The Order of Business is Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, motions to facilitate requests by Senator Feargal Quinn to remove four Private Members' Bills from the Order Paper, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 5, a motion regarding the report of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges entitled, Relevant Report on the Relevant Proposal for a Banking Inquiry under Standing Orders and the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2013, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 4 and adjourned at 1 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the contributions of Senators not to exceed four minutes; No. 6, a motion regarding the terms of reference of an inquiry into the banking crisis, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 5; No. 7, a motion regarding the orders of reference of the Joint Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 6; No. 8, statements on the availability of certain medications, to be taken at 1 p.m. and conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed four minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 1.25 p.m.; No. 9, statements on tourism, to be taken at 3 p.m. and conclude not later than 5 p.m., if not previously concluded, 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 4.55 p.m.; and No. 67, Private Members' business, motion No. 13 on participation in sport, to be taken at 5 p.m., with the time allocated for the debate not to exceed two hours. As I do not wish to curtail debate on No. 5, if more Members offer to speak as we approach 1 p.m., I am prepared to adjourn and resume the debate at 1.30 p.m., following statements with the Minister for Health.
Order of Business
I welcome the Leader's statement on the debate on the banking inquiry. We will be discussing the terms of reference today and it is good that anyone who wishes to contribute will be able to do so. I advise Members that a lot of work went into this at numerous meetings of the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, I particularly thank the staff who were involved in all the preparatory work that was done. I am sure Members will have various views this afternoon, but I agree with the Leader and it is welcome that if more Members want to get in, they will be permitted to do so.
I also thank the Leader for ensuring the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, will come here today to talk about the availability of certain medicines. While it is only for 30 minutes, it is something, and I thank the Leader for arranging that. I intend to raise with the Minister for Health the ongoing issue of Fampyra, the MS drug. I am sure Members are probably sick and tired of hearing about this, but it concerns 1,500 people. I have testimonies which I will read for the Minister this afternoon from people who have had to give up work because they cannot access this drug. It makes absolutely no sense. I thank the Leader, however, for arranging for the Minister for Health to be here later today. I hope, following today's debate, that we might see some movement within the HSE and the Department. The Minister is responsible and can move this matter along.
I welcome the Government's row-back and climb-down on discretionary medical cards. This is important in a couple of respects. For two years, Fine Gael and the Labour Party told the Opposition that we were scare-mongering and that people's medical cards were not being taken off them. We were also told there was no issue with discretionary medical cards, but the Government has now recognised that there is a major issue. People with life-long and life-threatening illnesses, including individual medical needs, have had their cards taken off them or were being refused cards. The announcement in this regard is welcome. The Government, however, has been good at making health-related announcements but very bad at following through on them. Nearly two years ago, it announced free GP care for under sixes, yet this has still not been introduced. The Government has twice announced free GP care for the over-70s, but that is still not in operation. I would, therefore, like to have specific data. A clinical advisory panel is to be established, but when will that actually occur? If a person applies for a discretionary medical card today, I assume his or her application will go into the old system. Will a commencement date be set for this to happen? What preparatory work has gone into this? Is it the case that this will be reannounced, like the free GP care for under sixes, just before the general election, whenever that is next year?
To clarify many of these points, the Leader should arrange for the Minister for Health to attend the House to deal specifically with the issue of discretionary medical cards and the Government's climb-down announcements. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, was unable to answer anything last night in that regard. Perhaps the Minister might shed some light on the issue, including a starting date for the new process.
I agree with Senator Darragh O'Brien in welcoming today's debate on the motions concerning the banking inquiry. As he said, we have had a series of lengthy meetings at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to debate the shape and format of the motions. I very much welcome the fact that we are now at this stage and having this debate which, as the Leader said, will be open-ended. It will ensure anyone who wishes to speak can do so.
I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, of new measures concerning discretionary medical cards. That will give people certainty and clarity on their entitlements in this regard.
