Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 13 Dec 2011

Vol. 212 No. 5

Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, Social Welfare Bill 2011 — Second Stage, to commence at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 4.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 4.20 p.m.

Last week we asked and the Leader undertook to try to arrange a debate on the EU summit and European affairs in general. However, I notice it is not on the schedule for this week. Will the Leader update us on the matter? We all believe it is crucial we have a proper debate in the House. As I said last week, we will not insist on a Minister attending but a debate needs to take place. We all have concerns about the substantial increase in the numbers of the long-term unemployed announced yesterday and the fact that the growth forecast announced in the budget has been further reduced.

Ireland and the European Union are facing a difficult time and having listened to and read some of the reports on the EU summit, most believe the result falls way short of what is required to solve the European problem. The issues of sovereign and banking debt have not been dealt with, nor has the role of the ECB in how the European Union will operate. Will the Leader clarify the position? In one of yesterday's reports it was mentioned that President Sarkozy expected a treaty to be ratified by March, but the Taoiseach has said he is seeking legal advice from the Attorney General and awaiting the draft terms of the treaty and that the issue will be revisited in March.

When can we expect to receive advice on when and if a referendum will be held? It seems obvious to me and others that a referendum will be required on the fiscal control pact, in particular, on which it is important we have a substantial debate. Therefore, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business which I will withdraw if the Leader commits to holding a debate on the issue, that we have a debate today on the European summit and its implications for this country. I will not insist on Minister attending the debate, if it is not considered appropriate for him to do so.

I ask that early in the new year we have a full debate on education. I heard with interest that Senator Conway was raising on the Adjournment the teaching of European languages at primary school level, as the programme for the 500 participating schools had been cancelled.

I also have a question for the Deputy Leader, Senator Ivana Bacik. Last week when speaking on the budget, her colleague, Deputy Aodhán Ó Riordáin, stated: "I was heartened to see that the Minister protected the enhanced DEIS school grant and that it will not be reduced in line with the basic capitation reduction." One week later he was seeking an extremely urgent meeting with the Minister for Education and Skills because DEIS schools, our most disadvantaged, were being affected drastically by severe cuts. This has come in under the radar. Our most disadvantaged schools are only now realising that their resources will be drastically cut. I understand time is precious over the next week but we need a full debate on education, both on the languages side and on how our disadvantaged schools will be resourced into the next year, as soon as possible.

The Leader will respond to the Order of Business but in respect of developments in the eurozone, clearly things have moved on since we last met on Friday. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of detail as to what is in the agreement reached by the European leaders on Friday. We will need to wait and see the detail before we know for sure whether a referendum will be necessary here. The Taoiseach has already said it will be a number of months before that is likely. It is very much wait and see.

I understand Deputy Ó Ríordáin has raised a very specific issue with the Minister about the preservation of a small number of legacy posts in DEIS schools. It is fair to say the vast bulk of funding for DEIS schools was protected by the Minister in the budget last week.

I call for a debate on appointments. An issue was raised by a number of colleagues last week concerning the appointment of the Irish representative to the Council of Europe's Committee on the Prevention of Torture. The person appointed from Ireland last week was the former Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality. Valid concerns were raised by colleagues about the outcome of the appointment process. It was understood somebody else would be appointed. I have asked the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to investigate the matter in the new year as it is something it should do. The Minister for Justice and Equality should appear before the committee to explain the process by which the former Secretary General was appointed against what appears to have been the expressed preference of a sub-committee of the Council of Europe for one of the two academics also nominated by Ireland.

I also call for a debate on changing family forms. A very interesting study was published today by UCD and the ESRI on changing family forms. It shows the need for greater flexibility in terms of family leave arrangements from the workplace. It is something about which colleagues have talked. I have an article in The Journal.ie calling for paid paternity leave to be introduced. It is something for which I have been looking for a long time and it would make a huge difference to working families and in terms of fathers bonding with their children on birth. It is something for which I think there would be cross-party support.

On Monday I half expected to read headlines in the Irish newspapers saying Britain conquers Europe. We know about the economic woes in Europe but I am delighted to say it was Fionnuala Britton, representing Ireland in the European Cross Country Championships, who conquered the best Europe had to offer. I pass on our congratulations to Ms Britton, whose mother works in Leinster House, on the wonderful success she achieved in becoming the first Irish person since the great Catherina McKiernan to win a European championship medal.

Over the past weekend two other wonderful ladies represented Irish sport. Young Gráinne Murphy qualified for the Olympic Games and won a bronze medal at the European Short Course Swimming Championships and Annalise Murphy qualified for the Olympic Games at the World Sailing Championships in Perth in Australia. This is an example of the commitment, passion, energy and enthusiasm of our young sports people to their preparation for international competition. I wish we had a little more of this passion and enthusiasm for conquering the world when it comes to other areas of Irish society.

