Thursday, 15 December 2011
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Order of Business is No. 3, motion re allocation of moneys to the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund, to be taken without debate; No. 1, Social Welfare Bill 2011 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 3 and conclude not later than 4 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 2, motion for earlier signature of the Social Welfare Bill 2011, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 1. A supplementary Order Paper will issue later today to deal with the Appropriation Bill 2011 and the earlier signature motions for the Appropriation Bill 2011, the Local Government (Household Charge) Bill 2011 and the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Amendment) Bill 2011, following receipt of a message from Dáil Éireann as to the passage of those Bills in that House. They will be taken without debate on the completion of the Social Welfare Bill 2011.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: We are far more cerebral in this House and may need a little more time. I oppose a guillotine and ask the Leader to be flexible with the time allowed for the Social Welfare Bill. There are many sections in the Bill and many important issues to be raised. Everyone who wants to contribute to the debate should be allowed to do so.
Yesterday, last week and the previous week, I raised the issue of the mortgage arrears implementation strategy. Almost 10% of household mortgages are in arrears or distressed and the Government promised to produce a mortgage arrears implementation strategy prior to the budget. That has not been done. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, said he would do it before Christmas. Our recess begins tomorrow. Does the Minister intend to publish it tomorrow or will he do it next week? This is a serious matter and people need to know what the Government will do in response to the Keane report, which is now ten weeks published with no further action emanating from it.
I was surprised to hear the comments of the Minister, Deputy Noonan, yesterday when he took it upon himself in an interview with Bloomberg UK to tell the Irish people that any future referendum would simply be about whether we would be part of the euro. I see that as an over simplistic view of what would be involved in a referendum. I am not sure how the Minister came to that conclusion when the Taoiseach has told us that the detail of the treaty and the legal advice therein is not available to the Government. Does the Minister for Finance know something that the rest of the country does not? If he does, he should at least tell the people. Will the Government give a commitment that, regardless of what legal advice it receives, it will proceed to a referendum on what appear to be fundamental changes to the operation of the European Union, the eurozone and the ECB? Are we to have a referendum and why did the Minister, Deputy Noonan, see fit to comment on Bloomberg UK and not to make those comments in this House? I have rightly made the criticism previously that Ministers should not give press conferences to journalists rather than put out their stall in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I note that my colleague on the other side of the House, Senator John Kelly, has submitted an Adjournment matter on the issue of Garda station closures and restrictions. I suggest that he should not bother coming in if he is to be treated in the manner in which I was treated yesterday by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, which was nothing short of disgraceful. As part of that, the Minister interestingly informed me that — despite the 41 Garda stations across the country that are to be closed and the ten that are to be restricted, in rural and urban areas — the purpose of the change is not directly to save money. Therefore, the Department has not even costed the closures and it is not being done to save money. However, the Minister blamed previous Governments, right back to the 1950s for the fact that he has made the decision ——
Senator Darragh O’Brien: Will the Leader confirm on the question I raised yesterday that in early January we will have a proper debate on the issue of the Garda station closures and restrictions across the country, which are of great concern to citizens throughout the island? This issue needs to be addressed and I hope the Minister will be in better form early in the new year and we may be able to engage properly on the issue.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I agree with Senator O’Brien that we need a debate on the issues around the EU deal done last week and the question of whether we will have a referendum in the new year. I am delighted we will have the opportunity tomorrow, when the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton is here, to try to tease out the question of whether a referendum will be necessary and, if it is to be held, what it will be seen as. I did not hear the Minister for Finance’s initial comments, but I read the interview he gave to The Irish Times in which he says that the practical politics — the shorthand — will be whether we want to maintain Ireland’s position as a eurozone country. We need to tease out whether that is a correct interpretation of how it will be seen and that is a different question from the one as to the content of the referendum. We need more time to debate those issues.
I renew a call for a debate on an issue I raised earlier in the week, on Tuesday, on the ESRI-UCD report on changing family forms. This important report looks at the changing demographic in Ireland and the changing make-up of family and there are political consequences from this. One of these is the need for more flexible work practices and the case for paid paternity leave, even just for a short time, to enable fathers get greater recognition in the workplace. I seek a full debate on this in the new year. I noticed that during the debate on the Social Welfare Bill on Tuesday, the Minister, Deputy Burton, pointed out that the report has implications for social welfare policy and social protection and how payments will be made in the future. A debate on this would be very useful.
I also seek a debate on education. A report from the CSO today indicates that Ireland is joint first in the European Union for third level attainment among those aged between 25 and 34. Some 48% of these have a third level qualification, well above the EU average of one third. This is interesting and a debate on the issue would be beneficial.
