Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the restructuring of sectoral committees and the transfer of papers to new committees, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion re Joint sub-Committee on Administration, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No.1; No. 3, motion re establishment of the Joint Committee on Standing Orders, Private Business, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 2; and No. 4, Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 — Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 3. Business will be interrupted between 4.40 p.m. and 5 p.m. The Minister for Justice and Equality will return to the House at 5 p.m. to make an announcement, following which business will resume.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: The Leader will agree that this House has a good track record in upholding human rights and highlighting human rights abuses across the world. In that regard, I am honoured to welcome to the Visitors Gallery Dr. Nada Dhaif, one of the Bahraini doctors sentenced to 15 years imprisonment by the regime in that country, simply for providing medical treatment for persons protesting for human rights and democracy. I also welcome Professor Damian McCormack, Ms Sheila Dickson and Ms Tara O’Grady from the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organisation. Since February 2011 the Bahraini Government has been cracking down on pro-democracy and human rights campaigners, including the many doctors who have, as is their right and duty, treated people who were tortured and beaten on the streets of that country. This coming Thursday 15 of those doctors will undergo a retrial in a civilian court, many of them having already received sentences of between five and 15 years on the most spurious of charges. It behoves this House — Members of all parties and none — to show its total support for the persons being tried on Thursday. Will the Leader raise this matter with the Taoiseach and ask the Deputy Leader, Senator Ivana Bacik, to raise it with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade? They should, in advance of Thursday, convey our absolute abhorrence at the manner in which medical professionals, many of whom received their training in this country, have been treated by the Bahraini Government. I ask that our entreaties be conveyed directly to the King of Bahrain and senior Bahraini Ministers. It is my understanding a new Bahraini ambassador was appointed last week who will work out of Britain but deal also with the Republic. There is no time to delay on this matter in which we have an important role to play. It has been discussed by the Seanad on previous occasions and groups within the medical community, with the exception of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, have come out very strongly against the measures taken by the Bahraini Government. The silence of some in the medical profession and politics on this matter can only be condemned. Will the Leader and the Deputy Leader give a commitment to me, Dr. Dhaif and her colleagues who are in prison and awaiting retrial this Thursday that they will urge their respective party leaders — the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste — to do their utmost to raise this issue directly with the King of Bahrain and his senior Ministers to ensure justice is done for the medics in Bahrain who are being persecuted for doing their duty?
Senator Ivana Bacik: I assure Senator Darragh O’Brien that I will convey his comments directly to the Tánaiste. I join him in welcoming Dr. Dhaif and her colleagues and commend their bravery in continuing to stand up for human rights and the right of doctors to perform their medical duties in Bahrain under enormous pressure. As he observed, we have raised this issue in the House on previous occasions. I assure him that we on this side, together with colleagues on all other sides, will do all we can to ensure the oppression in Bahrain is brought to an end. Given that the final verdict in the trials is expected this Thursday, I agree that there is urgency attached to the matter. It was only following international pressure that the trials were moved to a civilian court. We must have more of that type of pressure brought to bear on the Bahraini authorities. As the Senator said, there is a particular reason for us to do so, given the very strong links between Bahrain and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland which has been rightly criticised by many for its failure in the past to stand up for the rights of medics in Bahrain. I hope we will see a greater degree of courage in that quarter.
Will the Leader allow for a debate on the upcoming constitutional convention? Like others last week, I very much welcome the setting up of the constitutional convention, the idea of which was put forward by the Tánaiste, as Labour Party leader, at the Labour Party conference in Galway in 2010. It is very much welcome that it will be made up of 33 elected representatives, but with a majority of 66 citizens, who will examine a range of issues. The first two issues will be the voting age and the presidential term. I very much look forward to the broader range of issues which will be considered by the constitutional convention. Some very important issues will be dealt with. It would be worthwhile if the Seanad was to debate, perhaps in parallel with the convention, some of these issues — for example, amending the clause on the role of women in the home, greater participation of women in public life and the role which gender sensitive parliamentary procedures can play in encouraging more women to come forward. There are some very obvious things we in the Seanad can do to assist and support the work of the constitutional convention.
