Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Planning and Development (Urgent Social Housing Supply) Policy Directive 2015 - referral to committee, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2015 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 2 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 3, Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 3.30 p.m., with all Stages to conclude not later than 4.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 4, motion for the earlier signature of the Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 3; and No. 71, motion 17, to be taken at 4.30 p.m., with the time allocated for this debate not to exceed two hours. The House will also have tributes to former Senator Jack Fitzsimons at 2 p.m., to conclude not later than 2.45 p.m.

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, namely, that the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, come to the House to account for his supreme ability to talk the talk and inability to walk the walk. The latest debacle is the complete abandonment by the Government of its plan to introduce universal health insurance, which has been Fine Gael policy since 2007 and Labour Party policy since 2001. Minister after Minister promised the plan would be implemented. Meanwhile, queues are lengthening and cancer patients in the north west who are in high-risk categories are unable to get appointments. When I raised this issue this morning during Commencement Matters, the Government could only muster a Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Such is the priority it gives to these matters.

The supreme commentator, the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, tells us that everything is still on track and going to plan, despite the Government's complete abandonment in the past 24 hours of one of the core and sacred elements of its five-point plan, namely, universal health insurance. In 2013, the Fianna Fáil Party commissioned our own research from health economist, Dr. Brian Turner. We highlighted and advised the Government that its plan for universal health insurance was not possible and would cost more. However, the Government pressed ahead with its plan, which the Taoiseach stated his Government intended to deliver. When it was put to him as to how he could do this in a time of crisis - the Minister argues now that it is no longer possible to do so at this time of crisis - the Taoiseach stated, "I respectfully disagree. Real reform only occurs in times of crisis."

I have no doubt that another five-point fantasy plan will be put to the people to buy the next general election, as occurred during the previous general election campaign. This time, however, the Government will not be able to follow a plan produced by the late Brian Lenihan and may find itself on its own.

It is important that the Minister for Health comes to the House to account for the total mismanagement of the health service. The Fine Gael Party was right to shaft the previous Minister for Health. Great hopes surrounded the capabilities of the current Minister. As a physician, I am sure it galls him to have to put up with the level of mediocrity that surrounds him at the Cabinet table and the lack of resources that have been provided. The former and current Ministers for Health and the Taoiseach are in complete denial and deluded when they speak of being vindicated and everything being very much on track. I did not believe it possible to trump the headless chicken approach associated with the performance of the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly. In the past 24 hours, however, we had the comedy of the current Minister describing the fiasco of universal health insurance as a vindication. We must press to ensure he comes to the House today to account for himself.

Can the Senator provide the wording of the proposed amendment?

I propose that the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, come to the House today to account for the fiasco which is the Government's abandonment of universal health insurance.

I congratulate those couples who got married yesterday, the first day on which gay couples in Ireland were able to marry. It was a very welcome and historic day and it was great to see celebratory photographs in the newspapers after such grim news from Paris and elsewhere in recent days. I know all colleagues will want to join me in welcoming what happened yesterday.

I welcome the new Stormont House Agreement, A Fresh Start, reached in Northern Ireland yesterday. I hope it offers some resolution of the outstanding issues which have been obstructing progress for so many months in Northern Ireland. I ask for a debate on the changes and their relevance to us, particularly the proposed change in corporation tax. While our schedule is very full in terms of legislation between now and Christmas, we might have a debate early in the new year once we have had time to absorb the terms of the new agreement. I also welcome the fact that we were able to conclude Committee Stage of the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill last night. The Bill and the changes to it debated on Committee Stage received a broad welcome across the House. It was a constructive debate and I look forward to the speedy passage of the Bill. The Leader might confirm that Report Stage will be taken next week.

I welcome the schools building programme. Many colleagues referred to it on the Order of Business yesterday and I referred to it in my response. It is particularly welcome to see a new secondary school proposed for my own area in Dublin's south inner city. That school is very much needed and the announcement in respect of it is welcome. I hope it will be an Educate Together school because there is a huge need for multi-denominational secondary schools to accommodate the many children who are coming out of Educate Together primary schools in the north and south inner cities. We will also see a development at the Harcourt Terrace premises where there was a school previously, the Portobello Educate Together national school, which I was involved in setting up. That school is also set for development into a three-stream school in Dublin 2. I also welcome that.

