Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the jobs initiative and competitiveness (resumed), to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 1 p.m., with eight minutes for spokespersons and five minutes for all other Senators, and the Minister to reply not later than 12.55 p.m.; No. 2, statements on European affairs and the European Union’s role on enterprise, innovation and job creation, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 4.30 p.m., with 12 minutes for spokespersons and eight minutes for all other Senators, and the Minister to reply not later than 4.25 p.m.; and No. 11, Private Members’ motion re distressed homeowners, to commence at 4.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 6.30 p.m.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: I would like to thank the Leader for a couple of things. The debate yesterday on Seanad reform was very useful. The CPP in the House has met Members of all parties and we all share a desire to move swiftly with reforms in the House. I would like to ask the Leader about the progress made on the CPP with the formation of the Seanad petitions committee. This will be an important step for the House because it will enable Members and parties to call in people from outside the House, including parliamentarians from other jurisdictions and experts in certain fields.
I was pleased to hear that the Minister for Health is to attend the House on 7 July. That is important and the Government must be commended for the number of Ministers who have given their time to this House. The discussion on health will be important. How much time is being given to this debate?
We had a good debate last week on the Finance (No. 2) Bill 2011 and the Leader provided extra time for it, which was welcome. Yesterday’s Irish Examiner contained a story that 75% of defined benefit pension schemes are in deficit, and that the Pensions Board has warned the Minister for Social Protection on the unhealthy state of three quarters of these schemes. In response to the report, the Minister stated that the Government is committed to reforming the pensions system to ensure its sustainability. I am glad to hear that. The Minister and the Government took a major step in reforming the pensions industry and private pension schemes but not for the better.
The Government has not published any of the written correspondence or written advice given to it prior to the introduction of the pensions levy. It is a substantial levy that will raise €450 million per year over four years. The Taoiseach was asked a number of times to publish the documentation, and this has been standard practice for the last ten or 15 years. It was mentioned in the House that the same Minister for Social Protection wrote to the Taoiseach expressing her concerns that the levy could have a very negative impact on pensions and pension provision. I agree with the Minister.
It is interesting to hear her say that the Government is committed to reforming the pensions sector. It has reformed it, but it has not done so in a way that will assist pension provision. Then it transpires that officials from the Department of Finance warned the Taoiseach that the policy the Government was considering could seriously undermine the pensions sector. Why has the Government moved away from the normal practice over the last ten or 15 years of publishing advice? They have not yet published the advice and the Taoiseach refuses to do so. The only reason these matters have come to light is based on freedom of information requests. That is a serious departure from normal parliamentary procedure. We discussed this last week in respect of statements being made outside this House and initiatives presented to the media rather than the Oireachtas. When will the Taoiseach publish the supporting documentation and the advice he was given prior to the introduction of the 0.6% pension levy? With 75% of defined benefit schemes badly underfunded, is the Government concerned that many of these schemes will be wound up and made insolvent? Those with an expectation of pensions in retirement will find their pension schemes wiped out. This will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Senator Ivana Bacik: Yesterday, Senator Norris raised the case of the Magdalene laundries. Perhaps we can have a debate in this House on the initial report, which is to be made to the Cabinet by the interdepartmental committee announced by the Government. Senator Norris and others have raised ongoing issues that have come to light in respect of the Magdalene laundries. I refer to the article by Mary Raftery in The Irish Times of two days ago, which outlined the ways in which health and safety and factories legislation should have applied to these laundries. A further article by Patsy McGarry in The Irish Times today outlined that many Departments used the services of the laundries, which were able to undercut other laundry services because they were paying no wages to the incarcerated women. We need to have a debate on this in the Seanad as soon as the interdepartmental committee has made its report. I welcome the announcement of the interdepartmental committee to investigate the facts. We must keep oversight of this within the Legislature, as well as having the Government call the independent committee.
I ask the Leader for a debate on education. Others called for a debate on the allocation of special needs assistants. In response, the Leader said that the Department of Education and Skills has given a clear and welcome indication that existing levels of special needs assistants in special schools will be maintained in order to protect and assist the most vulnerable children. The Department will ensure all schools that enrol children with significant care needs will have special needs assistant support allocated to the school. However, there is concern about a reduction in the number of special needs assistants. The previous Government decided to cap the special needs assistant posts in 2010.
