Wednesday, 22 February 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Order of Business is No. 1, report of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on Standing Order 18: Prayer at Commencement of Sitting, to be taken without debate; No. 2, Health (Provision of General Practitioner Services) Bill 2011 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and conclude not later than 2 p.m. — the reason so little time is being given to this item is that no amendments have been tabled; No. 3, statements, questions and answers on media standards, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 4.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed five minutes, the contribution of the Sinn Féin Senator not to exceed two minutes and all other Senators not exceeding one minute when asking a question of the Minister; and No. 4, Private Members’ business, Wind Turbines Bill 2012 — Order for Second and Second Stage, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 6.30 p.m.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: I welcome the U-turn confirmed yesterday by the Minister for Education and Skills, that he will reverse the proposed cuts to disadvantaged DEIS schools. I have a major concern, however, because in my view the Minister is setting one child off against another. On the basis of this review, which overturns the previous decision on DEIS schools, he is now increasing the cut to capitation grants for all other schools.
We have had lengthy debates here on education. It seems to me that this proposal was stopped because the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, strong-armed the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, on DEIS schools. However, what about smaller schools and minority faith schools, which I have mentioned on numerous occasions in the House? In the minority faith schools, 65% of Church of Ireland schools are negatively affected by the Government’s proposals, yet when the issue was debated the Minister did not see fit to come to the House but sent in the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon. Will the Leader and the Government parties ask for a review in respect of smaller, rural and minority faith schools?
I draw to the attention of the House the impending crisis in the children’s hospitals in Dublin. People may have heard a radio interview this morning on foot of the fact that trolley waiting times in Crumlin hospital have increased 700% in the past three years but have become particularly acute in the past 12 months. That also relates to the Children’s University Hospital in Temple Street. The Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, has come in and made great play of the special delivery unit; that seems to be all he speaks about here. What specific plan has the Government in place to address the fact that a sizeable proportion of children who are going to the children’s hospital are being discharged without seeing a consultant or doctor, given that the waiting times have increased by 700% in the past three years and have been particularly acute in the past 12 months? We have discussed the importance of education for children. All of us would agree that health and health care for children are of paramount importance. What will the Minister do in respect of the two children’s hospitals in the city?
At 10.30 this morning the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, announced his plan for the sale of State assets. I reject the fact that the Minister is announcing the plan to the media rather than the Houses of the Oireachtas. He is attending a press conference. This is the trend with the Government — all major announcements are made to media when they should be made to the elected Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Government keeps trotting out the excuse that the sale of State assets was agreed by the previous Government. That is not true. The original memorandum of understanding of December 2010 refers to the possible privatisation of State assets. The Government agreed and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, confirmed this on 5 October 2011, when he said “we included a figure [we, being this Government] of €2 billion in this regard in the programme for Government and we intend to realise that”. I ask the Leader to give a commitment to provide time next week to debate the sale of State assets because at 10.42 a.m. the media will already know, ahead of elected Members, what the Government is proposing to sell.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: At the very least I want a firm commitment from the Leader that he will set aside time next week for a debate and invite the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to the House. It may be difficult as I know he is precious from time to time but I respect——
Senator Darragh O’Brien: I am concluding. It would be important for all of us that elected Members of the Oireachtas know what the Government is doing in advance of the media. Perhaps the Minister would address the issue next week by coming to the House and setting aside appropriate time for discussion on the Government’s plan to sell State assets.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I will refrain from comment on the issue of Ministers being precious because there were plenty of Fianna Fáil Ministers who were very precious about many things when they signed us up to the memorandum of understanding that brought about the necessary sale of State assets.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the review by the Minister for Education and Skills of DEIS schools and the fact that staff provision in DEIS schools and the legacy posts issue have been resolved. I am delighted that has happened and it has been welcomed across the House, albeit somewhat grudgingly by Senator O’Brien——
Senator Ivana Bacik: ——but it is a sign that the Minister has been responsive to concerns raised by many people about the impact of the staffing changes for students in disadvantaged schools. We all welcome that.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the report of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on prayer and the fact that we will have a much more inclusive start to business every day with a few moments for silent reflection as well as a prayer. It was something that was adopted unanimously at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on foot of a suggestion from Senator Mullen and me. It is a sign that the House can be responsive and that we can work together to make changes in procedure. It is an important change that marks a spirit of inclusivity in our procedures.
I welcome the news that the constitutional convention is to be launched. Many of us had hoped it would be launched before now. However, it is welcome that it is being launched and it is also welcome that we will look at a wide range of issues relating to constitutional change. In particular, there is one area of constitutional change that is long overdue, for which I think there will be unanimous support, the deletion of the current phrase which recognises only women’s place in the home and the duties of mothers in the home. Again, in a spirit of inclusivity we would all recognise that both parents have a place in the home and that in 2012 there should not be any reference to women having an exclusive role in the home. I am optimistic that will be one of the first changes the constitutional convention will recommend.
