Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, Houses of the Oireachtas (Appointments to Certain Offices) Bill 2014 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 1 p.m. and adjourned not later than 2 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 2, statements on broadcasting and media in Ireland, to be taken at 3 p.m. and conclude not later than 5 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 4.55 p.m.; and No. 72, Private Members' business, non-Government motion No. 20 re State Claims Agency, to be taken at 5 p.m., with the time allocated for the debate not to exceed two hours.

Is the Houses of the Oireachtas (Appointments to Certain Offices) Bill 2014 being brought back with Government amendments?

I am not privy to that at all.

Even at this late stage.

The Senator will have to wait and see.

To remind Members, we had a fruitful debate on this legislation and the Leader acceded to a request to separate the different Stages of the Bill to allow the Government time to consider some of the points put to the Minister about setting a term limit to be applied to certain senior posts in the Oireachtas. I will be interested to see what will happen when the Bill is taken at 1 p.m. May I assume that the debate on the Bill will not be guillotined if we require more time to deal with it? Will it be adjourned?

I used the word "adjourned," but we hope to finish the debate within the hour, as there is very little in the Bill. As the Senator can see, there is another hour that could be allocated. We will, therefore, have extra time, if we need it.

I thank the Leader.

Irish Water's seven-year plan will require to be debated once people have had an opportunity to read it. Some of the figures on which it is based lead one to believe it is merely an aspirational document rather than something that can actually be achieved. For example, it suggests there will be an 80% compliance rate and that €2 billion will be raised through water charges and taxes. There is also a good deal in it about investment in water infrastructure, which we all want to see. We could, therefore, have a reasoned debate on the matter, for which time should be set aside in the Seanad schedule. I am aware that the Budget Statement will be coming up for discussion shortly, but this is a very important issue and we do not all agree on the Government's approach. Members need an opportunity to go through the plan in order that we will be able to debate it with the Minister to see what the Government's plans are.

Before the House rises, whenever that may be - I take at face value the Leader's words yesterday that he thinks we will be here until next year - there is a need for another full debate on housing, not just homelessness, in respect of which there has been a complete failure. Homelessness figures in Dublin and around the country have doubled since the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, set up his task force over 12 months ago following the tragic death of Mr. Jonathan Corrie which spurred the Government into taking some action. It is not just a Government issue. From reports of the Committee of Public Accounts, local authorities have actually refused housing offered by NAMA. All of these issues need to be teased out. We also need to look at the people who will be made homeless by virtue of the land and conveyancing Act which the Government passed over two years ago and which makes it easier for banks to repossess homes.

Over 6,000 civil bills which mark the commencement of repossession proceedings against homeowners were issued in the past two quarters. These issues need to be teased out. We have reached crisis point, but the Government continues to limp towards a general election without doing everything possible to protect homeowners. It must ensure every option to enable homeowners to remain in their homes is explored, regardless of whether the banks take ownership of them. There is a need for a full debate on this issue with the Ministers for the Environment, Community and Local Government and Finance. It should not be forgotten that it was the Minister for Finance who watered down the protections in place for homeowners under the code of conduct on mortgage arrears. The Government tore the previous code of conduct asunder and made it easier for the banks to repossess people's homes. That is what is happening.

The Senator is way over time.

We need to know what is being done in this instance. The Government needs to address these points and show that something is being done. For all of the positive spin put on some of the good work that has been done - let us give credit where it is due - this will be known as the Government of repossessions. It has allowed the banks to repossess people's homes. It has facilitated this through the introduction by the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act which was supported in this and the Lower House by Fine Gael and the Labour Party. That legislation which has been referred to outside the House as the "evictions Act" has been the main driver of home repossessions.

Most people in Ireland are clear on which Government set the scene for repossessions-----

The current Administration introduced the relevant law.

-----and created the conditions under which the country had to enter a troika programme. We are all very clear on that point and I remind the Senator of it.

The Senator does not need to remind me of anything.