In responding on the Order of Business yesterday, I informed colleagues that we would seek a debate in due course on security issues in the context of the horrific attacks in Paris. I know the Leader will support that call.

I echo what Senator Bacik has said about the Northern Ireland agreement, A Fresh Start, which includes compensation for the removal of the peace walls. I hope the latter will be possible. There will also be a fund to secure, once and for all, the end of paramilitary groups, which have done much damage. There is also some funding for projects relating to the A5, which connects Aughnacloy, Derry and Monaghan. Watching the Stormont proceedings when the negotiations were on, it was clear that there is a working Parliament there of which all the Members can be proud. That is surely an advance over the previous situations which obtained in Northern Ireland. Nostalgia in the Ulster Unionist Party for traditional opposition is misplaced. A power-sharing government is the way to proceed. Traditional opposition politics along the lines of the Westminster model was tried for 50 years and it did not work. It is not a society that needs an adversarial model.

I note with concern that it is proposed to take the Legal Services Regulation Bill tomorrow. What we know about the Bill indicates serious disarray in the Department of Justice and Equality. Well after 8 p.m. last night, I received 68 pages of text from the Minister containing 159 amendments. I do not think it is much of a Bill and I have tabled 37 amendments - across five pages - in respect of it. Our colleagues in Sinn Féin have tabled 24 amendments and these cover eight pages. It appears we are ignoring the advice of the troika to the effect that Ireland has a serious high-cost legal system that is damaging the economy. Why do we implement cutbacks in respect of carers and social welfare and not implement the troika proposals regarding the legal system? We are also ignoring the advice of the National Competitiveness Council about the damage which high legal costs are causing. There is a report of approximately 200 pages in length from the former Competition Authority which points out that the Irish legal system is in need of serious root-and-branch reform. We need separate conveyancing from the monopoly and the right to talk to a barrister without solicitors milking that transaction for fees. The Bill we are due to discuss tomorrow seems to be a shambles. It does not take into account the research that has been prepared. In addition, it is being dealt with at the last minute, which is a bad way to proceed with legislation. We should at least have the weekend to go through, as the Minister had, the 159 faults she sees with the Bill. There are lots more as well. We should not be taking that at less than 48 hours' notice tomorrow. If it is too late to take that item off the Order of Business for tomorrow, I wish to raise it today. It is not the way we should be proceeding. The Irish legal system needs massive overhaul and reform. It is not effective, it is high cost and it exercises far too much influence over the Department of Justice and Equality and at the Cabinet table.

I join colleagues in welcoming the agreement reached in Northern Ireland last night. It is the culmination of ten weeks of very hard work. I pay tribute to everybody involved, including the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan. The agreement builds on the Stormont House Agreement and is, hopefully, a significant step in normalising politics in Northern Ireland and society generally. The agreement is a credible roadmap for the implementation of many aspects of the Stormont House Agreement, tackling the continuing impact of paramilitarism, reconciling all peoples on the island and bringing about greater economic prosperity. We all welcome the fact that a joint agency task force will be established to identify priorities for combating cross-Border organised crime and to oversee operational co-ordination. This will be given additional resources. This is an issue that has been raised by many Members in the House. It is causing serious damage to economic life north and south of the Border and it is an issue that must be tackled. Hopefully, the agreement will bring about greater prosperity and reconciliation on the island and the normalisation of politics even further.

I very much welcome yesterday's announcement on the schools capital building programme. Nationally, 310 schools will benefit. Every county will see investment in new schools and refurbishment. In County Galway alone, 30 projects will be funded between 2016 and 2021. I am particularly pleased that in my town of Ballinasloe, Scoil an Chroí Naofa will proceed in 2016 while the project relating to St. Theresa's special school will commence construction in 2019. It is only right and proper that our children are educated in the best possible facilities and that we see the end of prefabricated buildings once and for all. The programme will create much needed employment in the construction sector. I welcome the fact that unemployment has fallen below 9%. Hopefully, these construction projects will drive that figure down further over the coming years.