Some years ago an expert review group on the Constitution recommended a new provision on recognising the role of carers in the home which, I think, would be supported by everyone and would be an important change to make. I hope that is one of the first things the convention will do but, of course, there are many other important issues it will look at, including same sex marriage, voting age, length of the term of the President and so on. I would like if we in the Seanad could have a particular role in respect of the constitutional convention.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: I note Standing Order 18, prayer on commencement of sitting, put before the House today and call for a respectable debate around that area. Our group of nominated Senators has divergent views and that divergence of views should be reflected rather than passing it through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and presenting it here. The Chamber has a mutual respect among all of us and the debate around Standing Order 18 on the commencement prayer should be a full debate in the Chamber.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, namely, that a debate take place on Standing Order 18 to reflect the divergent views, not only among our group, but among Senators on the matter. That would be healthy.
I wholeheartedly welcome the soundings emanating from the Cabinet on the establishment of a constitutional convention particularly if the report that the involvement of citizens in the deliberation of political reform of the Republic is correct. It would be a good day if, with elected representatives, citizens had an opportunity to participate in a decision-making process which will not only have a profound impact on the future but in turn, result in increased political participation.
As the House may be aware I was involved in a non-party political initiative last year, We the Citizens, which proved conclusively that citizens’ assemblies can and will work here. For us to change the political culture of the Republic, citizens need to be involved in a greater and more imaginative way in a participatory democracy. Ireland has changed and citizens are seeking new ways to engage in the civic and democratic life of their communities and country. That was the message we heard as we travelled through Ireland during summer 2011. We found that a great deal of common sense is generated when people get together to work things out. People came together at our events not because of vested interests or political persuasion but as individual citizens willing and ready to contribute to the future of the Republic.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: Yes. We the Citizens has shown that when people are given objective information and the opportunity to deliberate not only do they make informed decisions they also feel a greater connection to the democratic process. It is a matter of public record that citizens’ assemblies work and that the expertise published by We the Citizens is free and publicly available to members of the House and to Government. In that regard, I welcome the comments by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, that he would look at this model of a citizens’ assembly, the context of a constitutional convention and that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan’s commitment to political reform is constant. I understand draft proposals regarding a constitutional convention will be published over the coming week and consultation will be sought with the Opposition on the format. Will the Leader ensure all leaders of parties and technical groups in the Seanad are consulted and given the opportunity to contribute to deciding the format of this convention? Will he also set aside time to debate this important and historic convention?
Senator Rónán Mullen: I agree with Senator Darragh O’Brien on the Government’s approach to the announcement of the sale of State assets. It is one of the more regrettable developments in politics in recent years that the Oireachtas is bypassed when news must be told to the people. In a sense, it shows the authoritarian nature of our political system in that government commands and oversees all while it does not give the Oireachtas the respect it is due.
I recall when I was young boy in the 1980s the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, on the very same subject of the sale of State assets saying one can sell the family silver but only once. I would welcome a debate on this in the Seanad. I hope Ireland’s long-term national interest will not be damaged by the sale of these assets. While we must have in mind the future profits of profitable enterprises in electricity and gas, we must also bear in mind the costs of redundancies and unemployment. I hope the figures are being done in the round so that Ireland is being enabled by the troika to act in its long-term best interest and not in the short-term interest of lowering our debt.
On the subject of giving business every chance, I am concerned about the impact of the Occupy Dame Street protest on local businesses in the vicinity. I am sure Members have received correspondence about this. One local businessperson wrote to me about how this encampment is causing major problems for local retailers, how footfall in the area has dropped drastically since the camp was erected and how the public does not venture near the Central Bank plaza because of a kind of intimidation — people turn away from barriers and fencing like that. Would a Traveller encampment be treated with the same respect? I say that with the greatest respect to Travellers. Is there a hands-off approach to lifestyle protestors? There is an articulate but small group of people keeping this protest going which might be impacting negatively on local businesses. Perhaps it is an issue to which we should turn our attention.
I welcome Senator Bacik’s comments on the prayer. We did some good work at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP. It is about trying to find a way in which all traditions can be valued. As I have said before, the people who see themselves as representing the new Ireland must not trample on those who they see as representing the old Ireland. The faith traditions are very important as they contribute so much to social solidarity. It is important they are fully respected even while we respect other viewpoints.
Senator Rónán Mullen: The 20th century was probably as bloody as all other centuries put together. I hope all Members will have a received a note that the archbishop of Orissa, John Barwa, will give a briefing tomorrow at 12.15 p.m. in Leinster House about the persecution of Christians, particularly in his area, one of the poorest states in India. At a time when we are talking about human rights in China, this is an opportunity to get up close and develop our awareness of the suffering of our fellow brothers and sisters in the world, not just Christians but those in our common humanity. There are people suffering in the world and it is important we face our challenges that we would not ignore their plight. We have a good opportunity tomorrow to hear at first hand some of what people in the world are going through.
