Thursday, 16 November 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the partnership agreement with the farming pillar, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude no later than 1.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and the Minister to be called upon to reply no later than ten minutes before the conclusion of the statements; and No. 2, statements on combating drug abuse, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude no later than 4.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and the Minister to be called upon to reply no later than ten minutes before the conclusion of the statements. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.
Mr. B. Hayes: Is it any wonder that fewer than 20% of people who have been raped or sexually assaulted in this country report that crime to the Garda when the level of treatment and support given to them is so shocking? I refer to the case highlighted yesterday by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre where two women who were sexually assaulted in the Sligo area had to travel to Dublin some weeks ago in the clothes in which they were raped because there was no local sexual assault unit that could forensically deal with them so that the evidence taken could be subsequently used in a court case.
This is a serious matter. There are four sexual assault units in the country in Letterkenny, Cork, Waterford and Dublin. A report earlier this year supported by the Government suggested that we should have six units, with the two additional units going to the Leader’s area, the midlands, and the other to Galway. This would provide a geographical spread so that people who are sexually abused can have quick access to a centre where evidence can be collated and they may receive treatment. However, since the report was issued, nothing has happened. We have had no work on either the midlands or the Galway sexual assault units. We could upgrade the four existing units and establish the two new units at a cost of €2.8 million, but nothing has happened.
I ask the Leader to organise a debate on this issue. We need to send out a strong signal to people who are raped or sexually abused that treatment is available for them, the State will take their claims seriously, support will be provided and forensic evidence will be used in court cases where they have the courage to take on their attacker in open court. This is an issue on which the Seanad should take a lead. We must ensure that the Health Service Executive, HSE, through the Department of Health and Children, takes the issue seriously and immediately establishes the two additional units that would go a long way towards helping those — mostly women but some men also — who have been attacked and abused in this way. I urge the Leader to organise a debate on the matter.
I hope we have now learned the lessons from the early 1980s which my party and the principal party opposite did not learn when we went down the route of supporting a constitutional change on abortion. Yesterday, that disastrous decision had an impact in the courts on the issue of frozen embryos. I ask the Leader to organise a debate with the Minister of Health and Children so that we can determine the Government’s current policy with regard to introducing regulations and legislation governing human fertility treatment. We need to arrive at a consensus on legislation.
In the aftermath of this morning’s revelations on nursing homes, we have become utterly confused about the issue. Some of us debated the issue last night, yet we are no clearer this morning whether differences exist between public and private homes in terms of scrutiny. Several nursing homes have been told they cannot accept further patients, even though it is apparently all right for them to cater for their current residents. It is not just a matter of hiring more staff; they simply cannot accept any more residents. The most appalling aspect of this illogical matter is that the owner of one of the nursing homes said he knew nothing about it because it had never been brought to his attention. He only heard about the matter through the media, which suggests that major problems exist with communications.
I have previously raised the question of how the inspectorate might do its work. I do not believe a single type of inspectorate will be able to do all that we require of it. Checklists can be followed with regard to members of staff, levels of amenity and support and physical facilities but a serious issue arises in terms of medicine and how residents are looked after when, for example, they suffer bed sores. This morning, I listened to a doctor discuss that issue. Where would a regulator fit into that structure? I recognise the difficulties that exist in addressing the matter and, as Senator Brian Hayes correctly noted, we have all made mistakes in the past 30 years. However, given that we are now trying to correct our mistakes, it would be useful to hold a discussion on what is being planned so that we can have an input.
In terms of where we are going, several questions arise. How are the public and private sectors connected in the nursing home issue? How will an inspectorate work, what will it inspect and how will it relate to local medical people or a regulator? What will be the regulator’s role in looking after elderly people in nursing homes? Nobody seems to have the answers to these questions and, while I accept that people are doing their best to address them, they should not imagine they have all the necessary wisdom in their own heads. An open discussion would be worthwhile in terms of progressing solutions to the problem.
Mr. Ryan: A connection may be made between the differing views on the sanctity of in vitro embryos at one end of life and the treatment of elderly people at the other end. It sometimes appears, when we encounter complicated issues, that nobody is prepared to legislate.