Senator Ivana Bacik: In fairness, we need a debate on this to ensure all children who require special needs assistants receive the service. The context of this must be understood. If we call on the Minister for Education and Skills to attend the Chamber for a debate on special needs assistants, we should also have him discuss the severe cuts to the visiting teacher service for Travellers and the resource teacher allocation for Travellers. There has been much less publicity about that. I have been contacted by someone who works with the visiting teacher service for Travellers and many of us have been contacted by those concerned about the damage this will do to the inclusion of Traveller children in the education system. An EU funded report from 2008 refers to the visiting teacher service for Travellers in Ireland as being successful in increasing the participation of Traveller children. The reaction was positive and the Department of Education and Skills, in its circular, acknowledged that few initiatives in the area of Traveller education have been as successful as the appointment of visiting teachers who liaise between travelling families, schools and other agencies. We need a debate on that and whether the cut is necessary. It seems to have far too serious an impact on the education and inclusion of Traveller children.
Senator Katherine Zappone: On 20 June, last Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This was a groundbreaking achievement, upholding the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was also an historic resolution as it was the first UN resolution to bring specific focus to human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The resolution also affirms the universality of human rights, that it extends to every human being, and notes concerns about acts of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The resolution specifically requests the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a study on violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Hopefully, this will be finalised by the end of the year. The resolution also calls for a panel discussion to be held at the Human Rights Council to discuss the findings of the study in a constructive and transparent manner and to consider appropriate follow-up measures.
I raise this issue in order to draw our attention, as lawmakers, to an historic resolution on human rights emanating from the UN Human Rights Council. I also raise this issue because it has a direct bearing on the fact that Ireland has marked the one-year anniversary of the Government’s withdrawal of its appeal in the case of Dr. Lydia Foy. We are one year on from the Government’s acknowledgement that Ireland is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights because of its failure to provide for the issuing of new birth certificates to transgender persons. Dr. Lydia Foy cannot change her birth certificate. She has been on this legal journey for 14 years and I hail her as a courageous, brave and perseverant change maker. Four years ago, the High Court first ruled that the failure to recognise Dr. Lydia Foy in her female gender and to provide her with a new birth certificate was a violation of human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. Mr. Justice McKechnie declared that Ireland is isolated within the member states of the Council of Europe and must be further disconnected from mainstream thinking.
Last year, the Government formed the interdepartmental gender recognition advisory group to provide recommendations for legislation required for legal recognition of the acquired gender of transsexuals. The group has been established under the Department of Social Protection. I am deeply concerned that so much time has passed since the judgment and the establishment of the advisory group. The current situation causes severe distress to many transgender people in Ireland, affecting their health, their families and their jobs. I ask the Leader for an update from the Minister for Social Protection on the following questions. When will the recommendations of the advisory group be made to the Minister? Will the Minister make the recommendations public? This will assist our work if they are made public, specifically when we come to the consideration of the Bill that will better protect and promote the human rights of transgender people in Ireland by providing them with legal recognition.
Senator David Norris: I need hardly say that I support everything that was so eloquently said by Senator Zappone. I need saying nothing more because that matter is in capable hands. She will have my support when such a debate takes place.
Regarding the Order of Business, we had a good start but it seems we are wobbling and I wish to signal a number of concerns. The first concerns the fact that Private Members’ business will be at 4.30 p.m. It used to take place between 5 p.m and 7 p.m. Under the previous Government, I complained when there are variations. All of us are busy and committed politicians and it is helpful to put a clear date and time for specific recurring debates. I respectfully ask the Leader to ensure we continue the practice so that we know that Private Members’ business will be between 5 p.m and 7 p.m on Wednesday. There may be special reasons for the timing.
The other point is that there is a certain flabbiness about the debates today. They are all in the format of statements and were introduced by the Leader in such a way as to suggest that it is all more or less the same debate. The matters itemised for consideration by us were virtually the same.
I am glad that Senator Bacik took up the issue of the Magdalene laundries. Perhaps it will receive further coverage by us in this House. It is interesting and ironic that this new information came from a ledger that was unearthed when bodies were exhumed on foot of a sale of land by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity as a consequence of financial losses on an unwise investment in Guinness Peat Aviation. This puts the matter in an interesting context. As I suggested yesterday, all kinds of surprising sources will be found because a variety of institutions used the facilities, whether knowingly or not. The issue is not confined to one religious group, however. One of my favourite stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners, “Clay”, is about a laundry called the Dublin by Lamplight Laundry, which was run by Protestants at the beginning of the last century. It was a real laundry, the ledger books of which were unearthed by my academic colleague, the late Professor Florence Walzl from Milwaukee. It is something we have to address as a society.
I ask the Leader to pass on to the relevant Ministers the Seanad’s regret at the riots that have taken place in Northern Ireland over the past several days. It is awful to think there is a possibility we could go backwards. The riots have been described as sectarian but I do not believe that is the case because members of the Protestant community stated on the radio this morning that they are terrified of the UVF. The members of the UVF are gangsters and it is the same as claiming that the branch of extreme republicanism which is involved in drugs and trying to create explosions represents the Roman Catholic population. If there is anything we can do to assist, all of us, who have been democratically elected through one route or another, would wish to play a constructive role.
