Seanad Éireann - Volume 191 - 06 November, 2008

Order of Business.

  Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, Harbours (Amendment) Bill 2008 — Committee Stage (Resumed) and the House to adjourn no later than 2.30 p.m.

  Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Yesterday in the House, a number of speakers said the Opposition was not realistic about the economic situation. I asked the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, whether the Government was realistic about the economic situation given the discussions and agreement at the social partnership talks some weeks ago. The Minister responded that she felt the economic situation had deteriorated further in those few weeks.

As I have said in the House in recent days, it is death by a thousand cutbacks. Today, the cervical cancer vaccination programme has been cut by the Minister for Health and Children. The Government is a like a headless chicken. It is a cutback here and a cutback there and is [1078]all very arbitrary. Where is the grand plan for economic recovery and to give hope to people in this country? Where is the plan to give the sense the Government is in charge instead of this constant stream of cutbacks here and there?

In the case of the withdrawal of the cervical cancer vaccination programme, three months ago the Health Service Executive suggested one approach while the Minister suggested another, and now the Minister has changed her mind again this morning. We see complete vacillation from one decision to another. Yesterday, the Taoiseach said the economy faces an extremely difficult time. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said the figures that came in earlier this week were more or less on target. It is very difficult to get any sense of a coherent plan from the Government and if we are finding it difficult here, what is it like for the public, who see decisions that are affecting frontline services but as yet no economic recovery plan? This morning on RTE we heard the details of this decision, which were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. We heard the HSE saying one thing and the Minister doing something else.

Yesterday many Senators called for debates on the economy and equality issues. I hope they will be on the schedule for the Seanad next week.

  Senator Joe O’Toole: The House should note that we had a good debate here last night on green energy. I ask the Leader to explain to the House why, having allocated time for such an important issue, the main Government party, Fianna Fáil, only put forward one speaker. This is embarrassing for the House. I was left wondering why the full amount of time was not used to discuss such an important issue. The Leader is wont to make similar comments on other occasions about other groups.

  Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.

  Senator Joe O’Toole: I want to go firmly on the record on this issue. Yesterday the Leader raised the issue of energy costs. He made a fair point and this is an issue that should be considered. The Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources provided an opportunity to discuss this and what we discovered is that the real issue is with the wholesalers, such as Whitegate oil refinery, which supply the wholesale market in Ireland. They determine the prices. Whereas we always consider the price of crude oil when discussing the price of petrol and diesel at the pumps, what we should be looking at is the price of crude oil on the world market in comparison with the wholesale price at which it is being supplied to Irish retailers. I have checked out this issue since it was raised yesterday and have found that it cuts across two committees — the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which deals with pricing issues. There may be a need to investigate this as a special issue under an ad hoc arrangement. This is something in which many people are interested and we should move forward on it.

A number of comments were made yesterday about the banks. I would like to go back to a comment I made almost three weeks ago in the House. Whatever AIB said yesterday, it confirmed that its capitalisation was as required. There was much debate here previously about whether the banks were properly capitalised. We do not know that and we have not seen the figures. I pointed out previously that the Financial Regulator said they were capitalised. AIB is currently capitalised to the required amount and is deciding it needs further capitalisation, as are the European and US banks. What it got wrong was its forecast three months ago. It is not the case that the banks are more at risk today than they were yesterday. They are not. The first bit of information we have received confirms what the regulator has been saying.

[1079]  Senator Dominic Hannigan: I welcome the announcement that the European Central Bank is to reduce the interest rate by 50 basis points. That will mean an extra €250 million in home-owners’ pockets. I am also glad to see that the Bank of England is to reduce its interest rates by 1% later today. The UK is one of our biggest markets and that will increase consumer confidence there, which should lead to benefits here. The benefits will only be felt, however, if these cuts are passed on by the lending institutions to homeowners.

  Senator Shane Ross: Hear, hear.

  Senator Dominic Hannigan: When the rate was cut in October one institution, ICS Building Society, passed on only 60% of the cut, keeping 40% for itself. This cannot go on. I urge these institutions to pass on cuts to homeowners.

President-elect Obama has started to put his team together and already the Russians have confronted him about the possibility that the US will place missile defence shields in Poland and the Czech Republic. They said that unless the US changes its intentions in this regard Russia will place missiles in Kaliningrad which, as we know, is surrounded by European Union countries. This is sheer sabre-rattling on the part of President Medvedev. Kaliningrad is only 300 miles from Copenhagen. That is how close it is to one of our capital cities. I ask the Leader to pass on to the Minister a request that we bring in Ambassador Rachmanin as soon as possible and tell him in the strongest terms that this is unacceptable behaviour from a neighbour.