With regard to embryonic research, Ireland is probably the country in Europe where the most horrendous experiments could be conducted without any legal protection. That the views of Members may differ with regard to matters for which it is appropriate to legislate does not detract from the fact that some legislation is better than no legislation and that not to legislate is an act of political abdication. I do not care what court cases are ongoing because, if draft legislation is not prepared in the meantime, we will face a situation in which the most unscrupulous commercial operators will be able to acquire embryos in Ireland which are not protected by any law and experiment on them however they choose without any legal implications.
Introducing legislation will be painful and will probably resurrect all the old issues. Senator Ross and I are the last survivors of the political era of the 1980s when all those dreadful and demeaning issues last arose. One of the few people who managed to preserve his dignity and the quality of debate through that most emotional of times was Senator Hanafin’s father. I do not want to make political points but the Government cannot leave the matter unregulated merely because it is awkward or difficult.
I do not have much sympathy for the Health Service Executive on the issue of nursing homes. It had ample notice on the extent of the problems in that regard but was reluctant to publicise its decisions. We have learned the names of the nursing homes sanctioned by the HSE not because it wished them to be known but because somebody in RTE uncovered the information. Of the nursing homes which were instructed to take no further patients, one was opened with much ceremony by the Minister for Health and Children less than a year ago. The problem can be solved if the HSE comes clean but its website is patchy and does not set out all the reports. We need genuine openness from the HSE because an odour of cover-up emanates from the matter.
I would like to learn whether fee paying schools, both those in which teachers’ salaries are paid by the State and unsubsidised schools, are subject to the school inspection regime and, if so, whether any have been inspected. I will raise the issue of fee paying schools on another occasion because it is anomalous that the State pays the salaries of teachers in schools which socially select people for positions of privilege.
Mr. Bannon: Ireland has one of the highest levels of radon gas emissions in Europe. Every year, up to 200 Irish people die from lung cancers caused by radon gas. We must promote awareness among local authorities on this issue. We should be concerned that the numbers of deaths from radon gas in Ireland are above the global average and that 91,000 Irish homes are at risk. The problem has been highlighted in the media and by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland on several occasions, yet the Government has done nothing to address it. I urge the Leader to facilitate a debate on this issue. Radon gas accounts for 13% of lung cancer deaths per year in Ireland, yet the Government has stood idly by despite the billions of euro in tax revenue it could use to deal with the issue.
I support Senator Ryan and others in the call for a debate on the nursing homes scandal and the abuse of the elderly therein. By delaying the debate, we are prolonging the agony of some elderly people in nursing homes. This needs to be addressed urgently. I was disappointed that the Government delayed the debate and did not accept Fine Gael’s proposal to have it yesterday. I hope it will see fit to hold it next week.
Mr. Daly: A couple of weeks ago, I raised the question of the ongoing reorganisation of community and Leader organisations and the various companies involved in community work and enterprise development in the regions. Some discussions on this matter have been initiated by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, and it would be opportune if he were invited to the House to outline briefly his proposals in this regard and their impact on the organisations and their beneficiaries.
Mr. Ross: On 20 December, there will be much fanfare and transport triumph when the port tunnel is opened in Dublin. We should debate road infrastructure and traffic congestion in Dublin. When the tunnel is opened, it will only transfer a problem from one area of Dublin to the M50. An extra 9,500 vehicles will be forced to use the motorway every day.
The position on infrastructure is chronic. If, as the Taoiseach said in the Dáil yesterday, the Government is to do and can do absolutely nothing about it, we are in a critical situation. Anybody who wants evidence of this should consider the serious warnings given by the US Chamber of Commerce in its recent submission on the national development plan. The submission contained some alarming quotations that nobody seems to have noticed. Many executives of US companies are now suggesting that their companies locate anywhere but in Ireland because access to the airports is appalling and infrastructure presents real difficulties. They cannot move around at all and are therefore urging their companies not to locate in this country.
