Wednesday, 25 January 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Order of Business is No. 1, referral of motion re criminal sanctions for insider dealing and market manipulation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education, to be taken without debate; No. 2, statements on Irish Water and related reforms, 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 ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 1.35p.m.; No. 3, Education (Amendment) Bill 2012 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to commence at 3p.m. and conclude not later than 5p.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 4.50 p.m.; No. 22, motion No. 6, Private Members’ business, to be taken at 5 p.m. and conclude not later than 7p.m.; and No. 4, Patents (Amendment) Bill 2011 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 7p.m. and conclude not later than 8.30 p.m., if not previously concluded.
For the advance notice of the House, I have arranged debates on the Croke Park agreement with the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brian Hayes, for 9 February, the HSE national service plan with the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, for 14 February, and media standards with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, for 22 February. As Senators will be aware, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, will be in the House for a general debate on foreign affairs matters next Thursday, 2 February.
Senator Paschal Mooney: Over the weekend, the Seanad and its future were to the fore once again in media reports. A number of Members have been in the media, most recently the distinguished Leader. From my experience on the other side of the House, I appreciate the difficulty the Leader has, and will continue to have, in attempting to encourage Ministers to come to the House to provide us with meaningful legislation.
However, I raise a voice of concern from this side of the House that in the past few weeks, in particular since the resumption, while the Leader quite correctly and legitimately pointed out that the House is sitting for an increased number of days, it is more about quality rather than quantity. I am sure he shares our concern that the House increasingly seems to have a lack of meaningful legislation brought before it and he will take steps to try to address it in the interests of parliamentary democracy rather than in the self-interest of the future of this House.
Health has been in the news in the past few days. Quinn Healthcare has announced another savage increase in subscription fees. On average, it seems there is almost a 20% increase across-the-board for all health insurance companies and in excess of 100,000 people are now leaving the health insurance scheme. This will create enormous difficulties if the haemorrhage continues. I hope the Leader will convey the real concern about the impact this will have on our already stretched public health service. In that context, I ask the Leader if he will provide time for a debate.
It might also be practical to convey to the Minister for Health, who is coming to the House in February, that there should be a debate or some response to the report on the delivery of pharmaceuticals in Ireland by the ESRI. The report was commissioned by the HSE and shows that pharmaceutical costs have risen dramatically in the past few years. Some 17%, equating to €1.9 billion, of the total health budget is now spent on drugs. The basis of the report concerned three key areas of the high factory gate price of drugs in Ireland for patent and generic drugs, more information and doctors’ prescriptions being altered at pharmacies. A doctor will inevitably provide a prescription for patented drugs and the pharmacist must respond to the drug on the prescription and cannot alter it despite the fact that the pharmacists may have a generic drug in stock costing half the price of the patented drug. This is a serious issue at a time when it is coming under increasing financial strain. The ESRI reports that if its recommendations are taken on board, there could be a saving of 25% or €500 million. I ask the Leader to convey to the Minister for Health that he should take account of this report before coming to the House to discuss the new service plan. If the Leader had time between now and February, the House could have a debate on the implications of the report, which has far-reaching consequences if its recommendations are not acted on.
Senator John Whelan: I commend and congratulate the Leader of the House, Senator Cummins, on his endeavours on “Morning Ireland” this morning and his effort to outline the productive and progressive work of the Seanad and the reforms introduced under his leadership. Perhaps the point was missed by the interviewer and certain elements of the media. The Seanad can only do so much and it is restricted and limited in the new structures it can introduce. I concur with Senator Mooney that the examination of legislation is not the only function of the House, but it is its core function. It is difficult to do that if no legislation is being produced by the Dáil. Towards the end of the session, we find legislation being rammed through and dumped on top of us. We cannot give it a proper examination and then we are accused of guillotining important legislation that deserves more attention. For any media that want to pay attention, people comment on the Seanad without paying a blind bit of heed to it. Certain elements of the media seem to be hanging the wrong man and should take it up with Deputies and elements of the Government that seem to be scapegoating the Seanad for all our political ills. Perhaps the first shots were fired in the latest civil war on the future of the Seanad.
I commend the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, who sometimes comes in for undue criticism and does not get much praise. I commend the two initiatives he announced today regarding job creation. This must remain our core priority in government. These involve new, creative initiatives for immigrants who can play a part and have a valuable role to play. That can be positive for the economy, and for immigrants and the new communities coming here, as was reflected on television the other night when the President, Michael D Higgins, visited St. Brigid’s in Blanchardstown. Children of more than 25 ethnic backgrounds were represented. I commend that development because that is what we need.
I know that my colleagues are busy and are inundated with briefings and lobby groups but I would like to encourage them to attend an Oireachtas briefing by EirGrid across the road. They should not just take the handout and the press release from EirGrid, which pushes its version of events. EirGrid is doing this country and rural Ireland some disservice with its dismissive and condescending attitude to rural communities. I call on my colleagues to ensure they challenge EirGrid to engage in meaningful consultation with local communities in the roll-out of vital strategic national infrastructure. Two major motorways to Cork and Limerick, the M7 and M8, run through pristine countryside and areas of historic value in the heart of my county. There was no impediment, protest, roadblock or problem because of the approach of the NRA. However, we cannot say the same about the approach of EirGrid, which has a bully boy attitude to people. EirGrid creates an impediment to the roll-out of important infrastructure and the taxpayer will have to pick up the tab for delays.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I encourage my colleagues to participate in the Private Members’ debate on the motion proposed by the Independent group on disability support and services. I appeal to Members to support the motion as proposed. This is an important debate and I hope the House will support the very clear action points in the motion. It will be led by my colleague, Senator Mary Ann O’Brien.
