Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Quinn: I believe Edmund Burke stated that for evil to thrive, all it needs is for good men to remain silent. I mention this because of the courage and bravery of a young woman from the Congo that was reported in the newspapers yesterday. She gave evidence of an outrageous assault that she had endured for a number of years, having been brought into Ireland by the perpetrator. I raise this matter because the young woman in question was only 15 years old and it would have been very easy for her to stay silent. I gather that a large number of young people do so under similar circumstances.
I understand that a referendum will be held and I completely agree with the point made in the House today by Senator O’Toole. This House is the forum in which the matter should be discussed in the coming months, rather than springing a referendum on citizens without anyone having the time to understand the details.
Mr. Quinn: It horrifies me to think that party political divisions might arise in this regard as this should not be the case. If it pertains to the protection of children or the protection of individuals, as Senator Norris noted, this is the place in which the issue should be debated. Members should find time to so do, rather than rushing ahead with a referendum.
Mr. Mooney: In keeping with Senator Norris’s good-humoured comments on the weather, I am sure all Members will agree to congratulate him on a wonderful manifestation of youthful exuberance, as he caught frisbees in Trinity College, Dublin. My question——
Mr. Mooney: Second, a measure is being introduced at present which appears to overlap across a variety of different Departments on a national and local basis. I refer to a scheme for sports equipment for socially and economically disadvantaged areas to which one can apply. A total of €2 million has been set aside nationally. While I consider that to be a paltry sum of money, someone somewhere made that decision. In real terms, the amount involved for County Leitrim is €12,000 each in respect of the youth and sports sides of the scheme. Initially, the Department of Education and Science was responsible for implementing the scheme and forms were issued. However, County Leitrim VEC subsequently discovered that the Department was passing it on to the local partnership bodies where such bodies exist. In the case of County Leitrim, none exists as yet and it was obliged to prepare a new form. Finally, the closing dates differed and the applicants were then informed that henceforth, Pobal would be responsible for the transmission and investigation of these claims.
Mr. Mooney: I appreciate that. However, I thought this would be a useful exercise because of the enormous sums of money involved and the fact there are some obvious sceptics on the other side of the House, who wrongly believe the money is probably being misappropriated. I do not suggest this for one moment and do not believe this to be the case. I simply suggest that it might be instructive and educational for the relevant Minister, who in this case is the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, to come before the House to provide it with a review.
Mr. Mooney: I suggested he should come before the House to provide a review of the scheme in order that there could be a debate as to how the dormant accounts system is working. I add and emphasise that I do not suggest there is anything amiss. However, there are questions about accountability.
Mr. Feighan: Almost 12 months ago I raised my concerns about the decision by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, to merge the partnership and Leader programmes around the country. I mention this because in my own locality, the Arigna Leader programme has been highly influential in ensuring that development was secured for the area.
It is said that this is Ireland of the welcomes and each day one hears of Ministers welcoming grants of €10,000 and €5,000, etc. However, in this instance I asked for proper consultations for transparency and accountability. It is clear that the news is not good regarding the Arigna Leader programme, which serves County Leitrim as well as north-west Roscommon very well. I ask that the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs should come before the House and explain the reason that staff from his Department asked members of the Arigna Leader programme for a two-week confidentiality clause. This is extremely serious.
Mr. Feighan: I want the Minister to come before the House in order that I may ask him how, effectively, he could gag members of the Arigna Leader programme with a confidentiality clause. It is clear that the Government only makes announcements when the news is good. When the news is bad, it gags the people.
Ms Ormonde: I wish to make a few points in support of Senator O’Toole’s comments regarding the removal of children by their parents from school off-season to avail of low fares and special offers from airlines. While a standardised mid-term break was introduced to prevent such actions, it is creeping in again. Many parents and teachers have expressed concern regarding the flow of young people from schools at crucial times to facilitate the airlines in respect of low fares. The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism should enter into discussions on this subject because it is having a highly negative impact on education, particularly at a time when children are preparing for mock examinations, etc.
Mr. U. Burke: I support Senator Norris in his call for a debate on health as quickly as possible. We are fully aware of the problems in the health service. We hear about them every day in the media. However, the health service reached a new low as the HSE initiated measures to restrict the availability of drugs to Irish patients due to their costs. This is new and dangerous. The Minister and the HSE based this new tactic on a British model treated with derision throughout Europe, yet here we are following it.
An eminent cancer specialist in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin stated one of his patients was refused an approved treatment because of the cost of the drugs. We were accustomed to obtaining the best possible drugs under the GMS scheme. This new model adopted mimics the British system already proven a failure. If a drug suitable for treatment for a cancer patient is denied due to its cost, it is time for the Minister to consider her position.
Mr. Scanlon: It is not often I agree with Senator Ryan. However, on this occasion I agree with his call for a debate in the House on the issues facing nurses. Two weeks ago, I met representatives of the INO and the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA. Last Friday, at their invitation I met approximately 100 nurses in groups and individually at Sligo General Hospital.