I also wish to welcome an announcement in today's newspapers that the Cabinet yesterday agreed a significant change in the law on prostitution. It is a change that many others and I in this House have been seeking for some time. In its report last year on prostitution law, the Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality unanimously recommended that the purchase of sex should be criminalised, but not the sale. I note that today's newspaper report said this was agreed at the Cabinet yesterday and would be introduced as part of an overarching sex offences code and reform of sex offences law to be introduced this week by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. I commend her for undertaking this move. This historic announcement means that Ireland is moving forward on prostitution law reform in line with reforms that are being introduced in many other countries. They were first introduced in Sweden, then Norway and Iceland, and most recently in Canada. In addition, the Northern Ireland Assembly has voted for this change, as has the French National Assembly. It seems to have greater effectiveness in tackling the demand for prostitution and in ensuring a reduction in the exploitation of women, particularly migrant women who make up such a large proportion of those engaged in prostitution in Ireland. I really welcome this move.
I wish to welcome Miriam Lord to the Visitors Gallery.
The tax system was mentioned yesterday and some interesting figures have been published recently in that regard. They show that Irish companies spend 80 hours per year in organising their tax affairs, compared to those in Germany which spend 218 hours doing so. In other words, we are very efficient in our tax system and, on that basis, we are also efficient in our ability to collect tax. We may criticise the Department of Finance a great deal and have spoken about the mandarins there, but it seems there are occasions on which we should offer congratulations. This is good news and it is worthy of being reported.
The Department of Education and Skills should make swimming lessons compulsory in schools. I was surprised to see that 15 EU member states have introduced compulsory swimming classes in schools. They issue a safety passport for children. Young people aged 12 or 13 years should be able to swim. We have had 478 deaths by drowning between 2010 and 2013. We can do something about this. Perhaps we can influence the Minister for Education and Skills to achieve the introduction of such swimming classes in schools. I know there would be a cost involved, but if it cost €5 million to introduce such a system, I would not be surprised if we could obtain sponsorship for it. We should think of the lives that would be saved as a result of that €5 million expenditure. It would be worthwhile making swimming lessons compulsory for 12 and 13 year olds. In that way, we could equal the standards that have been achieved in other countries.
I welcomed the changes announced yesterday by the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, concerning discretionary medical cards.
I particularly welcome his undertaking to ensure greater humanity and wider discretion at the core of this process. No two illnesses or sets of circumstances are ever the same for those looking for a medical card. I also welcome the Minister’s announcement that a person with a terminal illness is no longer required to reapply for a card. This stipulation was beyond comprehension. The Minister is to be commended in his far-reaching and sensible approach to this matter. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Health to the House to discuss the new criteria surrounding medical card eligibility?
As Fianna Fáil spokesperson for justice, I acknowledge and congratulate Ms Nóirín O’Sullivan on her appointment as Garda Commissioner. It is important to note that the chief Garda whistleblower, Sergeant Maurice McCabe, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors and many others in political and civil society also welcomed the announcement. It was done in a very transparent and fair way and will bring a fresh approach to policing. However, the morale of rank and file gardaí is at an all-time low. This is a matter I have raised before in the House. Will the Leader convey this to the Minister for Justice and Equality? In her reforms of the Garda, I hope morale of the force will be restored. Respect for the force is not good and is at the lowest ebb I have seen in my lifetime. Rank and file gardaí were not responsible for any glitches in policing. Their morale and authority needs to be restored, which might regenerate respect for the force in its front-line work.
Yesterday Senator Gerard P. Craughwell raised the issue of funding for non-Gaeltacht islands. There are six such islands in my constituency - Cape Clear is the only Gaeltacht island - namely, Dursey Island, Whiddy Island, Bere Island, Long Island, Hare Island and Sherkin Island. It is ridiculous that the funding traditionally given to all these islanders will be reduced considerably or even abolished. Many of the islands off the west Cork coast are no longer inhabited. Two of them are in private ownership, which is a disgrace. People are forced to leave islands because they are not getting supports. Access to many of them can be restricted for up to ten days if winter conditions are atrocious. Their inhabitants should be given great credit and support to continue living on these islands. The funding for these islands, which is relatively modest, should be retained and reinforced. Those living on these islands deserve credit for staying on them, bringing up their children on them and keeping them in our ownership. The notion of any of the uninhabited islands being sold to private enterprise, wealthy Germans or whoever is an absolute disgrace, particularly when those who left the islands 30 or 40 years ago cannot go back to visit them because they are no-go areas.
