Wednesday, 18 January 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Order of Business is No. 1, motion of referral of the Teaching Council Act 2001 (Amendment of Nominating Bodies) Order 2012 to the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Patents (Amendment) Bill 2011 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and conclude not later than 1.45 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 on to reply not later than 1.35 p.m.; No. 3, statements on the Irish language, to be taken at 2 p.m. and conclude not later than 4 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 on to reply not later than 3.50 p.m.; No. 20, motion No. 6, Private Members’ business, to be taken at 4 p.m. and conclude not later than 6 p.m.; and No. 4, statements on suicide prevention (resumed), to be taken for one hour at the conclusion of Private Members’ business, with the contributions of Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply no later than ten minutes prior to the conclusion of the debate.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, I convey our deepest sympathy to the families of those lost off the coast of west Cork in the recent tragedy. I commend the search and recovery teams for the difficult task they are undertaking.
I also wish to convey our sympathy to the family of the editor of the Sunday Independent, Mr. Aengus Fanning. Not all of us would agree with everything he wrote or stood for, but we all agree that he played a major part in journalism with the most prominent Sunday newspaper. We are all saddened by his early passing.
Every week since September, I have asked when the Government will publish the mortgage arrears implementation strategy. I learned with great interest this morning that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, told the Irish Banking Federation that he would be asking banks to deal with their customers, given that the former have the ability to write down debt. I remind colleagues across the House of the time when the Minister of State sat in the ministerial chair in this Chamber and made, in his own words, a bold statement to a Government party Senator to the effect that he would publish the mortgage arrears implementation strategy in advance of the 6 December budget. It was not done. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, was to publish it before Christmas, but that was not done either. We are approaching the end of January. When will the Government act on the Keane report, which the Minister has had since September? What will the Government do about it? Our party’s position is clear, in that we should not leave the decision making on this issue to the banks. At least 10% of mortgages in the residential market are distressed or in arrears.
I watched yesterday’s report on the debate in the Dáil Chamber with dismay. The Official Report shows that the Taoiseach confirmed to the leader of my party that the cross-departmental committee which is supposed to be coming up with a position in regard to our role in Europe and the EU treaty negotiations has not even met. I remind Members opposite that their respective parties have been in government together for almost 12 months. It takes time to get one’s feet under the desk, but it should not take a year.
This is a very serious situation. This morning we heard from RTE that the Taoiseach will tell his EU partners at the upcoming summit, without any preceding Oireachtas debate, whether we require a referendum on the proposed treaty changes. We in this House do not even know what the Government position is in this regard. Did the Government submit any position papers as part of the EU treaty negotiations?
Senator Darragh O’Brien: I do, and it is a very serious question. Did the Government submit any position papers to our EU partners or is it simply sitting on the sidelines? It becomes more apparent with each passing week that the Taoiseach is clueless in these matters and that we are simply being told by our EU partners that the treaty must be signed up to by the end of March. The Oireachtas, on behalf of the people, should be told the Government’s position. Does it intend to use every means at its disposal to ratify a treaty which hands over sweeping fiscal powers to Europe without putting those proposals to the Irish people?
Senator Darragh O’Brien: Has the Government submitted position papers? What has it said in negotiations? Is it correct that the Taoiseach intends to tell his EU partners, instead of the Irish people, whether we require a referendum? The proposed treaty changes have serious ramifications for the future sovereignty of this country. We must have answers to these questions.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I join Senator O’Brien in conveying the sympathy of the Labour Party Members to the family of the former editor of the Sunday Independent, Aengus Fanning, and to the families of the fishermen lost in the tragedy at sea off west Cork. We all commend the bravery of the search and rescue teams and the immense solidarity and bravery of the local communities in Union Hall.
I take this opportunity to commend the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for its excellent briefing on trends in the economy. It managed to make the statistics and figures understandable and accessible. It is important that it should provide such a service to us, particularly in light of the ongoing crisis at European level. I note the reports today on the attempts at European level to avert default by Greece. It is of immense concern to us all that such a default be prevented.