I recall the Private Members’ motion by the Independent group on 12 October 2011 on criminalising the purchase of sex in Ireland. We are three months into the six-month period indicated by the Minister for Justice and Equality for public consultation. This matter was raised in the Dáil last week by Deputy Kevin Humphreys and the Minister advised that the consultation process would be ready before the end of January. However, I am concerned by the inclusion of a caveat in the Minister’s reply that the publication of the document before the end of January is subject to resources, having regard to compelling priorities including legislative priorities. I fully appreciate the financial times we are in and I know that the Government needs to prioritise its work. However, the debate we had on 12 October 2011 showed a clear link between prostitution and trafficking, particularly in respect of trafficking children for sexual exploitation. The protection of women and children from sexual exploitation must be a Government priority. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice and Equality to confirm that the consultation document will be published and that the consultation process will commence without further delay.
I also wish to raise whistleblower legislation. The situation of Louise Bayliss has been raised by the media in recent days. Coincidentally, she met me last Tuesday to discuss lone parents, before she heard the news. She is an advocate who has spoken out and we need to remember the five women she spoke out about, who were being put into a closed unit. How do we know how many other people are in that situation if we do not produce whistleblowing legislation? There should also be independent funding for advocacy organisations. This does not concern new funding but the basis of funding for the organisations working as advocates.
I wish to raise the Children’s Rights Alliance report card launched on Monday. Last week, I called for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to come to the House and I suggest to the House that this is an excellent basis for discussion. The Government has failed in the report card in regard to St. Patrick’s Institution and the continued detention of children in an adult prison regime. The effects of budget 2012 on lone parents and large families and the implications for child poverty were highlighted. The Government got the best grade any Government has received in four years but that does not mean it is good enough. We need to do more. It is a wide-ranging report which looks at all aspects of a child’s life and would provide an excellent foundation for a debate.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I support Senator Mooney in his request to the Leader to remind the Minister of Health, when he comes before the House next week, that we would like to be able to talk about generic drugs. If he has the report in his possession and is able to answer questions on it, that would be of huge benefit. I am stunned at what Senator Mooney reminded us of, namely the huge difference in cost between patented and generic drugs. If a doctor automatically uses brand names the chemist is obliged to dispense that rather than generic drugs which might cost a fraction of the price. There is no cost to the doctor but there is to the State. We must have a discussion on the issue.
The intention to introduce two changes was announced yesterday. Senator Whelan referred to one, namely investment for immigrants and the removal of some of the tight controls on visas. When I read about it I became worried because almost nine years ago I introduced the passports for sale ban in this House. It was accepted on Second Stage and the then Government moved to deal with what I was worried about. Those who may not have been here at the time will remember the scandals when a Minister or a Taoiseach was free to issue passports and there were no controls, as far as I could see.
We introduced a Bill which became law. I was worried when I read yesterday that people emigrating to Ireland with an investment could get naturalisation papers of some sort. I understand, from what I have read, that is not so. I am concerned that based on what I read in a newspaper, the measure does not require legislation. I would like to make sure that we have a discussion on the issue in the House and it should happen in the very near future while it is on our agenda.
The Leader might accuse me of being biased. It was proposed yesterday that alcohol should no longer be sold in supermarkets and petrol stations. I am speaking with a vested interest. That sort of proposal from the Joint Committee on Health and Children needs discussion and it should take place in the House at some point. Steps can be taken and the committee has proposed some of them. It appears to me that it would be a rather draconian step to take. Prohibition was introduced in the United States in 1919 and abolished in 1932, but at that stage it had created many difficulties. It is a reminder that sometimes we can be more subtle in our solutions than having to use such a big stick.
Senator Tom Sheahan: There is an old saying, “Power corrupts”. If one turns back the clock to the end of the last term when the Central Bank and Credit Institutions (Resolution) (No. 2) Bill came before the House, one will find I did everything I could to protect credit unions. I cautioned the Minister, Deputy Noonan, that power does corrupt and that he was giving too much power to Mr. Matthew Elderfield, the Financial Regulator, yet last week Mr. Elderfield appointed a special manager to Newbridge Credit Union at a cost of €423 an hour. That is wrong.
Senator Tom Sheahan: No. I want the Minister, Deputy Noonan, and the Taoiseach, if needs be, to stop this. Approximately 20 credit unions throughout the country will have to have special managers. If special managers earn €423 an hour, how much will that cost? How long will they be there for? It will cost over €3,500 a week. Mr. Elderfield said a salary of €500,000 was not enough for the chief executive of AIB.
Senator Tom Sheahan: Yes. I ask the Leader to make contact with the Minister, Deputy Noonan, and the Taoiseach to stop the appointment to Newbridge Credit Union. Many others are due to be appointed to credit unions at a cost of €423 per hour.
Senator Denis O’Donovan: I support the call for a debate on patented versus non-patented drugs. I raised the issue before, not just in this House but in the other House. It is important for a number of reasons. There is potential for a huge saving to the State and taxpayer. I have a view which I have no problem in expressing. GPs throughout the country get a lot of sweeteners and goodies from those supplying branded name drugs which is why when writing prescriptions they specifically prescribe the drug that is most expensive for the client because they are looking after those who look after them.