I ask that we send our collective congratulations to RTE. It is a small broadcaster in a small country but it won the major award and 17 other individual awards at the biggest broadcasting competition in the world. That is fantastic and RTE should take a bow. There is further good news because we are among the three finalists to be appointed European city of design. That shows we still possess the creative, imaginative and inspirational spirit.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I concur with Senator Bacik regarding the danger of the severe cuts to resource teachers for Traveller children. These cuts will not only affect Traveller children; they will affect all our children. Travellers are particularly at risk of early school leaving. Last autumn this House completed an Oireachtas report on preventing early school leaving which heard from many parts of society and I ask the Leader to provide time to debate that report at the earliest opportunity.
An important event is taking place today in the Department of Education and Skills, namely, the first of three discussion days on a national forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary school sector. The Catholic Church has been our main patron for many years but other groups now want to become patrons, not least Educate Together. This is an important benchmark in the history of Irish education. Seating is reserved for the discussion days but if Members are interested they should take advantage of this opportunity to get involved. The discussions, which are chaired by the eminent Professor John Coolahan, are taking place in the clock tower in the Department of Education and Skills and can be viewed online. When the discussions have concluded, I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, to debate explicitly the findings on school patronage and provide a roadmap of his plans for the issue. This issue cannot be addressed until we finalise these discussions and there are practical ramifications on the ground. For example, efforts to establish a new school are ongoing in Claregalway but the project is being delayed by the issue of naming a patron.
Senator Mary M. White: On Monday, 28, it will be 48 years since John F. Kennedy addressed the Dáil. I was not in the Dáil personally but I had the pleasure of seeing him and I followed his career assiduously for the rest of his life. His assassination at the end of 1963 was a tragedy for us in Ireland. President Kennedy emphasised the interdependence of nations and pointed out that no nation, whether large or small, can be indifferent to the fate of others, near or far. He quoted the following lines from his favourite poet, John Boyle O’Reilly, who was born in the small village of Dowth, outside Drogheda, around 1844:
Last Saturday in Drogheda, the John Boyle O’Reilly Society of Ireland held its inaugural meeting. The society’s objective is to promote greater awareness and appreciation of the poet’s life and work. He was a Fenian and a lover of literature, and was sent to Australia in 1868. However, he used his ingenuity to escape to Boston where he became editor of The Boston Pilot and advocated the rights of Irish people in the United States. President Kennedy became aware of him because of the many monuments that have been erected to him in Boston.
The theme of Saturday’s seminar was whether the Seanad should be abolished. Former Senator Mary O’Rourke and I fought valiantly for the preservation of the House and my colleagues, Senators Whelan and D’Arcy, were very provocative in arguing for abolition. I suggested to Senator John Whelan that he might come to like the House better. We know he was shocked during his initial several days.
Senator Mary M. White: It is more serious than that. My argument was that since 1937 some 12 reports have been produced on reforming the Seanad and in 1979 some 500,000 Irish people supported the seventh amendment to the Constitution to expand the university mandate beyond NUI and TCD. Successive Governments ignored their decision, however.
Senator Mary M. White: It is more important. A vote was taken at the end of the debate. The 120 people in attendance were discerning followers of history. The majority called for reform of the Seanad rather than its abolition. I ask the Leader to pass that message on to the Taoiseach, who impulsively sought cheap political gain without telling my colleagues.
Senator Jimmy Harte: I will withdraw that remark in case it comes back to bite me. I ask that the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade would make a statement on foot of an issue raised by my colleague in the Dáil, Deputy John Lyons. He outlined the difficulties with visas experienced by people in the context of the soccer match due to be played by the Irish soccer team in Moscow on 6 September. That was also the experience of people who travelled to Russia in 2002. I was there and encountered difficulties at the time on entering Moscow Airport. I was one of a few people who had to pay €150 just to get past the passport control area. Many fans were in the same position. The authorities in Russia were unhelpful. I expect up to 6,000 fans to travel to the game on 6 September. I hope it will be an important game, providing we beat Slovakia. I encountered problems myself entering Moscow. It was frustrating for many fans who were kept in the airport for hours after they arrived.
In order to be ahead of the curve the Tánaiste should speak to the Russian embassy in Dublin to ensure a facility is put in place to prevent a reoccurrence of the previous experience which was distressing for many people. My son had gone through passport control and I was held back with other people. There was no facilitation by the Russian authorities, who were quite rude to many people. I do not say Russians are a rude nation but the experience of Irish fans, whom we know are the best behaved fans in the world, was that they received much abuse on that occasion. When we arrived in Moscow the atmosphere was not very welcoming and there was much security around the grounds. Irish fans were treated shabbily by the Russian authorities.
