.45 p.m. the sitting will be suspended until 6 p.m., at which time we will take No. 2, Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011 — Committee Stage (resumed), to conclude not later than 9 p.m., if not previously concluded.

For the information of Members, Report and Final Stages of the Water Services (Amendment) Bill will be taken on Monday, 28 November from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. At the close of business tonight a motion will be put before the House on the arrangements for the sitting, and a Supplementary Order Paper will be circulated later today to cover the sitting.

Between 2.30 p.m. and 6 p.m. today, the Seanad Public Consultation Committee will hear submissions in this Chamber from representatives of older people's advocacy groups on issues affecting the rights of older people in society. All Senators are very welcome and are invited to be present in the Chamber during the course of the afternoon for those hearings. I understand nine groups will be making presentations based on written submissions already made to the committee. They will be making oral submissions in the Chamber in groups of three, and Senators are invited to ask questions of the groups following each set of submissions. All Senators are welcome to ask questions. We will also be having a public consultation committee hearing on Tuesday, 29 November.

Yesterday's exertions must have taken quite a bit out of the Government side in that its Members are sparse on the ground this morning. They are having a lie in.

Some of us do not need much sleep.

Obviously, many do.

They are all very good elves.

I am glad the Government conceded to the Opposition's request regarding the means of dealing with the Water Services (Amendment) Bill. It is very important. We all agree that this House does its job properly in scrutinising legislation. The idea of allowing but one day for Committee Stage is wrong. I thank the Leader and the Whips on all sides for deciding on a reasonable arrangement such that Committee Stage will resume today and Report Stage will be on Monday. That allows for proper consideration of this very important legislation.

I raised yesterday a question to which I did not get an answer. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, said very clearly in the House three weeks ago that the Government would publish the mortgage arrears implementation strategy in advance of the budget. This was said in response to a question from me and Members on the other side of the House. The Minister for Finance, in response to our Dáil spokesperson on finance, Deputy Michael McGrath, said it would probably not be published before the budget but that he will do his best to have it in place before Christmas. This is not good enough.

It is nine weeks since the publication of the Keane report and nine months since the Government, after the general election, made sweeping promises regarding what it would do for distressed mortgage holders. Nothing has been done by it, with the exception of defeating a very substantial Bill brought forward by Members on this side of the House to protect the principal private residence or family home of individuals. Circumstances are becoming increasingly worse and mortgage arrears cases account for nearly 10% of all mortgages. When former Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, was in the House, I raised with him the issue of shared and affordable housing mortgages, in respect of which the average arrears rate is over 20%. That local authorities are not governed by the statutory code of conduct on mortgage arrears is a major problem.

All I ask the Government to do is to keep one promise, namely, its promise to the hundreds of thousands of individuals in arrears with their mortgages. What is the position? I have immense respect for Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, and I am sure he did not come into this House to mislead it intentionally. However, he obviously has no idea what the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, is actually doing. When will the Government publish its comprehensive mortgage arrears implementation strategy? It said it would do so before the budget but this will not be done.

Three weeks ago, I called for a debate in this House on the proposed appointment of an individual to the European Court of Auditors. The Deputy Leader believed this appointment would be a good idea, as did the Leader, yet the debate thereon was never arranged. Yesterday was an embarrassment for Ireland. I am not being personal in saying so. That our nominee was rejected by our peers in Europe is very serious. We need to debate this, but not the individual concerned specifically. The debate ought to happen next week. The Government will continue to try to have the individual appointed, although our peers in Europe have rejected him. I know Members on the other side of the House are very concerned about how this is done. I propose a proper discussion on how we will deal with all appointments in the future. My belief and that of my party is that, when the Government proposes someone for a job such as that with the European Court of Auditors, the nominee should, at the very least, be interviewed by a joint Oireachtas committee. He or she should be interviewed in this House also. We should try to achieve Irish consensus on nominating people for important EU jobs and others. The job in question is not a doddle; it is important and the Irish people and their Government got a slap in the face yesterday from Europe. The problem with this is that the Government knew it was coming. It led with its chin and knew its nominee would be rejected. I want a debate on this next week.

I echo yesterday's call by Senator David Norris for an early debate on the media, particularly on standards in the media. I make my call having read late last night an article in theEvening Herald entitled “Galling To See Politicians Order Inquiry Into RTE”. It states that while the Fr. Kevin Reynolds libel itself was disastrous, RTE’s response was lame and self-protective, so much so that the station must now face the ignominy of having an investigation foisted on it by politicians. The journalist states that is the worst possible scenario because politicians do not have the best interest of the public or RTE at heart. He states that, although one may call him a cynic, he believes many politicians just want to see RTE get a good kicking.

