Thursday, 12 January 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the report of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on Standing Order 62, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; and No. 2, statements on suicide prevention, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and conclude not later than 2 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be called upon to reply to the debate not later than 1.50 p.m.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: Yesterday I asked about the notice the Minister for Finance received with regard to the Revenue Commissioners’ initiative to send 150,000 letters to senior citizens. The Leader said yesterday he did not believe any notice was given to the Minister. I do not believe that, nor do I believe what the Taoiseach said to my party leader yesterday. The Government cannot simply wash its hands of this; it is in office to govern. I do not believe in any way that there would have been no discussion between the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance on an initiative to collect €45 million, and that the Minister for Finance, at the very least, would not have known about this. I ask the Leader to confirm whether the Minister actually had notice of this initiative of the Revenue Commissioners.
We will all be concerned by the news from Ulster Bank this morning that 600 people will be losing their jobs in the bank in the Republic, and that 350 will lose theirs in the North. The Leader will recall that on a number of occasions last year I raised the issue of Aviva. Some 900 staff in Aviva will be losing their jobs some time this year. They do not know what sections or staff will be affected. Colleagues on this side of the House and I made a suggestion to the Government that an audit of businesses at risk be carried out and that contingency plans be put in place in areas where there may be job losses. The financial services and banking sectors are sectors in which it is very clear there will be further losses. There is talk of another 2,000 staff redundancies in AIB this year. What plan has the Government to deal with the mounting job losses in this sector? What contact, if any, has the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation had with Aviva since its announcement in the summer and with Ulster Bank and the other banking institutions? Thousands of jobs may be lost and it is important that the Government not only react to each announcement, when it is made, but also put in place a plan to deal with the thousands of staff who will, unfortunately, lose their jobs.
Even with the jobs budget, which became a jobs initiative, and the other jobs initiative announced by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, yesterday, the unemployment rate last year rose to an average of 14.2%, up from 13.8% in the previous year. It is as clear as the nose on one’s face that the jobs initiative is simply not working. Based on the European Commission’s report, which was quite critical of the Government’s budget in that the amount of money cut from our capital programme was far too great, it appears the cuts will further depress any chance of growth in the economy. The VAT increase of two percentage points will put further pressure on an already strained retail sector. I am glad we are to have a discussion in the House next week on jobs but the staff in Ulster Bank, Aviva, AIB and Bank of Ireland and I want to know now the plans the Government has in place to assist staff at this very difficult time.
I will not ask again about the mortgage arrears implementation strategy. The people to whom I refer have mortgages and young families. It is three months since the issuing of the Keane report but nothing has been done. When can we expect the much-vaunted plan to assist people in mortgage arrears to be published and, more important, implemented by the Government?
Senator Ivana Bacik: As with Senator O’Brien and all other Senators, I am very concerned by the announcement of prospective job losses in Ulster Bank and by the news that there are likely to be other job losses in other banks. It is a matter of real concern and emphasises the importance of the jobs strategy the Government announced yesterday. It will be launching a more detailed plan in the coming week. We must feel sympathy for the staff who face potential job losses. This prospect obliges all of us to think more creatively about job creation and activation measures.
The Minister, Deputy Burton, has spoken persuasively about the need to ensure social protection strategies are geared towards retraining, activation and getting people back into the jobs market. I agree with Senator Darragh O’Brien that the Members of this House will have an opportunity to engage in some brainstorming on this matter next week. As part of a new method of debate, no Minister will be present for the discussion. I have been reflecting on the experience of my legal background to consider how the high level of legal knowledge and training in this House can be used to try to generate jobs and resources for society. We can all come up with interesting and creative ideas that are informed by our particular backgrounds. A particular strength of the Seanad might be as the forum for such a constructive debate.
I call for a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills. I assure my colleagues that I have been trying to ensure the Minister, Deputy Quinn, comes to the House for a general debate. The Minister will be present for legislative debates, but Senators would like him to come here for a more general debate as well. We were all glad to hear the Minister announce last night that the impact of budgetary changes on DEIS schools will be reviewed. He said the Department of Education and Skills will report on the position of DEIS band 1 and band 2 schools within four weeks. I was particularly pleased to hear that the report will focus on how the loss of posts under the older schemes will affect such schools. I think we will see a renewed commitment to the maintenance of supports for students in DEIS schools. We need a bigger debate in light of the reports that have been commissioned by the Minister on the extent to which programmes like DEIS ensure greater educational opportunity for students. I understand the reports in question are being published today. We need to examine carefully the impact of DEIS and the other schemes. We should reflect on whether, in some ways, we are allowing for the segregation of economic classes within our schools. We have to be careful about the way our school system is run.
