Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the night-time rural transport service, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 5.15 p.m., with Senators having five minutes to speak, on which Senators may share time by agreement of the House, and the Minister to be called ten minutes from the conclusion of the debate for concluding comments and to take questions from spokespersons or leaders; and No. 2, Multi-Unit Developments Bill 2009 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and not earlier than 5.15 p.m., with spokespersons having 12 minutes to speak, all other Senators seven, and on which Senators may share time by agreement of the House.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that time be given for a debate as to how front-line services in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, have been affected by cutbacks.
This morning I spent a couple of hours in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, as I also did last week. I went there this morning with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, which had a very useful meeting there. However, this raises the question of how budgetary cutbacks are affecting front line services for children. The joint committee heard of a hospital with increased productivity that is dealing with new areas of children’s illnesses and is providing an increased number of services but which will be obliged to make serious cutbacks over the next few weeks and months until the end of 2009. These cutbacks will mean that outpatient services will be cut for thousands of children and that inpatient beds will be denied to children. While Ireland undoubtedly faces an extremely difficult budgetary situation, should not these services be maintained, developed and given the funding they need?
This children’s hospital is a centre of excellence that must delay the treatment of children, which means that Ireland in general and Crumlin hospital in particular are falling behind best international norms for the treatment of children with serious illness. For example, this means that a child with scoliosis could end up waiting for the condition to deteriorate by 20% more than would be the case in other countries before that child will receive the operation he or she needs. Moreover, this applies across the specialties. Urgent treatment is being delayed, which means that as time goes on, it will cost more to deal with such children and there is no system in place to deal with the waiting lists that are developing in this regard.
This House should discuss this most serious situation, as well as discussing the priorities and what matters in Ireland. Members should discuss what services will be maintained as a priority and whether the unique and desperately needed services provided in the children’s hospital will be protected or will face the proposed severe cuts in the next few months that would mean children would not receive the treatment they need in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin. Such a debate should take place in this House today in which all sides should be heard. A strong message should be sent to the Department of Health and Children about the priority that such services should receive.
Senator Joe O’Toole: In recent weeks, I commented in this House about a member of the hierarchy, as I am wont to do. Over the weekend he has taken me to task and has had the audacity to tell me I am wrong in the public newspapers. I have known Bishop John Kirby for the past 30 years and over that time, I always have found him to be an honourable, decent and dependable man. If his record is put up against my recollection of a day, I will concede fully and uninhibitedly to his records of events. I absolutely regret that I caused him embarrassment and apologise for misleading the House on the issue.
Senator Joe O’Toole: This issue was simple and the entire weekend has been a distraction from what really went on. The Government of the day conned the world by not increasing tax through the expedient of calling it a levy.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I objected at the time and spoke in this House on the subject many times. This measure should have been called what it actually was, that is, if it looked like a tax, sounded like a tax and felt like a tax, it was a tax that was payable by everyone. Its description as a levy and the subsequent creation of a difficulty for the Judiciary has caused a problem all round. Someone leaked the information and a distracting debate has taken place. The Government should do the decent thing and make clear that from henceforth, this constitutes a tax. This would take pressure away from everyone, as everybody would be obliged to pay it. Moreover, taxes should never be left up to individuals one way or another. It was disgraceful that this tax was given the misnomer of a levy. It always was a tax, constituted a tax increase, is deducted like a tax and is perceived by the public to be a tax. That would be the easy way to deal with it. I do not wish to listen to Fianna Fáil Members suggesting that a referendum is required to deal with this issue. A one-line Bill is all that is required to the effect that this is a tax rather than a levy and that would finish the problem.
