Thursday, 26 January 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Order of Business is No. 1, referral of the report of the Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions on “Revised Orders of Reference for the Joint Committee” to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, to be taken without debate; No. 2, referral to the Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture papers connected with the role of the Oireachtas Joint Committee under the Broadcasting Act 2009, to be taken without debate; and No. 3, statements, questions and answers on agriculture and fisheries, to commence at the conclusion of No. 2 and conclude not later than 1.45 p.m., with the first hour confined to agricultural matters and the second to fisheries, the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed five minutes on each topic, Sinn Féin contributions not to exceed two minutes on each topic and those of all other Senators not to exceed one minute when asking a question of the Minister.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: I oppose the proposal to take No. 1 without debate. I do so on the basis that the Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions was set up prior to the decision of the people in the referendum to reject the proposed 30th amendment to the Constitution. As the Government’s proposals were not acceptable to the public it is not acceptable that this committee should sit at all. It is a cross-over of the Committee of Public Accounts and a number of other committees. At the very least, this motion should be debated. Every Member should be aware of the terms of reference of the new committee and of what it will do. Will it be a toothless committee? I suggest that it will be. On that basis, I will oppose the proposal to take No. 1 without debate. We could afford some time next week to debate it. We should put aside an hour next week to look at this motion and discuss it.
I give a guarded welcome to the Government’s eventual publication of the personal insolvency Bill, to deal with the mounting crisis in unsecured personal debt and mortgage debt. This is a substantial Bill and we will be looking at it in detail. The draft will have to go to committee and the Bill will be considered by the Houses but my main concern is that it leaves the power with the banks to make the final decision. It does not set up an independent statutory office, like the debt settlement agency Fianna Fáil proposed, to look at difficulties of mortgagee and the bank’s position, and then rule on the debt. The Bill leaves it to the banks to play ball.
I put this reservation, particularly in light of Mr. Richard Edelman’s trust barometer which was published this morning. It shows that only 9% of Irish people have any trust in the Irish banking system. The fundamental flaw in the legislation is that it is left to the bank to decide the amount of mortgage debt, if any, it will write down. That is not how we should go forward. I would like the Leader to outline the timeframe for the Bill.
Last week, the HSE published its 2012 service plan. There does not appear to be any proposal to debate this document in either House. I ask the Leader to set aside time next week to have a proper and full debate on the HSE service plan for 2012 and to cover a number of items across the sector. Concerns have been raised regarding the agreement of the Minister for Health to close up to 900 public nursing home beds. In this regard, the Minister has a conflict of interest. He should not be overseeing nursing home policy because of his own business interests in this area. At the very least this plan should be debated.
The plan was raised yesterday in the Dáil in the context of the number of midwives in Limerick who will shortly retire. In the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, 11 midwives will retire and eight will retire in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, a short walk from Leinster House. What plans has the Government put in place to fill those vacancies? We were told the Government would do as much as possible to protect front-line services. I have genuine concerns in this regard. Two of the most important maternity hospitals in this city will be down 19 midwives between them. Does the Minister for Health have any plans to sanction the filling of those posts?
The Minister for Education and Skills has allowed retiring teachers to come back to finish the examination year. That makes sense. We are talking about the birth of children and about losing people with vast experience in the Rotunda and Holles Street hospitals. I am sure the Government will not turn a blind eye to this problem. What plans has it in place to fill those vacancies?
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Government’s debt and bankruptcy relief plan and the publication of the draft general scheme of the personal insolvency Bill. I have the draft scheme here. It is a very lengthy scheme. It was circulated yesterday to the members of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. We will be conducting public hearings on the Bill. To follow what Senator O’Brien said, the scheme is still in draft format.
Senator Ivana Bacik: It is subject to legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General, to a report by the joint committee and to submissions from anyone who has an interest in the area. The Minister has let that be known. Changes may still be made.
From my first reading it is not my understanding that it gives powers to the banks. Rather, it will assist the 30,000 home owners who are in arrears and provide, for the first time, a series of measures.
Senator Ivana Bacik: They include a State-run insolvency service, a system of debt release certificates for forgiveness of debt for those who have no assets and no income and are unable to meet qualifying debts totalling up to €20,000, a debt settlement arrangement scheme and a personal insolvency arrangement. A series of measures are set out in the scheme.
The joint committee has been told we have a tight timeframe to report to the Minister. We will be having meetings with the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, and with the Irish Society of Insolvency Practitioners on 15 February and we will be preparing and publishing a report on the heads of the Bill by the end of February. A meeting is scheduled for 22 February. Things are moving very swiftly. There is also a need for consultation on the Bill.