I take grave exception to that article. It is outrageous. I have no personal axe to grind with RTE. I called in this House for an inquiry to get to the truth of how a good and decent man had his reputation destroyed by RTE. I ask the Deputy Leader to confirm with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, that the independent inquiry he has set up will not alone deal with the injustice done to Fr. Reynolds but will also examine the case of the deceased missionary in South Africa whose family believe had his reputation destroyed also. I take grave exception to what was written by Cormac Looney last night. As politicians, we must take on this sort of journalism. It is appalling and calls into question the integrity of politicians in this House who called for an inquiry to put the record straight as to how the national broadcaster got it so wrong in the case of Fr. Kevin Reynolds and possibly others.

As one can imagine, I agree very much with what Senator Mullins said. I hope his comments will be borne in mind when the Committee on Procedure and Privileges examines three complaints I will be laying before it before the weekend.

Let me consider the question of the appointment of Mr. Cardiff to the European Court of Auditors. Everybody has named him. I do not suppose we should but we know whom we are talking about. I asked a question on this very same subject so I support strongly what the leader of Fianna Fáil said. I seems the problem is causing us embarrassment. I asked yesterday whether instructions had gone out from party headquarters to Members of the European Parliament and it was indicated to me that no such instructions were given. This does not seem to be accurate because the comments of Ms Nessa Childers, MEP, of the Labour Party, and the position taken up by Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP, seem to be at variance with this. I would like an explanation for that.

Will the Deputy Leader state whether and when the Government will introduce proposed legislation on the issue of privacy, which legislation has been hanging in abeyance for many years?

I reassure my colleague that the Government has certainly not conceded to the Opposition regarding the implementation of the Cavan model for the Water Services (Amendment) Bill.

That is not relevant to the Order of Business.

I just wanted to clarify something. I know it was late at night and perhaps it was past the Senator's bedtime——

Unfortunately, the Minister did not seem to understand a lot yesterday.

Does Senator Landy have a question for the Leader?

I ask the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, to return to the House to follow up on the discussions we had with him and to address the questions put to him on the day in question. He has not addressed them thus far. My colleague, Senator Marie Moloney, raised with him the difficulties within the central processing unit for medical cards. Responsibility for processing has been centralised, with responsibility having been transferred to Dublin from county clinics in order to provide a better service for medical card recipients. Unfortunately, the outcome is the opposite. It is with great regret that I am obliged to ask for the Minister's return to this House. While both this House and the Lower House are very good at dealing with macro issues, Members sometimes must deal with micro issues. This morning, I received information from a constituent with spina bifida, whose medication costs €390 weekly. Having visited his doctor last Friday, he was informed the doctor could not see him. This was because a day earlier, that patient and 14 others were struck off from their GP's general medical services, GMS, list without any notification to any of them. This is an absolute disgrace. Moreover, when in this House, the Minister gave an assurance to Members that this issue would be dealt with and applications would be processed. What actually happened is the Minister offered to deal with the cases about which the Senator involved had a concern, which is unacceptable. Thousands of people are waiting for medical cards to be processed. The individual to whom I referred sent in his renewal application last April and the card expired in June. We are almost in December and without any notification or opportunity to appeal, he was struck off. He now faces a bill of €390 per week for medication——

Does the Senator have a question for the Leader?

—— plus a visit to the GP, which will cost another €50. He is obliged to attend each week. The Minister must return to this House to deal with this micro issue. Members cannot talk continually about macro issues while people are suffering nationwide. They cannot get their medical cards processed and cannot go to their doctors because they lack the money. I call on the Minister to return to this House next week to deal with this issue.

First, I commend Senator Landy for bringing up this issue, which he referred to as being a micro issue. As Members discuss, as they must, bigger policies and as they look at the bigger picture, they often miss out on the individual suffering on theground.

It is in the same context that I ask the Deputy Leader to lay aside some time fairly soon to discuss the issue of national self-reliance. During the last couple of recessionary years, it has been quite evident that Ireland has become a much more competitive country and this should be borne in mind in the lead-up to Christmas. While this may appear to be a micro issue, there is an opportunity to help those people, particularly in small businesses, who are exceptionally challenged, as well as those who are losing their jobs. This could be done, were Members to focus on the same things on which there was a focus when the State was first set up, at which time it probably was led by organisations such as the GAA and Conradh na Gaeilge, namely, buying Irish-made goods. First, because it is quite clear the quality of Irish-made goods is second to none. Second, because, as I stated, Ireland has become much more competitive. It is only a matter of making a conscious decision regarding the money one will spend, and a lot of money will be spent by those who have it, over the Christmas period. However, if one makes such a conscious decision, one not only will be buying the item one wishes to buy butwill be helping those businesses which have three or four employees, particularly insmaller communities. Were they to be helped, it might result in, when one puts it alltogether, between 10% and 20% more money staying at home instead of leaving thecountry.