I welcome the establishment by the Government last week of the expert group on the ABC case, in which the European Court of Human Rights found against Ireland in December 2010 in respect of our abortion law. It is very welcome that this Government is finally grasping a nettle which previous Governments failed to grasp. The expert group will examine how to implement the judgment and avoid future litigation against Ireland on this subject. The group, which is made up of eminent individuals from a range of disciplines, will report within six months. I ask the Leader to allow for a debate on that report following its publication.
Will the Leader arrange for a debate on waste strategy in light of the huge concerns of Dublin residents regarding the takeover of the city’s waste disposal service by a private contractor, Greyhound? There has been immense confusion, a lack of notice to residents and the wishes of councillors has been overridden, as city managers are legally entitled to do. The process has not been well managed and there is great concern about the need for upfront payments to Greyhound and for people to maintain money in an account before their refuse will be collected. This could lead to a serious crisis for litter collection in the city.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I join in the expressions of sympathy by colleagues. Will the Leader call on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to come to the House to address several issues of concern to Members? There is agreement in regard to child protection and adoption, but several outstanding issues are of great concern to me. The first of these relates to the promised referendum on children’s rights. Concern has been expressed by various children’s organisations and in the media that the amendment to the Constitution (children’s referendum) Bill is included under section C of the Government’s legislative programme rather than as a priority Bill under section A. Is this a reflection of a reduced commitment to holding the referendum without delay? I hope the Minister can provide an assurance to the House that the referendum will take place in 2012 and that she will update us and involve us in the thinking and the process to date.
The delay in the construction of the national children’s detention centre is a cause of great concern to me and others in this House. The Government, like its predecessors, is acutely aware that the continued detention of children under the adult regime at St. Patrick’s Institution is one of the State’s most glaring violations of human rights and children’s rights. This goes back to the Whitaker report of 1985; I will not rehearse all that has been said on the subject since. The programme for Government includes a firm commitment to end the practice of sending children to St. Patrick’s Institution. An announcement regarding the promised detention centre was expected in the capital expenditure programme, but I was extremely disappointed to discover it was not included. I understand the situation now is that responsibility for building the detention centre has been passed to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and that the project must be redrawn in light of current economic circumstances. I wish to ask the Minister for a timeline for the redrawing of the costs of the project and an indication of when the project is expected to be completed. She should inform the House of the interim measures her Department intends to put in place to ensure the boys in question are more suitably accommodated until such time as the national detention centre is operational.
I am also concerned about the proposed new agency to oversee children and family services and how it will be decoupled from the Health Service Executive. I understand plans are being drawn up in this regard; it is important that this House be involved in the development of those plans. The report of the child death review panel was lodged with the Minister before Christmas. Will the Leader ask the Minister to outline the panel’s findings to this House? Instead of doing so at a media launch, the Minister should give us an opportunity to discuss how we can prevent future deaths of children in the care of the State.
Senator Feargal Quinn: Democracy is a great thing. It is interesting to observe what is happening in France, where both a parliamentary election and a presidential election are taking place this year. The range of proposals, suggestions, comments and criticisms that are coming though are very interesting. Without wishing to encroach on the remit of my colleague, Senator Crown, I was fascinated by some of the proposals coming though in the area of health. One such is the question of generic drugs. It amazes me to see the difference between what we in this country pay for drugs compared with the prices in pharmacies in other countries. The introduction of generics offers an immense opportunity to secure a reduction in costs and prices.
