Business of Seanad
Order of Business
Diseases of Animals Act: Motion
Student Support Bill 2008: Committee Stage
Fourteenth Report of Committee of Selection: Motion
Student Support Bill 2008: Committee Stage (Resumed) and Remaining Stages
Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 2.30 p.m.
An Cathaoirleach: I have received notice from Senator Jim Walsh that, on the motion for the Adjournment of the House today, he proposes to raise the following matter:
I regard the matter raised by the Senator as suitable for discussion on the Adjournment and it will be taken at the conclusion of business.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. a1, motion re Diseases of Animals Act, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business, and No. 1, Student Support Bill 2008 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. a1.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: The last week in Irish politics has brought further shame and embarrassment to our political institutions. We have seen very dramatic events since the Seanad last met. We have seen Ministers resign, the Fianna Fáil leader step down, a botched Cabinet reshuffle and the effective end of this coalition Government. It has become clear that we are in the final days of this Oireachtas and we are about to begin a new chapter in political and economic life. Within weeks we will have a new Oireachtas and a new Government. The process of restoring confidence and rebuilding hope in the country can begin.
Everyone in this House will want to see that hope and optimism beginning again, and will want to see this country creating jobs for people and giving them opportunity. That is what matters. We must get the country working again. We must reform and we must ensure there is opportunity for our young people, and the emigration we are seeing, which has been forecast at 100,000 per year, will not continue. Instead, we must rebuild our political institutions and offer hope and opportunity to people.
We in Fine Gael have taken the decision that in the national interest, we should put in place a mechanism that will allow the finance Bill to be debated and voted upon in the next few days. Can the Leader outline the exact timetable for taking the Bill in the House? I understand it is to be taken on Friday and Saturday. The Government parties have said much about the importance of the Bill. We equally accept that, in terms of Ireland’s international reputation and securing funding for the country in the weeks and months ahead, the finance Bill is a very important part of that process. That does not mean, however, that we agree with every section of the Bill. We do not, but we recognise the importance of rebuilding the country and ensuring the availability of credit in order that we can continue to provide front-line services and, as I stated, bring hope back to the country.
Senator David Norris: I am a politician and hold the profession of politics in high regard, but I am ashamed and saddened by the unedifying spectacle of recent days. In a storm the captain and officers of a ship stay at the wheel and their concern is for the welfare and safety of the ship and its passengers. This weekend we were in the astonishing position where, apparently, we had no Minister for Justice and Law Reform, no Minister for Foreign Affairs and no Minister for Health and Children. That is extraordinary and it was accompanied by naked opportunism that was universal as, once again, the people were forgotten as the parties and individuals jockeyed for position to gain electoral advantage. I exclude no party from this criticism. Now the Finance Bill will be rammed through both Houses in a couple of days. There are masses of contradictions. What, for example, happened to the huge logistical difficulties about which the Minister for Finance told us recently with regard to the passage of the Bill? What about the position adopted on the other side of the House when we so consistently opposed the use of the guillotine and we are now offering ourselves for decapitation?
I very much welcome that there is to be some amelioration of the wretched universal social charge——
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Hear, hear.
Senator David Norris: ——against which I spoke repeatedly in this House, but we are still leaving untouched the bonuses paid to the bankers which were to be taxed. Why is that? The important Climate Change Response Bill is being abandoned, while the financial provisions consequent upon the passage of the Civil Partnership Bill by this and the other House are to be left in abeyance. I understand there are 150 amendments involved in that regard. These are 150 daggers directed at the heart of discrimination against people involved in civil partnerships. I will call upon the incoming Government to make it clear immediately upon its election that it will honour the obligation to pass these amendments as rapidly as possible. When we were discussing these arrangements within the past two years, on one occasion I brought in three folders a foot thick of queries from my constituents and others who were very concerned about this matter. The position is very unclear. I will pass these queries directly to the incoming Government because it will be able to deal with them.
An Cathaoirleach: I call Senator Boyle.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: Sorry, a Chathaoirligh——
An Cathaoirleach: I am sorry, I call Senator Hannigan.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: As keen as I am to hear from Senator Boyle today, the Labour Party’s numbers in this House indicate we should have precedence in terms of speaking rights.
I welcome the announcement made by the Green Party on Sunday that it intended to withdraw from the coalition Government. It was not before time and it is something we all welcome, particularly the people. It signals the end of one of the worst Governments in the history of the country. I know the Green Party Members personally will be disappointed and while I have come to respect each of the Green Party Senators in this House in their own right and appreciate the work they have done as individual Members of the House, they will be disappointed that they have not managed to get the climate change legislation and the mayoral Bill through the House. They will be disappointed also that they have not managed to legislate for corporate donations. When they look back on this period, they will see it as a futile attempt to be at the heart of government. I am sure there are many disappointments in that regard, but the big news is that at last we will get a chance to go before the people to elect a new Government. I can assure Members on both sides of the House that when it comes to climate change legislation or issues concerning civil partnership, my party will place them to the fore of our policies. While we fully intend to put the country back to work, it is not just about economic development for us. It is about making sure we reform the whole system in terms of how we run the country. That is what we will do if given the chance.
With regard to one of these issues, I ask the Leader to accept an amendment to the Order of Business to allow us to publish the whistleblowers legislation. This issue will be at the heart of our programme for the next Government and we intend to give it an airing in the House tomorrow evening during Private Members’ time. I ask the Leader to accept an amendment in order that the Bill can be published.
Senator Dan Boyle: I have tendered my resignation as Deputy Leader of the Seanad and thank Members for their co-operation whenever I took the Order of Business in the House.
An Cathaoirleach: I was not made aware of that.
Senator David Norris: Senator Boyle did a great job.
Senator Dan Boyle: My colleagues and I regret the circumstances that have arisen in recent weeks. All of us, in this House and elsewhere, believe they reflect badly on the business and nature of politics and see the need to have a national conversation to restore faith which has been badly dented.
There were good points in our participation in government, to which my colleagues and I can point. We take pride in important legislation such as the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, improvements to building regulations and significant social legislation such as the civil partnership Act. It is my understanding that at yesterday’s meeting of finance spokespersons there was agreement among all the parties represented that a finance (No. 2) Bill would be presented to deal specifically with the 150 amendments needed to introduce the financial provisions of the civil partnership Act. That legislation will be passed by 1 April. It is important that such an agreement be made.
Senator David Norris: Well done. If re-elected, I will certainly keep them to it.
Senator Dan Boyle: With regard to legislation included in the programme for Government which it has not been possible to enact, I am happy that much of it has been published. The Climate Change Response Bill and the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill are both live and Bills an incoming Government might decide to progress. I am confident the incoming Government will take this challenge on board. The Bills are templates for useful legislation and my party will co-operate in that regard.
Our business until we rise at the end of the week is, more or less, defined. However, we should also suggest to the incoming Government that the House should be made work to the greatest effect, particularly in the interim period prior to the formation of a new Government, to allow other legislation to come through. There will be an opportunity in that two month period to progress much legislation that is still active and that might be advanced in the work programme of the new Government.
Senator David Norris: Where to?
Senator Paul Coghlan: There is no doubt that many of the events in the period since we last met were a huge scata bullán. The rebuilding of hope and optimism will be of major importance and I hope the next Administration will be up to the task. I believe it will.
The three Green Party Senators have made a great contribution during their time in the House. Senator Boyle was an able Deputy Leader. When he handled the Order of Business, he was excellent in that role.
Last week the Leader gave us assurances about promised legislation, but much of that legislation has now fallen by the wayside. What legislation is it proposed to take in the remaining days of this Seanad? The Leader was adamant in his response to me on two occasions that all Stages of the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill would be dealt with. So adamant was he that I thought the Bill had a priority above and beyond what was listed on the legislative priority sheet.
Senator Donie Cassidy: That was not my intention.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I do not doubt the Leader’s intentions.
I refer to a serious matter, namely, the huge shortage in the mortgage lending area. We had hoped the property market was poised for something of a lift-off, having hit the bottom, so to speak, without further falls. Despite the commitment given on many occasions by the Government that a certain level of funding was to be earmarked for that sector, many people with genuine cases have been unable to get approval from any financial institution. The system is clogged up given there is so much availability and so many deserving cases await approval. What can Members or the Leader do, using his good offices, to ensure, in the dying days of the Government, a return to what was intended in respect of the financial institutions?
