Thursday, 3 July 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Donie Cassidy: Before coming to the Order of Business, I would like to acknowledge the very welcome news today of the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt. It was wonderful to hear it on the news this morning and I congratulate everyone involved. I thank all colleagues for their great support and thank the leaders of all the groups for the all-party motion we had in the House.
The Order of Business is No. 1, Nuclear Test Ban Bill 2006 — Committee and Remaining Stages; No. 2, Chemicals Bill 2008 — All Stages. It is proposed that No. 1 will be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, and No. 2 will be taken at the conclusion of No. 1. Spokespersons may speak for eight minutes, all other Senators for six minutes, and Senators may share time with the agreement of the House.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I join the Leader in expressing my delight at the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, after being held in captivity for six years. This is wonderful news. We raised the issue in the House on many occasions. Perhaps at some point in the future, when she has recovered from her ordeal, we may be able to invite her to address the House. However, it is critical that international attention does not disappear from this issue because the most high profile hostage has been released. The FARC rebels continue to hold many people, perhaps up to 700. This is an issue, therefore, on which international attention should definitely continue to focus. In the House, we should continue to keep in touch on this issue and to raise it with the Minister for Foreign Affairs in order that he can raise it at international fora. It is wonderful news after the harrowing ordeal she and the other hostages have had.
I want to raise an environmental matter this morning, given the situation in Haulbowline and the serious worries about the studies showing higher cancer rates. This will raise concerns throughout the country because the whole question of the disposal of toxic waste and the management of sites that need clearance are critical issues.
I particularly want to raise this with the Leader and Deputy Leader because two matters have come to my attention. Last week the European Commission initiated legal proceedings against Ireland because we have failed to implement the environmental liability directive. It has also emerged that we are the only country out of 27 not to have signed the Aarhus Convention. If the aforementioned directive and convention were in place, we could deal with the situation in Cork more effectively. The public would have more access to information and could demand more from the Government in terms of action on the issue.
I ask the Leader to indicate the Government’s timeframe for signing the environmental liability directive and the Aarhus Convention and for bringing them into effect, which would mean that Irish citizens were more empowered on environmental matters. This is the kind of legislation that would give citizens some belief in the European agenda. Indeed, it might have made a difference to the Lisbon vote, if people felt that some of the initiatives coming from Europe were empowering them. It would make a real difference. I ask the Leader to respond to my questions and perhaps we could have a debate in the House on these issues.
Obviously the big news today is the release of economic figures from the Department of Finance, which are disastrous. The days of the Taoiseach and former Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, trading on his reputation for sound economic management are over. Clearly he did not take note of the many reports which highlighted that the economy was over-reliant on the construction sector. He has mismanaged the finances of the country and we are now in an appalling situation.
Cutbacks are effectively happening in front-line services, despite what is being said at Government level. Any Member in this House could give a list of areas in health that are already experiencing cutbacks. Next week when we debate the economy in this House, I want to know what direction is being given to the Health Service Executive. What economic management will take place in the executive? I ask for transparency with regard to the cuts, as opposed to Members hearing from individuals about the effects of such cuts, whether in speech and language therapy, medical services, accident and emergency departments, hospitals in Galway with no receptionists because of a lack of staff and so forth. This is what is happening in front-line health services. Cutbacks are being implemented and we must have some transparency from the HSE and the Government in terms of what is happening on the ground at the moment, as opposed to vague talk about a future economic plan. I ask for real engagement in this House concerning the cutbacks that are taking place.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I join other Senators in welcoming the release of Ms Ingrid Betancourt. This is a topical global issue and who knows what minor incremental influence we might have had somewhere along the way, but the fact that nations cared and offered a view on her detention is very important.
We are in an age when we are able to watch, when CNN decides to broadcast it, rockets going down streets in Baghdad before they turn into whatever house is their intended target that day. We have watched wars and people being killed on our screens. Despite this, 24 hours after the release of Ms Betancourt we still do not know if she was rescued, if her release was negotiated or how she happened to be freed.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I also find it difficult to believe that her release was negotiated. I am simply making the point that we still do not have all the information. It is another example of how news is manipulated and edited.
I call for a debate in this House on neutrality in the context of Zimbabwe. I would like to hear Members indicate what they feel Ireland, Europe and the UN should do. I am certain about one thing in this regard. I did not want the Americans taking decisions on their own to invade Iraq and other countries and I would not like to see the same thing happening in relation to Zimbabwe. However, I would like to see the UN take action. I would like to see sanctions being implemented and I would not object to military intervention, once it is done in a democratic way. This is an appropriate time for us to debate this issue. We have never had a debate on neutrality.
Senator Joe O’Toole: When people speak about neutrality, I never know what they mean precisely. I know what it means to me but others have a different view. We must examine the issue of neutrality in the context of Zimbabwe, the good samaritan and so forth.
