Thursday, 8 March 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Order of Business is No. 1, Euro Area Loan Facility (Amendment) Bill 2012 — all Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 2 p.m., with the contributions on Second Stage of group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed four minutes the Minister to be called on to reply for ten minutes, and Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately after Second Stage; No. 2, earlier signature motion on the Euro Area Loan Facility (Amendment) Bill 2012, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, Competition (Amendment) Bill 2011 — Second Stage, to be taken at 2 p.m. and conclude not later than 4 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 3.50 p.m.
Senator Thomas Byrne: I notice the Labour Party is rather thin on the ground this morning in the Chamber. The cancellation of this afternoon’s Government party shows it is certainly the party pooper and that finally it has had one achievement in government. It is beginning to show its true strength in the Fine Gael-dominated Government. I congratulate the Labour Party on that.
Senator Thomas Byrne: Last night we learned 2,500 jobs are to go at AIB. This comes on top of losses of 750 at Bank of Ireland and 900 at Aviva. There has been significant destruction in employment in the financial services sector. We already know the problems that have been caused in the sector. However, those getting the sack are not the ones who caused them. They are the ordinary tellers and managers who kept society and the economy moving. They are also the ones who probably gave some people hope in their darkest hours when they went looking for a loan from the bank.
Normally, when there are major job losses in any sector, the Government will say the usual words of sympathy and that something must be done. In this case, something must be done because the Government owns the banks and, as an employer, it has a direct responsibility to the staff. What will the Government do to ensure this jobs cull does not take place or is alleviated to the greatest extent possible? The staff affected will find it difficult to get other employment in the financial services sector. What will the Government do to ensure they are retrained for alternative employment?
This morning a party was cancelled. Yesterday, however, we had another party at Government Buildings where the Government boasted about the implementation of a new structure for the Irish banking system, the creation of pillar banks and the mergers of AIB, EBS, IBRC and INBS. Not only is the Government standing over the job losses at AIB, it is boasting about them on page nine of this morning’s newspapers as a crowning achievement of its first year in office. That is a shame. The report goes on to state the Government is ahead of schedule in its efforts to shrink the size of the covered banks. Not only is the Government not doing anything to stop the job losses, it is actually congratulating itself on it. This is a shameful day. The banking sector’s problems are difficult, maybe intractable, but it is not good enough to boast about significant job losses in the sector. Accordingly, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that the Minister for Finance be brought into the House to discuss these job losses, his response to them and any alleviation measure——
Senator Denis Landy: Senator Byrne referred to the achievements of the Labour Party in government and the proposal by Fine Gael to have a photocall this afternoon. He might reflect on the legacy of his own party in government for 14 years. There were queues outside the RDS last Saturday not to go into the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis but to leave the country after Fianna Fáil’s failure to provide economic stimulus and jobs.
Senator Denis Landy: The greatest insult last Saturday was the standing ovation given to a former Taoiseach. Such an ovation is supposed to be a rare occurrence. However, all and sundry at the Ard-Fheis gave a standing ovation to a failed Taoiseach, someone who——
Senator Denis Landy: My question is on the household charge. Now that we are nearly half way through March, will the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government attend the House to outline the other methods of payment that will be available to people? It has been suggested in the House that An Post be used. During our preliminary discussions, I suggested to the Minister that all local authority offices be used as locations at which people could pay. In my constituency office, I provide a service through which people can pay via the Internet. Many people still do not have the Internet. People in my area must travel 14 miles to Clonmel to pay the charge. This is unfair. This month will see an improvement if the Minister expands the range of locations at which people can pay by including local authority offices and An Post. Will the Leader raise this issue with the Minister?
Senator Jillian van Turnhout: Today is International Women’s Day. On 2 February, this House started a journey with the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011. Will the Leader ask the Minister to consider the Independent group’s amendments on political donations and gender quotas? I encourage the House to play a strong role next week in giving the amendments full consideration.
At noon in the Mansion House, Women for Election will be launching its programmes, which I am delighted have the support of all political parties, to inspire and equip women to run. In the Abbey Theatre this morning, Ms Nora Owen noted that, before she was asked to run in a local election in 1979, she did not even know that the election was taking place. Imagine if someone of her esteem had not become involved in politics. The idea is to ask and encourage women to run for election. Here is something to remember for today. Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.
Senator David Norris: If the Cathaoirleach is calling me, I am grateful. I congratulate Mr. Seán Gallagher on the decision he received from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. It was appropriate. I listened to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, on every radio station. He consistently described the situation as a mistake, but I do not believe that to have been the case. I will not single out a particular programme, but the entire context in which the election was fought was poisoned. Inappropriately, all candidates and the very office of the President were treated with a lack of respect and courtesy. I deplore that conduct. The entire process was turned into a circus, the presenters on radio and television were the ring masters and their colleagues in the media universally awarded the ring masters the prize at the end of every debate. This is not right. We should have been discussing issues. That said, there is no question whatsoever that the election itself should be impugned. Everyone would agree with me that Michael D. Higgins is the duly, properly and legally elected President of Ireland, full stop.