Senator Terry Leyden: This is an historical stage for this House and I wish Deputy Brian Cowen every success in the future, as he is an extraordinarily good Taoiseach. While the Cathaoirleach may not allow tributes, I sent him a text on Saturday.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should not mention people outside the House.
Senator Terry Leyden: I do not tweet. I simply stated that it was a sad day for his family and friends in Fianna Fáil and that he will be a major loss to the party at this crucial stage. I also sent him my best wishes.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should turn to the Order of Business.
Senator Terry Leyden: I compliment him and the Green Party Ministers in government. It was a very good one and I was satisfied to support it as a Senator. By way of illustration, I had intended to ask that the former Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who has resigned from the Government, would be invited to the House in order that I could compliment him on and discuss with him the success of the energy savings scheme. A total of 60,000 applications were received and 40,000 grants were paid with an average value of €1,000 per person. As for the warmer homes scheme, work was carried out in respect of 24,290 completed grants and €20 million was paid out, while 5,950 applications were completed and paid out in respect of the greener homes scheme. This comprises a great tribute to the former Minister, Deputy Ryan and to——
Senator Rónán Mullen: The Senator can go to the Visitors Gallery to pay tribute to him.
An Cathaoirleach: There should be no interruptions. Questions to the Leader, please.
Senator Terry Leyden: ——the participation of the Green Party in government. Its members have done the State a great service. I was delighted to serve in this House with the former Deputy Leader, Senator Boyle, as well as Senators Ó Brolcháin and Dearey.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not relevant to the Order of Business. I know that an election is approaching.
Senator Terry Leyden: I simply make the point that they were great colleagues. I was delighted to work with them and I wish them well.
An Cathaoirleach: I know. The point is made. The Senator may write privately to them.
Senator Terry Leyden: I would like to say more about them if I got the chance.
An Cathaoirleach: I understand.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Like many people, I watched in disbelief at the succession of events in recent days. Nothing pained me more then watching international news programmes and seeing the turmoil of our political events being featured in the manner they were. The only conclusion I can draw is that all the political parties put selfish, short-term political objectives ahead of the needs and interests of the people. The people were entitled to an orderly transfer of power but did not get that. When the Taoiseach announced that an election would be held on 11 March, there was the possibility that all parties, including the Green Party, could agree there was a programme of work to be got through and that this should happen first and foremost. Instead, one saw the weakness of the Green Party. While I have no issues with its members personally as people, their immaturity as a political entity has caused unnecessary chaos in recent weeks.
Moreover, I refer to the cynicism and opportunism of the Opposition parties which tabled a motion of no confidence, only to withdraw it in favour of a concertinaed Finance Bill, so to speak. The rushing through in a matter of a few days of a Bill of that importance sends out a message of what politicians, when the chips are down, really think about the processes of Oireachtas, which is very little.
An Cathaoirleach: Questions to the Leader, please, rather than a political speech.
Senator Rónán Mullen: How can Members ask the people to respect the institutions of State at a time of crisis when the people in charge of our political parties constantly belittle them and bring them into disrepute? We have no reason to be optimistic about the calibre of leadership entering Government if this is the manner in which they intend to treat the people and the institutions of this State by putting their interests second after short-term party political goals and advantage. These last few days have been days of shame, not just for the Green Party or Fianna Fáil leadership that perhaps precipitated a crisis but also for the Opposition leaders who did not put the people first.
Senator Jim Walsh: It has been a difficult time for everyone in government in recent years, including Ministers and members of both parties. They showed remarkable selflessness in supporting what were genuinely unpopular measures which were necessary in the interests of the country. Having said that, I find myself concurring to a great degree with much of what Senator Mullen said. People have consistently articulated their opposition to the guillotining of any Bill. We have a reasonable record in this House, with one exception, namely, the guillotining of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act, which was apparently done to facilitate a press call for the “Six One News” outside the gates of Leinster House.
Senator David Norris: That is cynicism.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not relevant to the Order of Business. Questions to the Leader, please.
Senator David Norris: Senator Walsh held it up with his filibustering.
An Cathaoirleach: Questions to the Leader, please.
Senator Jim Walsh: I asked the Leader two weeks ago for a debate on the system of politics in this country. There has been much talk about reform of the Seanad. Both Houses need significant reform. In that regard, the unseemly haste with which the Finance Bill is being passed is a fine example of putting partisan political party interests ahead of the national interest. If ever a Bill needed close and careful scrutiny, it has to be the most important Bill we enact in these Houses in any year. People such as chartered accountants and others have expressed their alarm.
It does not matter to the country whether the election is on 25 February or 11 March but I am told the election is all about who gets the opportunity to present the bowl of shamrock in the White House. It is a disgrace and discredits the people involved.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Nothing has moved me as much as the stories I have heard about the impact of the universal social charge. I am delighted to hear that the Minister has an open mind on this area. Today I received a telephone call from young woman who is a disabled professional and is still working. She developed MRSA in a hospital seven or eight years ago and was left paralysed on the left side of her body and has lost her sight in one eye. The universal social charge has meant her income has reduced by €400, which prevents her from having physiotherapy and counselling. She needs counselling to stay off antidepressants as a result of the impact of her acquired disability. She has said to me she is floored and facing a nervous breakdown. I am raising this issue in advance of the finance Bill being brought before the House because I want the Leader to impress upon the Minister for Finance the importance of rolling back on the universal social charge for people on medical cards, in particular those with a disability. The country has a national responsibility of care for people with disability.
The young woman to whom I referred is willing to work, struggle and manage her disability when she could be a burden on the State. Now, however, she is, in her own words, facing a breakdown. Many things in the country are breaking down. Let us not break down our people. I am leaving the matter in the hands of the Leader. When the Minister comes to the House, he should know that we do not want a reduction from 7% to 4%. Rather, we want the charge rolled back to zero for people on medical cards with a disability and other exceptional cases.
Senator John Hanafin: Will the Leader make a direct representation to the Taoiseach? We have been through very difficult times in terms of finance, economic and social issues. I ask him to take the opportunity to give the people a proper debate in the coming election and go for the maximum possible term.
The last thing we need is soundbites, knee-jerk reactions and ill-informed opinion when voting. We need to have a full debate and be able to debate the differences between the parties which propose to establish a new Government. These differences will be in sharp focus. Therefore, I repeat my request to the Leader to make representations to the Taoiseach to allow us a proper amount of time to debate the issues involved.
We will continue to sit after the Dáil has been dissolved. This will present the Leader and other party leaders with an opportunity to set out a framework for the future that will make the Seanad more relevant in order that it will be given an opportunity and template to become better and more effective.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I second the amendment proposed by Senator Hannigan, that the whistleblower legislation be published, as we are anxious to have the debate on it tomorrow night in Private Members’ time. It will probably be the last Private Members’ Bill to be debated in the lifetime of this Seanad. I join others in asking the Leader for clarification on what other legislation will be dealt with this week. We know what will be dealt with today, but given the chaotic events of the past few days and the fact that we will now deal with the Finance Bill on Friday and Saturday, it would be helpful to know what legislation we will deal with tomorrow and on Thursday.
I welcome the Green Party Members to this side of the House. The recent chaos has placed an international focus on Ireland; The New York Times described the political turmoil as a circus, which was regrettable. On the other hand, it is welcome that we now have certainty, thanks to the motion of no confidence tabled by the Labour Party and the discussions yesterday, that the Government will not last beyond next Tuesday, at the latest. I do not know what others are hearing on the doorsteps, but what I am hearing is that it matters a great deal when the election will be held.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not relevant to the Order of Business. We are taking questions to the Leader on the Order of Business.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I am asking the Leader for clarity on the date. Others have commented or engaged in a long rant about political parties, but I would like to defend them, particularly the Labour Party. The imperative from our point of view and that of constituents was to ensure we would have certainty to bring to an end the political instability and chaos and that an election would be scheduled as soon as possible. It looks almost certain that it will be held on 25 February, but perhaps the Leader might confirm whether that is his impression. It is of great importance in the public and national interest that we bring to an end the shambolic events of the past few days and that for the sake of political stability we elect a new Government as soon as possible. That is the political imperative and we should not make any apologies for working to achieve this.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: I wish to refer to the civil partnership Act and how it will be affected by the political manoeuvrings of the Labour Party and Fine Gael and how the gun has been put to the head of the Government in dealing with the Finance Bill.
Senator Ivana Bacik: We have guaranteed that the civil partnership provisions will be dealt with in another finance Bill.
