The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Council Decision (EU) 2015/1523 of 14 September 2015; and No. 2, motion re Council Decision (EU) 2015/1601 of 22 September 2015. With the agreement of the House, Nos. 1 and 2 will be debated together at 1 p.m. and conclude not later than 3 p.m, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 2.55 p.m.
Order of Business
The Deputy Leader will take the rest of the Order of Business for me.
I welcome the delegation from Taiwan and hope its members enjoy their stay in the country.
I ask the Leader to organise a debate on the situation at Longboat Quay and the plight of residents in that development. They face being evicted because fire safety certificates are not available. The Government needs to help them. The people who signed off on the certificates and who deemed the workmanship to be up to standard should be held to account. They are the ones who should ultimately foot the bill. I ask the Leader to organise a debate on the issue.
The Government can be accused of many things but it cannot be accused of following the wisdom of a former President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, when he said, "I not only use all the brains I have, but all I can borrow." Not only is the Government not using the brains it has, but it is not even borrowing advice. It is certainly borrowing money. The way the backbenchers in the other House are going on, one would swear we had the money to give away. Up to €1.5 billion is being talked about as a giveaway in the budget. Let me remind the House that we will borrow €1.7 billion in 2016. The interest payments on the national debt are €7 billion. What we are actually doing is taking money out of children's pockets in order to pay for the voters who can vote in the next general election.
I ask for a debate on the McKinsey report, "Is Ireland's Population Ready for Retirement?" because our current pension system is unsustainable. The Social Insurance Fund has a deficit this year of €2 billion and a cumulative deficit in the past few years of €10 billion and by 2020 the deficit in the pension pot will be €20 billion. In 25 years time, in 2040, the deficit for pensions will be €133 billion. It is entirely unsustainable. The Government cannot be accused of using the brains it has, or even of borrowing some brains, but it is borrowing money to buy votes.
I ask Senator Paul Coghlan to contain himself if he can because I want to talk about NAMA. In 2011, with my Fianna Fáil colleagues, I introduced the NAMA and Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Transparency Bill. We asked the Government to accept the Bill on the premise that the public needed confidence in NAMA. I have confidence in the people who work in NAMA and the systems they have in place, but, as we have seen at the Committee of Public Accounts today, in the North and the Dáil, the issues raised about the sale of property are ones about which we should all be concerned. The array of politicians who are now involved in this controversy is testament to the fact that legislation we proposed here, which was not about scoring points, would assist the Government in making sure the public had confidence in the system. It was about transparency. This is a huge portfolio that was sold on behalf of the taxpayer. There are always questions about whether there was value for money, but it is always about the process. Our job as legislators is to ensure the process has the public's confidence. For that reason, I ask the Leader opposite to consider looking again at the NAMA and Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Transparency Bill which is about having public confidence in NAMA. We could avoid what is happening at the Committee of Public Accounts today and all the controversy that it is generating and ensure there will be no need for further Committee of Public Accounts hearings on that issue.
As I am standing in for the Leader, I have asked one of my Labour Party colleagues to speak on behalf of the Labour Party today.
Before we proceed, I pay tribute to former Senator Jimmy Harte, as I have not been in the House since he announced his retirement. I give him my personal best wishes and thank him for his work as a Senator and a councillor and for what he has done in his local area in County Donegal. I wish him the very best in the future.
I join others in welcoming the Building on Recovery programme. There has been much talk in the past couple of days about potential elections and dates for elections and the fact that this is all just an election package. It always amuses me that if we had not produced a programme to examine infrastructure across the areas of tourism, transport and health, the Opposition would rightly state the Government was not in a position to spend any money and did not have a capital plan or know where it was going. It seems that, as ever with the Opposition, the Government cannot win. It is good to see a proper plan being put in place over five years and, locally, to finally see the money coming for the N4 road that leads to Sligo. As many know locally and nationally, many people have had fatal accidents on the current road. Finally the money will be made available in this plan to sort it out. In neighbouring County Leitrim there is a terrific proposal for the Blueway programme, which is a little like the Greenway programme but it includes the waterways and rivers as a tourism amenity for the county. It will give County Leitrim a much needed boost, with a sum of nearly €250,000 to develop that very worthy project, on which people have been working for many years without knowing whether they would receive the funding. They have pulled off a very good plan. Right around the country, this plan has good, solid elements to it. It will be based over five years and it has been costed. Some places have had money spent and one can always say it is because there is a Minister or a Deputy there, but that is the nature of public representation. The most important thing is that it builds on the recovery that we have seen and it will continue to build on that recovery. Therefore, it should be welcomed by everybody without the level of cynicism that we have seen.