I acknowledge Members cannot legislate for this and am cognisant of the restrictions arising from being part of a European community. However, I merely am putting forward one suggestion. People will listen to Members' debates on "Oireachtas Report" or will read a limited amount in the newspapers. Generally, Members deal with issues that are somewhat contentious politically among themselves. However, the issue to which I refer is not contentious because all Members seem to agree on one thing, namely, the need to be positive. Members must ensure they are not simply paying lip-service to the sufferings of people but are taking practical steps. Would it not be great, were Members to lay aside a half-day to debate self-reliance, as was practised in the early days of the State when we were challenged in the past? Despite all the legislation with which Members must deal, I appeal to the Deputy Leader to ascertain whether it might be possible to lay aside a half day, because there would be no confrontational debate. All Members would be singing from the same hymn sheet and above all else, they would be sending out a message that they are both genuine and sincere in trying to help those who cannot help themselves.

I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Landy on the need to have the Minister come before the House once again at the earliest date possible to discuss health matters and medical card issues in particular. All Members could recount similar examples of people whose medical card applications either are not being processed in sufficient time or are being refused. The HSE has a substantial budget, not of hundreds of millions but of billions of euro. It certainly has a high staffing level, of well in excess of 100,000 people. While it is not short of offices or resources, it sometimes appears to be very short of humanity and common sense. In particular, the centralisation of the medical card service has been quite disastrous because it has removed the discretion and common sense which was applicable when the local community welfare officer was in charge of issuing cards. Consequently, an urgent review of that system is required.

The other issue I wish to raise briefly appears on the Order Paper under the heading, Papers laid before the Seanad. I refer to the draft programme documents of November 2011 of the EU-IMF programme of financial support for Ireland, that is, the documents relating to the famous bailout. It would be helpful, sometime after the budget and perhaps in mid-December, were Members to have a debate with the appropriate Minister or Ministers on the current state of the programme, the level of progress made, the level of commitments given by Ireland and how they have been responded to and the level of commitments given by Europe and the IMF. It would be helpful were all Members brought up to date on where that programme stands because virtually every debate in this House, be it about medical cards or jobs, really relates back to the bailout programme and the IMF. On the anniversary of the signing of that agreement, it would be important that Members receive an official update on how now stand the workings of that agreement.

I always find listening to Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú to be an inspiration because he speaks with such strength and such belief, as he did today. The question of buying Irish is very important. It is in our own hands and is something we can do and he worded this point very well. However, I must sound a note of caution about one point he made, namely, that all Irish products are good. One must buy critically, as one is not doing a favour to a producer of an Irish product if one buys something solely because it is Irish. Were one to buy it because it is Irish and it is a poor product, one is not doing that company a favour. Similarly, if one buys a food product that is not good, no favour is being done. Irish people must learn to be critical. In such cases, I suggest, that as a consumer, one should go back to whoever provided the service in question, whether it be a local shop or restaurant or the producer of a product. It is one's obligation to help them by going back to tell them it was not good enough and to ask them to do their best to improve because one wishes to support them.

I believe this is an opportunity for this House to do something. Would it be possible to have an all-party motion that could be agreed on by everyone, stating Members will set an example and will exhort everyone they come across this Christmas to do their best to buy not just Irish but to buy local as well? I believe that in the case of foodstuffs, buying local is a huge benefit. The other day, I mentioned a recent great campaign in Drogheda, in which 30 food producers from counties Louth and Meath got together in a hotel and met approximately 50 customers, by which I do not mean just consumers but eateries and people with restaurants or delicatessens. The latter could not get over meeting people who were in their own locality for the first time. There is a sense that if one buys something local, one can see the benefit that derives therefrom. I remember the onset of the BSE scare some years ago and what impressed me was that people in France wanted to buy French beef and people in Germany wanted to buy German beef. In other words, they were anxious to buy something not from far away but from their own territory and their own country. This is something from which one can learn. Moreover, one can learn this lesson at a local level. Perhaps Members can manage to encourage our citizens to support Irish this year and even more so, to support local. However, they should be critical if they do not get good service. If they do not get the product they want, they should make sure to go back and help retailers or producers to improve it.