An Cathaoirleach: No interruptions, please. Senator Bacik had her opportunity to speak.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: The two main Opposition parties, the Labour Party and Fine Gael, neither of which supported the budget in December, now think we can push the Finance Bill through the House in one week.
Senator Norris is in the House much longer than me, but I had never before seen visitors stand and give a standing ovation to a politician, in the way the men and women from GLEN and their friends in the Visitors Gallery did at the end of June or early July. I am hurt and saddened that many of them who thought then that they would no longer be marginalised or victimised are now in limbo. While the civil partnership Act will take effect in April which will result in ceremonies to formalise partnerships, their financial and tax arrangements will be left hanging. I am particularly sad for couples who have gained recognition in other countries for their partnerships which are now legally recognised here. It was politically opportunistic for Fine Gael and the Labour Party to do what they did because they flew the white flag with the Government, my party and the Green Party, when we were all united behind such important legislation. It is remiss of them now to waltz off and state they will introduce the provisions in a finance (No. 2) Bill to be introduced by 1 April. There are 150 amendments with regard to civil partnership provisions and an extra one or two days would not have made any difference to the Fine Gael and Labour Party Deputies and Senators who will be candidates.
Senator Ivana Bacik: On a point of order, the Government agreed the timetable.
An Cathaoirleach: No interruptions, please.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: It is politically opportunist of them to do what they have done to people who have been victimised.
Senator Eugene Regan: We have had calls from Government Members since this Seanad commenced for agreements on progressing legislation. They have agreement this week; they have got what they wanted. There is agreement on passing one Bill. It is not an enormous Bill and we have passed lengthier legislation in a week. The Government has been adept at adopting emergency legislation and guillotining Bills. There is no reason to guillotine the Finance Bill, as we have a full week to agree it. However, this represents Fine Gael, the Labour Party and other Opposition parties acting in the national interest to agree that the Bill will be adopted to ensure there can be a general election within the shortest possible time and to end this terrible Government. That is what is at issue.
The agreement also calls the Government’s bluff because we have seen in the past that the State being joined at the hip with our banks has caused a fundamental problem for the country——
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator must put a question to the Leader.
Senator Eugene Regan: The question is coming.
An Cathaoirleach: That is what I want to hear.
Senator Eugene Regan: The real problem is Fianna Fáil being joined at the hip with the State and believing it is all about Fianna Fáil and the interests of the country are about Fianna Fáil. We have had to wait for Taoiseach after Taoiseach to resign and the present Taoiseach has been hanging on and suggesting we cannot have an election before a certain date.
Senator Donie Cassidy: This is a Second Stage speech. Where is the question?
An Cathaoirleach: What is the question? We do not deal with Dáil business.
Senator Eugene Regan: We have called that bluff. We have been misled and the Green Party has been misled in the past few months that the finance Bill could not have been passed before Christmas. We have called the Government’s bluff in the national interest.
Senator Donie Cassidy: What is the question?
Senator Eugene Regan: Does the Leader agree?
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is because of the breakdown of the Government that we are in this situation.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I am saddened that we have come to the end of our programme of work, which is not complete, and I am also saddened by the turmoil of the past few weeks. I wish the Taoiseach the best of luck. God knows if anybody has been deprived of luck, he has. I have spoken many times in the House about the character assassinations that are part of modern politics. I am pleading that we talk about policies during the election campaign and I ask the media to give a fair crack of the whip to everybody interviewed by them. I watch programme after programme with panels comprising three Independent or Opposition party representatives and one Government representative. The Government representative has no hope of completing a sentence. Halfway through, he or she is interrupted.
An Cathaoirleach: A question to the Leader, please.
Senator Ann Ormonde: Those chairing the debates cannot achieve balance to give the Government representative an opportunity to get its message across. Let us rid ourselves of this kind of politics. Let us get down to discussing the policies outlined in this Chamber.
I wanted to debate many issues but it looks like they will not be debated. For example, where is Senator Quinn’s Bill relating to subcontractors? Another issue dear to my heart is a national house price register. That is not available to home owners. On some estates, one could pay a fortune for a house on one side of the road while, on the other side, a house could be on the market for a pittance. There is no transparency and I would love a debate on that but it will not happen now. I ask the Leader to put it on the agenda. I hope I come back to continue this work, which I hope will be about issues. I hope we cut out at long last the character assassinations which have been at the core of debate in this Chamber in the past two years.
Senator Eoghan Harris: Of necessity, any question I ask the Leader has to be rhetorical since his ability to do anything about any question I ask is limited. Is he happy with the way we are doing business on the Finance Bill? I think I know the answer.
I am of an age and I am around long enough not to care about anything much except authority. Confucius said the things that mattered in a state were an army, food for the population and authority. He was asked if one could give up any of these and he said one could give up the army, one could give up food but one could not give up a sense of authority. I intend to vote for authority because I see an abyss opening. In mythology there is a guardian of the gate. For 70 years or more Fianna Fáil has acted as a guardian against an armed doctrine — the armed doctrine of extremists in the IRA. It was a buffer. If it is about to disappear it is not a good thing for Irish politics and a certain duty devolves upon the other great parties of authority. I personally am going to vote for Fine Gael. I am going to vote for authority, but I deplore the incontinent manner in which Fine Gael and the Labour Party have behaved in recent days in rushing through this Bill. I see from the sensitivity of the Labour Party’s interjections that its members feel guilty about it. Why would they not? One of the few great things achieved by the Seanad is the civil partnership Bill. It is one of our monuments that will outlast all the rubbish and codology of the current time. There is no panic. I detect none of the feeling that was detected by Senator Bacik. People want an election soon but what does a day or two or a week or two matter? What is the incontinent, extreme rush about? It is like the January sales; a mob of people outside the door screaming to get in saying “We must have an election.” Inside the staff are making up their pension plans and going out the back door. Up in the boardroom they are all divvying up the divvies. That is the way we are. It is a squalid spectacle.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Senator Eoghan Harris: It is significant that all of us on the Independent side, ranging from the left to the centre to the right, are agreed that it is a squalid spectacle. The Bill should have gone through properly.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Senator Eoghan Harris: It should have gone through properly for the sake of the people. I warn the incoming Government to calm down those who are dizzy with success because it is in a state of semi-hysteria. We are going to have some kind of rainbow Government. What is their panic if the panic produces the kind of political meltdown that allows the armed doctrine to dominate the Opposition in the coming Dáil. That is not a good place for the people to be.
Senator Ivor Callely: It is regrettable that we are at this stage in the programme. The country is probably at the most critical stage in its history. The previous speaker mentioned one particular Bill passing through this Chamber but there are many other issues that require the attention of politicians. I refer to the thousands of commuters and hundreds of people employed in Aer Lingus. That issue must be resolved. Many other issues arise, such as the increase in suicide, whether NAMA is working, the financial implications in every parish and the difficulties in sustaining employment. So many issues warrant attention.
On the positive side there have been innovative developments. There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is growth in our exports. I am not too sure what role the Seanad will play in the coming weeks. Certain statutory obligations arise as to how many days the Seanad can sit once a general election has been called. My colleague, Senator Hanafin, called for a full debate. Because we are at a critical stage in the history of our country, is it possible that the Leader could explore the feasibility of inviting the leaders of each political party to set out their stall in terms of their manifesto to the nation? As the previous speaker, Senator Harris, indicated, the next Government is likely to be a rainbow coalition. Is it possible that those parties would set out their joint programme for government and cost it so the public would know prior to voting exactly what they are voting for——
Senator Maurice Cummins: The same as Fianna Fáil did with the Green Party.
Senator Ivor Callely: ——and exactly what they are going to get?
Senator Maurice Cummins: When the institutions of the State were under attack by subversives 20 and 30 years ago, we took our eye off the drugs culture and gangs evolving at the time. Now gangland crime poses a threat to many communities the length and breadth of the country. The funding for Operation Anvil which has been very successful since its inception has been cut by 50%. This will pose a serious threat to many Garda divisions and communities. I earnestly suggest the Minister for Justice and Law Reform or the incoming Minister should restore the funding for Operation Anvil which has been very successful in combating and preventing gangland crime and in putting many dangerous criminals in gaol.