Perhaps the Tánaiste could make a statement to inform us of what has been done in conjunction with the FAI. John Delaney may already be ahead of us. Deputy John Lyons has raised the issue and I wish to back him up. Some Members may intend to go to Russia for the game but I cannot afford to go on this occasion. I am sure there will be many good supporters there to keep the team going. The issue will crop up and there will be many disappointed fans. The cost of the visa is another issue of concern. Previously it was €100 to travel to Russia for a weekend. I urge the Tánaiste to seek clarity on the matter.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: Notwithstanding what Senator O’Brien said about the petition committee, I thank all Senators for unanimously passing last night’s Private Members’ motion on the overhaul of how we do business in the Seanad. The debate was productive. Separate to the petition committee, I wish to ask the Leader how soon the CPP will meet to begin to implement the decision on last night’s motion and whether we could see a result of that before the end of July. Will someone come to the floor of the Seanad to address us so that before we rise for the summer we will have seen effective and clear change? That would address Senator White’s anxiety about the continuing audition of Seanad Éireann.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Last week Senator White went on record with the allegation that the university Senators think they are superior to everyone else. It reminded me of the joke about the Corkman with the inferiority complex who thought he was the same as everyone else. Listening to Senator White’s eloquent defence of the Seanad and her case for Seanad reform this morning nobody could believe that anymore. She deserves to be commended for bringing to our attention the deliberations of the group referred to. It should be said that in criticising the Government for its hasty and populist rush with the proposal for Seanad abolition Senator White should also criticise her own party leader and the leader of the Labour Party——
Senator Rónán Mullen: ——for rushing like lemmings down the path of the proposal following the then Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Kenny’s, snatch for this populist idea. It is clear that the way we should be going is rather than a hasty, simplistic proposal to the people which would almost certainly be passed given the general discontent about politics and politicians, we should engage in a staged consultation with the people. I do not know whether it is proposed that this would happen as part of the proposed constitutional convention or whether a separate track of preparation will take place for the referendum on the Seanad. Perhaps the Leader might indicate to us what are the Government’s intentions in that regard because there seems to be a degree of confusion about it.
I have proposed in the past and others have supported the idea that we should opt for a preferendum. On an issue as important as this when, in effect, we are going to shape our political institutions for the next generation, it seems appropriate to put to the people a number of options for their consideration. A debate that would lead up to such a decision by the people in a preferendum of their preferred options could in theory take place at the same time as the Presidential election. Arguably, it would be better than the referendum proposal that is on offer in conjunction with the Presidential election. It would be appropriate to put a number of possibilities to the people, including the option of a reformed Seanad or various possibilities for a reformed Seanad and political system in addition to the straight option of abolition or retaining the status quo. It would be good to ascertain people’s preferences at that point.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I ask the Leader’s view on that. Arising from the consultation with the people, because that is what such a preferendum would amount to, we could then have a clear idea about what precise proposal to put to people about political reform and Seanad reform at a later stage. I have no doubt that if one puts the question to the people, one would get a gradation of different positions. I doubt there is a clear majority in favour of one position as against another. As Senator White rightly said, people would abolish the Seanad if it was a straight option between things continuing as they are and abolition, but many would adopt a more nuanced position if they felt there was a genuine intent to reform. It would be a real disservice to the cause of political reform not to give people the opportunity to have a say on the proposition.
Senator Martin Conway: I wish to raise a matter with the Leader that was raised in the House last week, which he may discuss with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. I refer to the disgraceful overcharging that took place in this city for hotel bedrooms last weekend. As we are aware, the Take That concert was on in Dublin at which 80,000 were in attendance. Practically every hotel bedroom in the city was booked. I spoke to constituents who had families in Dublin trying to get on cancellation lists. Telephone calls were received from many prominent hotels in the city to say there was a cancellation but the room which would normally cost between €80 and €120 on a Saturday night would be a minimum of €250 and up to €400 in some cases. That type of behaviour is appalling in a country that is trying to get back on its feet, promote itself internationally and get 450,000 people who are unemployed back to work.
Senator Martin Conway: It appears that the hotel industry is incapable of regulating itself. Given that, the Minister must consider introducing some form of regulation because that is the type of behaviour that destroys our reputation internationally. It was prevalent during the years of the Celtic tiger. It is absolute greed and should be dealt with. The Irish Hotels Federation has done nothing about this. I have heard no statement condemning the behaviour of the hotel industry in this city last weekend. As such, at this stage the Minister may need to consider some form of regulation. I suggest to the Leader that he raise this with the Minister.