Senator Tom Sheahan: The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, has brought forward proposals on sick pay arrangements. While the Government does not create jobs, it is there to create the environment for job creation. It is employers who create jobs. I believe the Minister’s policy on sick pay is flying in the face of employers not only trying to maintain jobs, but also creating new jobs. It is fundamentally an aggressor to the policy of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, to come before the House to discuss her policy and proposals on sick pay?
Senator Terry Leyden: I second Senator Mac Conghail’s proposal on the change, if any, to the prayer at the start of business. I understand there will be 30 seconds of silent reflection but the prayer is staying intact, thanks be to God. There is no change to the prayer really so there is nothing to debate but I will second Senator Mac Conghail’s proposal.
Senator Terry Leyden: Mr. Seán Cottrell of the Irish Primary Principals Network said that robbing Peter to pay Paul was the philosophy behind last night’s announcement by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, on disadvantaged schools. Will the Leader arrange a debate on this particular issue? I welcome the fact the Minister will retain 235 teachers in the DEIS scheme. However, the line is that €5 will be taken off the capitation grant per pupil to all national schools on top of an already €7 per head reduction from €190 to €183. This means from January it stands at €178 per pupil. That is quite a reduction when one considers the grant was originally over €200, particularly when costs are rising. For instance, an average school could use between €7,000 and €10,000 in heating oil every year with a VAT charge of 13.5% on it that goes back to the Government. I accept it depends on school size, the use of the heating system and how efficient it is. On top of this, other costs are incurred such as electricity, refuse collection and maintenance which will not be covered by the reduction in the capitation grant proposed in the budget.
Senator Terry Leyden: Maybe the Cathaoirleach had to bring the turf to school in Castlebar. I did not, however. The Government is making it very difficult to cut turf at all; therefore there will not be that option in the future.
Senator Terry Leyden: This is a serious issue. The Minister for Education and Skills is a member of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, RIAI. Now is the time to look at the question of reducing the cost of running schools through better insulation——
Senator Terry Leyden: Will the Leader ask the Minister to the House to discuss this and the future of small schools as well. I visited Castleplunkett national school in County Roscommon last week which will be reduced.
Senator Cáit Keane: I heard the alarming information as I was driving in this morning. It seems the advisers brought in by the previous Government to advise on whether the banks should have been bailed out had a vested interest in that two of them were bondholders. Pat Kenny has said he will do an investigation into this.
Senator Cáit Keane: That is such a serious matter that this House should have it investigated. I wish to raise adoption rights. Such rights in this country lag far behind those of adoptees in England, Scotland and Wales to mention just our nearest neighbours. We are still governed under the 1952 Act, even though an Adoption Act was introduced in 2010 but it did not address rights. In terms of search and reunion, when people seek their birth parents they can only retrieve non-identifying information from the social work agency at which they were adopted but they are not given automatic rights to their birth certificate. They are given these rights in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland since 1975. I ask the Leader of the House to speak to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald.
Senator Cáit Keane: I read recently that the Minister said she would prepare the heads of a new Bill, even though legislation was introduced in 2010, that would give rights to people to get their birth certificate when they reach the age of 17 or 18, as they are in England. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald has said that she——
Senator Cáit Keane: I want the Minister to come to the House to tell us what she intends to do, and to ensure the provisions have retrospective as well as future application, safeguarding the rights of parents and children, as has been done in England, Scotland and Wales. Children who were adopted in 1970 are 18 now. The situation is going on for too long and we must deal with it.
Senator Mary Ann O’Brien: I am sorry. I beg Senator Leyden’s pardon. I echo what Senator Darragh O’Brien said on the upsetting state of the children’s emergency health service. The Irish Association for Emergency Medicine said this morning that children are spending more than 12 hours on trolleys. Let us stop for a moment to contemplate the situation. Most of us have children. What is more important than looking after the health of our children in this country? To echo Senator Darragh O’Brien, the number of children remaining on trolleys has increased by 700% in three years. It is worrying that, according to the association, the rate of children leaving hospital without being seen has increased. The Children’s University Hospital in Temple Street is also reporting that the overcrowding situation has significantly worsened. I am aware that the new children’s hospital will help to ease overcrowding but we need a plan in the short term to deal with this serious situation. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on children’s services, especially health services, given the worrying trend of overcrowding.
To return to the Jack & Jill Children’s Foundation charity, in October I raised the issue of trying to get €240 a week for a child in Tipperary to be nursed at home. Now we seem to have a problem nursing children in hospitals. We cannot seem to nurse children at home, which is far better value than nursing them in hospitals. We should reflect on what we are doing if we cannot look after the sick children in this country.