We all welcome the Leader’s announcement that the Orange Order has been invited to the Seanad on 3 July. That is a remarkable and historic step and it will mark a historic day for the Seanad. Next Tuesday will be another historic day for the Seanad with the Seanad Public Consultation Committee having a second round of hearings in the Chamber, this time on issues around cancer prevention. This week we will have a debate on the report the Seanad Public Consultation Committee produced on the rights of older people. This is a change in procedure and a real break with the more traditional procedures of the past in the Seanad and it shows the real value and worth of this House.
Senator David Norris: The Seanad is honoured today by the presence of Dr. Nada Dhaif in the Visitors Gallery. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland has dishonoured the name of Ireland by its inaction and the fact it dismissed some of its graduates in Bahrain at the instigation of the Bahrainian authorities. That is absolutely reprehensible and it should be held to account by public opinion for this. Dr. Dhaif is a woman of quite exemplary courage. There is a principle involved here, namely, that doctors are required by the Hippocratic oath to assist people, regardless of where they come from or what side they are on. Doctors and nurses are neutral; they treat the wounded. We had a horrible example in this country of Jean McConville who was murdered by the IRA simply for giving a glass of water to a British soldier. That was her right as a human being. We must make a strong protest, in particular in light of the fact that the motivation of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland seems to be to protect its investment of €17 million. That is not a sufficient reason. The same is true of Britain. It has said nothing because it is involved in gigantic arms sales to Bahrain and I am against that too. I would like an end to the silence of the Irish Government on this matter.
I wish to raise a matter raised last week by Senator van Turnhout and supported by others who commended the PSNI and the Garda for a series of raids on what were described as “brothels”, the action we were told was against trafficking and so on. I am glad to say I entered a hesitation about this because in this week’s Sunday Independent Jim Cusack, who is a very highly respected writer and who has been writing for a long time on criminal matters, indicated that as many as half of the residences raided in Northern Ireland were not brothels and had no connection with prostitution and that in some cases it was done with invalid warrants. One of the apartments in which the door was smashed down belonged to a young woman journalist and her partner who is a barrister. They had nothing whatever to do with prostitution. In another case, a door was smashed down and the officer involved telephoned the young woman who owned the apartment at work and implied she was involved in prostitution. She was rightly horrified.
The Garda has stated that, despite the claims about organised prostitution rings, etc., each one of the 100 locations in the Republic was associated with single, young prostitutes. The record needs to be set straight. While I acknowledge the Switch off the Red Light and the Switch on the Blue Light campaigns, I suggest we switch off the sanctimony in this House and address the real issues for the vulnerable women involved.
Senator Martin Conway: I would like to address a matter in the newspaper this morning, namely, the statement by the ESRI that there are thousands of people who would be far better off on social welfare than working. I take issue with this statement because, while one can sit down with a calculator and calculate a few facts and figures and argue the toss about a few bob either way, the reality is that people are better off working emotionally, psychologically, culturally, etc. Even if it costs money to work, people are better off working. I encourage every citizen who has the opportunity to work to do so and not to take any notice of any ESRI report that might suggest it is not worthwhile. The culture of work is one to which I subscribe and in which I believe. The vast majority subscribe to it.
The Leader has endeavoured to have Ms Aung San Suu Kyi come to the House during her brief visit to the country. Her visit this month is to be very brief. Perhaps the Leader might issue an invitation to her to return to Ireland at some other stage to address the House. It would be very appropriate, given the welcome presence in the Visitors Gallery of the doctor from Bahrain, Ms Nada Dhaif. It is an honour to have such a distinguished person in our presence. I suggest Ms Aung San Suu Kyi receive a formal invitation at some stage in the very near future.
Senator Terry Leyden: Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, to come to the House to consider the broken promises made in the general election of 2011? I refer specifically to the 50 cent charge for medical card holders, introduced in 2010 because of the financial conditions at the time. The charge, capped at €10 per month, brings in revenue of approximately €27 million. The Minister made a commitment to the electorate in regard to the charge, with which commitment people were very impressed. Having canvassed in Roscommon-South Leitrim, I realise the waiving of the charge was regarded as very important among medical card holders. They considered it very unfair and were very impressed by the commitment given by Fine Gael. The people gave Fine Gael two seats in Roscommon-South Leitrim, although it now has only one. The Minister said in the House at the time that he condemned the charge as it was aimed at the most vulnerable, sickest and weakest. Suddenly they were very well and did not seem to be affected at all. Obviously, they are no longer as weak, sick or vulnerable because the Minister has not withdrawn the charge.
