Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 9 Oct 2013

Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, County Enterprise Boards (Dissolution) Bill 2013 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 2.30 p.m.; and No. 43, Private Members' business, motion No. 9, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7 p.m.

We will not oppose the Order of Business.

I wish to raise a number of issues with the Leader. It has been reported on the front pages of today's newspapers and in the broadcast media that the current scenario of the IBRC's liquidation has been described as a sophisticated, an intentional and a fraudulent overcharging of customers. That is worrying because it was the testimony of Bankcheck to an American court. The Minister for Finance ought to make a statement to reassure people that this is not the case or to investigate the claims made because they are very serious.

Some weeks ago, when deputising for Senator Darragh O'Brien, I raised the issue of discretionary medical cards. I ask the Leader to raise it with the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, who might come to the House to discuss it. He gave assurances in the other House that a clinical panel would be put in place to ensure those suffering from chronic illnesses would have the benefit of consideration for discretionary medical cards. We have seen no evidence of such a clinical panel. It seems the only panel that has been put in place is one that has been told to ruthlessly save money and cut people off from the right to a discretionary medical card. We are aware that between 20,000 and 30,000 people have been removed from the system in recent years. This year alone, 1,000 people per month have lost their discretionary medical cards. That means more than 8,000 sick people have lost their discretionary medical cards.

All of us have experience of this at our clinics. All of us know people with chronic diseases who have been ruthlessly cut from the system. I ask for an update on the clinical panel put in place. Is it operating? Who is on it? What must one do to be considered for a discretionary medical card?

Today we received good news from the ESRI on its predictions for the year ahead, but there are somewhat mixed messages in which it queries the level of adjustment to be made in the budget. The institute suggests the adjustment should be €3.1 billion, but many of us are pleased that it will just be €2.5 billion. The Minister for Finance could usefully make an announcement relevant to the ESRI report as there are some concerns in that regard.

One point, in particular, that I have noticed in the report is that the growth the ESRI predicts next year is most likely to occur in the services sector. This is a reminder to the Government that it should retain the 9% VAT rate for the sector. It could be crucial to ensuring it is allowed to lead from the front and create the employment the ESRI believes it is capable of creating.

Like Senator Marc MacSharry, I welcome the very positive report of the ESRI today on growth predictions and GNP. The institute points out that the latter is an underlying strength of the economy. I agree, however, that there are mixed messages on the adjustment it is suggesting should be made. It is somewhat surprising to see it suggest we should proceed with the adjustment of €3.1 billion in the budget so as not to have to make cuts in next year's budget. I greatly favour the reduced budgetary adjustment of €2.5 billion that has been announced. It is a better way of trying to secure increased consumer confidence. However, the report is certainly interesting and we might well debate it in this House, with the Leader's permission.

I support colleagues who yesterday asked for a debate on the direct provision system in the light of the reports of the inspectors on the centres in which asylum seekers are being held. There is genuine concern about the fact that 1,000 children are being held in conditions that are, in some cases, woefully inadequate in respect of food preparation, fire safety, cleanliness, etc. The reports make for very distressing reading.

I welcome Senator Martin Conway's motion on Irish Sign Language which is to be taken in the House tonight. I hope it will receive cross-party support as this is a very important issue. There will be a good attendance in the Visitors Gallery and I congratulate the Senator on introducing the motion.

I ask for a debate at some point in the coming months on the rolling out of universal health insurance and the ending of the two-tier health system. It is a key commitment of the Government. I attended a conference of the Adelaide Hospital Society last week, run by the medical school in Trinity College Dublin. At the conference I heard very positive reports from the medical profession on the steps that had already been taken in preparation for the rolling out of universal health insurance. The general public is not aware of what has been done thus far to further the Government's commitment. It would, therefore, be good to have a debate on the issue in the House to hear the Minister for Health tell us what steps have been taken to date.