We face a serious problem as nurses feel ignored, demoralised and neglected. Two issues are raised, pay and the number of hours worked. The problem with hours should have been dealt with through benchmarking but has not. It is important to debate this matter. One nurse I met has small children and works a four-day week.
Mr. Scanlon: It is important and I wish to make the point. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his time. The lady works a four-day week and should work 34 hours. However, she works 40 hours. Nurses do not get paid overtime. No nurse I spoke to finishes work on time. They are supposed to get hours back in lieu. However, this might happen six months later. We must deal with the issue and the sooner the better.
Mr. Coghlan: The closure of post offices raised by my colleague, Senator Finucane, is a national disaster. What is being planned now that will not be revealed until further down the line? As Senator Finucane stated, the Minister must come before the House and be up front and level with us. In Killarney, the greater part of the town on the eastern side where the bulk of the population lives lost its post office. It closed a week ago with no plans for a replacement. Are pensioners and social welfare recipients expected to go online with bank accounts? It is farcical.
Mr. Glynn: I support my colleagues who referred to the Dr. Neary case. It was an opportunity lost, which is extremely regrettable. The fitness to practice committee of any profession exists to ensure the integrity and standing of that profession is protected. I hasten to add I worked with many fine consultants. This was terrible and poured mud on what was already an extremely hurtful and traumatic situation for many young women who were denied their right as women to bring children into the world. I will not labour the point as everybody knows what I am talking about.
I support what Senator Scanlon stated on nurses. A number of groups were catered for outside the benchmarking process. The nursing profession is the only group which does not work a 35 hour week. It is not my business here to indulge in industrial relations. However, fair play comes into focus.
Ms Feeney: I support what Senator Glynn stated. I congratulate the Medical Council on its finding of professional misconduct against the three consultant obstetricians. I was astonished at the one-line statement in this morning’s newspapers. The so-called “three wise men” state they are bitterly disappointed with the finding and find it fundamentally wrong. They have no regard or thought for the——
Ms Feeney: To me, it states they find nothing wrong with their finding the man not guilty of wrongdoing when all the rest of us found him guilty. I query their judgment and the type of minds they have. I will go so far as to state I hope when the Medical Practitioners Bill comes before the House each of us, regardless of what side of the fence we are on, will be mindful of this. I also hope we will be at one with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, on dealing with the consultant contract and support her.  Once and for all it must be about public safety and the care of patients and not about collegiality.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: In recent times, a story from St. Louis attracted world headlines. A young man was abducted several years ago and presumed dead. Through vigilance and good police work he was found alive and returned to his family. We are all aware that many Irish families had a keen interest in this story. They are in a living hell as they also have loved ones who are missing. One can only imagine the nightmare of not knowing whether they are alive, dead or suffering. We all hear their isolated calls for help and see their messages at railway stations and bus stops.
At present, we are not pro-active in helping them. It is wrong to presume those missing persons are dead. We need a dedicated Garda unit with proper resources to pursue these cases. I am convinced many missing persons may be alive and a possibility exists that we could have another good news story like that in St. Louis.
Mr. Dardis: Senator Brian Hayes together with Senators O’Toole, Ryan, Norris and Quinn raised the proposed amendment to the Constitution to embody children’s rights. I was a member of the all-party committee which considered the matter at great length. Everybody regarded what we came up with as something to which every party could subscribe. It is worth stating extensive consultation took place. Many groups came before the committee and put their points of view to which we listened. I am not sure whether a White Paper would add much to those consultations. Perhaps the greater consultation which now takes place explains why there has been a reduction in White Papers on this and other issues in recent years. I agree with Senator Norris that there is not unanimity on the matter but there is a wide consensus. I do not agree with his remarks on the rights of the individual. The importance of children being specifically referred to in the Constitution was clear to the committee——
Mr. Dardis: ——as was their being given specific protection. I take Senator Quinn’s point that it required enormous courage on the part of the Senegalese girl to come forward. One hopes there are protections for girls in such circumstances. She was vindicated by the law but one can imagine other cases where a constitutional provision would be important. I agree with the proposition that the matter be debated in the House and we will try to arrange it. It is hoped to bring a proposed wording to Cabinet in the near future to dispose of the matter by referendum as quickly as possible, though I cannot anticipate how that will develop.
Senator O’Toole referred to low air fares, also mentioned by Senator Ormonde. It is unfortunate that attractive deals are offered during term time, meaning parents who wish to avail of them must take their children out of school rather than wait until school holidays. Senator O’Toole said that was the way the market worked. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister and tell him the House wishes him to speak with the relevant travel agencies. I saw one offer last week of an apartment for €43 per night, offered by a well-known insurance company in Spain, which included breakfast and seemed extraordinarily attractive. Those of us of a certain age can remember when the standard excuse for not being in school was that a child was working in the garden. I am sure there are now other, more up to date excuses.