If we debate this matter, the Taoiseach or relevant Minister may reply that we should consider the announcement by Google this week of 800 new jobs at Grand Canal Dock. However, the significant point about Google’s decision, which represents a serious warning, is that it decided to come to Dublin despite its being offered immensely attractive grants to go anywhere else. I conjecture, on the basis of what the US Chamber of Commerce said, that Google would not go anywhere else because it cannot get anywhere else. It is becoming the case that multinational investment in Ireland, regardless of one’s views thereon, will cease very rapidly if we do not do something about transport infrastructure. The problem is this serious for the economy.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: From time to time, those of us who watch television see examples of the two extremes at which medical practitioners use their skills. On the one hand, they offer extreme makeovers to people who are unhappy with wrinkles or the shape of their nose or ears while, on the other, they are prepared to do something for youths from undeveloped countries whose faces have been taken over by malignant tumours. I watched a programme on this last night and was shocked by the condition of such young people and overwhelmed by the charity displayed by the surgeons.
I say this in the context of the court judgment on the frozen embryos, which issue has been raised this morning. There is a vacuum and it is wrong to believe it will not be filled by practitioners who may not have the same medical ethics as the charitable surgeons in the undeveloped countries. Senator Ryan is quite right in saying the door is now open to horrific experimentation.
This is a fundamental issue for most people in Ireland. A debate in the House is not the correct approach but some steps should be taken in a very ordered manner, within our system, to ensure that we achieve some sanity and clarification in this area.
In most debates on the pro-life issue, each individual, regardless of the side he or she takes, believes deep down that we must protect the sacredness of human life. This is the most fundamental aspect of the issue. I ask that we do not let the months go by without addressing it because the aforementioned vacuum is serious.
Mr. Browne: I repeat the call for a debate early next week on the nursing home reports. The issue is very confusing. We read on RTE’s website today that only ten of the Twenty-six Counties are covered by the inspection reports. It is stated that a home that opened only a year ago has already failed to meet the required standards. That RTE only gained access to this information by default does not inspire confidence in those entering the system.
Some of the stories about Leas Cross and other nursing homes were truly shocking and none of us would have believed them only for the shocking footage shown on the “Prime Time” programme. It is vital that we have a debate on the care of the elderly in nursing homes early next week.
I call for an urgent debate on tolling. I am very confused as to what is happening at the toll station on the M50. I saw the headline stating there are to be no tolls, but it now appears the barriers will be removed although tolling will continue. We must ask serious questions in this regard. If National Toll Roads is paid off a sum in the region of €600 million, will it represent good value for money for the taxpayer? If, for the same cost, a second bridge were built to compete directly with the existing toll bridge, thus offering motorists a choice, would it represent better value for money? The buy-out will have a considerable impact on infrastructural projects nationwide because the €600 million to be paid to National Toll Roads will not be available for them.
A much fairer system would be to apply a charge to fuel such that the more one uses, the more one pays. This could lead to the abolition of motor taxation and address the crazy circumstances whereby toll stations have been placed on all the motorways. The Leader will be more familiar with this than anyone else because the Kinnegad motorway presents problems. Problems also arise in Fermoy and motorists are not using the new motorways because of tolling. We need a serious debate on tolling.
Mr. Hanafin: I, too, call for a debate on legislation pertaining to the protection of life. I was glad to hear this morning that a direct link was made between care for the elderly and care for the embryo. The approach required is holistic and it is a question of value. Regardless of whether the Houses decide to protect life in legislation, it is still precious. This is the important point. Can we, amidst the confusion, satisfactorily protect life, which is precious? I hope we can do so in the weeks and months ahead.
Dr. Henry: I support Senator Brian Hayes’s call for a debate on the lack of provision of sexual assault units throughout the country. Having been involved in the establishment of the first such unit in the Rotunda Hospital more than 20 years ago, I know how important it is to make facilities available as near at hand as possible. If we really want to do something about the conviction rates on foot of rape and sexual assault, we have to be able to collect forensic evidence. This cannot be done properly if we are dragging people around the country. The most important issue in preventing any crime is fear of detection on the part of the would-be perpetrator.
Several court cases have been alluded to this morning. I would like to speak about a court decision that gave me great joy in the past few days. I refer to the High Court’s ruling that little Irish children whose parents came from abroad are entitled to the care, comfort and companionship of their parents. A stay has been put on the deportation of such people. I am sure many other Senators will welcome the ruling in question.