I was not in the Chamber yesterday but I wish to add my voice to those which expressed shock and horror at the events in Paris. Those events were barbaric in the extreme and they have left hundreds of families bereft. It is worrying to note that major sporting events had to be cancelled yesterday and last night. To a certain extent, this possibly creates a greater encouragement to these people and the hatred within them. I hope and pray that politicians across the world will realise the gravity of the situation and pull together once and for all. This has the potential to have the same impact as the events in Sarajevo in 1914 or the invasion of Poland prior to the Second World War.

We are not too far away from a third world war if this kind of thing goes on.

On a brighter note I give a cautious welcome to the latest agreement in Northern Ireland. Thank God they are not calling this one "historic" as that word has been played out. It is encouraging and I am glad that our Government had an input into it, but for how much longer will the two major parties in the North expect everybody else to stop everything and hold their hands when they are having another one of their problem, "stop the world I want to get off" fits? Real politicians are supposed to solve problems in a real way. I have nothing against the two major parties but I am encouraged by the signs of life that are coming up in the Unionist side and the other Unionist group and in the change in leadership in the SDLP which may reinvigorate politics generally in the North and make for more inclusion by the people. I have a feeling there is stranglehold up there and that people are possibly afraid to move outside the two major mega blocks of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.

I welcome, in advance, the announcement of the Fianna Fáil programme to restore local government, and specifically town councils, if and when we are next in government which hopefully will not be too long away. It was a rash move by the Ministers, former Deputy Phil Hogan and Deputy Alan Kelly, and I think it is already having a negative effect in towns around the country. I speak in particular of towns in Kerry and their sense of ownership of their mayor, their pride in their town hall and their town chamber. All of that has been diminished despite the great work being done by the county councillors to fill the void which was created by the local area municipal groups. I welcome a good, healthy debate on that issue in the new council on the new Seanad and I hope to be in the House to take part in that debate.

I welcome the passing of Committee Stage of the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill last night and I thank all sides of the House for their general broad support for the measures it contained, especially in rent regulation and the introduction of the deposit protection scheme. I also note the number of contributions during that debate which emphasised the need to expedite housing supply. The Leader has indicated that he would be happy to have a debate on that subject and on the wider subject of access to home ownership. Some of the measures proposed by Senator Barrett in his own Private Member's Bill are also worthy of consideration regarding access to finance for home ownership, specifically for low-income households.

I ask the Leader for a debate on youth policy. We had an excellent budget and, whether one thinks it was enough or not, there was something for nearly everybody in the audience but with the notable absence of provisions for under 26 year olds. We need to have a debate around our attitude towards young people and whether we do or do not consider them to be equal members of our society, especially when it comes to access to benefits. I welcome yesterday's announcement that unemployment levels have fallen below 9%. Clearly young people benefit significantly from that fall but there is a broader issue in terms of our under 26 year olds. In an ideal world that should be debated by both the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

I agree with colleagues who have called for a debate on the situation in Northern Ireland. It is welcome to see an agreement in place but on recent visits to a number of housing estates in Belfast I have noticed the significant number of new "peace walls" which have appeared between areas of Belfast. There is nothing more clear, more obvious or more evident of the continued existence of sectarianism than seeing a wall dividing two communities.

I was not free to attend the House yesterday but I wish to have on the record my abhorrence at the disgusting behaviour by the Daesh group in Paris on Friday evening. Hopefully East and West, the United States and Russia, can work together and put their power struggles behind them to try and bring about a resolution to this most serious issue in the Middle East.

I welcome yesterday's agreement and the reference made in this House this morning to the walls coming down. It is much easier to take down the physical walls than it is to take down the walls and barriers in people's hearts. The real walls are in the hearts and how long will it take to break those barriers down?

I welcome yesterday's announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh, that an extra €25 million will be allocated to the A5 road project bringing a total of €75 million in capital funding from the Government to the project for 2007-19. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement I draw attention to the N2 section of the A5. The N2 from the Border to Clontibret is about 18 miles long which is approximately 28 km. This road is in dire condition and I have pleaded that the Government would allocate the modest sum of €1.5 million to narrow the road alignment from 400 m to 100 m and to allow the route planning to proceed to the next stage.