Senator Ivana Bacik: This is the first time any of the three eurozone economies in bailout has succeeded in selling bonds of this maturity. That is an important point. It is welcome, particularly on the day when an unwelcome repayment was made. Those of us on the Government side are, of course, most unhappy at paying the Anglo Irish Bank bond.
Senator Ivana Bacik: We saw it as a necessary evil. That was clearly set out by the Tánaiste and by the Minister for Finance yesterday. It is very much an evil and we do not like to have to do it. However, it is a strategy that appears to be working and we are going to work with it in an attempt to ensure that we achieve growth. No real or practical alternative has been offered by those who have been shouting about repaying this bond.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: I, too, would welcome a debate on No. 1 on the Order Paper. It may be due to my own lack of experience, but I do not know what it is about. The Independent group of Senators is not represented on the Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions. I would welcome a debate and an information briefing for the Seanad on the matter. I support Senator O’Brien’s amendment to the Order of Business.
I also commend the House for the excellent debate last evening on the Independent group of Senators motion on disability. I attended the debate but did not speak. However, as the Seanad can do, it taught me an enormous amount about the issues facing a rights based approach to disability and Government policy. The debate was rich and informative, as was the quality of the contributions from all parties and all sides. There was no political point scoring either and the debate showed how the Seanad can deal with contentious and sensitive issue imaginatively. My lasting impression was of the contribution by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who was passionate, informed and on top of her brief. I believe in her commitment to resolve the issue of individualisation and look forward to her making progress on it.
One of the themes that came out of the debate was of the conclusions and recommendations of the Ryan report. We are coming to the third anniversary of its publication in May. In this regard, I highlight my concerns at the detention of children in St. Patrick’s Institution in Dublin, which is a part of Mountjoy Prison. St. Patrick’s Institution is a medium security prison where male offenders between the ages of 16 and 21 are detained. Although children under 16 are detained in the children’s detention schools, boys over 16 continue to be detained in St. Patrick’s Institution, in an environment considered wholly inappropriate for their needs. This is an arbitrary distinction on the grounds of age and has no basis in law. On 15 June 2011, there were 41 boys aged 16 and 17, which is wholly inappropriate.
A briefing from the Irish Penal Reform Trust has called for an immediate end to the detention of children in St. Patrick’s Institution, as has the Ombudsman for Children. I understand the Ombudsman for Children is also responsible to the Oireachtas in this matter.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: Yes, I have two questions, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, and thank you for reminding me. They relate to this issue. Before I ask the questions I will mention the proposal for Oberstown. The programme for Government includes a proposal to build a detention centre there but there has been no final decision on it. I know funding for the project is being investigated.
My two questions are these. First, can the Leader ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for an update on the Oberstown capital project to house children in detention? Second, I ask the Leader to lead a call from the Seanad to extend the power and remit of the Ombudsman for Children to hear complaints from children held in prison, on the same basis as children detained elsewhere. This issue emerged in the Ryan report. Children are detained in St. Patrick’s Institution. This is why the Children’s Rights Alliance, whose former chief executive is our colleague Senator Jillian van Turnhout, gave an F grade to the Government. To give this extended remit to the ombudsman would be a simple cost effective measure. It would not cost €60 million or €100 million. The Ombudsman for Children should hear complaints and should be able to listen to children who are detained in adult institutions.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Ba bhreá liom tacú leis an méid atá ráite ag mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Mac Conghail. I wish to be associated with everything he has just said. Is there anything the Seanad can do to contribute to greater clarity on where a referendum fits into our plans for the fiscal compact and our agreement with our European partners? There seems to be an element of confusion about this. Listening this morning to a member of the fiscal advisory council suggesting that it was not desirable to hold a referendum, it quickly became clear that Professor McHale was referring to the idea that a referendum would be a means to entrench whatever agreement might be made and to require that Irish law would follow whatever agreement might be made. He suggested that would not be sufficiently flexible to deal with various eventualities, on which I agree with him.
However, that is a separate question from whether a referendum is needed in order to permit Ireland to make a treaty of the kind that is proposed. We should not be confused on this point. Professor McHale seemed to be suggesting that our European partners might be looking for a degree of certitude about every member state’s participation and that each country would be constitutionally required to follow the terms of a particular treaty. While I do not believe I would be very happy with that, whether a referendum would be necessary in order to allow us to participate in such a treaty at all is a separate question. Therefore it would be wrong for anybody to take from this morning’s discussion that there was some kind of serious objection to holding a referendum per se. It may very well be that a referendum is needed before the country can even participate in such a treaty. I note the Taoiseach’s reticence about giving a commitment on whether a referendum will be held. It is a matter we could attempt to debate here. The issues are not so unclear as to prevent our making some kind of analysis of whether a referendum is needed.