The Minister closed the accident and emergency unit in Roscommon County Hospital in the approach to its first anniversary after having made a clear, unambiguous commitment to keep it open. He did not restore cancer services in Sligo, which matter was highlighted before and after the general election by my colleague, Senator Marc MacSharry.
Senator Terry Leyden: Yes. I want the Leader to arrange a debate with the Minister for Health to outline to the House the reasons for his backtracking and somersaulting on these commitments and the betrayal of the electorate. There will not be a by-election shortly in any of the constituencies in the South, but if there were, it would present a great opportunity for the Government to put its mandate to the people again and determine the result. Fine Gael will not be given a seat in any by-election held between now and the next general election. There is no other mandate.
Senator Aideen Hayden: I agree with Senator Conway in his sentiments about the ESRI report. I have concerns about the ESRI report and the entire premise of it. If some of the members of the ESRI had to live on what social welfare recipients get, they might take a different tack. We should be concerning ourselves with how we make life better and how we make it easier for persons to return to work, and that should be the focus of our discussions.
Senator Aideen Hayden: ——who borrowed €2,000 from a moneylender and was to repay €5,000 at the rate of €100 per week. The moneylender concerned kept her social welfare card and met her at the social welfare office each week when she went in to get her money. She paid for more than 30 weeks. On, I think, the 32nd week, she was unable to pay the entire amount and he threatened to break both of her legs. She has already pawned her furniture and sold her jewellery, and is in a desperate situation. Whether what that moneylender is doing is beyond the law is not really the issue in this circumstance. This lady is terrified and is afraid to go anywhere near the authorities.
This raises the following issue for this House. We live in desperate times. People are doing desperate things. I would ask the Leader to bring this to the attention of the Minister responsible for consumer protection and financial regulation. We, as a Government, have a responsibility to ensure vulnerable persons are not prey to the likes of this ruthless, abhorrent person. The elderly lady cannot be the only victim of this man’s activities. The Garda in that location must be aware of that man’s activities. I ask the Leader to put it to the Minister concerned that we need a national public awareness campaign of the dangers for ordinary people to go to moneylenders. We must have also a campaign highlighting the value of credit unions to the vulnerable. This is a dreadful situation and there are many more vulnerable people out there in this type of situation.
Senator Sean D. Barrett: Today’s edition of The Irish Times has a headline, “Higher level paper [in mathematics] called disastrous, traumatic”. That was the experience of 10,000 students taking that paper yesterday. The article contains a quote that, “Students’ nervousness in advance of this exam paper was well-founded”. We have discussed this on several occasions in the House. It is a major problem. Is project maths working?
Are bonus points a good idea? Did that cause some of the tension yesterday? As we have asked here, what do the bonus points solve? They give an advantage to the 20% who had a qualified mathematics teacher at second level or those who could afford grinds. We need to examine this on a much wider sphere than merely giving bonus points to students. In Finland, I gather, a teacher must have an MA in the subject in which he or she teaches. That is what we are trying to compete with and we need the co-operation of teacher training and mathematics departments.
I would ask that the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Sean Sherlock, who is working in this area and deserves our support, come to the House to debate this vital issue, not least so that we could support him in implementing vital reforms in the area. We must bring teacher training in mathematics up to international standards and not have the disastrous and traumatic experiences described.
In the interests of balance, the Irish Examiner did not find that. However, it is an issue that is worth our debating here. I note how concerned the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, is about it. In fact, he launched initiatives recently to try to make up for our national problems in mathematics teaching. It is an issue that would be well worth debating in the House.
Senator Michael Mullins: I join Senator Darragh O’Brien in welcoming our Bahraini visitors to the House and support the call for justice for the medics who are to go on trial later this week. I am sure the Taoiseach and Tánaiste would very much support the call being made in the House today.