I welcome the presence of officials from the Revenue Commissioners and other bodies at yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform. It was an important demonstration of the exercise of the investigative powers of Oireachtas committees. The ham-fisted attempts of the Revenue Commissioners to inform people of potential tax liabilities have been the subject of significant public concern. The failure of the Revenue Commissioners to stay on top of this matter on an ongoing basis clearly points to an inefficiency in the system. Many people felt shock and unnecessary fear when they considered their possible tax liabilities.
Senator Sean D. Barrett: I express sympathy to the widow and family of the late John Ross, a former Member of this House, who died during the Christmas vacation. His son, Shane, is a current Member of the Dáil. Mr. Ross represented the Dublin University constituency in this House for three years.
The 40% increase in the levy on private health insurance is a problem that has arisen. During our lengthy discussion on the matter on 8 December last, I pointed out that the Department of Health has been in breach of decisions of the European court and the Supreme Court in this country. I mentioned that the Milliman report has shown that many of VHI’s problems are generated internally by subjecting people to excessive hospitalisation. The report states that a VHI customer getting a medical implant will be admitted to hospital as an inpatient for 10.6 days, on average, and suggests the correct figure should be 3.7 days. Equally, it points out that VHI pays out for 7.5 days, on average rather than 3.7 days, in the case of a surgical inpatient admission. When we asked about the report, the Cathaoirleach clarified that an unredacted version of the Milliman report should have been distributed to those Senators who attended the debate in question. I suggest that the 40% increase would probably not have been necessary if there had been a full debate on the Milliman report. That is a serious point. It is important that the report be circulated because it makes a serious criticism to the effect that VHI causes many of its own problems. It contradicts VHI’s cherished belief that its problems are caused by other companies going out and deliberately recruiting younger people. There is no evidence that health insurers have refused to recruit older people. Serious issues of efficiency in the health service are raised by the Milliman report. I thought we concluded last month’s debate with the understanding that the Minister would circulate the report to enable it to be debated here. The prospect of throwing good money after bad, as part of a policy that is designed to protect VHI from competition rather than to deal with older people, arises in this context.
Senator Paul Coghlan: We are all concerned about the job losses at Ulster Bank, to which Senator Darragh O’Brien has drawn attention. However, I do not think we should engage in scaremongering regarding AIB, which is 99% owned by the State. It was suggested in the past that a serious number of job losses might be proposed. As I understand it, talks between the Irish Bank Officials Association and the bank are ongoing. We should not prejudge the outcome of those talks by coming up with a headline figure of job losses which might not arise. While there might not have been consultation between the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance on the other matter to which Senator O’Brien alluded, I am sure there will be contact between the institution in question and the Department of Finance in this case. We should steady ourselves.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I am delighted the Senator has referred to Killarney. We are all aware of the activities that abound throughout the land. All of us in this House and the other House should place an emphasis on home holidays this year.
Senator Denis O’Donovan: I compliment the Minister, Deputy Quinn, on his U-turn regarding DEIS schools, approximately 20 of which are in my constituency. It seems that the sideline tactics of Labour Party Deputies and Senators at parliamentary party level have reaped rewards. That is a welcome and important movement.
I ask the Leader for a specific debate on the aquaculture and mariculture industries. The Leader mentioned yesterday that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, will come to the House later this month for a discussion on fisheries. Much of the produce of our fish farming industry — salmon, trout, scallops, mussels and oysters, etc. — is exported. That adds to the value of our national exports. The success of our exports is very important to this country. The fish farming industry seems to be at a standstill by comparison with places like Scotland, Norway and France. We are really in the penny farthing place, on a per capita and pro rata basis, when compared to many European countries in our development of this industry. While the special debate I am seeking is not of immediate urgency, perhaps it could take place before the Easter break. There is huge potential for jobs to be created here.