Senator David Cullinane: I condemn in the strongest possible terms the violence we have seen in Belfast in the last couple of nights. While some in small sections of the media have attempted to characterise this as a clash between two communities, many seasoned commentators and security spokespersons in the North have correctly characterised it as an attack on a small Nationalist enclave. The involvement of the east Belfast brigade of the UVF in these clashes is sinister. I spoke to people on the ground in that community this morning and yesterday, and there is real fear about what is happening.
It would be helpful if this House were to adopt an all-party motion condemning the violence. In addition, we could explore the possibility of a visit by a cross-section of the parties and groups from this House to the Assembly to meet the parties and those who are involved with communities in these flashpoint areas. We must play our part in making sure that peace and dialogue are the way forward.
This is an important issue because there is an attempt by some in that organisation — one of those armed groups that have not left the stage — to bring people back to where they were in previous times. I am convinced the vast majority of Nationalists, republicans, Unionists and loyalists are not minded to go back. Everyone on this island has a job to do in continuing to support the peace process. I ask that my proposal to visit the Assembly be examined by the Leader.
I also ask the Leader whether he could move forward the discussion with the Minister for Health, which is supposed to take place on 7 July. It is important that we have this debate as soon as possible. I spoke to a number of medical professionals in Waterford Regional Hospital yesterday who are concerned about a shortage not just of junior doctors but also of nurses. Interestingly, one issue affecting hospitals is that agency workers are being employed, which affects hospital budgets. This shows that the recruitment embargo is not having the desired effect, because hospitals are spending more money by paying premium rates for agency workers. It does not make sense. The whole thing is not working. I ask for this debate to be taken sooner than planned.
I wish to propose an amendment to the Order of Business. I have asked on several occasions that we have a proper, robust discussion in this Chamber about the future of the joint labour committees. I am fearful that we could end up having a discussion when the Cabinet has carried out its deliberations and the decisions have already been made. That is not good enough. We should have an opportunity to have our say. I propose an amendment that we ask the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to attend the House and take statements from 4.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. and then take Private Members’ business from 6.30 to 8.30 p.m. It is important that we are not sidelined in this important debate and that Members of the House have an opportunity to have their say.
While the Cabinet is considering cutting the incomes of low-income families, perhaps the Leader of the House and his party could consider a Bill tabled by Sinn Féin in the Dáil, which attempts to cut the pay and generous allowances of Oireachtas Members of both Houses. That is what we should be focusing on, not the incomes of low-paid workers.
Senator Denis Landy: I support Senator Mullen’s call for a debate on the proposed referendum on the abolition of the House. Can the Leader find some mechanism for getting the views of what I call the ordinary people of Ireland? There is a view within the media that this is a done deal. I spend most weekends out and about in my community, and there is a strong view among ordinary people who have an interest in the mechanisms of democracy that the Seanad should be reformed but not abolished. The more time we give to sessions such as those held in Louth last weekend, at which a number of Senators spoke, the more this will become apparent.
Does the Leader have any proposals to broaden this debate? He might come back to us with some suggestions. The debate need not all happen within this Chamber but should take place in the community, to the people who will be making the decision. It should not be a “Yes” or “No” question. Good work has been done here over the last couple of days with regard to suggestions for reform of the House.
The second issue I want to raise is a surprising one. I support the comments of Senator Conway about the price of beds in Dublin last weekend. One of our colleagues, who brought his children up to the Take That concert, told me he had to stay in Maynooth because he could not get a room in Dublin.
However, there is another issue, dear to many of our hearts, with regard to prices. I refer to the cost of entry to GAA matches. I ask the Leader to take this matter up with the president of the GAA. We had a paltry announcement last weekend that the cost of tickets was being reduced by €5, but only for scheduled central competition matches. The Munster semi-final between Clare and Tipperary was held in Limerick last Sunday — as Senators all know who won, I do not have to give the result.
Senator Denis Landy: It is relevant, and I will tell the Cathaoirleach why. It goes back to what Senator Conway said. Prohibitive prices mean that people are unable to get out into their communities and spend their money even if they want to.
Senator Denis Landy: The Leader can approach the relevant organisation, Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, and make representations on behalf of this House expressing our concern. Our native games are dying. There were 16,000 people at the Munster semi-final. When the Cathaoirleach and I were boys — the Cathaoirleach was a boy before I was — one could not get a ticket for a Munster semi-final. I was brought to sit on my father’s knee, getting in over the stile. Now we have an attendance of 16,000. It is a disgrace.
The GAA should wake up to the fact that nobody has money in this country. It should allow people the opportunity to go to matches at reduced rates and have a day out on Sunday as they always had. I know the Leader, a good GAA man who follows a great team in Waterford, will address this matter to the president of the GAA.