I support the call for a debate on health. I understand the Minister, Deputy Reilly, will attend the House shortly. I ask the Leader that during the debate the Minister would have due reference to the impending crisis in our maternity hospitals. Hospitals like the Coombe, the Rotunda and the CUMH are probably the safest places in the world to have a baby. Ireland has a great international reputation. The difficulty is the amount of qualified midwives retiring in the next few weeks. A master of one hospital has said it will cause a problem. Hospitals are slow to respond and they may then have to have a knee-jerk reaction. There is a problem because when that happens there will be a dire shortage of midwives in our hospitals. One solution does not fit all. In certain cases in the public sector, such as the provision of adequate numbers of midwives for maternity hospitals, recruitment should take place. It is important that we debate the issue. Some 30, 40 or 50 qualified midwives could retire and will not be replaced.
I support the initiatives announced by the Minister, Deputy Shatter, today. Citizenship or passports will be given to wealthy people from Russia, China and Arab countries who come here and create jobs. It is similar to the passports for sale scheme that was so maligned. I am not saying it was right but rather than the scheme being abolished, if it had been properly regulated I have no doubt businesspeople would have availed of it. I know a wealthy Russian who has a sick child and would like to have regular access to Ireland, rather than a passport, and has promised to invest in a number of things including the Cork-Swansea ferry. Such investments would be good for Ireland, and create and sustain jobs, without being abused. I support the initiative.
Senator Denis Landy: I, too, would like to commend the efforts of the Members of this House who spoke on “Morning Ireland” today about the future of the Seanad. Senator Whelan referred to it and I would like to add my voice. I would like to raise two matters.
I refer to the reissuing of medical cards by the central processing unit. I am glad to say a number of substantial changes have occurred since we last met. The most important is that medical cards will no longer be withdrawn from people awaiting the processing of a card because of the delays in the unit. Cards will be renewed for a three year rather than two year period, and for four years for those aged over 66. The Cathaoirleach will recall that I asked the Leader two weeks ago if we could visit this unit to see what is causing the delays. The response I have received is that we do not do that type of thing around here, or words to that effect. I respect that this is the situation.
I am glad to report I have contacted the Minister of State, Deputy Róisín Shortall, who is responsible for this area. If Mohammed cannot go the mountain, as is the case with us, we are bringing the mountain to Mohammed. The central processing unit will make a presentation to all Oireachtas Members in about two weeks time. I ask the Leader to contact the office of the Minister of State to ensure we buy fully into that. The Members in this House who have rightly complained about this matter since last May are now getting results. We want the opportunity, through the Leader, to be part of the presentation that will happen in the coming weeks. I thank the Leader for his efforts to date on thismatter.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: It is extraordinary that, so far, none of the speakers has mentioned the attack on our sovereignty which involves us paying back €1.25 billion on unsecured bondholders. It is a depressing day. While there is nothing I can do about it today, I want to acknowledge it. If there was a symbolic vote around that area, I would support it, but it is very disappointing and depressing, and I feel helpless about it.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: Yes, but I also have a question for you, a Chathaoirligh. On behalf of all of us, will you send a note of congratulations to the Irish Film Board for the two excellent performances?
I commend the Leader, who is on a sticky wicket regarding the debate around reform of Seanad Éireann. I commend the House for an excellent debate last week on job creation. Will the Leader set aside time without a Minister and without the media but within this Chamber before the end of February for a debate on what our ideas would be around Seanad reform? This should be without a vote and without a whip, and we may possibly be talking to ourselves because the media does not listen, but it will ensure that whatever our ideas might be, they will be on the record. Ultimately, all we can do is change around the deck-chairs on Titanic. We cannot undertake radical reform because it is not within our remit or power and we do not have any constitutional ability to do that. However, we should put ourselves on the record, talking to ourselves, with the media listening to our ideas.
Senator Jim D’Arcy: Notwithstanding our difficulties, which are great, as a respected member of the international community, from time to time we should consider other matters. In that context, I wish to congratulate the Holocaust Education Trust of Ireland and Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris on the launch of its exhibition, The Holocaust in Europe, which was launched on Monday evening in the Department of Justice and Equality. Time in no way diminishes the horror of the Holocaust. Not alone was it European anti-Semitism which caused it, but in our own country the then Irish ambassador’s advice was that, “Ireland should be protected from the contamination that would result from granting residential visas to Jewish refugees.” This resulted in practically no visas being granted.
In this context, I suggest that we in Europe, Ireland in particular, should take a balanced view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While supporting the Palestinian right to statehood, we should also fully support the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders. I ask the Leader to note this and to urge the Members of the Seanad to visit that exhibition. I wish to inform the Leader and the House that in my position of education spokesperson for Fine Gael in the Seanad, I will be writing to schools to ask them to visit this exhibition.
Senator David Norris: I commend the Members of the House who took part in the debate on RTE this morning, to which I listened with great interest. One thing that was missing, and we should direct our attention to filling this gap, is the list of the achievements the Seanad, with the greatest difficulty and given all the constraints it has suffered under, has managed to accomplish over many years. I think of Senator Quinn’s important Bill on the construction industry, for example, as well as the role this House played in the Civil Partnership Bill. There is a series of things we have done that have not been noticed, including amendments to the NAMA legislation which made it accountable to the Oireachtas for the first time, although that took place at 2.30 a.m. and was never covered.