Senator David Norris: I spoke of him with great respect and in the highest terms, as I am sure the Cathaoirleach will agree. I was simply confirming that the election was appropriate, but that its context needed to be considered. Every party committed to a review of the electoral process. When it was reviewed by an all-party committee in 1996, three principal recommendations were made to make it easier for independents to enter the race. In last year's race, not a single real independent who passed the stringent test of just entering the race met the quota. Consequently, severe financial burdens were placed on them. This was inappropriate. The matter must be referred to the constitutional review committee, but I am sure that it will also take into account the fact that the representative of the largest party in government and in the State failed to reach the quota as well. Will the Leader arrange for a debate on the matter? The recommendations for reform, which were agreed by all parties in 1996, were provided for in a Bill introduced by then Deputy Jim O'Keeffe. The Bill was presented to the Dáil a few weeks ago and voted down by the Government parties that agreed to it originally. Obviously, they want to stall it. In a democracy, the constitutional review committee should examine the matter.
Senator Tony Mulcahy: I agree with Senator Byrne regarding senior managers in the organisations in question. They should be removed. In the past three or four years, every business has needed to contract and tighten up its activities. Unfortunately, I have needed to lay off many staff. The days of underwriting and subsidising loss-making businesses and organisations are long gone. I include the banks in this. It is regrettable, but we would have a more efficient banking system if we tackled large issues like this head on. I am prepared to support that initiative.
The issue I wish to raise relates to the Minister for Social Protection. Rent supplement has been set at a rate at which people can no longer afford to avail of housing, particularly in urban areas. Setting a rate of €475 for a house in a small rural parish in County Clare might work, but one would not get a house for two adults and two children for €475 per month in the towns of Shannon and Ennis. Will the Leader ask the Minister to review the rent subsidies payable in urban areas? We will not be building new council houses and the supply of social housing is scarce across the country. At times like this, we need to do everything in our power to facilitate young couples. A rate of €475 is ridiculous. I could cite a list of counties. I am sure the situation in County Waterford is the same, as Senator Cullinane would agree. We must review the rate.
Senator Paschal Mooney: I support Senator van Turnhout’s comments on International Women’s Day. In the Leader’s reply, I encourage him to send the message that the political system would value and welcome greater participation by women. In this context, I commend the large number of young, articulate, committed, political women who attended last weekend’s Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis and are actively involved——
Senator Paschal Mooney: I know, but the people, who take it on themselves every five years to decide on Governments, will not welcome someone dancing on the grave of a politician who is a decent, honourable man and who tried hard in difficult circumstances. History will judge him more kindly than Senator Landy and his compatriots do.
Those are not my words, but those of President Higgins speaking in Belfast last week, for which I applaud him. I ask the Leader for a debate on United Nations Security Resolution 1325. The Government launched its national action plan on this two months ago. This ground-breaking resolution calls on all nation states to implement policies at home and abroad that reflect women’s experience of conflict and enable them to access formal peace-building processes. I acknowledge the work of Hanna’s House Alliance which is bringing this resolution to the fore. We should have a debate on the matter in the House with the Minister. It is important that we advance the resolution as quickly as possible. I commend the Government’s initiative on a minimum of 30% of candidates in general elections being women. We have not yet given up on having the same quota for local elections. I would like a debate on United Nations Security Resolution 1325 in order to put the advancement of women’s experience of conflict on the agenda of this House. Women have been written out of history on this island for far too long and we want to ensure their experience of conflict is written into history.
Senator Sean D. Barrett: Arising from the decision of An Bord Pleanála that the Slane bypass and extra bridge over the River Boyne should not be built, I ask the Leader to take up with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the prospect of a heavy vehicle ban in that village. In the neighbourhood of this House, the environment has been greatly improved by the diversion of trucks through the port tunnel and the M50. The data for how safe Dublin city now is confirm that. There is also the experience of a smaller HGV ban in Maynooth and I am sure Deputies representing the Kildare North constituency will be able to help the Minister in that regard. There is capacity to the east of Slane on the M1, which is designed to motorway standard, to take heavy goods vehicles and there is a link to Ardee, north of Slane. The N3 is also designed to a standard to take heavy goods vehicles north of Kells. The solution is to preserve the Georgian village, which includes a unique set of four magnificent houses, and Newgrange. Slane, like many other towns such as Naas and Abbeyleix, would improve greatly if it were bypassed by heavy goods vehicles, which is the solution. An Bord Pleanála did us all a favour by refusing the construction of an extra, expensive bridge across the Boyne when there is capacity on two existing motorways to which trucks could be diverted. That requires the Minister to discuss with the National Roads Authority the level of tolls and to discuss with Meath County Council other diversionary measures. A low-cost solution that would benefit the environment, economy and heritage of Slane is available.