If appropriate, I would like the Seanad to acknowledge the wonderful work the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, have done to continue to support Irish sport into the future. Fortunately, the cut to sport this year only represents 5%, or €2 million, but that is indicative of what the Government and the Seanad thinks of our Irish sportsmen and women.

In March 1996 in the British House of Commons, the discovery of a link between CJD and BSE was announced — in other words, a link between mad cow disease and the human form of the disease. It devastated the beef industry in Britain to the extent that from 1996 to 2007, no beef was exported from Britain, including Northern Ireland. That did not apply to the Republic of Ireland due to very tight controls here. This was the only country which had an incidence of BSE but which was allowed to export over the years. I mention this because 90% of our beef is exported. In business terms, in particular, I find myself arguing for light regulation but in this case, it is important we maintain very tight regulation.

I express concern today because I understand there are moves to lighten regulation on the controls on beef and cattle. The Minister needs to watch that very carefully. Sounds are coming from various people in the Department rather than from the Minister himself. The Minister has been very successful in bringing importers from China and Russia here to show them our beef and cattle industry and is succeeding very well in that area. If we are not careful and introduce light, or lighter, regulation than we have had in the past, there is a danger we could place all the good work done over those years in jeopardy. I remember well that day in March 1996 and the trauma around Europe. I remember how we managed to convince the powers that be that we could continue to export solely on the basis that we had such tight regulation and controls. Let us make sure the Minister is aware of our concern that any lightening of that tight regulation could place in jeopardy all our success in those years.

It has been brought to my attention in recent weeks that contracts are being awarded by NAMA to UK and US art auction houses for the sale of assets owed by NAMA debtors. I know they are not shopping centres or assets of huge potential worth but they are, in many cases, extremely valuable assets. In one case, a very well known English art auction house made €500,000 on the sale of some pieces of art. This is very irresponsible of NAMA. I know it is not in its terms of reference that it must always do business in Ireland but it should be encouraged to do so. I have raised this issue before. We would all like to speak to those in charge of NAMA in regard to how they choose to do their business. We have auction houses which are more than capable of selling Irish art in Ireland. The best place to sell Irish art is in Ireland. It is a uniquely Irish industry. Will the Leader arrange a debate with the directors of NAMA in which this issue could be addressed?

I am glad Senator Bacik raised the question of appointments in Europe and referred her concern to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. It is an appropriate concern but it is also appropriate to express concern about the way in which the appointment of the Irish representative to the European Court of Auditors is being made. I am not sure if it has been confirmed by the European Parliament. I will not name the gentleman involved as I do not seek to impugn his reputation in any particular way but he presided, as Secretary General of the Department of Finance, over a period of time during which this country got into very considerable difficulties. Questions were raised by Irish Members of the European Parliament, but they were steamrolled over in a most shameless way. The appointment is an award, in that the person's income will increase from €200,000 to €300,000. It was suggested on radio today that this was a method of getting rid of someone in a particular way. It is not appropriate for Ireland to use European institutions, as described on the public airwaves, as a bin for civil servants who may be awkward or embarrassing.

I remind the Leader that last week he committed to reverting to me and Senator Walsh on the Privacy Bill 2006. However, I will not press the matter. I had intended to propose an amendment to the Order of Business, but I will not do so, given that we have important matters to discuss. However, I will press it in the new year. It is the first of the Bills listed for presentation and I hope it will be presented early in the new year. I would appreciate it if the Minister could set a date for us. Last weekend someone who was a member of the Cabinet at the time of introduction of the Defamation Act expressed to me a concern that it substantially weakened the defences of the individual against intrusion by the media without the agreed passage of the Privacy Bill.

I have been in touch with the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA, which has contacted the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport about a pressing matter, namely, fuel costs. The IRHA has surveyed 897 of Ireland's 4,238 haulage companies. The question asked was where did these companies buy their fuel. Some 21% buy it abroad. The amount bought in Ireland and abroad is 200 million litres and 60 million litres, respectively. Granting an 8 cent reduction per litre on the 60 million litres bought abroad would cost the Exchequer €20 million, but there would be a net saving to the Exchequer of €8 million. I, therefore, call on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to address the issue in the House. As the Cathaoirleach knows, every haulage company is struggling owing to increases in fuel costs and toll charges in recent years. It is a matter of common sense. If we could prove to the Minister that we could save money by taking the right measure, it would be important. I, therefore, call on the Leader to engage with the Minister to arrange a debate on the issue.