Yesterday Senator Paschal Mooney expressed his revulsion at and condemnation of the horrible killing in recent days of an Israeli couple in front of their children. I agree with him that any killing of that horrific nature needs to be condemned by all sides. I speak as somebody who has always been very supportive of the Palestinian cause. There have been some barbaric killings by both sides, but this particular incident deserves condemnation.

On a more positive note, I would like to be associated with Senator Sean D. Barrett's congratulations yesterday to Professor William C. Campbell, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin who, with his colleague, Professor Omura, this week received a Nobel Prize for his work in medicine. He is one of three graduates of Trinity College Dublin to receive a Nobel Prize. Professor Campbell is from Dublin and obtained a first class honours degree in zoology from Trinity College Dublin in 1952. He also obtained an honorary doctorate from the college only three years ago. I join Senator Sean D. Barrett and other colleagues in congratulating him on this remarkable and noteworthy achievement.

I also note and welcome the appointment last week of the former Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, as a European Union peace envoy to Colombia.

I thought things were going well there.

I hope we will soon see a resolution of the Colombian issue.

I thank colleagues who attended the briefing I organised yesterday with the Immigrant Council of Ireland on the Criminal Law (Sexual offences) Bill 2015. I thank Ms Monica O'Connor and Ms Nusha Yonkova for their excellent briefing. It is also welcome that the Bill was passed on Second Stage last night without a vote and I hope its progress through the Houses will be speedy. I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality for commencing the Bill in the Seanad and indicating on Second Stage that she will be accepting amendments on Committee Stage in the Seanad and will also be tabling her own amendments in response to points raised by a number of Senators. It is very positive for the Seanad when important comprehensive legislation is initiated and amended here.

I ask the Leader to arrange a debate at some point in the future on the comprehensive employment strategy for persons with disabilities which was launched at Farmleigh on Friday last by the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and which sets out six clear priorities to improve the employment position for persons with disabilities.

I was alerted to watch last night's edition of "Prime Time" which dealt with six cases in respect of which there had been allegations of laziness or cover-up in An Garda Síochána. I have raised one of the cases dealt with in the programme on a number of occasions in the House. Mr. Shane O'Farrell who was a brilliant student in Trinity College College and who had just completed a further degree in law and handed in his thesis was hit by a car when cycling home from a training session. He was carried for a long distance on the bonnet of the car which failed to stop at the scene. The driver went home, hid the car, told his wife he had hit somebody but that he did not know who it was. The man who is an eastern European had a string of convictions as long as one's arm and was out on bail in two other cases and had been stopped by the Garda an hour prior to the accident while driving an uninsured car. That car should have been repossessed. If it had, Mr. O'Farrell would still be alive today. The case has been referred to a committee of barristers by the Minister for Justice and Equality, which is unsatisfactory because that committee has thus far recommended further investigation in only a small number of cases. I ask the Leader arrange a debate on these issues. The vast majority of gardaí are decent, but there is a culture of cover-up within An Garda Síochána.

I also express concern about proposed changes in respect of J1 visas, of which many undergraduates avail in order to travel to the United States to obtain formative training, earn money for college fees and have a good time. There are suggestions that the J1 visa programme will be restricted such that young people will only be granted visas if they have already secured employment in the United States. This would reduce the number of visas granted by up to 80%, which would be a very severe incursion into the experience of young people. It is good for them to travel to the United States and experience its culture. The proposed restriction may be in response to rowdy behaviour and so on. That is regrettable because such behaviour is very much only engaged in by a minority. The Minister should be alerted to this and asked to closely monitor the position in order to ensure the J1 visa programme will continue to operate in its current form. An education programme should be put in place for young people travelling to the United States to ensure they are aware that while it is fine for them to have a good time and so on, they are responsible for representing Ireland while they are there.