Senator Paul Coghlan: This morning’s newspaper headline that 2,500 people will be asked to leave one banking institution either by voluntary or forced redundancy is frightening. Who decides? I hope nothing is happening without proper consultation. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has been very clear about a proper clearout, which may not be fully completed, at board and senior management level in all the banks. We must remind ourselves that there is a necessary fitness and probity test for all the people concerned. I do not believe that exercise is yet complete. I do not want see a single person forced to leave a banking institution. As the acting leader of the Opposition said, none of these 2,500 people got us into the mess in which we find ourselves.
Senator Paul Coghlan: In this instance it is necessary to proceed with caution. We need to grow business in the banks. We have all heard of the many complaints of small businesses and others who are starved of credit and necessary working capital. The credit function is mostly centralised and the people working in that function in head office are vital to the future of growing the banking business here. I recommend caution now with less speed on this issue. Until there is proper consultation and this is sorted out, no one should be allowed to leave. As I have done previously, I call for an urgent debate on banking which I hope the Leader can arrange in early course.
Senator David Cullinane: Yesterday the Taoiseach and Tánaiste published a report, which reviewed the Government’s first year in office. It is only fair that we judge the Government fairly in the past year. I would benchmark the Government’s performance against what its parties promised they would do in their pre-election manifestos. They promised not to put one red cent into the banks and not to pay back bondholders unless aggressive burden sharing was agreed. In November 2011 some €700 million was paid back to bondholders, €1.1 billion was paid back in January and €3.1 billion will be paid back at the end of this month. They promised to reduce the live register by 100,000 in their first two years in office. We have as many people out of work now as we had when the Government came into office and we now hear about proposed job losses in AIB. I come from the south east whose unemployment rate of 18% is the highest in the country. My city, Waterford, took very heavy hits with job losses and those jobs have not been replaced. The Government promised to deal with upward-only rents and mortgage distress. There were red-line issues coming from the Labour Party on child benefit and college fees. In its first budget, it caved in on those two promises. Across the board on the big issues of unemployment, emigration, and what is happening in the banks and the public services with money taken from health, education and local authorities, the Government has not delivered. I am not judging it on what I want it to do but on what its parties promised to do in their pre-election manifestos. They have failed and we are getting more of the same from the Government. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that a senior Minister attend the House today in order that we can discuss what the Government has done and failed to do in the past 12 months.
Senator Paul Bradford: Senators Byrne and Cullinane have made reasonable proposals to have debates on banking and the implementation of the programme for Government. It is also reasonable for me to say that it is most unlikely that the Leader could produce the Minister for Finance or Taoiseach today. I ask the Leader to try to ensure that at the earliest possible stage — I believe Senator Paul Coghlan concurs — we should have a debate on banking. It would also be helpful to have debate on the progress of the Government to date at the earliest possible stage. If we want the House to be taken seriously and with some degree of relevance and respect, we cannot expect to produce Ministers out of a hat instantaneously. I appeal to the Senators who moved the amendments to await the Leader’s reply. I hope he will be able to outline that those — admittedly urgent — debates will take place in the very near future. I concur with what Senator Paul Coghlan said about the banking crisis. It is deeply regrettable to hear of such substantial proposed job losses and every possible angle must be pursued. However, let us not be hypocritical in these Houses. In recent years we have called for a more efficient and effective banking system and presumably some degree of rationalisation is necessary, but 2,500 sounds draconian.
I agree with the general sentiments of Senator Norris on the presidential election campaign. We had a debate on media and media standards some weeks ago. We should revisit the debate arising from yesterday's statement from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland on the Seán Gallagher matter. It is regrettable that the "Frontline" programme produced a distorted view of reality. One cannot replay a presidential election or any election once it is over. It is too little too late to apologise or say "sorry" to Seán Gallagher. However, we must learn from the way in which the presidential election was conducted from a media perspective. A revisiting of the role of the media in politics and the reporting and presentation of politics could be useful in the long run.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Yesterday, the House earned some kudos as a result of the united non-party concern and support expressed for our emigrants. This was in the context of Ministers travelling abroad for St. Patrick’s Day. Some of the kudos may have been tarnished this morning. It seems each time we discuss jobs, it is like pressing a button and we go into the mode of name blaming and scapegoating straightaway.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: If the thousands of young people queueing up to leave the country saw a replay of the debate this morning, would they consider our concern and support to be real? Their attitude could be summed up by: “A plague o’ both your houses!” We have said many times that some issues should be set apart from political expediency and the issue of jobs should be one of these.