I am a member of the Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, before which the Ombudsman laid his annual report yesterday. I welcome the work that he and his office continue to do. They are always on time with their reports and have been working very hard to try to bring certain matters into their own jurisdictions, including nursing homes, which they have succeeded in doing. They are hoping to open negotiations to try to include people in direct provision, who would then be given access to the Ombudsman. One of the matters raised by the Ombudsman which has been raised for a number of years concerns the fact that their IT system remains under pressure and that it dates back to the 1990s, which for some of us does not seem that long ago, but in terms of IT systems it is an incredibly long time ago. They are putting together a plan to seek funding for a new system. If we believe in accountability and transparency and the power and value of an ombudsman, this is funding that should be granted to the Ombudsman's office in the very near future.
This is the International Day of Older Persons. I would like to have a debate about our mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters and ourselves and talk about how our children will care for us in the future. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, said here yesterday:
While we currently enjoy favourable demographics over many other European partners, we will be facing pressures sooner rather than later. Relative to a decade ago, an extra 200,000 citizens will be over the age of 65 by 2021.
That is only five years away. He continued: "That will account for a quarter of our population by 2060." By 2050, one in five of us will be over 60. The Minister went on to say:
Pressures in all areas, such as health and State pension schemes alone are estimated to cost an initial €400 million per annum. This is simply the cost of standing still. Our commitment to our citizens in these areas requires that we consider these trends into the future and make plans accordingly.
The number of people over 60 years will double between now and 2060. My mum and dad are still alive, I am glad to say, as is my mother-in-law. They are all over 90 years old; my mother is 97 and on her way to being 100. We have a great time, but they need a lot of care. People are living longer. Soon we will have to raise the retirement age to 80, which sounds absolutely crazy. Jonathan Irwin, my husband, is 74 years old and will not be able to stop earning money until he is 80. That is the way things will go.
To be more serious, I will return to 2013 and the respite care grant. We had a debate about it after the Government had cut it in the budget. The budget is approaching. The Government should restore the respite care grant. The carers of Ireland are underpaid and get €208 a week to look after older people. The 19% cut to the respite care grant which was imposed by us in budget 2013 was deeply unfair and disproportionate to the cuts applied across the general social protection budget.
Can we all, please, stand up and lobby for carers?
A smaller issue but just as important to older people is the restoration of the household benefits package. The telephone allowance was abolished by the Government, which flies in the face of its policy on caring for people at home. Without a telephone line, the lives of older and sick people are being put at risk. They do not have any tele-care equipment, alarms or a direct link to their carers. Many older people are simply not up to date in terms of mobile phones and so forth.
I apologise that I will have to leave the Chamber early but the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland is launching its pre-budget submission on Dawson Street this morning. I ask anyone who has the time to come with me to that launch which is taking place at 19 Dawson Street. Alzheimer's is the most awful disease and we must talk about it. It is not dementia. A person with Alzheimer's will, in the end, forget to swallow. It is not about being forgetful but is the most aggressive, disproportionately tragic disease for entire families. I urge my colleagues to come to Dawson Street and join the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland which is working to make things better for citizens with Alzheimer's disease.
I agree entirely with Senators Mary Ann O'Brien and Mark Daly on pensions. We had a very good debate last night on Senator John Crown's Bill which I am delighted the Government accepted on Second Stage, but that debate was a reminder that we are facing a crisis. It is a crisis about which we must do something. Too often in these Houses we pass laws which propose solutions, but we do not pass on the resources to ensure we can deliver those solutions. Senator Mark Daly is correct with regard to the horrific pensions figures. I mention this because we have passed laws to ensure buildings are checked for fireproofing and so forth, but we have not enforced them. What happened in Longboat Quay is an example of this. We have the legislation in place to ensure such inspections take place, but we have not got around to doing anything about it. There was a very interesting interview with a senior member of the British police force this morning who spoke about the fact that reduced manpower means the force is not able to enforce new legislation. New legislation on children in cars being exposed to cigarette smoke, for which Senator John Crown has pushed, came into force in Britain today but the police authorities have stated they will not be able to enforce it. They have stated they are not even going to attempt to enforce it because resources will not allow it. That is a reminder to us in this House that we can pass laws, but if we do so while not providing the resources needed to enforce them, we are leaving ourselves open to the criticism that we are not taking into account the challenges that face us and the ability to solve them.