To take up from where Senator Coghlan left off, will the Leader indicate for the benefit of Members to enable them to organise their time what the full schedule will be for the rest of the week? I do not believe in rushing legislation, including the Finance Bill. The people are looking for an early election. Some Members on the other side of the House have mentioned that Fine Gael and the Labour Party are also looking for an early election. A possible future leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Martin, suggested the Bill could be dealt with by Thursday or Friday. That is what we are dealing with.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: That is because the Government collapsed.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I do not know whether that was to get one up on his opponent, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who said it should take longer to complete, but the Government is at sixes and sevens. The country and the people want to be rid of it and will be within three or four weeks.
Senator Mark Daly: The events of the past few days show that those in opposition which, according to all predictions, will soon be in government want to have their cake and eat it. They could have had an election if they wanted it. They could have pulled the plug and not agreed to withdraw their motions.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: The Green Party would not have supported us. It would not have supported a motion of no confidence.
An Cathaoirleach: No interruptions, please.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I am sorry.
Senator Mark Daly: They could have had their cake and eaten it. They could have had an election. They could have turned around and said yesterday they would not support the proposals and the election would have taken place.
Senator Paul Coghlan: We could have turned a corner.
An Cathaoirleach: Questions to the Leader, please.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Instead, the Government fell apart.
Senator Mark Daly: Will the Leader ask the Minister when he comes into the House to deal with the issues discussed yesterday how those in opposition who voted against the budget could have had the budget thrown out? They could have caused an election yesterday. They could have had all those issues which they said were an abomination and with which they disagreed dealt with. That could have happened yesterday, but they did not do it. That is why politics in Ireland, including those in government and opposition, is looked upon with such disdain by the public. Last week the Opposition parties wanted an election. They could have had it yesterday, but they did not pull the trigger. Why? They did not have the courage to do so.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: Hear, hear.
Senator Mark Daly: Politicians are supposed to have courage.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Politicians on this side of the House are not used to pulling the trigger.
Senator Mark Daly: They could have introduced their own budget.
An Cathaoirleach: Questions to the Leader, please.
Senator Mark Daly: They could have caused an election yesterday.
Senator Paul Coghlan: The Senator is distancing himself from the Government.
Senator Mark Daly: They could have caused the budget to fall——
Senator Donie Cassidy: This is the young Senator from County Kerry.
Senator Mark Daly: ——but they choose not to do that either.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: Hear, hear.
Senator Mark Daly: They are the Government-in-waiting.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: That is a wilful misinterpretation. What did they do?
Senator Geraldine Feeney: The people will see through Senator Hannigan.
Senator Mark Daly: If I was not being interrupted——
Senator Geraldine Feeney: The poor people will have their say.
An Cathaoirleach: Questions to the Leader, please. Senator Daly’s time is just up.
Senator Mark Daly: We all have an interest in ensuring the civil partnership provisions are put in place. However, the Opposition parties demanded that the legislation be guillotined. If we had asked for it to be guillotined, they would have lambasted us. However, they now insist that it be guillotined.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has made his point.
Senator Mark Daly: They are also ensuring——
Senator Dominic Hannigan: The Senator will have to face up to it: the people want the Government to be replaced as soon as possible.
Senator Mark Daly: ——that the bankers’ bonuses issue will not be addressed.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s time is up. I call Senator Prendergast.
Senator Mark Daly: How could they do this?
An Cathaoirleach: I have called Senator Prendergast.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Perhaps Senator Daly should accept that the Government has fallen apart.
Senator Phil Prendergast: The former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, is on record as saying the buck stopped with her regarding any Health Service Executive decisions. Will the Leader ask the Tánaiste and acting caretaker of the Department of Health and Children to put a stay on all processes relating to the reconfiguring of the integrated service areas or the transferring of such services by the HSE until a new Government is in place?
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: I concur with Senator Cummins regarding gangland crime. It is one of the greatest threats to the State. Whether in Limerick, Dublin, Cork or any other large population area, there are bodies working with absolute impunity while they terrorise communities every day of the week. Those who take a stand against them and take cases to court experience overt intimidation which will ultimately undermine the whole judicial process. I have watched mothers, especially from the Limerick area, on television tell how they lost their sons callously to gangland crime, trying to come to grips with their loss while having the courage to speak out about it. There is no respect for life in that area. During the turbulence of the past 12 months resulting from the financial crisis, many real issues in the community have not been addressed. They may have got some type of cursory mention in the Seanad, but in the main they were sidelined. These are major issues.
Through the years I have been a Member of the Seanad, while I have never minded the cut and thrust of debate here, I have always acknowledged that this House gives an example of how democracy should be secured and promoted.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Hear, hear.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: It would be a pity, however, if, in the usual frenzy at election time, we were to detract from this. I am also saddened by the suggestion that this House may be abolished. I do not know what the future holds but many people, when they get the opportunity to think about it, will realise the check this House has kept on many aspects of public life without fear, favour or any indication of partisanship. I hope this will form part of the debate on the role of the House.
The economy is like a wheel coming around. One never stays at the top; one never stays at the bottom. While we are at the bottom coming back up to the top, I hope we do not make the mistake of having a short-term solution of abolishing an arm of Parliament.
Senator Eoghan Harris: Hear, hear.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Removing this arm of Parliament would not be the right course of action in the long term. Future generations would not thank us for it. I hope all parties will take the opportunity, whatever their stance is now, to examine the role of the Seanad more closely.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Fitzgerald, Norris, Hannigan, Boyle, Coghlan, Mullen, Walsh, Healy Eames, Hanafin, Bacik, Feeney, Regan, Ormonde, Harris, Callely, Daly and Ó Murchú expressed their surprise at the events of recent days. It was unprecedented to say the least. Most of us who have been in the Oireachtas for some considerable time have never experienced this before.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Senator Cassidy was shocked also.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I send our best wishes to the Taoiseach and thank him for all he did in the country’s interest. I know there will be another time for this but he made a major contribution. I also send best wishes to his wife, Mary, and his family. I acknowledge everything he has done in the most difficult times since the 1930s. The challenges facing the country are immense. Everything has been done in the national interest and has been about putting the country first. The Taoiseach faced the challenge of the banking crisis, a crisis which few other Taoisigh have ever had to face. If we were all being honest, we would agree that the fateful night on which decisions had to be made in order to allow the banks to continue to operate marked the beginning of an unprecedented crisis. It is certainly the most difficult period I can recall since the 1970s and the challenges faced by the then Government and Taoiseach.
Members made inquiries in respect of the finance Bill. I propose that Second Stage be taken on Friday and that Committee and Remaining Stages be taken on Saturday. The sitting on Saturday will be open-ended. The Seanad will be obliged to undertake major work in respect of the finance Bill which represents the third instalment of the Government’s four year recovery plan. As previous speakers stated, the finance Bill is always the most important legislation to come before the House. The version of the Bill that will come before the House contains 80 sections.
Senator Paul Coghlan: It is due to be taken tomorrow in the Lower House.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Dealing with the legislation constitutes a formidable job of work.
On tomorrow’s Order of Business I will outline to the House the business that will be taken for the remainder of the week. This business will only be that which can be concluded in the coming days.
Senator Hannigan referred to the publication of the whistleblowers protection (No. 2) Bill. Unfortunately, I will not be able to have that legislation dealt with as I had originally intended. The Senator has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business in respect of the matter.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: On a point of order, I wish to clarify whether the Leader is allowing for the publication of the Bill as I have requested.
Senator Donie Cassidy: No, I will be opposing its publication.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: That is fine.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Earlier Senator Boyle took the opportunity to announce his resignation as Deputy Leader of the House. The Senator and I have worked well together in the national interest during the past three and a half years. He has been of major assistance and has provided great support to me in my duties as Leader. I fully appreciate and I am extremely grateful for the understanding, assistance and courtesy the Senator has extended to me in respect of our work on the Order of Business and other matters.
Senator Coghlan referred to mortgage lending or the lack thereof. I fully agree with the sentiments the Senator who is an extremely experienced Member of the House. I am obliged to inquire as to where stands the commitment the Government obtained from the two major banks in respect of the €12 billion that was going to be made available to them over twoyears.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Touché.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service and the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Innovation have a serious job to do, regardless of the general election and must call to appear before them those who are responsible for the money to which I refer. The committees must obtain from the people concerned up-to-date information on this matter.
Senators Feeney and Harris congratulated everyone in the House and the staff of the relevant Department for the passing of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act. This was one of the most important items of legislation processed by the Houses during the lifetime of the Government. I agree with the sentiments expressed by the Senators. Senator Boyle states it is expected that the finance (No. 2) Bill which will deal with the various matters relating to the implementation of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act will be introduced by 1 April.