There were opportunities in the past which we did not take. We are well into the recession at this stage and we are suffering the results of that recession. We are all lucky to be public representatives, well paid with expenses. We should get off the hobby horses once and for all when it comes to issues such as jobs. That would do the House the world of good. It would also serve as an argument in favour of its retention. If we do not get into positive mode, we will leave a great many angry young people abroad and a great many angry young people will leave the county. We are all mature and we are all committed public representatives. However, some issues should be beyond the realm of point-scoring.
Senator Colm Burke: I agree with Senator Ó Murchú’s comments to the extent that yesterday we discussed a motion on the issue of rare diseases and the need for a proactive Government policy to deal with it. There was broad agreement across the House on how the issue should be approached. Likewise with the jobs issue, everyone in the House regardless of party affiliation has one aim, that is, to get people back to work.
Decisions must be made about creating efficiencies in respect of the banks. Let us consider the workload in the banks now compared to four or five years ago when more than 90,000 houses were being sold per annum and an equivalent number of mortgages was issued. This has all changed and, therefore, the same workload is no longer in place. I know of several young people who have commenced employment with Allied Irish Banks, AIB, in the past three months. The information I am getting from them is to the effect that a significant number of young people are working in the banking sector and are keen to face up to the challenge and to deal with the issues facing the banks and the country. On the other hand, there are many people in the banking structure who believe they have made their contribution and who wish to take a break from the type of work they have been involved in. Such people are looking for an opportunity and the banks are approaching this in a constructive way. They must deal with it. We should remember that we are no longer dealing with shareholders’ money, we are now dealing with taxpayers’ money. This is being approached in a constructive way and in the best interests of the banking sector.
If we are to debate this issue — we should do so — I wish to raise one concern. During the good times bank employees contacted customers and offered them money to buy shares in that bank. I know of one case where a person was given €1.5 million from AIB to buy AIB shares. Another young man came to me in recent weeks and informed me that he was given €50,000 to buy AIB shares. He was invited to come in and sign the forms to enable him to buy the shares. This offer came from AIB and was to buy AIB shares. We should bring in amending legislation to outlaw the practice of a bank giving money to people to borrow to buy the same bank’s shares. It should be outlawed because it was wrong. It should not have been done and it should be made illegal now. This is one of the issues I want on the agenda if we are to debate the banking issue. The sooner it is on the agenda, the better for everyone in the country. I call for a debate on the issue at the earliest possible opportunity.
Senator Feargal Quinn: As a result of the many crises facing us, whether financial, banking or jobs-related, there is a danger that we do not allocate sufficient time to discuss some of the other things in our lives. I hope we can find time to discuss the environment at some stage. I have in mind particularly the diversity of our birdlife. We are experiencing a serious threat to our birdlife, especially migrating birds, at this time of year. Ireland is important in this area. There is a birds directive but in spite of it certain species, including the partridge, the quail and the corncrake, are seriously threatened. I do not suggest it should be immediately and I realise there are other important issues to be discussed, but it would be a shame if we do not allocate time to such a debate at some stage.
The plight of the conservation of 19 species is the subject of much concern in Ireland. Ten of these are under serious threat. In recent times the Minister has introduced several steps, in particular, the birds directive. We are keen to ensure that farming is possible and continues to be profitable. At the same time, through good farming practices, we can maintain the diversity of our birdlife. It is possible to achieve this balance. Although I do not suggest it is urgent at the moment, we should allocate some time to discuss it whether it involves the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government or the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
It is fascinating to take an interest in birdlife. Next month, some of the birds that come from Canada, especially the Brent geese, will leave again and, hopefully, they will return in October. This year, there has been quite a change. Several of the birds that normally go to northern Africa at this time of year have not gone either because of climate change or perhaps for some other reason. Let us ensure that we recognise the importance of this issue as part of our tradition and heritage and let us ensure we allocate some time to it in the coming months.
Senator Martin Conway: I note that 2,500 AIB staff have been asked to subscribe to a voluntary redundancy package. I agree with the sentiments expressed to the effect that there are many within AIB who cannot wait to get out the door because of what has taken place in recent years. I am pleased that finally the nightmare will be over for the people concerned and they can take a package and go.
I note there has been some recruitment in AIB in recent months as well. This sends a bad message. On the one hand, the bank is seeking to get rid of 2,500 staff and, on the other, it is recruiting people. The messages are unclear. The reality is that the 2,500 figure is the headline figure. The ordinary decent people in the banking system are being scapegoated for what occurred in the past whereas the delinquents who were running AIB at the top, including the board of directors and the senior management who are still in place and who continue to receive vast salaries, have not been held to account. What are the public interest directors in AIB doing? They should come before the House. There are people on the board of directors of the major banks of the country representing the people. Let them come in and account for themselves and let them give us a report on exactly what they are doing to serve the public interest.
