Business of Seanad.
Order of Business.
Affordable Housing: Statements.
Elder Abuse: Statements.
Appointments to State Agencies and Public Bodies: Motion.
Scéim na mBóithre Áise.
Schools Building Projects.
Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10.30 a.m.
An Cathaoirleach: I have notice from Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill that, on the motion for the Adjournment of the House today, he proposes to raise the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Ciaran Cannon of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Jerry Buttimer of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Fidelma Healy Eames of the following matter:
I regard the matters raised by the Senators as suitable for discussion on the Adjournment. I have selected the matters raised by Senators Ó Domhnaill, Cannon and Buttimer and they will be taken at the conclusion of business. Senator Healy Eames may give notice on another day of the matter she wishes to raise.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on affordable housing, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to adjourn not later than 2 p.m., if not previously concluded, spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and other Senators for eight minutes, Senators may share time by agreement of the House, and the Minister will be called upon ten minutes from the end of the debate for concluding comments and to take questions from leaders or spokespersons; No. 2, statements on elder abuse, to be taken at 3 p.m and to adjourn not later than 5 p.m., if not previously concluded, spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and other Senators for eight minutes, Senators may share time by agreement of the House, and the Minister will be called upon ten minutes from the end of the debate for concluding comments and to take questions from leaders or spokespersons; and No. 23, Private Members’ motion No. 37 regarding a review of the appointments to public bodies, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7 p.m. The business of the House will be interrupted between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I wish to move an amendment to the Order of Business. Clearly there is only one topic we should be discussing, that is, the budget.
Senator Ivana Bacik: Hear, hear.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I call on the Minister for Finance to come to the House today. The budget is the worst attack on middle income earners that we have seen in the history of the country.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Hear, hear.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is an appalling budget. No only has the Government deflated the economy, but it has deflated the hopes of the people. Taking into account the measures in this budget, the Government has taken more than €8,000 from the average family in the past six months. This is an attack on families. The Government has attacked families throughout the budget. It has bottled it on reform — there is no reform in the budget, which is extraordinary. The Government did not take the courageous decisions required to cut spending. The balance in the budget is wrong. Some 60% of it will be taxation compared with Fine Gael’s recommendation of 32%. The Government has failed to give hope to those who are losing their jobs.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Hear, hear.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Job protection and creation are not addressed in the budget. The Government has only predicted increases in unemployment. In its budget, it has deflated the people’s hopes. The Minister should attend the House today to begin the discussion on the budget, including the plan to take on €80 billion to €90 billion in banks’ debts.
There were no cuts in VAT rates or PRSI relief for employers or a green economy stimulus programme, which was a Fine Gael proposal. The taxes on families are extraordinary. When money leaves people’s pay packets at the end of the month, they will find it difficult to manage day-to-day living.
The Minister should discuss in the House the plan in respect of a preschool year. From where will the staff be found and where will the education be available, given the current shortage of child care places? What is the thinking behind this and what are the plans? We need details in this regard and on the asset management plan announced yesterday. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business so that the House can discuss the budget today.
Senator David Norris: It is some years since I said in the House that those who gloated at the demise of communism in the Soviet Union might find themselves attending the obsequies of capitalism during their lifetimes. To a certain satisfactory extent, this seems to be occurring. Socialism is beginning to happen, but it is a forced conversion.
I welcome the fact that the Government has created a new asset management agency. I suggested this four months ago but it was something more radical. We will take over toxic assets valued at more than €90 billion, but I proposed the creation of a national property management agency. The Government has done half of this, but I wanted it to sequester the assets of the property speculators. I was told of a constitutional bar in the form of the protection of private property. I do not believe this because of the Constitution’s governing clause, which covers the social and public good. No property speculator could go to the Supreme Court and argue that his or her private rights were more important than the welfare of the people. We should consider whether the speculators should ever get their money, because they should not. Will the Minister explain this issue?
I am disappointed that Moody’s rating agency has re-rated our banks. As a result, there was a catastrophic 30% decrease in their share prices this morning. The Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s agencies should be examined by the international community because, after signally failing to stop the horses bolting, they have slammed the door in the stable boy’s face at a particularly inopportune time. As it was not appropriate, governments should scrutinise and rid themselves of such agencies. In their place, an international independent ratings agency should be introduced.
We must ensure the people are protected. I am glad that Ministers of State are being winnowed out, but I would like a Minister of State to be appointed to look after the welfare of people in their homes and their mortgages. Due to the removal of mortgage interest relief after the seven-year mark, people will be unable to make repayments and there will be repossessions, which will lead to a downward spiral. We must look after the people.
I started to make a point yesterday. While we may reconsider major infrastructural projects such as roads, we cannot afford to halt maintenance. I am horrified to see that road maintenance will be abandoned. Frank Gallagher lost his beautiful daughter when, while on her way to Shannon Airport, she hit an inappropriate road surface treatment. In the Kentstown massacre, five schoolchildren were deprived of their lives because of an inappropriate road treatment and a lack of proper maintenance. It cannot be allowed nor can we cut back in terms of fire brigades. These matters relate to people’s lives and welfare.
I look forward to tomorrow’s debate on the budget, as I will have plenty to say. This time, I hope that newspapers and “Oireachtas Report” will cover this House and the good economic ideas held by many of us on all sides of the House.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: On behalf of my party, I pay tribute to the late Garda Robert McCallion, who sadly passed away yesterday after succumbing to injuries sustained in the line of duty. We would all agree that he was a brave garda and our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues in this difficult time.
Yesterday’s budget was one of the most serious tabled by a Minister for Finance. We all agree that difficult decisions needed to be taken. Indeed, some were taken. We hope that, as a result, the nation’s finances will be put on the road to recovery. Since some issues have arisen as a consequence, however, I would like the Leader to arrange for a number of debates. The first discussion would be on the establishment of the national asset management company, which will reportedly buy assets valued at up to €100 billion. This approximates to €25,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Yes.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: It is vital that the establishment and operation of the organisation be well understood and conceived. In appointing people to it, there can be no room for manoeuvre or cronyism. We must be clear on it being a transparent agency because it will serve just one master, namely, the people, and not any political party. As we must get it right, I want a debate on the agency’s operation.
The Minister got two areas wrong and must reconsider them. First, the Christmas welfare payment is seen by many poor and elderly people as an essential part of Christmas. It pays for essentials like the Christmas ham, a small present for a grandchild or heating an extra room for someone who is returning from abroad to spend Christmas at home. Since the proposed saving of more than €100 million would not be tremendous, we must reconsider the matter. Will the Leader arrange for this debate?
Second, the issue of international aid must be revisited. In the past four months, we have cut nearly €200 million, more than 20%, from the aid budget. This morning, John O’Shea of GOAL stated that yesterday was a bad day for the poor and this country’s reputation. We must reconsider this matter, as the saving would not be considerable. We have made commitments to the outside world. Other European countries are going through difficult times but they are not cutting back. The only other countries doing so are Latvia and Italy. I am looking across the floor at Senators on the Government side who are good people and who firmly believe in development aid. I ask them to make the case to revisit this area. We must stand with the developing world and ensure we fulfil our commitments. Will the Leader arrange for a debate on the matter?
Senator Dan Boyle: Since we are due to make statements on the budget tomorrow, it will be an opportunity to lay out our stalls and to examine in detail the context of the Budget Statement made by the Minister for Finance in the other House yesterday. I hope that Senators, before they engage in the debate, will learn to be numerate. In recent days, I have heard much about middle income earners. The average industrial wage is €36,000. The average wage in the public sector is €47,000. The tax burden was spread across all categories, but it was most heavily spread among high income earners.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Why does the Senator not go canvassing on that point?
Senator Dan Boyle: I will tell the House the extent to which it was.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: It was not spread among high income earners.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Boyle without interruption.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: He should get his facts right.
Senator Dan Boyle: Every Member of this House was least affected by the tax burden through the 1% increase in the income levy. All of the other increases — the 4% and 6% bands, the lowering of the thresholds from €250,000 to €175,000 and from €100,000 to €75,000 and the raising of the PRSI ceiling and the health levy — affect people who earn incomes greater than ours. When Senators discuss a middle income, they should put things in perspective and learn the reality with which people are living every day.
Senator David Norris: Why do Senators not listen? He is perfectly right.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Will Senator Boyle say that when he is out canvassing?
Senator David Norris: Well done, Senator Boyle.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: He should not lecture us with his pious platitudes.
Senator Maurice Cummins: When he knocks on doors, he will get his message.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: You sacrificed the people of Ireland to stay in power.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: What about people with families?
An Cathaoirleach: I call Senator Coghlan.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Government has sacrificed the future of this island. Shame on it.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Coghlan, without interruption, please.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I second Senator Fitzgerald’s proposed amendment to the Order of Business today. While all Members expected a fair measure, sadly the Government got the balance completely wrong yesterday between increased taxation and spending controls.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Senator Boyle should remain in the House and listen.
Senator Paul Coghlan: That is the basic point I wish to make.
Senator Camillus Glynn: The Senator should take her own advice.
An Cathaoirleach: Please.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: The Senator is not in the classroom now.
An Cathaoirleach: I ask Members not to interrupt. If this continues, I simply will adjourn the House and will persist in so doing until Senators desist from interrupting. Senator Coghlan, without interruption.
Senator Paul Coghlan: There is no jobs plan in the budget.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Exactly.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Although Members were lectured repeatedly on jobs, the measure proposed yesterday contained nothing to sustain or create jobs. Nothing was done on PRSI relief for employers to create new jobs or to improve the position on VAT and there was no green economy stimulus. This budget is lacking on essentials. Measures that Members proposed and thought the Government agreed constituted essential ingredients are absent, which is extraordinary. For those reasons and others, I second the proposed amendment to the Order of Business.
I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Norris regarding the rating agency Moody’s. I do not understand how such organisations rate banks either because the bottom line is — this is another reason the Minister should come before the House — we have not received the details on the proposed State asset management agency under the aegis of the National Treasury Management Agency. A press conference on this issue is to be held some time today and I suggest the Minister should come before the House immediately afterwards. Unless banking stability is achieved, there will be no economic recovery and Members need to hear greater detail on this subject, as well as the other matters, from the Minister today.
Senator Terry Leyden: I share in the expressions of sympathy to the family of Garda Robert McCallion, who was 29 years of age, was from Swinford, County Mayo, and served in Letterkenny Garda station.
An Cathaoirleach: The point is made.
Senator Terry Leyden: I extend deepest sympathy to his brother and family on his tragic death. He was a serving garda and I extend sympathy to the Commissioner, Superintendent Vincent O’Brien, his colleagues, the Garda Representative Association and all involved. He was upholding the rights of the citizen and defending the law. He was an exemplary member of the Garda Síochána. His uncle and father served in the force and his brother John is a serving member. I extend the sympathy of this House to his family on his tragic death.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I support the call from Senator Fitzgerald and others that Members should debate the budget today. It seems extraordinary that, when everyone else in the country is debating the financial statement that was issued by the Minister for Finance yesterday and the small print contained therein, Members are not so doing. Given there still are 20 Ministers of State, albeit for a relatively short time, surely one of them could come into the House, even if the Minister is not available, to deal with the comments and views that all Members would like to express today on the budget.
A debate also is required on various aspects of it. As Senator Fitzgerald noted, the announcement of the free child care places was one of the very few — probably the only one — welcome pieces of news in the budget. However, it is difficult to imagine how that measure possibly could be implemented, as outlined by the Minister, by January. Furthermore, it seems like a real sop or small concession to working parents, who have seen their incomes so badly hit by the budget. I make no excuses for saying it will hit low and middle income families. Senator Boyle is not present to hear the response of those Members who took exception to his comments about numeracy. It is fair to say that low to middle income families will be badly affected by this budget. In particular, I refer to those who face the abolition of the child care supplement and the taxing of child benefit in future years, and who have seen the doubling of the health and income levies and the PRSI ceiling increased. People have talked about death by a thousand cuts but this budget constitutes death by a thousand petty levies, all of which will add up to a significant reduction of income for families.
An Cathaoirleach: The budget can be debated tomorrow. I seek questions to the Leader from Members.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I ask the Leader for a debate on the budget today and in particular the impact it will have on low to middle income families and on parents who will see their income cut in all these ways although their child care costs will remain high.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I add my voice to those who have expressed their sympathy to the McCallion family in County Mayo and Inishowen where the family home was located. While Members often spend their time bemoaning what the Garda does or does not do, it is very sad that not only did we lose Robert McCallion but, within hours, the death of a second serving garda in the Donegal district occurred yesterday. It was a very sad day for them and I send my commiserations and sympathies primarily to the family, as well as to the wider family that is the Garda Síochána.
While I was treading on uncertain ground the last time I raised this matter, I wish to raise again the sentencing of prisoners. Although Members are meant to maintain the separation between legislation and the Judiciary, when obvious situations arise in which the process seems to need updating in respect of sentence length, I again call on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come before the House to deal with sentence lengths in respect of crime, such as the sexual crimes of paedophilia and rape, murder and all the associated serious crimes, as well as less serious crimes. He also should deal with those who are on parole at present or who are on release for various reasons and with the issue of preventing people from reoffending. In the event that people reoffend, their offences must be recorded by the judges when sentencing takes place for a second or third time for a similar offence. I seek a debate specifically pertaining to justice in respect of sentencing, prevention of reoffending, monitoring of those who are out of prison and ensuring that those who reoffend receive the proper response to their crimes.
On a separate issue——
An Cathaoirleach: As the Senator’s time is up, she may come back in the morning.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: ——I welcome the additional 25 cent duty on cigarettes and ask for a debate on the illegal activity——
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s point is made. My hands are tied.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: ——and sentencing in that regard.
Senator Paudie Coffey: All Members understand the dire state of the public finances and that a budget was required. However, Members expected a more fair and balanced budget. Although there was an opportunity to address seriously the huge hole that has emerged in the public finances, it has transpired that this was an opportunity lost. Heretofore, the Government had no plan but now that it has one, unfortunately it seems to be a plan to fail. It appears to be a bookkeeping budget with no understanding of human costs and that will emerge in the coming months.
Members heard this morning about families because this budget constitutes an attack on families. It is an attack across the board, whether on those on lower or middle incomes, on mortgages, income tax, levies, child care and health care. Families who helped to build up this country and who are stretched seriously already are affected. When their pay packets are opened at the end of this month, people will find themselves to be not only in negative equity but in huge debt. That is the way in which things are going. The budget has been a blunt instrument and while a debate on it has been scheduled for tomorrow, it is important to debate it today, and I support the calls for such a debate.
There was no mention of jobs in the budget and I ask the Leader that, in addition to having a debate on the budget itself, there should be a debate on jobs and job creation.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Hear, hear.
Senator Paudie Coffey: If one considers exactly what the budget will do to families, it will remove any discretionary spending they had and will take away any disposable income they had. The net effect will be that shops, restaurants, public houses and taxi services will close. The day-to-day businesses on which people depend to run their small business and for services will be seriously affected. I call on the Leader for a debate on jobs and the retail sector. We are asking the present generation and generations to come to take over a potential debt of €90 billion in toxic loans and land banks. That is a very dangerous area in which to become involved. There has been no categorisation, assessment or anything like this from the Government and yet we are expected to take it over. We will lumber future generations. That is the reality and the Leader can shake his head all he likes.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Coffey——
Senator Donie Cassidy: On a point of order——
An Cathaoirleach: Senator, please.
Senator Paudie Coffey: Young people and young families are suffering. Those on this side of the House will defend them to the best of our ability.
Senator Donie Cassidy: On a point of order——
An Cathaoirleach: I ask Senator Coffey to resume his seat.
Senator Paudie Coffey: The Government is bailing out developers with apartments in Bulgaria, duplexes in Dubai and luxury apartments in New York while it expects the young people to take over that.
An Cathaoirleach: I ask Senator Coffey to resume his seat. I respect him as a good Member of this House.
Senator Paudie Coffey: People are angry, I am angry and the Leader must listen. He is shaking his head and I do not like that. It is patronising.
An Cathaoirleach: The Leader has called a point of order and I want to listen to what he has to say.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I support the Cathaoirleach, as all the leaders of the House have, on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not a point of order.
Senator Eugene Regan: That is not a point of order.
Senator Donie Cassidy: On a point of order, I refer to the time that was brought in for speakers to assist the Chair. Speakers are asked to assist the Chair.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: That is up to the Cathaoirleach.
Senator Donie Cassidy: That is a point of order.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not a point of order.
Senator Mary M. White: I am exhilarated and excited this morning. My colleagues in this House and those in the previous Seanad know I produced two documents on early child care and education. I am an action woman and I look for delivery of my projects. I am delighted——
Senator Paddy Burke: And a presidential candidate.
Senator Mary M. White: Excuse me, Senator.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator White is speaking.
Senator Mary M. White: From next January, we will have universal free education for every three and four year old who wishes to participate.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I hope Senator White is right.
Senator Mary M. White: Many cannot afford to pay the cost of child care, whether in a crèche or a nursery. From next January we will be doing what the 1916 Proclamation said, to cherish all our children equally. Every child who is three years and three months will be able to attend a community crèche, a private crèche or a Montessori school. The Government will pay the fee for three hours per day for five days per week.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: We need detail.
Senator Mary M. White: To the colleagues who are saying there is nothing in the budget, I point out that 70,000 children will be eligible for free preschool education.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Where are the places? Where are the staff?
An Cathaoirleach: Members should respect the Member speaking.
Senator Terry Leyden: They do not like good news.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Regan, without interruption.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: No child care places are available at the moment.
Senator Eugene Regan: I support the amendment proposed by Senator Fitzgerald to the Order of Business because the Minister for Finance has some explaining to do. It is very clear from this budget that he is no economist.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Senator and the Minister are equals in that respect.
Senator Eugene Regan: I ask the Leader not to interrupt. It was an accounting exercise and there is no economic thinking underpinning this budget. There is a total emphasis on taxation and no emphasis on value for money, expenditure cuts, cuts in waste or savings made. That is where the Minister has copped out.
Senator Mary White essentially invited us to congratulate the Government on the cutbacks. We have had a series of giveaway budgets on which Fianna Fáil Governments have been elected over the past 12 years. We are now being asked to congratulate the Government on taking all that back. Apart from the taxation and pain of this budget, let us look at the economic performance. Going back to the last Fine Gael-Labour Government, where there were average growth rates of 8%——
Senator Donie Cassidy: That is not correct.
Senator Eugene Regan: ——there will be average growth rates of 2% in 2009. That is the performance and it is still declining. Using the benchmark of those years one can look at every economic indicator, such as export performance, total tax take as a percentage of gross national product and national debt. The Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, promised before the previous election to eliminate the national debt. With the latest move in respect of the national asset management agency and the bailing out of the banks, the doubling of the national debt in sight. This is the legacy of Fianna Fáil and what we must face in 2009.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: With all budgets, one can judge the reaction and what people think in the first 24 hours. There is a sense of realism in the reaction of the media and economists. It is particularly balanced. The reason for this is that we are now dealing with specifics. We have a budget to debate. Prior to this we had an à la carte debate that was a distraction that created confusion.
This morning, I listened very closely and a number of speakers reflected closely what this budget is. It is one step in a five-year recovery plan. Senator Coghlan is correct that we need stability in the banks. That must be at the top of the priority list and this could be extended slightly to include stability in the financial structure. I was also very much encouraged by Senator Hannigan. He dealt with specific issues and was not trying to undermine what the budget——
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: It does not sound like there is an economic crisis.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Ó Murchú is speaking and I do not want interruption or I will ask people to leave the room.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: He was not trying to undermine the budget per se but pointed to specifics. That is the debate we will have tomorrow. With the views of Senators Coghlan and Hannigan, and I hope the same view on this side of the House, we can go one step further from this budget on our five year-plan.
We must provide leadership for those who are suffering. There is not a person who did not sit down to calculate what he or she would lose. There is pain across the board. The pain has been extended more upwards than downwards and that is as it should be. There will be no continuation of jobs or creation of new jobs if we do not create the stability put forward by Senators Coghlan and Hannigan.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: It is extraordinary that this Government has the cheek to tax Christmas and the elderly. Senators on the Government side can forget about Ernest Blythe because what they are supporting is an attack on whatever definition Senator Boyle wants to give to middle income or low income earners. The Government has savaged the ordinary, plain decent person in Ireland. Shame on it.
An Cathaoirleach: Questions to the Leader.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Where is the plan in the budget for job creation, job retention and job protection? Where is it? The Leader should tell us. I want to see it.
Senator Terry Leyden: Senator Buttimer should read it.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I have read it. I have it here. I cannot see it anywhere. There is nothing in it.
Senator Terry Leyden: That is not it.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: You have abandoned the people who ran to you in the last week of the last election campaign. You have sacrificed political capital in that election and you have got it now.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should not make remarks across the floor to other Senators. He should ask a question of the Leader.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: You come in here every day and you pontificate, rant and rave. You have abandoned fairness.
Senator Mark Daly: The pot is calling the kettle black.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Unfortunately, Senator Boyle has left the Chamber.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should ask a question of the Leader.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: What is the Leader’s definition of fairness? Where is his definition of equity? I welcome the fact that the political class has been cut — there is no problem there — but the Leader should come out with me on the streets of Cork and ask the ordinary person how he or she is feeling. He or she will tell him. Senator Ó Murchú can plámás us on this side of the House. He should come out and meet the ordinary people. They were humiliated and savaged yesterday. There is no hope from this Government. It has neither inspiration nor leadership. It is devoid of ideas.
An Cathaoirleach: Questions to the Leader, please.
Senator Terry Leyden: Senator Buttimer is so upset it must be a good budget.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: It is time we had an election and it is time we told the people to get this Government out, keep it out and never put its members back into government. The Government should be ashamed because it has the country in a mess.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator, please. I am looking for a question and there is none.
Senator Mark Daly: Senator Buttimer is over his two minutes.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: When will the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment be in the House? She is afraid to come to the House.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s time is up. I call Senator Callely.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: When we have the debate tomorrow, I ask that the Minister for Finance would have the decency to come to this House. He has not been in it for recent debates on finance.
Senator Ivor Callely: First and foremost, I salute members of our emergency services——
Senator Liam Twomey: The champion of Christmas cards himself.
Senator Ivor Callely: ——who face difficult challenges in the line of duty on a daily basis. I congratulate in particular Detective Sergeant Mick Moran, who yesterday received an award for excellence in his work in human trafficking investigations with Interpol. Equally, I pay tribute to the family and friends of Garda McCallion on his tragic and untimely death in the course of duty.
In listening to my colleagues calling on the Leader today regarding various issues relating to the Budget Statement by the Minister for Finance, I look forward to the debate in the Chamber tomorrow. The Government’s role is to provide leadership and decisive political action.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: It has not provided that anyway.
Senator Ivor Callely: On occasion, these may be very difficult and daunting tasks and there could be easier options. I am satisfied the Minister for Finance took the correct decisions yesterday and I look forward to tomorrow’s debate.
Will the Leader clarify one issue which is very important? I welcome the national treasury management model being used with regard to bank debts but will the Leader clarify the position regarding the multi-year fiscal consolidation strategy and the time involved in the strategy?
Senator Pearse Doherty: I agree with the amendment to the Order of Business. We need this debate today. I listened to Senator Boyle, who infuriated me when he spoke about Senators. As a member of Sinn Féin in this House, I only accept the average industrial wage and the rest of the salary does not go into my pockets. It is instead invested in the constituency. I have two children under the age of five and my wife is going through third-level college, so I know exactly what people are suffering in this budget. It has an impact on the low and middle income earners.
The decision to cut the early child care supplement is an absolute disaster which will seriously impinge on the choice of parents to send children to crèches.
Senator Donie Cassidy: This is a Second Stage speech.
Senator Pearse Doherty: The change to mortgage interest relief will bring about a massive burden on the lowest income earners. The Government has indicated this budget is fair because the CEO of the ESB or Bord Gáis on their €500,000 per year will suffer the same consequences but €1,000 to such people is nothing compared to the cuts felt by somebody on the minimum wage.
An Cathaoirleach: Does the Senator have a question for the Leader?
Senator Pearse Doherty: The Government has continuously talked about protecting jobs and getting people back into employment but has done nothing about it. Why did we cut €30 million out of the school building programme and €300 million from building roads? Why did we cut €200 million from building social housing and water and sewerage infrastructure? Why did we cut millions from research and development into green energy? These are the key areas which would put people back to work, which is what the country needs.
I listened to the Minister stating yesterday that he could not make a decision on Minister’s pay because he needed to compare it with other ministers throughout the world to find out if leaders in other states have people who do their laundry or clean their house.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s time is up.
Senator Pearse Doherty: He did not have to wait the same length of time when he came to the 18 and 19-year-old lads and girls out there——
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s time is up. I call Senator Hanafin.
Senator Pearse Doherty: ——who have lost their jobs. They were earning €200 per week and he decided to cut their income by 50%.
An Cathaoirleach: I call Senator Hanafin.
Senator Pearse Doherty: He has decided to cut that €200.
An Cathaoirleach: I ask the Senator to resume his seat. The Senator’s time was up and he understands two minutes are allowed for a contribution. He was well over his time. The Senator has refused completely to resume his seat.
Senator Pearse Doherty: I ask the Leader to reply on the fairness——
An Cathaoirleach: I will ask the Senator to leave the House if he does not resume his seat.
Senator John Hanafin: Will the Leader inquire to the Department of Finance about the possibility of a minimum pricing order being introduced in connection with alcohol and petrol, particularly in light of the disparity between tax rates in the North and the Republic of Ireland? There could be very useful co-operation across the Border but the principal reason we cannot proceed with the necessary implementation is because of the divergence in taxation between the two areas.
I ask the Leader again to consider the minimum pricing order introduced in Scotland, which was very effective with alcohol in particular. There is something very wrong when one can get six cans of beer in an off-licence or supermarket cheaper than six cans of Coca-Cola. For health reasons as well as for the Exchequer, it is important this issue is rectified. It could be rectified.
In the ongoing debate, there has been a mistake in understanding what was clearly stated in the budget. The Government is not purchasing assets for €80 billion to €100 billion from the banks but rather purchasing the assets at the write-down value at today’s date.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: What is that?
Senator John Hanafin: A similar scheme in Sweden ensured that the Government eventually saw a very healthy profit.
Senator Paddy Burke: I would like to be associated with the vote of sympathy to the family of the late Robert McCallion, who was killed tragically in Donegal. I extend sympathy to his family and the Garda Síochána.
How are loans to be assessed for young people or anybody looking to buy a property from now? With all the levies and restrictions put in place, along with removal of interest relief, there will be a dramatic effect on property. Such action will drive property prices even lower than what they are currently. It augurs poorly for people in the property market and builders because no property will be sold and they will not be able to get loans unless the property market bottoms out completely.
This leads to the issue raised by Senator Hanafin regarding the national asset management agency. The Senator indicated €100 billion of assets would be bought at the right price. There is only one way to know the right price, which is through the open market. We will never know the sum in question unless it is on the open market. Some of these assets should be put on the open market and people should be allowed buy them if they can. Otherwise we will never know the right price.
Who will take the hit? Will the banks take the hit if assets were previously valued at €100 billion but are written down to €60 billion? Who will pay the other €40 billion? We have given the banks €7 billion as it is and we will probably have to give them more to make up for this action.
Senator Coffey is absolutely correct in that there is no hope for retail, restaurants or bars. This Government has given no hope to the people either. It is bad enough with the budget we had yesterday but they are telling us there will be much more pain next year, with even more the following year. To add to that, €2 billion has been taken next year from the capital budget, with even more being taken from the capital budget for the following year. The pain will be even worse down the line so instead of giving hope to people, the Government is doing the opposite, which is very sad.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Hear, hear.
Senator John Carty: I offer my sympathy to the McCallion family, who I know quite well, including Nancy and Bob. The father, Bob, was a garda in my village of Knock when I was a young man. It is a very fine family and Nancy has many relatives in our parish. This was a tremendous tragedy and a death that should not have taken place. It happened because of nothing short of thuggery. I know the family is going through a very traumatic time at present because my family went through this some 30 years ago when a member of my family — a member of the Garda Síochána — was shot. I pass on my sympathy to the Garda Commissioner, the McCallion family, the superintendent in Donegal and the Garda force.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I agree with Senator Hannigan in respect of the reduction in the overseas aid budget. I spoke to a number of representatives from Dóchas recently and, like many people, they accepted that the budget would cause pain and were realistic that certain cuts would have to be made. Like many others in the aid sector, however, they will be horrified with regard to the extent of the cuts that have been made on this occasion. I recently inquired of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, as to whether Ireland would remain focused on reaching its target of contributing 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid. I was unable to obtain clarity from the Minister in respect of that and it is clear we are moving in the opposite direction.
Like many other Senators, I have taken the approach that things which might seem extremely unfair will have to happen in short term if we are to deal properly with the economic crisis. However, this move to reduce overseas aid cannot escape censure because a disproportionate cut has been made on this occasion. We must ask an obvious question, namely, whether people will lose their lives as a result of this development. Everything is relative and a high priority must be attached to the suffering of people in other parts of the world who depend on our solidarity and support. This is a deeply regrettable move and I hope we will discuss it in more detail in due course.
Senator Jim Walsh: I join those who expressed sympathy to the family of Garda McCallion and the Garda authorities on his untimely death. What happened to Garda McCallion is a timely reminder of the selfless service gardaí give in defence of society.
Time should be set aside for a debate on banking. The Minister for Finance has proven to be particularly adept in dealing with a difficult and complicated issue that has challenged many governments across the globe. He has been cautious and prudent in the manner in which he has dealt with this matter. His approach in respect of establishing the new national asset management agency is the correct one to take because it will free up the banks and allow them to service industry and business, which is essential.