Like my colleague, Senator Mullins, I was perturbed by what appeared in yesterday'sEvening Herald. The inquiry would not have happened but for the fact that politicians looked for it. Twenty minutes was spent discussing this critical and serious matter at the Cabinet as a result of the public outcry, which was articulated by colleagues such as Senator Mullins in recent days. It is a bit rich to read headlines like “Galling to See Politicians Order Inquiry into RTE.” The bottom line is that if British politicians had not looked for inquiries, the telephone hacking scandal would not have been exposed in the first place.

I also agree with Senator Landy. Merely because something is centralised does not mean it is done properly. My experience in dealing with medical cards over the years has been positive because of the role the community welfare officers played in deciding on borderline cases, taking all the facts into consideration and making a recommendation. We are now in a position where we cannot make that type of representation to the centralised body concerned because we do not know the staff, we have no personal relationships with them and we cannot really make a case.

There is not telephone contact.

There is not even telephone contact. They do not even return a call, which is appalling. The Minister needs to take another look at how this medical card process is being dealt with and perhaps go back to the original model, which was doing it through the community welfare officers.

I support the call by Senators Ó Murchú and Quinn on the Deputy Leader for a debate on buying Irish. Perhaps she would include in that debate how we could deal with the e-tendering process for State companies and local authorities with projects valued in excess of €50,000. The e-tendering process is a system whereby people all over Europe tender for jobs in Ireland and, by and large, it goes to the cheapest. It should apply to projects valued at €500,000 or more. In the case of a contract for €100,000 where there is potential job creation here, the local authority should retain the flexibility to skip that process. If that was done, one would see many more jobs created and many more companies getting State business.

I support the call by Senator Landy that the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, come in to discuss medical card renewal. We should be non-partisan on this because all of us made constructive proposals when the Minister was here. The issue of medical card renewal is important. Senator Landy gave examples with which he dealt and we all could give examples of those who have waited months for their cards to be renewed.

The problem is that when the Minister was in this House, he informed us that the renewal time was on average two to three weeks. That is not our experience and that of many who are waiting for their cards to be renewed. Perhaps the Minister got incorrect information from an official. He should come back into this House to clarify the position because we all can offer examples. It is not good enough for the Minister to say, as Senator Landy said, "Give me the examples and I will sort them out." It is a systemic problem and it needs to be addressed. That is important. I support the Senator.

I also support the call for a debate on media standards here. The issue has been discussed in various different ways in this House over the course of recent weeks, but there were calls several months ago for this debate and then there was the Fr. Reynolds and "Prime Time Investigates" matter. I ask the Leader to provide time to discuss media standards here. Then we could have an opportunity to discuss the various related issues which arose in recent weeks.

My intention was to call for a debate on the retail sector in Ireland. That feeds into what has been asked for in terms of buying Irish and supporting Irish products. The retail sector has been devastated by what has happened in the economy. It is also planned, if we believe the Minister for Finance, that VAT will be increased by 2%. I spoke to many retailers in Waterford in recent days, many of whom work for less than the minimum wage simply to keep their shops open and to keep people in employment. Some of them work for nothing because they must pay the rates, the rent and keep people employed. If they were to give up and close their premises, they would see people lose their jobs and they would also not receive any benefits because they have been self-employed. They are caught in a poverty trap. Those retailers want to keep their businesses going but if the Government goes ahead with this 2% VAT increase, that will crucify many of them in Waterford and across the State. It is important for this House to have a debate on this. That is the Adjournment motion I put down which was ruled out of order and about which the Cathaoirleach stated that maybe a more substantive motion was necessary. I agree. I call on this House to have a full debate on the importance of the retail sector, the importance of supporting the retail sector and the positive impact that would have on the overall economy.

On the Order of Business yesterday a number of Members raised the issue of interruptions during the question and answer session on Tuesday evening with the Minister, Deputy Howlin, and I share those concerns. I have the transcript here. In my two-minute opportunity to put questions to the Minister, the Minister interrupted me on six occasions and there were six other interruptions, which was an interruption every ten seconds. That should not be allowed. Then, unfortunately, when I was endeavouring to assist the Minister later in the debate, he took the hump at my interventions.

We are not reopening that debate.

I ask that the Committee look at it. Ministers who cannot brook criticism or constructive observations——

As Senator Walsh knows well, the Chair is the sole judge of order in the House.

That is why I am asking that the Chair protect Members in these situations.

The central point I wanted to make on which I am looking for a debate was that the failure of the Minister to extract any significant benefits fiscally from the Croke Park agreement, which the interim report illustrated clearly, meant that the cuts to the public capital programme are so severe that programmes which would generate jobs in the short term and improve our competitiveness in the future are being abandoned. I ask for a debate on the published document, which is light.