Senator Phil Prendergast: In Cork University Hospital, 48 graduates of the four-year bachelor of science in nursing course, costing €85,000 per student, have been told there are no jobs for them, despite that they were interviewed and had undergone a week’s induction, including completing a manual lifting course in compliance with current health and safety legislation. At the same time, Cork University Hospital has also confirmed that it has 60 vacancies. It is inconceivable that these nursing professionals would have no jobs available to them, despite that there are identified vacancies. If these nurses are lost to the profession, it will amount to a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money by the HSE.
I am also concerned about the impact of the downturn in the economy on older people in terms of them not being able to heat their homes this winter. The price of oil rose by 47% in the 12 months to May of this year. It is the most common type of fuel used by older people, with 30% of those living alone and 39% of those living with others using oil as their main method of heating. Bord Gáis has applied to the Commission for Energy Regulation for a 17% to 19% price increase from October and it is believed the ESB has also applied for a double digit increase.
The rise in fuel prices, together with the demand for fuel crops has driven up the price of essential foods. This particularly affects older people. In the 12 months to May the price of flour increased by 39%, milk by 30%, bread by 17%, butter by 17% and tea by 11%. This is putting a lot of pressure on the capped income of pensioners. The means test for the fuel allowance must be adjusted. The real allowance that pensioners received last year amounted to 60 cent per week, which will not be sufficient this winter.
While I realise this will have to wait until the new session, I ask that the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Hoctor, who has special responsibility for older people, be invited to the House so that we can discuss the many issues concerning older people, particularly in the context of our current economic difficulties. Older people are already suffering and will suffer further disadvantage as the year progresses. The seasons appear to have merged into each other. I met a young and able person this morning who told me he had to light his fire last night. It is not just older people who might feel the cold at this time of year although there is a particular cause for concern on their behalf.
Senator Dan Boyle: I join others in welcoming the release of Ms Ingrid Betancourt. I also support calls for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to consider issuing an invitation to Ms Betancourt to come to this House, bearing in mind her availability and ability to do so. As a former member of the Colombian Senate and a former Green Party presidential candidate in that country, her insight would help us to understand the ongoing difficulties in that country and the plight of the several hundred people who still remain in captivity, as has been mentioned by Senator Fitzgerald.
Senator Fitzgerald also referred to the National Cancer Registry statistics and the need for a debate on the transit of hazardous waste and the location of such materials in the country in general. The Cobh figures for the urban area were 40% above the national average, although the rural area was 25% below the national average. I welcome that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government indicated in the other House he will seek Cabinet approval for a baseline health survey to be conducted in the Cork Harbour area, which is the location of most of the hazardous industrial sites in the country. All factors must be taken into account.
One of the most disturbing statistics that emerged yesterday, apart from the environmental information, is that the town of Cobh has a deprivation index that rates nine out of ten in terms of how the cancer statistics are put together. In essence, as far as the National Cancer Registry is concerned, Cobh town is one of the most deprived areas in the country, which represents a challenge for all of the public representatives in that area.
The information that has come to light in recent days justifies the decision of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ask contractors to remove themselves from the Haulbowline site. There are severe questions as to how such contractors were appointed and supervised. That hazardous waste was being removed in an unsafe manner would contribute to a debate that needs to be held in this House at the soonest possible opportunity.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Against the grim economic background that is growing by the day, I appeal to this House, the Minister for Finance and the Cabinet to apply a very important sense of proportion to the areas to which they apply cuts. I am referring in particular to the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. I was phoned by ageing parents yesterday about their 42-year-old disabled daughter who has Down’s syndrome and whose entire €22 allowance has been cut. She works padding headboards. Worse than this is the fact that her parents’ respite care, which consists of one weekend per month, has been cut. The total cut by Ability West in Galway on the instructions of the HSE is a little more than €200,000.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Can the Leader intervene to request that a sense of proportion in the cuts is retained so that the weakest and most vulnerable people in society are not hurt? The 100% allowance and respite care of the people to whom I referred are now gone.
I will look for an early debate in the autumn with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on how dangerous dogs and their owners should be handled in light of the savage attacks on two gardaí in Galway at the weekend by pit bull terriers. I would appreciate this because one of those gardaí is a neighbour of mine and had 150 stitches as a result of the attack, which could have been fatal. Across the globe, it is children who suffer and, on many occasions, are the most vulnerable targets for dangerous dogs.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I wish to be associated with the expressions of relief at the release from captivity of Ingrid Betancourt. My question to the Leader relates to another person in captivity in Ireland and the need for a debate on the functioning of our laws against trafficking which were recently passed in this House and the Dáil. A young Nigerian woman was arrested and brought before the court for failing to show a passport or have identification last Friday. This person could be a minor and is a suspected victim of trafficking. Despite that under our trafficking laws and the current administrative provisions there is supposed to be a 45-day reflection period, we find that out of concern for this person, she has been put in jail where she is at the moment.