Like other speakers, I was glad to see the turn-out at this week’s presidential elections in the US. We all saw the lines of people queueing up to cast their votes. It was more reminiscent of a developing nation than of a mature democracy. Almost 140 million people voted and the turn-out was the highest in 100 years. It is a clear example of active citizenship on the part of United States citizens. Two years ago the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, set up the task force on active citizenship. Members will remember that at the time much work was done in this area. Meetings were held around the country and there was lots of enthusiasm from our citizens. A task force report was published very quickly, in March 2007, but since then very little has happened. Yesterday the steering group met the Taoiseach, but its budget has been cut from €200 million in 2008 to €56 million in 2009. How is it to implement any of the recommendations contained in the task force report? I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come to the House to tell us how he expects to implement the findings in view of the fact that the budget has been cut by 72%.

  Senator Terry Leyden: I welcome the decision by the Government that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, are to get together to resolve the ongoing problems with the natural gas project at Bellanaboy, County Mayo. It is vital and in the national interest that this gas is brought ashore and distributed without further undue delay. It is an important national asset. We need the energy and all concerned should come together to resolve this issue. The Government must have this gas distributed without further delay. It is a good natural asset and it is vital we get it out quickly.

I also call on the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, to carry out a survey of unused water mills on fast-flowing rivers throughout the country, which can provide energy with low environmental impact. For instance, in Athleague in County Roscommon, on the River Suck, unutilised, untapped energy is flowing through every day and no effort has been made to use the river for green energy production. The Department should be more proactive in this regard. It should get involved in doing something practical and provide support and assistance——

[1080]  Senator Joe O’Toole: It is a pity Senator Leyden was not here last night when this was being discussed.

  Senator Terry Leyden: People have other roles in this House too, by the way.

  An Cathaoirleach: Questions should be directed to the Leader through the Chair.

  Senator Terry Leyden: The Senator should let people sort out their own agendas.

This is something the Department should examine. It should carry out a survey to see what support can be given to the owners of these mills to provide the necessary turbines to produce energy for the locality. That would be a positive step forward in a difficult time in which we need to maximise energy production. Millions of gallons of water flow through fast-flowing rivers, including the River Suck, and not one electricity unit is generated from it. The Minister should be more proactive and, where necessary, he should use the power of the State by compulsorily purchasing mills if the owners are not prepared to utilise this wasted energy when we need it so badly.

  Senator Paudie Coffey: Yesterday I raised the issue of the manufacturing industry in Ireland. I emphasise again the unemployment figures, which are rising steadily by the day, the week and the month. Since last month an extra 15,800 people have joined the live register. That is not just a statistic. Behind every one of these numbers there are families, adults and children, who are very concerned about their future.

As a Parliament, we cannot ignore or neglect reality. Christmas is coming and there are mortgages to be paid, children to be sent to school and health to be looked after. In Waterford alone over recent years, Waterford Crystal has lost 3,000 jobs. It has been a flagship company for Waterford and Ireland — I raised this matter on a number of occasions here. Honeywell, a well established manufacturing industry in Waterford, will lose more than 200 jobs. These are good jobs that have gone down the drain. The Government has no strategy or plan to address the rapidly accelerating problem of unemployment. We have not heard any plans for upskilling, reskilling or alternative employment. If we do not wake up, address this quickly and look for plans and solutions, we will be in serious trouble.

The indigenous industry of agriculture, something this country prided itself on, is being ignored. Young farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a viable, sustainable living from the land. I ask for a debate on the Government’s plans to support agriculture and farming. The recent budget will adversely affect farming. It will drive people off the land because farming is not viable and if there is no viability there is no future. That is message I hear from Government and I would like to hear otherwise.

  Senator John Hanafin: I ask the Leader to request the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, to come to House to debate, before Christmas, the promotion of a Buy Irish campaign within the confines of EU rules. There are many positive things we can do. I am encouraged that the price of oil is falling, interest rates are falling — there is a cut of 0.5% due by the ECB this week, to be followed by another 0.5% — and the significant amount of money given in the budget to county enterprise boards and Leader schemes to promote indigenous industry.

It is never the wrong time to do the right thing. Even if things begin to look better, it is still important that we continue to support Irish jobs in any way we can and perhaps take a lead in this House. A visit from the Minister would generate focus and an opportunity for Members of this House and the Department to explain the direction we are taking on this issue.

[1081]  Senator Ivana Bacik: I renew my call for an answer to my question on when the debate on the Climate Protection Bill 2008 can be resumed. This is the third day I have asked the question. I asked the Deputy Leader the question on Tuesday and was given an ambiguous answer on the resumption of the debate. I am anxious to have the debate resumed. It is timely in a week when a US President has been elected who is committed to reducing emissions in the US by 80% by 2050 and the British Parliament passed a law last week which will have the same effect. It is timely that we have a debate on this Bill, which aims to achieve the same result in Ireland. I ask the Leader for a less ambiguous response or I will have to call next week for an amendment to the Order of Business on this matter.