We are all appalled by television images night after night showing loss of life, torture and the murder of innocent children in Syria. We are seeing man’s inhumanity to man at its very worst. It is becoming apparent that the peace plan of UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, is not working despite the best efforts of his peace envoy, Mr. Kofi Annan. As many commentators have noted, there is a real danger that should there be a sectarian civil war in Syria, it could be as bloody as what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s. The efforts of the international community are totally insufficient. Given that Ireland has some experience in resolving sectarian conflict, holds the chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and will assume the Presidency of the European Union in January, it would be appropriate for the House to discuss this pressing issue. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will be aware of the strength of feeling in the Seanad on developments in Syria. We must do everything possible to bring about a peaceful resolution to the bloody conflict that has already claimed many thousands of lives and which will, if not resolved, result in an horrific, bloody civil war that could cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Senator David Cullinane: I welcome Dr. Nada Dhaif to the Gallery and offer my party’s support to the medics in Bahrain who are facing trial. I hope they will receive justice. I also concur with the sentiments expressed by Senator Darragh O’Brien and others on this issue.
I call for a debate on poverty, an issue Senator Ó Clochartaigh and I have raised on a number of occasions in recent months. The third anniversary of the abolition of the Combat Poverty Agency, an organisation which measured poverty and studied its root causes, will take place on 1 July. The agency did a great service to people who were suffering as a result of poverty.
A number of important reports have been published on poverty recently, including one by Focus Ireland which shows that approximately 5,000 people are homeless at any given time, 100,000 households are on social housing waiting lists and one in seven of those using homeless services are children. Another report entitled Understanding Childhood Deprivation in Ireland published by the ESRI found that in 2010, 8% of children were in consistent poverty, 30% of children lived in households which experienced some form of deprivation and one in five children had reported going to bed hungry. That is the reality faced by many children and families.
I concur with the comments made by Senators Hayden and Conway on another ESRI report which tracked low-income families and linked their earnings with potential social welfare payments. While I do not generally defend the ESRI, it is not the case that its report advocates that people should not work. We can disagree with the formula used in its calculations but I agree with the ESRI that many people are being driven into the hands of moneylenders. If we were to hold a debate on poverty, we would have to conclude that Government policy has consequences for individuals and families and budget decisions are driving more people into poverty and into the hands of moneylenders. We must ask why people are being forced to avail of the services of moneylenders in the first instance. The answer is that Government policy is emptying their pockets. Many low-income families are experiencing serious difficulties because their pay is so low. There is a genuine need for the House to have a debate on poverty. Given the abolition of the Combat Poverty Agency, the House could play a useful role in analysing the causes of poverty and proposing measures that could prevent people falling into poverty in the first instance.
I welcome the introduction of the new central online system for student grant applications announced by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, this morning, which went live today. In the past, students and their parents had to submit grant applications to their local authority or nearest vocational education committee. The process was not centralised and each authority or VEC applied its own criteria. The new system, known as Student Universal Support Ireland, or SUSI, will process all applications for student support and distribute payments to students for the coming academic year. It is envisaged that this process will be much quicker and easier to use and end the long delays encountered by students. Not only will the process be more beneficial to students, it will also save the taxpayer approximately €5 million once the transition is complete.
I acknowledge the publication of the draft report on symphysiotomy, for which I have called on several occasions in the House. It was prepared by Professor Una Walsh and will be the subject of a consultation process between now and 13 July, the final date for receipt of written feedback. I ask my colleagues, if they know of any victim or interested parties, to alert them to the fact that the draft report has been published in order that they may submit responses which will inform the final report and ensure survivors of symphysiotomy will, I hope, receive redress and have closure for the dreadful act carried out on them.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I join other Senators in mentioning some high profile cases of illegal moneylending that have come to the fore in recent days. I raised this issue some years ago as a problem in Sligo, while a “Prime Time” programme was made about it in the past 12 months. It is a serious problem that touches every community in Ireland, yet nothing is being done about it. Some draconian measures need to be introduced by the Department of Justice and Equality, whereby a conviction can be secured by the sworn testimony of a Garda superintendent. Everybody knows who the illegal moneylenders are. Everybody knows where they are lending, how much they are lending and the damage they are doing to society. Frankly, it is time the Government took action and introduced such legislation. I ask the Leader to raise the issue specifically with the Minister for Justice and Equality in the hope that, once and for all, Irish society can be rid of the scourge of illegal moneylenders.