I had the fortune many years ago to visit a town in Chile — Puerto Montt, which is 300 km or 400 km south of Santiago — where 50,000 people were employed in the fish farming industry. One of the factors hindering our efforts to create such jobs here is the fact that it can take six or seven years for mussel or salmon farming licences to be issued. I criticised several Ministers in the last Government for such delays. A special debate on fish farming is deserved and warranted. We need to reflect on how we can create jobs in this industry. We should compare ourselves to our neighbours in Scotland, whose achievements in meeting their potential in terms of job creation, exports and value to the economy are ten times greater than ours. I am not blaming the Government. It seems to be an endemic problem. I hope a substantial debate on the matter, in addition to the general debate on fishing that the Leader has kindly told us will take place before this month is out, can be facilitated in this House before Easter.
Senator John Kelly: Over Christmas, I learned something new about the fair deal scheme, about which I have spoken in this House in the past. I was not aware of it. I have always referred to the scheme as an unfair deal. That is becoming more and more clear. It was brought to my attention once more over Christmas. In the past when somebody went into a nursing home the nursing home subvention was granted from the date of entry. Now, however, if a person needs to go into a nursing home and is placed in one, always granted there is a free bed, he or she must wait six, seven or eight weeks for the HSE to give approval for the fair deal scheme to kick in. When it does give that approval the subvention applies only from the approval date. Elderly people may enter a nursing home and be there for six to eight weeks before the HSE decides to pay the bill which means an elderly person may have to pay as much as €4,000, €5,000 or €6,000 that he or she may not have.
As a result of this measure, instead of going into a nursing home elderly people are deciding to get admitted to our county hospitals where they are clogging up the wards. In my own county the hospital is full of patients waiting to get beds in nursing homes. They are not leaving the hospitals until the beds are available and approved by the HSE which means admissions to the hospital are being clogged up.
I realise the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, deals with nursing homes but it is the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, who must be informed about what is going on because it is an enormous problem. The cost of care in our county hospitals is twice as much as the cost of a bed in a nursing home. That is another anomaly falling under the radar and the Minister needs to be informed. I call on the Leader either to pass that information to the Minister or to ask him to attend the Seanad to hear our concerns about the matter.
Senator Kathryn Reilly: The Leader mentioned that the Minister for Health will attend the House. Yesterday, there was an announcement that there would be a 25% cutback in staffing in outpatient departments in Cavan and Monaghan hospitals. The proposed cutbacks in Cavan are completely unacceptable when one takes into account the further curtailments that occurred in Monaghan hospital last year. This demonstrates that the HSE is completely out of touch with reality concerning the public health service.
I was advised that the Minister is to sign the HSE service plan tomorrow. This will mean that each HSE area will seek to impose further cuts within its reduced annual allocation. There has been no consultation at local level with nurses, representatives or elected representatives on this issue. We cannot accept a situation where after the event occurs, the HSE involves itself in discussions, not about the decision but about how it will be implemented. There should be a real process of local consultation.
Given the Minister is signing the HSE service plan tomorrow, will the Leader bring the Minister to the House as soon as possible to discuss this plan and how he will protect front-line services and ensure that patient safety is not sacrificed, as will be the case in Cavan and Monaghan hospitals? The HSE has stated this will not affect clinics but the reality is that when there is a cutback in staff there will be further waiting lists and people will suffer, which is unacceptable. I ask that this might happen within the coming week, given that the cutbacks are to take effect in Cavan from 23 January. It is important that, as elected representatives, we have some dialogue with the Minister on this issue as soon as possible. It does not merely affect Cavan; the HSE service plan affects all areas.
Will the Leader take into consideration that yesterday’s debate on small businesses will continue next week? I am sure that many speakers will wish to contribute to the debate on suicide, to take place this afternoon. Perhaps it could be extended, given we have so much time.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: In the context of cutbacks in budgets, we must be careful about the way we deal with the education of children in primary schools, especially concerning the restructuring of schools which is likely to emerge in the area of small rural schools. Let us look at the evidence. One size does not fit all. In this context I wish to welcome one measure, namely, the review the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, is now to grant for DEIS schools. We need the same measure to apply to small rural schools.
I am aware the value for money report on small schools is to issue next month and I will wait to hear the results. When one cuts small schools, those with two to four teachers, one does not simply affect the children and the school but the entire community. I taught in a small rural school which originally had four teachers but went to three when numbers fell, whereupon I had to leave. I know the effect that had across the board. Perhaps this point was missed. However, if we are about to cut back on small schools, it would be much more honest to call for a debate on the amalgamation of small schools instead of getting rid of them by stealth. We must proceed carefully on this issue. It is a matter of great concern across rural Ireland. Some 1,000 schools are affected.