Another issue being discussed in France is the cost of laboratory blood tests. There are demands for dramatic decreases in those costs and in the fees charged by X-ray centres. France is also attempting to introduce telemedicine. I do not know a great deal about this but there is great potential in a technology which would enable patients to obtain a doctor’s advice in certain circumstances by way of the Internet. Another proposal is that local health authorities provide health information online. I hope Senator Crown will comment on these issues, particularly the question of reducing costs through greater use of generic medicines. We have been very lax in this regard and there are great benefits to be gained from enhanced competition in this area. Such initiatives have the potential to reduce costs and to lead to a better service.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: This is the Order of Business. I ask that the Leader request the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, to come to this House as soon as possible to discuss the fall-out from the budget to small rural schools, DEIS schools and careers guidance teachers, the positions of which remain unclear. Concern in this regard is building. We need to be honest with the people. It might have been more honest to say there is to be a cut in the pupil-teacher ratio.
Let us have a debate on the amalgamation of small rural schools. We need clarity on this issue, in respect of which current debate is not helpful. These cuts are proposed against the background of 99 senior academics refusing to take a pay cut at the request of the Minister, Deputy Quinn. They are on salaries of more than €200,000 and have been asked to take a cut which would bring them down to €200,000. This is hard to swallow bearing in mind the cuts to basic services at primary and secondary school level. I want to know who these people are. They are supposed to be our educational leaders. Education is the great equaliser. In refusing to step up to the plate and take cuts like the rest of us — I accept they work hard but so do we and we have taken cuts — they are reinforcing how unequal Irish society is. I call on the Minister to ensure they take a cut in salary. If he needs our help, we are here. He should, if necessary, bring forward legislation to ensure they take a cut. We must all be in this together if we are to recover, not only in terms of the economy but societally. In this regard, we need our educational leaders, in particular third level top notch people, to play their part.
Senator Terry Leyden: I ask the Leader to again consider a resumption in the House of the Second Stage debate on the Registration of Wills Bill 2011, which is No. 17 on the Order Paper. I do not intend the House to resume this debate unless I get some support from the Government side in this regard. This Bill was approved by the former Leader of the House, Mary O’Rourke——
Senator Terry Leyden: The Seanad was very progressive from 2002 to 2007 when this Bill was approved and supported by Fine Gael and the Labour Party in this House. However, the Bill was at that stage awaiting Dáil support, having been printed, published and approved.
Senator Terry Leyden: The Bill should be passed by this House. I hope to influence the Minister and, in particular, the Taoiseach in this regard. While we now have in place registration in respect of septic tanks, the household charge in respect of private residences and land and a requirement to have licences for televisions and dogs, we do not have in place a registration system in respect of wills, which are important. Wills are being lost and mislaid and people are being deprived of their entitlements. Introduction of this registration system will not cost anything but will be revenue raising for Government——
Senator Terry Leyden: Yes. The Leader will confirm that the Bill was debated last year but was not put to a vote. Let us be clear about it and let us correct the record. I will give Senator Healy Eames an opportunity to withdraw her remarks, which were unfair. Support is decided when the vote is taken. One cannot anticipate what would have been the result had the Bill been put to a vote in this House. Let us be clear about that. The Senator has been around for some time. I hope I have been of some help to the Senator in regard to her parliamentary responsibility.
Senator Terry Leyden: I ask that the Leader consider this matter. I will be lobbying Ministers in this regard. I would like the Government to introduce this Bill. I do not want the kudos of having the Bill introduced in my name. I would prefer if the Government introduced it and will lobby councillors throughout the country in this regard.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, that €100 million will be spent on road improvements. While it is acknowledged that it is difficult to proceed with large road projects at this time, improving roads throughout the country will bring much needed safety and better surfaces. However — there is always a “however”— I am extraordinarily disappointed, if not dismayed, to discover that not a single euro will be spent in Sligo, in particular on the N4. Many Members in this and the other House will be aware——
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: ——that the N4 has been deemed one of the most dangerous roads in the country. Some 29 people have died on one particular stretch of that road over a short number of years. It is one of the only roads in Ireland on which white crosses mark each of those deaths. While they serve as some indication that people should slow down, I am pretty certain no one in the House will agree that they are a replacement for decent and proper upgrading of the road. We all understand that the promised reconstruction of the road has been delayed but much other work could be done on it.