The rural transport initiative has been pursued on a pilot basis for a number of years. Its pilot status will come to an end next year. I am sure extra funding will be made available when it is initiated on a mainstream basis next year. I would like the House to debate the extension of the rural transport initiative in the evenings and at night. I am familiar with the work that is being done in this regard in two of the 34 groups nationally, in north Connemara and south-east Galway. People on the radio and elsewhere in the media are talking about the fact that it is difficult for people to get to restaurants and pubs in the evening. Rural Ireland is particularly affected by this problem. It would not take much more funding to extend the scheme to later in the day. I was glad to hear yesterday that Bus Éireann is involved in talks with an integrated rural group in County Galway. It is proposed to get Bus Éireann involved in the rural transport initiative in that area. There is a role for business people, including publicans, in this regard. Perhaps the public and private sectors can co-operate to offer transport services to people who feel socially excluded. The rural transport initiative is all about preventing social exclusion. It aims to ensure people can avail of transport facilities in areas where taxis and buses, for example, are not available. I hope we can debate this matter as soon as possible.
Mr. Cummins: I join my colleague, Senator Bannon, in calling for a debate on radon gas. According to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, 13% of lung cancer deaths in this country can be attributed to radon — more than 200 people die as a result of it every year. The World Health Organisation has stated that the rate in Ireland is much greater than the global rate. This serious matter should be discussed in the House.
The Government’s policy on nursing homes and the proposed inspectorate is a shambles. The attitude of the Government and the Health Service Executive to what has happened is similar to what one would expect from Pontius Pilate. There is an urgent need for a debate on this issue and I hope we can have such a debate next week.
Mr. Dooley: I join Senators in calling for a debate in the House on the national transport network. There seems to be some confusion about the tolling of the M50. It would be important to have such a debate here. Those who have suggested that the toll on the M50 should be ended are worried about the impact that would have on the roll-out of the roads programme. The toll in question should be maintained to pay for the upgrade work, thereby allowing the Government to continue to invest in the various transport networks throughout the country. If there is gridlock on the M50, that does not mean people in the rest of Ireland should suffer. There is gridlock in many provincial towns throughout the country, such as Ennis. The problems there are about to be resolved, thankfully, as the Ennis bypass is about to be opened. Further work is required on the western seaboard to develop a proper road network along the Atlantic corridor. When such a network has been delivered and developed, it will be possible for international companies like Google to invest in the west of Ireland. We should have a debate on this matter because it is timely and important for problems in other parts of the country to be highlighted. While the problems on the M50 are often in the headlines, the various problems of gridlock in rural Ireland do not tend to make the newspapers, unfortunately. Members of this House have an opportunity to make such points, thankfully.
Mr. Moylan: I would like to speak about the difficulties with the register of electors. I would like the Leader to ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to instruct local authorities to issue a list of deletions from and additions to the register, to accompany the draft register that has been already made available.
Mr. Moylan: Political parties are facing huge difficulties in trying to correct the register. If a list of additions and deletions were to be made available, it would be simple to correct the register.
Ms O’Rourke: The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, spoke about rape and sexual assault treatment units. There are four such units in Ireland at present. A report last year recommended that two further units should be developed, in the midlands and in Galway. We need to put in place a network of services to assist people who have been sexually abused or raped. Such people should be able to make their way to these facilities to make their cases and to get ready for the courts. I understand that it is a matter for the Health Service Executive. I agree with Senator Hayes. I am familiar with the figure of €2.8 million that was mentioned by the Senator. The current range of services could be upgraded and the two new facilities which are needed could be developed if €3 million were made available. I will raise this important matter in another context. I appreciate Senator Hayes’s decision to raise it in the House. Issues of this nature tend to disappear from the public headlines from time to time, until horrific cases arise. It is important we ascertain the current position in this regard.
Senator Brian Hayes also spoke about the manner in which various political parties took different paths about a certain issue in the 1980s. While I agree with him that we should provide for regulations in respect of assisted human reproduction, it would be difficult to formulate such regulations. In vitro fertilisation, which has given hope to many people, has produced some great results. People sometimes tell me that in vitro fertilisation worked successfully for them and that their lives are much happier as a consequence. There are dangers if it is not regulated, however. I agree with Senator O’Toole’s comment that the High Court case came to “a very sensible conclusion” this week. I do not think the Supreme Court will change the decision. The High Court came to a satisfactory conclusion on the matter. We will have to wait to see whether the decision will be appealed. Senator Ryan said there is room for exploitation as a result of the vacuum that has been created in this regard. If we do not regulate this area, unscrupulous people might move in to purchase a very valuable commodity. We do not know what they would do with it. It is important the Government should get working on this matter. As in all matters relating to sex, conception and reproduction, the road will not be easily marked out and not everyone will agree with the conclusions reached. We can expect a repeat of the level of declamation, etc., which we encountered on the last occasion.