Senator Paschal Mooney: That comment has probably scuppered Senator Landy’s chances of getting tickets for the All-Ireland matches. He will have to go scurraging in Tipperary for the final. As the Cathaoirleach and some Members of the House will be aware, there was a time, not too distant in memory, when a former Cathaoirleach of this House absolutely resisted any reference to the GAA. The fact that he was a trustee of the organisation might have had something to do with it.
I share Senator Cullinane’s concerns about the events in Belfast. It was depressing to watch the images coming from outside the Parliament building in Greece and then, on the same Sky News bulletin, to see young thugs — because that is all they were — firing stones and creating mayhem in a small Catholic enclave in Belfast. Contrary to what the Senator said — this may reassure him — it was made absolutely clear by both the assistant chief constable of the PSNI and the media itself that the initiators came from the east Belfast brigade of the UVF. It did not originate from the Catholic side in any way. This is the conclusion I and, I am sure, others came to based on the reports emanating from Belfast. This House should continue to be alert to any threat to the ongoing peace process.
I wish to refer briefly to the comments made by Senator Conway. I have no difficulty with the main thrust of what he said, but I suggest that the Leader might afford the House an opportunity at some time in the future, in the context of a debate on tourism, to try to reduce the cost burden on our hotel sector. As a former chairman of Fáilte Ireland North West, I was aware that whenever there were major events in the region, certain hotels would increase their prices, as happened for the most recent event in Dublin. However, if one looks at hotels.com, the worldwide website for monitoring hotel prices, one will see Ireland now has the cheapest hotel rooms in Europe.
We should be promoting a positive image of our hotel sector, notwithstanding the comments made by Senator Conway. He is right in defending the consumer, but there is another side to the story. It would be helpful if the cost burden on hotels were reduced. They are attempting to be as competitive as possible. One can get a four-star bedroom in this city throughout the year for between €60 and €75 per night, with all of the attendant services.
Regarding the matter raised earlier by Senator Healy Eames, last evening I raised a matter on the Adjournment relating to the withdrawal of school bus services from the Traveller community at Mohill and Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim. In his reply, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, claimed the withdrawal of these services was an attempt to mainstream Traveller children into the school transport system.
Senator Paschal Mooney: The real reason that emerged from the reply, however, is that the Traveller community will no longer enjoy its exemption from the distance requirement of 4.5 km from the school that applies to school transport. This is simply a cost-saving exercise.
Will the Minister for Education and Skills, for whom I have enormous respect and who has been a personal friend of mine for many years, explain to the House why the most discriminated group in society will not be encouraged to send their children to school through the absence of a school transport facility? Removing the exemption from distance-to-school rule is simply a cost-saving exercise, the amount of which will probably be minimal. I hope the Minister will reverse this decision.
Senator Jim D’Arcy: Will the Leader bring the Taoiseach’s attention to the results of the seminar on the abolition of the Seanad to which Senator Mary White referred? The clincher argument at this seminar was that abolishing the Seanad would lead to a democratic deficit with the checks and balances necessary to a functioning democracy diluted. I have no interest in spending the next five years here arguing whether the Seanad should be abolished. Having an effective and efficient Seanad with the participation of all Members is the best way for those who believe reform of the Seanad is the answer.
The great democratic deficit in this country is that we are beholden to the kindness of strangers and that we have lost our economic sovereignty. We are a vassal state. The great task for all of us is to restore our economic independence.
What the Minister has done with special needs assistants, SNAs, is not highly significant. Last Thursday, the Seanad debated the provision of language support teachers. When I suggested that 1,400 language support teachers was too many, a Member on the other side laughed at me. I recall in 2007 when the then Minister appointed 200 more language support teachers, some schools went from having two to six support teachers with no proper evaluation of children’s need for language support until 2008. It was like putting the cart before the horse.
Over 10,000 SNAs are assigned to schools, not individual pupils. The system, however, needs to be regulated more with an emphasis on value for money. From my teaching experience, I remember a special education needs organiser, SENO, informing me that a child coming from another school did not require a special needs assistant as he only had behavioural problems. While I argued he did, the SENO won in the end and the child did not receive a SNA. The boy now is much better off and his independence has increased while his behavioural problems have reduced. It is not always a clear cut case of just providing a SNA. Their roles also need to be defined.
Senator Jim D’Arcy: I agree with Senator Bacik on the need for support teachers for Traveller children. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Skills to clarify how Traveller children will be supported in his new dispensation?
Senator John Crown: I wish to raise a little “Is féidir linn” success story which the Leader could forward to the Minister for Health and the Minister of State with responsibility for medical research to see how it could be developed. Recently, the All Ireland Co-operative Oncology Research Group, ICORG, celebrated its twelfth anniversary. It was founded at a time when Ireland, uniquely for a western country, had no national structure for organised national cancer clinical trials. These trials of new treatments for patients have been shown to advance treatment for cancer, make new treatments available at an earlier stage in the development of the drugs and, generally, raise standards in the health services. They are an index of quality in a health service.