I wish to mention the cause of guidance counselling in secondary schools. There is considerable concern about how the change will impact on the personal support given to students in our schools. I noted this morning’s debate between Deputy Ó Ríordáin of the Labour Party and a spokesperson for chaplains. It is very regrettable that some people seem to be using the very legitimate cause of guidance counselling as some kind of stick with which to beat school chaplaincy, which is wrong. It would be very welcome if the Institute of Guidance Counsellors were to make it clear that it does not want to see its very good cause advanced on the back of some kind of attack on school chaplaincy. One thing that has come from this debate is that the relatively small sum of €9 million being spent on school chaplaincy is entrenched with the deeds of trust of community schools and so on, but there is an inequality in that system in that voluntary schools have not had access to paid chaplains over the years. This is one of a number of inequalities that has been to the disadvantage of voluntary schools over the years. It is difficult to get any progress on such an issue given the current economic circumstances but it is a matter to which we will need to return.
Senator Cáit Keane: I ask the Leader to raise the issue of JobBridge with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton. Certain sectors of society are disenfranchised and cannot apply for the JobBridge scheme, including the disabled, lone parents and widows. As employers can now push workplace placements into JobBridge, it further disenfranchises those sectors of society. If they want to do an internship — very often the only avenue now available to those people is through the JobBridge programme — it is discriminatory. As we all know there are many types of disabilities. I know of one person who is studying journalism and when he has finished, it would be ideal for him to get that type of experience. However, because he is in receipt of a disability allowance, that avenue is closed to him.
Advertisements for three organisations have come to my attention. The Irish Wheelchair Association and the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind have advertised positions for which, owing to the rules of JobBridge, disabled persons cannot apply. Even the Irish Family Planning Association advertised a job for which single parents cannot apply. I ask that the Minister, Deputy Burton, review the scheme to open it to disabled people on equality grounds. I commend her for the introduction of JobBridge. I know of employers who have had a great experience with the people they took on under the scheme and whom they will hire when the scheme finishes.
Senator David Cullinane: I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Mac Conghail on the very constructive debate we had on the issue of people with disabilities. Since the first sitting of this Seanad I have not raised the issue of the future of the Seanad because it is important for us to get on with the business we were elected to do and not continually discuss the future of the House. However, the Leader and the Chairman of the petitions committee should introduce a work programme for the year. This is one of the new departures we all welcome. A number of ideas have already been floated regarding investigating the retail sector, young people, suicide and others. We had a very good discussion on human rights. We should go further than just bringing in advocate groups for meetings of the petitions committee. We should consider publishing joint agreed reports on those issues. Those reports should not be just reports, but action plans which could then inform public debate on these important issues. That would be the most powerful thing we could do coming out of those committees.
The motion we debated last night proposed to compel the Government to do certain things and was about action. While the petitions committee is a new and welcome departure, if nothing comes out at the end of those engagements, it could be seen as another talking shop and that we are not getting what we should be getting from those engagements. The sittings we have had have been very constructive. I ask the Leader to accept the constructive element of my proposal. We should not simply have those sittings but should also publish reports which would add weight to the status of this House.
Senator Michael Mullins: I join the Deputy Leader in welcoming the progress the Government has made in addressing the issue of personal insolvency, personal debt and mortgage distress. I am surprised at the negative tone of Senator Darragh O’Brien, given a very positive contribution by his party’s justice spokesperson on “Morning Ireland” this morning when he very much welcomed the heads of the Bill and rightly indicated that he will be proposing some amendments during the course of the Bill’s passage.
This leads me on to a very prestigious housing affordability study which indicates that housing prices are now back within the reach of ordinary workers for the first time in a long time. During the madness of the Celtic tiger an ordinary home cost ten times the average industrial wage, whereas it is now back within three times the average industrial wage.
The Leader will be pleased to know that the most affordable place in Ireland to purchase a home is Waterford. I am sure his colleague will also be pleased to hear that. It is closely followed by Galway, Cork and then Dublin and Limerick. This should be exceptionally good news, particularly for people who have full-time permanent jobs and are in secure employment. However, there is a problem.
Senator Michael Mullins: The problem is that the banks are not lending to people who are in permanent, full-time secure employment in order that they can purchase homes. I ask the Leader to make some arrangement for consultation with representatives of the banks to see what progress they are making in freeing up badly needed finance for people who wish to purchase their own homes. Many affordable homes are available but people cannot get mortgages. I have been contacted by people in my own constituency who have permanent full-time jobs, and some also have land, but they cannot get money from the banks. Despite what the banks are telling us, the money is not flowing. We need to do something about this. I ask the Leader to liaise with the Minister for Finance in order that we can have a briefing, at an early stage, as to what progress is being made to force the banks to lend to legitimate borrowers.