Senator Callely has stated that a number of major issues must be discussed and acknowledged the great growth that has been experienced in the area of exports. He also referred to the role to be played by the Seanad in the coming weeks. As Senator Ó Murchú stated, the Seanad has a major role to play. When the House discusses the Finance Bill at the weekend, I hope many people will witness the role played by Seanad Éireann as a watchdog which operates on behalf of taxpayers. I took note of Senator Callely’s suggestions in respect of the parties’ proposed manifestos and his observation that in future the various leaders could come before the House to discuss their manifestos. Perhaps the House could be assisted by staff from the Department of Finance in having the proposals in those manifestos costed before they are put to the people for approval.
Senators Cummins and Ó Murchú referred to gangland crime and the Garda’s Operation Anvil. They congratulated the Garda Commissioner and everyone involved with the latter but also remarked on the fact that the budget relating to it has been cut. I hope that whatever funding becomes available will be given to the very successful Garda unit involved which is in place to protect every one of us and to ensure people respect and fear the law which we, as legislators, have created. It is a serious situation in which people find themselves.
Senator Prendergast referred to health issues. The Senator has played an important role as spokesperson on health. With regard to her current proposal, I will certainly pass on her views to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Hannigan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: “That No. 26 be taken before No. a1.” Is the amendment being pressed?
Senator Dominic Hannigan: Bearing in mind this is unprecedented when it comes to the behaviour of the Leader in this Seanad——
An Cathaoirleach: Is the amendment being pressed?
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I will be pressing it.
An Cathaoirleach: I point out that the electronic voting system will not be used today. Any vote taken will be a manual, walk-through vote.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 26.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Boyle, Dan.|
|Bradford, Paul.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Dearey, Mark.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||Mullen, Rónán.|
|Norris, David.||Ó Brolcháin, Niall.|
|Prendergast, Phil.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Brady, Martin.||Butler, Larry.|
|Callely, Ivor.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||Ellis, John.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||Harris, Eoghan.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Mooney, Paschal.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Francis.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Dominic Hannigan; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
Question, “That the Order of Business be agreed to,” put and declared carried.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I move:
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 1 to 6, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: “That section 7 stand part of the Bill.”
Senator David Norris: I asked questions earlier, using Griffith College as an example, and perhaps the Minister of State could address them. As it stands, certain colleges are regarded as outside the scope of the Bill because they are fee-paying. This is an anomaly because certain students who are disadvantaged and who attend the Law Society of Ireland or the Honourable Society of the King’s Inns are covered by the scheme. This seems to place colleges such as Griffith College at an unfair and discriminatory disadvantage. I instanced Griffith College because its representatives briefed me on the issue, but I understand there are about 19 or 20 other colleges also. I would be very grateful if the Minister of State could give the House some information on this matter.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Seán Haughey): The provisions of the Bill do not preclude the recognition of private colleges for student grant purposes, as the Minister will have the power to prescribe an educational institution as being an approved institution, subject to certain conditions. The recently published landmark higher education strategy——
Senator David Norris: That is the Hunt report.
Deputy Seán Haughey: Yes. It recognises that private colleges have a role to play in higher education. This role is set in the context of higher and further education that has a responsibility to the broader social and economic needs of the country and that has a measurement of and accountability for the delivery of policy objectives. Any decision to include further colleges or courses under the student grants scheme will have to be taken in the light of overall policy objectives and the availability of resources.
The Honourable Society of King’s Inns and the Law Society of Ireland operate on a non-profit basis. They are the specific bodies that govern entry to the respective professions of barrister-at-law and solicitor. While these institutions are not public institutions as such, they clearly differ in character and ethos from private commercial third level colleges. The courses approved at these institutions are postgraduate courses and the scheme enables less well-off students to enter these professions.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I am glad that Senator Norris brought up this point because it has been brought to my notice also. Colleges like Griffith College are well known and their courses are highly validated. It is a pity they are not included in the Bill. However, I can see where the Minister was coming from when she said she would consider the private colleges. These college are set up to make a profit as well. I trust the Minister will see it through. I echo the Senator’s point of view, but I think the Minister’s heart is in the right place on this issue.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Private colleges are not approved for the purposes of the Bill. Will there be a means by which they could become approved? In his report, Dr. Hunt wrote about mergers of colleges in the future. I felt he should have moved on this issue sooner because I wonder how sustainable it can be to have so many colleges in an island of 4 million people. Dr. Hunt referred to a 20 year vision. What would the Minister of State’s advice be to private colleges, and colleges in general, given that this is likely to happen down the line?
Deputy Seán Haughey: The Bill will provide for a decision to be taken in that regard in due course. The Bill will enable private colleges to be recognised for student support if a decision is taken to do that. Any decision to include further colleges or courses under the student grant schemes will have to be taken in the light of overall policy objectives and the availability of resources. The Hunt report has just been published and people are considering it. There are many interesting aspects to the report and measures for part-time students are also included. This issue will evolve as further discussion and consultation takes place.
Senator David Norris: I am grateful to the Minister of State for his reply. The difficulty is in what he said about the question of resources being available. This almost invariably stops these progressive things. What worries me is that there is a principle of equity in all this. I have always believed the scarce resources of the State should go to those students most in need. The colleges that have not been registered or approved have a significant number of students who are not in affluent circumstances. It is not equitable not to look at the whole situation and to distribute the scarce resources of the State to the most vulnerable, which would include some students in these colleges also. The resources should be distributed to the most vulnerable because there should be a level playing field for all students in the State.
Descendants of the leaders of the 1916 Rising will be in the Visitors Gallery tomorrow, listening to us paying tribute to the vision and idealism of the people of 1916. I would like to remind the Minister of State of the following, although he knows it better than I do. Many think the Constitution contains the phrase, “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”, but it does not. The phrase is in the Proclamation to which this House will pay tribute tomorrow. It is incumbent on every Government to try as hard as it can, with the scarce resources available, to treat all the children of the nation equally. I am intrigued by the Minister of State’s reference to fee-paying colleges as if they were commercial. I take it this means he is following his former leader, Deputy Bertie Ahern, into the glorious ranks of socialism.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I thoroughly agree with the Senator that we are talking about equity, equality and opportunity for vulnerable students. Given that these colleges are profit orientated, they also have a role to play and they, with the Minister, should try to figure out how best they can help students in this situation. If we do not have the resources, then they have an obligation not to milk the students who are doing their best to get into third level. Let them be duty bound to help out. It should not all be up to the Minister. This is about community orientation. Let everyone together see how best we can resolve this. Perhaps these colleges should dilute their profits a little given the times in which we are living.
Senator David Norris: I see socialism is not widespread.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I would like to take up on what Senator Norris was saying about the principle of equity and about treating all our children equally. I have championed the notion of children at risk of leaving school early owing to social disadvantage and financial vulnerability. There is another area in which it is important to treat children equally. Many children do not realise their learning potential until later in their lives. Students from all backgrounds may do a poor leaving certificate and then figure out with their parents what kind of course would work for them, which might often be in a private college. It is on that basis I would like to see social justice in education, be it in a public or private college.
Senator Ormonde has made the good point that everyone must take responsibility, but we must also be fair. Our public institutions are funded by the taxpayer. Private institutions are privately funded.
Senator Ann Ormonde: They have a role to play.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Yes. Ultimately, we must think of the student. That is my final point on that aspect of the matter, but I ask that we consider vulnerable students also.
Deputy Seán Haughey: It is always a pleasure to come into the Seanad. This is a very philosophical debate. One point I would make is that not all students are equal when it comes to electing the university Senators.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Níl sé sa Teach faoi láthair.
Deputy Seán Haughey: The institutions recognised under the Bill are generally publicly funded third level colleges offering full-time courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. The Department of Education and Skills provides significant funding for these institutions which is used to provide a broad range of courses required by society, not just to meet the economic needs of the country. The institutions operate for the greater good of the country and act in the best interests of the development of human capital.
In general, private commercial colleges operate on a for-profit basis and the State has no say in directing their operations. By their nature, they provide courses for which there is a demand only. Their sole objective is to remain commercially viable and make as much profit as possible. If private colleges were to be approved under the student grant schemes, the Department would be liable to cover not only the cost of the maintenance grant and student service charge but also tuition fees which represent a support to the college rather than the student. This would result effectively in the State contributing towards the operating costs of a private for-profit college.
