Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 4 Feb 2015

Vol. 237 No. 8

Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 2, statements on overseas development, to be taken at 1.15 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; No. 3, Workplace Relations Bill 2014 - Second Stage, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and adjourned not later than 5.30 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 No. 62, motion 15, to be taken at 5.30 p.m., with the time allocated for debate not to exceed two hours.

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 13, the Public Services and Procurement (Social Value) Bill 2015, be taken before No. 1. Over the past number of weeks we have seen people in hospitals and particularly accident and emergency departments who are waiting on trolleys and various services. All of us are aware of the multiplicity of issues, and I know there has been focus by the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, in trying to reduce those numbers. It is welcome that this has happened. We are just waiting for another spike nonetheless.

The fair deal scheme must be examined in great detail. This successful scheme was initiated by a previous Government and it allows people who need nursing home care to access it with the costs to be defrayed. It works well but it is underfunded by this Government. Figures were published yesterday by the Department of Health on waiting times. In January 2014, there were 512 people awaiting funding, with four weeks for approval. At the end of January 2015, there were 1,332 people waiting on the national placement list for funding, with the waiting time averaging 11 weeks. There is something broken in the system and it is not working. I have heard colleagues opposite mention phrases that I do not like, such as "bed blockers"; these are people in hospital who do not want to be there. They could either be stepped down to return home or they should be able to access the fair deal scheme. This problem must be addressed.

There was a focus from the Government over a week or two in trying to reduce the number of people waiting on trolleys in hospitals - as was correct - but the issue has moved on. We need the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to tell us what is happening with the fair deal scheme and how we will properly fund home help. The issue of looking after people at home or in nursing homes must be examined very carefully, as these figures are unacceptable. There are nearly 1,400 families waiting over 11 weeks to get applications for their relatives to access nursing home care. Waiting times and the number of people waiting have trebled. The figures do not lie and something is wrong, so the matter must be addressed. I ask for a specific debate on this and perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, can tell us what she proposes to do in this instance. The Government needs a plan to address the matter as it is worsening month on month.

It has come to my attention that the Courts Service has called for a review of court facilities in County Tipperary to identify, in consultation with stakeholders in the country, a range of options which could be considered to enable the Courts Service to work more efficiently and effectively in maintaining front-line services. I am concerned that this may be code for the possible closure of some court offices in the county. In my town of Carrick-on-Suir, €270,000 was spent in 2007 on renovating the courthouse, and it is now one of the finest in the country. It is extremely busy and it sits twice a week. In Tipperary and Nenagh, there are also very busy courthouses. If efficiencies must be found, I hope they will not equate to the word "closure". The services are very badly needed and we want them to be retained. Will the Leader bring this to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald?

I welcome the proposed legislation to restrict cheap alcohol. There are to be warning labels and details of calorie content on all alcohol to be sold, and there will be new and strong powers for environmental health officers to patrol this area. There will also be new restrictions on advertising, marketing and sponsorship.

This issue has been bandied around for a number of years and it has hopped and bopped from one Minister to another but I am pleased that the current Minister for Health has taken it by the scruff of the neck and proposes to publish legislation in this regard. It has been approved by the Cabinet and we will see the colour of the legislation soon.

There is also good news about planning. Yesterday, I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government at which there was a briefing on the planning (no. 2) Bill, which will provide for a planning regulator who will help to implement the Mahon tribunal recommendations. We were all abhorred by the tribunal. For too long there have been "make it up as you go along" breaches of development plans, ignoring national spatial strategies and so on, which helped to cause the havoc that was wreaked on the country in respect of housing. In addition, the fee for making a submission on a planning application will be removed for public representatives. The fee is €20 per submission and we all disagreed with it when it was introduced. That will be removed by the legislation and I welcome that along with the other proposals in the legislation.

I utterly condemn the atrocious murders of a young Jordanian pilot and a Japanese journalist who was motivated by service to the community. These events continue to spark off Islamophobia on the one hand and anti-Semitism on the other. They are an inevitable by-product of British and American meddling in the Middle East. If one kicks a wasp's nest, one can only expect to get stung. There is something morally repulsive about the way these people set about their crimes. There is no political or religious justification whatever for them. I wonder whether the Jordanians were wise to respond immediately by executing two unrelated prisoners. I am not sure such a knee-jerk reaction is a good idea. This activity thrives on publicity and the media in the West need to be sensitive and careful about the way in which it treats these incidents. By giving them headline publicity and including photographs in reports and so on, it simply justifies ISIS. This is what the organisation is after. It can get around apparent censorship by the use of Twitter and so on but that suggests there should be in the West a co-ordinated campaign on Twitter and other social media to counteract this material in the international media.

