Tuesday, 21 October 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the provision of child care services, which will be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and which will conclude not later than 6.30 p.m. Spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators seven minutes, and Senators may share time by agreement of the House. The Minister will be called upon ten minutes from the end of the debate for concluding comments and to take questions from spokespersons or leaders.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I have just come from a meeting that was held in a church that was attended by hundreds of elderly people. They were not there for prayer or mass, they were there to defend their entitlement to a medical card, their basic right to universality, a right the nation gave them seven years ago but that has been taken away from them. It was one of the most uplifting meetings I have attended, in terms of seeing the power of the elderly people there and their willingness to come along and to fight for what they feel is right. It was also one of the saddest meetings I have ever attended because people were driven to go along to it to defend their rights. That raises enormous questions about what we value in society and what are the values we want to underpin by our legislation and our approach to health policy.
What was announced this morning does not restore the peace of mind that has been taken away from elderly people. The attack on the over 70s remains in place. There has been no discussion about the problems of means testing, the huge attrition rate from it, the number of people who do not apply, and the humiliation people feel. The scheme outlined this morning will create a number of problems, but above all it will create a two-tier system for the elderly, namely, those who were eligible before the budget and those eligible after the budget. It has taken peace of mind away from the elderly.
Fiscal policy could have been used instead of taking that approach. When the elderly consider what has happened to many high rollers and the tax reliefs they got over many years, they are entitled to ask where is the equity in the recent proposal from the Government. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Health and Children to the House today. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to discuss the withdrawal of the medical card from the over 70s. We should be discussing the matter in the Seanad. The whole country is talking about it.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Anybody who was at the meeting this morning would be appalled at the situation in which elderly people find themselves, and the fact that they have to congregate outside the gates of Leinster House tomorrow to get their point across to a blunt Government that is not listening and is not responding to what the Irish people want.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is not just the elderly that will be affected, but their families and young people also. The attack on universality is being done without any debate or discussion. It was not part of the election manifesto. Universal health cover for the over 70s was introduced in 2002 to buy an election but it was not part of the election manifesto last year. It was introduced without any discussion or mandate and because of a lazy approach to the budget. The Government could have targeted many other areas. We all know about the areas where there has been extensive waste.
The Government is playing around with the figures at the moment. It was going to save €100 million when the medical card was to be withdrawn from 120,000 people and now it is going to save €100 million when it will be withdrawn from only 20,000 people. It is not 5% of 120,000 people that are involved, it is 14% of them, and eligibility will be based on gross income rather than net income. When the fine details of the scheme emerge people will not be happy.
Who knows what will be the outcome of the negotiations the Government will enter into with the Irish Medical Organisation or anyone else? It is all uncertain. The principle of universal health care for the elderly as a value, which the elderly now expect, has been taken away. What the Government has announced this morning has gone no way near restoring the peace of mind the elderly want.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I agree with the points made by Senator Fitzgerald. How many times have we discussed the importance of the Upper House and that it should be relevant, topical, responsible, caring and retain a connection with ordinary people? That is what this is about. If it is being discussed on every radio talk show, in every lounge in every pub and at every dinner table in every house, it is daft not to discuss it here. If everybody in the whole country is debating the issue, we should debate it too. I have tabled the following motion:
Senator Joe O’Toole: I suggest that the Order of Business be amended so that we can take statements on the three issues mentioned in my motion — the need to exclude the minimum wage from the income levy, to restore the universal entitlement of people over the age of 70 to the medical card and to reverse the proposal to reduce class sizes. I ask the Leader to provide for such a debate immediately. We need to examine the fact that we are being misled, rightly or wrongly. I do not believe that just 20,000 people over the age of 70 earn more than €36,000 a year. That is what is suggested in a document I downloaded from the website of the Department of Finance an hour ago. I deeply resent the manner in which members of the Government have referred to people who earn €36,000 a year as “well-off” or “highly paid”.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I do not know how anybody in this House would live on €36,000 a year. There seems to be a suggestion that elderly people can live at a cheaper rate. It is not on. I would like to mention another thing that has been done in a sneaky way. The budget proposal in respect of medical cards was based on one’s net salary — one’s salary after the costs associated with housing and various other things were deducted. The new proposal in based on one’s gross income, however. Would Senators believe that this change has apparently been made — I ask my colleagues on the other side of the House to listen — because it has been decided that it is easier for people to know what their gross income is? Come on.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I ask Senators on the Government side to go back to their parliamentary parties and lift out of it those who are making proposals of this nature. Certain facts need to be checked. There are arguments against the universal approach to the over 70s. I was prepared to listen to some of those arguments last week. However, I heard over the weekend that the Government is reconsidering the principle of universality in many other areas. It is just a step away from taking away the travel pass, the television licence or the telephone allowance.