I also ask the Leader for a debate on the cutbacks to human rights and equality bodies, in particular the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority. The severe cuts represent a quiet coup that undermines and neuters these two very important bodies. There had been, prior to the budget, a well publicised proposal that the bodies might be merged, but, happily, that was not done. The effect of the serious cutbacks in funding provided for the bodies next year will have a similar effect of neutering voices that were justifiably critical of certain Government policies.

At a time when there are severe rises in unemployment, with a record rise of 15,000 in the last month alone, we need real protections for the vulnerable and disadvantage in our society. It is very short-sighted to cut funding for human rights and the Equality Authority.

  Senator Ivor Callely: I support Senator Hanafin’s views on Irish jobs. It is an issue I already raised in the House. Senator Hanafin is correct on the importance of a debate on this issue at which the Minister will be present in the House. I concur with Senator Coffey’s comments on the need for upskilling for those who may change employment in the current climate. I congratulate FÁS and Skillnets on the programmes they make available to assist those who wish to upskill.

I pay tribute to the tremendous army of frontline service providers in our health and social services, the doctors, nurses, emergency services such as fire, ambulance and garda personnel, carers, meals on wheels providers, home helps, public health nurses, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. The majority of these service providers go far beyond their call of duty and make an enormous contribution to individuals and communities.

I am concerned about the supports available to the HSE structure. In the past I expressed my concerns on this matter. I am deeply concerned about the continual changes in the structures in which these personnel work and to whom they report. The morale of these service providers should be taken into account. I understand the HSE is changing the structures we had in place in previous years back to the system in place prior to the HSE. We will now have regional structures similar to the old health board structure.

It is very important we receive appropriate briefing on this issue and that we are aware of the structures, supports and reporting procedures that are in place for the service personnel to whom I referred. I hope the Leader will obtain that information as quickly as possible.

  Senator Maurice Cummins: In the budget the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, announced the closure of four barracks, two in Donegal, one in Longford and one in Monaghan. He suggested it would help the national finances. Far from helping the finances, extra costs will be accrued as a result of this announcement. There will be an extra cost of €2 million per annum for the change of station allowances, €600,000 extra for security and maintenance of these barracks and the cost of providing permanent and temporary building works to accommodate people when they are transferred to new locations, which will amount to approximately €30 million.

[1082]What are the savings? We need the Minister to come in and spell out the savings that will result from this announcement. It will cost the country money rather than save it. To announce the closure of barracks and that personnel must leave the barracks before 31 January, when we have seen previous barracks closures that have not yet been sold, is unacceptable. It is an example of an ill thought-out budget. It is a mess.

I ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Defence, Deputy Willie O’Dea, or the Minister for Finance to the House to explain where the savings will be made. It is a bad move. The barracks are far from my area, but, given the costs that will be accrued to transfer people, it is a dreadful exercise in economics.

11 o’clock

  Senator John Ellis: I wish to raise the matter of the electoral register, which is of interest to all politicians, irrespective of the level at which they serve. Applications to be added to the voters' register must be made by 24 November. I ask that a concerted effort be made by third level institutions to ensure that their students are registered. In the past students have been reluctant to register, either at college or at home, and in view of the number of young people who became involved in the American election it would be an opportunity for young people here to become involved in politics, particularly in terms of voting in the local elections next year.

Is there a possibility of having a debate on transport and the way we proceed in the future with the development of our transport infrastructure? If we do not continue to develop our infrastructure — road, rail, air and all the other transport needs, we could see it go back into decline. We are all aware that the consequences of that after an economic upturn, which we all hope will come sooner rather than later, could have a devastating effect, especially on rural areas and the west in particular, which still has a major transport infrastructure deficit.

  Senator David Norris: I support Senator Fitzgerald’s remarks about the deferment or cancellation of the cervical cancer vaccination programme. That is regrettable because it could, apparently, save the lives of 200 young women every year, or at least prevent them from getting cancer. It is a simple regime involving three injections, but at €600 it is costly. That means that, once again, the wealthy people in our society will avail of it and the disadvantaged will be further hurt.

There appears to have been a lack of coherent thinking on this issue. The programme was announced but we now know from the freedom of information inquiry RTE made that the Health Service Executive felt it would be virtually impossible to roll it out before 2010 at the latest. There is a significant problem, therefore, in that respect. A woman who had been successfully treated for cervical cancer was on a television programme last night. She was naturally apprehensive about her daughter and felt very aggrieved that this vaccination programme would not go ahead.