Would it be possible for the Leader to receive an update from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, on the local government legislation? There has been some disquieting reporting on difficulties in this regard at Cabinet level. This was referred to yesterday by Senator Denis Landy. One article indicated that the Minister had tried to get the Bill through the Cabinet without having it sit at all, by way of a ring-around job. This shows a rather cavalier attitude to the Bill. There were disquieting reports that the Bill might not be fit for purpose. Has the Attorney General examined it? There are people gearing up for elections all over the country next June and it is quite possible that town council elections may go ahead again.

Now that the Seanad is back in business and while I am talking about councillors, the Minister should examine the remuneration of county councillors, especially if the new format is to be put in place. We face huge county council constituencies that will be much larger than those that have been in place heretofore. Senator Paul Coghlan will be aware that there is one in our county, Kerry, involving three peninsulas - the Dingle and Iveragh peninsulas and down as far as Kenmare. There is to be a much larger electorate and a much greater burden of work to be done by councillors. It is time that the schedule of payments and allowances for county councillors was revamped in line with their new responsibilities. They must attend community and school meetings all over their constituencies. We must get real if we want to have the service that county councillors have traditionally given us. We will have to have a compensation package commensurate with their new responsibilities.

It is welcome that 75% of the fodder aid put in place last spring, which was a very difficult one for farmers, has been approved. This is welcome because many of the co-operatives and marts were waiting for it and in dire straits. Is it possible to have a county by county breakdown of the disadvantaged area payments? We are receiving many calls from farmers who have not received their payments. The money was due the week of the national ploughing championships which were held a couple of weeks ago. Many farmers are still waiting and we are receiving figures suggesting the payout rate is very low. May we have a breakdown of the payouts? If farmers do not receive the disadvantaged area payment, they are not entitled to receive the single farm payment which is due to be paid on 16 October. It is very important that we have the disadvantaged area payment backlog sorted such that the single farm payment can flow after it.

I agree with Senator Michael Comiskey. The full disadvantaged area payment was made to a percentage of farmers about ten days or two weeks ago. I have been following this up with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and understand a second run of disadvantaged area payments will be issued by the Department this Friday. Therefore, farmers can expect their payments in the early part of next week. However, I urge the Minister to fast-track payments to farmers in the light of the difficulties they are experiencing and to ensure adequate provision will be made in the budget. There is talk of a €54 million cut to the agriculture budget next week as part of the overall budgetary process. That would be devastating for farmers. If that cut is to be made, the Minister must consider making it in the area of administration or other elements of the budget. It should not affect farmers' incomes. There is a genuine need for a ewe premium scheme to be boosted and for a cow suckler welfare scheme.

I agree with Senator Marc MacSharry on the diabolical circumstances that are, unfortunately, affecting medical card holders and those applying for medical cards. Some 1,100 people per month are losing theirs. This is affecting those who really need them. I am not sure whether this is a move by the Minister for Health to reduce expenditure ahead of the budget or whether it is a move by the HSE, but it is having a drastic effect on those on low incomes and needs to be addressed urgently. We should debate the issue of medical cards, their processing and the difficulties being experienced by people between the ages of 18 and 25 years as a result of their social income being too low to qualify for a medical card. The latter problem is an anomaly in the system.

I refer to an article I read recently in the Irish Independent. It speculates that the Government will reduce VAT for the construction sector in the upcoming budget. Like all Members of the Oireachtas, I certainly welcome measures designed to generate employment, but I would be horrified by the vista of NAMA and cowboy developers getting a tax break from the Government. If the measure was restricted to genuine tradesmen and small builders who comprise the backbone of our communities, it could be great. However, how can we, in conscience, even think about giving a VAT reduction to developers such as those who developed Priory Hall or those who have been bailed out by NAMA to the tune of tens of billions of euro at the expense of the taxpayer? There are thousands of half-built monuments around the country that are a testament to the greed of the property developers in question. There are a number in my county and home town of Athenry. The Government needs to reflect seriously on giving a VAT reduction to people who have given us half-finished estates, building sites on which the hoarding is falling down and areas that are unsafe for people to enter, let alone live in.