I call for a debate with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on the funding of public service broadcasting. Many of us in this House met the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland yesterday to tease out how television licence funding was being dispersed. Figures show clearly that 87% or €140 of the €160 licence fee goes to RTE and TG4. A further 6.6% is allocated to the sound and vision fund, but RTE and TG4 get 50% of that too, while 6.1% goes to An Post as the collection agent. A variety of stations provide and transmit programmes that have significant public service content. We need to look at the current funding model, the very high level of evasion of the TV licence fee and the fact that viewing methods and habits are changing. We must have a discussion on how the proposed broadcasting charge will work and how the moneys raised will be dispersed.
There are some very obvious questions we must address. Are we getting good value for the €140 of the €160 licence fee that goes to RTE? Why are our excellent local stations such as Galway Bay FM getting no support whatsoever, despite having a very significant level of public service content? Is it acceptable that RTE which is funded by the taxpayer refuses to reveal the salaries of its top earners? Its interviewers are always very aggressive with politicians and heads of various companies and organisations and look for transparency and openness, yet when data on presenters who are earning multiples of what the Taoiseach earns are sought by the Committee of Public Accounts, RTE runs for cover and hides behind a two-year disclosure rule. That is not acceptable. We also need to look at whether those presenters who earn very high salaries are giving us good value. Some benchmarking is called for in that regard. We need a much more level playing field. Local radio stations deliver high quality content and are providing a real service for their communities. They deserve support and when the proposed new funding model is constructed, I want to see local radio stations getting a share of the funding that will become available for public service broadcasting.
I am delighted that Senator Michael Mullins has raised this very important issue. It defies belief, after almost five years of the Government, that Fine Gael and Labour Party backbenchers have not been raising this issue on a consistent basis. I cannot understand why politicians, particularly from non-Dublin constituencies where local radio is very strong, have not been banging the drum on this issue. The local radio representative body, the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, has been lobbying consistently on this issue. In fact, it made a presentation to the recent Fianna Fáil think-in along the lines outlined by the Senator. It also held a lobby day yesterday.
I suggest to the Deputy Leader that she make strong representations to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, to abolish the obligation on local radio stations to pay the broadcast levy. That levy should be absorbed into the licence fee. I wish to declare an interest: I present a programme on Ocean FM in the north west. I am aware the levy costs that station €30,000 annually, which would go a long way towards employing one, if not two, people at the station, especially in the news, current affairs and sports departments, which are the most labour-intensive areas. That is why Senator Michael Mullins's outline of the issue is so pertinent and relevant. There is a need for a parallel fund to the sound and vision fund because that money is being split primarily between independent producers and RTE and is not going to the local radio stations. While I would welcome the abolition of the sound and vision fund, I understand this might create severe financial difficulties for the independent production sector. In that context, I do not want to wed myself to the view that it should be abolished, but there is definitely a need to review the question of where the money is coming from. The Independent Broadcasters of Ireland has put forward the contention, with which I agree, that if the licence fee was competently and efficiently collected by An Post, the evasion money, amounting to some €30 million, could go towards providing a fund for local radio stations to provide news, current affairs and sports coverage.
To pick up on the point made by Senator Michael Mullins about collecting the licence fee, despite all the marketing taking place on television and radio to encourage people to buy television licences, An Post is inherently inefficient in collecting the money. The evasion rate is 20% compared to a rate of only 5% in the United Kingdom. The collection agency in the United Kingdom is a private company, although An Post is almost a private company at this stage. The Minister must ask questions as to the reasons An Post is not more efficient in collecting the licence fee. What is wrong? Why do we have an evasion rate that is far above international norms? Senator Michael Mullins asked similar questions of the Deputy Leader, given that the licence fee comes within the purview of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, who is also a member of the Labour Party. Priority should be given to the abolition of the levy imposed on local radio stations, as such a step would free them up financially, at least in the short term, and allow them to provide more jobs.