Senator Mark Daly: I, too, call for a debate on the recommendation of the Fiscal Advisory Council. The council produced only one previous report to the Government. Prior to the budget it suggested cuts of €4.8 billion, which the Government rejected out of hand. The council is now saying there should not be a referendum on the forthcoming intergovernmental treaty. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, has embraced this advice, which suits the Government’s agenda. It is sensible that such fiscal constraint should not be written into the Constitution but should be dealt with by way of legislation. However, the Fiscal Advisory Council is not addressing the transfer of democratic power to the EU in the forthcoming treaty. While it is all well and good to talk about budgetary measures, and sensible that Ireland would retain control of our own budgetary situation in terms of borrowing money when we get back into the market, transferring democratic powers to Europe and allowing EU oversight, as the Bundestag had oversight of our budget, is another matter.
Senator Mark Daly: The question is, can we have a debate on the forthcoming EU treaty? As has been pointed out, Ireland does not have a position. We are going into the negotiation with our hands hanging. We have no position paper and we have not debated the treaty here or in the Dáil. We will be presented with a fait accompli. There is a democratic deficit in this House and in the Dáil. We will be shown a treaty when it is completed and told there is no need for a referendum. Then we will see what the Supreme Court says.
I remind Members of the Seanad of the provision in the Constitution that if 31 Members of this House and one third of the Members of the Dáil call for a referendum the President can be petitioned to hold one. This could be done, despite what the Government is trying to do, which is to take powers away from the people of the country. This power rests with Members on the Government side of the House. Whether Government Senators are for or against the treaty, the people should have their say.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I remind Senators that they have one minute to ask a question. Some Members seem to think we should have a debate when an issue is raised. Every Member who spoke today, bar one, has exceeded that minute. I am being more than lenient.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I am delighted to see that the Government has published the personal debt and insolvency Bill. Personal and mortgage debt is, arguably, the greatest issue facing Irish families. It is a huge burden. I am really looking forward to debating a Bill that will help Irish families to feel less worried and to grow again.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Education and Skills to the House for a comprehensive debate on small rural schools? I asked for this on two occasions last week. The Minister came to the House yesterday, but it was to debate the Education (Amendment) Bill and it would not have been appropriate to raise this subject. Small rural schools are at a juncture. Many Senators will agree with me that this matter deserves time and debate. I want us to have that debate. Otherwise we cannot possibly represent the real concerns about Gaeltacht schools, rural DEIS schools and disadvantage in rural areas. The difficulties of multiple classes in rural schools, as distinct from single classes in urban schools, are not really understood. Let us have this debate in the House.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Healy Eames. I would welcome such a debate. Next week, the Private Members’ debate in the Dáil will give all Government Deputies the opportunity to reverse these cuts and ensure that our local rural schools are protected. I call on all Members of that House to do that.
As co-author of the Family Home Bill, which was defeated in the House by just three votes, I welcome the publication today of the heads of the personal insolvency Bill. The Debt Settlement and Mortgage Resolution Office Bill was also defeated in the Dáil.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I am pleased. While I appreciate that the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality is considering this issue, can the heads of the Bill also be put before this House for a debate at this time, to feed into the joint committee’s deliberations on the issue? While the Bill contains many welcome features, many of them were included in the Bills Fianna Fáil put forward and which were defeated. Those Bills are ready to go and could still be implemented.
As the Leader of the Opposition has pointed out, the proposed Bill will leave the banks in control. There is nothing in the draft Bill published today that the banks could not do themselves if they wished. What makes the Minister for Justice and Equality thank that when we pass the Bill the banks will adopt its processes as a way forward? We must have an independent authority, as proposed in our Bill. I implore the Labour Party and Fine Gael to go down that route. Otherwise banks will not engage in the way required to help families.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I welcome the State’s return to the bond markets yesterday, when bonds worth €3.5 billion were floated on a three year rather than a two-year basis. The NTMA is to be complimented on this manoeuvre. There could be another one in the pipeline, please God. This scotches any need for a second bailout which some people have been talking about. It indicates investor appetite and confidence in Ireland and our economy. It also augurs well for a phased re-entry to longer term debt markets. It is of vital importance for the country that we are approaching things on such a planned and phased basis.
I very much welcome the view of the Fiscal Advisory Council. Let us stay calm until we have seen the final text of the treaty. We do not know the detail of it so we cannot have a view from the Attorney General. I appreciate the eagerness of colleagues opposite to say a little about the situation.