There are also hundreds, if not thousands, of developers in Ireland who have not paid the development levies owed to local authorities. Some estimates put the amount owed at €500 million. That is money the ordinary householders of Ireland are now being forced to pay over in property taxes. If the Minister for Finance is considering this measure, I ask him to ensure that the developers who destroyed this country do not benefit from it. Only tradesmen and small local contractors who are in good standing with the Revenue Commissioners, NAMA and the local authorities should benefit from it.

I am seeking the assistance of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, regarding an adoption crisis affecting five Irish families who are in a unique situation. Having arranged to adopt a Russian child, they now find that the Russian Government has changed the rules, extending the length of time an adoptive child is to be registered on its database from six months to 12. As a result, the children these families proposed to adopt will only be on the database for 12 months after 31 October 2013, when the declaration of eligibility for prospective Irish adoption expires. There is a very short timeframe in which to deal with this issue and we need urgent action, as the Leader, Senator Cummins knows. He has been very active on this issue, too.

This crisis was flagged with the Minister in July this year but to date, with only three weeks to go, the families are still in limbo with no solution to their problem. Some of them have already travelled to Russia and bonded with their future children. One can only imagine the pain of these parents who have already met the children and bonded with them. They are in anguish now. The Minister was contacted by some of these families in July. They requested her assistance through intensive lobbying of Deputies and Senators. I told them that Senator John Gilroy was the key man as he had the ear of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore. I know that the Senator is a compassionate person.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has responded to the effect that she will work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through diplomatic channels, as well as considering an amendment to the 2010 Adoption Act. The Minister has only three weeks to decide on the most appropriate amendment but no date has been set for tabling such an amendment. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for these families and children. The only solution is an amendment to the aforementioned 2010 legislation, responsibility for which lies firmly on the shoulders of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I urge her to introduce an amendment in the Dáil prior to 31 October, to be passed, with the support of this House, before 1 December this year. I ask her to walk the walk. Talk is not enough. It is not enough to be eloquent on television as a spokesperson on children. I want to see action from the Minister.

I attended a breakfast this morning at which the former Attorney General, Peter Sutherland, spoke. He had some very interesting things to say about the Government's progress on the economy, which is somewhat underplayed. He concentrated on our image abroad, on which he had a very interesting perspective. While it is not something of which we are unaware in this House, he pointed to the media's portrayal of an overly negative picture, both here and abroad, of the current situation and the measures being taken by the Government. In particular, he highlighted the fact that 3,000 new companies had been created in August. He referred to the fact that the constant fall in unemployment month on month had been attributed to emigration. However, the drop in unemployment is not solely due to emigration and we have the statistics to back up Mr. Sutherland's assertion in that regard. The negative image of Ireland abroad is being hugely emphasised by our own media. This issue has been raised by almost all Senators and now that we have been rejuvenated, we should really try to impress on the media the importance of reporting positively on the economy and also on the work we do in this House.

I support my colleague Senator Ned O'Sullivan on the issue of councillors. I ask the Leader, if he is making contact with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, to check out a concern of mine with him. I have been led to believe councillors' salaries, small as they are at €16,000 or thereabouts, have been reduced under the Haddington Road agreement, even though no salary below €35,000 was to be reduced. A number of councillors have contacted me about this issue and I would like it to be clarified. Councillors are employees and entitled to the same rights as any other employee. I ask the Leader to determine the truth of this matter.

Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin, who was the host of the longest running radio feature programme in the world, died in February this year. Every Sunday night after the 11 p.m. news, he gave us the results of GAA hurling and football matches from all over the country. His programme ran for 58 years. This time last year I spoke to RTE after I had been contacted by an 89 year old man who pointed out to me that RTE no longer carried the results of hurling and football county finals on the 6 p.m. or 9 p.m. news. I contacted the head of sport and the director general of RTE. I will not read out the responses I received but suffice to say I was told that I could go to page 202 of Aertel to find the results. Having told the 89 year old man to go to Aertel page 202 to find the results, I discovered that the head of sport in RTE was actually wrong. The results are on pages 211 and 212. The point I am making-----

This appears to be an internal matter for RTE.