With regard to the Bill on alcohol to which a previous contributor referred, it is welcome but it is late. Ministers have been sitting on this for the past six years at least and the legislation has been very much watered down. There will not be a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport and the drinks industry knows precisely what it is doing when it uses sport to advertise its products. It is not just about a healthy sip of a drink; it is about a boozy boy's club and getting absolutely plastered. That is what is endorsed in these advertisements. I very much welcome the ban on below cost selling, which is an absolute curse. I witness this in my area where women with prams load up with trays of tins and so on, which is dreadful. We must have a debate on this matter to address alcohol abuse. I am all in favour of people enjoying a drink, a good wine, a good glass of Irish whiskey or a Guinness, in so far as it is still Irish, but we have to address the social reasons for alcohol abuse and the endorsement of drunkenness that is so prevalent in this society.

I refer to the issue mentioned by Senator Norris. The problem we have with alcohol abuse in this country is due to availability and price. I welcome the proposals signed off by the Government yesterday. I particularly welcome the proposal to make it illegal to sell alcohol at a price below a set minimum price. The minimum unit price will be set a level which evidence shows will reduce the burden of harm from alcohol abuse. I have campaigned heavily for this over the past number of years. The is far reaching legislation and while it has taken a number of years, it is a complex issue. I am delighted that the Government has done something about it and plans to pass the legislation before the summer. It addresses alcohol as a public health measure, which is important, and it deals with all the crucial aspects that must be addressed, including price, availability, information and marketing. It is being addressed as a public health measure for the first time, which makes this a legislative milestone. Many people have a problem with alcohol and it kills three people every week, which is far too many. The facts about our alcohol consumption do not tally with the relationship we think we have with it. I do not say this as a killjoy but as a mother, a concerned member of a community and a public representative. Almost 2.5 million people in Ireland drink, of whom more than half drink harmfully and excessively, that is, 1.24 million. Senator Darragh O'Brien raised problems in our hospitals earlier but every night 2,000 hospital beds are occupied for alcohol-related reasons. I look forward to us debating the legislation soon.

I agree with much of Senator Henry's contribution. While minimum pricing is welcome, it is an awful shame that the House could not support the Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Fund Bill 2014. It sought to take advantage of the low prices on alcohol by setting up a fund to ring-fence the money generated from these alcohol sales rather than providing additional profitability to the drinks companies. We estimated approximately €150 million could be raised through such a measure specifically for suicide prevention, which remains a silent crisis in our society with up to 600 people a year needlessly losing their lives. In addition, A Vision for Change, which is in its ninth year, is starved of resources annually and despite the best efforts of the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, it is difficult for service providers to provide adequate resources. The strategy is lagging well behind where it needs to be in terms of its implementation.

It is all well and good for all of us to come into the House in accelerated and personified indignation and call for action on specific issues. The reality is we are not interested in dealing with this issue as a nation, although that might not apply to individual Members. We have again pandered to the drinks companies regarding this legislation. Alcohol prices must be raised and through the measures we suggested in the Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Fund Bill 2014, the money generated should be ring-fenced for suicide prevention and mental health services, where it is deserved. I am not a killjoy and I do not oppose drinking but alcohol abuse has gotten out of control in recent years. If the Government does not ring-fence this money for the services I have mentioned, which have been outlined by many Members previously, we will miss a great opportunity to deal with this issue once and for all.

I refer to the issue of attendance in accident and emergency departments, which was raised by a number of colleagues. That is one issue but collection of attendance fees is another. My understanding is more than €2 million still has not been collected for 2013. This matter should be dealt with and it is important to get a response from the Minister regarding what action is being taken to make sure people who use accident and emergency departments pay the fees for which they are liable.

Senator Darragh O'Brien mentioned elderly care, which is becoming a bigger issue. Significant long-term planning is needed. We have been going on the basis of year to year management but 20,000 more people will reach the aged of 65 annually from now on and, therefore, our elderly population will continue to increase. More than 22,000 are in the fair deal scheme and even if the Government wanted to retain the same ratio, an additional 4,000 beds would be needed by 2021. While we need a debate on this, we also need a five year and a ten year plan to deal with this issue, including increasing the number of home care package that can be provided. That needs to be prioritised.

I welcome the comments by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, this morning in the House. She confirmed she would do everything possible to have a representative of both the nursing homes and GPs on the emergency task force which was set up to deal with the overcrowding in accident and emergency departments. They are two key components and they are currently not represented on the task force. It goes to prove that tabling Commencement matters and having Ministers come to the House brings results. I welcome the Minister of State's decision and I hope it is implemented at an early date. We need to have a debate on the issue of care of the elderly.

A number of banks have announced reductions in their rates in recent days. This is very welcome. However, there is a rule in business that one should look after one's customers. A number of these banks have stated that this reduction will only apply to new customers and to what they term switchers. In other words, they are encouraging people who are not their customers to join them but a loyal customer who has been a customer of a bank for some years will not get that benefit. I do not understand this policy and I do not think it makes sense. There should be an outcry against it. I am not suggesting that there should be legislation but it does not seem to make sense that any business would decide to do something for new customers but not for existing customers. It happens all the time with telephone companies and with subscriptions to magazines. We should cry out against this practice.