The budget was harsh. We were told this would be the case and also that it would be fair. Most people would — if they prescribe to the particular notion — concur that the harshness was spread in a fair way. There are two issues in respect of which we should engage in debates. It is imperative we show we can run public services in an efficient and cost-effective way and that there will not be any waste. We should debate that matter because any further attempts to extract anything from the productive sector will cause difficulties and will be met with a great deal of hostility, particularly if we are not seen to be ensuring the public services are as efficient as possible. Public servants need not fear what I am suggesting because it is good to be part of an efficient and effective organisation.
We should also debate the matter of enterprise promotion initiatives, which are essential in the context of trying to sustain existing employment and create new jobs.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: That should have been done in the budget.
Senator Jim Walsh: It would be important for the House to debate these matters.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The difficulty with the budget is that it does not provide solutions in respect of the major problems that will have a critical effect on the future of this country. The position with regard to waste has not been reformed and a job stimulus package has not been provided. A paltry 1,400 places will be provided on enterprise allowance schemes. What effect will this have on an economy that is losing 1,000 jobs per day? The budget does not offer a solution to difficulties in the third level sector. Instead, a reduction of €24 million is proposed. In addition, there will be a reduction of €30 million in the money allocated to the schools building programme. Furthermore, there will be a 17% reduction in REPS payments, which are central to farmers’ incomes. It is a case of the Government relying on the “same old, same old” and taking the soft option of obliging middle income families to pay the State’s debts.
I wish to counter what Senator Boyle stated. An average family with earnings amounting to €60,000 per annum will lost €4,600 as a consequence of the budget. That is a decline of 8%. I am concerned because there is little hope for home owners. At a human level, how can taxpayers be expected to pay their personal debts if they will also be obliged, as a result of Fianna Fáil’s mistakes, to pay the State’s debts?
Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Liam Twomey: Sucking up to the bankers.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Taxpayers are bailing out the banks. In that context, I am extremely concerned with regard to the proposal to establish a national asset management agency. Why should we be forced to pay for speculators’ debts and take on assets that no one wants to buy on the open market? We need school buildings and we need land.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s time is exhausted.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: However, the chances are that the land——
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s time is up. I call Senator Cummins.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: ——that no one wants to buy on the open market is not situated in the right place. I also call for——
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Healy Eames should conclude.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: ——a debate on the banks.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I wish to express the deepest sympathies of those in Fine Gael to the family of Garda McCallion and to his colleagues in the Garda Síochána. His death brings home to people the fact that gardaí put their lives on the line on each occasion on which they take to the streets. They deserve the full support of everyone in this house and of members of the public in respect of their efforts.
Earlier this year, when the Taoiseach stated, at a function held by the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, that his priority would be “jobs, jobs, jobs”, I came to the conclusion that the Government was at last beginning to wake up. However, the budget will do nothing to create jobs or to stimulate the economy. Fine Gael suggested that the lower rate of VAT should be reduced by 3% in order that labour-intensive areas of the economy might be stimulated, but nothing of this sort has been done to create jobs or assist businesses that are in dire straits.
Senator Boyle has underestimated what the budget will mean to families, be they on the average industrial wage in the private or public sectors. People realise that they are going to be obliged to pay for the mistakes of Fianna Fáil. In that context, 5 June will be payback time for the people.
Senator Nicky McFadden: A serious issue has been raised at the AGSI’s conference in Athlone, namely, that there is little support available to gardaí when they take children into care and that there is a lack of social work services on which they may call. The president of the AGSI stated this morning that the Garda should not hand over children in its care to an organisation other than one sponsored by the State, namely, the Health Service Executive. There are serious concerns that contract companies will be brought in to care for children who are needy and vulnerable. I ask that the Leader raise this matter with the HSE and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform because the children in question do not have a voice.
I support Senator Healy Eames’s comments regarding the proposed national asset management agency. How was the €30 billion, €50 billion or €90 billion in question spent? Who was responsible for running up these debts and why have they not been brought before the courts? Why are taxpayers being obliged to pay for the completely irresponsible behaviour of these individuals?
Senator Liam Twomey: In view of the fact that co-location has effectively been abolished as Government policy, will the Leader inquire of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, the policy regarding capital developments in the health service? For the past four years, the Minister has continually stated that the only way to create additional beds in the public health system would be through the process of co-location.
Will the Leader request that the Minister for Finance come before the House to engage in a debate on the benchmarking process? It is unbelievable that we are allowing civil servants to retire at the age of 50 when two years ago we were told we had to increase massively the salaries of those same people to bring them up to parity with the private sector. There is something seriously wrong with Government policy in that regard. It is another gross failure that will cost the taxpayers millions of euro every year.
Regarding the new national asset management agency, NAMA, that is being set up by the Government to handle €90 billion of toxic assets, the Government must explain where are those toxic assets and give us a breakdown on them.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Hear, hear.
Senator Liam Twomey: Toxic assets totalling €90 billion, half of which are bad, is another increase of €50 billion on the national debt. The Government said yesterday in the budget that it will cut the social welfare payment at the end of the year, take away the child care allowance, tax the people to the hilt but double the national debt to bail out bankers. If I was to give some advice to the Government I would suggest it should make Larry Goodman chairman of that new organisation——
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should not mention the names of anyone outside the House.
Senator Liam Twomey: ——because he is the only person who was bailed out by the Government 20 years ago and who came back and made himself one of the richest men in this country. It is doing the same again today. It is a ridiculous proposal that must be debated seriously in this House.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I join Senators Hannigan, Leyden, Keaveney, Callely, Burke, Carty and Cummins in their remarks on the death of Garda Robert McCallion. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party and as Leader of the House, I join my colleagues in sending our condolences to the McCallion family. It is an appalling tragedy that should not have happened. As has been said by colleagues in the House this morning, every day that members of the Garda Síochána go to work, they are putting their lives at risk. To the Garda Representative Association and to the family of Garda McCallion, which gave sterling service for generations to the Garda Síochána and to the forces, we extend our support and our sincere condolences.
Senators Fitzgerald, Norris, Hannigan, Boyle, Coghlan, Coffey, Regan, Mary White, Ó Murchú, Buttimer, Callely, Doherty, Hanafin, Burke, Mullen, Walsh, Healy Eames, Cummins, McFadden and Twomey expressed their views on the budget. The supplementary budget was brought forward to correct the imbalances on the financial side. The point the Government made yesterday was that the public finances had to be stabilised and until we put our own house in order it is reasonable and fair to say that we cannot expect those who might invest in our country to have confidence in us as a nation. Colleagues on all sides of the House will agree that we must restore our damaged banking system. Credit is the lifeblood of an economy and unless we take radical and bold action to resolve the crisis and resume the flow of credit, which colleagues on all sides of the House highlighted here on numerous occasions on the Order of Business, the economy will not recover.
With that challenge facing the Government, it is now proposing corrective measures for our consideration. As has been said, we must restore our reputation abroad. This is one of the most——
Senator Eugene Regan: It is the Government that must restore its reputation.
Senator Donie Cassidy: ——important issues in regard to the financial system. As colleagues who have far more experience of these matters than I have will say, the standing of our country abroad must be maintained. We have been very badly damaged, as we all know, by the actions of some of our financial sectors, and our rejection of the Lisbon treaty probably did not help us.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: And the Government.
Senator Donie Cassidy: We must show our European Union partners that we want to remain at its centre and we must show the world that our financial system is soundly based and governed by the highest standards of regulation.
All day tomorrow will be devoted to statements on the budget. It has always been the case that we do not take budgetary matters in this House until they are completed in the Dáil. The Dáil sat very late last night and will probably sit very late tonight also, but I have agreed with the leaders in the House the ordering of business for tomorrow, which will commence, with the agreement of the House, at 10 o’clock. With the Minister present we will proceed to allow statements all day, all evening and all night if necessary. Every Member will be given the opportunity to express his or her views on the proposals before us for consideration. That is the way we have always proceeded in the House——
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is wrong.
Senator Donie Cassidy: ——and I look forward to the contributions of colleagues tomorrow.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: We should change that.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator Hanafin raised the cost of alcohol compared to soft drinks. This is a serious issue and I will have time left aside for it to be debated in the House.
Senator Burke, the Leas-Chathaoirleach, made a valid point on mortgage repayments. I checked that out this morning and a loan repayment of €1,400 seven months ago is now €1,050, which is a saving of €350 per month.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Not if one is on a fixed mortgage.
Senator Donie Cassidy: For anyone who——
Senator Dominic Hannigan: They were told to fix their mortgages.
An Cathaoirleach: The Leader to reply to the Order of Business.
Senator Donie Cassidy: ——fixes a rate, which I understand is a very low percentage, it is a commercial independent decision made by that individual.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Let the Minister for Finance intervene with the banks. We are bailing them out.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Healy Eames, please.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I am sick of it.
An Cathaoirleach: She should address her remarks through the Chair. The Leader is replying to the Order of Business.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: They fixed rates at 5% to 6%.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: They were told to fix them.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I am responding to a valid point made by the Leas-Chathaoirleach.
Senator Liam Twomey: The banks——
An Cathaoirleach: Please, Senator Twomey.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I am informing the House that there is a saving of €350 per month——
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: That was not his point.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The point Senator Healy Eames made was about the average family with earnings of €60,000, the husband and wife with two children, whom we all represent in this House. That saving——
Senator Liam Twomey: The Government has no sympathy for the people.
An Cathaoirleach: The Leader has never been interrupted. Senators might not like what he is saying, but they do not interrupt the Leader. That has always been the precedent in this House——
Senator Mary M. White: Hear, hear.
An Cathaoirleach: ——and I want it to continue.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The country is falling apart.
An Cathaoirleach: Members must not interrupt. There is room outside and the door is not locked for people who want to interrupt.
Senator Donie Cassidy: They are the facts as of this morning. The last time Fine Gael and Labour were in power was from 1983 to 1987.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: That is wrong.
Senator Eugene Regan: It was 1994 to 1997.
Senator Donie Cassidy: It was not pointed out to me by Senator Regan on the Order of Business, but the Workers’ Party was with his party for a short period in the 1990s. From 1983 to 1987——
Senator Jerry Buttimer: On a point of order, the Leader is factually incorrect. The Workers’ Party was never in government. He is wrong.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not a point of order. The Leader to reply to the Order of Business.
Senator Donie Cassidy: In response to Senator Regan, at that time people paid personal income tax rates of 60%.
Senator Donie Cassidy: That was the last time that party got a mandate, 1983 to 1987.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: It was 1994 to 1997.
Senator Eugene Regan: On a point of order——
An Cathaoirleach: I hope it is related to procedure.
Senator Eugene Regan: It relates to the proceedings.
An Cathaoirleach: Procedure, not proceedings.
Senator Eugene Regan: The Leader cannot say I spoke about the Government of the 1980s when I specifically talked about the period from 1994 to 1997.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not a point of order. I ask the Leader——
Senator Eugene Regan: Please do not misquote me by distorting the facts.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not a point of order. The Leader to reply to the Order of Business.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: When we left office there was 8% growth.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator Burke made a valid point when he pointed out the interest——
Senator Liam Twomey: On a point of order, is the Leader entitled to say whatever he likes in his response or is he supposed to respond to the questions asked without aggravating the other Members of the House by giving a history lesson on politics?
An Cathaoirleach: That is not a point of order.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: On a point of order——
An Cathaoirleach: Given the disruption, I ask the Leader to conclude.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: ——who controls the Leader?
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Deal with the facts.
An Cathaoirleach: Please, I ask the Leader to conclude.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator Burke, the Leas-Chathaoirleach, who is a very experienced member of the Opposition, for whom we have great respect, pointed out correctly the difficulties he had on loan repayments. I was clarifying the facts. There is a saving of €350 per month, which is more than €4,000 per annum.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: What about new loans?
Senator Donie Cassidy: I certainly agree with Senator McFadden, my colleague in County Westmeath, on the matters highlighted at the Garda conference on children in care. We should have a lengthy debate when all Senators can express their views. Senator Keaveney also called for a debate on the length of prison sentences and stopping reoffending, and I have no difficulty in including that in a debate on justice issues.
Senators Coffey, Burke and Jim Walsh called for a debate on job creation with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I will set aside time for such a debate.
Senator Mary White correctly pointed out the great work she has been doing and congratulated the Minister for Finance on his initiative on the forthcoming proposals from 1 January, where 70,000 young boys and girls will be able to avail of child care for three hours per day five days a week.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Where are the places?
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Minister is to be complimented and I congratulate Senator Mary White on her great work.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: What has that to do with pre-school education?
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I thought there was going to be a year of pre-school education. What is this new idea?
An Cathaoirleach: I will ask Senator Healy Eames to leave this House if she continues to interrupt. She continually interrupted the Leader during his reply.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I want the truth. I stand for the truth and the facts.
An Cathaoirleach: I will suspend the House if the Senator does not sit back down in her seat and allow the Leader to reply to the Order of Business.
Senator Donie Cassidy: We have read in the newspapers about the difficulties the leader of Fine Gael has with the parliamentary party.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not relevant.
Senator Donie Cassidy: We do not want to see that coming into the House.
Senator Liam Twomey: On a point of order, what is the Leader entitled to say?
An Cathaoirleach: That is not a point of order, as Senator Twomey well knows.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator Twomey called for a debate on capital development and related projects. Perhaps the Senator will avail of the opportunity, when the Minister is present for statements on the budget, to get an up-to-date reply on this important issue.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Fitzgerald proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: “That a debate on the budget proposals be taken today.” Is the amendment being pressed?
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Yes.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 22; Níl, 27.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Kelly, Alan.||McCarthy, Michael.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Mullen, Rónán.|
|Norris, David.||Quinn, Feargal.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Twomey, Liam.||White, Alex.|
|Brady, Martin.||Butler, Larry.|
|Callanan, Peter.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carty, John.||Cassidy, Donie.|
|Corrigan, Maria.||Daly, Mark.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Leyden, Terry.|
|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.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Eugene Regan; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
Order of Business agreed to.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Michael Finneran): The time which the House has set aside for statements on affordable housing gives me an opportunity to outline current issues and developments in this area and how we are responding to the impact on the affordable housing area of far-reaching changes in the housing market and the wider economy.
As in most countries, the Irish housing market has experienced a sharp downward shift. This change began here in late 2006 as the fall-out from excessive lending, frenzied buying and resulting house price escalation and loss of affordability led to a slump in demand, compounded by the impact of a series of interest rate increases. Meanwhile housing output continued at a high rate long after demand had slumped, a common feature of housing market cycles. All around the world, very clear lessons have been learned about how inappropriate lending leaves the housing sector vulnerable to external shock. That shock emerged in the form of a global wave of financial turbulence, which manifested itself, in particular, in very significant restrictions on the availability of credit and a significant global economic downturn. The result is a significant correction in house prices and declines in housing output and realised demand for home ownership.
Provisional house price statistics held by the Department, based on data compiled from lenders, show that, nationally, new house prices in the fourth quarter of 2008 had dropped back to levels last seen in the third quarter of 2005, with Dublin prices now back at fourth quarter of 2004 levels. Prices for second-hand houses, both nationally and for Dublin, are now comparable to prices in the first quarter of 2005.
Significant contraction is also evident in the key indicators of housing output. Housing completions peaked at 93,000 units in 2006, significantly ahead of what was widely recognised as the level required to meet demand in the medium term. Output had dropped back to 51,000 units last year and projections from a number of sources suggest that completions in 2009 are likely to be in the 20,000 to 25,000 range, since commencements and registrations are significantly down, by 71% and 82%, respectively. There is a considerable quantity of newly completed and unsold homes, estimated by industry sources to be in the order of 40,000. In addition, estimates of the number of second-hand properties for sale at the moment range from 55,000 to 70,000.
How the housing market evolves in the period ahead will depend in particular on factors such as economic performance, expectations in terms of housing and the availability of mortgage finance. One positive effect of the reductions in house prices is the availability of much better value in the market. For households wishing to become home owners, the price reductions, coupled with other factors, especially the significant reductions in mortgage interest rates and mortgage interest relief changes, have resulted in significant improvements in the affordability position of first-time buyers.
The standardised affordability ratio used by the Department for many years, which shows the percentage of household net monthly income required to service a mortgage, shows that prior to last week’s European Central Bank reduction, for the country as a whole, the proportion of net income required to service an average mortgage nationally is at 2003 to 2004 levels, with the Dublin ratio now back at 1996 to 1997 levels.
The Government has taken a number of steps to ease the problem of credit shortage for first-time buyers, through the home choice loan scheme and the terms of the bank recapitalisation scheme. The home choice loan scheme, which is designed to facilitate but not incentivise house purchase, provides a line of credit to certain first-time buyers. Under the recapitalisation scheme, the participating banks have undertaken to make available an additional 30% capacity for lending to first-time buyers in 2009. It will be some months before the effects of either of these measures can be gauged in terms of their impact on facilitating the realisation of underlying demand.
Trends in the overall housing market are closely reflected in the affordable housing area and issues related to affordable housing must be viewed in that broader context. As a result of significant house price increases in recent years and difficulties encountered by prospective first-time buyers in accessing home ownership, especially in areas of high demand, the provision of affordable housing has been a significant priority for Government. It is an area that has evolved considerably in a comparatively short period, primarily through the introduction of the Part V mechanism which has been in effect since 2002, and that evolution continues in line with recent major changes in the housing market and the wider economy.
In the context of rapidly increasing house prices in certain areas, the Towards 2016 social partnership agreement set out an ambitious target to deliver 17,000 affordable homes over the three-year period 2007 to 2009. Local authorities responded strongly to that challenge, delivering more than 3,500 units in 2007 and an estimated 4,500 in 2008. I wish to put on record my appreciation of the positive response of local authorities in what was a relatively new element of their housing functions.
However, just a few years on from the Towards 2016 agreement, we now find ourselves in a different world. As I indicated, there has been a sharp downturn in the housing market generally, price reductions and expectations of further reductions, increased insecurity concerning employment and income levels, and a more restricted credit environment. In the affordable housing area, erosion of the differential between the affordable price and the market price is an added issue. These developments, coupled with the strong surge in delivery in 2008, particularly under Part V, have resulted in an increase in the stock of affordable housing units on hand.
Local authorities would have a certain amount of completed affordable homes on hand at any given time, principally comprising units either being prepared for, or in the course of, sale. At the end of 2007, when sales were buoyant, that figure stood at approximately 2,200 homes on hand nationally. It is also important to note that there have been significant sales of affordable housing during 2008, approximately 2,750 nationally.
It is now estimated that the number of affordable units on hand nationally has risen to somewhere in the region of 3,700 units. Those are not spread uniformly throughout the country. There are a number of high delivery areas where the stock levels have increased, while there are other local authority areas that do not have a significant stock on hand. Despite the current difficulties, many of the units on hand are already in process of sale or will be sold in the coming months.
Estimates compiled from local authority feedback suggest a majority of the affordable stock will be sold to eligible purchasers. However, it is estimated that approximately 1,800 of the units already on hand may be difficult to sell in the current market and it is estimated that more than 2,000 additional units will be completed this year. The location and price of many of those will be conducive to sale, even in the current climate, but others may be more difficult to sell.
The Department, in co-operation with the Affordable Homes Partnership, AHP, and local authorities, has been monitoring the situation closely in the context of changes in the economic climate and the housing market in recent months. The costs to local authorities of retaining unsold units are considerable, and it is undesirable that these houses should remain vacant. The Affordable Homes Partnership has already conducted a detailed examination of the position at the Department’s request and has met the local authorities in the areas with the highest supply of affordable units to identify actions that might assist in the sale of those units. The position in all areas has been reviewed as part of a recent series of housing action plan meetings between the Department and local authorities. In February, the AHP held a seminar for all local authorities to provide specific updated advice on the marketing and sale of affordable homes in the current market.
The priority now is to ensure available affordable homes are brought into use as soon as possible in the most appropriate and effective way. The first priority of local authorities is to sell these units to persons eligible for affordable homes. That is being done successfully in many cases. However, the indications are that a significant number of affordable homes are proving very difficult to sell in the current climate of uncertainty. This is a problem especially where reductions in open market prices have significantly eroded the discount on affordable units.
The Department has issued a circular to all local authorities this week, which will be accompanied by a sales strategy prepared by the AHP, setting out the options local authorities should consider in addressing the matter. Local authorities are being asked to identify those units most likely to sell and to refocus their sales efforts on those developments. In tandem with the focus on sales, authorities are also being requested to consider alternative options for the use of affordable units which may not sell at this time. Alternative options that will be set out in the circular will include transfer of affordable properties to the rental accommodation scheme for a temporary period, sale to local authority tenants under the incremental purchase scheme, and use of affordable properties as a temporary social housing support, where appropriate.
We are also putting an additional instrument at the disposal of local authorities to help them in their efforts to deal with the affordable stock issue. I am pleased to be able to announce to this House a significant increase in the limits for local authority housing loans from a maximum of €185,000 to €220,000. That represents a nominal increase of 19% but in real terms the effect of the increase is more significant having regard to the significant reductions that have taken place in house prices. A credit policy is also being introduced to support a prudent and consistent approach to lending by all local authorities. That will deal with matters such as income limits. Further details will issue to local authorities shortly.
Where units provided under Part V are no longer required for affordable or social housing, there is provision for local authorities to dispose of them for other purposes, including sale on the open market at market value. However, the clear priority is to sell those homes to eligible purchasers and a key element of that, which is strongly emphasised in the circular, is that affordable housing must be marketed to potential eligible buyers in the widest possible way with efficient market-oriented methods of marketing and sale.
Some local authorities have shown great energy and imagination in marketing and sale of affordable homes. However, others appear to have retained restricted and less efficient approaches, such as allocating specific units to certain applicants and restricting offers to people already on lists. Such practices probably originated at times when demand outstripped supply of affordable housing. I wish to state in the strongest possible terms that the affordable housing market is now dramatically different and such outdated practices must be replaced without delay with a more open and efficient approach to marketing and sale.
In the coming months, the Department will continue to monitor and support local authorities’ work in addressing the challenges in the affordable housing area and promoting approaches to take account of the evolving housing market and economic climate. One significant change of which Members of the House will also be aware is the introduction of a new affordable homes purchase scheme which will facilitate the purchase, through a single equity-based mechanism, of property under the various affordable housing schemes. This will be provided for by way of amendment to the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. In the longer term, as the overall market evolves, the extension of this approach to open market purchases as a replacement of the declining shared ownership scheme will be considered.
It is clear we are now in radically different circumstances than those we were in 18 or even 12 months ago. All areas of the housing market have been profoundly affected by those changes and the challenges presented are considerable. I and my Department are committed to working in collaboration with our partners to ensure we will be able to continue to respond effectively to new challenges. We are also mindful of the need to be able to adapt our approaches as fiscal and economic conditions evolve.
In the affordable housing area, we are working through the current issues in very close collaboration with the local authorities. We are putting a comprehensive range of options at the disposal of housing authorities and the Department and the Affordable Homes Partnership will provide every type of support and guidance possible to authorities to deal with the issues that confront them in the most effective and productive way possible. We are also mindful of the need to look to a future beyond the current difficult circumstances and to plan accordingly, learning from the experiences of recent developments.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I welcome the Minister of State to the House to debate this very important issue. It not only concerns affordable housing but also housing in general.
When concluding, the Minister of State claimed we are now in radically different circumstances than those we were 18 months ago or even 12 months ago. I certainly concur with this but remind him that his predecessor, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, was very upbeat during a debate on housing in the House in October 2007. Indicators at the time showed there was an oversupply of houses. Statistics indicated there were over 50,000 vacant houses nationally, yet we were trying to continue with the policy of propagating the clearly unsustainable housing boom. There was a sense of denial on the part of the Government at that time. As we all know, the Exchequer was greatly dependent on the income from the boom. It was sustaining the public finances at the time.
For every house built during the housing boom, almost 50% of the value was appropriated by the Government, be it through VAT, capital gains tax on the land or stamp duty. Many people did not want to believe the policy was unsustainable because it was keeping the country going and because there was considerable employment in the construction sector. Nobody was willing to cry “Stop”. We debated the matter in the House and the current Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, has stated clearly how circumstances have changed.
We are where we are and I hope serious lessons have been learned. The legacy of our policy is such that local authorities are left exposed to the cost of the provision of affordable houses, which are lying vacant and cannot be sold. Managing this stock presents a problem in addition to the credit crunch and the other financial pressures local authorities are experiencing. This must be considered against the backdrop of the vast number requiring social housing in local authority areas nationally.
It is clear we got our policy wrong. There are still people on social housing lists who cannot be housed by local authorities, yet there is a large stock of vacant houses, both public and private. With regard to the private houses, there are half-finished estates all over the country. Many of the property developers have probably absconded because they cannot make their repayments to the banks. Some of the banks in question are the casino banks with the toxic debts. This problem must be teased out. The truth will eventually come out in the wash.
Local authorities are left with affordable housing they cannot sell. “Affordable” means “inexpensive” or “low cost” and affordability is relative to market value at any given time. Therefore, a unit deemed affordable two years ago or even one year ago would be considered expensive today if sold at the same price. Products are accorded value through the interaction of supply and demand. Where there is over-supply, there is obviously a loss of revenue and false values. Managing the surplus stock presents a considerable challenge, not only to the Department but also to local authorities around the country.
Not all local authorities are equally exposed. Consider the 2007 figures for the commuter belt around Dublin, bearing in mind that these figures have now been updated. Kildare County Council had 189 affordable units, Fingal County Council had 390, South Dublin County Council had 299, Laois County Council had 142 and Wexford County Council had 143. The further one goes from Dublin, the number of affordable units decreases. Some local authorities are not as badly exposed as others while some around the commuter belt are very badly exposed. Moving the units presents a considerable problem for the Minister of State’s Department and for the local authorities themselves. Contracts have been signed even for units not yet in the hands of local authorities but which will fall under their charge. The number will therefore increase, aggravating the problem. The financial exposure of local authorities will increase.
The latest circular issued to the directors of services in local authorities asks local authorities to become estate agents, to use ordinary layman’s language. We are asking them to operate in markets where estate agents are not operating at all and in which some estate agents have gone out of business. We are asking housing departments in local authorities to engage in the sale and marketing of houses that have lost their buoyancy and sales potential. I honestly do not know how we will square this circle. It will affect the resources of local authorities because they will have to invest time and resources that they do not have. It will also affect local property markets in every town and village.
The market value of affordable stock must be reassessed. We need to find a new baseline for market values, but this is very slow in coming. This is evident in the banking crisis whereby considerable property-related debts, which some refer to as toxic debts, have no real market value just yet. The Leas-Chathaoirleach raised this on the Order of Business today and stated that, to find the real value of property, it must be put on the open market. We cannot manufacture values, as we seem to be trying to do with the affordable stock.
The circular to local authorities is asking them to offload the affordable stock in whatever way they can. Initially local authorities only considered first-time buyers, those on the housing lists and existing tenants. The criteria were very strict at first, and that was not so long ago. Then the local authorities became a little more flexible and began to consider the cases of applicants who had separated or divorced. Now, if I understand the Minister of State correctly, the direction from the Department is to sell the affordable units to anybody who will buy them. The bad news is that nobody is buying at present, in the public or private sector. This is for many reasons.
The Minister of State said in his speech that mortgage interest relief changes were beneficial. Will he clarify this? I understand from the budget that the mortgage interest reliefs are no longer to apply to those paying mortgages for over seven years. That alone will affect people’s ability to repay mortgages and loans. The decline in income due to higher levies and other costs, such as that of child care, will have a bearing on one’s ability to buy one’s own home. I suspect that people will go back on the housing lists. At present, people struggle to repay their mortgages and this is evidenced in the statistics for residential repossession which has increased year on year in recent times. Banks are moving to repossess properties and for what I do not know, because they will be left with them and will not move them on. They do not achieve anything by doing this. The Minister of State, the Department and the Government should pay more attention to this area and assist people with houses to renegotiate their terms with their banks. At present, the banks seem to be very inflexible. I acknowledge the Government has moved to some degree and put a moratorium on the banks which it recapitalised. However, many other banks have no moratorium and on a daily basis they move to repossess houses. People who were already stretched are even more stretched after yesterday’s budget. Will the Minister of State consider assisting people in this situation?
With regard to the financial exposure of local authorities, those around the Dublin commuter belt are more seriously exposed. I was provided with figures, and I stand to be corrected, which show that local authorities in Laois, which is in the midlands, are exposed to more than €28 million for affordable housing stock which they cannot sell. This is the amount of loans on their books. They were contracted to take this type of housing under either Part V or the affordable housing schemes. New incentives should be introduced or, as some people suggest, local authorities should just auction them. Perhaps they should be given to people on the social housing list. Something radical needs to be done rather than leaving local authorities with the bill and the ongoing costs of maintaining these houses. They cannot sustain them.
The Department gave five options to local authorities for consideration with regard to off-loading these houses, which is what they are trying to do. The first of these was to sell them as affordable houses. This has failed and in the current climate I would not hold out much hope of too many of them being moved. The private sector has seen huge reductions in prices where private developers are trying to sell houses. They are still struggling to sell them.
The Minister of State referred to the loan which local authorities can provide to potential buyers and he stated this has increased from €180,000 to €220,000. Some people might welcome this but I would caution that local authorities should have very strict credit controls with regard to these loans. We do not want to see local authorities taking on loans to people who could end up in trouble and unable to pay back the loans. This can become sub-prime lending because it is money which can be directed to people fairly easily. I urge that the strongest possible credit controls are put in place prior to any such loans being approved. They should be pressure tested on a financial basis. This is not with the intention of keeping people away from buying their own houses, it is to protect them from entering into the debt which we see throughout the country at present.
The focus should return to the provision of social housing. We have neglected this area in recent years and have depended on the private sector to provide houses. Perhaps we should examine turning some of these affordable houses into social units to take people off the housing lists. This is an avenue I would recommend. This will require funding from the Department because it must front up the money for every social unit provided by the State. I would support the idea of a number of affordable units becoming social units over a phased basis over the coming years because it would remove people from the housing lists, give people a home and release some of the exposure and burden on local authorities.