We will bring forward a Bill in the early autumn to seek to bring down the maximum interest rate chargeable by legal moneylenders. There are licensed lenders giving out unsecured loans and charging up to 200%. When people are put under pressure to pay back the money at these rates, they are, in turn, forced to turn to illegal moneylenders. As is often the case when independent Senators bring forward legislation, I hope this worthwhile Fianna Fáil Bill will at least be accepted on Second Stage.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I support the words of Senator Michael Mullins on the situation in Syria. The fact that children are being used as human shields in war must make us all really cross. We must stand together, as a House, country and Government, and use every ounce of our influence to have this stopped. It is horrendous. It is below awful. I ask the Tánaiste to act urgently and use every ounce of influence Ireland has. As we have always punched above our weight when it comes to human rights abuses, let us act now.
I am shocked by the ESRI report which states thousands would be better off on the dole than in a job. I hold the ESRI in the highest regard. It is a State funded research institute, but is it propagating a social entitlement world? I am not sure those in it fully understand what it takes to find a job. People who stay at home do not have a hope. Opportunity only knocks when they are outside it. Many young people are in unpaid internships from which they are securing jobs. I have created a number of jobs for young people in unpaid internships. The matter is very serious. If we look at a low paid job in a freeze frame moment, it might pay somebody to stay at home. However, it is not about its low monetary value only. It is about the future potential the opportunity provides, as well as the psychological and social value of a job to a person. In every way it is better to work. The Leader must look for an urgent debate on this issue with the Minister for Social Protection. It is a serious report by a State-funded research institute. I accept that there may be cost anomalies in the form of travel vouchers that might mitigate some costs but nothing militates against the value of a job. I am pleased that the young people that were interviewed agreed with that. However, I am concerned that this was a spin by the journalist or is it what the ESRI believes? It is a serious statement and we deserve a response from the ESRI.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I support what Senator O’Brien and others have said in welcoming our Bahraini guests and to underline the importance of the Government not being silent on the issue. I have mentioned in the past in the context of debates about China how there is a real danger at a time of economic pressure that this country would only consider issues through an economic lens. There is a danger that our institutions and universities would fall into that trap as well. It is important that we do not do so. I support the calls on the Government to be clear on this issue, to intervene at the highest level possible and to apply pressure. If our institutions are training medical personnel to work in other parts of the world then they have a duty to do whatever they can to ensure not just that their graduates abroad, but other people who practise in that field, are always respected, safe and treated as neutrals when they give the care to which every human being is entitled regardless of——
A relevant letter was published in The Irish Times the other day from Mr. PJ O’Meara. It made the point that while the Government has indicated its support for legislation to ban alcohol-based sponsorship of sporting events, we are still seeing such events being advertised and the announcement of forthcoming events. As Mr. O’Meara puts it in his letter, is it the case that the Government is happy to send out the message that it wants to end alcohol-based sponsorship of sporting events but is refusing to give us a timeframe? It is important that we would hear from the Government on the issue and that we hear not just what it intends to do but when it intends to do it.
Senator Lorraine Higgins: I wish to bring to the attention of the Seanad a matter I raised in the 2009 local elections when I ran as a candidate. On that basis I seek that the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning would come to the House to debate the legislation on developers’ contributions. Changes must be made to the rules and laws governing same, as right throughout the Celtic tiger era estates were popping up at almost the speed of light yet residents now find themselves without basic public services such as footpaths within their vicinity. In particular I refer to the example of my home town of Athenry, County Galway. I am aware that the trend is replicated right across the country. In Athenry in particular we have a situation in the townland of Ballydavid where there are no less than nine estates which have no continuous pedestrian access to the town. To exacerbate the problem there is a dangerous railway bridge located on a bend where pedestrians have to play cat and mouse with their lives against the traffic. The lack of basic services is not just limited to the Ballydavid area. In Raheen we also have a large number of recreational amenities in the area and yet no footpath leading all the way to them.
Senator Lorraine Higgins: This is a matter of national importance. To ensure that this never happens again it is essential that we legislate for a high percentage, if not all, of developers’ contributions to be designated for the area from which they are acquired. It is essential for many reasons that people and towns benefit positively from development and, as a consequence, I call for a debate on the issue so that we can ensure that any future development in our areas will not come at a cost to our basic services and facilities.