Senator Alex White: I support Senator Fitzgerald’s call for a debate on frontline services. I agree with what she said about Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin. There is an urgent need for a debate on the services that are provided in the wards of this city’s most important children’s hospital. I hope Senator Fitzgerald will allow me to second the amendment she has proposed to today’s Order of Business. The debate is urgently needed.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate in this House, at his earliest possible convenience, on the general issue of child care. Senators will be aware that in the recent supplementary budget, the Minister for Finance indicated the Government intends to introduce a scheme of free child care places throughout the State. That announcement was partly welcome. It is proposed that the scheme will be rolled out over the next year or two. The question of how precisely the scheme will work is the subject of serious uncertainty. Although it may have gone against the grain, I was happy to welcome the principle underpinning the announcement that was made in the recent supplementary budget. I reiterate that my party supports the concept of providing free preschool child care places to children across the State. We need to have clarity about how precisely it will be implemented. Will it be implemented at all? There are many concerns in this regard. Our only concern relates to the need to ensure that an efficient and accessible child care scheme is available to children, through their parents. Many child care providers will be expected to step up to the plate, for example by providing sessional care. They have serious concerns about how this scheme will be implemented. The providers’ concerns relate to the level of the subsidy, for example. One might well say that people who are running businesses will always have a concern about subsidies, and that our job is not to bolster individual businesses. If our objective is to provide child care places, our job is to talk candidly to the providers and listen carefully to what they are saying about whether it will be possible to implement the scheme that was so enthusiastically announced by the Minister for Finance in the supplementary budget. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister of State with responsibility for children to come to the House at some convenient point before the end of this session to debate this matter.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I would like to make a brief preamble before I call for a debate. In line with my ongoing efforts to ensure that the people of the north west can enjoy equitably accessible cancer services, and in light of the revelations contained in the Health Information and Quality Authority’s report on breast cancer services in Waterford, I submitted a freedom of information request to try to get my hands on the interim report on breast cancer services at University College Hospital, Galway, as well as a number of other support documents. I was amazed and flabbergasted to be told that my request had been declined. It is important for me to outline a couple of things. I ask the House to indulge me. I asked for the interim report on the basis that all the cancer needs of the people of the north west are supposed to be catered for at the centre in Galway. I received a letter telling me that no meetings concerning the interim report had taken place between University College Hospital, Galway, and the Health Information and Quality Authority up to the date of my freedom of information request. I found that shocking in the extreme. I was also informed that the hospital and its staff are “endeavouring” and “motivated” to meet the national standards for symptomatic breast disease. I took the use of the words “motivated” and “endeavouring” to mean that, by definition, the hospital is not achieving those standards at the moment. The Health Information and Quality Authority has refused to validate the report on the self-assessment audits that have been carried out at Sligo General Hospital. If it did, it might see that the standards at the hospital are particularly high and that the hospital is therefore in a position to cater for the needs of the north-west region. However, the authority is seeking to transfer services to a hospital that is “endeavouring” and “motivated” to achieve the national standards. As we saw in the memo that was leaked two weeks ago, the management of the hospital in question is not in a position to meet its obligations under the national cancer control programme. In that context, I am calling for two urgent debates. The first debate should relate to the ineptitude of the HSE, which continues to pursue the implementation of the national cancer control programme in an authoritarian and dictatorial manner that discriminates against the people of the north-west region. I also request a debate on the Freedom of Information Act to examine the abuses that are being carried out because this particular response did not come back within the appropriate time. It would take too long to go into all of what it states but it is a basic admission that they were afraid that the information might help me and the people of the north west in the pursuit of equality and as a result I was not given the information.
Senator Ciaran Cannon: I received a telephone call this morning from a friend of mine who is a blocklayer. He has received no offer of work since last September but in recent weeks he was encouraged by the fact that he received calls for quotations from six young couples living in his area who were contemplating building their first home. He was very much encouraged by that and he rang me at the time to say that perhaps the green shoots were finally beginning to emerge in his neck of the woods. However, he called me again this morning to say that he reverted to all these couples with a price and without exception every one of them told him that they had been refused a mortgage by their bank. These are people in relatively safe employment earning significant income to justify their being granted a mortgage but without exception every one of them was refused one.
We now have an economy that is in some kind of cryogenic suspended animation where we, the taxpayers, are pumping thousands of millions of our money into a banking system that simply refuses to allow one solitary cent of that to pass on to the real economy to people like this gentleman who are willing to engage and to get back working if they are given that opportunity.