Senator David Norris: I support what Senator Fiach Mac Conghail said. I was here and took part in that debate. It was one of the best I have ever been involved in. There were two amendments, one in the name of the Government and one in the name of Sinn Féin. It is significant that they were both withdrawn. The Minister of State accepted what was said graciously and spoke passionately on the issue. As a result of the debate, the position of the disabled has been improved and this House has had a significant impact on Government policy. I have not seen any report anywhere of the debate, yet it is a very good argument for the retention of this House.
I congratulate An Garda Síochána on the patient, quiet investigation into the murder of Marioara Rostas, a Roma member of the Romanian community. She was not a member of the criminal community and was part of an extended family with no criminal associations. She came here from Romania in order to continue the work she had been doing looking after younger members of that family. They lived in derelict conditions in a roofless house and did some begging. We should register in this House that the Roma community, which is so often despised and which was targeted by Hitler and put in concentration camps, and which is despised all over Europe and held up to contumely and contempt routinely in the media here, does contain decent people. An Garda Síochána pursued its investigations quietly and patiently and I hope an arrest will soon follow and that it gets the conviction that looks likely. It is important to state that not all the members of the Roma community are as portrayed in the media.
Senator Tom Sheahan: Seldom does one see a politician stand up in the Chamber and compliment a newspaper, but I want to compliment and congratulate the Irish Independent on bestowing on someone who is possibly one of the greatest Kerrymen of all time, Mick O’Dwyer, the hall of fame award.
Senator Tom Sheahan: My point is that this is well deserved and long overdue to Mick O’Dwyer. As I said, it is unfortunate the GAA did not do it for the contribution he has made. Would it be appropriate for the Leader, on behalf of this Chamber, to send a letter of congratulations to Mick O’Dwyer, Mary Carmel and the rest of the family?
Senator Mary M. White: Yesterday evening, we had a meeting with the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, which represents 900 local authority members around the country. The members pleaded with us and sought our support to enhance and strengthen the role of local government and elected members and they had suggestions with regard to the new household and water charges. I support those charges and believe we should have had water charges a long time ago, which is something I raised with my party. The LAMA members want the money from water and household charges to be available to the local authorities and for them to have a say in how it is spent. The meeting was chaired by Councillor Hugh McElvaney and my friend Councillor Noel Bourke. We had a superb presentation from Councillor Enda McGloin. I suggest——
Senator Mary M. White: I suggest we have a cross-party meeting in this Chamber to discuss how we can enhance the role of local authority members. Like us, their role is defined in the Constitution and they, like us, need innovation. Local authorities on mainland Europe have far more responsibility than do ours. We want a mutually beneficial meeting with local authority members and want cross-party discussion here on how we can push this issue with the Minister, Deputy Hogan. We want him to use his head and common sense to enhance the role of county councillors.
Senator Mary Moran: I welcome the U-turn by the Ulster council of Comhaltas CeoltóiríÉireann on its decision to support Derry’s bid for the All-Ireland fleadh next year. I would also like to compliment Senator Ó Murchú on the work he has done in this area as president of Comhaltas CeoltóiríÉireann. As a former music teacher and as someone who has been involved in the fleadh at local level, I know the importance of this cultural event. All the children who have participated with me see it as an All-Ireland event, not a North and South event. As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I have been to Monaghan, Armagh and Belfast where we have seen excellent progress in recent years. A decision to hold the fleadh in Derry next year would be very beneficial to progress and I would welcome it.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an éileamh atá déanta ag an Seanadóir Fidelma Healy Eames maidir le cúrsaí oideachais. Tá an cheist a d’ardaigh sí thar a bheith tábhachtach agus ba cheart í a phlé chomh luath agus is féidir. Tuigim go bhfuil an tAire Cumarsáide, Fuinnimh agus Acmhainní Nádúrtha, Deputy Rabbitte, le teacht isteach chugainn uair éigin le labhairt faoi chúrsaí craoltóireachta agus cuirim fáilte roimh sin. Tá brief an-leathan ag an Aire agus gnó amháin eile atá faoina chúram ná cúrsaí acmhainní nádúrtha.
I appreciate the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, coming in to speak to us on his broadcasting portfolio and we welcome that debate. Natural resources form another important part of his portfolio, particularly the possibilities for job creation in this country from wind, wave, tidal, oil and gas energy. I would welcome a debate on Government policy on this and feel it is important to get ideas on it and to bring joined-up thinking to this area. I also welcome the fact the ESB has announced it is putting a 110 Kv line into Connemara in the near future. However, we have already heard from people trying to develop wind energy that they will not be able to link into that. It is important therefore to have joined-up thinking on these issues. A debate on this would be timely and we would have a great contribution to make to that debate.