We ought to be able to present to the public what we have done. We should stand on our record. We should admit our limitations but we should say that while those limitations should also be looked at, we have had very significant achievements within them. Among these achievements have been considerable debates on the economy. I ask for a series of debates on this issue. For example, I note with great interest today that the man who founded the Davos meeting has indicated that capitalism in its present form is not working. That is a very significant point, coming from that source, and is something we should look at.
I understand there is the possibility of an oil and gas find at Dalkey and some of the local residents have raised objections to it on environmental grounds. They may well have a case, but would it not be——
Senator David Norris: This is a serious matter because I am asking that the Seanad should once again add to its record by, for example, seeking the implementation of the Keating principles, which would mean that the people would benefit from every discovery of mineral resources in this country. If oil and gas is found at Dalkey in substantial amounts, let us bring it ashore in an environmentally satisfactory way. Let us use it, not for the benefit of multinationals but for the benefit of the people.
Senator Marie Moloney: I promise I will keep my contribution to one issue, which concerns the mná tí in Gaeltacht areas. During the week, these mná tí received a letter from Roinn na Gaeltachta capping the number of students they can keep in their accommodation at 14. The summer colleges provide a major livelihood and bring big revenue into Gaeltacht areas every year. The students spend in the local shops and their parents visit at weekends, stay in the hotels and take students out for lunch and so on. All of these women are tax compliant and most got a grant from Roinn na Gaeltachta to do up their houses to accommodate the students. Now, they are being told they cannot do that. As we speak, in the Dingle-Daingean Uí Chúis area of west Kerry, 87 students are left without accommodation for the coming June, another case of no room at the inn. I ask the Minister to attend the House for a debate on why he has issued this directive or, at the very least, to give us an explanation through the Leader.
Senator David Cullinane: There is no doubt the burning issue in Ireland is the payment today of the unsecured, unguaranteed Anglo Irish Bank bond of €1.25 billion to people who invested, speculated and gambled. Some of these are secondary bondholders who will have bought those bonds at a cheap prices but will get paid in full, with interest. That payment is happening at a time when we can see services to schools being curtailed and teachers being lost, where in hospitals throughout the country managers and the HSE are trying to contain their budgets but, in doing so, are closing wards and theatres. Three thousand staff will be lost in the HSE this year, more than half of whom, some 1,500, will be front-line staff. It is outrageous that all these cuts are happening at a time when this country, namely, the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, will sign off today on a cheque for €1.2 billion of taxpayers’ money. This is in spite of the fact that in opposition those same parties lambasted the previous Government for doing exactly the same thing. They claimed that not one further cent would be paid unless burden-sharing was agreed.
How can the Leader, his party and Government stand over all those cuts which impact deeply on the quality of life of people in this country while the same Government is signing off on that guaranteed unsecured bond? It makes absolutely no sense. An earlier speaker mentioned special managers. There are special advisers who are being paid, in full and over the odds, extreme amounts of money while children with special needs are seeing their services cut. That is the kind of Ireland we are living in today. It is not what the people voted for. They voted for real change but we have not even discussed this matter properly. The fact that it was raised by one of the Independent Members, not by anybody from the Government parties, shows how out of touch Members in this Chamber are when it comes to the real issues. The big issue in Ireland is the payment of that bond and it should be discussed today in this House.
Senator Paul Coghlan: In following Senator Mooney’s comments, which set the tone on another issue today, as did other contributions, I compliment the Leader on his handling of what was a difficult interview. He was barracked continuously but handled it in a very fair and balanced way in regard to the constitutional requirements and obligations of this House.
I say to Senator Mooney that, of course, we want meaningful legislation. However, regardless of a review, constitutionally this House, as much as the other House, has to deal as required with all legislation, meaningful or otherwise. As Senator Norris pointed out, the House has an excellent record in handling legislation, as I believe Senator Mooney would agree. Many amendments down through the years have been accepted in this House and various Ministers of different political persuasions have paid serious compliments to this House regarding its standard of debate. They have often been — I will not say not more obliging but more persuaded — by the weight of the arguments proposed to accept amendments in this House more than they have in the other House.
Despite the barracking he received from an interviewer who was doing what he was paid to do, the Leader got across, in addition to legislation, the usefulness of the public consultation committee set up by this Seanad and the question and answer format we have very usefully employed with Ministers, thereby getting them to be more responsive and accountable to this House.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Yes. There was also the debate on the jobs initiative which was very useful. I look forward to those ideas going to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, and other Ministers, as the Leader outlined.
My question for the Leader is on a slightly different matter but we do not want to get confused. I agree with previous speakers in regard to generic prescription drugs. Restrictive practices may be involved. In regard to the meaningful report of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, which was launched yesterday, will the Leader allow the House to have a debate?
Senator Paul Coghlan: The Cathaoirleach knows how respectful I am. However, he invited me to ask a question. Will the Leader provide time in due course to allow the House to debate that report? Although I have no doubt the report was very well-meaning, and I compliment the members of that committee, it may be too restrictive.