I am not making a political point. I am concerned about the comments from backbenchers, particularly within the Labour Party. I refer Members to the front page of theIrish Examiner today. It strikes me — I say this from experience — that we served in difficult times with a minor partner in Government that became flaky. I am really amazed and concerned that the Labour Party backbench Members are becoming as flaky so early in the lifetime of the Government.

Does Senator Walsh have a question for the Leader?

That is not relevant at all.

It is a valid concern. We are worried about this.

Does Senator Walsh have a question for the Leader?

Can we have a debate on the programme for Government in order that we might restore cohesion? I recall the former Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen, at a parliamentary party meeting which Members here will remember, when members raised issues of concern on policies which impacted on people, he stated that the time had gone for putting the interests of the party anywhere on the agenda and that the survival of the country was at stake and we must act accordingly, and that is advice I would give them.

We will assist at every stage.

Two weeks ago I raised the issue——

Senator Walsh is out of time.

——of inviting the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, here to discuss the closure of the embassies, particularly the Irish Embassy to the Holy See. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade be invited as a matter or urgency today to come to this House to debate the closure of those embassies, particular the Irish Embassy to the Holy See, and that we all endeavour to have that regrettable decision rescinded.

On a point of order, could I ask Senator Walsh, in order that we are clear on what he has propounded to my colleagues——

That is not a point of order.

——is he stating that his party is now supporting the programme for Government?

That is not a point of order.

Is Senator Walsh supporting the programme for Government? I ask him to clarify because he is asking us——

That is not a point of order.

I merely want to get clarification.

If the Cathaoirleach allows me, I will answer.

I cannot follow Senator Walsh's line otherwise.

I call Senator Noone.

May I answer?

Senator Walsh has contributed.

One issue that is really getting to me is the issue of jaywalking. Yesterday I was saddened to learn of a pedestrian being struck on the N11 as he was crossing the road. Although the person was injured, I thank God he did not die. In the context of everything that is happening in Europe and Ireland, it does not seem like something that warrants attention but of the approximately 200 fatalities on record for last year, 38 involved pedestrians. Yesterday, I witnessed somebody walking across the road. I was driving and visibility was not great because it was quite sunny. The pedestrian knocked on my window as though I was in the wrong. I do not know if I should table a Private Member's motion on the issue of jaywalking. It is a practice that takes place under the radar and we are all guilty of it. I do it myself on occasion but the practice is policed more heavily in other countries and something needs to be done about it in this country.

I support Senator Mullen's comments on media standards. It is not acceptable for a journalist to claim that politicians do not have the best interests of the public at heart. That is the case for some politicians who have their own interests at heart.

That is the nature of the beast but there are people like that in every organisation. It is unacceptable and we need to hold a debate on the media because issues arise on a daily basis. We could frame the debate in terms of standards in the media. I urge the Deputy Leader to facilitate a debate.

I do not see any harm in debating embassy closures. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss the matter with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I welcome a former Member of the House, Sheila Terry, to the Visitors Gallery.

I second the amendment proposed by Senator Walsh to the Order Business in regard to holding a debate on our embassy to the Holy See.

I welcome the calls for a debate on health issues. It was alarming to learn this morning that the Government proposes to close 12 community hospitals and a total of 840 beds. The proposed closures include a hospital in my constituency which was kept open by the Fianna Fáil Party despite difficult circumstances. A plan was put in place for the local community organisation to develop an alternative facility at Lifford community hospital. There is now a threat of full closure and the loss of at least 20 beds at Lifford. Long-term hospital beds are also threatened at Buncrana, Ramelton and Carndonagh community hospitals. This is another attack on the elderly and those who cannot live unassisted. I fail to understand the Government's lack of commitment in this area. The Minister for Health must clarify to the House his stance on the closures that have being flagged as an imminent decision.

After the conclusion of last night's debate on the Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011, Senator Harte issued a statement to local media in Donegal which misrepresented everything that occurred in the House.

That is not relevant.

It is relevant because I want this issue——

What is published in the newspapers is not relevant to this House. Does the Senator have a question for the Deputy Leader?

I ask the Deputy Leader to ask Senator Harte why he is misrepresenting the views expressed on the record of this House.

That is not relevant.

It is a serious issue.

What is on the record is on the record.

It was misinformation and it represents political opportunism and a challenge to my party's integrity.

That has nothing to do with the Order of Business.

On a point of order, is it appropriate to discuss something that a Member said when he or she is not in the Chamber?

Yes, he is a Member of the House.

That is not a point of order.

I do not know if it is a point of order.

I thought it worth asking.

Questions to the Deputy Leader, please.

I cannot be held responsible if a Member is not in the Chamber.