I welcome this debate and we should try to assist the Department in any way possible to house as many people as possible.
Senator Larry Butler: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He has done outstanding work since going into the Department. He has used his imagination, skill and knowledge to put packages together for local authorities. Last week, I heard him speak in Kilkenny and I was very impressed with his approach to housing.
As we know, local authorities have a glut of affordable housing in stock. It is fair to state that we must examine how to deal with this but there is no great wisdom as to how to do so. From the figures I have examined it is obvious that if we have a surplus we should examine putting at least half of that stock into social housing. Dublin City Council has 4,000 people on the housing list. This is a huge improvement from approximately 6,000 people.
The Minister of State has been making inroads on social housing. This is an opportunity to examine putting a percentage of these houses back into social housing as this would help us out. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has a substantial amount of affordable housing on its list but 2,500 people are on the social housing list. They must be cheaper because they were built at affordable prices even with land prices being high at the time of purchase. The houses are still cheaper than if the local authority had built them itself. It is well worth examining this.
I would change slightly the criteria in favour of people not eligible at present who might be outside the salary limits. I would allow leverage on this. One would not be criticised for allowing some affordable units to become social units and selling off the others to balance the moneys which would be spent in this regard. This would shift some of the stock.
It is unfair of Senator Coffey to criticise the banks. Recently, a few people who got into trouble with their mortgages came to me and I had the good fortune to go to the local banks with them. The banks were most considerate in terms of how they would deal with their problems. This is a personal experience I had.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I had personal experience of cases where houses were repossessed; they are what I spoke about.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Butler, without interruption.
Senator Larry Butler: Very little of that is happening since the Government——
Senator Paudie Coffey: The figures are way up.
Senator Larry Butler: ——recapitalised the banks. The banks are taking a more social approach. The banks examined how payments could be deferred and paying interest only and they even discussed examining a rental system. In fairness, the banks are considering problems which might arise.
Previously, I mentioned to the Minister of State that it would be a good idea where people are in trouble with the banks that local authorities could intervene. It should be a requirement for banks to contact local authorities to see what help they could provide prior to a bank taking action. Instead of a bank taking over, a local authority could implement a rental system because the person involved may end up on the housing list and would have to be housed anyhow. There should be contact between local authorities and banks where difficulties occur and a rental arrangement could be agreed.
Much progress has been made with regard to controlling and having a good mix in estates. This is vital. The legislation on anti-social behaviour was a step in the right direction. Imaginative actions have been taken during the Minister’s tenure. He has given local councillors the power to make regulations within estates and by-laws can be implemented to ensure the rule of law.
We may have to look at the provision whereby a local authority was entitled to 20% of the construction in their area. We may not be able to afford it. There is now a surplus of housing.  A review should be carried out into our approach to this 20% provision. We might not want 20% from a developer in a particular area, but we might accept from him part of a development elsewhere.
The local authorities are now to the fore in terms of lending. There has been a scarcity of lending by building societies and banks during the past year. In some cases it has been impossible to get a mortgage. The local authorities may have to sell some of these properties much more cheaply. A one-bedroom apartment that was fetching €300,000 in place like Bellarmine in Stepaside, a very good area, is now selling for €222,000 or €230,000. The same local authority apartment in that development is €320,000. It is impossible to sell against a market like that. There are two choices — either use the units for social housing, which is needed, or take the hit, as the builders are doing in places like Bellarmine. You can buy a one-bedroom apartment in Belgard for €150,000. That gives some idea of the way in which local authorities will have to compete against the builders. Nobody will buy an affordable house from the council when it is dearer. Dublin City Council downvalued their properties by 25% some months ago and the valuation is even lower now. I suggest that we look at the social aspect and buy back some properties. We have to look again at prices.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I welcome the Minister. It has been very interesting to listen to his speech. He mentions the challenges and the options he faces. He has also said there are radically different circumstances now from those 12 or 18 months ago.
I had the experience 25 years ago or more of serving on the committee of the Archdiocese of Dublin which the archbishop established in an attempt to get people on the housing ladder. It was a very interesting challenge. In the 1970s young people were paying rent and were not able to raise the basic deposit required to get a mortgage. The church approached various church bodies which owned lands and arranged half-way houses for those who were paying rent. It was an area of which I had been unaware. The challenges facing the Minister are not unlike those that faced us 25 or 30 years ago. The scheme which the archdiocese introduced was based on a similar scheme, Shelter, in London which was very successful.
Figures from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government reveal that the number of affordable units has risen by 40%, from 2,200 at the end of 2007 to 3,700 today. The Minister has given additional figures. The downturn has had a massive effect on Dublin’s affordable housing scheme. First-time buyers are not interested as house prices no longer reflect reasonable market values. These “affordable” houses were bought at pre-recession prices and developers are unwilling to renegotiate prices, despite the drastic change in market conditions. Councils cannot force developers to cut prices. They are contractually obliged. In some cases the affordable houses are more expensive than other similar houses. It is estimated in Dublin that the council may be able to sell off only about half of its current stock. This problem will get worse when the additional 2,000 houses become available this year. It will be almost impossible to sell the houses.
It is amazing that local authorities are struggling to sell the homes, despite the fact that there are approximately 28,000 people on the waiting list. Potential buyers are faced with the problem of not being able to get mortgages as financial institutions are offering only 80% of valuation to borrowers or will not sanction loans on over-valued properties, leaving many people unable to buy and councils having a glut of unoccupied houses. The only solution is for local authorities to revise values further downwards. Perhaps a lottery draw system should be looked at. Maybe it should be replaced with a more efficient system such as a listing process. The large deposit need for the affordable housing scheme is putting a large number of people off. Perhaps this could be examined. A much smaller deposit would encourage people to buy. Having people making payments is of course better than having hundreds of those houses unoccupied. I would also support the suggestion to transfer some of the properties to the rental accommodation scheme, or even use them as temporary social housing and support. There must be many people living in very poor conditions who could be accommodated.
There will be few, if any, affordable housing developments coming on stream this year or in the next few years. Dublin City Council has dropped plans to build thousands of new homes. The three housing projects that have been sanctioned this year have been radically downscaled. There were plans in St. Michael’s Estate in Inchicore to build 715 homes, as well as crèches, sports fields and a public square; now there will be only 76 units. Radical cuts like this will affect a large number of people who are less well off. The Minister of State has provided some options today, but the Government needs to find a way to slash prices in the affordable housing scheme to enable hundreds on the waiting list to have a chance to afford accommodation and to go some way towards solving the sizable housing problem.
I outline some other thoughts. Has society been focused too much on getting people onto the property ladder and not focused enough on the provision of quality homes for all? If one owns less than 20% of one’s home, one is effectively renting it from the bank anyway. The affordable housing scheme has other drawbacks. If one has previously owned a property — the Minister of State may explain otherwise if I am incorrect — one is not eligible. What of people who have lost their homes? Also, a person also must have held a property for 20 years. If one buys an affordable housing property, let us say, a two-bedroom apartment, one is very likely to need a bigger house in the future or likely to have to move to take a new job outside of Dublin, abroad or somewhere else. Is there enough flexibility? Is this putting people off? I do not know the answer to these questions.
The Minister of State has touched on some of the issues and has provided some options today. I am very pleased that the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, is in place because he has grabbed the challenge since assuming the position. I hope that in future the same commitment to attempt to solve this will be present. My experience from 25 to 30 years ago is that the problems do not remain the same. They are challenges, they change and they are different from the problems of last year. As the Minister of State noted, the problems of last year are different from those we must now face. I am pleased this debate has taken place, that we have had the opportunity to draw attention to the matter and I am pleased the Minister of State is giving the matter the attention it deserves. Hopefully we can find solutions.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I welcome the Minister of State. It is widely accepted that the real economy began what was initially a slow decline in 2002 or 2003 some six years ago. It is common to hear the lament that instead of investing in the real economy we simply built and sold more houses to each other since then. While this is undeniable, it is somewhat bizarre that the Government of a small nation such as ours could devote itself so wholeheartedly to the promotion of the most unsustainable construction programme in the history of the State and still manage to emerge on the other side with a housing crisis.
The housing and economic crises are intrinsically and tragically linked. As early as 2006, the warning signs indicated the market was becoming seriously over-heated. Despite those warnings, the Governments could not bring themselves to shout “Stop”. During this period, the notion of a house as a home became secondary to the idea that a house was a commodity. As we continue to adjust to the new economic realities it is vital that we challenge that notion once and for all, because the right to a home is a basic human right. It is an essential aspect of our social economy and of the ability to live a decent and secure life. Despite this, Focus Ireland points our that Ireland compares very poorly to other European Union countries when it comes to housing rights. For example, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Sweden and Greece have enshrined in their constitutions the right to housing. Countries in which this right is not constitutionally guaranteed, but in which it is guaranteed in law, include Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom. Ireland has an established policy guide for housing provision, but no constitutional rights or no legally established right to housing.
We now face a period in which all the problems of the boom period are retained. There is still homelessness, poverty and social exclusion. However, we now face the additional crises of negative equity, mass unemployment and an affordable housing scheme that is no longer affordable.
Compounding these problems is the reality that our housing policy framework is no longer fit for purpose. A recent report stated that the number of affordable units should be approximately 6,000 units by the end of this year. However, given that there are almost 30,000 people on local authority housing lists throughout the country, it is difficult to comprehend that there could be a demand problem, but that is exactly the situation we now face. The affordable housing scheme was never designed to accommodate the notion of rapidly decreasing house prices. As a result, it is now only marginally cheaper in some local authority regions to buy affordable housing rather than buy homes on the open market. I am aware of cases in which the price of affordable housing units from county councils are higher than housing units on the open market. This creates very significant problems in the provision of mortgages, which is not an easy task at the best of times, but in the current environment it is harder still. The net result is that some local authorities expect to end up with up to 50% of the current stock still on their books because it is basically impossible to sell under current market conditions.
It is often suggested that the State is too slow to respond to issues in the context of the economic crisis. It is, therefore, vital that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government acts on social housing as quickly as possible. The prospect of brand new housing units lying idle while 30,000 people are seeking homes is simply unacceptable. Different areas will have different sets of priorities and local authorities should be given the freedom and support necessary to exercise area-specific solutions whether it involves re-categorising affordable units under the rental accommodation scheme or using the properties as social housing solutions, options which have been suggested by some of my colleagues. Either of these options is infinitely preferable to leaving housing units empty while many people are in need of housing. It is economically and morally unacceptable to allow that. Creativity is essential and could help to avert a full-blown housing crisis in the country in the coming three or four years. Policy leadership is required and there must be a recognition that there are several flexible solutions beginning to emerge, most of which come from the private sector.
I was struck by an article I read recently in The Bray People which discussed the case of a young couple who made use of the rent-to-buy scheme. The couple is now investing in a reasonably priced home close to their place of work and family. If they sign to buy after 11 months, the rent already paid will be offset against the overall asking price of the home. It is a classic case of a family which might otherwise face a difficulty in terms of purchasing a home in these times. If such a case could be replicated throughout the nation, it would go a long way to ensure the housing crisis could be somewhat mitigated.
We must also consider issues related not only to people trying to buy new, affordable homes, but to the affordability of homes. Mortgage rates have come down recently which everyone on a tracker or variable mortgage welcomes. We need a debate specifically on the issue of fixed-rate mortgages. Let us use the word “encouraged” rather than a stronger word for now, but many young couples were encouraged to take fixed rate mortgages at a rate of 5% or 6%. Such people have not benefited at all from the recent interest rate reductions. As a result, it is more difficult for such people to afford their repayments, especially if people are losing their jobs. Last week, I spoke to a young couple in Duleek who have not seen any reduction in their mortgage repayments. Unfortunately, their personal economic circumstances have deteriorated in the past year. They now have a difficulty paying their mortgage. We all acknowledge that breakage fees must be paid, but mortgage providers must examine the possibility of including breakage fees on top of the capital repayment of the mortgage, of changing mortgages to variable rates and, in the process, make it a good deal more affordable for young people to make mortgage repayments. The last thing we wish to see at the end of this economic crisis is people driven from their homes onto local authority housing waiting lists because we did not support them in trying to ensure they could continue to pay their mortgages.
The affordable housing scheme must be reformed urgently to meet current realities. Some 30,000 people are in need of a home and housing solutions must be found if they are to be accommodated. There is a very substantial over-supply in the market at present. One positive aspect of the crisis is that at least a buyer’s market now exists. Economies of scale and the upper hand of the purchaser could be used by the Government to invest in a national housing stock that could accommodate those who require housing. I am pleased to see the Minister of State indicated the Department is committed to working and collaborating with his partners. I urge him to engage with those in Focus Ireland, the Simon Community and Threshold to hear their views on how the housing crisis could be improved. The Labour Party is willing to engage on this issue at any time. I have said many times that if sensible solutions are produced by the Government we will certainly support them.
Senator Ciaran Cannon: I welcome the Minister of State and I thank him for his contribution. As he pointed out, we have seen a significant change in the dynamic associated with affordable housing in our local authorities. As public representatives, we have all worked with couples, tried to get them on the affordable housing list and to have them included in allocations in recent years. Now, the exact opposite applies and the Minister is asking local authorities to show great energy and imagination in the marketing and sale of affordable homes. There has been a turnaround in our fortunes.
I concur with the suggestion by a number of Senators, including Senator Butler, that we should consider allocating a proportion of the houses in question to social housing. The private sector’s intent in proposing the rent-to-buy scheme was to generate cash flow for private developers to allow them to keep up with interest payments and so on. We should consider generating a cash flow for local authorities, which have invested a significant amount of money in providing affordable housing. Perhaps they were unable or unwilling to track affordable house prices downwards to match private sector prices. As Senator Butler pointed out, so-called affordable houses are considerably more expensive than houses in the private market. Previous speakers suggested that we must remove some of the constraints applying to the scheme. For example, few people are able to pay the significant deposit required. Flexibility in exiting the scheme must be examined.
My primary reason for contributing to this debate is to discuss a policy paper given to me by a friend in Galway, a lady with a fantastic entrepreneurial track record. She works towards the intersection of the social and economic regeneration agendas. She has much experience of such work in the UK, but she is now living in Ireland. She submitted the paper to me several weeks ago, but I have been awaiting an opportune time to discuss it. I will provide a copy to the Minister of State and his official.
The policy ties directly into what we are trying to do in terms of affordable housing. It has the added benefit of generating activity in the small to medium sized construction sector. She proposes the establishment of an independent, not for profit company to take possession of partially developed housing estates, which can primarily be found in small provincial towns and villages where, perhaps unwisely, a large number of estates were developed. There have been cases of vandalism and squatting. The potential for social unrest in such areas is significant, as the estates are effectively boarded up and surrounded by chain-link fences. There is no opportunity to see them develop in the near future.
The lady is adamant in pointing out that the agency would have a finite life and would not become another pointless quango wandering on for years without end. She suggests that it would buy semi-developed schemes from banks and developers and that each scheme’s value should be based on the locality’s average household income. As such, it would be real affordable housing for those in the area. The site’s value would be the residual value of the cost to construct and manage it, which would be paid to the developer or landowner. The rest of the value would be written off and would constitute the private sector developer’s contribution. The capital investment that he or she would receive would not realise what he or she previously considered to be the development’s potential, but it would provide an “out”.
The agency would be established as a not for profit, independent company that would be well governed, accountable to its stakeholders and extremely transparent. It would be small, lean and effective. It would also have a finite life. It would intend to deliver four main outcomes, those being, to finish and sell semi-developed private housing stock, to provide to targeted groups affordable housing based on what local people can achieve through their incomes, to create employment in the small to medium construction sector and to prevent ghost estates from turning into areas of anti-social behaviour. There is considerable potential for such behaviour. For example, some estates in Gort, Loughrea and Athenry are boarded up and fenced off and there is no sign that anything will be done with them in the near future. The agency would buy semi-built estates from the banks that repossessed them or from developers who are under severe financial pressure and do not have the resources to finish them.
This policy paper is worth considering. The agency could undertake a wider agenda. For example, the Homes and Communities Agency in the UK is based on a similar concept but operates on a larger scale. It is a direct arm of the British Government and has an annual budget of £15 billion. Several times, it has stepped in to partner with failing developers on key schemes.
If the proposed agency is to work, it must be established quickly. It could undertake one or two pilot projects. It needs to be independent, have key stakeholder involvement and Government backing and operate with a minimum of staff. It would be unlikely to remain intact after two or three years, as its approach would be unnecessary after the market started to readjust. It is likely to play an evolving role in the same sector. If not, it could be wound up.
We should explore this policy and I would be grateful to the Minister of State and his official were they to take the time to assess its impact. While some of its elements might not work, I am confident that the lady proposing it provided a considerable degree of detail. From her ten-year experience of creating similar agencies in the UK, she is confident that it would work. I suggest that the Minister of State and his official examine the paper and, if possible, revert to me.
Senator Martin Brady: I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for the good job he is doing in the Department. The schemes he has initiated will make a considerable difference to people on the waiting list. In Dublin city, approximately 4,400 people are on the waiting list. From time to time, we must all make representations on behalf of people seeking housing, transfers and so on. Given the number of vacant houses in the city and its suburbs, that people are waiting for three or four years is difficult to understand. We should examine the matter.
The Minister of State and the Department are constantly liaising with local authorities. As he stated, the priority is to ensure that affordable homes are brought into use. While we all agree in this respect, a number of homes in my area in north County Dublin have been idle for the past six months or longer. Hundreds of houses have no one in them. That affordable homes for people in Dublin can only be found 40 or 50 miles away is an issue. People can buy a house on the open market for less than they can buy an affordable home in Dublin. This issue is raised regularly.
Local authorities’ first priority is to sell units to those who are eligible under the affordable homes scheme. They have met with some success and I know of many people in the city who have availed of the scheme. I congratulate the local authorities on no longer ghettoising people in apartments. When that occurred, people revolted. The authorities have come to terms with this fact and dealt with the situation efficiently. People who engage in anti-social behaviour are now moved out. However, they must be housed elsewhere. I thank the Dublin local authorities for their good estate management, which the House should acknowledge publicly.
I thank the Minister of State and hope he continues his good work. I appreciate what he is doing in the Department. He never takes his eye off the ball, which is a good comment to be able to make about anyone.
Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. While I also welcome this opportunity to say a few words on affordable housing, we cannot deal with it in isolation. One must link together all the other aspects of housing, including public housing, and must examine the overall context in respect of the present position regarding housing.
When the Fine Gael-Labour Government left office in 1987 in the middle of a recession, no one was waiting for a local authority house as sufficient housing was available. While that could be due to a number of reasons, including people emigrating to seek work, at the time there also was a vigorous campaign to provide public housing. We now face a situation in which each local authority has people waiting on housing lists but in which there are several different ways to accommodate them. These include affordable homes, rented property and the social leasing scheme for which the Minister of State recently announced €20 million, as well as areas in which the health boards assist in respect of private rented accommodation.
Undoubtedly, however, the Minister of State is in a corner in respect of affordable housing. It is a predicament for the Minister of State, his Department and the local authorities and the problem is how to get out of it. I note the Minister of State outlined that 40,000 new houses and 55,000 to 70,000 second-hand houses remain unsold. In other words, 110,000 homes are vacant and for sale in one form or other. This undoubtedly will depress the market and as no houses are being sold at present, the bottom price is unknown. I refer to a number of aspects of yesterday’s budget including the levies imposed, the removal of mortgage interest relief and others in respect of the criteria used to assess a person for a loan. While I am not familiar with the exact criteria used, they include a calculation of something like 2.5 times the salary or combined salaries of the applicants. However, as people’s gross and net income now will differ greatly, against what will new loan applications be assessed? Will they be assessed at 2.5 times net or gross pay, because the two amounts will differ considerably? This will depress the housing market further because people will only be able to secure a loan of a certain amount.
The Minister of State announced a significant increase in the limits for local authority housing loans from a maximum of €185,000 to €220,000. This means that a person on a low income can get up to €220,000, depending on his or her income. I believe that simply is an effort to maintain housing prices and that one must wait until the housing issue bottoms out. I presume this will entail the establishment of the national asset management agency as outlined by the Minister for Finance to buy the bad loans from the banks. I concur with Senator Coffey’s comment that they should be put on the public market as otherwise we never will know the point at which the entire market will bottom out. We never will know the point at which land prices and house prices will bottom out. People will not buy until the market bottoms out and the sooner this happens the better for everyone. Moreover, this race to the bottom will entail a considerable degree of pain and negative equity for those who bought at the high end of the market. While I appreciate the Minister’s actions in raising the limit from €185,000 to €220,000, in one sense it could lead people to getting higher mortgages to maintain the prices of affordable homes at a time when both the budget and the present number of houses for sale will have the opposite effect and will reduce prices considerably in the coming months.
Senator Coffey suggested that local authorities should auction some of their affordable homes and Senator Butler proposed that councils should lease them. This issue must be approached from several angles whereby the councils could lease out some homes and sell or perhaps auction others. Local authorities definitely will take a hit in this regard and consequently, ratepayers, that is, those who pay water and sewerage charges and rates, also will be obliged to stump up for this. Moreover, services also will be hit. The sooner local authorities learn what is going to happen in this regard the better. Nevertheless, as the Minister of State noted, it is a shame that houses are available but empty. Were local authorities to get some rent for them, it would be of assistance to them. Perhaps local authorities could rent them in the private sector while waiting for people to purchase homes. Although there may be several aspects to this issue, the Minister of State will be obliged to make some decisions.
While I compliment the Minister on the work he has done since taking over responsibility for housing, he is in a predicament in this regard. Either the local authorities or the Government will be obliged to take the hit and if it is to be the former, I hope it will not be passed on to those who pay water and sewerage charges and rates and that it will not affect essential services. There is great scope for cutting waste within local authorities and services should not be cut because this is a major issue. Housing also constitutes a significant part of a local authority’s budget. Moreover, this will affect some local authorities more than others as some would have had more planning issues, housing developments and affordable homes than others. Although I do not know what will be the Minister of State’s solution, he faces a predicament.
Could the €20 million leasing scheme announced by the Minister of State a number of months ago be included in this aspect of the affordable homes? As local authorities own the affordable housing stock, should this issue not be given first priority in respect of the €20 million he has raised for the leasing scheme? The Minister of State should examine this issue more closely. I do not believe that giving people additional money to buy such houses is the answer as that would lead them up the garden path. Such people would end up with higher mortgages and in negative equity within a year or two.
A friend of mine bought an affordable home in inner-city Dublin approximately three months ago. He paid a hefty price for it and although he knew what he was doing, he now regrets having concluded the deal because the house now is worth considerably less than was the case three or four months ago when he signed off on the deal. It is sad that a person who could not afford a home 12 months ago and who bought an affordable home now is in considerable negative equity in Dublin’s inner city. Given the present position, I hope those who will buy some of the affordable homes on the books will not be in negative equity in three or six months’ time.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I welcome the Minister of State back to the House at what to an extent is an extremely difficult time for him. I do not refer to the immediate issue of his survival as a Minister of State, as I am sure he will, but to the question of dealing with affordable housing in the present climate. I do not envy the Minister of State that task. He is damned if he does and damned if he does not. Given the housing market, the international economic climate and the banking sector, it is very difficult to legislate and provide for housing in this fluid market. I do not envy the task of the Minister of State because the relevance of plans he has made has expired. That is not so say the plans should be jettisoned. It is difficult to provide for housing in this climate. That does not mean it cannot be done.
In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown there is an acute problem because of the cost of development land. The local authority never had a good track record of providing social and affordable housing. The lists never moved and a predecessor in the role of the Minister of State, Bobby Molloy, used to give out to me continually about what the local authority was doing. At the time, land prices were soaring and the cost of providing any social and affordable housing was astronomical and did not make economic sense. This is one area where affordability is now within reach of people. That is to be welcomed. All of us who own properties see a devaluation but that is theoretical. What is most important is that homes become and remain affordable for families. The schemes the Government has devised have been successful in trying to reach out to provide home ownership.
From our history or for whatever reason, Irish people have a strong affinity with owning their homes. It is something everyone wishes to aspire to, even though one wonders about the wisdom of it. In view of the security it provides the Government has put energy, effort and resources into facilitating people to own their homes.
The Minister of State referred to planning in the document Towards 2016 requiring revision because of economic circumstances. It is a time when a cool head is needed and everyone will be giving the Minister of State conflicting advice. Nobody can read the markets; even actuaries or financial experts have difficulties reading the markets correctly.
Senator Paddy Burke: What about George Lee?
Senator Fiona O’Malley: Has he read the markets correctly? It is easy to be wise after the event and to comment on it——
Senator Paudie Coffey: The Government Senators would not listen, they did not want to listen.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: ——but to forecast what might happen is particularly difficult. This is particularly true when providing services as fundamental as providing a roof over one’s head. The upside of this economic downturn is that more people can provide homes for themselves. Whether this is provided by local authorities or by the person, it is a good thing.
In every town and some villages, many houses were built with tax incentive schemes. In some cases there is a tight qualification of how these houses are to be used, particularly those in holiday resorts. I question the wisdom of holding fast to those conditions, which are no longer relevant. I ask the Minister of State to consider removing people from the obligation to have these only as holiday lets. They should be available for purchase by the local authorities on behalf of those on housing lists or other people.
We need a fresh approach to the housing stock we have. It is something we cannot afford to ignore. There are many vacant houses and we must consider how to get them occupied and marry the vacant houses with the people who need homes. I would welcome an initiative on this. We must reinvest with human capital in these smaller towns and villages. These were places where people would spend money on holiday homes and local residents were priced out of the market and had to leave. We have the opportunity to provide homes for local people at proper local prices. This is to be welcomed.
The one place we can get value is in the housing stock. We must provide local authorities with enough resources to fill the houses with people in need. I look forward to hearing the revised plans for affordable housing. It is very hard to set any fast ground rules because this is a market in flux. One of the most important financial commitments one makes is for a home and one does not want to see the value of it decline. People are slow to commit to purchasing. There comes a time when people must stop looking at the market and think about investing in their homes for their families for life. One consequence of this may be that people will invest in their homes for life, not as a speculative venture. The return to solidity in how people view their home is to be welcomed.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Michael Finneran): I am glad this debate took place. People have put thought into it and have views. I am impressed by this.
If there is a difficulty with the sale of affordable homes today, with 3,700 in stock and 50% of them to be sold off, it is important to state that they are part of the national infrastructure and are available for people to live in. Those 3,700 houses will be used for 3,700 families in one form or another. What I am getting from the House is that people have certain views, some of which are mine. Even the houses that are not in public ownership are part of the infrastructure. There may be difficulties in unfinished estates. Time will show that they are there for the use of the public in a private or public manner. I have brought forward an innovative scheme for up to 4,000 of these houses to be dealt with in 2009 under the long-term leasing scheme.
Although local authorities have traditionally worked on the basis of building in different areas, old systems do not have to stay as they are. People must move on and think anew. Life cycles have changed etc. I am asking people in the political system to look at what we are doing so we do not stick our heads in the sand thinking that old schemes are those which served us best. They delivered what we wanted in their time but today we have an opportunity because of the overhang of houses.
It is very important for us to avail of that for the public rather than the private interest, although it may be of benefit to private interests if they could lease their houses. It may kick-start the construction industry in the residential property area somewhat, but that is not the motive. There are people on housing lists and it is important that we adapt and develop schemes which are suitable to their needs in the present time.
I take on board Senator Coffey’s comments and we are moving on those areas. We are using such accommodation for social purposes and if local authorities come forward with proposals we will not close our minds to different approaches. As a Minister of State, I am certainly not closing my mind to it; I am open to suggestions from the local authority system. There is much flexibility in housing authorities, which are mostly local authorities. The 20% figure is a maximum so there is flexibility. There are rental accommodation schemes and other programmes.
If local authorities in certain areas come forward with a proposal, I will not close the book on any of them. I would be open to looking at them on the basis of how would provide a home for a family or a person in that functional or catchment area.
Senator Paddy Burke: Hear, hear.
Deputy Michael Finneran: The area of repossessions, which Senator Coffey spoke about, is emotive. When the credit crunch and the difficulties of people losing their jobs became evident, I found when I took over this portfolio that there was a code of practice for lending institutions. This did not cover all institutions and it did not have a statutory basis so I moved on these issues. At the moment all lending institutions are covered under the code of practice, and there has been a statutory instrument since February. There are strict criteria and on a regular basis my officials and I meet the two relevant organisations, namely, the regulator and the Irish Banking Federation.
Senator Paddy Burke: Does this relate to amounts borrowed?
Deputy Michael Finneran: I am talking about repossessions. This is an emotive issue and there are many cases in the courts. Nevertheless, there are not many housing repossessions and many such cases relate to farm machinery etc. There is a mix of cases. The information available to us is that there is a limited number of housing repossession cases. There is an increase in the number of people who are getting into problems with arrears. The rate has increased by approximately 15% or 20% and will probably rise further because of people losing their jobs. The information is that lending institutions are dealing with people and rearranging their finances. We have made it very clear to the banks — representatives were in two weeks ago — that repossession should be a last resort and they should address the matter. The borrower must address the issue also by engaging at an early stage.
I got advice towards the end of last year that no property can be repossessed for two years but I do not believe in that principle. If that is followed, nobody will engage as they approach the end of that period. It is important for us to advise people to engage at an early stage and work out a system if possible.
Yesterday I listened to a radio programme while travelling in the car and I found that people on fixed-rate mortgages are having difficulties. I immediately asked the regulator to give a report on this because there is a variation between what one lending institution is charging for a breakage and what another charges. Some institutions have no breakage fee. There should be some uniformity on the matter. Some people were in circumstances where they believed it was a good idea to go into a fixed mortgage and they are now paying 3% more than somebody on a variable rate. An opportunity to switch to a variable rate can be very expensive as in some cases people are asked for €15,000, €16,000 or €19,000. Different figures were given.
The code of practice is there with regard to repossessions. I do not have the complete figures before me but I will make them available. They deal with the matter up to the end of 2008 and there may have been some increase in the first months of 2009. We do not know what that will be.