Senator Alex White: Can the Leader indicate how many more changes, reversals or climbdowns are likely to result from the Budget Statement the Minister for Finance made in the other House last week? Does he agree that our community and society is a laughing stock, internationally and domestically, because the budget, which is the major economic statement of the year, has degenerated into such a shambles over recent days? I agree with Senator O’Toole that this is a question of candour, honesty and clarity. When will the Taoiseach look the Irish people straight in the eyes and tell them, in a clear, honest and candid manner, what precisely is happening to this country’s economy? Why are we getting a drip feed of information, for example in the statements which are made in this House?
I would like to mention the most shocking — I use the word advisedly — experience I have had since I was elected to this House. Last week, the Leader, reasonably, ordered a debate on unemployment in this Chamber. When the Minister of State came in to the House, his so-called statement did not contain a single new proposal to deal with what looks like the greatest crisis this country has faced for many years. I do not mean that there were very few new proposals in it, but that there was not even one. The point has been made previously that the budget contained no proposals on how to deal with the scandal of unemployment that is about to return to this country. If we are to have serious debate in this House, that kind of treatment of the Seanad is disgraceful and should never be repeated.
There is an issue of confidence in the Government and especially the Taoiseach. He is an able and experienced man, but is not levelling with the public. Scrappy interviews in the second part of the 9 o’clock news on television, early morning press conferences and rushes out to RTE are not the way to engage with the people in this sort of situation. We need serious engagement and while I accept that we in the Opposition also have a responsibility, the principal responsibility rests with the Government and particularly with the Taoiseach.
There will have to be a political reckoning down the road for what has happened in recent months regarding when the Taoiseach and his predecessor knew what was coming down the line, what he knew and when he knew it. All those issues will have to be reckoned with in due course. For now, we urgently need leadership, honesty and candour from the Government regarding the banks and the economic situation, and we are not getting it. We need Goodbody Stockbrokers to tell us there will have to be a second budget some time early in 2009. We are not being told what the situation is. It is the same approach that unfortunately was taken by the Government on the Lisbon treaty referendum. One cannot treat the people in this way. They are angry, frustrated and concerned and have a right to be so. They demand, and are entitled to, a straightforward approach and account for itself by the Government, and they are not getting it.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I would be delighted to have this debate and would welcome the Minister here for a full debate so all these problems can be teased out. I welcome the Taoiseach’s decision and statement this morning that 95% of over 70s holding a medical card will keep it. People in the 5% will be able to apply to the Health Service Executive for concessions in certain areas. These people are in the higher echelon of our society. I see nothing wrong with that. We have come a long way. There was an information deficit and a full debate is necessary so we can tease it out in this House.
Senator Ann Ormonde: The Taoiseach should be given a chance to clarify the situation but every time he opens his mouth, he is interrupted. We will get it right. The debate is necessary and I look forward to it. It will be a big debate in this House and the sooner we get it, the better.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Following what Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole and Alex White have said, we have had an extraordinary situation today. People who were almost defenceless came out fighting. People we would not expect to be were driven to speak out, defend themselves and fight for their rights as they see them. What is the Government doing about our mega-wealthy tax exiles? These people are as Irish as the rest of us, many are very good in their societies, but they are outside the scope of Irish tax law. While there is no levy for them, we expect some of our poorest citizens and relatively poor people to pay this levy. In these straitened times it is time for the Government to ask these wealthy people to play their part and I hope many will.
Senator Paul Coghlan: In light of past decisions of the High Court and Supreme Court, it is time for the Government to examine urgently how these people can be brought within the scope of tax law, especially regarding the levy.
The Property Services (Regulatory) Bill has been promised for some years now and mentioned in this House a number of times. We are all aware that we have in Navan a still-born authority or rather, a body functioning without any legal framework because no Bill has appeared before either House of the Oireachtas. I ask the Leader what the staff employed in Navan are doing, how many are in place and what has been achieved to date. In these difficult times, it is disgraceful that such a situation is being allowed to continue. I ask the Leader to determine whether the Government intends to bring forward a Bill or drop the matter entirely.