In today’s edition of The Irish Times there are three reports on housing, all of which we agree are pertinent. The first report, from the National Economic and Social Council, advises the Taoiseach that thousands of people will not be able to afford to buy their own homes. It is also reported that up to one third of people will need help with their housing needs. Effectively, the NESC report states many people will be condemned to spend the rest of their lives living in rented housing. I have asked for debates on the private rented sector on several occasions.
The second report in The Irish Times states that nine out of ten private rented dwellings in Dublin have failed to pass the minimum accommodation standards test. We are condemning people to live in a rented sector that is not fit for purpose. A debate on the rental sector is urgently required.
The third report anticipates this morning’s announcement by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, of a multi-billion euro strategy to deliver social housing from 2015 to 2020. This is to be welcomed, given that those people who will not be able to afford to buy their own homes in the main will be relying on either rented housing or social housing provision. In the past decade and a half, social housing provision has failed miserably to meet people’s needs. We now have 90,000 households on the housing waiting lists. I am disappointed that the Minister did not attend the House before today’s announcement of the social housing strategy, as I would have liked the House to have an opportunity to have an input into it. All said, it would be good if the Minister attended the House as soon as possible to discuss the new social housing strategy. A key message of this policy is that the State would be the primary driver in housing provision for several years. That will be critical in breaking the boom and bust cycle we have seen in housing provision in the past decade. Will the Leader arrange to have the Minister attend the House to discuss the social housing strategy as a matter of urgency?
I call Senator Terry Leyden.
He will give us a papal blessing now.
Bless you all.
I compliment Ms Nóirín O’Sullivan on her appointment as Garda Commissioner. It is a wonderful appointment and I commend the Government in agreeing with the independent assessment of her. There were 40 applicants and she came to the top. She is an extremely good officer who took on the drug barons in her time and was head of the training college in Templemore. It is a great day for women. It is 92 years since the force was formed and she is the first woman to become Garda Commissioner. This House should send its best wishes to her on her appointment and her achievement. It is a great day for An Garda Síochána. I find it extraordinary, however, that Deputy Clare Daly said that this appointment shows the old boys’ club is alive and well and that we can look forward to the continuation of the blue wall of silence. Ms O’Sullivan is a woman, not a member of the old boys’ club. Women tend not to become members of the club. Deputy Clare Daly can keep her opinions to herself. Ms O’Sullivan is a role model for women, particularly for young women in the force and others who wish to join it. It shows a woman can come to the top in any position in this country, be it in the role of President, as in the past, or Taoiseach, in the future. We want more women in politics, in the Dáil and the Seanad.
As long as they do not take the Senator's seat.
I would like to send our best wishes to the outgoing Garda Commissioner, Mr. Martin Callinan, who was treated shabbily by the Government. He was an extraordinarily good officer who carried out tremendous work on behalf of the State. I also send our best wishes to all gardaí for their commitment to the State. The Garda Inspectorate carried out an unfair report on Garda operations. I can tell the House that the Garda Commissioner, Ms O’Sullivan, is a new brush who will carry out her responsibilities with great commitment. She has already said criticism levelled against the force during the recent unprecedented time would act as a roadmap for reform under her stewardship. That is a good starting point. I am sure the Cathaoirleach will join in sending best wishes to the new Commissioner, as they are now both members of the State carrying out very responsible jobs.
I am delighted the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, has announced that he will retain the public service obligation for the Kerry to Dublin, as well as the Donegal to Dublin, air routes. Following a public EU tendering process, the Minister announced that Stobart Air was successful in securing the tender to provide scheduled air services, subject to contracts being put in place. This new contract will run until 31 January 2017. Members will appreciate how important this is for tourism and business in peripheral regions, as well as the international connectivity it gives them.
The importance must be stressed because of the fragile state of the economy in recent times as a result of the recession. As things have started to pick up slowly but surely, it is hugely important to continue this for the period the Minister now envisages. I welcome it very much.
Yesterday, a number of Senators, including me, raised the issue of long waiting lists in hospitals with 50,000 patients across the State waiting more than 12 months to be seen. As the Leader acknowledged yesterday in his response, it is unacceptable that in Waterford and the south east, 6,300 patients are waiting longer than 12 months for an outpatient appointment. That is for an appointment just to get into the system, before there is any treatment or care.