It is time we did something about legislation to do with crowd funding. I have an involvement with Linked Finance and I think it is a very worthy concept of crowd funding. A person expanding his or her business and in need of financing can offer others to participate and interest will be paid. This has worked very well. In Britain they are talking about introducing legislation because crowd funding has been linked to equity finance. There is a danger that the public will be misled. The British financial regulatory authority plans to introduce legislation. In my view, crowd funding needs to be regulated by legislation, not only to protect the investor but also to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of crowd funding.

I wish to ask the Leader the whereabouts of the Coroners Bill and when it can be expected in the House. This is one area that badly needs modernisation as it is an antiquated service or exercise. It needs to be made more humane.

Could the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport come to the House to have a debate on road safety? There has been a significant change in the profile of road deaths. Further road safety legislation or directives need to be put in place, in particular, with regard to pedestrians and cyclists. I would appreciate a debate as soon as possible.

Several times over recent weeks, members of Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil and some Independent Senators have called for a debate on the need for a debt conference. This has gained currency in Europe following the Greek election result. Time and again the Government and the Taoiseach have ruled out the notion of a debt conference which at the very least would be an opportunity for European leaders to put the issue of debt on the agenda and to discuss the range of options for European leaders. However, the Taoiseach has gone further and he has ruled out any possibility of Ireland getting any write-down on our debt or any renegotiation or retrospective recapitalisation of our banks.

Absolute lies.

It is not wrong. The Senator should listen to what the Taoiseach said today. The Minister for Finance said that we will not be getting any money from-----

Absolute lies.

Senator Cullinane, without interruption.

I will not be called a liar in this House by a member of the Labour Party who made a lot of promises before the previous election. Senator Gilroy needs to pipe down and listen for a second. This is my opportunity on the Order of Business to put a question to the Leader. Senator Gilroy should show some respect to Members of the House.

Will the Leader arrange a debate on this issue? I am quoting what the Minister for Finance said today and yesterday. He said he does not believe that we will get any retrospective funding from the ESM. This is despite what was apparently agreed two years ago when the former leader of the Labour Party - Senator Gilroy's party - as well as Fine Gael and the Taoiseach said at the time that it was a game changer. We had the ability to apply retrospectively to the ESM to take the burden of private banking debt off the shoulders of taxpayers. All I am looking for is a debate on the issue. Several calls have been made by Members from across the House. I think it would be a good debate. We should examine all the options. Nobody is saying that these are easy solutions nor is anyone saying that we can force either Europe or the ECB to do things. However, we need to have a starting point and a strong negotiating position, and we have not had that from the Government from the get-go. It is certainly worthwhile for this House to have a debate on the issue. It seems everyone else in Europe is discussing and debating this issue, with the exception of the Irish who are one of the most indebted countries in Europe. It beggars belief. I am calling for that debate to be arranged as quickly as possible.

In light of the appalling murder of the young Jordanian air force pilot by ISIS, it is important to condemn this action categorically and that it would be condemned by all right-thinking and decent people everywhere. Even though ISIS and the Middle East seem very far away from us, geographically, I ask the Leader to arrange a debate with the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Minister for Defence on the reported number of Irish people, or people who have lived at one time or another in Ireland, who may have joined ISIS in the Middle East. This is an important issue for debate because it should be fully discussed.

On a separate point which I did not intend to raise but in reference to Senator Cullinane's few comments, the notion of a debt conference in Europe is certainly something that is worth considering. However, the Government's position is that Ireland is in a very different place from Greece. The Irish economy is doing much better than the Greek economy. It is all a matter of economic and political stability which is absent in Greece. To link Ireland's fortunes with those of Greece may not be in Ireland's best interest in that we might be giving the impression that Ireland's economic recovery is as fragile and as unstable as that of Greece. That is the Government position and it is not right for Senator Cullinane to misrepresent that situation.

I raise an issue that goes to the heart and fundamental cornerstone of the Oireachtas and of democracy. Last week the House acquiesced in and agreed to the setting up of a commission of inquiry into the Guerin report. We did this in good faith, but subsequently some startling revelations have come to light, mainly from the other House, that are troubling. If there is truth in these revelations, then we were led up a blind alley and we were misled. This issue is central to democracy. If this commission of inquiry is to be transparent, fair and objective, correspondence from the former Minister to the Ceann Comhairle and correspondence from his firm of solicitors to the Ceann Comhairle, must be made available. It has come to light today that the terms of reference of the inquiry were sent to a key player, namely, a former Minister, now Deputy Shatter, to review, add to, amend or delete those terms of reference. This is to protect the back of a particular Deputy.

That is a matter for the other House and this House has no involvement in it.

I have been a member of the Oireachtas for almost 20 years. The key issue is that if we were misled by agreeing to terms of reference that are tainted, then the matter will not end here. I warn this Chamber that we are going down a road that will end up in the courts, and I certainly want a debate. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, should be invited to the House. This is a very serious issue which goes to the heart of our justice system and our democracy and the make-up of the Oireachtas. Both Houses are working in tandem. I ask that the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, come to the House today to answer these queries. Perhaps she can allay my fears, but if there is any element of truth in them we have been misled in this House and the commission of inquiry that is being set up will end up going nowhere. Let us be fair about this.