Senator Eoghan Harris: Last week I said in the House that I could not, in conscience, support the budget because it had failed to deal with the public sector. That is intimately related to the kind of Civil Service mind which came up with the medical card scheme. I also said that I could not, in conscience, support the main Opposition party because it is compromised by the presence of Deputy James Reilly as its spokesman on the matter who——
Senator David Norris: The matter to which Senator Harris is referring did not take place in the House. It was a matter of negotiations outside the House and had nothing to do with procedures in the other House.
Senator Eoghan Harris: I strongly recommend that Fine Gael, from a tactical point of view, thinks about the wisdom of having somebody ballyragging the Government about medical cards who, in his previous capacity, negotiated these outrageous profiteering charges for the IMO. How could any normal human being——
Senator Eoghan Harris: I repeat, I have a real problem with this budget both in terms of the public sector and the medical card scheme but I find it very hard to support the main Opposition party rolling all of these other issues into it, given that its spokesperson on health is not coming to it with clean hands.
Senator Eoghan Harris: I am happy to do so. What bothers the public about the changes to the medical card scheme is above all the grudging and graceless way in which the Government has handled it.
Senator Eoghan Harris: Up to today I considered it to be grudging and graceless. However, the public does not wish to commit itself to universality at any level. I do not believe in universality for medical card schemes or child benefit allowance because it favours the rich and privileged rather than the great mass of people.
Senator Eoghan Harris: I do not believe it should be slipped in under cover. However, although the Government’s handling has been grudging and graceless the Opposition is compromised by the fact that its spokesperson on health is a member of the medical profession.
Senator Eoghan Harris: I withdraw the remark. The point I want to make concerns the failure of the Opposition to point up the need to reform the public sector. Only Deputy Ruairí Quinn of the Labour Party has been brave enough——
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: These are priority issues for Fine Gael. Deputy Richard Bruton has consistently spoken about public sector reform. The senator is incorrect to say Fine Gael has not consistently demanded it.
Senator Ivana Bacik: It is the first time ever that anyone can remember a budget that was open to negotiation after it was announced in the House. The people on the Government side should hear themselves this week, as they are saying something very different now——
Senator Ivana Bacik: Will the Leader call the relevant Minister to the House to answer valid questions, which are being asked by everyone in the country, about what exactly will happen with medical cards for the over 70s? We should defend the principle of universality of access. Senator Harris claims it is indefensible, but what about universality of access to primary schooling and waste services?
An Cathaoirleach: All comments should come through the Chair and not directly across the floor to any other Member, please. I will call up the next speaker who ignores this rule. This is the Order of Business.
Senator Ivana Bacik: We need a debate on universality as the Government has clearly placed the principle under attack. The Minister for Finance declared last week that he was reviewing the universality of child benefit payment. He has already tried to change the universal provision of medical cards for the over 70s in a botched and haphazard way. The European principle is that we supply public services to people on the basis of their ability to pay, through income tax, and we then supply these services on the basis of universal access. People pay higher taxes and this funds national primary schooling which is accessible to all, in the same way that medical cards should be accessible to all and child benefit should be payable to all children, irrespective of their parents’ income. This important principle should be defended. It is disgraceful that the Minister for Finance has placed it under attack.
Senator Ivana Bacik: The principle of equity of taxation is important and should be examined. If the Government asks for our suggestion, why not take those on the minimum wage out of the 1% levy and instead place a higher levy on those earning more than €150,000 or €200,000——
Senator Ivana Bacik: ——instead of a blunt instrument of 2% for everyone over €100,000, irrespective of the fact that there are people in the country who can well afford to pay more than 2%, and who are earning well in excess of €100,000? I support the amendment and it is very important that we have this debate and we should closely examine what the Government is really about, which is attacking the poorest and the most vulnerable in society.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: I support the call by my colleague, Senator Ann Ormonde, for a debate on the over-70s medical card issue. I must inform Senator Ivana Bacik that this side of the House is saying this week exactly what it said last week.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: The solution means that 95% of the over-70s will be covered by the medical card scheme. Last week, I asked the Opposition did it support the principle that those who can pay, should pay. The answer I received was, “Yes”.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: I would also like the debate to focus on a matter raised by Senator Alex White. He claimed An Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, came out in a shoddy way and ran out for the last half of last Friday night’s news. Senator Alex White knows the Taoiseach was out of the country until Friday. He was in his office then meeting members of the Northern Ireland Assembly——
Senator Geraldine Feeney: ——and running the country. When he got out to RTE, that was the only time he could be taken. I, along with all my colleagues on this side of the House, am proud of the job he did for us on Friday night.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: I also hope the debate will cover the amount of savings that will be taken into account without affecting medical card eligibility. The thresholds given are €36,000 for a single person and €72,000 for a couple. It is only the interest on any sum over that which will be brought into question.