I welcome my colleague, Senator Susan O'Keeffe, back to the House and thank her and Senators Marc MacSharry, Sean D. Barrett and Michael D'Arcy for the good work they have done at the banking inquiry.
I agree with Senator Mark Daly that there is a need for an urgent debate on the Longboat Quay development. We face a scenario where 900 residents of this apartment complex face possible homelessness because they are living in a building that is potentially a firetrap. I agree with the Senator that it seems nobody is to be held responsible. The fire authority is not responsible; the developer has gone bankrupt and is not responsible; the professionals are not responsible because all they had to do was a walk-through inspection, and HomeBond is not responsible because, let us face it, the company is never responsible for anything as far as I can determine and certainly was not held responsible for pyrite. What in God's name was the point of the apartment owners paying insurance for so many years when it has all been for nothing? I do not know why the issue is not being treated as one for the criminal code. While the developer may have gone bankrupt, the bottom line is that he has put lives at risk for as long as the development has not been repaired to the extent necessary to allow people to live in it in safety.
Apartment developments accounted for 78% of all buildings constructed in Dublin between 2004 and 2007. Other apartment developments, including, I understand, one in Ratoath, have been put into the frame. That is not to say there are not many other apartment complexes which have not yet come into view because apparently the difficulties arise in many cases when leaks are found, a wall is opened up and, lo and behold, the filling required to prevent fire spreading to other apartments is absent. It is an absolute disaster. We did not seem to have a problem imposing an insurance levy on the entire insurance business to pay for the cost of Quinn Insurance. I want to know what can be done for all those who spent good money on apartments, many of whom are in negative equity, and cannot afford to pay €18,000, €24,000 or €30,000 to have their homes rehabilitated. This is a very serious issue requiring serious attention because I guarantee a fire will occur and someone will die.
I welcome the announcement today of the rationalisation of agencies operating in the field of industrial relations. Five agencies have become two, with 20% fewer staff and 10% less money. One of the benefits claimed is that a total of two electronic forms will be used, one for a complaint and the other for an appeal, from now on, replacing the 44 paper forms that were used previously. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, the Minister of State at his Department, Deputy Gerald Nash, and Mr. Kieran Mulvey are to be complimented on the reforms and I wish them well in their efforts. These reforms were recommended by an bord snip nua when the public finances were in a dire position. The contribution this body made to the improvement in the public finances should be recognised. It was not just a group of Thatcherites or monetarists but people who were trying to implement better governance of the country.
The IMF meets this week and part of the agenda of the meeting will be to choose a new director. An agreement is in place that the position should be held permanently by a person from western Europe. We have had three financial crises, one each in the United States, Europe and China, respectively, and the IMF has proved to be less than adequate in dealing with them. Yesterday, the Financial Times stated somebody with a mastery of international macroeconomics should be appointed and called for politicians to be excluded and candidates to have leadership skills. It suggested a panel of eminent international economists submit a list of names, rather than using the old pals' network through which such posts have been filled previously. It is essential, if the IMF is to play the vital role envisaged in the Bretton-Woods agreement, that we move to ability-based criteria, as the Financial Times suggests. Ireland could propose Mr. Mark Carney, a former Governor of the Bank of Canada - there was no banking crisis in Canada unlike the one that occurred across the border in the United States - who is currently Governor of the Bank of England. Canada and Ireland sit in the same constituency of the IMF and Mr. Carney is a member of the Irish diaspora and carries an Irish passport. If Ireland were to take the initiative on this matter, it would make a major contribution to ending the unsatisfactory position whereby the IMF has been asleep during critical financial crises.
Ba mhaith liom dá bhféadfaimid díospóireacht a bheith againn leis an Aire Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta i bhfianaise an scéala atá ag teacht amach ar maidin, gur cuireadh os cionn €8 milliún de bhuiséad na Roinne sin ar ais isteach sa Státchiste anuraidh nuair nár caitheadh é.
I call for a debate with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in the light of reports on a tourism website this morning that €8 million of the Department's budget was not spent last year. One could argue the Minister did a good job in saving a few bob, except that many groups, individuals and organisations have had their funding cut or have been told when seeking funding that money was not available. This has resulted in film festivals being cancelled, theatre projects being shelved, publishers losing funding, ferry services to Inis Mór being reduced because, we were told, there was not enough money available and very little money being made available for the 20-year strategy. Co-operatives in the Gaeltacht are seeking more funding and capital funding to Údarás na Gaeltachta, which was severely cut by the previous Government, has not been restored. Some of these savings could have been used to increase funding to an adequate level.