Senator Colm Burke: I wish to add to what my colleague Senator Cáit Keane had to say on the JobBridge programme. When it was introduced, a public nursing home applied to be included in the programme, but it was advised it could not be part of it. However, representations having been made to the Minister, she changed the regulation so that now people who want to get experience of working with elderly people can apply to public nursing homes and get on to the JobBridge programme. This is working out well. I spoke to the matron of the nursing home in question yesterday and she advised me that this is working out very well. This is about training people and making them available then to work with elderly people in the community, which is welcome.
The next time the Minister is in this House, it would be appropriate to have a discussion on the JobBridge programme to discuss what further changes could be made to include more people in it and to encourage employers to give them the experience they need to work in different areas. There is a need for training in caring for the elderly and working in a public nursing home would provide significant experience that could then be used for the benefit of others. The next time the Minister is here we should include in our discussion a review of the progress of the JobBridge programme.
Senator John Crown: Dublin will be the European City of Science for 2012, with a major symposium in July with a focus on scientific achievement in this country. I was pleased to note recently that Ireland has now been ranked third in the world for immunology, which is a burgeoning and critically important area of human biomedical science. It is also ranked eighth in the world for field of material science. We have come a long way in terms of advances in science which can bring huge spin-off benefits for the country.
I would like the Leader to raise two points with the relevant Ministers. I tangentially touched on the first point previously. There is a core need for the Department of Education and Skills to develop a core science curriculum for those who will not pursue careers in science but need to understand the subject because it is the language that governs the universe in which we live. Science should be mandatory in the same way that English, mathematics and a foreign language should be mandatory until the day young people leave secondary school. It is an essential part of the skill set that people need to bring with them as they journey through life.
On a second specific point, I ask the Leader to bring to the attention of the Ministers for Health and Education and Skills moves that are afoot in Europe as part of a harmonisation process of the recognition of medical schools to derecognise medical school programmes lasting fewer than six years. These moves reflect a traditionalist European model of medical education. The North American model is for four years of general third level, science-based education followed by four years of postgraduate specialist medical education. Many medical educationists around the world consider the American superior to the European model in the sense that it encourages those who have shown an aptitude for science and biology and attained a level of chronological maturity — usually their early 20s — at the time they made the decision to go into medicine. This approach is in contrast to what happened in my case where, at the age of 14 years, I chose the subjects I would do following the intermediate certificate examination in order that I would be well positioned to get into medical school.
In addition to the issue of graduate medical schools, the other issue that arises is the fact that many of the medical schools in Britain and Ireland provide medical education over five years. As Ireland follows a British model of medical education, there is a real prospect that there will be a systematic derecognition of medical schools in these islands if the proposed European regulation is pursued. I have been approached by representatives of the Irish medical schools seeking to ensure that this issue is placed on the agenda for public debate. It is the kind of technical, niche area that could easily slip under the radar screen, which could be catastrophic. As we try to position Ireland as a leading country for science, technology, medicine and health care, both in terms of service provision and manufacturing, it is vital that we have the highest possible standard for our medical schools and in terms of international recognition. I ask the Leader to bring this matter to the attention of the relevant Ministers in order that they can raise it in the relevant European fora.
Senator Martin Conway: The way in which the House conducted its business last night elevated the standing of the Seanad. It was a new departure in terms of policy making, policy discussion and policy delivery, which is the reason Senators are here. We saw significant movement in the right direction last night. People with disabilities will have their rights enshrined in legislation and we will see long overdue legislation on mental capacity. I hope 2012 will be a pioneering year for people with special needs and physical and intellectual disabilities. If the Government wishes to do something memorable, it should deliver this policy early in the programme for Government. I appreciate the contributions made in the House last night.
The issue of small rural schools is an important one which warrants a debate in some shape or form. Education ensures people have equal opportunities and the best possible chances. Early intervention is crucial in this regard. While I do not have all the answers, a debate on education similar to the debate on disability last night and job creation last week could generate ideas which would benefit the formation of educational policy in government.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: While I welcome in general terms the publication yesterday of the heads of a Bill to deal with the personal and mortgage debt crisis that is gripping the country, unfortunately the proposed legislation does not go far enough. This is particularly the case when one considers the point raised by Senator MacSharry concerning individuals who are in difficulty due to mortgages and other forms of debt but do not have an independent means of liaising with a financial creditor. The onus of responsibility for finding a solution ultimately rests with the creditor, in other words, a financial institution or bank, none of which can be trusted to find solutions. An independent agency or authority must be established for this purpose and it is unfortunate the heads of Bill do not make such provision. I hope the House will have an early debate on the Bill.