I ask the Leader to ask the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, why the N4, given that it has been deemed by the county coroner to be one of the most unsafe roads in Ireland and by the head of the IDA, Mr. Barry O’Leary, to be a disadvantage in attracting foreign direct investment into Sligo, was omitted from the road improvements programme when everyone in Sligo understood it was at the top of the list.
Senator John Crown: I ask the Leader to consider the holding of a formal debate in this House, with appropriate ministerial presence, on the critical importance, future and threat to the biopharmaceutical manufacturing sector in this country, which is an extraordinarily important part of our economy that gives us a set of international comparators which are in the superlative range in terms of where we are in league tables. Some €49 billion worth of chemicals and pharmaceuticals were exported from Ireland in 2010, which accounts for 55% of all merchandise exports. It is estimated that in 2011 that figure will be 58%. Some €1 billion in corporation tax was generated by this sector, which accounts for one quarter of all corporation tax in 2010, a figure which approximates to 70% to 80% of the stamp duty take at the height of the real estate bubble.
The problem that arises in the pharmaceutical sector is that while drugs have patent copyright life cycles of approximately 20 years, they are not commercially available during the initial years but in various phases of clinical trials. As such, the commercial phase during which the drugs can be sold is typically between ten and 15 years. A problem arises in that seven of the top ten drugs in the world, which are made in Ireland, will be coming off or have come off patency between 2010 and 2014. It is estimated that sales of these drugs worldwide will decrease as a result, from €27 billion to €13 billion. Obviously, not all of that loss will be directly felt at manufacturing level as there are various stages to the value adding process. However, this will present a major revenue problem and, more important, a threat to employment in one of the largest sectors in this country.
We need a little forward planning in this regard. We need to put in place a strategy along two lines. We need to consider further tax incentives to retain manufacture of some of these drugs if they go off patent and become generic in this country and to incentivise companies — there are new drugs coming on stream all the time — to continue the trend of developing new manufacturing plants for new drugs here.
I wonder if the drugs were made here and if the skills and established trade relationships were here, if it would be possible, as drugs come off patent and go the route of generics, for us to reinvigorate our native generic drug sector. If we have the people——
Senator John Crown: My question was posed at the outset of my contribution. I ask that we schedule a debate on the future of the biopharmaceutical sector and its industrial base. We will discuss the issue in more detail on Thursday when we have a debate on job creation, but this specific sector is of critical importance.
I acknowledge the announcement made by the Minister for Transport today that there will not be any new tolls during his time in the Department of Transport. I ask the Leader, however, to provide time for a major debate on fuel costs. On energy costs, we talk about alternative sources such as wind and wave energy, biomass and so on, but they are for development in the long term. One of the pressing issues is the effect of the cost of fuel and a weaker euro on the cost of running cars, trucks, tractors, trains and even aeroplanes. We are all suffering. Recommendations have been made by associations, including the Irish Road Haulage Association, regarding a fuel rebate, but the matter is not as simple as that. The Leader should arrange a debate on fuel costs. To retain our competitiveness we must reduce transport costs.
I call for a debate on the health service plan published yesterday by the Minister for Health. It is critical that we have a discussion on the impact the cuts to health services will have in regional and local hospitals. A total of €750 million has been taken from the health budget. A total of €1 billion was taken from it last year. Some 60 beds will be removed from public nursing homes, while 3,000 staff members will be lost across the health service. The Minister has indicated these cuts will have an impact on front-line services. The health service plan states the bulk of the reductions the Health Service Executive is required to deliver this year will impact directly on front-line services, despite the fact the Government promised us it would protect such services, deal with waste and the layers of bureaucracy and management in the system and issues such as the use of branded drugs without impacting on patient care.