Senator Mark Daly: Last Saturday marked not alone the 93rd anniversary of this House but also that of the Lower House. It says a lot for us as a Parliament that this event was not marked. Saturday was also the 93rd anniversary of the start of the War of Independence. I was honoured to be in Soloheadbeg for the commemoration and am also honoured to be on the 2016 commemoration committee to which a former Member of this House, Maurice Manning, has been appointed by the Taoiseach as an advisor. He stated of 2016 — as the quotation is from a newspaper, we all know how accurate that can be — that he can see the date being marked by a series of seminars. I do not believe the people expect such an historic event to be marked by seminars.
In regard to the Seanad and reform thereof, there are things we can do in this House. Deputy Seán Sherlock spoke yesterday about a statutory instrument. It might be news to the broader public outside the House that 75% of all legislation in this country is done by way of statutory instrument, without any scrutiny by any legislative official. Ministers sign EU directives into Irish law at a rate of 733 per year. I ask the Leader that this House be given the role of scrutinising statutory instruments as they have a considerable effect on Irish life, as we all know. They deal with everything from the septic tanks issue which is being raised throughout the country, to issues concerning bogs, water directives and others. All those issues come about because of statutory instruments that sail through this Parliament, signed by Ministers without as much as a by-your-leave to the democratically elected representatives of this country.
Senator Mark Daly: Will the Leader invite the associated Minister, who I assume is the Minister for Justice and Equality, to this House to discuss how we should be able to scrutinise statutory instruments as part of our workload in the Seanad, given that 733 of these were passed in a 12-month period without anybody looking at them, scrutinising or amending them to see how they might affect Ireland? This shows how the system, not only of the Seanad but of the Dáil, does not work. It needs to change now.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: At risk of incurring wrath, it is worth echoing our congratulations for those films that have been nominated for Oscars, namely, “The Shore” and “Pentecost”. It is a wonderful achievement.
However, to cut to the chase in regard to Seanad reform, one action we have tried to pursue is the format of questions and answers with Ministers when they attend. When we see a consultant obstetrician, Dr. Gerry Burke, talking on television about the risk of losing babies or mothers we know a very serious line is approaching. Generally, consultants do not make statements of that nature. Will the Leader ensure that when the Minister for Health attends the House in two weeks’ time to discuss the health service plan we can maximise the time available by being allowed to ask questions? We can stick to the questions and answers routine in order to allow as many speakers as we can. The fear is that in trying to reform that part of our work we should slide back, as we have shown ourselves to do on the Order of Business, by adding subjects every day.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I join those who congratulated the Leader on his comments on “Morning Ireland” today but I will not do so. If the Leader cannot answer Cathal Mac Coille’s straight question by stating where he believes the Taoiseach is wrong, he is not showing the independence of mind and approach which is the only basis on which the Seanad can recommend itself to the public.
Senator Norris got to the core of the issue when he pointed out it was on those occasions when the Seanad scrutinised legislation effectively that it proved its role, its value and its importance. Senator Quinn introduced the Construction Contracts Bill in recent times. In the previous Seanad I tried to play a role on the issue of civil partnership albeit on a different side to Senator Norris. I and others led a lonely battle to try to secure amendments to the ill-fated referendum on Oireachtas committees of inquiry. We were not helped in these matters by a Government approach that tried to impose the guillotine on the very work the Seanad was supposed to be doing.
Independent Senators, therefore, have given leadership but it is time the parties followed by showing themselves to be independent-minded and effective scrutineers of legislation. Our capacity to scrutinise legislation at length and effectively that will prove our case to the public, not any of the most recent reforms, as welcome as they are given they involve more contact with the public and so on.
The Leader and the Government could redeem themselves by giving us some answers to the important issues raised by Dr. Burke, the consultant obstetrician in the Mid-Western Regional Hospital. It is a serious matter that 20% of midwives could be lost. We have prided ourselves, as Senator O’Donovan said, on having the lowest maternal mortality rate in the world but we need to seriously examine the issue of morbidity, sickness and so on and we cannot compromise the quality of care given to women in pregnancy. As Dr. Burke said, the provision of safe maternity services is among the most fundamental duties of government because having babies is the core business of human beings. His most serious comments are welcome and they deserve a timely response from the Government.
Senator Colm Burke: Last Friday I had the privilege of attending the Cork Person of the Year ceremony. A monthly award is given and, at the end of the year, one of the 12 is picked. For instance, Maureen O’Hara was selected as Cork Person of the Month. However, Liam Casey won the annual award. He is from Cork but he works in China and employs more than 1,200 people. He made two points at the presentation. The first is that every time a report is published in a newspaper in Ireland, it is available around the world within five minutes and he emphasised the importance of being positive. The second issue he raised was that the perception foreigners have of Ireland is totally different from the perception we in Ireland have of ourselves. The perception abroad is more positive than the way we are portraying it in Ireland. It should be borne in mind when we debate issues and we want something in the public domain that the entire world is looking in and many positive developments are taking place in Ireland.
Cork city has been designated a healthy city by the World Health Organization. The designation revolves around all the organisations in the area working together to educate people about health care and improving their lifestyle. For instance, in three out of four deaths, circulation problems were——
Senator Colm Burke: When we debate health issues, we should examine the issue of education in the context of health care. In some areas, the number of deaths from a particular condition is much higher than others and this reflects how people live their lives. Education programmes could be undertaken and, in Cork city, the university, the hospitals and the HSE are working together. This should be taken on board in health care planning and this issue should be included in a debate with the Minister for Health, which I understand will be taken within the next two weeks.