Senator Catherine Noone: I join with previous speakers who spoke about the ESRI report. The report concluded that four out of ten families would be better off, however one defines “better off”, on the dole, and that 44% of people with children are better off not working. I do not want to be repetitive but from a psychological and social point of view it does nobody any good to be on the dole, sitting at home, having a reduced level of interaction with people and suffering the loss of opportunities. The list is endless as to the reasons people should be working and they could not be considered to be better off by being on the dole. A debate covering this issue would be useful and I urge the Leader to ask the Minister, Deputy Burton, to come to the House for such a debate. Perhaps we could be useful in putting forward suggestions or thrashing the matter out in ensuring this report is fully reviewed and discussed.
I join in supporting previous speakers regarding the issue of moneylenders. Vulnerable people are being treated in the way Senator Hayden described. It is worrying that it is not shocking. We hear of these types of instances all the time. It is extremely disturbing. I would welcome the introduction of legislation to cover this issue. It is an issue the Department of Justice and Equality would have to prioritise. There is a good deal happening in the Department, but this is an issue that could be put at the top of the list of priorities. Linked to this issue is the area of debt collection. It is another area that is quite unregulated. Vulnerable people in similar circumstances are being approached by “heavies”, for want of a better word, who use threatening language——
Senator Catherine Noone: Could the Leader arrange for the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House or at least convey to him that we hope the introduction of regulation to cover moneylending and debt collection would be considered by the Department of Justice and Equality?
I wish to raise the issue of diesel laundering. This activity costs the country approximately €150 million in lost revenue. Illegal diesel causes many problems for motorists who use it. When an agent is added to remove the dye from the diesel, it also removes the lubricants. That damages the engines of cars. If it is caught early, it can cost one up to €2,000 but if it is not caught in time, it can cost anything up to €16,000 to replace the engine in a car.
This is a major issue. Up to now we believed diesel laundering was prevalent in the Border counties but it has spread throughout the country. It is to be found in every county and on the forecourts of petrol stations. I request the Minister to redeploy more resources to the Customs and Excise and the Garda to deal with this problem and stamp out this criminal activity which has become a major issue. The Leader might ask the Minister to come to the House in order that we can the debate what proposals he has to stamp out this activity. Furthermore, it costs a great deal of money to clean up the sludge that is dumped following this laundering.
Members have spoken about illegal moneylenders but I want to speak about the legal ones, namely, to the two main pillar banks, Bank of Ireland and AIB, which are struggling to meet lending targets of €3.5 billion in new loans to small and medium-sized businesses. Targets were set down for each lender and recently they have come forward for a second time to indicate they will not reach those targets. The combined lending for small and medium enterprise loans during the first three months of this year was broadly similar to the figures for the first quarter of 2011 when they each had to sanction €3 billion in new small and medium enterprise loans. While I will concede that lending traditionally picks up in the second half of the year, it looks likely now that the Irish banks will not meet the lending targets set down for them by the Credit Review Office. We must examine this issue. I should not have to point out that credit is the lifeblood of small and medium-sized businesses throughout the length and breadth of the country and that they provide sustainable jobs. The people own these banks and we should be dictating to them. The banks are afraid to lend. I know of businesses employing up to ten people which need between €10,000 and €20,000 to stay afloat but they cannot access this money, which is resulting in them going out of business and the unemployment figures increasing. The failure of the pillar banks to lend money to Irish SMEs is costing jobs every day but we do not hear about it when only five or ten jobs are lost. The SME sector comprises mostly small, viable, family-run businesses that are committed to providing long-term sustainable jobs in Ireland. They need cash flow, not excuses. The people who run them work up to 80 hours a week and they need cash flow. I call on the Leader to invite the Minister for Finance to the House to outline what measures are being put in place to ensure the pillar banks meet the €7 billion lending target set for them.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I also welcome the Bahraini delegation and Ms Sheila Dickson from my town to the House. The Seanad has a proud record which I have no doubt the Leader will deal with adequately in response to Senator O’Brien.
On the question of moneylenders, it is high time new legislation was introduced. Will the Leader arrange to have the Minister for Finance before the House in due course? There is no doubt, as has been highlighted, these unscrupulous, heavy-handed individuals should not be allowed to operate. I take it they do not operate within the law and their rates are usurious. This matter must be dealt with urgently.