Does the Senator wish to propose an amendment to the Order of Business?

The terms of reference cannot be dictated by a former Minister for Justice and Equality. That is an appalling breach of etiquette in this House and an appalling breach of democracy, and it goes to the cornerstone of what we stand for.

Is the Senator proposing an amendment to the Order of Business?

I am proposing an amendment that the Minister come to the House as a matter of urgency today to set out where we stand in regard to this issue. Otherwise, this will be challenged, and I will not stand over a situation in which we calmly and in good faith acquiesce to the terms of reference and are not told the full truth in this House.

Will the Senator please clarify the amendment?

I propose that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, come before the House today to explain the circumstances that have emerged since we agreed to the terms of reference last week, which I think are appalling, and whether there is any truth to them.

I welcome the initiative to prevent below-cost selling of alcohol. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 is one of the most important Bills we have seen. I am aware that there has been criticism that it has not gone far enough, but one has to start somewhere. As well as providing for low-cost selling, the ban on advertising, the warning on the labels and the calorie counts will have the effect of making people think. We are all aware of what the Road Safety Authority achieved with its advertising campaigns and what it did for road deaths. I hope this Bill, which provides for a ban on advertising will be similarly successful. I sit on the Tallaght drugs task force. Last year, the Minister with responsibility for drugs task forces ensured that alcohol was included in their remit, as it is a drug. I welcome that.

Today is world cancer day. I know we have much criticism of the health services. The purpose of world cancer day is to make people aware of cancer and the benefits of early detection. In Ireland, the survival rate for all cancers has increased from 45% in 1999 to 60% in 2011. All the cancer specialists, the hospitals and all involved in the cancer area from 1999 to date must be congratulated on the advances made by this country in ensuring that people are living longer. Breast cancer treatment has an 85% success rate, while prostrate cancer treatment has a 92% success rate and so on. I remind the House that BreastCheck is available free of charge to everybody over the age of 50; cervical smear tests and bowel screening are also available free of charge. I want to use the day to bring these issues to everybody's attention. While I am aware of criticism of the health services - and rightly so, in some areas - there are many people in the health service who do very good work. One will hear people say that when they get into hospital they are well looked after by the staff.

I was going to say something on the DEIS issue but I will leave it for tomorrow.

I ask the Leader to reiterate once again to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, the call to come to the House and tell us when he intends to establish the people's forum for Irish Water that was promised.

I believe we should pay for water and I believe it should be metered, but some of us voted based on the idea of a plebiscite and the setting up of a people's forum, which is provided for in the legislation. I would like to see that established.

The Senator should not hold her breath.

This is the second time I have asked this question and I would like an answer. I would like the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, to come here and tell the House when he intends to do that.

The second question is for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin. I was one of the lone speakers who opposed the sale of the national lottery. When is the lottery regulator being put in place, having been promised as a great white hope? I was totally against the sale of the lottery and I am still against it. I think it will come back to haunt us financially as well as in many other ways, and we are beginning to see the buds of that. When will the lottery regulator and the people's forum be put in place? I have stood by my word in regard to voting for the water services legislation and I expect the Minister to stand by his word. I would like an answer to both of those questions.

The Senator is probably noticing a bit of a trend there. They just do not do what they say they will do.

I did not ask Fianna Fáil for an answer. I asked the Leader.

He had no answer.

All we got from Fianna Fáil was trouble.


I call Senator Brennan, without interruption.

I am not asking for an answer from the Senator; I am asking the Leader.

Will Senator O'Donnell please refrain from-----

The Senator will notice the fact that the Government does not deliver.

I call Senator Terry Brennan without interruption.

I am a member of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications and unfortunately I missed a recent meeting due to a previous commitment. I wish the new chair of RTE, Ms Moya Doherty, every success in her new position. She is capable and well qualified to do the job. However, I have some concerns about the lack of accountability within RTE. After a recent executive appointment, it was stated that the salary of the executive would be disclosed after three years, but not until then. If this Government were to appoint somebody and say it would let the country know the salary for the job in three years' time, can one imagine the outcry there would be from the media, the Opposition and so on? Accountability is necessary. I am also concerned about the licence fee of €160 per annum. This is an exorbitant fee, similar to the average water charge per annum. I am aware that legislation is in the pipeline on the broadcasting charge. I believe this would be an appropriate time to have a debate on the use of the existing charges, amounting to approximately a couple of hundred million euro per annum. What is it being used for? We must ask RTE and we must have transparency and accountability. I ask the Leader for an urgent debate with the Minister prior to implementation of the new legislation that is forthcoming.