I again request the Leader to arrange for an urgent debate on banking policy because taxpayers’ money has not bought us one single modicum of influence on day-to-day banking policy. Our money is being used to shore up balance sheets day after day to avert nationalisation, which for a banker would be the most traumatic outcome possible. That is what they are trying to do. They are trying to stop that from happening by making their balance sheets look as healthy as possible. Not one cent of our money is being passed on to the people who, if given the opportunity, would be more than willing and capable of kick-starting this economy.
Senator Camillus Glynn: I recently asked the Leader to arrange for a debate on the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the electoral register. It is timely to have such a debate and for the Minister to be present for it. I have been inundated, as I am sure have other Members, with calls from people whose names failed to be recorded on the register. I reiterate what I said on the previous occasion we discussed this matter, namely, that a lady whose name had been recorded on the register for many years discovered when she went to vote that her name was not recorded on it. Old people take seriously the exercise of their franchise — the casting of their vote. It is time we had a debate on this matter.
While it is not a recommendation in the report, I believe it should be mandatory for people to register to vote. There are many reasons some people do not want to register to vote. Some of those reasons are sinister, tax evasion being one of them. If people do not want their name recorded on the electoral register, what is the reason they do not want it recorded? What are they hiding? It is time this matter was brought centre stage, that we had a debate on it in this House and that definitive proposals were brought froward by the Minister to rectify the situation in regard to the compilation of the electoral register. Successive Governments down the years have tried to rectify this but none of them has been successful. What has continued to happen in this respect is a disgrace. I would welcome such a debate as soon as possible.
Senator Shane Ross: ——on the basis that there is great rejoicing in the kingdom of heaven for the return of repentant sinners, I hope that the Leader will allow us to have a debate on the Lisbon treaty in order that everyone on these benches can revise their position.
Senator Shane Ross: The House will possibly have noticed that last week the credit rating of this country was downgraded in a very serious way by Standard & Poors. One of the results of this was that the euro tumbled steeply on foreign exchange markets. That development was received extraordinarily badly among our European partners. The latter have begun to regard Ireland and its economy and banking system not only as a deadweight in themselves but also as a deadweight on the European Union. We should give serious consideration, at a time when we face economic Armageddon, to whether we have any friends abroad. We should also consider how badly we need them.
It is no coincidence that our breach of Europe’s Stability and Growth Pact has been tolerated for five years. We are dependent on the European Central Bank for continued economic oxygen and, as a result, we need every possible lifeline onto which we can cling. In the circumstances, it would be folly to state we can go it alone without our European friends. It is important that any of us who wish to revise our positions should explain our reasons for doing so to the House. In that context, there should be a debate on this matter as soon as possible.
Senator Eoghan Harris: In times of impending Armageddon, to paraphrase Senator Ross, a society normally turns to its wise old men and women. This morning, therefore, I attended the Lemass International Forum to hear Dr. T. K. Whitaker, who is 93 years old but who remains hale and hearty, impart his wisdom. Dr. Whitaker was reluctant to give any advice to current Governments — the civil servant in him restrains him from doing so — but he stated the most important thing is not to lose jobs. He indicated that people should take pay cuts, work longer hours or whatever but that jobs should not be lost.
I appreciate the difficulties faced by the Government. However, I cannot understand how it, in light of Fianna Fáil’s dominant position, has departed so far from the ideals of Seán Lemass. Professor Tom Garvan has said of Lemass that his central political thesis, endlessly reiterated by him over a long political career, was that the spirit of the public was all-important in a democratic polity and that if public opinion was not with one, one would get nowhere. How can that be reconciled with the soft line the Taoiseach took last night in respect of judges? It may well be, as Senator O’Toole stated, that the cleanest action to take may be to impose a simple and straightforward tax. Nevertheless, there is a moral obligation on members of the Judiciary. If judges do not know that they should take a pay cut in a period of mass public unemployment, what do they know? How can one trust people such as that with the law of the land when they do not know the correct ethical decision to make in respect of themselves?