I had a private meeting, along with other members of the committee, with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. I could not believe that he stuck his heels into the ground in that he could not see the value of a €1.5 million allocation to Monaghan County Council to allow it to define the road exactly and to have the plans ready for when the money is available to start the road building, rather than waiting for the word and to then have to start designing the road. It is absolutely crazy. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh. He was chairman of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and was worn out listening to me pushing for this N2 road from the Border to Knocknacloy. It is a very dangerous road. Historical records from the period 1996 to 2009 obtained from An Garda Síochána show a total of 112 personal injury accidents, of which 11 were fatal and 15 resulted in serious injury. If the Government is serious about Northern Ireland, developing the route from Dublin to the north west and the social and economic development of the area, then let it give the €1.5 million to Monaghan County Council to proceed and design this N2 road.

I join with all sides of the House in welcoming yesterday's agreement in Stormont and I welcome the increase of funding towards the development of the A5 which is a main arterial route running to and from the north west. This will prove a major boon for the economy of the north west and particularly for Donegal. However, I attended a meeting over the weekend of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly as did some of my colleagues and - in the context of a debate about the possibility of a Brexit - while I will not say there was hostility, issues were raised by the representatives from the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly about the amounts of money being given to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to Stormont.

One figure that stuck in my mind is that the Northern Ireland Assembly receives 23% more in block grants than the constituent bodies in Wales and Scotland. I will not say that there is not a great deal of sympathy for what is going on in the North but I echo one or two comments made in this House when I say I am glad that the parties in the North have seen a little bit of reality. Any suggestion, as has emanated from some sources in the North, that the British Government was going to continue to dole out the largesse in the North certainly came into stark relief yesterday in the discussions with the people who represent the Scottish people and those who represent the Welsh people. They are not at all happy about the fact that they are not getting as much money as Northern Ireland is getting. I was glad there was an injection of reality and that this has happened because the parties in the North were very much on the precipice over the last couple of weeks.

I am very glad to see my colleague, Senator Ned O'Sullivan, back in the House after his recent illness and I hope that he will continue to make his valuable contributions here. I also welcome the indications that the Fianna Fáil manifesto will commit to the restoration of town councils.

To put this in context, in the past couple of weeks there was a memo from Sligo County Council relating to a tradition that had been built up by Sligo borough council, which gave small grants to resident associations in Sligo town and district. My colleague, Senator MacSharry, is familiar with this. As it was a constituent borough council, it had the budget to do this but because the council is gone and there is a now a municipal area that is much larger, geographically, there is no budget to provide the funding for Sligo specifically, as it would have to provide the same money for resident associations all over the county. The resources are not there to do that. This is just a small example of how local democracy has been somewhat thwarted. I therefore strongly welcome what seems to be a commitment by Fianna Fáil - the manifesto has not yet been published - as the indications are that we will put forward a proposal to restore town councils based on population.

I remember at the time of abolition pointing out that Denmark has one of the purest forms of local democracy right down to town councils. It is an example of the process working efficiently. Nevertheless, the last Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government decided in his wisdom that we would become less democratic in this country, which I found an ultimate irony. I second the amendment proposed by my colleague, Senator MacSharry.

I call for a debate on the funding of local authorities from the central Exchequer and on the road we are taking in this respect. I concur with Senators Mooney and O'Sullivan about the demise of local government and the abolition of town councils. It appears that many local authorities, particularly those in rural counties, are being starved of funding. My advice to councillors in the Munster area, particularly those from the parties on this side of the House, is that they should rail against agreeing a budget where the consequence will be that very hard-pressed medium and small businesses, including clothes shops, pubs and restaurants in rural Ireland, will be hit with severe rates bills.

Many of these businesses are almost buckling under the pressure of rates bills when the economy has declined significantly over the past number of years. The Valuation Office is dealing with the revaluation of properties that were valued for a certain number of millions of euro eight or ten years ago but are not worth that now. The Valuation Office is understaffed and overwhelmed with appeals. The problem is nationwide, which is bothering me. I understand, for example, that in Offaly the Valuation Office has fast-tracked the reduction of rates for telecommunication masts. This means that in that small county, €1.5 million is to be wiped off the funding stream of Offaly County Council, and I am sure the same is happening in many other counties. Who will pay for this other than the hard-pressed rate payers? There will be no fast-tracking for a small shop in Skibbereen, the rural pub in some part of Kerry or businesses struggling to survive. I know one restaurant in my area - I will not mention the town or the business - that, because of a rates bill and the bank taking away a €20,000 overdraft facility, had to close approximately five years ago, with the loss of 20 jobs. I am deeply concerned that unless there is a confrontation with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Finance, where local authorities are not being funded properly, there will be a public revolt on this very shortly. I am asking for an urgent debate on this issue. If that is not forthcoming in the next couple of weeks, I will push the issue to a vote.