Taking all these aspects together, the Government is of the view that there are compelling reasons for not admitting for-profit colleges to the student grant schemes. It is not proposed, therefore, to depart from the policy of not extending the scope of the schemes to private colleges operated on a for-profit basis. That is the position reflected in section 7 of the Bill. Having said that, the section does not preclude the colleges from being approved, as provision is made for the Minister to prescribe an education institution as being approved, subject to certain conditions.
I intended to reiterate the point I made at the beginning, but Senator Norris came and went during my contribution.
An Cathaoirleach: He did, yes.
Deputy Seán Haughey: There is, therefore, no point in reiterating it.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 8 to 19, inclusive, agreed to.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I move amendment No. 1:
This is a short but relevant amendment. A major change is made in the Bill, which is very welcome; instead of having 66 grant-awarding authorities throughout the country, we will have a streamlined single authority. Fine Gael’s proposal was reasonably similar to the Government’s in terms of having a one-stop shop for all payments. However, there is a concern in some vocational education committees and, in particular, County Galway VEC has asked me to make this request. It would involve a minor change, but it could be a useful one. Where difficulties arise for students within the catchment area of the local VEC it would like there to be a process of consultation with relevant local parties, whereby in each VEC there would be a designated person appointed to give some knowledge to students in making applications. Such a facility would prove important. We are moving from a more centralised way of doing things. In the second Lisbon treaty the principle of subsidiarity was proposed whereby we would revert to doing things locally. This would be a minor change to allow each VEC to have somebody in place to provide an ear for students. I would be delighted if the Minister of State accepted the amendment to allow the change to be made.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Committee of Selection reports that it has discharged Senator Joe O’Toole from membership of the Committee on Members’ Interest at his own request.
I move: “That the Report be laid before the Seanad.”
Senator David Norris: I am sure we will have an opportunity to pay tribute to the work Senator O’Toole did on the committee, but in fairness the House should note that he has behaved with great honour and integrity. It is for reasons that are completely understandable and to maintain the highest ethical standards he has sought to be discharged from membership of the committee. I very much regret that he has taken this step, as I regret the fact that hehas decided not to present himself for election to this House on the basis that it stands unreformed.
An Cathaoirleach: Point made.
Question put and agreed to.
Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
—(Senator Fidelma Healy Eames).
Senator David Norris: I support the amendment tabled by Senator Fidelma Healy Eames which is a very good one. I have also been lobbied, not by the vocational education committee in my own area, although there are many distinguished VEC operations, including the Dublin institutes of technology, with which I have worked, but I believe by the vocational education authority, VEA, the group which represents all of them.
Senator Ann Ormonde: The IVEA.
Senator David Norris: I beg the Senator’s pardon.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The IVEA.
Senator David Norris: I also thank Senator Healy Eames. The Irish Vocational Education Association naturally feels its powers, role and status are being diminished somewhat, even though I am sure it agrees with the necessity for efficiency and the way in which this will be sharpened by the legislation.
I spoke with Senator Healy Eames just before the Bill was brought before the House about the nature of her amendment and she would be happy if the Minister of State was able to accept it and, in case that he does, to insert, as she and I agreed, the phrase “including local VECs”. The reason is that in an appeal it is often extremely valuable to have local information, as a centralised authority may not have the same level of local information or easy access to that local information as those directly involved in dealing with a student. I say this despite the fact that I am aware of the political realities. It may not be possible because of the disintegration of the Government for amendments to be accepted. I very much hope they will be, but even if they are not, the Minister of State might indicate his agreement with the principle and the incoming Government might address the issue by way of a brief amendment. Will the Minister of State indicate if there are practical political difficulties that will preclude him from accepting the amendment, even though he may have a degree of sympathy with it?
Senator Ann Ormonde: I thought I said in my Second Stage contribution that that was included in the legislation, that one would contact one’s own VEC, be it County Galway VEC or City of Dublin VEC. If, say, a student from some part of Dublin has a difficulty in completing the application form, a person will be assigned within each VEC to help him or her as part of a consultation process. I agree with both Senators in that regard. I agree that there must be consultation, but I think it is provided for. I would like to hear the Minister of State confirm that the provision is in the legislation. I welcomed it during the debate on Second Stage.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Seán Haughey): I do not propose to accept the amendment because I am of the view that the provisions, as they stand, are sufficient to allow latitude for an appeals officer to engage in any activities necessary for the purposes of determining an appeal. This would include consultations with relevant parties.
Senator Healy Eames has said this is a minor amendment. It is so minor that it is not necessary. What the Senator is trying to achieve is included in the legislation.
The Department of Education and Skills is conscious of the work VECs have been doing and of their concerns. Meetings with the Irish Vocational Education Association and the Department are continuing and a further meeting will take place tomorrow.
It is important to outline the political reality in which we find ourselves and to which Senator Norris referred. I believe this is the only amendment that has been submitted so far. Given the political considerations, were I to accept any amendment, the Bill would fall and the Union of Students in Ireland would be most unhappy about this.
I do not think the amendment is necessary. I appreciate what the Senator is trying to do, but it is catered for in the existing provisions of the legislation.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: On that basis and because the Minister of State has spoken to the amendment, if he believes the appeals person would consult locally and relevant consultation with the appropriate parties is built into the Bill, I am prepared to accept his assurance and will not press the amendment. I do not believe in throwing the House or the country into further disarray.
Senator David Norris: I thank the Minister of State for his directness and honesty. Of course, it would be a great shame and appalling if the Bill fell because it is in the interests of students. They have lobbied all of us through their representatives. The Bill must go through as urgently as possible to make things equal for students. Some students are being paid in January and others in April, although they are sitting next door to each other. The Minister of State even indicated that kind of quandary.
Even were Senator Healy Eames to put her amendment to a vote, another form of reality would come into play. We would be trounced on this side of the House and the amendment would not get through. It has no chance without the co-operation of the Minister. Of course, it would be dreadful for the Bill to fall at this stage. No one wants that to happen.
I do not believe the Minister of State is right when he says this provision is included. It is not, with the greatest of respect. The Minister of State is talking about latitude. He says local consultation is something that can be done and there is nothing to preclude it. However, it is not mandatory. It is not required and there may be circumstances in which it does not happen, to the disadvantage of students. I do not regard this as a small or trivial point but I completely accept that it is in everyone’s interests, on all sides of the House, that the Bill pass today.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The Minister of State has said the provision for local consultation and consultation with the relevant parties is built into the Bill. Could the Minister of State read the section where this is stated? I do not have it to hand. It would be useful to outline the wording. There is no intention to delay. We just want to be completely clear.
Senator David Norris: I have the Bill here, if the Senator wants it.
Deputy Seán Haughey: The provisions, as they stand, are sufficient to allow latitude for an appeals officer to engage in any activities necessary for the purposes of determining an appeal. This would include consultations with relevant parties. That is what I am saying to theiiHouse.
These issues such as how the services are provided in a client-friendly way and so on can be looked at when the awarding body is in place. The Minister for Education and Skills is open to having local points of information. Arising from the discussion we have just had, I wish to clarify that issue.
Senator David Norris: May I make clear precisely what the gap is? Senator Healy Eames’s amendment was to insert, between lines 5 and 6 on page 30, the words, “consultation with relevant parties, and”. Section 20(10) reads:
The subsection refers to one specific person, the appeals officer. There is no reference whatever to the involvement of local personnel, although that is not precluded. The fact that it is not precluded does not overcome the difficulty that nowhere is the sense, import or fact of the necessity for the involvement of personnel from groups such as the VEC specified. For that reason, it is important that this gap be made clear. It is a significant gap, although it is not one that will be allowed to hold up the passage of the legislation.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: Will the Minister of State look carefully at this issue? It is important we progress the Bill in a spirit of consensus. The Green Party is supportive of the Bill, as I believe is everyone in the House. It would be nice, in the final days of the Seanad, if we could come to a consensus on this matter and find a solution that fits everyone. The Green Party supports the Bill’s overall purpose, which is to allow a great simplification of the support services for students and to introduce a more simplified way for students to be paid their grants. Senator Healy Eames will attest that every September in Galway we get calls from people who are not sure what to do or to which group they should apply.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The calls continue until January.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: Senator Healy Eames is being sensible here and I ask the Minister of State to look carefully at her amendment. Overall, the Bill is one we should all support.
Deputy Seán Haughey: We are dealing with section 20, which provides:
There is reference to information being furnished to the officer. I do not have much further to say. There is not much separating us on this issue. The record of the House will speak for itself regarding the views of the House on this matter.