Senator John Crown: I also welcome the news that Ms Louise Bayliss was reinstated. I speak with some personal authority on the issue of whistleblowing in the health service. This is a major problem at a time the service faces constraint. There will be problems and if we cannot depend on people who know what they are talking about, such as my old friend and colleague Dr. Gerry Burke who spoke out earlier, being protected when they point out deficiencies, there is a chance we will find that major omissions in care and departures from standards of care will not get into the public domain where they can be debated and, I hope, corrected.
Parenthetically, on two occasions since I returned to the country in 1993, serious attempts were made by agencies of the State to silence me. In the first instance, it was suggested to the hospital where I worked in the 1990s that there might be a reconsideration of whether they would fund the rebuilding of the institution if it could not shut me up. On the second occasion, in the early part of his millennium, when I notified the statutory agency responsible for the oversight of ethical clinical trials about a departure from high standards, I found that I was suspended for one year as a clinical researcher as a reward for my whistleblowing. This is a problem which does not only affect people on temporary contracts such as Ms Bayliss but it can occur throughout the system.
While I am supportive of what the Minister of Health is trying to do, including his proposal for a new grade of consultant, and he is making a number of innovative changes which will enhance the quality of the health system, a number of specific problems arise. Eva Cassidy and Bob Marley, two singers whose haunting music will be recalled by many Members, both died in their 30s from a disease called malignant melanoma. Anyone who has seen the Cancer Research UK advertisement which has Eva Cassidy singing “Fields of Gold” without welling up with emotion is a cold person. It is one of the most moving evocations of the tragedy of the young dying from cancer I have seen.
Nothing worked particularly well to fight this disease over the years but a little revolution has taken place in its treatment. In particular, a new drug, Ipilimumab, has recently been shown not only to have a modest impact on prolonging the survival of patients with incurable disease but would also appear to offer to a small number of patients the prospect of long remission and possible cure. The drug is expensive, costing €120,000 per patient for one cycle of treatment. The reality is the incidence of malignant melanoma in Ireland increased from 400 to approximately 800 cases a year between 1998 and 2008 while the number of patients who died almost doubled. It is likely that both figures will increase reflecting the sun exposure Irish people have become more used to.
Senator John Crown: Will the Leader bring to the Minister’s attention my extreme concern that he makes right decision? Apparently, the decision has been handed to him regarding the approval of the use of this drug in the treatment of patients with malignant melanoma. A recent expert committee, comprising four oncologists and three bureaucrats, convened on this and the oncologists all said the drug needed to be approved while the bureaucrats all said “No”. I was informed by VHI yesterday that it would not cover its use either. The country could experience a problem in the next while with this disease, which is relevant to between 40 and 60 patients per annum. The drug offers them the prospect of a good outcome. When we pay €10 million a year to the Health Information and Quality Authority, which has not saved one life but which has a large, muscular public relations department, we have some problem with our priorities.
Senator Jimmy Harte: Most people receive a letter from their mortgage company or bank outlining changes to their mortgage rates. My research shows there are almost 2 million residential units in the State, of which between 800,000 and 900,000 have a mortgage attached to them. Every interest rate change is notified to mortgage holders by post and those who hold two or three mortgages will receive two or three letters at a cost of 55 cent per letter in addition to the cost of stationery and time involved. We more or less own the banks and the notification of each mortgage interest rate change costs almost €500,000. Given the way the markets are now, the rate could change every month and, therefore, there could be 12 changes a year, which would cost up to €6 million.
I understand that under the terms and conditions of a mortgage, people must be informed by post but we have gone beyond that in this day and age. To save the taxpayer money, rate changes should be communicated to people by the media, e-mail or text message or by them contacting the bank themselves. I received a letter recently outlining my rate change and I am sure every other Member who has a mortgage received one. The letter does not last two minutes because one tears it up and throws it in the bin. The interest rate may increase from 4.5% to 4.7% and the cost of informing people is not justified. I asked Deputy Michael McCarthy to table a parliamentary question to the Minister for Finance. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Brian Hayes, may have a view on the matter because ultimately the mortgage holders will be paying for it and I do not think that is justified.
Senator Catherine Noone: I welcome Senator O’Donovan’s approval of the two initiatives announced by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, which are certain to create jobs. It is worth elaborating further on these initiatives in the context of our recent debate.
The first initiative is the immigrant investor programme, which will grant visas to participants on a five year basis. From the outset the level of investment is expected to range from €400,000 to €2 million, with an average of €1 million. The type of investment envisaged is the purchase of low interest Government bonds, capital investment in Irish business and, in some cases, the purchase of property from NAMA. The second initiative is the start-up entrepreneur programme, which will provide immigrants with good business ideas in the innovation economy with exportable prospects and funding of €70,000 residency in the State to develop their businesses. These initiatives highlight the Government’s commitment to job creation. We are ahead of the curve with these creative approaches and they will reap rewards for us.
The various ideas suggested during the debate on job creation have been forwarded to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation but I am interested in getting feedback on what he proposes to do with these ideas.