I call on the Leader to bring to the House as quickly as possible the issue of Seanad reform. The fact that I am standing here is a result of the need for Seanad reform. That was the reason I ran for election in the first instance, not expecting to be elected. I am here now and I am quite upset that we have a reform group working which has not made contact with any Member of this House seeking our input into the reforms it hopes to introduce.

Moreover, there has been no public advertisement seeking submissions, other than press releases. I believe the members of the group are all well qualified people, but I would like to have seen the Leader, Senator Cummins, on that group, as well as the Leader of the Opposition.

It would have been the way forward. I ask the Leader to arrange to have a report from that group as soon as possible.

With respect to Senator Quinn and the banks, I am absolutely astonished by the fact that the banks in this country are screwing hard-pressed middle-income earners by not reducing interest rates, while at the same time dropping prices, offering switching incentives and offering to pay stamp duty for first-time buyers. The banks are offering all sorts of incentives to new customers, yet they continue to screw their long-standing customers because they made the mistake of offering mortgage systems that were beyond their capability to sustain. I would go further than Senator Quinn. I think we need somebody from the Department of Finance to put a bit of smacht on these banks and get them to start treating all customers equally.

I am not so sure that the so-called debt conference would not be, at least, premature. As we know, the Greeks are currently showboating and touring European capitals, but we are not too sure what they are seeking.

They are seeking justice.

At a minimum, they are seeking some new kind of bond-swapping or bond-switching arrangement that is probably poppycock. I would counsel caution. We must show solidarity with our-----

-----neighbours and friends in Europe. We should await the outcome of the ongoing discussions before making any premature move. We are in a different place and must protect ourselves in the first instance, so let us pause awhile.

I have great respect for Senator Paul Coghlan and Senator Gilroy but I am a little surprised at this reluctance to support the concept of a debt conference. It is one thing to suggest that we should express solidarity with our European colleagues, but they did not show much solidarity with this country when we were in need. In fact, they showed absolute contempt for the Irish people, given the manner in which they handled things. They then changed the rules so that if the situation that developed here occurred in another country, that country would get a bailout without any of the penury that has been visited on the Irish people in recent years as a result of the unsustainable debt. The term "unsustainable debt" was used by Moody's in its latest report on Ireland, which is carried in today's media. Why should we not get involved in a debt conference if it will mean that we can at least discuss Ireland's unsustainable debt?

In recent days, I have heard the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, say that he expects to recoup up to €30 billion of the Government's investment in the banks. As the old saying goes: "Live horse, get grass." That may or may not happen, but I feel it is unusual. I have still not received clarity from anybody on the Government side as to why they are against the notion of engaging in a debt conference, particularly as we have unsustainable debt.

I wish to formally second the amendment by my colleague, Senator O'Donovan.

I rose primarily to express my astonishment at the decision by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to withhold a measly €1 million of lottery funding which traditionally goes to youth organisations and others across the country. For example, the Father Peter McVerry Trust announced that it would lose €12,000 of State funding from the lottery, which it would have used for the homeless. I find it extraordinary that on the one hand the Government is expressing sincere sympathy with the homeless and taking action in that respect, while on the other hand allowing an organisation that helps the homeless to lose €12,000. The Government is withholding a measly €1 million out of a total budget of approximately €240 million. The Leader should ask a Minister from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to attend this House to explain exactly what that budget is being spent on. This unacceptable decision will affect a wide variety of youth organisations across the State.

The Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, was in this House just over a week ago talking about the HSE's service plan. He said he would not comment on the state of accident and emergency units in individual hospitals. However, the Minister has to deal with hospitals individually because there is a difference between them and a crisis in some.

The information I have is absolutely shocking. One man spent 96 hours on a trolley and then got a bill of €300 for a bed. I have also heard an account of a mother with a baby whose ankle was fractured in three places but had to sit for ten hours without pain relief. She said: "I don't want to talk about the three psychiatric patients who played with my baby, or the girl having a miscarriage sitting beside the man with a bleeding head, or the man beside me vomiting every 15 minutes into a plastic bag." Neither did she want to talk about the elderly patient who could not walk, who came in at 2.30 p.m. and was still there unassessed when she was leaving at 3.30 a.m. There were no pillows, and no water was given to patients on trolleys. She gave her spare bottle of water to an elderly woman. The woman said:

I don't want to talk about the lack of dignity to me or to all the other patients. With no consulting rooms everybody heard my baby's history. I unwillingly heard everybody else's history.

That woman's question to the Minister, which has gone straight to his office yet remains unanswered, was about his emergency plan. Galway University Hospital needs an emergency plan for its accident and emergency unit. This appalling personal suffering is occurring daily, with an average waiting time of ten hours. I await the Leader's response. I have contacted the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, personally about this matter, but have not yet received a response. While he makes a virtue of the fact that he will not comment on individual hospital cases, these appalling cases of human suffering will continue.

Ba mhaith liom tacú go huile agus go hiomlán leis an méid a dúirt an Seanadóir Traolach Ó Braonáin maidir le RTÉ agus an táille craolacháin atá molta.