I was rather surprised, but interested, to hear Senator Joe O’Toole claim €36,000 was not much of a pension. Is he confusing a pension with an occupational income? A teacher retiring after 40 years of service will have a pension of €36,000. It was Senator Joe O’Toole who would have negotiated that. I look forward to debating that.
The introduction of the free medical card for the over-70s has allowed elderly people to continue living in their own homes with dignity, their health has been restored and a large amount saved for the State. Through this, they also have not been exposed to contracting MRSA in hospitals and have had the use of facilities such as public health nurses, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. The unpleasant jobs which must be done for elderly persons with dementia or who cannot look after themselves have also been covered. However, for those over-70s who may lose the medical card, the facility of incontinence pads for free, for example, will no longer be available to them. Many of these people came to my clinic in recent days, terrified they will lose their medical cards.
Senator Nicky McFadden: Many of them have lain awake every night terrified since the budget was introduced. I am glad the Taoiseach listened to his backbenchers and to my colleagues on the other side of the House. However, universality of services must be continued for people who are sick. The relatives of many people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease have been in contact with us in recent days. People have died prematurely because they have not been able to access health services as they do not have medical cards. In this day and age in a First World country like ours, we must care for the people who have put us where we are today and who have built this State. I ask us in this Chamber to have a level-headed debate about this. It is not about personalities or us individually or politics. It is about the Minister coming to the House and talking in a straight manner to Members about caring for our elderly.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: We all are well aware of that anxiety because we live in the community and would have spoken to many people. I would not have expected any less from the Taoiseach because he is an honourable and decent man.
I honestly do not think we are helping the situation by trying to demonise any side. It is quite clear we have a very difficult economic situation with which to contend. We knew it the night we sat for 23 hours to deal with a guarantee of €400 billion to the banks. We all knew full well that the difficulty existed.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: ——and pay for certain services when we are under economic pressure. If we do not do so, the people at the end of the line will continue to suffer. We are talking about us all being just that little bit more balanced in our comments and focusing on the specific issues with which we are dealing, not all the global issues which can be discussed specifically in their own time and under their own particular heading.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: ——then I honestly do not believe we are doing justice to the mandate which we have received from the people. I do not believe those who would suffer most will thank us at the end of the day if that is the easy road we decide on going at this particular stage.
Senator Alan Kelly: I support the proposed amendment to the Order of Business. I also support my colleague, Senator Alex White, in asking how many changes there will be to the budget. How many more climbdowns will there be?
Contrary to the previous speaker for whom I have great respect, I do not believe this medical cards issue has been sorted. It simply has not. Frankly, I do not believe the statistics I heard this morning.
Senator Alan Kelly: The calculations that have been done suggest approximately 14% will lose their medical cards. I would not like to accuse the Taoiseach of misleading the people, but in the next few weeks we will certainly find that out. We may have to come back into the House and say so.
The other aspect is that there is a fundamental change in that the Minister can use a ministerial order to change the thresholds. This is a principle. We are talking about the principle of universality and perhaps we should debate that at some stage, but that is a massive change in the principle. The Minister can decide next year that the thresholds will be changed again.
I do not believe this issue is solved. The discussions with the Irish Medical Organisation still must be undertaken. Until they are, we will not know how far they have proceeded and how much they have succeeded in dealing with this issue. This is just one issue; there is a plethora of others. Undoubtedly, within the next couple of weeks there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers and parents outside the gates of Leinster Houses protesting at the scandalous way schools, particularly secondary schools, have been treated in this budget in terms of class sizes, the changes in funding for resource teaching and the transport costs being imposed on parents throughout the country. It is ridiculous. I guarantee that in the next couple of weeks there will be massive debate on this issue and that it will be the subject of serious debate on the floor of this House.
Another sector that has been very badly treated, although this point might not yet have been raised, is the group of children between the ages of 16 and 18 who have disabilities. The threshold for the disability allowance, which amounts to approximately €204, has been moved from 16 to 18 years while the domiciliary care allowance has increased to €299 and been moved from 18 down to 16 year olds. However, in reality, families with children or young adults in this situation are losing up to €7,000 per year. That is huge. It must be highlighted and reversed. These people are using this money to bypass the long waiting lists for services such as speech and language therapy and occupational therapy.