Every day of the week we hear of people struggling to get credit, overdrafts and mortgages. That is not the kind of banking system I want to see in my country. We urgently require a constructive debate on banking to examine what occurred in the past. This House must lead the fight to ensure that we have the best regulated banking system to drive job creation instead of hindering it, as it is doing.
Senator Mark Daly: I second the amendment to the Order of Business. I also want to condemn the Government for its self-congratulation for downsizing banks and bank staff. The Government would be better advised to tax the bonuses and pensions of bankers who walked out the door with big pay-offs, which was done in the United States.
As my colleagues did yesterday, I welcome the fact that Ministers are travelling abroad for St. Patrick’s Day. The media has often taken it as part of the St. Patrick’s Day fun festival to condemn Ministers for going abroad. Every year, Irish Ministers travel to South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Spain, the United States and elsewhere to meet with Heads of Government. Other countries envy our position and if they had such an opportunity they would send more ministers. Some people may say that at this time we cannot be spending money on such trips, but the connections made and opportunities opened up by our Ministers abroad is what it is all about, as well as strengthening those international relationships.
I know that Members will join me in extending sympathy to the family of US Congressman Donald Payne, who has passed away. This 77-year-old African American once held the distinction of being the most pro-Irish member of the US Congress. He led the fight against apartheid in South Africa from the floor of the US House of Representatives. He also led the fight to ban the use of plastic bullets in Northern Ireland. He was a great friend of Ireland and will be sadly missed.
Senator Michael Mullins: I compliment Dublin City Council and the Garda Síochána on the peaceful removal of the unauthorised encampment in Dame Street. I thoroughly respect everybody’s right to protest, as they regularly do outside Leinster House every week. However, no group is entitled to put businesses at risk, obstruct them, or breach planning or health and safety laws. As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, I hope we will welcome many visitors to our country. I hope the unauthorised development in Eyre Square in Galway will also be dismantled peacefully before next weekend. It is certainly causing problems and issues for many people, and is not the image of the city we want to project. I hope the protestors will see sense and remove it in good time before the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Ba mhaith liom cuidiú leis an leasú ar Riar na hOibre atá molta ag mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Cullinane. Beimid ag éisteacht go cúramach le freagra an Cheannaire air. Má cheapaimid go bhfuil freagra réasúnach ann, ó thaobh plé a dhéanamh ar an gclár Rialtais, b’fhéidir go dtarraingeomíd siar é. Faoi láthair, ba mhaith liom cuidiú leis an leasú atá molta.
Ba mhaith liom, freisin, fáiltiú roimh an chúlú atá déanta ag an Aire Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta, an Teachta Deenihan, maidir le lucht bainte móna. Sílim go bhfuil sé ciallmhar. Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuil an cúlú sin déanta. Déanaim comhgairdeas leis an dream atá ag plé leis an bhfeachtas sin ó thaobh a gcuid cearta bainte móna.
I welcome the reversal by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, on the turf cutting situation. I congratulate those involved in the turf cutters’ campaign because their concerns have been taken on board. Hopefully the issue can now be properly resolved.
There has been much discussion about export-led growth in various press releases. Yesterday, in the audio-visual room, we had a tale of export-led growth from the newly qualified teachers’ action group, representing student teachers from the country’s four teacher training colleges. They are concerned about the pay and conditions they will be asked to accept when they qualify. They told us their personal stories and many of them who graduated in other disciplines went back to gain primary teaching degrees as mature students. They will, however, be asked to work for less than the minimum wage in some cases if the new regime is put in place. They put a good case and there was cross-party support for them. They were not scare-mongering or over the top with their claims, and the INTO is backing their cause. I thank those who came to the briefing yesterday. I call for the Minister for Education and Skills to attend the House so that we can have a discussion not so much on the broad area of education but on the situation facing newly qualified teachers. We must not be preparing those students currently in teacher training colleges for export.
Senator Catherine Noone: I compliment Dublin City Council on the peaceful removal of protestors from Dame Street. It was inappropriate that they were allowed to reside there for so long. With the approach of St. Patrick’s Day, the city needs to look its best. While we all agree that protesting should be allowed and is an important function of democracy, that one was inappropriate for our city.
I also compliment Dublin City Council on its plans for Grafton Street. It is our main shopping street and up to 12,000 people visit it each Saturday alone. The paving was never done properly. As regards liability, I can only imagine how many claims have been made as a result of people slipping and falling on that street, especially on the white tiles which were unsuitable.
Greater measures are needed to ensure that we have the proper type of businesses onGrafton Street. In recent years, we have seen all sorts of less appropriate businesses in the Grafton Street area, which bring down the atmosphere there. It is indirectly the area of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, but the matter should be addressed.