It is high time we had a searching discussion in this House about the operation of the current television licence fee, the proposed broadcasting charge, and particularly the role of the national broadcaster. It seems to me that the media are the great unaccountable, and largely unexamined, force in modern Ireland. It has long been of concern that many such people - whose salaries, which are sometimes large, are funded by the taxpayer - are off on a frolic of their own, engaged in seeking to manipulate public opinion on occasions and shaping the direction of the country, but without being accountable in any way. This is generally achieved by means of people-----

Like your own institute.

-----setting up companies and having private contracts with those companies. A contract is made with a particular company for the services of a certain celebrity who is being paid hundreds of thousands of euro - money that is paid by the taxpayer. They are being funded to lead a celebrity lifestyle while, at the same time, often enjoying a completely unaccountable role in seeking to shape public opinion, which is far beyond their proper role. We need to have a searching discussion on that from the perspective of accountability. Whether the issue is rural or urban Ireland, liberal or conservative, we need to examine the media's role and how taxpayers' money is being used.

I wish to thank the Leader for getting a response for me from the Minister for Health on two issues I have raised: the question of procurement processes at the Saolta University Health Care Group, and issues concerning baby cooling. I note that the only answer we have got from the Minister is that the Department has been advised by the HSE's national director of internal audit that the internal audit process is ongoing. This is the examination of the procurement of particular services by the Saolta University Health Care Group.

We were promised that this audit would be completed by last Christmas. The former CEO, Mr. Maher, has presumably moved on to another role on the east coast of the country. The question I asked as to whether the results of the audit would have any implication for his role or tenure remain unanswered because we do not know what the audit shows. I am afraid this letter does not tell us why the delay occurred. I thank the Leader for his unstinting efforts to get answers for me and the House, but I would be grateful if he asked the HSE and the Minister on my behalf why we have not had a response or a result from the audit at this stage.

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

I join with other speakers in welcoming the proposed legislation to ban below-cost selling of alcohol. I understand the heads of the Bill will be published today or tomorrow. If this is to be successful, it must be approached on an all-Ireland basis. There is no point in implementing legislation governing the Twenty-six Counties which does not involve some type of co-operation or similar legislation in the Six Counties. Those in the part of the country from where I come live less than seven miles from the Border. As it stands, regularly, particularly coming up to Christmas and other occasions such as Easter, huge convoys of people travel from as far away as Cork and Kerry to the North of Ireland to purchase alcohol. Even with below-cost sales of alcohol in our supermarkets, people still travel to the North of Ireland because they can get it cheaper. This may have changed with the difference in the currencies. Any measures to deal with below-cost selling of alcohol will not work without a Thirty-two-County approach.

A major education programme should be launched in secondary schools. During the late 1970s and 1980s a huge emphasis was placed on an anti-smoking campaign, which was, in my opinion, hugely successful. I was part of a class of 28 in secondary school only one of whom smoked because from first year to fifth year we had periodic classes showing us the dangers of smoking. If the same approach were taken to teaching our young people, starting in first year of secondary school, the harm that abuse of alcohol can cause, it would be money well worth spending. Like Senator MacSharry, I believe some of the money should be ring-fenced for educational purposes as well as for suicide prevention.

Creid é nó ná creid, tá Seachtain na Gaeilge ag teannadh linn go tapa agus ba mhaith liom iarraidh ar an gCeannaire go mbeadh díospóireachtaí níos leithne againn, b'fhéidir, i mbliana maidir le cúrsaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta. The Leader is aware that Seachtain na Gaeilge is hurtling towards us at a considerable pace. I appreciate the efforts made in previous years to ensure we have a level of debate as Gaeilge in the House, and I ask that this year we broaden it so that it is not merely Irish language and Gaeltacht issues that are discussed. A number of Ministers are very proficient in the language, and perhaps we could have another debate as Gaeilge also. It would be very good for the promotion of the language, and Members of the House would be well able for such debates.

I was lucky enough to be in Brussels yesterday with a delegation of small fishermen from throughout the island of Ireland, at the behest of the Liadh Ní Riada, MEP, and Matt Carthy, MEP. It was a very interesting engagement on fisheries issues with officials from the Commission. Very harrowing personal stories were told about the difficulties of fishermen at present and the pressures they are under financially, socially and emotionally in trying to make ends meet. A very specific issue that it is important for us to discuss is the new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. At present it is up to member states to debate what types of measure they will bring forward under the fund. Many of the measures would be able to alleviate difficulties in bringing younger people into the industry as well as dealing with safety issues, upgrading the fleet and other issues with regard to maintaining the rural communities in which the fishermen live. I call for a specific debate, not on broader fishing interests, but on the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and the Minister's proposals in this regard, which must be tabled in the coming months to the Commission. It would be a very useful debate.