Senator John Gilroy: During the recent presidential election campaign several different views were put forward on what it means to be Irish and what vision we have for the Republic. I congratulate Senator Norris on the inclusive views he put forward at that time and also President Higgins. I have been paying attention to what the President has been saying since, and his appointment of Ms Sally Mulready to the Council of State in January is very much to be welcomed. She is the only member who lives outside the State. She is best known for her work among the Irish community in London. It was a wonderfully inclusive gesture by President Higgins. The President has a vision which is characterised by inclusivity which made me think recently about what our vision of this country should be. It is all the more important as we approach a series of centenaries which have defined what we are today. President Higgins’s views are a long way from the narrow nationalism that has become associated with republicanism in this country. One example of what I mean occurred during the Queen’s recent visit. I noticed a tiny number of protesters as I was driving along the road. Some of them were carrying the national flag and were using it as a symbol of a very narrow view. I looked on in amazement as they finished their protest because as they walked away they trailed the flag behind them on the ground. It struck me that such a level of casual carelessness with a national symbol would never happen in any other country. It would be inconceivable to see an American or someone from the United Kingdom trailing their flag behind them on the ground. The challenging nature of what it means to be Irish was summed up yesterday by a Catholic priest from Northern Ireland whom I heard on the radio. He stated that it was his opinion that most of his parishioners would not wish to be part of a united Ireland. I ask the Leader to consider devoting time in the Chamber to a full debate on what it means to be Irish in the 21st century, in particular as we approach a number of important centenaries.
Senator David Norris: I wish to follow on from what Senator Keane said. It was important news about the banks. The financial situation is a matter on which I have consistently sought debates. Today, I seek that one aspect of the matter should be debated, namely, the question of eviction. I did not think I would live long enough in this country to see eviction being reintroduced. I send my congratulations to the homeland of my ancestors, County Laois, where in Mountrath, a town with which I have strong connections, the Defend Our Homes League prevented an eviction in a civilised way by quoting the article in the Constitution that protects citizens in their homes. Attempts were being made to evict people, ultimately in the interests of German and French banks. As Senator Keane pointed out, there was corruption in the advice received, if the radio reports are true, that should abrogate the situation. The deal should be off the table. We should not have to pay another single penny if the deal was corruptly done because there was a conflict of interests. That is what I will call for, but before that, there should never be eviction in this country. I am proud to have an ancestral connection with County Laois, which is the homeland of James Fintan Lalor. I wonder what he would think if he knew that in 2012 we were using the instruments of the State to try to get evictions. It was a very civilised event. The neighbours and people from the surrounding area collected together to assist their distressed neighbour. The Garda and the sheriff also behaved well because they departed when they were confronted with the peaceful protest and the article of the Constitution was read out to them. We have enough of evictions in this country.
Senator Martin Conway: I am concerned with the information Senator Keane has put before the House today. However, I am also deeply concerned that some of the accountancy firms that audited and signed off on the books and accounts of institutions such as Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society are still in business today and still advising central banks and other financial institutions. Something must be done. I question whether any of them has ever been held accountable for some of their work. I am doing research on it at the moment and I will revert accordingly.
I support the invitation to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to come to the House in the near future to discuss privatisation. Certain companies could easily be privatised. The Government will learn the lessons of the botched privatisations that have taken place in the past. What happened with Eircom was a national disgrace. Not alone did we sell what was on the silver tray, but we sold the silver tray as well. I have no problem selling what is on the silver tray because it can be created again but a problem arises when one sells the tray itself. If we had the network Eircom and previously Telecom Eireann had established around the country, every single house would have high-speed broadband. Unfortunately, not alone did we get rid of the company, we got rid of the infrastructure as well. I assure all parties that the Government——
Senator Martin Conway: ——will not remove the infrastructure that makes the State great. The companies that have prospered and done well will be sold because we need the money. We are no longer economically independent. However, the infrastructure will not be sold. At the Leader’s discretion, could he arrange for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to attend the House in the coming weeks to clarify for the doubting Thomases that this is what will happen?
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Bhí mé ag súil ar maidin go mbeinn ag éirí le fáiltiú roimh an chúlú a bheadh déanta ag an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna maidir leis na scoileanna DEIS. Tá sé fíor-dheacair sin a dhéanamh nuair a fheicimid an bealach a rinneadh an cinneadh sin agus beidh mé ag iarraidh díospóireachta leis an Aire láithreach le himpleachtaí an chinnidh sin a phlé.
I was hoping to be able to praise the Minister for the change in respect of DEIS schools, but it would be difficult to do so, given the double-edged decision taken. His decision is a double whammy for rural schools. Not only does it favour urban schools — it is obvious that he has rolled over in the face of the urban lobby within the Labour Party — but it places an extra burden on rural schools that have already been hit by cutbacks in teacher numbers. The capitation grant to each is being reduced. I am sick to the back teeth of attending public meetings with Government representatives who are in tears over the cutbacks being implemented by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, yet who vote for those same cutbacks in the Houses. Why has the Minister not included rural DEIS schools in his decision? Why are urban DEIS schools to be allowed more teachers — they need them and the numbers there should never have been decreased — while rural schools are still to see cutbacks? Why has the Minister not made a U-turn on one-teacher to four-teacher schools in rural areas? Why has he decreased the capitation grant?
We want the Minister in the House, not the Minister of State. I call for an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that we should ask the Minister, Deputy Quinn, to attend the House today. It is obvious that he does not understand the implications of his decisions on rural Ireland. We want the organ grinder in the House. The Minister’s announcement was devastating. People in rural Ireland, teachers’ organisations, schools and parents are incensed this morning. Some of the backbenchers agree with me on this.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: On the implications of the cut in capitation grants to rural schools. Let the Minister attend. Why is he hiding? Why has he not been available to speak with people?