Senator Alan Kelly: I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on this issue in the near future. This sector must be examined carefully, particularly in view of how the Minister has treated it in the budget.
Senator Ivor Callely: I listened with interest to the call to invite the Minister for Health and Children to the House to debate these matters. I support that call. I have participated in debates with the Minister in this House on a couple of occasions and I have found her interaction with Members of the House and her frankness on issues most helpful. Of course, there is the issue of whether she is available today, if one can add a little realism to this debate. I presume Members are realistic that there will be some negotiation between the Leaders to agree a suitable date and time when the Minister will be available to participate in such a debate.
A number of speakers have put questions to the Leader. I listened intently to Senator Alex White but I am not sure whether it is that he does not have political support for the Taoiseach and Minister or there is something more deep-rooted or he has simply not asked people the right question, but he indicated that there is a certain amount of untruth circulating. If that is what he means, and he appears to be nodding in agreement, I urge him, in the interests of everybody’s good name, to spell this out so we can ascertain whether he is correct or incorrect. In fairness to the Taoiseach and the Minister, if Senator Alex White has an issue, he should state it clearly and let us await the answer to it. I invite the Senator to take me up on that offer or go directly to the people with whom he has a problem and discover the answers for himself.
I have heard his colleague, Senator Alan Kelly, state previously in the House that the Minister should have responsibility for different aspects of the health issue. Today, he is contradicting himself. What the Minister has done is a welcome move with regard to the guidelines for medical cards. She has taken back power and ensured she has control over the establishment of thresholds. Heretofore, it was the responsibility of an authority outside the Houses. All Members of the House should welcome that. Indeed, I have heard the Senator’s party ask for such a move in the past. There are some contradictions in what is being said on this issue.
On the other hand, Senator McFadden referred to the elderly at home. I have some experience with this issue and it is wonderful that over the years Fianna Fáil has delivered a tremendous package of home supports, be they care assistants, home helps, meals on wheels, day care services, residential services, the home adaptation grant and the home improvement grant.
Senator Ivor Callely: Need I mention social welfare improvements, free travel passes, free travel companion passes and other benefits? I would welcome our having the Minister present to debate these and related issues as soon as possible.
Some Senators might see where I am coming from in asking the Leader my next question, which is related to what I have heard today. It concerns the fact that there is some confusion over waste waiver charges. It is rubbish——
Senator Joe O’Reilly: It should be accepted as a principle that we no longer set about solving budgetary difficulties on the backs of the weak and poor, which was attempted last week. Happily, the public outcry has reversed this. It is incumbent on the Leader to seek clarity from the Government on the 1% levy and announce that the many employees on the minimum wage and those engaged in home help, baby-sitting and such jobs will no longer be subject to it. It is absolutely inequitable and it is important that the money be found elsewhere.
On a happy note, I beg the Cathaoirleach’s indulgence to allow me refer to the fact that the Irish Business Against Litter league has, in its most recent tranche of results, placed Cavan town first among the towns with more than 6,000 inhabitants. I ask the Leader to acknowledge this in his response, as I know he will. This tremendous result is a testament to the work of the town clerk, town engineer, county manager, executive of the council and, in particular, the outdoor staff. We are very proud of the result in Cavan and it would be nice to have it acknowledged unanimously by the House and to have it conveyed to the relevant authority.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I will be very brief in the knowledge that the Cathaoirleach is under pressure. I, too, support the call for a discussion on the medical card for people over 70. We need clarity and, as Senator McFadden stated, should not play politics with this issue. However, this is exactly what is being done. In a calm environment, when tempers have cooled somewhat——
Senator Fiona O’Malley: ——it is very important that we discuss the real details of what is now available to the over 70s. Many were very surprised to learn the annual sum of money per medical card being paid to general practitioners under the gold card scheme. It amounts to €640 rather than €130 and this is not sustainable.
We also need to recognise other realities in the longer term, irrespective of whether we agree with the principle of universality. The Opposition politicians will be taking a hostage to fortune, and certainly did so when I was at the meeting in the church this morning, in arguing the case for the recipients who have signed up to the scheme. Believing in universality is fine when one is in Opposition and the money is rolling in, but when one must face hard choices——
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Frances Fitzgerald, Joe O’Toole, Alex White, Ann Ormonde, Paul Coghlan, Eoghan Harris, Ivana Bacik, Geraldine Feeney, Nicky McFadden, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Alan Kelly, Ivor Callely, Joe O’Reilly and Fiona O’Malley all expressed their serious concerns and views regarding the various items in the budget. There were statements on the budget in this House last Wednesday, and Fianna Fáil gave Private Members’ time, and added time to it by leave of the House, which I very much appreciated.