Yesterday, we had an announcement by the Minister for Health on the review of the medical card fiasco. It is impossible to know at this stage how that will work out. We had the announcement from the Minister but need an opportunity to probe him on it and to find out exactly how it will impact on patients with medical cards. There is not a Senator or Deputy who has not been lobbied by dozens of people who lost their cards for a range of reasons. It is very important that the Minister comes to the Seanad to discuss the issue. An amendment to the Order of Business was tabled yesterday. While I would be slow to do that again today, I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister to come back to the House in the next few weeks to discuss the announcement yesterday and the figures released on long waiting lists. They are important issues.
I welcome the imminent announcement of the new housing strategy for 2015 to 2020. Today, €2.2 billion will be committed by the Government to tackling the housing crisis. We have not had a housing strategy from any Government since 1995, but today we will see for the first time a strategy to deal with the 90,000 people on housing waiting lists across the country and with those who cannot afford to buy their own houses as they have been priced out of the market. It will also deal with people with disabilities who require special types of housing. It is a good day for Irish people who are in need of housing. In 2015 alone, 7,500 houses will be built. A new scheme will be put in place to deal with the private rented sector and 1,000 currently vacant houses in local authority schemes will be put into shape and made ready for tenants by the end of 2015. This is the first time the problem has been tackled in any strategic way since the mid-1990s. Administrations during the Celtic tiger decided to abandon people in need of housing and to look instead to their chums and pals who were building houses in places where they were not needed and contributing to an economic crisis. Today's announcement means a stimulus package for ordinary people. It will put unemployed tradesmen back to work, in some cases for the first time in ten years. It will give hope to young people by starting up new apprenticeships and help corner shops by going back to the breakfast roll man and ensuring business is done on a daily basis. It will also assist hardware retailers, builders providers and everything else involved in housing. With my colleague, Senator Aideen Hayden, I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, to attend the House next week for a full outline of the proposed strategy and programme for housing.
Once again, child care issues dominate the media. Comments were made following the gender equality conference in Dublin in recent days at which there was severe criticism of the lack of investment in child care facilities nationally and the continuing pressure on those who are referred to as being in the squeezed middle. Vincent Browne had problems with that definition last night on his programme, but the squeezed middle are people who are earning more money than the eligibility cap for the free child care schemes. They must pay heavily. While they are people in jobs with incomes, the financial demands on them mean that many women in particular are having to abandon the workplace and go home as child care costs are too great. It is past time the Government looked seriously at this issue and made a significant investment. Liberal references are made to the Scandinavian model. If this is a first line country and what the Taoiseach calls "the best little country in the world to do business," we must consider whether the way we handle child care issues is in any way an attractive option for anyone thinking of coming here, particularly if he or she is married with children. I ask for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, to come before the House to outline a strategy for the provision and upgrading of child care facilities.
Pobal which is charged by the Government with administering the child care scheme has issued a report from which the Irish Independent has derived the blazing headline that there is under-use of child care facilities nationally. This is blatantly incorrect. I am chairman of the Leitrim County Childcare Committee. We have 35 child care facilities in the county, most of which are funded in one way or another by the Government through Pobal, which has come under criticism for the high rates it is charging the Government to manage the scheme. Pobal is now trying to cover its tail by suggesting there is an under use of child care facilities nationally when we know that people sometimes cannot get their children into crèches. I said that Leitrim has 35 child care services, but the Irish Independent says there are only nine on the basis of a Pobal survey to which not everybody responded. Pobal then takes its own figures out of it and produces the fantasy that there is only 77% take-up of child care places in my county when the reality is that it is nearly 100%. In my home town, which has a state-of-the-art facility, there is a waiting list. There is all sorts of confusion and obfuscation going on. I would ignore the Pobal figures and urge the Irish Independent to look at little deeper into what Pobal is stating. The reality is that there is a serious need for increased investment in child care facilities to take the burden off hard-pressed families who are finding it increasingly difficult to place their children in child care.
I join Senators in congratulating Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan on her appointment as the first lady Garda Commissioner in the history of the force. I wish her hearty congratulations. Women are well represented now across the justice system.