I also ask for a debate on banking and the absence of a flow of funds to businesses seeking credit. The flow of funds is the lifeblood of the economy but banks are not lending. The House should have a detailed debate on the role banks are playing in the economy. While we can discuss finance and banking generally, we also need a specific debate on the role of banks in stifling the economy. Past and current bankers are a disgrace and senior bankers should hang their heads in shame. While they claim to be making funds available, we all know from what is happening on the ground that this is not the case. The Seanad should hold banks accountable. We should invite the Financial Regulator to the House for a debate. The Minister for Finance should come to the House to be cross-examined on what precisely is happening on the ground. We could all cite examples of what is happening. I hope the Leader will organise such a debate.
Senator Marie Moloney: I raise the closure for staffing reasons of the sexually transmitted diseases clinic in Kerry General Hospital. The clinic provides an important service in County Kerry, receiving approximately 600 referrals per annum. Staffing problems will worsen in the health service from March onwards. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Health to the House to explain how he intends to relocate and reorganise staff after February when a large number of them will retire.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: The Seanad played a significant role in the work that led up to the peace process, about which we are all so pleased. It held regular and balanced debates and many of the contributions we heard were based on the personal experience of Members from their interaction with their counterparts in the North and its different traditions. The achievements which have flowed from the peace process and Good Friday Agreement are exceptionally encouraging. Members are involved in cross-Border committees, interparliamentary meetings and so forth and have learned that we share common problems. Unemployment, for example, is common to both parts of the island. Both jurisdictions have vulnerable members of the community and both must defend their position internationally. These are common issues and it would be exceptionally helpful, in light of the role the Seanad played in the peace process, if the Leader were to consider establishing a process under which we would invite people from different political persuasions to the House for a debate.
I was particularly gratified to receive a letter from the First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party has also been in touch with me. I recently travelled to Derry where I attended a meeting at which representatives of all the political groupings, the chamber of commerce and the integration committee were present alongside the local police commander. Not long ago, we could not have foreseen such an event in our wildest dreams. Let us build on this. I thank Senator Moran for raising the issue which is not about Comhaltas CeoltóiríÉireann or the Fleadh Cheoil but the opportunities available to the entire island at present. We all accept there is a completely new dispensation between this island, the United Kingdom, the rest of Europe and the world at present. Would it not be great if this House, which is so capable in this regard, tried to formalise that in some way? It will probably not happen in the Dáil. That is no reflection on the Dáil but this is the House to do it. I urge the Leader, who played such a significant role in those debates in the past 15 or 20 years, to consider whether there is a way we could take it forward one step further. Again, I thank Senator Moran for raising that matter.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: The threat to small rural schools is very real and the Government will have to revisit the issue. Some concern has been expressed in the House, in particular by those on the Government side, which I welcome. These schools are a very important infrastructure in what is left of rural Ireland, especially in our Gaeltacht areas where, as Members will know, the pupil-teacher ratio has received a double whammy. We could finish up with just one school on the entire Corca Dhuibhne peninsula, from Tralee to Slea Head.
I do not know if Members are watching a wonderful programme on TG4 called “Fearabh Fionntrá” about the lifestyle, traditions and history of the Corca Dhuibhne area. All the people who participated in the programme were educated in very small schools and achieved a lot in life. It would be very serious if that attack on Gaeltacht schools, in particular, was allowed to mature.
I support the comments of my colleague, Senator Mary White, on the future of local government. Yesterday’s presentation to us by the Local Authority Members Association executive was quite lucid. The people have not really cottoned on to the fact that there is a serious threat to their system of local government which they trust and of which they feel they have ownership in a way they do not feel they have ownership of the Seanad and the Dáil. They know their local councillor and council, whether town or county council. The Minister is bypassing the consultation process in this regard. It is quite clear he is moving very swiftly to legislation. We should insist this Chamber has a proper debate on the future of local government and, in particular, of town government which we have had since the late 19th century and which is clearly under threat by the Minister.
Senators Darragh O’Brien and Fiach MacConghail alluded to No. 1 on the Order Paper, the purpose of which is to refer the report to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges which will refer the report back to the House and we can have a debate on it then. If that is not acceptable to the Senators, I am prepared to consider leaving it until next week. We can arrange a debate but the intention is to refer the report to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. When it comes back from that committee, the House can consider it. I suggest that is the proper way to do business. I want to be helpful in this matter and by doing that, we will achieve what the Senators suggested in regard to a debate.