I wish to refer to an issue about which I am extremely concerned. I have raised it in the House on a number of previous occasions, including as a Commencement matter. It was not, however, dealt with here but was, rather, responded to by way of a letter. The issue concerns the delay in the registration of nurses. Currently, 2,260 people are awaiting registration with An Bord Altranais. On 16 July Irish Nursing Homes was informed that new mechanisms would be put in place to expedite the registration process. That has not occurred. The applications of more than 1,300 nurses are incomplete and they are unable to make contact with anybody from the Irish Nursing and Midwifery Board regarding the information that remains outstanding. There is no direct line of contact and the level of communication is not adequate. The 16 staff due to be employed have not yet been taken on. There is much talk about job creation. The 2,200 people about whom I am speaking want to work in this country, but the slow process of registration is preventing them from taking up jobs they have been offered. This matter requires urgent attention, particularly in view of the fact that, according to a reply I received yesterday from the HSE and the Department of Health, €304 million was spent on agency staff in hospitals in 2014. Up to 30 September last, €165 million had been spent on agency staff in the current year. This issue must be dealt with. We want people to work in this country, but we are not facilitating them in taking up employment.

While I am dealing with the issue of agency staff, I understand a great deal of money is also paid out in respect of junior doctors.

One of the issues raised in the report furnished to me is that a number of hospitals at regional level are having difficulty retaining full-time doctors. We must, therefore, look at the structure. When a hospital pays for 40,000 or 50,000 hours of work done by agency staff, it means that the current structure is not working. We must consider the use of alternatives in order to make it attractive for people to work at particular hospitals and live and raise a family nearby. We are not doing that.

The Senator is way over time.

The system, as it stands, does not suit everyone; therefore, we must look at alternatives. I ask the Leader to raise this issue with the Minister for Health at the earliest possible date.

I do not wish to be seen to collaborate with this Administration, but I ask the Leader to make a request to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to extend the deadline for the receipt of claims for the water conservation grant of €100. The closing date for receipt of applications via the Internet is midnight, tomorrow, Thursday, 8 October. Some 600,000 have applied, but 700,000 have not, which is a loss of some €70 million. Whether we like it, there are people who are eligible for the grant who have their own septic tanks or water supplies.

I do not want to go into the background to this disaster. Irish Water is a political nightmare for the Government and the various matters relating to it have been very badly handled. The administration of the applications process has been very slow. In addition, many people in rural areas do not have broadband or access to the Internet. I have been in contact with councillors who have been making representations on behalf of individuals, but a public representative is not allowed, under the Data Protection Act, to act for an individual in correcting mistakes in addresses to which bills have been sent. In the circumstances, the €100 grant would be a help to many households at this time. I cannot understand how we in this House could be eligible for the €100 grant, having paid our water rates a few months ago, but not get our money back. The whole thing is totally illogical and it is beyond comprehension that any Government would oversee such a debacle. I ask the Leader to convey to the Government my request which would, I believe, be unanimously supported in the House that the date be extended for at least two weeks in order to allow people to submit their applications. One is obliged to submit a great deal of information such as PPS numbers and bank account details, which is not so easy. It is practically impossible for some people and it is putting enormous pressure on public representatives the length and breadth of the country.

I agree with Senator Darragh O'Brien that a wide-ranging debate on the entire issue of housing would be in order. I agree that we should not just focus on homelessness but also on supply which is very problematic in the market. I have concerns about the situation at Longboat Quay. The owners are now threatening legal action. It has come to my attention that while there are owner-occupiers at Longboat Quay, there are also people who rent rather than own the properties in which they live. Under the current legal code, renters have a little voice and little right to be heard. Under the Multi-Unit Developments Act 2011, tenants have no right of representation on management companies, but the actions taken probably have more impact on renters. More apartments in these developments are actually rented than lived in by owner-occupiers; it is ironic, therefore, that they have such a little voice.