I will speak later in the debate on drugs, in particular, Sovaldi for hepatitis C patients. Like Senator Paschal Mooney, I ask the Minister for Health to come to the House to discuss children growing up in Ireland. Today, there is a conference in Croke Park on the survey on growing up in Ireland. The survey commenced in 2007 and surveyed children aged from nine months to nine years. Following that, it is from nine years onwards. The results of the survey should be debated in the House with a view to implementing at least some the recommendations that have resulted. As Wordsworth said, the child is father of the man - or mother of the woman as the case may be. We must ensure we get our facilities right, particularly child care for working parents and parents in the home, especially single parents. The growing up in Ireland survey shows the proportion of families that are lone-parent families who need assistance with child care and help as to how to raise children. It is about not only helping one-parent families, but all parents to do what is best for their children.
It is the first time the Growing Up in Ireland survey has linked with surveys done in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. One gets an all-Ireland picture and can compare results. I have asked the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly to table it on the agenda. Like the housing strategy, which was published today and which I welcome, I want to see if a strategy can be developed in this area. We will not be able to do everything in a day, a week, a month or a year, but there should be a ten-year strategy for the implementation of a process to ensure we have good facilities, as Senator Paschal Mooney said, for children in child care and the family home. The strategy should be all-encompassing. I ask the Minister to come before the House for such a debate.
I ask the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, to update us on the Bill I introduced, on behalf of Fianna Fáil, on parental leave, the intention of which was to allow fathers to share the maternity leave granted to women if the mothers of the children so wish. It was received in principle and I would like to know its current status.
As we speak, in Buswells Hotel the Irish Migrant Rights Council is launching a ground-breaking new survey of undocumented migrants in Ireland. We now have, for the first time, a picture of the undocumented population in Ireland. The vast majority are working in restaurants or as cleaners, carers or childminders, and a large percentage have young children here or in their country of origin. The research estimates that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland, including thousands of children. The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland is calling on the Government, particularly the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to adopt a pragmatic approach to dealing with our broken immigration system. In response to that, civil servants from the Department of Justice and Equality had the audacity to say that this would be problematic. This happened on the very day that the American President, Mr. Obama, received a letter from the Taoiseach commending him for his presidential orders to deliver residency in the USA for up to five million immigrants, 50,000 of whom are Irish. It is ironic that the Minister for Justice and Equality and her office said the situation was problematic, while the Taoiseach was making headlines in The Irish Times today. The Taoiseach is quoted as having signed off his letter to President Obama by thanking him and expressing his appreciation for the humanity and leadership he has demonstrated. If one thinks immigrants in Ireland are any different from Irish immigrants in the USA, one should note that they face the same problems. We need to regularise the position. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, calling on the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House to update us on this critical issue.
Will the Senator clarify the amendment?
Does the Senator want the Minister to come before the House today?
I welcome yesterday's announcement by the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, on the review of medical cards, particularly discretionary medical cards. I have long argued that discretionary medical cards should be afforded to all people with disabilities or life-threatening or long-term illnesses, regardless of their financial income. While I welcome the Minister's remarks and the review that was mentioned, I also ask that he come before the House for a debate on medical cards, particularly discretionary medical cards, and the changes to the system as soon as possible.
I again ask the Leader for a debate on the allegations of sexual abuse by members of the provisional republican movement. I called for such a debate last week. Further troubling reports have been made in recent days regarding the movement of alleged child abusers. The fact they were moved across the Border is worrying for people throughout the country, particularly those living in the Border regions, including my home town, which has been mentioned. It is a matter of the utmost importance and should be debated in the House as a matter of urgency. Deputy Gerry Adams stated that names were posted anonymously through the letterbox in his Belfast home. I would like to know when he received that information and express my surprise that somebody could simply walk up to his house in Belfast and put something through his letterbox. I ask that these questions be answered. I refer to the comments made by Deputy Gerry Adams in Enniskillen on Monday. At a time when we are trying to move on, to say that those comments were unhelpful is putting it mildly. I ask the Leader to address these matters and have an urgent debate as a matter of priority.
I, too, welcome the imminent publication of the Government's social housing policy. It is long overdue. While I welcome the allocation of €2.2 billion in the next three years, I urge the Government to prioritise the homeless. People the length and breadth of the country are becoming homeless on a weekly basis.
I ask that the Leader contact the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and ask her to intervene, at the eleventh hour, in the teachers' dispute. As we are aware, next Tuesday 340,000 pupils in more than 730 schools the length and breadth of the country will be affected by industrial action taken by 27,000 teachers. While I accept and acknowledge that some progress has been made by the Minister since she took office, the changes proposed by her and the Department are too much, too soon. I urge her to re-examine the issue and not to allow a situation to develop that is similar to that of Irish Water, in which mistakes were made because there was a rush to make changes just for change's sake. What the Minister is trying to achieve can be achieved over a longer period and consideration can be given to the concerns of teachers and parents.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Mary White.
