Seanad Éireann - Volume 194 - 25 March, 2009

Order of Business.

  Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2009 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion re earlier signature motion of Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2009, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, statements re challenges facing the tourism and hospitality sector, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2 but not earlier than 3 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m. — spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and other Senators for eight minutes, and Senators may share time by agreement of the House; No. 24, Private Members’ motion No. 36 on broadband services, to be taken not earlier than 5 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7 p.m.

  Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Yesterday, Senators on all sides voiced their serious concerns regarding the proposed national strike. I welcome the Government’s decision to meet the unions, which I hope will ensure the planned day of action will not proceed on Monday next. As many Members observed, the proposed strike would be completely contrary to the national interest, would damage the country’s reputation internationally and would further damage the economy.

If the social partnership negotiations are to recommence and if they are to encompass the proposed budget, I wish to make it clear that Members on this side of the House want full access to the information that will be provided to the social partners. We do not want the Seanad and the Dáil to be bypassed.

  Senator David Norris: Hear, hear. Well said.

  Senator Frances Fitzgerald: We want to be provided with the information that is required to allow us to participate, in a meaningful way, in the debate on decisions that will affect our children’s lives and the future of this country and its economy. As Deputy Bruton made clear in the Dáil yesterday, the Government has not supplied the information we require in respect of budgetary matters. It is unacceptable to discuss national government or national partnership in a context where information is not being shared within the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Why is the Government behaving so deferentially towards the banks? Today’s editorial in The Irish Times states the Government’s attitude to the banks is quite extraordinary, particularly in light of the fact that taxpayers’ money has been used to bail out the banks, which made a number of remarkably bad decisions that have led to the economy being placed in such an uncommonly dangerous and serious position. Why is so much deference being shown to the banks? During the debate on the relevant legislation in this House and in the Lower House Fine Gael tabled amendments that would have prevented the payment of certain bonuses. It appears the legislation introduced by the Government was not sufficiently strong. Why was that the case and why did the Minister refuse to accept the amendments put forward by my party? The Government had no difficulty introducing legislation containing a retrospective clause designed to take money from old age pensioners. Why can this not be done in respect of bonuses and pension schemes which clearly run contrary to the national interest at this point?

I am concerned with regard to appointments to State boards. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, made such an appointment recently and the gentleman in question has resigned on foot of certain taxation issues. We must [717]put in place a new system in respect of appointments to State boards. It is important, in the national interest, that such appointments should be scrutinised by the Oireachtas, either by a particular committee or, as proposed by my party, by the Seanad. This House would be the ideal forum in which to scrutinise these appointments. The time has come for cronyism to end. It is now time that such appointments be made in the public interest. One way to ensure that the latter would be for the Seanad or an appropriate committee of the Houses to hold hearings.

  Senator Joe O’Toole: I thank the Taoiseach for listening to the suggestion I made yesterday to the effect he should contact and engage with the social partners.

(Interruptions).

  Senator Joe O’Toole: This is an important move forward but it is incumbent on us to consider the next step. The points raised by Senator Fitzgerald are extremely important. However, I wish to provide another perspective. The debates that will take place in the Seanad in respect of the economy etc., will revolve around Ireland Inc. However, those that will take place between the Government and the social partners will relate to the Irish people. This House has not engaged in the type of wide-ranging debates on social justice, inequality etc., that one would have expected. There are certain individuals who raise such matters on a regular basis, but there is no engagement in respect of them. However, the debates that will take place within the social partnership framework will focus on matters such as fairness, certain elements of taxation, social justice and so on.

If the proposed national strike is, as expected, called off, let no one be under the illusion that this will have happened on foot of what is happening to the economy. Those who will be responsible for calling off the strike do not trust the people who are in charge of the economy. They are of the view that, like everyone else, they have been booted by the latter. Let us not believe that this is the end of something; it is rather the beginning of something. We have an opportunity to clear out the individuals responsible for placing us in the mess in which we find ourselves and to move forward. In that context, I agree with Senator Fitzgerald that we should discuss this matter on a step-by-step basis.

In my experience, it is not the case that the Government makes available to the social partners information which is not made available to everybody else. However, the documents which contain such information are not exciting; they are comprised of dull CSO figures, economic indicators and views expressed by the Department of Finance. When such documents are circulated, how many Members will read and discuss them? Under the Constitution, the Government may not make available to Opposition parties any budgetary documentation because to do so would result in a breach of Cabinet confidentiality. There will not be a debate on the budget. Rather, we will engage in a debate on the views of particular people that will inform the budget. There will be a great opportunity for Members to engage in such a debate tomorrow and I look forward to that.

It is time the House debated third level fees.

  Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.

  Senator Joe O’Toole: The issue to which I refer has been raised on a number of occasions but there is now a real need to give consideration to it. This is a classic example of the social partnership approach. I guarantee that the debate on this matter in the House will focus on costs, the children of millionaires etc. Third level education is as important as primary level education. It represents an investment in the economy and all our futures; it is not a gift to [718]certain people. Third level education should be paid for by the State for its citizens in order that we might obtain a return in later years.

  Senator Ivana Bacik: Hear, hear.