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Why is he governing by press release? It is about time that he attend to explain during a full debate on the implications instead of pandering to the lobbying of the Labour Party urbanites.
Senator Marie Moloney: I wish to raise again the issue of medical cards and the delay in the issuing of same. In February, it was nearly impossible to get through on the line set up for Oireachtas Members. Only one person takes calls. It is easier to get through on the public line. There seems to be little or no communication between customer service and the processing team. Yesterday, I was told that an e-mail sent to the processing team regarding the delay in an application on 20 January has not been responded to yet. When I asked whether another e-mail could be sent, I was told that there was no point, as the previous one was still pending.
I will provide two small examples. Documentation sent on 26 October, some four months ago, has still not been matched to a file. Documentation sent on 10 November has still not been matched to a file. Will the Leader call on the Minister to fix the unit or disband the entire process and revert to what used to work so that people can get their medical cards?
Senator Mark Daly: Ireland and the EU have a democratic deficit. The direction the EU is taking is not democratic in nature. Since the failure of the euro started, we have seen that it was designed to fail. According to many commentators, it was not structured correctly. The new EU structures being put in place are also designed to fail. They lack consultation with——
Senator Mark Daly: Yes. We need a debate on this issue. I welcome the constitutional convention, which is a positive step taken by the Government. It is consulting the people. It will select 100 people from all walks of life to feed into this welcome process. I suggest that Europe should travel in a similar direction when designing its new structures instead of following its current path, whereby the French and Germans are telling everyone how Europe should be structured——
Senator Mark Daly: Will the Leader arrange for a debate on the new constitutional convention? It is important that the issues under discussion and the proposed changes be debated in the House. We could have a series of debates. To the Senator opposite, Europe——
Senator Mark Daly: If Senator Healy Eames believes that Europe is democratic in nature while the Germans and French dictate to everyone how it should be run, she is the one who is not living in the real world.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I welcome the report of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges regarding the prayer at the commencement of sittings. The decision was unanimous and was reached harmoniously, as those who were present will attest. It is not a matter we need to make a fuss about, but if people need a discussion, I am sure the Leader will kindly oblige. I hope such a debate would be held in a respectful manner. In a sense, the proposed change retains the prayer, which everyone seems to love, and adds to it a reflective silence that is all embracing and all inclusive.
Senator John Crown: I am sure that other Senators have heard the sad news of the deaths this morning of Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin, although most would probably be more familiar with her as a writer for The Sunday Times. She was well known and iconic. She lost an eye and wore an eye patch. She died violently in Syria this morning with Mr. Ochlik. They were two brave journalists who covered many conflict zones and highlighted the deprivation of the individuals who suffered as a result of conflict.
Will the Leader seek clarification from the Minister for Health regarding his exact plans for increasing the number of specialists, beds and operating theatres? At the risk of sounding trite, there is a wonderful line in “Jurassic Park” from the scientist who correctly predicted that it might be unwise to make dinosaurs. When they saw the dinosaurs eating the people who believed it was a good idea to make them, he stated: “I hate being right all the time.” This is how I feel about the health service at times because, like a number of others, I pointed out three or four years ago that the core deficiencies in the service were related to staffing and resources. When a system has the lowest number of doctors, a shortage of operating theatres and absurdly low numbers of scanners, it will produce waiting lists. We were told that if we corrected the consultants’ contracts everything would magically fit into place. That happened four years ago but the figures to which Senator Darragh O’Brien referred reveal that the number of children awaiting admission in emergency departments have increased by 700% in the past three years, which is roughly the period over which the previous Minister’s reforms should have been having an impact.
This goes to show that it is not possible to put 2lbs of salami in a 1lb bag. We are being told that if we can make more efficient use of that 1lb bag we will be able put more salami into it. That is not going to happen. We have to fundamentally reorganise the way we appoint doctors at all levels and honestly assess the adequacy of current numbers of operating theatres, X-ray departments and beds. The data released by the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine reveal that the problem arises from the shortage of beds rather than the emergency rooms. They cannot get the kids out of the emergency departments and into the beds because beds have been closed.
It would be welcome if the Minister could come into the House to clarify for us his strategic vision. I have great faith in his plans to reform the system but I ask him to tell us what measures will be taken to relieve this acute shortfall in the short term.
Senator Colm Burke: The success of the breaking the cycle programme has been proven by the number of students who have progressed to second and third level. Let us look at the positive aspects of the education system.