The same is true in the area of receivership. I have personally dealt with a significant number of cases in the recent past where properties have been repossessed by lending institutions and the first thing the tenant knows about it is when the receiver comes to the door and tells him or her that he or she will have to leave. Receivers want vacant possession and the tenants out. There is no code of conduct to protect tenants in these cases. It is time we started treating renters with respect. Rented homes are homes and it is wrong to give such a little voice to the tenants who live in them. Will the Leader propose that the Minister for Justice and Equality amend the Multi-Unit Developments Act in order that we might ensure tenants are given a voice? Will he also tell the Minister for Finance that we need a code of conduct on mortgage arrears for rented properties? These houses are homes and it is not right to treat their tenants as though they were disposable.

I endorse what Senator Aideen Hayden said. It is really strange that we have to go back to Charles Stewart Parnell to defend tenants' rights. In many cases it is the landlord, not the tenant, who has become financially unstable, but it is the tenant who suffers when the landlord changes. I thought we had made progress on that front with the then Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, and hope the prospects of progress can be revived.

I call for a debate on climate change. Matters are becoming more urgent and there is a huge conference of 96 countries scheduled to take place Paris in a couple of months time. We saw evidence of the implications of climate change in the court case in Cork, in which 40% of the liability for causing the flood was allocated to UCC and 60% to the ESB. There was the Volkswagen case in which carbon emission levels were deliberately concealed by the use of technology, which will, undoubtedly, cause climate change and some damage. A recent paper by the Governor of the Bank of England on climate change and financial stability referred to the difficulties for insurance companies. Last year the United Kingdom experienced its wettest winter in over 200 years. This House needs to make a contribution to the Irish delegation to the Paris conference in the light of the increase in flooding, financial instability in the insurance sector, the risk to the financial system, the risks of decarbonisation and the judgment in the case of the flood which occurred in Cork city. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on this matter. In the Cork case the judge said he had counted 50 or more instances in the evidence where UCC had expressly been put on notice of flood risk to buildings it had built or acquired on the River Lee flood plain but did not act. The judgment runs to 550 pages and the costs are potentially huge. We also know of recent problems in Galway and the midlands. Given the importance now attached to climate change by President Obama, where until recently there had been scepticism, it is clear that it is now a major issue. As such, this House should make a contribution to the Irish presence at the Paris conference.

As we are all aware, this is Road Safety Week. It is an opportunity for all of us, motorists, cyclists and all users of the road network, to focus on road safety. The weather is getting colder and the evenings darker; therefore, it is time to concentrate on various aspects of road safety. There is huge concern that a lot of drivers pay scant attention to tyre safety. A recent survey indicated that only approximately one in eight drivers checked the condition of the tyres on his or her vehicle on a regular basis.

The only protection we have on the road is provided by the quality of the tyres. It is critical that there be a renewed focus on all aspects of road safety, as people have tended to skimp on road vehicle maintenance during the economic difficulties we have been through. A significant number of people have been killed on the roads.

I noted with interest recently the number of cyclists who had received fixed-charge notices and been prosecuted for dangerous cycling. Approximately 240 cyclists have been prosecuted, which is very much to be welcomed, as it shows there is a renewed emphasis and focus on the safety of cyclists. A total of 13 cyclists have been killed in the past year. I plead with all young drivers to be especially careful. We are all very concerned at the number of people who have been prosecuted for speeding, in particular, in housing estates and built-up areas. During Road Safety Week there is an opportunity for all of us to think about how temporary life is and how easily lives are lost on the road as a result of bad driver behaviour and poor vehicle maintenance. I urge all of us as public representatives to spread the word that there is a need for greater emphasis on safety as we head into the winter.

I also wish to raise the issue of Irish Water. A previous speaker said the Government's plan was illogical. To an extent, one could argue that it is, given all of the failures of Irish Water and water charges. There is a very clear logic to what the Government is doing with the water conservation grant and other measures, which is to entice people to register and then pay, even if they do not want to do so. There is a clear logic, even in terms of the seven-year investment plan which was announced today by Irish Water and its parent company. I heard some of their representatives on national radio this morning talk about the plan, but it is not grounded in reality. There is no acceptance that this will be a big political and electoral issue. I accept that the Government parties have their view on Irish Water and water charges and the Opposition has a different view. There will be a general election and the issue will be a central part of the campaign. We can all outline our positions and the people will decide. I have no difficulty with this. However, the plan ignores EUROSTAT's ruling. Irish Water is behaving as if it is a commercial semi-State company, even though EUROSTAT has stated it is not. The company talks about €2 billion being raised in revenue from residential customers by 2021, but it ignores the fact that almost half have not paid and that is half of those who have registered, never mind those who have not registered.