I welcome the comment of Senator Coghlan on the words of the Lonely Planet guide. It is worth noting the guide still recommends Ireland as a place to visit even though it states Irish people have low self-esteem. Some counteract that by alcohol but the good news is that same endorphins that are released by alcohol can be released by exercise — walking, running, etc. Many people throughout the country have cottoned on to this and in this context we are doing the same in Leinster House with the setting up of a walking group. We should be much more positive about ourselves.
Senator Paschal Mooney: I, too, wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the family of the former Senator, Deputy Shane Ross, on the passing of his father. I assume the normal protocols will apply and there will be an opportunity at a future stage to pay tribute to a former Member. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
I ask the Leader to take note of the concern about the increasingly repressive nature of the Hungarian Government and the manner in which this now poses a real threat to the fundamental democratic ideals that inspired the European Union, and membership of same of countries such as Ireland. I am grateful to The Irish Times, in particular to Daniel McLoughlin, who yesterday gave a comprehensive overview of what is going on in Hungary. For the information of the House, the EU is threatening legal action against the Hungarian Government because of its increasingly anti-democratic measures, especially in light of the fact it is attempting to dismantle hitherto independent institutions such as its central bank by appointing its own people, thereby compromising the independence of the bank.
I am more concerned, however, by the attacks on the media in Hungary. Mr. McLaughlin stated: “The constitution introduced on New Year’s Day removes a host of checks and balances on Prime Minister Orbán’s power, places many formerly independent institutions under government control and makes it extremely hard for future administrations to reverse the changes he has made”. He goes on to state that a journalist, Nagy Navarro, is currently camping outside the parliament in protest at the shutting down of one of the few independent radio stations in Budapest, Klubradio. “Despite its being one of the most popular talk radio stations in the country the media authority run by Orbán loyalists has refused to renew its broadcasting licence and it is expected to close next month. In another heavy-handed move a leading news website has been banned from parliament for mocking MPs in a satirical song”.
Senator Paschal Mooney: In light of these repressive measures and the threat of EU sanctions, it might be opportune to invite the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, to the House for a debate on the media landscape in Ireland. There are many questions and challenges now facing broadcasting in this country. I do not suggest linking in any way what I described concerning Hungary to the Irish situation — thankfully — but there are questions surrounding the introduction of digital television, the crushing cost to RTE for that introduction, the reduced advertising revenue radio stations now experience, nationally and locally, and the plans for the renewal of licences at local level by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. All of these issues, and perhaps many other matters, could be discussed if the Minister were to come to the House to outline the Government’s views on them. It would afford Senators an opportunity to have a wide-ranging debate.
Senator Paschal Mooney: As the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, has stated, as president of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OCSE, Ireland’s priority is to promote media freedom. Perhaps the Leader might convey the sincere concerns of this House about the Hungarian situation to the Minister.
Senator Marie Moloney: More penalty points were recently introduced for 16 further road traffic offences. Will the Leader get clarification from the Minister on the penalty point for failure to ensure a proper view from a vehicle windscreen? It strikes me as an urban-based decision. A car with a Dublin registration is more valuable than a rural-registered car because it does not have to encounter potholes full of water or spray-back from tractors after spreading slurry or lorries carrying gravel and sand. What constitutes a dirty windscreen or failure to keep it clean? Is it the area the wipers cover or the whole windscreen? Is it having no water to spray-clean the windscreen? Will it be at the discretion of the garda who stops one? If he has had a bad day, will one get penalty points? I will be off the road soon enough in any case because my car is covered in spray-back dirt from driving from Kerry to Dublin. Will the Leader get clarification from either the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Minister Transport, Tourism and Sport on how they will implement these penalty points which are causing some concern?
Senator Mary M. White: On yesterday’s Order of Business, I called for a debate on growing inequality in society. Ten schools in Jobstown, Killinarden Brookfield and Fettercairn in west Tallaght are designated as disadvantaged and in the DEIS programme which delivers opportunity in education. For the information of Members, and Senator Bacik in particular, the 2012 budget will see the Department cut DEIS programmes in these schools. The Government is incompetent and inefficient. Due to the protests we made over cuts to public nursing homes, the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, whom I referred to as Cromwell here, has recently decided he will review the policy.
Yesterday morning, people from the Tallaght area protested outside Leinster House about the proposed DEIS cuts and I spoke about it on the Order of Business. It now emerges the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, led a delegation to lobby his party colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, over the cuts. I do not understand it, Senator Bacik.