  Senator Joe O’Toole: That is the way in which we should consider this matter. I ask the Leader to make time available for a debate on third level education at the earliest possible opportunity.

  Senator Phil Prendergast: I welcome the news that the social partners are to reconvene for discussions on the economy. However, I wish to place on record the fact that the outcome of these discussions will have no moral standing, particularly if they fail to address the completely unfair cuts to public sector pay. The contribution that has been deducted from the salaries of public sector workers, on foot of legislation passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas, must be taken into account in any financial formula that is arrived at in the discussions.

The unions were right to walk away from the process because they were not given adequate time to consider the implications of the pension levy. When it was put forward initially, what was on the table was called the national economic recovery plan and the pay cut to be imposed on public and civil servants was intended to save €1.4 billion. The latter figure was eventually reduced to €900 million. It now appears that public sector workers in semi-State bodies will not be subject to the cut, so there will be a further reduction of €160 million.

The imposition of the pension levy on retained firefighters must be discontinued. These individuals have been subjected to the levy, even though they do not receive pensions. The levy must also be removed from all workers who do not benefit from public service pensions. In addition, we must end the anomalies which have led to some workers on lower rates of pay losing more money than those earning €10,000 more than them. There should be far larger cuts in respect of certain individuals — for example, those earning €300,000 whose salaries will be reduced to €270,000 — because what is in place at present does not constitute sharing the pain.

I welcome the initiative under which 27,000 transition year students are to be trained in CPR. Clonmel is a HeartSafe town and is the only town in Ireland on which this status has been conferred. Under the HeartSafe programme, some 15 automated external defibrillator, AED, machines are located throughout the town and ten different people are trained to use each machine. I am the chairperson of the programme and I call on the Leader to ensure that all public servants and Members of this House should be trained in the art of CPR. As public representatives, community leaders and individuals who are quite often involved in addressing large groups of personnel, it is important that Members should lead by example. Transition year students who avail of the programme——

  An Cathaoirleach: I apologise for interrupting the Senator but certain Members are chatting among themselves. There is plenty of room outside the Chamber for those who wish to talk to each other on an informal basis. Courtesy should be shown to the Member who is in possession. I again apologise for interrupting Senator Prendergast.

  Senator Phil Prendergast: Defibrillators are available on-site in the Houses of the Oireachtas and all personnel should be aware of their location and how they are used. These machines are so easy to use and they help save lives. I welcome the initiative in respect of transition year students but I would like it to be extended to Members and staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Members should all be conversant in how to resuscitate someone if it should prove necessary to do so.

[719]  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Resuscitate the Government.

  Senator Dan Boyle: I agree with Senator Fitzgerald that this House needs to have a debate and to help to inform the process in terms of public appointments. For far too long in this country we have initiated a system of reward that has had little to do with the abilities of the people being appointed.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Green Party is learning fast.

(Interruptions).

  An Cathaoirleach: Members, please.

  Senator Dan Boyle: If people are willing to listen——

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Actions speak louder than words, Senator Boyle.

  An Cathaoirleach: Please, Senator Buttimer.

  Senator Dan Boyle: At least small steps have been made in that regard.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Senator is waffling.

  Senator Dan Boyle: Since my party’s participation in Government several appointments have been made by both Green Party Ministers — for instance, a former secretary general of the Labour Party was appointed to the chair of Sustainable Energy Ireland and a key member of the Labour Party, a brother of a former party leader, was appointed to run the board of the ESB. The person in question in regard to yesterday’s activity is a former Progressive Democrats candidate. At every opportunity the ability of the person should be considered. I am pleased that, when compromising circumstances arose, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government took it upon himself to talk to the person concerned and that person took immediate action. That contrasts wildly——

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: One needs to do background checks.

  An Cathaoirleach: Please, we are having questions to the Leader.

  Senator Dan Boyle: This debate should take into account those factors because we are living in circumstances where people in society are hanging on by their fingertips months after the compromising behaviour that has brought shame on this country. We need this debate. We, as a Seanad, can inform a better system and we can be the mechanism for putting that in place.

  An Cathaoirleach: I missed some Members yesterday who indicated early.

  Senator Paul Bradford: I wish to raise a matter relating to carers, which I have raised in the House on many previous occasions. I would like the Leader to organise at the earliest opportunity with the appropriate Minister a debate on carers, the rules governing carer’s allowance and what possible further assistance we can give to the people providing full-time care and attention to elderly persons in our community.

My colleagues will be aware that the Carers Association will hold a session for all of us in Buswells Hotel and I encourage people to attend. One of the aspects of today’s presentation from the carers’ groups is to ask us to reflect upon the fact that approximately 160,000 people provide full-time care and attention in the community. Even though some carers are in receipt of carer’s allowance, they fall under the radar from the point of view of an economic statistic. [720] They ask that we would at least recognise by way of GDP calculations the work being done by those people. I ask the Leader to put whatever measures are necessary in place to recognise that fact.