My colleague, Senator Leyden raised the issue of the schools building programme. Could savings be made in this area? It appears to take forever to take a project from start to finish. Surely in this day and age we should be able to set out a start time and a finish time based on the accepted length of time involved in building an extension or a new school. This is an area where money could be saved. Administrative costs appear to be significant and ought to be examined.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I support the proposed amendment to the Order of Business because, while I welcome aspects of the Minister’s announcement, it does not go far enough. It is ridiculous that rural schools have not been adequately dealt with within this framework in terms of achieving €15 million in savings. As I noted several weeks ago in a debate which gave Members an opportunity to vote on this issue, €15 million is not much compared to the value to this Government of holding rural Ireland together. As the Sinn Féin Senator rightly pointed out, the situation of rural schools will now worsen as the cost of saving some of the DEIS positions will be spread over the entirety of the country through cuts to capitation grants. Notwithstanding the difficulties that every Administration faces in providing funding on an ongoing basis, the current Government will go down in history as the most anti-rural Government. It is appropriate that the Minister be asked to come to the House to explain his decision because the situation as it stands is simply unacceptable to many parts of rural Ireland, which constitute a large proportion of the country from a geographic and population perspective.
I support Senator Keane’s call for a debate on the procurement of advice by the Government and State agencies. All of the professional advice sought by the Government on an ongoing basis is provided from between the Royal Canal and Grand Canal in Dublin. How is that competitive? How does it support small businesses throughout the country? Can Senators point me to one Department or State agency which procures legal services from a firm in Athlone or accountancy services from a firm in Donegal? There is none.
Senator Marc MacSharry: Yes, I do. I call for a debate on procurement because it has come to my attention that some of the tenders for professional advice to State agencies are written specifically for the winning applicant. The parameters are so narrow that they exclude the vast majority of people who provide these services, with the exception of the chosen few firmly embedded within the gin and tonic belt in Dublin 2 and 4.
Senator Michael Mullins: I support the call by my colleague, Senator Sheahan, for a debate with the Minister for Social Protection on the statutory sick pay scheme. There is no doubt that the scheme as it is currently envisaged will damage small businesses. I would like to widen this debate on sick pay to include the schemes that are in operation throughout the public service. There are opportunities to make significant savings and I hope the Minister will give us an opportunity to contribute to a wider debate. Everything we say and do in this House has to be pro-business and we must do everything possible to create jobs.
I agree with Senator Mullen that we should take on board the concerns expressed by business people who are impacted by Occupy Dame Street and Occupy encampments in other towns. If people are breaking the law, why are they being tolerated? Why is a small handful of people being treated differently from others who might break the law? We have to consider the impact on tourism and jobs. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate with the relevant Minister on the Occupy situation so that we can analyse it and decide what needs to be done to ensure the law of this land is upheld by all its citizens and that no section is treated less favourably than others.
Senator Kathryn Reilly: I ask the Leader to arrange a debate with the Taoiseach or the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Last month the European Commission announced in a very public way that it intended to send an action team to Ireland to discuss the issue of youth unemployment. Yesterday this team came and went without any public consultation or discourse with public stakeholders. As soon as Commissioner Barroso announced the initiative, I wrote to him and to the Department of the Taoiseach to seek a meeting so that I could inform the process by sharing my views with the action team.
Last week, Commissioner Maros Setcovic stated that 7.5 million young people across the EU are not in employment, education or training. In this State more than 80,000 people under the age of 25 are unemployed and 12 people will emigrate from each of the electoral divisions of the State this year.
The refusal by the Department of the Taoiseach to facilitate even a brief discussion on what the Commission described as a serious challenge that can only be properly addressed if all stakeholders, including political parties like Sinn Féin, play an active role despite my having requested a meeting well in advance of the team’s arrival in Ireland raises serious doubts about whether this was anything more than a public relations stunt. Young people are only mentioned once in over 100 pages in the jobs plan announced last week. We need to stop dealing in press releases and get serious on the issue of youth unemployment. The Taoiseach, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach or the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation should come into this House to discuss this issue properly because we cannot continue to pay lip-service to it. It is a serious issue that affects every community and family in this State. I ask the Leader in the nicest possible terms to facilitate a debate on it at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: I welcome that the House proposes to start the day, as has always been the tradition, with the power of a prayer and also to accompany that with the chance for reflection, which is how some people would like to start their day of work. I welcome the two going hand in hand and it shows the progressive nature of the House.
One of the great dilemmas facing the Minister for Education and Skills is that along with the 850,000 pupils in primary and post primary schools, an additional 70,000 children are due to join the system. Senator Ó Clochartaigh and others are aware of the grave problems the Department has in balancing the books as it tries to deal with an increase in the numbers of children. It is an almost impossible task, which I ask him to bear in mind.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I acknowledge the progress made on DEIS urban schools — it is significant that 235 posts have been protected. However, more needs to be done for rural schools. We need to ensure that there is equality of education provision across all communities.
I welcome the constitutional convention established by the Taoiseach. The debate on the Seanad should also form part of the remit of the constitutional convention. It is important for the House to unite on the issue.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I call for a debate on the constitutional convention. I do not know which Minister should attend — perhaps it is the Taoiseach. Nothing is more important as a roadmap for us than our Constitution and the Seanad must form part of that. It is a very good move and let us ensure it is broad enough to include the Seanad.