Two issues arise. What is being done by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to ensure suspected victims of trafficking, not just minors, are properly treated and not incarcerated in light of the spirit we are supposed to be following with our new legislation? This person’s identity was revealed in The Irish Times yesterday. Is there a lacuna in our legislation? In circumstances where there is the prosecution of an offence of trafficking, one can protect the anonymity of the potential victim. What about a situation, as is likely to occur many times, where the first person to come before the court on a related potential offence is a suspected victim of trafficking? This is not a matter that can be brought forward in a Private Members’ Bill. It may be a matter that requires amending legislation to close this loophole to allow us to protect the anonymity of a suspected victim of trafficking. I would like to hear from the Leader on that.
I ask the Leader to do what he can to ensure there is courtesy among Members in our utterances inside and outside this House. It has not been edifying to note the type of language used to demonise Senator Jim Walsh and his colleagues in respect of the motion they brought to their parliamentary party.
Senator Rónán Mullen: My question is for the Leader. I ask him to use his good offices. The media rightly portrayed how divisive and negative campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s were on various sensitive social issues. If we are going to go back to the politics of demonisation, which involve calling people “dinosaurs”, as happened in this House yesterday——
Senator Rónán Mullen: I do not and will never use abusive language but we need to try and set a lead so that we recognise the sincere convictions of people of all shades of opinion and treat them with the respect that is due to them, not just as public representatives but as human beings.
I join other Members of the House in welcoming the release of Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages. I pay tribute to the group in Ireland that campaigned for her release for many years and which was represented on “Morning Ireland” this morning. It has done very well and it is with great pride we can say we passed a unanimous motion in this House calling for her release.
I ask the Leader for a debate on child sex offences and offences of sexual abuse against children. I support the call made by Senator Fitzgerald yesterday for this debate. It is a matter of real concern to us all that the Director of Public Prosecutions recently said that he finds it very difficult to prosecute offences of sexual abuse against children. It is a matter of deep concern to us all. The problem is clearly that in the aftermath of the CC case and the Supreme Court’s striking down of previous offences of strict liability, we are left with legislation that clearly is not effective. Even the language in the Act, which refers to offences of sexual defilement of children, is problematic. Senator Alex White said this could be dealt with legislation. It would be nice to see that happen. I would favour and have long called for codifying legislation of the type recommended by the DPP similar to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 in the UK which re-enacts absolute liability where an offence of sexual abuse against a child under 13 occurs. The difficulty in Ireland is that I am not convinced that such legislation is possible under the current constitutional framework.
I welcome the Leader’s announcement that we will have a debate on the economy next week. As the rain comes down and interest rates go up, this is a clear time of gloom for us all on the economy. What is important in any debate, as was said yesterday, is that it be fact-based and that no fictions are spoken of in respect of the economy. It is equally important that we do not engage in hypocrisy. Yesterday, we saw a great deal of hypocrisy from those on the Government side who criticised its handling of the economy and yet presumably will vote with the Government side on any vote on the economy.
Senator Mary M. White: I would like to speak about the heroic release last night of Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt after six years in captivity. This is an important day for democracy. Ms Betancourt was a candidate for the high office of President of Colombia when she was captured by FARC guerrillas and held captive in the jungle for six years. What she must have endured in that time, we can only imagine. Her composure and dignity on release is an example to us all. That Ms Betancourt could consider running for the presidency again is remarkable and shows her strength of spirit. I compliment the people here——
Senator Mary M. White: I call on the Leader to have a debate on human rights as soon as possible in the new session. Columbia is a country bordering on neo-totalitarianism. The members of the Columbian Government are not saints.
Senator Mary M. White: I suggest an open debate on human rights. Our Minister for Foreign Affairs should be in a position to put the pressure on other Governments where people are being denied their human rights. Dialogue is better than force any day.
This morning we learned of the European Court of Justice ruling on the Derrybrien incident of a few years ago. This concerned environmental impact assessments and the fact that one was not conducted in that instance. It seems that the judgment, the detail of which we await, criticises Ireland’s practice. This has serious consequences for planning and I would like to hear the views of the Leader on the subject.
In this time of recession, we are over-regulated in this country. We need rationalisation of regulators. This would provide for better regulation. The administrative burden of regulation is huge. We should set about reducing it. Every Department should be required to conduct an efficiency audit. Members regularly talk about the paper mountain and the number of reports we receive without requesting them. People think they are doing well with that but we can effect a major cost reduction across the board with this exercise. The Government should urgently examine this and perhaps we could have a debate on regulators and regulation.