It is not an internal matter. This is the national broadcaster and GAA is our national sport. It is our No. 1 sport. After the year we have had in hurling and football, it is unacceptable that RTE, as our national broadcaster, would refuse to tell the people of Ireland the results of county finals across the country. I was also told that it would be impossible to carry 64 results in a single broadcast. The head of sport in RTE told me that in an e-mail, but there are not 64 GAA matches on on any given day. I want the Leader to address this issue because it is very important for those people who follow our national sport. There is too much foreign sport being carried by RTE. We can hear about tennis from Flushing Meadows or about golfers going off with new women in Spain, but we cannot hear who won the county final in Tipperary.

I send my congratulations to Ms Janet Yellen who will be appointed this afternoon by President Obama as the first female chair of the Federal Reserve. She is the first woman anywhere in the world to head up a central bank. When we had the banking crisis here, I mentioned another woman who was the head of a bank in Iceland, the only bank that had not failed in that country.

I also congratulate Senator Martin Conway on initiating a debate on Irish Sign Language, ISL. When I came into this House, the first motion I tabled was on Irish Sign Language and I hope we will be able to make progress on this issue and eventually have ISL recognised officially as the language of the Irish deaf community. I look forward to that debate.

The postal code project is nearing completion and will I hope be rolled out by 2015. While the system of national postcodes is still in the making, I call for a debate on the matter. We have been told that the postal code system will be very advanced and that Ireland will be one of the first countries in the world to have a unique identifier on properties, which is very welcome. The first three numbers of the new code will relate to the current postal code. As we all know, each and every house in the country that already has a postal district number considers that number to be sacrosanct.

We know how property prices relate to postal districts, be it Dublin 2, 4, 6 or 8. We have the unique postal code Dublin 6W with a letter as the second part. Computers do not consider people very often when they are making decisions. I am calling for a debate on the proposed postal code system before it is signed, sealed and delivered; it should not all be left to computers and experts. There are people in various areas who want to ensure the postal code for where they are living is not changed overnight with the stroke of a pen. Will the Leader facilitate such a debate and another on local government reform to include the issues raised by other Senators?

I have arranged for a sign language interpreter to facilitate members of the Irish Deaf Society who will attend the debate on the motion on Irish Sign Language later today. It is also possible a sign language interpreter will be in the Chamber to facilitate this debate.

As I did not get an opportunity to speak yesterday, I welcome the outcome of Friday’s referendum and look forward to working with colleagues on the way forward for this House.

I join Senators Ned O’Sullivan, Denis Landy and Cáit Keane in calling on the Leader to inquire of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, where stands the legislation on local government reform and the proposed changes contained in the Labour Party's Putting People First document. The Minister’s proposals will see the movement of councillor numbers from the west to the east, yet again depriving rural Ireland of the proper representation to which it is entitled. As Senator Ned O’Sullivan alluded to, local government is fast becoming non-local government under the Minister. County Cavan has an electoral area stretching from Blacklion on the border with County Fermanagh and County Donegal to beyond Cavan town, almost 40 miles of countryside. Such an area size will not facilitate local government, a fact of which the Leader and other colleagues are aware. I would welcome clarification from the Minister of what he intends to do to local government. Does he intend to leave the town councils as they are? Does he intend to leave councillor numbers as they are and not reduce the number in County Cavan by seven? Only for the Labour Party, the Minister was trying to rush the legislation through both Houses. That is not good enough - so much for political reform.

On a positive note, I welcome the Minister's input in resolving the Priory Hall issue and the progress made in that regard. The affected residents are considering the proposals recently put to them and I hope they find them satisfactory. It is regrettable that it took the death of an unfortunate person to bring this matter to a conclusion, which I hope will be satisfactory.