There is an unemployment crisis. The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office compound matters. Unemployment has increased from 14.2% to 14.4%, while the number of people working has decreased by 46,000, or some 2.5%, since this time last year. The long-term unemployment rate has risen from 6.5% to 8.4%, which means that, of everyone unemployed, more than 50% have been out of work for 12 months or longer. Against this background, the Government has cut back on the training and resource grants made available to individuals through community employment schemes.

There will be a debate on the issue of social protection today.

I am entitled to raise whatever issue I wish on the Order of Business.

Senator David Cullinane to continue, without interruption, please.

My question relates to the Government's response to the unemployment crisis, that is, its decision to cut the funding available to community employment schemes. The grant to each individual is being cut from €1,500 to €500. Under the schemes, lone parents and those in receipt of disability payments receive partial payments, but these will also be cut. Many single parents engaged in community employment schemes want to improve their lives and those of their children and have been using the extra payment to cover child care costs. Many community and voluntary organisations depend on community employment scheme participants, for example, to provide meals on wheels, caretaking services, help with drugs projects, etc. These jobs benefit scheme participants and the community. It makes no sense, therefore, to cut the funding to community employment schemes when the rate of long-term unemployment is increasing. It makes a mockery of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan's description of the budget as a jobs budget. It is anti-jobs, given what the Government is doing.

I support the call for a debate on the European crisis. We are in uncharted waters and a turbulent period in European history. The nation is vulnerable and its survival depends on the European Union. We are at a critical juncture and the people need clarity on what is occurring and how the European Union will deal with the exclusion of Britain in the latest chapter. The ongoing debate in Britain is interesting. A substantial majority of the British people realise the importance of the European Union and that everyone's future depends on it. To a large extent, two world wars were fought in Europe. This is a third war, namely, an economic war. The future of Ireland depends on the European Union. Ireland and the Union are intrinsically linked. Senators, including Senator Colm Burke, have suggested we spent two days each month discussing European affairs. We need an urgent debate on the future of the European Union, our future therein and how to ensure a steady course is charted through these murky waters.

I second Senator Darragh O'Brien's amendment to the Order of Business.

I join in the calls for the Minister for Justice and Equality to attend the House to discuss the closure of rural Garda stations. The station in Tullyvin, just outside Cootehill, County Cavan, has been earmarked for closure. The Minister should outline to the people of rural Ireland who will be affected by the closures the actions he is taking to provide for adequate policing services in rural communities. Garda numbers are decreasing through natural wastage; there is a recruitment embargo and Garda cars being removed from stations because they have reached the 300,000 km mark are not being replaced. It is time the Minister outlined to the House how he will provide for adequate policing services in rural Ireland in the years ahead.

In the light of the recent publicity surrounding the judgment in the Abbeyleix nursing home case, perhaps the Minister for Health might return to the House to discuss the implications. On Friday night I attended a meeting in Lifford in which the community hospital is under threat. When I visited the 20-bed hospital in the afternoon, one of the residents told me that they had never been asked for their opinion by the Health Information and Quality Authority, the HSE or anyone else. HIQA can assess medical environments in buildings, but, to the best of my knowledge and that of the residents, it has never asked them how they feel about moving. This should be the real measurement of quality of care. One woman in her 80s whom I have known for a long time asked me not to let the nursing home close. She asked me to give my word, to which I replied that I would do my best. HIQA and the HSE are missing the point; this is about patient and family satisfaction. The hospital in Lifford is old, but the care provided is exemplary. Will the Minister undertake to ensure its residents and those of other hospitals will be asked for their views, as opposed to HIQA relying solely on the views of medical personnel? The views of the patient are paramount. I, therefore, ask that the Minister come in to the House to discuss the issue in the light of the ruling in the Abbeyleix case.

Yesterday the integrated ticketing system, Leap, was launched in Dublin at a cost of €55.5 million. In 2002 it was estimated the scheme would cost £24.9 million. This represents a cost overrun of 77% on the project. I ask the Leader to take up the issue of cost overruns on public projects with the Ministers for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. In the wake of the IMF-EU rescue package, it is most important that there be no walking away with impunity from massive cost overruns. It was not mentioned at the launch that there had been a massive cost overrun. We are meant to forget, but we cannot because the country is being bailed out. There must be some sanction imposed on bodies the projects of which come in 75% over budget. Parliament must make it explicit to Ministers and bodies overseeing such cost overruns that that era is over.