Senator Catherine Noone: My question for the Leader concerns something else. I join other speakers in calling for a debate on banking. Earlier, Senator Coghlan mentioned the fact that 2,500 bank workers — junior staff for the most part — might be losing their jobs. Meanwhile, those who ran amok, including regulators and senior bankers, are still on huge salaries and have never answered for the problems they created.
Senator Mary M. White: As this is International Women’s Day, I would like to take a moment to remember all those women who were affected by the thalidomide tragedy. Thalidomide must surely have been one of the world’s worst crimes against women, and the Irish State played a role in this. Only 32 women had their children acknowledged and accepted as thalidomide survivors back in the mid-1970s. Not many of the thalidomide mothers are still alive and those who are, still wait for a proper apology. Today we should remember the forgotten women — those who lost their babies through miscarriage or who had to deal with the heartache of their babies dying in infancy because of thalidomide. I salute those mothers, and the survivors of thalidomide themselves, for their courage. I draw the attention of the House to an outstanding article in The Star newspaper detailing the thalidomide battle fought by Finola Cassidy who is secretary of the Irish Thalidomide Association. It is a very moving newspaper article and she is an inspirational human being.
Senator Mary M. White: I will reverse it. Four ladies out of five were elected as vice presidents of the party. As one of my colleagues, Senator O’Sullivan, said last week, I am honoured. A week later I am still 40 feet high with pride, I am so thrilled with myself.
Senator Mary M. White: I have words of wisdom, if the Cathaoirleach does not mind. There is no such thing as an overnight success story in politics or in any sphere in life. As in the case of training for the Olympic Games, success is achieved with relentless concentration and one must be fearless. It is a case of more women firing on all four cylinders.
Senator Mary Moran: I wish everybody here a happy International Women’s Day. I offer my congratulations to Mr. Ron Cooney and those involved in the excellent showing of the programme, “Ballymun Lullaby” on television. The programme is an excellent example and it was proposed for an award. I refer to the teaching of music in disadvantaged areas and I commend the good this man has done in Ballymun.
I wish to raise the issue of private health insurance. I have been made aware of a family who were quoted a much cheaper premium from Aviva health insurance when changing from VHI. Naturally, they took up the offer, on the presumption that they would receive the same benefits as they had from VHI. All went fine and they were paying over €3,000 a year for this health insurance. However, a month ago, one of the children was hospitalised. The nearest hospital they could access for the required treatment was in Dublin even though they live in Dundalk. When they were advised to go to a specific hospital in Dublin, they discovered that despite having been promised last August that they had the same cover, they did not in fact have the same level of insurance cover, which in my view——
Senator Mary Moran: I have a question for the Leader. There is a question about the insurance policy. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on private health insurance. Companies selling health insurance should ensure that one gets what it says on the tin, so to speak, that one gets what one has paid for.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: I wish to be associated with the comments expressed to commemorate International Women’s Day. I congratulate Senator Mary White on her recent achievement. I understand that the major press announcement of the day, the Fine Gael self-congratulatory programme which was scheduled for lunch time, has been cancelled at the request of the Labour Party because that party did not seem to agree.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: The Labour Party was not invited. Perhaps Vincent Browne’s show last night had something to do with it. I am not sure how the Government would have explained at that event the destruction of the education system. I issued a statement last evening outlining that 30 teaching posts will be lost in Donegal schools but, in fact, it will be much worse. A Labour Party Senator challenged this statement as being misleading but he has gone to ground this morning and he is not available to debate it publicly on the airwaves. My figures were very conservative because when the figures are examined——
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: ——at least 600 teaching posts will be removed from schools this September. The reversal regarding the DEIS band one and band two schools, or theU-turn, only applies to urban schools because that is where the Labour Party gets its votes.  Let us face it — this is about votes and it is not about children. While the decisions on the legacy posts are being reversed, there will still be 320 posts removed from DEIS band one and band two schools as a result of the changes to the staffing schedule. According to the Minister, a total of 73 rural schools will lose posts this year. In addition, administrative principal posts will go and other legacy posts in DEIS rural schools will also go, a total of approximately 200 posts. When this is all added together, it makes a total of 800 teaching posts being removed from schools this year.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: ——but it is also an attack on the most vulnerable children who are being supported through the DEIS programme. I call for the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House. I appreciate he may not be in a position to do so this week but I will be pressing the issue again next week and if the Minister does not come to the House next week to discuss this issue, I will press a vote on the Order of Business. I appeal to the Leader and will give him some space to make the request by next Tuesday or Wednesday.
Senator Tom Sheahan: Shannon LNG is a massive project in Kerry and it is not happening. It has been six years in the pipeline, to use the pun, but the problem seems to be a pipeline. I ask the Leader to forward my request to the Minister to make a decision and to make Shannon LNG happen because it is a massive investment in the county. Tens of millions of euro have already been spent and there is a possibility that it may not go ahead. We must have a decision to make Shannon LNG happen.