Senator David Norris: May I make one final point to assist the Minister of State and provide some degree of support? Section 20(1) reads:
The legislation does contemplate more than one appeals officer. One assumes that, especially if they take cognisance of this debate, the members of the authority will be sensitive to the local conditions. I suggested there was only one appeals officer. That is the case, but the authority has the opportunity to appoint several. There will not be one national appeals officer. That leaves some room for manoeuvre. Considering this debate, I hope the authority will be sensitive to local conditions. One assumes it will be logical for its members so to be.
Deputy Seán Haughey: That also would be my wish.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 20 agreed to.
Sections 21 to 30, inclusive, agreed to.
Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: “That the Bill do now pass.”
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: This is an historic moment in the lives of students. The Union of Students in Ireland and many students nationwide have looked for this Bill at least since I first entered the House and next month it will have been published for three years. Consequently, today, 25 January 2011, is a good day for student support. The entire purpose of the Bill is to make life easier for students. It is to make their learning easier by freeing them from the obligation to worry about the processing of grants. Unfortunately, they still may not always qualify but at least they will be facilitated more easily. In this context, I am delighted that Members included the conversation, with the help of Senator Norris and others, on the connection between local and national or regional and central, which is highly important. I commend the Minister of State on securing the passage of the Bill before the dissolution of the current Dáil and Seanad because had this not happened, it would have been a crying shame. Ar aghaidh libh le chéile.
Senator David Norris: I commend the two Ministers who were involved, namely, the Minister of State who is present and the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills. I also pay tribute to the staff of the Department of Education and Skills who have worked very hard on this and the civil servants who are in attendance and who were in a position to supplement the advice given to the House by the Minister of State and to answer the questions put forward in a highly professional manner. As the lifetime of this Seanad comes to an end, it is good that Members have been in a position to do something as positive as effect the passage of the Bill today. It undoubtedly will be welcomed and goes straight to the practicalities of the living conditions of students and is highly welcome. Seanad Éireann played a significant role because Members from all sides, including me, have prodded the Government on this issue for a number of years. It has taken many years and a large number of professional reports and there was a danger that the advice contained in such reports once again would be left gathering dust on the shelves. I am glad to have taken part in this highly positive debate on legislation in Seanad Éireann.
Senator Brendan Ryan: I wish the Minister of State well and I am glad this legislation has been passed. The Labour Party had several amendments ready and I had been reflecting on whether to table them in recent days. The House had an interesting debate on Second Stage and great contributions were made from all sides, as well as some suggestions regarding possible amendments that would improve the legislation. However, recognising the political reality and the futility of so doing, I decided not to table them. It would have been interesting to have had that further debate which can only be brought about and teased out through the tabling of amendments but that was not to be.
Now that the legislation has been passed, I look forward to its speedy implementation. These changes must be made quickly and in time for the forthcoming academic year, 2011-12, to prevent students being left on tenterhooks any more. This practice must be ended and we must move forward in a progressive way. Students cannot be left without knowing whether they can proceed with their education, as this simply is not on. In the current economic position with no available jobs and forced emigration, all barriers, including the barrier Members debated in the context of this Bill, must be removed from young people or mature students either getting an education or getting a second chance at an education to prepare for the upturn that all passionately hope will happen sooner rather than later. I wish the legislation well and thank the Minister of State and his senior Minister and officials for the part they played.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I am delighted to note that peace has broken out in the Seanad, this is very important. I congratulate the Minister of State, one of the few remaining, on the passage of the Bill.
Deputy Seán Haughey: For another few weeks.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I also thank the many others who have been involved in its passage, including the public servants and those who have been involved in drafting and lobbying. As Senator Norris rightly noted, this is legislation in which the Seanad can take pride. Senator Healy Eames spoke very eloquently and while I look forward to doing battle with her in due course, for the present it is great to join her and other Members to ensure the passage of the Bill. I come from Galway, a university city — both Senator Healy Eames and I come from that neck of the woods. This will make a huge difference to people in many ways. I look forward to receiving fewer calls this year from students who do not know to which local authority to apply or what exactly to do. The point made by Senator Ryan to the effect that while it is one thing to pass legislation, the key point is to ensure its speedy implementation, is valid and the election should not distract the public servants from ensuring this legislation is definitely enacted. There is work to do and I hope it is ready for the start of the academic year in September next and that students this year will find life to be a little easier, even though it unfortunately is clear that less money will be available to students.
The point has been made by the Green Party and many other parties that education is the cornerstone of our society in many ways. One will look to the next Government to ensure that many young people will not be obliged to emigrate and will be able to find jobs at home. A key method of so doing in the past that also will be relevant in the future is to ensure that people can graduate from university and that they acquire the highest possible level of education. This legislation certainly will help to ensure this is the case. Members and many others have raised issues pertaining to the Bill to the effect that more needs to be done in respect of mature students in particular, as well as back to education allowances and so on, to ensure matters do not deteriorate further in this regard. However, this step is highly welcome and on behalf of the Green Party, I congratulate the Minister of State and all involved.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I compliment and congratulate the Minister of State and the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan, for processing this legislation so quickly through the various Stages towards completion in this House. I also thank the staff with whom, together with the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, I have had many discussions during the initial debate, because I was uneasy about some aspects of it. However, my concerns were clarified satisfactorily. This Bill is well thought out and the associated problems were teased out and their existence was acknowledged. If I might put on a hat from a previous existence, as a guidance counsellor I dealt carefully with many students and at times found the entire system to be highly convoluted and unmanageable. I did not know whether I should go to the VEC or the local authority, as I did not know who had control or power. When the appeals system was introduced, it was a nightmare for many students. The Bill provides for a simplified process.
I am glad we have reached this stage and very pleased, particularly as an educationist, to be associated with one of the last Bills to be passed by this Seanad. It is good that we have been able to do something huge for the young population who want to return to education and mature students who want to pursue lifelong learning. There will be an opportunity under the Bill to facilitate the flow and movement of students in third level.
Implementation of the Bill is important and should be completed quickly. There should be no obstacles place in its way. A number of issues were aired today and on Second Stage. While they are covered in the Bill, I hope its implementation will not cause problems for staff in the transition from the current convoluted system to a unified system. A lot of administration work has yet to be done. I hope it will be done speedily to make implementation easy for students to understand.
We have done great work today. With students, I am delighted the Bill has been passed.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Seán Haughey): I thank all of the Senators who contributed constructively to the debate on this important Bill. I thank them for their co-operation in allowing it to proceed as speedily as possible. I again acknowledge the co-operation and support of stakeholders in this process, including student representatives and grant awarding bodies, for the proposed programme of change. The Bill provides an opportunity to put in place a more modern, transparent and coherent system for the organisation and operation of student grant schemes.
I thank Members and the staff of the Houses for their co-operation in taking the final Stages of the Bill today, which is greatly appreciated. I also thank my officials who have put a lot of work into the Bill and on occasion had sleepless nights.
A number of questions have arisen on Fifth Stage. It is intended to introduce the unified grants scheme for the 2011-12 academic year and work is under way to this end.
It is intended that the single grant-awarding authority will come into operation on a transitional basis in the 2012-13 academic year for new students not in the system. The Bill was originally drafted to allow the grant administration function to be performed by 33 VECs in line with the transforming public services agenda. A Government decision was subsequently taken to develop a single grant awarding authority. Until the Bill was sufficiently advanced to reflect this significant change, it was not possible to set up such an authority. An expression of interest process is under way and by the time the single grant awarding authority is selected, there will only be a period of one year in which to put in place the necessary structures and resources to do the job properly. That explains the delay in finalising the Bill.
This is one of the last Bills to be passed before the general election. I am conscious that I made my maiden speech in the Houses of the Oireachtas in 1987 and this may be my last speech in the Seanad, but who knows what lies in store for all of us? I am delighted we have been able to pass this Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?
Senator Ann Ormonde: Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.
Senator Jim Walsh: I welcome the Minister of State to respond to this Adjournment matter which concerns the report of the Competition Authority on the legal fees charged by barristers and solicitors. In the past 13 years the tribunals have placed a strong spotlight on legal costs in terms of the imposition on the taxpayer. Many of those who have functioned in the tribunals as senior and junior counsel have become multimillionaires. This is a matter about which I have spoken in the past. In many instances, the State sets the headline rates because it is a very large user of legal services. I am aware that we are dealing with a powerful interest group and, therefore, it is not easy to secure the necessary changes.