Senator John Gilroy: My good friend, Senator Mac Conghail, was despondent about the fact that we are paying the bondholders of Anglo Irish Bank. I share his despondency and I do not think there is a person in Ireland who is not outraged that the country has come to the situation whereby we have to pay bondholders. Unfortunately, however, in other elements of the debate a deep dishonesty is being put forward. We must ask ourselves whether the Government has an alternative. Some people say there is an alternative but the Government believes it does not have one. Any alternative proposal must at least be sensible and not drawn from the patients of lulu land. The simplistic argument that some parties in this State are putting forward is scaring people for the sake of rabble rousing and scoring political points on this, the most serious of all the issues we face.
There is some evidence from Denmark to suggest that we have an alternative, although it is not very strong. In 2010, two banks, each of which was worth €1 billion, defaulted after failing to make their payments. Denmark has a very diversified banking system, with 148 lending institutions. The consequence of the default was a 10% increase in banking costs across the banking industry. This happened in a country that controls its own monetary policy and is not part of the common currency area. If we are to defend the opinion that we can default without consequence, I hope people will consider that example. If the interest rates for Denmark increased to 10%, one can imagine what would happen to borrowing costs in a country that is part of the common currency area with no control over monetary policy and an unhealthy banking system.
I seek a debate on economic policy and ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Finance to come to the House in order that we can debate in a reasoned way and hold all the arguments, whether for and against the course of action we are taking, up to scrutiny in the cold light of day. I hope all Senators will at least have the courtesy and decency to acknowledge the complexity of the issue.
Senator Cáit Keane: I would like to say that we think of this as an innovating island, particularly when we look at the IT companies we have attracted to the shores. We have Facebook and Google, to name two of the big companies, as well as a number of smaller companies. We are about to introduce a statutory instrument to change a law that will affect all these companies. A previous speaker referred to statutory instruments in general but this particular measure will shape the web. Wikipedia closed down completely last week as an objection to this approach. Adrian Weckler is an IT correspondent with the Sunday Business Post and has his own blog. The justification presented for the statutory instrument is that it is necessary for copyright reasons. Everybody knows it has to be done but if one is going to introduce a measure which will have a drastic effect on the web in this country, one should do so by legislation and guidelines rather than in a statutory instrument that gives power to judges to decide if something is legal. Adrian Weckler has written that the IDA “may have to alter its pitch to large US social media firms who may have been thinking of setting up in Ireland”. We should not brush this aside and leave it to the judges in the courts. I urge the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Sean Sherlock, to come to the House in order that we can have an opportunity to debate his proposals to see whether we can implement them by means of legislation, as is done in most countries. T. J. MacIntyre, a lecturer in law, wrote on his blog that the web should not be shaped to the will of commercial companies. I plead with the Minister of State to deal with this matter by means of legislation rather than statutory instrument.
Senator John Kelly: I do not normally read the newspapers and come in to this House to discuss their headlines but on this occasion I will do so. For several days all one could read in the newspapers were stories about special advisers to Ministers getting pay increases, which is outrageous given that they are already well paid. In one of yesterday’s newspapers it was reported that expenditure on special bonuses for staff was €652,000 in the HSE, €559,000 in the Revenue Commissioners and €329,000 in the Department of Social Protection. Why are these bonuses paid? I cannot see why somebody in the Department of Social Protection or Revenue should be entitled to a bonus for doing a job that he or she is already well paid for. My biggest concern, however, is that the HSE is paying bonuses when nothing about the delivery of its services suggests that staff should be getting bonuses. I suspect that somebody in the HSE is getting a bonus for sticking within a budget. I am concerned about this because if these staff are getting bonuses to stick within budgets, the needy people of this country are being deprived of services.
When I go around rural Ireland to listen to communities complaining about the downgrading of their smaller schools, I have no answers when they throw this kind of stuff in my face. I call on the Leader to ask the relevant Ministers who are receiving these bonuses and for what.
Senator Mary M. White: I draw Senators’ attention to the possible closure of 550 public nursing home beds. Does the Minister for Health intend to have only private sector nursing homes? He promised that the HSE would engage intensively with nursing homes. I refer in particular to Crooksling in Brittas, County Dublin. Day in, day out I find this country to be frustratingly inefficient. If Germany was defeated in two world wars but it got its act together, why can we not deal with our inefficiencies? One Department does not talk to the other. HIQA produced an excellent report on Crooksling and its idyllic environment but the HSE wants to close it down. There are 20 high-dependency patients in Tallaght hospital that are costing the State €7,000 per year. I said to the people up in Crooksling that if they got their costs right there, logically, why could the 20 high-dependency people from Tallaght hospital, who need very special care and attention 24 hours a day, not be moved to the Brittas public nursing home, in an idyllic site with first-class treatment? One lady whose sister is in the home said that the care the patients got was magic. Mr. David Walsh, who is the key person in the HSE dealing with Crooksling, has not been available for the last month despite many conversations.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator Mooney, acting Leader of the Opposition, raised the question of the Seanad meeting for two days this week and spoke about the need for more legislation to be brought to the House. I work with the legislation and the Ministers available at any point in time. The Seanad returned on 11 January, although this would normally be its first day back. We are well ahead of what happened heretofore in that regard. I agree that we need more legislation, but we have three Bills on the agenda for today and tomorrow. Senators can expect the Seanad to sit for three and four days for the remainder of this session because legislation is beginning to come through from committees. I have also asked Ministers to initiate more Bills in the House and hope that will be the case. Tomorrow we are taking the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011, which is being initiated in this House; therefore, we are making considerable progress on that matter.