Yesterday, we spoke in glowing terms about President-elect Obama and I have not changed my mind, but yesterday was a day for celebration and praise, which was very justified, and we all felt elated. President-elect Obama has shown himself to be judicious and restrained, qualities I admire but do not always emulate, and that was clear throughout the election. However, there were one or two occasions on which I was concerned. For example, he said he would authorise military intervention in another sovereign state without notification — I refer to Pakistan. That is a big mistake. I believe that was said because a type of Dutch auction on military options was induced by the McCain camp, but that is a dangerous way to proceed. He was shown in a clip last night saying, “I will kill Osama bin Laden and I will destroy al-Qaeda.” [1083] That is inflammatory rhetoric. I hope he will, in practice, go back to being judicious because it is not a question of the name, the colour or the personality of the person, it is a question of the policies, and if he goes on with that kind of approach I will oppose President-elect Obama as much as I opposed George Bush, not that he will be aware of it.

  Senator Liam Twomey: The Senator need not worry.

  An Cathaoirleach: On the Order of Business in Seanad Éireann.

  Senator David Norris: On the Order of Business, there is somebody here who will be aware of my comments and with whom I usually agree, namely, Senator Hannigan.

With regard to the Russian matter — it is all tied in with Obama — and its decision regarding a possible siting of military equipment in the Kaliningrad area, we have never tried to understand the Russians. There has been no attempt to do that. It has all been completely one-sided. It is very useful in these areas to look at the mirror image or reverse it and see what the position would be if the boot was on the other foot. If, for example, what the Americans and NATO have been doing with regard to Russia had been attempted by the Warsaw Pact, if they had put missiles in places like Mexico, Venezuela and so on — they tried it in Cuba — and enlisted them into the Warsaw Pact, there would have been hysteria from the Americans.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has done a good job of making the point.

  Senator David Norris: It is necessary that we get a balanced view.

  Senator Mary M. White: I would like our Leader, Senator Donie Cassidy, to urgently request the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, to come into the House urgently to discuss the rising unemployment level and advise us on how the Government intends to address it. We read in this morning’s newspapers that 260,000 people are unemployed, and the figure is rising relentlessly towards 300,000 and possibly 500,000. A total of 15,800 people have become unemployed in the period September-October and men make up 70% of that figure, indicating that the construction industry is shedding workers rapidly. Women make up 1,400 of that figure. That is the first indication that the services sector is affected also.

Last night I attended the Irish exports awards at which the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, made an inspirational speech. He lauded the companies which were up for awards on the dynamism and energy they put into exporting and competing around the world. I draw attention to some points in his speech and to the Central Bank quarterly report, which refers to something I have pleaded for here, namely, that our Government develop a strategy on improving our competitiveness internationally.

  Senators: Hear, hear.

  Senator Mary M. White: Unless we get a better economic competitive environment, our exporting companies will not succeed. I advise my colleagues, who may not be aware of this, that our industrial energy costs are the highest in the European Union and are 34% higher than the EU average. How can our companies compete in those circumstances?

Last night, the president of the Irish Exporters Association told the Taoiseach that his members will compete if the Government gives them a chance. He said they will lower their costs, improve their added value and lower their prices. It is as simple as that. I call on the Taoiseach to apply that simple approach to the public sector. It will require leadership and courage. I do not ask that he cuts back on public services but to eliminate the waste and [1084]inefficiency because no private company in this country could survive and continue to export abroad and employ people in present circumstances. We must cherish our companies, which are the creators of employment. With our competitive base being continuously eroded and our tax bill, which pays for the public sector, we demand that the public sector becomes efficient and that its costs are reduced. I know what I am talking about because I worked in both the private and the public sectors.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has made the point well.

  Senator Mary M. White: The people who work in the public sector are outstanding but that sector does not apply the same management techniques on a day by day and hour by hour business that a private company must apply to survive.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: I join colleagues in asking the Leader to make time available for an urgent debate with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment on rising unemployment figures. There was an increase of 15,800 in one month of the numbers on the live register. We are not merely discussing statistics, we are talking about people and their families. It is important that a debate take place in respect of this subject.

What is the Government’s plan in this regard? Its approach appears to involve cutting services, slashing funding, borrowing more money, running for the hills and then performing a few U-turns. The Government has said nothing with regard to retraining or upskilling people. I take Senator Mary White’s point in respect of the cost of doing business. Representatives of the Irish Hotels Federation came before the relevant Oireachtas committee to discuss this matter yesterday. The Leader is a business owner and he will be aware that those who own small businesses such as coffee shops and restaurants are opting to keep their premises closed at weekends because of the costs involved. In that context, the Leader should invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come before the House to discuss the forthcoming local government estimates. I hope that commercial rates will not, as a result of mistakes made by the Government, be used to penalise small businesses. We have reached the stage where many businesses in cities and towns will opt to remain closed at weekends on foot of the prohibitive costs involved.