With regard to the leasing scheme I mentioned, I find it hard to understand why some local authorities are not promoting or availing of the scheme. Such authorities may nevertheless have 150 or 200 people on the housing list. It is not appropriate for authorities to act in this way. This was a Government decision implemented by me and it is not a matter for authorities to pick and choose from schemes. It is more important that the housing sections of local authorities avail of the Government schemes that are aimed at taking people off lists. The long-term leasing scheme has enormous potential.
Senator Paddy Burke: Does that relate to new houses?
Deputy Michael Finneran: Yes. There is much potential to take people off lists through this and I am thinking of ways to advance it further. Very few local authorities have publicly advertised the scheme. The local authorities in Senator Coffey’s area in Waterford have made no requests to my Department for the schemes. I do not have the figures here but I am sure that in both those authorities there are many people on the lists that could be accommodated under the long-term leasing scheme. We will go into this further, but €20 million of the capital budget is available to the local authority system to house from 2,000 to 4,000 people because rents are coming down in 2009. There is no reason this number cannot be increased in 2010 or 2011 if the scheme is successful.
Senator Butler commented on the move to social housing and raised the figure of 50%. I do not disagree with his comments, although the current maximum is 20%. As applications come in we are considering the matter. I do not want to create ghettoes again, as somebody mentioned, where all the estates would be made up of social housing. In so far as is possible, I want to maintain sustainable communities with a mix of private, affordable and social housing, if that is possible.
Senator Larry Butler: The Minister of State is correct.
Deputy Michael Finneran: I do not want to switch everything to social housing either. I want to leave a certain type of community. Many of the social problems in our big estates arise from mono-tenure occupation. We are regenerating the older estates in places such as Ballymun, Limerick and Sligo. The policies which existed may have seemed correct in the past but they were not the best policies. A mixed accommodation is better and leads to a sustainable community. In such cases, social problems do not develop to the extent that they did in the past in mono-tenure estates.
I do not know about the banks and financial institutions. I would love to think they are making more credit available, but I am not sure that is exactly the position. A recapitalisation programme was introduced but I know people are still finding it difficult. People telephone and write to me as a result of difficulties they face. An option has been made available to such people in the form of the home choice loan. The take-up in respect of the latter has not been what we might have expected. As already stated, however, it is provided as an option only for people who cannot obtain loans elsewhere. Where banks or other financial institutions seek 20% deposits from customers, we reduce it to 8%. Therefore, the loan will amount to 92% of the overall cost of one’s home. Funding is available from the Housing Finance Agency, through the four local authorities that are responsible for making the home choice loan facility available, to support people who wish to go down this route. I thank those local authorities for their assistance in this regard.
Like Senator Quinn, I recall the housing agencies in London and the people who were involved with them. The Senator referred to his involvement some years ago with a committee of the Archdiocese of Dublin that was established by the then archbishop to help get people on the housing ladder. The co-operative system remains in place and the voluntary groups operating throughout the country have been extremely successful in filling the gap that existed in this area. Such groups provide a large percentage of the homes required by elderly people, those with disabilities, etc. My Department provides funding directly to the local authorities in respect of these groups, which then receive 100% grants. These voluntary groups do a great deal in the context of meeting the housing needs of people in the categories to which I refer.
Senator Quinn also referred to the listing process and the fact that people who lost their homes are excluded from purchasing affordable houses. Such people may have lost their homes for particular reasons, but I assure the Senator that I will give consideration to this matter. Senator Quinn also called for a flexible approach to be taken.
Senator Cannon asked that a percentage of housing be allocated as social housing. The Senator’s thinking is very much in line with that of the Department. We are flexible in respect of this matter. Senator Cannon referred to a friend of his from Galway who worked in the UK but who is now resident in Ireland. The Department will certainly consider the paper she submitted to the Senator.
Senator Brady stated that there are 4,000 people on the housing lists. I accept that this is a large number. However, it must be remembered that many of those on the lists have already been accommodated under the different schemes. My Department dealt with almost 19,000 households in 2008, either by providing houses or by offering assistance through the rental accommodation scheme, rent supplement or whatever. People are being catered for and 19,000 households is a large number with which to deal in one year. While every scheme does not deliver exactly what we desire, there is no doubt that, by and large, the many housing authorities try to assist people.
I accept that some of the schemes could be tweaked and we are open to suggestions in this regard. I am not particularly wedded to any scheme and I am prepared to consider alternatives. What is the goal of any public representative working with his or her local authority or a Minister working with his or her Department? It is to ensure that people have homes in which to live. That must be our focus.
Senator O’Malley made a number of thought-provoking comments. I accept what she said regarding particular holiday homes being built with certain conditions attached. One or two county managers have already tabled motions or had provisions included in their county development plans to release such houses. It is a matter for local authorities to take action in this regard. If there are 30 holiday homes lying idle in a particular local authority area and if that authority’s housing list indicates that 30 people require houses, it is open to the authority to change the scheme, either by means of including a provision in the development plan or tabling a motion to be decided upon by members. I have no difficulty with such houses being released. It has already been done in a couple of cases and I provided advice in respect of it to one county manager. Local authorities are housing authorities and if they want to change schemes, they have the power to do so. Tax implications, etc., may arise in certain circumstances but that is a matter for the individuals involved.
Local authorities entered into agreements at a time when house prices were at a high. My predecessor issued a word of caution in 2007 with regard to prices being unsustainable. My Department was responsible for flagging the fact that developers were involved in inflating house prices to a large extent. Everyone recalls the gazumping that occurred and the fact that €50,000 might be added to the price of a house during the course of a single day. My predecessor stated at the time that this approach was wrong.
I hope I have responded to the issues raised by Senators and also to the strong points they made. As already stated, I am open to suggestions with regard to how progress might be made in respect of the housing lists. For one reason or another, some 55,000 people throughout the country are on those lists. Local authority housing officers and officials of my Department have a major responsibility in respect of these individuals.
The council loan was increased from €185,000 to €225,000 because people were not able to buy affordable houses in Dublin for €185,000. The increase was introduced, therefore, to ensure that, if they wish to do so, people will be able to obtain these loans in order to buy affordable houses. Like the home choice loan, the council loan is merely a facility and there is no pressure on people to use it. However, if they are experiencing difficulties in the open market, they may wish to avail of it. I do not wish, in any way, to place people in a position whereby having taken out a mortgage, they might find themselves in a position of negative equity in the future.  I would prefer it if people were dealt with through the social housing programme rather than see them affected in this way.
The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which was introduced in this House and which is before the Dáil at present, makes provision for an incremental purchase scheme. I have always believe that when a local authority makes a house available to someone, that authority no longer owns that property to any great extent. Such a house might be passed from generation to generation of one family. There is then a tenant purchase scheme under which the people occupying the house might eventually buy it. Why not offer the people involved the opportunity to buy the house when it is first made available to them, particularly if they are in a position to make repayments of a certain amount each month? Under the incremental purchase scheme for which the Bill to which I refer makes provision, a person will be able to state from the outset that he or she can afford to pay a mortgage worth 40% of the value of the house made available to him or her. He or she would, therefore, be the owner of that house from day one. The scheme will allow people to have ownership of their homes and local authorities will obtain a financial return that can be invested in the provision of further housing.
Today’s debate is about affordability. There are some 3,700 affordable housing units available at present. Information emanating from local authorities indicates that, through the affordable housing scheme, they will be in a position to off-load half of these to those who are eligible. The local authorities did the deals with regard to these houses. In circumstances where difficulties may have arisen, however, I am open to suggestion in respect of such houses. I will not stand in the way of a local authority that puts forward a proposal which will ensure that these houses will come into public use. If that does not happen, we are prepared, as a last resort, to consider the matter in the context of the open market.
Sitting suspended at 1.40 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Máire Hoctor): I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Senators for giving me the opportunity to make a statement on the subject of elder abuse. It is important to highlight this issue at every opportunity and that is the reason I appreciate this opportunity.
Elder abuse in any form is unacceptable and I reiterate the Government’s full and continuing commitment to tackling this issue. Elder abuse is a societal as distinct from a health problem. Significant progress has been made in recent years and we want to ensure that continues and any gaps are addressed in full. We also want to ensure older people who feel they are the subject of abuse in any shape or form have the confidence to report their anxieties to a social worker, a public health nurse, a member of the Garda Síochána or any professional or care worker, whichever they are most comfortable with. These are key objectives.
Elder abuse is a complex issue and difficult to define precisely. It may involve financial abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse or it may arise owing to inadequacy of care. The current policy on elder abuse is outlined in the 2002 report of the working group on elder abuse, Protecting our Future. It defines elder abuse as: “A single or repeated act or lack of appropriate action occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person or violates their human and civil rights.”That report recommended that a “clear policy on elder abuse is formulated and implemented at all levels of governance within the health, social and protection services in Ireland”, and I will show how we have made substantial progress, especially in so far as the health services are concerned.
We do not know the prevalence of elder abuse in Ireland. We can assume that the instance is not unlike that in other developed countries where studies have shown that approximately 3% to 5% of older people living in the community may suffer abuse at any one time. In Ireland this could mean that between 14,000 and 23,000 people living in the community may be suffering from abuse, neglect or maltreatment. No figures are available on the incidence of abuse in institutions but, unfortunately, we know that it happens.
The Health Service Executive report on Elder Abuse Service Development 2008 shows that there were 1,840 referrals to the service in 2008, an increase from the 2007 figure of 927. The 2008 statistics do not make for easy reading. The majority, 67%, of alleged abuse victims are women. The reported rate of alleged abuse increases in the over 80s age group. Psychological abuse is the most common form reported at 25%, followed by neglect — 20%, financial — 16%, and physical abuse — 14%. Self neglect referrals are at 18%. Public health nurses are the main source of referral, with hospital, HSE staff and family being the other major sources. The majority, 82%, of referrals relate to individuals who live at home.
Nationally, 83% of cases report just one person causing concern, with a further 14% allegedly perpetrated by two people. The predominant alleged persons causing concern are those that have the closest relationship to the person, that is, son or daughter — 43%, partner, husband or spouse — 17%, and other relative — 12%. Nationally, in 53% of cases the alleged person causing concern is living with the older person. These findings are in keeping with the experience elsewhere, as is the finding that in a significant number of cases the persons causing concern are likely to have mental health, substance abuse or behavioural problems. Mediation and counselling are the most common supports provided, followed by referrals to other services.
As I said, the data have just been released and will require further study. Self neglect was not included in the definition of elder abuse by the working group. Internationally, practice and policies vary. However, it is now included in the data and the HSE has developed guidance on how to respond to such instances.
Current policy on elder abuse evolved from the National Council on Ageing and Older People, NCAOP, report, Abuse, Neglect and Mistreatment of Older People, which was published in 1998. The Government acknowledged the importance of the issue and established a working group on elder abuse in 1999. Following a comprehensive work programme the group published its report, Protecting Our Future, in 2002. That report provided the foundation for the development of policy and procedures to respond to actual or alleged cases of elder abuse.
In 2003 the elder abuse national implementation group, the EANIG, was established to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the report. The EANIG includes representatives of the HSE, the Health Information and Quality Authority, the Garda Síochána, the NCAOP, the Law Society of Ireland, the Irish Association of Older People and the Department of Health and Children, and is chaired by Professor Desmond O’Neill, consultant geriatrician.
In the period 2003 to 2005, the Government allocated additional funding of €2.45 million to implement the findings of Protecting Our Future. In 2006, an additional €2 million was provided over a two-year period to complete the funding requirements set out in the report. These included the development of a national research centre. Last year, an additional €300,000 was allocated for the development of a public awareness campaign to which I will refer later.
Significant progress has been made in developing a comprehensive response to deal with elder abuse. I commend in particular the Health Service Executive which has made significant progress in developing the appropriate structures and mechanisms necessary for tackling and preventing elder abuse in a consistent manner throughout the country, namely, a HSE steering committee to oversee and ensure a nationally consistent approach in the provision of elder abuse services by the HSE in relation to its detection, reporting and response; four regional steering committees, which are an essential link in good inter-agency working practices and the development of practice specific networks; four sub-groups to examine the areas of training and development, communication, media-public awareness and policy and procedure; a national policy for HSE staff responding to allegations of elder abuse and associated implementation plan; the establishment of a national research centre for the protection of older people at University College Dublin; 27 of 32 senior case workers and three of four dedicated elder abuse officers in place; the development of a training programme for staff in public and private care settings; a public awareness campaign aimed at informing key audiences about the risks and realities of elder abuse; and annual reporting, that is, the Elder Abuse Service Developments 2008 report.
On the national centre for the protection of older people, building up knowledge for policy and practice is essential for the development of a sound service. Based on a recommendation in Protecting our Future, the HSE ran a competition to establish a national centre for the protection of older people. The contract was awarded to University College Dublin for an initial period of three years.
The principal function of the centre is to create a knowledge base of Irish and international research on the occurrence, prevalence, detection and response to abuse of older people. The principal function of the centre is to create a knowledge base of Irish and international research on the occurrence, prevalence, detection and response to abuse of older people. The objective of the centre is to place elder abuse in the wider social context as opposed to within the context of the HSE only. Financial abuse, ageism and discrimination are key issues which cannot be resolved solely within the HSE and the opportunity to inform policy across a wide range of departments and agencies will be strengthened by a centre that has an inter-agency mandate. The centre will be developed to integrate elder abuse issues from the arenas of health, social welfare, justice, finance and legal authorities. Therefore, while the HSE acts as the lead agent on the development of the national centre for the protection of older people, it will have links with other relevant sectors to influence policy in these areas.
Many older people may be reluctant to report abuse, particularly because elder abuse, by definition, occurs within a relationship in which there is an expectation of trust. If an older person is being abused by a close family member, the older person may not wish to upset that relationship. Similarly, if the abuse is perpetrated by a carer, the older person may be reluctant to report it. Sometimes the abused or the abuser may not recognise the actions as abuse. This may be particularly true in cases of financial or psychological abuse which can be more insidious and less easily recognised than other forms of abuse.
To address these issues the HSE ran an awareness campaign which began at the end of 2008. The campaign was aimed at informing key audiences, such as people over 50 years, carers, health workers and other stakeholders, about the risks and realities of elder abuse, and to create awareness of the elder protection services provided by the HSE and other agencies. The campaign highlighted the need to protect older people from abuse in all its forms and particularly aimed to educate key audiences on how to recognise abuse, make everyone aware of their responsibility to act and report, publicise the support services available and highlight, in particular, the issue of financial abuse.
The potential abuse of our older people, including financial abuse, is of concern to us all and is an area that I intend to vigorously pursue until the best possible measures are in place to protect our vulnerable older people.
The main goal of any response to elder abuse is prevention. There are two types of prevention, primary prevention, stopping elder abuse from happening in the first place, and secondary prevention, when it does happen, taking steps to ensure that it does not happen again.
The initiatives described earlier outline measures taken by the HSE that have been found to be effective in tackling elder abuse. I have focused on the HSE because of the key importance of the service, but some types of abuse, for example financial abuse, require action from other agencies and will be a priority focus from now on. In addition, negative attitudes towards, and perceptions of, ageing and older people can lead to intolerance and acceptance of abuse. We have to be ever mindful to eliminate ageism and ageist attitudes. These are not the only factors contributing to elder abuse but can give rise to a culture or an environment in which elder abuse can develop, leading to age discrimination and devaluing and disempowering older people.
Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, is a dedicated Government office with the key responsibility to ensure the delivery of a well co-ordinated “whole of Government” response to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence against women and men, including older people. In 2009, Cosc launched a public awareness campaign, Your Silence Feeds the Violence, on billboards, national and local radio and on-line. The campaign was designed to encourage Irish society to realise that only by taking an active role can we stop domestic violence from destroying thousands of lives. As the solutions needed to tackle various types of abuse differ, my office and Cosc work closely together to create, where possible, synergy to achieve maximum impact and awareness.
Late last year I asked the NCAOP to undertake a formal independent review of the implementation of the recommendations outlined in Protecting our Future. I was particularly anxious that any gaps in the present policy would be identified and that research would be carried out on areas not covered in the original report, such as financial abuse, institutional abuse, self-neglect and gaps for vulnerable adults. The terms of reference frankly acknowledge that insufficient progress has been made in areas other than the health services and significant issues, such as financial abuse, are not being addressed in a coherent or comprehensive way.
A key element of the review is that gaps in the present framework are addressed. The review is being guided by a steering group which has representatives from the NCAOP, the Department of Health and Children, the Irish Association of Older People, the HSE and HIQA. It includes a consultation process with all the main stakeholders at national and regional levels. I hope to have the completed review in May and I expect it will include recommendations on the structures, arrangements and mechanisms needed to inform future policy and actions.
Our first choice is for older people to remain living at home for as long as possible with the support of their families and community support services where necessary. When this is no longer possible, it is important that older people have access to the best possible residential care available. It is Government policy to develop and improve health services in all regions of the country and to ensure quality and patient safety.
We all need to ensure the protection of residents, to safeguard and promote their health, welfare and quality of life and to ensure that there is a focus on the well-being, dignity and autonomy of older people. Older people deserve the highest quality of care that we can provide in both public and private settings and these standards apply to all designated centres for older people.
The new national quality standards for residential care settings for older people in Ireland provide for 32 standards under seven groupings. Standard No. 8 sets out the criteria necessary to protect residents from all forms of abuse. These include the development of a policy on the prevention, detection, and response to abuse within the residential care setting. Persons in charge must take steps to ensure residents are safe from all forms of abuse including neglect and acts of omission. Procedures on whistle-blowing and protected disclosure are required under the Health Act 2007. All staff should receive induction and ongoing training in recognising, prevention and responding to elder abuse.
The standards are an objective and transparent way for care providers to implement and for inspectors to enforce standards to the benefit of nursing home residents. I am confident that they will play a pivotal role in driving improvements in the quality and safety of residential care for older people in the years ahead.
There are 23,000 people in long-term nursing home care in Ireland. It is important that everyone gets the best service and opportunities regardless of where they reside, be it public or private. The Health Act 2007 extends the registration and inspection to all nursing homes. From 1 July 2009, future inspections will be carried out by the chief inspector of social services, part of the Health Information and Quality Authority.
The establishment of the office for older people underlines the Government’s commitment to older people. For that reason, I am pleased that one of the key functions of my office is to develop a strategy for positive ageing. My goal is to develop a meaningful and innovative strategy that will result in real improvements in the lives of older people.
The programme for Government stipulated that the strategy will involve, for example, the development of operational plans by Departments, clearly setting out objectives relating to older people, and joined up thinking on initiatives serving this community. Other areas for consideration include ongoing mechanisms to monitor progress and identify challenges. The cross-departmental group to develop the new strategy is in place. I also have responsibilities in the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am also a member of the Cabinet committee on social inclusion, which ensures that there is an integrated coherent approach to issues relating to older people across Government level. This approach is key to delivering the Government’s vision of improved integration of services, and thereby further supporting older people into the future.
My office will also continue to develop health policy and will oversee and monitor the delivery of health and personal social services for older people and the running of the long-stay charges scheme. It is, in short, the focal point for the development of a more comprehensive policy on older people. The resources of my office, which is currently staffed by officials from the Department of Health and Children, will be strengthened by the addition of staff of the National Council on Ageing and Older People.
Last week I introduced the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2009 in the Dáil. The Bill gives effect to the Government’s decision to rationalise a number of health agencies and integrate some into the Department of Health and Children. One of these, the National Council on Ageing and Older People, is directly within my area of responsibility. The council enjoyed great respect and has made a significant contribution to policy development in regard to older people. The formulation of policy, however, is usually best located in Departments, and bringing the council’s body of work into the Department will assist that role. Council staff have built up a range of expertise and experience on older people’s issues that they can bring to the work of the office for older people. I have full confidence that the council will bring refreshing and rejuvenating insights into the Department and I am delighted they can join the office and assist in the development of the national positive ageing strategy and the work of the office into the future.
I reiterate the Government’s commitment to improving protection services for this vulnerable section of our society. We have made great strides recently in developing appropriate services and raising awareness of elder abuse. However, we cannot become complacent. We must continue to carry out further research and develop appropriate mechanisms, to work in collaboration with other agencies and to keep a critical eye on all developments. Senators will agree any form of elder abuse is unacceptable and I urge all to open their eyes to elder abuse. If a person is in contact with an older person and has concerns, he or she should seek advice and not assume someone else will take action.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I wish to share time with Senator Twomey.
An Cathaoirleach: That is agreed.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this important topic. Of course, there must be ongoing debates not just about elder abuse but about the issues of how we treat our elderly in society, ageing and ageism in Ireland and how we can have a more inclusive approach to the elderly and the development of health and personal social services for the elderly.
The withdrawal of the medical card from the elderly was a retrograde step. It took away the peace of mind of many elderly people. The universality of the medical card was extremely important to the peace of mind of the elderly. The provision of the medical card was a good step and we saw the benefits of its universality in terms of the peace of mind it gave, the encouragement for people to remain in their homes and the confidence it gave them about their medical needs. These were incredibly important in the lives of elderly people in Ireland. Its removal was a retrograde step.
Today, I heard from community groups that an important grant of €3.5 million for security for the elderly has been withdrawn. The community groups have been notified of the withdrawal of this important grant for the provision of security equipment, such as pendants and so forth for use in an emergency, and are very concerned about the impact it will have on the elderly.
Recently we have had debates about standards in nursing homes and the Leas Cross report. As the Minister said, there is no room for complacency so I am glad we are having this debate today. People will find it hard to believe that 1,800 cases of alleged elder abuse were reported to the HSE in 2008. The vast majority of these incidents occurred within people’s homes and were carried out by somebody known to the elderly person. There are parallels in this area with what we have learned about child abuse. We are still shocked by what we hear about child abuse but the issue of elder abuse is only now becoming more widely known. The same standards, guidelines and implementation will be required in the area of elder abuse as have been developed over the years to deal with child abuse. It took us a long time to learn good practice when dealing with child abuse in terms of intervening properly and implementing and monitoring the right approach. I hope it will not take as long with regard to elder abuse. If it does, people will die. I welcome some of the initiatives the Minister mentioned which are being taken by her Department and the HSE.
Age Action Ireland has described the figures for abuse of the elderly as just the tip of the iceberg. There is probably a great deal happening that has not yet come to public attention or been reported. The issue of elder abuse is complex. The abuse can take many forms — psychological, physical, sexual or financial. Today, however, in the short time available to me, I will focus on the findings of an inquiry commissioned by the Mental Health Commission into two psychiatric hospitals, which was published last Friday. This was a Mental Health Act 2001, section 55 inquiry. There have been only two such inquiries in Ireland.
This inquiry, its recommendations and what it discovered make shocking reading. The report not only outlines the dreadful conditions that many elderly patients were exposed to within HSE care but also raises serious questions about the care practices in the hospitals examined. This report has been published four years after the Leas Cross report, about which there was a huge public outcry. The inquiry was into standards at St. Michael’s unit in South Tipperary General Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital, both of them in Clonmel. It was prompted following concerns expressed about the number of fractures suffered by a number of residents at the two hospitals.
The reports are very upsetting. This is not to suggest that all staff in those hospitals were involved in this or that attempts were not made to provide good care. However, the reports found that residents were inappropriately sedated or tranquillised to control their behaviour, wards were unnecessarily locked, seclusion was used too often, the poor design of the building posed difficulties, more than 19 patients suffered fractures between 2002 and 2004 and there were environmental and safety and welfare defects. The Irish Times and the Irish Independent commented on the conditions of the people who were living in those hospitals. They said the findings of the report paint a bleak picture of life at St. Luke’s, a picture of an environment in which human dignity has reached rock bottom.
There are many elderly people in institutional and residential settings throughout Ireland and serious questions must be asked about this report and its implications. Why was no action taken despite the fact that the Minister was informed of these issues regarding lack of care by the inspector of mental health in 2006? What action has been taken to date to remedy the major failings highlighted by the Mental Health Commission report? Has the Minister met the HSE to discuss its plans to deal with the issues raised in the report? How confident can we be that this is not happening elsewhere? We must be confident it is not. These are very serious questions. I do not have time to deal with the matter in more detail but it is critical that elderly people in institutions get proper care.
Senator Liam Twomey: My gut instinct from what the Minister said in her statement is that everybody in the Department is politically correct in terms of being seen to do the right thing, have the right policies, put the right structures in place and, yet again, review the recommendations of a previous report but they are not really concerned about what is happening on the ground. That is probably because the establishment of the HSE disconnected politicians and Ministers from what is really happening. I do not get the sense that the Minister fully understands what is taking place.
I raised the Leas Cross issue a number of times in the House and with the Minister. One of my first questions to the Minister was about Leas Cross. I asked her when the Garda would investigate it. Leas Cross exploded on to the airwaves in 2005 but we are still waiting for another report on what happened there from both the Garda Síochána and the HSE. What happened in Clonmel is recent. It is shocking because it involves a HSE facility. I am sure the Minister is also well aware of the significant complaints that have been made about abuse of patients in St. Mary’s in the Phoenix Park. There is an ongoing dispute there involving the HSE, the Department of Health and Children and a former employee at that hospital. However, the Minister’s statement is the type of drivel one would get from a masters degree student who has never stepped inside an institution. It is all about policy; there is nothing about the human beings inside these institutions.
The Government has shown no leadership in dealing with elder abuse and the instances of neglect I have mentioned in St. Mary’s, Phoenix Park, Clonmel and Leas Cross. The institutions where this is happening are the Minister’s responsibility. The majority of abuse is happening in the home and is caused by relations, family members and people who know the person. The elderly patient is significantly isolated within the community and therefore has nobody to stand up for him or her. The Minister correctly pointed out that public health nurses are more likely to notice abuse of elderly patients but these nurses are not now in a position to visit elderly patients as often as they should, due to Government cutbacks.
The number of case officers mentioned by the Minister is roughly one per county. One case officer to investigate all the cases and potential cases of abuse in a county is insignificant. It will not work. Despite the number of organisations and strategy groups the Minister is establishing to examine the issue of elder abuse, my instinct is that the Minister is just going through the motions and being seen to do the right thing rather than actually doing the right thing. If she was really honest about this, she should pursue the Leas Cross issue. That would show the Government has the concern and the teeth to do something about patients being abused in institutions. That type of action would not take long to feed into the system and demonstrate that somebody genuinely cares about what is happening to elderly people.
We will not stamp out all abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual or financial. This is because it is far more ingrained within society than the Minister of State cared to admit in her contribution. The least we can do is to care, not to seem to care, and to try to do something about the issue. That is where the Government has failed completely.
If the Minister of State has an opportunity to respond now or in the future, I would like her to outline the final outcome of the investigation into Leas Cross. I have asked about it in this House for the past two years and for the two years prior to that when I was a Member of the Dáil. Why does the Health Service Executive not make a more comprehensive effort to deal with obvious cases of abuse when they arise? It is not enough to have an inquiry or a whitewash report that gets a number of people off the hook. We need to change the way we see and do things within the health service when it comes to elderly abuse.
I accept there are difficulties for people working in the health service. It is not always easy and there are two sides to every story. Sometimes unfounded allegations of abuse are made. If an elderly person or a family member read the Minister of State’s contribution, he or she would not get involved because he or she could read between the lines that he or she could get into a lot of bother with other family members or people in the community and could not rely on the full and committed support of either the HSE or the political establishment. That has shown through. Perhaps the Minister of State will respond now or later, assuming she is still in office after 21 April, to some of the questions we have asked, tell us what is going on and what she is doing about stopping this abuse in society.
Senator Mary M. White: I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate her on her excellent and wide-ranging speech. I compliment her on the seriousness with which she has taken her ministerial role with responsibility for older people. At the time of the 2006 census, approximately 500,000 people living in Ireland, or 11 % of the total population, were over the age of 65. The number of older people is expected to double in the next 20 years.
The growth in the older population is a cause for celebration as our life expectancy continues to increase. The majority of older people live full and active lives, enjoying good health and independence. However, it is a fact that a number of older people suffer abuse of one form or another. The likelihood of abuse appears to increase as people get older. International research indicates that anywhere between 3% and 5% of older people may be subject to abuse. This would suggest that between 14,000 and 23,000 older people suffer abuse in Ireland. The numbers referred to the HSE are significantly less than that, which indicates we have a hidden problem with elder abuse in this country. That is in keeping with international literature which documents reporting rates as low as 1% to 2%.
Under-reporting is likely to be due to a number factors. Many older people may be reluctant to report abuse, especially because elder abuse, by definition, occurs within a relationship in which there is an expectation of trust. People may be too ashamed or embarrassed to say they are being abused. They feel there is something wrong with them or that they must be inferior if somebody is abusing them. If an older person is being abused by a close family member, the older person may not wish to upset the family relationship. Similarly, if the abuse is perpetrated by a carer, the older person may be afraid to report the carer who is abusing him or her.
Sometimes, either the abused or the abuser may not recognise the actions as abuse. This may be especially true in cases of financial or psychological abuse which can be more insidious and less easily recognised than other forms of abuse. According to Ms Mary Nally who runs the senior helpline in Summerhill, County Meath, one of the commonest forms of abuse is financial. Older people are terrified and they are frequently financially abused by relations. There are several forms of abuse which have been outlined by the Minister of State. They include physical, sexual, psychological, financial, material and discriminatory abuse, including ageism, sexism and abuse based on a person’s disability and other forms of harassment or slurs.
Some Members may be aware that I have embarked on a campaign with The Irish Times to address ageism in this country. Commencing in June, we will make inspirational living awards to older people, private and public organisations, those who have provided examples as role models, and to companies that promote older people and deal with their human rights. We will have quarterly awards in three different categories.
My mission is to address the human rights of older people. One is an asset to the State until one is 60 or 65 and then one becomes a liability. That is the way the legislation is framed. I made a valiant effort to ensure people aged 65 should not have to retire, that they should have a choice. I got that included in the programme for Government of June 2007. That has not been delivered yet but we will get to it.