Like Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill yesterday, I would also welcome a debate on the sale of one of our most important national assets, the national lottery licence.

Last Wednesday the House passed Senator Feargal Quinn’s Bill on upward-only rent reviews. The Opposition combined to defeat the Government on that occasion, showing the power of this House when it chooses to use it. There were some difficulties about the pairing arrangements that evening which I wish to clarify. While there were no official pairs, I indicated to two Labour Party Members that I had two Members missing on my side. Unknown to me, my office had also communicated to the Chief Whip’s office that the same two Members were missing.

That is correct.

I thank Senator Diarmuid Wilson for that clarification.

I apologise to the Chief Whip and the Deputy Chief Whip and take full responsibility for the confusion caused.

Uisce faoi thalamh anois.

I agree with Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill on the medical card issue in some respects in that some incorrect decisions have been taken on renewal applications. I have had quite a number of cases in which I have had to fight tooth and nail for a medical card to be retained. However, the matter needs to be put in context. Since we entered government, over 267,000 additional medical cards have been issued. Over 2 million, 44% of the population or four out of every ten people, now have a medical card or a GP-only card. Last year alone, an additional 165,000 medical cards were issued. There have been cases in which people €300 a week above the qualifying limit without any medical complaint had a medical card for the previous three years.

Senator Lorraine Higgins raised the issue of lowering the VAT rate for the construction industry. In 2009 at European level, there was a proposal that for small building projects under €25,000 the rate of VAT would be decreased to 5%. That was to get rid of the black market and people doing work for cash. It is an issue that needs to be examined. If we reduce the VAT rate, we must ensure the black market does not continue. Many would like to undertake renovation work to their houses but have put it off. The forthcoming budget would be the appropriate time to give an incentive for this type of construction work to restart. It would bring a large number of people in the building sector back into work. The country has lost a large number of qualified tradespeople to emigration. If the building industry was to take off in the morning, we might not have a sufficient number of people with the skills required. That is another point about which we need to be careful, too.

I join those who have called for a debate on the latest ESRI economic commentary. Next week, obviously, we will be concentrating on the budget. Between then and Christmas, we should have several debates to deal with various reports, starting with the ESRI's. I note that it is predicting higher growth rates next year. I do not believe this is correct, but we will find out in due course. One of our problems is that a coterie of State agencies have been over-optimistic about our growth rates. I remember telling the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, two years ago in the Chamber that in the Government’s tenure growth rates would not average more than 1%. At the time the Government was predicting a growth rate of 2.5% for 2012 and 2.6% for 2013. None of these has come to pass.

I recognise that confidence in the economy is starting to come back, which is an essential first step. However, the most important factor above all others is the unemployment rate. We had a 14.8% unemployment rate at the peak of the recession.

Next year it will probably be approximately 13%. That should caution us all about the extent of the development and growth we need to see in our economy to correct that serious unemployment situation. We had a 4.4% unemployment rate at the peak of the economic boom and we should start to get back to that figure.

We should look at competitiveness in the economy. Our cost of living is exceptionally high and I am disappointed that the Government has not taken steps to try to bring some structural corrections to the economy. The public service is still way overpaid and social welfare costs are too high because the cost of living is too high. Something must be done to inject some momentum into that area in order that we can get back to having a sustainable, competitive economy. I would like a debate on that issue.

I did not speak yesterday. I welcome the people's decision. We have the most current mandate of all Irish politicians. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure we use this House to-----

Is the mandate indefinite also?

It will be for some.

We must use this House productively in the coming years to help in the continued economic recovery of the country.

The Senator is speaking like a "No" voter.

We all welcome the ESRI report which projects growth of 2.7% next year. The projected increase in employment is very much to be welcomed. In the past year 33,000 jobs have been created. It is welcome that the CSO figures in my county show a drop of 1,700 people on the live register in recent months. That is very much to be welcomed. The forthcoming budget gives us an opportunity to stimulate some growth and activity in the economy and I hope the Minister will use VAT rates to help do that. We saw how successful the VAT rate decrease for the tourism sector was in the past couple of years and I hope that will continue.