There are clear problems with the Government's strategy, but the foundations on which the seven-year investment plan is being built must be examined. The reality is that what Irish Water is stating about its seven-year plan is that the money is going to come from commercial water rates, domestic water rates and borrowing. All of the borrowing will be on the State balance sheet, which means that every cent is coming from either businesses in the State, citizens who pay and borrowings. A massive investment plan is envisaged, yet there is no discussion or debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Dáil is not scheduled to debate the seven-year plan and neither has such a debate been scheduled in the Seanad. This is taxpayers’ money. In spite of EUROSTAT's ruling, given that this is a fully owned public company, as the Government has indicated, and the fact that it should not be treated as a private company - the Government has stated it does not want to privatise water services - the whole logic behind the seven-year investment plan appears to be to ultimately move towards privatisation. The plan should be brought to the Seanad and the Dáil to be debated. We will have a political debate and a debate during the electoral campaign about the future of Irish Water and water charges. That will happen as a matter of course, but the plan should be brought before the Dáil and the Seanad to be debated. Let us have a debate about the foundations on which it is built, which are very shaky, ignore EUROSTAT's ruling and the obvious fact that many people in the State have not and will not pay for domestic water charges.

The findings of the Healthy Ireland survey conducted by the Department of Health were released yesterday. More than 7,000 households were included in the survey which shows that a plateau has been reached when it comes to tackling obesity in that 60% of people are still overweight. It has found that four in ten men do not get enough exercise. The most commonly desired lifestyle change is that people wish to be more active. In most jobs it is usual for people to spend more than five hours a day sitting at a desk. Less than one in five people now smokes each day, which is most welcome. This shows that the strategy followed in the past ten years has worked. Advertising campaigns such as the very sad one featuring Gerry Collins who has since died have been very effective. Clearly, we need to do something when it comes to health, in particular about obesity, being overweight and unhealthy lifestyles. It would make a big difference if there was a similar campaign targeting these issues. We have made considerable headway in tackling the use of tobacco and smoking, which is very much to be welcomed. It was brought to my attention recently that some cigarette companies had started to sell packs of 28 cigarettes. That is a blatant attempt by cigarette manufacturers to get people who smoke to smoke more. Everybody knows that smokers tend to talk about how many packets of cigarettes they smoke each day or week. Larger packets pose a risk. They are not a good idea and could result in those who smoke smoking up to 30% or 40% more. We are moving in the right direction when it comes to tackling obesity but an advertising campaign of the sort we have seen in tackling smoking would be good.

I agree with much of what Senator David Cullinane said about the need for a debate on Irish Water, but my prognosis of the company and the future direction of water policy is different from his. What is on the table from Irish Water needs to be addressed. The company appears to do a very good job in keeping itself in the news, sometimes for good reasons but at other times for bad ones. It engages in a significant amount of television and radio advertising at enormous cost. We hear spokesperson after spokesperson bringing forward new angles about the business of the company. What surprises me about today’s announcement is that it does not seem to fit fully into the position into which Irish Water was boxed by way of the 12-year long service level agreements between the Department, the unions and the local authorities. I am not sure how one can match the other. Irish Water is clearly not a conventional semi-State body. That issue has been adjudicated and ruled on by a European body and we cannot make that decision go away. We were advised at the time that the situation could be regularised within 12 to 24 months, but as of now it is impossible under the current terms of legislation, domestically and internationally, for Irish Water to pursue the line it indicated this morning. We have a Minister with responsibility for Irish Water and may have an election, but we need a degree of certainty about the company’s current plans. A debate here would be useful in that regard.