Over the weekend there was much concern and alarm, and many of our senior citizens were deeply hurt and concerned about their plight regarding the medical card. To put everything in context, as Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú said, there is a massive economic downturn worldwide and we, as Senators, have a serious challenge and considerable obligation to deal with the facts and challenges as they arise for the Government. The assistance of the Opposition has always been appreciated, regardless of who has been in Government. The difficulty and challenge are not just our own; they are universal. They are being faced by strong nations — I do not have to name them — from the United States of America down.
On returning from the summer recess, the Government had to call an early budget. We were also faced with the challenge of the banking dilemma which was occurring worldwide. On the Order of Business, I stated as one of the three longest serving in the House that Senators met and excelled in that challenge in an extraordinary way. The people acknowledged that, as did the media, and I respect that.
The time allocated for Government deliberations on budget matters may not have been the longest or fullest. That said, I am trying to reassure the people, especially those over 70 years of age because I know dozens of such citizens who were very annoyed and hurt and had many sleepless nights since the budget was announced last Tuesday. This must be acknowledged because we are the representatives of these honest people who have placed their trust in us to come to Parliament to see what we can do to assist them and their families for the future.
The Government has worked hard over the past two days, as was stated by Senator Feeney. The Taoiseach was in Brussels for two days, came back and met the leaders from the North of Ireland to see how he could assist with their challenges and difficulties. The earliest opportunity he had to address the matters of concern to all Senators was on Friday. He has been giving every minute of his time until the Order of Business and Question Time in the Dáil today.
The statement made by the Taoiseach this morning, which allows 95% of all those over 70 to retain their medical card, will be of great assistance. A statistic that has come out from the deliberations since the budget is that discretionary medical cards are held by 70,000 people. This is an area where discretion has been left with area representatives of the Health Service Executive and general practitioners. Speaking as a person who was a member of a health board for more than 18 years, and the Cathaoirleach and Senator Glynn will have considerable experience of this as former chairpersons, when we went as public representatives to a representative of what is now known as the Health Service Executive with a genuine case for a discretionary medical card, we were always listened to, and long may that continue. I will do my utmost to accede to the request for a full debate in the Seanad at the earliest opportunity I can get a date in the diary of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney. That is a commitment to the House. I have always found the Minister very forthcoming in giving us a date in her diary and giving us all the time we needed to deliberate on the challenges that faced us then in terms of the HSE, including the medical card issue and all other issues pertaining to the health services that are of concern to Members in regard to the budget.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator Alex White expressed views regarding employment and unemployment. On that, I want to wish the Taoiseach, Enterprise Ireland and its excellent chief executive officer, Frank Ryan, and all the Irish team, well on their mission to China. I had the great opportunity of being on the last trade mission led by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. There are very many companies whose brand name products, and I include the town of Mullingar, are able to survive in the world of competition because of joint ventures in China. I wish the Taoiseach well.
I remind the House that while the unemployment figures are increasing, Ireland still has 2 million people employed compared to 1987 when the figure was only 1.1 million. That is an advantage in this difficult time——
Senator Callely asked for an update on waste charges. I join with Senator O’Reilly, who highlighted the achievements of Cavan town. My colleague, the Government Whip, informed me only yesterday of the great achievement, and I know Senator O’Reilly shares his views in that regard. I offer congratulations to all concerned in Cavan town.
An Cathaoirleach: There are two amendments proposed to the Order of Business and I will deal with them in the order in which they were proposed. Senator Fitzgerald has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: “That statements from the Minister for Health and Children on the Government’s decision to withdraw medical cards from people over age 70 be taken before No. 1.” Is the amendment being pressed?
|Bacik, Ivana.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||Kelly, Alan.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Mullen, Rónán.|
|Norris, David.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Phelan, John Paul.|
|Quinn, Feargal.||Regan, Eugene.|
|Ross, Shane.||White, Alex.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Cassidy, Donie.|
|Corrigan, Maria.||Daly, Mark.|
|de Búrca, Déirdre.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Kett, Tony.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
An Cathaoirleach: Senator O’Toole has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: “That Seanad Éireann strongly recommends that the Government excludes the minimum wage from the proposed income levy, reinstates in full the universal entitlement of the over 70s to a medical card and reverses the budget proposal to worsen class sizes in primary and post-primary schools.” Is the amendment being pressed?
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