Does Senator Ó Domhnaill have a question?

I want the Deputy Leader to explore why misrepresentations of what happened in a debate in this House were sent to the media and published as a press release from a Member of this House.

The debate is in the Official Report and is a matter of public record.

He was misinforming the public and taking the public for granted. Senator Harte stated that I had tabled a Fianna Fáil proposal to copy the model used in Cavan County Council in the rest of the country.

That is not relevant.

That is not what happened.

Senator, please.

The Senator should be responsible and tell the truth to the people.

The Senator is out of time. I call Senator Coghlan.

I challenge Senator Harte to a public debate on any radio station in this country.

Not on the Order of Business.

I ask him to read the Bill in order that he is familiar with it before it comes before the House at 6 p.m.

I call Senator Coghlan.

The truth is often difficult.

They were absolute lies. He has not even read the Bill.

The Senator walked into it last night.

Senator Landy, please.

Take the medicine and shut up about it.

The pressure is on.

The Senator has made his contribution. Can we have some respect in the House, please?

Now that we are in spitting distance of the budget, it is natural that some people are getting edgy.

Not on this side of the House.

I appeal to our worthy opponents to exercise a little caution. All will be revealed. As they will be aware, nothing has been agreed yet.

In regard to the Holy See, the Leader has agreed to invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to the House in due course. It is not helpful to speak about the closure of the embassy. Even though he is non-resident, our ambassador, David Cooney, is an eminent and senior figure. I am sure he will be using that building on his frequent visits to Rome to work the diplomacy that is afoot. We also have a new apostolic nuncio, the eminent and able Monsignor Brown, who I congratulate and welcome. He is also fluent in English. I do not suggest there were many misunderstandings in the past but this augurs well for the future. I have no doubt that if the Holy See agreed to Ireland, as a small country in economic difficulties, accommodating a separate ambassador in the Italian embassy——

These are points that can be made during the debate.

I appreciate the Cathaoirleach's ruling. I ask the Deputy Leader to confirm what I think was agreed already in regard to the Tánaiste.

Ba mhaith liom nótáil i dtaobh na díospóireachta a bhí againn aréir gur ceann de na rudaí is dearfaí a tháinig amach as an díospóireacht sin ná an méid Gaeilge a labhradh le linn na díospóireachta. Ba mhaith liom tréaslú leis na Seanadóirí a d'úsáid an Ghaeilge le linn na díospóireachta, ach níos mó ná sin, ba mhaith liom tréaslú leis na Seanadóirí a d'úsáid na cluasáin le linn na díospóireachta le go mbeadh siad in ann tuiscint céard a bhí na daoine a bhí ag labhairt i nGaeilge ag rá. Maith sibh agus tá súil agam go leanfar leis sin.

I seek a debate on ministerial expenses. It has come to light that Ministers are literally taking us to the cleaners by claiming up to €3,500 in expenses for dry cleaning their clothes. We are not giving extra money to people on the dole or in receipt of pensions for their dry cleaning. Carers do not seem to get money to do their dry cleaning. Students do not get extra money to cover their washing and drying. Why should a Minister who already receives a hefty salary receive up to €3,500 per year for cleaning clothes? It is an absolute scandal. The Government told us that the regime was going to change butplus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say in France. A debate on ministerial expenses would also allow us to ask whether it is working out cheaper now that we do not have ministerial cars. How much is being spent on ministerial transport under the new regime? How much are special advisers costing and how many of them are being paid more than the cap that was supposedly being imposed on salaries?

The second home allowance.

The second home allowance should also be investigated.

I agree with Senator Walsh that it would be appropriate to debate the programme for Government in light of the suggestion by the Taoiseach in the Dáil yesterday that the policies which the Labour Party put to the people before the election changed over the night in which the programme was negotiated.

Does the Senator have a question for the Deputy Leader?

We should have a debate on the programme for Government because the Labour Party Senators lambast the Minister for Health and other Ministers day after day in the House as if they are in opposition. We need to know where they stand. Are their policies those of the Labour Party or are they following the programme for Government? If they are, they need to stand by the decisions they are taking and the votes they cast in both Houses. They cannot have it both ways; they are either with the Government or they are not. If they are not happy with the decisions that have been made or the way this country is being run, they need to stand up and be counted.

I was interested to establish whether a reference would be made to the unfolding euro crisis, especially the German failure to raise funds on the bond market. Despite all the issues raised on the Order of Business, will the Deputy Leader, at the very least, convey the genuine concerns people have about their savings, the status of the currency and the ongoing crisis, which changes on a daily basis? It is incumbent on the Government to issue a statement of intent. What is its position in light of the most recent developments? It seems as if eurozone countries, led by France, are initiating a process that Germany is resisting, whereby eurobonds will be issued and the ECB will act as a lender of last resort.