In the light of the unemployment figures and the tough times in this country, I must query the fairness of the payment of increments to anyone, particularly in the semi-State sector and the State-owned banks. We need a debate on the issue as early as possible in the new year because we must proceed, where possible and in so far as we can, with fairness. I would like to extend the debate to the Croke Park agreement to receive an update on how we are doing in the implementation of reforms. I agree with the protection of pay under the agreement, but I would like to debate how services will manage in the light of the moratorium and in the context of the retirement deadline at the end of February. We need to tie these elements together.

I support calls for a debate on education, particularly in the light of the effect on career guidance provision. I would like to see the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, address this point in the Chamber. I expect he is very supportive of DEIS schools because I know of his commitment to disadvantaged areas.

I support the call for a debate on European affairs and commend the Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton——

The House has passed an order whereby a Member can only raise one issue.

I would appreciate if I could finish the sentence. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, for her solid performance on "The Frontline". A debate is needed on the positives and the negatives.

I hope the Senator will also compliment Pat Kenny on his solid performance.

Members can only speak to one issue.

With respect, I am finishing within two minutes.

It does not matter whether Members are within the time of two minutes allowed; the House has decided that they may only raise one issue.

I refer to the positives and the negatives of a European treaty. There might be more positives than we might think.

The fiscal compact framework agreed at the summit is a political agreement which is to be greatly welcomed. It is one that requires much legal and technical work which is necessary to ensure budgetary discipline and will not be available until March. Until such time as the work is complete the Attorney General will not be able to give any advice on whether a referendum is required. On that work, until there is clarity on the detail, we should be patient. In so far as the agreement provides a firewall or backstop to protect the euro, we greatly welcome it, despite what is happening in the markets which continue to be volatile. If we are to have the necessary budgetary oversight and discipline in keeping our house in order, we need this agreement, even without outside interference. We should also remember that there are no tax implications involved. I am sure the Leader will arrange the debate for which Senator Darragh O'Brien has called because he was hoping to have the Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, in the House this week. That is the fervent hope of all Members.

I do not think the people will give it the welcome the Senator gave it.

We live in a democracy and are entitled to differ on these matters.

I support Senator Darragh O'Brien in his call for a debate on education. There is no easy way to make cuts and if the Minister had not made the cuts mentioned, he would have had to make others. It is very important that we focus on education, including the quality of teaching and learning in schools, colleges and universities. It is one way to open a new future for young people.

This morning the Irish Examiner published the overtime figures for registrars alone which amounted to €100 million in the past 12 months. This is a huge amount of money and raises questions about organisation in the health service. It is an appropriate issue to discuss, together with others surrounding the health budget. Over €13 billion is being paid out this year and it is the next biggest allocation after the social welfare budget. There should be a debate on the development of the health care sector because it covers a large number of aspects, from nursing homes and hospitals to acute care services. The sum of €100 million in overtime payments is huge. Senator Sean D. Barrett referred to the overspend by Departments. This is one overspend that should be tackled in a more co-ordinated and planned way to ensure it does not happen again.

I wish to comment on the case in County Mayo last week in which a man who had abused his daughters was jailed for life. One could not but concur that it was one of the most violent cases about which we had read in recent times. The hard part is that it happened in our times because the children were abused between 1986 and 2000. This case does not belong in the dim and distant past when no one knew what was happening. I understand evidence was given in an earlier trial that the then health board had been aware of some aspects of what was happening in the family in 2000. The HSE has indicated that it is carrying out an independent review of its involvement with the family, particularly children. I ask the Leader for clarification as a matter of urgency as to what this means, who is carrying out the review and when the report will issue. More importantly, is it sufficient and will it encompass all aspects of the case, including the point of view of the Department of Justice and Equality? It seems the query about the investigation has slipped away unnoticed. That parents could have behaved in this way under the radar for many years while coming into contact from time to time with schools and social services before disappearing from the screen is a source of serious concern about what is happening and the way in which children are being protected. I do not want to jump to conclusions such as that all children are risk, but how can we act if we do not learn from such experiences? I, therefore, seek clarification as to what has been promised, whether it is considered sufficient and whether there should be a more joined-up investigation involving the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Health, Justice and Equality and Education and Skills.

In view of the tragic loss of life on the country's roads over the weekend, I appeal to all road users to exercise great care in the changing weather patterns witnessed in recent days. In the run up to Christmas we can expect an increase in traffic volumes on the roads. It is a time where we must exercise care. I appeal to all motorists to check the safety features on their vehicles, particularly their lights. I have noticed recently that many motorists are travelling with faulty lights, particularly headlights. Everyone should pay attention to this. I support the Road Safety Authority in its campaign and if we get the opportunity between now and Christmas, we might get an update on the readiness of local authorities to deal with heavy falls of snow or severe frost. There are good supplies of salt at present but we should be assured that we are prepared for any severe weather situations that arise over Christmas.