In general, the fees charged are not justified. They are predatory and, in most cases, exorbitant. They affect competitiveness and are a huge imposition on the private and productive sector of the economy. They are a barrier in accessing the courts. Every person in a republic should have equal access to the courts but in civil cases only the wealthy can access them.
There is a need for a sense of fairness in dealing with the issue. The State is paying high legal costs at a time when there have been pay cuts and reductions in social welfare payments and there are higher taxes. Some of the money collected from hard-pressed taxpayers is used to pay fees of €2,500 and more to those who represent the State in tribunals or the courts. It is an abuse of privilege. The principle of supply and demand should have an impact, but it does not.
While these are my thoughts, I wish to quote from the report of the Competition Authority of December 2006. It reads:
It is stated on page 27 of the report that average earnings for senior counsel were €330,000 and that some 76% earned over €100,000. When one speaks to barristers in the Four Courts, one finds that while many of them have very little work to do, average pay is high. It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that there is a strong cartel in operation.
I was critical of the Competition Authority for being slow and taking a number of years to produce the report. Recommendation No. 1 was, “Establish an independent legal services commission to oversee the regulation of legal services”, which was to be actioned by June 2008. Recommendation No. 2 was, “Have an independent body to set standards for solicitor training”, which was also to be actioned by June 2008. Recommendation No. 3 was, “An independent body should set standards for barrister training and approve those institutions”, which again was to be implemented by June 2008. Recommendation No. 5 was: “The current system of reciprocity and recognition of legal training of non-EEA lawyers should be replaced by mirroring the existing provisions for EEA lawyers”.
Recommendation No. 6 was: "Remove unnecessary barriers to switching between the branches of solicitor and barrister". Recommendation No. 8 was, "Allow unlimited direct access to barristers' legal advice", which was to be implemented by December 2007.
Recommendation No. 13 was: “Allow employed barristers represent their employers in court”. Again, this was to be implemented by December 2007. Recommendation No. 15 was: “Remove restrictions on solicitors advocating in court”. This, too, was to have been implemented by December 2007. While there was some progress made, I have been told by some solicitors that they are reluctant to take on the role of being the advocate, particularly in the superior courts, because of a danger of bias to their client, where the arguments of barristers on the other side might receive preference from the bench.
Recommendation No. 22 was: “Advise barristers that the practice whereby junior counsel charge fees at two-thirds of senior counsel’s fee is anti-competitive”. This was to be implemented by March 2007 and was, apparently, but the practice continues and the State still pays two thirds of senior counsel’s fee to junior counsel, despite the recommendation. Recommendation No. 26 was: “Legal costs should be assessed on the basis of work done.” This was to be introduced immediately. Recommendation No. 27 was: “Cease the practice of taxing junior counsel fees at two-thirds of the senior counsel.” This was to be implemented immediately. Recommendation No. 29 was: “Examine the possibility of introducing competitive tendering for the provision of legal services.” This was to have happened by December 2008.
Many good people employed within the legal profession render a great service to the State and many of them also do significant pro bono work. However, we must accept that in practice, there is a total lack of competition within the system. It is one of the few areas that has been left untouched. This runs counter to the competitiveness programme we now need to implement across all sectors if the economy is to be restored to good health. Given the report was produced in December 2007 and we have failed to implement it, we now have changes being imposed on us by the EU-IMF deal. I urge that we accelerate and embrace all of the recommendations of the report. I am aware the Minister of State is new to this issue, but I look forward to hearing what progress is being made and how soon we can expect real and effective competition in this important profession that serves our community. This is a fundamental issue for State expenditure also.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Seán Haughey): I am glad to report on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Law Reform that the Government has been progressing measures for reform in the legal sector for some time. A working group to look at ways of reducing legal costs reported in November 2005 and its recommendations were endorsed by the Government. At that point it was recognised that preliminary work would be needed to implement the recommendations across the operational, policy and legislative areas. Consequently, in January 2006 an implementation advisory group was established with seven members from the legal, business, academic and public sectors. The implementation advisory group reported in November 2006, building on the earlier working group recommendations. The Competition Authority also made recommendations with regard to solicitors and barristers as part of its review of competition in professional services and these were published in December 2006.
Building on the working and advisory group reports, the Minister’s Department has been developing proposals for a legal costs Bill. The Bill will replace, in modern language, the Office of the Taxing Master and establish new principles for the assessment of all costs. The Bill will also provide for greater transparency with regard to how legal costs are estimated or agreed with clients and invoiced. The scope of the Bill will extend to both solicitors and barristers. At the same time, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation has been working with the Competition Authority and the relevant professional bodies on the wider competitiveness issues they have raised. The earlier development of competitiveness measures for the legal sector had been taking place in line with commitments in the Government legislative programme. Latterly this work has been deepened by its inclusion in the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014 and the EU-IMF Programme of Financial Support for Ireland. Under the EU-IMF programme, structural reforms are to include the establishment of an independent regulator for the legal profession, with implementation of the recommendations of the legal costs working group and of outstanding Competition Authority recommendations to reduce legal costs. These structural reforms are for review by the end of the third quarter of 2011.
Government policy on the need for changes regarding the legal professions has been reflected in the Legal Services Ombudsman Act 2009 which provides for the establishment of a legal services ombudsman and in the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008 which provides for a number of other matters relating to regulation of the solicitors’ profession.  Recruitment of the ombudsman by the Public Appointments Service commenced in November, and an appointment will be made in the near future. Other cost reduction measures have included the active promotion of alternative dispute resolution as an alternative to expensive litigation in areas such as commercial and family law.
The Competition Authority made a series of recommendation addressed directly to the legal professional bodies. In its annual report for 2009 the authority notes that while the Bar Council has implemented many of the recommendations addressed to it, the recommendations to allow direct access to barristers for legal advice and to allow barristers to operate in groups have not yet been implemented. However, I understand that the Bar Council has authorised a number of approved organisations and their members to have direct professional access to barristers in non-contentious issues. The scheme does not extend to court appearances, but is limited to advisory work. The number of approved bodies has risen to almost 50 and most barristers make themselves available for direct provisional access work. The Competition Authority also makes clear in its annual report that the Law Society has either completed or progressed all of the recommendations addressed to it.
With regard to the Competition Authority recommendations addressed to the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, a key proposal was that legislation should be brought forward to establish a legal services commission, an independent statutory body with overall responsibility for regulating the legal profession and the market for legal services. The commission would delegate, subject to its oversight, day-to-day regulation to the existing professional bodies. The commission would also undertake research and analysis of the market for legal services to identify areas of reform for the benefit of consumers or the functioning of the market and would set guidelines for the assessment of costs in contentious matters. An independent body such as the legal services commission would, on the basis of the authority’s recommendations, be given the function to set standards for the provision of solicitor and barrister training and to approve institutions providing such training.
I can inform the House that the details of the proposals for the legal costs Bill are well advanced in the Department of Justice and Law Reform and that the question of better regulation generally of the legal professions is being considered in the context of that Bill, as well as any implications the changes might have for the Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman. The details will be published in due course following their approval by the Government.
Senator Jim Walsh: I thank the Minister of State for his response and welcome the provisions to which he alluded, in particular the legal costs Bill. I look forward to seeing that and to it replacing the Office of the Taxing Master. It is imperative that we have independent regulation in all sectors of the economy, particularly this sector. The Minister of State will acknowledge that, to date, any changes made have done nothing to improve the competitiveness element of the sector or to get better value for money from the point of view of legal service users. This must be the priority. I note the review will be finished by the end of the third quarter, which is five years since the Competition Authority report. It is important with regard to issues of this nature, which impinge on the average person and the State apparatus, that we are more responsive to our public service initiatives. I hope public service reform will prioritise the acceleration of issues such as this.
I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. He alluded to the fact that this may be his last day in the Seanad for a while. I hope he is wrong because I would like to see him back again. He has been an extraordinarily good Minister of State in the Department of Education and Skills, particularly in the area of adult learning and literacy where he has taken a great lead. Much of the work he has done will stand that sector in good stead in the future. He is a former distinguished Member of the Seanad and has distinguished himself as a Minister of State. He is from a great lineage which has made a tremendous contribution to the State. I thank him and wish him well.
Deputy Seán Haughey: I thank the Senator.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I join Senator Walsh in wishing the Minister of State the best of luck in the forthcoming general election.
The Seanad adjourned at 4.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 26 January 2010.