The issue I have raised many times in the House is that of the carer’s allowance. To the eternal credit of a previous Minister, the late Séamus Brennan, he made tremendous strides in making the carer’s allowance payable to a significantly larger number of people. Equally, as I said directly to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs some months ago, I am very disappointed at both her attitude and commitment to the carer’s allowance system. I was very surprised at her lack of a holistic approach to caring. As a minimum we should remove the means test for carer’s allowance so that everybody providing full-time care and attention to people in need of it receive that allowance. It would be a tiny financial burden as per the figures supplied by the previous Minister, the late Séamus Brennan. Even in today’s hard-pressed economic times, the cost of providing non-means tested carer’s allowance to full-time carers is minimal, but it would be a strong statement as to where we, as a community, stand vis-à-vis our elderly.

I welcome to an extent the progress made in regard to a fair deal and the provision of assistance for nursing home care but I would be very disappointed if we saw a nice, tidy, clean bed in a clean nursing home as our only aspiration for the elderly.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Well said.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Hear, hear.

  Senator Paul Bradford: As a society, we must aspire to allowing the maximum number of people remain in their own homes and communities. They are not second-class citizens and that is not a second-class system of care.

  Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is very good.

  Senator Paul Bradford: It can only come about through changes to schemes such as the carer’s allowance. I hope that even in these hard-pressed financial times we will respond to groups such as the Carers Association because the way we respond to our elderly and to the people providing full-time care in the home and the community speaks volumes as to where we are and more important where we are going as a society.

  Senator Ann Ormonde: Hear, hear.

  Senator Paul Coghlan: I, too, very much welcome the talks the Government has initiated involving the social partners and hope they will lead to early progress. Will the Leader indicate when the details of the package associated with the recapitalisation scheme proposed for the banks, specifically the €3.5 billion each for AIB and Bank of Ireland, will be made known? I accept there were some difficulties in regard to salaries and bonuses, and, obviously, there are other matters to be dealt with. I would like the Leader to comment on that.

As Senator Fitzgerald pointed out, taxpayers are actively assisting the banks in the interest of the economy and in the national interest. As a result of the guarantee scheme and the measures relating to recapitalisation, restructuring seems to have been forgotten about, even though it was mentioned many months ago by the Minister for Finance. Apart from legal power, the Government has significant moral authority. It has two public interest directors appointed to each of the financial institutions concerned. I hope the Government is not long-fingering the situation in regard to Irish Nationwide because, as I understand it, the Minister for Finance has asked the two public interest directors there to conduct an inquiry, which could [721]be open ended. We can easily and speedily empower the Director of Corporate Enforcement to deal with financial institutions not incorporated under the Companies Act. I would like to hear the Leader’s view on this matter because it is of the utmost importance. All this is damaging to confidence and without confidence we will not be able to go forward. Will the Leader update us on the Government’s position?

  Senator Rónán Mullen: It was my intention to propose an amendment to the Order of Business today to debate a motion tabled by Senator Ross and me that Seanad Éireann views with concern the proposal by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to organise a one-day strike and calls on it to cancel that proposed day of action, acknowledging as we do that the recent budgetary provisions have led to serious inequities, which require to be addressed.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Time has moved on.

11 o’clock

  Senator Rónán Mullen: I am pleased that, in light of the developments of the past 24 hours and since it looks very likely that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions will respond to the Taoiseach’s invitation and that we will not have the folly of a day of action on Monday, it is not necessary for me to propose the amendment. It is worth repeating, however, what I said previously, that leadership is what we need at this time. To even consider leading people into strike action suggests a profound lack of leadership in certain quarters where one would expect more. It is almost as though people are looking into the abyss and they think they are at the movies. We are in a very serious situation.

I much preferred Fine Gael’s approach to that of the Labour Party yesterday. It does not behove us to say that it is bad for people to go on strike but to use the opportunity to have a tilt at the Government. There is a long and inglorious history in this country of deploring certain actions and then blaming somebody other than the perpetrators — I acknowledge that happened in much more grave situations. Leadership is about taking an unpopular stance. I do not like the phrase “in the national interest” but it is important that we facilitate the best national effort in dealing with the real crisis that is before us.

Ba bhreá liom a lua go bhfuil an eagraíocht ASH Ireland ag iarraidh go gcuirfear €2 sa bhreis ar luach 20 toitín sa bhuiséad atá le teacht. Bhí plé faoi seo againn cheana agus is cuimhin liom rud a dúirt an tAire Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta, an Teachta Éamon Ó Cuív, nuair a bhí an buiséad is déanaí againn, which was introduced more recently than we all care to remember. He made the point that one consequence of increasing the price of cigarettes would be to increase the risk of smuggling. I do not believe that is a sufficiently substantial reason not to look seriously at significantly increasing cigarette prices. It has been said that an increase of €2 on the price of cigarettes would net €420 million for the economy. Caithfimid breathnú ar an cheist thábhachtach sin agus a bheith sásta rudaí mar sin a dhéanamh.

We would all like the people to take the opportunity presented to us by global Earth Hour on Saturday at 8.30 p.m. when lights will be turned off for one hour. This is not only a symbolic but a substantial opportunity to generate awareness about the importance of our environment.

I am sorry Senator Alex White is not in the House because I intended to congratulate him on ——

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should not comment on or name any Senator who is not present in the House. The Senator should put his question to the Leader.