Most Members are familiar with my policy document from June 2006, A New Approach to Ageing & Ageism. Recommendation 26 states: “The recommendations of the Working Group Report on Elder Abuse should be implemented immediately, and dedicated social workers should be provided to identify and prevent cases of elder abuse.” I am very pleased that subsequent to the document’s publication a national elder abuse steering committee was established in October 2007 to oversee and develop a national and consistent approach towards the provision of elder abuse services by the HSE. I am very impressed with what has been achieved. While I accept there is a significant job to be done, good progress has been made by the HSE in the development of its approach to elder abuse. There is no doubt about that and we must give recognition to the HSE where it is due. Mr. Frank Murphy, who is the dedicated officer in charge of dealing with elder abuse, is based in Roscommon. Since my document was produced dedicated officers and social workers are in place to deal with elder abuse. I addressed those areas passionately in my document.
I outlined in my document that elder abuse is a serious issue in Ireland that has not received the same priority as in other countries. There is no doubt that the events that came to light in Leas Cross opened up a Pandora’s box. Like childhood abuse we did not believe that people were so callous and ruthless in how they treated children and older people.
When I wrote the document in 2006 the only freefone elder abuse helpline was run from the United Kingdom and that is still the case. The main freefone helpline, 1800 940010, is manned from the UK. There was such a demand for the UK-based helpline that a special line was developed for this country. That is run by volunteers from the UK. Many Members will be aware of the senior helpline in Summerhill, County Meath. This is a unique example of what local people coming together as a community can achieve. That senior helpline has now been rolled out throughout the country and will also be rolled out in Boston. It is driven by Ms Mary Nally. Those who man the senior helpline are older people themselves and they have great empathy. I spoke to one of them today to bring myself up to date with what they hear. I asked how one knows the person ringing is being abused. The lady said to me that one must let the caller talk and talk. Ms Mary Nally told me the people who run the helpline receive tremendous training on how to identify abuse.
There is no doubt that we have made progress but we have a lot more to do. The bottom line is that we must have greater awareness such that people will watch out for one another, ascertain whether they know someone who is being abused and report it where it occurs.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am grateful that this very timely debate has been organised.
Nuair atáimid ag caint faoi luacha inár sochaí, is minic a deirimid gurb í an chaoi ina gcaithfimid leis na daoine is lú a bhfuil cumhacht acu an slat tomhais maidir le caighdeán ár sibhialtachta. Agus muid ag breathnú ar ár sochaí, measaim go gcaithfimid súil a choimeád i gcónaí ar ceist na luacha. Conas a chaithfimid le daoine nuair atá siad an-óg, nuair a bhíonn fadhbanna acu agus nuair atá siad ag dul in aois? Ba cheart dúinn bheith dearfach faoin aois. Ba chóir dúinn béim a chur ar an méid a thugann daoine níos sine don sochaí. Ag an am céanna, caithfimid bheith díograiseach nuair atáimid ag iarraidh dul i ngleic leis na fadhbanna a bhíonn ag daoine níos sine, mar shampla, ina dtithe cónaithe. Caithfimid déileáil, i gcomhthéacs na díospóireachta seo, leis na fadhbanna a bhíonn ag daoine níos sine atá ina gcónaí sa bhaile. Bíonn mí-ionsaí i gceist ó am go ham. Is slat tomhais dúinn uilig an chaoi ina oibrimid chun na fadhbanna áirithe a shárú. Is dócha go ndéanfar breithiúnas orainn amach anseo ar an chaoi ina láimhseáil muid na fadhbanna sin.
It is timely that we are having this debate, not least because of the very stark figure to which the Minister of State referred, namely, the troubling doubling of referrals to the Health Service Executive from approximately 900 in 2007 to more than 1,800 in 2008. In recent years, especially during the boom years of the Celtic tiger, we often asked whether we were forgetting about certain social values. People worried about a new coarseness and materialism.
We may look back with fondness on such debates but we were asking a very legitimate question. There was even a conference, entitled “Are we forgetting something?”, organised by Fr. Harry Bohan and others. One of the indicators of the forgetfulness of the material society was undoubtedly the way in which older people were treated and often forgotten because of the new pressures on people in the workplace and also the greater propensity to neglect older people and exploit them as carers of children. Caring for a child can often be wonderful for the older person but sometimes the expectations generated can be oppressive.
These concerns continue to arise, even as we face economic problems. Perhaps it is more urgent than ever that they be addressed because there is a danger during a time of scarcer resources that we would not put the necessary supports in place to ensure we are doing everything possible to prevent the abuse of older people and to maximise the considerable resource they represent in society.
While I am conscious there is a danger in mythologising the past as idyllic, I must repeat a story told in our house many times over the years about an Ireland we no longer recognise. It was about a poor farm labourer boasting that he was raising a large family, paying off an old debt and putting money in the bank. The riddle concerned how he could do all this as a poor farm labourer. The answer was that he was looking after his parents in his own home, thereby paying off the old debt, and that by bringing up a large family he was putting money in the bank since his children would look after him in his old age. That was a story about a time when people were interdependent. As the Irish saying goes, “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.”
We should remember that was not an idyllic world. We know from Peig Sayers’s now infamous autobiography that she was shown the door once the sister-in-law came into the house. Domestic life was not always idyllic. It seems that countless plays and novels depict the torrid relations between people of different generations living under the same room. One only has to think of the appalling scene in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” involving the scalding of the older person to realise the idyllic scene was not always representative of the reality.
Life in recent times has been much better in many ways but for whom exactly? I learned not too long ago about a fairly well-off household in which the grandmother lived with her son, daughter-in-law and their family. The phrase “lived with” is something of a misnomer because granny resided in isolation and meals were sent up to her. She was to be seen occasionally but definitely not heard. Her presence was not welcome when the children were entertaining. While we like to celebrate community values in Irish life, this harshness can be in the middle of it all.
Being young has always been preferable to being old. Yeats talked about this not being “a country for old men”. However, there was a certain mutual regard at times when age was honourable and youth was valuable. As family forms have changed, there often seems to be less appreciation of what older people have to offer outside their economic and safety related role as child carers for hard-pressed parents. In the years since the late Charles Haughey made the famous quip about Chinese leaders ruling into their old age, older people have become less prominent at the top in society. Youth or relative youth has become a requirement for the Presidency, the Cabinet, business leadership and perhaps even a prime time slot in RTE’s programme schedule.
American academics have observed that all segments of society can hold negative attitudes towards ageing. Even stories about acute hospital beds being blocked by older people helped to fuel a perception that the elderly were a problem rather than people to whom society owed an obligation and who have needs we must address. In Britain in recent years, unhealthy elements crept into the debates on living wills, etc. Even Baroness Mary Warnock, who has been lauded in Britain and here as some kind of ethical expert and who was brought to speak at a conference here some years ago by a Government-established commission, was the very one who suggested that the frail and elderly should consider suicide rather than becoming a financial burden on their families and society. This lady was dubbed the “philosopher queen” by The Sunday Times and has been a key shaper of British laws on sensitive ethical issues. In 1993, Baroness Warnock agreed a ban on euthanasia but since changed her tune having been influenced by various famous cases.
Even those from whom we should expect more in society have bought into a certain harshness in terms of how they perceive more vulnerable members of society. Very often, those more vulnerable persons are the elderly. In this regard, consider the debate proposed to take place in the coming days in Cork University Hospital, organised by the Cork University Hospital Ethics Forum. At this debate, a leading academic, Professor Len Doyal, is to address the theme of why euthanasia should be legalised. This is very controversial. There is no doubt about Professor Doyal’s academic credentials but certainly a lot of doubt about the values he espouses. He addresses the debate very much in material and financial terms, and in terms of preventing a burden to society.
One wonders about the lack of tact of a hospital in organising such a debate. It is all very well to have a debate in a university – we would all be for it and willing to hear the different sides – but to hold in a hospital a debate on why euthanasia should be legalised is questionable, given that older people or those who feel ill or vulnerable would see the poster. What type of message would it send to them at a time when people talk about scarce resources and worry about the response being adopted by the Government and those in power? I note that many good things are happening and I acknowledge the work being done by the HSE. It is fair to state that on the whole the HSE and the Department of Health and Children have risen well to the challenge of elder abuse. However, concerns exist and Age Action points out that yesterday’s budget suspended the scheme of community support for older people which cost only €3.4 million last year but is vital for the support of community groups. We need to ensure that elder abuse officers are properly resourced so they can do their work.
According to international figures, between 3% and 5% of older people suffer abuse and, as was stated by Senator Fitzgerald, undoubtedly this is the tip of the iceberg when one considers all the abuse that is not reported and the pressure on people not to report abuse. Like the horrible evil of child abuse, very often the abuse can and does take place in situations of mutual dependency and trust where there is some good in the relationship but also bad. This is where abuse can be particularly insidious because people are not in as good a position to blow the whistle.
Age Action has pointed out that the financial and legal sectors need more training to recognise and deal effectively with elder abuse. I understand that a recent case occurred which involved a sales representative driving a pensioner to an ATM machine while the representative’s colleague stayed behind in the pensioner’s house. This is the type of matter that is of concern. While good work is being done by the HSE and the Department, we need to examine how the financial and legal sectors measure up. It is fair to state that banks and auctioneering firms are not sufficiently alert to the concept of elder abuse or the dangers of it. No structures are in place to deal with the detection and prevention of elder abuse, for example, where unusual spending patterns by elderly people arise. I gather that Australia and Massachusetts have such structures in place and we should examine them.
Certain financial products are abusive of older people. Even though the Law Society advises against dual representation where lawyers act for both parties, such as a child and the older abused person, there is no absolute ban on it. We need to be more vigilant in this area.
I would not like to conclude on exclusively negative terms. We must acknowledge very clearly what Professor Des O’Neill and the Irish Gerontological Society have called the demographic dividend. We need to acknowledge the good work being done by many older people who are very active, for example, as carers. Not only do they save the State a fortune but they bring great love and care into society in a way that the State could not possibly match. We need to be alert as we discuss the needs of more vulnerable older people in society to celebrate, champion and encourage the tremendous contribution they have to make, particularly in the context of the greater likelihood of people living to older age.
Senator Dan Boyle: The subject of elder abuse as a matter of debate in this country has not received sufficient airing for a number of reasons. As has been commented on in the Chamber, representative groups such as Age Action have noted the level of elder abuse is substantially under-reported. This is probably because the nature of the abuse means it often occurs in close familial relationship and there is a reluctance on the part of the older abused person to report such abuse.
We must consider the type of abuse that occurs. We tend to think of physical abuse but often it can be emotional, psychological, social and economic, as was pointed out by Senator Mullen. There is an onus on the State and State agencies to define the abuse and then find out the incidence of it in society. We are probably not prepared to admit that it exists to as great a degree as many of us fear. Those who work at the coalface give anecdotal and personal evidence of its existence. In part this comes down to the level of support we are able to offer as a society. We had, and still do to a certain extent but less so than before, a good neighbourly concept and a sense of community. However, this has drifted and become more distant. We have relied more on the activity of voluntary groups which find it hard to find volunteers and receive sufficient support from the public and the State. State authorities, which are meant to fill existing gaps, operate under unacceptable constraints in the present circumstances.
Mention was made of the programme for Government. One element which, as a negotiator, I was happy to have included was a commitment towards piloting on a wider scale the integrated approach to elder care which exists at the Westgate facility in Ballincollig in Cork. This facility has long-term residential care and day care and meets the social and medical needs of the people who avail of the centre. It covers a large geographical area. I appreciate the economic situation has changed substantially since the programme for Government was published which makes spreading out a pilot scheme much more difficult but I argue that this is still a far more cost-effective way of dealing with care of the elderly and, more particularly, as a means of identifying the existence of elder abuse. With this integrated approach which links family, home, community and individuals we have a system that does not exist in the more formal aspects of care of the elderly.
Yesterday’s budget brought an end to many tax reliefs in the area of health. Many of these were unacceptable, particularly tax relief with regard to private hospitals. Tax relief is being maintained for nursing homes and for child care facilities. I am not sure whether this is the correct approach and the money foregone in tax is money we could acquire and spend more effectively in communities.
Mention was made of the decision of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to prune its budget under a very small heading which covers €3.5 million for security assistance for the elderly. As someone who has experience of community work, I am not sure of the value of specified grants. I would much prefer a generic approach to be given to communities with varying demographic circumstances. Block grants should be given to various communities and depending on their economic circumstances they could choose to spend them accordingly. If an area of economic need has a large population of older people it should have the freedom to do this and not depend on a specified grant system to allow this work to happen. If anything comes out of the review by an bord snip of the work of particular Departments and how public money can be spent more effectively, it could be that we spend more money in these areas but give more freedom to local communities to choose how the money can be used.
My father was very involved in Neighbourhood Watch in our community in Cork. While it was considered a general community security measure, most of its work involved elderly people living on their own. It had a system of home visits and ensuring panic buttons and particular doorbell systems were installed which allowed people to feel safe in the communities in which they lived. They knew there was somebody living nearby whom they could contact. Ironically enough, often this is more difficult in an urban setting than a rural setting because elderly people living on their own close to a large number of people can feel quite isolated and more alone than in a rural setting where one lives at a distance from one’s nearest neighbour. We should promote these supports and I wish the Minister of State well with this.
I must admit that I am very disappointed with the report of the task force on elder abuse. It was a missed opportunity. It did not report to the extent it should have and the narrow follow through which came out of a narrow-based document did not go as far as it could. If today’s debate has a particular use in informing the Minister of State and helping the Government, it is that we must be more precise in knowing the nature of the problem we face, allocating the resources that can and should be made available to it and admitting as a society that we have a problem that must be faced up to. Overall, even though we are an ageing society, and this has been mentioned by several speakers, in European terms we are still quite young. If the economic resources are not available, in so far as possible we should be reknitting those community links that have become broken in recent years. We should use the resource of younger groups of people within communities to reconnect with older people and address many of the gaps in provision and help to prevent the type of circumstances referred to.
Senator Phil Prendergast: I extend a warm welcome to the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor. Elder abuse is an issue that gets far too little public support and attention. The only time we hear about elder abuse is in horrific media reports about robberies, rape and murder. Such events hit the headlines for a few days and then become the chip wrapper tomorrow. These are primarily policing issues although health and social services have a role which at times they have failed to adequately deliver. One only needs to hear the words, “rape” and “murder” associated with the elderly for an emotional response to be elicited. We recognise the vulnerability of the elderly and regard the immorality of such attacks to be repugnant. The head in the sand attitude to the wider issues of elder abuse is understandable to some degree because the subject rarely even makes it to the chip-wrapper stage.
The HSE conference on elder abuse to be held in June is therefore welcome and I am looking forward to listening to a range of speakers. It is worth considering the definition the HSE uses to define elder abuse. It makes the point that abuse can be a “single or repeated act”. This points out that the single acts I referred to earlier are not the only types of abuse. We must also remember acts such as fraud or deception. Repeated acts are more likely to occur in an institutional setting and that includes families. The HSE definition then refers to a “lack of appropriate action”, in a word, neglect. This can be familial or professional and we must never forget it can also be governmental. The definition goes on to describe acts which occur “within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust”. This applies to commerce as well as to the more obvious civil, social and familial relationships. It concludes by saying that abuse is an act causing “harm or distress or violates human and civil rights”. Harm and distress translates into physical as well as emotional and psychological abuse. This is an excellent definition which points out the variety of ways the elderly can be abused or are being abused.
It is worth going through that definition in detail because one of the challenges for society is to recognise the scope and variety of abuse. The Minister of State in her contribution cited the range of elder abuse. In the area of commerce, for instance, while everyone can be targeted by bogus charity collectors and sales people, the elderly are particularly vulnerable. They are targets for both overt confidence tricks and all too frequently, more covert targeting by supposedly reputable institutions. By this I mean somebody purporting to be from Bord Gáis, the ESB or Eircom who asks to come into the house. They often have an authentic-looking uniform or bogus ID card and they gain access to people’s homes and violate their trust and rob them. Particular care must be taken with regard to Internet scams. The concept of elderly people using a computer is no longer as unusual as in the past. Many older people are participating in computer courses in supported environments or in their own homes. They are using the Internet for shopping and to go on eBay. I note the current advertisement which is very amusing, showing a woman running home across the fields because she wants to bid on eBay for a foot spa. I recently received an e-mail purporting to be from a well known bank. I was alerted by a little flash in the corner of the screen which means that the e-mail had come from another source rather than from the bank. We all know that a bank would never ask for one’s ID or password but it is very important to reinforce this message to older people. Such messages may look authentic and the wording is well done. Such messages may say , “It has come to our notice that people are being targeted and your system may have been violated. We now ask you to re-enter your password.” People can be taken in by what seems to be an authentic message. We need to be very aware of such scams because many elderly people use computers.
We know public services can be inadequate especially in the medical setting resulting sometimes in overt abuse such as happened in Leas Cross and more recently in St. Luke’s. I made a fairly comprehensive statement on St. Luke’s on the Order of Business yesterday. I indicated that I had a particular interest and that my husband works in that hospital. However, their hands are up with regard to the deficiencies within the system and that the HSE should never have made the excuse of the changeover from the health board setting to the HSE setting to discontinue implementing what would be good and best practice. To sit on reports for four or five years is absolutely appalling and is not good practice. We should not be proud of such a model.
There should be an increase in home support with monitoring of the client in the community. There is much reliance on the meals on wheels service. I refer to a press release dated last November from the National Council on Ageing and Older People. It reveals that 89% of staff who work in organisations providing meals on wheels do so in a voluntary capacity. They provide a significant service for older people which allows them to stay at home when they might otherwise need institutional care. The study on the meals on wheels service notes that it is often the first service offered to older people who are becoming more dependent but who are still capable of continuing to live in their own homes. It underlines the importance of meals on wheels as a source of nutrition for older people and as a means of enabling the early detection of medical problems that will require further interventions.
Two years ago during the general election campaign in May and June I called to houses where people were cold. They told me the fuel allowance was not sufficient because it stops too early in the year. I acknowledge the amount was increased subsequently in a budget but I am still not happy with it. We do not have the kind of weather where one can say with certainty that by a certain date in the year it will be warm and there will be no need to light a fire every night.
The Minister of State launched the report on the role and future development of the meals on wheels service for older people. It concluded that the research found that 89% of those working within the service were volunteers and the Minister of State acknowledged their contribution. That is laudable and is to be commended.
Senator Fitzgerald raised the issue of the suspension of the scheme for community support for older people. This is a retrograde step. The scheme of community support for older people was initially introduced in 1996 to contribute to the social supports available for vulnerable older people. The emphasis of the scheme had been on providing funds for local community and voluntary organisations to install personal monitored alarms and items of home security, such as door and window locks, to enable the older person to live independently. Grants are not made to individuals under this scheme. Instead, eligible older people are identified through local community groups and an application is made on their behalf. The Carers Association in Clonmel was playing that role which was replicated throughout the country. There was a significant take-up and the number of older people who benefited in 2007 was 10,764, in 2008 it was 11,762 and so far this year it is 1,866. It offers substantial security of tenure for these people. Yesterday, the Minister stated that given the urgent action needed to restore stability to the public finances and the requirement to prioritise funding to restore economic activity and employment, he regretted that he had to make some tough decisions. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, announced the suspension of the scheme with immediate effect but indicated that he hoped to be in a position to provide support for all applications on hand.
It was not costing much money to provide this scheme and the savings could have been found elsewhere within the system. When the Health Service Executive was established to replace the original eight health boards there was a substantial increase in the number of staff. However, it did not result in an increased or better service. Instead it created layers of bureaucracy and red tape and created a good many jobs for people. Nurses were promoted to jobs which involved carrying clipboards and ticking boxes. The person who receives a front-line service appreciates it. I am not saying people within the HSE do not have a role, because they do. However, if one were to prioritise who should go, whether the person providing the service on the front line or someone ticking boxes elsewhere because of a number of statutory obligations made by us, I question the way forward. I do not believe this is the way and although I may not be here for the Minister of State’s concluding remarks I will listen to them.
Senator Larry Butler: I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, for outlining the care dedicated to older persons. As a member of a health board for ten years I had the opportunity to visit many elderly care centres throughout the country, which was an education. I will not deal with the problems regarding health care for the elderly as it has been addressed by a number of other speakers. However, it is worrying that there has been an increase in the number of complaints about elderly abuse from 900 to 1,700.
On a more positive note, the elderly played a major role in the Celtic tiger and in terms of their contribution to the country for many years. I include those who emigrated and now live in London in circumstances not as favourable as those of some elderly people in this country. This is an area of the health services over which we do not have control. However, I believe we should ensure a service is provided to cater for the needs of our older people who emigrated many years ago. Such people sent significant sums of money back when we were not so wealthy.
Senator Mary White dealt with ageism, one of the worst aspects of the way we treat our elderly. Very intelligent people who held very high positions during the tenure of their working lives are treated on retirement as imbeciles and we do not use the skills they have. Such people have tremendous skills which are not being tapped. We could use some of their skills for upgrading and training some of those now unemployed. I wish to see our elderly more involved in the day-to-day life of the country. As Senator White said, one should be able to choose when one wishes to retire. That is a right which should be implemented and defended.
Very significant advances have been made by the Government and the HSE in the past ten years. It is great to see the facilities at the disposal of the elderly. There are wonderful day care centres in my constituency of Dún Laoghaire. There is bowling and various other entertainments set up for the elderly, and rightly so. These represent significant advances and we should accept and acknowledge that we have done well in certain aspects, although I am sure we can do better.
It is regrettable to have to put in place services to protect the elderly when abuses take place. However, it is necessary no matter how much one polices a given area. There are 15,000 police on the streets of the country, but abuse still takes place and there is a breakdown of law and order every day. The health services look after 23,000 elderly people throughout the country and it is very difficult to police and enforce the rules when abuse takes place, but it is incumbent on those working in the health services to do so.
The homes and care we provide are very expensive. The average cost of staying in a home is probably between €800 to €1,000 per week. The least we can expect is for those delivering services to the elderly to be professional. I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, has done much during her time in this portfolio to ensure a professional service is delivered to our older people, which is vital.
In the debate on the delivery of services there has been mention of physical, mental and various other forms of abuse, but verbal abuse is probably the worst of all. Much abuse is verbal in nature and is not reported because the older person does not wish to draw attention or create a problem in the household or home in which he or she lives. This occurs every day but goes undetected.
The most vital service we can deliver to the elderly is that of carers looking after them at home. This enables older people to stay at home where they are familiar with the surroundings, where they wish to be, where their neighbours are near and where the community lives. The longer we can maintain that service the better. It is a cheaper service and when making decisions about costs and trying to get value for money and the best delivery of services, we must consider the work of such carers. Their money is earned by their hard work and diligence and we should support them.
Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the opportunity to say a few words on a topic that has been well discussed this evening. While I have not read the report in great detail, the parts I have read shocked me. When the young people who appear on talent shows are interviewed, many say they do it for their grandmothers or grandfathers. It is difficult to reconcile this with the report which states that the majority of abuse occurs in the family home.
In many cases, perhaps people do not realise what abuse is. The report does not spell it out either, but what constitutes abuse and its forms should be defined. The Minister of State mentioned financial abuse, sexual abuse and so on. I assume isolation is a type of abuse. The elderly could be vulnerable to people in the family home who are abusing them without realising it, particularly where isolation and money are concerned.
Often, parents want to do their best for their children and to give them as much money as possible. Sometimes, the children believe they are entitled to all of that. Perhaps the fact that the elderly are as entitled to their independence as anyone else should be brought to the children’s attention more forcefully.
I welcome the report, but I wish to mention an issue that has been raised by Senators Fitzgerald and Prendergast, namely, the support scheme for older people, which has been good. The grant aid for devices for people aged over 65 years of age has been withdrawn. This is a sad day. We are discussing the report and abuse of the elderly, but withdrawing those forms of security is an abuse. I have seen at first hand the good service provided by both. When the security system schemes were first launched in 1996, they only cost £5 million. They cost no more today.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Some €3.5 million.
Senator Paddy Burke: It is a small amount of money when one considers the security it has provided to 10,000 or 12,000 elderly people. Older devices were recycled three or four times, but I am led to believe that newer devices have ten-year warrantees. In this light, they can be recycled several times.
The amount of money at stake is small. I am shocked by the Government in this regard. Many people who live on their own, particularly in rural areas, were given a great sense of security by devices like the telephone and the device that could be worn around the neck. It also gave their family members security, as they would leave knowing they could receive a telephone call at short notice in the event of an emergency.
I do not know whether north County Tipperary has a hub town, but there are two in County Mayo, namely, Castlebar and Ballina. Since funding from the new Leader programme does not apply to hub towns, it cannot give money to meals on wheels programmes or other projects for the elderly. This is a bit petty. There is no point in a town having hub status if it is unable to qualify for grants or decentralisation. Hub towns are now dormitories, with houses, houses and more houses. The Minister of State is tied into this Government policy, but she should consider the matter.
I received a letter from Castlebar Voluntary Social Services, which is providing good services in terms of meals on wheels and buses. However, the majority of those to whom it is providing these services are located up to ten miles outside the town. It is the same for all hub towns, yet they do not qualify for Leader funding. This is another attack on services for the elderly and should be brought to the attention of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, or which ever Minister has responsibility for this aspect of Leader funding. The situation should revert to the status quo because the organisation in question is providing a rural service within a radius of ten miles of Castlebar.
I am disappointed by the news that the support and security device schemes have been withdrawn. Given the small amount of money involved and with the aim of retaining security for those who have had it in recent years, I hope the Government reintroduces the schemes. Since the Government is highlighting something on the one hand in this debate and withdrawing it on the other, it should consider the two issues I have outlined.
Senator Maria Corrigan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I also welcome the Minister of State. I am conscious that many colleagues have contributed and I will do my best not to repeat them. It is a pertinent subject to discuss.
In recent years, awareness of child protection has increased, but there is no corresponding awareness of the protection of vulnerable adults. Even where there is an awareness of and debate on the matter, we tend to speak in terms of adults with mental health issues or disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities. It comes as a shock to many people that the protection of the elderly needs to be addressed. When the subject was raised in recent months, I found people were taken aback by the occurrence of elder abuse.
I will revert to this point later, but I want to take the opportunity to congratulate the HSE on its campaign to highlight the issue of elder abuse. The campaign commenced at the end of 2008, but its inclusion and the inclusion of a leaflet in the Sunday newspapers in February were helpful, as much chat was generated. It provided practical and sensible information pertaining to elder abuse and gave real information about the forms it could take in easily understandable language. Most importantly, it provided a telephone number with which people could make contact if they had concerns regarding older people within their communities of whom they knew or of whom they had become aware and who were the victims of elder abuse. This was a highly welcome initiative on the part of the HSE.
Other Members have mentioned that this does not take away from the fact that many older people will continue to play an important and worthwhile role in communities. They contribute, are highly active, provide invaluable supports to the community, often on a voluntary basis, and can themselves be carers. However, a number of older people can be adversely affected by the onset of various age-related disorders that can increase their vulnerability and decrease their capacity to protect themselves. These are the individuals of whom Members are cognisant in particular this afternoon.
I will not repeat the definition of such abuse because other Members have spoken about it extensively. However, I wish to comment on the alarming statistics that have emerged, which indicate that abuse appears to be much more prevalent in a person’s own home than anywhere else. I welcome the introduction of standards for nursing homes, which obviously are extremely important in ensuring an appropriate standard of care. However, their introduction also has put in place an important layer of protection for older people. Older people who are resident in nursing homes have the augmented safety of having other people around. They seldom find themselves in the company of the same person all the time and if there are concerns or incidences of abuse, there is a higher likelihood of them being picked up on.
Some of the emerging statistics appear to suggest that those who live in their own homes are somewhat more vulnerable. This may be because they have less outside contact but also may be because of a lack of awareness as to what constitutes abuse. That is something about which it is particularly important to create awareness and provide information. Because of the vulnerability of people in their own homes, it is important to highlight the signs and symptoms of elder abuse among HSE staff in general, as well as those who may have reason to have contact with individuals who are living in their own houses, such as GPs, local priests, neighbours and family members. This was one reason the HSE’s recent campaign was particularly important.
I commend the role of public health nurses in the community. In my constituency of Dublin South, I pay tribute to the brave members of the public who bring forward their concerns about elderly neighbours and to those working in GP practices or pharmacies who have reason to come into contact with vulnerable adults and who, on becoming aware of a concern or the possibility of abuse, find the courage to come forward and to pass it on. Public health nurses are an invaluable support in this regard. In my experience, whenever a concern is raised about an older person in my community, I have been able to make contact with the local health centre. Moreover, if a public nurse does not already have knowledge of the person concerned, he or she often will make a point of calling in to say hello and to check out the person. This again provides vulnerable older people with opportunities to make disclosures or to mention that something untoward is taking place. I commend public health nurses in this regard, as well as in respect of the support they provide thereafter. My personal experience has been extremely positive in this regard.
I wish to raise a number of issues that differ slightly from those which already have been mentioned in the House. If we are to tackle elder abuse, a number of legislative issues remain outstanding that must be addressed as a matter of urgency. They do not apply simply to elder abuse but pertain to the protection of all vulnerable adults. One such issue pertains to capacity and I welcome that new capacity legislation is due to come before the House. I also welcome that the indications are that a functional approach to capacity will be taken. Such an approach to capacity for older people is particularly important because it gives them the opportunity to maintain as much of their independence regarding decision-making as they can, while enabling it to alter in tandem with alterations in their circumstances. I welcome that a blanket approach to capacity will not be taken.