Will the Leader make time available for an urgent debate on Northern Ireland? An impasse has been reached in the North in respect of the power-sharing Executive. Those of us who support everything that has taken place in Northern Ireland want a debate on that matter in the House. It is not acceptable that the multi-party power-sharing Executive has not met in months. There is a vacuum and everyone knows what will happen if that vacuum is allowed to remain. The Leader should invite either the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Taoiseach, who has engaged in discussions with Northern Ireland politicians, to come before the House to debate this matter.

  Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I echo the sentiments expressed by Senator Cummins in respect of Army barracks, particularly the two in Donegal. I discussed this matter with the Minister for Defence who assured me that there are savings to be made. I would be happy for him to repeat what he said in the House. If he comes before the Seanad, I will take the opportunity to follow up on the matter I raised on the Adjournment last night in respect of Ballykinlar internment camp, County Down, which has been converted into an interpretative centre. I was informed on last night’s Adjournment that the relevant records are held by the Department of Defence in the UK and that the land relating to the barracks at Ballykinlar is owned by the British authorities. Perhaps the Minister for Defence will consider that matter and we can discuss it with him when he comes before the House to discuss the issue of Army barracks.

[1085]On the Adjournment last night also Senator Wilson raised the matter of the banning of BZP, or the party pill, and received an extremely positive reply. It is accepted that this is a dangerous drug and legislation must be——

  An Cathaoirleach: This matter is not relevant. It was the subject of a lengthy reply on the Adjournment last night.

  Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I understand legislation is due to be introduced prior to March 2009. Like Senator Wilson, however, I am of the view that the matter should be expedited. I previously served as Chairman of the Oireachtas committee charged with dealing with the issue of drugs. Members of that committee visited New Zealand, where the so-called party pill has become a scourge and where serious problems have arisen. The key players in the New Zealand judiciary and police service are extremely concerned with regard to what occurred there. This drug is only beginning to become popular here and we should not allow it to gain a foothold. Will the Leader ask the relevant Minister to expedite the introduction of legislation to which I refer?

Will the Leader also make time available for a debate on infection control services? It has been brought to my attention that people — young children, adults and the elderly — who contract MRSA in hospitals are being released from care and their families are obliged to fight in order to have them screened and treated. Those responsible for infection control services appear to be of the view that once a person has been discharged from hospital, his or her illness is then a matter to be dealt with by the community at large. If one contracts MRSA while in hospital and if one is discharged, one will end up passing that infection on to others in the community. It is the responsibility of those who run the services within the HSE to ensure that people who acquire infections in hospitals must be screened and treated until such time as they can be given the all clear.

Will the Leader make time available for the debate to which I refer? Will he also ask the HSE to ensure that people who contract infections while in hospital and their families will be screened and treated in order that they will not become a danger to their communities? Ongoing screening and treatment for these individuals will allay the concerns of others.

  Senator Shane Ross: I wish to take up a point made by Senator Hannigan. The Leader promised to make time available for regular debates on the banking industry. Within the next two hours, the European Central Bank is set to reduce its rates by 0.5%. That should be a case for great rejoicing in this House and throughout Europe because it is meant to give a boost to the economies of member states, particularly Ireland. However, the evidence is that the first people who will rejoice will be those who run the Irish banks. My remarks are not intended to be flippant.

Senator Hannigan correctly pointed out that the previous cut in rates was not passed on by the ICS Building Society. In addition, Permanent TSB did not pass it on to new first-time buyers. Other banks played ducks and drakes with the reduction by not passing it on to those with loan-to-value and other mortgages. Despite immense Government pressure exerted shortly after the announcement of the guarantee scheme and the ECB rate reduction on 8 October, the banks did not capitulate. They passed on the reduction in some cases but not in others.

I contend that the new 0.5% reduction will not be passed on to customers. The banks are using the European Central Bank’s cuts in interest rates to pay for the cost of the guarantee scheme. They are actually stealing from customers in order to pay for the guarantee scheme, which is something they were not meant to do. As a result of inquiries made yesterday by my office, the indications are that the banks are not going to pass on the new reduction in its [1086]entirety and that they will instead use it to either recapitalise their operations or increase their profits. This means that customers are already paying for the guarantee scheme.

I suggest the Leader take a message to the Minister for Finance to the effect that the pressure the latter maintains he will exert on the banks by placing people on their boards is already failing to have an effect. The banks have got away with murder. They went cap in hand to the Minister and promised to behave. However, they have already returned to their own tricks and are playing ducks and drakes with the ECB rate reductions.

When this matter was raised in July some of the banks — I can name them if the House desires — raised their interest rates by more than the increase recommended by the ECB. They took advantage because they were of the view that people would not really notice. If the ECB’s 8 October rate reduction, which was meant to boost the global economy, and the new reduction continue to be exploited by those who caused the financial crisis, we will be back to square one and the banks will be better off than they were in the first instance.

  Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.

  Senator Jim Walsh: I support Senator Mary White’s well argued case for a debate on the increase in unemployment rates.

  An Cathaoirleach: I ask Members to either leave their mobile telephones outside the Chamber or ensure that they are switched off completely. Mobile phones interfere with the relevant equipment and make life difficult for those trying to record the proceedings of the House.

  Senator Jim Walsh: Senator Mary White also referred to competitiveness, the fiscal position and costs relating to the public service.

Senator Callely referred to a return to some form of regional structure within the HSE. That matter is probably worthy of a debate. As someone who expressed reservations in writing to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health and Children in respect of the HSE’s corporate governance model when it was initially put in place, I am of the view that if there is a possibility of strengthening existing structures, we should debate this matter in the House. I urge the Leader to arrange for such a debate to take place.

I wish to raise the inquiry in Northern Ireland into Bloody Sunday and the statement by Lord Saville yesterday to the victims that it will be the autumn of next year before that report is issued. He gave the reasons for that. It is important that emphasis is put on such issues and that they are brought to a speedy conclusion in the interests of all those who suffered during that terrible period. Although the Seanad did not have a debate on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and other such atrocities, the Dáil did and it called on the House of Commons to participate in generating co-operation from the British Government with the inquiries we have conducted and, in particular, to make available all the information it has on collusion, which shows the extent of the criminal activity in Northern Ireland by the security forces and possibly by the political and public service establishment. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on this. We should maintain an emphasis on this issue so the avoidance by the British authorities of responding and co-operating is not allowed to continue.

  Senator Liam Twomey: Will the Leader arrange a debate on the issue of universal entitlement? This should be based on what is happening not just in regard to the medical cards but also in regard to the cervical vaccine for young girls. This is incredibly important. It was a great achievement to produce such a vaccine; it is probably the only vaccine the world has against [1087]cancer. We are denying it to our young people. It was a short-sighted step by the Minister, who is saving €10 million by not rolling out this scheme. It would not take until 2010 to roll it out. It could be rolled out in three months if the HSE put its mind to it and was genuine about providing a vaccine against cancer in the Irish health care service. It is amazing. There are also knock-on effects in terms of encouraging prevention and health promotion among young people when we get them into the surgeries.

The short-sightedness is unbelievable. It is just as short-sighted as trying to take medical cards from people over 70. It is time the House had a debate on the universal entitlements available to people in this country. Our universal entitlements are not as good or generous as those available in other first world countries, particularly in the EU. Ireland is quite far behind in the provision of universal entitlements.

I am fully aware of the economic issues and I call on the Leader to hold proper debates on the economy. I accept the comments of other Members about competitiveness and what is happening on the jobs front, but we are talking about these matters as if they were somebody else’s problem. We should have good debates on these issues. The debate we had yesterday with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, was one of the better debates in this House. It focused on the clear differences in our perspectives for the future. However, too often in this House we see Members just covering all the boxes or corners. I will not name anybody but Members on the Government side are talking as if they are sitting on this side of the House. They are not making any contribution to the future of the country by just criticising things and saying they are wrong.

We must hold debates to discuss what we can do about issues. I ask the Leader to arrange such debates, and Members on the other side should take it on the chin if they get abuse from this side of the House. They walked themselves into this problem but they can get themselves out of it by having mature debates.

  Senator Maria Corrigan: I congratulate my colleague, Senator Wilson, for raising the issue of BZP on the Adjournment last night. Like Senator Keaveney, I welcome the commitment to introduce legislation on this matter before March. However, last night Senator Wilson also raised another underlying issue. Time passes quickly but new drugs and new forms of illicit substances that can give people a chemical high are introduced even more quickly. This can raise a dilemma for the gardaí and anybody else who has to deal with the problem. Not only must they counter the detrimental impact these substances have on users’ physical and psychological well-being but in trying to control the supply of the substances they run into a problem if the substances are not listed under the schedule of illicit drugs. It is most frustrating. The BZP issue is particularly frustrating for the gardaí, who are proactive in dealing with it. When they make seizures they are forced to let the people involved go without being charged. They can do nothing about it. Will the Leader find out if this legislation can be introduced before March as a matter of urgency?

  Senator Feargal Quinn: The questions this morning about unemployment struck a chord with many of us, particularly Senator Mary White who spoke about competitiveness. It is interesting to look at what the founder of O’Briens Sandwich Bars said yesterday in Cork. He said that because of regulations that were passed during the good years — he referred particularly to the National Employment Rights Authority and its regulations — he has had to close a number of his sandwich bars in Ireland. There are 136 such bars but he has had to close a number of them because he is forced to pay double time to employees who work on a Sunday.