All of us will have huge concerns about the report from the historical inquiries team yesterday, on the Miami Showband massacre in 1975, which showed the team found RUC special branch involvement. This is something we need to debate in the House.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I will give a word of advice to the Government through the Leader. It is not the Government’s job to pressurise the people on behalf of Europe, but to pressurise Europe on behalf of the people. When I heard of the comment of the Minister for Finance, it struck me that it was a comment very much in the tradition of the kind of spinning that has gone on over the years with regard to referendums on Europe and decisions to be made about European affairs. In other words, the approach that has always been taken has been to find the best way to get the people to do what the Government wants them to do. That is not good enough in the current crisis. What is needed is a much more considered approach. We need to decide as a country what it is practical for us to achieve in our ongoing dealings, not just with the IMF but with the European Union. Only then should the Government come to a recommendation and make a proposal to the people. I do not like this advance spinning on the issue and anything that suggests this will be a referendum on whether we are in or out of the euro comes under the heading of spin.
While I recognise that many difficult decisions are being taken and many people will inevitably be unfairly targeted by budgetary measures, the abolition of the modern languages in primary schools initiative is a mistake. The initiative costs a paltry €2 million. Someone stated that language was the light of the mind, in that it exposes young people to new horizons and cultures. In recent years, significant work has been done by a small team of people in training and providing resources for teachers in approximately 550 primary schools nationally in order that modern languages other than Irish and English can be delivered to students. The initiative also funds approximately 250 visiting teachers.
The Barcelona agreement and the Lisbon strategy called for systems to be in place by 2010 to facilitate the early learning of at least two foreign languages. Given that EU countries ratified recommendations as recently as November of this year and Ireland pledged to increase its efforts to implement the Barcelona agreement, why is this backward step being taken? It is typical of what occurs at a time when efforts are understandably being made to make cuts, but if one has too short-term an approach, one will do serious damage to the future. The decision should be reversed.
Senator Michael Mullins: Will the Leader arrange a briefing from the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and the Financial Regulator early in the new year on the manner in which Irish banks do business? The matter has two elements. First, banks are failing to lend to small businesses and, in many cases, are not honouring existing overdraft arrangements. As a result of these policies, many small businesses and retail outlets will go to the wall in the new year.
Second, according to Mr. Charlie Weston in this morning’s Irish Independent, non-commercial customers who are overdrawn on their bank accounts are being treated unfairly by the banks, yet the regulator has no plans to fine the latter. Instead, the Central Bank has directed a number of banks to cease treating customers poorly in terms of current account charges. This is a matter of grave concern to every banking customer. Being briefed by the Minister and the regulator on how banks propose to do business in 2012 would be appropriate. Unless we do something to free up credit to small businesses, there will be serious consequences for business.
Senator Jim Walsh: Previously, Senator Mullins and others raised the issue of investigation by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, into the abuse of privilege by RTE’s “Prime Time Investigates” programme when it libelled Fr. Kevin Reynolds. I am disturbed that the Minister’s initiative to order an independent inquiry by the BAI’s complaints commission has been siphoned off to a former reporter with the BBC. I have expressed concerns about the BAI and its complaints committee specifically. The inquiry will determine whether the Broadcasting Act was breached by RTE. This is a legal question, not a journalistic one. To be honest, it does not appear that the inquiry will be critical of RTE. Given the fact that the BAI is headed by a former director general of RTE, the level of independence and transparency that I would seek in an important inquiry is not present.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Our good friend, Senator Darragh O’Brien, wrongs the Minister, Deputy Noonan. The Minister was upfront and fair on the issue. We are all in the business of protecting the euro. To that end, the intergovernmental agreement concerns tougher new rules. As the Senator knows, the issue will be painted in a simplistic manner. Perhaps his party is guilty in this regard. I suspect he knows that anti-euro forces will want to take us out of the eurozone. No one on the other side of the House wants a return to our currency being tied to sterling. It would be disastrous for trade. Neither would Opposition Members want to return to the punt, given the fact that we could suffer a severe devaluation overnight.
We need total fiscal discipline and proper budgetary oversight. The agreement is concerned with these requirements. I look forward to tomorrow’s debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton. Clarifying the details of the agreement could take until March. Until then, the Attorney General will not be able to rule on whether a referendum will be required.