Senator Eoghan Harris: Will the Leader arrange a debate in the near future on the entrepreneurial culture that was the subject of Dr. Whitaker’s remarks this morning and on the need to stop what the latter referred to as the “miserabilism” within the Department of Finance? Dr. Whitaker also spoke about the Department’s fiscal obsessions and the “inverted Micawberism” it displays by “waiting for something to turn down”. Is it not time we engaged in a debate on entrepreneurial culture? During such a debate we could focus on the point Padraig White, the distinguished former boss of what was then the IDA, made to me at lunch earlier today to the effect that every time 1,000 people go on to the dole it costs the State €20 million and would it not, therefore, be cheaper to spend €15 million on creating employment through the provision of employer subsidies, worker subsidies or whatever. Is it not time we had our third programme for economic expansion, a plan from the Government and a degree of toughness from the Taoiseach in talking to a delinquent class, even if the members of that class are judges?
Senator Eugene Regan: Acceptance of the Lisbon treaty is the prerequisite for getting the economy right. In addition, we must work with our friends in Europe in order to resolve our relationships with them. Our European partners have proven to be our friends in the context of showing economic solidarity in the current crisis. They have also proven to be our friends in respect of how they accommodated the Government on the issues of concern raised during the previous referendum campaign. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on this matter as quickly as possible, and have the Minister here to outline precisely the guarantees which have been received, and say why they have a legal status and how they are enforceable because the “No” side has already said these guarantees are not legally binding. They say the conclusions of the European Council and the agreement of the Heads of State and Government say they are legally binding, and that it is a legal guarantee, but we need to nail this straightaway so assertions are not made in relation to this treaty which go unchallenged and that we do not lose the initiative in this debate.
Senator Ross has made a good point in that there were Senators who raised issues as regards the Lisbon treaty. I do not believe there is any point in going back over this or claiming that people have now seen the light. The reality is that genuine concerns were raised. Those concerns have now been dealt with and we have clarification——
Senator John Hanafin: There is no doubt that in the good times people forget the bad, and vice versa. I am conscious that in the past a development plan and a national plan, even in difficult times, would have placed us very well for the future. I repeat calls made here earlier for a national development plan that would include a comprehensive expenditure programme, albeit which will need to be raised abroad, but which nonetheless will serve us well for when the upturn inevitably comes. This Government has taken brave and decisive action to ensure our finances are in a good state. It has not been politically favourable for the parties involved but notwithstanding that it has been the right thing to do and will stand to those parties again.
I repeat the calls I have made in the past for a two-day debate to allow every political party in the House enunciate how they would make cuts and tax savings, if and when they get into Government. It is an initiative through which the Seanad could serve the State well, by for the first time hearing how the Opposition would deal with the €20 billion deficit.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I note what Senators Regan and Ross had to say about the Lisbon treaty, and they are always eloquent and compelling. I want to put it on the record that whereas some newspapers are numbering people who, allegedly, are going to jump ship into the “Yes” camp, it is certainly not based on anything I said. I shall do what I said I would do all along, namely, look at the guarantees in detail, discuss them with the Minister in person, I hope, in the coming weeks and make a decision for myself on the basis of the issues I have raised, without fear or favour.
I agree with what has been said about the remuneration of judges. It seemed to me all along that notwithstanding the constitutional provision to the effect the remuneration of a judge should not be reduced while he or she is in office, what happened was a strange and overly cautious approach to that provision.
I am glad the issue of Crumlin hospital was raised, and I found what the HSE said last Friday both bizarre and terribly insensitive, when it claimed the non-availability of abortion in Ireland was somehow responsible for delays affecting some operations at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children. This was grossly insensitive. A civilised society, as we all know, is not built on measuring how much it costs to care for those most in need. It is a society that welcomes everyone in life, particularly the vulnerable and the marginalised. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, said in the context of another debate a couple of weeks ago that the care extended rightly to the unborn, as she put it, should also be extended to the born. It would be a testament to our society that, instead of taking the cold, clinical, culling mentality exemplified by the HSE in this statement, we sought to make our country one where people with disabilities of any kind, born or unborn, are at the top of the queue, not at the bottom.