Since its humble beginning when there were only five cancer specialists in the country, ICORG has had a spectacular growth, now having 350 members from medical, surgical, radiation and oncology communities in addition to cancer nurses and scientists. It has brought millions of euro worth of free treatment drugs into the country while establishing a large national network which has provided 100 jobs for skilled researchers in the clinical support area. More importantly, it has resulted in a net increase of funds coming into the country from major international pharmaceutical companies, research charities and other international research groups. It also led to the development of local affiliates of major international research companies which previously only had sales forces based in Ireland.
As a result, Ireland now punches way above its weight in cancer clinical trials. In the United States, 3% of patients diagnosed with cancer join such trials. In Ireland, in 2009 over 30% of patients diagnosed with breast cancer were enrolled on trials. Two drugs, Glivec and Herceptin, which have been shown to have major survival prolongation impact for patients with leukaemia and breast cancer, respectively, became available to cancer patients in this country substantially earlier than they were for patients in other countries, due to the efforts and success of ICORG in attracting clinical trials at an earlier stage. ICORG, of which I humbly admit I was the co-founder, is now leading many international studies and is rightly proud of what it has achieved.
Will the Leader ask the relevant Ministers if they would consider a voluntary redeployment of those in officialdom in the health system who have been designated potential candidates for redundancy as a result of the perception of an excess of some people in official capacities following the merger of the health boards into the Health Service Executive? I do not believe we can ethically take people who were guaranteed permanent and pensionable jobs and force them into redundancy. In a time of national emergency, it strikes me that people who have both given service and have the privilege of permanent and pensionable jobs should be used to the best advantage of the taxpayer.
I request that the Leader ask the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, and the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Sherlock, if it might be possible to consider the introduction of some form of voluntary redeployment scheme. If we had access to the skills of an additional five, eight or ten people — these individuals, who might otherwise be looking down the barrel at some type of redundancy, could be redeployed from official capacities in the Health Service Executive — in the clinical trial support area, we could increase both the number of studies that are carried out and the number of new drugs that could be introduced. In addition, we could bring millions of extra euro worth of free drugs into the health service and the economy.
Last week the Leader stated that the House is to engage in a debate on food labelling in the next three weeks. Will he indicate when this debate will proceed and identify the Minister or Minister of State who will come before the House to take it?
I am sure every Member has received a copy of the report circulated by the IFA — which it commissioned from UCD academics — on the agrifood sector. Will time be made available for a debate on Food Harvest 2020 or the future of the agrifood sector in Ireland? This is a critical indigenous sector but it was omitted from the list of sectoral initiatives included under the jobs initiative, which is designed to assist with the creation of employment.
The Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs is due to come before the House today in order to discuss enterprise, innovation and competitiveness. When will she be coming here to discuss the outcome of the meeting of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council?
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senators Darragh O’Brien and Mac Conghail referred to the petitions committee. That matter will be discussed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, next week. It is the intention that — regardless of its title — such a committee will be established and that people will come before it to make representations. It is also intended that relevant individuals will be invited to come before the House to address Members. There are already mechanisms in place which will facilitate the latter. It is the wish of every Senator that this matter be progressed. As stated, the CPP will discuss it next week with a view to moving it forward.
The Minister for Health will be coming before the House on 7 July. It is proposed that we should have a normal two-hour debate on health matters on that date. If necessary, we can either extend the time available or adjourn the debate and complete it at a time that would be suitable for the Minister. At times it is very difficult to encourage Ministers to make time available in their schedules in order that they might come before the House. With that in mind, I do not intend to accept the amendment tabled by Senator Cullinane. The Minister will come before the House on 7 July to discuss all health matters.
Senator Maurice Cummins: It is a fact that 75% of defined benefit pension schemes are going to be in deficit. The Minister for Social Protection is due to come before the House tomorrow to take the debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill and perhaps she might comment on some of the points made by Senator Darragh O’Brien in respect of that matter.
I dealt previously with the recommendations relating to the Magdalene homes, particularly in the context of the interdepartmental committee that has been established. I agreed that the House would engage in a debate on the recommendations when the committee submits its report.
Senator Zappone referred to the UN Human Rights Council’s report and matters relating to sexual orientation and stated that we were in breach of human rights laws. In that context, she asked for an update in respect of the advisory group. I will try to ascertain from the relevant Minister the up-to-date position on that matter and I will contact the Senator as soon as I receive a reply.