The reason I raise this is all the commentary in the print and electronic media refers to the collapse of the euro. To ensure people do not panic about this, it is incumbent on the Government to act in the national interest to allay the fears of citizens and it should outline its policy going forward. I appreciate we are a small country subject to a bailout and our voice is not as strong in Europe as it used to be but when an editorial in theIrish Independent uses the chilling line that because of the euro currency crisis, what the Minister for Finance presents to the people in the Dáil on budget day may be totally irrelevant, we are in a new, dangerous place.

I do not anticipate that the Minister for Finance, the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach will come to the House but, at the very least, will the Deputy Leader convey the serious concerns people have and respond accordingly? Will the Government issue a public statement to reassure citizens about their savings, the status of the euro and, most important, outline policy in this area? The policy seems to be somewhat fumbling and fudging. I cannot get clarity in anything I have read, seen, or heard in the past two weeks. The Government parties are muddling through and they await the next crisis before giving a reaction.

I agree with Senator Paul Coghlan's comments about the status of diplomatic relations with the Vatican. It is not about whether Mr. David Cooney, who has been a friend of mine for many years and who is a respected Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, is up to the job or whether he will be effective, it is about Vatican policy. We are in the second tier of nations as a result of removing ourselves from beingin situ in Vatican City. That is the key issue and that is poor “statecraft”, as Senator Mullen described it a few weeks ago. That is damaging to Irish interests.

I want to be sure that Senator Walsh's amendment has been seconded.

Senator Walsh moved it and Senator Ó Domhnaill seconded it.

I join Senator Ó Domhnaill in requesting that the Minister for Health come to the House to discuss the reported closures of community hospitals throughout the country. In particular, I would like to address the position of the Lisdarn unit for the elderly in Cavan town. This is a 44-bed unit, of which six are for respite care. Excellent care is provided for the vulnerable, older people of Cavan town and surrounding areas. Its staff are excellent and news reports earlier indicate this is one of the proposed units for closure. If that is the case, it is a disgrace and we will fight it in this House at every opportunity afforded to us. The Minister and representatives of the Government say that this is only speculation and no decision has been made. I refer them to similar comments they made regarding the VEC staff in Cavan. Their office was closed and they were transferred to Monaghan. I also refer them to the 140 troops based in Dun Uí Néill barracks in the town who were also told the proposed closure was only speculation and no decision had been made. It will close in March and I have no doubt it is the intention of the Minister for Health to close this unit. It is a disgrace and it will be fought in the House and by my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, in the other House.

Senator O'Brien asked for clarification on the mortgage arrears implementation strategy. I am glad to inform him that the Government is moving forward as a matter of urgency with the strategy. It is launching two mortgage-to-rent schemes on a pilot basis initially to test how they will operate ahead of a wider roll-out. One of the pilot schemes will cover a broad range of 500 households. The Minister for Justice and Equality has begun extensive work on the heads of a personal insolvency Bill, while the Department of Finance is speaking with the banks to ensure implementation of the measures in the Keane report and the Central Bank has asked all mortgage lenders to produce detailed mortgage arrears resolution strategies and implementation plans for submission by the end of November. There is a speedy move on this issue, but the Minister for Finance wanted to ensure Deputies, Senators and other groups had the opportunity to make known their views and he will formally put proposals to the Government following conclusion of the Dáil debate on the next steps, including an implementation mechanism. Progress is being made but I will follow up the Senator's query to ascertain when the strategy will be published.

Senators O'Brien and Norris also raised the issue of the rejection by the European Parliament committee of the appointment of Mr. Kevin Cardiff. As I said previously, I would very much welcome a debate on appointments to the European Court of Auditors and similar appointments. Like other Senators, I am concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding such appointments generally.

Senators Mullins, Conway, Cullinane and Noone referred to the issue of media standards, RTE and the fallout from the Fr. Reynolds case and the "Prime Time Investigates" documentary. They mentioned the commentary in some newspapers and I agree it would be helpful to have such a debate. I called for a debate some time ago in response to theNews of the World crisis and will speak with the Leader about arranging one. Senator Mullins sought clarification on the remit of the inquiry that is being set up. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has arranged for the establishment of an independent inquiry. The terms have not been set. The Senator sought an expansion of the terms but it is important that they are focused to ensure a speedy report.

Senator Norris called for clarification on the issue of privacy. I will check the matter for him.