Senator Mary M. White: Do we really cherish all of our children equally? I want the Fine Gael and Labour Party Government to get its head together and be a good example to the country of efficiency and competency.
Senator Jim D’Arcy: I do. I commend the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, for his attempts to introduce badly needed reforms in the education system. I welcome the review of the implications of budget measures in some DEIS schools. Senator Bacik is correct that some areas are stigmatised in this debate on DEIS schools.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I join Senator Darragh O’Brien in calling for a debate on unemployment, specifically about this morning’s announcement by Ulster Bank. Several times in the past few months, as Senator Darragh O’Brien said, we have called on the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, to have his Department carry out an audit of businesses at risk. Clearly, the banks have been at risk for some considerable time. Far be it from scaremongering, Senator Paul Coghlan, it would be prudent for the Department to assess where the biggest risks lie and what can be done to address them.
It would be important for the Government to assess what it can do to alleviate the difficulties experienced by some businesses such as banks, many exporting companies and service industries. If the Department does not have the resources to assess these businesses, it should engage with the representative organisations such as Chambers Ireland, ISME and IBEC in order that they can do the work on behalf of the Department.
Will the Leader organise a debate for soon as possible on mortgage arrears? This matter has been bounced along for several years. I raised the matter in this House when I was on the other side but to no avail. Two Bills dealing with mortgage arrears have been introduced by Fianna Fáil which offered tangible solutions to the problem. When I was on the other side of the House, we all had to listen to Ministers, including current ones, talking about the systemic importance of the banks. When are we going to acknowledge the systemic importance of the people? In this morning’s Irish Independent, Charlie Weston reported on suggestions of a non-judicial resolution process for mortgage arrears. While I would welcome such an approach, it cannot be in the banks’ control. In his article, Charlie Weston speaks about people losing their family homes. That is not acknowledging the systemic importance of the people.
We cannot promote strategic defaulting. Having said that, we can take tangible measures to protect families in arrears. Will the Leader, who understands this issue, arrange an immediate debate on mortgage arrears with tangible resolutions to be introduced by the Government instead of report after report when, in the immortal words of Senator Barrett, the backstairs to the Department of Finance is very much open for the banks and the builders? That is what is holding up progress on this issue.
Senator Jimmy Harte: The Ulster Bank announcement is regrettable. It has many fine staff and the bank has had a significant presence in County Donegal over the years, particularly along the Border. Some of those shedding crocodile tears about job losses are the same people who were saying the bank should have been left to flounder some time ago. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot say they feel sorry for the bank staff on the one hand while, on the other, make statements that the bank should been allowed to go to the wall.
Senator Coghlan referred to the Lonely Planet guide. I am more concerned about the commentary in The New York Times which I would like the Leader to raise with the Minister for Tourism, Transport and Sport. Earlier this week, the newspaper published a list of the 45 most desirable places to visit in 2012 throughout the world and no location in Ireland was mentioned. Birmingham, Glasgow, London and Wales featured. The New York Times has a significant readership and it is well regarded in America while New York is a major tourism market for us.
Senator Jimmy Harte: The Lonely Planet has a different readership from the The New York Times but we must be concerned that no location in Ireland featured in the top 45 places to visit in 2012. Birmingham and Glasgow are regarded as more desirable to visit than Dublin or Donegal. Donegal is the most desirable place to visit in the world. The Cathaoirleach visited Donegal during the Christmas break and I congratulate him on travelling that far to enjoy himself. Will the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport explain why a newspaper such as The New York Times would not feature Ireland in its travel section? Birmingham is a fine city but it has nothing to offer in comparison to us.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Serious illness can be a traumatic time for a family and it can be exacerbated in the current economic climate by other pressures. We are all aware of this when we are out in the community but it is an emotional experience for a family when a loved one has to move into a nursing home. Many Members have had this experience over the years and that is the reason, when this issue was discussed in both Houses and other public fora, the fair deal scheme was introduced. It is a good scheme and, in many ways, it is radical. It is an example to us of the way we should respond to what we hear on the ground about difficulties people experience.