[722]  Senator Rónán Mullen: ——valiantly seeking to defend gender balance on RTE last Friday night. The person sitting in his chair now might have been better qualified to do that.

  Senator Camillus Glynn: In the recent past many colleagues have called for debate on the HSE. I re-echo that call for particular reasons, not least the impending proposal of the HSE to remove a specialist dermatology service from the hospital in Mullingar. A dermatologist was recruited for the hospital but she was provided with only scant resources. Now she has left and two new dermatologists are to be recruited, not for Mullingar but for a hospital well known to the Cathaoirleach. In that regard, I find the actions of an individual are questionable and ask the Leader to arrange as a matter of urgency for the Minister, Deputy Harney, to come to the House to give the reason for this. I also ask that the individual or individuals concerned be called before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children to explain the “rationale” for this decision.

  Senator Paudie Coffey: I welcome the fact the social partners will re-enter talks with Government and that the Government has left the door open for this. It would be a huge blow to the economy if the general strike went ahead next Monday but, hopefully, that will be averted. There are many opposing forces in the country, whether in the social partnership or political system or among the general public, as a result of the unrest that exists and there is greater need than ever for all of us to pull together. The Government must show leadership in this regard. It must set the template to allow the social partners and the Oireachtas, both Dáil and Seanad, engage in finding a way to fight our way out of the economic mess in which we have found ourselves and to contribute constructively to the debate to formulate a strategy to get us out of this crisis.

The participation of Oireachtas Members in negotiations is vital. Social partnership has served the country well and has been vital, but the Oireachtas has been sidelined to a large degree. The people are now looking to their political leaders for leadership. We should unite the three areas in the negotiations. The first aim should be to achieve fairness. If fairness is applied across the board, people will understand and buy into the process. We also need honesty. We need honesty from Government with regard to the crisis and need to know the full measure of it. We hear conflicting messages from various Ministers with regard to the deficits faced by the country. We need honesty and up-front figures so we can all work together to get out of the crisis. We also need full realisation across all sectors of the crisis, so that we all buy into the rescue process and can believe and agree we can work our way out of it. That is the only way we can get out of it.

The budget is due on 7 April. We are all aware of the despondency and frustration among the public. We on this side of the House recognise that difficult decisions must be made and taken. I appeal to the Leader to speak out in his parliamentary party and send the message to Government that it cannot be all slash and burn or cuts across the board. As leaders in the Oireachtas we need to bring some vision and hope to the people. We need to offer hope to all sectors. We need vision and innovation and must promote those areas and bring stimulus packages to the economy. It must not be all one-sided cut and burn. We must provide a stimulus, create jobs and find alternative strategies to replace the thousands of jobs that have been lost. I appeal to the Leader to engage with us and the people and we will work our way out of the crisis.

  Senator Ivor Callely: I welcome the Taoiseach’s initiative for talks with the social partners. Hopefully, we will see good social and industrial progress as a result of those endeavours. I join Senator Bradford’s call for support for the good work of the Carers Association and for [723]its day today. Enda Egan and his team do tremendous work. We are all aware of the importance of home care and I wholeheartedly support him in that regard.

Will the Leader contact telecom service providers to find out what supports and priorities are in place when there is a breakdown in the systems? It has been brought to my attention that a business that depends on its telecommunication system was advised when it reported a breakdown yesterday that it will take approximately four days to deal with that. We all understand these are challenging times for businesses, but there is a need for an emergency response repair unit for each of our telecom providers to ensure a satisfactory response is provided to the business community.

I remind the Leader of the need for restructuring of the fee and collection process for TV licences. The application of the existing system is unfair and the method of collection of fees is expensive and obsolete. I ask the Leader to raise the issue with the Minister to see what progress can be made to ensure we have a fairer, more effective and less expensive system.

  Senator David Norris: I find myself in the highly unusual position of disagreeing with my distinguished colleague Senator Joe O’Toole on virtually everything he said. I disagree first on the issue of fees. I have always objected to the phrase “free fees”. It is an ugly phrase and a complete oxymoron. It is nonsense and means nothing. There is no such thing as free fees because someone somewhere is paying. It is inappropriate that the poorest in society, old age pensioners and so on, should have some of their tax money distrained to pay for fees. That is wrong. I have said this to the student leaders and said it publicly in Trinity College. I know saying this will not get votes for me, but I believe in telling what I see to be the truth even though people may not like what I say.

The real battle is elsewhere. It is taking place as we speak between the Department of Finance and the Department of Education and Science. We should be fighting to ensure that moneys brought in by a change in the regime will be ringfenced for third level education. It must not go into the general Exchequer.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Hear, hear.

  Senator David Norris: This must be our fight if we really value education. Another battle to be fought is that for an appropriate means test. We must not disadvantage anybody. It would be shameful to take money from the poor to educate the rich. I know that argument does not appeal to Senator O’Toole, but I feel strongly about it. I have spoken to my friends on the left who have talked about changing the tax regime. That is all right in a utopian world, but in advance of a change in the tax regime, it is nothing other than ideologically driven rubbish to suggest this country can afford not to look after the most vulnerable.