Senators Landy, Bradford, Conway, Cullinane, Ó Domhnaill and Wilson sought debates with the Minister for Health on the centralisation of the processing of medical card applications and the delays in issuing same, hospital and nursing home closures. I understand the Minister will appear before the Joint Committee on Health and Children this morning. It would be helpful to have him back in the House. He was present for a comprehensive debate recently but we should invite him to return early in the year, about which I will speak to the Leader. I appreciate that the delay in the renewal of medical cards is causing immense suffering. I am grateful to Senators, such as Senator Landy, for raising individual cases. Of course, some issues might be suitable to be raised with the Minister as matters on the Adjournment, as well as having a broader debate.

Many Senators also requested a debate on buying Irish, the retail sector and the issue of self-reliance. I am grateful to Senator Ó Murchú for raising the issue, which was supported by Senators Quinn, Conway and Cullinane. It would be very useful to have that debate and I agree with Senator Ó Murchú that it would be non-contentious and could bring forward creative ideas on the growth of the retail sector. The RDS crafts fair will take place early in December, which is a good opportunity for people to support local, quality Irish produce. The report of the small business forum established by the Taoiseach and chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, was published this week. We might have a debate focusing on it, while also bringing in the broader issues of e-tendering and the retail sector generally.

The final issue raised by many Senators was that of the closure of the embassies. It was raised by Senators Walsh, Ó Domhnaill, Paul Coghlan and Mooney, and an amendment to the Order of Business has been proposed. I ask the Senators not to press the amendment today given the very heavy schedule we already have and given that today is an important day in terms of reform of standard procedures to allow a guest speaker and public consultation to take place. The Leader and I have both been actively pursuing the Tánaiste and his office to have him come in and deal with not just the issues the Senators have raised on the closure of embassies but also a number of other foreign policy issues that Senators, including me, have been raising in recent weeks. Yesterday I finally got a response from the Tánaiste's private secretary indicating that he will come here on a date early in January. I had sought and hoped to get a date in December, but given the budget date that seems unlikely. I am still hopeful that we might be able to get him here in the last sitting week — the week after the budget. It may be impossible to get him here next week or in budget week, but I will get back to him again today following the calls from Senators this morning to ask that he come in before the end of this session, which would be——

The call was made three weeks ago.

I appreciate that we have been trying to get him to come to the House and ask Senators to accept this in good faith.

I think that has covered——

What about Ministers' expenses?

Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of Ministers' expenses, which is a debate we could well have. Ministers — certainly the Labour Party Ministers with whom I have discussed it — are very concerned about the issue and want to see it reformed. As the Senator knows, there have already been significant cuts in ministerial pay since the Government came into office, but it would be very good to have a broader debate on ministerial expenses.

I am grateful to Senator Mooney, who was the only Senator to raise this morning the biggest and most critical issue facing the country and the wider eurozone community, the crisis in the eurozone. I will convey the concern he expressed about what is going on, which is shared by other colleagues. It would be useful to have a public statement from the Government on it, but we need to be mindful that the situation is changing by the hour and the timing of such a statement would be critical — an intervention at the wrong time might not be helpful. IMF economists have today issued a report suggesting that the decision to guarantee debts in Anglo Irish Bank might have been a precipitative factor of the eurozone crisis. We need to be mindful of the timing and our role in the eurozone crisis.

That was countered by Professor Honohan, who said it was the right decision. That is in the same report.

Senator Ó Domhnaill also raised an issue relating to last night's debate, which I did not cover. As the Cathaoirleach said, what is said in the House is on the record of the House. If any Senator has a difficulty and disagrees with a statement to the press by another Senator, clearly he or she should take that up by issuing a counter-statement and, if necessary, including a transcript.

I believe I have responded to everybody at this point. As I said, I will endeavour to get the Tánaiste to come to the House before the end of this session. In any case we have a commitment from him to come here early in January. On that basis I ask colleagues not to press the amendment.

Senator Walsh has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the recent announcement to close three embassies and to seek to have the decision to close the embassy to the Holy See rescinded be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

In deference to what the Deputy Leader has said, I will not be pursuing it by way of a walk-through vote, but I am pressing the amendment. I am giving notice that I do not find it acceptable that the Tánaiste has not come in. I raised the matter three weeks ago and will be pursuing it by way of a manual vote when I raise it next time.

Amendment put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 15; Níl, 32.

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Clune, Deirdre.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Crown, John.
  • D’Arcy, Jim.
  • D’Arcy, Michael.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Heffernan, James.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Mac Conghail, Fiach.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O’Keeffe, Susan.
  • O’Neill, Pat.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.
  • Zappone, Katherine.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O’Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O’Keeffe.
Amendment declared lost.
Order of Business agreed to.