Senator Rónán Mullen: It is interesting to note a very eloquent and tragic piece by Carl O’Brien in The Irish Times where he talks about people in the Leader’s area of Castlepollard who are still stuck in institutional settings, people with intellectual disabilities who should be at the top of the queue in our society but who are, yet again, being placed at the bottom. Shame on those responsible for such a deprioritisation of people.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I raised the issue of St. Peter’s Hospital in Castlepollard on the Adjournment and I am still waiting for the Minister to come back about the staffing of that centre. Senator Mullen is correct that people still live in these appalling situations. It is incumbent on this Government, through the Leader’s good offices, to find out what the story is and when these houses will be open for once and for all.
The Oasis concert last weekend is a major issue and nobody seems to be responsible. The event organisers, the owner of the land, Meath County Council and the Garda have agreed to have a detailed review. Who is responsible for allowing more than 80,000 people in there? At one stage they just opened the gates because the queues were so long. People were terrified out of their wits. A couple of people interviewed on the radio said it reminded them of what it must have been like to have been part of what went on at Hillsborough, the idea of being in a crowd and not being able to go forward or back. Some people were hysterical, drunk and on drugs and there were masses of fights and rows. Who is responsible? They are talking about this detailed review, but that is all very well when the horse has bolted. Who is responsible and what does the licence mean? We should have a debate on that issue.
Senator David Norris: I join Senator Fitzgerald in her call for a debate on Crumlin hospital. I support my colleague, Senator O’Toole, in what he said about the levy — it should be referred to as a tax. I was entertained by the efforts of the Chief Justice to prod his parsimonious colleagues into shelling out a few bob. I have personal experience of the fact that the judicial proboscis is not entirely immune to the lure of the scent of lucre. Colleagues will know that on many occasions in this House I have raised the question of the proliferation of licensing and the fact that every huxter’s shop in Dublin was stuffed to the roof with drink of all kinds. I have pointed out that there were occasions on which the city authorities, local community and police had all objected, and yet the judges gave licences.
I repeated this question on television and said I could not understand what kind of idiots were doing this, I did not know where they lived or who they were, but that they did not live near me or they would not put up with it. It turned out, unfortunately for me, or rather for RTE, that there was only one judge and he took umbrage at this. A solicitor’s letter was received stating that his IQ had been called into question, that he had been described as a common idiot, imbecile or fool, and he sued. It was very difficult to get anybody to go into court against him. One can imagine a judge in a court with a fellow-judge. Not many barristers would be interested in taking that case on. He managed to get €40,000.
Senator David Norris: I warned them I would say it again next week and he took them again for another approximate €40,000. His wife remarked ironically some time later that he should be grateful to the taxpayers for paying for the weddings of two daughters. I was not surprised at the reluctance of their eminences——
Senator Jerry Buttimer: In echoing Senator Harris’s call, it is appropriate that we commemorate Seán Lemass and acknowledge the movement he made in this country. The Government could do likewise and examine how he transformed this country. He would be ashamed and appalled at the policies pursued by former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern and the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, and the legacy they have left to this country. When the rising tide of unemployment is not lifting our country in a proper way and when people are struggling, we need a real debate on job creation.
I concur completely with Senator Harris who quoted Dr. Whitaker speaking this morning. It is better to save one job than to lose a job. Many employers are using the recession to cut jobs and cut people’s wages, which is wrong, and they should be asked to stop doing that. We need a debate on the Government’s policy and its directional roadmap for creating employment. We in Fine Gael have published our document, which has been costed, and I invite Senator Hanafin to peruse it. We need to have a debate on bringing more people back into the workforce and creating meaningful employment, not through the large multinational companies but through the small and medium-sized enterprises.
I also ask for a debate on the role of the banks. Small and medium-sized enterprises and small mortgage holders are being crucified by the banks and are getting no latitude or leeway. The Leader, as a business person, will know what I am talking about. We need that debate urgently. Whatever the Government has done up to now has not worked and people who want to create employment and are giving employment are now being put to the pin of their collars by banks, which much stop.
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