Senator Mary Moran: I echo the sentiments of Senator Darragh O’Brien on the urgent need for something to be done on the care of children in hospitals. Yesterday I had to attend the hospital in Crumlin with one of my children and saw at first hand an overcrowded waiting room, which seems to be the norm. One of the nurses informed me that the hospital now deals with 50 patients in a clinic that five years ago dealt with 30 patients with the same staffing level. I could not fault the level of care, support and concern. The staff still had time to talk to the children and I do not know how they do their job. The room was overcrowded with anxious parents standing and anxious children waiting. The room was unhealthy in a supposedly medical care building.
I also welcome the announcement of the PayPal jobs as I did not have the opportunity to do so yesterday. I am so glad that Dundalk has been chosen for 1,000 jobs. It is strategically located being 50 miles from both cities.
Senator David Cullinane: I welcome the steps forward in establishing the constitutional convention. I ask the Leader to ensure the convention is inclusive in its composition and engagement. The State has a great opportunity to properly engage with as many citizens as possible on the future of the Constitution and the country. It would be the perfect opportunity to address some of the issues raised by Senator Gilroy regarding what defines us as Irish people and as a nation. The Constitution is one thing that does that and it provides opportunities. I also echo the call a previous Senator made. Seanad reform should and must form part of the constitutional convention. However, so should Dáil reform. If the constitutional convention does not deal with the future of the Seanad or the Dáil, it will represent a significant missed opportunity. I ask the Leader to convey the message to the Taoiseach that my party would support the inclusion of the issue of the future of this House. We need to ensure that we do not simply abolish the Seanad without considering what should replace its powers and functions. The place to do that is in the constitutional convention. If we do not allow the convention to consider the future of the Oireachtas and the Dáil, it will represent a missed opportunity.
Senator John Kelly: I support Senator Moloney’s criticisms of how the PCRS is handling medical card applications. We raised the matter in the House on numerous occasions and the Minister has intervened. While he got assurances from the PCRS that everything would run smoothly in the future, that is not the evidence on the ground. I often help people complete applications for medical cards and I know that if they are not fully correct when they are submitted, there will be a problem. Therefore I ensure they are completed fully correct. Even though I ensure that every document in the file is stapled together and sent off in one envelope, the applicants are getting calls a week later telling them that something is missing, when I know that is not the case. That forces me and other Oireachtas Members involved to photocopy complete files in order to prove that the information is with the file as submitted. Either somebody is sabotaging files or there is gross incompetence in the way the PCRS does its business.
I call on the Leader to follow up on a recommendation made by a fellow Senator that a delegation from this House should go to the PCRS offices to see how it does its business. We need to understand what is going wrong. I know another Oireachtas committee is planning to do that and I would like to be part of that if the Leader could allow it to happen. I know Senator Moloney would also like to do likewise.
Senator Mary M. White: I will make my briefest statement ever in this House. When will the Taoiseach attend the House and address us who have been democratically elected? I am appalled. We heard fine sentiments from Senator Mac Conghail about community participation. How dare the Taoiseach not come here? I think we will need to raise the matter in the media and let people know that he has not even paid us the courtesy of coming here.
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Darragh O’Brien, raised three items, DEIS schools, hospital waiting times and the sale of State assets. He called the announcement on DEIS schools a U-turn. It was the Minister responding to a review he had commissioned——
Senator Maurice Cummins: ——dealing with the concerns teachers, parents and others had expressed on DEIS schools. It was a good day’s work. While it did not satisfy everybody, a number of people have been satisfied as a result of the decision the Minister took following the review.
Senators Darragh O’Brien, Moran, Crown and others raised the issue of waiting times in children’s hospitals. Obviously, it shows the need for a national children’s hospital to be built as soon as possible. I will bring the concerns of Members about waiting times at the children’s hospitals to the attention of the Minister.
Senator Bacik and many other Senators referred to the proposed constitutional convention which will deal with many important issues. I understand the question of the future of the Seanad is not included in the constitutional convention. It was decided in the programme for Government that the matter of whether the Seanad would continue would be put to the people for decision. It will not be part of the constitutional convention.
Senator Mac Conghail proposed an amendment to the Order of Business on Standing Order 18. This relates to the question of the prayer in the House and the related decision made by the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I have no problem whatsoever holding a debate on it and I will order it for tomorrow immediately after the final item on the agenda. When I organise the debate I hope there will be sufficient Members present. On numerous occasions I have heard a clamour from many sides of the House from Members seeking debates, especially on health matters, but subsequently there were insufficient Members available. Only eight or ten Members were in the Chamber following a call by 20 or 30 Members for debates on various subjects. Let us be fair about it. It is all very well shouting on the Order of Business but some Members vanish after asking a question and they are not here when the Minister comes to the House. Let us play ball properly. When Members call for debates, let them be here when the debate is granted. We will have a debate on the issue raised tomorrow.