While the issue of capacity remains outstanding for older people in particular, it increases their vulnerability, especially in respect of financial measures. However, it also increases their vulnerability when it comes to following up on incidences of abuse. This also is evident with regard to other vulnerable adults. Greater difficulty is experienced when trying to take action through the courts subsequently, if that is deemed necessary. Greater difficulty is experienced in so doing because there is much ambiguity and blurring as to what can be accepted as evidence from a person over whose capacity a question mark exists. This is an issue both in respect of elder abuse and other vulnerable adults, such as those with disabilities. I welcome the forthcoming legislation and in addition to the comments made by other Members, the Minister of State might take away from this debate the importance for the aforementioned capacity legislation to come before the House because it will have implications.
I welcome the report that has been produced and the work that has taken place on foot of it. Awareness of this area will continue to increase. Some of the steps that have been taking following the report’s production are proactive and I wish the Minister of State well.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Máire Hoctor): I understand that ten minutes are available to me. Is that correct?
Acting Chairman (Senator Geraldine Feeney): Yes.
Deputy Máire Hoctor: I thank Members for their comments. A wide range of issues was raised in the debate, which I welcome. As many Members noted, the issue of awareness must be increased and expanded and I believe that while we have made good progress, there still is much to be done. Until relatively recently, elder abuse and the abuse, neglect or mistreatment of older people was not recognised as a problem, in common with other forms of abuse and maltreatment. The report of the Council of Europe study group on violence against elderly people in 1992 advises that a widespread lack of awareness, together with a slowness to accept its existence, was further exacerbated by the “veil of silence which too often surrounds this phenomenon”. In the past 15 years of so, this has begun to change, in part because of the recognition and acceptance of other forms of abuse, such as child abuse and domestic violence, as social problems. Other factors also played a part, including studies on and reports of elder abuse in professional journals and by the media, developments in the provision of care as the number of older people has risen and the involvement of professional and advocacy groups with older people.
Thankfully, people are living much longer and healthier lives. While in ancient Greece, the average age of survival was 30, thankfully it has increased dramatically in recent times. It now is suggested that on average, a little girl born this year can look forward to living to the age of 100. Medical science has improved and this is a great tribute to all those who are engaged in medical research and who work and strive towards such findings. We also must act on such findings and must help people to develop the requisite quality of life for longer living.
Many issues were raised and I ask Members to put themselves in the shoes of older people. These people have worked hard all their lives and dedicated their lives to their families and the workplace. From my work with them and with people who work with older people I detect that they feel they are not needed so much when older years come upon them. Their families have grown up and they find themselves too often alone. Many find themselves in this situation but do not articulate it because it is difficult to do so. Those of us who need to know are aware that this can be the experience of the older person. In the aloneness and loneliness, the seeds of vulnerability are sown and elder abuse can thrive in that environment. The Opposition is critical today but we see the valuable reporting that occurred in one year, from 2007, when over 927 cases were reported, to double that figure the following year. It is important that the environment is created so that people feel free to report what they see and detect as symptoms of elder abuse. That takes many forms — physical, psychological, emotional and verbal. I welcome the research on this area.
No one referred to the unidentified people who arrive at the door of the older person and offer to clean the shoots, repair the roof and cut the tree for a certain cost. When the work is done, the cost trebles and the older person feels he or she cannot resist or take on the dishonest individuals. Instances of this are reported across the country and the Garda Síochána does its best to track down the offenders. It is a real example of elder abuse. It has occurred through the years but people did not have the vocabulary to articulate it. At least we have uncovered it. We must uncover the silence where older people feel too vulnerable to report abuse because it will damage the relationship with the daughter or son who has the PIN of the ATM card. The son or daughter may use it without consulting the older person. We could elaborate on other instances today.
Good points were raised by colleagues. Senator Twomey referred to Leas Cross, St. Mary’s Hospital, Phoenix Park, the institution in south Tipperary and the hospital in Clonmel. He referred to abuse taking place in institutions. The review undertaken by the elder abuse national implementation group does not cover elder abuse in institutions but that will be the next step. There is a procedure for staff members who are suspicious of alleged elder abuse of a person in an institution. Those steps are clear and the procedure must be followed to the end. The accused has the right of appeal. Instances of this, where an investigation has taken place and an outcome has been reached, have been overseen by me. I am pleased that the procedure is in place.
The commission of inquiry established to report on Leas Cross will report in May 2009. The Garda Síochána is following up on criminal matters and should Senator Twomey need further information on this I am happy to provide it.
Senator Mullen referred to financial abuse. Towards the end of 2007 round table discussions took place with the financial institutions. We identified that elder abuse includes financial abuse, where families access accounts belonging to older family members, who may not be aware of it or feel so vulnerable that they cannot take on the family member accessing funds. That is the next step of our work on elder abuse. It is a major challenge and I hope the financial institutions will work with us and those who work with older people to tackle the issue. We do not have a clear measure on it at the moment. Many non-health issues must be progressed.
Senator Mullen referred to the euthanasia debate in UCC. I support him in his deliberations. I respect the ethics forum and freedom of speech when sensitive and difficult issues must be addressed. However, the title used by those who organised the debate, “Why Euthanasia Should Be Legalised”, leaves much to be desired. It was insensitive, if not distasteful. It flies in the face of Government policy for older people. We want to enable people to live as long as possible in their homes, with independent lives full of quality experience. This has no place in our policy. Professor Len Doyal and those who organised the debate do not define the policy and laws of this country. That is done by the Members of these Houses. Euthanasia is illegal and has no place in our medical ethics debates. People in Cork University Hospital and the HSE do not devise policy, the Members of these Houses do.
The suspension of older people schemes is regrettable. The Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Curran, made that difficult announcement this morning. It was suspended rather than abolished and, when funds are available, it will be reintroduced. I will not be found wanting in seeking the restoration of the fund. I know the benefits of this fund as enjoyed by older people.
We acknowledge that much work remains to be done in the area of abuse. We have made progress on it. The new procedure for dealing with elder abuse is only one component of the challenging work programme set by the Government. A review of the existing service will not only identify gaps but examine types of abuse not covered in the original report. This is a challenging time and I am pleased to be part of the changing environment. I have emphasised to the Taoiseach the need for the office for older people to continue its work.
Senator Mary M. White: Hear, hear.
Deputy Máire Hoctor: I may not be in this position in two weeks’ time but much good work has been done by those in the office for older people, including the National Council on Ageing and Older People and the staff, who are dedicated to promoting quality of life for older people. I wish the staff well in making progress on this work. The office should remain as one dedicated to address the needs and concerns of older people and to promote greater quality of life for older people.
Acting Chairman: We were told we could ask questions. I do not know if the Minister of State was aware of that.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I agree with the Minister of State that the continuing focus on the elderly in our society is important. We have an aging population and there are many issues requiring attention, some of which we have touched on.
Have the findings of the Mental Health Commission inquiry report, specifically the section 55 inquiry into St. Luke’s Hospital and St. Michael’s unit, been referred to the Department? The report came out on Friday and it is extremely important that it be referred to the Department and that there is a follow-up from it. Many elderly people are affected by it, some of whom are intellectually disabled and have a range of mental health issues, and it is extremely important that the Department is involved in the follow-up. It raises most serious issues about care of the elderly in our society, particularly in institutional settings where people are most vulnerable.
We have discovered in child abuse cases as well that in residential settings, people can be extremely vulnerable to abuse. This is a complex issue and it is not all about abuse. There is also concern regarding institutional neglect. What action does the Minister of State intend to take in this regard?
With regard to the report presented to the Department last year on the development of guidelines, how will these be implemented and what has the Department been able to do with regard to the HSE policy responding to allegations of elder abuse? Will the Minister of State provide an update on the implementation of that policy, how is it going and whether mechanisms are in place to monitor implementation? More cases are being reported but we have seen in cases of child abuse that there does not always appear to be uniform implementation of the guidelines, which is a key issue to be sure of. Senator Mary White mentioned that also.
I wish to return to the St. Michael’s unit and St. Luke’s Hospital case. There was a September 2004 report, the recommendations of which were supported by orthopaedic specialists. These have not been systematically addressed, with an apparent delay of three years of action being taken from the time this was reported. The report only came out on Friday but it has serious implications for people in our hospitals. The hospital and residential setting has had a spotlight turned on it but there are other residential units which have not been examined like this. The worry is that if proper guidelines and monitoring are not in place, other elderly people could be at risk of institutional neglect, which is a very serious issue as we have seen from Leas Cross and other reports.
With regard to the community grant scheme, is there a possibility that some flexibility could be introduced or that the scheme could be brought back? The Minister of State seems to be suggesting she is very unhappy about it going. It supported vulnerably elderly people who were living independently alone.
Deputy Máire Hoctor: As Senator Fitzgerald has outlined, the report of inquiry under section 55 of the Mental Health Act 2001 into the services at St. Luke’s Hospital and St. Michael’s unit in Clonmel highlighted very significant deficiencies in the mental health services in Clonmel. The report highlighted the aspects of the service provision that were described as being unacceptable in a modern mental health setting.
The Clonmel service requires considerable development. However, we are advised that sufficient staffing resources are already in place in the region to enable the adult mental health services to be reconfigured and reorganised in line with Government policy as set out in the document A Vision for Change. I welcome the fact a detailed project plan for the development of mental health services in south Tipperary, which will be time bound and have clear lines of responsibility for implementation, will be submitted by the HSE to the Mental Health Commission.
The Department of Health and Children will work with the HSE and the Mental Health Commission to ensure that any issues arising from the inquiry are properly addressed. The publication of the report demonstrates the robustness of the Mental Health Act 2001 and the independence which the Mental Health Commission has. It has an important role in safeguarding the standards and quality of care in mental health services.
Mental health services are the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney, although it is in the same Department and there are a number of older people in those facilities in Clonmel. It is an area of interest for me.
The Senator had other questions. With regard to the development of guidelines on elder abuse, we have made great strides with the HSE in the upskilling and training of staff and trainees in the medical field and public health nurses in particular to be able to identify the symptoms of elder abuse. I was in Galway last year for the launch of a HSE DVD for distribution to the training courses of personnel within the HSE so symptoms could be clearly identified and training and upskilling done. That is one of the areas in which great progress has been made.
There are very clear guidelines for the managers and employees of such facilities. Every employee is aware of the procedure to be taken and through the regulations, employees feel they will be supported if they report what they believe to be abuse. Procedures will be followed so that a person suspected of inappropriate action is given every opportunity to articulate his or her point of view of the experience. It is important that action is taken in the interests of fairness and, ultimately, the interests of the patient or the resident in a residential setting.
I have mentioned the community support scheme and the withdrawal of the funding is a disappointment, although I understand the reasoning behind this. There has never been as much consultation with our parliamentary party as there was regarding the budget which was announced yesterday. There was a very clear voice for older and vulnerable people, along with their carers. The relevant Department — it was not the Department of Health and Children — made what was indicated as being a very tough decision, which I accept.
I know many older people have benefited over the years from this scheme, an average of 10,000 per year. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, in his decision making with the Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, indicated it was a suspension of the scheme for the moment. Many schemes have been suspended across Departments but not abolished. I will make contact with that Department to ask that the issue be addressed again and to see that the funding be restored as soon as possible for this very important scheme.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: That would be very important. The scheme is under the remit of another Department and perhaps the information was not there. Tens of thousands have benefited from the scheme and there are 26 community groups in Dublin working with elderly people across the city and giving support. It is extremely important and while I appreciate the Minister of State’s comments, I look forward to a reversal of the decision.
Senator Liam Twomey: I listened to the Minister of State on the monitor and I heard what she said with regard to Leas Cross. Is there a Garda inquiry going on as I believed the inquiry was suspended until the report awaited by the Department and due to be published in May was completed? I believe that report is by a senior counsel.
Deputy Máire Hoctor: That is the report from Professor Desmond O’Neill.
Senator Liam Twomey: Is it not Mr. O’Donovan, SC?
Deputy Máire Hoctor: Professor Desmond O’Neill is to report in May.
Senator Liam Twomey: There is a report due from Mr. O’Donovan, SC, and the Garda inquiry has been suspended. Has that report been completed? That is the report we are waiting for.
Deputy Máire Hoctor: I appreciate this is an issue dear to Senator Twomey’s heart and it is not his first time raising it. Professor Desmond O’Neill is due to submit his report on Leas Cross next month. As I understand it, the Garda is still investigating certain criminal aspects relating to this matter. I will communicate directly with the Senator in respect of the issue to which he refers.
Senator Liam Twomey: I was informed that an inquiry is being carried out by a senior counsel and that on completion of his report, the Garda will resume its investigation. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify whose report is being awaited.
Deputy Máire Hoctor: I will communicate further with the Senator in respect of that matter.
Senator Dan Boyle: I move:
As is usual for Green Party Private Members’ time, a general motion has been tabled to allow the House to anticipate events that are taking place and contribute to better informing the process relating to such events. In structuring motions in this way, it is the Green Party’s hope that the House will not divide on their subject matter. On the six or so occasions on which we have moved Private Members’ motions, the House has invariably chosen not to divide on them. Unfortunately, for the second successive time, an amendment has been tabled to the motion. That amendment is in the names of the Fine Gael Members. It is the entitlement of the main Opposition party to table such amendments. I hope Members will acknowledge the spirit in which the motion was put down, namely, that we live in a time of change, that many of the matters to which the motion refers must be re-examined and that the House is in a better position than other institutions to influence the change to which I refer.
A matter of particular interest at present involves the forthcoming recommendations from an bord snip nua to the Cabinet regarding the number, role, purpose and composition of many State agencies. These recommendations will excite a debate in their own right. Many of these bodies were established for particular purposes and certain of them were only meant to be in existence for specific periods. Some of them have remained in existence for much longer than was originally envisaged. A number have acquired roles and responsibilities that are unnecessary because they duplicate the roles and responsibilities of other entities. Everyone involved in public life is looking forward to reading an bord snip nua’s report and is prepared to scrutinise the recommendations it will contain.
The report should not merely focus on the number of public bodies and State agencies that should exist, it should also consider how many people are involved and assess the experience, commitment and ability to serve of those who have been appointed to these bodies and agencies. In framing the motion, we were extremely conscious to highlight that the current system, as it has evolved, has tended to serve the country well. In general, those who were appointed have served the public good. However, questions have arisen at times when access to information and the notion of accountability have changed, partly as a result of the ability of the public, through the media, to participate more in democratic structures. There is a need to change the system by which we appoint people. We must first ask why we appoint people and then inquire with regard to the purpose for which they are appointed. We look forward to Members posing questions in respect of these matters.
The traditional manner of appointment to State bodies is through being known to the person responsible for deciding who is appointed to which agency or body. That process is often informed by the Civil Service, which assists in identifying people of particular expertise and commitment in certain areas. Whether we have always achieved the best and most appropriate blend of people — by choosing those who will serve either on the basis of their backgrounds and experience or on foot of the fact that they are well known to those responsible for making the decision — is a matter for debate. I am sure several Members will comment on that aspect of the matter.
Recent attempts have been made to change the way in which we appoint people to State agencies and public bodies. The Broadcasting Bill, which was initiated in this House and which is currently before the Lower House, contains a novel mechanism whereby the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources will be involved in choosing members of the RTE authority and the soon to be established broadcasting authority of Ireland. Earlier this week, the Minister for Transport placed a number of public advertisements requesting that people of suitable background, expertise, drive and commitment apply for public appointments to be made through his Department. I welcome these two approaches because they display a willingness to engage, diversify and involve as many people as possible in the process of public service on State agencies and public bodies.
A criticism that has been levelled in the past relates to the members of an identifiable and small group being appointed to several State agencies or public bodies. While these individuals have often been people of ability who have been appointed for reasons relating to their suitability for public service, their being chosen has led to a larger group of citizens who could and should have been considered for appointment being ignored.
Another matter which might be discussed as part of the debate is how best we might inform the process of appointments to State agencies and public bodies in the future. I wish to submit for the consideration of the House a number of potential methods that might be employed in this regard. The first of these relates to the establishment of a new agency that would serve as a clearing house in respect of public appointments. In the current economic circumstances the appointment of any new agency is not a runner. It might help administratively but I do not believe it would find widespread public acceptance, or even political acceptance in this House. There is a possibility that the functions of the Public Appointments Commission to appoint people to the public service could be extended to allow it to undertake a type of filtering process in terms of the appointments made to State agencies and public bodies.
The other role could be played by either of these two Houses, particularly this House, and the committees of the two Houses. It has been widely suggested that a role can be played at least in the questioning of people who are appointed chairpersons of public bodies and State agencies in that they could come before the relevant joint Oireachtas committee before their appointment. It is possible also that such committees, by way of votes, could appoint the list of people which has been suggested by the relevant Minister in each case.
In the last Seanad reform report, which was the 11th in the series, it was suggested that this House could play a particular role in the processing of public appointments. In terms of the more senior appointments to important public bodies and State agencies, that is a role well worth considering. In overall terms there are a number of options available and it could be that collectively, following the an bord snip nua report, we can decide on an approach that is a mixture of all of them but it is important to ensure that whatever system, or amalgamation of existing systems, is put in place it works, is efficient, produces the people of quality and the public has confidence in it. It must also be a system that can correct itself.
We have had difficulties with some State appointments where people have been asked to stand aside because of conflicts of interest. We would argue that the need to change our system of appointments and our system of vetting appointments before they are made would help avoid those situations if there was more clarity, openness and transparency prior to any appointment being made.
I look forward to others in the House contributing to the debate. I ask that at 7 o’clock we have some synthesis of approach because the spirit in which we are moving the motion is very much about examining how we can have better public appointments rather than being prescriptive as to how precisely we go about doing that in the future.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: I second the motion. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome my party’s Private Members’ motion. As a member of a party that is committed to the whole process of political reform, this motion is very much in keeping with the Green Party’s approach to that issue. On the day after a very difficult budget was announced, if we examine some of the provisions of that budget we can see that a process of political reform, or some of the steps that will lead to what I believe is a significant process of political reform, is in train. I believe the public will recognise that, despite the fact that so many other elements of the budget are causing a great deal of hardship and concern.
The Green Party, as a party of Government, should be an active agent in the process of bringing about political reform. We have had many debates in this House on the issue of Seanad reform. I have no doubt that the Government will leave a legacy of political reform and I hope the Green Party will have made a significant contribution to that.
Regarding the motion before the House, I want to focus on the important issue of gender balance in the way in which public appointments, in particular appointments to State boards, are made. I will begin by outlining the commitments the Government has made in the programme for Government. They include achieving a minimum of 40% representation of women on State boards. In July 2002, all Ministers were asked to review the gender balance composition of State boards and committees under the aegis of their Departments and to take measures to redress gender imbalances where the 40% target has not been reached.
In January 2005, the Government decided all nominating bodies should be required to nominate both male and female options for those appointments to State boards where they are the responsible authority but in December 2007, under this Government, Ministers agreed to take proactive steps to ensure that their nominations, and the nominations made by external bodies to boards under the aegis of their Departments, continue to reflect the Government’s commitment to achieve representation of at least 40% by persons of each gender on State boards to advance the goal of equal participation of women and men in decision making. All Ministers were requested to put in place the necessary procedures to implement the Government decisions. Progress on this issue is reported to Government at six-monthly intervals. However, as I will argue later, there remains a real need for overall reform of the current system of appointments to State boards.
Why should we reform that system? The current system means that places on State boards are filled by ministerial appointment. That is a form of political patronage. It is anti-democratic and unaccountable. Although we tend to hear mainly about the influential boards such as the Dublin Transport Authority or the Broadcasting Authority, there are hundreds of executive and non-executive State boards spread throughout the country.
On the question of gender balance and diversity, despite the Government’s commitment to achieving a minimum of 40% representation of women on State boards, the participation rate currently stands at 34%. In December 2009, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform released the following figures for 2007: total number of State boards included was 278; total number of positions on these boards was 3,804; total number of female members on these boards was 1,293, approximately one third of the members, or 34%; the number of female chairpersons in 2007 stood at 44, or 17%; and during 2007, 1,082 appointments were made to State boards. These included 386 women, representing 36% of new appointments.
The current system also militates against increasing diversity on State boards as candidates are generally drawn from within political and civil society circles. Given the changes in the make-up of Irish society in recent years, it is important that our State boards reflect that. Any new system devised could build both gender targets and general diversity targets. This is the case in the United Kingdom.
On the issue of skills and meritocracy, it appears that although many Ministers try to ensure a good mix of skills and background on State boards, where this is not set down in legislation the process tends to be arbitrary. A new system would ensure that appointments to State boards are filled by those with the necessary skills and background.
In terms of the kind of new system we should establish, there are many models we can examine, including the UK, the system proposed in the Green Party Private Members’ Bill published in 2006 and the system established by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in the Broadcasting Bill 2008. However, any new system must be based on the following principles: merit; transparency; equality; and diversity of skills and background. The new system should be independent, efficient, proportional, flexible and fair. It should be able to administer appointments to all types of boards, executive and non-executive, prestigious and less prestigious.
In the light of current financial pressures, however, we must be careful that any new system we devise is efficient and not too costly. Some proposals might include that the Oireachtas, either through the Dáil and the Seanad or through committees, could have a role in the process. For example, it could draw up guidelines and procedures or have a reviewing role. For the more important boards, such as the Dublin Transport Authority, the Oireachtas could be given the power to nominate candidates. A special unit could be set up within the Public Appointments Service or the Standards in Public Office Commission which could establish, monitor, approve and carry out appointments procedures and codes of practices. It would advertise positions publicly. A system similar to that in Britain and Northern Ireland could be established, where a commission provides the framework, guidelines and training to Departments, which then carry out the appointments process, including advertising. The commission also has a monitoring function, ensuring that diversity targets are met and the independent process is adhered to. It would be possible to devise a system which incorporates many of the features I have outlined in a way that is efficient, not too costly and independent. It could also ensure a role for the Oireachtas.
There is a danger that a certain amount of fatigue has set in on balanced gender representation in all areas of public life, particularly in State appointments. Just because the political challenge has existed for many decades does not mean that we should not tackle the challenge with renewed vigour. The Green Party is calling today for the Government, of which it is a part, to adopt a new reforming approach to ensuring gender balance in appointments to State boards and commits itself to achieving the targets set out in the programme for Government as speedily as possible.
The economic cost of such a system has been considered and little funding would be needed to establish such a system based on the recommendations made today. We need a new system for public appointments and if the Government achieves that it will be an enduring legacy for which the State will thank us.
Senator Liam Twomey: Senator Boyle feels there should be a cosy consensus in this House but the role of Fine Gael is to offer constructive opposition. The two Government parties have more than enough of a majority to look after their own interests. Someone must stand up for the people and show them there is also democracy here. Fianna Fáil in recent years had no problems showing it is happy for the rule of this State to go back to Dublin Castle, completely ignoring the proceedings in this House and in committees. If the Government thinks we will play along with such gombeen democracy, it can think again.
The Green Party is tied to this Government. To talk about what it would like to do and what it thinks should be done is rubbish. It should be telling us what it will do in government and how it will achieve it. We have set out our proposals clearly. I ask Senator Boyle, instead of sneering and mocking, to tell me why public appointments are not run by Oireachtas committees. Why are people who are appointed to State boards not vetted by committees to say why they are suitable for these positions? If the Green Party is so firm in its beliefs in transparency and gender equality, can it not tell its Government partner what it wants? Why is so much of the business of these State organisations and quangos not open to freedom of information requests? Too much of this is kept away from the public. That is the accountability, transparency and democracy that the people of this country want.
Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats doubled the number of quangos in the ten years it was in power. In the current programme for Government, the Green Party envisaged the establishment of another 17 quangos. More important, how many quangos has it axed? How many of the changes which the party feels so strongly about have been made? The language is beautiful — Senator de Búrca obviously has a good researcher — and the desires are admirable but action speaks louder than words. That is what Fine Gael would like to see. We want to see quangos merged. We did not envisage the establishment of new organisations. Even the Green Party joined the Fianna Fáil attack on our proposals but they were not to establish new quangos, they were to merge the existing organisations, making them more accountable and forcing them to act the way the people want them to act. It is straightforward and it can easily be done.
Senator Boyle and the Green Party pretend to believe in this cosy approach to politics, even though they are as hard-nosed about politics as any other party. The most recent commissions that were set up by the Minister for Health and Children to look at health service reform and universal health insurance did not include phone calls to Opposition parties asking for nominations to them. The Government has no interest in the slightest in consensus or in asking Opposition Members if they would like to offer their views on these proposals.
Fine Gael will hold the Government to account on the changes it has introduced. This Government has been in power for two years and many of the proposals Senator Boyle is discussing now formed part of Green Party policy before the last general election. Many of the same issues have become even more serious, reaching crisis level in the past 12 months in terms of reform of the public service and making accountability a reality in all State and semi-State organisations. The delivery of those changes, however, is the most important thing and I have not seen any realistic change.
I have no problem supporting Green Party proposals for radical reform of the public service but there will be no cosy consensus on this side of the House. The Green Party should put forward serious proposals the next time it has Private Members’ business, such as restoring freedom of information. Senator Boyle was a Member of the Dáil when that legislation was passed and opposed it as strongly as I did, saying that restricting the Freedom of Information Act would have a detrimental impact on the importance of democracy in our country. We could reverse that legislation for a start. The Green Party could force its partners in government, which has a Dublin Castle mentality and does not want to give information to the public, appoints its cronies to State boards and is too tied up with bankers and developers, where a small group of people dictated what happened in this country, to reopen freedom of information. That might help win back the trust of the public, which is starting to think all politicians are gangsters and crooks, which is not the case.
It is simple: no Government appointment should be made to any board without that appointment being put before the relevant committee. It does not require legislation; it simply requires anyone who is to be appointed to a board to submit himself to the committee to have his case examined. If the Green Party believes in that, let us see it act. It could amalgamate certain agencies and abolish others that have no impact on the rights of the people. We have identified a number of agencies that have no reason to exist at present but we have not seen similar action from the Government. There has been a lot of talk about quangos and the need to get rid of them but we have not seen a list of what the Government would like to get rid of.
All it has got rid of are those organisations that have become too self-confident in the way they took on the Government in recent years. The Equality Authority is being shut down and the Irish Human Rights Commission is being amalgamated with the Department. Perhaps the Government was getting a little uncomfortable with the results the organisations were producing. That is not reforming quangos but continuing the Dublin Castle mentality of the Fianna Fáil Party, a result of it being in power for so long.
The Green Party should not allow itself to become Fianna Fáil-light over the next few years. It is under threat as it already sounds like Fianna Fáil-light. The party leader submitting himself for a photograph when Deputy Bertie Ahern was resigning as leader of the Fianna Fáil Party shows the party is moving in that direction a little too quickly for its own good. It is time to pull back.
Senator Dan Boyle: He was resigning as leader of the Government.
Senator Liam Twomey: He was resigning as leader of his political party. The Senator can explain it to Green Party members in his own time but that is my interpretation. He was resigning as leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, not as leader of the Government. The Green Party leader submitted to being in the same photograph as all the senior members of the Fianna Fáil Party at the time.
If the Senator really wishes to make changes, we will support him in that but he must not patronise me or any Member of this House by saying we must somehow support his Private Members’ motion just because it sounds nice. I will be the first to support the Senator when he seeks a reversal of the amendment of the freedom of information legislation or to have public appointees brought before the relevant committees or a reform of quangos that might be uncomfortable for some people. We will give him all the support he needs in that regard but in the meantime, it is also our job to offer constructive opposition to what the Government is doing.
As we have seen with numerous legislative measures and in a number of budgets, there is utter fabrication or Mickey Mouse politics with regard to dealing with financial issues. The Government has changed the goalposts so often, it has forgotten the side of the pitch on which it is playing. The figures on finance have been ridiculous. We must provide strong opposition because the Government, unfortunately, is all at sea. I accept that most of the problems are due to the Fianna Fáil Ministers being unsure about what they want or where they are going, but the Green Party is a contributing factor and we must hold it to account as well.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I formally second the amendment. I reserve the right to speak later in the debate.
Senator Larry Butler: I support this important motion. It is important that people who serve on public boards are quality appointees. We must ensure members of public and State boards have knowledge of what they are doing on those boards. In the past, Fine Gael and the Labour Party put their own colleagues and supporters on boards. I have seen the appointments down through the years. I doubt that they are in a position to lecture us about how we select people for appointment to those boards, although I have a different view of how selection should take place.
I believe interviews should take place in a committee of this House before board members appointed to State boards take up their positions. I am also of the view that county councillors are best suited for appointment, provided they have the relevant knowledge for the board to which they are appointed. They are accountable, as they are elected every five years. That is more than one can say for the people currently serving on these boards. Some councillors are serving on the boards and they are doing so with great distinction.
I support a review of the board system that currently exists. There are now 1,000 quangos and it is time to review what they do and what they are worth to the country. There are three boards in the tourism sector. Let us be honest about this. There is no need for three boards for tourism. One is sufficient. This is a small country and we could concentrate more on the issue if there was one board. Even the members of the different boards say the same. I agree with the motion. It is time to review the entire system of State boards.
It is also important to examine the type of professions that are needed on the boards. That is not being done. People without the relevant knowledge are being appointed to boards. I have seen instances where people have been appointed to boards even though they do not have any knowledge of what the board or company has been set up to do. We have seen this with the health boards, where there are people on them who have no knowledge of the health system. I have eight years’ experience and I was not even considered for appointment to the Health Service Executive. Despite this, people with no experience were appointed. These are the questions that must be answered.
If we do not have experienced people on the boards, how can we expect them to function properly? Some of them do not. I am aware of people on the board of the health service who do not even turn up for meetings. They might turn up for two or three meetings a year but not for monthly meetings. Attendance by a member of a board is vital. Otherwise, the person obviously is not very interested and is only there for the €22,000 or so that he or she gets for being on the HSE board. Some of them do not consider it worth their while turning up for board meetings. That must be questioned. Attendance must be examined. I agree there should be freedom of information in this regard. These people should be exposed.