Currently, those who move into a nursing home are in limbo until their application under the scheme is approved and families must cover the nursing home costs during this period or find free accommodation for them. I have witnessed this and have been contacted about it by a number of people. This is not happening in order that the HSE can make a saving but the issue has gone unnoticed until this time. Waiting periods of six and seven weeks have been mentioned but I am aware of waits of several months for approval. A family may have to pay between €700 and €800 a week for three or four months while coping with the difficulties presented by the current economic climate. Perhaps the Leader will use his goodwill to raise this issue with the Minister for Health, even though his office may be aware of it. The Minister or the Department should give a positive response to this issue. It may seem like small change to some but it can be devastating for people during this traumatic period. I hope this issue will not be put on the long finger. I would love for it to be attended to with the same urgency as the introduction of the scheme. Many people are worried and they are suffering.
Senator Michael Mullins: I echo the comments of Senators Kelly and Ó Murchú regarding the fair deal scheme. It is well designed but the major issue is the delay in arriving at decisions. Clarification is needed on whether the delays result from a lack of funding or from administrative difficulties within the HSE because families are being landed with large bills from private nursing homes while patients await decisions on applications under the scheme. As Senator Kelly said, acute beds in hospitals, which are needed, are being tied up and this, in turn, is extending hospital waiting lists.
Will the Leader organise a wider debate on the care of the elderly and on private versus public sector care provision? Last year, a new community nursing unit was completed in my home town. It is practically idle because nursing staff are not available to transfer patients who would qualify for care in that unit from other facilities. Other issues relating to care of the elderly need to be examined. I do not seek a debate next week but perhaps during this session we could have such a debate with the Minister for Health in order that we can achieve the best outcomes for the elderly and the best return for the significant amounts spent by the State on the provision of care to the elderly. That would be a useful debate.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I have been looking for good news in recent times and every now and then I come across some. Agriculture has been a success story, particularly in the area of infant formula. Perhaps everybody else knew this but I did not know that one in seven children in Asia drinks Irish made infant formula. Danone is investing €50 million in a facility in Cork which is due to open shortly and, following its opening, one in five children in Asia will drink Irish made infant formula. The reason I raise this is that we must concentrate on winners. In the past, we have tried to be good at everything but sometimes in business, one finds an area that one can concentrate on and then tries to do something. I am optimistic about the production of infant formula because milk quotas are likely to be abolished in 2015. If so, that will present opportunities to expand this market. I understand Irish producers cannot get enough milk and they have to import raw material to make the infant formula. I am not sure whether that is accurate but this rumour has been reported. There are success stories. Let us concentrate on them and make sure we can do more with our winners in the future. Exports of agricultural products to Brazil have increased by 22% in recent years and it is only five years since that market opened. Let us make sure we identify opportunities and concentrate on them.
Senator Tom Sheahan: Like Senator Quinn, I also like good news. However, I thought the best news that came from last year was from the Road Safety Authority in that the number of people killed on the roads was below 200 for the first time. While that is good news in itself, it is still unacceptable. Of the 185 people killed on our roads, an unfortunate point is that 48 were pedestrians.
I asked the Leader late in the last session that we would have the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to the House for a discussion on road safety. To have 48 pedestrians killed is a disproportionate number of lives to be lost. Over Christmas, I was quite fortunate that I did not kill three young people on the side of a dark, unlit country road because they were wearing dark coats and trousers without high visibility jackets. I got the fright of my life from the experience.
There is a feeling among the community that anybody who is unfortunate enough to knock somebody down on the roads is nearly always to blame — either the driver was speeding, the driver had drink taken or the driver had done this or that. Given the number of people who are walking our roads in pure blackness, wearing dark clothes, it should be a criminal offence not to wear a high visibility vest when walking the roads at night.
I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister to come to the House for a discussion on road safety. While it is good news that the number of fatalities on the roads has reduced to under 200 for the first time since records began, it is still an unacceptable level and the figure of 48 pedestrians killed on the roads is unacceptable.
Senator Jim Walsh: I ask the Leader to arrange a relatively early debate in this session with regard to NAMA. While NAMA is now a very important functionary of the State, some recent reports give rise to an element of concern which should give rise to caution. I refer to a report concerning the Durkan group, which recently claimed that because of a lack of commercial engagement by NAMA, the group decided to pay off a loan of €43 million, which it was able to fund from British banks in order to continue its developments there. A second point relates to a member of the Grehan family who decided to declare bankruptcy in Britain. He complained subsequently that part of his reason for taking that initiative was that he found it impossible to engage with NAMA with regard to loans and properties he had, although he felt participating and engaging with NAMA might ultimately have extracted the best possible return for the taxpayer.