We are informed that part of the reason for the underspend was the lack of progress with Teach an Phiarsaigh in Rosmuc. If that is the case, why has the project not progressed quickly enough? The Seanad has been debating this issue for the past four and a half years. Teach an Phiarsaigh was closed early this year and staff were not available to work in it in September. It strikes me that there may well be questions regarding management and leadership in the Department. Perhaps the departmental budget was not tracked properly during the year and when the €8 million became available at the end of the year management did not know what to do with it. That is not acceptable from either a senior Minister or Minister of State. The House should have a debate on the management of funding in the Department because it is certainly not good enough.
An tUltach which produces a magazine waged a campaign to try to secure funding of €20,000 during the year but was turned away. It is galling for the organisation and those who have supported its campaign to see €8 million being returned to the State. Níl sé sin sách maith. Níl sé maith go leor. Sílim gur cheart go mbeadh díospóireacht iomlán againn maidir leis an Roinn sin agus an chaoi ina bhfuil sí á bainistiú i bhfianaise na scéala atá tagtha amach.
Last week the Irish Tax Institute published its pre-budget submission in which it drew attention to the fact that Ireland was not advancing up the global rankings on entrepreneurship. Many Irish business leaders have expressed concern about the unfair tax treatment of entrepreneurs. Despite the stellar work of Enterprise Ireland under the leadership of Ms Julie Sinnamon in getting people to start up businesses, we are operating in an unfair playing field. Recently, the president of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Ireland, Mr. Brian Purcell, stated the unfair tax treatment of Irish entrepreneurs meant they could be better off staring businesses in the United States or the United Kingdom. He argued that the potential for entrepreneurs to build and scale their businesses here is being seriously undermined by the unequal tax treatment they receive in comparison to their counterparts in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Specifically, he called for urgent changes to the punitive high rate of capital gains tax of 33% on entrepreneurs.
In Ireland we have an absurd situation where the greater the value an entrepreneur adds to a business the more he or she will owe the Government in tax when he or she eventually comes to sell or pass it on to the next generation. In the United Kingdom there is a special entrepreneur relief scheme which reduces to 10% the capital gains tax payable on the first £10 million in profit gained from the disposal of a business. The United Kingdom experienced a brain drain and five years ago the country improved the system of taxation for entrepreneurs. The Irish Government needs to follow suit. It is intolerable that Irish entrepreneurs must pay more than three times as much tax as their UK counterparts.
Last week I referred to the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, in the production of which Senator Michael Mullins participated with me. Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy was Chairman and I was honoured to be rapporteur in producing the report. All 12 recommendations received unanimous support from the all-party or cross-party committee.
Does the Senator have a question for the Leader?
Yes, a very important one. The Oireachtas joint committee recommended that the Government, in the forthcoming budget, remove the discrimination in the taxation system faced by self-employed entrepreneurs by introducing a tax credit for the self-employed which would be equivalent to the PAYE tax credit and by introducing social welfare supports because, despite paying PRSI, entrepreneurs had no safety net. Most importantly, the Government should give serious consideration to the introduction of an entrepreneur capital tax rate of 10% instead of having to pay capital gains tax at the rate of 33%.
I have huge sympathy for the families living in the building which is a fire trap and support much of what I heard Senator Aideen Hayden say. Who could afford to pay €18,000 per unit to make the apartments liveable in? I want the Leader to address my next question in his reply. What action will the Government take to ensure innocent homeowners will not be the victims of shoddy below-standard work that puts the health, safety and lives of families at risk? How did the work escape the attention of Dublin City Council? What regulations did the council have in place? Liability must fall in the right place; it certainly should not fall into the lap of the homeowners who are innocent victims.
I raise the issue of public service pensions. Is there any chance we could have the Minister for Finance in the House before the budget to discuss the matter? I know that there are only a few days left, perhaps only one. Gabh mo leithscéal; there is also next week. It has come to my attention that there is discriminatory treatment of public service pensioners when compared with public service workers. I understand pay is being restored to workers who earn up to €105,000, whereas pensions above €34,000 are not being fully restored. One must have a little sympathy for pensioners because their income is limited and finite, plus their working days are over in terms of what they can earn. I do not believe there should be unfair treatment between workers and pensioners because pensioners have given their service to the country.