Senator Jim Walsh: I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on public service broadcasting and incorporating the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Those who read the findings of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with regard to the presidential election campaign programme on RTE will welcome part of the report. The findings were as minimalist as they could have been. However, I find illogical the conclusion that the incident was not of sufficient consequence to merit an investigation. This would seem to be an abrogation of the authority’s responsibility to ensure proper standards in public service broadcasting. I ask the Leader if this debate could also include the issue of the licence fee which I think generates in the order of €160 million. I wonder if today we need the paraphernalia of television stations and radio stations to be under the remit of the national broadcaster. Perhaps this situation should be rationalised. I would much prefer to see a situation in which Radio One or TG4 would become our national broadcaster and that the remainder of RTE would be privatised. This arrangement would require far less funding by the licence fee and the balance could be used on a programme by programme basis in the private sector. I have seen some excellent documentary programmes on the private television channel, TV3. In the case of independent radio, South East Radio is campaigning strongly on the unemployment situation in County Wexford and this is a commendable initiative. Such independent stations should be in a position to source funding to make good public service programmes which would facilitate and enhance public service broadcasting.
I have criticised in the past the fact that the BAI is constituted of former senior people in RTE and also people from the private sector, private production companies, who are dependent on RTE for revenue streams for their own companies. I look forward to seeing the BAI’s findings regarding the Fr. Reynolds case. It will be as anaemic a report as we have seen in regard to the last episode, the findings on the Seán Gallagher case.
Senator Marie Moloney: I, too, wish a happy International Women’s Day to everybody, including all the young ladies in the Visitors Gallery. I offer congratulations to Senator White on her recent achievement — well done to her.
We are nearing the time of year for students to apply for third level grants. This year those applications are being centralised and the last thing we need is a repeat of the fiasco with the centralisation of medical card applications. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Skills to attend the House for a question and answer session on this issue? He could also answer questions from Senators on other issues. He should tell us everything is in order for the applications to proceed because we must not have a repeat of what happened with the medical cards. I would like the message to go out to parents that now is the time to apply for the P21, not when one is making the application. At that stage the whole country will be applying and there will be an enormous backlog in the Revenue offices. If they apply immediately or during the coming weeks they will be ready to send the P21 with their application and will not have to be contacted. For years I have been helping people fill application forms for a third level grant. They are quite detailed, require a great deal of information and can be daunting for parents. Finding out what is needed can cause much confusion. People are in and out of their local offices asking the local officer questions but that will not happen this year if the application process is centralised. The Leader might ask the Minister to attend at his earliest convenience so that every Member can be assured, along with parents and students, that everything is ready to roll in the centralisation of these applications.
Will the Leader check with Government as to when the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012 will be published? It will be a very important Bill and I would like to have as much advance notice as possible about it. I put Members on notice that as part of that legislation the Government is to propose some significant changes in private pension arrangements which will have drastic knock-on effects for some 400,000 people.
I, too, commend the newly qualified teachers action group. I met them last night and thank Senator Ó Clochartaigh for arranging it. I am sure they will take a great deal of comfort from the presence last night of Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. He tends to sort out many issues for the Government on the education side.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: In the absence of the Taoiseach publishing his report card on a year in Government, I put the House on notice that my group in Fianna Fáil will, in Private Members’ time, afford an opportunity for all Members to debate the achievements, or lack thereof, of the Government over the 12-month period. We will produce our report cards on the various Ministers, something the Taoiseach promised to do but has not yet done. In the interests of a proper open debate, from both sides, we should realistically debate the first year in Government and the various items in the programme for Government——
Senator Darragh O’Brien: No. I am trying to be helpful to the Leader and let him know that he and my colleagues in Fine Gael and the Labour Party will have this opportunity. They will have a week, until next Wednesday, to have a word with the spin doctors in their parties
Senator Darragh O’Brien: Will the Leader look forward to that debate when we can debate, as colleagues, the progress, or lack thereof, of the Government, such as in matters of education? Will the Leader inform the House when the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill will be published?
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator Byrne, rightly, raised the loss of jobs in the financial services sector, which is regrettable. These job losses were flagged a long time ago. It is an inevitable but unfortunate consequence of the reorganisation of the banking sector that there will be reductions in jobs at the covered institutions. In response to this, the Government is committed to making available the services of the State, including the employment support services, to provide direct or indirect assistance for the employees taking up this offer in order to increase their chances of re-entering the workforce. A response group has been established in the Department of Social Protection to devise a co-ordinated strategy on the supports required. This strategy will take into account the numbers being made redundant, the locations and phasing in of those redundancies. The Department of Social Protection will ensure the needs of the employees concerned are met through proactive and timely access to a range of income maintenance, money advice and employment support services. We hope many of them will get back into the financial services workforce and that many jobs will be created in the coming years in the sector.