I join my colleagues in congratulating Nóirín O'Sullivan on her appointment as Garda Commissioner.
I ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, to ensure the rural development plan in Brussels is agreed by the end of the year in order that the maximum possible number of farmers can be included in the GLAS scheme. We need to do this in early January because it will take a considerable amount of time to get plans ready. It is important that agreement is reached.
I also welcome the move on medical cards yesterday by the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar.
I congratulate Nóirín O'Sullivan on becoming the new Garda Commissioner. She will be very good. I find her very genuine and open and she is a good communicator. The force needs that open face.
I wish her the best of luck in that role and think we should all strongly support her.
I talk to the Leader and particularly Fine Gael about the changes proposed to the Finance Bill which must be resisted, particularly in respect of the inheritance of the family farm. Senator Michael Comiskey will have a strong interest in this issue. As things stand, the family farm can be signed over to a son or a daughter who then qualifies for full tax relief. If the changes announced in the 2015 budget are implemented, the heir to the farm will be required to spend more than 50% of his or her time working on the farm in order to qualify for full tax relief. That is ludicrous. Let us look at the reality. Many farmers today have no choice but to work away the land to supplement their income. In Galway and the west over 60% of farmers are part-time. The average full-time farmer works in excess of 90 hours a week. I would like to know what genius in the Department of Finance had this brain wave. When the Minister proposes that the heir will have to spend more than 50% of his or her time working the land, on what is he basing his figure? Is he basing it on the 39 hours a week a public servant works or the 90 hours a week the average farmer works? This is full of anomalies and difficulties. In particular, I expect Fine Gael to resist this change completely when a vote is called. Otherwise, it will be responsible for wiping out the small farms that are unviable without an off-farm income, particularly in the west. Get a grip and communicate the message loudly and strongly to the Minister for Finance. A total of €225,000 is a ridiculous value to put on a small holding because any amount of land will come to that figure, but that does not make it viable.
I welcome in advance the announcement to be made by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government of a social housing policy which is due to be unveiled this morning. Housing is of core importance to the Labour Party and the Minister's initiative merits considerable acclaim.
I wish to correct yesterday's record of the debate on water services. I wrongly attributed some comments to my good friend, Senator Sean D. Barrett. I apologise if I caused him any offence in the matter and note that the comments were not made by him but by one of his colleagues.
I join colleagues in congratulating Nóirín O'Sullivan on her appointment as the new Commissioner of An Garda Síochána. While she is making history in being the first woman Commissioner, she has, no doubt, been appointed on merit, given her experience within the force, having come through a very open and transparent recruitment process and seen off competition from within Ireland and internationally. She has a mammoth task ahead of her in restoring confidence in An Garda Síochána and morale within the force. The reform of the justice and policing structures is now in very safe female hands, given that we have a female Minister for Justice and Equality, Attorney General, Garda Commissioner and chairperson of the new policing authority. I have no doubt that these talented women will resolve the many weaknesses in our systems and restore confidence in the justice and policing systems.
I refer to the findings of a survey conducted by Enterprise Ireland and Deloitte and published today in advance of a meeting of CEOs of major businesses in this country. They indicate that the level of business sentiment is rising, with 69% of the country's chief executives believing GDP will match or exceed recent predictions. They also show that the majority of CEOs are confident that Ireland will exceed the average eurozone GDP rate in the next two to three years. The survey reveals that CEOs believe the main challenges facing businesses in Ireland are access to working capital and staff issues. While 35% of those surveyed said capital was their main issue, 53% cited people issues. A total of 12% said mobility was a key issue, while 20% said the shortage of graduates was a major concern, being especially true in the areas of IT, science, engineering and mathematics. We need to discuss this issue further with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. I, therefore, ask the Leader to schedule a debate as soon as he can in order that we can discuss the ongoing work on An Action Plan for Jobs and the shortcomings business leaders see in the country.