I do not understand where this regulation originated. Perhaps in the good years it was possible to provide for the highest minimum wages in Europe and to tell employers they must not [1088]employ people unless they pay them double for Sunday work. This man could employ 60 more full-time employees if these regulations did not apply. I do not understand how we can insist on regulations continuing in force when we are inhibiting opportunities to create jobs. Senator Mary White and Senator Coffey asked that the Tánaiste be invited to the House to discuss what she is doing about jobs. One option is to dismantle some of the regulations we introduced in previous years in order to create more jobs now.

  Senator Ned O’Sullivan: Recently I raised the issue of the direct intervention by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in local planning matters. At a very useful meeting of the environment committee this week, departmental officials confirmed that there had been six such direct interventions by a Minister since the introduction of the Act. Four of the interventions have taken place in the past 12 months under the current Minister, Deputy John Gormley. One of the most important tasks of local councillors is the adoption of the local town or county plan. There is a certain nervousness at present because many counties are in the process of completing such plans. The situation in Mayo has been very well covered in the media and there appears to be hope of progress there. I asked the Leader at the time to invite the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to the Seanad to outline his perspective on the planning Act and how he believes his powers should be properly utilised. It is regressive to allow a situation arise whereby councillors draft a plan over a number of months and sign off on it only to discover a month later that the Minister has his own plan. If that is the case, the Department should do the planning from start to finish and save councillors the trouble. I again ask the Leader to invite the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to come to the Seanad as a matter of urgency to outline his perspective on this issue.

  Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole, Hannigan, Callely, Norris, Walsh and Twomey expressed their serious concerns about issues relating to cancer screening. Members heard the Minister on the “Morning Ireland” radio programme this morning give a full and frank interview about this. I welcome the €30 million that has been invested in the programme, which started in September, to screen all females for this dangerous cancer. Last August the Minister did an interview during which the interviewer was very aggressively trying to make a point. However, the Minister quite correctly pointed out that everything was subject to funding. Senator Twomey is a member of the medical profession and I am always very careful to listen to members of every profession in this House. However, he and everyone else must welcome the €30 million that is being spent and the screening programme that started in September. The Minister said this morning that she will do everything she possibly can to ensure the vaccination programme begins at the earliest possible opportunity.

I congratulate the Minister for Health and Children on her attendance in the House yesterday. It was extremely uplifting to hear her being so open. She stayed for half an hour longer than scheduled for a question and answer session. We have being trying to introduce question and answer sessions in this House, with the co-operation of Ministers and Ministers of State, at the end of Ministerial presentations. It has been working quite successfully but yesterday was a watershed in terms of a commitment to this House by a Minister. I must compliment the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, on her contribution here yesterday and on sharing her wide-ranging views openly and candidly with Members.

  Senators: Hear, hear.

  Senator Donie Cassidy: I look forward to other Ministers and Ministers of State taking on board the example set by the Minister yesterday.

[1089]We all know the world is in financial crisis and as Senator Frances Fitzgerald has said, three months ago all Governments in the world were of a the same view. Today, however, that view has changed. I outlined to the House yesterday that when the Governor of Virginia, Mr. Tim Kaine visited the House in June, he told me that his administration had reviewed the State’s financial position three times in the first six months of this year. That indicates that the economic situation is changing by the month, if not by the week. Unfortunately, the volatility will continue for some time, although hopefully not for as long as some political commentators suggest. Hopefully, the election of Senator Obama, which has been uplifting for the western world, will improve matters. We all look forward to his contribution and hope he will play a major role in restoring confidence in the financial system in the United States of America. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers Bank, the global economy has taken a serious turn for the worse, particularly in the banking area.

Senator Ross pointed out that the ECB is likely to reduce interest rates again today, which I welcome. It is also expected that the United Kingdom will reduce its interest rates. We will monitor, on a daily basis, those banks to whom the State has given a guarantee, to ensure they pass on any reductions in interest rates to their customers. I call on all Members to inform the House during the Order of Business next Tuesday of any bank that does not do so. Such banks will be named in this House during the Order of Business because we owe it to the Irish people, to those who have worked hard to make our country what it is today, to do so. We also owe it to the younger generation, some of whom are in the Public Gallery as I speak. They are very welcome to Seanad Éireann. We must all play our part and I expect the financial institutions to do so, particularly as they benefited most from the Celtic tiger, parts one and two.

Senator O’Toole raised the issue of energy costs and the difficulties being experienced by many. Senators Coffey, Callely, Mary White, Buttimer, Walsh, Twomey and Quinn all expressed their serious concern at the additional 15,000 people on the live register. The situation is very serious as the most recent unemployment figures are the same as those that pertained in 1997. Unfortunately, the rise in unemployment will probably continue for another few months or so. In the United Kingdom, which has a population of 60 million, almost 2 million are currently unemployed. That illustrates that the downturn is worldwide.