Having attended a meeting of staff members at Waterford Regional Hospital I am aware that cancer and critical care services in the hospital are at breaking point. There is not even a 24 hour cardiology care service in Waterford or the region, yet we will see a curtailment of services. Surgical wards may close. I am sure the position is the same in every hospital; rather than protect front-line services, the Government, through the cuts made, is putting at risk patient care. Is the Leader prepared to stand over the cuts that will impact on hospitals in his area? Is he prepared to arrange a debate in which Members can challenge the Minister for Health on the impact the cuts will have on front-line services in every hospital?
Senator John Kelly: In recent weeks many other Senators and I have raised the issue of delays in processing medical card application since the function was transferred to the primary care reimbursement service, PCRS, in Finglas. On a related matter, I recently found out that persons participating in the farm assist scheme were automatically entitled to a medical card and that had been the position for years. They are considered to be persons on social welfare and as a result, regardless of the fact that all social welfare payments exceed the medical card guidelines, entitled to a medical card. The same applies to a married couple in receipt of invalidity pension, although both of them could be in receipt of €460 a week. The guidelines include a figure of €266, but because such persons are on social welfare they receive a medical card. I am now led to believe farm assist scheme recipients are being means-tested and that because their social welfare payment exceeds the medical card guidelines, they are being refused a medical card.
Another issue of which I have been made aware recently is that sons and daughters up to the age of 25 years who are living at home and on the maximum rate of unemployment assistance for that age category are being brought into a means-tested category in that their parents will also be means-tested. In order to receive a social welfare payment the family income has to be assessed. They receive the full amount which means the family does not have——
Senator John Kelly: This has only happened since the service was taken over by the PCRS. Rather than raise this matter on the Adjournment, I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Health what has changed and who has given a directive to the PCRS to deal with people in this manner.
Senator Jim Walsh: As others have said, a good meeting was held this morning organised by the Library and Research Service, together with the Central Statistics Office. The entire economic remit was covered, particularly statistics from the CSO. Senator Crown articulated well one of the issues affecting the pharmaceuticals sector in that seven of the ten major drugs on which we rely heavily in terms of the importance of the pharmaceuticals sector will go off patent between now and 2014. The issue of pensions and the inadequate provision made in that regard was also raised. The third point made had to do with a new problem group — the 30 to 39 year age group which is carrying serious debt. I support the call made by Senator Darragh O’Brien for a debate on the issue. We could usefully have a weekly debate on specific aspects of the economy. It has been identified that a considerable number of people in that cohort account for €7.1 billion of the negative equity figure in the housing market. The nearest group — the 40 to 49 year age category — account for a figure of €2.1 billion. Urgency is required in tackling this issue. On a number of occasions in the House I have been critical of the failure of leaders at European level to show the urgency required to arrest the stagnation and decline across the eurozone, but it behoves the Government to be super-active in tackling these issues. However, I do not see that level of urgency and would like to the House to reflect on the matter. There are many Members with the required expertise who could make valuable contributions and we should hone in on one area of the economy on a weekly basis.
I raise the issue of carbon monoxide poisoning. As Members will be aware, there was a terrible tragedy in Sligo just before Christmas when a father and his two children were lost. There was also a near miss last week when a family from Donegal were admitted to Sligo General Hospital. I congratulate the students who invented the alarm linked to one’s mobile phone. However, more work could be done in that regard. It should be possible to build a smoke and a carbon monoxide alarm that could be given to older or vulnerable people. It would make an ideal gift for them. It is important the very good publicity campaign being run is continued to make sure such tragedies do not occur in the future.
Senator Mark Daly: I ask the Leader to organise a debate on the forthcoming European Union treaty and the proposals that will be made in the coming days to Ireland and other member states. It beggars belief that the interdepartmental group has not met and that Ireland has not formulated a position on the issue. It appears all we will be doing when we enter the negotiations is accepting what is put in front of us. The Government appears to be shying away from the idea of holding a referendum. This is the most serious treaty to be put before the people since the foundation of the State. When we are handing over sovereignty——
Senator Mark Daly: ——and responsibility for the running of the fiscal affairs of the country to the European Union, it is important that the people have their say. There is a provision in the Constitution, Article 27, whereby a majority of the Seanad, with the support of one third of the Dáil, can petition the President to ask for a referendum. I hope that democracy will prevail and my colleagues opposite, whatever their position on the proposals being put before us, will support the right of the people to have their say.