I highlight the ongoing issue of petrol stretching and the great distress this illegal activity is causing innocent motorists around the country who face serious financial consequences and the potential loss of their vehicle should they unwittingly purchase this contaminated fuel. The victims of this crime also face difficulties when they try to claim compensation under their insurance policies. Petrol stretching constitutes malicious damage and should be covered by fully comprehensive insurance policies but it is not. These policies need to cover the risks involved in order to protect consumers. Having heard at first hand a number of my constituents' experiences, I have discovered that they have found themselves in a grossly unfair position in finding that their cars have been destroyed through no fault of their own. The insurance companies are not stepping up to the plate, but the State also has a role to play in tackling the issue of petrol stretching and its repercussions. It is an illegal and dangerous activity that should be dealt with to the full extent of the law. Motorists who purchase petrol in good faith must have that faith and their property protected. In that regard, the Minister for Justice and Equality should come to the House to discuss the issue and look at providing additional resources for An Garda Síochána in the fight against petrol stretching which affects a huge number of motorists in the Galway area.
I endorse earlier comments by Senators in welcoming the publication yesterday of the report by the Department of Health on medical cards. The Jack & Jill Children's Foundation has not read the publication fully and is treating it with cautious optimism. I would welcome it if the Minister for Health came to the House to engage in dialogue and a debate to clarify the finer points. The expert panel obviously listened to the people with great care and the families of the Jack & Jill Children's Foundation. It is particularly welcome that the issue of discretionary medical cards seems to be back on the agenda. Speaking from our families' perspective, the fear felt by people with discretionary medical cards for children is beginning to disappear from their solar plexus in time for Christmas. Those with no medical cards believe there may now be some hope of getting them. I am very encouraged by the simpler formula promised by the Department.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House before Christmas, if possible, for a debate on road safety? I have spoken in the House before about how I believe wearing fluorescent jackets should be made mandatory for those walking or running at night. A lady told me about an incident that had happened when she, her husband and three children were coming back from holiday. They were driving on the motorway when a big rock was thrown from a flyover. Their car was written off. It was scary and, but for the grace of God, there was no loss of life. I have conducted some research and understand the same thing happened in Spain when an entire family was wiped out. It also happened in Great Britain. We must do something. If we were to have a debate, Members could come up with options or alternatives, be it CCTV cameras on flyovers or the embankment or raising the height of flyovers to stop people from throwing rocks onto a motorway. The car of the lady in question was completely written off. Gardaí were at the scene in a short space of time, but there was nothing they could do.
Something has to be done before there is a fatality owing to people throwing implements, rocks, etc. over the side of a flyover onto a motorway.
Senator Darragh O'Brien raised the question of discretionary medical cards. We will try to get the Minister for Health to come to the House for a debate on the issue. A number of Members raised the question of medical cards. The new enhanced assessment process takes account of the burden of an illness or a condition, which is to be welcomed. The greater exchange of information between the medical card central assessment unit and the local office which has been lacking in the past couple of years is also to be welcomed. People with various illnesses who hold discretionary medical cards will retain them pending the implementation of actions to improve the operation of the scheme, which is also to be welcomed. The power of GPs to extend medical cards in difficult circumstances will be strengthened. A number of Members, including Senators Darragh O'Brien and Mary Moran, have mentioned that people with a terminal illness who hold a medical card will no longer have their medical cards reviewed. The review of such cases was a dreadful practice. I will invite the Minister for Health to come to the House to address the matter. Senator Darragh O'Brien asked for the starting date for the process, but, unfortunately, I cannot give him that information. However, I will ask the Minister to address the matter.
Senator Ivana Bacik stated the change in the law on prostitution had been agreed to by the Cabinet and that there would be reform of sex offences. She called on the Minister for Justice and Equality to come into the House to address the matter. I will invite the Minister to do so.
Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned the efficiency of the tax system. He also made an important point that the Department of Education and Skills should address the provision of compulsory swimming lessons for pupils. Many schools use swimming pools in the locality to teach pupils to swim properly. I agree with the Senator that swimming lessons should be availed of by all schools and might perhaps be made compulsory. As he mentioned, there would be a cost factor involved, but I will raise the matter with the Minister.
Senator Hildegarde Naughton mentioned the need for greater humanity, especially for people with a terminal illness, where medical cards were concerned.