I do not know whether that is correct, and perhaps NAMA would have a counter-view. However, what is important is that NAMA is a success. There is certainly a view in the marketplace that if people are holding loans on developments outside Ireland, NAMA tends to be not that interested in supporting them. Ultimately, while there is obviously an onus on NAMA to recover the best possible return for the taxpayer, equally, there has to be a secondary, if not an equal, objective of ensuring we get the development and the construction sector functioning again. NAMA has and will have a huge influence and responsibility in that area. While I know it has recruited from across the financial sector, I am not sure the range of skills that are in place are commensurate with what is needed to effectively operate a two-scale objective, first, of recovery for the taxpayer on the loans and, second, to ensure it is a catalyst for economic development.
Given the size of that conglomerate, I have no doubt it will have an influence on economic growth. Given that 1% growth in GDP would yield €1.5 billion per annum to this country, the objective of economic development must be a crucial part of this. I ask that the Minister of Finance come to the House for a debate and engagement in that regard.
Senator Cáit Keane: That point on 1% per annum yielding €1.5 billion is a good place for me to start. If we had 1% per annum improvement in the fitness level of children, there could be a €3 billion saving to the health system. We had a debate on fitness among schoolchildren and Senator Eamonn Coghlan carried out a major survey of the issue. I would like to see more support given to that survey. The Physical Education Teachers Association of Ireland came out against Senator Coghlan in that regard because he was promoting 15 minutes of exercise in schools, which the association claimed was regimental.
A survey of schoolchildren in Athlone, highlighted in newspapers and on radio today, found that 70% were on the road to obesity. In addition, although I do not have the figures with me, the level of unfitness was worrying. Deputy Patrick O’Donovan has called in the Dáil for a well known personality to promote fitness. While there is a lot of promotion, the Department of Education and Skills has obviously charged the physical education teachers of this country with promoting physical activity. I agree with them that their work includes more than just physical activity. They said in answer to Senator Coghlan that it was also holistic and social, and that the work should also be done by parents.
As questions have been raised, we must ask whether physical education should be included in the points system for the leaving certificate. Obesity in this country is at such a stage that I believe it should. I ask the Minister for Education and Skills to examine this issue to ascertain whether such a system could be introduced. It would be cheaper to give €5,000 to every child who was physically fit on finishing the leaving certificate than to counteract the problems ten years later if the child is not fit at the leaving certificate stage.
There are two points. First, how do we incentivise children to be fit and, second, what can we do about it? I commend Senator Eamonn Coghlan for the work he has done. I condemn the Physical Education Teachers Association of Ireland for the big article in The Irish Times stating the association did not agree with that. I want the Minister for Education and Skills to take up this issue again and to ask whether we should introduce points. I believe we should, because the health of this country is involved. Obesity and diabetes are at outrageous levels and we should be considering preventive as well as current-day medicine.
Senator Colm Burke: I join my colleagues in regard to the nursing home issue. There is a need for a debate to consider how we will move forward. In particular, as I have done previously, I wish to raise the issue of the number of private nursing homes which cannot get qualified nurses. There are over 750 vacancies for qualified nurses in private nursing homes.
I was delighted to see the Minister for Health has taken up the point on the review of the nursing qualification, which is now an academic qualification although it was not ten or 15 years ago. People who come through the college system are looking for something more challenging when they qualify, hence we do not have a huge number applying for jobs in nursing homes. We need to devise an educational structure that gives a qualification to people to work as nurses in nursing homes. For example, there are many care assistants who are very good in the care and management of elderly people but they are not given recognition.
I hope the review of the nursing training programme will take into account the need for a dedicated course to educate people in regard to elder care, which is an area that will grow. We have more than 560,000 people over 65 and this will grow to over 1 million in the next 20 years. If we are to have a debate on the matter, I ask that we include this element.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Several Members raised the issue of Ulster Bank. This is a difficult day for staff members and their families and I hope a redundancy deal will be agreed with the bank’s staff and the IBOA.
Senator Darragh O’Brien claimed the jobs initiative had failed miserably. Only yesterday a jobs initiative was announced which will involve nine Departments. Jobs cannot be created overnight; the Government can only create the climate for job creation. That is our intention. We must not talk down the country at every possible opportunity. We must be positive in promoting job creation rather than be crying and whinging.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senators Bacik, White and Jim D’Arcy spoke about DEIS schools. The Minister for Education and Skills has met school principals, teachers and parents to hear their concerns and clarify the position following the changes announced in the budget. Following this engagement, he has asked his Department to produce a report on DEIS band 1 and 2 schools which currently have posts under older schemes in the context of the staffing allocations due to issue to all schools in the coming weeks. The report will set out the factual position on staffing in these schools from September 2012, taking into account the impact of demographic changes. The Minister looks forward to receiving the report and continuing the process of engagement with schools on the impact of these measures. We would all agree with that.