An Cathaoirleach: The use of telephones is not allowed in this House and I ask people on numerous occasions to leave them outside or turn them off. It is not good enough and is not fair to other Members and to those trying to record the proceedings of the House.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: I join with others in welcoming the release of Ingrid Betancourt. I compliment those who raised the issue in this House. We have played our role in that regard by making people aware of the existence of this fine lady and what she must have been suffering. I also welcome the release of other hostages. I hope that a firm message is sent to people who use hostage taking as a military activity. It must be the lowest and most brutal form of military activity. The civilised world must make it clear that under no circumstances does it serve any cause.
We should highlight other issues regarding people in captivity. It is easy for them to be overlooked. We should allocate a certain amount of time to human rights issues on a regular basis because it is clear that the Seanad has been a potent agency. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on issues that have already been highlighted in the media, such as the Middle East and Guantanamo Bay. They disappear off the radar very quickly. I am still convinced that we are listened to, that embassies and agencies in this country and elsewhere are monitoring what is being said. We might take it as a priority role in the future to highlight these issues.
It is good to see the sense of relief among ordinary decent people at the release. It shows they are conscious of what is happening. They have no voice and depend on us to give that voice. We can be an exceptionally powerful and honest powerbroker in this regard because of the country we are. We can feel happy at the role we played in this case.
Senator Feargal Quinn: Adding my voice to the relief and delight at the release of Ingrid Betancourt, I am reminded that I met Mr. Don Tidey last weekend. It is not that long ago that Mr. Tidey went through the same thing. We should remember both the young soldier and the young garda who lost their lives at his rescue.
In seeking a debate on Northern Ireland last week, which may not happen next week but which should be kept in mind, I noted how short a distance in time since we had similar problems. I am inclined to criticise those of us who do not have Northern connections of being quite partitionist in our attitudes. We give a great amount of attention to good news from this part of the world. Last night, it was announced that Seagate Technology, a company that had been in Clonmel some time ago, intends to spend £120 million in Derry to open a new factory. We do not give this even the same amount of attention. I encourage us to recognise the sense of peace in Northern Ireland, which I hope will continue, and to celebrate good news across the 32 counties.
Yesterday I raised my concern at the behaviour of one bank in Britain, which does not operate in Ireland, which targets children. When I met the banks at the Oireachtas Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, I asked to be assured that they would not target children by sending them debit cards they could use in cash machines. I received a reasonable assurance that this was not their intention in Ireland. The other good news is that there was a young man in the same bank who went to a cash machine in Britain and discovered he had a balance of £2 million. He is a 16 year old and spent it on trainers, clothing and an iPod. The interesting point is that, when questioned, he said he thought it was a government grant.
Senator Larry Butler: Like other speakers, I agree that the figures for the economy yesterday will be difficult. There will be pain for some people but I agree that those who should not feel the pain are old age pensioners and those on fixed and low incomes. We have made much headway on pensions.
I welcome the decentralisation of the HSE, something for which we have been calling for some time. I am a Senator for almost one year and Members have sought the decentralisation of the HSE. I am pleased that the article in the The Irish Times provides a breakdown. I call for a full debate on the way the HSE will be decentralised and regionalised. More local democracy should be included in the HSE when it is done. This is an opportunity for the House to examine new legislation necessary for the regionalisation of the HSE. It is also an opportunity for us to examine overstaffing in managerial positions.
I welcome the investment of €72 million in Shanganagh sewerage plant announced yesterday by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley. I am delighted it is going ahead. We want to ensure our blue flag areas continue in Dún Laoghaire and Dublin Bay in particular. I ask the Leader for a starting date on this development.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I join with other Senators in welcoming last night’s news of the freedom of Ingrid Betancourt. Rather than issuing her with an invitation, what she most needs is to spend time with her friends and family and perhaps she needs space prior to the descent of the world’s media on her.
With regard to the debate on the economy which we will have next week, I wish to speak about affordable housing and how the Government can help to kick-start the construction industry. Not many years ago, the previous Taoiseach spoke about building thousands of new affordable homes at the old military site in Gormanston, County Meath. The housing figures in Meath show a need for more affordable housing. In neighbouring Kildare, hundreds of people are waiting on the affordable housing list in Celbridge. We know the stalled affordable scheme in Dublin is causing concern. The Government can kick-start the construction industry by investing more in affordable housing schemes. Will the Leader impress this upon the Minister and perhaps arrange for us to have a statement from him on the matter?
Senator John Ellis: Members will have received the Electoral (Amendment) Bill published last week. We had consensus in both Houses with regard to counties such as Leitrim which have been subdivided, including the Cathaoirleach’s county, part of which has been included in Munster. As long as it is not for hurling purposes I suppose it will be acceptable. Part of Meath is with Louth, part of Offaly is with Tipperary and part of west Limerick is with Kerry. Everybody is being thrown to the wolves.