Senator Norris inquired about Private Members’ business, the time slot for which has been changed to 4.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. The Senator is correct to state that the House has not dealt with much legislation this week. However, we are due to take Second Stage of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill tomorrow and the Committee and Report Stages of this legislation will be taken next week. In addition, the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill is also due to be taken next week. The House will, therefore, deal almost exclusively with legislation next week.
Senator Healy Eames referred to the report on early school learning and the patronage of schools. The forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary school is beginning its work today. I am sure the Minister for Education and Skills will be willing to come before the House to discuss those matters when the forum issues its report.
Senator White referred to Seanad reform. I am glad the debate on such reform and the abolition of the House has already begun. Were he alive, I do not know how John Boyle O’Reilly would vote on the matter. There is no doubt that, in the coming 12 months or so, the debate on this issue will be extremely lively.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator Harte referred to the difficulties soccer fans were experiencing in respect of obtaining visas for the game with Russia in particular. This is a matter which is close to my heart and I have received representations from quite a number of people about the previous occasion on which the national team played in Russia. The other team which the Republic is due to play — the name of which the Senator could not recall — is Armenia. I will make representations to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in respect of this matter. It is expected that several thousand Irish supporters will be travelling to Russia and we hope they will be treated with dignity and respect when they go there.
Senator Mullen referred to the proposed constitutional convention and whether the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad came within the remit thereof. I am not quite sure of the position in this regard. Neither am I sure that it is possible to hold a “preferendum” rather than a referendum. That is a matter in respect of which legal advice will have to be taken.
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Senator may be more au fait than I with regard to the legal aspects of the matter. I am informed that at present it is not possible to hold a “preferendum” and that a referendum is the accepted model. However, the position can be clarified at a later stage.
Senator Conway referred to the astronomical increase in the prices charged for hotel rooms when major events, concerts, etc., were taking place. This is a certainly a cause for concern at a time when we are trying to build up the tourism industry and encourage more people to come here. The Irish Hotels Federation and the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport should intervene in respect of this issue.
Senator David Cullinane: On a point of order, the amendment I tabled does not relate to the Minister for Health. It requests that the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation come before the House.
Senator Maurice Cummins: On JLCs, the House is to resume its debate on the jobs initiative and competitiveness following the Order of Business. I suggest that the topic of JLCs could be addressed during said debate.
Senator Landy also referred to the cost of hotel rooms and to the cost of tickets for GAA matches. As someone on the Opposition benches stated, it was not possible to mention the GAA in the House when one of the Cathaoirleach’s predecessors was in the Chair. The GAA’s central council has reduced the price of tickets and I hope the provincial councils will do likewise. Nothing has been forthcoming in this regard as of yet but I will certainly be applying for a ticket for the Munster final at which, it is to be hoped, my county will give Tipperary a game.
Senator Mooney raised the issue of school transport and also referred to the cost of hotel rooms. I hope to have the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, in the House next week to discuss the whole area of school transport, when that matter can be discussed.
Senator D’Arcy spoke about the democratic deficit and restoring our economic independence. I agree totally with him in that regard. I respect his views on special needs assistants. We will have the opportunity to discuss that matter when we discuss school transport.
Senator Crown mentioned advances in radiation oncology, the funds attracted to the country as a result of the association that was set up and the possibility of introducing a voluntary redeployment scheme. We will take up that matter. I am sure the Senator has already raised it with the Minister. It could be desirable.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of food labelling. We will debate it in two weeks time. Within three or four weeks - and certainly before the end of July - I hope to have the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the House to discuss the areas of agriculture and fisheries.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator David Cullinane has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: “That statements on the future of the joint labour committees be taken from 4.30 p.m. until 6 p.m.” Is the amendment being pressed?
|Byrne, Thomas.||Crown, John.|
|Cullinane, David.||Daly, Mark.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Mooney, Paschal.|
|Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O'Brien, Darragh.||O'Donovan, Denis.|
|O'Sullivan, Ned.||Power, Averil.|
|Reilly, Kathryn.||White, Mary M.|
|Wilson, Diarmuid.||Zappone, Katherine.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Brennan, Terry.||Burke, Colm.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Comiskey, Michael.||Conway, Martin.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||D’Arcy, Jim.|
|Gilroy, John.||Harte, Jimmy.|
|Hayden, Aideen.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Henry, Imelda.||Higgins, Lorraine.|
|Keane, Cáit.||Kelly, John.|
|Landy, Denis.||Moloney, Marie.|
|Moran, Mary.||Mullen, Rónán.|
|Mullins, Michael.||Noone, Catherine.|
|Norris, David.||O’Keeffe, Susan.|
|O’Neill, Pat.||Quinn, Feargal.|
|van Turnhout, Jillian.||Whelan, John.|
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