I wonder if others are aware of an anomaly with regard to the universal social charge that has been brought to my attention by people at doors. I refer to retired public servants, including postmasters, teachers, nurses and gardaí. All of their pension moneys are liable for USC at the rates laid down in the budget, whereas that is not the case for those in receipt of non-contributory pensions. These are the people who contributed. Why?
To sum up, are we likely to have an opportunity to have a debate with the Minister on public service pensions? Will the two anomalies to which I have pointed be dealt with? I refer to the removal of unfair treatment for public service pensioners. Will these matters be addressed in the budget?
With the Leader and to support what he said, I welcome Ms Vanessa Shih and the other members of the Taiwanese delegation who were seated in the Visitors Gallery.
They have left.
I know, but they were here earlier. I just wanted to extend my own welcome to them.
Senator Mark Daly mentioned Longboat Quay. I agree with him and all of my other colleagues who raised the issue that it is appalling for the 600 householders in 300 apartments who each face, as others said, a bill of what appears to be about €18,000. I know that negotiations are ongoing. It has been reported today that the residents are in close contact with the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and the receiver for McNamara builders. We all echo the sentiments expressed so strongly that the householders - the apartment owners and residents - should not have to foot the bill for this appalling failure of regulation. The matter dates back to the Celtic tiger boom, light-touch regulation and the ridiculous system of self-certification which then prevailed but which has since been addressed. Clearly, the current laws are tighter. As others said, it is appalling that residents are faced with this potential liability. However, matters have moved on. There are some reports that the Dublin Docklands Development Authority has paid €1 million for fire alarm remedial works and, apparently, some money has been paid out. I will follow up on the requests made by colleagues for a Minister to come to the House to debate the issue. I ask that colleagues consider tabling a Commencement matter to seek an update from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, although clearly the matter is not within his purview, but we all very much hope it will be resolved in favour of the residents.
On the second point made by Senator Mark Daly, he gave us a lecture on financial prudence, which is somewhat hard to take from a member of the Fianna Fáil Party. I remind him that for two hours yesterday we had pre-budget statements with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and the Minister of State at that Department, Deputy Simon Harris. The Senator could have raised the issues about the deficit during that debate. I also remind him that the deficit the Government faced on entering office as a result of the actions of Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil-Green Party Governments was €25 billion and that that figure has been reduced by 80%. There is a lesson to be learned from this.
The Senator also referred to NAMA. His remarks were directed more at Senator Paul Coghlan than at me. I remind Senator Mark Daly that officials from NAMA are attending a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts today. We all have serious questions to ask about the matters that have come to light about the sale of assets in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly, there will be greater clarity as a result of the meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts today.
Senator Susan O'Keeffe paid tribute to former Senator Jimmy Harte. As I said yesterday, I know how much the Harte family greatly appreciate the sentiments expressed and tributes paid in the House on his retirement. I ask any colleague who wishes to sign a card for him which will be from all of us across the House to contact me.
Senator Susan O'Keeffe also welcomed the capital plan and the Building on Recovery programme. During the week many of us have welcomed in the House various aspects of the plan. I thank Senator Susan O'Keeffe for noting, in particular, the money allocated for the development of a Blueway programme in County Leitrim which has strong potential to be developed as a tourism amenity. As she said, the measures brought forward in the plan are very welcome and it would be hard for anyone to oppose them. They are sensible and important infrastructural projects. There is no Bertie Bowl or mad scheme proposed. It is important to state the capital plan is sensible and prudent.
That has been plagiarised from what was said yesterday.
As Senator Susan O'Keeffe said, the plan is entitled, Building on Recovery.
As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, the Senator also mentioned the work of the Ombudsman and highlighted the fact that his annual report had been published this week. I join her in commending the work of the Ombudsman. She also mentioned that the IT system in the Office of the Ombudsman required funding and asked that we follow up on the matter.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien has noted that this is International Day of Older Persons and mentioned the demographic challenges associated with an ageing population. She also referred to the respite care grant. We all hope these matters will be addressed in the budget. I am sure the Senator made her views known to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform yesterday during statements on the pre-budget outlook.
The Senator also reminded us about a briefing by the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland today. I have sent my apologies to the organisers but somebody from my office will attend, as the briefing was scheduled to take place at the same time as the Order of Business. I echo the Senator's words about the importance of the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland and also commend it for the great work it does.