Senator Sean D. Barrett: This morning, the chairman of the fiscal council stated that he hoped to have his proposals on the promised fiscal responsibility Bill ready by February. Yesterday, we learned that the Department of Finance hoped to have its proposals ready by April. With the agreement of all speakers, we had a wide-ranging and superb discussion on fiscal responsibility yesterday, some three months ahead of the fiscal council’s proposals and five months ahead of the Department’s. Does the Leader agree that this reflects the superior efficiency of Seanad Éireann in conducting its business compared with other bodies?
Senator Deirdre Clune: My opinions on the question of a referendum are similar to Senator Paul Coghlan’s, in that there is no proposal as yet. Last week’s political agreement will be transposed into text before Christmas, after which time the Attorney General will make a wise decision. Yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Noonan, discussed what would happen in the event of a referendum.
The agreement is on introducing further fiscal constraint, budgetary oversight, firewalls, etc. Twenty-six member states will consider the proposals. If Ireland holds a referendum, it is clear that our position in the eurozone will be in question, but our membership of the EU will not. Continuing in the eurozone would not be tenable if the people were to reject last week’s proposals.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Tá cuid mhaith iascairí, beaga agus móra, ar fud na tíre atá ag strachailt leis an tionscal i láthair na huaire agus tá cainteanna tábhachtacha le bheith ar siúl sa Bhruiséal maidir le tionscal na hiascaireachta. Bheadh sé go maith dá bhféadfaimís an t-Aire atá ag plé leis seo a fháil isteach sa Teach chomh luath agus is féidir san ath-bhliain, le plé a dhéanamh ar na socraithe atá déanta maidir leis an tionscal seo.
I call for a debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who is visiting Brussels to hear what Commissioner Maria Damanaki has to say about the development of the European fisheries industry.
It is a crucial time for our fishermen. The quota system has been very unfair to them over the years. I wish the Minister well in negotiations on an increased quota. We need a better deal than we got previously. We met delegations from fishermen’s organisations in committee meetings and they voiced their concerns about the way the quota system operates and their concerns about the privatisation of quotas, from sovereign quota to an individualised quota that people can buy and trade. Fish production, landing at fishing ports and having it produced and added value, which could create jobs, are other issues. The Minister is fighting his corner on this issue. I would welcome a debate on the fisheries industry with the Minister as soon as possible in the new year.
Senator Catherine Noone: I join Senator Mullins in respect of his comments on the banks. Freeing up credit is a huge issue and, regardless of the hassle banks have with people in difficulties with overdrafts, customers should be treated with the utmost respect by banks, regardless of how much credit or debt they have. The ambiguity with respect to charges and treatment of customers generally by leading banks is reprehensible. People are beside themselves with worry at this time of year because of the way they are being treated. It is not unusual for people to have difficulties with finances and they need to be treated with the utmost respect. Automated systems and irregular charges are a matter of concern and I welcome Senator Mullins’s suggestion that the Minister for Finance comes to the House. We do not need to be involved in the day-to-day running of the banks but if we are large shareholders we need to know that they are doing their business properly and treating people with the respect they deserve.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: I refer to health matters, concerning community nursing units. I attended a meeting in my constituency on Friday night, attended by more than 600 people about the potential closure of Lifford community hospital. The Minister for Health has earmarked 850 beds across the community hospitals for closure. I commend Senator Mary White for the work she has done in representing the needs of older people and the meetings she is attending on this issue. The Minister for Health is distorting the figures, saying the private nursing units are more cost effective than public nursing units. He is not comparing like with like. There are 11 public nursing units in County Donegal and they are working at 70% capacity because of the moratorium on recruitment and because of HIQA. The Department is not willing to make the capital investment required to meet HIQA standards. We need an urgent debate on this issue before community hospitals close. Ultimately, it will be a decision for the Minister for Health and we must inform him that people of Lifford and other areas will not accept their hospitals being closed. I appeal to the Leader to ask the Minister for Health to come to the House today or tomorrow. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business in that regard and hope the Leader will facilitate the Minister for Health coming to the House today.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: The amendment is that the Minister for Health come to the House to discuss the nursing home fiasco facing many communities and attacking the elderly. I support Senator Noone in respect of the banking issue. What the banks are doing is a disgrace and the Government is not tackling the issue. It is glossing over it.