Senator O’Toole asked about the possibility of a break of a half an hour but it is very unlikely that Committee Stage of the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006 will conclude before 5 p.m. If it were to conclude before 4.30 p.m. we would certainly take a break of a half an hour. If that requires an amendment to the Order of Business I will propose it.
Mr. Dardis: I am sure it will be delighted to hear them. Senators Ryan, Scanlon and Glynn raised the grievances of nurses. There is no conflict between the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health and Children and the Government is at one on the issue. The Government is bound by social partnership and agreements made under it so there is no room for discretion in the matter. I am not aware of things having been done outside benchmarking and the Labour Court recommended it be resolved within benchmarking. I see no reason, however, we cannot debate the matter and I am sure the Minister will agree to come into the House to do so.
Senator Ryan referred to the situation in Palestine, where there is effectively a civil war. We hope Hamas and Fatah will agree a modus operandi going forward but that may be hoping for too much. However, we will keep the situation to the forefront of this House. The Senator also raised No. 2. It is unlikely it will terminate because to do so would require a motion to be tabled to that effect by 1 p.m. but I will clarify the matter.
Senators Mansergh and Norris spoke about the effect of global warming on the water supply. Senator Mansergh made a good point about water supply, an essential service. A number of places, not on very high ground, have experienced serious service disruptions. We are taking so much out of the River Liffey at present that the sustainability of the river is in doubt. We must find the additional water services for the extra 90,000 houses we build each year. My own view, not supported widely, is that water should be taken from the Shannon. I suggested that 20 years ago and the county engineer in Kildare told me it could not be done. A report then came out stating it could be done. We have a wayleave all along the canal and could bring a pipe to Dublin without having to acquire land. I do not, therefore, see why it cannot be done. We are not short of water but have plenty.
Mr. Dardis: Senators Finucane and Coghlan raised the potential closure of post offices and I have some sympathy with their point of view. Senator Finucane asked for a debate on the matter and we will consider it. Grocery shops are closing down, as well as other shops, in many cases because of modern living but I have a great deal of sympathy with the point made regarding access for pensioners.
Senator White asked for a debate on mandatory retirement and I agree fully with her. We will need more people in the labour force and many people are very active after the age of 65 and should be utilised if they wish to work. Retirement should be voluntary but they should be allowed to work if they wish. There is a degree of ageism in society but a person who survives until the age of 60 has a good chance of surviving until the age of 90. Many active people would be delighted to work and the Senator makes a good point.
Senators Norris, Glynn, Feeney, Dooley and Ulick Burke referred to the health service. I heard on the radio about the failure of the showers at James Connolly Memorial Hospital, which is appalling and underlines a feature of the public service, that it exists to serve itself rather than its clients.
Mr. Dardis: It seems that to replace a washer on a shower one must put an advertisement in the paper through the European procurement system. It would have been done overnight 20 years ago and we will have to look at that issue fairly seriously. We will try to arrange a debate on medical services.
The Irish Medical Council has made its adjudication in the Dr. Neary case and has registered a finding of misconduct, with no further sanctions to follow. It underlines the questionable practice of people’s peers adjudicating on their competence.
Mr. Dardis: That is undesirable and should not happen. Hopefully the legislation going through at present will deal with such issues. I bow to Senator Feeney’s knowledge on these matters because she has a great deal of expertise in the area and I agree with her comments on consultants.
Senator Dooley raised the paucity of occupational therapists but I do not know the answer. Senator Ulick Burke questioned the availability of drugs. My hospital once prescribed a specific drug for me but my general practitioner prescribed a generic, which is much cheaper. That is not to say anybody should be denied a drug that can be sourced more cheaply elsewhere but it merits a debate.
Senator Cummins asked about the 2% levy on insurance policies. I cannot answer the specific question but will try to ascertain the facts. On the face of it, the levy seems inappropriate. In passing, I compliment Senator O’Toole on the achievement of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, which an independent study found has saved €24 million in legal fees in the past year, which is expected to rise to €48 million this year.
Senator Feighan queried the merging of the partnership and Leader programmes, the latter of which has been one of the great successes in rural Ireland. I am aware of the particularly good job Arigna has done in that part of the country. We will try to get specific answers.
Senator Ó Murchú asked about missing persons and referred to the experience in St. Louis. I know of two Irish people who have not been found. The suggestion of a special unit to deal with the matter is a good one.
An Cathaoirleach: Is the Acting Leader proposing an amendment to the Order of Business regarding No. 2, Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006 — Committee Stage, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude no later than 5 p.m., to the effect that were it to conclude sooner——
Mr. Dardis: To clarify, Private Members’ business will start at 5 p.m., but if Committee Stage of the previous item were to conclude before 4.30 p.m., we would have a sos of half an hour before resuming at 5 p.m.
An Cathaoirleach: The Acting Leader has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: “That the House suspend until 5 p.m. upon the completion prior to 4.30 p.m of No. 2 on the Order Paper.” Is it agreed? Agreed.
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