I welcome the new agreement that was completed yesterday in Northern Ireland. The new deal will help stabilise power sharing and tackle the toxic legacy of paramilitarism. The agreement underlines this Government's commitment to peace, reconciliation and stability on this island. The Central Statistics Office figures issued yesterday indicate a 12% increase in employment in the Border region in the past year and this agreement will help protect and continue this progress, keeping the recovery going.

I note Senator MacSharry's points on the comments of the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar. I understand the Minister is in Belfast today so I cannot accede to his request for an amendment to the Order of Business in this regard. We have seen many advances in our health services but there are many problems as well. We need to put the building blocks in place. The timeframe will certainly change due to variable factors. Free GP care has already been introduced and begun, and it will continue. There is a need for more GPs, with 500 new GPs to be put in place. It is possible to have many more specialists and consultants; we will hire over 100 new consultants this year and we hope to ramp up the number to 150 by the end of the year, with more to come in future. Many reforms have taken place and more needs to be done. I am sure the Minister will come in at a later date to explain his policy on universal health insurance but it will not be today because, as I noted, he is in Belfast.

I note Senator Bacik's comments welcoming the commencement of gay marriage in the country yesterday. I inform the Senator that Report Stage of the residential tenancies Bill will take place next Tuesday. Senator Bacik and several others welcomed the schools building project that will transform educational facilities throughout the length and breadth of the country, and I am sure that will be well received by all. I also welcome the agreement in Northern Ireland, to which Senator Barrett and many others referred. Such an agreement is most welcome. As Senator Mooney mentioned, I attended the meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Association over the weekend and the Scottish, Welsh and English members were worried that Northern Ireland was getting 23% more funding than their areas. I am glad agreement has been reached and I hope we will see a normalisation of politics there in the coming years. That was referred to by many Senators on the Order of Business.

Senators O'Sullivan and White spoke about the dreadful terrorist attacks in Paris, where so many people were murdered. Senator O'Sullivan also spoke about the proposed manifesto and particularly the indication that town councils will be restored. I am sure we will all examine the manifesto when it is published as it will be up for public scrutiny. Senator Hayden welcomed the passage of the residential tenancies Bill through Committee Stage. As I mentioned, we will have Report Stage next Tuesday. She also called for a debate on youth policy and especially access to benefits for youths. I will certainly try to arrange that.

Senator Barrett asked about the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011, to be taken tomorrow, and I agree that the comments of the troika and the National Competitiveness Council should be examined thoroughly. I understand the Minister is available for briefings to any Member on proposed changes. I assure the Senator that we will not rush through this Bill and we hope to have a very comprehensive debate on it tomorrow.

We will see how far we can get on it.

I thank the Leader.

I note Senator White's comments on the additional funding of more than €20 million for the A5 road. As Senator Mooney mentioned, this project will be a major boon to the economy of the north west. I also note what Senator White said about the €1.5 million that is being sought by Monaghan County Council for the N2 road. I am sure that matter will be addressed in the coming months.

Senator O'Donovan referred to the funding of local authorities. Those authorities now have the power to increase or decrease the property tax rates that apply locally. The tax in question is a source of significant extra revenue. I note the Senator's point that recent revaluations of electricity, telecommunications and other utility companies have led to reductions in the rates imposed on a number of them. This is causing a problem for local authorities because they are being obliged to address shortfalls in funding of up to €1 million in some cases. It is the job of local authorities to try to deal with these issues. If additional funding is necessary, they have the means to collect it through property tax. I agree that rates have been an especially crushing burden for small businesses. Local authorities in the vast majority of counties and cities have kept that burden down, particularly in recent years. Let us hope they will be in a position to do so again when they are forming their budgets for next year.

Senator MacSharry has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate with the Minister for Health on the abandonment by the Government of universal health insurance be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 12; Níl, 22.

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
  • Zappone, Katherine.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Cahill, Máiría.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Aideen Hayden and Michael Mullins.
Amendment declared lost.
Order of Business agreed to.