The Labour Party leader, Deputy Gilmore, gave a commitment that he wanted to see something done with regard to county boundaries. Many Fine Gael Members who spoke in both Houses were of the same opinion. Given that the Bill will not come before either House prior to the autumn, perhaps it would be a good idea to ask the Minister to refer it back to a new commission whose terms of reference should be that county boundaries should not be broken. To ensure the people of Leitrim have representation and the people of south Offaly are not represented in Tipperary, the number of Deputies could be increased from 166 to 168. The previous commission had the opportunity to do this but did not take it.
Senator Liam Twomey: Yesterday, when the banks appeared before the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, they indicated that people suffering from negative equity and with cash flow problems are collateral damage of an economic bubble which has burst. A cash flow problem can close a business. Has the Minister for Finance any plans to increase the amount of credit available in Irish markets? The Government, through the National Treasury Management Agency, has a large amount of assets tied up. It is possible for some of these assets to be transferred into deposit accounts in all of the major banks in Ireland. This could improve the credit flow for Irish banks, if this is the problem.
The banks do not consider they have a problem, although their shares have collapsed. People with mortgages and negative equity face serious problems. If the economy needs to be stimulated, the Government has a role to play and it could use the National Treasury Management Agency and its assets to do so. Will we get an idea next week from the Minister for Finance on whether he has plans to improve matters rather than cutting back and borrowing in the way he has indicated so far?
I would also like a debate on the HSE. The HSE has only been established for four years and an organisation has never undergone so much chopping and changing and centralising and decentralising. The HSE was supposed to have been well thought out before it was begun. It is a complete mess. It is time we had a proper debate on it. Every time we discuss it we are accused of being against reform. All of the Government parties state the HSE is a mess but vote for the Government. Will we have a proper debate on this? This side of the House has indicated that the HSE and its structures have been a mess from the outset.
I extend my welcome for Ingrid Betancourt’s release. We should extend an invitation to her to address this House. Democracy is fragile and she has experience of what can happen when one stands up for democracy and how human rights can be so easily abused. It would be interesting to have not only Ingrid Betancourt addressing the House, but also opposition leaders of other countries such as Zimbabwe and Burma. The Seanad should extend an invitation to them and provide them with an opportunity to speak in a forum such as this about democracy, human rights and how we can make a better life for everybody.
Senator Camillus Glynn: I support Senator John Ellis in his comments on the boundary commission. What has happened in the recent report is nothing short of ludicrous. The entire county of Leitrim is without representation. The northern part of my county of Westmeath is to be part of a three seat constituency in Meath. We know from history about the creation of the counties but over the years the people of Ireland have developed an affinity to their county and as such they view it in a certain way. Many people are no longer Members of Dáil Éireann arising from the recent boundary changes. There has also been recent local electoral changes. In my time as a local authority member I served in three different local authority electoral areas and I managed to survive.
This commission report should be referred back. I am glad people from all sides are of this view. The message should go from this House that this should happen. The recent report is not conducive to good governance and has not served well the fact that the people of Ireland have developed an affinity and loyalty to their counties. I ask that the report be sent back for a complete review.
Senator Shane Ross: To restore some of the harmony which normally exists on the Independent benches, I wish to show the unanimity we feel about Ingrid Betancourt’s release and I acknowledge the role my colleagues played in bringing this to the House and I hope we played some part in ensuring her release.
The debate we will have next week is all very well but while the HSE should be put under scrutiny, it is an easy target. I ask the Leader for an opportunity to examine in far greater detail another State agency, namely, FÁS, which has been something of a sacred cow in this and the other House for many years. Recent revelations about activities in the agency are disturbing and uncomfortable and we should be prepared to tackle them. FÁS has a budget of €870 million and the Minister for Finance could consider this as being worthy of severe cuts when he examines cutbacks in the economy next week. Judging by the revelations, it is in danger of becoming a political slush fund and it is difficult to know where the money allocated to FÁS by the Oireachtas and the European Union has been going. Perhaps we should welcome the European Commission asking what is happening to its money and where it is going because the Comptroller and Auditor General had some harsh words to say about FÁS in a recent report. The impression is going abroad — I suspect it is right — that the agency has too much money and too little to do.
Senator Shane Ross: I am about to ask for a debate. During the period of boom and employment, FÁS, although it had a mandate to tackle unemployment, had an inexplicable budget. I do not dispute the organisation does good work and politicians, as a result, are reluctant to tackle the agency because they can always get it as a political favour in their constituency. However, the FÁS budget is an absolute monster and the Minister should examine it in light of recent revelations and announce cutbacks in the House next week.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I support Senator Fitzgerald’s call for a debate on environmental matters, with specific reference to the toxic dump at Haulbowline and others in the State. I called some months ago for a debate on legacy landfills. The Government and the State face many environmental and financial challenges because of those dumps. There are EU and domestic obligations on the Government to deal with landfills in a proper, efficient and professional manner. Our citizens depend on the Government and the professionalism of local authorities and Departments to protect their fundamental rights, including their environmental rights, and the environment in which they live. It is important the House debates the matter.