I agree with Senator Sheahan regarding the pillar banks. I was delighted with the recent report of the Credit Review Office and the credit reviewer, Mr. John Trethowan. There are serious ongoing shortcomings. I acknowledge the Minister for Finance will attend the House in early course but I have called previously for a specific debate on banking. I do not know if that can be taken with the debate for which the Minister will be present but perhaps the Leader will address that.
Senator Cáit Keane: Like previous speakers I welcome Dr. Nada Dhaif from Bahrain and his colleagues and the members of the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organisation. Senator Crown and others have raised the issue many times in the House. Today is not the first day the issue has been raised and I support Senator O’Brien and what he has done today. I am sure the Leader will respond in the positive.
I seek a debate on auditors. A previous speaker asked us to switch off the sanctimony. I am not switching on sanctimony in asking for a debate on auditors because they happen to be in the news in connection with a certain politician in this House. We are not talking about the elephant in the room but we must debate the role of auditors in examining businesses, banks, individuals and politicians. When the banks’ auditors failed us, they were paid €164 million. The auditors to banks do not change often and we have seen where auditors have failed us. They may fail individuals and I would like to know whether the legislation is strong enough in this regard. The advisory group for institutional investors in England has urged a ban on non-audit activity because of the fear it compromises auditors’ independence and discourages them regarding the advice they might give an individual and what they may or may not report to the Revenue. I would like clarification on this issue in the House. Is our legislation strong enough to deal with auditors in order that if they spot something in the books of a company, individual or bank, they are obliged to report it? If they do not report it, what are the consequences for them?
In the late 1990s, two individuals working in banks blew the whistle internally but were forced out of their jobs. I accept that the legislation on whistleblowers will address these issues. However, I understand that Revenue investigations are conducted under a code of practice for Revenue auditors which sets out rules and procedures to be followed by officials in dealing with audits.
Senator Cáit Keane: I would like to state the rules in order to ensure that I obtain the information I am seeking when the Minister comes to the House to answer questions on this matter. One of the rules relates to the disclosure by a taxpayer——
Senator Cáit Keane: I am calling for a debate on the Revenue audit process with a view to ascertaining whether existing rules and regulations are sufficiently robust to deal with any situation that may arise.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I join Senator Darragh O’Brien in welcoming Dr. Nada Dhaif to the Visitors Gallery. This House has already passed an all-party motion expressing our full support for the medical professionals who were sentenced to long periods in prison in Bahrain, in keeping with the Seanad’s long tradition of supporting persons whose human rights are abused. I assure the Senator and the other Members who raised this matter that I will convey their concerns to the Taoiseach later today. I understand the Tánaiste is currently out of the country, but I will raise the issue with his officials. I accept the urgency attaching to the matter given that the retrials will take place on Thursday.
Senator Ivana Bacik called for a debate in this House on the proposed constitutional convention. I already gave an undertaking last week to arrange such a debate and will attempt to do so before the summer recess. Senator Bacik also referred to the Seanad Public Consultation Committee, the first report of which, on older people, will be discussed in the Chamber next week. The matter currently under discussion is cancer prevention, and we will have a full day of public consultation next week involving all of those who have made submissions in this regard.
Senator David Norris made several suggestions in regard to the Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Senator will submit his queries for debate as an Adjournment matter, which will allow him to receive a reply from the relevant Minister. That would be the opportune approach to take.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator Martin Conway and others referred to the ESRI report on the cost of working in Ireland. This is a welcome and useful item of research which broadens our understanding of the additional costs facing individuals when they avail of employment opportunities. I agree with the observations made by Senators Conway, Aideen Hayden and others in regard to persons in receipt of unemployment benefit. The role of the Department of Social Protection is to provide jobseekers with income support in the form of jobseeker’s allowance and jobseeker’s benefit. The conditionality associated with both of these schemes is that the individual must genuinely be in search of employment. The great majority of people on the live register have a significant financial incentive to work, with some 289,000 of them, or 68%, having a total social welfare income of only €188 per week. While I acknowledge that individuals who have two or more children and are also in receipt of rent allowance or mortgage interest supplement may require a greater financial incentive than a person with no dependants in terms of availing of employment, it should be noted that this cohort represents only 3% of those on the live register. The comments should, therefore, be considered in that context. Perhaps we can arrange a date to have a discussion on that ESRI report in the near future.