Both the Dáil and the Seanad seem to have gone into a dizzy spin about a general election. The men and women in the streets are not remotely concerned about when it will take place. They want to get on with living their lives. Whether it is held in November, February or March, we have a duty to continue doing the job we were elected to do. One of the issues of importance is the ongoing saga of Irish Water. Rather than speculate about when the Taoiseach might call the election – perhaps he does not know himself – we should get on with our normal, ordinary business.

I ask the Leader to try to organise a debate in which we might get some answers from the Minister on the apparently new stance being taken by Irish Water.

Senators Darragh O'Brien, Paul Bradford and David Cullinane referred to Irish Water, the seven-year plan of which was announced this morning. I am informed that the plan will be the subject of debate in the right forum - the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht. That debate will take place in early course.

Senators Darragh O'Brien and Aideen Hayden called for a debate on housing, which debate I am trying to arrange with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, or the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey.

Senator Ivana Bacik mentioned that a third graduate of Trinity College Dublin had been awarded a Nobel Prize. The name of the person concerned was mentioned by Senator Sean D. Barrett yesterday.

Senator Ivana Bacik also welcomed the willingness of the Minister for Justice and Equality to accept amendments in the Seanad to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill which was passed on Second Stage yesterday.

Senator David Norris mentioned the "Prime Time" programme last night on the review of over 300 cases. Having viewed the programme I think there is a need for a proper review process to have these cases dealt with. There should be full access for barristers to GSOC and Garda files. I was astounded to hear they did not have full access to them. I am very concerned about this and will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality.

I note the points made by Senator David Norris about J1 visas and their importance. I think everybody is aware of the matter.

Senator Colm Burke mentioned the delay in the registration of nurses and the urgent need to address the difficulties in the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland in that regard. As he rightly pointed out, there is a need to reform the system. I note the point that €304 million was spent on agency staff in 2014, which I agree is a large amount of money. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Health, although I know that the Senator has already done so in a Commencement debate. The issue will have to be addressed in early course.

Senator Terry Leyden called for the deadline for application for the water conservation grant to be extended. People have all day today to register. Therefore, they still have plenty of time to do so. However, I will ask the relevant Minister to consider extending the deadline, although people have been advised of it for many months.

I thank the Leader.

Senator Aideen Hayden mentioned the plight of tenants at Longboat Quay. I agree with her that there is a need for them to have a voice. Looking at all of the buildings that have created difficulties for owners and tenants, I ask myself daily what were the architects, engineers, fire officers and local authorities doing. They were the ones who were supposed to be regulating to ensure buildings would be safe. As things happened on their watch, they should be held to account. It is dreadful to see people living in houses and apartments which are unsafe. Those involved need to be held accountable, even if it is many years afterwards. Developers and builders are also responsible. They must bear some responsibility. They have been let off for far too long and washed their hands of the problem. We must ensure the architects, engineers, fire officers and the rest of those mentioned are held to account. Senator Sean D. Barrett also made that point. He also called for a debate on climate change, in which context he referred to the flooding in Cork, the Volkswagen emissions case and the role of the insurance sector in the matter. I agree with him that a debate on it would be timely. I will try to arrange it.

Senator Michael Mullins has highlighted the fact that this is Road Safety Week and called on motorists to check their vehicles, including the tyres. He also asked cyclists to be vigilant on the roads.

Senator Catherine Noone mentioned a Healthy Ireland study in which it was outlined that 60% of the population, including me, were still overweight.

The Leader is not alone.

Progress has been made in tackling smoking, but it still presents a serious problem. However, people are getting the message, as Senator Catherine Noone said. Perhaps we might invite the Minister for Health to the House in the coming weeks to speak to us about the findings of the Healthy Ireland study.

Order of Business agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 12.20 p.m. and resumed at 1 p.m.