I do not accept the amendment to the Order of Business. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, will be in the Chamber immediately after the Order of Business to discuss legislation to come before the House.
Senator Landy mentioned the household charge and the need for local authorities to be more proactive in its collection. An Post needs to be more competitive in its response. I understand that what it suggested for the collection of the charge was not very competitive. Those concerned in the local authorities should be more proactive. We may ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, back to the House to explain further mechanisms in that regard.
Senator Keane spoke about women in politics. I agree that society suffers greatly from the lack of participation by women in politics and other areas of society. I will try to arrange a debate on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 that the Senator mentioned.
Senator Barrett mentioned the possibility of banning HGVs in the town of Slane. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. The Senator mentioned there was capacity on existing motorways in the area. I am sure that is something the Minister will consider in conjunction with Meath County Council.
Senators Paul Coghlan, Conway and others spoke about a debate on banking. I will try to arrange a wide-ranging debate on this subject. A number of Members mentioned some valid points on banking and it would be appropriate to have such a debate.
We had a predictable analysis of the Government’s first year from Senator Cullinane and I am sure we will have another. I am very grateful to Senator O’Brien for the coming motion on the Government’s first year in office.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I am sure it will be a very illuminating debate and that Members on both sides will have much to say on it. I am, therefore, very grateful to the leader of Fianna Fáil in the House for arranging that debate on the motion during Private Members’ business next week.
Senator Ó Murchú raised the issue of job creation. This House has played a very responsible role in terms of ideas for job creation. When the Minister, Deputy Bruton, came into the House on Tuesday he mentioned that a number of the ideas suggested in the jobs ideas debate we had here had been incorporated in the jobs action plan. This House should be complimented as a result of that, as should all the Members who contributed to that debate. I am glad the Minister acknowledged that when he was here on Tuesday.
Senator Quinn asked for a debate on the environment and spoke about the threat to our bird population. Regardless of what Minister is involved, the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, has introduced a bounty to cull the mink population to protect our many birds species. That is to be welcomed but perhaps we should have a debate at some stage on that entire area. I compliment Senator Quinn for raising the matter.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh spoke about the turf cutters. I agree with him that the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, should be complimented on his efforts in that regard. It is to be welcomed that the Government is prepared to engage with organisations to solve those problems. That will be accepted by most people.
Senator White rightly raised again the plight of the people affected by thalidomide, which happened here many years ago, and praised the people involved. I agree with the Senator in that regard. I am glad she has achieved her presidency at last, on which I compliment her.
Senator Moran raised the question of private health insurance, people getting what they are entitled to and making sure the buyer beware principle is examined at all times. The Senator might raise the case in question as an Adjournment matter when she can get more information on it.
I note Senator Walsh’s views on the use of the TV licence fee. I am sure he raised that matter with the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, when he was in the House some weeks ago. We will certainly bring it to his attention if it was not raised at that time.
Senator Moloney raised the issue of third level grants and rightly suggested that people should apply for them now. I said yesterday on the Order of Business that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, would be in the House on 19 April for a wide-ranging debate on education and any Member who wishes to raise those points with him can do so on that day.
I will try to find out for Deputy Darragh O’Brien the position on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. I express my gratitude that Fianna Fáil will debate the progress the Government has made in the past year in its Private Members’ motion.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Thomas Byrne has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, “That a debate with the Minister for Finance on the job losses proposed in AIB be taken today.” Is the amendment being pressed?
Senator Thomas Byrne: Yes. The idea that the Minister for Finance can come into the House to talk about a loan of €80 billion to Greece and not talk about 2,500 people who are being made redundant in this country is ludicrous.
|Barrett, Sean D.||Byrne, Thomas.|
|Cullinane, David.||Daly, Mark.|
|Leyden, Terry.||Mooney, Paschal.|
|Norris, David.||Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O'Brien, Darragh.|
|Reilly, Kathryn.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Brennan, Terry.||Burke, Colm.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||Coghlan, Eamonn.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Comiskey, Michael.|
|Conway, Martin.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|D’Arcy, Jim.||D’Arcy, Michael.|
|Hayden, Aideen.||Heffernan, James.|
|Henry, Imelda.||Higgins, Lorraine.|
|Keane, Cáit.||Landy, Denis.|
|Moloney, Marie.||Moran, Mary.|
|Mulcahy, Tony.||Mullins, Michael.|
|Noone, Catherine.||O’Keeffe, Susan.|
|Quinn, Feargal.||Sheahan, Tom.|
|van Turnhout, Jillian.||Whelan, John.|
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Cullinane has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, “That a senior Minister come to the House today in order that it can discuss what the Government has done and failed to do in the past 12 months.” Is the amendment being pressed?
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