Senators Sheahan and Mullins raised the issue of sick pay proposals, a matter raised by Senator Mary Ann O'Brien yesterday. This matter was discussed at length during the passage of the Social Welfare Bill while the Minister for Social Protection was here after Christmas. The Minister hosted a consultation on the issue of statutory sick leave on Monday last. The forum heard from speakers from the United Kingdom and the OECD. I realise the response from IBEC and ISME has been negative, claiming that such a move would cost jobs and run counter to Government strategy on job creation. No decision has been made by Government on the issue. If there is a need for the Minister to come to the House to discuss it again we will have her in the House. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, will be here too and the matter can be raised with him when he is discussing the jobs plan on 6 March. I assure the House that there will be ample opportunities for Members to raise the issue with both Ministers.
Senators Leyden, Ó Clochartaigh and MacSharry made points about rural schools. Some of them have made charges to the effect that the reduction of capitation grants will hit rural schools more than urban schools.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Small schools receive more favourable capitation grants and other grant payments owing to the practice of making minimum payments. For example, schools receive a minimum capitation payment based on a 60 pupil enrolment. This means a school with ten, 20 or 30 pupils receives the same capitation payment as a school with 60 pupils and this arrangement remains in place.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I hope the Senator will withdraw his comment because he is misleading the House given what has been said about capitation grants to rural schools being less favourable. It is not on. It is an untruth. Members should not mislead the House just as they try to mislead the public on many issues.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator Keane commented on independent advisers to the Government. Independent advice is of paramount importance and I am sure the matter raised by the Senator along with Senator Norris will be raised in the future. We will certainly bring the matter to the attention of the relevant Ministers.
Senator Gilroy raised the issue of protestors and others trailing the national flag along the ground, a despicable practice. He has called for a debate on what it means to be Irish. We will see what we can do in that regard.
Senators Moloney and Kelly raised the issue of medical cards. I fully agree that a major problem remains with delays in issuing medical cards. The fact is that information is not being matched with files and this is something which occurs on a regular basis. I am unsure how it is occurring but the system is not working as it should. It may be working for the majority but it is unusual that many Members are witnessing problems on a daily basis. Senator Landy remarked on the Order of Business that the officials dealing with medical cards would be coming to the Houses of the Oireachtas to explain the situation. I will check this with the Senator and the relevant Minister to establish the position.
Senators O'Keeffe and Crown spoke about the death of journalists in Syria. We all offer our deepest sympathy. Perhaps when the Tánaiste is in the House again we will arrange a wide-ranging debate on foreign affairs to include events in Syria. Other conflicts in many countries can be discussed as well.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of youth unemployment. Since she asked me in the nicest possible way I will reply to her in the nicest possible way, as I always do when it comes to her. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, will be in the House on 6 March and it would be good to raise the issue with him at that stage. The Senator is correct to suggest that youth unemployment is a major problem. We have heard good news in recent days and the PayPal announcement and other forthcoming announcements will help to address youth unemployment. I agree there should be an overall policy — there is — but the issue can be addressed with the Minister then.
Senator Maurice Cummins: If I am afforded the opportunity to reply, I will. I have invited the Taoiseach to the House and he has indicated that he will come at the earliest opportunity. I am sure he will be treated with the utmost respect when he comes.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: As a matter of courtesy to the Leader, I inform him that I will not be here for the debate tomorrow. I would not mind being here, but the Leader has announced it at such short notice that I cannot be present. I am not pressing the amendment.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Ó Clochartaigh has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, “That a debate on the implications for rural Ireland of the Minister for Education and Skills’ decision with regard to DEIS schools and capitation grants be taken today.” Is the amendment being pressed?
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: I listened very carefully to the Leader’s response and it did not address the issues we had raised. He misquoted what I had said. I will press the amendment because this debate is now more important than ever.
|Byrne, Thomas.||Cullinane, David.|
|Daly, Mark.||Leyden, Terry.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Mooney, Paschal.|
|Mullen, Rónán.||Norris, David.|
|Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Darragh.||O'Donovan, Denis.|
|O'Sullivan, Ned.||Power, Averil.|
|Reilly, Kathryn.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Brennan, Terry.||Burke, Colm.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Comiskey, Michael.||Conway, Martin.|
|Crown, John.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|D’Arcy, Jim.||D’Arcy, Michael.|
|Gilroy, John.||Harte, Jimmy.|
|Hayden, Aideen.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Heffernan, James.||Henry, Imelda.|
|Higgins, Lorraine.||Keane, Cáit.|
|Kelly, John.||Landy, Denis.|
|Mac Conghail, Fiach.||Moloney, Marie.|
|Moran, Mary.||Mulcahy, Tony.|
|Mullins, Michael.||O’Keeffe, Susan.|
|O’Neill, Pat.||Quinn, Feargal.|
|Sheahan, Tom.||van Turnhout, Jillian.|
Senator Maurice Cummins: I wish to advise the House that we will have to amend the Order of Business later today. I understand the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, will have to go to the Dáil to deal with a Topical Issue during the time we have allocated for the debate on media standards. I am advising the House that we will have to break for a short period in the middle of the debate.
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