As I have often said before, business is not about turnover but about overheads. In that context, current energy costs are unacceptable. I have asked Senators who are members of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to meet me after the Order of Business to discuss energy costs. I also invite members of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment to that meeting and any other Senators who wish to attend. The meeting will be short as I am aware that there are other meetings scheduled to begin at 12.00 p.m. today. The aim of the meeting is to determine how we can play our part in dealing with the challenging price increases from the ESB and Bord Gáis, as well as the price paid at the pumps for petrol and diesel. We played a substantial role in reducing insurance costs by our review of the insurance industry. We can play a similar role during the lifetime of this Seanad with regard to energy costs.

Many Senators have called for a debate on agriculture, which I hope will take place during the last week of November. Senators Hanafin and Callely raised the issue of unemployment and requested that the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment be invited to the House to discuss the challenges facing her Department, particularly with regard to job creation and maintaining existing jobs. In the latter context, Senator Quinn referred to the fact that many service sector businesses, particularly hotels and restaurants, are closing their doors on Sundays because they cannot afford to pay their staff double time. The regulations in this regard were introduced in very good times, as Senator Quinn said. It is now time to revisit this matter to see if the regulations can be dismantled in the short term in order that businesses [1090]can keep their doors open and staff can get an extra day’s pay. We can put this matter to the Tánaiste when she visits the House. I ask Members to raise this issue at their weekly parliamentary party meetings. I undertake to raise the matter at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting next Tuesday. It is unacceptable that businesses are losing out because of a regulation that no longer reflects the economic climate.

Senator Bacik asked for clarification regarding the status of the climate change Bill. I will do my best to see how we can progress that matter. The Senator also raised the issue of funding for various bodies, which can be debated in the House when the Minister is present, at a future date.

Senators Cummins and Keaveney asked that the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Defence be invited to the House to discuss the proposed closure of certain army barracks. I have no difficulty in acceding to that request.

Senator Ellis raised the issue of the register of electors. The new closing date for registering to vote is 24 November. I support the Senator’s call for young people at third level institutions to become actively involved in politics. Senator Barack Obama’s election campaign started in university campuses in the United States of America and what a difference young people’s involvement made to that campaign.

Senator Ellis called for a debate on transport, which I will facilitate. I welcome the opening yesterday of the Eiscir Riada fly over on the N4 and N6 routes. For those of us who used the road when travelling last night and this morning it was a great surprise.

Senators Buttimer and Walsh called for a debate on Northern Ireland. I gave a commitment to this already on the Order of Business yesterday. I will pass on to the relevant Minister Senator Walsh’s strong views on the Bloody Sunday tragedy and his call for the need to maintain pressure in regard to the matter. Senator Keaveney expressed strong views on the state of infectious control services and related matters. I will allow statements or a debate on the matter in the House at the earliest possible opportunity. Senators Corrigan and Keaveney passed on their good wishes to the Chief Whip on the Government side of the House, Senator Wilson, concerning the issues raised in the House last night and I share those good wishes also.

  Senator Michael McCarthy: Hear, hear.

  Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator O’Sullivan called for a discussion on the local government representatives who work so hard on local authorities in formulating county and town development plans and action plans for every village in all counties. This is a worthwhile suggestion and there will be a debate in the House on all of these issues and a request for the future plans in this area from the relevant Minister.

Senators Hannigan, O’Toole and Ross called for a debate on banking. I made my views known on the matter this morning. There is a debate once every month on the economy, which includes banking. This debate may take place in the last week in November, but the Finance Bill 2008 is due on 3rd December and perhaps at the leaders’ meeting next week we can discuss the timing of the debate with a view to postponing it for one week, by which time we will know the contents of the Finance Bill 2008, which would be more beneficial.

Senator Norris expressed strong views on Russia and the activities associated with the Bush administration in the USA. I recognise the Senator has steadfastly held these views for some time, which we respect. Senator Leyden passed on his best wishes to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan and the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, in their deliberations and their new initiative to address the activities off the coast of County Mayo. It is of the utmost urgency to [1091]the economy and the nation that the significant gas find there is allowed to proceed. I wish all concerned well in their new deliberations. Senator Leyden spoke of harnessing energy in rivers, especially around the Athleague area which he knows well. The area is part of his constituency and includes the River Suck, about which we have heard year after year from colleagues from the west of Ireland. The suggestions made by Senator Leyden are worthwhile and it may be possible for extra energy to be harnessed with no cost to the nation or without issues relating to ownership of the mills. We can examine the possibilities in this area and I have no difficulty in holding a discussion on the matter at some stage in the future.

Order of Business agreed to.