Senator Darragh O’Brien also referred to the HSE heath service plan. I indicated yesterday that the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, would come to the House to discuss the plan on 14 February, I think.
Senator Fiach MacConghail referred to last night’s Private Members’ motion. I agree we had an excellent debate and, as Senator David Norris stated, there was, unfortunately, little or no coverage in the media of this very important debate. That happens on a regular basis. Many commentators in the media have a lot to say about this House but we seldom see any of them in the House reporting on it. This is something on which we will have to work. If we have a referendum and the people are not aware of what happens in this House, it will be very difficult for them to make an informed decision. The media have a role to play but they are not playing a proper role.
Senator Fiach MacConghail referred to the detention of children in St. Patrick’s Institution and asked for an update on the Oberstown project. I will try to find out from the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the position in that regard.
Senator Rónán Mullen and other Senators referred to a referendum on the fiscal compact. When everything is complete, the Attorney General will give advice to the Government on whether a referendum is necessary. The Government and the Taoiseach have stated plainly that there will be a referendum, if one is necessary. We should wait until everything is finalised and the advice comes from the Attorney General on the matter.
Senators Cáit Keane and Colm Burke referred to problems which have arisen with the JobBridge programme. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, is very open to changes to improve the programme and I am sure she would welcome any suggestions in that regard. It is an excellent programme and if it needs to be tweaked in some way, I am sure she would be very amenable to that.
Senator David Cullinane referred to the Seanad Public Consultation Committee, which has been very effective and worked on the rights of older people. I wish to inform the Senator that its report is being prepared. It was delayed because of research problems but we will have it within the next number of weeks. It can be debated in this House, if necessary, but it is intended to hand it over to the Government and I hope it will be acted on. That is the idea of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee, that is, that we compile a report after each consultation, that it is debated, that it is handed over to the Government, that we see action on it and that the committee is not just a talking shop. Unfortunately, the initial report has been delayed but I hope there will not be such a delay with the publication of subsequent reports.
Senator Michael Mullins mentioned the cost of houses. A number of people mentioned that the cost of houses was coming down but the problem is banks not giving mortgages, or freeing up finance for people who need mortgages. That is not being addressed. Despite what the banks say, the lack of credit is crippling not only businesses but also people looking for mortgages. The Government will have to increase the pressure on the lending institutions in this regard.
Senators Healy Eames, Martin Conway, Ned O’Sullivan and others called for a debate on small schools in Gaeltacht and rural areas. Senator Healy Eames tabled a matter for the Adjournment debate. We will endeavour to get the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House to discuss that matter specifically. As the Senator mentioned, the Minister was in the House yesterday to deal with legislation. He will be back next week to take Committee Stage of that Bill. Getting him to return to the House for a debate on a different matter will be difficult but I will endeavour to do so.
Senator Ivana Bacik addressed the personal insolvency Bill. In terms of having a debate here and a similar debate at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, we should avoid duplication as much as possible in that regard.
Senator David Norris complimented the Garda Síochána on the investigation into the murder of a young Roma lady. We would all like to compliment the members of the Garda Síochána on their daily work and hope the perpetrators of this act will be brought to justice.
Senator Sheahan mentioned Kerry, which his compatriot Senator Paul Coghlan mentioned last week, in complimenting Mick O’Dwyer’s inclusion in the hall of fame. We had an intervention by the Leas-Chathaoirleach, a Cork man, but that had nothing to do with football. We all compliment Mick O’Dwyer.
I welcome the support of Senator Mary White on water charges and the household charge. She referred to yesterday’s meeting of the Local Authority Members Association, which expressed the concerns of local authorities with regard to proposed changes and local government reform. I will endeavour to have the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, in the House to address these matters. Local democracy is important for everyone and the Minister should come into the House to discuss his plans.
Senators Moran and Ó Murchú referred to the importance of the Fleadh Ceoil as an all-Ireland cultural event. We agree with that and that music transcends barriers. I was involved with the Waterford International Festival of Light Opera for many years. During the Troubles, societies from different traditions such as the Belfast Operatic Company and St. Agnes’ Choral Society could enjoy themselves in Waterford but when they went back to Belfast it was possible they would not speak to each other. Music is very important; as such the importance of the Fleadh Ceoil cannot be overstated.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to the development of natural resources. The Fine Gael group will table a Private Members’ motion next week dealing with the issues of energy and natural resources, including wind and wave energy. The point can be debated when the Minister is in the House.
Senator Crown referred to Dublin as the city of science in 2012, which we all welcome. He also raised an important point about the de-recognition of medical schools the students of which study for five years. The EU intends to introduce a six-year requirement, which must be referred to the relevant Ministers.
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