Senator Healy Eames and others asked for a debate with the Minister on the issue of smaller schools once the value for money report is published in February. Schools are an important part of the fabric of our communities and it is important that we debate their role.
I join Senator Barrett in expressing deepest sympathy to Deputy Ross on the death of his father, John Ross, who served in this House from 1961 to 1965. I am sure we will have an opportunity to commemorate the late Mr. Ross.
Senators Coghlan and Harte spoke about the tenth edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide to Ireland. We must be optimistic in this regard. Tourism numbers increased by 7% last year and I am confident they can continue to increase. Work is being done on the proposed Gathering and communities throughout the country are striving to promote home holidays. We have a lot to offer and should be singing our praises rather than talking ourselves down. Let us continue to play a positive role in this House. There is too much pessimism regarding tourism.
I concur with Senator O'Donovan regarding aquaculture. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine spoke passionately about this issue when he was previously in the House and he is due to meet us again in the coming month. There is tremendous job creation potential in this area and Senators would be pushing an open door with the Minister in this regard. I commend him for negotiating a good deal for Irish fisherman in the European Union.
Senators John Kelly, Ó Murchú, Mullins and Colm Burke spoke about the problems with the fair deal scheme and delays in the HSE approving applications which are, in turn, tying up acute beds in hospitals. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Health.
Senator Reilly referred to the health service plan and its implications for counties Cavan and Monaghan. She also asked for more time to be allocated for the debate on suicide. I do not think we will be able to allow additional time today but, if the Minister of State at the Department of Health is agreeable, perhaps we can resume the debate next week. A considerable number of Senators wish to speak in it.
Senator Mooney spoke about the situation obtaining in Hungary and the media landscape in Ireland. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has agreed to discuss the media with the House. He has not yet confirmed a date but we will pursue the matter with him.
Senator Moloney also asked for clarification on the penalty points applying in respect of windscreens. I will raise the matter and hope the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport will attend the House at an early opportunity.
Senator Quinn spoke about the success of Irish agriculture and referred in particular to infant formula. This is a matter which the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine mentioned when he was last in the House. Our market share in infant formula is one in seven globally and one in five in Asia. This is the type of positive story we should be promoting. There are opportunities in this area when milk quotas are removed. The growth in exports to Brazil is also to be welcomed. We are only at the tip of the iceberg, however, and will have to further expand our trade to countries like Brazil, India, China and Russia.
Senator Sheahan spoke about road safety. All of us welcome the news that the number of road deaths last year was only 185. This is 185 deaths too many but it is a massive improvement over previous years. The Senator rightly pointed out that 48 pedestrians had died and reminded us to bear in mind the need for high visibility jackets when walking along country roads. The large number of cyclists who do not have lights of any description on their bicycles clearly present a danger. We must all pay as much attention as possible to road safety with a view to further reducing the number of road traffic fatalities. In the case of each of the 185 deaths in 2011 a grieving family has been left behind. Our hearts go out to all of them, especially the families of those who passed away in the large number of accidents over the Christmas period.
Senator Walsh called for a debate on the National Asset Management Agency. As he noted, NAMA’s purpose is to secure the best possible outcome for taxpayers. It also needs to stimulate economic development. Perhaps we will be able to have the Minister for Finance come before the House to discuss this issue.
Senator Keane raised the issue of physical education and the promotion of physical fitness in schools. She also asked whether physical education should be an examination subject for points. This worthwhile idea should be considered by the Minister for Education and Skills in light of the problems we are experiencing with obesity, diabetes and so forth. Making physical education an examination subject would focus minds on the issue of physical fitness. We can raise this matter with the Minister who will come before the House to deal with legislation in the next month or two. I hope he will also come before us for a general debate on education.
Senator Paschal Mooney: I ask that the House record the passing of former Senator Michael “Micky” Doherty over the Christmas period and that the Leader make the appropriate arrangements for tributes to the late former Senator Ross.
|Last Updated: 08/03/2013 16:48:49||Page of 10|