Tomorrow in the White House former Congressman Mr. Bruce Morrison and the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform representative Mr. Ciaran Staunton will meet staff to seek their support for a new visa bill to be introduced by Senator Schumer to get 10,500 visas issued for Irish people, some of whom are currently undocumented in the US. I ask the Leader to organise the debate in the campaigns with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to hear the position of the Government. It has stated that it is in favour of visas but not any type of waiver for the current undocumented.
Senator John Whelan: With the indulgence of the Cathaoirleach, it would be remiss of me not to pay a small tribute and express my condolences to the family and colleagues of Mr. Aengus Fanning. I worked at the Sunday Independent for a time and he was one of the country’s most influential figures in journalism. He was a towering figure over the past 30 years and a man who, in his work, probably vexed as many people as he pleased. On a personal level, he was a very decent, kind and compassionate man and a great champion to have in one’s corner. I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to say that.
The substantive issue I raise is not to criticise any Minister or complain but to commend the Minister, Deputy Hogan, for his insight and foresight in initiating a six-week consultation process around the entire country on the establishment of a new Irish water utility. Everyone who has a view on this matter, such as environmental, agricultural, community and residential groups and corporate bodies, should all take the opportunity to participate in this process because it will be one of the most profound and important decisions the Government will make. We have until 24 February to make submissions.
We need to ensure that we have a safe and sustainable supply of water at an affordable price. I do not believe in and will profoundly protest against any move to set up a new quango with the new chief executive. This country has enough chief executives. The role of Irish Water should be afforded to an existing semi-State authority that has the skill sets, capacity and capability to hit the ground running and provide water for the country for commercial, residential and agricultural use into the future. We are the only country in the developed world that does not have a water utility and, according to the OECD, that does not charge for water.
I ask the Leader if, over the course of the next six weeks, the Minister, Deputy Hogan, as part of the consultation process, could afford the House an opportunity to feed into the decision-making process and give Senators a chance to have their say. If he is to consult with everyone it is vital that the Seanad has a say on this matter. To be fair to the Minister he has come before the House many times but I ask him to come and hear the views of all sides on the significant decision the Cabinet will make in the next couple of months.
Senator Mary M. White: I would like to be an advocate for older people who are patients in public nursing homes. The issue does not hit the radar as much because older people do not have as strong a voice as those who are young and fit. In recent months the HSE announced that it would cut 550 beds in public nursing homes. Fear and consternation ran through the families and staff of public nursing homes. I attended public meetings on the issue and twice visited Crooksling nursing home in Brittas, County Dublin. I suggest my colleagues visit it. The nursing home was designated for closure. It is situated in idyllic rural surroundings on 23 acres. Deer run around the perimeter of the site. HIQA praised the care and attention the 90 dementia patients received in the nursing home.
Senator Mary M. White: It is a current, serious, political national issue that the people who are in public nursing homes face. In the national service plan 2012, launched on Monday, one of the key items was the closure of 555 beds. However, if one has the patience to go through the document — the colleagues who know me well know I am an attention to detail person — its depths state the decision to close the unit will only be taken following an extensive consultation process with the clients and staff of long-stay units. If I was the Minister, Deputy Reilly, I would visit nursing homes to see and hear what the patients, families and staff are saying.
Senator Mary M. White: The Minister, Deputy Reilly, met the residents and staff of Crooksling. He said he would like to think outside the box to resolve the decision of the HSE to close 555 beds. As a business person I understand there have to be efficiencies and improved costs. The staff in Crooksling know it has to be run efficiently. I would like the HSE to work with the Minister to resolve the issue as fast as possible to alleviate the angst and pain of families, clients and staff who work in nursing homes.
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