I half disagree with Senator O’Toole on the issue of the inclusion of this House in the general discussions on the economy and the disproportionate weight given to social partnership. He is quite wrong about equality not being discussed here but being discussed in that forum. It is the other way round. I watched in horror as the trade unions stood idly by on the margins as the Equality Authority, Combat Poverty and other agencies were destroyed and obliterated by the Government in this House. I used my Private Members’ time to discuss the issue, but nobody paid any attention, including the media which was issued with my speech and those of others taking part in the debate. The debate took place here, but it was not covered. The trade unions should be ashamed of themselves for not standing up and fighting on that issue.

  An Cathaoirleach: Has the Senator a question for the Leader?

[724]  Senator David Norris: I am about to put a question through the Chair to the Leader. On television on Friday he stated he facilitates and responds to every single question in this House. That is not accurate and I ask him to reflect upon it. I understand opposition from the Leader has placed the Cathaoirleach in the embarrassing position of having to say continually he must hear contributions from Members that were not allowed on the preceding day. There is a backlog and it is a nonsense and farce. Will the Leader state when the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will meet? I ask him not to oppose, on this occasion, the extension of the Order of Business so Members can be facilitated.

  Senator Joe O’Toole: Hear, hear.

  Senator Larry Butler: I, too, welcome the social partners’ acceptance of the Government’s invitation to have talks with it. I am sure Senator O’Toole had some little part to play in that. His contribution yesterday was very important and it established in the House a proper and unanimous position on how the unions, including the social partners, should approach the present crisis. A new model of social partnership will have to be devised. The old one worked very well in recent years but we now find ourselves in a different position. We will, therefore, have to devise a new model. This is important.

I call on the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Martin Cullen, to come to the House to consider the fact that there are three tourism organisations, something we do not need. I suggest that they be amalgamated into one organisation. The quangos we have cost us approximately €6 billion in total.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: Who created them?

  Senator Larry Butler: It is true that we created them.

  Senator Jerry Buttimer: It was the Senator’s party in Government.

  Senator Larry Butler: That is true and I would not disagree with that.

  An Cathaoirleach: Only one speaker should have the floor and should ask questions to the Leader.

  Senator Larry Butler: However, we cannot afford them any more. What we could afford five or ten years ago is no longer affordable.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The Government should never have wasted money. There was bad planning or no planning.

  Senator Larry Butler: I call the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism and various other Ministers whose Departments are responsible for organisations that have quadrupled in size to come to the House to consider the possibility of reducing costs. This would result in a substantial saving in the context of the budget to be introduced very soon.

Senator Glynn referred to the Health Service Executive. We were told it would be reorganised into four units but we have not seen any evidence to date as to how it will be structured. Will the Minister for Health and Children answer questions in the House in this regard? There is considerable duplication to be dealt with and issues arise regarding middle management. These issues should be dealt with in the context of the budget.

  Senator Eugene Regan: Let me refer to an article in The Irish Times today concerning the comments by the German Social Democratic Party spokesperson on European affairs, Mr. [725]Axel Schäfer. He stated Germany is prepared to assist countries within the eurozone that are in economic difficulty but that “It can’t be the case that, in a referendum, people say ‘we don’t need Europe, Europe is hindering us’ and then, months later when in difficulty, say, ‘We need help. Where’s Europe?’ “ He implied aid from Germany to a country in economic difficulty like Ireland would be contingent on such reciprocity or a quid pro quo. Those statements, which are very crude and may concern German internal politics more than European policy, show where things have gone wrong for Ireland. Many of the measures, funds, concessions and derogations we obtained from the European Union were based on goodwill towards Ireland. It now appears it is realpolitik and that there will be nothing for nothing.

One must ask where it went wrong. After the 2001 budget, an early warning was given by the European Union to Charlie McCreevy, then Minister for Finance, suggesting it was too expansionary, that expenditure was too high and that it would create inflation and lead to trouble. We rejected the recommendation by Brussels and since then our economic policy was such that we decided we knew best, could go it alone and do it our way. This has led to our current economic difficulties.

Two issues arise in this regard. The editor of The Irish Times has pointed out in that newspaper’s editorial today that Mr. Schäfer has used crude language but that we must adopt measures to ensure we will not need emergency aid from the European Union. This is critical and we have an opportunity to achieve this, beginning with the budget in April. Furthermore, we must repair our relationship with the European Union. When we voted to join the European Union, it was in our economic interest. To pass the Lisbon treaty is not about our place in Europe or about this, that or the other; it is about our basic interest in restoring and securing our economic future. I ask the Leader to state whether he agrees with this assessment.

  Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Yesterday in this House we had an exceptional show of unity on the proposed general strike. It was quite clear that the general good of the country superseded that of sectional interests. I, as with other Members this morning, welcome the regeneration of social partnership. It will be far more effective to have formal discussions than to depend on a microphone at the back a truck outside the House. We all know full well that a sense of realism is developing among the people as regards the crisis we face. I sense many sections of the media are demonstrating a sense of responsibility and we should build on this.