This is not an isolated incident. For example, Senator Kelly has raised concerns about Silvermines in County Tipperary. In my constituency, Irish Tanners Limited has a toxic landfill only 100 metres from the intake for the Waterford city water supply. A blind eye has been turned to this matter for many years both by the local authority and by the Department. The Haulbowline, Silvermines and Irish Tanners sites as well as many other legacy landfills need the urgent attention of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am not taking a cheap shot at him. We want to help him tackle these challenges because they are legacy issues spanning many generations.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I agree with the Senator but we have a Green Minister and it is high time he stood up to his responsibilities and faced up to these challenges. An urgent debate on this matter is needed.
Senator Maria Corrigan: I have raised the issue of the HSE’s failure to spend the €50 million allocated for disabilities in last year’s budget on anything to do with disability and I have also raised on the Order of Business and on the Adjournment the plight of school leavers with disabilities who left school last week with no assurance of a placement in September. I, therefore, welcome yesterday’s announcement by the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy John Moloney, that the money will be spent by the HSE on the planned disability projects this year and, in particular, that school leavers will have placements in September, which will do away with a summer of anxiety for them and their families. Having ensured the money will be spent on disability issues, will the Leader invite the Minister of State to the House next week, if possible, to ensure it is spent in meaningful ways in order that people with disabilities receive every support and opportunity to realise their full potential and their equal role in our society?
I refer to yesterday’s calls about the DPP’s comments on sexual assault legislation. The joint committee is sitting but its work is complex and it needs to complete it as a matter of urgency. However, any amendments to legislation should not only provide for the protection of children but also vulnerable adults, whether they have a disability, an age-related disorder or mental health problems.
Senator Alan Kelly: I endorse Senator Coffey’s call for a debate on environmental issues. He referred to Silvermines. Unfortunately, Government commitments to date in this area have not been up to the level required. Three schools lie within a short distance of the Silvermines dumps. There are six times more carcinogenics in the air in this locality than anywhere else. Unless dust blows containing toxic particles can be prevented, the future of the school children and other people in Silvermines is not good. The issue needs to be addressed and I have called on the Government on a number of occasions to support a total clean up in the area. I would welcome a debate on the matter.
Yesterday, the House had a good debate on the OECD report on the public service. I endorse Senator Ross’s comments about State agencies. The current buzz word is “public service reform”. Performance management is a component of the public service and partnership. How many senior managers and chief executives go through the performance management process to have their performance measured on the tiered basis required? In most cases, the staff of these agencies are monitored but how many chief executives are interviewed by their chairperson? How many senior managers go through the process with their chief executive? An audit of all State agencies and the Civil Service should be conducted quickly but performance management reviews are not taking place at the level required and tokenism is the order of the day.
A few weeks ago, the Labour Party used Private Members’ time to seek amendments to the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003. We were 100% right. The Act, as amended, is permitting State agencies and other bodies to use generic loopholes to avoid giving out information. A number of Senators, including myself, have submitted FOI requests to the HSE, which provides a generic response that it would be detrimental to the future of the organisation and to industrial relations to provide the information requested. That is a load of codswallop. I have seen e-mails referring to reports about which I have submitted FOI requests. The Teamwork reports are available and people are referring to them at meetings but when I submit a FOI request seeking a draft report, the HSE will not provide it. Professor Drumm should publish the reports or provide them to Members because what he is doing is totally unprofessional and it is detrimental to us as politicians and to a debate in the area.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Perhaps the Committee on Procedures and Privileges can examine this issue. We have had 12 months of proceedings and perhaps we should return to my original proposal to place a time limit on Senators who wish to make a contribution following the group leaders. It would assist the Cathaoirleach and the House and, as the Cathaoirleach pointed out yesterday, Senator Quinn made two points in less than half a minute, which speaks for itself.
I join with colleagues in welcoming the news of the rescue by Colombian military forces of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages who had been held captive by FARC rebels for a long time. Ms Betancourt had been held captive for six years in a remote jungle area of the country. I wish her and the other 14 hostages who were released well for the future and call upon the FARC rebels to release, immediately and unconditionally, their considerable number of remaining hostages.
Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole, Boyle, Bacik, White, Coghlan, Hannigan, Twomey, Coffey and Kelly expressed their concerns about the environmental challenge facing the island of Ireland and called for an urgent debate on the issue, particularly with regard to regulations. The health of our citizens is sacrosanct and I will have no difficulty allocating time for such a debate at the earliest opportunity in the next session.
Senator Healy Eames and other Senators called for a debate on the economy and the challenges it faces. I thank the nine Senators who contributed to the debate yesterday on the OECD report on the public service, but I was disappointed that the time allocated for the debate was not fully utilised. Three Fianna Fáil and three Fine Gael Senators as well as one Senator each from the Progressive Democrats, the Green Party and the Labour Party participated in the debate. The leaders in the House try to plan the business for the week on foot of requests made on the Order of Business but yesterday I was left wondering why the full amount of time was not used to discuss such an important issue.