Senator David Norris: January will mark the beginning of an important year and a milestone in literary scholarship. The works of James Joyce will partially come out of copyright. They first came out of copyright in 1991 and they were retrospectively reinserted into copyright some years later as a result of harmonisation measures by the EU. I warned the Government and specifically the Minister responsible that this would happen if he did not seek a derogation, as other countries had done for writers in their countries. This was not done here and that was an oversight when the intellectual copyright legislation was introduced. It is understandable but it is regrettable and it caused major complications. There is a significant deposit of materials, including manuscripts and ephemera, in the National Library, next door to this Chamber. The situation regarding copyright is not entirely clear. Every single international leading scholar in the world of Joyce has written to the library and to the Minister asking for clarification. This will be a big story nationally and internationally and I am concerned that the fall-out from it may be negative for this country, the Department and the National Library, for which I have great respect, if clarification is not given. There will be international conferences, including a major one here, and the question of copyright will be the subject. Will the Leader please contact the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the National library and ask for clarification? Every single international Joyce scholar has put their names to letters seeking clarification and they have not received answers.
Senator Mark Daly: I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 14 be taken as the first item of business. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come into the House and have a debate on visas for the Irish in America. The Bill passed by the US Congress, by 389 to 15, allows for high-skilled individuals from China and India but not Ireland to be granted visas for the United States. The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, led by Ciaran Staunton and assisted by former congressman Bruce Morrison, are trying to table an amendment in the US Senate whereby the Irish will be granted visas as part of the legislation. It is very important for us to allow people to get proper documentation if they decide to emigrate in order that we do not have a new wave of undocumented Irish people in the United States. It does not solve the issue for undocumented Irish citizens over there but I ask the Leader to organise a debate in order that the Minister comes in and addresses the question of the Government’s proposals for the 40,000 undocumented Irish citizens, who cannot come home this Christmas because they will not be able to return to the United States.
Senator Mary M. White: Last night, I attended a public meeting in Ardee, County Louth, organised by Councillor Frank Godfrey and the St. Joseph’s action group against the closure of the nursing home in Ardee and the Cottage Hospital. The people of Ardee will be watching “Oireachtas Report” to see the reaction of my colleagues. HIQA has proposed that the St. Joseph’s nursing home, Ardee, should be closed. It is a home from home. Two days ago, Professor Des O’Neill reported an increase in elder abuse and I suggest that the proposed closure of St. Joseph’s nursing home and the Cottage nursing home is State elder abuse. I am reading To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland by Sean O’Callaghan. Sitting at that meeting last night, I thought of Cromwell, Drogheda and County Louth. I really think the Minister for Health is Cromwell. He is evicting people in their 70s, 80s and 90s from the place that has been their home for years. These people are powerless and on Monday this week - we all remember how cold that day was - residents of St. Joseph’s in wheelchairs were left in the rain and cold outside. They were totally shocked. How did they hear about the closure of their nursing home? The answer is on the radio. Such coldness is unbelievable. This is elder abuse by the State; it is abhorrent.
Senator Tom Sheahan: I know time is limited today and tomorrow but I would like the Leader to set aside time to debate road safety as we approach the Christmas season. There are more pedestrians being killed on the roads now than ever before. If this issue could be highlighted now and we could have a debate before the recess, I would appreciate it. Families who have lost a loved one on the road during the year really feel it more during this festive season so I am calling for a debate on this issue.
Senator Terry Leyden: I second Senator Daly’s amendment to the Order of Business and commend Senator Mary White for taking the time to go to Ardee and Drogheda to fight the good fight for the people of that area. It is highly commendable at this time of the year; she has done a tremendous job. She is a Joan of Arc as far as the elderly are concerned.
Senator Terry Leyden: As the scaffold and the guillotine have been removed from Merrion Lawn, it would be opportune for us in this House to fight for the consideration of European legislation. It was foreseen in the Lisbon treaty that it would be scrutinised by a House of the Oireachtas, not a joint committee. Legislation is not being scrutinised; it is being left alone. If the demise of this House happens there will never be scrutiny again of European legislation. It is the one area where we can scrutinise legislation. Ministers are not needed to scrutinise legislation, it is not their business, it is our business, it is the business of elected representatives. There is a reliance on Ministers, and I appreciate the Leader and previous Leaders always had difficulty in getting Ministers to come into the House. I was a Minister and I know both sides of the coin. We have a great opportunity and I want to put it strongly. The Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, said that she would favour such an approach. This question of staff is irrelevant; we can do our own staffing here, we have the ability and the capacity to deal with European legislation. I am not referring to the Clerk or Clerk Assistant of the Seanad, I am talking about this idea that we must have more staff to support the scrutiny of legislation. That is not necessary. We read the legislation, put forward our points of view, decide on it and refer it back to Europe; it is as simple as that. There is the potential to move staff from other areas of the joint committees if they are not dealing with scrutiny. I am sick and tired listening to this stuff. The Leader can do this and I know he will do it.