I agree with Senator Colm Burke that we need some stimulus for the construction industry and hope it will be to the benefit of small contractors and tradespeople. If the economy is to recover sufficiently in the coming years, we need a much higher level of activity in the construction sector. I agree with Senator Lorraine Higgins that we must be careful that those who wrecked the country in the past decade do not benefit. I am hopeful and confident that the Minister will target VAT adjustments towards the smaller contractor and to the benefit of smaller projects that many people would like to undertake in their homes.

I would like the Leader to have a debate in the near future in this House on the growing levels of addiction. The growing number of people on the streets of the capital and every town throughout rural Ireland is a source of worry and should be a source of shame for us all. They are very vulnerable people and we need some emergency measures and task forces to address this growing problem. As a humane Christian society we cannot allow the phenomenon of people's lives being destroyed by addiction to continue. We must take some drastic steps. This House would be an ideal place in which to debate and discuss what we as a nation, a community and a people can do for those very vulnerable, desperate individuals.

I am grateful to the former Government Chief Whip for his clarification of that pairing mishap. I am sure the Government Deputy Chief Whip is equally grateful. I have always found him to be an honourable man with whom to do business. We are very dependent on order in this House and the pairing arrangements should be solid between us.

I was present this morning at the breakfast mentioned by Senator Catherine Noone and heard that very eloquent address by the former European Commissioner and Attorney General, Mr. Peter Sutherland. He painted a picture of Britain's difficulties and situation vis-à-vis Europe, which, from our point of view, is extremely frightening. The consequences of what it might do in a referendum or plebiscite - real, imagined or political - are dire for us. He went into it in detail, which we cannot do now. It is more than possible, regardless of who is in government in Britain in a year or two, that this could happen. He is such a distinguished man, having led one of Britain's largest companies for 13 or 14 years, that it would be wonderful if we could have him here to give us that kind of talk. He is still operating out of London. He is extremely knowledgeable, a tremendous Irish man and a great ambassador for Ireland.

What did he say?

I cannot go into that now. I will talk to the Senator afterwards. He said many things.

In a nutshell, what did he say? We cannot support the Senator if we do not know what he said.

We cannot have a debate on the matter now.

I do not need Senator Mary White's support.

How dare the Senator be so rude? That was a disparaging remark.

I am asking the Leader to consider having the man here to give us an address on the frightening situation for Ireland vis-à-vis Britain. This Chamber is best placed to calmly and dispassionately deal with that issue and have a discussion and debate on it.

Perhaps the following has been raised, but if it has not, it needs to be. The Rape Crisis Network published a report this morning on the age of perpetrators abusing children and young teenagers. We have known for some time that abuse is likely to occur within families, but the average age of perpetrators is 26, much younger than we thought. In some cases the abuse is by child perpetrators of younger children in the family. This should be of concern to everybody in the House because we know a cycle of abuse is repeated if it is not healed and the person rehabilitated. I seek a cross-government response. Education services need to respond urgently. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, needs to act on the influence of pornography, an issue which has been brought up in the House before, the early sexualisation of girls and poor role models such as Miley Cyrus. Sinead O'Connor's response to that recent incident was highly influential and much welcomed, but we cannot stand idly by and pretend it does not matter. The budget is on our minds, as is the recent referendum, but we must consider the health and welfare of young girls, in particular, because 97% of the children being abused are girls. I ask the Leader to put this issue on the agenda.

The acting Leader of the Opposition, Senator Marc MacSharry, raised a number of points, including the overcharging by the IBRC, which is the subject of a court case in the United States. I presume the Minister for Finance will make a statement on the matter at the appropriate time.