Senator Feargal Quinn raised an issue about pensions. It is welcome that the Government accepted Senator John Crown's Bill last night. It raises important issues for an ageing population in terms of people's ability, capacity and desire to work beyond the standard retirement age. In the legal profession there are many examples of barristers working well into their 80s and 90s. If people so choose, they should be allowed to do so.
In referring to the legislation to ban smoking in cars containing children which came into operation in the United Kingdom today Senator Feargal Quinn also made the important point that resources were needed to implement legislation here. The Senator noted that the police authorities in Britain had stated they might not have the resources to enforce the legislation. I was listening to the same reports and understand there is also a difference of view, with the police authorities stating they would prefer to see the matter being dealt with through education rather than by way of a £50 penalty. As such, there may be policy rather than just simply resource issues involved.
Senator Michael Mullins raised the issue of public service broadcasting and called for a debate with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, on the television licence fee and funding for broadcasting generally. I have already requested that debate. The Senator also raised the important issue of high levels of evasion of the licence fee. Senator Paschal Mooney joined in the call for a debate with the Minister and noted that there was a 20% evasion rate here compared to 5% in the United Kingdom. I agree with the Senator that we could usefully debate the most effective way to collect the licence fee. I have asked for that debate to be held and hope we can have it in the coming weeks.
Senator Aideen Hayden welcomed Senator Susan O'Keeffe and other colleagues back from the banking inquiry. I am sure we all join in that welcome. The Senator also referred to Longboat Quay and the lack of responsibility in that regard. She suggested there might be criminal liability at some point and referred to the criminal offence of reckless endangerment. The burden of proof would be quite difficult to meet in the circumstances, but I agree with the Senator that there appears to have been appalling negligence in the construction of Longboat Quay. I also agree with her that there might be other apartment developments at risk. Some newspapers today speak about a development in County Meath which is already coming under scrutiny. We will look for a debate on the issue generally.
Senator Sean D. Barrett welcomed the coming into effect today of the rationalisation of workplace agencies, from five to two. The Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Gerald Nash, spearheaded the rationalisation. We will see a new Workplace Relations Commission take over the functions of quite a number of bodies and tribunals. We will see very positive developments in tackling delays in the system and costs. This is very welcome and in that regard, I commend both the Minister of State and Mr. Kieran Mulvey who has been head of the Labour Relations Commission. Today will also see improved pay rates for approximately 50,000 workers in the contract cleaning and security sectors as a result of changes in the law and the coming into effect of employment orders as a result of the Minister of State's work.
Senator Sean D. Barrett also referred to the meeting this week of the IMF and that body's potential new director. I agree with the Senator that we are awaiting developments in the IMF with great interest.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh sought a debate with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht on the underspending of €8 million in her Department. That matter had not come to my attention and as such, I thank the Senator for raising it. While I will certainly submit a query on whether the Minister will attend the House, it may well be a matter with which the Senator could deal in the Commencement debate. It seems to be a very specific question about funding. As funding is very tight in that area, I agree that it is a matter that should be raised with the Minister.
Senator Mary White referred to the Irish Tax Institute's pre-budget submission and called for changes to the tax code to ensure greater support for entrepreneurs. It is a sentiment we all share. It is a very constructive suggestion which the Senator may have made yesterday during statements on the pre-budget outlook, all of which I did not hear. I also suggest the Senator e-mail the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, on that specific point, as it is a very constructive proposal from the Irish Tax Institute. The Senator also pointed to the recommendations of the all-party committee.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames echoed the call made by others for a debate on the situation at Longboat Quay. I will see if we can deal with the matter. The Senator also asked the Minister for Finance to attend the House. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and the Minister of State at that Department, Deputy Simon Harris, were in the House yesterday for two hours for statements on the pre-budget outlook, but we can certainly seek to have the Minister for Finance attend the House in the coming week. I do not know, however, if the Leader has provided for further statements on the issue.
It would only be to deal with the issue of pensions.
I think such a debate has been sought previously. I recall standing in for the Leader on a previous occasion when a debate was looked for on pensions. While I will certainly renew the call for a debate on the issue, I recommend that the Senator e-mail the Minister if she has a specific recommendation to make for inclusion in the budget.