Senator O’Toole asked for a full debate on nursing homes next week. While we would like to provide for such a debate, we cannot get a grip on the issue at present because the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, who is responsible for the care of the elderly, is on business in Iceland. We have made it clear that such a debate is needed.
Senator Ryan spoke about the two ends of life. It is dramatic that we are talking about the care of the elderly and, in the case of embryonic research, the care of the very young. He said that there is no legal regime and that it must be regulated. The nursing home which opened only last year now seems to be in trouble. Senator O’Toole made the point that they can supposedly care for those they have but they cannot open their doors to any more people, which is something of a contradiction. If they can adequately care for those they have, then I do not know. There are many questions to which we want answers.
Senator Ulick Burke brought up the matter of fee paying schools yesterday. Senator Ryan asked whether the fee paying schools which do not receive payments to teachers are open to the education audit. I do not know but I will inquire about it and get back to him.
Senator Mansergh stated that we should have a debate on the Estimates next week and I agree with that. Senator Bannon spoke about radon gas. Around ten years ago, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland gave a home assessment kit to everybody who wanted one. Many people availed of that offer. All new homes must be fitted with preventative measures and schools have also been methodically checked. However, that leaves those houses that are not new and the Senator wants a debate on the matter. He also wants a debate on nursing homes. We all want that but it is fanciful to think that just because we are going to have a debate on this issue, the lot of many people will somehow improve. We will have a debate on the issue and it is a matter of getting the relevant Minister to come to the House.
Senator Daly called on the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, to outline his proposals for rationalisation and reorganisation of local community supports, all of which are doing much good but some of which seem to overlap. The Minister is determined to carry out a re-organisation of those.
Senator Ross spoke about the American Chamber of Commerce which has suggested that US companies locate anywhere but Ireland because it is so difficult to get around. That is serious because its statements will go back to the US and influential business people will read them. However, they will also see that we have a good tax regime in this country and that their companies are well looked after. I agree with the Senator that the infrastructure issue is a serious matter for this country.
Senator Ó Murchú spoke about cosmetic surgery and about surgery for young people from underdeveloped countries whose faces were scarred by malignant tumours. Both he and Senator Ryan pointed out that the door is now open for experimentation. He said that in this House pro-life debates were well conducted. It is all about tolerance as people have different points of view and it is right that we should listen to them. Senator Hanafin called for legislation on the elderly and for legislation on embryonic research.
Senator Henry spoke about a lack of debate on sexual assault units and would like to see more of them put in place. She welcomed the judgment in the courts about those young children who may now stay. I hope that decision will be implemented.
Senator Kitt also spoke about radongas. He essentially wanted to talk about rural transport. The initiative about which he spoke could be the key to the problem whereby many people in rural Ireland cannot move out of their homes in the late evening. Of all the things I did in political life, the rural transport initiative was one of the best. It was really good because I thought of it myself. The idea did not come to me from the Civil Service.
I ask for your protection, a Chathaoirligh. I will say no more. Senator
Cummins also spoke about radon gas and he wants a debate on the nursing homes issue. Senator Dooley referred to tolling on the M50 and the confusion which now exists. Senator Ross did not express any joy about what is to happen in 2008, yet he has been calling for it for quite a while.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Moylan raised an important issue, namely, the register of electors. We all got our draft register and I think that all the activity about it has led to these problems being exposed. There are a large number of deletions and additions, but there are many questions to be answered about the register. Tomorrow week, 25 November, is the final date. The Minister has spoken about a rolling register, which I thought was a good idea. It means one can keep on adding the names as people hand them in. Between April and August we gathered 800 names which we duly sent in to the county council, yet none of them is on the register. They have vanished without a trace.
Ms O’Rourke: The 800 names are not on the register but there is a meeting today to sort that out. Luckily I have some proof because we kept copies of everything. I thank the Senator for raising that matter.
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