Senator Marc MacSharry also raised the question of the ESRI report, as did other Senators, and the €2.5 billion adjustment. The European Commission has given preliminary approval of the Government's proposal to seek a budgetary consolidation of less than €3.1 billion originally sought by the troika. It has stated the €2.5 billion adjustment "provides a sound basis for taking forward the necessary fiscal consolidation in Ireland" paving the way for a successful exit from the bailout programme.

That is welcome news from the European Commission.

A number of Senators raised the issue of discretionary medical cards. I will certainly raise the question of the medical panel, mentioned by Senator Marc MacSharry, and try to get an update on it. As pointed out by Senator Colm Burke, 260,000 extra medical cards have been issued in the past two years. While some people have lost their medical cards, a significant number have received them.

Senator Ivana Bacik spoke about the direct provision system. I have asked the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, to come to the House next week to have a debate on it. I am awaiting his response to this request.

With regard to the call for an update on the question of universal health insurance, the Government made a commitment that it would be delivered within two terms, but, as Senator Ivana Bacik stated, significant progress has been made to date. Therefore, it would be appropriate to receive an update.

Senators Ned O'Sullivan, Denis Landy, Cáit Keane and others spoke about the local government Bill. I understand it is due to be published shortly and that it will go before the Dáil first. Therefore, it will be some time before we have an opportunity to debate it in the House. I am sure the points raised by the Senators will be debated and discussed when we debate the Bill.

Senator Michael Comiskey asked about the status of fodder payments and disadvantaged area payments. I will certainly find out from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine what the position is in that regard. Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill called for a fast-tracking of payments to farmers. I believe they are ahead of schedule this year and hope the payments will be made, as has been suggested, on Friday next to the farmers involved.

Senator Lorraine Higgins and others mentioned the speculation on VAT reductions for the construction industry. I would prefer to wait for the budget to be announced to see whether the speculation is true. I am sure we can have a debate on the issue when the budget is announced by the Minister for Finance.

Senator Mary M. White asked about Russian adoptions, a matter also raised by Senator Feargal Quinn and others. As Senator Mary White stated, I have been actively involved with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on the issue, on which the Minister has been proactive. This week she will meet a senior member of the Russian Government to try to solve this unfortunate problem which affects families in Ireland. The Senator also mentioned amending the 2010 Adoption Act. I hope this will not be necessary and that the discussions with the Minister's Russian counterpart will solve the problem. The Minister is very concerned about the issue and will do everything possible to solve the problem for the families involved.

Senator Catherine Noone spoke about the importance of projecting a positive image of the country, a point made by Mr. Peter Sutherland this morning. Senator Paul Coghlan suggested we invite Mr. Sutherland to address the Seanad. We will certainly consider this proposal.

Senator Denis Landy spoke about GAA results and the difficulties he was having with RTE in that regard. I do not know whether my intervention will do anything to solve the problem, but I will certainly assist in any way I possibly can.

Senator Cáit Keane called for a debate on postcodes. We will try to get the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, to come to the House to discuss the matter.

Senator Diarmuid Wilson spoke about the local government Bill. I assure him that no legislation will be rushed through the House. We will give all legislation ample time, with the exception of emergency legislation which may come before the House from time to time. The Senator also welcomed the proposals to resolve the Priory Hall issue. We all welcome these proposals and hope the matter will reach a speedy conclusion.

Senator Colm Burke spoke about medical cards, the reduction of the VAT rate and the need for incentives for the building industry. Senator Jim Walsh spoke about the ESRI report. The unemployment rate has reduced from 14.8% to 13%. As the Senator rightly pointed out, as did Senator Michael Mullins, 34,000 additional net jobs have been created in the past 12 months. It is to be hoped the stimulus proposals and suggestions to be made in the budget will increase this number in the coming years.

Senator Michael Mullins also called for a debate on the growing levels of addiction. I will certainly try to bring the Minister for Health to the House to discuss the matter.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames spoke about the report of the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland on child abuse. I will certainly communicate with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, in particular, and perhaps we might have a debate on the report if we can get the Minister to come to the House.

Order of Business agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 11.30 a.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.