The Opposition makes a very good point when it seeks a more clearly defined, pivotal role in what is happening. Just because a particular model applied in the Oireachtas in the past does not mean it should continue to apply in the middle of a crisis. We should listen a little more closely to the speakers on the other side of the House to determine how this might be achieved. This problem will not go away in one to three weeks and people are setting parameters of four or five years. It does not mean we will not see progress within a 12-month period but we must batten down the hatches and accept that it will take four or five years to address the problem. If this is the case and based on what happened in this House yesterday, there are opportunities for offering the type of leadership that has been requested here in debates on a number of occasions.

This House has been subject to media scrutiny in recent times. I regard much of it as entertainment and as exceptionally peripheral. It is just because there is a vacuum at present. We should study closely the opportunities that are now being presented to the Seanad. We do not need constitutional change to have reform because we can achieve it ourselves and provide the leadership that is required. However, this will require courage and we must be non-partisan in this regard. We are being watched very closely by the people, particularly the most vulnerable, not only those who have lost jobs, which is traumatic in itself, but also those who fear they may lose theirs.

[726]We need to send out a strong message that we are united in trying to find a solution to the problems that arise. We need to send the message beyond this island because it is still an attractive destination for investors. I am not referring only to the €100 million contract during St. Patrick’s week. I know for a fact this is still a country that will attract investors. However, they will look very closely at what environment is being offered to them. We should not glibly pass over comments that may come from the Opposition here each day. We should try to see how we interact and how we can build on it.

  Senator Dominic Hannigan: I join other Senators in welcoming the developments with regard to the strike. I am glad to hear Senator Ó Murchú recognise that there is unanimous agreement in the House that a strike would be a retrograde step. This point does not seem to have been picked up by all Senators. We welcome the developments and it is good news.

Will the Leader help with regard to the recent issue of humanitarian aid for Gaza? He may be aware that four containers from the Galway region have been held up by the authorities in Egypt. Is it possible for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to make efforts within the European Union to put pressure on the authorities to release this aid? There is a need for this aid to be released and to get through to the people of Gaza as soon as possible.

I wish to pick up on a point made by another Senator who made several swipes at the Labour Party this morning. Senator Alex White did not pick the panel for “The Late Late Show” last Friday night in the same way as Senators David Norris or Donie Cassidy did not pick the panel. Senator Alex White was asked to go on the panel which was picked by somebody else. Senator Alex White is a good defender of gender balance and he is excellent at speaking on minorities.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: He is not female.

  Senator Dominic Hannigan: While we welcome the new-found interest——

  Senator Liam Twomey: Mná na hÉireann are not happy.

  An Cathaoirleach: What happened on RTE is not relevant.

  Senator Dominic Hannigan: ——of certain Senators in the issue of gender balance, I respectfully suggest that they need to start somewhere else.

  An Cathaoirleach: The selection of panels on RTE, good, bad or indifferent, is not a matter for this House.

  Senator Ann Ormonde: I wish to reinforce a number of points which have been made. I welcome the opening of discussions with the trade unions and I hope we will be able to divert the strikes of next Monday. This would show leadership.

We need to discuss third level fees and how best to move forward on this matter. Many good suggestions are being made inside and outside this House. It would be great to have a brainstorming session on this matter. We may not get anywhere but this is what this Chamber should be about. We should thrash out issues and do what we can. We have received very bad press recently and it is up to us to fight the case that we are well able to conduct our business with knowledge and know-how and articulate those views very strongly.

There has been bad press with regard to a bail out in return for conditions with regard to the Lisbon treaty. This is not on the agenda. However, we should debate this matter in the House and incorporate a discussion on Seanad reform and how best we can move forward with regard to social partnership and bringing forward a new agenda for the Lisbon treaty and other [727]issues. This is not a talk shop. Many of our views are taken up. I want all of us to echo this across the floor. Otherwise, we will be downgraded and this is not good enough for any of us.

  Senator Nicky McFadden: In view of the fact that we are not a talk shop and that the Leader has the ear of the Taoiseach, will the Leader highlight the Private Members’ motion tabled by Fine Gael last week on how we could save the country €34 million to €40 million by reducing the number of Ministers of State by eight and the number of Oireachtas committees by ten and by not allowing serving Members to avail of ministerial pensions?

To pick up on what my good colleague across the floor stated on the Midland Regional Hospital, in the recent survey conducted by the HSE, Mallow Hospital, St. Vincent’s and the Midland Regional Hospital in Mullingar were described as satisfactory. The overall results of the survey were deplorable. No hospital got a good rating but at least those three were satisfactory. The idea that services would be taken from the Midland Regional Hospital in Mullingar at this crucial time for the people of the midlands is an outrage.

I have raised the issues of the services provided by the colposcopy and sexual assault units which will be removed from Mullingar to a hospital in Tullamore which has no obstetrics or consultants to deal with such issues. Will the Leader bring the Minister for Health and Children to the House and raise the issue with her and the Joint Committee on Health and Children that dermatology services will not be removed from Mullingar Regional Hospital? This is like the underlying operation of the Hanly report. We need to keep our services for local people in local areas. I call on the Leader to ensure this continues.

I agree with Senator Prendergast’s comments on defibrillators and CPR. I compliment the GAA and the VHI. The VHI has provided free lessons to people on using defibrillators. I do not know where is the defibrillator in this House. There is no point in having them tucked away in presses or lockers if people do not know where they are or how to use them. The same applies to bingo halls, churches and schools. This is another issue which the Minister should come to the House to discuss.