I am delighted to welcome the legislation announced by the Government yesterday and I am glad to see there is at least some support across the House for it. We will come under pressure in the coming weeks from lobbyists on this issue. I hope the backbenchers and Senators who come under pressure will hold tight. I am proud of the commitment we have made with regard to minimum pricing of alcohol. One aspect which was quite validly raised by Senator Wilson is co-operation with Northern Ireland. Most discussions I have heard in recent hours have missed one important point. The Minister stated that there was an agreement with Northern Ireland that similar measures would be introduced at the same time, so that a cross-Border trade in cheap alcohol would not further develop. This vital point, which has been overlooked in much of the commentary I have heard, is an important element of what is very well thought-out legislation.

Elements of the Bill include provisions to prevent the sale of cheap alcohol, which is the headline issue, health labelling and warnings, which are also very important, including calorie counts, powers for environmental health officers to enforce the separation of alcohol within stores and to police minimum unit pricing, the legal regulation of sports sponsorship, which will be difficult, and restrictions on the advertising and marketing of alcohol, including a broadcast watershed. The Bill would also make it illegal to market alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children. I have called in the Chamber for all of these measures, on which the Government seems to be taking action, and I am delighted. The tabloids will report this as the end of cheap drink, but it is simply a package of mechanisms, including calorie counts and restrictions on advertising, to ensure that people treat alcohol responsibly and prevent it from becoming just another commodity that they casually pick up in the supermarket. As with the legislation on plain packaging of cigarettes, lobbyists will pile pressure on our backbenchers in the coming weeks, particularly ahead of an election, but I encourage everyone to hold the line and support these actions, which are badly needed.

Senator O'Brien proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 13 be taken before No. 2. It is with regard to publishing a Bill. I have no problem with this, and I agree to the amendment.

I agree with him that there have been difficulties with the fair deal scheme. I understand that on 20 January there were 763 delayed discharges nationally, of which 368 were in the Dublin teaching hospitals. A focus on these delayed discharges is key to efficient patient flow, and significant resources are being applied to provide the best possible mix of support and services. The Government committed an additional €25 million in the budget for 2015 to address delayed discharges. This has resulted in 300 extra approvals under the nursing home support scheme. The waiting time for approved funding has dropped from 17 weeks, which it was before Christmas, to 11 weeks, as the Senator mentioned. A total of 50 additional short-stay beds have been sourced from the private sector. A total of 400 home care packages were approved in the greater Dublin area for 2015. All requirements for home care are being met across the target hospitals, with 80 home care packages currently deployed, and the number is increasing daily. A further 386 transitional beds were approved across all acute hospitals by the week ending 23 January. These are the transitional care beds put in place to address the surge in delayed discharges which the Senator mentioned. There are no significant delays associated with the provision of home care.

This is monitored daily. As of October 2014, some 8.5 million home care hours had been provided to 46,608 people and 13,000 home care packages had been approved to enable older people to remain living in their communities. In addition to these measures, the HSE has allocated 165 transitional care beds to support Dublin's academic teaching hospitals, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and Naas General Hospital. As of 26 January 2015, all of these beds had been assessed.

In light of the recent surge in activity in emergency departments, the HSE is considering the potential of spare capacity for short-stay beds in the private nursing home sector. The HSE is profiling where the extra potential capacity is and matching the locations to the patients. It is on target to bring about additional bed streams at Mount Carmel Hospital on a phased basis from the end of March.

There has been significant progress. We have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to attend the Seanad to discuss the matter further. She has agreed, but it will be March before she is in a position to do so. I hope that the situation will have improved significantly by then.

I thank the Leader.

Senator Landy referred to the review of court services in County Tipperary. I assure him that there is no intention to close the courthouse in Carrick-on-Suir, which was refurbished recently.

A number of Senators discussed the measures to tackle the sale of cheap alcohol. The Minister has promised that the legislation will be before us by the summer. Senators made many points about the abuse of alcohol. Senator Wilson referred to the great level of co-operation between the Ministers on both sides of the Border. The measures will be co-ordinated, so that what happens in Ireland as regards the below-cost sale of alcohol will happen across the Border simultaneously. This is significant. Many Senators stated validly that the money saved from this initiative needed to be ring-fenced for public health measures.

Senators Norris and Gilroy condemned the murder of the Japanese journalist and Jordanian pilot. We would all like to be associated with the Senators' remarks. What happened was appalling. A new barbarity exists, which is most regrettable.

Senators MacSharry and Henry referred to the issue of alcohol and I have addressed that.

Senator Burke discussed attendance levels at accident and emergency departments and the outstanding fees. Responsibility for collecting those fees lies with each hospital. I am sure that hospitals will be following up on the matter. The Senator alluded to the Minister's willingness to include general practitioners, GPs, and representatives of nursing homes on the emergency committee to deal with accident and emergency units and so on. This is important.

Senators Quinn and Craughwell raised the need for banks to treat all customers equally. I agree, but giving benefits to new customers while not extending the same benefits to existing ones seems to be the order of the day. I will bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Finance.

It was mentioned that there may be a need to protect investors in crowd funding. Senator Quinn has raised this matter several times. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, attended the House to discuss it some time ago, but I will impress upon him the possible need for such legislation.