I support the motion. It is important we examine the system we have and how people are appointed. There should be a committee of this House to interview the people who are appointed to these boards. That would be a more transparent way of doing business. Let us forget about the political system. We would get far better people for appointment if this House conducted the interview. There is no point in talking about the past but there was cronyism and the appointment of party members. That is happening now to a lesser extent. If good people are needed on a board, we should get them. They are the people with the expertise to run the body. They will be good for what we need them to do. If we do not have professionalism on the boards, we will not get the quality people we require.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I am happy to speak on appointments to State agencies and public bodies but I do not see the point of the Green Party motion. At least the Fine Gael Party’s amendment has the merit of making some substantive proposals for reform of the cronyism that we all agree took place in the past and continues to some extent in the appointments to State agencies and public bodies. It is a little rich of the Green Party, which has been in Government for almost two years, to put forward a motion that welcomes an ongoing examination and believes that reviews should continue. That is all very well if one is a bystander, a mere observer of the process of government, but it is difficult to accept from a party that is in government. It is symptomatic of the Green Party’s ostrich approach to government, that is, let it happen all around one while one sticks one’s head in the sand and pretends it has nothing to do with one. Senator Boyle is smiling. I am glad he finds it amusing. There are too many examples of this attitude being taken by the Green Party in government, as if it sees it as something that happens around it and not something for which it is willing to take responsibility or in which to accept active participation. That has to be challenged by those of us on this side of the House.
The appointment of individuals to State agencies and public bodies is an urgent matter. It is not something we can all simply agree should be subject to ongoing review and examination. Considering it as we must do in the light of the budget and the current financial situation, we can see a failure to regulate appointments to State bodies as lying at the root of the current problems. Would we now be in the dreadful financial situation in which we find ourselves today if we had a properly constituted Financial Regulator who had put under proper scrutiny the activities of the banks?
I was in the Dáil Chamber yesterday for the reading of the Minister for Finance’s statement when he admitted at last that there are €80 billion to €90 billion worth of toxic and bad debts on the books of the banks. The extent of debt is extraordinary. It puts into perspective the figures we have been given that the Government’s spending for the year is to be €60 billion. Tax revenues are less than €40 billion so we know there is a shortfall, yet according to the Minister, “The potential maximum book value of loans that will be transferred to the agency is estimated to be in the region of €80 billion to €90 billion”.
Any person on the street would ask how a regulator could allow a situation to arise where developers were allowed to take on liabilities that are worth significantly more than the entire Government spend in one year. It is an extraordinary amount of money and I do not think enough emphasis has been put on those relative figures. When we talk in billions it is difficult to get any notion of what we are really talking about and the context for it, which is extraordinary. According to The Irish Times the estimate of €80 billion to €90 billion represents one fifth — 20% — of all loans across the six financial institutions. If that is correct – we are all speaking in somewhat speculative terms — it is extraordinary to think any regulatory system permitted that level of bad loans to be issued.
Likewise, we were not told to how many people the bad loans were issued. If, as some reports have suggested, it is to a small number of developers, a question must be asked as to how any regulatory system could allow such an enormous level of liability to be permitted by the banks, which has now exposed all of us as taxpayers to that level of liability. I am sure that in his response the Minister will say the national assets management agency will not pay €80 billion to €90 billion, even if that is the full figure of the value of the loans. The point I make is about the regulation of the banks’ activities in the past that has led us into this situation. If it is true that the banks’ liabilities for the bad or toxic assets is as much as €80 billion to €90 billion, it is a frightening scenario that such a level of liability was allowed to be incurred.
There is a question to be asked therefore about the Financial Regulator’s role in permitting bank lending to that extent, which brings us to the point of regulation and the scrutiny of public appointments. At least the Fine Gael amendment suggested some changes to the system of public appointments that would allow for greater transparency and, in particular, for scrutiny by the Oireachtas. The Bill that was put forward by Fine Gael in July of last year, the Public Appointments Transparency Bill, would put in place a scrutiny system whereby the relevant Oireachtas committees would scrutinise appointments. Alternative suggestions were put forward that the Seanad would be the forum for the scrutiny of public appointments, which might be a useful role for the Seanad.
For major appointments such as the Financial Regulator it would be important that we would have an open and public debate about the persons to be appointed and their qualifications, and how effective they could be in carrying out their functions. That is not a novel idea; it is something that is done in the United States and South Africa. I met some of the South African judges on the constitutional court who were appointed after a process of public scrutiny. It is an instructive process to learn about the public scrutiny of those kinds of appointments whereby all manner of issues and personal matters are raked over in public where individuals are to be appointed to judicial office. That is perhaps beyond what is proposed here but it is something that brings into the open any bias judges may have. Among others, judicial appointments are subject to public scrutiny in other systems. When we talk about chairs and chief executive officers of public bodies and statutory agencies such as the regulatory authority in the financial sector, or the Equality Authority to which I will come in a moment, it is important to have some system of Oireachtas scrutiny in place as a matter of urgency.
I wish to speak a little more about the Financial Regulator before turning to the Equality Authority. There are now proposals to change the method of financial regulation. Reference was made in the Minister’s speech yesterday, and it was flagged by the Government previously, to a proposal for a new regulator with much greater powers to replace the existing system. A new head of regulation is to be recruited under the auspices of the Central Bank and Financial Regulator. That is all we have been told about the recruitment process, other than that we will have an adviser for the recruitment process called Sir Andrew Large, who it appears is the former deputy governor of the Bank of England, but we have not been told what level of public scrutiny will be applied to this vitally important individual who will be charged with ensuring that the €80 billion to €90 billion worth of toxic assets will not be allowed to be built up in the future.
That is a very important role and it is urgent that legislators and the public should be told how the process of recruitment is to take place. It does not inspire confidence to be told it will take place under the auspices of the current Central Bank and Financial Regulator. The former deputy governor of the Bank of England is undoubtedly an expert and it is good to have experts from other jurisdictions to advise on the recruitment process, but we need to hear in more detail about how the recruitment will take place and what levels of public scrutiny will be applied in the appointment of this new individual. The timeframe is also vital and we need to know the answer to that also.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Bacik has one minute left.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I will not be able to say all I wished. I hoped to ask questions also about the new commercial semi-State agency to be set up, namely, the national assets management agency. Again, questions must be asked about the recruitment of the individuals who will fulfil the important roles of chair or chief executive officer and members on the board of that institution. It is a matter of urgency that we have a system of public scrutiny of appointments to that new agency in terms of trying to ensure greater public confidence and greater confidence in the international markets about how we regulate our financial system. We must ensure that appointments are made that are effective and are seen to be such.
I will conclude with a brief reference to the Equality Authority. We had an exemplary public servant in the person of Niall Crowley who fulfilled his role with great efficiency and effectiveness. He gained an international reputation in promoting equality and ensuring that the Equality Authority was an active and effective body. What happened to him? As we are all aware – references have been made to this in the debate – he was forced to resign in December due to the swingeing cuts of 43% imposed on the Equality Authority, in addition to various other measures that made his work impossible.
Questions must be asked about cases where a person is effective in his or her role as chief executive officer of a State body and is doing the job in a professional and expert way and if he or she is seen by the Government to be too challenging of the State and therefore singled out by it for punishment. We must remember that the Equality Authority supported a number of cases taken against Civil Service entities and public bodies. The contrast between the principled resignation of Niall Crowley last year and the failures to resign of various people in high office in the financial regulatory system until they were often pushed is notable when we are debating the issue of public appointments and the scrutiny thereof. We need to see action on this as a matter of urgency. It is simply not good enough to suggest, as the ostriches on the other side have done, that we can simply depend on an ongoing review. We need more than ideas and there must be action by way of implementing measures to ensure greater scrutiny of public appointments.
Senator Paul Bradford: I thank the Green Party for tabling this important motion for debate. The political process is such that I will be supporting the Fine Gael amendment but if we are fair and honest we must concede that the gulf between the motion and the amendment is not the widest to be bridged in politics. The Fine Gael amendment, which derives from our Public Appointments Transparency Bill of last year, as referred to by Senator Bacik, is a bit more advanced than the thinking to date of the Green Party and the Government but I hope we are all moving in the same direction and that we will arrive at a solution resulting in full confidence in the appointments process. Thus, the best possible people will be appointed to what are generally regarded as important roles.
We are debating this motion at a time when the political process is subject to considerable scrutiny, as has been the case for quite some years. The public has become very cynical about the political process and political parties. All the individuals appointed to high office by political parties seem to come under the same spotlight or radar. It is only fair to agree with the motion’s contention that the vast majority of people appointed, politically or otherwise, to various State boards and agencies are of the highest standing, have the best intentions and put the country first.
The Minister of State was in this House and, I presume, the other House on many occasions when Members were debating Bills providing for the establishment of agencies or groups. A common cause of disappointment among all politicians, particularly Senators given their close connection to local authority members, including county councillors, is that many new Bills prescribe that public representatives, namely, local councillors, not be appointed to certain State boards and bodies. In spite of this, we can all make the Minister of State aware of very many local councillors, of all parties, who have served various State agencies, boards and bodies to very great effect and prioritised the interests of their constituents and country very much above those of their political party.
When debating the subject of State boards, agencies or quangos, we must acknowledge that while there have been a number of difficulties and a small number of appointments that may not have been the most appropriate or ideal, the vast majority of appointments were positive, constructive and helpful and resulted in much good work being done. However, there is a new political and economic environment in which the concept of transparency has become very important, and we must therefore appreciate the need to do business differently and better. The Fine Gael amendment, based on our legislation of last year, places a much stronger obligation on the political establishment, including the Members of the Oireachtas, to examine appointments in more detail.
I was interested in the contribution of Senator Butler, whose comments were quite similar to some of the views contained in our amendment. He argued, as did Senator Bacik, that the Seanad could be used as a vehicle for scrutinising prospective appointees. I do not see it taking on a role such as that of some of the big committees in the US Congress, which ask every sort of question and examine every angle. However, the Seanad could validly and effectively hear the cases and views of nominees when appointments to a senior position on a State board are being considered by the Government. The Opposition amendment refers to the relevant committee having this function but the Seanad could fulfil it also. We could have an interesting exchange of policy positions, ideas and ideology. This would be a step in the right direction in ensuring transparency and accountability.
The backdrop to this debate is the questioning of the role of many State agencies, committees and advisory groups. While Fine Gael has its own view on how certain appointments could be made, the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, and Senator Boyle, will be well aware of Fine Gael’s strong view, publicised very much over the past 12 months or so, particularly on foot of the work done by my colleague, Deputy Varadkar, that there should be a significant examination of many of the agencies and their roles. Every effort should be made to reduce the numbers to the maximum degree.
If one considers all Departments and all the various advisory groups, boards and consultative agencies, one will realise there is some scope, if not significant scope, for reform and for trimming down. We sometimes debate the role of Ministers, and Ministers of State in particular, and complain about the role of advisers and programme managers, but at least most of these people are tightly tied to the political process and are in some way accountable to this House and the other. Sometimes the agencies and support groups that advise the Government and often influence policy significantly are not accountable to the same extent and this is why I hope that, over the coming years, we will thoroughly review the role of agencies and reduce their number in a meaningful, effective and reasonable fashion.
There will always be State boards and bodies that will need to be staffed by part-time employees. Board members, chairmen and chief executives will have to be appointed and it is important that we put the very best people forward. The day of making political appointments through political cronyism must come to an end. As a country, it is in our absolute interest to ensure the best possible people are appointed, be it to the smallest board or largest agency. I acknowledge that some recent appointments made by the Government, particularly by the leader of Senator Boyle’s party, seem to be very fair, reasonable and appropriate. I congratulate the Minister on his endeavours in this regard and I wish his appointees well.
A fortnight ago, a difficulty arose on which we reflected in this House in a very measured fashion. We expressed certain concerns over the media hunting the gentleman in question. The appointments made by the Government over the past five, six or 12 months are less likely to be regarded as totally party political than those that may have been made prior to this period. That is certainly a step in the right direction.
I recall the debate some months ago on transparency and generating public confidence. While I have not fully digested the content of the legislation proposed by Fine Gael in this regard, for which I apologise, I know it is a step in the right direction. It is possibly the most appropriate response to the broader issue of making political appointments. I accept that the motion before the House is moving in the right direction but we must progress at a faster rate. In the new political and economic circumstances, which have resulted in such a significant spotlight on the political establishment, of which we are all part, and in the demand that we all ensure the right thing is done for the country, political appointments, even to the most junior positions, must be made fairly and properly. Our Public Appointments Transparency Bill would be positive and welcome in this regard.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I wish to share time with Senator Jim Walsh.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I join others in welcoming the Minister of State. I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few brief points on this motion. I thank the Green Party for framing the motion in the way it did. It is provocative and should yield interesting ideas. Perhaps we should consider framing more Private Members’ motions in this way.
In line with ongoing reform of the public services and appointment of bodies with regard to efficiency, we wait eagerly to see what proposals various review groups including an bord snip nua and others will bring forward on how we can make the public service system more efficient and use the numbers to obtain maximum results in terms of the public services we require.
I am most interested in speaking about how we appoint people to boards. Senator Ivana Bacik touched on this earlier. When one considers the public perception of the Seanad, the difficulties in appreciating the work that goes on here and the fact the media do not cover it, a key reform I would like to see implemented is that appointments to a list of prescribed bodies, State agencies and perhaps semi-State bodies would be scrutinised for ratification or veto here, similar to the move made by the European Parliament with regard to the appointment of European Commissioners. Proposed appointees should make themselves available to the House for appropriate questioning to tease out any concerns.
The days of political cronyism are gone and so they should be. It is most important that we get the right people to do the right jobs at the right time. In this context, I am mildly concerned that while we have some excellent people in the public service serving on State boards and doing extremely good work, which in many instances far outweighs the level of remuneration they receive for it in terms of their commitment and contribution, a number of the same people keep popping up on various boards. We need change and to freshen up many of the agencies and boards and bring in — not that I am ageist and I am conscious of the previous debate on elder abuse — fresher and younger people to refocus and give more energy to these institutions.
I regret the practice of excluding as a matter of form local authority members from serving on any State agency or board. Senator Bradford also raised this matter. I would not like to see them there for reasons of political cronyism but local authority members are in the front line and are ideally placed to be representative of the public interest. In this context, it must become the practice to seek to include them and not to exclude them. Consistently over the past number of years, and perhaps it was a reaction to the levels of corruption we saw exposed through tribunals, we have sought to subcontract power away from the people’s representatives. This is fundamentally wrong. We should seek to enhance democracy and ensure that power and decision making lie with the people which is in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
It is wrong that a body such as the Health Service Executive effectively has control over 30% of the State’s money. We should seek to review this. I liked the old health board model, as flawed as it was, but we have what we have. We could improve upon the way we seek to push power and responsibility to third-party organisations. Departments and the Houses of the Oireachtas are the appropriate vehicles for taking many of the decisions.
I feel there is duplication in a wide variety of agencies. I am conscious that some bodies will be amalgamated through the budget of last October but there is scope for further amalgamation. Many agencies seem to be doing work which local authorities could do. Perhaps we can examine this. If we were to achieve anything from this debate it should be that we push for the Seanad being the appropriate forum to ratify or scrutinise public appointments across the range of State agencies.
Senator Jim Walsh: Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir MacSharry as deis a thabhairt dom cúpla focal a rá ar an ábhar seo.
I welcome the Minister of State. I also compliment Senators Boyle and de Búrca of the Green Party for tabling the motion. It is opportune and timely that we discuss this issue. Reference was made to the public service in general and the OECD review of the public service which acknowledged the central role played by the public service in our national development but stated we needed a more integrated public service and greater performance focus. Undoubtedly this is the case. I and many people took issue with the OECD on specific parts of the review but this is for another debate.
The propensity to establish boards in a wide range of areas has led to a lack of cohesion in certain areas and a lack of accountability for those bodies. It is interesting that now when one writes to various Ministers or Departments about functions and responsibilities which should attach to them one is referred to some of these agencies. As a consequence accountability is diminished and this needs to be examined.
I heard mention of the change introduced by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, which is innovative and a good idea. He will look to the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to make recommendations to him with regard to appointees to the boards of the RTE authority and the broadcasting authority. Today, in a private meeting with the Minister we debated how to go about this. There is an interest in ensuring that the process is transparent and fair and meets the aspirations of the Minister in this regard. I must state that I detected a certain reluctance on behalf of Members of the Opposition to fully embrace the opportunity we were given. This would be a pity. We will be the first committee to consider this and if we do so in a way which subsequently proves to have been done very well it will provide a template for dealing with other boards.
Having stated this, I am very firmly of the view that Ministers and the Government are the people to make appointments to those boards. They should be able to stand over the appointments and be accountable for them. It should be on the basis of the people being appointed having the abilities, capacities and skills to make the necessary contribution to the boards to which they are being appointed. This should be done in a transparent way. I agree that either the joint committees or, as has been suggested by many of my colleagues, the Seanad or a sub-committee of the Seanad, would have the nominees come before them and they would be subject to recommendation or veto. This might be useful but the people should be nominated by the Minister.
I compliment Senator Bacik not so much for what she stated but for the fact she had the ability to say it with a straight face. She mentioned cronyism with regard to appointments. From 1994 to 1997, her party, Democratic Left, which is now called the Labour Party——
Senator Ivana Bacik: I have never been a member of Democratic Left.
A Senator: She is an Independent Member.
Senator Ivana Bacik: On a point of order, I have never been a member of Democratic Left. I am a proud member of the Labour Party and I have never been a member of Democratic Left.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: That is not a point of order.
Senator Jim Walsh: If I am allowed to finish my point, the Democratic Left party, which is now called the Labour Party——
Senator Ivana Bacik: No, it is not.
Senator Jim Walsh: There was a reverse takeover.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: That is not true; it was a merger.
Senator Jim Walsh: During that period 1994 to 1997, I noticed the carve-up and I spoke to Ministers in Government at that time when they had difficulty carving up various boards because all three parties, Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left, had to be catered for. In many instances they appointed good people and perhaps this is a preferable way to do it than the way we are doing it. To some extent over the past ten years, we have allowed the permanent government, the public service, to be so influential with regard to many of those nominees. I agree the public service should have an influence but ultimately the Government is the primary body. I do not agree that it should be delegated to some unelected authority to be accountable for it.
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Senator has an even straighter face now.
Senator Jim Walsh: I concur with those who said that local representatives should not be automatically excluded. Many of them have the commitment and are imbued with the spirit of public service. I note that they are much more the active members of any boards to which they are appointed compared with some other members. They should not be excluded simply because they are involved in local politics. There has been an inclination to do this. People should be appointed on the basis of their expertise and ability to make a positive contribution and these should be the only criteria. The responsibility should rest with the Department but should be subject to the approval of the Government and checks by these Houses to ensure the people meet the criteria.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I thank the Green Party for raising this issue. I am a little disappointed that a motion on transparency should be couched in such nebulous language. I am glad Senator Boyle outlined some detail because the motion contains very little firm detail, unlike Fine Gael’s proposed amendment which sets out some very concrete proposals on how to change and improve the current system.
I agree with the point that party’s Members made about putting people before the Oireachtas when deciding whether they should be appointed to the boards of public bodies. This function could be undertaken by committees or by the Seanad. This point was raised by Senator MacSharry. If the franchise of the Seanad were to be expanded to include all the electorate, it would mean that the public would be given an oversight function regarding appointments to the boards of public bodies and Senators would rightly be held accountable for any decisions taken about appointments to such boards. This would help to give greater public confidence in how the Seanad operates. It would be an ideal example of how Senators could bring their experience and skills to bear on the public good.
It is a common claim that appointments to public boards are not motivated by the public interest but rather by the desire to perform some act of political patronage. They are to ensure a party’s influence continues on past the date of an election and this was a point made by Senator Walsh. It is clear that different Governments of all persuasions have used political appointments to ensure their members and supporters are in place after an election and have a place at the top table. We all recognise now that time has moved on and it is time to remove party politics from the appointment of people to these boards.
The Public Appointments Service and the Commission for Public Service Appointments were created to prevent political patronage and the tactical positioning of friends in public bodies. The commission states its mission is to support a process which upholds the principles of probity, merit, equity and fairness in recruitment and selection. However, this is contradicted and undermined by the non-transparent way in which the boards of such bodies are constituted. In fact, the most transparent method was in recent times when Deputy Bertie Ahern admitted he appointed his own friends to such positions.
This is the reason Fianna Fáil is so resistant to any change and the Green Party’s motion supports the absence of probity, merit, equity and fairness in appointments to boards. This is a motion of inaction and not action, a piece of coalition bonding. Even the text of the motion suggests there has been interference. It asks us to recognise those who are and have been appointed to such bodies have done so with commitment and the following of principles of strong public service. The semantic non-sense of this phrase betrays the nonsense it appears to be articulating, namely, that appointees were selected on the basis of their commitment to public service. This is plainly not true, as Deputy Bertie Ahern himself has admitted. Senator Walsh said that people should be appointed on the basis of ability, capacity and skills but to date, there is no firm evidence that this has been the case.
Reform of the system is needed and has never been more timely. The Government is to set up the national asset management agency which will have the responsibility of buying up loans and property developments of up to €100 billion or perhaps less, as some Senators have argued. I do not wish to argue about the actual amount. It is clear we need to ensure appointments to and the operation of that agency must be completely transparent. We cannot afford to have this agency stuffed with friends of Fianna Fáil. It cannot be a place to put Cairde Fáil members. It has to be fully independent and non-political. It must serve the interests of the public and not the interests of the Galway tent or, as it is now, the Leopardstown tent. We all know the Galway tent has not disappeared; it has just moved 100 miles down the road. If the Green Party Members are serious about their motion, they will fight for the new agency to be put on a proper footing to ensure it is non-partisan and non-political and serves the public interest.
While I listened to Senator Boyle’s contribution and I appreciate the arguments he made, the motion is too watered down and therefore we will be voting against it and with the Fine Gael amendment.
Senator John Hanafin: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. There is no doubt he has given considerable time to this House on many occasions in recent months and it is to his credit.
This motion is about appointments to State agencies and public bodies. There is no doubt that State agencies have served us very well. From the very outset, the Cumann na nGaedhal Government set up the Shannon scheme in 1925 which subsequently became the ESB. At a time in the 1930s when there were not opportunities in the business world and when the Great Depression had hit, the Irish State established a number of companies, including Bord na Móna, the Irish Sugar Company, Irish Shipping, Aer Lingus, with the result that a significant number of State companies were involved in the economy. Across all sectors by and large, although there are always exceptions, the people who served on these boards served the State and those companies well. For instance, ESB is now a major national company.
By and large and despite the shadows that have been cast about political appointments, no matter who was in Government and despite that others may have appointed the directors from a particular business section of their political party, these appointees served the State first. This is a feature of the public service. I am conscious of the need for reform of the public service. During the good days we ensured the money was spent in Ireland. The national debt was very low, our tax wedge was exceptionally low and we put money aside in the National Treasury Management Agency but we also provided jobs for people in the public service. It sometimes disappoints me to see how easily people take a swipe at the public service.
France has a large public service and does not have the same banking crisis as the British have. It is possible to see that State intervention and the involvement of the State in agencies can be a good thing with some balance. More important and perhaps even against the tide, it is time to remind ourselves how well the public service has served the country. The gains to date would not have been made without the Ken Whitakers of this world and the sacrifice of public servants throughout the years. In earlier days the terms and conditions were only a fraction of what they are now. There has been consistent development and growth.
I question how far we can go with the procedures in place. Let us consider when someone is going through what is supposedly an independent process to determine whether there should be appointments to a State board by a Minister. There are valid reasons a Minister would seek appointments to a State board no matter who is in power. This is because those appointed by another party previously in power will serve the Minister well. We have seen something of a circus in other countries where people were questioned about events that occurred 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They may be completely different people now but were still not allowed to take up the position applied for or the position they were asked to take up. There were three candidates for the position of Secretary of State for the Treasury in the United States of America who were not appointed because of various findings of committees. Who guards the guardians? Who decides who should be on the committee to decide who sits on a State board? Before we throw out everything that took place in the past and elect for sweeping reform we would be well advised to take incremental steps.
There have been suggestions that the Seanad with a universal franchise would be an ideal place to vet appointments. I am especially against a universal franchise for the Seanad. This is not because I have no wish to stand for election. I have already done so, I was elected to a council and I would not fear it in any way. However, given a universal franchise for the Seanad with 60 Members as opposed to the Dáil with 166 Members, there would be of necessity a higher quota to be elected. There may be nothing to stop someone from the Seanad who may have been elected with 40,000 votes from telling the Taoiseach with his great vote of 20,000 — perhaps twice the quota — that there is no reason he should not deal with financial matters and that he has the mandate to do so.
We should work things out very carefully and slowly and take incremental steps as necessary while recognising the way the State has been served in the past. It is also a good benchmark for us. If the economy had turned as bad as some people had feared, there would always have been the option to start again as we did in the 1920s with State boards providing jobs for people. In a sense it is a comfort to know that if world economies ever again fell into a depression, we have the template for the way out of the problem through these boards. Many people have served with distinction and some may have had very strong connections with different parties, including those of Fine Gael and the Irish Sugar Company. Let us be careful.
I refer to the duty of directors, including fiduciary and corporate governance duties, which are becoming more important. I further refer to the question of whether directors should serve on cross-directorships. Such questions would need to be closely examined as well as the question of a person serving as chief executive and chairman at the same time. We must ensure the highest standards are always maintained and that we move with the times. Many people in the State would regard it a singular honour to serve on a State board. For those who do so, in many cases it is not for the money. Such people serve the State in many other ways and bring years of experience to bear with a full interest in the company and in the State.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Given the motion before the House one wonders whether the Green Party is in Government. It does not seem to have any input into reform and it is looking for ideas from other parties. We are quite willing to provide those. We have put forward our own ideas in the Public Appointments and Transparency Bill and the Green Party would do well to adopt it. That would solve many of the problems. We suggest the chief executive or chairperson should appear before the relevant Oireachtas committee to be questioned regarding his or her capability. That would be fair and would give more meaning to Oireachtas committees. Others suggest this could be done by the Seanad and perhaps this could take place in the context of Seanad reform. That said, I have no problem whatsoever with Ministers appointing directors, provided they are people of high calibre, well versed on the functions of the board.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, had an embarrassing situation in which he appointed a councillor to a board. Since councillors were precluded from sitting on a board he had to remove the person following the initial appointment. I believe that councillor was eminently qualified to be on the board in question. However, because he was a member of a local authority he was precluded from doing so.
In Bills before this House, local authority members may as well be treated as criminals because they are excluded from membership of boards in every case. If people are well qualified with an interest in a given area, they should not be excluded. I do not imply local authority members should be on boards by right. However, if they are people of good calibre they should not be excluded and should be allowed to sit on boards.
I have seen such exclusion in Bills before the House dealing with, for example, Aer Lingus and the Harbours (Amendment) Bill was the most recent example. In that case, local authority members have been removed from the boards on which they have served and of which they have been throughout the years and since the formation of the port companies the best attenders and, possibly, in many instances the best contributors. However, simply because such people are members of local authorities they have been removed from the boards. I question this policy.
Senators Butler and Walsh spoke in the same vein, but when it came to the crunch and to voting on whether to retain local authority members on boards, they voted against the retention in line with their party and for the Bills in question. Obviously, they did not have sufficient influence within their parties to keep local authority members on the boards. I challenge the Fianna Fáil Members in this regard that if they believe local authority members should be on boards, let them bring proposals to that effect to the House and we will support them. However, upon scrutiny, their record is in question regarding the way they have voted on the question.
Senator MacSharry’s contribution was interesting. He practically stated that there was a cosy cartel whereby unions and employers had their representatives on various boards and that there was a duplication of membership on a number of boards. These are facts. There should not be such duplication and the social partners should not have so great a hold on the positions in question. I have no problem with a Minister appointing people of the highest calibre who have an interest in the boards to which they have been appointed, but the chairman and chief executive should come under greater Oireachtas scrutiny via committee or the Seanad.
Young, enthusiastic and energetic people must be placed on the boards, many of which need to be freshened up. There is no doubt that Ministers of every political ilk have appointed their supporters. I have no problem with that provided the supporters are qualified to sit on the boards. As I have often stated, I am perturbed by calls in the House for the exclusion from boards of local authority members. I do not know why the Civil Service seems to want to exclude them, but I would hope the Government would agree that there is no reason for a Minister not to choose them if they are eminently qualified. I gave a specific example of an eminent local council member who, after being appointed by the Minister and despite being qualified to sit on the board, was removed from it.
I look forward to the Government’s proposals. My party’s Public Appointments Transparency Bill 2008 should be examined in detail. The Government has asked this side of the House for ideas on many matters and we have risen to the challenge, be it in terms of the Bill, our own budget or other measures. We have not been found lacking when debating or proposing ideas, but I hope they will be better received than our previous suggestions have been, especially those on the economy. The country could have been in a better position as a result. Ideas are grand when they suit the other side. When they do not, the Government tells us that it will run everything its own way. I am sceptical of this motion and I hope that the Green Party will accept our amendment, which would fit the motion well. The Green Party looked for ideas and we supplied them. We have even drafted a Bill to which Green Party Members can table amendments if they wish. We on this side of the House have not shirked our responsibilities and we never will.
Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. I congratulate Senators Boyle and de Búrca on tabling the motion, as it provides the House with an opportunity to discuss an important matter. However, I will support the Fine Gael amendment.
This discussion is timely, given that the economy is going down the tubes. There must be reform, not only of the Seanad but of the Civil Service. I agree with several Senators and would see no problem with placing the appointments of chief executives and chairmen of State boards before the Seanad or one of its sub-committees. This good idea would, as Senator Hannigan stated, enhance the Seanad and make us accountable for our actions to the public, given that we would need to stand over the decisions of the House.
I agree with Senator Cummins and others concerning the drafting and passage of legislation that prohibits local authority members from being on State boards. For the life of me, I do not know why local authority members would be prohibited, given their vast experience and different backgrounds in all aspects of society and their election by and accountability to the people. It is not necessarily that they would want to be on those boards, but the legislation prohibits them from doing so. Some time ago, a motion was passed in the House to ensure future legislation would not contain such a prohibitionary measure. However, such a measure has often been before the House.