I am glad Senator Leyden welcomed the provision of the air ambulance emergency service last week which has already assisted several people. I suggest to him that it is very dangerous to presume how people might vote in four or five years’ time.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Senator Hayden raised the issue of unscrupulous moneylenders, which was also raised by Senators MacSharry, Noone, Sheahan, Paul Coghlan and other Senators. It is a very serious situation. As Senator Hayden mentioned, there is a need for a public awareness campaign to highlight the merits of the credit union movement which would prevent people from going to these moneylenders. Senator MacSharry mentioned that legal moneylenders are charging exorbitant rates. That is an issue I raised when I was on the other side of the House and I agree totally with him that there is a need for legislation to bring down significantly the rates charged by these so-called legal moneylenders. I concur totally with Senator Hayden’s remarks that a public awareness campaign should be undertaken and I will certainly approach the relevant Minister in that regard.
Senator Barrett raised the question of the higher level mathematics paper. We heard various comments in regard to that paper yesterday. Teacher training up to international standards is paramount. The Minister for Education and Skills spoke in the House on training standards but we can invite back the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Sherlock. He will be in the House to discuss the ASEAN-EU year of science, technology and innovation, and perhaps it could be raised in that debate. If not, we can raise the matter in a specific debate on teacher training.
Senator Mullins and other Senators referred to Syria. Ireland has expressed, on a number of occasions, its absolute horror and revulsion at the recent course of events in Syria and at the escalating conflict which the UN estimates has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past 15 months. On behalf of the Government and the people of Ireland, the Tánaiste has condemned the appalling massacre in Houla on 25 and 26 May which resulted in the brutal murder of more than 100 people, including 49 children. The Government has also condemned the mass killing of a reported 78 people in the village of al-Qabeer on 6 June, allegedly committed by Assad affiliated militias. The atrocities provided further unwelcome testimony of the Syrian regime’s utter disdain for human life and the welfare of its people. Indeed, the use of children in war is a despicable practice about which we have spoken in this House on several occasions. I can assure the House that the Government has made, and continues to make, representations in regard to this dreadful situation which we are witnessing in Syria and fully supports the UN in its efforts. Kofi Annan has made efforts but the Government will continue to press for a solution to this dreadful problem.
Senator Cullinane called for a debate on poverty, which we certainly can have. We have debated the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012 and the Minister for Finance will come to the House. I can certainly try to arrange a debate on that subject, which I promised him last week.
Senator Moran rightly highlighted the question of student grants. The system is now centralised, which will ensure the delays of the past can be avoided. The Senator also raised the draft report on symphysiotomy, which has been published, and encouraged people to come forward in this regard.
Senator Noone referred to moneylenders and debt collectors. I will raise the matter with the Minister for Justice and Equality. He will be present in the House today and, I can assure the House, on a number of other occasions over the coming weeks.
I met the leaders today and gave them a draft of the business proposed for the next three to four weeks. Spokespersons, in particular, will have an idea as to what we will be debating and an opportunity to prepare for the debates.
Senator Moloney referred to diesel laundering. Subversives, in particular, were formerly involved in this activity but they are still involved. Fuel laundering is causing major problems for many motorists and the tax revenue of the Government has decreased as a result. The cleaning up of sludge, etc., is also causing grave concern among many communities throughout the country. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and local authorities must pay for cleaning up.
Senator Sheahan stated the targets of pillar banks in regard to loans for small businesses are not being met. This is a matter of grave concern. In the next couple of weeks, we will be dealing in the House with the micro-finance Bill and the Credit Guarantee Bill. The Minister for Finance will be present in the House on 3 July. There will be ample opportunity for the Senator to raise these specific and very important points when the Bills are being discussed and when the Minister is present in July.
Senator Coghlan referred to moneylenders and banking. As I stated, the Minister for Finance will be in the House for a general debate on the economy on 3 July. If necessary, we can have a specific debate on banking also.
Senator Keane referred to the role of auditors. The bank auditors failed the taxpayers; there is no question about that. We will have to find out from the relevant Minister whether our legislation is robust enough. I assure the Senator I will raise this with the Minister.
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