The referendum will come and the Government will have a fight on its hands because the people outside will mount a major campaign to ensure this House continues for the future. It would be the most retrograde step in these difficult times if a legislative House was removed and a Government given more control without scrutiny.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator O’Brien raised the question of mortgage arrears and the implementation of a strategy in that regard. Everyone agrees last week was one of the better weeks for mortgage holders when the Government, as part of the budget, introduced and expanded mortgage interest relief for first time buyers during the boom years, the people most likely to be in arrears. The ECB then cut the rate by 0.25%, which immediately reduced tracker mortgage rates and most banks have announced that reductions will be passed on to other categories of mortgage.
There have been other advances with the Keane report. The Minister for Justice and Equality has already undertaken extensive work on the heads of a personal insolvency Bill, as set out in the report, and it will be published shortly. The banking policy unit of the Department of Finance has been requested to begin discussions with the banks to ensure speedy implementation of the measures set out in the Keane report. In addition, the Central Bank, as an independent regulator of financial institutions, has asked all mortgage lenders to produce detailed mortgage arrears resolution strategies and implementation plans as a matter of urgency. The Minister for Finance intends taking action on these issues with the Cabinet in early course. I am not privy to whether that will be before Christmas. The Senator can be assured that, along with the measures that have been taken already, there will be further measures taken to address that situation.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator Bacik asked about the report on paid paternity leave. This issue can be raised with the Minister for Social Protection, who will be in the House for the next four or five hours; perhaps it can be raised during the debate on that Bill.
Senator Mullen asked about the teaching of modern languages in primary schools. This was a pilot scheme and it is unfortunate that owing to cutbacks it must be curtailed. We were not in a position to extend the pilot scheme to other schools but cuts must be made and they hit some areas where people would prefer them not to. However, we must have measures to bring the public finances back on to a proper footing and that is what the Government intends to have.
Senators Mullins and Noone asked about lending to small businesses. Credit is the lifeblood of small business and the Government is doing everything possible to ensure credit will flow to small businesses. It has instituted a number of plans to ensure this will happen in the future.
Senators Coghlan and Clune asked about the EU crisis. As was stated, the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, will be in the House tomorrow to address the problem. I am sure we will have many contributors to that debate.
Senator Norris spoke about the works of James Joyce and the problems of copyright. I will certainly try to have the matter clarified by the Minister in early course and will get back to the Senator on it.
A number of Members — Senator Conway in particular — raised the matter of the undocumented Irish on yesterday’s Order of Business. We will have the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in the House in January.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh spoke about the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine who is on the way to Brussels to negotiate on fishery quotas, etc. He will be in the House on 25 January for a debate on the subject.
Senator White spoke about HIQA, which is charged with ensuring that our nursing homes meet the necessary standards our older people deserve. We should remember that proper services and facilities need to be provided for our elderly people and they must meet the standards set by HIQA. I am involved in a nursing home and realise the problems HIQA can make for such homes. At the end of the day proper facilities must be provided and proper procedures must be adhered to in order to ensure the best possible service is provided for our elderly people.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator Sheahan spoke about road safety, which is an issue particularly at this time of the year. We should all ask everybody to take extra care on the roads coming up to Christmas. There were some very sad deaths on the roads earlier in the week and we expressed our condolences to the relatives of those who had lost their lives in tragic accidents in the past week.
Senator Leyden spoke about EU legislation. I am endeavouring to have debates on EU legislation and directives in this House. I have been informed that the majority of the committees are dealing with EU directives and that there is no backlog.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Ó Domhnaill has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, “That a debate on the proposed closure of community nursing homes be taken today.” Is the amendment being pressed?
|Barrett, Sean D.||Byrne, Thomas.|
|Crown, John.||Cullinane, David.|
|Daly, Mark.||Leyden, Terry.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Mooney, Paschal.|
|Mullen, Rónán.||Norris, David.|
|Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|O’Brien, Darragh.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|Quinn, Feargal.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Brennan, Terry.||Burke, Colm.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Comiskey, Michael.||Conway, Martin.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||D’Arcy, Jim.|
|D’Arcy, Michael.||Gilroy, John.|
|Harte, Jimmy.||Hayden, Aideen.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||Heffernan, James.|
|Henry, Imelda.||Higgins, Lorraine.|
|Keane, Cáit.||Kelly, John.|
|Landy, Denis.||Mac Conghail, Fiach.|
|Moloney, Marie.||Moran, Mary.|
|Mulcahy, Tony.||Mullins, Michael.|
|Noone, Catherine.||O’Keeffe, Susan.|
|O’Neill, Pat.||Sheahan, Tom.|
|van Turnhout, Jillian.||Whelan, John.|
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