Senator Mooney also spoke about the report on the cost of pharmaceuticals, which was also mentioned by Senators Quinn, Coghlan and others. Certainly, the cost of patented drugs in comparison to that of generic drugs is frightening. Perhaps we can arrange a debate on that report with the Minister in early course.
Senator O’Donovan complimented the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, on his proposals with regard to immigrant visas, which are aimed at assisting in job creation. Senators Noone, Quinn and others also raised that issue. I believe the regulations will come into place in March. Perhaps we could arrange for the Minister to come here to explain what he proposes. I am sure he would be more than willing to do so.
Senator van Turnhout raised quite a number of items on the Order of Business. We will be debating our Private Members’ motion this evening. With regard to the six-month consultation process on the criminalisation of the purchase of sex, I will certainly contact the Minister and ask him what progress has been made. The Senator also mentioned the reinstatement of Louise Bayliss, which we all welcome, and outlined the need for further whistleblowing legislation, as did Senator Crown.
Senator Quinn mentioned generic drugs and the issue of immigrant visas. He also mentioned the report on the sale of alcohol, which was announced yesterday and deals with the sale of alcohol in supermarkets, garages and so on. I will try to organise a debate on the report in the House and will contact the relevant Minister with a view to doing so.
Senator Sheahan mentioned the cost of special managers in credit unions. It is absolutely disgraceful that, as he mentioned, amounts of over €400 per hour can be paid to such special managers. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Hayes, will be in the House within the next week or two, and perhaps the Senator can address his concerns to him at that time.
Senator O'Donovan mentioned the problems arising in maternity hospitals because of the number of midwives who are retiring. This issue can be raised with the Minister, Deputy Reilly, when he is here to discuss the health service plan.
Senator Landy outlined the changes in the processing of medical card applications, which are welcome, although there are still a number of problems in that regard. However, I am delighted to hear that the people in the primary care reimbursement service will come to Leinster House in the next couple of weeks to explain what is happening.
Senators Mac Conghail, Cullinane, Gilroy and others spoke about the payment of €1.25 billion to bondholders. The Government’s current priority is to renegotiate our bailout agreement with the troika to reduce the cost of the bank bailout. The rewards for success in this regard are far greater than in any knee-jerk reaction of refusing payment of Anglo Irish Bank bonds. The focus is on reducing the cost of the funds used to capitalise the banks. I certainly share the public’s dismay at the cost of this policy and the delay caused to the State’s recovery, but, unfortunately, the truth is that the vast majority of Anglo Irish Bank debts were paid off under the previous Government.
Senator Mac Conghail also called for a debate on Seanad reform similar to the one we had on job creation ideas. I requested that members of the groups send me a bullet point list of ideas from their various members which had been expressed in the debate. The debate was well attended, with more than 30 Senators taking part, and we had some excellent suggestions. It is my intention when I receive those bullet point lists, which I hope will happen today, to present them to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton. I hope we will be given feedback on these ideas, as requested by Members, with an update on how the Government is making progress on them. It was an excellent debate which lasted for more than three hours, and it was certainly a good thing for the Seanad to do.
Senator Moloney spoke about the restrictions on mná tí in the Gaeltacht. I do not know whether it was the Minister with responsibility for the Gaeltacht who put this cap on mná tí. I will speak to the Senator afterwards and try to get information for her.
Senator Paul Coghlan also spoke about the reforms in the Seanad and its achievements in the past. I heard Senator Daly’s comments on the former Senator, Dr. Maurice Hayes, who was one of the best Senators we ever had. He was an excellent person and is well suited to being part of the Taoiseach’s team in organising the celebrations for the 1916 commemorations.
Senator Daly is right in what he said about statutory instruments, etc. Regarding EU legislation, I have written to the chairman of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, asking that some research staff be redeployed to allow us to debate European affairs and European directives in this House. I await the response of the chairman of the commission in that regard. I am sure that the Members of this House who sit on the commission will fully support our request.
I respect Senator Mullen’s comments. I am sure he is not suggesting Independent Members have a monopoly of wisdom in this House. Parties have carried out important scrutiny of legislation and will continue to do so. It is not a monopoly so far as Independent Members are concerned.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator Colm Burke spoke about the importance of being positive and a perception abroad in that regard. He called for education in health care to be discussed when we are discussing matters with the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly. I am sure he will take up that matter.
Senator Crown spoke about the deaths from malignant melanoma that could be prevented and referred to the cost of the drugs involved being €120,000. Such an amount is cheap when compared to the cost of a life. If people can be saved by using these drugs, cost should not come into play. I am sure it is a matter on which the Senator will question the Minister, Deputy Reilly, when he comes into the House.
Senator Harte spoke about the notification by post of interest rate changes for mortgage holders. Fortunately, it was good news in most cases, with reductions in mortgage interest rates. I believe mortgage providers are obliged to notify customers by post. I can raise this issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, when he comes into the House in the next week or two.
Senator Kelly asked what special bonuses were paid, a matter that probably should have come under the Croke Park agreement. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes will be in the House on 9 February to discuss that agreement and perhaps the Senator can address his questions to him at that time.
Senator White spoke about the possible closure of beds in public nursing homes, a matter she has raised previously. I agree that consultation should take place between the nursing homes and the HSE or HIQA, whatever the case may be. If the matter is not rectified in the meantime, I am sure she will have the opportunity on 14 February of raising those problems with the Minister.
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