Senators Denis O'Donovan, Terry Leyden, Cáit Keane, Michael Comiskey, Fidelma Healy Eames, Michael Mullins and others mentioned the new Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, and congratulated her on her appointment. Senator Denis O'Donovan mentioned that morale within the Garda needed to be restored. I know that issue will be a major priority for the new Commissioner.
The Senator also raised the question of funding for non-Gaeltacht islands, an issue raised by Senator Gerard P. Craughwell yesterday. The issue of funding for these islands fell between the stools of several Departments, but I am confident it will be addressed in early course by the Government.
Senator Aideen Hayden mentioned three reports on housing and the private sector and called for a debate on the matter. I have asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on a number of occasions to come to the House to discuss the matter. I hope that either he or the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, will be able to come in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Paul Coghlan mentioned the importance of retaining the public service obligation in respect of Kerry Airport and the tourism industry. I am sure its retention would be welcomed by everybody in County Kerry and the south-west region.
Senator David Cullinane mentioned those on waiting lists. I will again ask the Minister for Health to come to the House to debate the matter. The Senator made the point that people had to wait for appointments. That has been the position for the past year and a half; before then people received appointments but had to wait for operations. It is only in the past year or two that there has been a system in place that allows us to know the numbers waiting to see consultants. This information has been used to highlight the issue and I agree with the Senator that the Government must address it.
Senator Denis Landy mentioned that €2.2 billion had been committed to the housing strategy. We should await the full details of the strategy. As I said, I will try to arrange a debate on the matter with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
Senators Paschal Mooney and Cáit Keane asked for child care issues to be addressed. Senator Cáit Keane referred to the Growing Up in Ireland strategy. The two Senators asked for a debate on these issues to be arranged with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
Senator Mary White raised the issue of parental leave for fathers and inquired about the current status of the Bill. The legislation is still being worked on by the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Social Protection and it will be some months before we will see progress. However, we will keep the matter under constant review.
The Senator also called for humanity and leadership to be shown in addressing the plight of undocumented migrants in Ireland. I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House to address the matter.
Senator Mary Moran mentioned discretionary medical cards. She also referred to the movement of alleged child abusers, paedophiles and rapists by the republican movement and called for a debate on the matter in the House.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson asked that the housing strategy prioritise the issue of homelessness. It will very much be part of the strategy to be announced this morning by the relevant Minister.
The Senator also called on the Minister for Education and Skills to intervene to prevent strike action by teachers. I disagree with the Senator that changes are being made for the sake of it. I agree with him, however, that a longer timescale could be envisaged for implementation of the changes and assure him that I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister.
Senator Michael Comiskey mentioned the need for early agreement on the rural development plan in the European Union. I am sure the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is working on the matter.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames mentioned the Finance Bill. We will have ample time to discuss the Bill in the House in the coming weeks. I can assure the Senator that points have been made by many Fine Gael Oireachtas Members in the past week or so. I hope these matters will be addressed in the course of the debate on the Bill.
Senator Michael Mullins mentioned a survey conducted by Enterprise Ireland and Deloitte of the positive projections for the economy. He also pointed to some deficiencies in the system which needed to be addressed. We have tried to get the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to come to the House to discuss An Action Plan for Jobs and I am glad to report that he will be here next week to address the issue.
Senator Lorraine Higgins mentioned petrol stretching, an issue which has been raised by Members on several occasions. She also mentioned the difficulties it was causing with insurance companies. Criminals and former so-called republicans are involved in this activity which has caused grave distress for many motorists the length and breadth of the country. The Government is doing everything possible to address the matter. In addition to the problem of petrol stretching, there is the issue of diesel laundering. I will try to have the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Simon Harris, come to the House to outline what the Government is doing to resolve the matter.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien mentioned medical cards and called on the Minister for Health to come to the House to debate the matter. I will try to arrange such a debate.
Senator Tom Sheahan called on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House. The Minister will be here this afternoon to discuss tourism matters, but I take on board the Senator's important points about road safety and flyovers. It is a very serious issue.
I imagine we could bring the Minister to the House to address the matter of road safety at a later stage.
I do not propose to accept the amendment proposed to the Order of Business.
Senator Mary White has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Justice and Equality on the position of undocumented immigrants in Ireland be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
In the light of the warm response from the Leader that he will raise the matter with the Minister for Justice and Equality, I will not call a vote on this occasion.