Pat Kenny, the presenter of the “Late Late Show” and his own radio show, issued the far side of the House with the ultimate insult. On this side, there are barristers, stockbrokers, bankers, doctors, nurses, lecturers, business people, teachers and trade unionists. We have different personalities and backgrounds and the highest level of education. I am sure those on the far side of the House are just as qualified. On Mr. Kenny’s “Late Late Show” and radio programme, he stated that two Senators on the Government side should resign and be replaced by Taoiseach’s appointees who could be drafted into the Government to help in rectifying our economic problems. This and the fact that others have suggested the necessity of a national Government led me to believe that the Government has failed. It is an insult to Members of the House, especially those on the Government side. Mr. Kenny should withdraw his comments because both sides comprise highly qualified people. While I understand his argument, the Taoiseach could find two highly qualified people on the far side to appoint to the Government if he so desired.
There are 1,000 quangos. The debate on the national airwaves would give one the impression that the people want to abolish Seanad Éireann or Dáil Éireann before any of the quangos. This is because ministerial responsibility is lacking and Ministers are hiding behind some of the aforementioned quangos such as the Health Service Executive or the National Roads Authority. As for the taxi regulator, problems exist in respect of taxis in every city nationwide. On “Prime Time”, Katie Hannon reported that one quango that was due for abolition by a Minister is costing €9 million per year to run and employs 90 people. While it was due either for abolition or assimilation into another section of the relevant Department, that has not taken place.
However in the late 1980s, Ray MacSharry as Minister for Finance and his ministerial colleague, Pádraig Flynn, got rid of committees themselves. They did not wait for the recommendations of an bord snip or the Commission on Taxation to hide behind before doing what they were obliged to do. Ministerial responsibility is lacking, which is the reason so many quangos exist at present and Ministers are not making the decisions that should be made. I do not doubt that the requisite experience and qualifications exist within the various Departments of the Civil Service to make such decisions and there is no need for many such quangos. Reference was made to the existence of three tourism boards in Ireland and I question the need for them. I cannot discern a reason for three such boards as I understand that tourism has fallen by 11% at present.
I congratulate the Green Party on providing Members with the opportunity to debate this issue. I will support Fine Gael’s amendment to the motion and hope that even at this late stage, Senator Boyle will take it on board.
Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Martin Mansergh): I am pleased to be here today to have this opportunity to discuss the ongoing review of State agencies being carried out by the Government. As Members will be speaking on the budget tomorrow, I do not propose to discuss it now except where relevant to this debate. I thank Senators Boyle and de Búrca for raising this important topic which is under active consideration and forms part of the Green Party’s contribution to improving the governance of this country. Perhaps Senator Boyle and I can share a small piece of the credit for the revised numbers of Ministers of State that will come into effect in a few weeks’ time.
The value of the Seanad is enhanced when a more dispassionate and less relentlessly political approach is adopted. That is or should be a distinctive feature of its proceedings. I note, in idle mental calculation, that one fifth of the Seanad’s membership has contributed to this evening’s debate.
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Minister of State should stay on because no one will come into the House if he goes.
Deputy Martin Mansergh: One fifth is quite a lot. Since the foundation of the State, public bodies, State agencies, State-sponsored bodies and semi-State bodies, however described, have made a tremendous and indispensable contribution to our national development. Within a year of independence, the first agencies had been established, among them, the Irish Film Censor’s Office, with the support of, I am sure, a majority in the Free State Senate and with James Montgomery at its head. In 1923, imminent dangers to the moral fibre of our people took precedence even over material needs. While it still is there 85 years later, what Lemass called “the green curtain” has been lifted and now it is called the Irish Film Classification Office and operates without censoriousness. The continuing importance of agencies in our public service was highlighted as recently as yesterday when the Minister for Finance announced the establishment of a national asset management agency under the aegis of the National Treasury Management Agency to address the issue of asset quality in the banking system which is at the centre of debate in the budget, of which more tomorrow.
In the early years, there was recognition by the State that the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924 did not provide enough flexibility for the performance of certain functions by the State. The 1920s and 1930s saw the establishment of very important bodies such as the ESB, Aer Lingus, Aer Rianta and Bord na Móna, to name but a few, which have contributed greatly to national development. These bodies established a model that was replicated over the following decades. In the non-commercial field, State agencies have contributed to industrial and agricultural development and promotion, the provision of services, the regulation of economic and professional activities, research, education and training, the promotion of employment, as well as our cultural, artistic and sporting life.
I am a strong supporter of the independence of, for example, the Arts Council. It is not appropriate for Ministers to become too involved in deciding which artist, drama company or whatever should or should not be supported and there is a case in certain instances for a certain arm’s length relationship. Unlike many Members of all parties in both Houses, I am a great admirer of the professionalism and efficiency of the National Roads Authority, even if I occasionally have had disagreements with it on particular points.
Unlike in some other jurisdictions, State bodies in Ireland have largely been established for practical rather than ideological reasons. A particular need was identified and an organisation was established or taken into State ownership to deal with it. Agencies have been established as a pragmatic and flexible response for provision of support to the Government and services to the public. However, this approach has not always been characterised by sufficient coherence. Freedom from Civil Service constraints, while necessary and desirable in many respects, has nevertheless led to a wide variety of agency forms. Since the early 1990s, as the business of Government has expanded, so too has the number of agencies.
I have never shared the view of some commentators who habitually characterise agencies as bloated and inefficient, probably as a means to appeal to newspapers’ readerships. While the reform of State agencies is necessary, one also should recognise the important contribution that such agencies have made to the country and national life and should acknowledge the hard work of their dedicated staff. The Green Party motion recognises the commitment and ethos of strong public service displayed by those who have served and continue to serve on State boards. A strong public service ethos has been one of the striking features of State agencies down the decades and the Government values their contribution.
As someone who has been a public servant for some three and a half decades, as a permanent civil servant, a special adviser and latterly as an elected Member of this House and then the other House and now as an officeholder, recently resigned but with delayed effect, I consider that by and large, the public service has served this country exceptionally well, with loyalty, ability and integrity and has made a major contribution to major national achievements, such as the peace process, Ireland’s successful membership of the European Union, and the exceptional economic and social progress that characterised the past 20 years, even if that has been abruptly brought short for the moment.
On the other hand, I also am conscious of the type of considered critique that was made in Ronan Fanning’s history of the Department of Finance and in Ireland 1912-1985, which was written by former distinguished Senator and historian, Professor Joe Lee, and that such critiques undoubtedly also could be made today. The present challenge for our public service is to contribute to charting a way out of our current economic difficulties, which it is doing, as I have had many opportunities to observe. We have been through dark times in the past and have come through them and we will do so again.
Since the launch of the strategic management initiative approximately 15 years ago, there has been significant progress in the ongoing modernisation programme of the public service. There has been improvement in areas such as the delivery of quality customer services, regulatory reform, financial management and human resource management. Implementation of the modernisation agenda has been underpinned by the various partnership agreements across the public service. I consider that, notwithstanding present crises and difficulties, social partnership has an important future role to play.
No organisation, public or private, can afford to stand still and many more changes are both awaited and needed. In 2006, the Government turned to the OECD and asked it to undertake a comprehensive review of the public service. What the Government wanted the OECD to do was to examine how its priorities and decisions are translated into services and outcomes for citizens and how these processes can be improved. While much change has taken place, there is a need to ensure delivery on the ground. The OECD review was intended to highlight what was working and what was not, and help the Government make better informed choices about where to allocate resources. Put simply, the Government wanted to know how the decisions it is making in Cabinet are translating into services for the citizen and how this process can be improved. Where things are not working properly, the Government wanted to know.
In general, the OECD gave the Irish public service a clean bill of health. As part of its review the OECD carried out a study of State agencies. It found the agencies gave the Irish public service additional capacity and flexibility to deliver services during a time of major growth in public spending and increased citizen expectations. However, the OECD believed that, when compared with international experiences, we may have set out to achieve too much. There is a need for an improved governance and performance dialogue to address what it described as the current disconnects between the central Civil Service and the broader public service. It notes that there are neither formal nor informal criteria for establishing agencies in Ireland, either at the national or local level. The opportunity should now be taken to rethink the agency system to take better advantage of this organisational form. The Government supports the need to take a hard look at the approach to agencies, why and how they are set up and the proper reporting relationships with parent Departments.
The Government responded to the OECD review by establishing a task force to prepare a comprehensive framework for renewal of the public service. It was asked to recommend an appropriate framework for the establishment, operation and governance of State agencies.
In the budget last autumn the Minister for Finance announced a process for the rationalisation of State agencies and the decision to proceed with 30 rationalisation proposals that will reduce the number of bodies by 41. To date, nine of the proposals announced have been completed with a further eight targeted for completion in 2009. This is only a first step. To this end, the terms of reference of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes is required to examine and make recommendations for further rationalisation and report by the end of June 2009. Without going into detail, a process is under way and a Cabinet sub-committee is examining this. As Senator Boyle stated, this is under active review and in gestation. Various comments made by Senators in this debate must be taken into account.
Currently, the arrangements for appointments to the boards of State bodies are normally set out in the legislation establishing the bodies in question and are aimed at ensuring the efficient management of the organisation. Appointments to the boards are generally made by the Minister with responsibility for the body in question, subject to the consent of the Minister for Finance. In making appointments, Ministers seek to ensure the people appointed bring a diverse range of relevant skills and experience to the body. The decisions are approached in a conscientious manner, following consultation, and usually take time.
The ministerial freedom to make appointments is not unfettered. They must take account of any specific legislative requirements that exist, such as requirements to appoint worker directors or representatives of nominating bodies, and of relevant Government policies, such as the policy on gender balance on State boards considered by Senator de Búrca. I am in agreement with her and the reasonably long-standing policy of 40% should be implemented. Where appropriate, Ministers also consider representation from the different strands of society such as the business community, consumers, trade unions, the other social partners, or other stakeholders depending on the nature of the agency.
State agencies in most cases exist to execute Government policy with a delegated power to make more detailed decisions and policy choices or to act in an advisory or consultative capacity. Subject to legislative requirements, Ministers will generally seek out people willing to work in harmony with the objectives, both statutory and policy, that have been set out. In many cases, Ministers have a Civil Service representative on the board. Many of the appointments are of people who are not primarily political at all but who have a reputation in the field in question. Sometimes figures associated with Opposition parties, like a former Fine Gael Leader of the Seanad who was chosen as first head of the Irish Human Rights Commission, are appointed. To be fair to Fine Gael, a former Fianna Fáil Cathaoirleach was reappointed by a Minister to the board of a State company.
There have been arguments about the element of patronage. All parties in a coalition are involved in the nomination process, not necessarily to a particular body, but overall. There has undoubtedly been some disquiet from time to time over whether a particular individual is the best qualified for the job but the vast majority of appointments are not the subject of criticism, unless something subsequently goes badly wrong, which has been the exception. Some of the criticisms would apply with at least equal force to non-executive nominees to private companies where there have been many problems in certain instances in recent times. It is important to state that involvement in our democratic political life should not be regarded as a disqualification. Most people, even with strong political backgrounds, will try to serve to the very best of their ability in a non-partisan and public-spirited manner.
While the current arrangements have worked reasonably well, I recognise the need to examine how best such appointments can be made in the future. Senator Boyle detailed the procedures adopted by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in the Broadcasting Bill 2008.
The political vetting of appointees by Oireachtas committees, as proposed in a Private Members’ Bill by Deputy Leo Varadkar and reflected in the Fine Gael amendment to the motion, was not pressed by the Deputy’s party in the Dáil. It would be akin to the American confirmation system. It would require further consideration as it might tend to politicise such appointments and deter suitable candidates. The notion that all appointees, which could run to several thousand, could be overseen by the Seanad or either House is not feasible. There would be far too many and it would clog up the system. The issue of chairpersons and chief executives is a more limited proposal.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to take part in this debate. The report of the task force highlights the need review the governance arrangements for our State boards. We should recognise that we are fortunate in this country to have a strong tradition of public service where people of proven ability are prepared to give the very best of their talents, experience and energy for relatively modest reward to lead State agencies and account for their stewardship in these demanding roles. Any reforms should try to enhance that ethos.
Senator Dan Boyle: I thank the Members who contributed and the Minister of State for his contribution. That 11 Members contributed to this debate in the limited time for Private Members’ business shows the degree of interest in the subject. I and Senator de Búrca are grateful that such an interest is taken.
Some who contributed misunderstood the spirit in which the motion was tabled in pointing out our role as a party in government. It would have been easy for Senator de Búrca and I to be very prescriptive and to divide the House on a particular basis. It would have been churlish of me to point out that I was the first Member of the Oireachtas to publish legislation in this area with the Appointments to Public Bodies Bill in the other House. We wished to point out that a process is ongoing and will come to a conclusion very soon. It is in the interests of this House to inform that process. Several speakers referred to the important role this House can play. One of the purposes of the debate is to work with the Seanad reform group to make specific proposals on how a reformed Seanad may operate in this way in future.
Several methods have been suggested for providing greater scrutiny in the public appointment process and while those alternatives are out there and in need of further scrutiny, a vote would not be of service. I ask that the amendment be withdrawn on that basis. Rather than inform the wider process, it seeks to put forward the singular view of a particular party, which does not help initially, however valid many of the ideas in the amendment might be. I make that appeal before the House is asked to divide on the matter.
Senator Maurice Cummins: It is an amendment which can be amended.
Senator Dan Boyle: I ask that this be considered, particularly with the Seanad reform group due to report on recommendations of this type in the very near future.
I was particularly disappointed with some of the other contributors who obviously did not hear my opening comments in this debate and the way I was trying to frame it. The spirit of most of the debate was welcoming to what was being achieved and I hope we will leave the discussion on that basis.
There are two subsequent points to cover. One concerns the role of local authority members, which I know, given the method of election of the majority of Members in this House, comes up for regular consideration. I am agnostic on the question of whether there should be specified within individual pieces of legislation a set number of local authority members or none for particular State bodies and agencies.
Senator Maurice Cummins: We just ask that they should not be excluded.
Senator Dan Boyle: That is the question which has been raised. One consideration that needs to be borne in mind is that, while involving people in State bodies and public agencies, we try to make the process as diverse as possible. This is one of the reasons there is, unfortunately, specification regarding local authority members. Just as there was an ongoing debate concerning dual membership of the Houses of the Oireachtas and local authorities, there is a degree of cross-over with public bodies that are regionally and locally based that should not be interfered with. The maximum involvement of individual citizens would help that process. At the same time, if there are people of ability and experience who are members of a local authority, that should not necessarily be a disqualifying factor.
The other issues concern more current events and the ongoing nature of particular agencies. There will be another debate in this House and the other House when recommendations are made by an bord snip nua regarding rationalisation and the existence of particular boards. The Minister of State has indicated how this is progressing. Such comments and recommendations should await that further debate.
Taking into account the order today, I will bring the debate to a conclusion. I ask that, having had the opportunity for this debate, the House would return to it at another time and support the motion as presented.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 28.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||McCarthy, Michael.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Regan, Eugene.|
|Ryan, Brendan.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callanan, Peter.|
|Callely, Ivor.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Daly, Mark.|
|de Búrca, Déirdre.||Ellis, John.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Leyden, Terry.||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.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Liam Twomey; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
Motion put and agreed to.
An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?
Senator Donie Cassidy: At 10 a.m. tomorrow.
An Cathaoirleach: Members should take note of the earlier start time for tomorrow’s proceedings.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: Baineann an rún seo le scéim na mbóithre áise, scéim atá ar fáil agus maoinithe ón Roinn Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta agus a bhaineann le bóithre áise, bóithre a théann go minic isteach go dtí tithe agus feirmeacha i gceantair Ghaeltachta. Sa bhliain 2008, cheadaigh an tAire Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta, an Teachta Éamon Ó Cuív, €283,181 do Chomhairle Contae Dhún na nGall chun obair a dhéanamh faoi scéim na mbóithre seo i nGaeltacht Dhún na nGall. Ach ar an drochuair, níl tús curtha leis an obair sin go fóill.
In May 2008, everyone welcomed the decision of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to allocate €283,181 to Donegal under scéim na mbóithre áise, or the accommodation roads scheme. The latter is similar in purpose to the local improvement scheme, LIS, under which money is allocated on the expectation that the work will be carried out by the local authority — in this case Donegal County Council — based on the fact that authority would have prepared costings in respect of the roads to be repaired. Some of those costings may date back to 2000 or 2001. In the case to which I refer, the anomaly arises because the local authority is arguing that the costings are so out of date in certain instances that there will be a need to review the position.
A dispute has arisen between Donegal County Council and the Department in respect of this matter and the former is seeking additional funding of €93,000 from the latter to carry out the works. The Department’s officials in Donegal have done an excellent job in re-examining the allocations and arriving at a solution whereby new tenders will be submitted in respect of the 29 roads on which works are due to be carried out. Under the proposal put forward by the officials, private contractors would be allowed to submit tenders. If the council is not prepared to carry out the works based on the moneys allocated — I accept that some of the costings may have been out of date — private contractors should be allowed to do so.
The Department’s officials have recommended that the Minister should approve the proposal to invite new tenders in respect of the road projects to which I refer. I am seeking a commitment from the Minister that he will consider this proposal in the coming weeks. Money was allocated in respect of the schemes relating to the 29 roads to which I refer in May 2008. The householders and farmers who live adjacent to these roads are waiting for the works to be carried out. Those works should be carried out before the onset of winter.
I appreciate that in the current economic climate, it would be difficult to sanction the provision of additional funding. However, that funding was committed in 2008 and there should not be a difficulty. All we ask is that the department locally be allowed to proceed with seeking tenders so that the work could commence. The tenders coming in may be less than the allocation of €283,181 but given the economic climate and the decrease in construction costs, this could be a case for value for money. I hope the Minister can sanction approval in this regard. I look forward to his reply.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Deputy Seán Haughey): I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív. I thank the Seanadóir for raising this matter.
In 2008, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs sanctioned a programme of works to the value of €283,181 for Donegal County Council. The county council informed the Department that there would be additional costs of €91,841 to complete the works on 20 of those roads. The reasons given were the increases in the cost of materials and labour, and that the standard of the roads had deteriorated since the estimates on which the grants were based were originally carried out.
The significant increase to the works programme is a matter of concern to the Minister’s Department, and his officials are currently examining the case. As the Senator will understand, when spending public moneys it is essential to ensure we get the best value possible.
Other relevant circumstances must be taken into account when decisions are being made on the provision of monetary support such as outstanding commitments, annual budgets and the allocations for the following years.
The economic circumstances of the State have changed greatly in the past year, and therefore the Senator will understand that a final decision cannot be made in this case until the allocations for this year have been carefully examined by the Department. The Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, expects this will be done shortly. I thank the Senator for raising the matter.
Senator Ciaran Cannon: I welcome the Minister of State. Much progress is being made on the ongoing issue of the provision of second level education in Kinvara, in south Galway. On behalf of the community of Kinvara and its hinterland, I thank the Minister, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, and his predecessor, Deputy Hanafin, for their input in ensuring we retain the high standard of second level education that is provided in Kinvara.
Last month the Minister, Deputy O’Keeffe, informed us that his Department had reached an agreement in principle regarding the leasing of the current Seamount College from the Mercy trustees. That would be seen as an interim measure with a view to being able to provide a new co-educational facility on lands in Kinvara to serve Kinvara and the people of south Galway. That is a most welcome development in that it provides an interim solution for what is effectively a long-term problem. I hope that in the interim, while that leasing arrangement is in place, the Department will continue to actively seek and acquire a site for a new school in Kinvara.
The issue that concerns those people in Kinvara who have been at the helm of this campaign for many years is the need for more information on that leasing arrangement. The Department commissioned a report which produced the following information in January 2008. The report concluded that a co-educational post-primary school to serve approximately 800 students should be provided in the northern environs of Kinvara and that this school should cater for Kinvara and its catchment area.
It is my hope that the leasing arrangement in place will in time allow for such a co-educational facility to be provided, initially on the grounds Seamount College currently occupies and eventually in a new, purpose built school in Kinvara to serve that area and its hinterland. I look forward to the Minister’s response and thank him again for attending.
Deputy Seán Haughey: I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Government’s strategy for capital investment in education projects and also to outline the current position regarding Seamount College, Kinvara, County Galway.
Modernising facilities in the existing building stock as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge and one the Minister intends will be one of his priorities as Minister for Education and Science.
This Government has significantly increased investment in the school building programme in recent years. That reflects the Government’s commitment to continue its programme of sustained investment in primary and post-primary schools. That investment provides for the delivery of additional school places in rapidly developing areas while also continuing to develop on the Government’s commitment to delivering improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary accommodation throughout the country.
Turning to the specific matter in hand, as the Senator is aware, the trustees have agreed in principle to lease the school to the Department subject to a number of conditions to be considered in the context of drafting the legal arrangements. I take this opportunity to thank the trustees for agreeing to lease the school. It is a significant measure of the trustees’ commitment to facilitating educational provision in the area. Due to legal sensitivities it is not appropriate for me to comment further on this issue at this time.
Officials are awaiting further documentation from the order, which is expected very soon. When this is received, Department officials will engage with the Chief State Solicitor’s office to commence the legal process with a view to ensuring that a lease will come into effect after the existing school’s closure.
In that regard, the issue of a co-educational model will be discussed by the Department in the coming months in consultation with the education partners.
I thank the Senator again for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position regarding Seamount College, Kinvara, County Galway.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this important matter of the transfer of the breast cancer treatment unit from the South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital to Cork University Hospital. This is my second time to raise this matter on the Adjournment. If we support the principles of the national cancer strategy, the breast care unit of the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital should remain on that site. It is a specialised centre. It is a centre of excellence that has diagnosed and treated over many years the necessary high caseload requirement to create exceptional expertise in site-specific cancer. In 2008, the excellent staff in the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital diagnosed 290 new primary breast cancer cases.
The co-located BreastCheck diagnosed 122 new primary breast cancer cases, all of which were treated at the South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital, bringing the total treated to 412. In comparison, Cork University Hospital diagnosed and treated 141 new primary breast cancers.
It is frightening that retired surgeon Mr. John Kelly was forced to state at a public meeting that “if he were a woman he would be very concerned about the transfer in its current format”. It is frightening also that a leading breast surgeon, Mr. Denis Richardson, referred to the decision to transfer “as a political decision, not a medical one” in the Irish Examiner in March of this year. Why are we not listening to the clinicians involved? Do women’s lives mean so little that we can glibly enforce a decision politically that destroys a breast care unit in the region?
We must look to the national cancer strategy and the network of hospitals. Networking is possible in Dublin. The Minister’s argument that this is based on encouraging academic pursuit is spurious. The fact remains that in Cork, if the political will exists, the networking of Cork University Hospital with South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital is advisable, feasible and is the only safe way to protect patient care. This is not about doctors or political bases or power struggles, it is about the lives of patients and their families. There are different rules for different parts of the country. Why is Cork different? Misdiagnosis, early diagnosis and detection are critical words in many women’s lives in the city and county.
The last time I raised this issue in the Seanad, I received in reply descriptive comments and vague answers that did not address a single question I asked. It was stated by the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, that the relocation of the South Infirmary breast disease service to Cork University Hospital would create a critical mass of specialists of all oncology disciplines on a single site. That is not the case at all. In Cork we already have a critical mass of specialists of all oncology disciplines on a single site — South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital. We can argue about radiation oncology and pathology but the bottom line is that we must rethink the implementation programme for the national cancer strategy in the context of creating centres of excellence. There is already a centre of excellence. Not all of the eight designated centres have radiation oncology or pathology. If pathology can occur on-site, someone should inform the National Cancer Institute in Washington to cancel the current largest ever worldwide breast pathology trial, the TAILORx trial. It is not too late to save €5 million of taxpayers’ money that will destroy an excellent service. We can stay on the present site.
The last time I raised this issue, I did not get the promised reply from the Department. This is not just about politics or power bases, it is about women’s lives. We have built the centre of excellence and if we are to treat people properly and with dignity, why are we dismantling it?  That fundamental question remains to be answered, as do questions about the cost factor. We can save more than €5 million by stopping the transfer. Other figures are worth bearing in mind, particularly those for diagnosis and detection in South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital in comparison with Cork University Hospital.
Why are we not listening to the clinicians involved? Do women’s lives mean so little we can glibly enforce a decision that destroys an excellent breast care unit in the area and move it to Cork University Hospital? I appeal to the Minister of State to answer these questions and tell me the Minister will return to consult those involved.
Deputy Seán Haughey: I welcome the opportunity to set out the current position on the restructuring of cancer services, and in particular the transfer of cancer services from South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital to Cork University Hospital.
Senators may recall that the issue of the transfer of cancer services from SIVUH was discussed in the Seanad last October. In that debate, Deputy John Moloney outlined the rationale and objectives of the restructuring of cancer services under the national cancer control strategy. The goals of the programme are better cancer prevention, detection and survival through a national service based on evidence and best practice for all cancers. Although Ireland’s cancer survival rates have been increasing faster than most other countries, they are still lower than those in other OECD countries and we must focus on improving them.
There is a strong link between improved cancer outcomes and high levels of hospital activity. This means we must move away from fragmentation in cancer care to create a cancer care system that is consistent with international best practice in cancer control. The national cancer control strategy was clear that to achieve this, there should be eight cancer centres in Ireland, each serving a population of around 500,000.
Following on from the strategy, as many people will by now be aware, the HSE established the national cancer control programme to implement the strategy and designated eight cancer control centres nationally, within four managed cancer control networks. Four of these hospitals are located in Dublin, to serve the Dublin north-east and Dublin mid-Leinster regions. University Hospital Galway and the Mid-West Regional Hospital, Limerick serve the western region. The southern region is served by Waterford Regional Hospital and Cork University Hospital.
The national cancer control programme, under the directorship of Professor Tom Keane, has been working steadily to accomplish the transfer of cancer services from other hospitals into these eight designated centres. Much media and public attention has been focused on breast cancer services, which were the first priority for the cancer programme. This focus on breast cancer has tended to make us forget about the restructuring of services for other cancers and it is perhaps worth remembering that the designated cancer centres are not only breast cancer centres, they will need to deal with other complex and difficult cancers also.
However, as the debate is about breast cancer services specifically and about the transfer of these services from SIVUH, I will concentrate on this issue now. Compliance by hospitals with the national quality assurance standards for symptomatic breast disease is important in improving the quality of care in Ireland for women with symptomatic breast disease. To comply with the standards, 17 hospitals, including Mercy University Hospital in Cork, were directed by the HSE in September 2007 to cease breast cancer services. Further reductions in the number of hospitals providing symptomatic breast disease services have since taken place in line with the transfer of services to the eight designated cancer centres nationally. By the end of this year, breast cancer services will only be delivered in the eight designated hospitals plus an outreach service in Letterkenny.
In the southern region, the transfer of breast services from South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital to Cork University Hospital remains to be done. This will create a critical mass of specialists of all oncology disciplines on a single geographic site. The national cancer control programme believes that the best interests of the women of Cork and of the southern region will be served by this consolidation.
A high level planning group is in place to facilitate engagement and working arrangements for the transfer of breast cancer services. A parallel programme of work on identification of services suitable for reconfiguration and relocation is being carried out by the office of the southern network manager for the HSE.
In preparation for the transfer from SIVUH, the national cancer control programme has approved a €5 million once-off capital grant to develop the necessary facilities on the Cork University Hospital site. The relocation of services from SIVUH must await the completion of this work and is therefore scheduled for September.
The presence of BreastCheck, the national breast screening programme, will significantly reduce the number of symptomatic breast cancer presentations in the southern region. The static screening unit for the region was officially opened by the Minister for Health and Children in December 2007. This unit will remain at SIVUH for the time being following the relocation of symptomatic breast services to CUH. Approximately 12,000 women were screened in the southern region in 2008.
As I have already said, much media and public attention has been focused on breast cancer services, but it is important to remember that the relocation of breast cancer services from SIVUH is part of a much wider restructuring of cancer services with the aim, as I stated, of improving outcomes, including survival. In this regard, the national cancer control programme is this year also focusing on lung cancer and prostate cancer with the aim of improving access to early diagnosis and multidisciplinary decision making for both of these cancers. A key initiative in 2009, therefore, is the establishment of rapid access diagnostic clinics in the designated centres for these cancers. The programme is also focusing this year on the reorganisation of services for pancreatic cancer, for reconstructive surgery for head and neck cancer and for brain tumours and in this regard it has been agreed that there will be a single national programme for the management of brain tumours and other central nervous system tumours across the two sites of Beaumont and Cork University Hospital.
In conclusion, the goals of the national cancer control programme are better cancer prevention, detection and survival through a national service based on evidence and best practice for all cancers, including breast cancer. Under the programme, the Government is therefore committed to the restructuring of cancer services into the designated eight centres, including symptomatic breast disease services. Together with the roll-out of BreastCheck, the national breast screening programme, this will ensure that women will have the best chance for early detection and treatment of breast cancer.
I appreciate that this is not what the Senator wishes to hear but the policy in this regard is now firmly in place. I thank the Senator for raising the matter.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Minister spoke about the relocation of services to create a critical mass of specialists of all disciplines. That is already there, in a single geographical site. The Minister also referred to the eight so-called designated centres of excellence. Not all of them have radiation oncology or pathology services. I cannot understand the logic of this transfer when BreastCheck was built on the same campus as the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital. I am appalled about the €5 million. However, forget about the money. This is about women and giving confidence to patients, and we are not doing that. This is not the Minister of State’s responsibility and I appreciate his attendance in the House to reply on this matter. I hope he does not lose his job next week because, in fairness, he is regularly in the Seanad. However, we must give assurances to women, but we are not doing that.
Deputy Seán Haughey: I will bring the Senator’s comments to the attention of the Minister for Health and Children.
The Seanad adjourned at 7.45 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 9 April 2009.