  Senator John Hanafin: Like others I welcome developments and the talks that will ensue with the social partners.

I am very conscious that there is talk of bail outs from other countries. We are so far removed from the reality of a bail out that we should put it in perspective. In the 1980s when the debt of this nation was at 130% of GNP, and not 30% as it stands this year or 50% as it will be next year, and interest rates were at 18%, this country managed to pay in full its debts. It seems to be a bit of a nonsense when our debt will be at 50% next year and interest rates are at 4.5% that people are talking about default. There is absolutely no possibility of this whatsoever. This country is well placed to deal with an international crisis. Yes, there was a problem in the banking industry. However, we have ensured low taxation which allows for an increase if necessary. We have ensured a low national debt, which is at 20% if we include some of the external assets. We have put away money in the national treasury. I suggest that we are very well placed and the discussions that take place on this issue are a nonsense.

This week we recognise organ donors and we hope to have a Private Members’ Bill on this issue. I look forward to this debate and to a full and wholesome response. I hope we can do something to ensure there is an assumption of consent to organ donation. It is particularly important that this is fully supported at hospital level to ensure people understand what is happening. This happens in Spain and it seems to get very good results. This is not a matter of legislation only. We must ensure support.

The International Criminal Court in the Hague has issued a warrant for the arrest of the leader of Sudan. This is entirely appropriate. President Roosevelt warned the German Nazi’s [728]that they would face retribution for their crimes and there seemed to have been a fall-off in the amount and extent of their crimes in the reality that they were losing the war and that they would pay. It is good that people will be held accountable here and now for their crimes.

  Senator Feargal Quinn: I draw the Leader’s attention to the fact that we will all be in a much better humour next Sunday evening because we will have an extra hour of daylight. This is an old topic of mine and I want the Leader to point out to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that we can do something about this. There will be an opportunity next October to join central European time and it would be a win win situation. It would benefit business, tourism and road safety as well as in terms of energy savings, which are now more important than ever. The benefits would be such that we should not turn aside the opportunity to join central European time permanently, apart from the fact that we would all feel better about it.

I raised this issue in the past and we were told that we must talk to our neighbours about it, but we do not need to talk to our neighbours about it. If the Minister declared that next October we will not go back to winter time but will stay in line with central European time, the benefits in being able to do business with Europe and in many other ways would be great. Even though some will say that we should not do so without Britain doing it as well, but we led the way with the smoking ban and the plastic bag levy so we can lead the way with this. The benefits are such that I believe that Britain would follow us very quickly. We are in danger of saying that we should not move out of the nursery without nanny, but I believe that we should leave the nursery even if nanny does not come with us. We should set that standard. I want the Leader to point out to the Minister the benefits of using central European time the whole year around. The extra hour of daylight is of such benefit in so many different ways that we should do so immediately.

  Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole, Prendergast, Boyle, Coghlan, Coffey, Callely, Buttimer, Regan, Ó Murchú, Ormonde and Hanafin welcomed the possibility that the national strike will be called off next Monday. I had the opportunity to inform the House yesterday that the Taoiseach had called on everyone concerned back to talks about the economic plan. Some colleagues might not have realised that that took place in the House, but with committee meetings also taking place, it is not easy to be everywhere. The initiative taken by the Taoiseach will hopefully bear fruit. Everyone responsible has said how important it is for the image of Ireland throughout the world that this strike does not take place, and, please God, it will not take place.

Senators O’Toole, Norris and Ormonde called for a debate on third level fees. I have no difficulty in making time available for this. Senators Prendergast and McFadden called for all public persons, including Members in this House, to be trained in CPR. I congratulate all organisations, particularly voluntary organisations, including sporting organisations, that have done great work to fund raise for equipment and training in this whole area.

Senators Bradford and Callely called for a debate on carers. I know carers are in town today. Senator Bradford pointed out that there are 160,000 people working directly in that service. The former Minister for Social and Family Affairs, the late Séamus Brennan, made an indelible mark in helping carers. I have no difficulty in making time available for such a debate. When the Minister is in the House tomorrow, I urge Senators to make their case about means testing for carers. The worth of the work done by carers cannot be repaid in monetary terms alone.

Senator Mullen spoke about motion 37 on the Order Paper in his name and that of Senator Shane Ross, which is related to calling off the strike. I hope that events have overtaken that. I [729]gave the Senator my word on the phone yesterday that I would visit this after the Order of Business today. Maybe we should leave it until Private Members’ time at 5 p.m. and see what progress takes place during the day. I have no difficulty in taking the debate tomorrow after the pre-budget statements if progress has not been made. There is nothing more important to this country than calling off that strike. I thank the Senator for putting down the motion. He also brought to the attention of the House the fact that private and public buildings across Ireland will be among those 1,000 locations in the world that will be pitched into darkness next Saturday at 8.30 p.m. for Earth Hour. I welcome that call, but we have a dilemma in Mullingar because I understand that the Labour Party conference, which will take place there at the weekend, will be broadcast live on television at that time. I must discuss that issue with colleagues to see if we can bring forward the broadcast time.