Senator Prendergast and many other Members raised a number of issues with regard to the HSE. I wish to record once again my thanks to the Minister, Deputy Harney, for attending the debate last night. Each time she has been invited to the House throughout the first year of this 23rd Seanad she has shown the House great respect by participating in debates whenever possible and outlining the challenges that face her and her Department with regard to the health portfolio. I will note all the matters raised by the Senators. I have a document detailing the considerable amounts of money that were allocated in the last and previous budgets to the health portfolio and to the portfolio of the Minister of State with responsibility for older people. The amounts are considerable and I intend to provide a copy of the document to colleagues rather than take up the time of the House discussing them. The figures speak for themselves. I assure Senator Prendergast, who is the acting leader of the Labour Party in the House this morning, that her call, and that of other Members, for further debates on the HSE will be noted and a debate can be organised for early in the next session.
Senator Prendergast also correctly raised the serious concern about the proposed increases in gas and electricity prices and how this will affect older people, particularly with regard to home heating. I am sure Senator McFadden and Members from rural areas will agree that this is the main reason that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will have to seriously consider, in the context of creating an opportunity to use alternative fuels for heating homes, a relaxation of the regulations with regard to turf cutting. We will invite the Minister to the House early in the next session to ensure that this takes place. Common sense must prevail. If there is a challenge facing the world, Members on all sides of the House will respect the long-term aspiration of the Minister but the short-term good of the people we represent must take precedence in this regard.
I will convey to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Senator Healy Eames’s views on dangerous dogs. The horrific attack by dogs on the garda in Galway at the weekend shows what a danger such dogs are to society. Senator Keaveney has raised this issue on many occasions on the Order of Business.
Senators Mullen and Bacik asked for a debate on human trafficking and sex offences against children. Senator Corrigan also raised this issue. I will allocate time for such a debate. Senator Mullen also mentioned the media spin regarding the remarks of Senator Jim Walsh. Senator Walsh has been a respected Member of the House for many years and was chairman and secretary of the long-standing organisation, LAMA, which represents the local authority members. He has a huge amount of experience. He must be allowed to express his opinions like everybody else, and should not be demonised for doing so. I respect the views he holds. There was a questionable spin put on the call he made to the Fianna Fáil Party. I must listen to the views of all Senators on the matters they wish to address.
Like Senator Quinn, I welcome the announcement by Seagate Technology of a £100 million investment in Derry. It is good news for the north western counties of Derry, Donegal, Tyrone and Fermanagh. I visited Derry recently and I am aware the investment will be a godsend to the people there. They deserve it. We are delighted and congratulate everybody associated with making it possible. There is a meeting later today of the Good Friday Agreement committee, of which I am a member. I will convey our congratulations to the members of the committee from those communities.
Senator Butler called for a debate on the HSE. I have already said there will be such a debate, particularly in view of the report in the newspapers this morning that it is due to regionalise its structure. I would welcome such a move. Like the Cathaoirleach, Senator Glynn and other Senators, I was a member of the Midland Health Board for many years. It was always possible to reach personnel by telephone to discuss the difficulties about which we were trying to make representations. The big difference with the HSE is that this facility is no longer available. Colleagues on all sides of the House would agree with that.
Senator Donie Cassidy: It is of the utmost importance that all Senators read the Standing Orders. I am saying this for the last time — we should respect one another when making contributions. I do not heckle anyone. When Senators have the decency to ask serious questions, they should also have the decency to listen to the responses.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I would have no difficulty setting aside time for a debate on the regionalising of the HSE, as requested by Senator Butler. I welcome the announcement of €72 million in respect of the Shanganagh sewerage scheme. It is no wonder the Senator is pleased. The money will be well spent on this project.
Senator Hannigan referred to the serious housing issue, which I have considered. Rather than having a discussion using a portion of next Wednesday’s financial debate, I propose that we leave the afternoon free after next Tuesday’s Order of Business to debate housing. It will meet Senators’ requests concerning matters pertaining to the construction and housing industries, the challenges facing local authorities and everything else covered in the housing portfolio of the new Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, a former Senator. Given that it will be the only matter on the agenda, every Senator will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate on this serious issue facing the country.
Senators Ellis and Glynn expressed their concerns regarding the report of the Constituency Commission and the upcoming Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008. Every Senator has a responsibility to state whether political parties agree with the breaking of county boundaries. Among others, Senator Ellis and I have been badly affected in this regard, but we are only individuals and everyone must realise that individuals are temporary passages of flight. No one is more important than the people. Their democratic wishes must be held sacrosanct.