Senators O'Brien, Conway and Paul Coghlan called for a debate on the eurozone crisis. I have arranged with the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, to come in from 11.15 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. on Friday to address the House on the issue. There have been a number of changes to the schedule for the week that I issued to Members shortly before we came in. The debate will take place on Friday.

Senator Bacik asked about the appointment of the Secretary General in the Department of Justice and Equality to a post in Europe. The matter will be referred by her to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality for discussion in the new year.

We all join Senator Eamonn Coghlan in congratulating Fionnuala Britton, Gráinne Murphy and Melanie Nocher, who had such great success for the country. It is great for any of our sportspeople to succeed on the international stage and we are all very proud of them and wish them well for next year.

Senator Quinn asked about the traceability of beef and the quality of Irish beef. The quality of our beef is of paramount importance, in which traceability is a major factor. I am not in favour of any relaxing of the regulations on beef exports but I will raise the issue with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Traceability is our strength in export markets and it would be a retrograde step if we were to row back in any way.

Senator Noone raised the question of NAMA awarding contracts to auction houses outside the State. We have many highly reputable auction houses in Ireland that would do just as good a job as some of those outside the country and I hope NAMA will take that into consideration when awarding these contracts in the future.

Senator Norris mentioned the appointment of the former Secretary General of the Department of Finance. His appointment was ratified this morning in the European Parliament by 521 votes to 128. It is a resounding vote of confidence in the former Secretary General. I am not aware as yet when the Government intends to introduce the privacy Bill. It is on the Order Paper and I will try to ascertain when it will be introduced but it will not be this week.

Senator Kelly raised the views of the Irish Road Haulage Association on the price of fuel. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport would be very interested in ways to save money in this regard and the Irish Road Haulage Association will raise the issue with him. If there is money to be saved by reducing costs, he will do it.

The unemployment crisis was brought up by Senator Cullinane. The issue is of grave importance to the Government. He also raised the community employment schemes. The Government is fully committed to the protection and development of community and social employment initiatives. Community employment schemes make an important and valued contribution to social employment, training and progression of unemployed people. Many community employment schemes provide vital community services across the country and as part of the entry of FÁS to the Department of Social Protection on 1 January 2012, the Minister has directed that a review of the schemes immediately commence. No scheme will close pending the outcome of the review.

Senator Wilson asked about Garda stations. A number of them were closed but some of them have not been operated as Garda stations for many years, while others were open for a number of hours every day. I will try to get the Minister for Justice and Equality to come in to explain the rationale behind the closure of Garda stations.

Senator Harte raised the issue of the nursing home in Lifford. HIQA standards are taxing and it is a matter we will seek to clarify for the Senator.

Senator Barrett asked about the Leap ticketing project and how its costs overran by 77%. This project has been in the pipeline since 2002. It is deplorable there should be such cost overruns and they should be investigated. The Committee of Public Accounts will look at this but as the Senator stated, the era of such cost overruns is over and they cannot be allowed in the future. I completely agree with the Senator's remarks on the subject.

Senator Healy Eames asked for an update and debate on the Croke Park agreement which we will arrange early in the new year. It has been estimated increments cost €250 million annually across the public service. Significantly reduced recruitment and higher numbers on the maximum of the scale mean the cost of increments will reduce in coming years and will be affected by other factors as well. Suspending increments would affect some public servants but would have little or no effect on others in the higher brackets. Incremental scales are longer for the lower paid than the higher paid. The Government has given assurances about this issue in the Croke Park agreement as long as the necessary flexibility is delivered by public servants.

Senator D'Arcy called for a debate on education which I will try to arrange early in the new year.

Senator Colm Burke pointed out that the overtime bill for registrars in the health service amounted to €100 million. That is a very large sum and I am sure it will be investigated by the Minister for Health.

Senator O'Keeffe raised the independent review that has been mentioned by the HSE of the dreadful abuse of children about which we learned last week. She asked for the terms of reference of the review and I will try to find them out from the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs or the Minister for Health.

Senator Michael Mullins spoke about the need for motorists to check the lights, tyres, etc. on their vehicles. I take the opportunity to express condolences to the families of those who lost their lives so tragically in road accidents last week. Let us hope other families will not suffer a similar fate in the weeks coming up to Christmas.

Senator Darragh O'Brien has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate on the implications for Ireland of the European summit be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Order of Business agreed to.

I have received a note that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, is still attending a Cabinet meeting and will not be available until 1.45 p.m. approximately. I propose that we suspend the sitting until that time.

Sitting suspended at 1.20 p.m. and resumed at 1.50 p.m.