  Senator Rónán Mullen: The Labour Party is in the dark already.

  Senator Donie Cassidy: I am sure all Oireachtas colleagues want to be seen in full light and nobody wants to be preaching in the dark. We will see how we can help our colleagues in the midlands in that respect.

  Senator Liam Twomey: The Leader will have to take in a candle.

  Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Glynn, Buttimer and McFadden brought a very important point to my attention, the rumour that the dermatology unit in Mullingar might be closed. Almost 500 patients have been waiting for years for dermatology treatment in the Westmeath-Longford area and we will not take this lying down. There will be an urgent debate on this tomorrow afternoon on the Adjournment, with the permission of the Cathaoirleach. I urge the chairperson and members of the health committee as a matter of urgency to bring the person responsible before the committee next week to answer for this because it is not acceptable, particularly to the people of Longford who have no hospital and agreed to come to Mullingar for treatment. Everything is going to larger towns and influential areas, but Mullingar does not have a third level institute or other services even though it has a huge population. It certainly needs support.

The Minister stated that she would reward the hospitals that are leading by example. Yesterday I congratulated the management and staff at the hospital in Mullingar on their achievements as outlined in the latest report on hospital standards. It is a credit to Trevor O’Callaghan, the staff, consultants and everyone who are making Mullingar the shining example to Ireland. This is the third report in which Mullingar has been at the top in terms of quality. Surely the Minister cannot allow an individual in the HSE to change this. Is this the gratitude the HSE will show to the hospital that is leading by example? We will watch and see. The Minister gave her word in this House that she would reward those who are making the best efforts and leading by example. I have known her for over 30 years and I am watching this space on how she will deal with this. I know she will deal with it.

  Senator Nicky McFadden: She is a bit disconnected.

  Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator Callely spoke about telecom supports. I certainly can give him an undertaking that I will raise these matters urgently with the Minister. I thank him for bringing the issue to the attention of the House. Senator Norris raised the timeframe for speaking in the House. We already extended it to ten minutes because we know how long-winded the Senator can be from time to time. In fairness to you, a Chathaoirligh, you give the Senator latitude, but I suggest he take up the matter with the leader of his group and we can discuss it at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

[730]Senator Hanafin called for a debate on organ donation. There is no difficulty in making time available for this. It is a very worthy request and all sides can support it. Senator Quinn called for a permanent move to central European time. I realise Senator Quinn has made the proposal before to leave central European time, which has been known as new time throughout the years, all year round. There could be a significant advantage in energy savings and the other areas outlined by the Senator. We can discuss the matter and I am prepared to allow time to consider it at the appropriate time when the Minister is available.

We can discuss the possibility of having another pilot scheme. I recall some years ago it was done on a pilot basis, but in rural Ireland it was not successful because it was dark until 9.30 a.m., especially in December and January. There was a good deal of concern among parents because children were going to school and waiting for buses at crossroads and various other places at that time. However, Ireland has moved on considerably since then and it is never the wrong time to do the right thing. We can debate and discuss the matter to establish how we can make progress in this area.

Senator Butler called for a debate on tourism. I am pleased to inform the Senator that tourism will be discussed in the House this afternoon between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. That will be an ideal time and opportunity for anyone who wishes to make views known to the Minister in respect of the challenges in the tourism sector, which are the same as every other sector at present. We look forward to the debate with the Minister this afternoon.

Senator Regan remarked on where our interests lie. They lie in the heart of Europe. We all support our membership of the European Union. Ireland is a changed place since 1973 when the late, great Jack Lynch signed our admission to the European Economic Community. Let us consider where we would be now were we not in the monetary section of the European Union. Interest rates are at an historic low, which is the only positive thing occurring at present to give people hope for the future in respect of mortgages and in respect of investment on the other side. We will do anything we can on this side of the House and I realise almost all colleagues on the other side of the House fully support the proposed referendum on the acceptance of the Lisbon treaty.

We have made many friends and colleagues within Europe, whether from dealing with the Cohesion Fund or the Leader programme. Such funding has transformed our infrastructure, for example, roads and water and sewerage schemes. Europe has been to the fore in all the positive things that have occurred in Ireland in the past 30 to 35 years, including developments in agriculture such as the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. We have been net beneficiaries to the extent of a ratio of 5:1 in respect of our investment, which is magnificent. We see ourselves in the future at the centre stage of the European Union. I fully agree with Senator Regan in respect of most of the views expressed regarding where we are going in the future.

I will pass on the strong views of Senator Hannigan to the Minister for Foreign Affairs regarding the delays being experienced by the four truckloads of humanitarian aid for Gaza and its poor unfortunate people.

Senator McFadden again called to have the Fine Gael proposals on Oireachtas reform discussed. I will pass her views on to the Taoiseach this afternoon. If time is required and if it is necessary, we will revisit the matter. Last week we discussed Seanad reform as part of an excellent debate. It was one of the best debates which took place in the House in respect of reform. We certainly will consider it because the Minister is due to revert to the committee by 22 April. We hope that will be one of the final deliberations on the report before us. If anyone [731]has any further proposals or anything for consideration, the time to submit them is before 22 April.

Order of Business agreed to.