To leave a county without representation in Dáil Éireann is not good policy and does not make sense. Senator Ellis’s request may need to be addressed by the chairmen of the various parliamentary parties and the Independents in the House. If they can agree with the Senator’s request, we can make progress on the proposal. I will leave the matter for the consideration of the parliamentary groupings. Senator Ellis has made a passionate plea to all of his parliamentary colleagues to express to the political establishment, including the Government, that County Leitrim deserves Dáil representation.
Senator Donie Cassidy: They must ask the establishment what it will do about this matter. Given that Senator Ellis has represented the people of County Leitrim in the Dáil and the Seanad for almost three decades, this request is not being made by a first-timer. It is being made on behalf of the people of County Leitrim. I want to know what can be done in the interests of fairness. Were any other county left without Dáil representation, we would hear more about the situation. How do the political parties view the proposal? The Government side and Fianna Fáil in particular will not be found wanting if other parties are agreeable.
Senator Kelly made known his strong opinions regarding his experience of making freedom of information requests to the HSE. His complaint was serious and the Minister for Health and Children has a responsibility to ensure such does not recur. The Senator should be assisted in acquiring information, particularly given that it was already in the public domain in another form. That an elected Member of the Upper House of the Oireachtas was denied information is a serious matter. Perhaps the Minister and Professor Drumm should ensure such does not recur. Senator Kelly’s proposal regarding management performance and an audit of State agencies is worthwhile. Perhaps it could be formally made during next Wednesday’s debate.
Senator Twomey made a proposal on financial matters and the National Treasury Management Agency in particular. These and negative equity issues can be debated next Wednesday when the Minister for Finance is in attendance.
Senator Ross called for an urgent debate on the role of FÁS during the next four years, given its budget of €70 million in respect of the special responsibility with which it has been charged, namely, upskilling 60% of the workforce between now and 2020. The challenge is a serious one and immediate action must be taken. Any regulation that interferes with anyone who loses his or her job by, for example, requiring that he or she be unemployed for the six months prior to upskilling must be removed. Given that the employers of people in their 30s, 40s or 50s who want to avail of courses may not be in a financial position to pay the 25% requirement, FÁS should provide 100% of the funding. Surely the €70 million has been allocated to upskill people to face tomorrow’s challenges. In the national development plan, in excess of €4 billion has been allocated up to 2020. We want immediate action and assistance to be given to everyone experiencing an employment difficulty. I would have no difficulty in setting aside time to debate this matter.
Senator Corrigan welcomed the announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, of €50 million in respect of disability services. I will determine whether the House can set aside one hour before the summer recess to discuss with the Minister of State his proposals regarding the distribution of that money. Senator Corrigan also referred to the opinions expressed by the DPP on sexual assault cases and adults vulnerable to assault. I will convey her strong remarks to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Senator Joe O’Toole: On a point of order, I thank the Leader for his unprecedented identification of speakers during a debate. I assure him that he has lost much of this side’s co-operation. He should apologise to the Senator he threatened to name. Despite the fact that the Leader of the House stood and asked a Member on this side to read the Standing Orders, he does not have the option of naming anyone.
Senator Joe O’Toole: The Standing Orders are clear and I advise him to read them. Instead of looking at the number of speakers who do not appear for a debate, a matter that will be regularly shoved his way during the coming months, he should read Standing Orders 50 and 51. They state that only the Cathaoirleach may name a Member of the House. An apology and a withdrawal of the threat made by the Leader would be in order at this stage.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I understand that what I actually said was that if the Cathaoirleach asked me to name someone, I would. The record is there to prove it. On another point of clarification, I did not indicate to any Senator, rather I only asked all Senators, and the record will be there to prove that as well.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I want to make it absolutely clear that irrespective of whether the Leader asked the Cathaoirleach whether he would name someone, the answer is still the same. Even if the Cathaoirleach said “Yes” to that, the Leader still could not do so. Will the Cathaoirleach clarify that for the House?
An Cathaoirleach: I said yesterday that I would take those Senators who did not get an opportunity to speak yesterday first this morning, and I did that. I was trying to be helpful to those Senators who missed out yesterday. In regard to the Senators who missed the opportunity to speak today, I will take them first next week.
It is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and for the Senators if they want to control the speaking times. I cannot do any more unless I have a way of switching off a speaker and moving on to the next speaker. I cannot shorten the contribution of Members who spend time raising an issue. Two minutes more was spent on this matter this morning than should have been spent on it. I regret that six Senators failed to get the opportunity to speak this morning.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: On a point of order, I am not questioning the Chair’s ruling on Senators who missed out on the opportunity to speak this morning being called the following day, but I foresee a difficulty with that down the line, and perhaps the Committee on Procedure and Privileges might consider it. In other words, if six or seven Members from either side want to book time for the following day, they would merely have to put up their hands and six people from one side could be called in rotation. The Cathaoirleach might consider that suggestion.
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