Senator Sheahan asked about the Coroners Bill. I will try to find a date for when the Bill will be on Committee Stage. He also raised the need for a debate on road safety. I will invite the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, to the House to address the matter.

Senators Cullinane, Paul Coghlan and others discussed a debt conference. The Greek Government has stated that it does not intend to default on its loans, which is a major change from what we were led to believe was the situation. Some commentators have got it wrong by stating that we should try to emulate Greece. Our economies are fundamentally different. We have an open and dynamic economy with a highly flexible and educated workforce and a high-tech export base. Ireland has successfully exited the bailout and is firmly on the road to recovery without external conditional funding assistance. I do not understand any argument that proposes to derail our recovery and plunge our country back into economic chaos.

As to the matter of a debt conference, there are already forums for discussing debt issues, namely, the Eurogroup and ECOFIN. It was there that Ireland negotiated concessions to reduce our borrowing in the next decade by €50 billion. Without those concessions, we would have been unlikely to exit the bailout and restore growth to the economy. Our government-to-debt ratio fell more quickly last year than did any other eurozone country's and is no longer viewed as being unsustainable by the markets. We are still in the process of restructuring our bailout debts so as to make them even more affordable, having received unanimous European support for refinancing €18 billion of our IMF loans at much lower interest rates, saving the taxpayer at least €1.5 billion.

The option of applying for retrospective capitalisation of our core banks remains on the table but, as the Minister, Deputy Noonan, has made clear, we are also considering other options that might prove better for the Irish taxpayer and would not involve the transfer of ownership of our banking system to a bureaucracy in Luxembourg. We have already committed to recovering all funding that this Government injected into our core banks.

Senator Gilroy called for a debate with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, regarding terrorism and, in particular, ISIS. I will try to arrange for it.

Senator O'Donovan discussed the commission of inquiry, a matter that was raised last week and again yesterday. It has been alleged that the terms of reference have changed since they were agreed. I am not sure whether that is the situation, but we will investigate. If the terms of reference have been changed as alleged, the Minister will attend the Seanad. However, I do not propose to accept the amendment to the Order of Business.

Senator Keane stated that today was world cancer day and referred to the benefits of early detection. It is right that we outline the successes in the treatment of cancer over the years and compliment everyone working in that field, including Senator Crown.

Our health care professionals are doing an excellent job. The successes in the treatment of cancer should be shouted out loud because people are fearful. Treatment has a tremendous success rate.

Senator O'Donnell discussed the people's forum and Irish Water. As she rightly pointed out, section 7 of the Water Services Act 2014 provides it as a function of the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, to establish that forum. The Department has met the CER to progress the forum's establishment.

The Department is preparing regulations to set out details of the forum and the Minister will be providing the draft regulations to the Oireachtas joint committee for comment before finalising the composition and membership of the forum. I hope that answers that question.

Senators Brennan and Mullen raised the national broadcaster and the lack of accountability in RTE on how the licence fee is spent, and also the question of the large salaries some presenters receive of which the public will not be made aware for at least three years. There is a question of accountability in that regard and I will bring that matter to the attention of the Minister.

Senator Craughwell raised Seanad reform proposals. That committee has met on several occasions and will continue to meet. I have spoken to the Chairman of that committee. When the report is complete, I will invite the Chairman to come in here and debate it with the Members of this House. That will provide an opportunity for each and every Member to go through it, as it deserves. I am sure it will be a comprehensive report. I am thankful that the Chairman is willing to come into the House, if invited, to discuss that report with us.

Senator Mooney stated that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is holding back €1 million in lottery funding. I will certainly inquire what the position is in that regard. It is strange that €1 million of such a budget would be held back and I am not quite sure what the reason is for that.

Senator Healy Eames mentioned that she has written to the Minister regarding the accident and emergency department in Galway. I am sure the Minister will reply to her in that regard. Seeing that she has written to the Minister, there is nothing I can do to assist. I am sure that he will give her the necessary reply.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised Seachtain na Gaeilge. As in previous years, we will try to arrange some debates in the Irish language. The Senator also called for a debate on the EU Maritime and Fisheries Fund. I will ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, to come in and see if we can have a debate on that before proposals are sent to Europe.

Senator Darragh O'Brien has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 13 be taken before No. 2." The Leader indicated that he is prepared to accept the amendment.

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 13 be taken before No. 2."

Is that agreed? Agreed. Senator Denis O'Donovan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate with the Minister for Justice and Equality on the circumstances that have emerged since the terms of reference for the commission of investigation regarding the Cavan-Monaghan division of the Garda Síochána were adopted by the Seanad be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 22; Níl, 24.

  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Mac Conghail, Fiach.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Brien, Mary Ann.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
  • Zappone, Katherine.


  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Jim.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Keeffe, Susan.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Ivana Bacik and Paul Coghlan.
Amendment declared lost.
Order of Business, as amended, agreed to.